Conversations

Excerpt from the novel by James Tressler

“For better or worse, it is in
conversation with others that we
listen most to ourselves.” 
— Anonymous

Sugit left for the migrant camp in Ostrava this morning. When he left it was very early, and even though I was really awake I pretended to be asleep as he dressed and packed his overnight bag. Sugit is not happy about going. Islam has already been at the camp for three weeks, still waiting to be issued a visa. Sugit came to the flat after Islam received orders to report, and now Sugit too had to go.

His brother, Nikash, is at the flat now. This morning when I finally got up, after Sugit had gone, he was in the bedroom checking the news from Bangladesh on Sugit’s laptop (Sugit left his laptop and mobile phone because they aren’t allowed at the camp).

“Ah, today you fight!” Nikash said cheerfully.

“Fight” is a term we use for work. I think it was Islam who started it. “Every day we must fight,” Islam would say. “Without fight everything is finished.”

Usually Islam said this in the afternoons, when he headed up the street to the bar where he worked as a cook. The phrase certainly applied to Islam. He never had a day off and usually worked until midnight, though it’s true his work in the kitchen wasn’t too demanding. Most of the customers at Konspirace were young people from the neighborhood who went to the bar to drink beer and smoke joints of marijuana mixed with tobacco.

It’s too bad, really, because Islam is a good cook. It’s not his profession (in Bangladesh he had a mobile phone business, and has traveled to China, Russia and Singapore; the business, he told me, went under because of taxes), but he is capable of making very good, simple curry dishes, chicken or beef or fish over rice. At the flat he always invited me to share whatever he cooked.

I’m not much of a cook myself, but when I tried offering my own dishes, usually canned goulash or take-away Mexican from a restaurant on Krymska, Islam always politely refused. Sugit and Nikash usually refuse as well. “We prefer to eating food from our own country,” they said.

Nikash just returned the other day from the migrant camp, where he was issued a 30-day visa. I’ve never actually seen the camp myself. It’s a few hours’ train ride east of Prague, near the Polish border. The detainees are of varied stock: Russian, Ukrainian, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Southeast Asian. There is one pay phone at the camp, so you call there and whoever answers takes the name you request and goes to find the person. Usually we called Islam from Sugit’s laptop and took turns talking to him. Once, I asked Islam about the camp and he said it wasn’t too bad. They had volleyball and other sports, and there was plenty of space and not overcrowded. But still, you’re not allowed to leave and, except for the pay phone, had no contact with the outside world. The thing Islam really hated was the food. He doesn’t really care for Czech food.

“Ah, James, life is very difficult,” Islam said. “Every day we must fight. Fight for oil, fight for food, fight for visa. Home is best.”

I first met Islam at Konspirace, a pub in Prague’s Vršovice neighborhood. It’s interesting to look back at the circumstances in which we met — interesting because so much of what I like about Prague, as well as the many problems I had there, began in pubs, Konspirace in particular. So you could say meeting Islam there, especially since he doesn’t drink, was if not ironic at least a happy accident, like two people caught in a fast-moving stream. You might not share the same destination, but for a little while, before the current shifts, you help carry each other along.

I had been sharing a flat with a Czech woman who worked for an Irish real estate company in Prague. One day, after I’d been living there nearly a year, I came home and found all of our possessions sitting out in the hallway. The locks of the flat had been changed. The woman, it turned out, had not paid any of the rent. The money I had given her had evidently gone to pay her other debts. To her credit, the woman gave me back my deposit and tried to find me a place to stay temporarily.

That night I went to Konspirace to have a few beers and forget about everything for the evening, and when Islam heard about my situation, he offered to let me stay with him. He arranged to have a bed put in the kitchen. The rent was 10,000 crowns per month, which we split 50-50.

“It is good,” Islam said. “I helping you, and you helping me.”

Most Americans you meet in Prague are English teachers. Thanks to globalization and the collapse of communism in Central Europe, a real and constant demand for teachers has held steady for the past two decades. So you’ll find old-timers, who washed up on Prague ’s shores in the early ‘90s, just after the revolution, and those who came in later waves. Only a small core stay; the majority are young people fresh from university who are looking for a gap year of travel before applying to grad schools at Columbia or UCLA or the London School of Economics — wherever. The ones who stay tend to be types like me — drifters, restless 30-somethings who are usually running away from something back home (debt, a broken relationship, midlife crises) or else desperately in pursuit of the great European expat experience — to the envy of married, job-bound colleagues and friends back in the States.

Take me, for instance. I was a journalist at a small daily in Northern California before applying to a school in Prague that trained teachers.

Islam couldn’t understand why I came to Prague.

“You are from America,” he would say. “There you can work. There you can make money. If I am you I would America. Home is best.”

Of course he knew about the recession, the crisis. We often spoke about it in the evenings at Konspirace, when he came out and sat at my table, especially after Lehman Brothers and later GM filed for bankruptcy. But still, in Islam’s eyes, one left one’s home if it was a country like Bangladesh, very poor and saddled with a corrupt, inefficient government. To him, America represented an ideal destination, a place you went to, not away from.

But he liked Prague.

“Here you can turn on cooker and every time working,” he said. “Electric, fine. In my country, maybe working one day, maybe not. Very difficult life.”

Islam’s goal was to live in Prague a year or two, a few years, start a business, a restaurant, hostel, make money and eventually return to Bangladesh. He has a wife and daughter there, and he sends them money. Recently his wife filed for divorce. Islam had a Czech girlfriend who he was hoping to marry because he hoped it would expedite getting permanent residence, which would allow him to get a business license. But in the end his girlfriend wouldn’t do it. She said she had been married before to an Italian man who left her and ran up a lot of debt on her credit cards, debt Islam has helped her repay. She also had bad kidneys and spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals. Islam helped pay those bills too.

“Ah, life is life,” he said. “Every day must be fighting. Without fighting all is finished.”

But then Islam had a falling out with the owner at Konspirace. The owner, who was usually content to smoke joints behind the bar, seldom paid Islam in full. Instead each day he gave Islam a portion, whatever he could manage. Islam, easygoing as always, had kept track of what was owed. In time, pressured in part by his other problems, he presented the manager with a bill for 16,000 crowns in unpaid wages. The manager put him off and put him off, and finally, in frustration, Islam quit. He went back a few times after that but was never able to collect any of it.

And then, not long after that, he got orders to report to the migrant camp.

Sugit returned from the camp late that same day. I was asleep when he came in and didn’t actually know he was there until the next morning. Sugit and Nikash, the two brothers, shared Islam’s bed, while I kept the bed in the kitchen. A thin curtain covered the door to the bedroom.

The brothers are very similar in height and build: short and compact. Also they are very close. “Nikash is for me like my right arm,” Sugit once told me.

Their personalities were different. Sugit, the older brother, had a reserved, serious demeanor (unless he had a few beers), while the younger brother, Nikash, had a bright smile and playful eyes and liked to laugh a lot. They were both Buddhists, though not strict practitioners. Nikash studied Buddhism at a university in Sri Lanka and later became a professional hair dresser. Occasionally he cut my hair. In Prague he was working at a hotel until he began having problems with his visa. Sugit worked for a Korean potraviny near Naměstí Míru.

Sugit worked every day, although every now and then he had Monday off. On his free day he usually met with his girlfriend, went out for a meal at an Indian restaurant, and then got drunk at the flat. Nikash also had a girlfriend. She was from Thailand and was really shy and sweet. They communicated in English, and he called her “Honey” and she called him “Honey.”

That morning the brothers were in a good mood.

“James!” Nikash called from the bedroom. “Today you fight?”

I had a couple of lessons in the afternoon.

“Everyday must be fight!”

I asked Sugit about the camp.

“Very bad,” Nikash said, answering for him. “Communists here come back to power. They don’t want foreign people. They want us go out.”

This was Nikash’s theory. Recently in the news the Czech government had suspended issuing visas to Vietnamese applicants, and there were also reports of expulsions of illegal workers in some of the factories. A lot of that had to do with the economic crisis, perhaps, and to stem the tide of foreign workers; but also since joining the EU a few years back, and then the Schengen area, the Czechs were looking to crack down on illegal immigrants. Nikash’s reference to communists came from the recent appointment of the new prime minister, a former Communist.

That morning I got up and showered and dressed for work. Sugit and Nikash were heating up rice left over from the night before. They invited me to eat but I was on my way out.

“Every day fight!” Sugit said. “Without fight there is no food. No beer. Nothing! Without fight — homeless!”

The other place I went in the evenings on Donská Street was u Rozjětý Zabý, or “Squashed Frog.” Most people just called it Zaba. It’s a dark, cellar-type pub with four rooms, table football, and a computer at the bar where we usually opened YouTube and selected music videos. There was also a jukebox and sometimes the owner, Jirka, told us to use that, especially when once in a while a man from the jukebox company dropped by. On Sunday nights there were movies, and on other nights we watched hockey and football matches, and occasionally there were table football tournaments, which were very popular.

That night after finishing teaching, I dropped by. Jirka wasn’t working. Instead it was Adela, a plump, sweet-natured girl from the neighborhood. My friend Kuba and his girlfriend Lenka were sitting at the bar playing hip-hop and reggae videos on YouTube. Sandra and her brother Zdenda were seated at the big booth with some people I didn’t know. A giant black dog sniffed the floor at their feet.

“Hi man,” Kuba said as we shook hands. He worked at a computer and television shop near Strašnice, and Lenka worked in a small shop up the hill near the park in Vinohrady. We liked to meet and listen to music and drink beer after work. Often Kuba bought shots of rum or slivovice and passed them around. He was really easygoing, and had learned English through movies and listening to hip-hop. Adela brought over a pint of Svíjany, a good draft beer, and then other people came in — Ondrej, who worked at a car parts company, and Honza and his longtime girlfriend Abra. They’d broken up and she was engaged to another guy, but they were still good friends. Then Alex came, and a young girl with long, dark dreads. Her name was Bara.

“So what about your visa?” Ondrej asked, taking off his jacket and hanging it on a hook near the bar.

“Still waiting,” I said. I’d recently been to Dresden to reapply. My visa woes were common knowledge in the neighborhood. A year or so before, on a night partying near Karlin, I’d gotten too drunk and kicked a passing car. The guy’s girlfriend called the police on her mobile, and I was taken to the local jail for the night. After having paid a stiff fine, my visa renewal application had also been rejected. Since then, I’d launched an appeal with help from one of my students who was a lawyer for the government, and had also on a parallel level started at the beginning and applied for a new visa. That’s why I’d gone to Dresden.

“Do you think there is any chance?” Ondrej asked.

“Uvidime.” In Czech that means we’ll see.

“Yes, I hope so. If not, you will go back in America?”

“Probably. We’ll see.”

Honza came up to the bar to get beers. He said hello and went to the computer and requested one of his favorites, “Black Betty.” Lenka put it in the YouTube pipeline. There were two or three other requests ahead. The weather had been good the past few days, and everyone looked sun-flushed and healthy. Summertime in Prague means that a lot of people go to festivals outside the city, or else camping in the countryside or time at their weekend cottages.

“I have been at my country house,” Ondrej said. He was not drinking beer that night. Instead he ordered a lemonade and rolled a joint.

Kuba and Lenka went over to the table football for a game. Ondrej and Zdenda joined them, so I sat at the bar and drank beer and listened to music. “Last Song,” by the Swedish hip-hop band Loop Troop, was playing. It was a Zaba favorite, and Kuba and Lenka, myself and some others sang along: “If I die tomorrow, yeah, yeah, yeah/Feel no kind of sorrow, no, no, no, no, no/Smile at my memories, yeah, yeah, yeah/And pray for my enemies!”

The bar was pretty crowded. A party was going on in the back room, and Adela was busy serving beers and plates of pickled cheese and bread and hot wings. I got up to watch the table football. Kuba took his play very seriously and kept his eyes intent on the action.

The bar felt warm and friendly, like in the villages outside Prague. Adela brought me a fresh pint and I drank the beer and watched the game for a while and then went back to the bar.

Presently there was a tap on my shoulder:

“I thought you might be here.”

It was Liam, an Englishman about my age who also taught English in Prague. He grinned.

“Back on the piss,” he said. “Managed to stay off it six months this time ‘round.”

“Yeah, long time!” I was glad to see him. “How you been?”

“Good.” His eyes roamed the bar. “Been exercising, working. But now the spring is here and I get the urge. I’d like to have a holiday.”

“You’ve been saying that for two years.”

“I know, but I mean to this time. Been studying to get my driver’s license. If I can I’d like to rent a car and maybe drive down to the coast. Italy maybe, or get over to Greece. We’ll see. So what’s new with you? Didn’t get over to Turkey, I see.”

“That fell through. The crisis.”

“Ah-ha. Right. You were probably just sitting in the pub and couldn’t be bothered, I’ll bet. Did you ever get your visa sorted?”

“Still waiting.”

“Uh-hm.” He signaled to Adela and when she came over Liam ordered a pint. “So have you given any thought to going back to America then?”

“Sometimes. I may have to go back if I can’t get the visa.”

“So they denied you then. Something about kicking a car, wasn’t it?”

“You remember.”

Liam was half-listening. His eyes worked around the room.

“Know if anyone’s got any weed here?”

“Not here. There’s a place down the street though.”

“Konspirace didn’t have any. You say there’s another place? Well, if I gave you some money, would you go down there and get me a gram? I mean, they know you, right?”

He gave me 250 crowns and I shuffled down the street to the other bar. It was a tiny, very smoky place and I generally didn’t like going there. The owner was my neighbor, but he wasn’t there. A young girl was working and she just took the money and handed me a small bag without saying anything.

Back at Zaba I saw that Vick and Danny Boy had arrived. The big booth had just been cleared and we sat down there, along with Liam.

“Did you hear?” Vick asked. He was born in the Czech Republic but his parents emigrated to Canada when he was a child. Eight years ago he returned to Prague and was working in the mail room at Exxon’s office at Flora. Danny Boy used to work in the mail room, too, but when his contract expired it had not been renewed.

“The doctor called today,” Vick said.

“And?”

“The test was positive. Just barely over the limit.”

“Oh!”

“Yeah. He said I probably had a smoke three weeks ago.”

“I told you it stays in your system thirty days. So what happens?”

“Tomorrow I’m going to talk to my new supervisor. Be honest and just tell them, ‘Hey, OK, sometimes I smoke a little,’ but I really need this job, I want to be with the company long term … ”

“It is an insanity!” Danny Boy broke in. “This is for me biggest problem in Czech Republic. Our laws here have any insanity! I want to leave for other country.”

“It would happen in other countries too,” I said. “Like with me and the visa.”

Vick was rolling a joint and thinking.

“Can you keep your job in the podatelna?”

“No. Contract’s already expired. I don’t know … maybe they could give me some kind of probation, with testing every few months.”

Liam, who had been listening while rolling his own joint, broke in with a chuckle.

“Right, and here you are skinning up and smoking spliffs!”

“I know, right?”

Danny Boy laughed too. He had a face that vaguely resembled the young Ringo Starr.

“Ah, Vick,” he said. “The answer is perfect for you!” He was quoting his favorite Bad Religion song.

The joint, or rather, joints, went around and even up to the bar. Ondrej had rolled another one too and was looking to pass it. Vick took it and hit it. The bar was very smoky and crowded. Adela got up on the counter and opened a window. It was early evening outside and, though nearing nine o’clock, it was just starting to get dark.

Vick looked at his watch when the joints were dusted.

“I’m out of here,” he said. Danny Boy rose with him, so I got up too.

“Oh, we’re all leaving together then?” Liam asked. He went to pay at the bar and I followed him.

Outside, the guys were already heading up to the tram stop. My flat was down the hill near Grebovká Park. I waved the guys good night and headed home.

Sugit and Nikash were cooking together. Sugit had just gotten home, and Nikash had cooked a chicken. The flat smelled warmly of curry and boiling rice. They invited me to eat with them, but I was sleepy. They made an effort to be quiet as they finished preparing the meal while I undressed, got into bed and closed my eyes. I wasn’t really drunk, just full of beer and feeling heavy-eyed. The brothers took their food into the bedroom and shut off the light in the kitchen, then drew the curtain over the door. In the dark I tried to sleep but couldn’t stop thinking. It was a nice evening at Zaba. You behaved reasonably and didn’t cause any trouble. Not like that time after the Obama victory when you got soused and screamed at people, calling Kuba the Son of Stalin. He eventually forgave you for that, but it took a while. It was too bad about the visa. That damned visa. But you should have known you couldn’t just keep getting away with behaving the way you did. You had so many chances, so many warnings. Like the time on the metro when you got in a fight with that big Czech guy and he ended up smashing your face in. Everyone on the metro was looking at you while the blood poured from your swollen lip down to your shirt. Or the time with L — when you told her to go back to Slovakia and shoved her onto the platform at Museum. That next morning, when you met, penitent, and went for a walk along the Vltava and L cried and said some people had helped her onto the train and asked if they should call the police. Or even at Konspirace, where you thought you could hide from it, it had followed you and eventually caught you there too, when you shoved that guy at the bar and he caught you and gave you a black eye that lasted for more than a week. You’re lucky Islam was there that night. He came out of the kitchen and told you to go home. And in the morning he lent you his dark glasses. You wore them the next day on a trip with your students to Terezin to see the concentration camp.

… And so you sought out the Zaba, but even there it had found you, the sickness that turned into rage and violence. You’d never been that way in America. Well, it just before you left that it was starting. Looking back, you can see that now. You felt like you needed to shove people, to make way, to turn on things and people. And that was all well and good until people started to turn on you and start shoving back. Well, can’t say you blame them.

… That night in Karlin, when you kicked that car, you were kicking at something else. That’s the way it always was. Nobody could understand it. The owner of the car sure didn’t. At the police station when they put you in the cell, the owner came back and was like, “Just give me 10,000 crowns!” He had regretted getting the police involved at least. Except you didn’t have 10,000 crowns, and you were too drunk and gone to have any sense of what was happening. You should have known better — should have known that sooner or later it would come back to haunt you, when you went to renew your visa.

But then, think of Islam, sitting in that camp. Do you think he has it easy? He’s never done anything wrong and they won’t give him a long-term visa. And Nikash and Sugit. Nikash just got back from the camp and now he has to report back again next week. “Life is fight.” Well, it is and they’re fighting to stay. Maybe they have a chance. Your case may be final, but that doesn’t mean theirs is. “Ah, life is life,” Islam would say. “Every day must be fight. If I am you, I would in America. Home is best.”

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