We were back to square one on the apartment hunt and time was running out. We redoubled our search efforts. Eventually, we made contact with a middle-aged man named Charles. Charles had the look and gait of a retired tennis player. He had bushy eyebrows, cropped salt and pepper hair. He wore a brightly colored polo shirt and white shorts whose length suggested a heyday in the 1970s. It’s also very possible he rocked the patented sock-sandal combination, which several sources have assured me is a veritable fashion abomination, but is an all-too-common sight amongst middle-aged Czech men. Charles was the liaison for an elderly woman who owned a spare apartment in her building located in Prague 3, not far from the neighborhood of Vinohrady. It was located just down the street from the green line Metro stop, Jiřího z Podebrad (phonetically pronounced – bear with me here – something akin to yizh-ee-ohz poe-dee-brahd).
Exiting the Metro station, we came out onto a long, bench-lined green space leading to a unique looking church with a large clock built into its tower. To our rear was the tram-lined street, Vinohradska, lined with classic, multicolored Prague architecture. This neighborhood was clearly more residential than the one at Námêstí Republiky. There were no instantly recognizable landmarks or monuments drawing throngs of tourists to this part of town (though we soon learned the Prague TV tower was in nearby Žižkov). The area seemed simultaneously bustling and calm. A few pubs and restaurants were immediately apparent. At a street corner was a potraviny (imagine a Kwik-E-Mart run my Vietnamese immigrants). It seemed like the perfect place to live.
Charles said to meet us in front of the taxi stand adjacent to the Metro stop. There he was as promised. We shook hands and he led us on literally like a two minute walk to the apartment. At first glance, it didn’t appear that remarkable, especially compared to the splendor of some other facades just across the street. The lock to the interior stairwell required an old-fashioned skeleton key. Led inside, we marveled at the detailed vine-like designs on the white tile and the elegant wrought ironwork of the railing.
Perhaps that is the greatest distinction to be made between modern architectural achievements and the defining characteristics of surviving examples of European classicism. So much of today’s architecture comes with the readymade slogan of “Bigger! Better! Stronger!” Look no further than the rise of the skyscraper or the international pissing match China has been engaging in to demonstrate their economic ascendancy. See the skyline of Shanghai or do a Wikipedia search for the longest bridges in the world. No, the thing that impresses me most about Czech architecture is the dedication to craftsmanship. The buildings in Prague aren’t very tall or flashy, but even a cursory glance reveals the painstaking detail that went into every shape and curve. They are like livable sculptures.
The bridges are no different. Likewise, the Charles Bridge only covers the Vltava River, so it’s not winning any records for length, but it remains famous and special for the ageless detail the architects, artisans, and artists put into its creation. It endures through the centuries, a bridge that crosses the gap between its own myth and creation.
This flat was on the first floor. The door opened unto a sparsely decorated common area. There were no hallways. Rather, from the common area there were three doors and a fourth opening that led into the kitchen. Each door had a rectangular shaped insert of stained glass. The kitchen had a gas burning stove, an oven, and an assortment of vintage 70s era plates, glasses, and cups. Lots of cabinets and storage space. Steve spotted and coveted the metallic French press coffee maker. To the left of the entrance was one bedroom, the smallest. A blue curtain hung from the window, giving the whole room a subtle tint. The window looked out on a lush green area. Two single beds had been pushed together, which was a bit strange.
The two bedrooms on the right were both larger and approximately the same in size. Each had an overabundance of small beds stashed around the perimeter of the room. These rooms looked out onto the street below. They also had balcony access. The three of us had a mini-conference, and I think there was the feeling among us that we had caught a break of extraordinary luck. We told Charles we’d take it, who then led us up another flight of stairs to the lair of the old woman who’d be our landlord. I don’t remember much about her other than she was very old and white-haired. I could have easily envisioned broomsticks and black cauldrons hiding just out of view. She spoke in Czech with Charles, explaining her ground rules, which basically summed up to, “No noise, no parties.” We quickly agreed, signed the lease, and the place was ours!
And just like that, it was time to move. The month long TEFL certification course had come to an end. My two roommates in the panelaks of Stodulky were moving on to greener pastures. I myself was going from the boondocks to the heart of town and couldn’t have been more excited. I arranged for a taxi to come pick me up, somehow managing to pronounce Přecechtělova to the woman on the line. I lugged my bags downstairs and climbed into the cab. Upstairs, I had mentally tried pronouncing JZP, knowing in advance I would have to. Looking at the driver with a sort of helpless expression, my first attempt was predictably pathetic. I can’t really describe the look he gave me: a mixture of wry amusement and utter confusion. After a second butchering (yih-zee-oh zee podey broad), the lightbulb went off in his eyes.
“Ah! Jiřího z Poděbrad!”
“Ano! Děkuji,” I said, filled with gratitude and relief.
Unpacking didn’t take long. None of us had much stuff, though Brian had been lugging an acoustic guitar across Europe with him. One of those first days we went to Anděl where there was a large Tesco in order to buy various supplies and decorative touches. Of all the things we got that day, the only thing that still stands out in my mind is a dart board that Brian ended up mounting on his bedroom wall.
A few days after our move, we took a weekend trip to Berlin. We returned as a trio of circus performers. Coincidentally, we bumped into Charles upon exiting our train in Holešovice. It seemed both strange and cool to see him there, like a good omen. In the free time we had before we were to embark on our new careers as English teachers, we took to juggling. Brian was already a skilled juggler, whereas Steve and I were novices, so we spent hours in his room practicing. The most frustrating thing to a beginning juggler isn’t the prospect of dropping the balls – that will happen constantly. Rather, there is this unnerving feeling you get when the first two balls are in midair and you throw up the third. The overriding impulse is to catch the falling first ball – but no! – the cycle must continue, so like a hot potato it gets tossed back into the air. The tricky part is controlling that fourth throw, which often became an errant Hail Mary toss to keep the chains moving. During those early stages, it doesn’t feel like juggling. It doesn’t feel natural. It feels like you’re always one step behind and trying desperately to catch up.
We settled into the new place nicely and it quickly felt like home. We took turns making meals in the kitchen, hung out in one another’s rooms, and began exploring the surrounding neighborhood. To our delight, we discovered just minutes away was Riegrovy Sady, the large park and outdoor beer garden. Many glorious afternoons and evenings were spent there. Often, in those early days, we’d hop on Facebook and invite all our new friends to join us in a game of Ultimate Frisbee with the prospect of ice cold Gambrinus and multiple games of foosball at the garden to follow.
School started, and suddenly we were waking up at 6 am to shower, shave, and rush to the nearest transport in order to make it to early morning classes somewhere in the city. By the end of that first week, we were all worn out and Steve was bed-ridden that whole weekend. Visitors were a regular thing. It seemed someone was always dropping by. One of Brian’s old friends, Scott, arrived in Prague for a handful of days after spending the previous months teaching in Saudi Arabia. The restrictive culture there (zero alcohol, woman’s faces covered by burqas) had him itching to let loose for a few days. Prague was the perfect place for that.
After Scott left to return home to his native New Jersey, the three of us had the idea to have a housewarming party. Now, personally, I’ve never been the type who does theme parties or plays drinking games. I’ve rarely dressed up for Halloween after the age of thirteen. Nevertheless, upon returning from an excursion to the Prague market near Vltavska with a troika of funny looking hats in our possession, Brian thought it would be appropriate to have a funny looking hat party. Everyone we knew plus everyone they knew was invited.
There were all manner of hats: bombardier hats, French berets, Russian ushankas, stetsons, skull caps, trilbies, fedoras, cloche flapper hats, flat caps, among others. There may have even been a sombrero. Some people got pretty creative. It wasn’t until a bit later when I met a fellow writer named Mike whose style made use of the porkpie hat.
It so happened that the timing of our party coincided with the seasonal grape harvest, which meant there was burčák for sale on the city streets. And in the square of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord (Czech: Kostel Nejsvětějšího Srdce Páně), there were stands selling the stuff in clear plastic 1L soda bottles. Burčák is a young wine that has been only partially fermented. It looks a bit like pale orange juice, and to be honest, it gets you fucked up. We bought several bottles. The party was a joyous, riotous occasion. New friendships were forged, acquaintances made, then forgotten, and remade at a later date at another pub or party. Brian broke out the acoustic and led a powwow of girls into a rendition of “Hallelujah,” and other assorted crowd pleasers. The crowd swelled into all three bedrooms, the common area, and the kitchen. People crowded out onto the balconies to smoke. It got really damn loud to where I remember shouting for people to shut the fuck up. I don’t, however, remember going to bed.
What I do remember is at some point in the following days we received a message from Charles calling an urgent meeting. We knew right away it had to do with the noise of the party. At worst, we figured we’d have to go upstairs to the old woman’s flat, apologize profusely, and swear on our lives to never have another party there. When Brian spoke with Charles, he informed us that we were being evicted. We had one week to find a new place to live.
To be concluded in Part 3…