Wednesday, June 12, 2019

WINNER — Brno is for Lovers

By Jack Stephens

In Brno, the city for lovers at the beating heart of Europe, love takes many complex, mysterious forms, which confound and surprise, break and rebuild, and occasionally hurt more than you can bear. But the city never stops breathing love.


The city breathes love, especially in the springtime. Martin and Zuzka, newly wed, strolling among the koniklece in Nový Lískovec. Zuzka suspects, but can't be sure, that this might be the last April for just the two of them. Eliška and Tereza, both 16, hanging out in Lužánky Park after school like every day, discussing Plath and Woolf and Tomáš Klus. Tereza suspects, but can't be sure, that she has never felt this way about anyone before. Lad'a and Majka, dressed to the nines, holding hands at the opera in Janáčkovo divadlo, like every Wednesday for the last fifty years. Lad'a suspects, but can't be sure, that this could be the best version of Verdi's Aida they've seen yet. José, on Erasmus from Valencia, and Jana, on her sixth tequila, making love fully clothed on the dance floor at Two Faces. Jana suspects, but can't be sure, that five tequilas would have been enough. A mile away her boyfriend David is making love fully clothed on the dance floor at Tabarin to... Katka? Jitka? He suspects, but can't be sure, that Jana is cheating on him.

Alex arrives in September 2013, aged 24, with wide eyes and not a single accurate preconception. Like most British people, he had never heard of Brno, until he saw it on a job advert six weeks earlier. But he's here now, with a job to do: patiently explain the difference between present simple and present continuous all day every day to a bewildering array of people, from IT technicians to electrical engineers to mechanical engineers to heating engineers. And another job to do: drink his bodyweight in Polička each month. And another job to do: repeatedly remind everyone in his family that he lives in the Czech Republic, not Czechoslovakia, not Chechnya, and certainly not Croatia. And another job to do: not fall in love 300 times every day, when every tram carriage contains more human beauty than the whole of Chelmsford. Some jobs are harder than others.

In September 2013, Míša is just starting at Masaryk University, studying international relations. She dreams of seeing the world and fixing the world, putting countries back together and healing their pain. She reads Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Marquez. Life is a trip, new friends every day, hot guys, wild nights. She feels the whole world at her feet, the excitement and energy of everything, of being a woman in a world where women can do things her mother and grandmother never could. She thinks about becoming a vegan; her mother is not impressed.

In May 2014 Alex has a crush on his student. He has never met anyone like her, she is captivating, she could be The One. He learns she's been dating a guy in the same class for the last month, a guy Alex has been out drinking with a few times. He feels like his world has ended. His best friend in the world with the love of his life? It's almost too much to stand, he feels like he'll never love again. In June 2014 he falls in love again.

In September 2014 Míša meets Olivier, a handsome French guy studying at her faculty this year. His mother is Czech so he speaks the language fluently, she has never met a French guy who speaks Czech before but it's incredibly hot. Before long they are kissing outside Špilberk Castle, by night, the lights of the town sparkling below them. Míša feels like maybe she's in love for the first time. She reads Proust and Camus. They spend Christmas with his mother and sisters in Rennes. Her mother is heartbroken, but she cooks them carp the day before they leave and pretends it's fine.

   In December 2014 Alex is agonising... Brno is full of surprises, a maelstrom of weird, wonderful people with exotic back-stories, but at what price? To live in a country where everyone shares your context, shares your references, watched the same children's TV as you, it's a psychological comfort blanket conspicuous by its absence here; he feels rootless, nomadic, shorn of his past. He dreams of finding a partner-in-crime.

In May 2015, Míša and Olivier only have one month left together. She can barely breathe imagining him leaving. Her course has been boring lately, should she go with him? France always seemed so much more romantic than here. Her mother is horrified but always supportive. Two weeks later she discovers Olivier has been fucking her best friend, and everyone else in the city. She feels like her world has ended. Her best friend in the world with the love of her life? It's almost too much to stand, she feels like she'll never love again. Her mother claims she told her so, but she never did. Míša cries for three weeks, but then gets laid on a girls' weekend in Lipno, and suddenly Olivier can go love himself.

In November 2015, Alex is in Metro with his crew. They've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night, that they will find love in a hopeless place, that the city can't hold them. That same night, Míša is also in Metro. Two months into her final year, she has met some inspiring girls, strong women, they form a posse and decide they're feminists. They read De Beauvoir, Friedan, and bell hooks. Her mother is secretly proud of her, but they have a massive argument about it anyway. 

The city breathes love, especially in the summertime. Martin and Zuzka, decorating the second bedroom neutral green (for 2019), stopping to kiss approximately every 28 seconds. Martin suspects, but can't be sure, that it's gonna be a boy. He's daydreaming about Kometa season tickets, of building a house and planting a tree. Eliška and Tereza, spending every long hot summer day in Lužánky, talking about Kurt and Courtney and daydreaming out loud about what they want to be in their lives. Maybe writers? Maybe poets? Eliška suspects, but can't be sure, that she has never felt this way about anyone before. Lad'a and Majka, at their cottage near Přehrada. Lad'a wonders how many more books he will get through before he croaks. Should he start choosing them more carefully? Majka's been at him to fix the drainpipe. She suspects, but can't be sure, that the old goat is deliberately ignoring her. David and Jana, at Majales with friends, on their fourth argument of the day. David suspects, but can't be sure, that Jana wants to fuck that guy from her Spanish class, whether she admits it or not.

In June 2016, the day before he goes home for the summer, Alex's country, protesting against itself, decides to delete its own future. That night Brno's Britové gather in disbelief; the beer flows, the slivovice flows, the tears flow, but he still has to fly back the next day, leaving a city that breathes love for a country that sweats cursed history and belches privilege. He has never felt more Brňák than now, and he spends the summer telling that to everyone he meets.

In June 2016 Míša graduates, and the future has never looked brighter. She is researching internships in Brussels, Geneva, maybe even New York! Her mother, through gritted teeth, says that New York would be a wonderful opportunity. There are more and more foreigners around and it excites Míša to see what's happening to her city, throwing itself open to the world, the hidden gem at the heart of Europe, so different to the city of her childhood. But not everything is better, she feels her people are losing their individuality a little, and also their innocence. Everything seems American now. They say it would be worse if everything were Russian, and of course it would, but still, do we have to do everything they do?

In September 2016 Alex starts a new job at Kiwi. He never imagined himself working somewhere like this but he is surrounded by young, beautiful people, every day brings something new and exciting, every night is a party. This city is changing so fast, even in the three years since he arrived, and it's exhilarating. He can't walk through town without knowing someone. The perpetual internal debate about whether this is the right place for him fades gently into the background.


 The city breathes love, especially in the autumn. Martin (nervous) and Zuzka (enormous), fending off advice from every relative and friend and relative's friend. Zuzka suspects, but can't be sure, that none of these people have any idea what they're talking about. Eliška and Tereza, marking the last of the glorious weather with a picnic in Lužánky, golden leaves and whispering winds enveloping them in a heaven of unearthly colour, the air between them solid with unspoken words. Tereza suspects, and Eliška suspects, but they can't be sure, and this pregnant silence is so comfortable but so maddening. Lad'a and Majka, in a wine cellar in Hustopeče with old friends, toasting their health, reminiscing about the good old times. They shouldn't have been good times, but they had their health and their youth and they made them count, made the best of what they had. They learnt something about resilience their grandchildren won't. Majka suspects, but can't be sure, that this cough is nothing. José, BSc., back from Valencia and working for IBM. How could he stay away from este ciudad marveillosa!? He messages Jana, one of his favourite girls in Brno. David reads it first. Jana suspects, but can't be sure, that David is cheating on her with that slut from his work.


In January 2017, Míša meets The American. A psychologist ten years her senior, he has a wife and child, but seems to only have eyes for her. By day he makes her laugh, makes her heart shiver, takes her breath away with how well he understands her. By night he makes her come but he also hurts her, sometimes in ways she likes, then sometimes in ways she doesn't. Her friends don't approve and her mother can never know, but he casts a spell over her and that's how she likes it.

In January 2017 Alex starts an affair with a colleague ten years his senior, a wild, liberated goddess who dominates him and teaches him things he never thought possible, about himself, about life, about sex. She tells him she's using him but he doesn't listen, he has never met anyone like her, she is captivating, she could be The One. Five months later, in the darkness, she tells him it's over. He feels like his world has ended. It's almost too much to stand, and he feels like he'll never love again, for real this time.

By October 2017, The American is gone. “How could you have taken so long to realise?” say her friends. But you can never understand what happens between two people when they feel the power. Míša doesn't know where he is now, likely pickling himself in a nonstop somewhere, but he doesn't try to see her anymore, at least, though she still receives 4am messages, choleric, poisonous missives designed to control her and keep her on a long leash. But gradually the tears start to dry and she understands that Brno is for lovers, and this was never love.

In February 2018 Alex is still searching for an explanation for what happened. This woman ruined love for him by setting the bar too high, he wishes he had never met her. OR even if they are never together again, at least she showed him what love could be, how life could be, he's lucky to have met her. His head's a mess. He wasn't designed to be happy, nobody will ever love him. OR this is a city that throws life at you and dares you to catch it, so be ready. Either or, either or, everything's a mess.

On 14th June 2018, a date she will remember forever, Míša's mother dies, and Míša feels like a part of her has died too. How can anyone survive this pain? She's too sad to feel, too numb to cry, and even the sunshine is hued grey. The next months, nothing makes sense, drinking doesn't help, sex doesn't help, crying herself to sleep every night doesn't help. She feels herself growing colder, harder. Only time helps, says everyone, but time never seems to come.


The city breathes love, especially in the wintertime. Martin, Zuzka, and Olivie, celebrating Olivie's first Christmas with a never-ending flood of shitting and puking and tears (Martin's) and nappies and love and puking and tears (Olivie's) and love and shitting and visits from in-laws and tears (Zuzka's) and love and love and love. Martin didn't know until now that fatherhood is like coming home when you never knew you were away. Zuzka knows that the future is a book they are going to write together. Eliška and Tereza, not listening to the radio in Tereza's bedroom, fumbling nervously with buttons for the first time. Eliška knows that if art were a person, it would be Tereza. Tereza knows that if she had to die, she would prefer to die kissing these lips. Lad'a, alone in his flat in Lesná, staring at the barren trees outside, sipping a beer. After a whole life with her, inoculated against loneliness, this is overwhelming. Thank you for everything, miláčku, I love you. José, in Naproti with Jana and her friends, teaching him čeština. If he's gonna stay he should learn, let's start with “dám si pivo, proseeem”. José knows he made the right decision coming back, Jana knows she's trading up. David is in the shitty dive bar over the road, he knows she's over there with that fucking cizinec.


In November 2018, Míša is invited to a birthday party, a guy from school. They're not friends, Míša remembers all the names he used to call her, but her friends are there so... Alex is also there, drunkenly invited by the guy last week at a pub quiz. He barely knows him, but his friends are there so...

Alex lends Míša a lighter outside. She looks familiar, but Brno is a village. As they talk, a spark lights. She's charmed by his stupid jokes, his lop-sided smile, his awful attempts to speak Czech. He's charmed by her glamour, her piercing, intelligent eyes, her rants about capitalism. They both suspect, but can't be sure, that they have never met anyone like this, they are captivated, this could be The One. Because here, at the beating heart of Europe, love can find you at any moment and breathe you in. And it can build or heal, confound or surprise, and sometimes leave you exposed and broken, but breath follows breath like night follows day, carrying with it 402,991 love stories, 402,991 entwined narratives, which form complex, mysterious shapes that piece together into a city which breathes love, a city for lovers.


  1. What a thoughtfully structured, beautiful piece of writing

  2. very interesting post.this is my first time visit here.i found so mmany interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion..thanks for the post!
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