Encounter #1 ~ Olina

(image from jaunted.com)

“Please, you like your room cleaning?” Olina asks me when I answer her ring at my door. She’s a lovely woman, born and raised in the Ukraine but now living and working in Prague. We’ve known one another now for more than three years, since I first stayed at Residence 4 B & B while teaching in the Fiction Writing Department’s summer session in Prague.

That first year, my co-teacher, Philip Hartigan, and I were the only real residents in the brand new building—gutted and renovated out of an old apartment block from another century, a warren of nearly identical rooms painted white and decorated tastefully (but not extravagantly) with a version of Czech Ikea furniture and mass-produced, colorful prints. The following summer, we moved the students here as well, and Residence 4 has become a summer home away from home for those who take the Prague sessions, and especially for us, the faculty who have had the opportunity to return to Prague more than once.

Olina stands inside my doorway and looks around, “Patricia,” she says, only in her accent, affected by having lived in various places in the world, it comes out Patreetzia. Very exotic; it makes me feel sophisticated for some reason. Olina looks around the room and pushes back her blond bangs from her forehead. “My Patricia, never—” and she makes a sweeping gesture with her hands that I understand to mean that I don’t make much of a mess, that she has little to clean in my room. I laugh.

“Thank you,” I say. I’ve been working on the dining table, my computer open and a few tentative lines of a chapter I’m trying to figure out staring like a dare from the white background of the screen. I am grateful for this interruption.

“Me, no,” Olina says, and points to the computer and makes little movements with her fingers like she’s typing. “No learn,” she says.

Olina speaks words in at least five different languages. She speaks Russian (Ukrainian, she points out,) enough Czech to navigate her life in this country, a bit of Italian and a little less of German, and a very few phrases in English. I don’t really speak any of those languages but English and a very small tourist sampling of Italian, German, and Czech, so our dialogue is usually carried out through hand waving, pointing, and babbling whatever words in whatever language come to us.

Today, though, we take our conversation to a new level. She points to my notebook and makes a gesture as though she were writing. I give her a pen and open the book to a clean page. There she draws a stick figure and points to me, “Patricia,” she says. “a,” (“and” in Czech,) she draws another stick figure, taller than the one she drew for me. I say the name of my husband, and she repeats it with delight. They know one another, too, from past sessions, but this time he couldn’t come along. I tell her this. She pouts and then we move on to other things. We share our ages and birthdates, compliment one another on how terrific we look for 45 (her), and 50 (me), and I find files on my computer to show her pictures of my running in a half-marathon and then photos of my nephew and his son, a beautiful baby boy, and of my nephew’s wife, who is also from the Ukraine. This shared history makes Olina smile some more, her face open and glowing. We draw some more parts of the conversation, open my Czech phrase book to find new words (both of us squinting without our reading glasses,) and point to various things in the room to clarify what we want to say, to heighten things, to reach a common understanding.

And I can’t help but think about my students as we do this. I hope that in the quickly passing five weeks they will be here, they each have the chance to talk with someone in just this way. Because while we spend our afternoons in the classroom (a converted hotel room on the ground floor that looks out on the Prague street) studying stories, their various elements, and their myriad of structures, the lessons must not stop there. As storytellers and fiction writers, we are learning to communicate effectively, to spin narratives that will connect writers with readers, others with ourselves. Being in a country where language is just one of the things that is different from our everyday American experience, we rely on the narrative to help give meaning and clarity to what we witness. We tell stories over breakfast about last night’s escapades; we write meandering emails home that express our wonder; we make up things in our head to explain what we see as we walk this not-yet-familiar city’s streets that we don’t—at first—understand.

Already the students are beginning to recognize and to take part in this continuous, evolving global narrative. There’s Matt, who was struck by the quick sketches he saw in Terezin, those made by prisoners interred there during World War II, and how despite their being not much more than line drawings, they captured the desperate stories of those who drew them. And Katie, who traveled three other countries on her way here but still has fallen so completely for this city that she has begun to write love letters to Prague, giving words to an emotion she is only starting to figure out. And Kody, who never lets an opportunity pass to ask a waitress, a bartender, or anyone who might be willing, to give him new words—Czech words he will practice as they are told to him, repeating them over and over again, spelling them, trying them out whenever he can. The Czechs seem to appreciate his effort. And in this way he broadens not just his vocabulary, but also his sphere of connections and his horizons.

Olina and I have been talking for nearly half-an-hour. It is time for her to leave, to move on to the other rooms where she thinks the students might still be sleeping. She calls them “bambinos,” and she says it with grinning affection, with tenderness. She is a mother herself after all, something I just learned during our conversation. We say “Ciao” to one another as she goes, and I turn back to my computer, to the sentences that still don’t seem to want to let me in. I look at the open page in my notebook, at the drawings and numbers and other doodles we’ve made there. I close my laptop, but leave the notebook open; I throw some things into my bag, and head out the door, knowing that—today at least—what I am looking for (words, sentences, story) will not be found in my freshly cleaned room.

Originally posted to Columbia College Chicago’s website in 2009←

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