“Where are you?” she said.
“Relax, Mom. I’m in the Hotel DUM.”
Then came the screams.
Dum in Czech doesn’t mean what it sounds like in English. Just so you know that, because my mom didn’t.
I sadly moved to the Hotel DUM after four months of living with Michal, Marketa, and their daughter Tereza on Závěrka Street in Prague. Marketa’s grandfather had taken ill, and he needed my bedroom. And while it is true that my thoughts of jumping off the Charles Bridge subsided once I’d found people with whom I could converse in my native language, I also lost whatever chance I had at complete language and cultural immersion. But I had no idea that complete immersion could be so isolating, and that I would cry every single night for 112 nights straight, or that a person could even do that. But you know, we learn new things all the time.
The 14th and 15th floors of the Hotel DUM were occupied entirely by language teachers from the U.S.A., England, Ireland, Canada, and Germany. Half of my rent was subsidized by the Českoslovanská Obchodní Akademie, where Michal’s mother pulled strings to get me a job that October teaching “conversational English.” It is ultimately where I learned how to dodge flying objects and all the Czech swear words.
Just so you know, Českoslovanská Obchodní Akademie means “The Czechoslovakian Institute of Economy and Depression.” The academy had gone through three conversation teachers in the month of September. Something about post traumatic stress disorder, and/or lack of compensation. The memories are all fuzzy now. The other teacher still there, Thomas, lived in the Hotel DUM as well. His girlfriend was one of his students. He phrased all of his statements like questions.
“Just so you know, sexual attitudes here are completely different?” he said, taking me aside the first day. “Like, you’ll be amazed? Like, if you stand at the foot of the stairwell and look up? The girls don’t wear underwear.”
As a conversation English teacher, my job was not to issue grades. Well, thank God. No, all I had to do was strike up a conversation with twenty different classes a week. Can we not talk about this?
Every day, before dragging my feet up those stairs, I would go to the front desk to get my key and then wait for the elevator for fifteen minutes — you can see it just to the right, above the stairs — before collapsing onto my bed or shuffling around the hallways, hoping for a sign of life, just anyone, really, who’d humor me with a conversation, because it just gets lonely getting things thrown at you by a bunch of fifteen-year olds whose life’s aspirations are to be accountants, and they know that by the time they’re thirteen years old. It’s not like they have much to live for, anyway. Why not throw things at your unqualified English teacher, if it makes you feel better about yourselves. I’d do it.
This room we see to our left is a near exact replica of my own, but this must be a luxury suite, as the room has two beds and a television.
Each room shares a front doorway with a sister room, as well as a sink and a bathroom. Each hotel floor has its own communal kitchen. I rather liked it, when the nice people were there, because they would talk to me, reminding me that I was alive.
Sarah was not a nice person. She was a Brit chick who lived down the hall. She abhorred the word “chick,” and verbally chastised Chris, the runaway surfer from San Diego, when he asked me if I was a “hippy chick,” just when we’d sat down for goulash.
She said, “Excuse me, do you realize that most modern women would find that term demeaning?”
“Actually, Sarah, that doesn’t bother me.”
“I mean most modern educated women,” she said.
Chris moved to Prague to meet women because he said most American women saw right through him. I think it’s because we could all understand what he was really saying.
My roommate was from New York. Her name was Ana, she was 100% Romanian, and worked as a waitress in the vegetarian place upstairs from Club Radost. She asked me questions about my parents’ sexual interests and was alarmed when I said I didn’t know. She was 5’5″ and weighed 98 pounds and I don’t understand how she lifted things. None of this has anything to do with the heart of the matter. She would wash her dishes in our sink, not the kitchen’s, so tiny bits of peas and corn from her frozen dinners would accumulate, blocking the drain, and I guess she never noticed this, even when water was spilling onto the floor.
When I explained to her the root of our plumbing problems, she started using the shower drain instead.
To our right we have the hotel restaurant. Usually, after payday — I’d get an envelope with some bills and coins — I’d go there to order my favorite, Kuřeci Kung Pao and a beer. That’s “Chicken Kung Pao” for all you monolinguals.
So why am I telling you this? I don’t know. It wasn’t all DUM and gloom. I was actually going to tell you about the time I was nearly brainwashed by a Baptist cult that I had met in McDonald’s. Or I was going to tell you about Prague’s literary scene that I had no part of, but I watched a lot of it. Or I was going to tell you about how I was the fastest feet-first sculler in all of the Czech Republic. And so I have no idea how I got here, actually.