After spending the better part of the windy, wet day trying to protect my hair, I found myself changing into a formal dress (navy blue with lace print and peplum waist flap, for those who care) in the restroom of an after-school facility for children. The bathroom mirror only came up to my hips so I had to squat to touch up my make-up. Not that there was much to be done after a full day of teaching, weather and six-year olds.
I had been invited to a Maturitní Ples – the Czech version of high school prom, only multiplied by a thousand. It is a massive rite of passage ceremony that friends and family are invited to which lasts far into the night and is riddled with cultural traditions, local talent and Czech covers of popular American songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Having never been to one, I was exceptionally nervous. So nervous that I didn’t even try to respond to the drunk guy on the metro who kept talking to me (I’m pretty sure he was interested in my nail polish, but it was hard to tell). I have never in my life ignored another human being so rudely, let alone passed up an opportunity to practice my Czech! But my stomach was in knots and there was nothing I could do.
Why? Because that’s always how I feel when I go to parties. Tis the fate of the socially awkward, super self-conscious. Are my shoes formal enough? Does my hair look like I walked here from Warsaw? Is this dress see-through? – where the heck is the lining on this thing??
Most party stories I don’t tell people because they don’t make me look very good or because I hope they’ll get more interesting with time (a few I don’t tell because I’d like to not be the sibling who pushes my mom into an early grave). But this story needs to be told because it was dazzling (not me, mind you. I was a mess. Sometimes I feel like a walking meme).
By the time I got to the Congressional building where the ball was being held I was sweating, despite the ridiculously cold weather and my lack of clothing past my knees (am I allowed to say it’s cold in Prague while New England is turning into planet Hoth?). Inside the warm building, I began looking for the cloakroom or the entrance to the ball or something helpful. I felt like a fish aimlessly floating from one end of a glass bowl to another as I was passed off from person to person with almost-correct directions on where to go next.
I finally made it up to the ball but hadn’t found the coat room and everyone’s worst nightmare ever came true for me. Decked out in a ski jacket, gloves and ridiculous scarf that gave the distinct impression that I had two extra chins, I wandered through elegant people milling around with champagne and fine clothes. And they were all looking at me. All of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always hoped I’d be able to walk into a room and immediately turn heads – this is just not how I had pictured it.
Hurrying back downstairs I asked for the cloakroom, promptly left my ticket on the table and had to make a third trip back to get it before I could straighten up and walk into the party like I belonged there (though still feeling like a blowfish in a tank full of nicely-dressed sharks).
My friend, a graduate, was wondering around looking for her family when I spotted her. She looked just the way a real-life Hollywood princess would, with her hair done-up and jewelry frosting her like a very expensive cake. Her bright blue, hoop-skirted dress would have made ninth-grade Mary faint from jealousy. She quickly led me up a balcony to a “reserved” table where two of her other friends were sitting. One was a Polish boy, the other a German girl, and both had come into town for the special occasion. Thankfully, their English was nearly spotless, so settling in with them was about as easy as chugging the coke we bought at 10:30 when we realized it’d be another 2 hours before we had any kind of real food.
The people who belonged to the “reserved” table we were sitting at came to claim it so we moved to the top balcony and squatted at another deserted reservation. I checked my reflection in the shiny golden walls leading up the balcony stair case – just to make sure the lining of my dress really was there.
It was fun getting to share such a foreign cultural phenomena with other people also new to the experience. The three of us spent almost five hours at that table or surrounding balconies (depending on what we wanted to see best) and compared languages, customs, and travel stories. I did a fair amount of fashion critique (because how can you not in situations like these?).
Polish guy discovered a card from “K” which we translated (between my poor Czech and his Polish – they are similar languages). It said I know it has been a long time, but I want to see you smile. Meet me at the 2nd balcony at 10. It wasn’t addressed to anyone and was sleeping inside a white envelope. We found it on the floor.
“Should we give it to someone?” the German girl asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “But I definitely think we should be on the second balcony at ten.”
I agreed. Around 9:30 we found a second note, same handwriting, different message, but still asking to meet at the balcony at 10. It was signed “J.”
“This guy is really desperate,” said the Polish boy. I didn’t say so, but that penmanship was far too neat to belong to a guy. We never did find out what those cards were all about.
Eventually, I convinced the group that we were in a perfect position to judge the couples on the dance floor. Whoever the two wearing turquoise were won our “best form” award. The guy with the lion hair and his lady in purple won “best in show” but only because they didn’t miss a single dance.
People dance in this country. High schoolers, adults, children. Everyone can waltz, swing, salsa, and do the blues, the rumba and the Charleston. They were fun to watch – people together, dancing like no one else existed. We watched a mother and son, an old man and woman (who really knew how to get down!) and a tall girl with a red-headed boy. Red-head had no idea what he was doing and after several valiant efforts to instruct, his partner burst into a fit of laughter on the floor. Red-head shrugged his shoulders, exasperated, but every time he squared up to start dancing again the tall girl would roll her head onto his chest, laughing tears. I know what it feels like to be him. I know what it feels like to be her. I loved watching them both.
Most of the evening I couldn’t tell if I was at the Nutcracker Palace or in an ‘80s television program, complete with cheesy music, choreographed dance performed by neon-clad semi-professionals, and women with very fluffy bangs.
The ball, which started at 6 p.m., included prepared dances from the graduating class and the incoming class. A toast was made after the graduates were introduced around 10:00. Something with a parachute and coins being tossed from the balconies happened around 10:30, but I missed it because by that point we were looking for a coke.
The whole evening was elegant and glamorous. Girls in heels, guys in ties. Wine glasses and sandwich plates floated around on trays (purchasable at the counters), reminding us that people with jobs will always be less hungry than students and artists. Decorations hung on the walls and everything looked like it had been polished twice. I wanted to close my eyes and melt into the golden aura of it all.
What I liked best was the dance each graduate had with their parent/grandparent. The band sang “What a wonderful world” and tender moments broke out on the floor like a thousand droplets of water. It was the first time since coming back to Prague that my thoughts wandered home again. I watched girls dancing with their dads and I thought about mine. And I realized that even though so much of this world is difference from the one I left, people in their most basic forms are the same. Fathers love their daughters, daughters dress up like their mothers, mothers make a fuss over their grown-up sons in new suits with combed hair, and sons show off in front of other people’s daughters.
I am so honored to have been included in such a special occasion and I revel in the memories from that crazy evening.
How I missed my last bus home and spent the whole night in the city, finally trudging home at 6 a.m. just to shower and turn around to teach my first class at 8:30 is another story. But some stories are best left in our heads where we can let time eat away the red edges and leave a faint glow of perfection in our memory.
This story, however, I will always love to tell.