Being a secretary can have interesting tasks involved, but it’s demeaning. Whatever you choose to work on first is the wrong thing, how could you be so stupid not to see I needed this first. You are expected to make coffee , but also run spreadsheets for quarterly budgets and reports on five year change. It was stressful for me, but then sometimes grocery shopping was so stressful I would abandon a half-full cart and go home.
So I decided to move to Czechoslovakia. Things had been going better with my parents, but this infuriated them. How can you go when you’re so young? Don’t expect any Christmas presents.
Czechoslovakia in 1992 was a dirty, post-Soviet country. The grandmothers wore babushkas and waited for their husbands outside the bars when they closed at 10 p.m. Our school looked like an insane asylum out of a 1950s thriller. But I loved my students, and taught them about the English article system, question formation, and word roots from Latin. They took me home with them for the weekend to meet their families, and we teachers explored the castles and factories in the back of the country.
After school every day, we walked to town to buy groceries, maybe a cup of coffee or a beer, then took a little nap, and helped each other on lessons for the next day. There was no stress. My mind was brighter than it has ever been, and I was happier than I ever remembered.
When I first arrived, the ugliness shocked me. The pollution left a layer of grit on everything: You were filthy every time you left your door. It was unthinkable to eat meat because nothing was sanitary. The country was grey and tan – buildings, fields, gardens, clothing, the sky. It never got prettier. I never saw one beautiful flower in a park and realized you had to look for the beauty. I didn’t rationalize that beautiful people meant you didn’t need pastoral landscapes. I slowed my pace of life and accepted things as they were. It was hard to know why I was so happy and sane.
There was no reaching with Czechoslovakia. The street vendors were not going to get green vegetables, and there were not going to be safety requirements for anything for a long time. Stores were not going to start selling blue paint anytime soon. You ask about these things, and always hear: Never mind. I had been told such situations breed hopelessness or apathy. No, not hopelessness. Not apathy. Acceptance, maybe. Grit to stand when standing is enough.
I taught a 21-year-old princess. She took me home to her family’s tiny apartment with enormous oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls. She showed me the castle where her family had lived for generations, confiscated by the Communist regime. They were trying to get it back, but we’ll see. Never mind.