A young character in my novel, Better You Go Home, based loosely on a bouncy hotel clerk I met in Zamberk(eastern Czech Republic), responded to my question about what it was like to be suddenly free after the Velvet Revolution by saying now she was free to travel. Where did she want to go? To Germany, to Munich, to swim naked in the canal in the English Gardens. She had seen a photo in a magazine, probably Der Stern, depicting student-aged women sunbathing nude in the English Gardens and she thought that image represented ultimate freedom. As intriguing as that image was, it struck me as more revealing of her age than her upbringing behind the Iron Curtain. When I set out to write a chapter dramatizing an encounter with this character, I added a story I had been told by a student in Prague who had spent a year studying abroad in London. I was lost and looking for an address. On a sunny September afternoon, she was wearing knee-high white go-go boots, a micro-mini skirt, and a student’s backpack. Thinking nothing of interrupting her day to walk me to the flat I sought, she told me the story that happened while hiking Europe’s Green Roof that I then attributed to the hotel clerk in the following dramatization:
Dana is telling me about an encounter she and her boyfriend had with some Arschlocher from Munich in an overnight shelter…. The word means “assholes” but it is said without venom, as though just another word for Germans. Squinting at me, she says, “like you … I mean older, like you.” There were four of them, Anstandige, decent, wearing Bundhosen and carrying walking sticks. They commandeered the crude hut as if by right of noblesse oblige.
“It was neúnosné . Unbearable.” Her boyfriend wanted to throw them out.
“He was sehr …” she searches for the word, comes up with “eifersuchtig.”
“Jealous? Of the Germans?”
She laughs naughtily. “My boyfriend knows I love German things.”
She offered to dance for them, Salome-style. That would contribute to my
jealousy. They offered to throw Deutsche Mark for each item of clothing she
“Did you? Did they?”
Yes, she says matter-of-factly. Yes. They threw bills at her but she left the
money on the shelter floor and walked naked into their circle. They hooted
and applauded, but she silenced them. “This is our home,” she claims to have
told them. “Remember that you are guests and be polite.” Her nakedness
“How did your boyfriend react when you took your clothes off?”
“My boyfriend say I am whore to Germans.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“I am very angry. I say him dignity does not come free.”
Hearing the mention of that word, “dignity,” I realize I am looking at
a young version of Milada. What Milada did with Fritz—and is obviously
doing now with Mr. Zamečnik—and what Dana did with the Germans only
confirms what my father has been trying to tell me. Dignity is the last refuge
of the weak.
“Before Velvet Revolution, we were protected. If you don’t say nothing, life is okay.” I’m scribbling notes furiously. “Now? We are like wife who is rape
by her husband. Sure, we are free. But where we can go? We have no money.
We have no pride. Big bully in house of Europe can rape us and we have to
“Is rape the right word? I mean, if you strike a bargain with the bully?”
“I only have power if I am Czech Hure. Alles klar? Now I will dance for
“You want to expose my naked desire?”
She laughs. “You are funny. But you are also old.”
“I hope to get to be a lot older.”
Having spent that year away in London, this student had a much more reality-based view of her country’s freedom. Why did this matter to me? I kept thinking about Anezka, a name that appeared in the family letters as well as in the village record book, but who was unaccounted for. Very likely the illegitimate offspring of an illegitimate liaison that contributed to one side of the family refusing ever again to speak to the other side of the family, Anezka was left behind. What world had she inherited? But for a twist of fate, what world would I have inherited? What would my aspirations have been? How would I have answered the question: what is it like to be suddenly free?