English/American Sarah Coffey recently invited us over for a home cooked meal and to also have a chat about Mozart, books, and a chilling account of 9/11. With two beautiful cats and an old bookshelf full of character and memory, this flat was the instigator for a number of our questions that brought out some fascinating stories about the Drew Barrymore look alike.
Thanks for lunch, Sarah! Firstly, I have to ask you about your surname.. Coffey? Do you pronounce it like the delicious morning beverage?
You do pronounce it the same as coffee, but it’s spelt different, as the guy in The Green Mile said.
Nice! Sarah, how long have you been in Prague now?
Ok, and why Prague?
Probably because I’m such a nerd. I came here on holiday once and wanted to come back. I just fell in love with the place, it’s so beautiful. I’m such a history and music freak. It’s a very musical city. So being able to see Don Giovanni in the same theatre where Mozart premièred it in 1787… That was such a big “nerdgasm”. Mozart was very popular in his day in Prague – he said Prague understands him.
Tell us a bit about your job at the university.
I do a mix of things; I prepare visa paper work for incoming students at NYU (New York University), and I’m also involved with organising trips and cultural events for them.
That sounds really nice. I understand that you’re half English and half American?
My Dad is American, but his Mum was English. I was born in Ipswich, which most people only know because there is a football team there. It was good though, I had fun growing up there.
What do you miss the most about there?
Hmm. It’s kinda funny because I spent time there and also time in the states. I’m not sure where I kinda fit now! Of course I miss my friends, TV shows, food. At the time we moved to the States there was no internet or anything, you had to write actual letters so it was hard to keep in touch. But generally I feel like I don’t really know England any more.
How long did you live in NYC?
12 years. I worked for a newspaper called the Village voice in East village and before that I worked for a dot com company in 1999. It was a video service, we still had VHS then. You could go on the website and order a movie and it would be delivered by a bike messanger within the hour. There was also a huge porn collection, this was before the free internet porn, not that I know anything about that (laughs).
I bet you had some interesting people calling up….
Yes. There was this one guy who called every Friday and he would say ”just send me two gay porn.” There was 2 hour and 4 hour and he always wanted the 4 hour ones. So I would go and pick the ones with the stupidest titles (laughs). Then he would call back all thetime and ask to speak to me. Apparently he liked what I picked.
You do have a beautiful phone voice.
It’s funny you should say that, because I was offered a job doing phone sex. But I was afraid that I would just start laughing. It was during the boom of the dot coms. It was young and edgy and fun back then.
Were you in New York for 9/11?
Yes, I was working at the voice then which was a safe distance, but close enough to see everything. I had just gotten to work and a friend sent me a message with the news – I didn’t believe him. We went outside to look and I saw at that point the hole in the north tower, and the smoke pouring out. My first thought was “How are they going to fix that?” We didn’t know that something was happening, we thought it was an accident. I remember thinking that so many people were dead in that moment, so I went in and didn’t want to look any more. We were trapped there, they closed all the tunnels and bridges so we went to the park across the street, smoked cigarettes and drank beer. We didn’t know what else to do. That’s when we started to see this long column of people walking from downtown covered in dust.
That must have been horrible.
It was so so quiet, a very heavy atmosphere. The most painful thing was seeing the home made posters looking for family members and friends, it was strange that they all adopted the same format. They were everywhere, and you would start to see the same faces and names all over the place. It was very hard to face that every day. Thankfully, I didn’t lose any friends in that. Everyone had someone or they knew someone that had died there. The smell was also really bad because of the smoke and maybe some other things. That smell was on me for a long time.
What other things do you do here?
I teach piano to kids and I also sing in some choirs. I was just accepted into a professional choir actually. We’re going to sing at Municipal House soon. I also got to sing Beethoven’s 9th at Rudolfinum a while ago which was great. And in New York, I sang Mozart at Carnegie Hall – another nerdgasm.
When did you discover that you could sing?
That’s a good question because I never really thought that I could. I’ve always been an instrumentalist. Flute, piano and violin. I would sing in my car, you know. But I didn’t discover it until about maybe 5 years ago when I auditioned for a choir in New York and got in.
Do you sing in the shower? And if so, what do you sing?
Of course. Umm, I think it depends on my mood, whatever is stuck in my head. From Dvořák to the Clash, maybe ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys (laughs).
I love your cats. How long have you had them for?
Thank you! I’m a proud cat Mum. Lola is 15 but she was already a year old when I adopted her, and Diablo is 12. I probably pay more attention to them than maybe a normal person might. But what is normal?
You’ve got a lot of incredible books on that shelf. Which books do you love the most?
Definitely this one by Art Speigelman, ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’, I knew the ‘Maus’ books from when I was younger, and I was lucky enough to meet him and get the book signed. I also love this copy of Dickens’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’, I think it’s from the 1800’s – very old! And I also have some old editions of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘The Prose of Oscar Wilde’. This one is maybe the most morbid, ‘Pictures of the Ghetto of Warsaw’, they were taken by a German soldier.
You also have a lot of Titanic stuff!
Yes, since I was a girl. I have several books along with a replica of the menu and china, as well as posters and things like that.
If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?
Hmmm, god this is really hard. So many things. I would like to meet Mozart and definitely see some sort of performance by him, but most of all I would really want to hang out with him. He had a really dirty sense of humour like me. If I ever had that opportunity, I think my head would explode – that’s how much of a nerd I am.
How would you describe Prague in adjectives?
It’s definitely weird, but in a positive way. It’s interesting. I’d say rough, not as in dangerous, but more rough around the edges. It’s really random. It’s like a bizarreness with fun underneath it. For instance I was on a bus one night and there was very thick fog and the driver was watching TV whilst driving – that type of stuff is just really odd.
Would you ever go back to the USA to live again?
No, I don’t think so.
I don’t think I’d live there again. I’m more suited to the European lifestyle. It’s more relaxed and the healthcare system is much better.
Thanks so much for having us today Sarah!
Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating. Photography by Petr Kurečka.