Prague, Dresden, Boulder, Kansas City, St. Petersburg – 23
As I’m cleaning my apartment I find a small notebook that was left by the person before me. The first thing I notice when I open it are the pages full of numbers. Some have names beside them, others have countries. The hand writing is small, neat, and clean.
In the front of the notebook there is a poem about 9-11, a rant to a newspaper, and a laundry list of neo-conservative national actions, including withdrawing from the UN and NATO and reinstating the Monroe Doctrine. This little number is also in the front:
“As an American who has lived in Europe for more than half of my 45 years. For those who ask if Americans should identify the problems which cause the widespread hatred of America in the Muslim world I can say this: I, and I think most Americans, can not be bothered. I would only say that America does what it dreams is in its interest. America’s interests are freedom, democracy, peace and wealth. Those who hate us for them can go to hell and we should help them.”
Apparently people like this do exist. And if I knew they existed, I would never have guessed we would have shared this flat.
As a result of applying for a Czech Visa, I have been to Dresden three times in the past five months. Each time I’ve had only a couple of hours so I can’t say I understand the city, but you can feel it there: the people are nicer than in Prague, but I wouldn’t call them friendly, simply tolerant, which is all you can ever hope for in Prague.
There is a little bit of woe. They’ve been unlucky in the way things broke apart, but the city has been rebuilt well. Certain parts show the history of Communism, others the War, but it’s clean except for the graffiti. Many of the buildings in the center are constructions of new and scorched black bricks. I was told the black bricks are originals from the firebombing. It looks like patchwork. The blackened bricks being picked up and placed wherever, with new white stones interwoven when needed. The people, on the whole, don’t seem to be attractive. Many are overweight with plain faces, their t-shirts too tight so that it shows their stomach stretching out in front of them. They dress better than the Czechs, but only marginally.
I go to bed around midnight; my alarm goes off two and a half hours later. There is that moment of indecision before I pull myself up, eat a muesli bar, and drink a red bull. The Czech foreign police- my visa finally came through, now it’s my turn to stand in line to have it validated. I’ve only heard horror stories. Even a good visit wipes out an entire day. I feel nervous; I have something that borders on a fear of lines.
The first tram comes a minute early and speeds off as I’m an arm’s length away. At the Florenc metro stop I can’t find the correct bus and take a taxi. I’m in line behind a circle of Mormons by four a.m. They ask me to join them. I hesitate. They have on the traditional Mormon missionary dress, sans bike helmet: black slacks, white button ups, ties, and name tags; some have back-packs. I accept, it will be another three and half-hours before the doors even open.
“Where are you from?” they ask.
“I’m from Minnesota too,” one of the kids with glasses says.
There is pushing at the front of the line that is already several hundred thick.
“A woman came around with a list before and we put our names down. I don’t think it really matters; they didn’t work here or anything. The police aren’t going to come and put everyone in order.”
“Honza, is there a Honza here?”
There is more pushing from the front. The whole confrontation is being orchestrated by some big, greasy Ukrainians/Russians. It’s easier to call them Russians, more slang names.
“It looks like they are trying to put people in order from the list.”
“No one’s going to care about that list,” I say.
The crowd surges backwards. The Ruskos are driving into the crowd with their shoulders down. The Mormons are big Midwesterners, and put up a good fight, but there aren’t enough of us. A Russian steps out of the crowd and pushes me. I smack his hands away and he backs up. I raise my hands, palms out in defeat, and say ‘I’m going.’ I move out of the line and he doesn’t try to continue pushing me. I watch as the Vietnamese people next to me are being literally shoved down the small flight of stairs behind us.
From outside the line, the Mormons and I watch the same fights over and over again as the Reds find everyone on their list and put them in order. They look out for their own, and the front is full of Russians. Most show up while the line is being formed.
“If they do ever get to us, you can say that you’re with the church and join us.”
I don’t have the right dress, but amazingly after an hour of pushing the Russians actually find our spot in line. We are hundreds of people away from the door, but there is relief in finding a place. At six, the police come and put everyone into files of two. The line stretches for a hundred meters around the corner. We start moving at seven-thirty, and are inside the building by nine-thirty. I’m number 597; visa registration starts at 500, after two hours of being open they are on number 520.
The waiting room is over-crowded and muggy. There aren’t enough chairs so I stand. I take numerous walks, usually joined by members of the Church. They are required to travel with another missionary at all times so there are always three of us. The numbers move slowly, but the missionaries are good company. They speak Czech well, and have a number of entertaining stories. Their Czech Republic is very different from mine. They never try to convert me; instead they have a genuine curiosity about how I live.
“Is the night life very good here? I feel it’s really quiet in the Czech Republic.”
“It’s very good, but it starts late, and you have to know where to go. There is a party every night of the week if you are looking for one,” I say. I offer to show them some of the bars, but they explain that they have to wake up at six-thirty, and go to bed at ten-thirty while on the mission.
“Do you have a lot of one night stands?” the boy from Minnesota asks.
“No, not really. I mean some, but usually it’s not one night.”
“Two-or-three night stands?” He asks. In different lives we could have both found happiness, had our situations been reversed.
There is a fear that usually comes when you’re leaving a place. A fear of spending those last days alone. The last night can be low-key, but it’s horrible to go quietly in the days before. There will be a period of peace when you are home, and you have to be tired to enjoy that.
I spend the last days with a twenty-two year-old former student who is small, sweet, and cute. She likes me, perhaps too much, but we tell the other that we are glad for the time that we spent together, and we take conciliation in the possibilities of the future.
We walk around the City during the day. From the top of Petrin Hill, I can look down on the City. Prague is a red city. The roofs of the buildings create a sea of red, dotted with green from iodized bronze, which stretches until the communist housing projects sitting just below the horizon line.
When it rains outside her hair curls into blonde waves. They frame her dark steel-blue eyes, making her look young, innocent, and Czech. Spending time with her is a very nice way to leave a city.
On Sunday morning I left Prague; I don’t know how long I will be gone. Before leaving I wrote messages to myself in a beer garden in Vyšehrad:
Tomorrow I will leave for the States. For a long time now I’ve been jealous of the people that can continue to call Prague their home. I will miss this place very much, but it’s not the first time I’ve left. The foreigners in Prague are transient; it’s a stop on the way to somewhere else. But I felt that Prague was home the first time I moved here three years ago. And I felt it again when I returned to it in September. Each time after, stepping off the plane whispering to myself, ‘welcome home.’
Everyone comes here hoping to find something. This is what I know as I leave: I’m 23 and my hands shake, I enjoy teaching, I have several minor addictions, I like to read and I like finance, I like some drugs and I don’t like others, I sleep best in the middle of the day and I like the sunset but hate the sunrise, I drink coffee with cream and no sugar, I fuck up every relationship but it’s not so simple, I have an almost constant feeling of nausea, and in the mornings if I’m not too hung-over I feel euphoric.
When I come back it will probably be under different circumstances. This may be the end of my life as a teacher. It felt like child’s play, a year of vacation, something fun every night. It’s probably for the best, that borrowed time was starting to catch up with me.
I’ve felt in transit these past weeks. I spent time at home in Minnesota. I was in a mood to be left alone, and was. In Denver I visited with relatives and college friends. It was also quiet, and I wanted that less.
I picked up a truck in Colby, Kansas, and drove it across the state to Kansas City for work training. Next week I begin a sales job in Illinois.
The Western part of Kansas is flat and empty, even more flat than Southern Minnesota. The East gets greener, and I drove in peace underneath the wind farms that cluster along I-70. Many of the turbines are built on the base of hills next to the road so that all you can see are the blades spinning level with the car.
To live out of a bag is pretty natural, but it’s frustrating carrying it from the car. I pass time in my hotel room watching too much television, and eating at nearby chain restaurants with a book. I drive now, when I would have walked in Prague. But even if I wanted to walk, I couldn’t. The streets are too busy with traffic to move across.
“The girls here are pretty, but something is not right,” I tell my friend, as we walk through a farmer’s market in Boulder. “They’re in good shape,” I pause and scan the crowd, “but I remember them being more attractive.”
“Like in Europe?” Sarcasm. He is sick of hearing about it.
“Uh yeah, but I meant Minnesota. It was a nice surprise how many cute girls I saw. These girls have better bodies though.”
“Pretty face, big body.”
“Hm… yeah, that might be true. I’ve known a few.”
I look again at the girls. They’re dressed casually, sun-dresses or high shorts with a t-shirt, clothes that show thin legs, tanned red instead of brown from the high altitude and dry climate.
“They are pretty though,” I say.
The way I remember Kansas City is as a physically dry city. The City of Fountains, and the first time I visited the City there was a draught and the fountains sat empty. I thought the City was ugly, hot, and brown. Now it’s green, with better bars, and girls that are prettier than I remember.
The air in the farm fields outside Kansas City is wet. I feel like I’m suffocating. I try to stay up-right; it would be bad for the youngest guy to go to his knees. Despite the moisture in the air the ground is dusty, and kicks up light brown dirt onto my Levi’s and Tiger shoes. I’m inappropriately dressed. Not well enough for one half, and not farmer enough for the other. A pair of Dockers and brown shoes would help.
As we were driving to the farm plots, they tell me about Chiggers. Tiny bugs, too small to see, that burrow into the skin and suck blood until they’re full and drop out. I spray Off! along my beltline and ankles to prevent chiggers from getting into my boxers and up my legs.
“You itch until you bleed,” they tell me.
I’m forced to exit on highway US-36.
“There is water on the road,” a tan and skinny construction worker with a sun-blister on his lip, tells me in Macon. “Go south, and then take 24 east.”
In a small town called Monroe City I stop for gas.
“Hi, does 24 eventually meet up with 36?” I ask the middle-aged woman working behind the counter in BP.
She pauses for a moment. “It joins up ahead.” She motions to the left. “I’m not too good with directions. I’ve never been anywhere besides St. Louis. People have been asking for help all day because they’re routing them through here.”
I thank her and go out to the car. I follow her directions and become lost in the countryside. I stumble dumbly for nearly an hour until US-36 appears out of nowhere like a mirage.
I’m being taken through the farmland of Illinois. In the acres of corn, sometimes beans, you get used to your reflection and color in the side-view mirror. When I drive I’m stirred from caffeine. Too much and the caffeine makes me sick enough that I can’t sleep until the early hours of the morning. The hotels all have the constant hum of an air conditioner. This one has a white bedspread. It’s the same room, different town, same breakfast, but a different television set.
From a Cruise through the Baltic:
In Russia, without a Visa, we can’t stay in St. Petersburg at night. We’re given ‘shore passes’ in the morning for our tour, and we return with the group in the afternoon.
It’s foggy in St. Petersburg, and makes the city seem small as the buildings disappear next to each other. There is a smell in the air like boiled vegetables and dirty rain. The outside of the buildings are streaked black. Our tour guide is sweet and talks quickly. When we cross the street she stands in front of our group and says, ‘I’ll take the hit,’ as we force traffic to stop at the crosswalk.
My allergies are acting up and I take a Zyrtec. In the Winter Palace Hermitage, I fall asleep while standing. I stare at Rembrandts, Davids, Van Goghs, and Davincis, and all I can think about is sleeping. The Palace is beautiful in an opulent way, with green and gold, instead of the traditional yellow, coated walls. I drift in and out for the tour, and recover at lunch with espresso and vodka shots, in a former embassy where angels in chariots ride across the ceiling.
During the day I read Palahniuk’s Rant in the ship’s library. At night I play craps in the casino, and get drunk on the vodka-sodas they bring me. In the computer lab I can’t log onto the wifi, and I kick the desk until I fall over backwards. A server from the next room comes in, and tells me she has called security. I threaten to give her rabies.
My father grabs my arm. “Look out the window,” he says. “You could make this trip a hundred times and not have a clear day.” I stand up and move to the right side of the plane.
Below is Greenland. The mountains are white, with brown roots trailing out from the center and into the ocean. Icebergs surround the shore in the water.
I take my seat, but people continue to stand and look outside. After another ten minutes I stand up again. I only see clouds now, until I realize that I’m staring at an ice sheet so white that the only way to recognize it is from the slits of translucent ice that occasionally cut through the opaque white. It looks clean and alive, but there’s nothing living down there.