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Phonies

Phonies

 
When a friendly, young Nigerian drug dealer looks you in the eye and with conviction says: “You will be my wife,” it is time to leave Prague.

I sat on a lot of ledges in the Czech Republic. Tall ledges with big, scary distances to their bottom. Cold, hard ledges. Window sills seven stories up on Belgicka. A rickety roller-coaster I swore aloud I'd never survive. The concrete safety zone beyond the metal railing hundreds of meters above Containall's Stalin boulevard, thousands of meters above the Vltava River.

Yet the metaphoric, emotional ledges were what frightened me the most, were what left me befuddled and exhausted. By the time we rolled away from the Prague bus station on July 2nd, most of my Remote Year Darien cohorts, including me, hadn’t slept in two days. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in at least twelve hours. I had never once in my life been more ready to leave a place at five in the morning.

There was something a bit cold about Prague as a city: something it hid below the symmetrical, cobblestone sidewalks and behind the sherbet-colored building facades. Something was whispered underneath the ubiquitous use of the English language, was washed out in the evening by common rain showers, was painted over nightly with pastel sunsets. At first, this distance was comfortable. It felt like a kindness, like acceptance. It was like dating a guy who respects your independence, just before the narrative shifts from progressive romance to straight depression because you realize that gift of "freedom" is just apathy dressed up in a Ralph Lauren oxford.

A tall task stood in front of my new, nomadic family on May 29th: to exist together in a foreign city. To not only adjust to life abroad, but to thrive in the chaos as bound strangers, among a strange place. That Prague never imposed on our old habits -- the breakfast routines, the drinking routines, the language routines, the Tinder date routines -- felt like a nod to our predominantly Western upbringings. “Welcome to Canadian Disney World, basically” it shrugged.

Then came the silence. And the government workers.

If you stay up late enough, or wake early enough in Prague, you’ll see state employees quietly mopping the metro floors, wiping the handrails. If you pay ten Koruna, just shy of fifty cents USD,  you can use a public restroom which will be better kept than some I’ve experienced at Michelin Star rated restaurants. There’s neither trash, nor cigarette butts, nor stray leaves on the sidewalks. The dogs behave. The police are rather docile. The construction crews work seven days a week without much care or many helmets. 

True, there is something magical about Prague. True also is its unnervingly mechanical core.

She was made of salt, but that weren’t her fault.
— J. Roddy Walston & The Business

I was raised in Gloucester, MA by a blue-eyed, third-generation Sicilian father and a somehow-even-stronger, brown-eyed, Irish-German mother. Blue-collar and white knuckled, Gloucester is known for The Perfect Storm, for their new approach to the opiate epidemic, for a 2008 teen pregnancy scandal, for the Greasy Pole at The St. Peter's Fiesta. We have beaches and boats, heavy accents and heavier, mind- bending societal disparities. Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian, Yankee, it's a proud place. 

Gloucester's rich role in America's history includes the arts -- Homer, Hopper, Rothko,  Gruppe, and Singer Sargent's father -- boasts inventions like the remote control and frozen food, helped paved the way for Constitutional amendments, and has birthed exactly one Gang of Four drummer, one Beastie Boys's parent, and one very, very special Vermin Supreme. Fitz Henry Lane, Roger Babson,  Walker Hancock, and Judith Sargent Murray called Gloucester theirs.

It is home to the intermittent smell of fish and of low tide. It is home to one of the most enormous, painter's skies you might ever have the privilege of standing beneath. It is mine forever, though not by choice. I assumed this gift as a birthright; this blessing, this beacon, this weight.

I wasted too much of my life trying to escape from my map pin of "home," trying to challenge my pedigree, to deny myself the acceptance of place and of family. In May of 2012, after various startup stints in Boston, I returned to Gloucester and began working in the family business. It was good for me in many ways. It was bad for me in many ways. My ledges were measured -- wide berths and low to the ground -- my heights were capped, my risks were hedged. By March of 2015 I was a homeowner and a dog owner in my hometown. I was a full-fledged, pure blooded local.

The point is: I'm salty. I come from grit. I come from a Sicilian family who's women don varicose veins, who's men constantly log 90-hour work weeks, who hosts high blood-pressure and high pressure arguments alike. I come from an Irish-German family full of goofballs, singers, and educators and erudites. 

And that equation -- my family, my geography -- adds up to exactly one, 30 year-old female with a low bullshit tolerance and a tendency to throw things. I am curious, sometimes creative, drawn to the arts, disappointed by how I'll never be an astronaut or a spy. An appreciation for authenticity has been beat into me like waves on a shoreline make beaches. I'm not particularly interested in grandeur or frou-frou. Politics escapes me almost completely. 

This is why Prague didn't agree with me. Because it felt like a big, fat phony.

I wanted to know what they were hiding. I wanted to understand the value in hurriedly cleaning up night after night after night as if no one had fun or feelings. I was annoyed that a country with such lineage would roll over and even debate changing its language to English. Where were the inventors, the artists, the argumentative adolescents at 2am? So much of everything felt off. I felt off.

So I opted into the most cliche thing I could: a tour.  

Jan and Michal are young Czech nationals -- locals -- who run an underground Prague walking tour called Beyond the Mainstream. Their uniquely curated approach to the capital began at a jazz sanctuary above Wenceslas Square and ended at a converted shipping yard in Zizkov. Incessantly, I bothered Jan with questions which were described at their worst as "entertaining," and at their best as "genuinely interesting:"  What do the Czech people aspire to? What’s the role of religion in the culture? What’s the unemployment rate like? Do you have welfare? How are government programs funded? What are taxes like? How much is the average rent? How much is the average salary? Do young people go to college?

I learned some stuff. 

Prague has about 4,000 homeless residents -- less than 0.4% of the population -- for whom daily meals, showers, and medical care is provided. (This is a stark contrast to Boston statistics, even.) I learned that there is a great deal of frustration and disillusionment among the country, not unlike America. Capitalism was supposed to solve all of their problems and be a fountain of opportunity. Such canned happiness and pre-fab prosperity is fewer and farther between than promised, however. There are anarchists, there are new, alternative churches, and neighbourhood groups popping up to build their own semblance of structure, purpose, and support where the government could not or would not. The LGBTQ community has a safe place in the country, which is quite a bit more than Hungary or Serbia can say.

You learn things from living in a place for a few weeks, too.

Many of the modern buildings are built upon what appear to be stone basements, or barracks, for example. From the street level, sometimes you'll walk down two stories of winding stairs and narrow hallways. These used to be the ground floors of Prague. Wars and floods have raised the city. I found them to be fascinating: dark yet adorable.

Speaking of floods, drinking is a full time job in the Czech Republic and beer is among their pride and joy. The water is exceptionally pure, even from the tap, and thus their Pilsners are clear, essentially flavorless, and definitely not for me. And anyway, it's not about what you're drinking in Czech, it's about how much and for how long. If beer is not your thing, the communist era -- during which Coca Cola was not allowed to be imported -- invented Kofola. This still-popular substitute which, although tasting a bit like non-alcoholic Jägermeister, is much better for you health-wise than American soda. As for bubbly romance, the ideal woman is expected to be hyper-feminine while the ideal man is to be overtly masculine. Succinctly: I wouldn't stand a chance.

Knowing all this, knowing that there was some heart buried in the mix of this bizarro city, made me feel guilty, hypocritical, ungrateful, whiny. Why couldn't I just get over you, Prague? After the Uber driver complimented my pronunciation of thank you -- děkuji -- you'd think I might ease up a bit.

I started to think about Holden Caulfield, about societal conformity, lies, and self-awareness. I spent too long Googling linguistics and symbols, considering the development of advertising per bourgeois norms. I started to think about Roland Barthes. 

Roland Barthes was a French philosopher, linguist, and literary expert. Among his many works was 1957’s Mythologies which examined how high society employed visual queues and copywriting to assign value and convey ideals. Advertising in it’s purest sense, Barthes called this phenomenon a myth. Often in opposition to reality, these myths were maintained to motivate sales. The consumer eventually established the status quo. 

Barthes's most cited myth is that of red wine. Bougeois society successfully associated the image of wine with relaxation and health. Sales went up as people sought these ends. That alcohol could be unhealthy or inebriating was swept under the rug, not discussed.  The allure, the magic of Barthes's myth, does not always relate to the mechanics, or to the reality at hand.

I thought a bit about magic and magicians, about the on-going movement of replacing human laborers with infallible machines, with robots. I thought about how Prague sold itself like that first glass of wine; about the wicked headache that followed the sixth or seventh serving of anything. Even cake.

This place has mastered the engine of myth.

Their willingness to conform just enough, to tell stories with aesthetics -- stunning natural resources blended with calculated, artificial adornments -- establishes Czech's capital as exotic, but accessible. It offers tourists (and lots of American students) a destination without discomfort. It is an experience to rack up the Instagram likes and "Jealous!" comments, particularly when they're putting ice cream in donut cones. And like too much ice cream or too many donuts, Prague might leave you with a very real hangover, but it might not challenge you in serious ways. At least not in a month's time. At least not without some good drug dealer fiction, right?

My strange assessment of Prague, my confuddled, beautiful experience, is not meant to deter one from visiting. If you’ve never been, please go. Eat, explore, relax, maybe do that pedicure thing with the fish. Enjoy the spotless, riddled-with-art metro stations. Walk around barefoot if you fancy. Swallow up the sunsets from the highest point possible. Visit The Museum of Communism, The Lennon Wall, and The Charles Bridge. Go to Containall's Stalin stage and watch a DJ set overlooking the city at night. Climb the stairs to the metronome structure and hop the railing every time.

My short time in the Czech Republic proved to me that you can feel good and grateful and happy while you feel crazy and unkempt and adrift and sad. You can be lost while moving in the right direction. You can know what you're doing and simultaneously have no fucking clue. The older I get the less I trust the people who claim to have the hard, fast answers. 

With a nod to irony and since I like to give myself advice, here are some hard fast answers, Lil...

Carry who you are and where you came from soundly, Lil. Respect the untold histories of those around you always: reality is stranger than fiction more often than not, and most people are the same at the core. Know your bullshit threshold. Trust that it's not the same as your neighbor's. Keep your pulse on perception versus reality, on when you're being sold. Avoid old carnival rides, most carnivals, actually. Don't go smoke weed with foreign strangers on a hillside, even if you're a thirty-something male. Define the emotional, personal lines you're willing to walk on, the heights from which you're willing to look down on your life, the ledges from which a new journey may take flight. Sure, you have trust issues, but they're almost exclusively rooted in your absent self worth so try to find more of that. Love yourself. Be gentle and kind. Stay salty. Remain curious. Practice empathy. Practice gratitude, especially for your family. Encourage others to, as well, no matter their make or model.

Do not ogle the glitter: it's just crap. Have confidence, but do not believe yourself or anyone else ad infinitum. Unless you're at The Quencher in Southie and a townie strikes up conversation at the bar. He'll tell you about making love to his wife while Sade plays and his children are sleeping soundly. He'll reflect on his time working with Whitey. He'll say things like "ditch" and "bodies." Believe him entirely.  He's drunk anyway. 

The Quencher closed in 2013. 

Most of us don't know what we're doing. Not all of the time anyway. Not when we're climbing out of seventh floor windows at 4am, not when we're buying drugs at The Beer Museum, not when we're in Gloucester, and not when we're in Prague. 

 

You'll have finished your shot of liquor before he even sits down. He will unhurriedly sip his orange juice, will show you photos of his baby boy, will talk about his music career, will explain away the enormous bag of fast food in tow. Shockingly, this isn't a dangerous situation, this isn't a dangerous person. Of course you won't be his wife, though there's a notion, a tiny sweet spot of flattery in the sentiment. The whole experience is kind and bizarre and measured. You had what each other needed for a moment. A two cheek kiss farewell and the scene quietly wraps.  It's one part magic, one part machine. It is phony, it is a carnival ride, it is the leap from a strange, great height. It is Praha.

 

Maybe the drug story is mine. Maybe it belongs to someone else. Maybe there's two lies and a truth, or the other way around. Maybe I was the phony all along in Prague. In The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger asked: "How would you know you weren't being a phony?" He reasoned: "The trouble is, you wouldn't."

I suppose there's comfort in that. 

 

Where Do You Enter

Samantha Hahn

Samantha Hahn