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Molly O'Brien, 2012
Molly studied on in Prague, Czech Republic with SIT during the spring 2011 semester.
On the first day of my stay in the Pávkovy household, my host dad, Jakub, asked me if I liked to take bicycle rides. “Sure I do,” I said.
“Sure.” It was a Sunday, my empty day, the one day I didn’t take the bus into Prague. “Let’s do it.”
“Only…where we go…it is going to be a big hill.”
I studied in Prague for four months with fourteen other people, and I was only one of three students to live in a suburb instead of within city limits. My suburb was Roztoky u Prahy, a tiny town twenty minutes away from the city. It was had all the elements that I came to understand as standard trappings of suburban Czech areas: houses made of concrete, bright grocery stores, a scruffy neighborhood bar, a bakery on the corner that belched the delicious scent of kobliha – jelly donuts – at all hours. The Pávkovy house was small and cute, with a zillion potted plants and two little black dogs, T’apka and Bobina, who barked all the time.
It wasn’t long after I moved in that Jakub showed me the bicycles he stored in his wood shop. “Any time you want, we go. I like the bike. It’s…easy on the back.” He stooped over to demonstrate.
His English was pretty good – way better than my Czech – but labored. Whenever he spoke to me, it took an almost physical effort; his eyes would widen, he’d swallow repeatedly, and if he got stuck on a word, he’d say Ale, ale, ale over and over like a mantra; ale meant “but” in English, his own linguistic stutter, but, but, but. He was always asking me what I was interested in: photography? Architecture? Comic books? Jakub had a way of raising a finger – eureka! – before bounding off to his library and coming back with a booklet on Cubist buildings in Prague, or a translated murder mystery, or a children’s book about a golden key. He’d hand me the book: “Take it! Please. I read it before.”
We were going to ride through Roztoky and up a big hill. That’s what he told me. I strapped on a helmet and followed him. We turned down a trail that led to the Vltava river, and we rode, not straining ourselves too much, rolling down the river path lazily. Miles south of us were all the tourist paddleboats, the Budweiser Budvar ferry cruise, the chaos on the Charles Bridge, but where we were, only the birds made noise. We passed a tiny island in the middle of the river. “I want to put...how do you say...sheep there,” Jakub told me as we pedaled.
“Sheep?” For a second I thought he meant ship, the way he was pointing at the water.
“Sheep. Zuzana says it will be...expensive. The sheep…they eat a lot.” I was already starting to realize that only someone like Jakub would look at a dingy little island and see a sheep’s paradise. We continued on until he motioned for me to turn.
And there was the hill. It wasn’t short and steep. From our vantage point, it was curvy and snaked up through the town of Podmoráň as far as the eye could see.
“There’s a pub at the top.”
“No kidding.” We started up. We had a goal now.
I learned a lot about Jakub in the short time I spent in his house. He was a carpenter and worked from home; his son lived next door with his girlfriend, and Jakub’s project at the time was furnishing the soon-to-be family’s next-door flat with doors and windows and a kitchen table. (Tereza, Adam’s girlfriend, was going to have a baby in July.) His wood shop had a sign over the door adorned with a smiling wooden mermaid.
Jakub loved to read, and to buy new books; he was always coming home with a new haul from his favorite bookstore in the city. The first Czech word I learned was the word for bookstore: knihkupectví. Kuh-nee-koo-petz-tvee. One of the strangest Czech words, and for me and Jakub, one of the most useful. When I told him I knew the word, he brightened. “Dobře, dobře. Good, good!”
He loved Batman so much that he had a Batman t-shirt and a little Batman logo sticker that he placed at the front of his big red van. “The Batmobile,” he said to me gleefully when he pointed it out.
He really loved goulash and dumplings: guláš a knedlíky. I ate it at a restaurant my first night in Prague. One night, Zuzana announced she was making the dish for dinner, and he practically exploded with joy. “This is the best night of my life,” he said to me in English at the dinner table. Zuzana smiled and rolled her eyes.
I learned in class that the Communist regime banned a lot of books, starting in the 1950s and continuing on until the Velvet Revolution ended Communism in 1989. Any writer who protested the regime’s show trials, imprisonments and executions had their work banned, or were jailed themselves. Publishers made samizdat books, self-published novels and newspapers, and distributed them secretly.
I asked Jakub was it was like for him during Communism.
“It was a stupid time,” he said. “Just stupid. You couldn’t go anywhere.”
“Our professor just showed us all these samizdat publications today.”
“Yes, I remember. One time I went to...Germany. To the border. I bring back a big bag of books.”
“You smuggled books into the country?”
“Sneak in.” I made a sneaky sort of gesture.
“Yes! Smuggle. Everyone did it. We were...bored. It was stupid.” I understood, then, why he bought so many books – not only did he love to read, but he was also making up for lost time.
The hill was never going to end. Jakub and I pedaled slowly. On the way up, even as we huffed and puffed and slowed to a near-stop, he still managed to point out the houses that boasted his carpentry work. “That’s my door,” he wheezed, over and over again.
And we got to the top. There was the pub, shining in all its glory. A Czech hospoda is many things: a watering hole, a place to watch the football match, a post-work reward, a treat, a necessity. We went inside. (“I make that door too,” Jakub said as we walked through the hospoda’s entrance.)
Normally he would have ordered a beer – a Gambrinus or a Pilsner Urquell, whatever was on tap. But it was Lent, and he had given up alcohol, so he ordered a Kofola and I followed suit in solidarity. Kofola is the Czech Republic’s answer to Coca-Cola. It’s a bittersweet soft drink made from coffee bean syrup; during Communism, Western sodas like Coke and Pepsi were too expensive, so the Czechs created their own equivalent. 21 years after the Revolution, they still like drinking it.
The Kofola arrived in two .3-liter beer steins, without ice. We were thirsty and finished them at lightning speed.
I thought we were finished. We had reached the pinnacle – where else was there to go? But Jakub pointed toward a path I hadn’t seen. “Are you tired?” he asked. I shook my head. We started riding again, this time through the woods, and I had no idea where we were going until the trees fell away and we were riding through a meadow, a big green field with a small dirt path cutting through it, and bright yellow flowers lining both sides. I hadn’t realized how high we had ridden – we could see the entire town of Roztoky off in the distance.
“Hold on.” I paused for a second as Jakub picked a few yellow flowers. “For Zuzana.” We kept riding, Jakub leading the way, until the path curved downward, and we coasted all the way home.