A Beer with Hrabal

A Beer with Hrabal

On the first Saturday in August, my friend Lorraine Duggin, a poet from Omaha, was waiting impatiently in front of my hotel. She welcomed me warmly when I appeared on the street. Somewhere close around the corner a band was playing. Following the music, we weaved through the festive crowd that had come to Wilber to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Czech culture in Nebraska. We walked around the booths, looking for Lorraine’s friends, who would introduce us to their friends.  They in turn would send us to meet other friends, until we were gradually introduced to all of Wilber.

I quickly felt at home. We were one big family at a long table, feasting on sausages, dumplings, sauerkraut, and homemade cakes. Everything was so homey that it reminded me of my mother-in-law's house in the Czech Republic. She used to bake koláče, using sixty kilograms of flour for big weddings. But she would put the filling inside the dough, whereas in Wilber they spread it across the top, so there will be no surprises.

After our family meal, we had plenty of time, so we shuffled slowly through the streets, peeking behind corners, until we ran into Anna, a woman covered in Czech garnets. She told us that her mother had been a midwife in Omaha and had spoken three languages. I foolishly forgot to ask which languages. Anna then talked about her father, the baker, who had learned six languages and had worked in a slaughterhouse with Czechs, Russians, Croatians, Poles, and Irish.

Then Lorraine went off to talk to some friend, and I lounged around for a while with a man named Adolph. I told him about how my mother would pack plum brandy for me every time I returned to America.

"Ah, slivovice! Were are you hiding it, then?" he asked.

"The winters are cold near the Pacific,” I said, winking.

Adolph told me that the last time he had visited the Czech Republic, he had brought along the small box containing his mother's ashes. When his sister saw the box, she asked, where their father's ashes were. Adolph hadn't realized that his father had also wanted to be buried in his hometown.  He would have to bring him home next time, he said somberly.

I asked him if he remembered any Czech songs. His face lit up, and soon he started singing enthusiastically.

"Good heavens, Adolph! Where did you learn that?"

"From my mother," he said with a laugh, explaining that sometimes when his father left home, his mother would take out an accordion and play and sing.  Whenever she got to a really raunchy song, she would say, "Don't you dare sing this song anywhere, Adolph!"

But you did sing it, didn't you?"

"How else could I remember it?" Adolph smiled from ear to ear and launched into another bawdy tune.

When Lorraine returned, we left Adolph to his songs and stopped in the Sokol gym, where someone named Evelyn was projecting slides of the Czech lands. She said, "It was difficult to choose from the four thousand slides I had at home." I turned my head from side to side in disbelief. As I turned a little to the right, I saw a young man in a very nice costume, who looked like a prince from some fairy tale.

"Where did you come from?"  I asked.

"From Domažlice," he answered.

I was embarrassed that I had forgotten the folk costume from Domažlice. But Lorraine knew exactly where Domažlice was in the Czech Republic. She also knew where to find Dačice, because her grandfather on her mother's side had grown up there. In fact, she had written a story about her hard-working grandfather, who had come to Nebraska with her grandmother. All his life, he had stubbornly refused to speak English, and when the grandchildren visited, they could barely understand him.

I was impressed by her story and asked Lorraine if I could translate it into Czech. I later published part of the story in my book, Modrý Kovboj a Žlutá Kráva (A Blue Cowboy and a Yellow Cow).


We spent some time in the Wilber Czech Museum, where we learned that the celebrated Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal had spent the night in the same hotel in Wilber where I was staying. The quest book had recorded that Hrabal had drunk beer and was in high spirits. When he gave a reading, his listeners poured water for themselves from big glass pitchers, and they felt good, too, Hrabal wrote.

            I poured some water from one of those pitchers, and these words flowed from my mind:

"The best art is art that mirrors people's souls and can be found in every culture."

Hrabal would have been proud of me for making a connection with his audience and for thinking about the Czech traditions that the people hold so dear in Wilber.

I was excited by all this news and now I wanted to see Hrabal’s room, where they had made up a bed for him with a down comforter and placed a fresh flower on his pillow. The manager, Frances, assured me that she had offered the writer the best room in the hotel, a room with a bathroom and two windows, which was called Zajíček ("Rabbit"). Frances wasn’t sure if Hrabal had actually stayed in that room.  She would have to check the guest book from 1989, she said, but she didn’t have time just then. She gave me a room with one window, but no bathroom. The room was called Hroch ("Hippopotamus") and the bathroom was nearby. Frances explained to me that the rooms were not named after animals, but distinguished citizens who had helped to sponsor the restoration of the hotel.

I crawled under the bright floral down comforter that matched the flowery wallpaper and poked at the matching curtain and chair in my nice room with a window. I tried to fall asleep, but the polka music outside kept me awake. I got out of bed and looked out the window, observing with satisfaction how much the younger generation here liked to polka. I wished that Czech youngsters could have seen them.

The thought that I might never dance the polka again in my country depressed me. I closed my reddened eyes and saw all of Hrabal’s darling pigeons flocking to Wilber, because in Prague they don't like them.


In the cold autumn of 1994, I had only a few days to spend in Prague. As I was waiting for my friend Václav in Wenceslas Square, all of Hrabal's pigeons flew at me. If my friend hadn't rescued me, perhaps only a greasy wrapper from my sandwich would have remained of me.

"I've prepared a surprise for you," Václav said, welcoming me cordially. We had been friends since high school.


"We're going to visit Mr. Hrabal in Kersko."

What could I say? I was delighted.

But the writer's cottage, hidden in a grove of tall trees, was locked that dull Saturday afternoon. No one was there except for the six cats in the yard.  Which one was the famous Cassius? And which one was Orange? Or Buss?  I don't think that Hrabal would have appreciated us walking around his cottage, which was really a two-story house, complete with a garage and veranda, all in white and dark green. We peeked through a window into the garage, which was piled high with milk cans. Well, the cats would be safe and well fed in winter.

"Mr. Hrabal might return tomorrow," a neighbor told us. But he added that he wasn't sure if the writer would be interested in talking to us. Only last week, he had sent away a bus full of Hungarian journalists.

I had an idea. Perhaps this helpful man could tell Mr. Hrabal that I had flown all the way from San Francisco, where Hrabal had spent wonderful times with the young American teacher he had named Dubenka. The man smiled a little and said he'd try, but couldn't promise anything.

The next morning, we drove back to Kersko. But once again, the writer’s cottage was locked. When we knocked on the neighbor's door, our new acquaintance said brightly, “You're in luck.  He's here.”

Mr. Hrabal walked toward us uncertainly. I immediately realized that he had warm, forget-me-not, eyes. But his words were not as warm.

“Well since you're already here, what can I do for you?” he asked, obviously annoyed.

"We don't want to bother you for very long."

The writer led us on the well-trodden path to his cottage, grumbling, "Someone's always annoying me. My legs are killing me." 

We followed him hesitantly, until he disappeared into the house. We waited helplessly in front of the veranda. A minute later, he peeked out the door and said with irritation, “Well, where are you? Come in!”

There was warmth and simple comfort in the one large room. His bed in the corner was half-made. There was a typewriter and an old TV set. Books, clippings from newspapers, and handwritten pages lay on a table and a long wooden bench.

Mr. Hrabal invited us to sit next to the large electric stove. As he studied us, I felt as if he were creating new characters in his head. He never stopped stroking the tail of the wooden cat next to his seat. I tried to turn the conversation toward Wilber, but he was more interested in San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Jokingly, he asked, "Is it still standing?"

In a quiet moment, I passed him his book Jarmilka, asking, "Would you be so kind as to sign this for me?" He flipped through a few pages and asked, "What's your name?" By chance, I had the same name as the protagonist of this very book – Jarmilka is a diminutive for Jarmila.

That pleased him, and he wrote on the title page:

In memory of my meeting with Jarmila

-- Sincerely, Hrabal, October 16, '94, Kersko.

As we stood up to leave, he whispered to me, “Tomorrow I'll be in Prague. Come to the pub u zlatého tygra [The Golden Tiger] at 2 P.M. But leave your friend at home."

"I would be delighted," I said, and left my freshly published book with him, explaining that the pages with the yellow Post-it notes related to his visit to Wilber. That seemed to arouse his interest.

On the drive back to Prague, I knew why my friend was so quiet. I felt sorry for him, but there was no way to change things.

At two o'clock in the afternoon the next day, I appeared at the famous u Zlatého tygra pub. After passing through the mouth into the tiger's entrails, I suddenly found myself with the poet. He apparently had a permanent seat at a long table in the crowded pub.

Sitting around the table, there were three other men. I was trembling as I shook their hands and immediately forgot all the names. That was me, alright: --forgetting anything I didn't immediately write down. But I couldn't pull out paper and pencil in front of the men without looking like a spy. They would have wondered what value their names had to me back in America. One man said that he was related to the famous Czech poet, Sládek. I believed him right away, because he had a very poetic voice, and his flying mutton-chop sideburns merged with his shoulders.

The waiter placed five large Pilsner beers with thick heads in front of us. Mr. Hrabal generously unwrapped a thinly sliced salami and arranged rolls so that they looked like soldiers going to battle. A fifth man arrived with more rolls.  He said that they were the best you could get in Prague.

The men chewed on their rolls, nibbled on the salami, and sipped at their beers. The conversation went down more slowly than the food. They tested out a topic; then they tested me. No one would have understood their humor unless he had sat at the table with them every week.

After another sip of beer, I screwed up my courage and asked, "Mr. Hrabal, how did you like the beer in Wilber?”

“Okay,” he answered.

“Your cottage in Kersko was so warm," I said. "I felt right at home."

"If one builds a fire, of course it's going to be warm," he replied. I wanted to say that he wasn't quite right, because making a home comfortably warm is an art that not everyone masters. But I kept quiet and lost myself in the sights and sounds of the tiger's den.

When I finally returned my floating attention to the writer, the conversation had jumped to some older Russian airplane. I couldn't put the details into context.  Had the poet fallen apart in the plane, or had the plane fallen apart with him?

There were many other things that tied my mind into a knot. How could I explain to myself why Hrabal showed us a book about Andy Warhol? He had written long commentaries on each page and pasted some photos and illustrations in the book. I imagined him having fun doing this at his cottage in Kersko with his cat Cassius looking over his shoulder.

Everything got so mixed up in my head that I interjected quickly, "Mr. Hrabal, Andy would have liked that. And how is your cat Cassius doing?"

The poet looked at me, his left eye askance and answered briskly, "He just retired, and his youngest is starting school."

I blinked, but persisted, "Wouldn't you like to come to San Francisco again?  I could arrange the trip for you like your American friend Dubenka did."  I asked him this, assuming that he would like to see original paintings of Andy Warhol with his own eyes, of which there were several in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"No," he said, dismissing my offer, "my feet are always killing me these days."

I empathized with that because my feet were also hurting me after a long walk through Prague.

The men had been smiling politely at our conversation, but when I looked at them now, they dropped their eyes to their beer glasses.

I tried again to pick up a broken thread with the poet, "Mr. Hrabal," I asked, "have you had a chance to read what I wrote about your visit to Nebraska?"

"I don't read.  My eyes hurt," he answered quickly and pushed my book, which he had brought with him, back toward me.

"That's unfortunate, Mr. Hrabal," I said, too nervous to even have my feelings hurt. "You would know that they liked you in Wilber."

"Aren't you enjoying your beer?" he asked more softly.

"I like Pilsner very much.  Really."

"So drink your beer and read your book."

"My book?"

I pulled out another one of his books, Obrazy v hlubině času, and asked, "Would you be so kind and sign one more book for me?" He looked at me questioningly and asked reluctantly, "Do you have a pen?"

I gave him my pen, and his slow hand wrote on the title page:

To the writer, Jarmila Marie Skalná, --Sincerely, Hrabal, At The Tiger, October 17, '94.

When I saw the word writer, I realized that he had read my story about him, and probably enjoyed it. So I quietly pushed my book back to him.

I wanted to stay longer, but to be invited again, one's visit should always be short. I stroked the poet's arm, turned down another beer, and thanked him for the one I had already finished. I asked him where I could send him my greetings from California.

"Here, of course, at this pub," he answered gallantly, kissing my hand, which surprised me.

Passing the bar on my way out, I asked a waiter, "By the way, do you know those gentlemen who are sitting with Mr. Hrabal around the table?"

Without hesitating, the waiter replied, "There's Mr. Vodička, next to Mr. Mazal, and Mr. Honĕk.  The one on the right I don't know.  I haven't seen him here before."

"ll pay for their next round."  I said, handing him some korunas.

And with a wave of my hand, I bade the pub goodbye.


Unfortunately, I never had a chance to go back to see Hrabal again. One cold February night in 1997, my friend Václav phoned me from Moravia.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

I replied, "I'm sitting at a table, reading Hrabal.  I'm reading his book, Domácí úkoly, and I was just laughing at the part where Hrabal bought his wife a grave in Hradištko for her birthday.  Did you know that when the book was published, the government immediately sent it to the recycling center, and only a few boxes were saved? When I think about him now, I realize that he wasn't as cranky as I thought."

Václav gave a little cough and announced in a strange voice, "Our Mr. Hrabal has traveled to Heaven after trying to feed his beloved pigeons from his window on the fifth floor of the hospital. He fell out, just like that."






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