The Displaced Nation

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“Zuzu in Prahaland”: A departing expat takes inventory of strange, Lovecraftian Prague

For much of June, The Displaced Nation has been looking at what the story of Alice in Wonderland can tell us about displacement of the curious, unreal kind — as anchored by Kate Allison’s 5 Lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Today we welcome guest blogger Sezin Koehler, who received one of our Alice Awards for writing about her current home, Prague, in this vein. Koehler and her husband plan to leave the Czech Republic on August 2. Here, she credits their four-year stay in its capital city for bringing out the Alice in Wonderland, or Zuzu*, in her character.

When I first moved to Prague I had no idea I’d be entering a living snow globe rather than going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not just any old snow globe, but one incessantly shaken by a petulant child, refusing to let but a glimmer of sunlight through the gray haze. I also had no idea that Prague was not so much a city, but rather some kind of unpronounceable Lovecraftian entity with a mind of its own.

The old mother with claws

Kafka called Prague “the old mother with claws,” and he struggled his whole life to escape from her clutches. He never managed.

After four years in her grasp, I myself feared I would never get out from her cruel and cold embrace. My suspicion is that if you die in Prague, your soul is trapped here forever, unable to move on or away, locked in a limbo that the entity within feeds upon, like a relentless vampire queen.

Since the Velvet Revolution that ended the reign of Communism in 1989, Prague has welcomed fresh blood in the form of expats with open arms. There is an entire community of American, Australian, British, Canadian and other expats who have lived here since the 1990s, and they make up their own insulated subculture within greater Prague. The mother claws have them, and good.

These long-term expats joke that Prague is a city that draws you in, makes you comfortable — and then, in the snap of a bony hand, chews you up and spits you out.

In my brief tenure I have witnessed this phenomenon several times: expats, happy as pie, loving the beer and the high life Prague affords — only to find themselves unceremoniously booted out of the country with no friends, no money and only a drinking problem to show for their life here.

Many of those who remain in the clutches for too long have, in the process, become a mutant strain of Czech: wary of outsiders, unwelcoming and generally cold people unless surrounded by their own.

The mother claws are a fickle bunch, taking what they need and discarding of you when there is nothing left.

Prague isn’t just a city, but an entity of some kind. My creativity in Its abode has come with often hefty prices. Two years into my stint here, I developed tendinitis in both wrists simultaneously from a combination of overwork and the extreme cold. I spent three months with both wrists in braces, unable to wash or clothe myself; it took steroid shots and brutal physiotherapy to finally get my hands back in working order.

Now I have the uncanny knack of predicting rain and cold snaps.

Looking back at this strange, sometimes nightmarish interlude, I offer up 20 stream-of-consciousness memories:

1. The place where my husband and I went from being just a couple to being a team.

2. A fairytale land on this side of the rainbow where my dreams started to come true — published in print for the first time, wrote my first screenplay, published my first novel and began work on its three sequels, started building my own platform as a writer. I can call myself what I wanted to be ever since I can remember.

3. Neo-Nazis and being screamed at by a racist Czech granny on the 18 tram.

4. Getting caught in the blizzard of 2010 and finally understanding that it’s not only people that can threaten you — the very elements themselves are forces of their own will and we live at their whim.

5. The phenomenal view of the University Botanical Garden from our living room window, as well as the original 6th century settlement of Prague, right smack in the middle of the city.

6. Chapeau Rouge, the friendliest bar in Prague — but only if you are there with me. I’ll make sure you pay homage to what I call Our Lady of the Music: an art installation featuring a Mary with a disco ball above her head and a record between her praying hands.

7. Discovering Afghan cuisine and vegetarian restaurants; also remembering South Indian cuisine and ordering Indian delivery online — useful especially when the streets were knee-deep in snow.

8. Bara, the world’s most talented tattoo artist: she gave me wings, stars, Falcor and Edward Scissorhands.

9. Cold that sinks right into your bones, feet aching and joints swelling from trudging through it across treacherous cobblestones and hidden patches of ice.

10. Bonsai and carnivorous plant exhibits at the Botanical Garden.

11. Sitting in our apartment, feeling my ears pop like I’m on an airplane from the rising and falling air pressure.

12. Lady Gaga’s monster brawl at the O2 arena: the Czechs marked the 21-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution by punching people who wanted to dance; MGMT at Divadlo Archa; free passes to the Irish-American funk band Flogging Molly at Retro Music Hall — and hanging out with them afterwards.

13. Dancing in what was then Klub Kostel (literally, Church Club) on Hallowe’en, dressed as a witch.

14. Yearly fireworks and light shows over Vyšehrad (castle on a hill over the Vitava River), with a stage front view right from our window.

15. Mourning the deaths of, from a distance, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Corey Haim, Ryan Dunn … and close up, Curtis Jones, an American expat performance artist who’d been living in Prague since 1989 — a dear friend to many dear friends of mine in this city.

16. Cleaning up my first ever poop-drenched child, at an international pre-school where I worked. (I don’t and never will have kids.)

17. The vista of Prague from the tram on the way up to the castle, skyline scraped with spires and a cloud of fog overhead, feeling like I had somehow escaped the evil snow globeness if only for a moment.

18. Working for a newspaper, a mentally unbalanced artist, a shady off-shore investment banking firm, an international relocation company, a British school, and the largest university in central and eastern Europe.

19. The stench of Prague’s walking dead — homeless people with rotting parts of their bodies or insides, including one fellow with a black foot, the gangrene working its way up his leg. The worst thing I have ever smelled in my life, and I’ve lived in India and Africa; impossible to describe how awful and sad it is.

20. Seeing open graves for the first time ever, in Olšanské hřbitovy (Prague’s largest cemetery) — and imagining an imminent zombie invasion.

Na shledanou, Prahaland

I have made a tenuous peace with Prague.

This has been a place of great pain and great inspiration. The Entity is letting me go without a struggle: It knows that I will be telling stories about It for years to come.

It doesn’t even care if I paint Its portrait with darkness and horror — It wants to be seen, It wants to scare, It wants to fascinate so it can feed.

It knows the things I write, good and bad, will help bring many more people into Its icy embrace.

Prague is always hungry for fresh blood. Will yours be next?

*Sezin Koehler owes her nickname “Zuzu” to Rebi and Tereza, two Czech girls she took care of in an after-school program she organized. “Good afternoon, Miss Zuzu,” they would say. “Zuzu” is a common Czech nickname, short for “Zuzana.” This tickled Koehler’s fancy as one of her favorite films of all time — It’s a Wonderful Life — features a character named Zuzu Bailey. She has even named her blog Zuzu’s Petals — which, she says, “signify the most beautiful turning point in the film.”

Sezin Koehler is a half-American, half-Sri Lankan global nomad, horror novelist, writer and editor. Her first novel, American Monsters, was released last year. It has since been picked up by Ghostwoods Books, and an illustrated 2nd edition will be released by Fall 2011. Koehler’s Twitter moniker is @SezinKoehler.

img: “NO REST FOR THE WINGÉD — Zuzu Kahlo,” by Steven Koehler.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post consisting of quotes attesting to the curious, unreal nature of Wimbledon tennis — which, to the more discerning observer, can seem disturbingly akin to the Queen of Hearts’ game of croquet.

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And the Alices go to … these 7 writers who get the curious, unreal side of international travel

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

Since founding The Displaced Nation on April Fool’s Day (no fooling?), Kate Allison, Anthony Windram and I have been coming across travel writers who understand just how befuddling the life of the global nomad can be.

We are inclined to think that they have channeled Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Offering themselves up as examples, such writers talk about what’s it like for a crossborder traveler to be plagued with feelings akin to adolescent self-doubt: what am I doing here, and will I ever get over this feeling of displacedness?

And they’ve shown us how to emerge from such escapades as more fulfilled human beings, full of stories to tell, perhaps to our grandkids, one day…

In recognition of these models of displacedness, my colleagues and I have created a new accolade for the travel writing profession: the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Award, otherwise known as an “Alice.”

And The Displaced Nation‘s very first Alices go to…drumroll!…(listed in reverse chronological order)

1. ANABEL KANTARIA for Do we all need behavior lessons?, in the Daily Telegraph:

“Just remember, you’re not playing in your own backyard now,” my boss told me when I took my first job in the UAE. “You’re in someone else’s yard now, and you play by their rules.” It was probably the best piece of advice I was ever given about the UAE, and one that’s kept me out of trouble on numerous occasions.

Alice link: “I don’t think they play at all fairly,” Alice began, in rather a complaining tone, “… I should have croqueted the Queen’s hedgehog just now, only it ran away when it saw mine coming!”

2. SUZY GUESE for The Unexpected Benefits to Solo Travel, in Suzy Guese: Traveling with a redheaded temperament:

While I know people who travel with others can have their share of weird conversations, solo travel for some reason brings this about almost with every day. … From a musician at the Giant’s Causeway [Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site] who started talking to me by insulting my shoes, to a B&B owner who told me her “journey of life”, leaving in all of the gory details, I have had some strange encounters.

Alice link: “Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

3. ANDREA MARTINS for Expat women living the high life or secretly struggling?, in the Daily Telegraph:

In mid-2005, April Davidson’s world was turned upside down following her husband’s job transfer to Mexico City. … She could not understand what was happening to her and she started taking medication for anxiety and unexplained stomach problems. Little did April realise that her feelings represented a completely normal piece of the relocation jigsaw, and that taking medication to cope with the transition process was again, not uncommon.

Alice link: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Alice, “a great girl like you,” (she might well say this), “to go on crying in this way! Stop this moment, I tell you!” But she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall.

4. SEBASTIAN DOGGART for Elegy to English shepherd’s pie, in the Daily Telegraph:

One of the things I miss the most about living outside England is shepherd’s pie. … The greatest desecration is found in Quebec, where they call it “Chinese pâté” (pâté chinois). To suggest this sacred dish has anything Chinese about it is preposterous.

Alice link: “When I’m a Duchess,” she said to herself…”I won’t have any pepper in my kitchen at all. Soup does very well without…”

5. SALLY THELEN for 4 Tips on Embracing Your Inner Weirdo, in Unbrave Girl:

This morning, when I went running [in Wuxi, China], I happened upon a group of teenagers dressed up as anime characters. A crowd had formed around them to gape at their hot pink wigs, Nutcracker-like jackets and French maid dresses.

I stopped for a minute to stare slack-jawed with the rest of the crowd.

I was baffled.

I was confused.

And, frankly, I was a bit miffed. After all, didn’t these kids know that I was the main attraction at this park?

Alice link: This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off, the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back one or twice, half hoping that they would call after her…

6. SEZIN KOEHLER for My foreign body: geocharacteristics of a population, in Expat+HAREM:

When I first arrived in Prague I was a size 7, had an acceptable C-cup and chocolate-colored skin. Three years later I’ve become a size 12 and an overbearing DD-cup with skin the color of weak tea.

Aging plays only a small part….

Alice link: “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!”

7. JENNIFER EREMEEVA for Conversation is a One-way Street, in Dividing my time: finding the funnier side of life in Russia:

“Let me tell you about New York,” he [a Russian friend of my husband’s] said, “I was really impressed: the streets are completely strait, from one end of Manhattan to the other — ”

“– Well, except for the Village down to Wall Street,” I interjected absent-mindedly.

“Jennifer went to University in New York,” said my husband apologetically to the group.

Sergei squinted at me suspiciously, and then, changing tack, began to expand on the virtues of vacationing at Valaam on Lake Ladoga.

Alice link: “I’ve been to a day-school, too,” said Alice; “you needn’t be so proud as all that.” … “…[Y]ours wasn’t a really good school,” said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. “Now at ours they had at the end of the bill, ‘French, music, and washing — extra.”

QUESTION: Do you have a favorite from the above, and do you have any other writers/posts to nominate for our next round of Alices? We’d love to hear your suggestions.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Random Nomad Balaka Basu. She appeals for citizenship in The Displaced Nation — and agrees to answer one Alice question!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Nation. That way, you won’t miss a single issue. SPECIAL OFFER: New subscribers receive a FREE copy of “A Royally Displaced Tea.”

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