Dancing at the Hlinsko Disco

November 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Sometimes it’s hard to see the appeal of a small town. Sometimes it’s especially hard if you’ve only lived in big cities for your entire life and the idea of walking around the block and completing the town tour is suffocating. When I told my friend Jan, who is from Hradec Kralove (a small town), that I was going to Hlinsko for a couple of days, his response was, ‘That shithole? Why would you go there?’

If someone had asked me in August if I wanted to go to Hlinsko while I was in the Czech Republic, I would have responded with a blank look and a similar (yet less insulting) remark suggesting that there’s no reason for me to go to the middle of nowhere to do nothing with country folks. Instead, I ended up spending half a weekend in November with high school students in this off-the-map town considered by some to be the Czech Siberia.

It already feels like it’s been ages since I was in high school, and here I was again, stuck in a room full of kids who were between the ages of 17 and 19. But sitting in a school building again causes rapid regression, bringing back vivid memories of Latin class, school lunch and paying attention to the bell. One of the students asks me if it’s difficult for us to have conversations with high school students because we’re ‘so much older,’ at which point I’m not sure if I should be personally offended. I responded with a polite ‘Of course not; we’re only a few years older anyway!’ which was, of course, followed by an awkward two minute silence.

Despite the long pauses in conversation, it was easy to connect with the students in Hlinsko. It was also easy to forget that high school wasn’t that long ago, and that 19-year-olds are perfectly capable of holding intelligent conversation about complicated topics. With the help of their teacher, they put on a play about the pressures of small town life.

The play was simply called, ‘The Pressure,’ with some of the students playing more than one role, quickly changing costumes in between a scene, sometimes with a wig askew and a shirt twisted but mostly very neatly put together. The whole thing reminded me that high school students in cities or towns or anywhere have many of the same problems, despite the fact that the problems manifest themselves differently.

Going to a high school in a big city allowed me to get lost and be generally invisible to the vast majority of the student population. Such an existence can give way to the creation of a complex that happens so often in big cities: the frustration of being obscure and unimportant, and being made aware of that fact often. The risk of this happening in Hlinsko is slim. On the weekends, one of the town’s few discos is full to the brim with sweaty, hormonal teenage bodies, full of piss and vinegar and sometimes (usually) a lot of beer. And staying anonymous in that mess is impossible.

I expected the disco to be a dingy basement with an honest-to-god disco ball and not much else. For some reason, calling it a disco and being in the former Soviet Union conjured images of a communist bunker where people danced under fluorescent lights with one lone incandescent ball hanging from the ceiling. It turns out, their discos are just like our discos, only they play heavy metal much more often than hip hop, refer to their dance clubs as ‘discos’, call hip hop ‘black music’ and drink beer at a much younger age.

Before arriving in the town, I was a little intimidated by merely the idea of these students because I’d been told that they tended to stereotype Americans as somewhat stupid because the school system is so much less difficult than the Czech one. I was afraid they might judge us, and wasn’t really sure what to expect from them. It was refreshing to find that they approached us as cautiously as we did them, and to find that they were just as open-minded as we were.

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