When I was fourteen years old, I was allowed to take some acting classes at H.B. Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village. I had to take the PATH train from Jersey City over to the Christopher Street stop in NYC. Sometimes, I skipped the classes and just went exploring. It was an area that felt safe and full of wonders. I wandered down old twisty streets, little shops which seemed like they had been there forever while intermittently smelling a variety of foods which I hadn’t yet experienced. I was tentative and shy, additionally, I was a very young looking fourteen, the store owners didn’t always receive me as I would have liked. I mean, I suppose there wasn’t a lot of people my age poking around. I deeply enjoyed this sense of adventure but also felt like I didn’t belong. So much of my life I felt like I didn’t belong. I worked hard to make myself a fixture, a person that people saw as a valuable member of the community and as someone who belonged. Here, in Brno, I knew no one and, in a way, I had to start all over again in trying to build a sense of community for myself. I wish I could tell them, “hey, I’m really cool to talk to!”. Back home, I rarely try out new restaurants on my own and wait to go with someone because I have felt that the anxiety that comes with not being able to see new surroundings is not worth any meal. I realized I was punching through that fear by making a list of the places I wanted to go and checking them out one by one. This also meant I was getting lost for most of the first couple of weeks I was on my own. The worst that happened were some awkward moments and me taking a little fall on my tush.
Who remembers the scene from Stranger Things, Season 2 when El leaves Hopper’s cabin for the first time? That’s what I felt like, except my hair is a bit longer. Everything felt so new and strange, and I stood out like a remnant of a MK Ultra experiment. I could sense some of the people on the block watching me, maybe I was imagining it, though I feel like the thing when people stop talking as you walk buy and then resume talking when you pass supports my suspicion. I try to tell myself, what does it matter really? When I try to tease out these feelings objectively, my brain can process this staring as irrelevant but I find myself slightly deterred by it. I wish I could just go out and not feel like the odd woman out. I want to be able to wander around and get lost without people with good intentions asking me if I need help every block. Ah, there’s the rub. I have enough vision to be able to enjoy the old market spaces, the outline of the Gothic architecture, the ancient alley ways but I do need my cane to ensure I don’t run into steps, curbs and babies. Babies are VERY dangerous.
Another rub of a different sort is that while I tense up at having people constantly ask me if I need help when I’m fine, sometimes I do indeed need help. I am a blind onion. I have many layers, okay? When I do end up having a conversation with someone regarding directions, I deeply enjoy it. I don’t want the conversation to end. I’m sure they can see the “Please be my friend! I’m alone here and don’t know anybody!” in my big brown eyes.
My street is in a fairly quiet neighborhood, though you can hear the tram snaking around the streets nearby. I hear it as I walk up a slight hill which I anticipate will cause me trouble when it gets snowy and icy. Trucking along. I make a left and walk up towards an elevator which will save me from walking up something like seven flights of stairs. My white cane rumbles against the cobble stone, cars honk and I hear the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul ring it’s bell, “Ding, dong, ding!”.
The Good Place
The coffee shop that Mike and I had gone to previously really left an impression on me and this where I was headed. Skog’s espresso brewed by Rusty Nails Coffee Roasters was some of the best I’ve ever had and the space felt very welcoming and made me feel like I was doing something artsy even when I wasn’t. I had a little bit of an idea of how to make my way over but once I got to Schlesinger Square, I got a tad bit confused. A kind and very strong older woman were trying to ask me in Czech if I needed help. We were trying to communicate but she then guided me over to the young folks at the small coffee stand nearby. I asked about Skog Urban Hub and on elf hem pointed in the direction of an old archway. The older woman repeatedly was seeming to ask me if I was okay and I reassured her. Yes, I reassured her that I was okay. No, I shouldn’t have to reassure her, but I haven’t successfully been deconditioned to stop making other people feel okay about my disability.
I made my way through Baroque buildings towards the coffee shop and tentatively moved into the space to find a seat. As I was looking, an observer asked me a question in Czech to which I answered in sloppy Czech, “Do you speak English?”. They said, “Of course!” and I proceeded to ask if there was a free table. We spotted one and I sat and got settled. An engaging waitress came over and asked me a question in Czech. Again, I asked, “Do you speak English?” in Czech. She responded, “of course!”. This is pretty much how every interaction moving forward went. With the exception of people who were probably my age or older.
I felt triumphant! I had gotten here to where I wanted to go. It was a small step towards knowing I could do this for ten months. I’d just keep expanding my knowledge of the area, little by little. As I sat, I looked around and realized that this was the exact same place where Mike and I had sat last time. He had just been here; we were just together in this space. Now I wouldn’t see him for another four months. The buoyancy I had been experiencing was becoming tinged with a sickening feeling. It felt like just a minute ago he was here. It felt unnerving. The moment passed but it wouldn’t’ be the last time I would feel this. Let’s get those pancakes over here, pronto. Must. Eat. Feelings.
Oh, that latte was silky and rich like nothing I’ve ever had. Then the sour dough pancakes came out and I relished every bite! Savory pancakes? Yes, please. The waitress even made some small talk with me and the barista made a spiffy design in the foam of my latte. This might be my new favorite spot. I stayed for hours, being around all these people and having the sun shine through the almost floor to ceiling windows generated a sense of calm in me.
The Fall and Rise
I packed up and planned to try to get to the main square. Google maps, you say? Sure, I am trying to use it as much as a woman living with low vision can. The streets here in Brno are partly relics of medieval twisty turn streets, and Google maps turns into the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Go southwest…go north west…go southwest…Sure, and he app, Be My Eyes exists to help blind people through this kind of thing. Maybe I’ll use it but for now, I’m just chilling and there isn’t a place I need to get to urgently. Coming soon, I will also have some orientation and mobility training from the university I’m affiliated with. This means getting around more and having meaningful conversations with humans, YAY! I like humans. Humans good.
Each day, I made an effort to get out of the apartment and head to a new destination I had mastered getting to the center of Brno, and now I could explore the tentacle like alley ways and streets which extend from it. I promised myself I’d try a different café each day, to help hone my sense of where everything was. Also, to find the best latte, cause Bojana runs on whatever is the most convenient cup of coffee she can find. I know that once I get to the big square with the vegetables, I just need to veer right and I’ll find a street which will take me in the correct direction. Sometimes finding the center isn’t always so easy and more times than not, if I listen for music, I can follow it and find the center! I’ve heard everything from Celine Dion, to Czech rock, to bucket drummers to Mozart in these streets!
I had made my way over to the big square and now was walking home. I made the mistake of really “feeling myself”, walking on sunshine, thinking how great I was doing and— “Bam!” I ran into an evil phallus. This four-foot-tall stone protrusion blended in with the cobble stones and I suppose I didn’t sweep my white cane far enough to the left to register it. I totally fell down and busted my tushy. Of course, this was the day I had worn a skirt that was just a little above my knee. AS I lay on the ground, surrounded by four full tables of Czech folks having dinner. Surprised to be on the ground, I instinctively pulled my dress down over my behind. A compassionate waiter helped me collect my sunglasses which had flown off my head. I gathered myself as demurely as one can while splayed out on the sidewalk. Determined not to cry in front of everyone, I set my jaw and had to fight back tears. I realized I had begun to really feel the cold tendrils of homesickness set in. After walking and turning the corner, I just let the tears stream down my face, the embarrassment of falling had been too much.
Now that I’ve fallen, which was one of my big fears, and it hadn’t ruined my whole Fulbright, I was feeling a bit more adventurous. One thing that I had still been hesitant about doing was taking Lift-a-Go on my own. I had consistent trouble with Lyft and Uber in the states. When the drivers couldn’t find me or I couldn’t find them, I’d call and try to explain that I was blind. There was always a misunderstanding and so much of the time, the situation became extremely stressful. Would it be worse in Brno where I didn’t speak the language? I thought for sure it would be. I was still recovering from jet lag, and took a doozy of a nap and woke up at 4pm. I hadn’t mastered the route to the grocery store yet and hadn’t any groceries and I couldn’t eat any more of the half a kilo of smoked sausages in the fridge. Today was going to be the day that I took Lift-a-Go! While getting ready, I became nervous, not really sure why. I hesitated to hit the “locate driver” button. When I did, I felt a similar rush of fear and thrills as when I left the apartment for, the first time. The driver arrived and I realized they all had a brightly lit sign on the top of the car, which was incredibly helpful. Slowly, I walked over and got in. A song called, “In my Mind” was playing on the radio. It had been part of my Spotify survival playlist I had made for myself in grad school. How do you say, “Crank it up!” in Czech?