I lived two years in a Prague dormitory and I often refer to it as my “cultural boot camp” because I was thrown head-first into a new environment. I learned innumerable lessons about how Czech society functions and how to communicate outside of my comfort zone. We used a lot of hand motions and Google Translate during those first few months. I had a rudimentary grasp of Czech language and none of the employees of the dorm spoke English. The straight-forward, gruff manner of doing business was vastly different than the overly friendly cashiers and receptionists I was used to in the American south.
It was my first week in the dormitory and like any proper 19 year old, I didn’t own bedsheets. The main office stood on the ground floor, and the woman in the office acted like I was wasting her time. She informed me rather matter-of-factly that to get bedsheets, I had to go to the storeroom in the basement. I didn’t even know we had a basement. Regardless, I cautiously wandered downstairs and followed the single source of light coming from a small room at the end of a corridor. A woman was sitting in a chair, surrounded by chest-high stacks of sheets, and while barely looking up from her book, slid a form across the counter. I began to read, but gave up about 10 words in. I signed it.
Visibly annoyed that I disturbed her reading, she tossed a dense cube of sheets onto the counter. I picked up the sheets and noticed immediately that these simply would be unsuitable. The sewn edges were all frayed and ripped. They were thin and crisp, from too high of heat when ironing, and the folded creases acted as perforated lines. The sheet resembled a sheet of stamps more than a bedsheet. Stamped in a corner was “Kolej Švehlova 1998” and if my assumption was correct, these were as old as my adult brother. I was mortified.
I struggled through the language barrier to explain that I needed a different set. I pointed out holes and frays even made a one centimeter rip in one of the ironed creases to show her just how easy it was to tear. She told me all the sheets looked like this. I asked to see another set just to make sure. Of course, she refused. She used that get-out-of-jail-free card: “není můj problém.” At that point in my language education, I only understood maybe 30% of any spoken conversation, but one thing was clear: these were the sheets I was getting and she didn’t care what I had to say about it.
I was stumped by that point and felt cornered. In a moment of defeat, I stepped back from the counter and held an edge of the unfolded sheet in each of my hands. I held them above my head so that the sheet hung between myself and the counter.
Dusty light from the single light panel on the ceiling peered through the holes of the perfectly square perforations. I imagined mailing myself back home using one of the giant stamps outlined in the sheet.
Then, I ripped the sheet right down the middle- all the way through- and left the two halves on her counter. The old woman, who never left her chair until this moment, jumped up in horror and began shouting at me, but I had enough for one day. Besides, I wouldn’t have understood her anyway. For sure, they were going to kick me out of the dormitory.
Looking back, I know I acted childish (and I wish I could hear how the basement woman tells the story of the psychotic foreigner!), but I was self-conscious of my assimilation skills and the attitudes of the staff felt like a sorority hazing. That moment with the sheets was the accumulation of my feeling of inadequacy. Even if it was all in my head: they were giving me what they thought I deserved and I was expected to take it. Reacting the way I did is not recommended, but it was all I had in that moment.
Two years later, I moved out of the dormitory and upon my last visit to the office to settle the rent payment and return the keys, they handed me a bill I wasn’t expecting:
“300kc: one set of sheets.”
American by birth and Praguer by choice, Caroline can be found enjoying Pho Bo at one of the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants or finding the best way to promote public transportation.