On my final day living in the Czech Highlands, yellow light from the train station hovered over the snow falling on the tracks. It was a cold December night, and my friends had kept me out drinking until the last train left Havlíčkův Brod at midnight.
I found a car with an open seat, slid the door open, and climbed in. After piling my backpack, suitcase, and various DJ gear onto an overhead rack, I sandwiched myself against the window of the train car among five large, sour-looking Czech men in blue work clothes and heavy jackets. Then, I opened the window and began waving to Alena, the only one left waiting to say goodbye to me in the winter freeze.
I watched Alena’s sad expression behind her glasses while she waved at me in her thick coat. The train stumbled, rumbled, and pulled out of the station headed for Prague. I slid the window shut, nestling into my seat. My head was swollen with a full day of slivovitz, rum, and red wine. I hoped to sleep and wake up in the city in two hours.
As I began to nod off, one of the workmen leaped up, grabbed me by the collar, placed his face directly in mine, and began screaming. My Czech wasn’t good enough to make out his rapid-fire words. Spit covered my face as he shouted, and at any moment, I expected a crack to the face.
It was 1995, just six years after the Velvet Revolution had ended and most of the communists had gone home or into hiding.
Alena was 41 years old. A former gymnast, who had studied philosophy at university, then survived during the Soviet era working at the local Potato Research Institute. Brod (the nickname for the town I was leaving) was known for its schools, hospitals, potato fields, and an insane asylum.
The Czech Republic had been my home for a year, and I had learned to recognize a downtrodden sadness in the way that people spoke and acted. Their heads were often slightly bowed as they walked, but their eyes continued to look up, paranoid, like they were looking for someone.
When they spoke, their language was cutting and pessimistic. The Czech word for yes was “ano”, but people shortened it to just “no”. I lived in a world where “no” literally meant “yes”.
Alena was different from many Czechs. She had a youthful, exuberance and optimism that broke through the former-communist decay and industrial darkness.
I met her the day I started teaching at Zemědělská Škola, an agricultural high school on the edge of the potato fields stretching out on rolling hills to the horizon. She was a professor of English and German. Bookish and beautiful, wearing glasses and a tan sweater, and exuding curiosity.
“Hello,” she said as she shook my hand and then asked, “You are Gentry?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied in Czech setting my books down on a nearby desk.
She laughed. “You can speak English. I need to practice speaking with an American!”
Moving to the Czech Highlands had begun in the summer of 1993 when I traveled to Prague. The country was just a newborn baby. Six months earlier, it was Czechoslovakia, but after the Velvet Spilt, the Slovak and Czech Republics became separate countries.
I was a vagabond tourist traveling with my girlfriend and we quickly befriended a 17-year-old skater named Pavel who invited us to stay with his family in their fifth-story flat in Old Town on Masná street. The city was marvelous. An urban, industrial, gothic metropolis still holding the edge of the Iron Curtain with its fingertips, waiting for the courage to let the metal fabric fall and completely embrace the Western world.
Old communist buildings loomed over fairytale squares. Stone golems and weeping angels danced in dilapidated cemeteries and along the cobblestone streets. Walls covered in pollution and soot were doused in the shadows of spires that rose above the rust-colored rooftops. The streets were nearly empty at night as we stumbled across Charles Bridge laughing at the statues of saints standing like frozen vultures.
One night, Pavel took me to the U Zoufalců club, an old train tunnel transformed into a music venue, and I got to witness the music scene. People my age and younger sat smoking, drinking, and listening to Rage Against the Machine as if the music was American Top 40. When the band — The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa — took the small stage, they sounded like an East European version of The Smashing Pumpkins.
I was hooked and began formulating plans to move to Prague.
I arrived in the country 18 months later walking out of the airplane onto the tarmac during a blizzard in January and had a panic attack. After pulling it together, I dove into the Kafkaesque surrealism of the city and went non-stop for six months.
I worked as a DJ at the Roxy, and I was an editor and promoter at Yazzyk Magazine, all while studying mass communications at Karlova Univerzita. The city gave me a nonstop, green mucus-producing cough from the pollution, and I struggled with constant, excruciating back pain. In just a short time, Prague and its labyrinth of tourists, traffic, construction, black market smugglers, pickpockets, and prostitutes burned me out.
I went to Turkey and got lost in the swirling mystery of the ancient country for two months. After surviving four days of food poisoning on the Syrian border, it was time to return to the Czech Republic. This time, I decided, I would live in the countryside.
Havlíčkův Brod was a large village nestled among the hills where Bohemia met Moravia on the Sázava River. Its town square was surrounded by colorful quaint buildings that seemed as if Mozart may have taken a holiday there. Immediately outside the town, it looked and felt like the setting for a Pink Floyd song. Smokestacks rose up among gray, lifeless communist buildings and pockets of little decayed cottages, all ending where the green highland hills and fields began. The highlands are what drew me to Brod.
I located a position as an English teacher on weekdays. I taught roomfuls of screaming, belligerent, prepubescent 5th through 8th graders at a junior high school, and I was an instructor for 16 and 17-year-old young women at Zemědělská Škola. I was 23 years old and felt like a vaudevillian entertaining the junior high students, and, at the same time, a lascivious pervert teaching classrooms full of pretty teenage women who were on the verge of full-blown adulthood.
I was alone for most of the autumn and traveled to Prague every other weekend to DJ. In Brod, when I wasn’t teaching, I spent my time reading books, wandering silently through the village like a phantom in the daylight, and riding a borrowed bicycle into the hills outside the town.
The bike gave me the freedom to explore the countryside. I found haystacks to lay on top of and stare at the sky, and I would sit in a grove of trees and watch a farmer fly his remote control airplane. One day, I stumbled across a naked woman laying across the hood of a Škoda Roadster smoking a cigarette and blowing it straight up into the air.
I always stayed to myself and my fantasies kept me company, but I slowly began to feel like a lunatic at the edge of the world.
One afternoon, I was so lonely that I decided to just start riding trains. I bought a ticket and sat in a car, rolling through village after village in the hills, letting the train lull me into a clatter-clack coma.
Just after the first snow, Alena asked me to come to her home for dinner with her family. It was a grand night filled with heaps of food and drink, and discussions about books, art, and music.
Brave New World and The Lord of the Flies were Alena’s favorite English books. She was impressed that I was a fan of The Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech’s own version of The Velvet Underground — a band of musicians and political dissidents who formed during the communist hammer fall of the late 60s.
Our conversations veered everywhere during that first dinner together. I learned that Alena had never joined the Communist Party and had avoided the black mark that came with that decision.
It was also important for her to talk about her spiritual beliefs because religion had been so oppressed by the Soviets. After bringing up the subject, I watched her search for the right words and she finally said, “Most Czechs are…are…not atheists. We are agnostic because we know there is something. You can feel it.”
Every Sunday afterward, I went to Alena’s home and had dinner with her family. Her burly and bearded husband, Jiří, a Bohemian forest ranger, complained about her Moravian style of cooking while he poured me shots of whiskey. Her 18-year-old daughter, Ditta, taught me Czech slang and asked me countless questions about American music. And her teenage son, Petr, sat quietly smiling, deciphering my English, and petting their large sheepdog.
We ate batter-fried carp with cumin, soups, and dumplings, and drank Becherovka, wines of all kinds, local beers, and orange Fanta. Afterward, we’d watch Beverly Hills 90210 overdubbed into Czech and I’d ask them to translate the parts I couldn’t understand.
On those Sunday nights, we’d finish around 10, and I would begin a slow and cold walk up the slush-covered hill. Back to my empty room at the teachers’ dormitory where I lived. Crawling home full, inebriated, and terribly alone. I had come to the Czech Republic in search of music and a new scene, and now I didn’t know why I was there. I was an American ghost haunting the highlands.
Christmas was coming and my semester as a teacher was ending. My final gigs were booked in Berlin and Prague and I had all the notes I needed to write my final dissertation when I returned to the States. It was time to pack up and say goodbye to Brod.
Ditta met up with me first, gathering a group of her friends around me for toasts of slivovitz and rum at the dormitory. We hoisted glasses and yelled out, “Na zdraví!” over and over until Alena appeared. She was excited to take me to the pub. We had never gone to a pub together.
We went to the square and quaffed many glasses of red wine, then more pubs were visited leading to a December blur. By 11:45 pm we were dancing together to a Euro-pop song at a small pub near the train station.
Alena looked at me with teary eyes. She stopped dancing, came close to me, and placed her mouth near my ear.
“I feel old tonight. I wish…I wish…I wish I was you,” she said.
Alena had felt like family to me but I had also felt an attraction to her. This was a strange, Oedipal moment.
I pulled gently away, then returned, brought my mouth to her ear, and said, “You are very pretty. You are not old. But I must go.”
“Please come back,” she said plaintively.
Then we walked out of the loud into the quiet of the night, the snow, and the waiting train.
Minutes later, I was moving down the tracks and was being violently accosted by an enflamed Czech man. I felt his clench release on my collar and my body fell back onto the bench in the train car.
He stopped screaming, turned, and whipped out of the room, slamming the sliding door shut.
One of the other men looked at me and asked in Czech, “Are you all right, man?”
I was startled, shocked, numb, and shaking slightly, but a bubbling brew of booze flowed through my system, so I wasn’t sure if I was ok or not. I just nodded yes.
The man raised his eyebrow, and accepting that I was ok, his face changed from concern back to blank-faced stoicism. I turned my head toward the window and fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke, the train was stopped, and I figured we must have arrived in Prague. My head throbbed as I looked out the window but didn’t recognize the station. All of the men in the car were gone and I was alone. I was lucky. Thankfully, all my things were still in the rack above me.
Moving to the hallway outside, I looked for the railway sign indicating where I was. It read: Děčín.
I had slept for four hours — all the way through Prague. It was 4 am and I was in the low mountains on the border of Germany at the end of the line.
I pulled all of my things out and down to the platform where I found a seat in the empty, outdoor station. Shivering in the sub-zero weather while waiting for the next train, I dozed off a handful of times. At 6 am, a sickly yellow sun stretched across the gray sky, and I boarded a southbound train.
Exhausted but fearful that I’d pass out again and be robbed this time, I prepared to sit up and stay up all the way to Prague.
Then, the door slowly slid open, and an apple-cheeked young woman with infinity-deep brown eyes stepped in. She beamed a glorious smile at me and I was reminded of my students at Zemědělská Škola. Beautiful, young, bright-eyed, and not too different from me only a few years earlier. She had tan Romany skin and was dressed like a gypsy.
The train was moving and I felt warm and serene. I lay down on the bench in the train car and made a pillow out of the hard armrest, unconcerned about being robbed anymore. A gypsy angel had come to rescue me and bring me back to Prague.
Years later, I rolled through the Czech Highlands while I was on tour as a musician. I didn’t stop, but through the window of the train, I felt the presence of three shadows.
There, in a reflection on the hillside, I saw a Czech professor and an American nomad dancing on the edge of the potato fields, both watched over by a gypsy angel.