I don’t know why the Czechs would name a bar The Ear. The Throat, Liver, or Urinary Tract would seem a more likely choice. I’ve asked several colleagues for an explanation, but they always just shake their heads as if to say, ‘How could you ask something so stupid, so easily understood?’ I admit I’ve always been a bit dim, but after sixteen months in this country, I still am at loss for meaning.
The Ucho is a pleasant bar, and the Czechs are cordial drinkers. When they do misbehave, they do it with Svejk innocence, with a certain Slovak charm enhanced by a well developed sense of the absurd. Fights rarely emerge, only looks of pronounced amusement or resignation at your expat blusterI became a regular at the Ucho.
When in a strange city it’s good to become a regular. Even better if that destination is not a far walk. The Ucho was at a leisurely distance of twenty steps and one hundred paces from my living area on the second floor – the one given to me by The University of West Bohemia, where through a creative CV and minor publications, I had established myself in the dubious position of Foreign Language Lecturer.
The Ucho opened at seven o’clock, and I would arrive at eight, take a stool near the center of the bar, order a beer, open my subscribed copy of The New Yorker, and drink. Why I kept drinking beer isn’t clear to me. Nothing is. Sure, the Czech brew is famously recognized, but I never drank beer in the United States. I preffered gin. “Beer only makes you fat and stupid” was my favorite expression when challenged. I didn’t want to get fat.
Rationalization, that was the most likely problem. It’s the worst addiction, rationalizing. Once you start, it’s impossible to stop.
I told myself that I wasn’t actually ordering beer; I was ordering pivo… the guy next to me just finished his fifth pint of pivo, and he wasn’t fat… the president of the Czech Republic is a pivo loving playwright and he’s not stupid… a shot of spirits, a glass of wine, and a bottle of beer have the same amount of alcohol… I love you but I’m not in love with you. It never stops… it just never stops.
I often drank by myself. Other nights an alcoholic Fin named Max would join me. Max came from a wealthy family and, like most children born of affluence, he despised his parents but never refused their charity. Max was a perpetual student like I had been, but better organized. He had studied in seven Eastern European Universities over the past six years, always with the least amount of effort. His modus operandi (as he liked to call it) was always the same:
Enter a University as an exchange student, don’t show up to classes for half the semester (or until they come looking for you), drink during the interval, then feign language difficulty, affect fear and intimidation of the culture, acquire the sympathy of the department; then write a few papers to satisfy the requirements for credit and push on to a new place. I admit that I was rather jealous, especially on learning of his fluency in Czech, German, and Russian. “I can’t take the trams anymore,” Max said sullenly.
“Why? What are you talking about? What happened on the tram?” I asked in a slow, measured voice.
“Would you stop talking like that! ? I told you I know English well enough. Speak normally, for Christ’s sake!”
“I’m sorry Max. I’m used to speaking with my students so much that I’m forgetting how to speak normally. It’s not just with you.”
He shrugged his thick shoulders and annoyingly brushed away some dandruff from his collar. “I know. Forget it. I’m humiliated, that’s all.”
“A shot of vodka then?”
He nodded in approval. “I must have been on the tram for two hours. Pathetic.”
Pavel the bartender went to the refrigerator and retrieved a chilled bottle of vodka. Pavel was somewhat of a celebrity in Plzen, acting with a theatre group in Prague, and a mainstay of the Ucho for the past decade. One night he introduced me to the popular Czech drink known as a Houba, made from equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola. Disgusting. But it occurred on a night shortly after Pavel had ended a long love affair, and I felt obliged to drink Houbas with him into the early morning. I know the sorrow of broken dreams.
Pavel set up three shot glasses, knowing that I would insist he join us. Filling the glasses he topped them with a splash of tonic. “Pavel, you do the honors,” I said. Although he knew only a few words of English, Pavel knew the cue. He proceeded with the count, “Jeden, dva, tri!” We slammed the shots onto the bar: “Na Zdravi!” and quickly consumed the cold spirit. Pavel then grabbed a towel, and in a swift and effortless motion swept the bar clean.
Max continued his lament, “I must have passed Bolevecka five times but I just couldn’t get off the tram. The girls were so beautiful. I couldn’t leave. Every time one would get off, two more would get on.” He anxiously gripped his head as though it might explode. “I didn’t know what to do! I finally went to the front of the car and stood behind the driver. Else I’d still be on the damn thing.” He signaled for three more vodkas. I took a breath and sighed. “You and Jesus would make quite a pair, Max.”
“How’s that?” he replied suspiciously.
“Jesus was humiliated by women all the time too. Especially by Mary Magdalene.”
Max smiled. “Really? This ought to be interesting.”
“Of course. Why do you think he was always hanging out with the sick and infirm. He was humiliated by Mary. By how beautiful she was. But he was too shy to do anything about it, so he kept going shamefaced back to the cripples and the sinners …” Pavel splashed in the tonic.
“One, two, three, Na Zdravi!” We slammed the shots on the bar and consumed the fizzing spirit. Pavel wiped up the spillage and refilled our beers.
“The miracles were a last ditch effort to try to impress Mary,” I continued. “But Mary got confused. She didn’t realize that he was doing it all for her, and she fell in love with God instead. But for Jesus this was the last straw. He gave himself up to the Cross, thinking that he was going to prove to Mary at last how much he loved her. Which, of course, was entirely unnecessary. When he cried out at the end, My Mary, My Mary, Why hast thou forsaken me! she finally realized what he was doing and in horror screamed, Jesus! My God, why didn’t you just say that you liked me?!”
“Wasn’t he thinking that God had forsaken him?” Max asked. “I always thought that he cried out “My God, My God,” not My Mary?”
“Naah, the disciples were never very good at translating Aramaic into Greek. Translation is always a sh*tty business. The true meaning inevitably gets lost. In everything."
“Well, that’s quite a story then, Jonathan.”
I smiled at Pavel as he returned with our beers. “The greatest one ever told,” I said.
“It’s nice to know that I’m in good company.” Max dabbed his finger into the frothy head.
“So what else did you do today, other than ride the tram?”
“I spent a couple hours at the Information Office,” said Max, licking the foam from his finger. The Information Office of Plzen has several computers wired to the Internet and is a gathering point for all expatriates in the city. Not that there are a lot. Only those who can’t afford Prague.
“What, to surf the Net and check your e-mail?” I asked.
“No, I just went in to get some tea, but then they brought out this huge kettle. It took me forever to drink the whole thing.”
“What did you do? Did you have a newspaper or something to read?”
“No. I sat myself at a table so I could watch that girl behind the Information Desk. You know, the tall one with the short blonde hair and nice shoulders,” he said wistfully.
I shook my head. “You are pathetic.”
Max, as usual, just shrugged, then waved to Svatka at the other end of the bar. She was cleaning the pivo glasses, each one capable of holding a half litre of Plzen’s bottom-fermented beer. Svatka often accompanied Pavel in his nightly labors. She had the saddest eyes, but her smile somehow made you feel lighter. It was a smile that could make you forget. A good trick for a bartender. Especially when tending to lonely locals and expats far from home.
D. A. Blyler, University of West Bohemia, Department of Applied Linguistics, KAJ/ZCU Riegrova 11, 306 14 Plzen, Czech Republic. firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com