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The Sheer Clusterfuck That Is Obtaining A Visa In The Czech Republic

I admit that I was completely and dreadfully ignorant when I arrived in Europe, (fresh off the boat, as the saying goes) most notably to the fact that one simply cannot go and live in another country without permission; official and lawful permission that is time-consuming, expensive, and mind-numbingly tedious to obtain. I had heard that a work permit and subsequent visa were what I’d have to get in order to live and work in the Czech Republic and I wasn’t at all concerned, since I had obtained a work permit as a teenager while seeking legal employment in Ohio and it had been a breeze. Truly, if someone had told me before coming to Prague that the prospect of working legally would be nearly impossible and, in the end, wouldn’t happen for me, I would have stayed in Ohio. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to endure, in terms of bureaucracy and in terms of utter lack of human decency.

One day, after our TEFL teacher who doubled as my first Prague crush, Mila (short for Miloslav), explained the bare basics of the visa application process and its function, I devised a plan: first I’d earn my TEFL certificate, then get a job, which would automatically land me a work permit and subsequent visa through the language school that would hire me- since, after all, the law requires companies to hire foreigners legally. BOOM. My plan was bulletproof.
 During his lengthy and somewhat mind-boggling explanation, Mila had also mentioned that many foreigners choose to forego the process of getting legal altogether, and that he personally knew several Americans who had been living under the radar for months and for some, even years in Prague. For whatever reason, these Americans work in language schools, bars, restaurants, and pub crawl companies for money that they are paid off the books. Their travel capabilities are limited, and they live under the constant threat, however benign, of being stopped by city police for a random passport check. The very concept of an illegal American immigrant sounded absurd. One thing was for sure- I refused to be an illegal alien and live in fear, and I couldn’t imagine the prospect of never being able to go home to visit, due to a long-expired tourist visa in my passport.
Mila talked for a long time that day about Czech bureaucracy details I’d never considered and my head was swimming in dread as if I were anticipating the task of scaling a mammoth mountain, sans equipment. And I pretty much was, all seven of us non-European citizens in my class were. It went like this: When I entered the Schengen zone on May 29, the stamp I was issued in my passport was a 90-day tourist visa. If after 90 days I had not been issued a work permit, I would have to leave the Schengen zone for 90 days. Or, my stay in the Schengen zone could not exceed a total of 90 days, during a 180-day period. Never having traveled long-term, this was all brand-new information to me.
Contrary to the way it sounds, the Schengen zone is not some savory Chinese dish. It’s a cluster of countries within the EU which currently includes the majority of the EU countries. According to the agreement signed in Schengen village, Luxembourg, residents within those countries are free to travel and work in any country within the zone. If you’ve noticed in recent years that your passport is collecting fewer and fewer stamps as you cross borders through Europe, that’s why. Although convenient for residents of the Schengen zone, it makes life much more difficult for foreigners. Many people believe that the agreement was formed in part to deter west-bound immigrants who come from countries that many Europeans hate; such as Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. It certainly hasn’t done us wide-eyed Americans any favors, either.
In any case, I was to be officially illegal on August 29 if I didn’t find a job. I couldn’t afford to fly back home in defeat and then return three months later, in search of an apartment and employment a second time. My plan had to work, there was simply no alternative. With just enough financial savings and smarts to survive, I had made my leap into Prague, completely ignorant to the pace of life and cultural calendar, and was job-hunting during the months in which everyone and their assistant and their email accounts take an extended vacation. It explained the discount on my TEFL course, and the low number of students in the June course I completed. The website for my TEFL school had boasted a few perks, one of which was “guaranteed job placement after graduation!” In reality, my classmates and I were given a two-page photocopy of the email addresses of a hundred language schools located around Prague. The five of us who planned to remain in Prague after graduation were told to send our resumes to as many language schools as we could, since TEFL teachers typically work for multiple schools at the same time. Within a few hours of sending our resumes to dozens of language schools on our list, my few remaining classmates and I discovered that several of the schools listed had closed or simply did not exist. Naturally, we congregated in our favorite Old Town pub on Veleslavinova street, simply called The Pub, to discuss our latest mutual crisis.
Dave, a middle-aged man from London whom, to this day, is still a dear friend of mine, had virtually nothing to worry about. At that time, Dave was a man with a reasonably-loaded bank account whose EU citizenship assured him legal residence in the Czech Republic. All he had to do was pay an assistant to help him obtain his independent trade license to work legally; officially known as the živnostenský list; known among expats as the Z-list. Although he couldn’t quite relate to the crises Jeff and I were facing, Dave was always there to entertain us with his constant bitching about the absurdities of the new culture, passionately rage about the latest World Cup events, and drink us all under the table. When it came to the nagging subject bureaucracy and the urgency surrounding it, Dave had a casual, fuck-it kind of attitude, which kept us all sane during times when our heads were exploding under the pressure. For me, Dave was always a source of both encouragement and comic relief– a winning combination in a friend.

By contrast, Jeff was an American through and through- complete with the tireless work ethic and the optimism that the bureaucratic nightmare would soon be over. Although he wore the American on his sleeve and his Czech pronunciation was an utter disaster, Jeff was much more outgoing and personable towards strangers than I ever was, and so it was Jeff who found Roman, a local man with a sensational case of eczema who worked independently in assisting foreigners with the legwork and translation necessary to obtain the documents required to apply for the Z-list. Eventually, the three of us started getting replies from language schools for interviews, but schools were now reluctant to consider me for hire, as I was now within weeks of the expiration of my tourist visa and it could potentially be very difficult to begin my paperwork in time- or so it was thought by some. In reality, the laws had been changing so frequently and without notice, that no employers could be certain. Jeff immediately opted to invest much of his time and cash in pursuit of his Z-list, which ultimately impressed employers and he was soon hired by a few of Prague’s reputable language schools. I found the prospect very intimidating, but as the days passed and I was still unemployed, I was running out of options. I was becoming further discouraged the more I spoke to my classmate, Monica, who was relaying information she was getting from her daily calls to the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. When you’re living abroad, you often make friends with people who you would never associate with in your home country, solely on the basis that you’re both far from home and need to connect somehow. A girl of 21 who had moved to Prague to join her controlling Czech boyfriend, Monica was immature and superficial, but as a Canadian citizen, Monica and I were in the same situation and our mutual visa catastrophe was the link that connected us. Each day, Monica spoke to a different person on the phone in the Foreign Affairs office and their responses to our “we’re about to be illegal, please tell us how the fuck we fix this” queries changed drastically, every single day. One receptionist told Monica that we were simply out of time and would have to leave; another told her that it wasn’t unusual to apply for a work permit on the 89th day of one’s 90-day tourist visa; another told her that the laws were quite flexible, when concerning foreigners from Western Europe and North America. The misinformation was maddening, coupled with the general lack of urgency and clusterfuckery from the same legal system who threatened to deport us if we didn’t file our paperwork properly- that is, after we finally figured out which papers to get, and where and how to obtain them. After an interview during which one school’s director told me he prefers to hire undocumented teachers in order to evade taxes, I realized that my only option would be to call Jeff’s guy, Roman. In an abrupt change to my original plan, I was going to get my Z-List. I hoped beyond all hope that it would be a swift process that didn’t cost too much of my drinking money.

A few days after contacting Roman, we agreed to meet a few stops down the green metro line, at Namesti Miru, or Peace Square. At the time, I remember thinking that the square was in The Middle of Nowhere Praha. But actually, it’s just on the outskirts of the downtown area in a neighborhood which would later become one of my most frequented spots in the city, full of fun discos, unique dive pubs, international cuisine, a decent gym, and the majority of Prague’s expat residents and the locals who didn’t totally dislike the city’s massive population of foreigners. It’s funny how things can turn out in that way. In the beginning, Prague seemed like a massive and sprawling city whose public transportation system intimidated me greatly. As time rolled on, I became familiar with the different bureaus as I made friends with various people and drinking/dining spots. The city shrank and became easily navigable. It became my own, and I loved every bit of it.

I stepped off the escalator and into the square on the day I was scheduled to meet Roman. I was dressed in a cotton purple skirt, flip flops and a fitted Rainbow Brite t-shirt, which I had told Roman to look for when he arrived at the square. We found eachother almost immediately. Roman was a pleasant man in his mid-30s with ginger hair and a ruddy, albeit flaky complexion. His English was nearly flawless. Roman first explained to me that he charged a modest 200 czech krowns an hour, which equalled around 10 U.S. dollars at that time, and that some of our meetings and some of his errands might take longer than others, and if ever our meeting was less than an hour, I would still be charged for one full hour. Of course, I was also required to pay for any and all fees within the system, translation of documents- everything that had its own price. It seemed reasonable and I agreed, not that I had any choice at all.

That morning, Roman and I had an easy and brief time at the two or three offices we visited. A signature here, a stamp there, taking this impossible-to-pronounce document to the building across the street for processing. Take a number, wait in line. Not one person spoke a syllable of English, and Roman did all the talking. Later there were to be endorsements, more stamps, documents to be officially translated and notarized, long lines at the foreign police station, running back and forth between offices, more of my maternal inheritance invested in being an honest citizen in a foreign country. But those things never happened, because within days of our first and only meeting, I had a successful interview with an owner of a private kindergarten who assured me that he would not only sponsor me for a work permit, but that he would pay for half of the total cost of the process. BOOM. My original plan was in effect. I called Roman to thank him for his help and to cheerfully inform him that I no longer needed his assistance.

I wish I could say that it actually happened the way it was supposed to- the way I had planned it, and the way my new boss assured me it would. The issue of a visa and my legal status in the Czech Republic is an ongoing tale that spanned all the months I lived in Prague, and couldn’t possibly be told in a single wordpress entry.

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Now Who’s The Terrorist

A few nights after the Pakistani showdown on the Charles Bridge, I was in the mood for another walk. This time, it was much earlier in the night- probably not much later than midnight. My nerves must have been experiencing some residual surge from the excitement a few nights earlier, and I left the flat with a kitchen knife tucked up the sleeve of my black sweater. I took my usual stroll down Mostecka street to the Charles Bridge, stopping at one of the statues a little less than halfway down and hopping up to sit beneath its base. There were still plenty of people walking about, and I decided to stick around for awhile and enjoy the evening air. The walls of the Charles Bridge are a great place for people-watching, and I did it often when I first moved to Prague. Only that night, I would do it with a kitchen knife hidden in my sweater. Just in case.

I’d been sitting awhile when a passing American guy drunkenly slurred in my direction, “Do you speak-uh da English?”
“Yeah, I speak some,” I replied in my perfectly Midwestern American accent.

“You’re hot,” he muttered, pointing a finger at me as he shuffled past with a group of equally drunk-looking American bros. 

Awesome, I thought; Some drunk frat boy on his first trip to Europe on mommy and daddy’s money thinks I’m hot. 
Tourists continued passing by. Couples sauntering hand-in-hand, groups of young people chattering excitedly in tones and trills of languages I’d never heard. Girls were gathered under a statue, singing and sharing a bottle of wine and clearly under the influence of the magic of the old bridge. Still perched on the wall, I was approached by two young English lads. Casually-dressed and friendly-faced, they posed no immediate threat that I could see. In fact, I could imagine us being drinking buddies- even friends. I made several English friends that year and they make great company.

After we’d exchanged initial greetings and introductions, Colin and Jay told me they’d been looking for their hostel. They were coming toward the end of their summer road trip across Europe and were close to resigning themselves to sleeping in their car that night, unless they found their hostel.

“I’ve never heard of the hostel you guys are talking about, do you at least know which part of town it’s in?” I asked.

“We just know it’s someplace in Prague 1,” replied Jay.

“That’s pretty vague, because Prague 1 could be on either side of the river,” I gestured over my shoulder, “Prague 1 is that borough back there around the castle, as well as the other side of the bridge, in Old Town. Do you know if your place is in Mala Strana or Old Town? Hradcany, maybe? Do you know any sites it’s close to? Landmarks?” 

Jay and Colin seemed to know nothing whatsoever about Prague or their location. They were visibly tired and frustrated.

“We’ve seriously been wandering about for hours. All the streets look alike. And if we have to sleep in the car, it’s parked in some other part of the city,” Colin said.

“Wow, you guys. It sounds like you’re up shit creek without a paddle.”

Colin and Jay thought this old one-liner was hilarious. This is why I get along so well with English people- we find eachother completely hilarious. Much of it is the difference in our accents, but also the shared dry sense of humor and prevalent sarcasm.

We continued to chat for awhile, and I offered to walk with them to a place where they might be able to get some more information about the whereabouts of their hostel. Or at least point them in the direction of their car, as if I was such an expert navigator of Prague after having lived there for six weeks and had barely ventured outside the city centre. Colin and Jay agreed and I decided to walk them to a nearby hotel where someone at the desk would surely be able to assist them in finding their hostel. 

As I shifted my position on the wall, I was reminded of the fairly large blade that was barely concealed just inside my sleeve. There was no way I’d be able to get down from the wall without either slicing my arm, or removing the knife from my sweater sleeve. 

“Oh, hey, I don’t want to alarm you guys, but I just have this knife here I’ve been keeping under my sweater. See, I was here a few nights ago, and these guys from Pakistan came out of nowhere and started harassing me,” I carefully pulled the knife out of my sleeve and placed it on the stone wall beside me before I started to step down to the cobblestone. 

“They were really aggressive, and I was afraid of something like that happening again, so I came prepared. You never know, right?”
Colin and Jay’s expressions had changed from friendly and tired, to anxious and unsettled. 

“Oh no, I scared you. I didn’t mean for that! I was really just thinking of protecting myself if I ran into those guys again, you know? Really, don’t worry!”

“Sure, right,” Jay was scratching his head and looking down. 

“You know, Jay, let’s just take a walk to one of the hotels just over the bridge. The reception can tell us where to find our hostel,” Colin chimed hurriedly. 

“Yeah that’s true, or we can just hike back to the car,” Jay added.

“If you want, I can go with-”

“No, no, Erika. Really, we’ve kept you far too long already. It’s getting late and we really ought to be shoving off,” Colin interjected.

“Right then, bye now. Take care of yourself,” Jay turned first and began walking quickly toward Old Town. Colin offered a half-salute in my direction before jogging after Jay. 

I watched them hurry down the bridge, and suddenly I felt bemused and stupid. As I trudged back toward my flat, I carefully cupped the knife handle in my hand and pulled my arms close to the sides of my body, as if becoming aware of the knife being a weapon. Of the weapon being a cause for alarm. I asked myself if I had packed the knife because I was looking for trouble, as opposed to actually believing I may run into the guys from Pakistan again. And if I had thought it a possibility, why should I even leave the flat in the first place?

The truth is, I was bored. Or something like bored, not quite. I was spending a beautiful summer in the city I’d chosen for myself. Just me and myself, together in Prague. The copper spires and towers and pistachio shell domes and the sun setting just behind the castle. The music and the people, the intermittent solitude of tiny, winding streets. Wide-eyed faces painted for the World Cup. I took it all in, alone. I loved it all at first, flying solo. Watching the new world and exploring the cobblestone paths swirling through the city, listening to and loving new albums released that summer. But as days passed through weeks, I felt that I had no one to share it with. I finally wanted someone to chatter with me as I stormed those streets. A companion to laugh with and exchange eyes for the place; to marvel and vent over the beauty and the oddity of our surroundings. I was finally living in a place where I could go dancing as often as I wanted, to music I actually loved- but I wanted a friend to dance by my side and act as a buffer when I felt like a piece of girl meat. I had a beautiful apartment, in a city boasting culture as well as round-the-clock excitement. I even had a decent circle of drinking buddies, who all seemed to go their separate ways before I was ready to call it a night. They also happened to be a group of men, some of whom were a bit too flirtatious. I was missing my friends at home and imagining the fun we’d have together if they were with me in Prague, and I realized that the one thing I was missing besides a job was a best girl. I had no idea where I might find her, but I knew I had to keep my options open, and I had to keep myself open. 

 

The Charles Bridge Terrorists

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Walking alone at night is something I have never thought twice about, regardless of how many drinks I’ve had. Even when I was attending Miami University at the same time as Ben Rothlisberger, even when I was one of few natural blondes within the city limits of Florence or Barcelona- I have always felt safe in the dark and confident in my own physical abilities. I still feel that way, although I’ve been fortunate to have always resided in places where I could feel safe. Combine said confidence with a few, or several drinks, and I become a force to be reckoned with- or so I like to think.

What happened to me late one night on the Charles Bridge didn’t change these feelings at all. Even afterward, my local friends assured me of what I already believed- that Prague is quite safe, aside from the occasional pickpocketing which is easily avoidable if you’re careful. The incident I had with several young men from Pakistan was a one-off, and shouldn’t be considered as a representation of anything typical.

It was very late one night in the middle of summer in 2010. It was probably around 2 a.m. when I had polished off a bottle of wine and decided to walk to the Charles Bridge and sit for awhile before going to bed. I loved that bridge at those hours, in its rare moments of barrenness, free from tourists and feeling the wind blow through my hair as I watched lights twinkling on the bank of Old Town. I usually listened to the river below, and the breeze, but that night I had brought my iPod, my earphones stuffed in as I was sitting under one of the statues flanking the bridge, about halfway down. I hadn’t seen a single person on the bridge when I had settled into my spot, so it was a surprise when a few minutes later a young man appeared beside me, signaling for me to remove my earphones.

“Hello, do you have some krowns, so I can get something to eat?”
I said that I was sorry, but I didn’t have any krowns to give him. It was true, all I was carrying were my keys and my iPod, which I clutched in my hand, as I was wearing yoga pants that didn’t have any pockets. And anyway, this guy was dressed like he had just emerged from a bar, and looked sufficiently fed. I turned away, not feeling too broken up about the fact that I couldn’t help him out.

A few seconds later, I tuned to see that several young men had appeared alongside him. They were dressed in the same style of clothing, all sporting the same gelled black hair. Had I blinked, and this guy replicated himself right there in front of me? One bottle of Aussie wasn’t nearly enough to leave me with multiple-vision. I didn’t count them, but I’m sure there were more than five of these guys. Seven or eight, I would guess. Some shorter than others, but each one tan-skinned, strong-featured, and looking like they had either come from or were en route to a nightclub.

“Do you like penn iss?” one of them asked.

In an instant I was taken aback, equally amused by this guy’s pronunciation of the word “penis” as I was annoyed by such a question. I uttered a dramatic sigh, and swung my legs over the side of the wall and hopped down.

“Well, thanks, assholes. I was really enjoying myself here until you started bugging me.”

The gelled-hair unit started calling me names as I started away, which I didn’t like one bit. What happened next was incredibly ballsy on my part, or, if you want to scold me about it- it was downright idiotic.

I swung around and aimlessly delivered a swift backhand, which landed across the face of the short guy in the middle of the unit. Without missing a beat, he sent one back, which grazed my cheek before I had the chance to react.

“Fuck you, bitch! I am from Pakistan!” the short Gel Unit member was shouting, struggling as other members of the Unit were holding him back. It became apparent that  this guy had every intention of beating the living shit out of me.

“Oh, fucking WOW! How proud you must be! Fuck you, you little squirt piece of shit! Go home and facefuck a goat! Did you hit me with the same hand you wipe your ass with?!” I was screaming, on the tips of my toes, arms outstretched like a belligerent frat boy.

The shouting of mindless insults and throwing up our hands continued as the Gel Unit and I backed away from eachother, and finally I grew tired of shouting. I turned around and power-walked back toward my flat, seething. Despite the dwindling alcohol buzz and the rapid-fire of the past forty-five seconds, my mind was very clear. There was a pulsing surge of awareness of my own body; my breath filling and leaving my chest, my muscles tensed and ready, my lips parted and tight. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. This must be the Eastern Zen experience that I’ve read about. This must have been the only time in my life I felt such clarity in my mind, and what better people to deliver me to this experience, than people from lands East.

Looking back, I really hope the man from Pakistan didn’t strike me with the same hand he wipes his ass with. There’s a 50/50 chance.

Pavel

When I decided to take up residence in the lovely neighborhood of Mala Strana, alone in a studio apartment, I had the naive image of how I’d quickly make friends with locals in the area, while enjoying the status of a young, spirited foreigner in my very own place- for the very first time in my life. For it being my first place alone, I have to take this time to describe just how fantastic the place really was.
The Charles Bridge in Prague is flanked by two ornate, midevial towers on each bank. I won’t go into a boring history lesson, nor do I care for a lot of pretentious talk about spirituality, but you can absolutely feel the energy of this bridge and these neighborhoods on either end, which date back to the 1300s. The gothic and baroque buildings in Mala Strana, just below the Prague Castle, have stood fast through the passage of time, through all the land’s invasions- as much of old Prague has. In fact, the building on Malostranské náměstí (Mala Strana Square) where I lived for a year was around six-hundred years old. The spectacular view of Mala Strana Gate on a walk home across the bridge is something that I’ll never forget, something I never became jaded to. It just so happens that many of those thousand spires Prague boasts are found in Mala Strana. With its narrow, cobblestone streets spiraling between those ornate, old palaces, the neighborhood is a living fairy tale. It was a particularly charming view on late nights when I’d be stumbling drunk across the sacred bridge after an evening at The Pub, earphones jammed in. So many evenings and days I would pass between the looming statues of righteous Saints and stone scenes of scorned divinity until finally passing under the arch of the gate. I’d stroll along the unforgiving cobblestone a couple of blocks, until I was at my front door, just across the street from the massive St. Nicholas Church. My front door doubled as the front door for Restaurace U Kostela, and once inside I passed through the narrow courtyard between the kitchen and the dining room of the restaurant,  where there was a constant aroma of garlic and parmesan. I called a friendly “ahoj” to the waiters and kitchen staff I would pass by, before climbing to the top floor of this ancient palace and reaching my newly-renovated princess pad. Residing within steps of the Prague Castle, I may as well have been a drunk princess in a fairy tale.
And a drunk princess I was, indeed. I had come to Prague all alone, and there’d been no one to tell me that the only friends I’d possibly make in the posh quarter of Mala Strana were foreign diplomats, elderly ladies and the Russian mafia- not to mention that the rent would be an astronomical 2/3 of my starting salary.  Although I was lonely, I wasn’t quite bored. I’ve always known how to make my own fun, and in a country like the Czech Republic, this usually involved alcohol. Inexpensive, quality alcohol. I spent my days in Summer 2010 exploring the city during the afternoon, taking photos, writing in my journal about my new adventure and worries about finding a job before my inheritance ran out. In the evenings, I would venture out into the streets of Old Town, often meeting Jeff and Dave and whoever they were hanging with in The PUB- Pilsner Unique Bar.  Sometimes, I’d stay at home instead and drink a bottle of cheap chardonnay before crossing the bridge to one of the discos where I would order a double vodka with juice and enjoy the music and maybe eventually meeting eyes with some dark-haired, international sex case. Now those were fun nights.

But on occasion, my drinking would begin early in the day. One afternoon in particular, I was across the street at Starbucks, typing away on my MacBook Pro and stealing the wifi in the basement cafe, having purchased nothing from the upstairs counter. The only drink I had with me was the empty water bottle, which I had filled with my cheap, drunk princess potion of Australian Bush chardonnay, which I was taking swigs of between emails. It was mid-July and I desperately needed a job. I had been sitting in Starbucks day after day under a stress cloud, sending my resume to any and all language schools in Prague I could find. It wasn’t an altogether unwelcome distraction, when a young man approached my table and asked if I spoke Czech or English.
“I speak English, yeah,” I said in the most pleasantly sober voice I could muster.
“I saw you sitting here, and I see that you are very nice, very beautiful, and I would like to ask you if you would like to go for a dinner,” said the tall Czech guy with his tucked-in shirt.

I can’t say exactly why I agreed to go on a date with a guy who I don’t find the least bit attractive, a guy who wears his short-sleeve, button-down shirt tucked into his white jeans. I’m firmly against the use of alcohol as an excuse to justify stupid decisions, so let’s disregard the cheap wine for a minute. I suppose I appreciated the straight-forwardness and smooth confidence that is often lacking in American men. More than likely, I accepted his invitation because I was bored, and I thought it would be fun to hang out with someone new- especially if he was local. So I exchanged phone numbers with this guy, who introduced himself as Pavel. Upon his suggestion, we were to meet a few evenings later, in front of the Astronomical Clock.

And what a clusterfuck that was. The hoards of humans in those narrow streets of downtown Prague in the middle of summer are nearly impenetrable, especially surrounding the Clock. Hour after hour, hundreds of tourists crowd below the old Clock, waiting for the puppet show at the top of the hour. A puppet show, in the most literal sense. These dumb fucks wait from 3:06 until finally at 4 o’clock when a man at the top of the clock tower blows a horn and the clock chimes, and four or five little figurines come out of the clock and spin in a circle before retreating back inside the face of the clock. The whole thing lasts around fifteen seconds. Afterward, there’s a heavy feeling of disappointment in the air, so thick that you can almost cut it with a knife. But instead, you cut it with your whole body as you storm through the crowd in a huff because you want to get to wherever you’re going. Hour after hour, this goes on. Fucking tourists.

So there I was, at 8 o’clock, standing at the base of the clock tower alongside 9,000 other wide-eyed foreigners in the city. It was going to be a nightmare meeting up with Pavel here, I was sure. Surprisingly, we found eachother easily- although it would have been hard to miss Pavel, who I spotted before he saw me. This guy was wearing green denim pants- green jeans, if you like, and another one of his short-sleeve, button-downs which he wore tucked in to those green stems. I believe this particular shirt was a buttery shade of yellow. On his feet were shiny black shoes that extended outward in a long, narrow toe. Think Pinocchio. Except with his closely-razored hair, he looked more like Jimminy Cricket. To make matters worse, he held a long-stemmed red rose in one hand. It occurred to me right then to turn around and sprint toward the nearby pub where my friends were likely to be. Pavel saw me then, and I forced a friendly smile.

“Good evening,” said Pavel, “I thought we would go to a Cuban restaurant that I know near to here.”

I told him that sounded just fine, that I was new to the city, and wasn’t too familiar with anyplace. We made small talk as we walked. Pavel asked me what I was doing in Prague and I told him I had come to teach English as a second language, having recently earned my teaching certificate in Prague. He told me that he had studied English all by himself and learned it on his own, and that he thinks teachers are a waste of money. How encouraging. The rest of the short walk was spent explaining to me some trivial elements of Czech culture that he felt were important for me to be aware of.  As we entered the restaurant, he whispered to me that Czechs are very envious by nature, and insisted that all the girls in the place were staring at my blonde hair, crazed with envy (which he pronounced “en-why,” in all his self-taught glory.) This was perhaps intended as a compliment, but I can’t be sure.

We sat down, and after a look over the menu, I ordered some blase beef dish with mashed potatoes and a beer. At that time, the extent of my Czech vocabulary consisted of “pivo” (beer) and “kocka” (cat.) I didn’t pay much attention to Pavel as he spoke to the waiter in rapid Czech, and I supposed I would see what he had ordered for dinner once it arrived at the table.

We were in the middle of a yawn-worthy conversation about where we live in Prague, when the waiter brought our drinks. It turned out that we were basically neighbors. Pavel was living around the corner from me, and went to Starbucks frequently because he was also having problems with his wifi at home. He seemed excited that we had something in common. I immediately reached for my golden pint of Pilsner, and paused when I saw the glass in front of Pavel, not sure of what I was seeing.  I still don’t know if it was a Pina Colada or something else, but whatever it was had an umbrella and about three days’ worth of the average human’s recommended fruit intake around the rim of the glass. I should have bailed right then, since it only got a hell of a lot worse.

A few minutes later, the waiter placed my dinner in front of me, and I began poking at my pile of lumpy mashed potatoes and picking through the raw pink cubes which the Czechs have the audacity to call bacon. Pavel watched me from across the table, his bitch drink in hand, and all the time wearing a creepy, half-smile on that mug of his. I’m pretty sure he thought he was gazing at me with a look of intrigue and interest, but it looked like a smirk- almost as if he was mocking me. There was no dish in front of him. After a few minutes of impatiently smelling my meat cooling down, I asked him if we should maybe call over the waiter and find out where his meal is.

“I didn’t order anything, you enjoy.”

I couldn’t believe it. This guy, with his Pinocchio shoes and his assortment of tight, colored jeans, had invited me to dinner and not ordered anything to eat. He’d ordered nothing but a bitch drink, and now I was expected to eat my dinner in front of him, while he stared across the table at me with that unsettling smirk.

“I ate before I came here,” Pavel added, as if to assure me that this situation was entirely normal.

And perhaps it was. I had never been on a proper date with a Czech before and as I began to cut my meat, I thought to myself that, for all I know, this might be perfectly acceptable in the local culture. After all, Pavel had asked me to “go for a dinner,” and there I was, eating dinner. He hadn’t come right out and said that he would be eating his own meal simultaneously, so maybe I shouldn’t have assumed. Then again, he hadn’t explicitly told me he’d be sipping a on a bitch colada and watching me eat said dinner. In any case, it gave Pavel the opportunity to do all the talking while I tried not to shove food in my face too rapidly. During this time, Pavel expressed some bizarre things to me. He seemed very interested in American culture, and asked me if I own any firearms. I had hardly uttered a puzzled “no,” when he resumed his ramble about the assault rifle he keeps in his own flat, and that he’s always dreamt of living in Texas and owning lots and lots of guns. All the while, I was chewing my food uneasily and staring down at my plate. After that topic ran out of steam, he proceeded to describe his favorite computer game, in full detail. I excused myself and headed upstairs to the ladies’ room, where I called Jeff and gave the alert that a safety call might be in order.

“He’s a gun nut, Jeff. And he’s just spent the last twenty minutes walking me through his favorite computer game, play by play. Oh, and you should see these Pinocchio shoes of his!”

Jeff repeated what I said, and I heard our friend Dave starting to laugh uproariously in the background.

“So Pavel sounds like a keeper!” Jeff said.

“Should I run for the door?” I asked.

“Well, do you want to stick around, or do you want me to call in a save?” asked Jeff.

Ultimately, I decided to stick it out and see the dinner through- my dinner, that is. If for no other reason, because I had no experience with responding to safety calls. Frankly, this was one of very few dates I’d ever had with a stranger, and I was uncertain of the protocol for a disaster like this. After I returned to the table, Pavel babbled on enthusiastically, describing his favorite places in Prague and assuring me that he’d take me there.

“And haven’t you been to see the gardens of Parliament yet?” Pavel asked.

“No, I haven’t. I haven’t been to most places here yet,” I replied for the eleventh time that evening.

“So we can go together! I will be your Prague guide,” Pavel leaned back against his chair, arms folded, still wearing that semi-rapey smirk.

Living in Prague seemed to be the only thing Pavel and I had in common at this point, but I was afraid to say anything about the city. The few times I mentioned any place I had been or was interested in going, Pavel would dreadfully interject, “I can go with you!”

As soon as the waiter brought the bill, I reached for it, fully intending to pay for the dinner that Pavel had watched me eat. He wouldn’t allow it. I feigned surprise and graciousness and we got the hell out of there.

“So, that was a nice restaurant. I hope you enjoyed it. And I’m not even tired!” Pavel said as we crossed Old Town Square and headed toward the Charles Bridge that we’d inevitably have to cross together.

Of course you’re not tired, you fucking goon. It’s 9:30 on a Friday night, and I’m pretty sure you’re the younger of the two of us. 

Pavel’s stupid observation of his non-tiredness gave me an idea.

“Boy, I sure am! That dinner really wiped me out,” I lied, “I think I’m going to take it easy the rest of the evening.”

We walked toward home, Pavel pointing out every single monument, statue, large building, exhibit advertisement, garden entrance, and museum along the way, and insisting that we go there together sometime. Telling me we would go together. It was excruciating. This guy was going to latch on if I gave him half an inch.

“Don’t you want to go to Parliament gardens tomorrow?” asked Pavel, as we approached my front door.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to work. My friend and I are going to see the Prague castle tomorrow,” I lied, stupidly naming the most obvious and closest possible site to our respective flats- which also adjoins Parliament, as it happens.

“I can go with you!” Pavel exclaimed, for the hundredth time that evening.

“I think it’s just going to be us, but I’ll talk to you later,” I said, offering my best non-confrontational American line.

“Thanks so much for dinner, it was really nice. Goodnight.”

I left Pavel on my doorstep and went upstairs to my princess pad. As I climbed the stairs, I decided that I deserved a night of stress-reducing debauchery after what I’d just been though. I changed out of my capri leggings and blouse, and into a form-fitting purple top, a short black ballerina skirt, and my leopard flats. I retouched my eyeliner, opened a bottle of Aussie and turned on some Faithless on the stereo. I decided I was going to venture across the bridge and start some trouble in one of the nightclubs. (On that particular night, the trouble was with a young Turk named Feyev, who I spent a couple evenings with until he betrayed Allah’s “no sex with agnostic American girls” rule and scurried off, most certainly scarred for life.)

The next morning, or perhaps early afternoon, I awoke to three missed calls from Pavel. I decided I needed to shower and get some food in my stomach before I tackled that shitstorm. Persistent motherfucker, he called again while I was in the shower. I couldn’t imagine what kind of situation might warrant four phone calls within a few hours to someone who’s practically a stranger, and I was quite annoyed. I am of a very delicate nature when suffering from a hangover, as my friends are well aware. I don’t like lights, sounds, scents, people, or questions. I don’t even like taking on the strenuous task of drinking water or feeding myself when suffering from a hangover, despite feeling desperately thirsty and famished. Anyone who knows me would never call me after a night of drinking, they would instinctively send a text message which I could read and eventually respond to at my own leisure.

Of course, Pavel didn’t know I’d been out drinking and dancing until dawn. I had to remind myself of that. Still, what was so important? Why not send a text after the first time I didn’t answer? I decided to call him back, and it is quite possible that I was still a bit drunk.

“Hi, Pavel,” I made no attempt to hide the annoyance in my voice when he answered almost immediately.

“Hi, Erika. How are you? I want to ask you if you will like to go out again another time,” Pavel said in a voice so eager that it made my stomach churn bile and vodka.

Straightforward, the European way. Pavel was firing a question I didn’t even want to consider at that point. In my fragile state, I lacked any fortitude to give one of the classical non-confrontational American lines I usually have ready, maybe yes, maybe no, well you know, maybe. After zero consideration, I gave the best reply I could think of- or rather, didn’t even bother to think about.

“Pavel, I had a nice time with you, and I really appreciate you asking me out, but I don’t think we really have chemistry, you know?”

To my surprise, he didn’t protest. He didn’t say anything at all. There was an awkward pause and I felt I needed to fill it somehow.

“I think you’re really nice and we could be friends, but we have very different interests…” My mind was becoming blank and I was running out of appropriate cliches.

“Yes, we are friends now, but it can turn into something else. We can spend time together and it would turn into something else,” Pavel replied.

“No, really, see, that’s the thing. It wouldn’t turn into anything. You’re into guns and computer games, and I’m not into those things at all. We don’t have a whole lot in common, so-”

“Yes, I know you are American girl, and you’re emancipated, and want to be free from the guy, you want the possibility to be independent, but I think we can spend time together as friends and it would turn into something else. And I can talk about other things besides computer games and guns,” Pavel replied knowingly.

I was completely dumbfounded. Pavel was basically calling me a man-hater, and assuring me that he could fix it after we spent some time together- after he showed me all the things in the city I needed to see. It was kind of a relief, though, since this absurd comeback gave me a reason to write him off right then.

“Okay, I was trying to be nice, and my feelings about independence have nothing to do with you, and nevermind my nationality. I told you I wouldn’t mind spending time with you occasionally as a friend, and you’re making this weird. Maybe in the future, we could, you know, hang out just as friends, as long as you don’t make it weird. But if you make it weird, well then, you know… it’d be weird. Thanks again for dinner, I guess I’ll see you around.”

Hardly any time had passed before I did start to see Pavel around. The first time I saw him at Starbucks after our disastrous date, he approached me as soon as he saw me.

“Hello, Pavel,” I started politely.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Oh, you know, I’m alright. Just continuing the job search.” I said.

“Would you like to go for a walk today?” he asked.

“Well, actually, I’m going with a friend to that island, you know, the one down on the river,” I lied. “I have a friend visiting from out of town.”

“I can go with you!” exclaimed Pavel in his all-too-eager tone that had long worn out on me.

“Well no, you can’t, actually. It’s just going to be us two.”

This scenario played over and over in the basement of Starbucks on Malostranske Namesti. It was always the same. There I sat, agonizing over the cryptic visa process which would begin only after I was finally employed, and reading emails from school masters which read “sorry, we are out of the office all summer, we will not begin the interview process until the week before the school year begins.” I sat in a stunned panic, trying to understand how any legitimate school could possibly function under such piss-poor planning. I was still new to the country and hadn’t yet learned that such disorganization and lack of urgency was a national specialty, and with language schools in particular. At the same time, I was calculating how much money I had left, and realizing that if I wasn’t employed very soon, I was going back to southwestern Ohio with my tail between my legs- which simply wasn’t an option.

…And there would appear Pavel, telling me that he could join me for whatever activity I lied about doing later in the day, with whichever friends I lied about having. Though I admit to being a generally impatient person on a day-to-day basis, I am known to have an all too high tolerance for people and their bullshit, but there was one afternoon in particular that my tolerance had been eclipsed by stress and utter helplessness.

“Pavel, I really need to you to go away right now,” I said, pressing a hand to my temple. “I’m really busy here, and I’m stressed the fuck out. I really need you to just disappear.”

And he did. Body language and facial expressions may have been totally lost on Pavel, but his self-taught knowledge of my native language was good enough that he understood my firm order to leave me the hell alone. I continued seeing him after that in Starbucks, and a year or two later, I saw him once even in my gym across town, but he never imposed himself on me again.

Riverside Rimjob

ImageIn the two months between TEFL and finally getting hired as a teacher, I spent a lot of time fucking off and indulging in the vices I weakened to the most. One of those vices was sunbathing, when the sun made its rare appearance. This was before I’d become acquainted with Prague and its plethora of parks, and the only place I knew to go was Kampa Island, as it was near my place in Mala Strana. Boasting a dazzling view of the Charles Bridge, the National Theatre, and the Prague Castle, It’s quite a lovely spot, but not at all private, and you’re likely to run into all sorts of creatures- human and otherwise. This is something I find unique about Prague- always the intermingling of individuals from all walks of life. The same as you see tranny-looking Ukrainian girls in night clubs donning false eyelashes and hair extensions partying alongside Aussies dressed as beach bums whatever the season and Americans wearing yoga pants and ball caps; in the parks you would find me, for instance, sunbathing between a bush full of derelicts shooting heroin, or perhaps an overweight man shadebathing nude, and a couple of fourteen year-olds on the verge of having their first experience with public sex. All kinds of people being all sorts of boldly awkward and borderline offensive. And there are simply no fucks to be given, as long as you’re not endangering another human being, or a dog. I’ve never looked into the origins of the term “Bohemian,” but I would guess that it refers to the mentality of Bohemian Lands- be as big a freakshow as you like, just don’t bother people. In return, no one will bother you. It’s an amazingly liberating way to live, and to this day I find it quite unique to the Czech Republic and its culture.

After a few days, I began to notice a tall, round old woman and her small Yorkshire Terrier who favored afternoon dips in the Vltava together. I have never been a dog-liker, but this old lady and her dog became a familiar part of the scenery, and in some sick way I suppose I grew fond of them.

One day, I was spread across my sheet, looking very foreign in my black monokini while taking in the elusive Bohemian sun. I watched the old lady, who we’ll call Martina, meander around with her Yorkie in the Vltava. Unless the island were burning, I can’t understand why anyone would ever put themselves into contact with water from that river. The water is a textured black.

But I wasn’t prepared for the next thing I saw. Martina stood stooped over the dog, scooping handfuls of water over its head, and running her hand down the back of the cur. Grabbing another handful and spilling it over the dog’s ass, she began stroking her thumb around the perimeter of its rectum. Martina Somethingova**, age 78, was stooped over and rimming her little Yorkshire Terrier right there on the bank of the Vltava, knee-deep. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that Czechs have more than love for their pooches, it was banished from my mind right then. Over the next few years, I would see time after time that dogs have as many societal rights in the Czech Republic as humans, and sometimes more.

**All females in the Czech Republic have grammatically “cased” surnames. The ova ending literally means “belonging to,” thus the name Brnakova means “belonging to Brnak.” Perhaps this tells you something about the classification of women in the Czech Republic.

Arrival In Wonderland

ImageIt was the end of May when I first arrived in Prague, less than a month before my 26th birthday. I arrived on what I would later discover was a typical day in Bohemia- overcast, and unseasonably chilly. (“A very Communist kind of day,” as my friend Debbie would later call it.) I had two crammed-full suitcases and a heavy carry-on, and I was barely managing through the door of my apartment building, which thankfully, had an elevator. I can’t say for sure the kind people I expected to be spending my next month with, as we took our TEFL course and lived in a shared flat, but it certainly wasn’t the laughable combination of individuals who I met that weekend. It was Jeff who greeted me at the door that day, and we remained friends throughout my life there. He’s possibly the most vivacious middle-aged man that I know, and he proved to be the most sane person in the flat, along with myself (so I like to think.) The middle-aged Canadian guys I met later, Andre and John-Joseph (JJ,) proved to be something else entirely.

As I dragged my luggage across the threshold to my bedroom, a small square of paper on the window sill caught my eye in the otherwise barren room. I stared at it for several seconds before realizing that I was looking at a print of an oversized, chubby baby, clad in a red cloak with a crucifix and holding his fingers in The Shocker position. I later discovered that our flatmate, JJ, had placed several of those creepy infant Jesus picture cards around the flat. JJ was a born-again Christian who had come to Prague to witness the start of some new Christian movement which he was convinced was to begin in the heart of Europe- specifically, in the Czech Republic, which boasts a population that is around 90% Atheist. JJ (who insisted we call him by his first and middle name, John-Joseph) wore all-black on a daily basis, and he sported a sort of highlighted Albert Einstein hairstyle. He completed his look with yellow-lensed, wraparound shades so that you could see that he was a total maniac without having to actually talk to him. Each day, he snoozed through TEFL class after having been out clubbing until 6 a.m. He winced whenever he heard one of us take the Lord’s name in vain, and would frequently scold me for doing so. Needless to say, we ended up not getting along at all, but truth be told, the guy would have been pretty hilarious to have around… except that he was also a total creep who spent his afternoon walks through Prague taking pictures of girls from behind. In short, he was just another example of a hypocritical, sorry excuse for a human being who hides behind his church. Of course, I didn’t know any of these things on the day I came to The Golden City, and I was far too exhausted from my travels to give the creepy baby picture much thought.

I had begun unpacking my clothes and small stereo when Jeff appeared in the doorway to let me know that he and Andre were headed downtown to get their public transit passes before we started class on Monday. It was early in the afternoon and I didn’t want to perpetuate my jet-lag by going to sleep just yet, so I joined them. I left the flat with nothing but my keys and our current address written on a slip of paper- Narodni Obrany 31, Praha 6. We weren’t even ten feet from our building before I realized what an utter fucking tool Andre was. A self-proclaimed intellectual and desperate bachelor, he had become completely insufferable by the time we’d made the four-minute walk to the metro station. I told my new flatmates that I was too exhausted to go downtown, and assured them that of course, I knew how to get back to the flat. The sun had come out, and I shielded my tired eyes as I crossed the square and made my way past shops and cafes that I had seen from my bedroom window. This was certainly my street. When I saw the blue address placard “31,” I stopped and tried my key. For a few seconds, it was tricky, but finally the key turned and I pushed through the door.
As soon as I entered the foyer, I was stunned. Hadn’t the floor been tile, not concrete? Weren’t there mailboxes on the left wall? There was the elevator by the stairs, but weren’t there two or three steps leading up to the elevator? I moved toward the elevator, taking slow, hesitant steps and looking all around in disbelief. Could I possibly be tired to the point of hallucinating? I took the elevator to the fourth floor, and the doors opened to reveal a scene I didn’t recognize. Pursing my lips and blinking hard, I decided to take the stairs back to the ground floor, hoping to recognize something. I reached the bottom of the stairs, having seen the whole place for the first time. Bewildered, I went back outside and took a look around. I surveyed the scene three-hundred-sixty degrees: there was the Albert market, there was the herna bar, there was the Lebanese restaurant (which I made a mental note to visit later) and there was the textile shop. Exasperated, I went back to the door of #31 and tried my key again. The key wouldn’t turn. I was on the verge of panic, when a young man approached with his own keys in hand. I stepped back and he opened the door, offering me a polite half-smile which I was too stressed to try to return. I followed him in and was hit with the same feeling that I was in an altogether different place. I turned in a slow circle before throwing up my hands in defeat and going back outside. I didn’t understand how I could be losing my mind so suddenly… I went to a pay phone on the corner, and proceeded to tell my Alice-In-Wonderland tale to a very Slavic-sounding police dispatcher, who quickly lost his patience with me.
“And vot exactly is it you want me to do?” officer Honza hissed into my ear. (I never actually got the officer’s name, but since it seems like every third Czech male I meet is named Honza, I am willing to bet that he is also called as such.)

“Well, I don’t really know. I mean, contact my embassy? Or something? I know I sound like I’m playing a joke.”

I had no idea what I wanted him to do or what he even could do, and we were getting nowhere fucking fast, officer Honza and me, as I continued paraphrasing my story and insisting that I wasn’t insane. I felt utterly defeated, and entirely misunderstood. I hung up the phone, on the verge of tears. I was painfully exhausted, my limbs trembling. My muscles were aching and my head was buzzing. I looked around… and there was my front door. There I stood, still gripping the frame of the phone booth, on the corner of my own street, and the street that I had been pacing for the past fifteen minutes. The stores I had seen outside my window were around the corner from my front door, for the love of Christ. It was then that I decided, fuck the clock and fuck whatever time zone- that I needed some rest, immediately. I collapsed in relief, first inside the foyer, then again in the elevator, and finally when I entered my bedroom and sunk into the bed under the baby Jesus picture. It made for a perfect introduction to the fact that Prague is a wondrous place where many things aren’t what they seem- a place where a key can inexplicably open a lock it wasn’t cut to fit; where one ought to pay attention and be aware. Looking back on those three years which unfolded from that very first day, it was the most perfect and appropriate first few moments in Prague. The only way to begin.