The Sumo Wrestler has the Flu

“Riding black” in Prague, waiting for Sumo and dreaming of defenestration. Outtakes from “Sumo in Prague.”

commieposter1.jpgThe Sumo Wrestler has the Flu

I’m clutching a Cuban mojito inside a former sewage treatment plant, listening to an avant-garde classical music quartet from Paris. It’s dank and cold and smells of grease. An adjoining static installation features thousands of inflated blue plastic garbage bags. The French Institute of Prague has drawn a full crowd for tonight’s art show. Dissonant squawks and blue bags all point to the one obvious theme: Caribbean slavery. The musicians shriek, skronk, and trill with great intensity. Suddenly the pianist steps away from his instrument, rushes to the front of the stage, and begins furiously splashing his hands in a large bowl of water. In rhythm. And then, sitting in the front row, as droplets hit my pantleg, I suddenly remember that I’m here in Prague because of Czech sumo wrestling.

Except my sumo wrestler is bedridden with the flu. I knew this before boarding the flight. The magazine that sent me here knew it. So now the entire trip is an enormous gamble that Mr. Sumo pulls through his viral affliction and can meet me sometime in the next eight days, before I return home with no story and look like a big asshole.

The next few days are wide open. I’ve never been to Prague, and look forward to exploring the city with the help of my friend Frank, an American expat who works at the Prague Post English-language newspaper. Frank was a great hardboiled crime journalist back in the States, so it’s funny to see his reinvention as an effete opera critic, talking passionately about Recitatives and Mezzo-Sopranos. He has no car, so we take trains everywhere. There’s something comfortably Soviet about public transportation here. Trains and trams run every nine minutes during the day. And it’s literally every nine minutes. Win the hearts and minds with a reliable train schedule.

“Don’t worry if you don’t have a transfer,” Frank says, hopping onto a tram. “It’s the honor system here. It’s called ‘riding black.’”

The fine for “riding black” is 400 crowns, about 15 bucks. I ask Frank if the locals have a word or phrase for “riding black,” and he says, “No, that’s what they call it too.” It’s a great phrase, conjures up a dangerous black-market sense of international intrigue. I feel like the character in “The Bourne Identity,” a mysterious American tracked by INTERPOL across Europe, stealing 50-cent rides without guile. There are no tourists on the trains. Mostly older men in slacks and plastic briefcases, women out for the day’s shopping. The occasional scruffy young couple in tattered jeans and pullover shirts – more or less the same clothing I’m wearing, except I’m 43 and old enough to be their father.

The trams barrel around corners as if they’re smuggling assault rifles to Uganda. After each stop we lurch into motion, the locals accepting the sudden shift in momentum, their bodies naturally retaining balance. It takes me a few days to prepare for these unexpected launches. This gleeful disregard for safety runs city-wide. There are no warning signs, no wheelchair ramps, no hand railings, no fire extinguishers, no caution tape. Every day is fraught with peril. How refreshing to live in a world without personal-injury attorneys.

One morning, Frank and I are riding across the Danube, when 20 or 30 children pile into the car, laughing and squealing and talking a foreign language at piercing volume. All of them are wearing yellow T-shirts. One of their adult chaperones explains to me in English that the group is a singing choir from the Netherlands, and they just finished performing in a church. The woman asks if I’m from America, and I inquire if the group takes requests. She barks a few sentences in Dutch, and the kids start singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” in three-part harmony. A song I hadn’t considered to be a quintessential American ditty, but in a way it is, and it’s a pleasant ride for several stops.

Czechs are required to study English in school, but you wouldn’t know it from attempting to navigate the city of Prague. Czechs are like the French. They may speak English perfectly, but they’re going to make you work for it. I perfect a single phrase, “dobre den,” which means basically “good day,” and try it out in stores and cafes. The problem is that people respond immediately with a Kalashnikov burst of Czech, which leaves me shrugging and grinning like an idiot. Most languages are at least decipherable on a few levels. You can pick out roots of words in German, French, Italian, Japanese. The Czech language is impenetrable, loaded up with odd accents and marks. It cannot be pronounced phonetically. A word ending with “ice” is pronounced “eetza,” for instance. Any attempt to sound out a word is almost always wrong, and the Czech person will chuckle at your effort.

On the plane from London, a man from Prague told me the most outstanding characteristic of Czech people is the “grumpiness.” He’s right. Everyone scowls, everywhere. Restaurants, bars, shops, cafés are filled with the big grimace. Part of this comes from the Soviets, a legendary scowling people. And yet, you meet many former Soviet cultures like Ukrainians or Slovakians, and they’re not afraid to smile and laugh. But to a Czech, life is hard and then we all die – hungry and cold, preferably on an overcast day. In contrast, Americans seem optimistic and phony. One local who works on film shoots in Prague, asked Frank why Americans are always surprised, because they say “Really?” And “No kidding!” all the time.

Walking around Prague, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer immensity of cement. Buildings meet the ground in a single drab color. Some of the architecture sprouts amazingly detailed curlicues and cornices, all done with stone and plaster and concrete. Frank describes it as doing the best you can using only the most basic raw materials. And because Hitler spared Prague during World War II, most of the architecture is hundreds of years old. Sidewalks and streets are paved with cobblestones, each set by hand in specific patterns. It’s quite amazing, really. Other European cities even send for Czech stoneworkers to repair the cobblestones. The work is perpetual and self-generating, like painting a bridge. Very Communist. Work slowly, and there will always be more work for you. It’s not uncommon to see piles of dirt and gravel in the middle of a street, or a cement truck parked overnight on a sidewalk. Cement dust blows into the faces of tourists on Weneceles Square. A city park features a children’s slide made of cement. I remember reading somewhere that the ancient Romans and Greeks became so intellectually evolved they actually forgot how to make cement. They should have come to Prague. The Czechs could have patched up the Colisseum no problem.

Occasionally I wonder about the sumo story I’m supposed to be working on. Outside of Japan, the highest concentration of sumo wrestlers is right here in Czech Republic. Czech wrestlers routinely place in the top five in amateur world tournaments. A sumo tournament center and hotel is 100 kilometers away, in the town of Jilemnice. I ask a few locals if they’ve heard of this sport sweeping their nation. Some laugh out loud at the idea. Others are astonished something would even exist. But not one person has heard of sumo wrestling in the Czech Republic. “It sounds interesting,” one girl tells me, “but it’s not something I’d be interested in.” As the days tick by, my own interest in sumo is wavering.

I check email at the Prague Post offices, and Mr. Sumo has sent a note, explaining he will be incapacitated at least through the weekend. Four more days to kill. Frank slips me a couple of maps and I wander the streets. Like many former Russian cities, Prague exemplifies the absurd collision of old Soviet ways and modern Western culture. Czech teenagers wear T-shirts saying, “Harvard Athletics 1965,” and text-message each other relentlessly. A medieval weapons shop in Old Town blares phonetic-English versions of pop songs by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. It’s odd to see Dick Francis novels so prominently displayed in bookstores. Next door to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, another restaurant advertises “Typical Czech Food.” The Museum of Communism sells postcard reproductions of vintage Commie posters. The Soviet leaders are always depicted as strong and generous, and Uncle Sam is always portrayed as an evil-looking banker in a top hat, clutching a sack of money in one hand, bomb in the other. This strikes me as utterly hilarious, especially with the current U.S. foreign policy, and I buy several of them.

Through Frank I meet a few more American expatriates. Will moved to Prague not long after the Velvet Revolution in 1993. At that time, nothing worked in the city. The power went out, water was intermittent, it was difficult to even find a place to eat. Will edits the Time Out guide to Prague, and knows the city’s nooks and crannies. He asks if I’m concerned about not being able to meet Mr. Sumo. I say, “Oh sure, it will happen,” but inside I’m wondering if this will be my last magazine assignment in my life. Can I be blackballed from American publishing for this? Will I teach at a community college and turn into an alcoholic? Wear a beat-up corduroy sportcoat, listen to the students snicker at my toupee?

The three of us settle into a brewpub for a quick bite. Beer was invented in this region, and there’s no danger of letting the natural resource go to waste. Czechs claim the highest per-capita beer consumption in the world. There’s always a news article about someone falling asleep drunk on a railroad track, and a train roars overheard, but they’re never injured. One rowdy table orders a four-liter glass cylinder filled with beer, with spigots at the bottom – sort of a pilsner hookah. I try some local cuisine, a small portion of gristly meat covered in sauce, crowded by fatty dumplings. Clearly not the house special. Two surly looking local guys come in for dinner, and order big hunks of pork, each served with a dagger stuck in the top. They devour the plates, wash it down with beer, and finish with cigarettes, neither of them saying a word the entire time. I notice that one is sporting a fresh black eye.

Frank and Will suggest we stop at U Maleho Glena (Little Glen’s), a subterranean blues club, where an American guitarist named Rene Trossman holds down Wednesday nights. A former real estate guy from Chicago, Trossman leads his Czech musicians through blues and jazz standards from the late 50s and early 60s, with nervous precision. The band definitely has the technical chops, and rips through plenty of solos, but the cumulative effect is all the right notes without a hint of finess, blues as done by Bach. I’m definitely in the minority on this, for the rest of the crowd screams and whistles after every song. This is Prague, it doesn’t matter – it’s American blues! But when a young Russian girl, who can’t be more than 22, comes out to sing an astonishingly soul-less version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” it’s definitely time to leave.

Will and I walk back through the cobblestone streets, and he stops and points to an old brick tower. “This was the site of the first defenestration. It’s a replica, but that’s the location.” One of the coolest things about Prague is its history of defenestration, the form of political protest where someone gets tossed out a window. Defenestration was invented right here, in 1419, when anti-Catholic Hussites heaved some town councilors out the third-story windows. Two centuries later, in 1618, Protestants broke into Prague Castle, seized two pro-Habsburg Catholics and their secretary, and threw them all out the window. Both incidents ended up in wars lasting several years. It’s a perfect form of protest. It’s dramatic. There’s no messy weapons. And when you think about it – who hasn’t wanted to toss a Catholic out a window at some point?

The next day, I tell Frank about this, and he exclaims, “Oh, you have to see the Infant of Prague.” The city is filled with beautiful old churches, yet despite this feature, Czechs are notoriously atheist, an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the population. So each year, hordes of people make a pilgrimage to see the Infant of Prague, surrounded by a nation of godless heathens. The first sculpture of a baby Jesus dates back to around 1340, and copies soon circulated throughout Spain and Europe. Eventually one ended up in Prague, and in 1628, the Czech version, carved out of wax, went on display. Frank and I walk into the church, and kneel at an altar. Attached to the rail is a three-ring binder of prayers in 12 languages. Halfway up the wall, in a glass case, is the little fellow, clothed in a garishly colored nighty, wearing a bulbous crown. I immediately start snickering. It looks like one of those children’s dolls that talks and wets itself. “Would you fucking cool it?” whispers Frank. “People come from all over the world to worship this thing.” Frank is Catholic, and has heard about the Infant his entire life, so he’s a little sensitive. But to my failed Episcopalian eyes, it just looks like a doll.

We hit the church’s gift shop and admire the endless selection of Infant photos and trinkets. In every image, the baby is wearing a different little gown thingie. Frank explains, “The nuns make all its clothes. They change it every three weeks or so.” I buy a few key chains and wonder if anyone has ever tried to throw the Infant of Prague out a window.

I stop by the Prague Post to check email again. Nothing from Mr. Sumo. But the news websites are bulging with horrific scandal – the first images of U.S. prisoner torture at Guantanamo Bay. Frank and I stare at the creepy image of the prisoner wearing a hood and electrodes. America seems a million miles away, a cruel and powerful force that also happens to be our birthplace.

The next day marks the date when Czech Republic and nine other countries join the EU. Newspapers splash big color photos of smiling Czech people, maps of the newly united European states, and the irrepressible western message to “Go Shopping.” The city is humming, gearing up for the big celebration, so I head down to Weneceles Square to see the festivities. A six-story advertisement for Adidas features a photo of Muhammad Ali, overlooking a dance troupe in traditional Czech clothing, dancing to a klezmer-type band playing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There’s an image for a semiotics class. Czech PR babes in blue dresses and bright yellow scarves hand out balloons and frisbees to the crowds. Rows of booths, each representing a different member of the EU, dole out the schwag. Estonia’s brochure is by far the most impressive, and poor Portugal offers nothing but an empty table. Come on. Even Malta came prepared.

I meet up with another American expat named Bill, who works as a business consultant and is married to a Czech woman. Our destination is a music concert outdoors on the city’s Kampa peninsula along the Danube. The line snakes with hundreds of people, and Bill says, “This is ridiculous, follow me, I’m from New York.” We squeeze through the crowd, armed with press passes from the Prague Post, and even this many years after the Velvet Revolution, there’s something intimidating about a badge of authority. We’re whisked inside without being searched, and just in time for the final band, the Leningrad Cowboys, a cult rock band which has nothing to do with either Russia or cowboys. They’re from Finland, and all the members wear exaggerated Elvis wigs and sunglasses and outrageous costumes best described as Nudie the Rodeo Tailor meets George Segal from the film What’s New Pussycat. The music is loud and fun, lots of American songs from ZZ Top, Guns N Roses. Czech kids sing along with all the lyrics. People are cheering from rooftops. The band invites a 10-year-old boy from the audience up onstage to join them for “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and it sends the hair up on my arms. How often does this happen to a country? The screaming mob, laughing and singing, partying simultaneously with all of Europe. For America to get this excited, it would have to be something really insane, like restructuring the tax code.

The day before my flight leaves, I finally connect with Jaroslav Poriz, president of the Czech Sumo Union, and spend 14 hours with him and the sumo wrestlers. We drive across the country to see the Sumo Hotel and tournament center, and during the conversation discover that both of us were at the Leningrad Cowboys show. “Oh, I love that band, weren’t they fantastic?” he says. He was supposed to have the flu, but I’m not going to argue with a six-foot-nine Sumo wrestler. I can’t blame him for wanting to see all the excitement. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it either.