As we recover from the holidays, The Inclusive will feature the best pieces from 2011. This gives you an opportunity to read some pieces you might not have otherwise seen, and it allows our staff to, y'know, hang out for a bit.
This piece was originally published October 11th. Staff writer Kasia Pilat has shared with us many experiences as she picked up and moved to Europe (click here to read the series). In this piece, she makes the move from her extended family in her native Poland and strikes out on her own to find...something, that's for sure.
"But why Prague?" my aunt Bianka, asked. "Why not Warsaw? What's wrong with Warsaw?"
This question is one I've been asked several times now. Right, why not stay in Warsaw? You're Polish, Kasia, you speak the language. This is where everyone in your family, for as far back as you could possibly go, comes from. Giving my answers to these questions, especially to a native Varsovian, seems...insufficient. It felt like it would be, somehow, perverse to list off the reasons why a 24-year-old spontaneous expat doesn't want to live in the capital city of her ancestors' country. It seemed unfair to divulge the near-revolting attitudes of Warsaw's inhabitants that I've witnessed again and again. Sure, every major city has its uglier sides, but how does one explain that Warsaw, more than many of the cities I've visited, seems to have its ugly mask welded to its face?
"You donkey," a man of about 65 or so remarks over his shoulder to a homeless woman occupying the bus seats behind him. She'd taken up two places, one for her and one for, unmistakably, every single possession she'd ever owned, on the seat next to her. "Instead of giving someone a seat you're sitting there like a donkey. You're not moving. Like a donkey," he pressed, before turning back to face forward, his nose peaking higher than Kilimanjaro.
"Keep knocking into my seat," said a guy about my age as he turned to confront the elderly gentleman behind him, again on the bus, "and I'll knock you down."
One of the first few times we'd started to hang out, Andrew explained to me some of the Czech characteristic traits. Chief among them, they were basically non-confrontational people, he explained. They had a hard time standing up for themselves, unlike their Slovakian and, I suppose, Polish neighbors.
But this "something to prove" attitude I'd become so familiar with in Warsaw wasn't, on its own, enough to push me towards Prague. More than anything else it was the people that I met in Prague, in a relatively short span of time (and not only because I was attracted to them), that made me want to leave Warsaw's negativity behind. So I began sending out applications to jobs located in Prague, to see if I might have a reason to relocate and capture more of what I'd only periodically tasted. I applied to everything from a ridiculously high-paid English editor position at the ridiculously corporate company, Deloitte, to receptionist posts at English-speaking Universities based in Prague for which I should seem overly qualified. Some of my reasons for applying were to actually find gainful employment, but, if I'm being honest, these applications and interviews were mainly just excuses for me to get to see Prague again. There was, and is, something about the city's moral fibers that mesh seamlessly with mine.
The week I visited Prague to interview with Deloitte (which, fortunately or not, proved ultimately fruitless), I was introduced to several of Andrew's friends who also studied photography at the same university in Opava. Like Andrew, not all of them were locals, but many of them traveled internationally to study there. There was the strikingly handsome Albert, from Denmark, who taught us the old Danish term for police ("stroimer"), and which we shouted late into the night as our response to every unexpected noise. There was Stanislav, from the Ukraine, who somehow earned the moniker "Stan is Love" for the night. There was even Jan, a local photographer who plans on studying in Istanbul and whose older brother studies something with a ridiculously involved and complicated title that I can't keep straight for the life of me at Harvard University.
One night we all congregated in the gorgeous open air of the Old Town's ancient Square for a free jazz festival concert at which one of John Coltrane's former musicians performed. Afterwards, following a quick pit stop for bottles of wine and beer and cigarettes, we gradually made our way down along the banks of Prague's central Vltava River to a strategically secluded spot. Of course, as happens whenever you bring alcohol together with a group of open-minded people aged 30 and under near any kind of body of water, the night ended with the inevitable skinny-dipping. If the authorities ever were to ask, though, that was definitely not us. That was a different group of drunken under-30-somethings.
Memorable moments like this seemed to inevitably infuse almost every one of my visits in Prague. Of course, not every day of each visit necessarily included romantic, moonlit nights full of wine and skinny-dipping, but the ones that did I just couldn't ignore. People often talk about "energy" in this near-mystic way. About how it has to be felt or experienced rather than rationally explained. I, too, admittedly, have no choice but to explain my infatuation with the city of Prague in this pseudo-hippy way: our energies just...match. ...Man. It was my visit back in mid-August (for yet another job interview and to see The National) that truly solidified my feelings. That visit made me want to go out and buy Prague and I matching promise rings. Is that lame? Whatever; It made me want to take Prague out behind the dumpster and get it pregnant.
The night after seeing The National (which I won't describe because if you've known me for even five minutes you're already sick of hearing me talk about The National), we went to a bar whose name roughly translates to "At Grandma's." I know what you're thinking: "Awww. I bet it's cozy and maybe has plastic on the furniture." But, trust me, this was nothing like being at your typical Bubby's. This bar was a local haunt of another one of Andrew's friends, Lucie, who is a beautiful, shy student of music with thick, dark hair and that fair, tanned, yet porcelain, complexion that most girls would kill for. She's also partially blind. Across the street from her apartment building this little hole-in-the-wall is unassumingly nestled under other apartment buildings and between a few other drinking establishments.
A few minutes in the cacophonous, brightly-lit-yet-smoky-haze of this place, though, and you realize what separates it from bars that, at first, seem just like it. Sure, most of these denizens are drinking monstrous mugs of Czech pilsener and chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette. (What typical Prague bar doesn’t have that?) They're emphatically discussing whatever it is you go to a bar to discuss, and they're laughing, but I can’t understand a word of any of it. Not because they were all speaking in Czech, but because they were all speaking in Czech sign language. (In case you're wondering, like I did, sign language is not an international language, but it instead alters from country to country. Did you know that? What? Oh, yeah, me too.)
Eventually, Andrew, Lucie, Andrew's sister Jo, who was visiting at the time, and I somehow found ourselves at a long table surrounded by about a dozen new friends who all spoke by signing and who all seemed to know each other. As if it wasn't already difficult enough for me to communicate my thoughts and ideas with people in Czech, now an entirely new element was added into the equation, quite literally within my own hands. On my right, Jo, who speaks Slovak, used my notebook and pen to write down questions and answers and maintain a steady flow of conversation. Andrew, down the table to my left, mouthed words and expressions in Czech and used patience and persistence to his advantage. How I managed to put even one idea across is beyond me. And who knows, between the hefty mugs of pilsener and the shots of Fernet, perhaps I didn't. For all I know I might have just sat there grinning stupidly in wonder at the seemingly limitless capabilities found in human interaction. Regardless, it was revealed that Viktor and Martin, two congenial, deaf, soccer-playing twins we met, would be having their 26th birthday in just a short number of days. Suddenly I had significant reason to extend my stay in Prague.
The following day, heads still buzzing from new forms of dialogue and new friends, Andrew, Jo, and I headed around the corner from the John Lennon memorial wall to a park called Kampa, so named by the Spanish soldiers who camped there during the Battle of White Mountain in the 17th century. We set up camp under a pear tree, still bearing its ripe, late-summer fruits. Jo climbed up the tree and knocked down a few crisp pears for us. We sipped our beers and smoked a few cigarettes, lounging in the comfortable mid-afternoon sunlight. We befriended the group of people with British accents about ten feet away, who liked Jo's idea so much they too climbed into the tree for prizes. Eventually, we noticed a man in his late-40s, in a clean, white Ross Perot campaign t-shirt and cargo shorts, sauntering over to us. Jo and I exchanged glances. Andrew had some, let's say -- unconventional -- friends.
"Do you have any rolling papers?" the man asked Andrew, and sat down. They began talking in Czech, while Jo and I watched between additional bouts of conversation with our other friendly neighbors. After meticulously rolling and lighting his cigarette, and explaining he got the t-shirt from a friend as a gift while studying at UC Berkeley, he passed it to Andrew, who then passed it to Jo. Her face belied her confusion; she could roll her own cigarettes. "It's weed," Andrew murmured. "Take it."
Later, Jo asked where Andrew had met that strange, philosophic older man with the unintentionally ironic t-shirt.
"What do you mean?" he responded. "I've never seen him before."
"Oh!" said Jo, "I thought you knew each other!"
"Of course we knew each other," replied Andrew, waving two fingers out and back in front of his eyes, signifying eye contact. "But I didn't know him."
Next time: From one Warsaw to Another.
(Image courtesy of the author)