In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.
~ Bertrand Russell
by James Sewell
I wanted to go to Italy. Learn some Italian, get a jump on my foreign language requirement. Appreciate art and history and culture. That’s what brought me to Steve Sternfeld’s office, on a Monday evening in late March, when by all rights I should have been in a study session for an important exam the next day. Steve had run a Study Abroad program in the Italian town of Siena for the past decade and I had come for information.
Two hours later, I emerged from his office, with a slightly fuzzy feeling that comes with trying to process too much at once, and an invitation to join Project “New Eyes” ® in the Czech Republic. Why not?
So, after final exams were finished, and I moved out of my house, I left for the Czech Republic on a bright Tuesday morning in early May. My reasons for fleeing the Salt Lake Valley, and indeed, the country, were manifold and complex. There was my desire to travel again, an appetite which was first whetted years ago on a solo trip through London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Another was language: as a graduate student in Linguistics, I’m expected to be proficient in two foreign languages, and I like the sounds of Italian.
The third had vaguely to do with the idea of travel-as-psychological-renewal; that somehow this experience would break me out of my mental rut. I love it in Salt Lake City, and going away always makes me appreciate the natural beauty here even more. In that sense I’d have been happy going anywhere: Bali, Britain, Bangladesh, Borneo.
The foundation of Project “New Eyes” ® is the Proustian idea that one cannot gain a proper view of the world using the same old equipment; our eyes have been conditioned over time so that we see what we want to see and not necessarily what’s really there. In order to see things in a new way, we must see them with new eyes. There is even some support from the neuroscience community; it has been estimated that up to 90% of our neural connections in the visual cortex lead to deeper areas of the brain dealing with memory, meaning that much of what we see is influenced by our memories, rather than solely by the thing we’re looking at.
This finding helps explain why the foreign seems, well, foreign: we’ve never seen it before, so our brains have a hard time deciphering just what exactly it is we’re seeing. It is pervasive, too. Architecture, infrastructure, language (on signs, billboards, etc), fashion, people. Our societies may share the concepts, but the realization of those concepts is strikingly different.
For instance, I noticed that the people of the Czech Republic generally share a Slavic look, but I’m hard-pressed to say what exactly that look is. They just don’t look like Americans. But even this example has its own shortcomings: people on the East Coast look different to me than the Scandinavian phenotypes of the typical Utahns, or the plastically beautiful residents of California. But the differences are there, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.
And in the United States, we don’t have ancient castles anchoring our communities or housing our government leaders. We don’t really have busses crisscrossing the country, or street-level trams zooming up and down our boulevards and avenues, ferrying commuters and tourists to their destinations. We don’t order coffee that doesn’t come in a 20oz. plastic or cardboard cup, or know what it means when someone asks jak se maš (how are you)?
But we press on, picking things up, slowly, steadily. Soon, Prague Castle doesn’t leap out like it did the first time off the metro at Staromestska (Old Town) station; ascending the stairs to find it looming, framed by an old stone arch on the building at the corner of the street. When someone asks jak se maš you soon confidently reply Nemluvím česky (I don’t speak Czech!). A bit later you might venture a low key dobře (good). It becomes less weird to hear a Czech signal consent by shortening the proper ano to plain no. Now no means yes and yes means nothing.
Of course, then there are other realities, which by their nature are messier, more complex. The first reality is that Project “New Eyes” ® is not a coherent, cohesive, regimented program. My particular role in the program evolved over time, but the main goal was, and is, to interact with as many Czechs as possible, in English, so that we are essentially providing language support services. There are language classes to teach, social and business relationships to develop, and at the end of a month, promises to make about returning. Everyone I met wanted to know how I liked the Czech Republic and Sušice in particular, and if I were planning on coming back in the future. Decorum requires you to say yes, but I meant it when someone asked.
Many of us were placed with host families; I was in a Children’s Home, which is similar to an orphanage save for few of the students are truly orphans. Rather, many were placed there by a parent who could no longer afford, for varying reasons, the costs associated with raising a child, and this was the last recourse. The kids are all teenagers; younger children are housed in Kašperské Hory, a mountain town not far from Sušice, where some fellow Project participants were placed. Of course, as teenagers, they have an instinctual repulsion to authority and my presence there was registered in their gray matter under ‘not cool’, despite my lack of any official authority or desire for control and discipline.
The Home was located on the third floor (it was called the second floor; in Europe the ground floor and the first floor aren’t one and the same) of a 1970’s vintage Communist Institutional Minimalist style high-rise. The others floors are used as dormitory rooms for the students in the region who attend the town’s schools and need room and board. Many of the kids seemed to be happy, or at least content, and the “aunts” and “uncles” who supervise them do great work. They cook the meals on weekends, assign chores, and distribute treats on occasion.
Since Sušice is a small town (pop. 11,000), the sense of community seems stronger, and maybe the idea of a neglected child hits closer to home. This sense of community is what keeps these towns alive, and indeed many towns are in danger of disappearing. For instance, the town of Chanovice has a population of only 450 people, and with the younger generations heading to the larger towns and cities for jobs, these sleepy little villages will soon be in real danger of extinction.
So part of the experience is in recognizing the special character of the locale. Prague is of course a modern European metropolis, but most of the country’s people live in towns like Sušice, or Klatovy or Strakonice, which are home to viable long-term industries.
A striking thing about most small-town Czechs is that they’re a lot like small-town Americans. The contours of life are molded by family and friendship, drinking at the pub, hiking in the forest, swimming in the river, going to work for a modest salary and uncertain prospects for the future. There’s a happy-go-lucky aspect of the Czech psyche. Many Czechs I spoke with were reluctant to talk about long-term plans; they don’t know what will happen down the road and they’d rather enjoy the present. It is a lesson we should all learn a little better.
A gifted politician or social butterfly might be able to make acquaintances with 11,000 people in a month’s time, but the rest of us mortals are left with trying to make a connection with just a few of the locals. Whether or not these connections last is uncertain, and ultimately it doesn’t matter, for the memory of these people is indelibly ingrained in my mind.
Tomaš Halek is 28, and a factory manager at Trepol, a company that manufactures high-end stove hoods for modern minimalist kitchens featuring Sub-Zero refrigerators, Wolf stoves, and other accoutrements of the typical high-end vanity kitchen. He’s a quiet fellow, but he has a good sense of humor. He just bought a piece of land in a nearby town and hopes to build a house on it next summer, and he’ll do much of the work himself, with the help of his brother-in-law. We played tennis a few times, and we both had our eyes on the same woman for a while, though I’m not sure what came of it after I left. His father Frantiček works in the same factory.
My roommate at the Children’s Home, Jaroslav “Jarda” Hula, awakens weekdays at 5:30 to prepare for school, which mostly means moving slowly around the room, assembling the items needed to successfully navigate the day’s academic routine. Books, paper, pens, soda bottle, lighter, cigarettes (Marlboros: “They are American”), baseball cap. Brush teeth, apply deodorant. Occasionally, the alarm is pushed back until 6:00, necessitating an abbreviated a.m. sequence that places priority more on supplies than personal hygiene.
Jarda’s in his final year of auto mechanic school and next year he’ll be going to Plzeň to study graphic design. He loves cars, movies and videogames, and America. It is his dream to come see it for himself, and for a short time this summer, it looked like it was imminent. Alas, life intervened and he will have to wait, but he’ll make it somehow. He likes to write, and between school and his other hobbies, he writes short stories. Maybe he’ll become the next great Czech writer. In the meantime, he visits his family on the weekends, and he just got a car, an old Skoda, from his father, who lives a few hours away by train. His command of idiomatic English is impressive, a fact easily obscured by his quiet, reserved demeanor. When it’s time to leave, he says “Let’s roll”; if he forgets something, “There are many holes in my brain.”
Mark Shelly is an ex-pat American, with a Brazilian wife and two quadrilingual children, who opened an outdoor pub, Santos, over a decade ago, intending to replicate the style of Munich’s beer gardens. A dozen benches and tables dot the property, hand-planted by Mark. There’s even a playground. You know, for kids. The sound of the Otava river nearby, finessing its way through the Šumavan landscape, provides an excellent backdrop for good company and conversation.
He’s moved on from Santos to bigger and better things, like running a finished-wood company and half a dozen political information websites, and maintaining his family’s slice of paradise su terra, up in the forested Šumavan hills, with two ponds, a terraced flower garden, and inspiring views. If you’re thinking about starting life over in the Czech Republic, he’s an excellent example of doing it right.
Simona Fischerova is a single mother of a crazy beautiful four-year-old girl named Zorka, and to support her, she works as a saleswoman for Solo, a company that manufactures matches. I helped her with written English, as it is the lingua franca of the international match ordering and manufacturing world. In return, she took me horseback riding. I got the better end of that deal.
She has good taste in music, by which I mean we like the same stuff. Her situation was interesting to me because I constantly wondered how Czech culture views single mothers. But she was very happy, had a good job, and a network of friends that seemed infinite; everywhere we went, she knew somebody.
Anna Roe is a native Czech I sat next to on the flight from Atlanta to Prague (direct, highly recommended) who was on her way home from studying at the U of Arizona, for a summer internship in graphic design, and a family visit. We more or less immediately hit it off and truth be told, if I ever had the chance to join the Mile High Club, this was it. Alas, it turns out she had a husband and personal integrity (no ring though, dammit) but we agreed to get in touch after I got settled in my hostel, The Clown and Bard, which is located in a less touristed part of town. I chose it because of the name.
Anna showed me more of the “real” Prague, not the tourist-infested Old Town but the gritty, grimy parts of town that haven’t been polished and gentrified and gilded with wealth. We went to her brother’s recording studio, in a Gypsy neighborhood that had been devastated in a massive flood years prior and had never really recovered. We went to pubs that had no more than a modest sign advertising the beer on tap. We rode the subway to the outskirts of the city and back, to the nerve center of Prague’s music scene, where we watched her brother and his band play an entire set in English, then crossed the street to another club that was host to the city’s lesbian festival, where Czech women with mullets were on prominent display.
The evening has granted reprieve from triple digit temperatures and I sit alone in a darkened room in a friend’s house. The power has gone out due to a strong windstorm that rolled through the valley late this afternoon, and a lone candle lights the keys with a warm glow. I had returned to the States over a month ago and the jarring juxtaposition of early-morning coffee in Prague followed by late-evening snacking at my parent’s house in Baltimore has faded, if only slightly. My stopover in Baltimore constituted a culture shock not entirely dissimilar from the one I experienced in Czech. Although we share an ostensibly common tongue, the dispositions and physical appearances and fashions and idioms (and diet) of Marylanders and Pennsylvanians of the Philly strain are strange to me. It felt like what a diver must feel when he ascends from the watery depths and must be quarantined in a pressure hull to avoid developing the bends: almost home, but it sure feels strange to look around at all the weird shit and know it’ll take some time yet.
So how do things look after settling back in Salt Lake City? Perhaps enough time has not yet passed and as the years go by my understanding of events and the people involved will change, in subtle and subconscious ways.
There won’t be any final moral to this story, no flash of insight to glean from the descriptions of those people I encountered. The words you’ve just read contain only the truth as it is my perspective seen from, and as such it’s highly suspect. I wrote at the beginning that Project “New Eyes” ® is a Proustian creation, and if you want to explore new worlds with new eyes, you must abandon the images you’ve just seen through mine and seek your own.