June in the Czech capital. Not yet summer, but hot: twenty-nine whopping degrees, according to the blinking sign outside the bank. Even if you know that twenty-nine degrees Celsius is eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit—and I don’t; metric conversion has never been my forte—the temperature reading alone doesn’t capture the heat’s oppressive grandeur, because it doesn’t factor in the malarial humidity, or the fact that I’ve been walking around for hours and have yet to hit a patch of shade. I feel like I’m in one of those cartoons where a thundercloud is following me around, raining only on me, except that instead of a thundercloud overhead, it’s the baking kiln-hot sun.
The heat is only one of the day’s obstacles. We arrived in Prague less than two days ago, so I’m still jet-lagged. My last meal was a crude goulash made from what tasted like paprika and horse meat, and that was over twenty-four hours ago. I’m so hungry I could eat…not a horse—I already tried that—but something really big.
So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, and, oh yeah, I’m hungover. Not just hungover. Suffering through one of the worst hangovers of all time, a hangover that belongs in the Book of Lists, if not the Guinness Book of World Records. This is what happens when the local beer is the best you’ve ever consumed, and it costs eighteen cents a half-litre, and you drink it in lieu of dinner, as it is preferable to equine cuisine, and after your tenth or eleventh refill, you decide to fortify it with absinthe—which isn’t really absinthe but a syrupy green licorice liqueur that looks like and tastes like and for all you know is NyQuil, and is only sold to hapless expats at touristy bars like Chapeau Rouge—and you stay at Chapeau Rouge till it closes at four in the morning, and the whole evening, including the cab back to your room, costs less than ten dollars.
Prague is the sort of place where you can buy a drink for everyone in the bar without taking out a second mortgage. Or breaking a twenty. My friend Chris, who’d matched me beer for beer and shot for shot, is so hungover he couldn’t even get out of bed this morning. And this is a guy who can throw down like Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That I am able to function at all is a testament to the quality of the liquid gold the Czechs call pivo.
So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, I’m hungover, and, if that’s not enough, I’m lost. Calibrated to the neat New York grid system, my inner compass is completely useless on the tortuous byways of Prague.
The urban planning here seems to have involved paving the paths of meandering cattle. The Staré Město, in particular, is a veritable maze. With a decent map and a good night’s sleep, I might have a fighting chance. But my map sucks. And, as discussed, I’m hungover, hungry, jet-lagged, and hot, and I slept for maybe four hours last night. Plus, I’m carting around a bottle of wine, which, in my current condition, may as well be a bowling ball.
The wine is a gift for the AP’s Prague correspondent, who was good enough to find me inexpensive yet comfortable accommodations, and who I want to thank in person. The AP’s Prague correspondent is not expecting me to call, and had said correspondent been Pablo Gorondi or Dusan Stojanovic—our men in Budapest and Belgrade, respectively—I would probably be back in the hotel with Chris, sleeping it off. But I feel compelled to visit the bureau of our mutual employer, and not just to be polite. See, in addition to being hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover, and lost, I’m also a single red-blooded American male, and the AP’s Prague correspondent is named Nadia Romanova.
Nadia Romanova! Oo la la! I spent most of the flight over manufacturing a crush on her, even though I don’t know what she looks like, how old she is, if she’s married, or, for that matter, if she prefers the company of men. All I know is her name—but that’s enough. Nadia Romanova is either James Bond’s love interest or Anna Kournikova’s doubles partner. Either way, she’s hot. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present Nadia Romanova with a bottle of wine and ask her to dinner, you have to seize it, hungover or not. Who knows? She might be up for a no-strings-attached liaison with a young American aspiring-novelist-cum-benefits-coordinator.
To present the bottle of wine to the AP correspondent, of course, I must first locate the AP bureau. This is easier said than done, as I am, at the moment, walking through an urban, Czech Blair Witch Project.
The bureau is on Národní. According to my map, Národní is a major thoroughfare, or as major a thoroughfare as you can find in the Staré Město: a wide, straight road extending from the metro station at Můstek, past the National Theatre, to the Most Legií, which is a bridge. Unfortunately, what appears straight on my map is, in actuality, anything but.
I began at Můstek, so I was able to locate that. After walking around for forty minutes, I stumbled upon the bridge. I didn’t find the National Theatre, which is supposed to be visible from the Most Legií, and if I couldn’t find the biggest performing arts center in the Czech Republic, I certainly didn’t spot the unassuming AP bureau. How can I walk from one end of Národní to the other, three times, and miss it? It’s like starting at the Williamsburg Bridge and not being able to find Delancey.
I’ve long since abandoned my map and am carrying only the bottle of wine when an insanely tall blonde dude approaches me. He looks like one of the lesser bad guys from Die Hard, except for the sandals. Birkenstocks don’t exactly inspire menace.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Do you know where is Metro station?”
This is the third time someone has stopped me on the street to ask for directions since we arrived. It’s like they’re seeking me out. Do I really look like I know my way around, or is everyone else even more clueless than I am? Ironically, I am able to tell him where the metro station is. He thanks me and bounds away, on legs as tall as my entire body.
Watching him go, I spot, on a nondescript Soviet-looking concrete building, among a bevy of Slavic signs, a small plaque bearing the familiar burnt-orange interlocking A and P that is the logo of my employer.
“Hallelujah,” I say out loud.
With renewed vigor, I make for the building. Once inside, I see that the bureau is on the sixth floor, Suite 604. There does not appear to be an elevator. Just what a hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover guy needs—a session with the Stairmaster.
The sixth floor—which is actually the seventh floor, because what Europeans call the first floor is really the second floor; such are the wonders of the metric system—appears to be residential. There is nothing that indicates any business is transacted here. No AP logo, no sound of teletype machines, nothing. Weird. But I hit the buzzer for Suite 604.
The door opens to reveal a cute, voluptuous brunette, her hair wavy and short. Gorgeous hazel eyes twinkle at me. I was expecting taller and leaner—a tennis player—but I prefer cute and voluptuous. The only drawback, and it is glaring, is that there are two small children clinging to her like koalas, one on her calf, the other on her hip. Nothing, not even a ring with a diamond the size of Gibraltar, says unavailable more unequivocally than a pair of clingy toddlers.
Swallowing my disappointment, I give her the happiest smile I can muster in my current condition. “Hi. Um…are you Nadia?”
Her English is fair to middling, but she manages to convey that a) she is Nadia’s sister, b) this is Nadia’s apartment and not her place of business, and c) to get to the AP bureau, I need to go back down to the ground floor, follow a long hallway to the other side of the building, and then climb up a different but equally steep set of stairs.
I’m not thrilled about the walking, but that’s the only thing. Not only is Nadia unencumbered by two small children, but the chances of her being a stone-cold fox have actually gone up. In the patois of Las Vegas, the line has moved. How much hotness disparity can there be between sisters? Kourtney Kardashian is not Kim Kardashian, but she’s still, er, kute. My buzz safely restored, I thank Nadia’s sister and go.
* * *
This is my first trip to Europe. Other than a long weekend in Montreal and a spring break in the Virgin Islands, it’s my first trip outside the continental United States. Oh, I’ve had opportunities. I could have gone to Paris with my high school French class. I could have spent my junior year of college abroad, instead of in New York. Can’t ask Mom and Dad; too expensive—that was my excuse for not going both times. But really, I was afraid to leave my comfort zone.
But I’m an adult now, with a steady paycheck and a yen for life experience, and I decided two months ago that I needed to get my feet wet, so to speak, with Old World water, phobias be damned. Logic would have sent me to England, because there is no language barrier; France, because I speak un peu French; or Italy, because I am fully half Italian. Plus, England, France and Italy are the obvious places for a young writer to visit, just like New York is the obvious place for a young writer to live. But none of those destinations piqued my fancy, probably because they were so obvious.
Conversely, I rejected Bucharest and Krakow and Warsaw as too alien. My college roommate, Jeff, had backpacked fearlessly across Europe in ’95…until he hit Poland, whereupon the lugubrious post-Communist strangeness gave him pause. A country that spooked the well-traveled Jeff was sure to terrify me.
What I wanted was someplace foreign but familiar, not too obvious but not too strange, a combination of East and West. What I wanted was Prague.
The Czech metropolis was an unusual choice for a maiden voyage to the Continent, but in 1998, it wasn’t that unusual. The so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 had opened the doors of what was still Czechoslovakia, and with a bang. Prague became an obligatory destination for aspiring men of letters. That the city of Kundera, Kafka, and Klima had selected a playwright, Vaclav Havel, as its president only enhanced its literary cachet. Expatriates of a writerly bent flocked to Prague to soak up its vibrancy, its novelty, and, yes, its astoundingly cheap and delicious pivo.
If you wanted to be a Bohemian, where better to decamp than the capital of Bohemia?
Not that I was a true Bohemian. Or even a convincing fake one. Bohemian enclaves are known for cheapness and grit. Paris between the wars, Greenwich Village a generation before. Prague? Maybe in the early 90s, in its hipster heyday. By ’98, the bubble had burst. It was still cheap, but hardly gritty. I wouldn’t say I made it to the party after the keg was kicked (an apt metaphor in Bohemia), but the tap was definitely farting foam.
So: beer, life experience, aspirations literary and hipster. Good enough reasons to go where I did—but post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalizations, all. I chose Prague over Paris, Rome, London, Budapest, Moscow, and Athens—and, for that matter, Tokyo, Cairo, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Rio de Janiero, and Havana—because, quite simply, I felt like going there. Prague appealed to me, in the same way that the Yankees appeal to some people, the Mets to others. There was no logic to it. It can’t really be explained, any more than you can explain my mother’s love of the color yellow, or my friend Chris’s hatred of Led Zeppelin. I prefer Milton to Shakespeare, Bach to Mozart, Dalton to Brosnan. Why? Nature? Nurture? Or something else entirely?
Prague called out to me. And here I am.
* * *
Not that I’m mulling over anything so metaphysical as I climb up the last of the seven flights of stairs. The stream of my consciousness flows from Nadia to goulash to sleep to Nadia to Chapeau Rouge to the weird Czech Space Needle on the outskirts of town that isn’t even mentioned in my Rough Guide and back to Nadia. Genealogy may not be riding the last car on my train of thought, but it’s very close to the caboose. My final thought as I ring the buzzer for the AP bureau is, What will Nadia look like? Voluptuous and cute, like her sister? Tall and sinewy, like Anna Kournikova? Somewhere in between?
The person who opens the door is neither voluptuous nor cute nor sinewy nor tall. I am face to face with David Crosby. OK, he’s not really David Crosby, just his döppelganger: same white curly locks cascading from a receding hairline, same walrus mustache, same intense eyes, same leonine bearing. I half expect to see Neil Young behind him with an acoustic guitar. Or Melissa Etheridge with a turkey baster.
“Good morning,” he bellows, his voice at least a six on the Richter scale.
I open my mouth to speak, but I’m having trouble, what with the jet lag, hunger, heat, and hangover. Finally, drawing on all my powers of elocution, I stammer, with erudition that would make the home office proud, “You, AP? Me, AP. New York.”
His eyes light up even more, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.
“You are Olear!” he exclaims, possibly causing a building across town to tremble.
“Welcome. I am Ondrej. Please, come in.”
Only when I cross the threshold do I realize that he pronounced my last name correctly. This bears mention, because no one ever says my last name correctly on the first try. A dactyl, like “caviar”—and not an iambic appeal to the titular tragic king. My father, worn down by the constant and futile attempt to correct everyone, has acquiesced to the Irish pronunciation. The percentage of my own friends who think there is an apostrophe after the “O” is, I’m sad to say, somewhere between the unemployment rate and Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average. And yet Ondrej, a complete stranger, nailed it in one take.
He glances at the brown paper bag tucked under my arm. “Is that wine?”
I nod once, indicating affirmation. He nods twice, indicating approval. “Good.”
I’ve always liked the neat economy of my last name: five letters, three syllables, no schwas. I like the way it reads on the printed page. I like the way it looks spelled out in Scrabble tiles. I like that it provides my full name with so many anagrammatic possibilities (greg olear=roger gale, larger ego). I like that, if I ever get a book published, it should delight Will Shortz and his wordsmith brethren, and allow me to join Sheri Oteri in the Federation of People With Unusual Last Names Beginning With “O” Who Are Crossword Puzzle Clues More Than Their Meager Fame Allows. Even the constant mispronunciation has its silver lining; telemarketers are easy to peg.
“Wow,” I say, following Ondrej into the large but unpopulated room that is the bureau. “You said my name correctly.”
One of the empty desks, I notice, bears a nameplate and a photo ID of the AP’s Prague correspondent. My inkling that she might be attractive was right on the money. Long brown hair, fashion model face. But what Ondrej says next makes me forget all about Nadia Romanova.
“Of course,” he exclaims. “It is a Slovak name. Olej means oil, and –ar means dealer in or supplier of.” He pats me enthusiastically on the shoulder, which would have knocked me over had I not grabbed an empty desk for support. “You, sir, are Oil Man!”
The news bowls me over almost as much as his pat on the shoulder. I stand there speechless, and not because of jet lag, hunger, heat, humidity, or hangover.
I never knew what my name meant. Because of the illegitimate skeleton in the Olear family closet, the subject of ancestry was off limits. My paternal grandfather, Stephen Olear, was born out of wedlock. He didn’t know who his father was—or so he claimed. I asked him about his family history once, before he died, and, as my father predicted, he refused to elaborate. He wouldn’t even tell me what my great-grandfather’s name was; Stephen’s surname, an Americanized version of Olejár, came not from his father but his mother. His last name, then—and by extention, mine—was a matrilineal inheritance.
I never knew what my name meant. I didn’t even now how to find out what it meant. And here the Czech David Crosby, of all people, has satisfied my lifelong curiosity. (Later, I will learn that Ondrej fronts a band called Žlutý Pes, so the “Déjà Vu” comparison is not far off ).
“Nadia is out covering the elections,” says Ondrej, taking the wine. “I will take care of this for you.”
My mind is elsewhere. I’m processing the information, connecting the dots from “Oil Man” to my father’s father, who worked his entire adult life at Standard Oil. And then something else Ondrej said sinks in.
“Wait…did you say it was a Slovak name?”
Ondrej, who is now inspecting the wine (a moderately-priced but well-regarded California red), nods without looking up.
“I always thought we were Polish.”
“No,” and he is emphatic, “Slovak.”
“Wow. I never knew that.”
The unexpected depth of the exchange has sapped what little strength I had remaining. All my life, I thought I was half-Polish, and I’m not; I’m half…Slovak? I know what it means to be Polish—being the butt of jokes, mostly—but what does it mean to be Slovak?
And then my thoughts turn metaphysical.
Prague called out to me. And here I am.
Despite my inability to navigate its twisted roads, Prague seems eerily familiar to me, like a landscape from a half-forgotten dream. The Czech language, which should be so intimidatingly foreign, sounds more musical to my ear than my native tongue. Six months of immersive study, I’d be fluent, no question. The Slavic faces on the street are familiar, too—and mine must look like one of them, or people wouldn’t keep asking me for directions. Heck, Montreal felt stranger to me than Prague does, and I took French for nine years. Why should this be?
Perhaps there really is a collective soul, what the Hindus call the atman, and memories of places, of faces, of historical events, are stored there for all of humanity to tap into, as the html files of IMDB.com are stored on a giant web server for universal access. Just as you can only look up Tom Cruise’s IMDB.com page on a computer, so you can only access the atman subconsciously, when you dream. When we dream of places we’ve never been before, then, we are tapping into the atman. Our dreamscapes are memories from past lives, or else mnemonic heirlooms from long-dead ancestors.
Maybe I wanted to go to Prague because I’ve been here before.
That or I’m still drunk.
My mind is blown, to the point that I’m almost freaked out. I feel claustrophobic, I need air. Even the entrance of a naked and nymphomaniacal Nadia would not entice me to stay right now. Thanking Ondrej profusely, I beat a hasty retreat, racing down the seven flights of stairs to the street, where I gasp for breath, and head to the first bar for a cold pivo.