Archive for category Uncategorized

The Move

Last time, coming or going

It’s Friday, about 2 pm. I am on my way home on a tram filled with young teens and kids, who, while in various stages of personal and physical development, share in common a momentary ecstasy that is born of the beginning of the weekend. I am immensely jealous.

Since I was a kid, there has never been anything quite as euphoric as a Friday afternoon. I have always loved the “look ahead” stage. More a fan of Christmas Eve than Christmas, a fan of the last weeks of school rather than the beginning of the summer holiday. It’s when I have everything ahead of me that I am happiest. And Friday is just that – everything is ahead of me and the possibilities are endless. Pizza and a movie, a nice walk on Saturday, a nice walk on Saturday that ends conveniently at a pub. So on any other Friday I would be sitting on this tram, outwardly a middle-aged dude listening to podcasts, inwardly a twelve year old with a peach-fuzz mustache throwing the devil’s ears at passing motorists.

But this weekend is the weekend in which I will move. After two weeks’ prep, planning, organizing, boxing, bagging, and throwing away huge portions of the collected booty of thirteen years, it will happen. Without touching the obvious horrors of tragedy or medical crises, there is nothing worse to look forward to on a weekend.

Friday night is spent standing in various rooms in my house having meltdown moments. “Has someone fed these things after midnight!?” I scream to the ceiling, wondering how our bags and boxes are multiplying. “What is this? I don’t own a toaster! Where has this thing been, just waiting for me to move it!?” I occasionally center myself (read: avoid prison) by sitting on my soon-to-be-disassembled bouch (bed + couch, you get it) and eat some form of carbohydrate while watching a sitcom and purposefully not looking at the room beyond my laptop.  

The misery that comes with moving isn’t the carrying and lifting, but the fact that every single thing has to be reckoned with. Whether that means it gets thrown away, put in a bag and brought to the new house, or set on fire and thrown out the window. Everything from the deep, darkest caverns of the last thirteen years must be dealt with. Every single item. Everything.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

On the Move

Phone Museum in my Closet

As a card-carrying resident of my own personal comfort zone, I’ve found that there’s an awful lot that can rattle me. The upstairs neighbors renovating their flat for five months. A wonky lock on the front door. Friends or relatives staying at the flat.

But there’s not much worse for this Comfort Zone Guy than moving flats. If you’re an adherent to a comfort zone, then you understand.  

Moving is terrible. No matter who you are or what your philosophy is towards being settled, you probably have a bad memory of being surrounded by hundreds of boxes, bags, crates, and furniture that you had to bring somewhere else. Moving means you have to move everything in your house. Everything. Soap. Each shoe. Every notebook, pen, and bottle of hot sauce. And so, everything is disrupted.

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment

On Paperfeet the Cat and Hoarding Books

Paperfeet the Cat Stands Proudly Among his Depleted Shelves

After twelve years in one flat, I am preparing to move in two weeks. Everyone knows that moving sucks. Though I am not an extravagant person, It’s the only time in my life that I wish I was loaded. I’d hand a few guys a wad of cash, give them instructions and two addresses, go on holiday, and just come back to a new flat all ready for me to live in.

Moving makes you realize just how much shit you have accumulated in your little hovel. This, of course, is because you are now forced to look through the backs of those cabinets, closets, mudrooms that you have gleefully avoided for so long. And so you dig out books, DVDs, mugs, clothes, old calendars, and cat figurines that you got from someone else who was moving and didn’t want to deal with it, and so now I’m standing in a room holding the cat and making a dubious look, all purse-lipped and furrow-browed, like the bad guy who realizes he’s been duped at the end of a movie in which he thought he had won. But you can’t get rid of him now; you’ve named him Paperfeet.

And if you are in your late twenties and lived on your own more than once, then you totally know what I’m saying.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

The Life and Times of Fausto Carro

Ah, Fausto Carro

Last week, after doing some work for an online magazine, I was asked to send along the details of my online payment account. I won’t say the name of that payment company, but Scooby Doo would probably call it RayRal.

I didn’t have an account there, so I began to set one up. And that of course is when I found out I had an account there.

Memberships to websites, online magazines, and services are as forgettable to me now as the magazine subscriptions I signed up for in college in our quad. I’d use a false name – Larry D’Urberville – with my sights set on a free T shirt. Free T shirts were gold when the alternative was washing your other 75 T shirts. Ah, the carefree and extremely dirty days of yore.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

Keep Calm and Stay Home

So you’re in your 40s? 28 Things I Learned in my 40s. Why I became So Much Happier in my 30s. If My 40 Year Old Self Could Tell My 20 Year Old Self a Few Things at a Bar, the first would be to stop drinking. 

We’ve all seen the advice, the philosophical, logical and sensible points that people in the 40s have pocketfuls of. Close your eyes (uh, but not if you’re driving) and just call to mind some of the uber-enlightened, sagacious advice and commentary. Own your flaws, they make you who you are. Laugh lines are worth the laughs. So laugh! In your 40s you have let go of the toxic people and you much happier.

OK, are there some truth nuggets in there? Absolutely. But it still comes off as theoretical and frou-frou. I feel as though I am listening to the wispy mantra of a holy guy in a Nepalese cave.

There are so many benefits and occasional downsides to being in your 40s that you just can’t list them all. Mostly this is because you have forgotten them moments after you are gifted the epiphany of them. Irony.

But let’s get real. If you’re in your 40s you know that there are more concrete ways of defining that age decade than the little insights and theoretical developments. There are real, day to day applications that you notice. Here are a few everyday realities about life in my 40s.

I plan hangovers, not nights out. A friend who is a great pool player once told me. “If you want to be a good pool player, don’t think about the shot you’re making, think about the one after that.” And man does that make sense in the world of being 40. I can still bring down a number of drinks with little problem. But it’s the reality of the next day that rules whether or not I will go out.

I weigh the headache, the arsenal of medicine that my body will require to simply go through the motions without ending up in a hospital, and the lack of productivity up against what I need to do that next day and the evening as well. Depending on the findings of those measurements, that’s how I decide to go out. Can I be a mess tomorrow morning? Do I want to be? This is why younger people think we fortysomethings are boring. We can still drink. But we don’t know if you are worth the payoff. Also we don’t mind what you think. PS: It should be mentioned that I still suck at pool. Bigtime.

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment

Random Creepy Things


The building where I teach is a monument to communist era architecture. It’s tall, blocky, gray, concrete, mundane, and removes the will to live from whomever casts their eyes upon it. It fits right in with a lot of the other monstrosities that popped up in the Czech Republic in the second half of the twentieth century. The buildings that ain’t ending up on a postcard anytime soon.

But mostly I have found it to be a reasonably innocuous building. It’s got good Wi-Fi, the static electricity is pretty low, and you’ve got a killer view of the car dealership across the street. I mean, the toilet lights are set to shut off every nine seconds, so you end up looking as though you’re in a one-person synchronized pooping competition. But overall, what else could you ask for?

Well the building does take on a more sinister feel after dark as I have done for five years each Tuesday after my evening class in the winter. When I leave the building at 7:15 pm in spring the sun is still out and, depending on how my class went, my mood is not at its most morose. In the winter, though, it’s been pitch black since 4:30 and by 7:15 there’s not a soul in the building. The students want to get home, so they run out of the place like it’s on fire. By the time I drop my books in my office and head down the stairs, the only people in the building are me and the night guard who works reception.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

To Wake up the Most Despised Person in America

Lincoln Memorial Washington DC

Did you ever get caught doing something really stupid when you were a kid? If you are anything like me then you have so many that you have had to construct another memory room in your brain to hold them all. If you anything like me, then you completely ignore this room. If you are anything like me, then you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think to yourself: yeah, I should write to that guy and apologize.

When I was in the eighth grade, I think, I got called out for not only telling a bunch of people a secret that had been given to me, but also for lying about it. That is, not only had I handed over a friend’s secret, I had decided that it wasn’t jazzy enough, so I edited in some embellishments that I found really spicy, and then I told people that.

Yeah, I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Yes, I am aware of my verb tense.

Well, you can imagine what happened next was something out of a bad 80s teen movie. I got caught, of course, and when I got caught everyone decided to share notes and so not only was I disloyal and not to be trusted, I was also a liar.

The Sunday night before having to face my class I remember thinking how crazy it was that my mother was so cheery at dinner. Didn’t she know the world was coming to an end? But everyone did normal things all day; my dad watched an Eagles game, my siblings played in the woods and talked about Halloween costumery. My life was over. Everyone at school, i.e. my whole world, hated me, and I was going to have to deal with it the next day. I slept about 4 minutes that night.

Now, social trends and tendencies of late grade school being what they are, I was humiliated, outcast, mocked, and made a pariah. For a while. It passed. People forgot. People forgave. By Thanksgiving, most people didn’t remember anything happening.

Times have changed.

Today I woke up to nineteen million different sources showing the same picture: the smug face of a white teen in a MAGA hat mocking Native American activist Nathan Phillips while a bunch of smug white faces cheer him on. The subtext is all there. Hate. Racially motivated aggression. A massive amount of disrespect. Trump’s America. The divide. A face of white privilege smugly taunting a native American Vietnam veteran.  

The boy, whoever he is, has become one of the most reviled people in America. His face has been visually likened to those of the aggressors in the lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s. Overnight, he has captured the attention of the country (and world) and is being bashed by hundreds of thousands, politicians, athletes, and celebrities. I imagine that some of these celebrities he loves. If I woke up tomorrow and learned on Twitter that Nick Offerman or Neil Gaiman hated me, I would honestly cry.

This kid has woken up today the most despised person in America.

Does he deserve it? Arguable. There are a couple of different sides to this story, and both of them on video, but he’ll likely be the pariah at someone’s hands. He could be the visual link to the bad guys of this time period, not to mention the bad guys of other time periods (cue 1960s lunch counters comparisons). He might be expelled as his school tries to play damage control for their image. Already on Facebook the pictures of these kids are up with a public message for those who know them to hand over their names so we can (ironically) “make them famous.”

But what are we doing? He’s an asshole kid in a MAGA hat, so we’re going to crucify him for it? Did he do something wrong beyond that and are we going to ruin a kid’s life because he was an asshole as a teenager?

Come on, people. We’re the adults, which means two things. First, as adults we should be conveying the message that these actions have consequences – unpleasant, sometimes damaging consequences. But we should not be vindictive towards a teenager. Why? Because it doesn’t work. And you know how we all know that? Because we’ve been there!

Who reading this didn’t do something terribly regretful as a teenager? If you got caught and if it wasn’t a felony, then you probably suffered for it, either within your family and community, legally, or all of the above. And you know what? Life went on. You learned a lesson. People forgot and people forgave. You grew as a person. The rest of your life wasn’t dictated by a foolish action. It is part of growing up.

I am not suggesting that we forgive this sort of ignorance to the world of “oh he’s just a kid” but let’s be honest, openly trying to destroy young lives is something we never had to deal with until recently. If it had been a possibility to do such grand damage when we were younger and stupider, do you think we’d be a little more forgiving in our social sentencing? Maybe.

For all we know this kid would be stuffing a bong in a tie-dyed T-shirt at Boneroo in a few years telling people how he used to wear a MAGA hat and how much he was an asshole. For all we know he may still do that. For all we know, this will be the reason he does go on to do that. Take away the MAGA hat and made Boneroo a Phish show, then you have me. How many times we look back at our young selves and wince. But we are more fortunate, as we don’t have permanent reminders captured for the world to see. 

We, the adults of the world, have a responsibility to dole out punishment in a reasonable fashion. We need to be more compassionate. We have to allow the possibility of redemption. Because if we keep going in the direction we’re going in, then what kind of world and society are we looking forward to.        

Also, I really hope Neil Gaiman still likes me even after my story of eighth grade intrigue.

No Comments

Things to Watch and Read

Strange Weather (photo courtesy of Keizertimes)

There is nothing I love more than rewatching things. Series, movies, YouTube videos. Squirrels pretending to be people. My happy place is coming home in the early evening, putting on the most amorphous clothing I can find and cooking dinner while an episode of Parks and Recreation that I have seen 127 times plays in the background.

Due to the fact that I now often watch things with someone else and the fact that my cat has been complaining about my viewing choices, I have been intaking new things. And so I can now enjoy another great joy – being the last person on earth to discover something and acting as though I am the first.  

Watership Down

This is a Netflix series based on Richard Adams’ novel. If you have read the novel you have probably said aloud “I can’t believe I’m reading a novel about rabbits” just before shrieking “Please don’t die, rabbits!” through streams of masculine tears. The only thing more disturbing than reading that previous sentence is the 1978 miniseries which is a tripped out interpretation which resembles what would come out of a weekend collaboration of Salvatore Dali, Hunter Thompson, and four hundred tabs of Yellow Sunshine. I watched the version in the early 1980s and didn’t get over it until last weekend.  

Netflix got it right. The story is fantastic, the characters so unbelievably and lapinely lovable  and if you can find something more endearing than rabbits speaking in British accents then I will buy you a house.   

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

Things I Learned from TV in 11 Days in America

Michael Who? (photo courtesy of

My goals this holiday break were simple.



I’ve had a terribly busy four months. I have added two jobs to my life, editor/proofreader for a translation company and writer for a literary humor website. This, on top of teaching, research, writing a novel, and blogging, has made me one swamped dude throughout the autumn and winter. So when late December finally reared its white-topped head, I stood in my window bellowing “take me, take me, take me.”

There’s a chance that was misinterpreted by my downstairs neighbor, who now looks at me with a look at once disturbed and hopeful.

My rules for home were to be almost completely free of responsibility. I told the translation company I wasn’t available until January and I told my university that I wouldn’t have my computer. I didn’t look at my university email once. I vowed to do only my blog and otherwise not to do any serious writing. I allowed myself only to make notes and jot in a journal.

Read the rest of this entry »

No Comments

Sit with My Friend by the Fire

Like many Americans, I moved abroad to experience something different, only to be alarmed at the differences. I suppose I wanted the quaintness of Europe with all of the comforts and conveniences of America. Prague’s city center, with its famous old world charm and tourist-geared conveniences, offered exactly that. Shops sold recognizable brands and their keepers stuttered through some English. Happy, cherry-faced tourists roamed the streets of Old Town; the river dancing through the center reminded me of Pittsburgh’s.

On the outskirts of Prague 5, I knew I was in a completely different place. Streets were lined with buildings I associated with 1970s Eastern Europe: low boxy shops whose windows boasted dusty radios and TVs, rows of nondescript gray buildings, and paneláks, labyrinthine communist apartment complexes meant to cram huge amounts of people into identical spaces. Every sign and billboard was in a language I wouldn’t begin to decipher for four years. On a corner ahead, overall-clad blue-collar workers nipped pre- or –post-shift shots out of medicine cups in front of an občerstvení – a refreshment kiosk. Some chased those shots with hotdogs. Behind it all was Electro World. Five months earlier, Electro World might have conjured an electricity-themed amusement park or the bright domicile of an electric superhero, but today it was an electronics shop where I was teaching a substitution English lesson. I took a deep breath and went in.

Inside, men in white shirts with Electro World logos emblazoned on the pockets leaned against a counter. A mish mash of appliances and gadgets cluttered dozens of long tables. I practiced my Czech greeting: good day (dobrý den), I’m an English teacher (Jsem učitel angličtiny). I took out the student list, hoping anyone would recognize a name on it, and then summon them to fetch me. It was the same at every business. The men ignored me, which, I would learn, was an art practiced by Czech customer service employees. In Electro World’s American brother, one might be fell upon by salespeople stalking the aisles like commission hungry hyenas. In the Czech Republic you were ignored in lieu of literally any other task, and in the last twelve years I have waited with metered breath as waitresses have cleaned glasses and shopkeepers restocked plastic bags. When I am served it’s at their volition and only after I’d gotten the message that I was no priority. To garner attention, I sometimes do something out of line so that the worker might stop what he is doing to yell at me. After years of experimentation, I have found that whistling, winking, and touching merchandise are all effective.

Today’s (unwitting) infraction was walking into the shop with my backpack. To the left of the entrance stood a batch of square lockers where shoppers were expected to lock up their bags before browsing among the tempting electronics. I had missed them. So as I ventured further into the store, the men who had been ignoring me suddenly came to life in a verbal assault seemingly devoid of spaces or vowels. One of them realized I had no idea what was happening and so he walked me back to the lockers where I stowed my bag. I mumbled my good day, I’m an English teacher spiel and showed him my roster. He took it, glanced at it sideways, and walked away. A minute later I was facing a young man.

“I am Pavel.”

“I am Damien.”

“We must…” he bopped his head in a fill in the gap gesture “…in back.”

“OK, I just need my lesson plan and materials.”

I turned the key in the locker, but it wouldn’t budge. I worked and jiggled it, then Pavel did the same with identical results. A trail of sweat came from a spring somewhere in my scalp as Pavel beckoned one of the salespeople in repose. The guy arrived with eyes in the ready to roll position. Pavel’s face went red as he spoke. Before walking away, the guy sent his eyes on a tour of his brow.

“He must (head bob)…teknik.”

“Oh, a technician.”

“Yes. Come.”

At first Pavel appeared to be a serious young man, but his interaction with the eye-roller pegged him more as a young man acting serious. His shirt retained the rectangular creases from its package and his tie dangled above his belly button. The professional golf shirt and khakis my mother had bought me were binding and tight. Aside from his reverse peninsula balding pattern and cranberry-shaped mole, we were the same, both struggling to cope with new positions. At the moment my struggles were focused on my lack of lesson plan and materials, which were trapped in the locker inside my bag. I had only been teaching for three months, I needed a plan. So as we walked past blenders and heating pads, I scrambled to come up with one.

For the five years before I ended up on Prague’s doorstep, I worked as a bartender in a Pittsburgh campus pub. Life was sweet. The bar was packed and popular; three nights a week its core featured me pulling pints and telling stories and jokes. I had a knack for making people laugh and relax. I started drinking around midnight and made money hand over fist. For a guy who’d eked his way through six years of college on part time jobs and the Langhorne, Pennsylvania branch of the Bank of Mommy and Daddy, this novelty was difficult to overlook. Additionally, the working atmosphere was stress free. Many of the employees were still in school or recent grads not yet concerned with the real world of careers and adult responsibilities. They had fun and enjoyed a life involving no take home work. To them, I was the wise experienced veteran who was capable of handling any problem. On slow day shifts the waitresses and I drank iced tea and played trivial pursuit, during which I kicked ass in literature and history, the only use to which my degree was applied. Though this carefree environment was difficult to leave, most eventually did. Waitresses embarked upon careers with entry level jobs, hostesses started grad school and internships, and every six months I had a new batch of waitresses to impress with my experience, my wit, and my trivial knowledge. For a long while, I had it made in the shade.   

In my late twenties people started asking about grad school and career plans. The subtext implied slackerism and real world avoidance. I was ostensibly a writer, but one who didn’t put a word on paper unless he was writing up a liquor order from the store. I woke up one day and saw myself as a forty-year-old bartender, stuffing cash in my sock drawer, and getting the occasional blowjob from a drunken waitress in dry storage. This fantasy aligned itself next to the hypothetical futures of my college classmates. Their Mazda SUVs and houses were juxtaposed against my Dodge Neon and rented flat. My cat ironically posed like their kids on our Christmas cards. I decided a change was needed; perhaps because I was trying to make up for lost time, I decided to change big. I was going to move to Prague and teach English. I was twenty nine.   

After my decision to leave but before actually leaving, I reveled in all of the sexiness and romance associated with being an expatriate in Europe. I dropped it into conversations with practiced ease: “New York is OK, I guess, if you have to be in the U.S, but Europe is much more my speed. Me? Oh, I’m moving to Prague.” I bought a grammar guide, a sweater with elbow patches, and a Czech/English dictionary. I drooled over flats for rent in Prague’s city center. I fell hard for the fantasy version of Expatriate Me. He would find inspiration for writing in old world Europe and lived in a quaint cobblestoned street. Each morning in rustic clothing (think Sicily-based Al Pacino in the Godfather) he walked past cafes and greeted sophisticates in a language for which I couldn’t even construct a make believe imitation. Expatriate Me drank in moderation and frequented places known only to locals. There was a shift in his personality and, remarkably, looks. Instead of rambunctious and talkative, he was serene and contemplative. He went from short and stocky to a tauter, more classically attractive gentleman. Evidently, he’d been awarded wisdom, introversion, and attractiveness with his plane ticket.

Six months later, the romance disappeared amid a meltdown at JFK, during which I asked myself, confused vendors, and inanimate objects: My God, what am I doing? The next day I was sitting through the introductory session of an ESL teaching course in a language school classroom in Prague’s Anděl sector. With me were ten others enrolled in the course; mostly youngish Americans, a Czech and a Brit thrown in for international flavor. I think we had an Australian. In front of the room, a chinless guy named Paul gave us a speech whose undertones of pending doom were less than subtle.  

“Most of you probably think you’re here to live the expat life, but it’s really hard. Planning a lesson takes hours. And if we offer you a job, expect long hours of trudging between businesses and getting home after dark. Hehehe.” Paul peered at us out of the corner of his eyes and spoke to us sideways. He punctuated his statements with an awkward laugh. “Hehehe. Don’t slack off this month; there’s no time. Brush up on grammar. Hehehe. Enjoy Prague, but get your work done. Lots of people come to try ESL in Prague, but then ditch the course, have a beer drinking vacation, and head home. He. He. Please introduce yourselves.”

As I awaited my turn, I sweated at the nerves he’d hit with his pinpoint accurate comments.  Heading home with my tail between my legs was completely against the fantasy of Expatriate Me. “I’m Damien,” I said. “I was a bartender. I like reading and writing.” Though my brain shrieked “Say you’re a writer!” my mouth wouldn’t do it. However, others were not similarly self-censored.   

“Name’s Chris, I’m a writer.”

“Hi all. I’m Jamie, me too.”

“I am a writer, too. I’m here to teach and finish my novel,” I think it was Richard.

“Wow. We should form a writer’s group,” said Justin.

Part of me stewed in jealousy. I had gone from being the romantic expatriate to being nothing special over the course of a six-minute introduction. Now I was just one of a bunch of people doing the same thing. There were even other writers, some having visited the El Dorado world of being publishing. Still, another part of me sensed that we were all paddling the same boat along an undercurrent of Personal Reinvention. Later I’d find out that Richard had been a pizza delivery man, Jen was leaving a nightmare relationship (to soon enter another), Justin had managed a bar. Though none of us said it, we’d all come to Prague for the same reason: to start over.

Over the month long course at the language school, we were introduced to the world of ESL teaching. There was an overload of meta-language, both to describe grammatical terms we’d never used growing up, such as past perfect, gerunds, third conditional, and to convey ESL concepts like elicitation, Total Physical Response, and Present Produce and Practice.

“Hehehe. Elicit language from the students, don’t give it to them. Heh…hehe” Paul scolded after our practice lessons. We were indoctrinated with the acronym TTT. Teacher Talking Time: the concept that we should speak less and our students should speak more. That a language student should speak more than the teacher fluent in that language makes sense, but had simply never occurred to me. Thus was assassinated my Teacher Me fantasy, in which I stood behind a podium in my sweater, twirling glasses around by the stem and positing offhand yet brilliant philosophical observations about the subjunctive to a sea of riveted students.

Nevertheless, I did become a diligent student of ESL and the English language. Instead of novels, I pored over grammar guides and methodology books. I planned lessons so intricate that they resembled Jason Bourne plots more than a conditionals lesson. I passed the course with flying colors partly due to hard work and partly to the fear of falling back into the complacency that had led to six years in college and five years of bartending. When the course ended I was offered a job at the school, but my anxious diligence didn’t end. I needed experience, so I took every substitution and every variety of course the school offered. I taught test preparation, business English, individual lessons, and English for Special Purposes. At the end of three months, despite my dedication and my sweater, I was still a bad teacher. 

While the scheduling office knew that I would teach anywhere at any time, I was at Electro World because of Marketa, the Czech ESL teacher to whom I had given my heart. When she mumbled something about a doctor’s appointment and asked if I could substitute, I accepted in the overly eager manner kindled by those we adore. She was a veteran teacher who’d been at the school for years, so as I followed Pavel through Electro World, my heart palpitated with pressure. I had to do well for numerous reasons.

We walked into a storage room which doubled as a cock fight venue in Steven Segal films. It was dimly lit and stacked boxes stood around it like cairns. On the back wall was a two-way mirror that looked into the store. Pavel pointed me to a round table in the far corner, where a blonde woman was twiddling a pen. She stood to an impressive arboreal height and introduced herself. Jana wore a skirt that was more like a wide belt and smiled in terror as she shook my hand. I fitted myself into a seat between the table and a rickety stack of cardboard boxes. Through the mirror I watched an overall-clad guy approach the lockers carrying a screwdriver and a pissed off scowl for being roused from his lair. My brain froze.  

“So, how are you?”

“Good,” Jana said.

“And how are you?”

“Uh…good,” Pavel said.

“Good. You’re both good. Good.”

I extended my interrogation to include what they did at Electro World. Through intense head bopping and a dip into German, Pavel managed to tell us that he had been a manager for a week, having been plucked out of the white-shirted ranks. Jana didn’t offer the title of her job, but supplanted that by saying that she had been at Electro World for two years. In ESL terminology, their English level was low A2, or advanced beginners. In layman’s terms, they understood the concept of verbs and nouns, but possessed little ability to arrange them into sentences which conveyed ideas.

My brain had a wave: hobbies. Yes! Hobbies could be drawn out for an hour. I could elicit lots of terminology and vocabulary (and make Paul proud). Verb patterns could be employed as well as various other emergent lexicon. In the years of ESL teaching I would go on to do, I have found hobbies to be a springboard to a deeper conversation on topics such as health, national customs, and sexism. Today, hobbies were going to save my ass, for I was an ESL genius.

“Do you have any hobbies, Pavel?”

He nodded. “Skiing and cycling.”

“And you, Jana?”

“Cycling either.”

I nodded, turned back to Pavel. “What do you like about cycling, Pavel?” Pavel shook his head with pursed lips, having decided that he’d said too much, he entered a tunneled resistance not seen since Iwo Jima in 1945. I looked at Jana and questioned my life choices for the hundredth time that week.  

Before I could ask anything, Jana squinted. “I likes…” she let out a breath and shook her head. “…in the forest.” She shrugged.

Though instinct told me to list a bunch of activities, the Ghost of Chinless Paul superseded it by whispering TTT in my ear, so I mimed the act of drawing and said: “Draw a picture of it.”

Jana opened her notebook and drew a campfire represented by crisscrossed rectangular logs beneath a few ridges of fire. Next to it she stenciled a triangular teepee-like canvas tent, the likes of which I used to chase spiders out of on Boy Scout camping trips. She made two stick figures capped with heads and shoes. Their maniacal smiles suggested euphoria. The artwork inspired Pavel the Inert.

“Yes! Marketa teaching it.”

My heart skipped a beat at the mention of my crush. Marketa was a somber brunette who exuded a carefree attitude usually attached to a gulag administrator. With me it seemed no different, and she regarded me as though I had once copped a feel of her grandmother at a Bar Mitzvah. A week before, when I’d come across her reading J.D Salinger’s 9 Stories in our school’s café and gushed over my love for it, she put it down and never looked at it again.

I became a poster boy for the world’s oldest irony, which is that we want those who don’t want us. I applied strategies to get her attention and dwelt over the minutest details of our chance encounters. That Marketa and I were wrong for each other has been clear to me for the last twelve years, and yet I know why I wanted her. Marketa completed the fantasy of European Me. We would wed in a small ceremony. I would write books and she would translate them into Czech in our flat in Prague and our countryside cottage. She was the sober local to my witty foreigner. Together, we would change my identity completely. A second later, Jana asked Pavel the term for this activity. I wrote the C in camping on my sheet.

“Sit with my friend by the fire,” Pavel replied. 

I blinked. “Oh.”

“Yes!” Jana said, and then added the esoteric: “in the…past watch.” And then, “I sit with my friend by the fire.”

“OK, wait…”

In rudimentary language, Jana asked Pavel where Marketa was. Pavel needed to go to Czech to explain, which caused them both to giggle. I asked them to explain. Jana summoned all of her linguistic powers.

“Marketa is go to new flat with boyfriend.”

“New flat? Boyfriend?”

“Yes,” Pavel took the reins. “He live in her today.”

“Oh, they are moving in together,” I said. “They are moving in together,” I repeated. Then again as I wrote it on my sheet in progressively darker and more throbbing letters. “They. Are. Moving. In. Together.”

Jana nodded in confirmation. A few pangs occurred in my chest. Marketa had lied to me. So while I struggled through her class with her A2 students, with no lesson plan, she was having acrobatic monkey sex with a grave expression on her face. Through the two-way mirror I glimpsed the Locker Kraken chucking my bag on the counter amongst his disinterested colleagues. I continued.  

“Let’s get back to it.” I wrote in disturbingly bold letters on my sheet: Sit With My Friend By The Fire. Then, following my training, I guided the students through a discussion and elicited language. We talked for the rest of the hour about what we wore when we sat with our friends by the fire, what we ate when we sat with our friends by the fire, what time of year we sat with our friends by the fire. I asked them what they liked drinking when they sat with their friends by the fire and who introduced them to sitting with their friends by the fire. They told me about times when it had rained when they were sitting with their friends by the fire and how much a guitar enhances the mood while sitting with their friends by the fire. Pavel told a story about some people who ran into a ghost while sitting with their friends by the fire, the story’s sparse minimalism enhancing its awful terror. In the adrenalin so often created by language acquisition, Jana sheepishly admitted to once making love while sitting with her friend by the fire.

By most criteria it was a worthy ESL lesson. Our discussion elicited a variety of verb patterns and our narratives employed narrative tenses. Not to mention their use of necessary emergent vocabulary such as coals, logs, forest, to start and put out a fire, and put up a tent. My TTT was minimal as Jana and Pavel were invigorated by the lesson. Furthermore, the mood in the backroom was ebullient by the time I stood beneath the cairn of toasters and said goodbye. They seemed genuinely disappointed when I said I probably wouldn’t be back. The only drawback, of course, was that I had taught, encouraged use of, and implanted completely incorrect language. The word for “camping” in Czech is “Kempování”; I had actively murdered previously existing knowledge.  

When I came back into the shop, I felt like a failure. The white shirts ignored me, but one broke his grumpy ranks to presumably scold me for allowing their locker to eat my bag. I nodded and apologized; I deserved it. I reflected on the morning and slipped into an acute depression. Marketa was a No, I had purposefully taught incorrect language, and I was no teacher. Despite the massive changes of job and location, I hadn’t changed. My elaborate fantasy of the New Expatriate Me was a joke; I was just the Same Me in a different place doing a different job.

In the twelve years since that morning, I have been allowed more insight into my particular process of personal reinvention. While change did stem from my big decision to move, true change would come gradually after that. It came when I didn’t run home to the U.S. but rather stuck it out in Prague, and struggled through setbacks, challenges, and loneliness. It came as I learned and developed into a dedicated professional English teacher, and forged my way into a new field. It came when I set and stuck to a daily writing routine, began publishing stories, essays, blogs, and a novel five years later. (I wonder if Richard finished his, he left the month after my Electro World experience). Change came when I got a master’s degree a few years later and the linguistics research I would get involved in. Change came when I started teaching Academic Writing and English for Academic Purposes at a university in Prague, where I still teach today. It turns out I’m still the Same Me, just better.      

That morning, however, I had no idea these changes awaited me, only that I felt no different then. I headed to the občerstvení on the corner to drown my guilt in a medicine cup of plum brandy. I stuttered in Czech and pointed. The old woman who handed me the cup from the window was smoking and wore glasses that she’d bought in the 1980s. I wanted to tell her that I used to do her job, but I lacked the language then. It was no matter, because I didn’t use to do her job, I did a different one. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 10 am, which meant it was 4 am in Pittsburgh. I wondered who was cleaning the bar I used to stand behind, and if they were drinking, and if they fully appreciated the womb-like safety of that bar. I downed my plum brandy. A workman in red overalls huffed. As I signaled for another I noticed that the woman’s sweater was full of holes ringed with chalky black, as though for years she had worn this sweater when she sat with her friend by the fire, whatever the hell that meant.     

No Comments