Trip to the high school in Hlinsko, and also the punk concert where 16-year-olds bought me shots of Becherovka
Life was simple in the small town of Hlinsko, Czech Republic. It seemed that way to the 15 students who climbed out of the Pilsner Urquell bus on a soft November morning, led by their boisterous International Reporting professor, who with her loud voice and bold comments broke the motionless state of the town upon her arrival every year. As she led the students to the gymnazium where they were to meet an English teacher and a selected number of Czech students, Professor D. strode with a wide, impressive gait, her horse-thick blonde hair spreading out like a cape behind her in the wind, her fur coat bristling, her striking red lipstick emphasizing her flamboyant air.
Although Professor D. had been living here for a decade, she was certainly not Czech—she was far from it. She spoke passable Czech, as a working journalist and foreign correspondent in the country, but behaved more like a New York editor for Vogue: direct, aggressive, sharp, yet scatter-brained. In a country of quiet, passive-aggressive women whose strength lay in an almost unnoticeable flame that burned under their well-kept outfits and hair, Professor D. stood out like an enormous, multi-colored, bizarre moth among a garden of tidy butterflies.
But this is what made the trip special: Professor D. had wanted to organize a trip unlike any other, where instead of visiting castles or pretty towns, she would take the students to the middle of nowhere to meet high schoolers who existed in what was barely a village. They would learn about the education system, drink and party with the students, and stay with their families for a night.
Professor D. liked to say that in the past, her students had learned more about the Czech people during the 24 hours spent in Hlinsko than they did during the entire semester.
A gymnazium is a type of high school for the “smart” Czech students, those who are on a path to university. In the Czech Republic, university is free if you get in—so gymnaziums aim to send all their students to this higher level of education. For those who did not make it to gymnazium but still want to go to university, there are private schools that cost money, but they provide poor education and are considered the “dumb” schools.
The NYU students arrived at the tiny gymnazium, which evoked memories of one student’s small Ukrainian Catholic grade school in Parma, Ohio, which had recently been closed down due to lack of enrollment. It had the smell of a tiny school, it seemed as though nothing had changed there since the 70s, and probably wouldn’t change any time soon. The students were led into a classroom where several tables had been lined up and plates of small cakes and snacks had been prepared. In the corner was a sink and counter where several Czech students greeted them, and then busily began to make coffee and tea for their American visitors.
Professor D., as always, had a connection. She was good friends with the English teacher here, who had for years collaborated with her to make this trip possible. The English teacher, L., was born and raised in Brno, had studied at Charles University, lived in the United States, and then moved to Hlinsko where she was perhaps one of the most forward-thinking teachers in this small town of 10,000 inhabitants. Surrounded by women who still found their place as housewives, and students who might not ever leave this place, L. made it her duty, her battle, to open their eyes to the rest of the world. It was easier said than done.
She had started with teaching English, and her talents as an instructor were apparent in the good language skills of her students who ranged between 15 and 19 years of age. They were all able to communicate with the Americans, certainly better than the Americans could imagine communicating with them in Czech.
L. moved on to organize school trips to different European countries, including England and Ireland. This year, she had written and directed a play based off a work by Kurt Vonnegut, which she hoped would be proof that her students were worth more than just the fact that they were notorious for underage drinking to past American visiting students.
A Show Performed in English
The Czech students performed their show entirely in English, with the exception of some monologues which were translated into Czech. L. said that most of the parents in Hlinsko wanted the show to be performed only in Czech, but they were also the same people who were annoyed at some of the controversial aspects of the play. L. had written it with bitterness against the conventions of small town life, pointing out the stupidity of close-minded people whose lives revolved around watching TV in their homes. This is not an accurate depiction of small town life here in Hlinsko, although it had its truthful moments. The show was hilarious, the students’ acting excellent, and the Americans did not stop smiling throughout the whole thing.
Some universal themes
Smoking hookah seemed to be quite popular among the high schoolers, and one of the host girls owned one in her room. She lived in a beautiful house that was about ten minutes away from Hlinsko in a neighboring village, a village that consisted of about 20 houses total. When driving there from school, the American student sat in the back seat next to the 9-year-old younger sister, and watched the countryside through the window as Czech music played on the radio. The little girl tapped the American on the shoulder to point out a horse farm as they passed it—she could only say “Hello” in English, nothing else—and the American was struck by the purity of the landscape, rolling hills, layers of beech trees, bumpy dirt roads, small houses with old Czech men smoking outside or pushing a wheelbarrow out of the messy backyard strewn with crooked fences and clotheslines. The houses in the village were scattered unevenly together, the sky was large and bare and silent, just as silent as everything else, and only about 15 cars a day drove by, the Czech girl told the American.
The Czech prepared a plate of cakes, a cup of coffee, a jar of nutella, and mango hookah for her guest in her room. She sifted through her Czech music, which was mostly punk and rock groups, showed her pictures of her friends on her wall, pointed out the posters of bands she’d seen at the music venue they were going to that night for the punk concert.
They smoked hookah together, blowing smoke rings in the orange-lit room, and discussed music.
“Czech punk concerts are nothing compared to Russian punk concerts”
Professor D. ensured L., who was worried that the Americans would be trampled to death during the show. “Trust me,” Professor D said. “You could fall asleep at a Czech punk show, they’re so mild. In Russia, people die at punk shows.”
Yet she still jokingly called the journalism students who decided to go to the punk show the “bad girls.” In the end they really were, they ended up returning to Prague with cuts and bruises, and one had even lost her voice. Their shoes were covered in pure black grime—a mixture of spit, grit, and dry beer that had accumulated on them during the beer-showered evening. But even the bad girls of j-school were nothing compared to the insanity of the Czech high schoolers, who enjoyed themselves to their fullest wild abandon, in a way that left the Americans wondering where their youth had gone.
The concert was at a venue often frequented by the Hlinsko high schoolers, in a village about a half hour away. When they arrived, the Czech girl led the American journalism student into the village, up a small hill to where there stood an old barrack that happened to be the music venue. Shady characters were already huddled around outside, but after spending time inside, the American discovered these characters were not “shady” as much as they were just weird. There were mohawks and dredlocks of all shapes and sizes, and some of the most bizarre punk-stoner-hippie outfit combinations, ultimately leaving the American in a state of confusion at her situation: middle of bumfuck, Czech Republic, at some weird punk venue with badly-drawn neon dragons all over the walls. And then the 16-year-olds began to buy rounds of beer and shots.
The drinking age is 18 in the Czech Republic, but as in most European countries, it does not matter. Several of the Czech students, already drunk, mentioned that they had received drinking tickets and were not supposed to be drinking. The validity of these so-called “drinking tickets”, however, remained questionable to the Americans, who were still unable to drink in the United States for another year. 17-year-old Iryna, bouncing around from one American to the other, twirling and spinning and dancing about like an uncontrollable, talkative top, said that she had to look out for the police, because she had gotten a drinking ticket recently. Upon leaving the show, she waved down the car of a “friend” and jumped in; “Come on guys!” she told the Americans. “This is my friend, he’s a police officer, but he’s off duty. He’s going to give us a ride to the pub.”
The punk show began and the crowd was immersed in a cloud of pure sweat and smoke, and everyone was drenched within minutes. Then one of the journalism girls shoved another journalism student into the mosh pit, which resulted in a near-death experience, but she was able to claw her way back up from the throbbing mass of sweat-balls by clinging to the jackets of two dudes. Then the journalism students found themselves facing the old punk stars, apparently a very popular Czech band, the bassist was wearing a gladiator helmet and was shirtless, a large Czech belly protruding into the spotlight. The other musicians had eyeballs as wide as golf balls, and stared out into the crowd like crazy people which only added to the absurdity of the event.
The bad girls of the journalism department continued to start fights with Czech dudes in the mosh pit, but as Professor D. had said, the show was mild. Beer flying, sweat dripping, they bounced around like atomic electrons, hair soaked through, pulling their pants up, clinging to each other and then shoving each other, jumping and leaping around like nutcases. The Czech high schoolers were right there alongside them.
As the Czech girl and her American guest walked back up the street in her village at 1am, the American was overcome with a sense of utter silence. If silence can be considered a sound, it was an overwhelming one, so heavy and pure that her head was filled with it. This was because the sky was like a bottomless vault of nothing above them, and the street had no lights, and the moon feels closer in the country. The wind was warm but free, uninhibited by buildings or cars, and every single house in the village was as still as in a black and white photograph. The American felt like she was walking through the landscape of a deep sleep, but for the Czech this was an every-day feeling. As they turned into the driveway of her house, the American turned back and looked up at the black silhouette of a large tree against the part of the sky that was illuminated with the silver moon. The tree enlarged as though it were breathing in and out, and one could feel its three dimensions. Every piece of matter in the countryside, from a speck of dirt to the scene of windy grasses, by simple fact that it was seen less, could hold more of the unknown, and this gave it much more value.