There are five co-official languages in Spain, and I barely know a word of any of them. “Hola,” “por favor,” and “gracias” were all that I could manage most of the time, and even those embarrassingly basic words took some getting used to. I was the ultimate tourist: a little lazy and a little ignorant, but very much enchanted. I barely scratched the surface of this country, but the small pieces of it that I saw sure were beautiful. Maybe next time I have the chance to visit Spain I’ll manage to look a little less out-of-place and no one will steal my phone out of my hand.
Revisiting words and images from 2015.
The house seems to appear out of nowhere one day. Its late September and its beginning to feel like fall as I walk home from class. My plan for senior thesis has just fallen through. I need a new project, a story to tell, and suddenly I’m facing a sign that reads, in army green letters, “The Veterans Group - Helping others help themselves.” Behind the sign a narrow stone building and a large brick house stand side by side, a passageway connecting them in the back to form a single misshapen structure. Several men sit in silence in the yard, observing me. Their skin is weathered and their expressions are hard, but they look aimless, lonely, and I think that I want to know them, to hear their stories.
“I visited death briefly. I don’t think I have that many runs left in me.”
It’s November now. Walter is the 9th man I’ve met with in this crowded house on Baring Street, and for the first time the door is closed. The rule is that I’m never supposed to be alone with any of the men, but they’ve made an exception for Walter. He has had an especially troubled life, even for the men here, and he doesn’t want to be overheard. Walter doesn’t understand why this is such a big deal. “I’m not crazy or anything,” he tells me. “Its not like I’m going to rape you.”
Walter was only 15 when he enlisted in the army, using a forged birth certificate to escape a troubled family life. He was 15 when he began drinking, encouraged by the men around him “to get fucked up every night.” He was 15 when he woke up in a pool of his roommate’s blood and realized that the other boy had succumbed to his depression and slit his wrists. He tells me that he and his first wife were both heroin addicts, that after her suicide he came to the heart wrenching realization that the best thing to do for his children was to give up his parental rights, to give his children to his wife’s sister. After that he entered a seemingly endless period of addiction, helped along by an enabling mother, until one day he overdosed and his heart stopped and he woke up in a hospital and realized that he had reached the end of the line, that he needed to find the strength to finally turn his life around. The bruises on his chest from the CPR that gave him back his life serve as daily reminders that this is his last chance.
“I don’t think God is fighting the Devil, I think God is fighting mankind... God is supposed to be right there to protect us all, and I don’t see how God is doing his job. He’s not my protector.”
Kenneth is especially hesitant when the case manager first approaches him about the interview, wary of the girl with the recorder and the camera. He acts tough and unapproachable and his answers are brusque. He dutifully recalls his decision to enlist as a young black man living in the city in the 1970s, wanting to escape the drugs, gangs, and violence that surrounded him. He’s thankful for his time in the military, but his life hasn’t been easy since then. He bounced around from job to job, girl to girl, struggling with depression and alcohol and drugs, winding up homeless on multiple occasions. Now, he finds himself living in this house for the second time, waiting for subsidized housing, hopeful that this will be the time everything changes.
I’m surprised when he first asks me about religion. We’ve ended the interview, I’ve turned off the mic and am loading film into my Hasselblad when he asks if I believe in God. He doesn’t, can’t, not after everything he has seen. He tells me that he believes in people and their inherent goodness, that “we all want peace, deep down,” but that if there is a God, he’s not a kind one, but one that is jealous and unforgiving. I can tell that he’s been waiting to speak these words, that he’s been struggling living in a house that celebrates Christian values.
Kenneth loosens up considerably after this conversation. He shakes my hand every time he sees me now, asks me repeatedly how I’m doing, reminds me of the importance of “being pretty on the inside.” He is chatty and sociable and always smiling, and I am amazed at the contrast between this side of him and the man that I first met, the man that I see in the photographs.
“People here had no idea what we were doing over there…we were baby killers and we were this and we were that…So you took off the uniform and left them alone.”
Unlike Kenneth, Stephen has latched onto Christianity, uses it to keep himself out of the darkness. He wears a silver cross with “Jesus” inscribed on it proudly around his neck, and has the most positive attitude of any one I’ve met here so far. Yes, the VA has a lot of problems, but at least it exists. Yes, he is still haunted by his memories of Vietnam, but the flashbacks and the nightmares don’t come so often now. Yes, he struggled with alcohol, but he’s getting help now. Yes, Vietnam vets were treated terribly when they came home, abandoned by their government, ostracized by civilians who did not understand that it was possible to oppose war but support the soldiers, but now he doesn’t have to hide.
It took Stephen 35 years to be able to talk about his experiences like this. He needed to learn how to talk through the pain without triggering anything, needed to learn how to talk about his past in a way that was helpful to him. He’s happy now, happy and proud that he’s clean and sober, that he’s finally recovering from war. He’s only been here a week and doesn’t plan on staying long; unlike most of the men, he’s married, has a home, has a life waiting for him when he leaves.
“Once I lost her I just went off the deep end… just lost myself. I think, you know, I was just trying to kill myself with the drugs because of the pain, you know.”
William tells me he doesn’t have a lot to say. I know it isn’t true, that everyone has a story to tell, but I tell him its ok. He’s younger than most of the men here, in his late forties. He’s friendly and approachable, and on the surface he appears to be much less burdened than the other men, but his face is swollen under his eyes, and I notice that he can’t stop shaking his left leg, can’t stop twitching and jittering. He’s uncomfortable, with this situation maybe, or with life in general. He has PTSD, he tells me, like almost every man in the house, and he’s bipolar too. He glosses over much of his time in the service, and I quickly learn that it wasn’t the navy that damaged him, that sent him into a devastating spiral of addiction, leading him to this house for homeless vets.
It was the death of his wife, the loss of the love of his life, that broke him. “She was my soul mate,” he tells me. “You get lucky if you get to actually find your soul mate.” His defensive persona of the lighthearted funny guy slips up and he can’t stop the tears from coming, but he tries to blink them away, apologizes, cracks a joke to lighten the mood. The pain he feels is so incredibly raw, so palpable that suddenly I’m mourning the loss of this woman that I have never known, suddenly I’m crying too. Like many of the others he as an impressively good attitude, he appreciates all the help that he has been given since he moved into this house, but I know and he knows that this pain he feels will never go away.
Stephen leaves in February, Kenneth in early March. I don’t know where Walter is, but William is still here, and he’s friends with everyone. The other men call him Bill, and one tells me that he’s the guy to go to when you need a laugh or some cheering up. I wonder if he ever talks about his wife with them, if he ever cries with them. I wonder what the men are like when I’m not there, if they share their pain with each other, or if they laugh and joke and keep things light.
I begin to photograph veterans outside the house. I meet with a female vet from the VA, Christine, and she separates two prints from the selection that I brought, one of Kenneth and one of Stephen. Kenneth sits next to a window, staring straight ahead, away from the camera. The right side of his head is hidden in shadow, but his face is illuminated, and sunlight dances over his scars and folds into his skin. Christine tells me she can see the quiet resignation in his face. She points to the photo of Stephen, who sits back in his chair and gazes steadily and assuredly at the camera, his eyes tired but content, his face framed by a diamond of light on the wall behind him. He has stories to tell, she says. So many stories.
“As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don’t think you are the most important being on earth. Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and say, ‘I’m probably no better than you, but I’m certainly your equal.’” — Harper Lee
January 20th, 2018
Our guide, Milos, tells us that Prague was designed so that anyone who invaded it would get lost before they ever got to the castle. I have no trouble believing this. Getting lost becomes an almost daily adventure. I never feel closer to the city, more aware of its wonder, than when I have no idea where I am. There do not seem to be many right angles in Prague; the streets change direction arbitrarily, twisting and turning in one giant maze, and I depend on the occasional glimpse of a landmark over red rooftops to tell me what way I’m going.
I’m late for class one day after I turn a corner and the classroom building suddenly isn’t where I thought it was, I’m suddenly not where I thought I was, and it takes me a while to find my way out of the labyrinth I had unwittingly entered. Prague never feels like a large city to me. It only ever feels like a small town, a charming European village with beautiful, pastel buildings and cobblestone lanes that seem to go on endlessly. Every street feels familiar and comfortable and safe, like I’ve been there before, and I always expect to find myself back right where I started after I make a few turns, as if all of Prague exists in one small town square. I’m caught unaware every time I walk to the top of a hill and get a glimpse of the sprawling city. It's deceptively large, Prague, an optical illusion, an enchanted city.
My roommate keeps flooding the bathroom. It’s a dank and dark room that only seems dirtier and less appealing now that we’ve figured out how to turn on the light, and every other day she leaves behind a swirling puddle of water that covers the bathroom floor and seeps into the kitchen. We don’t have anything to dry it with, so my other suitemates and I slip and fall on our way to the shower, uncomfortable with the griminess of this hostel that feels so out of place in this city that we love.
I’m the only one in the suite the first time the cleaning lady comes. I try to hide, but when she reaches the bathroom her exclamation breaks through all language barriers and I’m drawn out of my room. She’s in awe at the mini flood before her, and we attempt for several minutes to communicate with pointing and elaborate gestures and the few common words that we both know. She leaves and comes back with another cleaning lady, and then another, and they laugh and curse and shake their heads and keep trying to talk to me and I keep trying to talk to them as if we’re trying to discover some secret language that we all know.
One day I type an apology note into Google translate. The flooding has been going on for weeks and the cleaning lady is stuck in an endless cycle of drying up my roommate’s mess, and I’m afraid of seeming ungrateful, disrespectful, a rude American. I’ve never been a foreigner before, never experienced this language barrier. Most of the time this immersion in a foreign culture is enthralling, but now I’m uncomfortable with my inability to express myself in the native language. I copy down the Czech words that Google throws back at me and tape them to the bathroom door, well aware that my message is full of errors, might not even be understandable, will probably only make the cleaning woman laugh.
The studio is incredibly small and cramped, barely able to accommodate the incredible collection of books, art, supplies, and various mementos even before the 20 or so of us crowd in, but its appeal is instantaneous, intoxicating. Joska Skalník's studio is something out of an iconic movie or a beloved novel or, perhaps, my dreams. The wall in front to me is covered floor to ceiling in shelves, maybe 12 feet high, stuffed full of layers of books and photographs and pieces of art, collected items from decades of living. I’m squeezed behind a table covered in paints and brushes and examples of his work, and I’m terrified to touch anything, to disturb the beauty of the room, to disturb its incredible history.
This is the room where Vaclav Havel hid before addressing the crowds at Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. They were friends, he and Joska, artists and politicians and historians and rebels, just like Milos, just like countless others. I try to imagine the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic hanging out here amongst the books and the art, but it’s a hard image to conjure up, a heavy thought to process, and I struggle to fully appreciate the magnitude of this country’s history that I’m encountering.
It was raining all the while we chased after Joska and Milos around the city, but the rain has died away now that we’re inside and the cool air is coming in through the large, sloping windows as we listen to the artist talk. They make a funny pair, Joska with his wild white hair and his big white beard, and Milos with his shiny bald head and astounding energy, and they seem to be perfectly at home in this room, an integral part of its structure. Joska is telling us about his art while Milos translates, but Milos is talking quickly as usual and they keep getting lost in their own conversation in Czech, words we aren’t privy too with our limited tourist edition of the language, and my mind starts to wander. I look out the windows at the treetops that fall just below this attic room, at the rooftops in the distance. A collection of glass bottles sits in a line on the windowsill, all different shades of blue, and I’m mesmerized by the shape they make together, like a wave that is flowing through the room.
Joska grows tired of talking about art and history, about communism, and asks us what we think about the legalization of marijuana in America. Prague apparently has a pretty lenient position on the subject that basically comes down to don’t get caught, and he tells us there’s a cop around the corner who will sell you pot if you ask. Someone asks if he has any books for sale and, yes, he does, and we want one, all of us, but most of us don’t have the crowns or the room in our suitcase. And then because he’s an angel disguised as Santa Clause disguised as a communist hating, president hiding, Czech artist, he pulls out a package of postcards of his work that we can have for free. I pick out three from the pile, beautiful, surreal collages in the same shades of blue as the bottles on the windowsill. He signs the back of mine, tells me he likes my name, and then poses with a pipe and a “legaizace” sticker while someone takes a photo.
On my last day in the city I break away from the others for part of the afternoon and wander over to the Jewish Quarter. Its been at the top of my list since long before I came here, one of the common places that everyone is told they should, must, absolutely positively need to see, yet somehow I’ve pushed this trip back and back until I’m fitting it in at the last moment. It’s difficult to reconcile the dark history of this city with its beauty, and I feel a sort of imbalance when I jump from the present to the past. My experience of Prague largely involves touring museums, having class in cafes, wandering the streets aimlessly, eating trdelnik and honey cake and drinking coffee and studying art, and I struggle to fit these two worlds together.
I walk alone through the synagogues and memorials and the cemetery, reading name after name after name, running my fingers along the engravings on the walls. I look at the photographs, the mementos. There are drawings here by young Jewish children during the Holocaust, just like ones I’d seen the month before, at a concentration camp, at the site of a village that had been razed to the ground.
This city, this whole country, has a history so painful that I cannot understand the resilience of it's people. I can admire it, be grateful for it, but it’s too much for me to understand in the brief time I have spent here. It would take more than my own lifetime to comprehend the pain they have felt over generations, over centuries.
When I leave the Spanish Synagogue, the day is so incredibly beautiful, all blue skies and warm air and bright sunshine shining around buildings that look like they were picked out of an illustrated fairy tale book, that its hard to imagine that Prague exists in the real world. I stumble across the statue of Kafka I had forgotten to look for and snap a picture. I stop at a café inside a golden courtyard and spend my last crowns on watermelon lemonade. It’s a seemingly perfect day, and when I head back through the colorful streets, back to the hostel, back to the other students and a final night of drinking and eating and celebrating, the sorrowful past of this land feels far away in my mind.