Sitting in a small tea house in the old town of Prague, the chess players at the same table have just been asking if I am a poet, as I pull out a notebook and pen to write. They ask: what is my profession? am I American? denying everything, they explain, chuckling, that english speaking, somewhere under 30 and dressed in black, they expected to hear that I was a self-proclaimed poet.
The combined patterns of soft-spoken unknown Czech and of gregorian chants in a very japanese tea-house in a small yellow and white painted courtyard in prague are rather comforting. Frightening, though, to be so without language. I am fighting to remember the words for such basics as yes and no let alone please-thank-you-sorry-hello-is-this-seat-taken-a-glass-of-beer-how-much-is-that. Yes, the gunpowder tea, and it comes in such a perfect low plump stone pot with paper thin china cups that sign language and pointing and smiling finds its own way for the moment.
So, without language, i'm reduced to helpless, apologetic smiles and a growing embarrassment. When someone came over to the table, and asked a question, my companion broke into his carefully prepared request for drinks, only to see the guy blush, laugh and stammer in frighteningly competent English that he was asking if he might sit there, if the seats were free, that he did not work here. First faux pas of what will, I'm sure, be many.
They are glancing warily across the table from time to time, between rapid head scratching chess moves. Looking at them, I think they are father and son--he young, long dirty blond pony tail, small scrub of beard on his narrow chin. A student, or at least a student very recently. Long red jersey and big snow-stained boots. The other is older, with silvering dark hair, grey stubbled rough unshaven chin and cheeks, filthy old loose jeans a black polo neck, grubby with stains and a little too tight around jowls he didn't have in 1968.
He looks like he is on the second day after a long session of drinking, a slept-in standard issue Prague intellectual, for sure. Encouraging the younger man, asking him questions as they play chess, exclaiming from time to time.
He just turned to me, grinned broadly, and started to sing in a very pleased. hoarse, soaked voice,
"You're a motherfucker. You're a motherfucker! We are motherfuckers! We are motherfuckers! I'm a motherfucker! You're a motherfucker! We are motherfuckers!"
before cackling and turning back to his game. The younger man hisses something at him, blushing furiously. I laugh, politely, not knowing what the fuck is going on, and breathe the tea--in a dark blue cup, white inside, pink-orange scent of temple of heaven tea, and the snow is still dripping from my shoes.
Old guy has just muttered "check!" to a response which looked much like "oh fuck, I didn't see that coming." Hands shaken with a friendly grimace and more tea poured, whilst a man with a most extraordinary beard fills paper bags with black shreds of tea from a pale wooden cabinet.
Chess over, and packed away, the older guy turns to me again, "Are you a writer?"
"Um, no, sort of, yes" I explain, eloquently.
I shuffle my notebook for a moment, there is a silence, I peer into my tea and then he puts his hands to his chest and declares, "I, too, am a writer!"
He grins, and repeats himself, "I, too, am a writer! It is only in the near years that one can say 'I am a writer!' Before, it was only: 'Who am I? I am a Bloody Bastard!' And I give my words to the other bloody bastard. And you, another bloody bastard gives the words to some other bloody bastard. And some bloody bastard gives the words to me."
How the hell do you express a concept like that when you have only a few basic nouns? Explaining Samizdat, what it meant to be a writer in Prague, not being allowed to write. How can you react? Nodding, smiling, struggling to understand the words and phrases and his pronunciation, raising thimbles of tea in a toast, confused and struggling with a lack of words. I want to ask him about his writing, about having to hide words, tell him I know about Samizdat, but alI I can do is smile a little weakly.
Asked my name, I say 'Kate', a few times, until he nods, turning to the son and asking 'Caterin?'. Yes. He asks for my notebook, I misunderstand, thinking he is asking what I am writing--explain that it is just my journal. No, he wants me to write down my name, he wants to write an acrostic. Again, I misunderstand--tear out a page and give it to him. Finally, he has my name, a pen and paper. He puzzles over the letters, rubs his face, rubs his chin, whole palm rasping over stubble skin, hovers pen over paper, writes, crosses out, jumps up sending everything flying, staggers off. Returns, scrambling under the bench for the vanished pen, knocking over the just-mopped tea again. He writes, looking annoyed, shows me--reading/translating his scrawl. I understand not a word but 'eternity'.
but he takes more paper, and rewrites in a fair copy:
Afternoons are probably in other
Other terries may be in
terries? terrors? territories? No idea...
He signs and dates it with an unreadable signature. I feel awful, not asking for his name, wondering if I should attempt to return the favour, feel awful for not knowing who this man, this bloody bastard, this finally allowed writer is. There is a moment of painful, paralysing embarrassment. He wanders off again. I make gestures to a watch I do not even wear, jump up, escape, smile, say goodbye to the son, and leave, feeling horribly foolish. Walk, scurrying from the courtyard into snowstreets, into a square, then off, wandering past buildings, under wood-clad arches, heading towards the river.