My Doppelganger

Title: My Existential Angst

I’m on the tram sweating audibly into a small puddle on the floor. I am capable of sweating in biblical proportions and pretty soon I expect to see pairs of animals running alongside the tram. In the hopes of distracting myself from the misery caused by traveling through a steaming hot city in a metal box with no shade in sight, I am looking at the faces of pedestrians. Happy, cool pedestrians.

Then I see a guy I know as an acquaintance. He’s the husband of another acquaintance, a nice enough chap. He’s short and brown-haired, he’s stocky. He is swinging his arms as he huffs along down the street in the determined yet stuttered stride of the short-legged. It then dawns on me that he looks exactly like me. He is my Doppelganger. This troubles me.

Like many men, I consider myself far better looking than is evidential in the aesthetics of my biological makeup. This guy is OK looking, but he’s not exactly handsome. Reason states that if I am his Doppelganger and he’s not handsome, well, guess what? I am seeing what everyone else is seeing. A short, stocky dude chugging down the road like a Hobbit heading towards a tavern. And if that’s what we all see when he’s walking down the road, that’s what they all see when I’m walking down the road.

As a side issue, this damages my (I think reasonable) perception of my life as a movie. Let’s be honest, people. We all do it. We have a voice over bespeaking thusly of drama to come or just come above an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. And why not? Our lives are essentially movies, aren’t they? A mix of cringe and romantic comedies, moments of erotica, drama, adventure, and horror, interrupting the 97.3% of our lives that encompasses watching Frasier, scrolling Facebook, and asking people what they want to do that night.

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The Blind Eye

We are at our favorite pub and we are drinkless. It’s been about thirty minutes since we had a beer. Though I should be concerned about the fact that I am starting to twitch, I am focusing on the waiter. Waiters. There are three of them. Apparently the guy who was working the garden service was reassigned to the inside, and as an act of rebellion he is actively not looking at us.

Part of the training to become a Czech waiter must be developing an ability to look at a table of people and not see them. The waiter has looked at our table, the wall behind us, the post next to me, the window, the Bozkov advertisement to our left, but not us. We have obviously displeased him by not only our existence, but the fact that we are existing at this pub and thirsty.

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Zen and the Art of Not Responding

Om. (Matryoshka Doll acting as Stand in Buddha)

I am doing my dishes. I do them slowly, think about each dish, each spoon. I try to notice each tomato chunk and each coffee ground. I breathe in and out, feel and enjoy the warm water. When I have finished becoming one with my bowls, dishes, and utensils, I go back to my computer.

Still, at the top of the screen is a white strip and the phrase: not responding. If you have a computer, you understand this the most frustrating of all computing messages. So I go to water and become one with my plants. My computer is turning me into something of a Zen Master of household chores.

Even if we remove the context of failing technology, the term not responding elicits aggravation. When someone doesn’t respond to your texts, calls, messages. When students, friends, or family don’t respond to a question or point. When the president’s douchy evasion experts simply don’t respond to impossibly direct questions. The list goes on.

Out to dinner with a friend the other night, his four-year old daughter started playing with a similarly aged boy. Things were fine and dandy until it was time to eat, at which time neither the boy nor my friend’s daughter seemed willing to give up their play. They, of course, did what little kids do when they don’t want to hear the laments of their parents: they completely ignored them. And so the boy, glazed in a layer of mucus that will require shots of some sort, climbed on our table while my friend’s daughter offered him pizza. My friend tried to talk reasonably to them both, who, like my computer, were not responding, and then he failed to gain the boy’s parents attention, who, buried in their respective devices, were (you guessed it) not responding.

While his frustration cup runneth over, I considered telling him that my cat doesn’t respond either. I scratched that idea, then thought of telling him to go do some dishes. His facial expression suggested that I keep my mouth shut, which, in a ringing endorsement to social intelligence websites, I did.

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How to be British

Me Beneath an Insanely Accurate Sign

As part of a summer English course run through a local Czech newspaper, I wrote a series of fictional blog posts in which I assume the identity of a British expatriate. Once you’ve stopped snickering, you can imagine that this was rather challenging. Like any writer worth his salt, I had to know my subject and that meant brushing up on what it means to be British.

First off, I thought about the British in my life. A lot of my entertainment intake is British, for example my preferred crime solvers, Lewis, Morse, and Sherlock. There are times I’ve thought Bernard Black was my spirit animal. After I finally understood the accents, I started laughing my ass off at every episode of Spaced.

As a majority of the ESL course books teach British English, I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it. There’s the horrendous u (as in colour), and the tragedy that is –re (as in centre. disgusting). I changed my prepositions and my collating verbs, so instead of taking a walk on Main Street, I had a walk in the High Street. I already said lifts and flats, but knew I had to be careful with a substantial range of lexicon, like autumn, hob, and bugger.

But being British is more than words and language. I sat down with a cup of coffee and a notebook and pen and brainstormed a list. How to be British. With little to go on, I then looked up an article on The Guardian which offered tips. This put my mind at ease, since it appeared that I was already a bit British. I never accept a compliment without immediately self-deprecating, the very thought of someone jumping a queue makes me want to immolate them, and yet instead of acting on those impulses, I instead glare at their neck and imagine their biscuits snapping off and settling on the bottom of their tea.

However, a How British are You test on The Guardian suggested that I was abjectly American. (Who the hell is Emmeline Pankhurst and what the…bloody hell is Mr. Whipple ice cream?) Still, cultural understanding is more than a recitation of trivia or facts, so I decided to step up my game for a few weeks in cultural understanding.

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Postscript to a Wink

How I Appear to Women when I Wink

Last week I winked at a girl on the tram. She had smiled at me and I gave her the benign one-eyed wink you’d get from an uncle with whom you had no inappropriate relationship. Her face went a bit red.

Then I recalled that the Czechs do the benign uncle wink with two eyes, something like a quick blink with pleasant zest. Their one-eyed winks are used by the lascivious to convey their concupiscent messages to their depraved communicants. So instead of reciprocating a good morning greeting, I had told a random young lady that I’d like to take our relationship to the next level somewhere near the tram’s cockpit. [enter pun joke here]

If you have experienced another culture, you know that facial and hand gestures are important. These valuable tidbits are often overlooked simply because they aren’t well known or the gesture expresses something different in the visitor’s native culture. Sometimes we risk offending those in our host country simply because they perform a gesture that means something benign in their culture.

When a visiting friend waves a raised hand to get a waiter’s attention, I say a small prayer to a god I don’t believe in for their soul, which is now going to rot in Ignored by Waiter hell. A friend was on a tram when a rebellious teenager walked in front of it before it could take off from the stop. When the (enormous) driver trilled his angry bell at the teen, the kid gave him a horned finger gesture, just like you’d see at an Ozzy Ozbourne or Metallica concert. My friend was stunned when the driver got out and dropped the kid with a right hook, until he learned that the kid had snarkily suggested that the driver’s wife was cheating on him.

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My Argue-Proof Excuse

A friend of mine visits Prague every half year or so. About two months before she visits, she contacts me, thus setting into motion a recurring series of events.

We need to meet. Sure. When? What would you like to do? We’ll sort it out when I get to Prague. Maybe this one afternoon. Sure. Oh wait, maybe this one? OK, I can do that. It’s hard to organize time. Whenever you want to meet is OK. I’m so difficult, I know I do this all the time! It’s OK. Oh no, I can’t meet, my son has [add physical ailment here].

Flu. Fever. Shingles. Cold. Earache. Such a plague of physical infirmities attack this kid every time he comes to Prague, that if I were him, I wouldn’t visit.

We all have our go to excuse. Stuck at work. Too busy. Not feeling well. Self prostate exam. And in this day and age of the acceptable blow off, we sort of allow people to back out of stuff with little hoopla. We may even expect them to do so. So while there may be a bit of inherent disbelief in employed excuses, nobody can argue with a child-based excuse.

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When Covfefe Fillers Fail

Jean-Luc reacts to Covfefe

About twelve years ago, I was travelling through France with a friend. While most of the hotels and hostels we stayed at had an English speaker, not a lot of people outside of that spoke English. This was great. As we had been through Germany and Italy as well, it was exciting to get on a train in German and get off of it in Italian. But this did mean stumbling through the rigid romance of German, the pronunciation hell that is French, and the full body workout that is Italian.

Neither my friend nor I are any kind of language genius, but we followed one rule. Before we went anywhere, we would learn ten major phrases to deal with basic situations in the country. These included where is…, how much…, excuse me…, and please get your hand off my ass. It’s a rule I still apply today on my travels. There are obviously miles of lexical gaps, but these could be filled in.

One afternoon my friend and I walked into a bakery in Nice in search of pastry. We ordered in awful French, the woman very much upholding the stereotypical French linguistic stinginess. She raised an eyebrow, clearly not impressed with our attempt at her language. Then she punished us by giving us the hardest and oldest croissants in the entire bakery.

This is an eventuality for which I did not possess language. I said something to the effect of “Hello!” and then backed that up with a rousing “When?” She squinted, more so as I began lightly tapping it against the counter with the deafening sounds of colliding rocks. She shook her head and shrugged. Then I said, in a French accent, “Hard!” which sounded sort of like “Chaarday!” and then “Old!” which was like “ewlde!” and then a “Stale” that came out “Unstahle!”

The wheels really came off when I began guessing what the French word for “stale” might be. I threw out a bunch of words that sort of sounded right. Though I can’t remember what those miserable incantations were, in my head they sure sounded French: maybe something like “Zhebrouh” or “Foisoo” or a big old “Champalog.”

The woman silently left the counter (I assume to vomit) and didn’t appear again. My friend and I dipped our croissants in some wine we bought at the shop next door.

I had used a filler and it had blown up in my face. Who doesn’t use one from time to time? I sing famous tunes whose entire lyrics are made up of lexical fillers (my rendition of Eat my Waffles, Yum Yum Yum! to the tune of Camptown Races has been especially appreciated by the neighbor who lives on the other side of my shower).

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Only the Strong Servive

About a month ago, I engaged in a Facebook spat with an old acquaintance. He ended up defriending me and I blocking him. An acquaintanceship officially ended in 21st century style. I wonder at what point we are going to include lawyers in these disagreements.

While this was unfortunate, I regret neither the escalation of the situation nor its result. I haven’t given the “loss” of this “friendship” one consideration in the last month. But not a week goes by when I don’t edit my final comment to him. And every time I mentally edit it the comment gets more brilliant, more poignant, more cleverly volatile, and, each time, more perfect.

This is an occupational hazard for someone who writes for a living in some form. The constant tweaking of a sentence or a phrase, the true deliberation over a word. I return to a piece in the middle of the night, touching up a sentence whose rhythm bothered me in bed. A Facebook post can take thirty minutes to compose, a Tweet is a nightmare. Emails take me far longer to write than one would expect for someone fluent in the language. To be frank, writing an email in Czech takes less time. Anyone who writes and edits fully commiserates.

I was thinking about all of this Saturday afternoon as I rode a tram into the city. Since the weather has  become hot and touristy, it awards us locals a chance to ride the tram with an Italian tourist stuck in our colons, to hear an American wax poetic about Europe’s cultural superiority, or to enjoy the slurred singing of drunken German people. And really, who doesn’t?

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Fuck you, Sir!

Since today seems to be national piss off this guy day, I find myself in the cafeteria downstairs. I need a hotdog. I need the meditative nothingness that comes along with eating bemustarded mystery meat in a crunchy bun.When I am eating a hotdog, I am nothing, I am all, I am One.

I open the door and find myself facing a line of young men. 12:15. Damn. Middle of lunch hour. They are clad in overalls that announce the wearer as a blue-collar worker. No doubt these guys are students at the tech school on the ground floor of the building.

I have no idea what kind of skills are taught by this particular school, but three of its major areas of study must be cursing, spitting, and smoking. Because when I arrive at school in the morning, the area outside is heavy with clusters of their little cliques doing those three things in unrestrained abundance. By the time they leave the area at 8 am or so, the ground can serve as a DNA testing site for future archaeologists.

Brutish cretins though they appear to be, on the whole they seem nice enough and ignore the university students and teachers. But today, they are in close proximity when I will have to speak Czech. Linguistic humiliation is nothing new to me at this point, so that’s no problem. The issue is that they will know or will be reminded that I am not Czech. And then it starts.

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The Ticked Off Locavore

Gone Shopping in 1957

Whoever put a Tesco Express at the metro station was a genius. It’s got to be the most convenient placement of a shop in my neighborhood. I take the metro everyday and being able to walk upstairs and into a shop right on my way home from work is enormous simple and easy.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. I should go to the other, local shops. I should support local businesses in lieu of a big megastore like Tesco. You’re right, but so do you. A lot of us have foregone patronizing local shops, and for pragmatic reasons, too.

Convenience is a big one. You can get everything on your shopping list at a big local shop – meat, dairy, veggies, kitchen utensils, prophylactics. To get these things at local shops, you probably (hopefully) have to visit five different shops. And if your butcher has condoms in his window, do not buy meat from him.

In the Czech Republic, there are other factors that lead to choosing a chain store over a local one. Tesco takes credit cards and has set opening hours. This isn’t always so with local Czech places. Many don’t accept credit cards. And anyone who has tried to buy a loaf of bread from a local shop on a Saturday afternoon (or a Thursday, Tuesday, or Monday afternoon or evening) has been frustrated by the rhymeless and reasonless operating times. A Czech shop’s Saturday hours may be from 10:30-13:45. That is, if they want. You might show up at 12:15 to find that they are ‘closed for repairs.’ So it’s also about some level of reliability.

A Czech cashier is the human barometer by which misery is measured. They are some of the grumbliest, more unpleasant people in the city. I understand to some degree. Their job might not offer huge satisfaction or personal reward, the money probably isn’t great, and people can be rude. So I get it. Nevertheless, I smile, I speak Czech as well as I can, and I am always polite.

If you are a non-fluent speaker of Czech (or any language really) you know that you are sometimes treated well by your interlocutor and sometimes not. Czechs are often seriously chuffed that a foreigner is stumbling through the hačeks and declensions of their particular linguistic minefield. This Czech interlocutor often tries to help said foreigner by speaking slower, offering correction, being patient.

Others are not so kind. They speak very quickly, build complex backwards constructions meant to confuse, and lace their discourse with insults. This frustrates the hell out of me for three reasons. 1. I am fluent enough to know I am being mocked, 2. I possess the language to call his mother a dog-fucking slut, but 3. I don’t have the lexical range, the nuance, or the eloquence of language to be able to justify doing 2 with examples from 1. So I grit my teeth and leave with my linguistic tail between my legs.

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