The Grey Pen Goings

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

Friday, September 29, 2006

How I Know I've Made It

If you Googled, say, “Avimann Syam,” they would ask you if you didn’t in fact mean “Avimaan Syam.” Yes, apparently I’m so important to the Google Empire that the world at-large must be able to access websites about me at all misspelt costs.

It’s irrelevant how I found this information out. Suffice to say, I now have proof that I’ve made it. I’d like to thank Google, my parents, and the Academy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

If You Want it to Be

On Saturday I saturated myself in the intellectual offerings of the city. After spending the mourning preparing and sending off my recommendation forms for grad school applications, I visited the touring World Press Photo exhibit. The pictures were emotionally impacting to say the least—extended, painful documentation of Katrina, the earthquake in Kashmir, tsunami aftermath, African genocide, Lord, it was enough catharsis to last me a lifetime. If you just look at what’s wrong in this world…that’s where the John Hartford philosophy comes in. Yeah, life is extremely complicated. But it’s also really simple. Sometimes you need to channel yourself in different ways.

As I am writing a novel based on photos and rolls of film, I was interested in how and when documentation occurs. This is what I think is so interesting about photogs—they are putting their lives on the lines to be conduits of information. Can you imagine a photography exhibit all about photographers, cameras, flash meters, etc.? Now that would be bizarre.

To complete my double-dip into Prague’s cultural parlor, my roommate Tom and I went to the Prague Symphony’s live score to Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” I had never seen a full-length Chaplin movie, and I must say it was an amazing experience. The boxing scene is reason alone to see “City Lights,” and the ending was truly, truly beautiful.

Perhaps this dichotomy exists in all nooks of this world, proving the Hartford dichotomy, but is made all the more poignant in Prague—Friday night my school had an open bar for all the teachers, starting at five; on Saturday I soaked up all my mind could take. Both are there for us all the time, the bottle of booze or the book. And what’s the solution? What? I think I have it—put your hands together! Allllllllllllright.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

My Landlady

Kveta knocks on my door. She wants me to tell Tom, my flatmate, that a man will be coming at an undeterminable time in the next two weeks to open his keyless closet. She says this in broken English before finishing with her trademark, “Do you understand?” eyes twinkling, half-smile of hope on her face.

I give her the thumbs up and nod my head a lot.

Ten minutes later Kveta knocks on my door again. She wants to know if I can move a small fridge for her. She has me scope it out, then says we should wait for Tom, but I insist I can do it and we stuff it into her son’s Volkswagen. Afterwards, Kveta tells me a lengthy story about how her first boarder was also a Texan and the best and nicest boy she ever met. “Do you understand?”

Thumbs up on this one. We Texans are good fellas, so much I know.

Ten minutes later Kveta knocks on my door again. She hands me a plate with a chocolate roll cake on it, a thanks for my heavy lifting.

Yes, Kveta, if you speak to my sweet tooth we will always understand each other.

Kveta (pronounced Kuh-vee-et-a) Benesova is my landlady, and one of the sweetest ladies you’ll ever meet. I would place her in her sixties: she’s not much more than five feet, she’s got strange sores on her shins, and one half of a gold tooth up in her gums. If we get right down to it she’s probably more Teletubby than human.

Landladying is not in her blood. Her father was the architect of the entire block I live on, predating the communists, but when the Soviets took over they threw him into jail for being an upstart intellectual, where he passed away. After the Velvet Revolution, the state gave the property back to his family, and hence back to Kveta. The bed I sleep on used to be her son’s, however many years ago, and the rest of the furniture is quaintly dated to years before I was born.

Strangely layered upon this is the fact that Kveta told my other roommate Emily and I that she works as a night nurse. If you own a block of property and you’re a grandmother and you’ve got weird sores on your legs, what on earth are you doing as a night nurse? “Do you understand?”

Sometimes you just smile and nod your head.

Kveta tells us she wants us to feel at home here. She does not just want us to be boarders, but really feel at home. But what does it mean to feel at home? Is it a comfy bed, a lover by your side, the security of friends and fathers and mothers next door? Is it just a key in your pocket? Maybe. I tend to think of it as something more mental and personal—feeling at home means you don’t feel the pressure to act for anyone. This is why “going home” sometimes doesn’t feel like home—we must perform for our parents, or their friends, or even our friends.

But with someone so disarming as Kveta, so naturally trusting and trusted, so old yet as hopeful as a toddler, I’ve got a feeling I’ll be able to feel at home. And hopefully, hopefully, you’ll understand.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Alphabet of Little Misses

Now I ain’t saying I’m homesick. Naw. The funny thing about moving to a Western city in Eastern Europe is that you get used to things so fast—having to carry everything in your front pockets, not using credit cards, not being able to read menus, Mohawks and dogs everywhere—that you don’t think twice about what routines they replaced. Still, there are certain items and activities that will pop into your head once a day or so, like a synapse cracking and releasing some indulgent memory into your mind, that stay with you. So, after a couple of months, here’s what I’ve been missing:

A—acting. I wish I had more creative outlets here (though it’s helping me be quite productive on my novel). Especially jealous of friends back home who are in The Storm. Austin is a very close second.
B—banjo. A casualty of the Traveling Light Doctrine.
C—coffee, like, real coffee. You can get all kinds of espressos, cappuccinos, Turkish/Algerian/Irish/iced concoctions, but there’s only a couple of places that offer the real deal. And they jack up the price. Same story if you want to buy it for your home.
D—driers. They just make sense.
E—electronics. In certain ways I’m glad I didn’t bring all the widgets I’ve accrued, that I can’t access all of the Internet every second of my life. On the other hand, I wish I could still turn the volume up on my speakers and rock out to Styx while I’m showering.
F—free water—ahh, the bane of Europe. Want some water? Sure, just give me a couple bucks.
G—graphic novels. Joe used to buy at least once a week, and I would devour them after he did. What on earth is happening to Y the Last Man?
H—heat. A Texas boy likes Texas weather, I guess.
I—intellectual conversation. I’m sure tons of this exists in Prague, but I’ve yet to sniff out much of it. The closest I got was 5 Caledonian teachers agreeing that Love in the Time of the Cholera was “the shit.” That’s not bad.
J—Joey. Sometimes a best friend and a roommate are hard to replace. Actually, they are always hard to replace. I miss you and the Coco LaFleur Suite, dawg.
K—Kinky and cowboy politics.
L—Longhorns, both burnt orange and of the animal variety.
M—Mom’s cooking. Oh, she’s good with the Indian stuff and the baking. What, I can’t have one sentimental one? Sheesh.
N—Nissan Sentra. I miss my old junker of a car, Keane-O, and being able to get exactly where I wanted. Public transportation in Prague is amazing, but the inability to get exactly from point A to point B gets to you after a while.
O—Outreach, the Winedale spinoff. I miss working with those kids.
P—peanut butter. Again, good ole PB qualifies in the you-can-get-it-if-you-pay-an-arm-and-a-leg category.
Q—Q-tips: when I found a jar of my new roommate’s, I actually whispered to myself, “This is going to be the greatest experience in my life.” And it was up there too.
R— running. If you go jogging on the streets here you’re stared at like you’re some kind of pariah. Running? On the streets? Must be an expat or a gypsy.
S—Shiner. Oh my sweet, sweet love, where are you now? Also, an obligatory shout-out to the Sunday Shakespeare Reading Group.
T—Texas, Texas, yeehaw!
U—undergarments, or the lack thereof. There’s nothing like an unfurnished basin to feel completely free, but it’s chilly here, especially come Winter, and you gotsta gotsta wear underwear. Heavy Sigh.
V—Verizon. Everything over here is text messaging because it’s much cheaper. Can’t I just make an irrational call to my friend for five minutes discussing former baseball player Delino DeShields or why John Hartford is my personal Jesus? Can’t I just drunk dial some chick without have to worry about getting reamed financially? Text Messaging is so 2003.
W—Winedale. Easiest one on the list.
X—as in bans, as in no smoking. Prague is a smoker’s town—pubs and bars have no ventilation, and after a while you’re just stewing in it.
Y—Y’all. Double meaning here: (1) the people who I’ve given this blog address to, and (2) the Texas twang, the actual word. Even the kids from the Midwest smirk at me for using this one, and it’s beyond a lost cause to the Czechs. But no other words makes sense to me.
Z—Zappa and all the other music I didn’t bring. Why didn’t I bring any jazz? Prague is a city for jazz.

Like I said, not homesick. Just yesterday it hit me that I’m living in Europe. Europe! Somehow this had escaped me. My writing’s going very well and my new flat is very, very comfy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get hankering for downing a PB&J with a Shiner while watching a show at Winedale. Far from it. Y’all take it easy now.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Slavia v Tottenham

Last Thursday some friends from the Caledonian School and I took in the UEFA Cup match between Slavia Prague and Tottenham. As Steve, a large and shaggy Scotsman, explained, “This game is absolutely massive for them—this is the biggest game you’re going to see in Prague all year. Absolutely massive.” (It’s nice to know that people actually sound like video game commentators.)

Tottenham Hotspur (yes, named after the Shakespearean character) are from London, so not only was the game big because of its continental importance, it was important because it was bringing over a bunch of rich and loaded Brits to the city: the pound gets 40 crowns over here, which gets you two beers, so they have no problem spending their arses off.

The atmosphere was amazing, like no other sporting event I’ve ever experienced. We were sitting a section over from the Slavia ultras, their most ardent supporters. This is the group that stands the whole game, is all decked out in the team’s red and white colors, and generally initiate mayhem. Observe:

1. Cheering: I think the group had about ten different songs/cheers that they cycled through, all intricately layered between claps and songs. I’m not sure what they’re saying, but if the FCC expects me to keep this blog at a PG-13 level, I probably shouldn’t hazard any guesses. A teenager with a bullhorn led them throughout.
2. Toilet Paper: the commencement of the game means you should throw lots of toilet paper at the field. Makes sense to me.
3. Signs: There were all kinds of great banners for the Slavia Fans. My personal favorites include “Slavia Intellectuals,” “Slavia Girls,” and “Friends of Alcohol.” Isn’t it nice to know there’s somewhere that the drunks, a gender, and the academic elite can all meet and unite under one cause? Right on Slavia, right on.
4. Fires: And they start fires when they need to. This is when things got kind of crazy. During halftime they have these little kids playing a game on the field, and half the people are either pissing or buying more beer, and all of a sudden the cops start pouring onto the field. Now, when I mean cops, I mean jacked Czech dudes covered in SWAT gear just waiting for the chance to beat the shit out of some people. We started smelling something burning and about a hundred of these riot cops come out from nowhere, prepared to escort some firemen into the stands. For five minutes, it seemed like they were about to before, thank goodness (I suppose), they left. But as commentator Scotsman Steve put it, “I really think this stadium is a lawless land. I really do. I think they’re only preventing people from attacking the field and that’s it.” (Thanks for that input Steve, now back to the booth.)

But you look at some guy pissing against a tree while a cop ten feet away does nothing and you get Steve’s point. This place was wide open, and it was a good thing the Slavia ultras and the Tottenham supporters were on opposite sides of the pitch. There are no vendors roaming the stands, no one checking your tickets—the cops watch passively as people commit knick-knack crimes, waiting for them to do anything really wrong.

As for the game, it was alright—a bit of a drab affair, with the lone goal a smart strike from Jermaine Jenas in the 30th minute. Tottenham certainly deserved to win. It makes me wish that American sports could figure out how to introduce such originality to their games, instead of the canned, commercialized getups we often get. Oh well. There is a bar that gets NFL on Sundays, so I’m trying to layer my football (American and European) as best I can.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


After three weeks in my new flat I decided to move. Now, if you remember the ghosts of blog entries past, you will remember that I was also itching to get out of my last flat as well—that one was different though, one that was set up for me through the Caledonian School and so out of my parameters. This one I found.

It’s funny because you’d think that if you have the cash you’d get the flat you want here in Prague. Not so in the expat community. Almost every flat is sent through and any room you’re looking at puts you up against 10 to 15 other flatseekers. Not exactly an enviable position. So when I found a room I pounced on it.

All the details about this flat are top-notch: insanely close to Wenceslas Square; huge room; a dryer; a balcony. I saw all this and went hook line and sinker for the room. It was a whopper.

But it never settled in me. Even though my room was gigantic I felt trapped in it—the biggest drawback to the room is that I had to go through either of my roommates’ rooms to get to mine, something that played havoc on my psyche in the mornings. I rise early, regardless of the time I went to sleep. These guys, my roommates, well…

There are several categories of people who come to teach English in Prague:

1. Lovers: They move for a long-term relationship, or they move to find a long-term relationship, or they move cause they’re looking to bang a lot of Czechs.
2. Retirees: explanatory, I feel, though a strange lot.
3. Twenty-Somethings: Gap year? Meaning of life? Anything, to anyone? We’re young and open to anything and maybe not ready for commitment.
4. Partiers: Why teach English in Prague? Um, cause you can get your ass fucked up for dirt cheap in Prague? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAmen.

So, guess which group my roommates fell into? Not one night passed without a joint and some brew-dogs. The kitchen was a nightmare, and they ate out so often as to never put anything more than a Mars bar in the refrigerator. One roommate, though 24 and a very smart guy, might be lucky to make it to 30 the way he goes at life: a pack-a-day man, beers, X sometimes, lots of booze—he wakes up everyday coughing and spluttering so hard you think a lung might fall out.

The bottom line is that these guys are cool but they like to party any chance they can. And they’re dirty (buying toilet paper fell directly on me, which is kind of messed up when you think about it—do they just not shit? I hate using the acronym, but my feelings are best summed up by WTF?). And I can’t do this in Prague. It’s SO, SO EASY to do nothing but get drunk every night in Prague. But that’s not why I came here.

Another new teacher, Tom, was living in a flat on the edge of Vinohrady that had a room. It’s nowhere near as nice as what I’ve got, but it’ll do, pig, it’ll do. Tom seems like exactly the roommate I need: mild-mannered, into chess and films and environmental science, interested in learning. It’ll be much more quiet if a little longer journey out there. My new landlady is so nice she baked apple strudels for her entire building. Holla.

In a certain way this whole minor fiasco marks all the scary things about moving to a place like Prague to teach English. How can you tell if someone is cool enough to live with in such a quick time? How can you tell if any of these people can be trusted? What are you doing here, and is that what you’re supposed to be doing?

Things will settle down. They have to. Or I, unfortunately, will explode.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Now Up

September 1st brought the end of our TEFL course and we, we proud and tired Caledonian TEFLers, we were glad to be done. O me O my, this much for sure. It’s not so much stringent as it is an intense first month in the city, forcing your personal compass to be constantly rooted to the Northern Star of TEFL. To be done with the course was to be cut from the umbilical.

The end of the course dinner and drinking binge was a little lackluster—only three of us ventured out past twelve for various lame reasons. But we three, we celebrated. Oh yes. We toasted each other till we couldn’t be toastier. But it wasn’t till Monday, when I booked it out of Prague, that I begun to settle down.

Now let me say this about Prague: great city. Beautiful city. Cheap beer, millions of places to go, great public transportation, etc. But it is a major capitol. It is the big city. And you (or at least I) can only live that life for so long without getting out for a little while. This is where Cesky Krumlov comes in.

Cesky Krumlov is located in the southwest of the Czech Republic, and its main tourist draw is the second oldest and largest castle in the country. Its architecture predominantly harkens from centuries Renaissance and older—a nice little berg, for sure. But my friend David and I weren’t just looking for town, we were looking for country. We were looking for the nature.

Funny thing about Czechs speaking English: when they want to say they went out to their cottages in the country, or went mushroom picking (which is huge—HUGE—here), or went biking, they say they went “in the nature.” It sounds funny at first, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. What’d you do this weekend? Oh, you know, went out in the nature, relaxed, chilled, swam. No biggie. Think I’ll go out to the nature next weekend too.

So that’s what David and I were looking to do—get out into some beautiful nature. We hiked ten kilometers the first day and about twenty the second, played chess in between. We start work next Monday so this is all the vacation we’ll have for a while. It was a good time for me to really think about WHAT THE HELL I’M DOING HERE. This is a sub sect of the quandary of WHAT THE HELL I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE. I feel like I’ve only got one really good friend here amongst a bunch of so-so friends. And I’ll tell you this much for sure—you think you can tell an American from a European, but you can’t. Oh no. No sir, no maam, you can’t. You’re in a language wasteland, blind to spot speakers of your tongue. Like I said, the TEFL course has required our undivided attention. It’s a month later and I’m only just wiping away the cobwebs.

So time and the future are sitting like big soft-boiled eggs in front of me. Hopefully I peel these suckas correctly, dig?