The Prague Apartment: The Kung Fu Palace

The clock was ticking. September was quickly coming to a close. My roommates and I had less than a week before we’d be out on the street. It was a chaotic rush to find new accommodations, especially since the three of us were teaching by this point, which didn’t leave a lot of extra time in the day to do apartment hunting.

A strong strain of utter disbelief and resentment powered our resolve. In spite of our total pooch-screwing of a golden situation, Charles offered to show us a few other properties he knew about. For those of you who haven’t read either Part 1 or Part 2, Charles appeared to be a well-connected, possibly shady independent real estate guy. We took to mythologizing him almost immediately. Now that I’ve seen the series finale of Breaking Bad, I realize he bore a strong resemblance to the actor Robert Forster, if you removed his perma-sad demeanor and made him sound like Jaromir Jagr.

My compatriot roommates went to visit two of these places. I couldn’t go because I had classes scheduled at the time. From what they related to me afterwards, they were both shitholes. One, I seem to remember, was located in the nether regions between Karlovo náměstí (the aptly named Charles Square, a busy transport hub, and location of the First Defenestration of Prague) and Vyšehrad, a rocky fortified hillside and the final resting place of many famous Czechs.

It would make for great drama if I said we were supremely discouraged, distraught, and feeling hopeless. Kafka would likely approve. Instead, the compressed time frame invigorated our resolve. Brian made contact with an actual, certified real estate agent that was showing an available property in Jiřího z Poděbrad. This was news to our ears since that meant it was within walking distance and we had come to realize we were already attached to the neighborhood more so than any one building, apartment, or room could ever be. On this occasion, the three of us would be able to go see it.

We arrived on a street called Perunova in advance of the agent and scoped out the surroundings. Unlike the apartment on Slavikova, which had a lot of foot traffic and cars passing through, Perunova was a thin arterial vein branching off the main thoroughfare of Vinohradska. It was quiet and firmly residential, yet there were two pub/restaurants and a wine bar within a couple buildings of one another. Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants bookended the block. One interesting aspect of Prague’s city planning is the use of perimeter blocks. That is to say: four separate streets enclose a large central space and the buildings are built along the perimeter of those streets, leaving the space open within. If you’re fond of gawking at Google Maps satellite views, it looks like orange-brown clusters of squares and rectangles that were arranged randomly and at funny angles. There are no gaps between buildings and they’re all approximately the same height. You’d like this would lead to a uniform monotony, but each facade has its own personality and no two buildings are alike. Except for the panelaks, of course.

The building was a shade of pale green. Imagine a stick of spearmint gum and you have an idea. To the left of the entrance was the aforementioned wine bar, which was like a narrow grotto that also served tapas. To the right was a sort of textile sewing shop with spools of yarn and string. The door frames were made of stained wood. A red and white sign indicated that beyond that door was the Wushu Centrum, a martial arts school dedicated to the finer points of Shaolin kung fu and other related forms of ass beating.

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Incidentally, that’s me in the lower right hand corner.

The real estate agent arrived and gestured us through the entrance. We stepped into an enclosed hallway. Up and to the right was another door, which led inside the building. Just beyond the enclosure was a small shed-like building, which was the entrance to the Wushu Centrum.

All dialogue during these first crucial moments have been lost to the sands of time. However, I feel pretty confident the conversation went something like this:

“Holy shit! This place is right above a Kung Fu palace.”

“That’s so bomb.”

The real estate likely snapped her fingers and led us up two flights of stairs to the door on the right. There were three locks to undo, including a monumental bastard that literally bolted the door to the floor. The key for that one was shaped like a miniature brass trident. Once inside, we were greeted with hardwood floors and an already narrow hallway made even narrower by a table filled with crap planted right next to the entrance and a portable coat rack taking up space on the lefthand side. Two bedrooms were on the right side, with a toilet room between them. At the end of this hallway was the shower room. We ooh’ed and aah’ed at the heated towel rack. To the left, the flat opened up into the kitchen and living room. The kitchen had plenty of counter space, but we asked, “Just where the hell is the refrigerator?” The left side wall was an entire ecosystem of cabinets and drawers. The agent pulled at one of the handles to reveal a decent, albeit Euro-sized fridge within and the freezer located just below.

The living room had two white IKEA couches. A table in the corner had like an old 30 inch CRT Zenith sitting there collecting dust. The walls were decorated with postcard size vintage advertisements for old wines and aperitifs like Cocas des Incas and St. Raphael.

This is Steve. As you can plainly see, he has no body whatsoever.

This is Steve. As you can plainly see, he has no body whatsoever.

The third bedroom opened with a two door apparatus. And it was enormous. Clearly, this was the master bedroom, which made the other two rooms feel like servant’s quarters.

Like any apartment, the place had obvious pros and cons. Perhaps for another triad, the unequal room sizes would have been a problem. Steve and I, though not exactly altruistic, expressed indifference about having capsule sized rooms. The place had been recently renovated – unlike the place from which we were being evicted, which emanated the faded patina of bygone glory days. Unfortunately, the renovation reeked of IKEA. Clearly, someone had cut a few corners. The boiler in the shower room looked to be an antique 1977 edition whose reliability appeared questionable at best. The two smaller bedrooms had their vanilla charm, I suppose, including a cool vantage of the large-windowed Wushu Centrum below, but the one sharing a wall with the shower room inexplicably had a rectangular window installed at the ceiling level. This meant any time someone entered there in the middle of the night and turned on the light, the bedroom would subsequently light up like Christmas.

A view of the interior courtyard.

A view of the interior courtyard.

Our conference was in the hallway by the coat rack and brief. We decided to take the apartment. There wasn’t much to discuss really. We were pressed for time and it fit all our criteria, having been far and away better than the other places Charles had shown us. We loved the location, loved that we could invite our friends to come party at the Kung Fu Palace. I personally loved the color of the building. Steve and I proffered the large room to Brian, where he could twirl his fire staff and do other Brian-y things. We had two questions for the agent: how much and where do we sign?

It all happened rather quickly. We met the landlord of the building, a youthful lawyer named Martin. He had a very easygoing, hands-off disposition. He introduced us to Mr. Dvořák, the building superintendent. He was a soft-spoken man nearing or having already reached retirement. When I picture him now in my head I see flannel shirts and a mustache to rival William H. Taft. If we had any troubles with the flat, we were to contact him, despite his complete lack of English comprehension. Combined with our laughably bad Czech, this made for a few bewildering moments, especially when that aforementioned boiler finally gave out and needed replacing.

With the papers signed and fat stacks of Czech crowns paid to the real estate agent and to Martin, we were free to change residences at our convenience. Considering we had moved only a few weeks before, it isn’t like we had accumulated a lot of things in the meantime. Steve and I had the ambition to move all our stuff in one trip. The distance wasn’t far – merely around 0.6 kilometers – but we would be burdened with duffel bags, backpacks, laundry bags, and everything else that we owned and could pull, push, carry, and shoulder. A five minute walk was transformed into an epic twenty minute struggle. Indeed, though wheeled suitcases are a blessing in airports, they don’t travel very well over cobblestones. But we made it in one piece and began to unpack our meager possessions, which included the French press coffee maker that Steve decided to swipe.

Back at the old flat, Brian had sorted his things into a two trip affair. After the place was cleared out, we just needed to do some temporary fixing up of some cosmetic damages the walls had endured. Remember the dart board? Yeah… The board had been mounted on Brian’s bedroom wall with no protection around it. The walls were covered with plaster. If you’ve been to any type of sports bar, you must realize drunken darts is a thing. Well, during our little soiree, a few of our inebriated friends had less than stellar aim and the surrounding wall got pocked with pinpricks. Nothing major, but after we received the eviction notice, things got a little out of hand. Whereas before the misses had been accidental, the result of sucking at the game, these later throws carried the weight of revenge and ridiculousness behind them. Our Canadian friend, Andrew, took the lot of darts and tossed them all at once. Not to be outdone, I took all six and took to launching them while jumping on Brian’s bed. The plaster began to fall first like paint chips, then like strips of wall paper. What to do? We weren’t about to re-plaster the place or put money and time into a fresh paint job. However, we did have an abundance of white toothpaste. The damage was too extensive to consider the concealment a complete success, but it blended better than one would expect! And hey, we did manage to get our deposit back, and that’s what counts, right?

We adjusted quickly to life in the Kung Fu Palace. The communal spirit amongst us brought a lot of company: local friends stopping by to hang out, visitors from abroad seeking couch crashing refuge, and Andrew, who had taken a teaching job out in the folksy village of Příbram, and would stay at our place on the weekends. Perhaps it was unusual having three adult males who liked spending time in the kitchen, but our guests were always well fed. It became a tradition to have friends over each Sunday morning. We’d go to the Albert supermarket around the corner, cobbling together ingredients to create a facsimile of an American breakfast: bacon, eggs, potatoes & onions, and pancakes. Oh, were there pancakes.

You may not know this, but maple syrup is basically a luxury item in Europe. A small, perfume-sized bottle costs a large chunk of change. We lived off a meagre syrup ration until after the holidays, when Brian came back with an entire suitcase dedicated to foodstuffs. It was like the eight days of Hanukkah rolled into one. In addition to multiple bags of Reese’s Pieces, Creole seasoning (thanks again, Brian!), and other assorted goodies, he had somehow cleared customs with two gallon jugs of maple syrup. Oh, the wondrous world of Costco!

Always ones to tempt fate, the only reasonable thing it seemed for us to do was to have another housewarming party. After all, it isn’t as if one gets to have two within the span of a month that often. This party happened to coincide with my 27th birthday. We bought a few cases of Staropramen and had two bottles of truly foul tasting home distilled gin one of our Slovak friends had given us.  Except they didn’t even bother calling it that – instead, it was merely “juniper alcohol.” But boy was it strong!

Like so many parties of yesteryear, they flash by in memory as a Speed Racer blur of colors and sounds, but one event in particular stands out in my mind. We had a pudding race. This involved bowls of chocolate pudding put on chairs at one end of the room and two competitors with spoons in their mouths at the other. The objective of the race was to run to the pudding, scoop as much as possible onto the spoon, and then race back to your partner who’d be waiting with an open mouth for immaculate pudding reception.

What’s funny about parties is how they usually mutate in ways you never anticipate. Complete strangers arrive, songs get turned into anthems, and the amount of beer bottles that need picking up in the morning get multiplied by some unknown yet constant factor. The most important thing is that this time we didn’t get evicted.

We managed to live in harmony for the remainder of the school year. A lot of indecision about our future plans (stay? go? Vietnam? Korea?) caused us to split ways. Fortunately, Brian and Steve found accommodations in a place at the top floor of the same building with a balcony and I’m quite sure their usual shenanigans – and Sunday morning breakfasts – continue on to this day. As for me, I stayed there for a few more months after returning from a summer in the US. My girl and I lived there until December 2010 when France beckoned and we returned its call.

Though it was only a year of cohabitation, those days stay with me, like an indelible mark stamped somewhere inside in mind. Lots of great memories stem from that apartment. Nostalgia comes in many forms, but I prefer to remove the rose-colored glasses and see those moments for what they were: just another step on the yellow brick road.

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