One of the completely erroneous assumptions Czechs make about foreigners – especially Americans – is that they’re all fabulously wealthy.

The truth has always been a lot grittier, and instead of the image of the American in Prague as being “overpaid, oversexed and all over Prague” embodied by Prague Post founders Lisa Frankenberg and R. Kent Hawrlyuk on the cover of a British newspaper’s magazine in 1992, posing arrogantly from a luxuriously-appointed apartment in the Malá strana neighborhood under Prague Castle, all the foreigners I knew lived in cramped conditions, in the grimmest of Communist prefab panelák housing estates; places like the northern Prague suburb of SidliÅ¡tě Ďablice, Kobylisy.

I shared my Kobylisy apartment for almost two years with Ken Layne, Wade Daniels and Tom Burkett. My main man bWg lived in the next panelák over, and Ben Sullivan lived in a shoebox-sized place across the street. Over time and out of perverse necessity, we all became big Kobylisy nationalists – hell, somebody had to counter the image of the Americans all living the sladký život.

Because we didn’t speak or read Czech at the time, we couldn’t understand important announcements, like “the hot water will cease to work for three weeks starting today.”

I tried to put my design skills to use, trying to parse what the different products in the local potraviny were, based only on their design and appearance. I once bought window cleaner thinking it was soft drink syrup (both were in similar bottles), and once bought yeast thinking it was baking powder.

I was feeling homesick and decided, against all probability and better sense, to make tortillas. The mass of lumpy dough rose up, up up, out of the pot and across the counter like a ’50s monster movie. Then it sort of contracted into a brain-like mass and from time to time let out a bubble like a belch.

Of course it was our good luck that we had a Wall Street Journal reporter come by for a visit before I had a chance to clean it up. Turns out she was doing one of the young-Americans-in-Prague stories, and the blob made it into the lead, which was something like “The first thing you notice when you walk into Wade Daniels’ apartment is the blob.”

All the Kobylisy crew worked at the struggling but fantastic English-language newspaper, Prognosis, and spent way too much time at the only places open in Kobylisy at the weird hours Prognosis employees kept – a grim ‘casino’ called “Little Las Vegas” and an even grimmer ISO shipping container that was turned into a “nonstop” bar that stopped whenever the jovial, drunken Ukrainian proprietor felt like it.

I swear to Gott that one time when at that nonstop, a four-fingered, one-eyed character walked up to me as I was sitting with a visiting American friend, a woman. The four-fingered, one-eyed character said to me in the gruffest of voices, and in all seriousness:

“How much for the girl?”

I tried to summon up all the Czech I knew – all the Czech that wasn’t on a menu, that is – and told him, “ona … je… moje.” (She… is… mine…) The four-fingered, one-eyed character mumbled something and hobbled away.

Because the paneláks were so grim and such a shock for people coming from nice addresses in California, we immediately assumed there must be gangs living there. One of the first things we thought up was a gang sign for Kobylisy’s non-existent gang, made by holding with your first two fingers held to your chest, crossing with your other hand’s index finger to make the sign of the ‘K.’

The great advantage of being a gang member in Kobylisy would be that instead of having drive-by shootings, you’d have tram-by shootings at night; the advantage being that they’d only happen every forty minutes, and be on a published timetable.

Good times in Kobylisy. Good times. But times pass. The Communist-era Kulturní dům at Ládví was first turned into a disco, then a grim strip joint (sorry, night club), then a grim movie theater, then a not-so-completely-grim cinema multiplex.

And now this weekend, the metro’s red line will finally stretch all the way to Kobylisy, bringing it into the city. You can check out the QuickTime panoramas of the station here.

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