The Grey Pen Goings

Navigation through a World that's Wild at Heart and Weird on Top.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Very Kafkaesque

I went to the Franz Kafka Museum today, located near the burgeoning tourist trap of the Charles Bridge. Outside the museum, oddly enough, is a fountain with two men replenishing the water with their genital watering cans.

I wasn’t expecting much from the place, especially considering it only cost 60 crowns (less than three bucks). But Yao-za, this place was a post modern playhouse erected to the literary giant of Prague. In a hall dedicated his book The Trial, part satire/part nightmare about the impossible tyranny of bureaucracy, one walks down a cramped hall of filing cabinets from head-to-toe, with several drawers pulled out to give information on the work. Incessant telephones ring in the distance, adding to the effect.

Even more captivating was an expressionistic video dedicated to The Castle. A projector played onto one screen, but mirrors encapsulated the viewer, so spindling lines extended into infinity. The video itself was designed to make you think about what you usually don’t see—we tend to focus on one image, or one set of patterns, and miss a great deal (or so the concept goes). The video played on this theme, having villages slowly melt into ominous fortresses, turning sunrays into storms. Words vanished in and out of my peripheral vision. And in the end these words flashed across the screen:

“You don’t live in the village.
You don’t live in the city.
You are nothing.
But unfortunately, you are something.”

Honestly, I was having a hard time keeping it together during the video, and I think anyone on psychedelics would have straight lost it. It was that intense.

I’ll leave you with this quotation from the museum, which I’ve been pondering since this afternoon:

Literature is at its most potent when it disjoints the powerful fictions that govern men’s lives. A powerful fiction is a discourse which time has converted into an unquestionable truth, whose fantastic origin has been forgotten.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Random Facts About the Czech Republic, Volume One:

—Grocery stores expect you to bring your own plastic bags into the establishment to take away your goods.

—Rollerblades are still the shit over here.

—Foosball is the national pastime.

—The Czech language has seven different cases and, depending on word endings, a sentence can mean very different things. For example, the sentence “The hunter killed the bear” can be changed in meaning to “The hunter was killed by the bear” by only changing the last letters in the words bear and hunter (word order intact).

—Lots of cammo.

—There’s a sizeable Vietnamese minority from the days when communist countries traded peasants like Donruss baseball cards.

—The Czechs don’t believe in dryers. You will not find a single flat equipped with one.

—Czechs really do hate gypsies. Apparently I look like one.

—Although pitchers are nice, there exist “giraffes” here, a contraption shaped like a bong that contains 4 liters of beer.

—Socks and sandals, socks and sandals, why on earth would you ever wear socks and sandals? I cannot think of many greater social taboos in the States than socks and sandals. My friend Zach once gave a speech in Academic Decathlon about the subversive effects of such a combination.

—Everyone owns a dog and all the dogs are incredibly obedient—they take them on trains, trams, and buses, they muzzle them, they let them walk around without a leash. The only unruly dog I’ve met was an American’s.

—More weirdness to follow…

“Wanna Watch Scary Movie 3?” Or the Paradox of Compassion

My two current flatmates are 31-year-old Americans whom moved across the pond to be closer to their girlfriends. This, in and of itself I think, sounds alternatively ludicrous and hopelessly romantic. Tom says that all his old co-workers cooed their little brains out over the lengths he went to be near Tanya, in Dresden, by moving to Prague to teach English.

Tom and Tanya, for all Tom’s craziness and inability to shut up, are a great couple. You can see the way they fold into each other, wrapping themselves in the blankets of each other’s loquacious natures. Though drastic, Tom made the right decision cutting off 8 hours of his travel time to see “the love of his life.”

Paul is his antithesis.

You can see the wobble in his house of cards by the weakly formed lattices I present: he’s 31 and Taiwanese, his girlfriend 20 and Dutch; they met in a chatroom; they’ve seen each other only once in person, for a period of two weeks. It should come to little surprise that Paul got the hatchet soon thereafter moving to Prague. This, unfortunately, beset total devastation on flatmate Paul, compounded by the fact that Paul is struggling in the TEFL course.

Now I like Paul. Paul is more or less a nice guy, a guy who certainly didn’t deserve the IM dumping he received. Having been there before, I more than sympathize with the dude. But the problem that follows for me is this: Where do you draw the line for compassion?

Because although I like Paul, I receive no stimulation from being around him—intellectually, conversationally, entertainment, etc. We have almost nothing in common, and if coincidence had not struck as flatmates, we would never have struck up much of any relationship, but we bummed around town a couple times together and eventually I became his most sound source in the city.

Now before I sound like a selfish asshole, let me line up my defense, please, give me so much—I wish the best for Paul. I’ve gone on hour-long walks to help him sort his head on the matter. I feel for him, I really do. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t really want to spend time with him.

The evidence against: Last Saturday Paul had two friends he had met the previous year visit him from Brno (the Czech Republic’s second biggest city). After his shower he put on a bathing suit (which he sleeps in), and suggested that his friends watch a movie with him. His first two suggestions were the Chronicles of Narnia and Scary Movie 3. Not exactly Czech chick flicks.

Afterwards he bragged, actually bragged to Tom and I, “It was pretty sweet that I slept with two Czech girls this weekend.”

Tom was having nothing of it. “But you didn’t do anything did you? With either of them?”

“No. But it was still pretty sweet!” Yeah, welcome to 8th grade, Paul, good luck copping a feel. He’ll also talk haltingly through a chunk of exposition than stare at me expectantly, or say, “What do you think of that?” He’s kind of like the puppy that starts following you home from school, except not a puppy, and not particularly cute otherwise, and he won’t bark when you ask him. And also he’s a particularly flatulent dog (Ok, Paul is not flatulent).

Oh, and: chews with his mouth open; slightly racist; doesn’t like hippies.

Look, suffice to say, Paul and I ain’t best buds. We cannot pass the time yakking about sports or books or movies or or or or etc—and now he’s suggesting we take a trip to Vienna. A 5 hour train ride back and forth with Mr. Chen, the inability to go to a bar with a guy who doesn’t drink, offering him a backboard to hit against yet receiving nothing…no thanks. But I feel compassion for him in his time of need. But what, WHAT, do you do when you want to help someone but don’t enjoy their company? How do you buoy their flagging feelings, or do you let them sink into an abyss of depression? Where do you draw the line between someone else’s interests and your own?

I’m not sure how many people I’ve even given access to this blog, but if ye have a suggestion, feel free to drop a comment in the box, ye mateys.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie

In case y'all were wondering if I brought my dancing shoes to Prague...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Hook A Right After the Soviet Box Factory

An hour before sunset I walked a mile West from Velka Ohrada (my apartment complex into an amazing valley covered in a forest far more homogenous than this here halfbreed—trees dipped, dripped, thistled, wavered, needled, swayed. The valley dipped down two hundred yards then back up three hundred on the other side from me, and a picturesque country home was nestled below.
And this was less than a mile from the industrial Soviet complex that I and thousands of other people live in—right outside of it! This is something Europeans understood long ago but we Americans, in our insatiable need to develop, lost—we kept pressing nature westward and away, into vacation spots hours from our homes.
Oh but this, this was something you’d expect John Muir to photograph in the Pacific Northwest, just right here! Add this to the cobblestone streets and wonderful public transportation and the fact that you can buy a beer in six different places on one block and you start to see why everyone falls in love with Prague.
It’s not all walks in the park so far, I still no so few people and only one person I’d really call a friend, but I’m getting there. I got to do as much as I can to soak up this great weather before winter comes and turns me into an Avcicle.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Hits

Last night I went out to a 80's and 90's video party discotheque. The music was predominantly American and British, and I feel that it's important to note that the song that brought the house down was Europe's "The Final Countdown." Second was the Beastie Boys.

I was out till 4 at this place, with some Czech friends I had met earlier in the day. And yes, the Czech women are beautiful. Barbara, you don't need that boyfriend in Frankfurt, O Barbara, I'll dance with you all night long, O Barbara, Barbara!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

TEFL Tantrum

We’re more or less in the same boat, we TEFL students, flinging ourselves dumbly into a city unknown. We gravitate towards each other because we simply have no one else to be with: we work together eight hours a day and congregate in our fee time together. We open up wholly to each other, hoping that the similarity in the pumping of our hearts is a good basis of friendship. This is when people found out about the open flat in Paul and I’s flat.

John and Paul lived together in Hotel Dum (pronounced Doom). John and Paul both disliked Hotel Dum. Both John and Paul wanted to move into Flat Paul and Avimaan.

Well well well. Tom first. Tom is a former waiter from Columbus who moved to Prague to be close to his fiancée, Tanya, who lives in Dresden. Blonde, goateed, a laid back guy. A good man on all accounts, and someone you’d definitely want as a roommate (You can see where this is going…).
To John: the youngest in our class and a college debater from Indiana. And you can tell. Smugness and sweat seep out of his pasty pores. The sarcasm that the rest of us shed in our late teens is a second skin for him. Upon hearing of our empty room, Indiana John says so much to me: “You might not want me there, but you don’t have a choice. I’m going to force my way in there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He’s joking, sure. Kinda. Half-joking. Half-he’s-like-this-all-the-damned-time. You want to feel sorry for him till you speak to him again.
John further exasperates the situation by “calling” the room before Tom, slotting himself into our extra room as if it was Shotgun in a car.

This does not sit well with Paul, who is old enough (31) to be done with dealing with juvenile bullshit. “I do not want that guy in here,” he tells me in his halting tongue. “That would not be very good. That would suck a lot.” Ever the man of initiative, Paul pulls his power play and asks Tom to move into our flat. He’s more than down. Paul’s more than down. I, too, am more than down, but state my ambivalence towards Tom and my disappointment at the pain John will potentially feel. I’ve watched enough Sopranos to know how much to say.
And with the exchanging of spare keys, Tom is installed in our chateau in Nove Butovice. “Tommy, where were you all night?” John asks gleefully the next morning. “Long night out?”
“I got invited to move into Paul and Avi’s,” he says.
Arched eyebrows and a “Cool, cool” are all we get from the normally loquacious John. And yeah, it’s nice to hear him shut up even for a second, and I would have gone batty living with him. And he’s going to have to fall, and fall hard. It might surprise people who have known me a long while, but at work and with these strangers I’m praised for being ever calm, unflappable, and very easy to get along with. And item number one for getting along with people is being receptive to their ideas, feelings, and requests. And John’s going to have to learn that by the rest of the class collectively dissing him. Which sucks. But damn it, sometimes that boy needs to shut his fool mouth.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Hansi navigated the yellow school bus (decorated with Little Nessie the dinosaur on its sides) through the complex towards my flat for the next month. “You’re flat is just ahead,” he said.
To call this apartment complex industrial would do it no justice, oh no—this complex was a product of the Steel Curtain, designed to house thousands of Czechs in these boxes. It is a giant square comprised of many smaller squares, housing several thousand people at least. This, I thought, this is my home?
After a disorienting first day, however, things have become much clearer. Yes, I do live in a mammoth apartment complex, but the bus stops 100 yards away, and the bus takes me straight to the metro station, and the metro takes me where I need to go. So: the public transportation system is really superb and easy to navigate, and as long as you don’t mind walking you cover everywhere in central Prague in a day. I have been all over—up high, down low, but never too slow, oh no, not when there’s so much to take in.
To the stereotypes of Prague. Yes, the architecture is astounding, on almost every street, the city was a middle aged mother when America was a bratty infant. It shows, it does. Yes, the beer is cheap, a buck at most, and very good. No, you don’t need to know Czech to get around, but telling them ‘Hello’ in their native tongue does a world of good.
We started teaching today, and despite stopping absurdly early my instructor said I did well. The students I have are Pre-Intermediate, which means they’ve had about a year of the language. The emphasis on our language teaching is to have them do as much as possible: speaking, reading, writing, etc., because when the teacher talks the student doesn’t. Simple enough.
My class is a fairly mixed bag of Americans and one Canadian. My one flatmate is Paul, a 31-year-old Taiwanese guy who used to teach in the Bronx. He’s particular but easy to get along with. He has a lady he loves in the Netherlands, much like Tom, 31 and in love with a lady in Dresden. A very laid-back hombre, he is. Most of the class is over 30 actually, oddly, the average age around 32, I’d say. The youngest guy is like Jerry Fugit at his most annoying (for those of you who know Jerry, and out of no disrespect to him—nothing but love, Jer.) There’s one other guy in the class, David, who seems to be similar to me in terms of interests and where he is in his life, which is nice—I had found it strange otherwise to be befriending people at other stations in their lives. Far be it from me to demand conformity or people like me, it was just surprising to be so unlike even most of my fellow teachers.
So do not worry for me (even you, Mom). I may not have seen the sun yet in this city but I’m still loving it. A leap of faith means you expect someone will be there to catch you or that you’ll grow wings and fly off. I’m not there yet, but I’m flapping. Oh yes. I am one flap-happy guy.