Summer has taken over spring and pride month has arrived: rainbows of all shapes and sizes have sprung up around the entire city. Our hood smells of water evaporating from gardens, and of barbecue dinners. Lovers in parks are getting high on pot and each other's lips. Litters of newborn humans and puppies are wearily gazing at long sun-rays dancing with shadows while their parents cool their thirst frosty brews. And everyone’s showing their skin proudly again. I pick up cherries, as red as blood, at the market on my way back from an evening walk, so that we can eat them watching the sunset while I reminisce about how I came to call this country my home.
Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.
– Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace
Who is Matylda? America with a ‘k’? Driving a limo? Aren’t limousines usually driven by chauffeurs and people rent them for that very reason, so that they can enjoy the luxury of being driven around? You are right. The title is a bit blurred – and maybe not just the title. It could be me slash or the whole book that are off. Or maybe nothing’s weird and there is a simple explanation that will build up to a huge revelation. Tada! In the end, you will leave with the feeling that everything makes sense again. Perhaps.
Let’s not get distracted by insignificant details though and let’s stay on track of introducing the story. There was a time when I thought that every American drove a limousine – the most expensive form of automobile ground transportation – beautiful, luxurious sedan car, a symbol of wealth and power. To many, me included, an icon of the United States of America. And what does all of this have to do with Matylda? That’s simple, the first limo I ever sat in was named Matylda and she was my very first car.
If you are intrigued, if you want to figure out what this is going to be about, whether I’m nuts, from Mars, trying to sell you some novel way of how to live your life, or perhaps pulling out some writer’s tricks on you, just read the next sentence. The answers are: me, maybe, not to my knowledge, nah, I wish. Now, allow me to elaborate a bit on my answers; one by one.
This book is my story. It’s a true story, but the characters depicted are [insert the legal blahblahblah here]. It is a recollection of my first visit to the United States, my first encounters with its people and culture. It is based on what is stored in my memory from a life-changing round trip, interwoven with all sorts of digressions, thoughts, and observations that might have more to do with the person I have become rather than with what I experienced one summer at the end of the last century. Which part is the true story then? Which ones are fictional, and what is the author’s agenda, you might ask. The teacher in me wants to say that these are all excellent questions. The less grown-up part of me is laughing at your attempts to figure that out. I’m easily entertained.
Am I nuts? Thank you for the compliment. Hmmm. I have never been diagnosed with a mental illness or even seen a shrink. To a casual observer, I may appear to be a fully functioning member of society with an advanced degree, a fulfilling career, loving friends and family, and an obvious midlife crisis that I’m overcoming by trying something new – writing this book. Writing is not really my forté, and the predicament of someone about to turn forty would explain things. I hardly ever enjoyed writing, often times even disliked it, and occasionally even, yes, the H-word-ed it. On the other hand, there are those times when the above-mentioned “normality” shows cracks and might require further attention. Maybe I’ll make an appointment one of these days.
I am an alien. Not from Mars or any other planet, for that matter. I was born in Czechoslovakia, in what is known today as the Czech Republic, one of the countries in the European Union. I’ve been living in the U.S. for the past thirteen plus years and call it my home. However, at the same time I am considered an alien in this country. At least on paper. There are other words used on various official documents and they vary depending on the particular form or office you’re dealing with. But alien comes up pretty frequently. My status recently changed from ‘temporary permanent resident alien’ to ‘permanent resident alien’. In the eyes of the law, I suppose, it makes me less alien, but still an alien nevertheless. By the way, if you look up synonyms for alien, the word immigrant does not turn up. Martian does. I guess I still could be from Mars and just not know it.
This book isn’t selling anything and after you’re done reading it, it’s extremely unlikely that your life will change in any significant way. It just isn’t one of these books that tries to teach you how to live your life. Not that there is anything wrong with them, they have their place in bookstores and peoples’ lives, too. The thing is just that this book is about how I lived a part of my life. It’s as simple as that. Frankly, I’m just glad that I’m (sort of) managing and have no desire to preach to anybody else.
Moving to the next one, playing language tricks is not anything I’ve ever occupied myself with. Moreover, it isn’t really an option for me. As already stated, I ain’t no native speaker of English here, so I would have lost any word game with you at the first attempt made. For realses.
This book, the title included, is a very candid account in which the words are not meant to mislead you, but to take you on a journey. Well, on a trip to be more precise, but this will be explained shortly.
That’s what this book is about, nothing more, and nothing less. Well, obviously there will be more pages with words on them. There is Part One, which sets things up for the main body of the book, and is rather short. Then there are Part Two and Part Three, each describing a certain time period. They are, of course, related, but are different, so that’s why there are split. And there is the ending, too. Wow, this paragraph is so profound. Job well done, sir! It might be better to stop writing what the book is going to be about, and start writing the book itself. No hurry, but at some point, it would be appreciated.
"How do you find America?"
"Turn left at Greenland.”
– Ringo Starr
The year was one thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven and I was a sophomore at Charles University in Prague – the first and the oldest university in Central Europe, as the faculty and staff constantly reminded their students - us. Talking about the past was a big deal. Not only at the college but pretty much everywhere in the Czechlands when I was growing up. Examples taken from the bygones were frequently utilized to answer many questions that started with how, what, where, who, when, or why. Stories from the distant and not so distant past also provided a constant reminder of who the good guys and the bad ones were. In the 90s good and evil switched places and a new grand narrative was drilled into people’s heads, so they could learn what’s right and what’s wrong. Same as before, referencing the past continued to be incorporated into many conversations, even if the topic had nothing to do with history. You could ask someone for directions to the nearest bank and the events of 1620, which led to the Czechs losing their independence for 300 years, and almost perishing from the surface of this earth, somehow popped up in their answer. The past was often depicted as splendid. The future was glamorous, too. The present, not so much. It often felt that it was easier to re-write what happened and to foresee what was going to happen, rather than to face what was right in front of the nation, us, at that very moment. In this vein, my people were just continuing a tradition of their ancestors of hundreds of years, by glorifying the past and painting the future in the brightest colors possible, while turning a blind eye to the present.
In her commencement speech at the same institution, my friend Káťa made the case that dwelling on vanished times is so 1400s. She reasoned that the university would be better off focusing its energy on the present. She made a much more elaborate and eloquent argument, but that is my take from the speech she gave in breathtaking borderline intimidating Karolinum’s aula magna, right under the tapestry with the motif of Charles IV kneeling in front of St. Wenceslaus. Charles IV was the founder of that very institution of higher education and the first king of Bohemia to also become Holy Roman Emperor, and St. Wenceslaus a beloved duke of Bohemia, the patron saint of the Czech state. The trinity of three great minds — Charles, Wenceslaus, and Kat’a — is the picture that commemorates that very special step into my adulthood, Kat’a being a brightest one who challenged the status quo like the other two had centuries before her. For years, Káťa was the person I used to call when the crazies of this world got to me and I needed a fresh voice of reason, simplicity, and logic.
There I was, a Moravian boy from a one-horse town, getting his education at a university that was founded 650 years prior. To be honest, I was not really sure what I was doing there. Even though my Russian major led to a successful career, at that time in my life, college wasn’t all I dreamed and hoped for. Don’t get me wrong, education was, and still is, a huge part of my life. I attended a university and was thoroughly enjoying the newly gained freedoms of adulthood, but I still wanted more.
I was twenty and a half, had just finished my third semester of college, and was at my parents’ for the winter break relishing a few weeks off. My folks patiently listened to the recently gained wisdom of a sophisticated college urbanite who was still relying on his mom to do his laundry. I had mixed feelings about the visit. It was great to see my friend and family, but at the same time it felt awkward coming back to the little town where I spent so much time dreaming about how I would leave as soon as possible and never come back. I’ve always felt that I did not belong there.
There was a lot of negativity in that village. It often felt like hatred of anyone who was different was a favorite pastime. There was a strong push to preserve at whatever cost the way people live, too. And I wanted change things. There was also a lot of uniformity. One pretty much needed to look, think and behave like the locals. If you didn’t, they made sure to let you know that you weren’t one of them, and that you were not welcome there. I wanted to live among more diverse people. It just makes me happy.
Anyway, during one of numerous family Christmas get-togethers, after being quizzed about school, living in Prague, and whatnot, some nosey relative popped the question. Not that question, but the one he would frequently annoy me with: “Sooo, what are you gonna do this summer?” I didn’t have an answer ready and almost choked on carp, a traditional x-mas delicacy of my people. The interrogation had to be halted before it got into further details of my college life and it just slipped out of my mouth – “I’m going to America this summer.”
Somehow I managed to muddle through the follow-up inquiries. Once the words came out of my mouth, the simplest thought came to mind: Why not? Why couldn’t I go? Looking back, there were at least a few serious reasons for not going, but when you’re still counting your age in half years, decisions are not made by writing a pros and cons list. As soon as the thought materialized, I was overwhelmed with anxiety and excitement for the rest of the evening and conversations faded away. What remained were these those two sharp and distinct feelings: the excitement of an unknown adventure, subconsciously knowing your life will never be the same, and the anxiety produced by the very same thing. This wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time, my slow mouth to brain connection put me in a precarious situation. Now I have numerous strategies for dealing with this. But back then I was still a novice at answering questions without actually answering them. I feel so grown-up now.
The five months between my decision and the time I landed at Newark airport on May 18, 1998 went by really fast. I started looking into ways of making my hasty plan a reality right away. As I found out, there were not that many opportunities. After a few weeks of researching my options the old-fashioned way, at libraries and in the newspapers, the odds of being able to pull off my trip to America seemed rather bleak. I shared my frustrations with a few classmates and one of them mentioned a summer program she had participated in recently. It was called Exchange Visitor Program, which was established in order to bring young people from overseas to the United States for a four-month program in summer camps. The rationale behind this program was to promote the general interest for international exchange, and allow international students to gain educational and cultural experiences in America. It sounded like an intriguing program and without much trouble I found a couple of agencies that sponsored these exchange stays.
Shorty after, I attended an informational meeting at the agency that shall remain nameless. Their world headquarters is in California and they have offices in many countries around the world. The meeting took place on campus at the University of Chemistry and Technology, which was just a few tram stops down the hill from my dorm in the Petřín neighborhood. There were several hundred students gathered in a huge auditorium, all eager to learn about the program. The meeting was held by a young couple in their early thirties, an American and his Czech wife, who were the owners of the agency sponsoring the program. There were a few other people helping them. Most had gone through the program and talked about their experiences, painting a colorful picture of their best summer ever. The couple and their assistants were all smiles and they had the meeting down to the smallest detail. I was captivated. The only unsettling thing was that everyone was so positive and smiled all the time. That wasn’t the way serious matters were dealt with in my neck of the woods. In spite of my suspicions, I filled out the registration forms right away and took an English interview to ensure that I had the language skills needed to survive. I looked the agency up recently, and it still offers its services to Czech youth. The wife is now the sole owner and seems to have gained some pounds of experience over the years, but still has the same bright eyes. The husband is not mentioned.
The next step was to figure out where to get money for the fees. Several months earlier my paternal grandparents – Meemaw and Grandpa – had divided between their four grandchildren some money they had been saving little by little for twenty years. My share wouldn’t buy even a used škodovka, but it was the most cash I had ever held in my hands. They said it was up to me how I wanted to spend it. I knew very well the hundreds of hours of sweat, pain, and sacrifice my grandparents went through. Using my share to pay for a summer abroad didn’t feel one hundred percent right, since it wasn’t a tangible thing, like a computer or books for school.
My grandparents lived most of their lives under communism and couldn’t travel abroad, especially to the West. They never talked about traveling and I always assumed that it simply wasn’t their thing. It occurred to me much later that not talking about certain things was part of their survival tactic – they simply didn’t talk about or even acknowledge things that were not possible under the realities of communism. When I told them what I was planning to do with their gift, Meemaw leaned closer to me, pinched me on the cheeks the same way she used to when I was very little, and whispered with excitement: “I’ll cook you vepřo-knedlo-zelo.” While she was preparing my favorite dish, Grandpa was reminiscing about their youth, about how they met, and about things that were on their minds when they were about my age.
One day in early April, I opened the mailbox and found a letter informing me that I had been officially accepted to the program. The letter contained some basic info about the camp that selected me, and instructions on how to obtain my travel documents. I followed these and got my visa at the local American embassy, which was much easier than I anticipated, all thanks to the status of the exchange program sponsored by the U. S. Government. That was it. It was a deal. I was going. There wasn’t much else to do in terms of preparation for the summer, but I really wanted to do something radical – something to mark my leap into the unknown. The only thing that came to my mind was cutting my hair. I had hair that went down to my shoulders. It didn’t take much maintenance, but still needed to be washed and combed regularly. I thought that getting a buzz cut would ease the burden of having to take care of my hair while traveling. Not only would it be a practical hairdo, but buzz cuts were in back then. When my mother saw me, she said that I looked like a labor camp prisoner. I felt ready for the summer.
The night before my departure, I didn’t sleep much. It might have been because of the three-decade-old mattress or due the stuffy air that didn’t seem to cool down even when the sun took a little break from fiercely heating the city. It might have had to do with something else. Who knows? I was ready to get the summer started, and I rushed with excitement to the airport in the early morning. It was my first time on a plane and I enjoyed every moment of it. The flight was direct, from Prague to Newark. I counted down the seven hours on the big screens that showed our progress with a tiny plane jerking across a map highlighting odd cities. There would be Leeds but not London, Kawawachikamach but not Ottawa. I kind of liked that. Well, except for the huge amount of new information that was bombarding me, so many new words and the way they were spelled.
One thing I have not learned so far and I don’t expect I ever will is how to spell. Well, that’s not accurate. I can spell just fine most of the words I’m familiar with. The issue arises usually with proper names. When someone else tells me how to spell their name, a street name, or web address, my brain just won’t get it. I can do it if they go really slow - “i:” “ti:” “heɪtʃ” “i:” “ɛl” - What? Once more! What was the third one? I do much better when I have something to write with and on, but it’s usually not the case. Plus, people with uncommon names have probably told others how to spell their names a hundred times, so the speed with which they say it feels to me like the speed of light, and I have no chance of keeping up. I know it’s totally embarrassing and something that one would hope I would be able to learn, but I haven’t.
For most of the flight I found myself in a strange state, as I always am when I’m waiting for something important. It’s hard to focus on anything – I can’t read or work, and my senses are heightened to the point where it almost feels like I am having some sort of attack. It’s not exactly a panic attack, but more like an overwhelming excitement. Being a bit of a control freak, I decided to follow to the letter the plan I had prepared to keep myself occupied. I watched a movie and enjoyed the in-flight meal like it was the gourmet experience of the year – eating slowly, trying to examine the flavor of every carrot and each of the five medium to small pieces of the chicken. Excitement was pumping in my veins and I believed, or tried to make myself believe, that the in-flight food was delicious. Even today, the first bite of food is preceded with expectation whenever I fly, and followed most times by disappointment.
There were still many hours left, so I decided to occupy myself with one of my avocations – people watching. Ordinarily I can just watch people, and disappear into my scattered thoughts. There is something weirdly appealing about it that can keep me occupied for hours. I’m easily captivated by imagining what strangers’ lives are like. I observe their gestures, facial expressions, and the things they do, and try to invent a personality for them. Sometimes I have imaginary conversations with them or dream up various situations and envision how they would behave. I started trying to guess peoples’ nationalities. It was relatively easy – most people were Czechs and Americans. There were some Russians and Israelis. I used to be quite good at this game, but have given it up, or perhaps I lost the will to maintain the skill of figuring out someone’s national background. Now I wonder why it was ever important to me.
A couple of hours later, after the second meal, I talked to a few Czech students in the same program. There were actually quite a few young people, perhaps half of the passengers, traveling for the same purpose. It almost felt like all of Eastern Europe was coming to America and I was a part of it. It was comforting. Even if it turned out to be miserable, as long as there are others who are as miserable as you, then it can’t be so bad.
The flight turned out to be much shorter than I had expected when the pilot out of nowhere announced the beginning of our descent. Maybe the Old World and the New One are much closer than people on either side are made to believe, crossed my mind. We landed at Newark in the early afternoon. When looking at the airport location on the map after buying my ticket, it seemed like it was right in New York City, but in fact it’s in New Jersey. Back then I thought they were pretty much the same thing. I guess it is common for us to bundle together things that are unfamiliar to us – a couple of places, people, cultures smashed together. There was a bus waiting to pick up the camp staff and counselors who had flown in from different parts of the world. The drive was pretty short and I was eagerly trying to get the first glimpses of a new continent. Everything felt so new and yet so familiar. I had seen lot of it before, in the movies, magazines, and in my imagination. But the few glances I was able to steal of the people, cars, and buildings still had an almost overwhelming sense of novelty. It was like being behind the mirror in the real Wonderland.
Here were all the things I had heard about for years, that seemed imaginary until I saw them for myself. But there they all were – wide highways with streams of cars, ads so colorful and convincing that they made you believe in the future once again. There were McDonald’s and all the other familiar brands, breathtaking skyscrapers, blocks of businesses, and people everywhere. And what people, beautiful people of New York City! It almost seemed like they came to the city at the same time from all over the world just to parade for me. Each of them seemed to have it all. And from the bus, they did. It felt like the end of a search for something unknown. Like when you keep looking for something but are not sure what it is. You know when you find it. There is a feeling of satisfaction, of putting your mind at ease. The quest is over. I believed I found what I had been looking for. It was a city, New York City, my city. In that moment I was happy and nobody could take it from me. No one.
The bus dropped us off right in the middle of it all on the campus of Columbia University, where hundreds of international students were welcomed for a short orientation before traveling to camps in the Carolinas, Florida, Nebraska, Oregon, Missouri, and other states. The dorms were teeming with people. At first, most people flocked with their countrymen, but soon they were seeking new faces and exotic accents and dispersed to meet new folks. There is so much energy when young people from diverse cultures get together. It is almost like long-separated souls reuniting with their lost parts. There was laughter, chatter, questions, and excitement and it felt like we, the youth, could and would change the world.
After soaking in the energy for some time, I decided to call my folks, just to let them know that I had arrived safe and sound. There was a phone card in the welcome packet, but the phone cards in Europe had a microchip, so that when you wanted to make a call you’d insert the card into a slot and dial the number you wanted to reach. The charge was made through the chip and money was debited from your prepaid account. The cards we were given had no chip and the phones had no slot to insert the card. I was at a loss. Fortunately, there were people from all over calling home and someone offered their help the minute they saw a confused Eastern European face. I was able to let my parents know that I was okay. At the time they didn’t have their own phone, so I called our neighbors to leave a message. I calculated the time zones in my mind and thought the best time to call would be right after dinner. It turned out that I was subtracting instead of adding seven hours. They were not super happy about my five AM call, but were already up getting ready for their morning shift at a lace factory and said they would pass on the message to my mom at work.
This little episode made me realize that North America would be challenging my status quo in unexpected ways, as I would never know where the next Quarter Pounder with Cheese versus Royale with Cheese dilemma would come from.
Another confusing thing was the various words for bathroom. Our English teachers back home taught us to use “WC” or “toilet.” Both of which seemed to be understood but were often met with strange looks, which made me believe that native speakers probably used some another expression. On the plane the voice from intercom welcomed us to use lavatories, several conveniently located at the end in the middle of the aircraft, as the stewardess informed us. On the ground I heard people using mostly bathroom, but sometimes restroom too. Later on I heard some people calling it washroom as well. And to make things more complicated, there turned out to be even more words, such as “convenience”, “powder room”, “outhouse”, “the potty”, “the can”, “the head”, “the ladies/men’s room”, “the little boys/girls room”, “the pisser”, “the shitter”, “the toilet”, “the facilities”, “the euphemism”, “el baño,” and “the john,” of course. Which one to use and when was not clear to me. Maybe restroom was for a public one and bathroom for a private one? Or could it be that one was for ladies and the other for gentlemen? Well, but all homes, lots of restaurant and businesses have just one toilet, which anyone is welcome to use … Man, I thought, I’m clearly overthinking this.
At that point I completely gave up on trying to figure out the nuances of the English language and turned my focus on making sure to leave the facilities not dirtier than I found them and most importantly on washing my hands. Some things are better left uncomplicated.
I tried to see as much of the city as possible, but only had about twelve hours and hadn’t slept much. I walked all the way to Central Park and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how large this park was. I didn’t have much time, so I just watched a few entertainers. Quite a few artists were selling their paintings or offering to sketch passers-by – exaggerating some aspects of their faces or body to make customers laugh, or portraying them in with subtle improvements that still made their art believable. You know, the pre-Photoshop way of making things look a bit, or more than a bit, better. There were also some musicians along the park pathways. One of them, a guy in his late twenties in dreads and wearing colorful patterns, played John Lennon’s Imagine next to the mosaic with the same word on the ground. He seemed to really be enjoying when people joined him singing. Imagine all the people living life in peace...
I still needed to stop at a store for some essentials that escaped my hasty packing. I remember being puzzled by the freshness and variety of fruits and vegetables in the outside displays. The sandwiches looked so good, but the price seemed astronomical compared to what I was used to, so I rushed back to the dorms to be on time for the free dinner.
I went to bed around midnight and fell asleep right away. But it didn’t last long. I woke up slightly before three o’clock and, after realizing that I wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep, I decided to explore the city a bit more. I walked around the campus and admired the beautiful buildings. The campus radiated knowledge and inquisitiveness, and I felt connected. However, there was an entire city and country beyond the invisible borders of the university, inviting me to explore them. I ran to catch a few glimpses of the infamous Broadway. I set off south, hoping to see it all. The streets were relatively empty, but there were still some people out. I didn’t make it far before everything became too much and I had to return to the safety of my dorm.
The morning seemed short; just a quick breakfast and an orientation meeting, from which I remember just two things: someone slowly explaining fanny packs, very slowly, and a group exercise. It felt strange because there were so many things that I wanted to know, but the whole orientation seemed to focus on inconsequential things, like the fanny pack. Till this day I have no idea why the trainers thought this personal miniaturized piece of luggage was potentially so important to the young people coming to this country from every corner of Earth. It’s been bugging me for a couple decades; so if you have any idea, please let me know.
The next thing we did was form a tight circle, dozens of us, squatting at the same time, and then falling. The point of the exercise was to realize that we all needed to work together or we would fall apart.
That was the knowledge I acquired on an Ivy League campus thousands of miles from home – what a fanny bag is and that we all need to work as a team. This profound moment happened not far from a building inscribed with the names of many of the great writers, philosophers, and thinkers who have changed our world. It freaked me out a little bit, as it felt very much like communist youth trainings that I had to attend as a child. It stirred up memories I had been trying to suppress for years. They were back, awakened in New York City of all places.
Little did I know that the past of my family, and my country to some degree, would be erupting unpredictably that summer with a force that would challenge how I perceived and lived my life.
I didn’t have much more time to ponder; it was time to start discovering the New World. A minivan was ready to take me and about a dozen other people to our new home for the next ten weeks. The ride was bumpy and disorienting. We dropped people off and picked some others up along the way. I have no idea what route we took. I heard someone say that we were in New Jersey, and later someone said we were entering Pennsylvania. At some point I heard we were back in New York, but I thought that New York was where we started our trip. If we started in New York City, how could we have arrived in New York State after going through New Jersey and Pennsylvania? I didn’t know. It was all very confusing. Several hours later we turned left one last time and ended up at a camp in the Poconos.