Collections – Let the Vltava Rise Up

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Prague, Stockholm – 23

While renting a movie I realize that I’ve been in Prague long enough to see a full life cycle of Czech films: The movie posters on billboards several weeks before they opened in theaters, the same poster plastered on the walls of DVD rental shops months later, and finally those posters taken down and replaced with newer releases.  Realizing this is the first time I can fully grasp the amount of time I’ve spent here.

We see a group of kids with fair complexions, and different natural hair colors, get on the tram. I would guess Norwegian, but when they start speaking it’s unbelievable.

“Where do you think they’re from?” the girl asks.

“I have no idea.”

“Look at their noses,” she says, and I notice they all have the same small, thin, pointed nose. A dozen boys and girls with the exact same nose.

I continue to listen, and then ask the cute pop-puck redhead sitting next to me where they’re from.

“We’re from Finland,” she says in perfect English.

A look of realization comes over us. I talk with the redheaded Fin until the next stop. The American girl I’m with touches my hand to let me know it’s her stop.

Outside the Chateau in Old Town, we are looking for a cab to my place. She stops to call one. The guys next to me are speaking English; they’re American or Canadian.

“I just finished the sixty day shoot,” one cheers, “I’m off to Romania next.”

Maybe they are actors? Neither is good-looking, but the one who said it looks likes he could be one, the other doesn’t. “Is that Erica’s puke?” the other asks, motioning at watery vomit on the corner.

“Yeah, she is down the street right now.”

I look down the street. A tall blonde chick is swaying dramatically, and walking with help of another girl. Someone comes out of the bar in a hurry, and wipes out on the puke.

“You just slipped in barf,” the non-actor says. “Not mine, one of my friend’s. Yeah. Better things have happened.”

Douche. It is funny, but something about the way he says it, his voice, his face, bothers the hell out of me. Down the street someone is fiercely beaten, and I see him collapse to the ground. He is punched in the face while he is on the ground. It’s a brutal fight.

In the cab I see the guy who hit the ground being held against the wall. He is skinny and has curly hair. His face is completely bloody, and the area around his left eye is noticeably swollen even from the car. He is out of it, and I can’t tell if he is drunk or punch-drunk. I’ve never seen someone so bad. It is right outside one of the bar’s exits, and I’m amazed that no bouncers have helped.

I bump into my ex-girlfriend on a narrow street in old town. After we exchange some pleasantries, I walk far enough to be out of sight, and stop because I think I’m going to lose it against the wall.

In February, the day after my 3-year relationship with my Czech girlfriend ended, I stayed up late and had a conversation with a group I hardly knew, in a flat I didn’t know. It started out well enough, and led to a discussion, which fell apart into an argument. We were a strange mix: me, the young, drunk, wild-eyed American, a British man with a beard as long as my forearm, and all the paranoia about governments and the rich that go along with it, a Czech girl who was pretty at the same time that she was plain, and a quiet and proud African. Normally, I would avoid any serious conversations, but I was too fucked up in every conceivable way to care.

I had thrown-up earlier in the night so I was able to drink more than usual without blacking out. Even while throwing-up, I was drunk enough that I wasn’t really disgusted by the fact that some had gotten on my sleeve.

In the late morning I fell asleep on a mattress without covers. When I woke up I was freezing, and I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. I think my teeth are what woke me up. Some guy was in the next bed, wrapped in what looked like a sleeping bag. That greedy son of a bitch.

When I left the flat it was past noon, and the one fucking day in February with sun. I was almost blind from my hangover. I walked slowly so as not to puke on my way home. My head could have split apart. At home I fell asleep, and woke up when it was dark, and realized that I was going to be sick for the next couple days. Yet none of it helped get her out of my head.

 

The public transportation in Prague is extensive, well-developed, and timely. The metro and trams are relatively quick and run throughout the city, occasionally you have to take a bus. The buses suck dick.

On the bus I have the taste of vomit in the back of my throat. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s from the bumps in the road, maybe the fumes, although nothing is in my nostrils. The bus moves slowly through the suburbs, stopping at every light. When the doors open fresh air sweeps in for a few seconds. I sweat in my seat, and spin my phone in my hand.

I have a long weekend, and decide to take a quick trip to Stockholm. Here are my thoughts:

To prevent disappointment I convinced myself before coming to Sweden that there wouldn’t actually be that many blonde girls. But the truth is there are a lot of blondes in Sweden. More than I expected. Of which, how many are real, I can’t say.

The girls are very pretty, but I have the feeling that what you see is their realized potential. They wear a lot of makeup, which is like painting the lily. In Prague, you often see beautiful girls with bad style and poor haircuts, and as a result you can punch pretty far above your weight. Swedish girls are beautiful, but they’re as beautiful as they’re going to get, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They’re the type of Europeans you can bring home to your parents without too much of a stir.

In many ways Stockholm reminds me of Minnesota: a stoic attitude that can come off as a quiet arrogance. Friendly, but it takes time to make friends. There is however one obvious difference. I’m sure over time it will continue to erode, but in Minnesota there is an undercurrent of humility in regards to wealth. A feeling of guilt that comes from having more than others. Growing up I watched as my older relatives died in old, rundown farmhouses. Taking to their graves invisible multi-million dollar estates.

I expected this type of hidden wealth in Stockholm. Of course it’s not as bad as say Miami, but still going out in Blasieholmen is alienating. So many over-dressed people, so many Porsches, the posh district is overwhelming. What happened to Scandinavian Socialism? In reality there is more hidden wealth in Prague. The older people who own several buildings of flats dress in flannel, and are difficult to distinguish from the homeless that carry plastic bags from Hypernova. The Russians and Germans drive the Beemers in Prague.

 

Notes from a cell phone (chronological order):

He was big and blonde and had a dumb look on his face like the farm kids I went to school with.

It would be easy and simple. I could work and make a good living and go out with the Swedish girls and just be happy and sit down by the water or in the parks. It’s beautiful and quiet.

The Swiss sing along to a song about a swan. The singer sounds like he is spitting out a lung.

As I’m walking back I realize I’m not going to get that much sleep. Where am I going to find sleep tomorrow? I was hoping to find a bed tonight.

When she says she doesn’t believe in evolution I know I’m in trouble.

Japan was expensive if you were stupid, or wanted to make it that way. Stockholm is just flat out expensive.

Older women invite me to follow them to Village in the center. It seems to be the most popular club in the city. I can tell because the bouncers are dicks and the girls go in without me. It doesn’t bother me though, that’s the way these things work.

I hear an Elliot smith song that I play again as soon as it finishes and ignore the girl as she continues talking.

On Saturday I wake and take a collection of Hemmingway short stories to the waterfront in Gamla Stan – Old Town. The smell of the air reminds me of my hometown. It gets on everything, and stays in the air, but is never stale like the lakes can be. I meet the girl around two; she looks like an American, blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. We buy alcohol at a Systembolaget, one of the State run liquor-stores. We go back to her place; she showers, and with the towel on we make-out on the bed, before her friends, Anton and Victor, come over.

The bars are full of people watching Eurovision. I try to maintain my buzz on wine that is too expensive for me. Her and I leave the bar and drink cocktails that she buys for me. She leaves me when a friend calls. I’m pissed off, and I wait until Anton and Victor pick me up. They take me to a heavy metal bar. The music sucks, people have long hair, and I’m out of place, but we meet up with three girls. One is attractive but older, and another has a cute face and blonde hair, but a body like an elephant. I step outside and eat hotdogs from a street-vendor. They meet me at the curb, and we decide to go back to the older one’s flat. The cute girl with big legs tries to convince Victor to leave with her.

We take two separate cabs to her place. I get stuck paying a fifty-dollar taxi ride. I have no cash, and it’s just my luck the taxis in Sweden take credit cards. At her apartment the older girl makes blueberry smoothies with a strong vodka taste. I’m worked after half. Everyone takes turns playing CDs and showing YouTube videos. By four, people are falling asleep and I follow the big-boned blonde into a loft bed above the stereo. We talk, and she has me climb down and change the music several times. She won’t let me kiss her, but sleeps close to me with her head on my chest, and her leg wrapped around me. In the morning I tell her she is a ‘good girl’, and playfully and lightly slap her ass. She is too tired to understand what I’m saying and falls back asleep. I get a nosebleed waiting for the metro and swallow a lot of blood.

My twelve year old, single-malt, Scottish whiskey, gets thrown out at the security checkpoint in the airport. I’m tired and fall asleep in a chair, which is good, but like a drunk Swedish teenager told me on my first night, ‘The Swedish girls aren’t sluts, but if you come to Sweden and don’t get laid, you’ve failed.’ And as I’m leaving, I feel that’s true.

 

Lovers and the smell of weed line the way along the Vltava late at night. I get drunk, and find the ruins of an old church. Something they haven’t reconstructed or urbanized. The arch has sunk several feet into the ground so that it only comes up to my chin. On the outside, the disintegrating red brick and plaster is exposed. My feet sink into the ground. The construction site has been set, but the work has not begun. It looks like one part of the building is being used as a school. It’s a school as old as my country.

I walk around the outside, pace back and forth. But a building can only entertain you for so long, even one as old and beautiful as this.

The girls in Bohemia Bagel are talking about finding billions of dollars of oil off the coast in Brazil, sugarcane ethanol, and US corn subsidies: all this bullshit that I don’t need to hear this early. ‘The US is fucked up,’ she says. That’s a nice vest you’re wearing. How are you enjoying Prague? Some guys are talking about McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches, and how filling the egg part is. ‘It’s powder, no egg,’ I mumble to myself.

I’ve been daydreaming for so long in this city that when English breaks through it just puts me in a bad mood. Normally, you don’t have to listen to the conversations on the bus, on the street, or on television; for all you know there is brilliance in what is being said. Not knowing is all you need.

We have a poor reputation. There are the Americans that come abroad, and don’t shut up about the States, they compare everything, and never miss a chance to mention how great it is back home. Then there are the Americans that come abroad, shit all over the country, and sow Canadian flags on their backpacks. Everything is wrong back home, while they occupy their days travelling through Europe, spending money they never earned.

It takes me hours before I realize I’m legitimately ill. You drink enough absinth and wine, smoke enough cigarettes, and you become accustomed to a constant sore throat.

I’m thankful when the following day is cloudy with slight rain. I couldn’t take being sick for another sunny day.

 

At a party a friend hands me a sheet of paper. It’d s photocopy of the dictionary listing for the word fuck.

“I brought it for my student today. Do you want the copy for yours?”

“Sure, some might like it.”

It’s two pages long and I skim over it. The word fuckable catches my eye. As it’s synonyms it lists: “approachable, bedworthy, punchable, rompworth, and shaftable.”

Punchable makes me laugh out loud.

 

The city of Prague is a township divided into parts, and when people come to visit Prague they mostly stay in Prague 1, Prague 7 by the castle, or parts of Prague 2. In these areas you can find all of the things that have made Prague famous: Old Town Square, Prague Castle, Wenceslas Square, the National Theatre, the Jewish Quarter and its Cemetery, the Dancing House, the gardens, and the parks. But these are only parts of Prague, and rather boring ones at that.

If Brooklyn is the beating heart of New York, than Žižkov is the beating heart of this city. It’s in Prague 3, east of the city centre, and is something of an enigma for being so close to the centre. It doesn’t really have historic buildings, unless you count the Prague TV Tower, which is famous for overwhelming the Prague skyline, and having giant babies crawling up the side. The modern development is minimal, and most of the area’s flats are before reconstruction: communist cement apartment blocks, and dumpy houses. It won’t always be this way, but for the time being it’s unique in its utilitarianism.

I read once that Žižkov has more bars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. I don’t know if it’s true, or if it was true, but I can say that the amount of bars is irrational. Not only one on every street corner, but one or two in between, and up the side streets, in the parks, and even in the bottom floors of houses. When I lived there, it was full of graffiti, dirty, conventionally ugly, populated by students and blue-collar workers, and far from suburban. When I tell Czechs that I lived in Žižkov they usually respond with, “It is full of very many Gypsies,” which is only partially true. I don’t think I’ve ever loved living anywhere, as much as I loved living in Žižkov.

This place is a disease, Hllavani Nadrazi, the main train station, Ali Baba and his den of forty thieves, the Czech hell-hole. Nothing really terrible has happened to me today, but I still hate this bitch. A pigeon is hopping close enough to me that I could kick it. What the fuck are these birds doing indoors? I’m suddenly overcome with fear that a bird will shit on me. I search the ceiling. That would happen here.

They have been trying to fix the station by putting in a trashy little shopping center, but that won’t help. They need to eat the loss, place dynamite, and blow it up. The train station in Berlin looks like a modern airport. It puts Prague to shame. The one in Paris isn’t nice, but it’s large, somewhat clean, and safe. The safety in Paris was from the army presence. Men walking around with machine guns would probably also scare the Czechs into behaving.

I watch as two girls tear up a McDonald’s bag and set it on the ground so they can sit down. My father had his wallet stolen the first time he was in Prague, but he’s an easy mark, an obvious American with his billfold in his back-pocket. The small police station that was planted in the train station was boarded up like a bunker. Inside was full of smoke, mountains of ash in the ashtrays, and pornography on the computer screens. The one proactive thing I have seen the Hllavani Nadrazi police do is beat the shit out of a homeless person with billy-clubs. It was late at night, and I was returning to the city, when I saw the police descend on him. Literally, throwing him out the glass doors. I then noticed another homeless person slumped against a support column with blood running down his bald head and his eyes closed. The police didn’t do that one.

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