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.