Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Anniversary of Exile

Sixteen years ago this week, I ran away from my home, my life, my parents, and my wife to teach English in a small town in the Republic of Slovakia (which had just recently--weeks before--stopped being a part of Czechoslovakia). Since I can't honor the occasion with a halushki and knedle dinner with my fellow former teachers, as I used to do in New York, let me commemorate with a reminiscence of that Great and Strange Day, sixteen years ago:

By the time I got to Krupina it was dark and I was drunk. Queasy on Slovak liquor and a disgusting lunch of fried cheese, exhausted after five hours of bad road, I had no desire to take in any scenery. All I wanted was a warm bed and a thick blanket to pull over my head. I was so tired and disoriented that everything seemed to be happening in a dream. The clown car I'd been bouncing in all day disgorged one passenger after another, until there was no one left but the mayor, his driver, and me. None of them spoke English, and the only thing I knew how to ask for Slovak was beer—the one thing I definitely did not need.

The smog-belching tin can finally came to rest in front of an enormous, decaying building—my new home. We walked my bags up three flights of echoing stairs to my room. The mayor opened the door, babbled some things I couldn't understand, and scrawled a street map on a piece of paper. He wrote down a number and pointed to his watch. Then he shook my hand, beamed at me with pride, and left.

And I was alone—for the first time in a week. Alone in a silent, strange room. Slowly all the chaos and convulsions of the past week began to subside, and I was able to look around and catch my breath and think again.

I was in an overheated, under-furnished cell of a room. The room had brand new, bright blue carpeting, a fresh paint job, and three pieces of furniture: a desk, a desk chair, and a hard, narrow, platform bed—all stark and utilitarian and white. French doors led to a sliver of balcony which looked out over a sleepy, sleeping town. Between the town and me lay train tracks and a factory. Blue smoke chuffed out of a chimney and drifted over the houses.

I closed the doors and looked at the room again. So this was my home for the next six months. Nothing soft, nothing comfortable—nowhere I could lean back and relax. Nowhere I could sit and read a book. I put my bags in the closet and went out into the anteroom. The doorknob came off in my hand.

The anteroom was almost the size of my bedroom. It was unheated, uncarpeted, and dim, and it held nothing but a coat closet and several doors. Stuck to the closet were three or four stickers with pictures of body builders. Along one wall was the door to my room and the door to my neighbor's room—from which I could hear giggling girls and tinny pop music. I had been told that my suite-mate was a truck driver who was only in town on the weekends. He seemed to be very much in tonight—and he was re-painting his room. The smell sat heavy in the cold entryway.

There were two other doors to inspect, on either side of the two bedroom doors. Behind one door lay a shower room with a sink. There was no bathtub, or even a shower stall—just a nozzle attached to a long hose, sitting in a metal cradle on the wall. There were no hooks for towels, shelves for toiletries, or even a mirror. In the middle of the floor was a drain.

Across from that door was a small room with a toilet. The room reeked of shit. Toilets in this country had no water reservoir; you dropped your business straight onto the metal bowl, then pulled a chain. Water whooshed down to wash it away, then gurgled into emptiness, leaving stains and stink.

The smells of old shit and new paint were too much for my jittery stomach. All day I’d been feeling queasy as we bounced up and down along the treacherous roads in pea-soup fog. I had been trapped in the back seat for hours between the mayor and the school director—both large, sweaty men who spoke no English. The one person who did speak my language, a woman named Elena, sat up front, chatting away to distract me. But it was no good. I longed for some fresh air and a break from the bouncing.

The fog got worse, and we crawled for hours behind a line of army jeeps and a tank. I had no idea whose soldiers they were—remnants of the Red Army, heading back to Russia, or Slovaks re-deploying in their brand new country? I couldn’t tell—all I could see was the silhouette cut out on the fog. It was a creepy sight. I hadn't seen soldiers and army jeeps on any roads since my childhood, when there was a draft in my country, and a war. I tried to remember those images to keep my mind off our driver, who was swerving wildly, lurching from side to side on the serpentine, invisible road. He'd had more than a few shots of plum brandy during lunch, and it seemed to be making him feel invincible. Not me. The vision of tanks emerging from fog was frightening enough without the additional terror of dying on a country road in the middle of nowhere. I closed my eyes, but it didn't help. Fried cheese and hard liquor sloshed back and forth in my guts, and I held myself tight, all the way to my new home.

And now I was here. Alone. I knew the name of the town and the first name of the one woman who seemed to speak English. How could I find her again if I needed her? I couldn't—she had vanished into the darkness of the town. What was my address here? Was there a phone? What would I do if something terrible happened to me in the night? Who could I go to for help?

No one. I understood that now. I was on my own. I had cut loose from all my moorings and now I was at sea—out alone in the deep, weird world. I was lost, just as I had wanted. All the trauma and sorrow I had created back home, all the wreckage I had made of my life in the past year, all of it was behind me now, in a crazy dream-land where beds were soft and door-knobs stayed on doors. But I wasn't there anymore, and I had no way of getting back there till my time here was done. I was committed. I was trapped. I was free.

Up until a week before I had left home, I had deluded myself into thinking I'd be stationed in Prague, or at least close to Prague—the city of Kundera and Havel and Kafka, the center of all the Great Changes and New Beginnings taking place. This was what I was after. Two new countries had just been born, two new republics rising out of the ashes of the Communist regime which had squatted over the Czech and Slovak people for years. I had been reading about it, and now I was going to witness it first-hand.

Except I wasn't needed in Prague. There were hundreds of Americans and Brits and Canadians in Prague already, most of them teaching English. No, I was needed in a different place—a place called Krupina—which was not only remote from the capital; it was now, as of January first, in an entirely separate country. I felt duped when I first got the call informing me of my “charming willage,” but it was too late to back out. They needed me, and I needed to escape.

When I arrived at the orientation site in this new republic of Slovakia, I was handed a sheet of information about the town I was assigned to. It said: "You will be the first volunteer from our organization to this school. There are not any other volunteers in the town. Krupina has a population of 8,000. It received its royal charter in 1244 and was a mining town for many years. In the town you will find an observation tower, a park, and a factory. The surrounding mountains are excellent for hiking."

So I was to be completely isolated here. Not exactly what I had been hoping for, but it was too late to complain. I had thrown my life into the hands of chance, or fate, and here is where I had landed. There had to be a reason. At least, I hoped there was a reason. At any rate, it would give me some time—some perspective on the mess I'd left back at home. It would give me a chance to think, away from all the people who wanted something out of me—my parents, my wife, my friends. It would give me a chance to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do next. And I could go back home at the end of it, with confidence and a sense of mission, and fix whatever needed fixing...or break whatever needed breaking. I could face my looming thirtieth birthday with some calm, saying, "Yes, my life is heading down the right road at last."

And yet...

And yet right now, in this close and overheated place, where everything was heavy smells and hard furniture, I wondered if I really knew what I was doing. I lay down on my palette and clamped my Walkman on my head. I tried to sleep, to forget where I was for a while, but it was hopeless. A freight train began hooking up outside my window—each car chugging noisily forward then smashing back against its neighbor to link up. One after another. All the awful images of the life I'd run from, coupled with the long day and the bad alcohol, and the shit and the paint and the endless, grinding noise, and the realization that I was really, actually lost and alone in the middle of nowhere—all of it put me over the edge, and I stumbled out to the stinking toilet and retched.

P.S.: It got better. It actually got quite wonderful. But slowly.

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