The story of Czechoaustralian Girl Gabriela Kovaricek
Land of my ancestors
The day after my 21st birthday, I boarded a plane and flew to the land of my ancestors. My reasons for going were threefold: a) to get to know my family better, b) to improve my Czech and c) to understand what it is to be Czech. It was ironic, really -- around this same age, my parents had fled this country knowing they might never return, and settled in Australia. Here was I, a generation later, forsaking my own homeland for the one they had left behind.
Reasons for going
Although I'd been to the Czech Republic before, visiting is a very different experience from actually living there. Growing up in Adelaide, Australia, I would listen to my father's tales of his childhood and university years and feel a strong bond to this nation of great Bohemians he would wax lyrical about. When we played Dvorak in the school orchestra, I would boast with pride, "Of course he's good, he's Czech!", and be the only person, teachers included, who could pronounce his name properly. When I studied Kafka at university, I felt that I was one of the few students who could really understand the troubled depth of his work, because we had something in common -- we were both Czech. When I watched the films "Amadeus" and "Plunkett And McLeane", it warmed my heart to see scenic, cobble-stoned old Prague up there on the screen and I would wish, more than anything, that I was there walking those streets myself.
After I'd touched down and settled in, it didn't take very long to realize that Czechs weren't the intellectual poets and artists my dad had passionately led me to believe at all -- they were a nation of alcoholics! Those streets I had seen on the silver screen were thickly covered in dirt and grime, and outside of old Prague, the buildings had that dreary grey, Communist colour. On the radio, I would hear bad cover versions of bad `80s songs I had long forgotten, and the television showed backtoback badly dubbed made-for-TV American films and cop shows. On Saturday nights they even had a nude weather girl, who would get dressed in front of the viewers apparel by apparel, according to the forecast for the next day. I even saw a naked woman covering up her bits on the cover of a catalogue promoting hardware! So this was what capitalism had ushered in.
I was extremely fortunate to soon find myself in the small town of Dobruška, doing a Czech course with other people exactly like me -- born to a Czech parent or parents, they had grown up in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Brazil, Georgia, Cuba, New Zealand, America, South Africa, Finland or France. Not only did I learn the foundations of grammar for the very first time ("aha!"), we were also immersed in culture. We sang Czech songs in class, visited the local factory, technical college, and neighbouring towns and churches, cooked dumplings and did community work in a forest. Our teachers were absolutely wonderful and so were my peers. And when coming across those little things so far removed from the world we were used to, (like the time I bought a bottle of beer and a tub of yoghurt in the supermarket, and the yoghurt was more expensive), it was good to share it with others who knew just how strange this was. Plus, it meant I had copious drinking buddies who willingly sampled the Czech beer and eyed up the local boys with me.
Food for vegetarians
Czechs are a meat-loving nation. Meat is their main source of protein, especially in the countryside. They don't seem to worry too much about the rest of the vitamins and minerals. My dad's side of the family, who coincidentally, lived 12 km from Dobruška, could never comprehend how I could not eat meat. "Look at our dog, he's eating meat because he knows what's good for him", I would be regularly told at mealtimes. My first Christmas there, I tried to explain that surely it would be a merrier Christmas if we could set the carp that was swimming in the bath free, but to no avail -- it was inevitably beheaded, crumbed and fried for dinner instead. I had the vegetarian alternative -- fried cheese. This is not actually a bad dish in itself -- get a nice, tasty melty cheese (Camembert for example), cover it in bread crumbs and fry it, like a schnitzel. In fact, served with potato salad and some pickled gherkins it makes quite a nice meal. Unfortunately, this is the main meat-free dish Czechs know how to cook. So when you say vegetarian, they immediately think "fried cheese". And this is what I was offered, every time I went visiting. In Wenceslas Square, it was also possible to obtain your fried cheese in a sesame seed bun, with your choice of ketchup or mayonnaise. Now that was what I called a cheeseburger!
The school offered a vegetarian lunch menu for the three out of thirty of us who didn't eat meat. I finally got to sample the dukatove buhdicky - dumplings served with vanilla custard and cream - that my father had always raved about. Also featured on the menu were fruit dumplings, potato pancakes, spaghetti and ketchup, crumbed cauliflower and fried cauliflower and egg "to look like a brain". Even though I was eating like a pig, it was no surprise I felt hungry afterwards -- I was sorely missing the nutrients from vegetables. Then I would go to the supermarket and buy up big -- rohliky, Pribinacek, Kocici jazyky -- I sampled all the sweets I could find, catching up on the Czech childhood I'd never had.
Despite getting fatter and fatter, I somehow managed to start up a romance with the local bar boy, P_____. He worked in a smoke-filled pub, which had long wooden tables, haggard old drinkers, and a room with pokies. But the beer was cheap and the company good. Once, whilst my friends and I were sitting at the table drinking beer, P____ came up to us with his pint of beer, sat down and lit up a cigarette. "Aren't you meant to be working?" I asked him. He looked at me strangely. "I am." I wanted to explain to him that in Australia there was no way you could drink on the job, even smoking in front of customers was pushing it. But before I opened my mouth, I knew that he would not understand. We were in his land and this is how it was.
The city of spires
After a while, I decided to settle in Prague. As my savings were fast running out, I had to get a job and the best paid job for someone in my position was teaching English. So I did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course and started teaching at a private language school. I met some wonderful people through this course, a handful of whom stayed in Prague afterwards to teach, some who are still there to this day.
There is no denying Prague has a magical charm. What was it that Kafka said, "This little mother has it's claws, and the only way get rid of it is to set fire to it from both sides". I, in my effort to make it to class on time, would run from the tram across the cobblestones of Old Town Square, past the Tyn Church, past Kafka's house and up the stairs to work.
My friend and I found a flat in the suburb of Zizkov -- which claimed to have the most pubs per square mile in it than anywhere else in Europe. I loved the street I lived on -- it had a sex shop down one end, a brothel down the other and various pubs and tobacconists in between. Housing is expensive and hard to come by in Prague and for our price, we had a flat with a home-made cardboard wall with sticky-tape down the middle, converting it into a 2+1. My friend and I shared the bed, which was as big as the room, and every morning I would do a somersault to get out of it. We had a lovely mural of the snow-covered Alps in our kitchen, a sofa that swallowed anyone who sat on it and a vacuum cleaner that housed generations of silverfish. When our boiler broke and we had no hot water, we were not allowed to ask our neighbours for help as we were living there "na cerno" (on the quiet).
But none of this mattered. It was all part of the great adventure, and if I didn't learn these lessons while young, they would be much harder to learn when I was older, I consoled myself.
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