Unfamiliar Territory.

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Another type of Betty.

Yesterday, I was on my way to the office with the shiny handles to meet with my investment guys for their lesson. I was having an itchy on my leg so I bent over; most of you know I’m a Brown Bettie, so we’ll imagine that with a coy smile outlined in Ruby Woo, I bent sultry-like at the waist and adjusted my black jeans as though I were adjusting the seam on my fishnet stockings. While I was scratching the shit out of my leg, from above I heard, “Blaaack. Nice.” I turned my head and saw dusty work boots and a man’s leg outfitted in what is the standard construction-worker uniform: electric blue overalls. I followed the legs up to see a rugged man with messy dark hair and smiling blue eyes; his eyebrows were lifted and he was nodding his head “Yes” as though a waiter had just brought him the yummy plate of roasted duck and the pivo he’d ordered.

“Blaacak, nice!” he said, again.

Surprised, I laughed, and said,  “Děkuji!” (Thank you) and as I continued on towards the #16 tram, I looked back at him and I wondered, “Hey, wait…did he mean me or my black jeans??”

Now, I haven’t really been cat-called or really eye-goggled in Prague; this is just not a thing here like it is on the LA streets and beyond. While I certainly don’t like being cat-called, I’ve been systematically conditioned to regard this act as an indicator of beauty or that I even exist; without it, I’ll admit I’ve felt invisible and so un-pretty at times. So, in that moment, where I imagine my Czech buddy was not talking about my fitted, black, Zara jeans, I will imagine he was politely saying, “You are a nice black girl.”

It is nice to be a nice black girl.

This brings me to my Ukrainian boyfriend. He’s not really my boyfriend, I just call him that.

One day this summer, while I was in my hot bedroom counting and recounting the crowns in my pocket and wallet and then looking and re-looking for illusive change in those places we hope money is hiding (book bag, dresser drawers, under the bed) and coming up with less than 20 crowns which is no where near a dollar, I panicked. Then I got depressed. I laid down on my bed, stopped myself from hyperventilating and proceeded to soak my pillow with some tears.

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How I felt.

Then I got a text: “Come to the river.” It was Nicole. I wiped my face on my tank top, put on my converse and left to meet her.

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Happy people along the Vltava River, Prague

As most of you know, Nicole is my friend and producing partner. You may not know that she moved here in March from LA. She has more Prague under her belt than I. We live on opposite sides of the river; she’s near Vyšehrad, I’m near Anděl. The river is the middle spot for us. With the sun shining brightly, we waved quite sill-ily when we caught sight of each other; our friendship even stronger now as we have become kindred, floating spirits here to take care of one another.

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Nicole and Pep. Pep and Nicole.

She’d brought a bag of pita chips and four bottles of Kozel. We sat on the concrete at the river’s bank. Our legs tucked beneath us. A few more tears slipped out from both of us as we shared our woes about navigating our way through this current part of our uncertain, international lives. We watched boats and people and swans drift by. Laughter came eventually. Then we heard:

“Geerrls. Hi. You vant vine?”

We turned to see three very cute, youngish boys smiling and holding a bottle of wine.

Nicole, with her wavy 1930’s bob, was shaking her head ‘No’ at me and whispering, “Pep, no. I’m not in the mood to translate.”

I leaned over her lap towards them, accepting the empty plastic cup being offered and said, “Yes, yes! We vant vine!”

That’s when I met my Ukrainian boyfriend. Who doesn’t speak Czech or English, only Ukrainian and Russian.

All three of the boys were Ukrainian. Two of them had come to Prague to find work, due to the current not-so-great goings-on in Ukraine. The other had come to Prague when he was a teen. This one became our translator as we drank Vine and laughed and tried really, really hard to understand one another.

Our sitting by the river bank under the setting sun, which sent a brilliant ripple of color over the Prague Castle in the distance, turned to dancing on a docked boat that was a few feet from where we had been sitting. Because, while laughing and sipping and sharing, I kept hearing what made me feel like it was 1998 and I was back at Red Dog in Chicago…!!

I turned to Nicole, who is from Chicago, and said, “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?”

“Peppur, I have to get up early and teach,” is what came out of her mouth. But she had heard it, too, and was nodding her head to the beat as much as I had been.

We gathered up the boys and our empty cups and walked the plank onto the river boat. The muffled beats I’d heard before became real and filled my head and my body with the familiarity I love. Nicole and I dropped our purses at our table and slid onto what we made into a dance floor.  Grinning, I pointed excitedly at our DJ, with a banner of Africa swaying above him, his head bent and bobbing with one ear tapped into a headphone. He was sincerely the shit. Sincerely. We spun and soul-clapped and swung our long skirts to the drum n’ bass and jazz and hip-hop and everything in-between. Besides Nicole’s rescue text and the flirty boys and the soothing wine, it was the warm hug I needed — we both needed — and soon Nicole and I were not just dancing to Chicago deep house spun by an African on a boat in front of a more-conservative Czech audience who stared at us with mouths open while sipping their beer, we were living, fully alive with what we knew in a place we didn’t.

My Ukrainian boyfriend materialized in front of me; he grabbed my hands and while I was a bit put-off to have my groove interrupted, his hands were warm, his smile even more so and his kind eyes were telling me he saw me. I acquiesced and followed his groove. Which was…Ukrainian. We were swing dancing with out the swing. We were fling dancing. And not on beat. He literally started pulling me and flinging me through the air. I was no longer the sultry, fluid Brown Bettie. I was a floppy, flying Raggedy Ann doll. He was so strong!! I was laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all and at how much fun it was to be existing like this.

Frankie Manning, Lindy Hop..aka me, flying.

Frankie Manning, Lindy Hop..aka me, flying.

At one point, he dipped me (and ya’ll know how I like to fully layout and be dipped without being dropped) and then I saw his lips coming into mine and I was like, “Wait! No! Nice blaack girl! No! I don’t know you!” And plus, everyone, I mean ev-ery-one was watching and I was like, “Whoa!!” and then I looked into his light-brown eyes again, and I saw that he saw me, and then I took a chance and I closed my eyes and I kissed the Ukrainian boy who doesn’t speak English.

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Romance on the Vltava.

Later, Nicole and the other boys long-gone, we walked alone along the Vltava river. Silent. Allowing the river and the moon and whatever else to do the speaking for us.

Earlier, thanks to Google translate, I’d successfully learned that while he’d done sales back in Ukraine, he now wore those blue overalls and worked construction. Because it was work. He was in as much unfamiliar territory as I was. Maybe that’s what brought us together. As we walked, he reached for my hand. I couldn’t help but think that maybe somewhere in his thoughts, he was thinking, “Blaaack. Nice.”

I cautiously held his hand back, feeling and noticing its slight roughness. I looked at his strong, peaceful silhouette and thought, “Ukraaaaine. Nice.”

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