The strangest part of Prague is the McDonald’s. It’s like that line from that movie that you’ve seen. “It’s the little differences.” Here are some menu items from the McDonald’s in Old City, Prague: Taštička. Zmrzlimoný pohár. Ovocný sáček. Cappy. Kavá. Chicken McNuggets. It was the first McDonald’s in the Czech Republic. It was 1996, and in 1996, beer cost one quarter, American. Dinner cost a dollar. They had just stopped being “Czechoslovakia” and had become the Czech Republic. The country was still so new that they hadn’t gotten around to passing all the laws yet. Parliament was in overtime trying to pass laws in order to make it a proper Democratic Republic. They only outlawed pot on the day that we arrived. Not because the country was some sort of hippie love-in, but because they had other, more important laws to pass first.
On the night we arrived, we went to a hostel. Hippies were holding a sad little ceremony outside the hostel, playing acoustic guitars, holding up candles, smoking pot before the clock struck midnight, and the new law went into effect. It was drizzling. The raindrops were very widely spaced out. You could stand for a long time without getting drenched, though most of the hippies were drenched. If a drop of rain hit a candle just perfectly, in a straight line from above, the candle would extinguish with a hiss.
We went to for McDonald’s the next day for dinner. We were poor, but eating at McDonald’s was actually more expensive than eating at a Czech restaurant. McDonald’s was shiny. McDonald’s was new. We ate at McDonald’s because Czech food is disgusting: boiled meat, boiled meat served with small gray boiled potatoes, boiled meat served with small gray boiled dumplings. 40 years of Communism had probably made the food worse. The food tasted like boiled concrete, which is what the Communist buildings looked like they were made of. All of the other buildings were ancient and beautiful.
The disconcerting thing about the Prague McDonald’s was not the names of the menu items, which I didn’t try to pronounce anyway. I pointed at the menu items. No one can speak Czech. I knew one person back in America whose parents spoke Czech. I asked him if I should learn. “No one speaks Czech,” he said. “Too many irregular verbs. It’s a nightmare.” “But maybe I should learn,” I said. “No one speaks Czech,” he said.
He was right. I started having a nervous breakdown at the airport. I had never been to a foreign country before, and somehow, the most essential aspect of living in a foreign country, the fact that no one speaks the same language as you, had not occurred to me. I had not thought about that. I had spent my time thinking about what I would wear when I lived in Prague. I was 20.
I panicked at the airport.
“No one will understand me!” I yelled at my friend Tiffany. This was in 1996. There was no internet yet, no cell phones. We had no Czech dictionary. There would be no outside help. All around me, in the airport, everywhere were words with Ás and CÝs and Čs in them.
“Like they do anyway. Come on,” she said, and led me by the hand.
She led me to a ticket counter. A beautiful blond girl stood behind the ticket counter. She was smiling ceremonially and wearing a teal-blue uniform.
“Dobry… den,” I said to her.
“Good morning, sir. How may I help you?”
But she said it like she hated me, which she did. But still, no one speaks Czech. At least, no one ever spoke it to me.
The disconcerting part about the McDonald’s in Prague is the girls. They’re beautiful. In 1996, with the country in chaos and the economy a disaster, getting hired at the first McDonald’s in Prague was the equivalent of getting hired at Nobu. You had to be beautiful, so the McDonald’s employees were all female and all fabulously beautiful, like models. It was disconcerting. You’re not used to thinking about how you look when you go into a McDonald’s. Before going in, I would ask Tiffany: “Does my hair look okay? Do my shoes look okay?”
On the first night, we finished our Chicken McNuggets and went outside. An angular guy was leaning against the building next to us. We had our enormous backpacks on, and were wearing the only normal jeans for 1,000 miles, so it was easy to pick us out as tourists, though we did intend to live in Prague for the rest of our lives. That was the plan.
“You English?” he asked us.
“Canady?” he barked.
“No,” I said, lying.
“Yes,” Tiffany said.
“Americans,” he said. I wasn’t crazy about his tone.
“What?” I said.
“Look at this,” he said. He pointed to the McDonald’s. “You Americans. You think everything is like John Wayne movie, eh? Good guys, bad guys. And McDonald’s.” His English wasn’t so great, but it was better than my Czech. “McDonald’s everywhere! And all fat. And drinking Coca-Cola for breakfast, pah!”
I do think that life is like a John Wayne movie, so he had me there. For example, at that second I was visualizing calling in a squad of airplanes to bomb him and his country into the ground. Just like the John Wayne movie The Green Berets.
The guy smirked at me. He was leaning on a side street that we would later name “Prostitute Street,” because that was the street where the prostitutes hung out. At that time in my life, I did not put a lot of effort into being creative. I saw the prostitutes there now, slit-eyed, angry, pacing and smoking. There was one there that I liked the look of.
The guy smirked again. “Americans…” he began.
“Hey now,” I said.
“We are not fat,” Tiffany said.
“We did have Cokes to drink for breakfast though,” I reminded her.
“You see?” the guy said.
We started going to McDonald’s every day, and leaving through the back entrance. I had come to Prague because it was calculated to drive my parents insane, and also because I was in love with Tiffany.
I was in love with Tiffany, but at 20, you’re in love without context. I was sure that I would never meet anyone like her ever again. Since then, I have met several people like her. I was sure that if she didn’t love me back, I would die. I did not die. I just knew that she had nipple rings and multicolored hair extensions and wore rubber dresses and was broke. She had majored in film. For dinner every night, she would eat one baked potato with canned chili. It was all she could afford. Periodically, her mother would fly her to London to go shopping at Betsy Johnson’s and she would return with designer baby-doll dresses worth many thousands of dollars and then revert to being broke again, with the potatoes. It was like that.
We were going to McDonald’s every day almost. I am not a picky eater at all, but everything else was inedible. Once, we went to a new pizza restaurant, the first one in Prague. We ordered a pizza and they panicked and put tinned peas and tinned pineapple on it. We must have caught them by surprise. Maybe it was the first pizza that any Czech person had ever made. Tiffany wanted to stay and eat it out of politeness, but I wanted to leave. We got in a fight about that.
Here are the other things that we got in fights about. The speed of walking, hamburger toppings, drinking, drinking Absinthe, looking at scenery, smoking, showering, having sex, not having sex, kissing, my girlfriend, her boyfriend, doing drugs, our families, money, lack of money, water temperature, the tram system, Prague, Europe, the universe. I did not seem to be adapting very well to travel or to living in a foreign country. And she did have a boyfriend back home. I also had a girlfriend, but it was understood that I would dump my girlfriend for her at any given second, as soon as she said the word. She did not say the word. She did not leave her boyfriend. I lived in her boyfriend’s house, back in Georgia. The first time I arrived at the house, I was already in love with Tiffany, but I had never met her boyfriend yet. I had dinner with Tiffany and her boyfriend’s parents, which was odd, trying to impress her boyfriend’s parents like that. There was a photograph of Eric, her boyfriend, on the wall next to the dining table. In the picture, he was wearing full ski attire — polypropylene body suit, helmet, goggles — and was jumping off the side of a mountain in Switzerland. He was leaping off the side of a mountain in Switzerland, jumping off of a small cliff, with snow exploding beneath him, and you couldn’t see anything beneath him, just pure blue sky, so he was either leaping to his death or into a new job as an Xtreme sports host on ESPN.
“That’s not really him,” I said. “Right?”
“That’s our Eric,” said Eric’s mother.
I still assumed the photo was a joke. It wasn’t a photo. It was the front of a Wheaties box. When I actually met him, the photo turned out not to be a joke. Except that he was possibly even more manly and confident in person. “That was really actually you in the photo,” I said to him. “Jesus Christ; you’re shitting me.”
So that’s what I was dealing with.
And Tiffany wouldn’t sleep with me. She would dry hump with me, but she wouldn’t sleep with me.
“I can’t sleep with you,” she said.
“Yeah, you can.”
“But I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“…But also I love Eric,” she added.
“But not really,” I said.
“I love him, but I’m not in love with him,” she said.
Then we got in a fight about the blanket we were sleeping on. I had wanted to buy a grey one; she had wanted a fire-engine red one. We bought it at Tescos, the Prague department store. It was very cheap. It shed pieces of red fluff everywhere, all over the room. The fluff had migrated to our bags and coated all our clothes. This angered me. I felt the gray one wouldn’t have done that. So we fought about it.
“Have sex with me,” I said.
“I can’t.” she said. “I love Eric. I love him, but I’m not in love with him if you know what I mean.”
The other reason that I went to Prague was that my last class in college was on Czech literature. We read Kafka, a lot of Kafka. It was the last class I would ever take in college, and the first one I ever failed. I chose to write about a story by Kafka, about a man from the country who goes to visit a gatekeeper. I didn’t turn the paper in. I didn’t understand the story; I kept crumpling up my paper, the first few pages. I was mystified that I couldn’t get the paper done. I was used to coasting. I was the irritating student; the one you didn’t want in your class. I would only speak under certain circumstances. I would wait until I was absolutely sure that no one could give the correct answer in class, then I would sigh, and raise my hand grudgingly. As though everyone had been pestering me to answer: that’s why I would sigh. Then I would give the correct answer.
But I couldn’t understand the story by Kafka. My wastebasket was a minefield of crumpled paper. I gave up. I got an incomplete, which turned to an F, and I left college without finishing my degree. Then I met Tiffany. From the first day that I met Tiffany, she told me that she was going to Prague, had to go to Prague, so I went to Prague.
I hung out with Tiffany because she was filled with imperatives like this; her entire life was an imperative. It saved me from ever having to think for myself. “We have to go to the farmer’s market on the edge of town and adopt kittens.” “We have to start drinking Italian sodas every day, Italian sodas that we make ourselves.” “We have to cover the kitchen table in grout and then cover the grout with ceramic tiles. What do you mean, ‘The table will collapse’? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “We have to go to Prague by the end of the year.” And so on.
I knew she would love me if I could just say or do the right thing, probably say the right thing, not do the right thing. In Prague, I tossed and turned at night, trying to think of this right thing. I didn’t sleep on the bed. The bed was only large enough for one person. Every night, we played UNO to see who would get the bed. On the bed was the red blanket. If I lost at UNO, I slept on the floor. If I won at UNO, I felt guilty and slept on the floor anyway.
Here is the story by Franz Kafka:
Before the Law stands a gatekeeper. A man from the country comes, begging admittance to the Law. But the gatekeeper tells him that he cannot admit him at the moment. The man asks if he can be admitted later on. “It may be possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not at this moment.” So the man waits. He waits and waits and waits. He waits for so long that he grows old. He grows old and senile. He starts to die, and as he is dying, he begs the gatekeeper to come closer. The man says: “I know that all men seek admittance to the Law — but then, why in all these years has no one ever come to this door but me?” The man’s hearing is failing, so the gatekeeper has to lean close and boom his words into the man’s ear. “NO ONE ELSE COULD EVER BE ADMITTED HERE, BECAUSE THIS DOOR WAS MADE FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE. ..I am going to close it now,” he adds, as he steps forward to close the door.
That is the entire story. I read it, and didn’t understand it at all. Now, at night, in Prague, I was starting to understand it.
“Have sex with me,” I would say. I loved her so much that it hurt, really hurt.
“I can’t. I love him.”
“No; you don’t.”
“…But I am not really in love with him, is the difference.”
Before the law stands a gatekeeper.
Read Part Two here.
Image credit: ‘Prague spire’ by Quinet