40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Seven: Ladislav’s language — or, teaching credentials from a tiki bar in Ostrava


Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Six: From a 1990 portal, Sportstime Pizza to Rich O’s BBQ to NABC.

Editor’s note: The black and white photos appearing in this chapter were taken by Viktor Kolář (born in Ostrava in 1941), who is considered “one of the most important exponents of Czech documentary photography. In his works, Kolář focuses mainly on depicting urban life in the Ostrava region.” Most of these photos date to the rough period of my visit in 1989, and they depict reality as I saw it. 

It never ceases to amaze me that Americans tend to focus so obsessively on the phenomenon of immigration; specifically, as it pertains to those people elsewhere on the planet who seek to come to our country, whether their movement occurred 200 years ago or yesterday, but ignoring the plain fact that throughout the centuries, the vast majority of human beings have chosen to live their lives right where they are.

My countrymen seem collectively prone to weird, masochistic delight in thumping their chests and loudly proclaiming we’re the greatest country to ever exist (why does this even matter, anyway?), and then, when someone somewhere else agrees and wants to come over and join this lovely party, we become petulant, make their arrival as difficult as possible (or exclude them outright), and lose our damn minds in the process.

During the 1980s I chose to travel beyond the Wall, inside the then-communist nations of east-central Europe, and it seemed to me that most of the people living in these places wanted to stay there and improve their own homes. What’s more, by no means all of them were unhappy with the systems they inhabited, as repressive as Americans might have found them to be.

But it was complicated, and when communism came to a close, the geopolitical experts set forth their verdicts: there was ample experience concerning the way a capitalist society becomes communist, though not the other way around. Beginning in 1990, in places like Czechoslovakia, the laboratory experiment of mass reversion began, with the citizenry serving as human guinea pigs.

As late as the spring of 1990, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might find myself witnessing the changeover up close, but that’s what happened. The thought process began serendipitously in 1989 when I was introduced to a man named Ladislav for our first and only meeting.

Ladislav was a trim, polite, vaguely aristocratic older gentleman who lived in a peculiarly oversized flat amid a somewhat modern suburb (was it Poruba?) of Ostrava, the epicenter of communist Czechoslovakia’s steel making and coal mining industries. If I correctly recall the circumstances, he was a retired educator, aged 65 or thereabouts, who discretely moonlighted as an English tutor for selected Ostravans, including Ilona, my immigrant Czech friend’s mother.

We had been invited to his place for a social gathering, perhaps because in that particular European neighborhood circa 1989, visiting Americans were rather scarce on the ground, and my presence would afford Ladislav the chance to speak English with a native (if our American dialect merits inclusion). Times like these made me grateful for my experience abstracting magazines published in the United Kingdom. At least I’d catch some of the peculiarities of British syntax deployed by our host, who spoke it perfectly.

Knowing there would be drinks served, we didn’t dare drive, choosing instead to board the handy tram and glide through the industrial landscape. Ladislav answered the door promptly, and after pleasantries and the ritual exchange of small gifts (I brought him a half-pint of Maker’s Mark bourbon), he escorted us back outside and downstairs, to a semi-detached building with garage doors.

Right there in landlocked, socialist Central Europe, taking up those precious square meters normally reserved for a Czech adult’s single most prized possession (his Škoda automobile), Ladislav had constructed a genuine tiki bar, complete with bamboo ceiling and plasticized tropical plants. His equatorial showplace, while initially puzzling, actually made perfect sense given the East Bloc’s skewed international scheme of things.

Ladislav had traveled more than once to Cuba as part of various cultural exchange programs, and these journeys made a deep impression on him. Cuban “guest” workers lived and worked in Ostrava; as previously noted, one afternoon I drank beer with one of them. In essence, he was a fan of the tropics.

Like most Czechs, Ladislav readily grasped the bitter irony of the enduring blockade that kept Cuban goods, which were available throughout both the European geopolitical camps, “safely” out of American hands. Consequently a bottle of Havana Club rum was sitting on his back bar alongside an array of Cohiba cigars, all lovingly earmarked for the occasion of my visit.

It was the black market in reverse, and a much appreciated gesture from my point of view. Happily, and for the sake of international reciprocity, Ladislav openly savored the bourbon.

Sufficient storage space remained in Ladislav’s garage for his bicycles, for he was an avid cyclist. Apart from his set of metal dentures, and what appeared to be a rather hopeless addiction to nicotine, he looked the part of a lean, ruddy athlete. The surrounding countryside was rolling, with forested mountainous areas nearby: Jeseniky to the west, and Beskydy to the southeast. Apart from Ostrava’s infamously wretched air quality, it appeared to be appropriate terrain for challenging riding.

Alas, specific memories of this long evening at Ladislav’s Ostrava Cubana Tiki Bar are fleeting. Apparently I’d forgotten my camera, and so no visual evidence is available. Our revel extended so far into the cool, wet June night that we came dangerously close to missing the last tram to the Motyčka homestead, located all the way across town, adjacent to the sprawling Nové hutě Klementa Gottwalda – the steel mill named for Czechoslovakia’s indigenous, long-dead, personalized Stalin clone.

However, one part of our conversation has not left my mind in all the years since, because after all his other guests save for my escorts had offered their farewells, it emerged that Ladislav – whose lifestyle plainly suggested a measure of access to privileges of the sort commonly enjoyed by party members – was utterly disinterested in Czechoslovakia’s past.

Rather, he wanted to talk about the future, engaging me at length about hope, openness and reform, and specifically Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new” USSR, with glasnost and perestroika having broken out within the bastion of Czechoslovakia’s imperial overlord to the east.

He was highly approving of my desire to visit the remainder of his country outside the boundaries of Prague, and was certain that when westerners were at last able to meet normal working Czechs and Slovaks, the artificial political barriers would irrevocably collapse no matter what his or any other government might choose to say about it.

Moreover, Ladislav passionately believed language aptitude to be the key to furthering the fall of artificial impediments to good relations between the diverse peoples of the world. He described his optimistic vision of the coming time when Americans exactly like me would come to Eastern Europe as English language instructors, and by doing so, further the process of reform and regeneration.

Granted, it was the summer of 1989, and the rigid and toadying Husák regime would never permit such linguistic and cultural incursions, but Ladislav was absolutely sure that Gorbachev’s revitalization movement eventually would radiate outward from the Soviet Union, into the satellite nations, and when it did … well, when it finally came, he fully expected to see me again, this time as a fellow teacher, working alongside him in his homeland.

I enthusiastically agreed, albeit utterly dumbstruck at the ease with which Ladislav, a complete stranger, had managed to read my mind. While never an accredited teacher, I’d of course dabbled in education as a substitute. Back home in a file cabinet was a bulging folder of information on various ways to get “English as a second language” teaching certification. My long-held fascination with Czechoslovakia and the adjacent European lands was a given.

How on earth did this man fathom my innermost thoughts?

In due course we said our goodbyes, and a few days later, it was time for me to depart Ostrava on my roundabout journey to Moscow, via a Prague wedding, for Russian language instruction of my own. Weeks passed, travels accumulated, and life went on. By late November, I was home again in Indiana, watching CNN with amazement as the last bits of the Berlin Wall fell, and shortly thereafter, tearfully gladdened when the Velvet Revolution swept Czechoslovakia.

The playwright and intellectual Vaclav Havel, whom Ladislav had described to me in glowing terms as the impetus for Charter 77 and a hero of the opposition, suddenly became president of Czechoslovakia. It was incredible to imagine that Havel had been imprisoned as recently as April of 1989, just before I entered the country. Truly, all things seemed newly possible, and as the post-Velvet Revolution, pre-Internet winter of 1989-90 descended, I started wondering what Ladislav thought about it.

I’d write to him, and find out. Fortunately Ladislav’s postal address had somehow survived unscathed when most of my belongings were stolen in Madrid the previous November. At some point in January, I took pen in hand to congratulate him on the wonderful transformations occurring in Czechoslovakia.

In those archaic times, mail could take ten days or more each way, back and forth across the Atlantic, and so it wasn’t overly alarming when no immediate response was forthcoming. Perhaps the seismic shift in Czechoslovakia had impacted the recovering country’s mail carriers, or more ominously, Ladislav’s supposed connections to a now discredited ruling order were such that he wasn’t in a good position to answer. Conversely, perhaps he was busy reinventing local schools.

Granted, there’d been almost no violence during a remarkably peaceful, orderly changeover in Czechoslovakia, hence the revolution’s “velvet” descriptive tag, and yet who really knew? It was a long way off, scores were being settled in various ways, and communications were not instantaneous like today. Even phone calls could be difficult to place to a country where the totalitarian structure had routinely monitored them only a short time before.

Twice more in early 1990 I wrote to Ladislav, each time enclosing souvenirs from Indiana and Kentucky, including American beer coasters for use in his Tiki Bar, but still only silence came in return. Soon an entire year had passed since our chat, and the usual stressors of everyday living gradually displaced the glories of my 1989 journey to Europe. Back into the workaday grind I sank, and memories of Ladislav grew increasingly dim.

One day in July, my roomie T.R. phoned me at Scoreboard Liquors to report that the morning mail had included a letter from Czechoslovakia. Upon closer examination, the return address was utterly mysterious, and the message inside, written by an English-speaking friend on behalf of Ladislav’s daughter from a small town near Ostrava, was unexpected – and heartrending.

She thanked me for the letters and gifts, but regretted to say that her father Ladislav had died of a heart attack, aged 65, in July – of 1989! Remarkably, his sudden death had come less than a month after I departed Ostrava for Moscow. I was crestfallen to realize that Ladislav had been denied the opportunity to witness the seismic changes he’d been so prescient in predicting.

With deep sadness, I drove to Sportstime Pizza after work for a few rounds of Pilsner Urquell as an impromptu memorial. Then, the very next day, things got really weird.

Still reeling from learning of Ladislav’s death, I arrived home to find yet another letter waiting for me. This time it was a big manila envelope from an organization called Education for Democracy (EFD), and inside was the information I’d requested, which was fine, except I’d never heard of EFD and assuredly had not requested anything to be sent to me, but just the same, quite soon my heart was racing with excitement.

This unsolicited packet described the outline of an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to volunteer for placement in Czechoslovakia as conversational English instructors. No licenses or credentials were required, although previous teaching experience of any sort was a plus. It was a development made possible by the cooperation of American, Czech and Slovak academics, who sought to take advantage of the Velvet Revolution’s opening by bringing people together to learn and speak English.

The words, the ideas, the sentiments – all of it had been discussed previously with Ladislav that night at his Tiki Bar in Ostrava, with tumblers of Havana Club and velvety Cohibas in hand. Now with the materials from this providential mailing spread before me on the kitchen table, my immediate reaction was to thank Ladislav profusely for referring me to the organization, and yet there was a small, nagging problem.

Ladislav was dead.

Not only was he dead, but he had died five months before the abrupt success of the Velvet Revolution had made the EFD program and others like it possible. Obviously there couldn’t be any connection whatever between Ladislav and EFD, but in my simultaneously mournful and joyous state of mind, I was made to pause.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are exceptions for every personal standard, and this quite handily fit the bill.

Jolted, I wrote back to Ladislav’s daughter, thanking her for telling me about his death, and then phoned the EFD office (in Mobile, Alabama, of all places) to put my name on the list. Planning immediately began for teaching English in Czechoslovakia in 1991. It was to be the fruition of a dream for me, and in my addled mind, albeit irrationally, I knew Ladislav was the man to thank for it.

In the end, rationality was restored, coming in the form of a telephone call a week or so later from a Floridian with whom I’d stayed in touch after we traveled together in a group to the USSR in 1987. A teacher himself, he recalled that I’d been a substitute and harbored an interest in the East Bloc, and when he caught wind of the EFD program’s existence, he’d taken it on himself to send the organizers my address. In turn, they’d forwarded me the manila envelope, and its arrival a scant day after learning of Ladislav’s passing was a mere coincidence, nothing more.

But as you can imagine, it always will be far more than a simple fluke to me. These events combined to make me feel like there was indeed a place for me in Czechoslovakia’s post-communist experience, albeit brief. For the following twelve months, working two jobs and saving as much money as possible, another expedition (my fourth) took shape.

In early September, 1991, I found myself on the ground in Košice, the second largest city in what since 1993 has been independent Slovakia, almost the farthest point east in what was then Czechoslovakia, and a very long way from both Prague and Ostrava. My assignment was to teach English to medical personnel in the city’s university hospital.

In early 1992 I came home, and shortly thereafter my involvement with Rich O’s Public House became official.

Periodically ever since, I’ve hoisted a jar to the memory of Ladislav Řezniček. It’s a crying shame he didn’t live to see the world that came next, as it occurred exactly as he thought it would.

Na zdraví, příteli.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty Eight: The Founding of FOSSILS (1990).


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