Pavel was one of those Czech Western freaks you came across now and then in Prague.
He wore an oversize Texas belt buckle, tooled cowboy boots and listened to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. to let his hair down after work. He knew more about America, than I – his English teacher – did, that’s for sure, and once gave me a confederate flag to hang on my wall. The flag he had picked up at some Czech Civil War club that met once a week and staged mock battles of famous Civil War skirmishes in Letna Park. Guns were his hobby – his first love – he said, and he sort of regretted that he had made computers his career, rather than fire-arms.
During the summer Pavel headed out to central Moravia, to a place called “Beaver City”, a western theme-town some Western enthusiasts had erected on a farmer’s property south of Brno.
If I had expected some kind of Western adventure park, a kind of scaled-down Czech Disneyland, I would have been woefully disappointed. The reality was actually quite sorry and pathetic.
Pavel showed me pictures, pointing out three sad lean-to shacks masquerading as buildings: a “saloon” (a kind of glorified beer and sausage stand), a “hotel” and “post-office”: a couple of old sheds done up in Western style with Western lettering. Nearby was “Indian Territory”, with a few jerry-rigged teepees and a sweathouse.
I flipped through the sheave of photos in my hand and asked Pavel what he got up to in “Beaver City”. “Oh!” said Pavel. “You can’t imagine!” and he told me enthusiastically about mock high-noon shoot-outs on “Main Street” (a stretch of rutted mud running past the chicken shacks), lassoing beer bottles, square dancing, making smoke signals – and something a bit mysterious called “Russian bowling”, which he explained consisted of knocking down as many beer bottles as you could, arranged in a circle around a tether-ball. There was nothing particularly “Western” about “Russian bowling”, but it had the added Czech virtue of being one of the few “sports” (darts also comes to mind) that could be played with a bottle of beer in one hand.
“It’s fine.” said Pavel. “Fine!”
Pavel pointed out pictures of himself and his wife cavorting in Beaver City, Pavel looking sharp in a ten-gallon hat (Czech made) and range coat, cradling a shot gun, his wife decked out as an Indian squaw in string bikini fringed with leather tassels, moccasins, headdress and streaks of red war paint.
I didn’t want to rain on Pavel’s parade, but I felt compelled to say that some Americans – not me, of course – would find his wife’s Pocahontas schtick a bit offensive.
“Tak?” said Pavel uncomprehendingly.
Tak, I said, and I explained, it was because Native Americans had been fucked over in a very supreme fashion ever since white Americans arrived at their land. That was why no one really dressed up as Indians anymore in the US; it just wasn’t funny.
Pavel nodded somberly. He seemed fairly sympathetic to the plight of Native American, all things considered. After all, he had read the Winnetou trilogy by Karl May.
May was a popular nineteenth century German author of penny dreadfulls — real-life adventures, allegedly, in romantic corners of the world like the Balkans, Kurdistan and the American West. The last of which featured Winnetou, a kind of Indian noble savage and entirely fictitious homoerotic blood brother of the author in his alter ego as “Old Shatterhand”.
Hitler loved Karl May (identifying the German volk with the noble, pure blooded heimische Native Americans). But then again, so did Franz Kafka (Karl May in many was his inspiration for his novel Amerika) and Albert Einstein. Here in the Czech Republic, though he was a known German, the Czechs liked him something special. Father passed down to son dog-eared copies of Winnetou.
During communist times a typical Czech male would have made the pilgrimage to the Karl May museum in Dresden, just across the border, in socialist GDR, where kids could stare raptly at the buckskin get-up as well as famous silver studded “Silberbüchse” rifle, both items belonging to Old Shatterhand. At the time of writing Winnetou, Karl May had never been to America.Only after he became famous did he embark on a trip to America, mostly to buy props –like the Silberbüchse that would legitimize his wild stories.
Pavel had of course read Winnetou, and was surprised that I as an American hadn’t. He had been to the shrine-like Karl May museum and told me excitedly all that could be found there, not only Old Shatterhand’s famed belongings, but perhaps the finest selection of Indian headdresses in East Germany.
“This is all bunk romanticism,” I said, and tried to present a realistic picture of the dreary life on a Native American reservation; the unemployment, the alcoholism etc. etc.
Surprisingly, Pavel heard me out, but bristled at the suggestion that the Native Americans occupied a position in society similar to the Gypsies in the Czech Republic. I should have known. The eternal Gypsy question.
“No!” said Pavel, suddenly defensive. “The Gypsies are not at all like the American Redskins! The Redskins are nice people! The Redskins wouldn’t kill you for ten cents!”
What followed was a kind of anti-Gypsy tirade I was more or less familiar with in Prague. The Gypsies “bred like rabbits” in order to get as much money as they can from the state. One family would have ten children. And then one of the sons will go off and have another ten children. And before you know it, there’d be more Gypsies in the Czech Republic than white people.
“And the unfairness of the media!” Pavel went on, wagging a didactic finger at me. “When a Gypsy kills a white person no one cares. But when a skinhead kills a Gypsy, my God, it’s on the front page of every newspaper and the president has to go down and make a speech and lay a wreath. That’s what happened last year when a skinhead killed a Gypsy with a –how do you say – baseball bat. But this was a little different. This guy was a ‘good Gypsy’. He didn’t deserve to die. He didn’t rob people. He didn’t have ten million children. Or burn his house down. He was a civilized Gypsy with a regular job,”
I coughed and attempted to change the subject. But Pavel himself suspected he had gone to far.
“I am sorry,” said Pavel, “I am sorry. Please don’t get me started on the subject of the Gypsies. I guess we will just have to live with these black-asses. My idea is we kick them all out and make a country for their own. But that wouldn’t be good, because then they would just start wars with everyone else.”
I stopped teaching Pavel eventually. Not because I was offended by his talk, but just because my school’s contract with his company had expired. I thought Pavel was essentially a good guy. This anti-Roma sentiment simply had been ingrained in him since childhood, as it had in so many Czechs. There was not much he could do about it.
yOver the years, I would eventually travel from Prague, through East Europe, the Balkans to Turkey. The Roma were all more or less second-class citizens wherever I landed. In general, though, I found the further south I went the more the evil racist sentiments subsided and the more the differences between Gypsies and gadjo blended together vaguely and enigmatically, so that you no longer knew sometimes who was a Gypsy and who wasn’t. In the end you even stopped asking the question. People were just people.