Sunday, April 18, 2010

Prague: Getting Wasted

I had always believed that swinging on a chandelier was a saying; something only done in metaphor. It's such a bizarre Tarzanian feat that even though the phrasing is as ordinary as any cliché no real person could be that nutsy-gutsy. And then there are the logistical problems: How do you get up there? When do you let go? How do you keep the thin metal chain from snapping in two or the ceiling from collapsing in on you?
Myself, I've swung on my fair share of rope-swings, memorizing the sensation of the parabola's focus; learning to let go at the exact moment that would maximize one's flight time. But I'm also well versed in the hazards. My second day on Kauai I sprained my ankle so bad crashing down into shallow water that I was out of commission for the rest of the trip. Perhaps a chandelier strung up over the deep end of a pool might be swingable, but you can't count on such an unlikely placement for this most elegant of lighting fixtures. Surely "to swing on a chandelier" couldn't be based in reality.
My copy of Young Torless crammed under my arm, I left my hotel that first morning in Prague to seek out a quiet place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry. I was traveling alone this time, unburdened by busy American friends who always seemed to want to visit every museum, every castle, every point of interest mentioned in their guidebooks. I was determined to enjoy the city from its peaceful sidelines, appearing to the untrained eye to be nothing more than a local.
This book required the perfect spot. I'd only pretended to read it in my former life as an English major, and I believed I owed it to my degree to finish the dry, unheard of and somehow influential text. So I scoped out the cafe situation. Nope, that cafe won't do: too busy. That one over there? Too quiet. Too beautiful, too quaint, too charming. I was turning into Goldilocks; a ditzy blonde wandering around someone else's home judging all their stuff as unsuitable. I stopped, frowned at Torless and agreed that the next cafe would be the one.
So I strolled into the Irish pub, ordered a pint of Guinness, and broke out my novel, staring intently down at it from my usual position, tucked into the last barstool against the wall. Behind me, seated on long wooden benches around a table a raucous group of Welsh men had already started to sing an unintelligible drinking song at the top of their lungs. It must have been, like, ten in the morning.
I turned the page after the appropriate amount of time had passed, eavesdropping with all my heart on the six young men behind me. Or, at least, I was trying to eavesdrop because it was impossible to understand a word they were saying. It took about twenty minutes of pretending to read before the band manager sidled up next to me.
Wasted isn't nearly a strong enough term. Eyes crossed, he shouted, inches from my face, "Thas myband. Dyu wanna joinis?"
I was seated between the bassist and one of the roadies before he hit the question mark.
Somewhere between the third round of Jaeger and the fourth of Guinness it happened. The drummer, a man only known by the large North American animal he'd adopted as his name, jumped up onto the table. His long, emaciated frame fit his heavy metal persona perfectly and, shouting something about dead, he launched himself from the table to the chandelier, ten feet above us. All eyes locked onto him despite it being it the fourth quarter of a World Cup match. He swung with the practiced grace of an aerial acrobat, and released his grip on the chandelier to land atop the bar. I couldn't decide whether to hold up an Olympic score card or find some way to distance myself from this unruly group of foreigners. The last thing I needed was to get myself arrested on my first day in Europe.
When he began to dance, I slid under the table and fled to the bathroom.
By the time I'd returned, the band had been ejected. I crawled back to my seat, head spinning with booze, feeling that I needed to sober up a bit before trying to figure out first: where am I, and second: how do I get back to my hotel.
It was midday by then and the bar was packed. The stools and small tables were all taken up, and it wasn't long before new arrivals to the pub slid onto the long benches beside me. I scooted over at one point to accommodate a friendly Italian man that had just wandered in. I tried to say a few words to him, but he shrugged indicating that he didn't speak English.
The Italian ordered a beer and opened his coat, revealing a crumpled brown paper bag. Waiting for his drink, he unwrapped the package and held it out to me to sample first. Inside was a large container of semi-dried long-stemmed mushrooms. I knew the variety well, and immediately shot up one hand, shaking my head, no. That was a recipe for disaster.
He shrugged and dug in. I got up to get a refill on my water, losing the illusion that my head had begun to clear the moment I stood up.
By the time I returned, the Italian had finished his snack. I snuck a glance over in his direction. He had eaten every bit of a 12oz container of psychedelic fungi. I turned my attention to the new soccer match on the TV and waited for the copious amount of water I was downing to thin out the alcohol in my blood.
More bar patrons arrived. We squeezed closer together. Out of nowhere, the Italian turned to face me; he didn't have far to turn.
"Mia fotographica!"
His eyes flashed. His breath wrapped around my head like a smothering scarf. I fell back against a French couple but his fingers had clasped tight around the edges of my shirt and he pulled me back against his face.
"Mia macchina fotographica."
"I don't speak Italian."
"Mia fotographica! Mia fotographica!"
He kept pulling me closer, though there was no closer to be. My fingernails dug into the wooden bench, scraping holes in the wood in my effort to pull away.
"Dove è elasticità."
His grip was like iron. I wasn't going anywhere but closer to his wild eyes and white flashing teeth.
"No," I began to plead, "No I don't have your camera. No photo-camera."
He had me by the hair, pulling me out of the booth, out of the bar, out of the safety of the crowd, who should have been coming to my rescue by then. Come on French couple, are you really going to let this drugged-out lunatic kill me right in front of you.
"Mia fotographica! Essa a me!" He let out a low growl, like a grizzly bear, and lifted me the rest of the way off my seat, throwing me towards the door.
It was his friends who came to my rescue. Two of them accosted him from behind, gasping each of his arms in two of theirs, holding him fast but leaving him snarling all too close to me, an attack dog on a leash.
"He says you have his camera."
"Mia fotographica."
"I don't have his camera."
"Mia fotographica."
"He says you do."
"He's on mushrooms."
"Yeah, he ate like a whole box of them."
The Italian man who had been talking to me turned now to his deranged friend and said something to him in their language. He turned to me again. "I think he left it in the hotel."
"Can you tell him that?"
"He does not believe me. He says you stole it."
"But you believe me?"
He shrugged.
I looked up at the chandelier, wondering if I could use it to swing to safety.
"I don't have his camera," I whispered.
He shrugged again.
Nobody moved, so I took a tentative step backwards, toward the door. Another.
In a moment I found myself out in the crisp air of freedom and I didn't look back.

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