Monday, June 29, 2009

Chance Encounters of the Praha Kind

The last few days have left me feeling very nostalgic for Prague, where I studied for a semester in the Fall of 2006. A year prior, my junior year at the University of Colorado, I didn't think much of leaving the States and thought I would surely move back to Cincinnati after graduation to start a career and to get settled. Then, something must have clicked, and I decided to study in a country that I had previously known next to nothing about (all I had heard was that Prague was beautiful and that the beer was good and cheap), and where I didn't speak a lick of the language or know a soul.

Little did I know that this arbitrarily planned experience would have such a profound impact on my life, and in hindsight, it seems a lot more serendipitous than arbitrary. My nostalgia begins with Charles Bridge and Old Town Square and favorite hangouts like Cross Club and U Sudu, and to me, right now, Prague seems like the most beautiful, romantic city in the world, where it's easy to feel like you're living in a dream. But what makes me the most nostalgic is not Prague's amazingly preserved architecture, history or charm; it's the people I met - those that became instant friends under unique circumstances; those that made me redefine what's important; and those that led me to new places like San Francisco and South America.

What's crazy is the timing of this nostalgia. My friend Kelsey is compiling a book for her brother who is studying abroad this coming fall, and she asked me to email her some recommendations for Prague. Naturally, while remembering my favorite places in Prague to make good recommendations, I was pining for the city and the people it led me to, and with them still fresh on my mind, I had a chance encounter. Enjoying a beer on a Friday night at an outdoor cafe in Covington, Kentucky, I saw in my peripheral vision a young man walking out of the line of tents from Goetta Fest, and his tee-shirt looked familiar (though I didn't think twice about it); suddenly, he approached me and asked if I recognize him. Low and behold, it was one of my friends from Prague, Adam Siemiginowski, and he just so happened to be wearing the tee-shirt we received at our graduation ceremony at Charles University in Prague! Adam and I said, "Jak se mas?" and "Mam se fajn" and caught up on life, and it was the perfect outlet for my sentimental feelings.

What are the chances of me running into one of the 85 kids I studied with in Prague at exactly that time and place? I would have previously said something along the lines of one in a million. I'm no statistician, but I guess it was just meant to be.

[Czech it out:]

Casker Monkey

The Casker Company is a family business that started from scratch three generations ago and evolved into one of the top two wholesalers of watch parts in the country. I have worked at Casker a few times over the years and certainly did not expect to be back there after my last stint about five years ago, when the term "Casker monkey" came to be. As it turns out, if you quit your well-paying, white-collar sales job in San Francisco to go backpacking in South America for a few months, you may end up making sacrifices like working at Casker - C'est La Vie.

As a Casker monkey, one of my many tasks is to package the watch parts, which come in bulk from Asia and must be broken down. And so, it is possible that for an entire afternoon, or maybe an entire working day, I will be counting out spring bars, putting them in packs of twelve, making up gasket assortments or checking the inventory of the most recent shipment of watch movements. In addition to packaging, I answer the phones and fill orders for watch parts and am forced to try to answer questions about an Omega balance complete, a Hamilton stem, or any other kind of watch part that probably means as much to me as it does to you. This kind of blue-collar work, the packaging aspect in particular, was why my siblings, cousins, and I used to liken ourselves to child laborers or monkeys and why we were on the brink of insanity for hours on end.

What's more interesting than the nature of the work, however, is the environment at Casker and the people - the monkeys if you will - who work there. Imagine going from studying and backpacking abroad and trying to associate yourself primarily with open-minded, worldly people back to the simpleness of the Midwest, which seems to come to a head at the Casker Company. Talk about reverse culture shock! There is a distaste for most things foreign at Casker that has been almost as eye-opening as the perverse culture of San Francisco and the poverty of large parts of South America. A small-town co-worker of mine tells me about her trip to France, saying that she'll probably never leave the country again because she was so put off by the fact that they did not speak English. Another co-worker tells me how nervous she is to attend a soccer game in Chicago that will - gasp! - be largely attended by Spanish-speaking people (the opponent being Honduras), and time and time again, I overhear other co-workers say, "I hate foreigners" when they get off the phone with someone who doesn't place an order in perfect English.

It's not the opposition to, or even fear of, things that are foreign that's most shocking about the simple-mindedness of some of the Casker monkeys; it's the simple living and lack of social intelligence that's really striking. I have pretty well given up on asking co-workers on Monday mornings about what they did over the weekend, knowing that most answers will revolve around yard-work of some kind. And there's one co-worker in particular (we'll call her Shirley) with whom I never attempt to strike up a conversation about anything whatsoever. She, however, will come talk to me about anything and everything without any solicitation. Such "conversations" are comprised mostly of Shirley talking and laughing without much response from me, and she rambles about topics such as: 4H Club and the goats that she's been raising and is anxious to show off at the fair; the start of her step-daughter's period (that the girl started it at the grandmother's house and that the grandmother nor the mom were willing to go spend three or four dollars on a box of pads); and friends that Shirley has on Facebook, including a girl she knew from high school who's mother constantly told her how stupid she was. One of the most memorable Shirley quotes, in the midst of a discussion about another co-worker's daughter's breast implants, was, "Didn't they ever tell her more than a mouthful's a waste?" and she walked away bursting with laughter that showcased her bucked teeth.

There are times at Casker when you wish you could play the "I don't speak your language" card so you're not forced to "partake" in conversations about a step-daughter's period, but then again, maybe it's best to grin and bear it and to remember that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Who says that life is over after a life-altering backpacking adventure that, looking back, seems like nothing more than a dream, just like most great adventures? While living at my parents' house in Cincinnati (mowing the five-and-a-half acre lawn on a zero-turn riding mower to earn my keep) and filling orders for watch parts part-time for $10 an hour doesn't exactly sound glamorous, it's been anything but mundane.

While I can be quite critical of Cincinnati for its simple-minded folk, stagnancy and lack of my kind of entertainment and culture, Cincinnati is and always will be home, and I am happy to be spending time here. With my own room and a full-sized bed, a mother who attends concerts with me and packs lunches for me before I leave for work (and who has dinner ready at 6:00 every evening), and the ability to get in my car and go, what more could I need as I transition back into the real world?

In addition to experiencing the culture shock of returning home, I have, in the last month and a half, rollerbladed through the muck and the mayhem of the in-field at the Kentucky Derby - my favorite recent discovery; fortuitously become a "groupie" of an up-and-coming band called Low vs. Diamond; done my first lead-climb at Red River Gorge, Kentucky; hitchhiked my way home from a bar on a bicycle (yes, a bicyclist biked me home from a bar, as in I sat on the seat while he, a complete stranger, pedaled at 1:30 on a Friday night); and, with the help of some good friends, started an impromptu dance party at a pizza parlor in Chicago. These things and more have made post-backpacking life far from dull, and it's a good thing, too, because otherwise I might not have survived simultaneous splits from South America and my on-and-off-again boyfriend of three years. Sure, these were tough hurtles to get over, in conjunction with my dismal outlook on the job market and the World in general (ever-mounting tensions in the Middle East, nuclear testing in North Korea, and a general closed-mindedness of people all over), but a slew of mini adventures, good family and friends, and a little bit of optimism can go a long way.