Having arranged ahead of time for a taxi to pick me up at Ruzyně, Prague’s airport, I scurried to the baggage claim, grabbed a luggage cart and hoisted my things onto it, eager to see my name on a plain white placard in the hands of (hopefully) an English-speaking cabbie. Petr was there as promised, welcoming me in my own tongue — he’d spent two years in “the Florida” I learned during the ride — and we spoke a little in his van. He asked what I was in Prague for, and expressed surprise and something like sympathy when I told him I wanted to learn his language. We made our winding way toward Nusle, a neighborhood in Prague 2, as the strains of familiar American songs sung in Czech brought to bear for the first time my complete, utter, voluntary dispossession. My home now, for two nights, was Jaromírova 46/174, where a room at the Pension BETA hostel awaited me.
After paying and thanking Petr, děkuji, na shledanou!, I paid for and entered my rented room, and struck out, at 11:30pm, for a pack of cigarety and a barstool. I chose a place two or three buildings down because of the large, red, neon sign that advertised in plain English: OPEN. I walked in, parroted the oft-quoted open-sesame phrase, “Pivo, prosím,” and started digging for my wallet. “You only play game first?,” the supposed suds-slinger seemed to inquire, pointing to another room. It was more insistence than inquiry, it occurs to me retrospectively. I’d walked into a games-only hole, which boasted, I noticed on second look, a complete and utter lack of taps behind the “bar.” In a separate room there was a line of arcade game apparatuses, something like slot machines or individual Keno booths. “Aaaah,” I said smartly before backing out over the threshold. So, although the pub right next to the hostel may have seemed too obvious a choice at first, it was, after all, appropriate enough a dive to quaff my first official Plzeňské pivo. So I walked in and asked for one, this time a little less certain of those magic words: “Pivo, prosím?”
I must have stuck out as an American, or at least as a foreigner, as one of the locals in the bar knowingly asked me, “What’s up, bro?” His follow-up, “Why you are here in Prague?,” led to a brief chat. My answer, “Well, to teach English, but also to learn Czech,” drew a surprised and a longish, approving smirk from my new acquaintance. I saw his eyebrows arch high, and his lips jut out while the corners of his mouth turned slightly down; he thoughtfully held his chin between a thumb and forefinger, leaned forward, then said, “Czech is very difficult language, do you know? Why do you want to learn?” “Yeah, I know — but I want to translate poetry.” “Really? Czech poetry? Who do you like from Czech poets?” “Uh, hrmm,” I pondered, “well, Miroslav Holub, for instance.” “Who is he?” “Oh, he’s a Czech poet — was a Czech poet, but also a microbiologist or some kind of scientist. He died just over ten years ago, and was a fantastic poet.” “Oh. I have not heard of him.” We both shrugged, and with a friendly parting word he took his two fresh half liters to rejoin his drinking companions.
When I turned back to the bartender thus lulled into quick and false familiarity, I pointed to an ashtray and indicated I wanted another beer, as well. “How do you call this?,” I asked, holding the ashtray up for review. He said something unintelligible, and, on reconsideration of his tone, probably very flippant. Probably something along the lines of: I do not understand a fucking thing you just said, you arrogant tourist scumbag. And then he laughed, a plosive, dismissive exhalation that said it all: I will not be bothered wasting my time trying to decipher your ignorance. He turned, and I inhaled my smoke and slugged my beer, then gestured, when he deigned again to meet my eyes, for the bill. Again he said something I had no bearing to comprehend and then curtly offered up, first repeating it slightly more slowly in Czech and finally in English: “For-tee six.”