I’m walking up the steps at school, from the sounds of it, towards a conversation. As I close in, I get the idea that it’s a rather intense discussion. I put my head down: get through these people, no eye contact.
I turn the corner and there’s a girl. She is clearly shocked at my appearance; she stares at me a bit wide-eyed. I think of jokingly warning her to avoid whatever conversation is happening nearby. It’s then I notice that the voices have stopped.
The girl runs away down the steps. Fast.
As I climb I no longer hear the voices. I look around, peel my ears, lean out over the railing a bit to peer up into the higher levels of the stairwell. Nothing. Nobody.
I am in my office when I realize that the girl was speaking. It takes a moment longer for me to understand that she was speaking to herself. I put all the clues together: her shock, red face, wide eyes, the terror-stricken look, her quick getaway. Then, of course, the facts that we were the only people in the stairwell and that, after she left, not only was I alone, but the voices had stopped.
I am very quick and sharp.
Here’s the thing. She needn’t have worried so much. Getting caught talking to yourself is an activity in which I am a weekly participant. In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that, besides this time, I am always the one talking to an audience of Me.
It’s a Thursday night, I am arriving at the house of a colleague and friend for dinner. This particular colleague and his wife are hosts of extraordinary measure. They love to entertain, and treat guests happily with an assortment of cocktails, wine, aperitifs, hors d’oeuvres, snacks, post dinner cheese and crackers, not to mention a main course that will make your toes curl. Tonight, we are having fish pie, a thing which I have both never had and hate myself for having never had. My excitement is palpable.
I ring the bell.
My friend greets me at the door and I hand him chocolates and Becherovka, and we go upstairs to the kitchen. His wife is taking care of their two small children, and they ask me to meet their infant daughter for the first time. I poke my head in and say hello to their three-year old son. Their daughter takes one look at me and immediately collapses into tears.
Tears are nothing new for me. As a teacher, friend, uncle, and all around asshole, I have experienced my share of firsthand tears. I have been trapped in my office with a recently failed, currently crying student. I have been on awkward dates with weepy women (not about me and not my fault. I swear). And I have sat across the table from a friend who’s been recently dumped (who hasn’t?). Even though I deal with tears from time to time, I, like many people, never know how to react. I often freeze up.
Naturally, today I run away and hide in a different part of the house. My hosts explain that this is her first reaction to new men. I explain that this is most women’s first reaction to me.
I slip into the very back corner of the tram. It is so cold outside that even I long for the days of butt sweat adhering me to the tram seat. I make decisions, since, like most daily public transport commuters, I am a travel strategist.
Today I’ll ride into the center and catch a connecting tram, instead of the metro. This means I can avoid a long walk in the freezing cold, be warm, and read my book all at the same time.
It’s about 3 p.m, so the tram is about a third populated with women, children, post-shopping elders, and cliques of young people grouped into varying degrees of social status.
Just before the doors close, I physically relax. School, students, and bosses all disappear. I bury my nose in my book and snuggle into the seat to warm up. And that’s when the doors emits an air raid warning; a shrill, piercing, metallic bell that cuts the air and disrupts any kind of peace.
If you are a daily user of public transport in Prague, then you know each tram has a personality. To be sure, some of this is due to the driver. Some drivers wait for those running for the tram, some absolutely do not. Some drivers leave the doors open until a runner reaches them and then close them in his face. Some drivers shut the door as soon as they are opened; many of us have had to free an old woman from the clutches of a shut door. Additionally, every Prague commuter knows the uneasy feeling of being on a tram with a driver with an aggressive bell finger.
Some of a tram’s personality is due to the driver, but not all of it. Some trams are more inviting. Their seats are more comfortable, their standing spaces are more accepting. Others trams seem to hate passengers, and do everything they can to make their ride uncomfortable: unreachable hand grips, seat warmers on full blast, windows that only crack an inch in the summer heat.
My phone buzzes and I let out a little curse. The old woman on the tram across from me raises an eyebrow at my quiet “feck.” If I possessed the interest, I’d lean across the few feet of empty space between us and explain that I was 98.9% certain I’ve just received a gonna be late message.
My fears are realized when I check my phone. I get off the tram, walk the three minutes to the pub. By design, I arrive at 3:59, one minute before our arranged meeting time. I planned this earlier this afternoon, factoring in the three-minute walk so as to arrive on time. Others crochet, sew, or bird watch, I plot out time plans.
I sit at a table on the raised dais in the back of the smokiest pub in Prague and order a beer and a Becherovka. Nothing should be wrong. I am at a pub on a Saturday afternoon, I have a book, a notebook, two pens (primary and backup), two forms of alcohol. There are far worse places and circumstances in which to be forced to wait for five minutes. But still, as I jot notes and sip liquid Christmas, I grumble.
It’s 7 a.m. on February 9th. I am under the covers to my chin; my face is covered with a pillow. The cat is somehow finding comfort sleeping on my neck and shoulder and I don’t have the energy to disrupt her. I know it’s 7 a.m. because my alarm is going off, but for the next few seconds I allow it to play background music to my thoughts.
In fact, there’s a lot I have to do, but lack motivation. There are essays to grade, emails to send, writing to do, cats to (wake and then) feed, a workout to suffer through, elements to brave, an office to go to, exams to invigilate, students to catch cheating, tests to grade, syllabi to make, God awful meetings to attend, and elements to brave again, all before I can come back to my house and put on my pajamas and read my book.
My defiance of the alarm is not simply motivated by task avoidance, it seems it’s also a collective case of winter exhaustion. It’s been dark in Prague for three months. On the other hand, the days are a steel endless gray that allow insight into Eliot Smith lyrics. Mother Nature has clearly been on a mission to beat us into submission with her weather. An alternating course of bitter cold, snow, rain, freezing rain, hail, sleet, and wind that burns my face makes me wonder if teachers are needed in Hawaii.
Additionally, it’s meeting season at the university, which means that I get to hear the apocalyptic doom that is befalling the university. It’s the same every year, but this year I am working in three departments, so I get to hear it three times.
The dog is Doberman in breed and standing in my doorway. He seems good-natured, but he and my cat are looking at each other in the animal kingdom’s version of Are you talking to me?
I am standing in between them in my foyer, holding a bag of trash which moments before I ducked back in to my flat to pick up after opening the door. Since I thought I only had to worry about keeping one animal in my flat, I neglected to worry about keeping another animal out of my flat. But here he is now and all I can think to say is “Hello.”
Growing up in the middle of forests and spending 84% of my childhood in those forests, I saw a lot of animals. Since I grew up in Pennsylvania I wasn’t really concerned about these animals hurting or eating me. There were lots of squirrels, deer, and birds. There was the occasional fox, and the air was often bent with the oddly-pleasant odor of a far away skunk in distress. When we went fishing we might catch a glimpse of an otter, beaver, or a snake.
But if you are not used to it, nothing really prepares you for an unexpected encounter with an animal. So while the Tapetum Lucidum of many deer has glowed in my headlights, I was totally awestruck coming face to face with a massive buck hanging out on my porch one night. Upon my arrival, he bolted and, after three huge bounds, was in the woods across the street. Bats were a common sight on a summer evening, fluttering around in their chaotic manner on the periphery of the treeline. But I will never forget the hilarious terror of the night my dad and I using couch cushion shields and broomstick jousting spears to scare one out of the house.
I am reading a humorous travel narrative about Machu Picchu. I needed something lighthearted, what with the present state of the globe. I can’t turn the news on without wanting to move to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, and even sites which used to represent fun, like Facebook and Twitter, are now rife with bitter political battles.
And indeed, the book is making me giggle. The writer has a sense of humor I relate to. And if that’s not enough, on every third page, I get to say the word “Picchu.”
You may have just said it aloud to see what all the humorous hoopla is about. But if you’re Czech, you know why this is funny.
Czechs pronounce that site in Peru like this: Mah-choo Peek-choo. If you are from my native land, you pronounce it: Mah-choo Pee-choo. And this is where the giggling starts, because if you say Pea-chew, you are saying an extremely vulgar word for a woman’s main reproductive organ or, as it happens, an extraordinarily appropriate term for the current President of the United States.
My giggles are no doubt adolescent, but they are also nostalgic.
I only realize that I have a mustache when I scratch my cheek. Though I don’t see them, my eyes pop open as I take the trip from my kitchen to my bathroom. That short walk involves both horror and recollection.
First of all, the recollection. It was after a few Becherovkas. Burke and I were talking about Marc Maron, a comedian we both like. We looked at his picture. Mustache and flavor saver.
“I can pull that look off,” I said.
“I like the beard,” Burke diplomatically countered.
“Should I do that?” I obviously had a bee in my bonnet about doing a stache.
“I like the beard,” she said again.
By the time she could just come out and say, “please don’t do it,” I am doing it. You know how it goes. I start by clipping the chops, cut away the chin hair so as to remove the possibility of a safe haven goatee. Two minutes after it started, it’s done.
It is the testing period at the university, and though I’m enjoying the (Disney-esque) orgasmic joy of extra sleep and no teaching, there are drawbacks. One is that I am saddled with tasks: BS administration, syllabus design, planning, testing, and making tests.
In my case, that is a listening test for students who want to study abroad. Not only do I have to come up with the questions, I also have to provide (read: create) the content. So I often bribe my British colleague Jack by promising to sit in as his assessor during oral exams in June. It’s a trade-off that is deemed equal in terms of effort and painful awkwardness.
So earlier, Jack and I headed up to the recording studio in our school’s media department and recorded a mock interview of two people who want to study abroad. From that recording I will now create a listening test.
During the process of recording we are both awkward and uncomfortable. We sigh and roll our eyes. The only difference between his discomfort and mine is that he can walk away and drink a cup of tea and I have to listen to our interview and create the task questions.
And to do that I have to listen to my own, stupid voice through earphones so as to magnify each horrible, Northeast-accented syllable, each of my stuttered “uhs,” every lip smack, and on top of it all, my voice.
Over, and over, and over again.
Any other brand of torture has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
As momentary relief, I go to the internet and type in the first words I think of into a Google search engine.
Who hates hearing their own voice on tape
The answer: British People. Bigtime. And, what’s more, there’s a list about other stuff that British people hate! Oh goodie. So I read and procrastinate. However, I also spend the next twenty minutes in dawning horror, realizing just how British I have become.
Now, like many Americans, I spent years in naïve awe of the British. I loved the accents, the turns of phrase, the reserved behavior, the perceived intelligence.
And like most Americans who have come into contact with a great deal of Brits, I realized that awe was a giant sack of horse tits. The Brits are indirect, awkward, and touchy. To have a cross interaction with a Brit (which, by the by, will go completely unnoticed by any other nationality) means a years-long slow-cooking build-up of one-sided loathing and detest. This, of course, is all done with an outwardly (though reserved) pleasant demeanor until the Brit finally explodes one day and leaves the room with a huff. Then the Brit apologizes. And the American has no idea what has happened.
I was comfortable with this mindset, until I recently learned how British I was. Before seeing this list, I knew there was a problem. Sort of the way you know there’s a problem long before going to the doctor. This issue manifested itself in a number of ways. First off, for a long while I have been watching, understanding, and laughing at British television. Scenes in British TV shows or movies that I would have squinted at before, now make me belly laugh.
As a result of or because of that, I am, while not fluent in British English, sitting at a comfortable B2 level (upper intermediate). This is more in terms of my understanding as opposed to my spoken language. I now have a solid handle on what British people really mean when they say the things they say. Examples include the following:
British: You should stop by for dinner sometime. Translation: Don’t come near me or my house.
British: We shouldn’t worry about coordinating every aspect of our courses. Translation: Get on with your own course and leave me the fuck alone!
British: Yes, well, I’ll try and find time when I can do that. Translation: I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing that or anything that minutely resembles that.
British: Well, I could possibly, I suppose. Translation: No.
Third, I am a longtime user of the Oxford Comma.
I know. I know. I’m in trouble.
Here are some things that make me fundamentally British.
When I wake up on this particular Saturday morning, I realize with dawning awareness that I don’t feel terrible.
The winter can be a brutal time of year in Prague. It’s been ten below (Celsius) for the last week. In the last two weeks there’s been an alternating cycle of snow, rain, sleet, hail, and slush, this all leads to a road/tundra that adds time to any walk or commute.
And this is at the tail end of three months of unrelenting dark and short days that advocate a daily quota of anxiety. There are times in the long nights of December and the bleak, joyless days of January when an otherwise content, responsible adult can feel twinges of despair and pity.
Despite it all, I don’t feel bad. The days aren’t turning into night at 4 p.m. anymore, now it’s a more respectable 5ish. Also, things are looking up.
Now that the semester is over, it’s the testing period, which means a month of administration and very little teaching. More importantly, I am now looking back at a productive (though exhausting) semester that is both over, and allow me to enjoy a deserved period of relative relaxation.
This reward for hard work is something I have come to cherish as I’ve grown older. For yeas at university I did very little schoolwork, preferring instead to spend my nights out partying rather than in studying. So when Friday rolled around and my classmates were enjoying a well-earned night of R&R, I was (not really) enjoying just another night out.
I feel today like, as Burke puts it, a ‘put together guy.’ I suppose this means that in most areas of my life I am responsible and together. Though I am a man in his forties who lives alone, my flat is clean (yep, even the bathroom and shower). I enjoy creative cooking, healthy eating, and I keep myself fit with a good exercise regimen. I am a professional with professional friends, write and publish things. Hell, I even defrost my freezer and clean my oven.
So as I wander into my kitchen and start coffee, I realize with a horror-stricken gasp that I have no eggs. I nearly weep. While I normally eat a grapefruit and oatmeal for breakfast, this is Saturday, the day I splurge and have a cheese omelette, sausage, and rolls. And I scan through my fridge to see that I have bought everything for my Saturday breakfast but eggs. There is cheese, sausage, butter, and rolls. No eggs.
It is clear: I have to go to the grocery store. I put on my shoes and hat, and I sigh.