June 2000  

June 24-July 8, 2000
It was a long haul to the States and back. I left on the overnight train from Ostrava to Prague, as seedy a trip as they come, then took the metro and bus to get to the airport. The flight to Vienna took about 40 minutes. I could tell when we crossed from the Czech Republic into Austria because the farms below went from looking dilapidated to these neat and manicured boxes. Which doesn't explain why the airport in Vienna was an absolute mess. I was one of hundreds of people backed up into the lobby waiting to get to our gates. After I finally got there, this humungous Texan, wearing sandals and no socks, flopped down next to me, pulled his shirt out of his drawers, and started fanning the white blubber underneath. I don't know why he didn't use his newspaper instead. The only part of it he actually looked at was the financial section. He started calling out numbers to his wife, who was sitting across from us and looking eery with all this funeral makeup on her face. Such-and-such is at 125, up from 123, congratulations, darling, you're even for the week. So it really was true then: the masses had entered the stock market. A lot of changes had certainly taken place since my last trip to the States in 1993. Back then, there wasn't even a real Internet (nor, by that extension, a real Al Gore). But here they were, Mr. and Mrs. Hayseed, on there way back from Vienna and rolling the ticket tape all the way.

From Virginia, where I landed, I headed to North and South Carolina to visit family and friends. Thank God none of them were any of the people I heard speaking over the radio about their conversions to Jesus. One station after another, one narrow brush with death after another. That's one nice thing about Europeans. They keep their religion to themselves. But as usual, there's a tradeoff. Americans may gush with Jesus, but they're generally very pleasant people when it comes to service. Go to a restaurant and a warm, lovely smile invites you to sit down and allow her to see to your comforts. You'll be lucky if some waitresses in Europe even acknowledge your existence. But that could have something to do with Europeans being incredible cheapskates. I've actually seen tips paid in pennies over here. For Americans who visit Europe--Mr. and Mrs. Hayseed, for instance--it might appear that Europeans also skimp on the food in restaurants. That's certainly true for ice cream, as they will scrape and scrape the scoop to make sure you don't get one creamy morsel extra in your mouth. But other kinds of food come in normal portions. The problem for Americans is that they don't eat normal portions anymore. Everything is large, super-large, and family-sized. I couldn't finish one meal in a restaurant because there was simply too much food on the plate. I have the feeling, however, that if I kept going out to eat, I would gradually become used to it to where I might start looking like my fellow passenger in Vienna.

I hit the road again, back to Virginia for a flight from Norfolk to Seattle. I had heard a lot about delays this summer in America, but I didn't run into any problems. The only delays were with Austrian Air. Coming over we had to wait one hour in the plane because somebody checked in his bag but not himself. Going back we had another one hour delay, but the captain didn't see any reason to inform us why. In fact, when he did speak to us, his tone was like, "Let's get this over with." He could've used some lessons in human relations from the captains of my American flights, who couldn't have been more cordial. The lady sitting next to me on the way to Seattle was also quite cordial, but we had a problem. To keep from throwing up during the flight, she needed to have her air conditioning vent blow on her. Problem was, she was a huge, round lady, so the air kept automatically bouncing off her onto me. I was already cold as it was, and the flight attendant, who could easily work for Austrian Air, curtly told me there were no more blankets available. End of story.

I spent the week at my mother's place on the edge of the Cascade mountains. She lives near Rosyln, where the TV show Northern Exposure was filmed. I watched this show a lot on Polish and Czech TV, so I had to run out to the Brick bar to have a look. I get to the door and there's a man sitting there who wants to see my ID. Wait a minute. I just attended my 20th high school reunion and this guy wants to card me? He said the law says he has to do it to everyone, even Grandpa. That is, if Grandpa is fool enough to walk into this joint. The place was pure cowboy kitsch, with one redneck after another making a big show of squeezing his heifer's ass. Big ass, too.

Then it was time to leave. After seven years away, seven years of hearing about Monica and OJ and Jon Benet, about mass murders and the stock market, it was great to find that America still has the stuff of Jack Kerouac novels and Hank Williams music. My flight back to Europe left from Dulles Airport and God help anyone who gets laid over there. Every other minute there was this announcement, "Dulles International Airport is a smoke-free airport. Smoking is prohibited in all public areas." It was enough to drive you outside to wait with the smokers. On the flight I sat next to a college student from Miami who was going over to visit his family in Serbia. We got to talking about the situation in the Balkans and we came to the one conclusion that's perfectly clear: Clinton, Blair, and Albright have their heads up their asses. After 36 hours underway, I make it to Prague, where after waiting for 45 minutes at the baggage claim, I learn that mine had been forgotten by the airport crew in Vienna. No surprise there. Nor was it a surprise when the lady in Prague, the one who filed my claim, didn't smile or even pretend that she cared. Face it, pal. You ain't in America anymore.

June 17, 2000
It happened in broad daylight. A group of commandos burst into the headquarters of a large bank and hold the general manager at gunpoint. The cameras were running at the time, but this was no Chuck Norris movie. This was Prague, where the current political climate is so acrimonious that commandos are now being used to do the dirty work of the government. The bank was put under receivership after a run on deposits almost shut it down for good. The commandos were there to see the board of directors to the door, and perhaps give his friends in the opposition party a taste of things to come if they don't start cooperating. Instead, they're all irate as hell and demanding somebody's ass--the interior minister, a man-boy with greasy skin and bad hair, or the finance minister, another man-boy with greasy skin and bad hair. They'd prefer both, but most people would settle for the commandos escorting the whole lot of them out of town. Speaking of which, that's where I'll be for the next two weeks.

June 10, 2000
He's a free man, even though he signed his name to a false tax return. But I happen to know from a friend of his that he's a really nice guy. Of course, that matters no more to the Czech taxman than it does to his colleagues around the world. The good fortune for Libor Novak was that the tax return belonged to the political party he represents, the Civic Democrats. The same party that's sharing power with the current government, the Social Democrats (thank God for democracy). The same party that's perhaps afraid Libor will sing if he goes up the river. The song would be a golden oldie, however, since most of the facts have been known for a long time. A few years ago, his party got a large donation from the very people it had helped to gain control of a steel mill. The money wasn't reported on the tax form because it would look exactly like what it was--quid pro quo. Now wait a minute, says Miroslav Macek, a top party official who happens to carry a gun. When the donation was offered to the party, Miroslav says that the people did it against Libor's advice. The only way to get around the money was to simply deny it. Apparently it never occurred to Miroslav to simply return the money, but then many people, including the prime minister, think he's a crook anyway. As for Libor, the court let him off because it decided that a signature is no proof that you know what you're signing. Uh-huh.

June 3, 2000
It's a beloved Christmas carol. Good King Wenceslas and his servant trudge out into the bitter snow to help a peasant gathering firewood. In recognition of his charitable mission, the Czech parliament approved a national holiday in his honor. Actually, he is being recognized as the founder of the Czech state, but it's possible to read just about anything into the man's history. We know he lived over a thousand years ago, but he was neither a king nor a Wenceslas. His name was Václav, the Duke of Bohemia, and he wasn't even good according to those who axed him in church one day. His martyrdom earned him a Christmas carol, but how he came to represent the Czech nation is a more complicated matter. He was struck down, on orders from his brother Boleslav, presumably for collaborating with the Germans. Others call it a gesture of good will. Whatever the case, it's a paid holiday.