Posted Sunday, July 17, 2016 at 4:30pm by Darren Baker
Czech the Children- In the baby swing of things -Chapter 6
In the baby swing of things
The rush of adrenaline ensured I could do without any sleep before school started that morning. For the celebration there, I brought along some hard candy to pass out to the students, and for the staff, a bottle of whiskey. This is where I should detour to explain something about alcohol in school in those days.
I first encountered it when the school janitor, this nice old gent who remembered the Nazi occupation, one day whispered for me to join him in his handyman’s room in the cellar. His wife was a teacher at the school and she frowned at the way I seemed so friendly to the students. This was a society where high school teachers were called “professor” (as opposed to “comrade” in the old system) and students were required to stand when you entered the classroom. Her generation could sense that style of orderly discipline slipping away with invasive influences like me coming along.
The janitor couldn’t care less and invited me to enjoy what he said was the best of all Czech specialties: fresh lard, and by lard, I mean lard. He had a jar of the white grease, made from butchering a hog over the weekend, and liberally smeared it on a slice of fresh bread with chives sprinkled on top. It was just a thicker form of butter, I tried to tell myself, but the greasy aftertaste wouldn’t go away. No worry, he had a remedy for that, an unmarked bottle of plum brandy, brewed from fruit straight out of his garden. He poured us both a shot.
Now I was really nervous. I mean, boozing it up during school hours? And wouldn’t you know it, the principal himself suddenly appeared at the door. That’s it, a baby on the way and I’m going to be fired for drinking on the job. The principal looked, in fact, rather put out, but the reason turned out to be because we had started without him. He wanted his lard and schnapps, too.
My next encounter with alcohol on the school premises was in the principal’s office. It was my birthday and he handed me a bottle of whiskey, chosen, he explained, because all Americans love whiskey. I didn’t know how to tell him this one didn’t, but I smiled with my best phony face and geared up to shake hands with all the staff members who lined up behind him to wish me all the best, as if I were a head of state or something. That birthday was actually a painful affair, because by the time I had shaken the last hand, they were all standing around looking a little annoyed. And when the bell rang, they left really annoyed.
A fellow English teacher explained afterwards that in this country, you’re the one who’s supposed to prepare the cake and all sorts of goodies for your guests. You have to wait on them, not the other way around. Of all the things my mother forgot to tell me. My colleagues came expecting nice things to snack on before the next lesson, not just a mere thank-you for the present they had to fork over for. A most unpleasant thought suddenly occurred to me. If you have lots of friends and family, you might well regret the day you were ever born.
I made matters worse by putting the whiskey aside. The point of getting a bottle of liquor, for whatever reason, is to open it. Taking it home and drinking it by yourself shows you’re either greedy or an alcoholic. So to do right by my baby news, I had considered bringing this same bottle of whiskey, which lay dormant at home the whole time, but then realized it would only stir up debate as to whether it was indeed the present they had given me.
In the end I brought some peach vodka and invited the staff of mostly women, who like this flavor, to drink to our new arrival. The bottle had an English label, suggesting it was imported and therefore removing any hint of cheapness on my part. So we had at it, but everyone immediately started smacking their lips and looking dolefully into their glasses. Terrible schnapps was the verdict, and rightly so. In my rush at the store, I had grabbed pear vodka instead, and this stuff turned out to be fermented dreck. When I tried to explain how I accidentally confused the words peach and pear, the ladies looked like they didn’t know what to make of my mediocre proficiency in English.
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