11. června 2010 11:30 Lidovky.cz > Zprávy > Kultura

David Semler: Kingdom of Smiles

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It was a beautiful summer day; the warm breeze that was getting inside the truck through a half-open window was playing with Emma’s hair as she was smiling into the bright sun. She drove fast through the calm town of Cedar Rapids; the road was bordered by fresh lawns and lines of symmetrical houses. Groups of kids were playing carefree in the yards and their laughter and screams were echoing from behind the fences, penetrating the silence of the Sunday afternoon.

Emma breathed in the scent of cut grass and almost unconsciously turned on the radio. Joyful tones of country flooded the car and Emma couldn’t suppress a broad grin. She gratefully absorbed the mellow music of her childhood and recalled how she had suffered when she was forced to listen to the ska-punk bands in Prague. Particularly one memory was really strong: she had been standing in the middle of a ferocious audience in an underground club and everyone surrounding her was jumping around and throwing all their limbs as high and far as possible, doing so to the crazy rhythm of trumpets, basses, flutes and other bizarre instruments.

National Literary Award For Young Writers

"You can’t be serious,” she thought when she was listlessly watching the young people of her age getting exited by the music (oh my god, trumpets?), which reminded her of a brass band. She felt her eardrums bursting under the loud pounding of percussion; drops of sweat and beer were continually dripping on her face, but it wasn’t until a gigantic long-haired ogre hit her hard on the back of her head that she decided to look for shelter in the bathroom. She locked herself in the cabin, sat on the bowl, at least partly cut off of the loud crowd, and started to cry. It had only been two weeks since she had come to the Czech Republic and she already hated it here! Everyone was so peculiar and what was worse: everyone apparently thought of her as peculiar. When she for example walked down the school hallway, people either stared at her or more likely looked away (you can’t be serious!); no smiles, no hellos, and no new friends that would immediately take care of her and show her how things work. Her host partner Monika was okay, but the atmosphere in her family was much colder than what she was used to at home. No praising, no hugs, sometimes they didn’t even wish her a good night. She had never thought before she would ever feel such a strong desire to see her parents.

Emma had had to wait ten more months until she could once again see the corn fields and hog farms of her home Iowa. When she had stepped off of the plane, there was a crowd of her friends and family waiting at the airport and holding welcoming signs; they all surrounded her and greeted her with loving embraces and expressed how much they all had missed her. She immediately registered how people at her home differ from the ones in Prague; there was no cold indifference and shut off weirdoes. But why was Emma now driving her car and thinking about her life in Prague?

Summer camp in the Czech mountains also stayed vivid in her memory. Monika had decided that the best way to get Emma accustomed to new country was to show her the wild side of it. On their way to Southern Bohemia, Emma noted with consternation the dirty old houses that surrounded their way, shabby children playing in the mud and their parents sitting in the pubs from the early morning. When the girls arrived at the camp it started to rain and it didn’t stop till the end of their stay. This allowed Emma to get to know Czech youngsters better, they were all closed in a tee pee for the whole day, smoking a water pipe and drinking like dogs (You can’t be serious!). Not to mention the fact that there was no bathroom, hot water or electricity whatsoever – just a flooded stream and a hole in the ground that was supposed to be a toilet (No, this time you really cannot be serious!)

But she had survived. She was again able to enjoy the warmth of Iowan sun and American smiles. She could walk down the school hallway and chat with everyone she pleased, she could walk down the street without fear she would be hit by a drunk driver or robbed by a malicious brute. She joined the cheerleaders again and started to sew her costume for Halloween.

She had begun to contemplate Prague a week after her arrival, when she was asked by the Czech Heritage Organization to make a speech about her stay in Bohemia. The organization was formed by the descendents of Czech settlers who came to Iowa in the 19th century and Emma’s mother was partly taking care of their administration. She urged her daughter not to mention any misbehavior she had encountered in Prague. "Remember darling, these people helped to sponsor your trip. They want to hear something nice.”

Emma had washed away the last remains of Czech dust in her hair, put on several layers of make-up, dressed in her cute pink dress and tied her hair up with a ribbon. With the smile of a princess she stepped on stage in a local church watched by her audience made up of hundred-year-old Czech descendents, teachers from her school and parents with their teenage kids who wanted to spend two semesters in a Czech school next year. She spoke into a microphone and her loud voice was full of confidence and enthusiasm. Emma was on cloud nine; every face was shining with an encouraging smile and watched her with rapt attention. She was carried by the stream of her own sweet words about how she loved every single day in the land of her ancestors, how amiable and perfect Bohemia is and how generous and kind the people there are. But the sweeter the words she let out were and the brighter smiles she cast, the more nauseous she felt. She looked at the admiration of artificial faces in front of her and had to recall Monika. What would she say, seeing her like this? Throwing up words she would be ashamed to utter in front of her Czech friend? And as Emma carried on praising the Czech Republic, she realized that one thing she was saying was actually true: she missed Czechs and their country. These "descendants” had nothing really in common with present-day Czechs – they knew everything about their traditions and history, but nothing about their true lives. It was the lack of perfection that Emma liked about the Czechs; they were alcoholics, drug-addicts, brutes, thieves and murderers, but they were honest with themselves, they would never put on these smiles she was seeing now in front of her. They wouldn’t on every occasion pretend that they’re living in a perfect world, their life is heaven on earth and everything’s fine. Not everywhere it is.

"I smoked marihuana,” reverberated between the walls with paintings of Virgin Mary, who was now the only one that didn’t replace her smile with an expression of shock. "Yes, I had tons of pot,” said Emma with the same vivid tone she had been using before; several old ladies stirred on their seats, clearly not knowing what she was talking about.

"But I realized it’s better to get drunk, because it doesn’t make you as drowsy. What you have to mind are the pickpockets, though, you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to lose your wallet when you are wasted!” and as she gave out a cute giggle, she saw her mother slowly rising.

"I also had sex in a public bathroom,” was the last thing Emma had announced into the microphone before she was forced to quickly jump off the stage, escaping from the reach of her aggravated mother, and to run out of the church.

Now, as she was leaving Cedar Rapids, she was wondering about the words her mum had shouted at her on the doorstep: "You can’t be serious!” She always used this phrase, when she thought something wasn’t perfect, when something was different and didn’t quite fit to her super clean house with a sprinkler system on a front lawn. Emma thought the contrary: her mother and all her world, including Emma’s friends, were never serious; they never said what they meant and never expressed how they really felt. Monika and some people she had time to get to know better in Prague were different, there was no hypocrisy and pretended friendship between them, they were mean and rude, but at the same time they were able to help and comfort you. I’ll never pretend I’m happy, Emma thought, I’ll never be nice to people I don’t like, I’ll never wear any kind of disguise and I will do what I want!

Emma continued driving towards the horizon, ready to start her new life. Her expression was gradually becoming more and more disgusted by the golden mass of corn and she was angry at the sun because it was burning her eyes and the stupid wind was bringing the sickening smell of pigs. A typical irate Czech in America.

Luckily for her, Emma’s mother was still an American, so with the help of the American police, she found her daughter, forced her to come back home, go to school, get married and most importantly: to live happily ever after.

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