Čert is coming to town. On December 6, Čert comes around with St. Mikulás (Czech St. Nick) and doles out the punishment portions of the festivities. So while St. Mikulás hands out candy to good kids, Čert gives the bad kids coal, whips them, or, in special cases, brings them to hell in a sack.
And what do we have in the U.S?
Sure, we have some laterally terrifying Christmas characters. There is something a little spooky about a flying reindeer whose nose lights up. And there’s a lot terrifying about a talking snowman who passes out when his hat comes off.
Don’t even bring up The Grinch. First off, how scary can a demon be when he has a puppy? Secondly, you really think The Grinch is going to scare kids into being good? If you’re not good, some green guy is going to come take your gifts and then hide in a cave until he feels guilty. Then he’ll probably bring them back.
I advocate more demons in the American Christmas tradition. And I am talking scary Christmas demons. The Europeans have them all over the place and they have better healthcare and less fear of public nipples. I’m just saying…there may be a connection.
There’s an impulse buy streak that runs through my family. My father is notorious for his impulse buy tendency, or he used to be anyway. He’d walk out of the house to get a doughnut and a cup of coffee and come home with a flat screen TV. Once, while shopping in Dick’s Sporting Goods for a birthday gift for my brother, he somehow came home with a dog.
While walking the streets in Naples years ago, my mother and I would look around to find that he was no longer with us. He’d then stumble out of a random tailor’s with three shirts and an ascot, or a hidden deli with a warehouse sized jar of olives. This happened so often that my mother’s bemoan “Where’s your father gone this time? Jesus Christ, if he buys one more tiny shirt….” was heard on several Neapolitan roads that week.
My mom could run the household on $10 a week. $5 if she only had to feed herself and the dog. She has the ability to stretch cash, get the most of her money, and logically deduce whether she truly needs something. If she were head of the Office of Management and Budget, the budget would be balanced and the whole country would be eating corned beef and cabbage.
I am not an impulse buy guy. Well, not anymore. Well, not usually. In college and in my early twenties, I simply had no concept of how money worked or what it was. Every week saw the purchase of another sweater I didn’t need, a book I knew I wouldn’t read, or a kitchen appliance I didn’t know how to use. I’d walk into my house wondering exactly how I’d ended up with an $80 beard trimming and cologne kit when I still hadn’t paid my electric bill. But, really, who needs lights and cooked food when you smell good and have a well-groomed goatee?
For some, Thanksgiving is a day of turkey, cheese spreads, and football. For others, it’s a reminder of a dark romanticized past. For even more, it’s a day to commemorate that dark past with dioramas, macaroni art, and hand-traced turkeys.
For this expatriate, it is a day to wax nostalgic because I am 100% jealous of you people over there across the pond.
In our house, there was ubiquitous football. It wasn’t even a discussable point. The excitable tenors of the announcers became the music of the living room, as well as the murmur of my dad and uncles who spent a great deal of the day in front of that TV, talking about things I halfway understood. The occasional vulgarity crescendo. The kids were used as couriers, sent off to bring back a piece of pie, a bowl of olives, or, if the kid’s acumen was especially trusted, a beer.
There was a kitchen filled with appetizers, snacks, and pre-dinner goodies. It took me until the age of seventeen to realize that appetizers were the devil’s spawn. In the first few years of cognisant eating, I thought to myself: well, look at this! This is sort of like stumbling into chow heaven! And then I’d wander through, eating cubes of pumpernickel with as much spinach dip as I could balance on them, the semicircle abdomen of a cheddar cheese snowman on crackers, and all the pretzels and olives a boy can dream about.
If one were sitting on my couch or in my kitchen while I was writing or editing, they’d know the minute I hit a snag. First, there’d be some cursing. Always starts with the cursing. Then the reading aloud, as I verbally try to retrace the steps to exactly how I’d ended up in this rabbit hole of diction. And then I’d leave my office to find a household chore that needed immediate attention.
My Swiffer is used roughly ten times a morning when I’m writing, my dishes get done, my laundry gets put away. Sometimes I rework the problem or sentence as I work on my mindless chore, sometimes I just use the chore to clear my head, and sometimes I am just plain procrastinating.
Today when I hit a tricky sentence, my brain suggests that I get up to stretch an imagined, phantom ache in my right thigh. I walk into my living room and pick up my Swiffer, and maneuver it between the couch’s legs to grab up a cat-sized amount of cat hair, and some errant popcorn. That’s when I look up at the wall and notice the painting that has been hanging a foot or so above the couch for about twelve years. And it is just begging for attention.
Two birthdays ago, when I became a mere boy of forty, I received an original print from a good friend of mine who is an enviously talented artist. Since the household chores I am willing to undertake typically involve making something a little cleaner, making something a little less cluttered, or making something little to eat, this print has sat in the hallway, its virgin whiteness protected between two pieces of cardboard. And if there has ever been a time this print needs to replace the picture in this frame, then that time is now.
Other than the scarf, the smoking woman dresses sort of like she’s about to take part in an equestrian show. She wears tall black boots, tight trousers, and a tan field jacket. She is always smoking a cigarette.
The woman in the scarf is my morning time gauge.
We pass each other three mornings a week, always somewhere between 7:15 and 7:20, when she is on her way from the metro to her office in the buildings near my flat and I am on the way to the metro to get across Prague. I have no idea where her commute starts, all I know is that I see her every morning. And depending on where I see her, I am either on time or very late.
It was early October when I first realized that the fruit flies hadn’t gone with September. They usually arrive in the summer, finding little pockets of moisture in the dish rack or laying eggs in the cat’s food.
In summer, I try to keep them to a minimum. And by mid-September the cooler weather kills them off in droves.
But we had a serious Indian Summer this year, which lasted well into September. Thus, the fruit flies weren’t killed off. So in October I began the opening salvos of the battle for my kitchen counter. I left a few of my living room windows open one night in the hopes that the relative cool of an October night would kill them off.
In the morning, I opened the doors to the living room and kitchen, allowing the cat to head to her food bowls and her litter. We were both struck by the chill in the outer rooms. Even the cat wanted no parts of it and left for the warmer climes of my bed. I saw no fruit flies, so surmised that victory was mine. When I picked up the cat’s bowl, a dozen or so living commas drifted out of her food and held airborne patterns of dizzy squiggles.
They had not died, they had multiplied.
This would never have bothered me when I was younger. In my twenties, accomplishing domestic chores was secondary to any other task imaginable and fruit flies were a part of life. They were the perennially squatters of my flat. They lived in potatoes, they heavily guarded fruit that had gone off weeks before. My visitor’s drinks were littered with the corpses of their curious ranks.
‘Oh, it’s protein,’ I’d say, ‘on the house.’
But things change, and so do people. And now, the army of fruit flies living in my kitchen were telling me that I was not doing a good job on a domestic level. They are pests. I was so poor at keeping house, that I had invited pests into it. And that couldn’t be good.
They had to be destroyed. And so began a campaign against them. It started with the standby: a jar of red wine topped with a hole-filled saran wrap lid. It did nothing. I hadn’t killed them, I got the little bastards drunk.
Dear Sir or Madam, could you please place this advertisement in the upcoming (Thursday) edition of your respected newspaper?
I would greatly appreciate it if you could place it near other such ads, but ones that are less attractive than this one by way of content. Also, a space near a Sudoku puzzle would be great. Thank you.
Faithfully yours, Učitel.
Due to the current global political climate, I am hoping to ensure European residency for as long as I live. Or at least until I can get a job in Japan or on an oil rig. To solidify this, I am looking for a wife. She must be of European nationality. To make things easier, I have narrowed this down to a Czech or Slovak woman.
My doctor tells me that I do not possess the nervous system to be able to handle a Russian woman for the rest of my life. In any event, let’s be honest – that won’t help anyway.
I offer a wide variety of qualities in terms of a long-term partner, even despite an evident terror of long-term relationships. I am an ESL professional, so you have English lessons forever, or at least as long as you want to pay what I consider a fair discounted price (300 Kč by yourself / 400 Kč if you bring a friend). I am also a writer and writing teacher, so your emails are guaranteed to be professional and obsessively edited.
Though American, I am partially assimilated into Czech culture. “Partially” meaning that I get socks and sandals and Pelíšky, but I don’t yet get the draw of Lucie Bílá or tlačenka. I will never go mushroom picking (and I understand why this is a deal breaker).
I also bring the following:
- Decent cooking skills (make a kick ass Bolognese and a pretty good Shepherd’s pie)
- A somewhat varied collection of fourth to twelfth edition paperback books in English
- An embittered view of the global atmosphere and a newly acquired and vastly depressing pessimism about the state of humanity
- A cat
I don’t really have a physical type, but if you travel with a pillow or think Led Zeppelin is a brand of metal lighters, then it probably won’t work between us. Otherwise, a sense of humor is good. By “sense of humor” I mean you laugh at Bill Murray, not when an old woman falls off a tram. Well, I’m open to ideas. If you have a cottage that would be super. I’ve always wanted to say “I’m heading to my cottage this weekend,” but thus far my hopes have been frustrated.
The following are big pluses:
- You make a decent guláš
- You know how to use the verb “control” correctly
- You are willing to cradle my head while rocking back and forth telling me the world will be OK over and over again for at least the next four months
- Space in your flat for a scratching post
In my quest to avoid a physique of a post-middle age Marlon Brando, I have adopted a rather active lifestyle. “Active” used to be an occasional run for a tram and bending my elbow on Friday nights. Now it’s a bit more involved.
I still bend my elbow on Friday nights, but before I do, I go swimming. This allows a guilt-free session of beers and shots afterwards.
The one swim I can do without exhausting myself is the breaststroke. You know this one. It’s the one in which you go under with your hands pointing out in front of you, then doing kind of a frog kick and stroking your arms out away from you. With this stroke, I plod slowly up and down the pool, avoiding the old men in speedos. Slow is preferable to tiring myself out and sinking to the bottom, where Nathan would be forced to rescue me. So I go slow.
Though highly physical, I am finding swimming to be an extraordinarily peaceful activity, both in that it relaxes my body and calms my mind. After my swim, I feel content and fine. This is in part the post-workout calm I experience when doing other exercises, but because swimming is so automatic and repetitive, it’s an activity which allows me time to both think and clear my head.
Tonight, I am thinking about frogs, reflecting upon their peaceful demeanor. Frogs definitely swim faster than I can with my frog kick, but they never really seem to be in a rush. They sort of mosey around a pond, snapping their tongues out at the occasional fly and gnat. While they must exist with the anxiety that comes with being not at the top of the food chain, they seem pretty mellow. Their skin is their natural defense, so they don’t usually need to fight anyone and unless they’re in ponds in France, Belgium, or Louisiana, men don’t really pay attention to their legs.
So frogs seem like one of the more laidback pond animals. And I wonder if it’s because they just swim around all day doing this frog kick. I wonder if they clear their heads and relax every day, so that they are constantly thinking things through and coming to peace with things. Even a pond itself is one of nature’s more mellow environs. Surely it’s more relaxed than a speedy river or a horrifying ocean.
At the table across from me, a couple was obviously on a first date. They were American, and so spoke with a volume and crispness that allowed everyone in this section of Prague to hear them. I tried to pay attention to my book, but English has a way of invading my bubble and so they were a consistent background to Ray Bradbury.
The man talked a lot about himself and he didn’t listen at all. There were lots of points he could have used to learn more about her, but just didn’t. And then he did it. He started talking about the last girl he was in love with. He goes on to tell her – in a mildly bitter tone – the story, his profession of love, her exactly not professing her love, all the way up until the culmination of her choosing his friend Bret over him.
To be fair, there are some other non black belts, but we of the white belt level are in the considerable minority.
This does not do anything to bolster my mood.
We arrived this morning at 9:30. It’s a Saturday. The only physical exertion I want to undertake on a Saturday morning is rigorously spatulaing my scrambled eggs from a pan and maybe taking a few wild hook shots at the trashcan with grapefruit peels. Moreover, I am wearing the result of several Friday night beers in the form of a pretty piercing headache. And after a long week of work, I would rather be resting now and not exercising. But in all honestly, the main issue is the thorough rogering of my comfort zone.
Saturdays are a day for lounging and eating eggs that are riding carbohydrate vehicles to my mouth. They are for reading on the couch and then a walk that ends at a pub. A good Saturday is measured in the amount of naps I am able to slip into and out of, and by the vast solitude that I enjoy after a week of lecturing, teaching, and talking with students.
In a word: not an Aikido seminar. But here we are. With about 200 black belts.