chapter04

April 1967
S
hortly after sunrise, the Professor woke me up. I was already dressed up because I had slept in my day clothes. He suggested a drive to a café for breakfast and afterward he would show me my new  living quarters where I could freshen up and unwind.

I took my luggage and stored it on the back seat of the car. We drove down to the Kávarna Corso near Republic Square because it was easy to park the car there. During the short journey, the Professor explained that he liked to work early because neither the streets nor the car park were crowded. He told me to wait and went into the Corso. He came out a few minutes later with two Rohliky bread rolls, a bar of Figaro chocolate and the Pravo (=the Truth) daily newspaper.  As voluble a ever, and pouring real coffee from a vacuum flask into plastic cups, the Professor told me that the writer Franz Kafka used to go to the Corso to meet his friends. The Professor preferred having breakfast in the car because he could not bear any conversations before a cup of coffee and a pipe. He regarded his car as an extension of his office and breakfast room. This was his way of saying that he did not like eavesdroppers. He asked me whether I had read some writings by Franz Kafka. I said that I once tried to read a story called 'Metamorphosis (die Verwandlung') but I was not sure whether I understood the story right. Did the protagonist really wake up as a giant cockroach and become an embarrassment to his landlady? The Professor laughed and said that my own landlady lived in the vicinity of U Minuti - Kafka's old residence. I said that I was honoured about the literary connection.

We left the car at the Corso and walked with the luggage along the Celetna through Old Town Square. We passed the Hussite Tyn Church and its famed astronomical clock, past an old black house covered in white sgraffiti silhouettes. The Professor said that this was U Minuti House and I thought that it was the ideal setting for the cockroach story. Olga Varadyová's sister Irina Kovačová, rented a flat in a 1920s brownstone apartment building with stone arches on the opposite side of U Radnice Square. The Professor let us in with the outside key.We clambered two flights of steep steps and walked along the outside corridor – we call these 'pavlač' – at the back of the building.

Irina Kovačová opened the door after the Professor knocked. We took our shoes off and left them in the kitchen. We followed the landlady into the parlour. She was a tall woman in her fifties. In the past, she might have been a shapely brunette, perhaps with sensual lips and cold blue eyes. Perhaps she never was and always looked like her sister. She had a deep scar on the right side of her face. She was gaunt, crooked and wore horn-rimmed jam-jar glasses. She wore a white shawl over a green rayon dress and white ballet shoes. She smiled and said that she hoped her appearance did not disturb me; the Fascists did that to her. I replied that the Fascists had a lot to answer for because they also killed my father. The Professor said that this is exactly why he hired me: What united us was a common dislike for Fascism. Ms Kovačová explained that she had been originally looking for a female flat mate. When her sister told her that the university was looking for an administrative assistant, it made sense to offer this accommodation for the suitable candidate. I said that I would be happy to be her flat mate.

 I was pleased when we completed the relevant paperwork. I could cope looking after a disabled woman and if the job involved typing then it was fine by me as well. This also meant that I did not need any kind of transport because of the near proximity of my workplace. For the first time my family had no say in how I spent my wages. At the tender age of twenty-eight, I had finally flown the nest. Freedom felt good. The Professor left and said that I could take my time to unpack and unwind. I needed to report to the porter's lodge at No 20 Celetna Street at 2pm 'on the dot'. He added that he hoped I would settle down well in my new quarters.


The oblong bedsit at the front of the building was divided into two sections. There was one window on each side. One enters the room through the door in the flat's minuscule vestibule. There were hooks on the door to hang a coat, a jacket and a satchel. There was a two-seats narrow upright sofa and a small coffee-table. Next to the table there was a floor-lamp with an amber-coloured globe shade. The bilious green walls were fitted with a picture rail and a dado rail. I walked past the wardrobe that was acting as a room-divider, through a bamboo curtain. The other side, was furnished with a single metal frame bed covered with white sheets and a grey blanket. Under the bed there was a round Ottoman. Underneath the second window, the small, square formica table functioned as a desk and sideboard. On it, an electric hot-plate was plugged into a wall-socket. The office swivel-chair creaked. Next to the table, there was a wash-hand basin, with a mirror and a glass shelf. The two windows with the inner shutters were connected by a ledge wide enough for books and ornaments. It seemed to me that the previous lodgers must have been either civil servants or students from outside the city. The place felt as cramped as a caravan but I was pleased with its functionality. The fact that the toilet was located on the Pavlač did not bother me too much. This was not meant to be a luxury accommodation. The basement provided communal showers and laundry facilities.

Outside, the city was bustling and the traffic noise increased.  The modernist municipal offices across U Radnice Square obscured the view from my bedsit. I could not see inside because the windows were covered with a reflective film. As the cleaners with their brooms and buckets entered the municipal building, I wondered whether they could see me until I realized that my own windows were covered in this reflective film as well. According to the street-clock, it was now 8am.

I hung up my coat, satchel and jacket on the hook – the polyester scarf and the fake leather gloves went into my coat pocket, and started to unpack my luggage: I put my transistor radio on the coffee table and placed my moulded stem coffee glass on a melamine plate on the tier below. I stored my German-Czech dictionary and Rilke's 'Two Stories of Prague' next to the transistor radio. There was no portrait to hang, no picture to display. I never felt the need to display my family on the wall, and my appreciation for the arts was inexistent. 

In the bedroom side, I  hung my grey suit and brown cardigan in the wardrobe. I folded my two jumpers, a black roll-neck one and a blue v-neck one and put them at the bottom of the wardrobe. I kept socks and underwear in the cardboard Bata shoe-box that I had brought with me. The laundry would go in a cushion cover. Box and cushion cover were stored into the Ottoman. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving foam, shaving-brush  and comb went on the shelf above the sink. A look in the mirror reminded me that I looked dishevelled and that my clothes were crumpled. I hadn't made my mind up whether I wanted to grow a beard or whether I didn't care. I decided to go down to the basement, have a shower, then shave and change into my work suit. I lined my father's editions of 'The Communist Manifesto' on the ledge next to the chartreuse-coloured hock glass. Last but not least, I arranged the small aluminium kettle, the saucepan and the cutlery - leaving presents respectively from the SVAZARM, the army and the paper-mill – on a tray beside the hot-plate. As I contemplated the relics of my professional past, anxiety gripped me once again. What kind of job was awaiting me? In order to calm my nerves, I took deep breaths and made myself a tea by pouring hot water over dried mint leaves into the stem glass.

I reclined on the sofa, put on the transistor radio and listened to a programme investigating accidents at work in sawmills and how to prevent them. Then I glanced through the Pravo newspaper. What the newspapers don't tell you is that this is a country where one needs to choose words with care. Spontaneity is dangerous, loose lips sink ships. An informant might eavesdrop and denounce you. I was glad that my landlady had no telephone because this meant that my family could not check on me. Sometimes, I feel that it is less painful to be monitored by strangers. Strangers can never be as personal as people who are supposed to be connected to you by blood. I intended to stay in touch by sending a postcard once a week.


At lunchtime, Ms Kovačová offered to go to Kavárna Modrá (the Blue Café) for a bite to eat. I helped her to get down the stairs of our apartment building and she held onto my arm as we were walking on the cobble-stones. Kavárna Modrá was a state-owned cafeteria located off Old Town Square. It was trying to convey the atmosphere of an old tavern. Broken clocks festooned the panelled wall  and, by the counter, the candles of the huge candelabra were covered with dripped wax. At time, it was difficult to believe that we were living in the twentieth century – it was almost easier to imagine the alchemist emperor Rudolf II Habsburg as the feudal lord. Yet this place was as fake as the décor in the Varady's living-room. Here, it was a fantasy vision of bucolic culture as if cheerful country-folks were strolling around in blue, yellow and red costumes chirping songs about hopeful sunrises and blue skies. 

Czechoslovakia is our land, Hej Slovane.
'Modrý – blue', blue as the flax flowers, 
'Bilý – white', white as the linen on the tables, and
'čeverný – red', red as the melamine trays by the self-service counter.

The assistant behind the counter told Ms Kovačová that it was nice to see her again, had she not been well lately? She said she would come more often. The food was basic. We both chose a bowl of soup with a roll of bread, skipped the amorphous main courses in their big aluminium trays, and chose palačinky - pancakes - with apple compote for dessert. I poured water from the large earthenware jug into our two tumblers as Ms Kovačová paid. I carried the trays to our table. Everyone in the restaurant ate in silence, so did we. A woman was speaking on the public phone in the corner. After we finished our meal, Ms Kovačová slipped me some money for the weekly shopping. The shopping-list  was perfectly suited to minimize queuing at the shops. In this country, the less you shopped, the better you were off. Aunt Franci always said that making up recipes out of basic ingredients fuels one's creativity. There are fifty ways of preparing potatoes, apples, semolina, beans and dumplings. My new flat-mate added that I needed to be on my way to work, she was fine getting home on her own: It was much easier to climb the stairs than to descend them.

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