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.     

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