The Grey Pen Goings

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

Monday, January 29, 2007


As is customary during departures, many people are asking me how I feel about leaving, what I’ll miss, if I’m sad/happy/relieved/excited/etc. I can honestly say I have no idea. My departure sits before me, bluntly. It’s all very surreal. I think I’m going to need a hefty amount of time and distance before I fully digest what I’ve done here.

From other powerful experiences, like the 30 hour a week 325M writing class or Winedale, I’ve found that adjustment to different environments afterwards takes a while. There’s this tremulous feeling running through you: Where do I go from here?

The fact that I have two months of traveling before I get back to Texas won’t really offset that feeling so much as delay it, I imagine. For now I’ll have this whole week in the city doing nothing, and that should give me ample time for reflection into the what’s and why’s of my time here. Hell, it’s probably way too much time.

I had an interesting chat with my friend Tom who taught here for 18 months starting in ’03, and it was strange to hear the differences between our experiences here. Not so much surprising as illuminating. The point Tom hit upon was people I’m definitely going to stay in touch with after I leave. And my answer to him was probably none.

When I think of it like that it’s seems really depressing, as if Prague was this lonely bubble that I floated through and will pop as soon as I leave. And I don’t think of it like that at all. And I haven’t been reclusive or anti-social. But…I suppose I never found close, like-minded people, really. My best bud here was a solid drinking buddy and we watched a bunch of random sports together. My roommate Tom was a pretty good pal, but I doubt we’ll stay close. There are definitely people I sought out to say goodbye to or exchange emails with, but I wouldn't expect communication to go on too long. The only person I really connected closely with was a girl I was seeing for a while. The fact that such a sentence is in the past tense is indicative of our future, perhaps.

The problem with memory is that it becomes inherent decisions. We can’t roll back the film. We determine that this was good and that was bad and this person was always an asshole and that time was wasted and and and andandnandandadnadnadnadndand…

I remember once on vacation I saw the movie Joe Dirt in theatre. A friend came to the conclusion that if the ending had been good instead of maudlin and lame, we might have looked on the movie as a whole favorably (instead of seeing it as the David Spade starring junk it is). And our impressions of cities, years, people, and places are built in a similar fashion—if we finish fondly we remember fondly. Or perhaps it’s a bitter aftertaste that lingers on, time immemorial.

So: We’ll see what color tints this final week and the Prague experience as a whole. Rose would be nice, but I’m hoping for half red/half blue: that way I can see the world in 3D.
In the meantime, I can offer you some thoughts on what I will miss and what I won’t miss from the good old Czech Republic.

What I’ll Miss: Public transportation. Prague is an incredibly small city with an excellent transportation system. During peak hours each metro line is running a new train each minute, there’s bunches of trams and buses, it’s fairly inexpensive, and overall a very efficient system.

What I Won’t Miss: Not having a car. I know, I know, mainly it’s having to deal with crowded trams for long periods of time. But as great as public transportation is, it makes you dependent on their schedules. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of Kean-O again.

What I’ll Miss: Walking everywhere. Dropped about ten pounds while here and you always get a better experience and feel for a city by hoofing it through strange corners of town.

What I Won’t Miss: Not being able to jog. I actually had a student ask me if people really jogged or if it was just something American movies made up. No one runs on the streets or sidewalks here: they’re covered in dogshit, they’re in poor condition, people will stare at you, etc. Expats will jog at Letna Park, but it’s a ways away from my flat. I really miss just walking out the door and setting out—the one time I did it here, my knee was throbbing from the impact of such uneven pavement.

What I’ll Miss: My flatmates and landlady. Tom and Emily are a couple of nice, quiet Canadians—really, exactly what I would expect from Canadians. And Kveta is a strange old kook who means the best but is hindered by her poor English and general strangeness—how many people have a 21 year old grandson and a grandfather and work as a microbiologist? My guess: only Kveta. When I showed her my bug bites, she was very concerned that I had too much stress and was potentially allergic to cucumbers.

What I Won’t Miss: My flat. I still get bug bites. The bed is atrocious and none of the furniture was made after 1967. The kitchen only has a mini-fridge, a mini-stove, random pots and pans; there is no showerhead. Now clearly I signed on to this flat, and have to take a good deal of blame. It was selected in a slightly desperate time, and in my defense, I didn’t know so many bug bites would follow. The bottom line: this flat sucks. And soon I won’t have to live there. Holla!

What I’ll Miss: The price of beer and food.

What I Won’t Miss: The price of most everything else on the teacher’s budget here.

What I’ll Miss: Hot wine. Grog. Delicious drinks both warm and alcoholic.

What I Won’t Miss: European coffee. I’ve never been a huge fan of espresso and everything here is a derivation thereof. I really love an actual mug of coffee, big, warm, in your hands, and you can get something close here, but it’s never the same.

What I’ll Miss: The eclectic mix of people you meet while abroad. There’s the folks from Prague, the folks from other parts of Bohemia that are resentful of Prague, people from Moravia, Slovakia, etc. There are the random conglomerations of English teachers telling me about hockey, Baudelaire, sheep farms in Australia. There’s the bountiful hoard of backpackers and others at various hostels, a motley crew of fools and savants and jerks and surprises.

What I Won’t Miss: The strong undercurrent of racism that persists in Europe. Seriously. Obviously America has its own racial problems, but any public demonstrations are more or less immediately reprimanded by society (i.e. the Confederate flag). Here it’s understood that even the most liberal intellectuals will have some contempt for gypsies, Ukranians. Blacks are stared at and distrusted, Asians too.

Case in point for difference: at a preseason Rockets game, someone yelled a racial epithet at Dikembe Mutumbo—the man was fined $5000 and banned from NBA games for a year. Here in Prague, it is considered cheering against Sparta Praha if you cheer for their black winger.

What I’ll Miss: The wonders of being abroad. I remember the first weekend I was in Prague, I looked out my window onto the complex playground to see two men traversing across it with machine guns. The kids were frolicking, their parents watching, and these two cammo-clad men were waving their guns about animatedly. No one noticed them. No one cared. No one has ever explained this to me.

But things like this, or watching carp brained on the side of the road in the name of Christmas, or taking in the marvelous view from Vysehrad, I guess this is the magic that keeps you playing the game, you know? John Hartford has a piece called “Prayer” where he intimates that we should be lucky for everyday, for our last chance to be sick, to be poor, to be anything. When I get down, I think of this song and where I am and tell myself to get out the goddamn door and out into the wonder of Prague.

What I Won’t Miss: Being a stranger in a strange land. Almost every student I’ve ever had has asked me why I came to Prague. My three-pronged answer:

1. It’s real easy for Americans to get here and work illegally.
2. I wanted to try and live somewhere other than Texas.
3. I’d been to Prague once before and liked it.

Which is all true, ostensibly. The more accurate truth is that I told myself that if I didn’t get the Enspire fellowship, I would teach abroad. I finished as first alternate and applied and the next day I was accepted to the Caledonian School. I was ready to be out.

The biggest barrier to overcome is the language. Czech is a Slavic tongue, so my German is useless here. You speak to them in English and (for a goodly many) there’s a river between us that will never be crossed. Praguers are notoriously gruff with tourists/expats. This isn’t to say I didn’t meet many, many wonderful Czech people, it’s just that…

It’s like this. When I walk down the street I don’t even hear Czech. The language is like a gentle current of sound that there’s no point for my ear to register. But any English pricks you immediately. There’s something taxing about living not just in a different country, but a different country where you can’t communicate with the native population. I remember when I first came here I thought I would be able to tell who was an expat just by sight. Not the case. If I was planning on living in Prague for more than a year, I would definitely take classes. The language is notoriously difficult though, and in a shortened window it was pointless. This can make tasks such as grocery shopping or going to the post office frustrating/difficult/intimidating in their own right. There is some strange, ironic bliss garnered by walking around the multitudes impervious to their words and workings, but it’s fleeting at best.

You learn as much about your home as you do about the land of your travels, I suppose. I know I’m not homesick—hell, it’s hard to even fathom what home means to me now. There’s a difference between not being home and knowing your away, and I guess I’ve always known I’ve been away, in foreign lands.

So here near the end I imagine my thoughts are somewhat akin to someone who just finished a marathon: I can’t believe I did it! But was all that really worth it? Surely there was some other way to prove myself? Aw fuck it, someone get me a burger and a beer!

Like I said, it’s going to take a while to process. The best way to end this might be with Dave Eggers’ intro to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:

First of all:

I am tired!
I am true of heart!

And also:

You are tired!
You are true of heart!


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