written in SEPTEMBER 2010
To enter the Czech poetry pub, one must first enter through a parlor room. Upon doing so, one encounters, it seems, a time warp—elderly men sit on weathered chairs, speaking in brazen, gruff voices. They are bearded and smoking pipes. On the ground lies a dirty old rug, over which these old gentlemen stretch their legs and heavy boots. Are we in communist Russia, and have we stumbled upon the den of underground writers discussing dissident poetry? Or is this 21st century polished Prague? Where are all the English-speakers to whom we’ve grown so terribly accustomed near the tourist haven of Old Town Square?
These men appear alien at first, falling into silence as we, The Americans, enter. They watch us with sparkling sharp eyes hidden behind bushes of beard and eyebrows, their large hands resting on the handles of their enormous beer mugs, unmoving.
One man who is seated on a stool next to a door covered in posters, begins speaking to us in Czech. He is a rotund man, with the bushiest beard of all, and is wearing a striking black bowler hat and a suit that could have been from the late 19th century.
The three Americans I’m with, deer in headlights, naturally turn to me. Even though my working knowledge of Ukrainian is very different from Czech, I’m often assigned task as makeshift and unprepared interpreter. My first thought is to shakily extract my Czech-English dictionary from my bag, but I review that might be a bad idea. It would merely serve to emphasize to these veterans that we are, in fact, as clueless as we look.
Realizing we are foreigners, the man with the bowler hat chuckles and mutters something to his comrades, who erupt in laughter. We are surrounded by their laughs, which I know to be harmless, grinning awkwardly. Finally the man in the hat says, “No concert. Concert is closed.” He points at the door behind him.
“Ah, ano,” I say. “Pivo? Pivo!”
“Pivo!” And more laughter ensues, but this time he opens the door behind him and lets us into the bar. His friends are still laughing and repeating “Pivo! Pivo!”
Immediately we are sucked into a sweat mesh of people; just as quickly we are drenched in beer that is being waved over our heads. Smoke clogs our eyes and nostrils. My leg is caught in between bodies as we are jostled around and try to claw our way to the bar.
There is no sense of body space here; where your foot lies on the ground, so does mine, on top of each other. If I turn my head slightly to the left, that might mean my cheek shares the same inch of air with your armpit.
But it’s okay. Everyone is clearly enjoying themselves, and this is certainly the closest I’ve gotten to those taciturn Czech locals I see on the tram or on the street every day. If smelling their armpits and being sprayed by their spit as they laugh and sing over my head means delving just another inch deeper into their daily lives, then I’ll take that with my pilsner, please.
I am small and able to push my way through to the service bar, and order 4 beers then pass them down to my friends. Even if we are forced to leave the concert which is supposedly closed, we wouldn’t be able to for lack of ability to move in the crammed crowd. The musician at the front of the pub is bent passionately over his guitar, his long greasy hair hanging in strings down his face.
“Czechs are unfriendly people on the streets, so don’t ask them anything in a cafe or on the tram. Go to a bar to talk to people. You get a couple of beers in them, and they’ll tell you everything you don’t want to know.”
My International Reporting professor’s advice rings true.
With all the smiling faces, this place feels like a family event. Either everyone is drunk, or it is truly a local’s corner, where people treat one another as neighbors. Unlike the edgy clubs and bars that are filled with a younger crowd intent on either finding drugs or sex, this pub has a more rustic feel, and is populated with 30 and 40-something-year-olds. These are people who grew up during the last days of the regime, and saw it collapse, unlike our 20-and-under generation, who carry a more grungy “fuck it” carelessness with them.
It is, therefore, much more traditional in class, clothes, and music. The guitar player’s folk songs awaken some sort of bittersweet-ness in these people, who all sing along and dance with one another, even if they don’t know each other. We sing and dance along as best as we can, waving our beers and yelling “Nazdorovye!” (Cheers) to all.
Then Debbie appears.
When I first see Debbie, I take a double-glance. Her face resembles that of a 60-some year old man covered in heavy makeup. But she is dressed in a sexy purple dress and elegant double-breasted coat, the outfit of an aristocrat. Her neck is strung with white pearls; in her high heels, she towers over even some of the Czech men at the bar.
Debbie’s lips are covered in deep rouge, the cracks of her wrinkles making crater-like imprints at the corners of her mouth. Her blonde hair falls over her broad, smooth shoulders. She is the picture of what should make beautiful and graceful every woman; except for the unconcealed reality that Debbie is a man.
Debbie orders a glass of wine at the bar and begins talking to N., my American friend, in English. She has a British accent. N. is the most ostentatious of our group, and has been drunk for most of the afternoon and is now on his 2nd or 3rd beer since we got here. N. is from Texas and is a true connoisseur of impassioned open dialogue, or what I like to call ‘shmoozing’.
Debbie sits down on the bench next to me now that the concert has ended and the crowd has settled down a bit into discussions. She delicately crosses her legs, tossing her hair back and forth, throwing her head back when she laughs. Up close, Debbie’s manly features fade in and out, always changing. N., always the conversationalist, keeps asking questions.
“Why are you here in Prague? Don’t you feel like it’s conservative, don’t you find people giving you weird looks?” he presses. Debbie doesn’t seem to be phased by his questions. “You know,” she says, “I’ve never been here before, so I don’t know what to expect. My hotel’s right across the street, I literally just got here today. Generally I’m not too worried about it. People like me get toughened a bit growing up. I’ve beat the shit out of people before.”
Debbie throws her head back in her lady-like laughter, then continues her conversation with N., during which she consistently refers to us as “the bloody colonials.”
Meanwhile, my other American friends are discussing environmental concerns with Tomaš, who is able to speak decent English. The deer in headlights factor has been melted away by the beer and atmosphere. Pavel and Lucaš, the former being a journalist, join our conversation. Before we know it, someone buys us another round of beer, then another. It’s nearly 2 AM and the pub is near to empty. The bearded man with the bowler hat from the parlor, who turned out to be the manager of the place, is bounding around cleaning things up and moving chairs about, and in his gruff manner pushing us out of his way to get his job done. But we are still immersed in our conversations with the Czechs. At this point Pavel and I have been discussing the state of journalism in the Czech Republic, how journalists and most citizens view Vaclav Havel in reality (which is much different from what I expected), and Pavel’s education experience at Charles University.
Debbie, however, sits on the fringe of our group, still sipping her first glass of wine. N. has long ago drifted into his chain-smoking stage, where he’s so drunk he can only close his eyes and sway back and forth. I try to make conversation with Debbie, who for the most part was ignored by all our new Czech friends this evening. It turns out the “bloody colonials” had been the only ones to take her as an every day, normal entity—unlike the Czech woman we met who offered to take us out to another bar “as long as … SHE … didn’t come with us” (referring, of course, to Debbie.)
I feel like I am talking to an old friend. The majority of people I worked with at the restaurant business in Cleveland are gay, lesbian, or undergoing transformations to their sexuality. It is taken for granted in New York, where trannies dominate the streets of the Village. In New York, they are the brave, bold, and colorful kings and queens of the night.
Here in this rustic old Czech poetry pub, Debbie sips her glass of wine and decides to leave without finishing it. She pulls her maroon coat around her shoulders, all dressed up with nowhere to go, and says something about how she has food in her fridge at the hotel and she’s absolutely starving. Debbie blows a kiss to us drunken colonials and leaves.
Despite a lingering conservative attitude, the Czech Republic is one of the most liberal Central European countries when it comes to gay and lesbian rights. The CR, is in fact the most atheistic country in the European Union, so religion plays a very small role in this country. According to a 2010 CVVM poll, 72% of Czechs support registered partnerships (made legal in 2006) and 49% of Czechs support same-sex marriage.
However, Czechs are very private about their sexuality—it is not something they discuss as openly as in New York. In Prague, however, as in any large city, there is certainly a flourishing gay life, which enjoys rights they might not enjoy in Poland, which is heavily Catholic.
It is interesting, then, to note the two opposing factors in Czech society: an extremely reserved and homogeneous public life, where trannies and other “outsiders” are considered out of place; and the reality of freedoms which are available to many outsiders and minorities here simply due to lack of religious pressure and other factors.