Friday, September 17, 2010

Owning the Street - By: Eduardo Bechara Navratilova

The ochre roofs and Gothic domes formed an idyllic postcard picture in the clear Prague summer night. Jeff and I returned to the dorms after dining at a Czech restaurant. He stopped to talk to some people from the program, while I went to knock on Veronica’s door, a cinnamon skin Mexican girl who’d told me to look for her on the evening. We’d met that morning at the Kolej Komenskeho breakfast.

She opened with cloudy eyes wearing a short tank top which revealed her belly. “I was sleeping” she said with cloudy eyes. “We’ll be meeting with the people of my program at eleven; we’re going to a club. Do you want to come?”

I walked back to my room smiling. She was the type of girl I could fall for. I read some news on the Internet regarding ‘Operation Jaque’, in which the Colombian Army had rescued Ingrid Betancourt without firing a single bullet, and worked on a short story for Robert Olen Butler’s fiction workshop. When the time came I took a shower, dressed and waited. At eleven twenty- five I walked to Jeff's room. He was working on his P.C.

“She must be getting ready. You know how women are,” he said.

I knocked on her door again. She opened and a wave of perfume invaded the hallway. She had makeup on. Her black hair slipped down her shoulders. “I’ll look for you,” she said. Once she turned I glanced at her long legs and the shorts she wore standing on a pair of black high heels that produced a clatter on the tiles. I hadn’t dated a girl I really liked since I’d moved out of Colombia, leaving Tatiana behind.

I went back to Jeff’s room, took the book The years of Smashing Bricks of Richard Katrovas, who would be teaching us the second part of the fiction workshop, and started reading until I heard the sound of Veronica’s high heels on the floor of the hallway. I looked out the door and saw her walking with her roommate towards the stairs.

I put the book on the shelf. “She didn’t come looking for me”, I told Jeff as I rushed out. She was gone.

“She’ll come back,” he said.

I went down to the lobby where Jack was drinking a Pilzen Urquell with Heinz and Paul. I asked him if he’d seen the Mexican girl leaving. He hadn’t been looking.

Had she left without me? It didn’t sound right. I looked for her in the alleys of the old communist architecture dormitory, where the doors handles were broken, the furnishings were built with cheap wood broken at the tips, and the bathrooms were narrow compartments with plastic toilets and high tanks that were flushed pulling a tarnished cord which must have been white. Some people said that the building used to be a center of operations of the KGB. I searched for her once more before going back to Jeff’s room.

“Do you seriously think she left? She could be around,” he said lifting his eyes from the screen of his P.C.

“Tell her I’m in the lobby if she comes looking for me,” I asked him. The second floor of the dorm with its twists and turns was like a labyrinth. I went down. She couldn’t have just left. How was it possible?

Jack gave me a beer. I drank it in short sips looking towards the staircases. Why do these things have to be so difficult? I walked to the reception and asked a lady if she’d seen a group leaving. She answered that several people had just left. I returned gloomy.

“Are you coming with us?” Jack asked. “It’s Heinz’s 21st birthday.”

“I don’t know. I was going to go out with the Mexican girl.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know.”

He looked at me with disbelief, as if it was difficult to think she was still around. He put his hand on my shoulder and showed me the way. The night was chilly. Scenes from my past tormented me as I walked to the tram station. The memory of Tatiana increased my frustration. She had a new boyfriend. A pair of red spot beetles mated on the cobblestones.

Leave it behind. I can’t. I dislike the feeling of losing opportunities that go away and don’t come back, of time leaking in front of me. I’d become a pussy since I’d left Colombia. The world turned faster and nothing was really mine. Like that fleeting emotion of going out with Veronica. I yearned to live in Prague, I’d wanted it since the summer of 97, but it was still impossible, I had to finish my Masters in the United States and perfect my written English.

I still couldn’t believe I was going out with some 21 year old kids. The number 23 tram turned the curve and Jack shouted at Ashley and Julie to hurry up. A beep sounded, the doors closed and the vehicle began its descent making an electric noise. It went around the castle, its gardens and then down a steep slope. I saw Veronica when the city opened up from the hill. She looked at me with her black eyes. I passed my mouth over her neck, her shoulders, and the cleavage of her chest. The Vltava river looked like a dark shadow crossed by bridges.

We got off at Malostranská and crossed the Mánesuv most. The medieval structure of Charles Bridge reflected on the water. It was certainly a romantic scene; the perfect spot to be with Veronica. The walls of the castle and the pointing towers of St. Vitus Cathedral were lit at the top of the mountain, just as I’d known it that first summer, when the image of the bridge and the castle appeared in the mist as the train crossed the river in the twilight. It had seemed the most beautiful place on earth. It still was.

We went by the opera house and the Charles University Philosophy and Literature faculty building, where we attended the fiction workshop. Took Krizovnicka Ulice and walked in the silent street up to the beginning of Karlúv most. The stone carved bridge door with needles in its roof, made a pretty picture with Mala Strana across the river as a background. In a near façade, an English sign promoted the five-story nightclub, Karlovy Lazne: “The biggest disco in Central Europe.” We went through a cobblestone passageway that ran from one side to the other inside the old building. Some bouncers were smoking at the entrance of the disco. Jack suggested drinking somewhere else before going in. We walked by a man made gap where the water fell quietly across the river. I’d read it had been made after a flooding. Some locks allowed the passage of ships on the other side.

When I had seen Veronica in the hallway I should have yelled. I should have stayed waiting for her. Maybe she was in another part of the dorm. What a dick.

We turned onto a street lit by lanterns and went inside a bar of ochre walls with chalk writings and photos of people with unhappy faces. A group of people sang with a guitar in a table. We ordered Pilzen, but when the waitress was walking away, Ashley said that they were leaving because they didn’t like the place. Heinz stood up behind them.

“Let them go,” Jack told him.

A woman with round glasses, black t-shirt and blond hair, played a song that other young girls hummed in the table behind us.

“What language is that?” I asked.

“Russian,” one of the girls said.

A man with Slavic eyes took the guitar and sang. The beer went down my throat and for the first time in the evening I felt relieved, as if Veronica’s vanishing would have never happened. I started to clap to the beat of the song and after a moment Jack got up to dance, raising his elbows over his shoulders. Paul went to the bathroom. When he came back one of the women took his arm and gave him a couple of turns. I took out the camera and started filming. The young girls in the other table kept on singing.

Jack took the guitar and sang My girl. We asked for another beer and then another. Jack and the Russian alternated their songs.

“Happy birthday, Heinz,” Jack said when he finished playing Summer of 69.

A Czech guy sang a couple of local songs. The waitress brought a round of slivovits at the request of the owner. She’d come to Prague three years ago from Georgia. Her friends came from Siberia. We gulped the full cups. “It would have been impossible to see Russians and Americans singing and dancing with each other twenty years ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said with bright eyes. Those were the times when my mother wouldn’t dare to enter Czechoslovakia or she’d wind up in jail. In 1952 she’d escaped from communism crossing the German border with her father and step mother. The two brothers of her step mother had been degraded from architect to brick layers as punishment.

We left at two, and walked by the river up to Karlovy Lazne, where a group of young people stood at the entrance. As we approached it, a fuss was developing and a bouncer threw a drink on a girl’s face. She tried to fight back but the man held her arms, and then pulled her hair.

“Are there no real men in this country?” she shouted in English.

I grabbed his wrists and lowered them down to his waist, but was immediately surrounded by the other bouncers. One of them hit my forearms, another showed me his closed fist on the face, and another one sprayed me.

“They’re throwing pepper spray!” Jack shouted at my side. My right cheek burned but my eyes were not hit by the lachrymatory agent. I was pulled back by one of my friends and the girl was left by herself among the pack. The bully drew his right hand – I saw it travel through the air, his arm outstretched like a racket –. She took it in the face. I felt it on my skin. Then he hit her in the other cheek.

I wanted to pitch myself at them and start throwing punches like a madman. Various images crossed my mind. I saw myself surrounded, with my nose bleeding, in a police station giving explanations in my limited Czech, having a black eye, speaking with the director of the Prague Summer Program…

The man hit another American girl. The group rescued the girls and withdrew, led by a red-faced fat guy in a curly yellow wig. We stood there digesting the situation. The bouncer’s skin was dark. He stretched his arms widening his shoulders inside the black jacket, and moved his neck to one side and another, as if he’d just won a boxing match. I felt the blood running through my veins. The five bullies regrouped once again in front of Karlovy Lazne, trying to intimidate us. “How fucking brave are they,” I said.

“What are we going to do? They’re looking over here,” Heinz said.

One of them snapped his fingers and moved his hand, motioning us to go away. We stood there. In the two years I’d been in charge of the entrance of Nabu bar in Bogota, I’d never seen something so disgusting.

“Let’s go,” Heinz insisted taking a step backwards.

Jack and Paul stayed put at my side. The five bouncers were planning something. We continued the challenge until one of them shouted an evident threat by the tone of his voice.

“These sons of bitches think they own the street,” I said.

We glanced at them and turned back. The street looked lonely. We went around some railings and walked toward the medieval passageway that led to the bridge door.

"Fuckin’ bastards! What kind of pussy hits a girl?” Paul asked. It was the first time I’d seen something like that in Prague. Petr Bilek was right. The director of the Czech literature department at Charles University had said in class that the city was filling up with laundering establishments where money from drug traffic, white slavery, weapon smuggling and other criminal activities entered the country’s economy. I understood his distress. It was disturbing to see that the Czech Republic had passed from the domination by the communists to the Russian mafia. Before the communists it had been the Nazis and some decades before, at the end of the XIXth century, the country had been under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“It’s the Russian mafia,” I said as we passed the statue of King Charles IV.

Jack was hipper. He threw punches into the air. “We have to do something about it. This never happens in the U.S.,” he said.

“Of course it happens,” Paul replied.

“I’ve never seen something like that in Kalamazoo.”

“Jack, do you want me to tell you the things I’ve seen in the year I’ve been living in Philly? I can tell you this, though: I never saw something like that from the bouncers I worked with on a bar in Bogota,” I said.

The castle shone in the water. It seemed difficult to imagine I was walking in the same fairy tale city where statues speak to you as you pass by their side. I could see the bouncer’s violent arm movement repeating inside my head. The way in which he’d done it led to believe he hit his mother, sister, girlfriend or any other woman who he found in his path. He certainly was not Czech. He couldn’t be. The color of his skin was dark. Czechs were civilized, at least that was the impression I had from my own mother.

We crossed the bridge reaching Mala Strana where my parents and I had thrown my grandmothers ashes into the river some years ago, and walked on Mostecká Ulice up to Malostranské námestí. The green dome of St. Nicholas Cathedral appeared illuminated against the starry sky. We then took Nerudova Ulice in the direction of Kolej Komenskeho.

“We must do something, I’m telling you. Did you see the expression on her face?” Jack asked.

“What can we do? Nothing!” Heinz said.

“Of course we can.”

“Yeah, well what? We’re just plain tourists. This is not our country.”

“It’s my mother’s country,” I replied.

Jack stopped a patrol that drove up the street in front of the Romanian embassy. The policeman told us that there was a station three blocks from there.

“What are we going to tell them, that they hit some tourists? Do you think they care? Maybe it’s not such a big deal to hit a woman here.”

“Not such a big deal? You say that because she wasn’t your girlfriend.”

“No, truly. Maybe these people are used to hitting women. Last week I saw a guy grabbing a girl in the street,” said Heinz.

“Who do you mean? The Czechs?” I asked.

“I don’t know: the Czechs, the Ukrainians, the Russians, what difference does it make. It’s taking place in Prague,” he replied as I remembered a man slapping a girl in a disco at Cesky Budejovice.

“We’ll we must tell the police. It’s what we’d do in America,” Jack replied walking down the street.

“Why the fuck are we gone mess with the Russian mob? My God! It’s my birthday. Let’s go back to the dorm, Ashey and Julie must be there. I just want to get laid,” Heinz said following us.

We made our way to the station passing in front of the church of Our Lady Victoria, where the Infant Jesus of Prague is exhibited. Two police inspected the bottom of a car with mirrors in front of the American Embassy. I told the story to a young police woman and she signaled a building with her index. We knocked in a large wooden door that seemed to be the police station. An untidy cop with a crooked tie opened up.

“You must make the complaint at the station across the river,” he said.

“You see,” Heinz alleged. “Nobody cares!”

“We do,” Jack kept on it.

We spoke with the police woman. She made calls on the radio and after some time she told us to follow her up to the station. She took my Czech passport and I answered some questions to an officer who downloaded my information from a computer. He didn’t seem friendly and wrinkled his face while I tried to explain what had happened in my lousy Czech. He then made me sign the statement and told us to wait.

“All these people are corrupt, this is useless. You tell him,” said Heinz looking at me.

“What do you think?” Jack asked me.

“We’ve already set the complaint, there’s no turning back,” I replied looking at my watch. It was four.

“You guys are so stubborn. Bouncers are bouncers. This is not gone change them.”

“Well, at least it’s gone teach them that Americans fight for their rights,” said Jack.

“I’m not American. I just don’t like to see Prague turned into a fuckin’ mafia paradise. I’ve had enough of that in Colombia.”

“So you think this is gone make a difference? Keep dreaming.”

“I’m sure it won’t, but at least were stating our point.”

“What point?”

“Heinz, this was the fifth most industrialized country before the Second World War. Nobody knows that because it was buried in the Iron Curtain, but even Hitler was afraid of the Czechs. He had to deceive them to invade them. Man, this is Bohemia, you know what that means? This is a place with a big history.”


“Things weren’t always like this. I want something better for it, not the same old shit I’ve had to cope with for more than thirty four years back in Colombia.”

“Corruption is everywhere.”

“Yeah, well that’s why we have to fight it,” Jack jumped in.

“It has always existed.”

“That’s why America is going down man, because of people like you,” Jack replied.

I remained seated as I looked at Heinz wondering if he understood what I’d said. I wanted the night to end. What would have been if I’d gone out with Veronica?

A cop came forty-five minutes after. He was thin and he talked to another cop while staring at us. We were strangers. “We have to go back to the place,” he told me in Czech.

“Go back? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Why do you guys want to mess with the Russian mob? This is your fault, Jack!” Heinz shouted. Paul was quiet. We got on the old Skoda patrol that ran over the cobblestones.

“What a great birthday party!” said Heinz as we crossed the river on most Legií.

“I couldn’t go to sleep without doing this. It’s our duty as Americans,” Jack replied.

“The principles of justice aren’t only American, Jack. I’m doing this because I want a better future for this place.”

“I still can’t believe that we are making such a fuss. Things are what they are, we’re not gone change them,” Heinz kept whining as the police car pulled over and we saw the five bouncers against the Karlovy Lazne façade. The policeman told us to follow him. “I’m not good at this, I mean it,” Heinz said with a crying voice.

We walked toward the entrance where the owners of the street looked at us in surprise. The one that had hit the girls spoke to the police so quickly that I couldn’t follow. His eyes were black and his nose looked like an eagle’s beak. He acted as if he feared nothing, to the point that the policeman and him appeared to be friends. Would he really be capable of hitting his mother? He would certainly have had to be gentle with a woman. Or as a little boy. I nailed my eyes to those of another bouncer and kept them there. He turned them away. Paul and Jack stood beside me until the police suddenly turned around and walked toward the car. Heinz turned around and then we all did.

“What just happened?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know.”

The policeman got inside the car and talked on the radio until I knocked on his window. “What’s going on?” I asked him.

“Everything’s fine. You can go now,” he said rolling it up.

Jack looked at me with his blue eyes asking for an explanation. I shrugged my shoulder and tilted my head to one side.

“We have to go, their looking at us,” Heinz said.

We went down a street and made a loop on some surrounding alleys to reach Charles Bridge without facing them.

“I’m really pissed off!” Heinz yelled running away from us on the bridges cobblestones.

“He’s a pussy,” Paul said.

“I don’t know. Prague may be very pretty, but there’s no justice here,” Jack shrugged.

It is not Prague’s fault; she is just another victim of violence, one of the statues said to me. Stories from the past that my own mother had told me came back to my mind. I could imagine the Russian soldier that fell in the river and was left to die in the freezing waters as the other drunken soldiers argued it didn’t matter as there were too many of them. My own grandfather had seen that. It seemed as if the old city would never rest from atrocities, not even in this new age of capitalism and democracy. I shook my head in deception.

The sky had begun to clear up. My legs hurt and my whole body was tired. We went up Nerudova towards Kolej Komenskeho in silence. We arrived in broad daylight.

I slept a couple of hours until Jeff knocked on my door telling me breakfast was about to close. I got up with the image of the bouncer reaching to the girl. He couldn’t be Czech. Going down I ran into Hana Zahradnícová and told her what had happened.

“You guys are crazy! People have disappeared from Karlovy Lazne.”

They were putting away the food when I got to the restaurant. I managed to take an apple and sat with Jeff and Jason, who were finishing their breakfast.

“The Mexican girl came looking for you last night,” Jeff said. I was half way from taking the apple to my mouth. I left it on the table and shook my head in silence. “I told her you’d been looking for her. She said she was in the third floor at one of her friends’ room.”

“She had legs a mile long,” Jason said opening his eyes. The waiters started shouting in Czech, saying that we had to get out of there so they could clean the place up.

“Where were you?” Jeff asked. “She even came later when I was already in bed. I heard her call your name in the hallway.”

“Los dueños de la calle” was originally published in Spanish in the 59th edition of Con-fabulación Magazine, dated October 4, 2008. Bogota, Colombia.

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Robert Olen Butler, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Ivan Klima, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilava & Pavel Šrut, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Stuart Dybek, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova & Arnošt Lustig, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova, Richard Katrovas & Jeffrey Voccola, Prague 2008

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova, Prague 2008

Yeah! It's a dog.

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About me

Eduardo Bechara Navratilova was born in Bogotá, Colombia, the ninth (9th) of November, 1972. He’s the son of a Lebanese descendent father and a Czech mother. In 1993 he was awarded the Juan Bautista Solarte's medal by the Colombian Army, granted to the best soldier of the 1992's Fourth (4th) Colombian Recruiting Direction Contingent. He graduated from Universidad de los Andes Law School in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1999, and then went on to receive a degree in Commercial Law in 2000, from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. After working three (3) years as a lawyer, he did a six (6) month trip through Western and Eastern Europe, Mexico and Canada, and went back to Colombia to publish “La novia del torero” (which translates as: The Bullfighter's Girlfriend, 2002, by La Serpiente Emplumada). He graduated from Universidad de los Andes Literature School in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2005, and published his second novel “Unos duermen, otros no” (Some Sleep, Others Don't; 2006, by Escarabajo publishing house). He’s a lecturer and a creative writing workshops teacher. He’s a travel chronicle writer and a Graphical Reporter for Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper. In 2007 he covered all the Brazilian coast writing chronicles to raise funds for poor children with cancer (more info here). He graduated from a Master of Arts in fiction writing at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 2009. He is a freelance writer for various newspapers and magazines. Human beings and their behavior in contemporary world are his principal theme. He graduated from a Master of Arts in fiction writing at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 2009.

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