Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Americans in Prague

Things Get Distorted
According to my land lady who heard it on the news,  88% of Czech citizens will travel abroad during the summer holidays. In Prague, a city of 1million permanent residents, I suspect the number is higher. I do not hear Czech spoken on the streets. Charles Bridge is impossible to cross. I ran into a lot of Americans. You know how you sometimes look at your family in disgust and think, "My God, how are we related?" And other times you look at them with writhing dread and think, "My God, we are related!" This is how I sometimes feel about being an American Abroad.

“Is this butter?” he asks as he shoves a white package almost into my nose.
I am in the super market mulling over what I want to make for dinner. Pasta? Gnocchi? Rice and beans? Something cheap, something quick and easy. While I am now adept at figuring out which pasta is overpriced, it is still a new place and I stand with a serious expression scrunching my face, basket at my side.
“Is this butter?” he asks. He is tall, taller than me, looms a bit, too close.
It says, in French, “la beurre” in the top left corner. The package, which I took in my hand to get it out of my nose, feels like butter. “Yep,” I reply. He marches away towards the check out line where his father leans over the counter towards the woman, as if he cannot understand her perfect pronunciation in English of the price.

“Yes, I will!” the girl child wails, pulling the full length of her tiny arm, twisting to get out of her mothers grip
“No. You hit me. You don’t get dessert.”
“Yes I will!” the girl is not longer wailing but stating. She’s played this game before.
“If you hit me one more time, you will not get dessert.”
Ah. So we’ve moved to the future tense now. The game has changed. The girl is winning or has won and she knows it.
She hits her mother again.
They are lost in crowd moving across Charles Bridge.

In the Asian market, she greets me in czek and tells me the price of the green curry paste and coconut milk, her broad face has a bright look, not a smile, but a cheerful look all the same. When I pause and smile at her apologetically, she says “Oh sorry!” and proceeds in a clear American (to my ears) accent. She wants to know where I’m from and says that she thought I was Czek, she wouldn’t have known I was American. I tell her, “I take that as a compliment” and she laughs. I ask where she learned English so well. “Oh I’m from the Phillipines.” Ah. Yes. Perhaps to compliment on this is an insult, but she sounded American herself, as at ease in English as a teenager in blue jeans with holes in the knees.
I want to ask how she came here to a city of tourists, a steady outsider in a sea of constant outsiders. But I don’t. I ask instead about the price of vegetables in the city. She tells me which mini markets have good vegetables and that her little asian market specializes in Phillipino food. She tells me to come back and I say that I will.

“Oh my god, I just can’t even deal,” she says, throwing her intentially messy hair back over her head, eye liner carefully applied, bright pink lips, pink nails, iphone held in one hand sunglasses on head. “I need to go back and put deodorant on for, like, the first time today.” The other four laugh. Georgetown Villanova Penn State Syracuse. Sweatshirts reveal their towers of learning. Here to “study” for six weeks complex subjects like literature, politics and economics. One coughs and shifts her lighter to another hand. “I just can’t go out again tonight, I’m too sick, I’m still drunk,” one says. “Do you remember the part where Dylan got left behind? We were totally lost.” “Wait, you got back into the strip club? How did you do that? Why did they kick me out and not you?”
            They hit on the Czech guy working the counter. “Do you work here every day?” they ask in raspy voices, louder than the background music or the running coffee maker. “We’ll be in every day” they say to reassure him that he means something to them.
He smiles a delighted smile, a smile that lights from him like a benediction. It is the same he will give me when I murmur a quiet “thank you” as he hands me my check. I leave him a tip to say “Sorry.” Sorry for the Americans. Sorry for being… us.

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