Apr/May 2009 Travel

Home Sweet Home

by Aram McLean

The place smelled like stewed cabbage mixed with burning pig's skin, as usual.

I walked down the long dark hallway of the former office building and waved to the ever-present motley crew that lived here with me. Their nationalities represented many of states that had left the original USSR. A good group of people they were, so far as I could tell, nevermind their food preferences, but with nary a word of English or Czech between them our growing level of friendship had hit a serious case of stalled advancement.

Laughter and cracking beer followed me into my small room and I closed the door. With it shut the noise still sounded like it was pretty much sitting next to me on the bed. Falling across my single mattress I felt the bed's wooden slats slip loose beneath my arse; one fell with a clatter to the linoleum-tiled floor. With a practiced sigh I leaned under the weak construction, slid the board back beneath the limp mattress and lay across it again.

The lingering smell of the other tenants boiled dinners filled the stagnant air. Russian jokes with varying dialects blurred together from the parallel and perpendicular rooms and the filthy kitchen. I picked up the Charles Dickens novel I was reading at the moment, Nicholas Nickleby, lay my head back onto my flat lifeless pillow and began to deduce my way through the old English writing style. It slowly replaced my brainwaves from a long day of broken English; I'd been teaching for at least three hours after all. Gradually I dozed off to sleep.

When I next awoke it was dark outside. I briefly wondered what had awakened me when more yelling filled the hallway and feet pounded across the ancient flooring. I rubbed my eyes.

At that moment the shabby little door to my room burst open with a furious kick. I sat bolt upright and stared at the drawn gun backlit beautifully by the bright hallway.

"Policie! Vstan a drz ruce tak abych je vide!" The uniformed man stepped into the room without further invitation and was followed by a second dark figure. I sat up with the thin blanket held above my nipples like a bad actress in a lousy B-movie.

"I... well... what... I...? English?"

"Passport!" The gun arm mercifully dropped and the free hand held out gloved fingers. No further English was offered or attempted.

"Ah, right, I... a moment... prossim..." I stepped from the rickety single bed and caused another loose slat to fall to the ground. The police officers jumped slightly at the clattering noise, their fingers tightened on the trigger. Whoa! I raised both hands in a gesture of peace and general all around calmness. This caused the blanket to fall to the floor and ragged skivvies shone under the twin beams of two powerful flashlights. It became all too obvious that I was unarmed.

"Passport is just in here." I pointed towards my lone stick of furniture. "Okay."

With no sudden moves yet all too aware that I wore my rattiest pair of underwear that signaled laundry day, I opened the small drawer on the wooden desk and removed my travel document. The first police officer quickly snatched it from me and flipped through the pages. I watched his eyes widen in the dimly lit room.

"Canada?" He looked at his partner incredulously, "Co on tady delá?"

"Obsolutne nemám tušení?" The second cop shrugged, "Mozna ma rad zeli?"

Realizing my visa was in order, the main officer returned the little book to me with a nod. He stared a moment longer at my scantily clad figure and gave a slow shake of his head. Again he looked around at the meager surroundings and breathed the lingering smell of goulash on the air.

"Okay," He straightened his shoulders and gestured to his partner to exit. "Dobrou noc."

"Good night." I agreed and the door closed with a click. I sat back on my single bed and sunk my bum into the missing space where the slat had fallen. My knees shook slightly. "Ya sure, great night."

Outside my door the remaining commotion gradually quieted till my drowsy eyes finally overpowered the adrenaline and I slipped back into a restless sleep. Dreams of Charles Dickens' colorful characters packing automatic weapons through old towne London crowded me through the night—a disconcerting blend, I assure you.

Waking for an early class, ten o'clock, I got up groggily and stepped into a hallway of unprecedented silence. Many of the doors that ran along its grey walls were flung open and walking past a few of them I saw the rooms beyond their thresholds completely disheveled and empty. Mattresses were thrown across the floor and drawers were torn open and tossed. The usually busy kitchen at the end of the hallway was a completely empty place but for scattered remnants of boiled cabbage and stewed pork. Nobody waited to shower before me. It felt like the Rapture had come but I'd been deemed unworthy.

Wrapped in a towel I walked again past some open bedrooms towards my room. Turning on my heels I did a quick double-take and gazed again at the many empty beds.

"Hmmm," I looked down the hallway in both directions, stepped nonchalantly into the room, grabbed the nearest bed, gave the slats a tug, they were solid, and quickly squealed and squeaked the bed-frame across the hallway and into my room. Next I tugged my old bed out, loose slats scattered left and right, and left it streaked across the dust balls of the one I'd just "borrowed."

"Well, that's something." I muttered to myself, memories of an exposed gun barrel all too recent.

Dressed for work I passed Lucie on my way out the front door.

"Dobre den." She smiled at me with a trace of irony. I looked at the girl I paid my 2200 korunas a month to; cheapest room in Brno.

"Sure ya, good morning," I gestured around the quiet site of a mass exodus. "What happened to everyone?"

Lucie took a moment to translate my words in her head. "Everyone, yes, they are gone." She nodded like that closed the deal.

"Right," I spoke as slow as possible, "But why? Proc? For what reason are they gone?"

"Ah um, they are... not okay... ah, in Czech Republic, they have, um, no papers."

"Illegal immigrants?" I ventured. Lucy nodded at the words though I could see she had no sure idea what they meant. "From some former states of Russia I'm guessing?"

"Yes, okay," Again Lucy could only smile and nod. "Have good day, naskladino."

I watched the young Goth, in her usual dark outfit, turn away from me, done with the conversation. Letting her go I entered the outside world. Sleep blurred my vision as I walked to the tram stop. I had an English class to teach, but first, it was definitely time for a beer.

That evening I slept in utter silence and comfort; my new bed was sweet.

A part of me missed the laughter though, the sharing of good times between friends, even if I could never understand a word.


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