The following is an excerpt from Gotham Travel Writing instructor David Farley's essay titled, "Uncomfortably Numb," from the recently published anthology of true travel stories, The Best Travelers' Tales 2004: True Stories from Around the World (Traveler's Tales Guides, Inc., March 2004)
Uncomfortably Numb (Excerpt from the essay in The Best Travelers' Tales 2004)
Thanks to growing up with two older sisters and a brother, I've always been able to distinguish Molly Hatchet from Nazareth, recite the words to nearly every Led Zeppelin song, and know that only Ozzy-era Black Sabbath albums are worth listening to. Having a gift for mundane music trivia reaped little if any reward with my fourth grade classmates or little league baseball teammates. Then, in my early-20s, fresh out of college, I moved to the former Soviet Bloc—the Czech Republic to be exact. The Czech Republic is one of the few countries to emerge from communism with relative stability. And its capital, Prague, where I lived for two and a half years, boasts a vibrant music scene. That is, if your auditory proclivity leans toward recycled American and British rock 'n' roll. On any given night in Prague, a club will feature music celebrating obscure 1970s rockdom: The Graham Parsons Project, Foghat, or the Moody Blues; occasionally clubs would even venture into the 1980s with The Scorpions.
A year into my tenure in Prague, unfortunate circumstance found me in desperate need of a place to live. I was broke and was quickly wearing out my welcome on a friend's couch. Unless something happened, I was days away from limping back to my parents’ house in the very un-Prague-like Los Angeles suburbs.
That's when I found myself waiting for the bus one afternoon in the Prague's Vrsovice district, a leafy neighborhood not far from the city center. Despite being a warm August day, I felt cold. I bunched up my jacket and looked down the busy street for the bus. It wasn't anywhere in sight. I glanced up at the typical socialist-era apartment block in front of me. The 20-floor building towered high above the surrounding late-19th century and 1930s-era buildings akin to an unnaturally large junk heap, a functional obelisk-like reminder of an age the Czechs would prefer to forget. Colorful laundry was strewn across its balconies. Years of neglect and smog had turned the paint a spotty jaundiced hue. Still, its general run-down state was attractive. It warmed me. The people living there seemed to have everything I wanted: friends, a job, a room to sleep in that wasn’t littered with empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. They were, in a word, rooted. Out of desperation and boredom, I closed my eyes and wished that I too could live in that very building. Then the bus stopped in front of me.
Thanks to a 1960s population boom, the Soviets built structures just like this one all over the city. Constructed with bad building materials and even worse foresight, these ugly pre-fabricated pillars of parsimony, called panelak, in Czech, have already started to deteriorate. Once the bus pulled away, I never expected to think about or see that inevitably crumbling building again.
But a week later, a friend told me about an available room she’d heard about. When I called, a friendly man named Jan who spoke good English told me he was looking for a foreigner to rent a room in his friend's apartment—which basically meant he’d hoped to find someone who’d pay higher than usual rent. Even worse, the guy I’d be living with didn’t speak English, and my Czech consisted of a few phrases best used in a pub. He reassured me that Petr Dvorak was a nice guy and that it didn’t matter if we couldn’t verbally communicate. This should have sent large red flags waving through my mind right away. But I was desperate.