Friday, January 08, 2010


I am going to tell some moldy Prague stories today. Why this has been on my mind lately, I don't know. Perhaps because I have turned 40, and it reminds me of a time when my mind was more attuned to the world around me and the actual things I was trying to do than has been the case in the last few years. Besides, reader traffic is as slow as ever.

As you can probably guess, I am always a latecomer, and usually a somewhat unwilling one even then, to technology, only adapting when necessity dictates, i.e., it has become difficult to do things in the ways I have always done them because everybody else has moved one to the newer way. I had the fortune, perhaps for ill but in some ways, admittedly not easily perceivable, I think probably for good, to spend the formative years of my 20s in a couple of places that were just enough years behind the computerization of all aspects of daily existence that I managed to make it to around age 27 or 28 without spending any appreciable amount of time using those infernal machines. I have written elsewhere on this site that I must surely be one of the last people to go all the way through college without having, or really needing, a computer that had any capacity beyond word processing; I was in college from 1990-94, a period in which at other schools I am quite certain developments in computing were followed, and encouraged, with much more interest than they were at my school, where, as far as I could tell, any anticipation of the nature and scope of the coming revolution was kept under the hat of the anticipator (but lest you think I am mocking, I would not personally have wanted it any other way. I cannot fathom how different going to school must be now with all the popular kids having 1200 friends on Facebook and never being out of texting or cell phone range. How could someone like me even hope to compete for anybody's attention in such an environment?). A couple of years after finishing school, I went to Prague for a year in '96-'97, in which I must have been one of the last people to have the quintessential 20th century experience of spending a year in Europe blithely unaware of the Internet and all that that entails; e-mail, the ability to make reservations and buy tickets for trains and museums ahead of time, in English, if you are good-looking and cool arrange incredible social hookups, with a few taps of the keys and without having to speak to anybody (I know the Internet was going strong in '96-97, but honestly I knew nothing of it, and if anybody I knew was using it, whatever advantages they were deriving from it made no impression on me). One of the biggest differences the Internet brings to the Anglophone staying for an extended time in a non-English speaking country is in bringing to any computer user pretty much an unlimited supply of reading material in English where a genuine paucity existed just 13 and 14 years ago.

I mention this because it sounds funny now to think about how precious any printed matter in English we could get our hands on was to us. You have to know that besides not having the Internet we did not have any television either. It is not that there was no reading material available. Of course the major newspapers and magazines were sold at the main train station and in tourist areas, but even the USA Today or International Herald Tribune would have been quite expensive to buy everyday on Czech wages, and these didn't amount to more than 15-20 minutes of reading total, maybe 35-40 if you read every article including the Business section, perhaps an hour if you did the crossword puzzle too. Every couple of weeks a tourist would leave one of these papers on the subway and I would be able to scavenge it. There were a couple of bookstores that stocked English language books (also expensive), one of which was a real hangout where you could sit and read for several hours if you wanted, drink coffee, scope girls, etc, and I did go there a couple of times a week--though between walking to the metro, changing trains once and then walking again on the other end it was a 45-60 minute trip each way from my apartment. I had brought some books with me, Volume I of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, of which I actually read quite a lot (I still had at that time some vague idea of maybe going to graduate school when I returned home), various travel guidebooks which I must have read backwards and forwards 20 times apiece, several novels, I remember reading Great Expectations and David Copperfield, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1984 (a great conversation starter in that part of the world), and The French Lieutenant's Woman there, along with some Kafka and Hrabal and a few other stories of local interest. One of the students worked for the Prague Post, which was the weekly English language newspaper specializing in Czech and European news, events calendars, bar and restaurant reviews, movie listings, gossip and other matters of expat interest, and would bring us a free one every Tuesday or Wednesday, whichever was the day it came out. That was a big night; I would crack upon a few 1-liter pilseners and fire up some Marlboros (I forget what was wrong with the Czech cigarettes, but nobody who belonged even tangentially to the postmodern world smoked them, even the very coolest people--it literally marked you as a member of the Communist party or something) and spend a couple of hours reading the Post, even though they rejected several articles I submitted to them myself. I realize now that it was a semi-professional operation, run by people who had worked in real newspapers in their various countries of origin, had gone to journalism school, and so on. I put the word out to all my Czech acquaintances that if they ever came across any reading material in English that nobody wanted I would be grateful for it. One guy brought me a copy of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten ("This looks like some good adwices" he said) and I even read that, or some of it anyway.

One thing I should add, to explain this inexhaustible craving for reading material, is that while we went out and did things in the evening 3 or 4, occasionally perhaps even 5, nights a week, we couldn't afford to go out every night, nor would we even probably have desired it; even when we did go out I always usually needed to wind down for an hour or two before going to bed unless I had had a very great deal to drink and needed simply to collapse, which didn't happen very often (the night at the Lucerna ballroom may have been such a night, though most of that damage would have been done after the dance was over). I also did not work but intermittently; looking back, I should have recognized this difficulty in getting on in comparison with pretty much every other foreigner in town as a sign that I was probably in serious trouble as far as my long term career prospects went, and I did worry a little, but at that time I was still deceiving myself that I had talent and that talent would, indeed must, find its way. The point is, I had a lot of downtime to wander around, ride the trams, drink beer, which only cost about a quarter a pint at most taverns outside of the main squares downtown, but also to read and write. Those are the sorts of things I do in my free time, or did before I had children and lots of possessions and cars and other things to organize.

Another thing I took away from my time in the Czech Republic and the old Soviet bloc generally, though it hasn't served me terribly well in the United States of the 1997-2010 period, is that being intelligent, curious, and decently educated really does have existence, and even value, when separated from wealth, which to be honest it can at times be hard to believe in this country. I know there are many intelligent people in the United States who are poor, who are marginalized, who do not have friends or a respected place in society, and in the back of your mind, almost as if automatic, the thought is either that they in fact must not be smart or, that something is wrong with them, they are diseased. I have developed the same instinct when considering my own case. In the former Eastern bloc there are, or I guess were, since the ambitious have options to better their material condition now, lots of pretty intelligent people who didn't have much money, but they did and talked about the kinds of things and had the kinds of interests and sensibilities that made them pleasant to be with. Most of these people probably would have been successful if unleashed in youth into a system like ours, being smart, well-adjusted, capable on the whole, but some of them would not have been. Perhaps they would still have been happier, if less happy than their more naturally winning comrades. I don't know. I wish I could believe either that attaining money is truly the greatest good both for the individual and the society around him, or that depriving people of most of their wealth would be their own as well as the collective group. I can't believe either, and I can't figure out where exactly the balance needs to be set. Not where it is now, I am pretty certain of that.

No comments: