A case of post-holiday blues

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Learning to face the emptiness with grace

Sometimes, the best part of a holiday comes after the fireworks have been set off, the Christmas tree has been taken down, and the house is quiet again. Right?

At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as the days of our US holiday flashed by at breakneck speed. As soon as I get back to Prague, I’ll have a chance to relax.

The morning after we returned to Prague, I dropped my children off at school dressed in my running clothes. Planning to get a head start on my New Year’s fitness resolutions, I intended to run the path through the woods between our house and the Vltava River before I went to work. Instead, I went home and fell asleep. Sitting up. At the kitchen table.

When I awoke 20 minutes later, instead of rousing to jog, I moved to the couch, covered myself with a blanket and slept on. When I woke up an hour later, I thought I was still at my parents’ house in Virginia. Then, I looked out the window, saw the grey sky, and realized I was back in Prague. It was January. And, it was time to go teach my English lessons.

Over the next few days, I helped my children prepare for their end-of-semester exams in school, complete make-up work, and readjust, in general, to the rhythm of our Czech lives. Which included, ice-skating in lieu of gym class, visiting their Czech relatives for babička’s rajská omáčka (beef and noodles served in a thick, tomato sauce), and logging the year’s first kilometers on cross-country skis. Even after a few days back, I realized there was plenty to look forward to in the coming months of winter in the Czech Republic.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel let down. At first, I attributed my fuzziness to jet-lag and a result of a super-active holiday. Our 12-day trip to America had been a whirlwind complete with holiday parties, outdoor hikes to fast-flowing waterfalls, and exploring the hip mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina with my parents, aunts, and uncles.

In recent years, Asheville had become the trendiest beer city on the East Coast, and Radek and I wanted to see the beer scene firsthand. At Asheville’s Wicked Weed taproom, we selected beers from a tap list that included American ales, Belgian lagers, German ales, and the brewery’s specialty – barrel-aged beers with names like “Milk and Cookies,” “Angel of Darkness,” and “Coolcumber.” Overwhelmed by the extravagant names and flavors, in the end, Radek and I selected a pilsner brewed from imported Czech hops. It was tasty, but not quite like a Czech beer.

Radek marveled that Americans would be willing to drink such intensely flavored beers one after the other, and I reminded him that drinking beer in the US at a microbrewery might not involve the same quantity of consumption he was accustomed to at a typical Czech pub. We were both surprised at the bartender’s insistence on seeing an ID from each person and serving only one drink per person (i.e. no carrying a round of drinks back to your table).

Throughout our stay in the US, each time Radek opened his mouth, the waiter, gas station attendant, or shop keeper with whom he was speaking would comment, “Say, I can tell you’re not from around here, where are you from?”

Lively conversations ensued about just where the Czech Republic is and what language Czechs speak. People we met also remarked on Oliver and Samuel’s European accents, despite both boys trying out regional expressions like, “y’all” and “ain’t” as well as dropping the final ‘g from verbs like “comin’” or “goin’” to sound more like their American cousins.

Being in America for shorter than usual meant operating at a continuous high-speed to get to see and do and soak up as much as we could. We even squeezed in a pre-dinner New Year’s Eve visit with the granddaughter of my mother’s friend who had driven an hour and a half to meet us and hear stories about our lives in the Czech Republic.

Eighteen-year-old Sophia was getting ready to come to Prague for a semester abroad at Charles University. Her grandmother and her parents wanted us to reassure them that Prague was a safe city. While Anna described the easy-to-use public transportation system; I answered Sophia’s questions about food shopping and medical insurance. Radek put a plug in for the city’s good clubs and cheap entertainment.

We had so much fun in the US, no one wanted to leave.

The most difficult part of returning to Prague, this time, was that, instead of being glad to be home (as they usually are when we return in the summer), my children were sadder than ever to leave America. They were homesick for my parents, their cousins, and even my childhood home, where my daughter read old Nancy Drew mysteries and my sons played with my brother’s 30-year-old Legos and Lincoln Logs.

A few days after our return, I listened to a webcast on WebMed. I realized that post-holiday syndrome, otherwise known as post-travel depression (PTD), is a relatively common condition, particularly following the major winter holidays when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also contribute to temporary feelings of being down.

Although I was pretty sure our children (and, to be honest, myself as well) were only suffering a natural let-down after having too much fun (along with, perhaps, the gloom that comes from too many grey Prague days in a row), I decided that instead of trying to pretend everything was normal, I would acknowledge their feelings.

We had a family dinner one night before Radek left for Germany. Radek had also noticed the kids were a little down. He said, “Guys, I know that it’s hard having part our family live so far away, but think about how cool it is that you get the chance to travel to see them.”

With Radek’s prompting, each child started to talk about his or her favorite memories from the holiday. For Anna, it was shopping with my mother and playing with her friend Raegan. For Oliver, it was shooting a squirrel with my father and Radek on my grandfather’s farm, skinning and preparing it, and finally, eating fried squirrel. And for Sam, the highlight of the holiday was a never-ending hike from Bridal Falls in the NC Dupont State forest, where he had to take off his pants to cross an icy-cold river with thigh-high (for him), fast-moving water.

My children often talk about how they miss my parents, and ask why we can’t live in America, too. However, for the first time ever, instead of just complaining, 10-year-old Oliver started calling both of my parents on Viber to chat. Before baseball practice or while he waited for me to put him to bed, he’d take his phone to the playroom, where the wi-fi connection was strongest, and call. Sometimes, they would do a video call, so Oliver could see my mom or watch the cat play.

Anna had already developed a habit of talking with my parents regularly, and despite being a little jealous that Oliver wanted to do the same, she understood his need to keep the communication strong.

I, too, knew how the children felt.

But, as I get older, I have also begun to realize just how important my post-holiday blues are. For me, it is a time of longing – when I yearn for what was, acknowledge that I can’t turn back the days, and begin to gather strength for the season ahead.

It is in the empty space, when the days seem grey, and inconveniently-timed phone calls to relatives who are just waking up (or heading to bed) can’t replace the longing to hug a family member in the flesh, when I know home is a place I carry with me.

As much as I want both worlds, I know that the beauty of life is in the tension – not the day-to-day continuity, but the break and the return. Recognizing this helps me get through the worst first days until my mind and body settle, and I return to my identity, as an American English teacher living (happily) in the Czech Republic with my half-n-half family.

After a few days, my children, too, get used to their classes, their sports, and their friends. And, they began looking forward to our next adventure. Anna reads a guide book I gave her at Christmas called Yellowstone Adventuring with Kids written by a family with four boys. When Oliver next calls my mother, she tells him that she’s counted her airline points and has enough for a spring trip to see us.

As the days pass, the experiences of this holiday fade into the quilt of our lives. Maybe, we’ll reflect on them next year (that is, if I am organized enough to get the pictures off the camera). In the meantime, I will do my best to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of living a half-n-half life. And, have faith that the positives still outweigh the negatives.

I will even get off the couch and squeeze that run in. Who says the best part of the holidays can’t come once they’re over?

Advertisements

Christmas without a carp

Christmas Market 2016Exchanging Czech traditions for an American Christmas experience

For the past three Christmases (and many before that), my family has become temporary caretakers of a large, bottom-dwelling carp. Although having our Christmas dinner swimming in the bathtub a few days before we serve it on the table seems strange (even for many Czechs), it is one of the Czech holiday traditions my sons adore.

For my pint-size fishermen, nature-lovers, and budding scientists, having the carp alive at home is something out of a fairy tale. (Albeit, not one with a happy ending for the carp.) However, my family is not vegetarian, and I respect my sons’ desires to know more about the fish that they’ll later eat.

Over the years, my children have named our carps, studied the shape of their scales, and the way their gills go in and out when they breathe. Last Christmas, they even put on their swim suits and snorkel masks and got in the tub with the carp for a brief (ice-cold) swim.

On the morning of December 24, Oliver and Sam are also on hand to help my husband, Radek, butcher, gut, and clean the carp in preparation for our Christmas dinner meal. Last year, the boys cleaned the scales and laid them at each person’s place following the Czech tradition of putting a carp scale in your wallet to bring wealth.

Still, I didn’t realize how much having a carp meant to my children, until seven-year-old Samuel asked me a few days ago, “So, where are we going to get the carp this year, Mom?”

Sam knew we were traveling to the US (a first in many years) to spend Christmas with our American family. I assumed he also knew that we’d have turkey and honey baked ham for Christmas dinner along with a slew of Southern-style vegetable casseroles.

“What? No carp!” Sam exploded when I explained that carp wasn’t a traditional part of Christmas in America. “How are we going to have Christmas without the carp?” Sam was more disappointed about not having a carp (and, he doesn’t even like the taste of carp,) than he was when he found out he’d have to wait an extra day before he could open his presents.

In Czech tradition, Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24, and Ježíšek, baby Jesus, brings the family’s presents after dinner has been served, but before the family settles in to watch Czech fairy tales on television. Arriving unseen while children are still awake is a much trickier feat for Ježíšek than Santa, who gets the benefit of visiting during the night. My children have spent many a car ride philosophizing about just how Ježíšek does it.

Apart from missing their carp, when I asked my children what they were most looking forward to about this Christmas holiday, they unanimously agreed (and this doesn’t happen often) that spending time with their American family would be the highlight of this Christmas.

Of course, there were specific traditions each child remembered from years past. Anna, who will celebrate her 13th birthday on Christmas Eve, was excited about seeing the results of the National Gingerbread House Competition on display at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Oliver wanted to go fishing at Lost Lake with my father, and Sam hoped there would be sugar cookie dough to roll out when we arrived.

As my children’s enthusiasm grows stronger, and the countdown to Christmas Day drops into the single digits, I am as much looking forward to the coming holiday as I am reminded of Christmases past, spent both in the Czech Republic and in the US.

There was the first year that I brought my (then) Czech-boyfriend to my hometown to meet my family and friends. (Radek had initially invited me to travel with him to Ecuador but having never spent Christmas away from my family, I convinced him that the Appalachian Mountains were every bit as cool as the Galapagos Islands.) I remember wondering if we would still like each other as much out of the Czech Republic as we did in Prague. Luckily, we did.

There was the year my waters broke at a Christmas party on December 23, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. My daughter, Anna Lee, was born a few hours later. Shortly after sunrise, she was washed and delivered to me in a Christmas stocking. In Prague, there were years of bathing in the bathtub with the carp looking on from his bucket, and years of following babička through the supermarket in search of sadlo (pork grease) and the right kind of Czech flour to bread and fry the carp fillets. There were Christmas recitals, school Christmas fairs, and Christmas afternoon shots of Becherovka exchanged with our Czech neighbors.

And there was the Christmas, many years ago, when it looked as if our family might not be able to celebrate the holiday together at all.

I still remember how I stood, sweating and nervous, at the Washington Dulles International Arrivals gate waiting for Radek to come through immigration. I stood for hours, afraid that if I sat down or stopped my diligent watch, I might jinx our chances of being together. I remember watching other families reunite with hugs and kisses, balloons, and Welcome Home banners.

At some point, a stewardess from the airlines came to tell me that my husband had been sent to secondary questioning. If he made it through, he would be with me shortly. At that time, Radek still maintained his green card, and we traveled often between the US and the Czech Republic. I had arrived in the US a few weeks earlier with our children. I was thankful they were with my parents and didn’t know yet that Radek had been detained.

While I waited, I remember making a deal with God, promising that if he could just let Radek through to join me and the children, I’d give up our “half and half” lives. We would pick a home base, and we wouldn’t try to travel back and forth. Radek did come through questioning, eventually, and we did spend that Christmas together. Soon afterward, he gave up his green card in favor of a normal tourist visa. Each time we travel, I am aware of how precious it is to have the freedom to live (and cross borders) together as a family.

But, there is one part of the deal I couldn’t keep. Now more than ever, I realize that it is precisely because of the traditions we have created in our “half and half” lives—traditions like hand delivering my father’s cream cheese coffee cakes, singing Christmas carols in Prague with other mixed families, and even keeping a live carp in the bathtub — that we are who we are.

My family is incredibly fortunate to be able to know and experience two different cultures first-hand and to learn about other cultures and traditions through our relationships with friends, the children’s formal school learning, and our travels. We live a privileged life.

I have never been persecuted for my beliefs. And, I have no idea how it feels like to be forced to choose between my family, my friends, or my country in search of a better life. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have to know what it means to be a refugee. Yet, each time I (or someone I love) cross a border, my hands sweat, my heart pounds, and I feel as if I can’t breathe.

My (dream) wish, this holiday season, is for families around the world to be free to celebrate, in their own unique ways, with the people they love close by their sides.

And, if you happen to be celebrating in the Czech Republic, could you please save a carp scale for Sam.

Happy Holidays!

Half-n-Half will return in January 2018.

Austria Family Picture

 

Why I’m grateful for a Bohemian perspective

5 reasons to appreciate life in the Czech Republic (all year long)

With Thanksgiving and the arrival of the advent season, my social media pages are packed with posts about gratitude and getting ready for the holidays.

Some posts ask practical, how-to-celebrate questions. Like the one I saw on Prague’s CrowdSauce group for expats. “Does anyone know if they sell oven cooking bags for turkeys here?” Or another, from a friend in the US, “Veg or no veg on Thanksgiving?” with the hashtag #everyonejustwantscarbs.

Friends post images of their children baking cookies, just-out-of-the-oven pumpkin pies, and invitations to Christmas home tours. I’ve read tips on keeping holiday festivities simple, how to shift the focus from gifts to quality family time, and why fighting during the holidays means you care.

In the spirit of showing gratitude for my adopted homeland, I’d like to share a few reasons I’m glad to call the Czech Republic home.

A Czech Sense of Humor

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the dry, self-deprecating Czech humor. My Czech friends aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves, or to turn a criticism into a joke to deflate a tense situation. My neighbor recently damaged her car by hitting a low cement wall while pulling into her driveway, (a maneuver she does every day without incident).

Later, when we were confirming our Thanksgiving dinner menu, she texted, “If you can’t find a turkey for the Thanksgiving meal, don’t worry, I can find something to run over.” From talking with her, I knew she felt horrible about the incident. Instead of letting it get her down, she allowed herself (and her friends) to see the funny side.

Watching my Czech friends keep their sense of humor, even when life throws surprises, reminds me to do the same.

In 2005, Czechs were asked to vote for the greatest Czech of all time. Jara Cimrman, a fictitious character first introduced to the public in a satirical play in the late 1960s, won the most votes. (Unfortunately, he couldn’t receive the award because he didn’t exist). Check out Radio Prague’s full article on Cimrman to get a better picture of Czech humor.

Czech Love of Nature and Getting Outdoors

Mushrooming, walking in the woods, snow-skiing (cross-country and downhill), iceskating, road biking, mountain biking, climbing, swimming in natural ponds and rivers, trekking, tent camping, caravan camping, sleeping “pod širákem” (under the stars), rafting, canoeing, kayaking … the list goes on, and I’d be hard-pressed to find an outdoor activity, that Czechs don’t do.

In the years I’ve lived here I’ve learned (among other skills), when in doubt, pick only mushrooms with cylindrical tubes not slats – and always ask a local. Rafters and bikers greet each other by saying, “Ahoj!” Fruit hanging over fences and along country lanes is fair game for picking. Cross-country skiing is best learned when it’s not too icy, and a pub with warm drinks is nearby. Extra socks and spare underwear are essential for any kind of outdoor activity, especially when kids are involved. Czech humor is even more important than extra socks and spare underwear when learning how to cross-country ski.

A Socialized Healthcare System

For the past 13 years, whenever my children or I have been sick, injured or otherwise need the advice of an expert, we go to the doctor. Sometimes we make an appointment, other times (as in the case of sick visits to a primary care physician) we go and wait. Never have I had to worry whether insurance would cover the visit, or if I could afford to pay the doctor’s bill.

Health insurance is mandatory in the Czech Republic. The Czech state pays for children, students, and mothers on maternity leave. Working individuals make monthly health insurance contributions which are supplemented by their employers.

My family has been fortunate. We haven’t been sick much. Still, I’ve delivered two babies, had an emergency appendectomy while 34 weeks pregnant, undergone knee surgery, ridden in an ambulance with an injured infant, and mothered children with ear infections, tonsillitis, knocked out front teeth, stitches, and more.

My children have rarely received antibiotics (only for bacterial infections when needed), and I’ve been well-versed on the importance of home remedies when appropriate – honey and onions to loosen up coughs, homemade ginger tea, bed rest, and tvaroh (a fresh, curd cheese) wraps for mastitis.

Yes, there are linguistic and cultural differences. Western-style bedside manner can be hard-to-find. Sometimes, the wait is long, and the equipment is basic. Still, I’m grateful for each visit to the doctor’s (and those times when a home remedy makes a visit unnecessary).

Abundant (& Affordable) Cultural Activities for Families

From an early age, Czechs are taught to appreciate (and cultivate) a rich, creative life. From playing musical instruments and singing in choirs, to creating puppet and marionette shows and learning the art of oral recitation (as early as preschool), Czechs have a long-stranding tradition of valuing art’s contribution to society.

Even during the Communist period, Czech artists, such as film makers Karel Zeman and Jiri Trnka, presented imaginative, rule-breaking works to entertain, educate, and inspire their fellow citizens. Czechs like to go to the theater, attend classical music concerts, and watch fairy tales on television.

Many Czech cultural events (seasonal festivals, crafts markets, museum exhibitions) are offered free or at low cost. The country’s public transportation network (comprised of trams, buses, the metro, and trains) allows school groups to go on frequent field trips, families without cars to get nearly everywhere, and older children to gain a sense of independence as they explore Czech culture on their own.

My ten-year old son enjoyed his first Czech opera this fall, The Devil and Kate, performed at Prague’s National Theater. I was happy to accompany him, especially once I discovered (midway through Act I) the English captioning.

A creative life spills over into my family’s leisure time. In addition to going to the theater, my children often put on impromptu shows for us (as well as any visitors who happen to be present). We’ve had magic shows, dinosaur shows, zoo exhibitions, and guitar performances. They’ve narrated excerpts from Josef Capek’s classic, O pejskovi a kočičce (stories about a dog and a cat who keep house), and each December 5, they dress up as St. Nicholas, a devil, and an angel to celebrate Mikulas.

As a parent, I’m grateful to live in a country where planning our leisure time is not a question of what to do, but rather which option to choose.

Loyalty (Friends & Family)

As I scoured local stores this week looking for sweet potatoes (bataty in Czech), pumpkins, and fresh cranberries, I was struck by my options. Although the availability of specialty items has sky-rocketed in recent years (which makes holiday food preparation one step easier), the basic components of my family’s Thanksgiving meal haven’t changed.

For the past 12 years, my family has celebrated Thanksgiving in Prague with friends of Czech, American, Slovakian, French, and Polish descent. We serve turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn pudding, salads, pumpkin pies, and whatever else anyone brings to the table. We rotate houses and take turns preparing the turkey. By now, we know what to expect and how each dish should taste.

Our children put on shows, perform magic tricks, and exclaim over the different languages they hear. We are the closest thing most of us have to a family in Prague. After the years of joining together, for this one day (usually Saturday after the official Thursday holiday), we behave as family. There are arguments (who had the toy first), political discussions over wine, and maybe a tear or two.

Giving Thanks

With each passing year (and every new Thanksgiving celebration), the Czech Republic has become a place I’m increasingly grateful to call home. Not because it’s where I have my permanent residence, or because life has gotten easier for my family over the years. (Both of which are true).

Experiencing life through a Bohemian perspective has opened my eyes to a culture and a people that have taught me to laugh at myself (when I can), to get outside (as much as possible every day), to appreciate the privilege of going to the doctor (when necessary), to show my children theater and art (or let them perform it for me), and to value old friendships that feel like family.

Wishing you and your family a joyful holiday season!

(If you happen to be looking for oven roasting bags, try Makro or the DM drugstore.)

IMG_7886
A November Hike at Pravcicka Brana (2016)

 

Getting to the starting line

How signing up for a half marathon in Dresden paved the way for an unexpected travel adventure

When I registered to run the Dresden half marathon back in the summer, I hadn’t imagined that getting to the starting line would turn into my biggest challenge. I was more worried about whether my knees could handle the 26-kilometer distance.

A year ago, I had undergone a tibial tuberosity transfer (TTT) to repair a knee problem that had bothered me for 20 years. The operation was successful; however, I was left with a large screw just below my knee. For months, I had been limited to biking and swimming. There was a point that I had believed I would never be able to run again.

As my tibia bone healed (and, yes, it eventually did), I became obsessed with proving to myself that I could still run distance, even if it hurt. I was turning 40 soon. I wasn’t getting any younger or any faster. Now was the time.

Although I had run Prague’s half marathon twice, that race wouldn’t be held until next spring. My knee wasn’t strong enough to try the Běhej lesy series on Czech trails that many of our local friends ran. When I found the Piepenbrock race series in Dresden, the flat course, cobblestone streets, and small competitor field seemed like a good fit for my first race post-operation.

Ever the multi-tasker, I began planning. From our house by car, it took a little over an hour to reach downtown Dresden. We often took a pre-Christmas shopping trip there, so I figured running the mid-October race would be an ideal way to knock out some holiday shopping. We could shop on Saturday, sightsee, and enjoy the city.

The children were begging for a return visit to Karl May’s museum, with its Vinnetou memorabilia and its American Indian art and artifacts. Saying “danke” and “bitte” when they ordered their bratwursts would give them a chance to practice their rudimentary German and remind them of the world that existed beyond the Czech Republic. On Sunday, I would run my race. It would be a win-win for everyone.

A few weeks after I registered, Radek received an invitation from his elementary school classmate inviting him to a 30-year class reunion in his hometown the night before the race. It was a no brainer. Radek would attend the event. The children and I would accompany him. They would sleep at babička’s (Radek’s mother’s). Radek and I would stay in a pension nearby. Radek would party with his former classmates, and I would have the evening to relax and walk the wooded paths around the dam in Jablonec. The following morning, we would rise before dawn, collect the children, and drive the two hours from Jablonec to Dresden. Settled.

All summer, I ran. I ran the rolling 6-mile trail loop at Hungry Mother State Park in my Virginia hometown. I ran the flat asphalt of the industrial Brunswick Lane where the sun beat down and tractor trailers rolled past. I startled fawn and rabbits on my early morning runs to the Mormon church behind my parents’ house. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I raced my brother and sister-in-law, who were talking the golf cart out for a morning doughnut run.

In the village of Bakio, Spain, I ran the steep, hilly path to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe where locals gave me friendly, if slightly puzzled, looks. In Bielefeld, Germany, I ran on logging trails, through a mini-zoo, and on the walking paths near the town’s castle.

Back in Prague, I ran laps around the perimeter of the Hvězda park, along the paved Vltava A1 and A2 cycling paths, and on the trails near my house. By late September, I had run 20 kilometers on three different runs. In all my 28 years of running, I had never prepared for a single race so thoroughly. My knees hurt, but I was ready as ready as I’d be.

As the race drew closer, I began to get a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. For weeks, I had tried to adjust to the fact that I would arrive in Dresden just in time to pick up my race number before the exhibition hall closed at 9:00 a.m. and make the 10:30 a.m. start. Online, I studied the course plan and the city map. It could be done, but coming to the race last-minute wasn’t the way I had planned it. At all.

It took until Wednesday of race week to admit to myself (with encouragement from Czech friends who race regularly), the inevitable. I had trained too hard to spend the time leading up to the race obsessing about whether I would get to the starting line on time. I should go to the race on Saturday, even if it meant traveling alone.

I booked a cheap hotel room in Dresden for Saturday night, bought a train ticket, and explained my reasoning to Radek. If my family didn’t have to get me to the race registration, then they could sleep in a bit and still arrive in time to see the end of the race (or at least to drive me back to Prague). Radek raised his eyebrows when he saw how far the hotel I had chosen was from downtown but didn’t say a word.

As soon as I arrived at Prague’s main train station, I wondered if I had made the right decision. It would be the first time (ever) I had traveled alone for the sole purpose of running a race. I had no chance of winning the race or even placing in my age group. Wasn’t it selfish of me to take off on my own?

I didn’t have long to ponder my choice. As I was standing in line for coffee, I saw the board flash with my train’s arrival. I skipped coffee, jogged to the platform, and hopped on the train.

I was traveling light – wearing warm-ups, a sweatshirt, and my running shoes. In the backpack I had borrowed from my ten-year-old son were my racing clothes, a toothbrush, my water bottle, and a book. I had opted not to bring make-up, pajamas, or any of the things I’d usually take for an overnight. I would soak up the experience and pretend, for a moment, that I was backpacking in Europe like I had 20 years ago.

As the train headed out of Prague past Roztoky where I often run, instead of scenery, I saw only fog. The fog thickened as we traveled through Czech Switzerland along the Czech German border. In the Czech Republic and again in Germany, I showed my ticket to ticket agents. No one asked to see my passport.

When the train stopped at the main station in Dresden, it was 2:30 p.m. I had the entire afternoon and evening to myself. Once the thrill of my successful arrival wore off, I headed to a food court for a lunch of spicy Thai curry. Even though I knew most runners would have opted for noodles, I couldn’t pass up a chance to eat Thai. After I ate, I needed to find the Congress Center to pick up my race number and arrive at my hotel by nightfall. How hard could it be?

As I wound my way through the main shopping streets, with each step I grew more confident in my decision to travel alone. I couldn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to carry it, but it was still a thrill to window shop. I kept checking out passersby to see if (like me) they were wearing running shoes. In my mind, the whole city must know about the marathon and other races that would be run the following day. But, I didn’t find anyone who looked like a runner, and when I stopped in a sports store to ask directions to the Congress Center, the shop assistant had no idea there was a race on Sunday.

I kept walking in the direction of the river. It was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining. I heard snippets of Czech as I wandered along. Twice I asked at an information center for directions, only to find that the employees didn’t speak English. I had gotten so used to making my way in the Czech Republic using my Czech language skills that I was surprised to find how handicapped I felt by not speaking German. After what seemed like forever, I walked toward a fairground that reminded me of Prague’s Výstaviště. I finally saw the Congress Center, an impressive building situated on a bend in the river.

I walked toward the steps of the Congress Center, where a drum band was warming up. I followed signs to the registration where I picked up my race number and chip. A band was playing country music and some racers were eating the pre-race pasta dinner. Again, I heard several people speaking Czech. The Dresden race exhibition didn’t look that different from Prague’s and apart from my difficulty understanding German, I felt as if I belonged.

By this time, I was ready to check into my hotel and relax. On my way through the city, I had passed numerous chain hotels close to the exhibition center. But, I was still confident that I had gotten a great deal on Booking.com for my room (40 Euros), which said it was within a few kilometers from the city center.

I went to the race info counter to ask for directions on public transportation. None of the German volunteers spoke English, and as they talked, I had the first inkling that getting to my hotel might not be as easy as I had imagined.

More than an hour later, after riding a tram, a commuter train, and a bus, I came within a kilometer of my hotel just as it was getting dark. A light rain was falling, and my legs were weary. I had stopped to buy food for dinner and breakfast, and my backpack and race gear weighed on my shoulders. Using the Waves application, I walked in the direction I thought my hotel should be. I regretted not asking Radek’s advice before I had chosen my accommodation and started to worry about how long my return trip would take in the morning.

My hotel turned out to be an empty villa in a residential neighborhood. There was no reception to greet me (just a note pinned to a billboard addressed to Frau Prucha with a code to the main door) and no hotel bar (or nearby grocery store or restaurant) where I could buy a drink. The hallway was dimly lit, and my basement room window opened to the backyard where trash was kept. But the room was clean, the heating worked, and I had hot water for a shower.

I had gotten what I wanted – I was (totally and completely) alone in Dresden.

I didn’t think I’d fall asleep because I was nervous someone might break into my room, but I did. In the pre-dawn darkness, as I walked toward the commuter train I’d ride back to the center, I saw workers preparing a tent and putting out orange traffic cones to divide the road. I realized (with a shiver of excitement) that I was walking along part of the race course.

When I got to the Congress Center (with time to spare), I had a coffee and waited. Radek and the children arrived to give me hugs, take my backpack, and run a few warm up laps with me around the parking lot.

As the starting gun sounded, I shuffled into a slow jog along with 3000+ other half marathon and marathon runners. No matter what happened now, I had made it to the start. The race was on.

I didn’t see Radek or the children until the 20th kilometer mark, at which point my legs were dead, and I was praying for the finish. At the same time as I heard my family shouting, “Go, Mama!” I saw a banner ahead of me that read something like, “YOU ARE HERE.”

I pushed all the energy I had into a final sprint. As I crossed under the banner, I realized (in horror) that the actual finish line was still another 500 meters ahead of me. Slowly, almost walking, I stumbled across the finish line, nearly throwing up. Despite misjudging the finish, I had run a PR of more than 20 minutes.

The kids were pumped from watching the races. There had been a 4-K Family Run and a 10-K before the marathon. They had ordered bratwursts and had walked along the river near the Congress Center. They were sorry there hadn’t been time for the museum. Next time, they said, they wanted to run with me, too.

As I retold my race story to family and friends, I realized that getting to the starting line on my own terms had been as important to me as running the 26 kilometers. I might no longer fit the profile of a youthful backpacker, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t still have my own adventures. Traveling alone by train was something I planned to repeat.

And, assuming my knees hold out, running another half marathon might be in my future, too.

An apple a day

apple pictureStaying balanced by teaching English

After 15 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Prague (with a few gaps for birthing babies), this year I decided to quit. In lieu of teaching, I planned more writing, researching, and proofreading assignments – jobs I could do waiting at sports practices, after I put the children to bed, or in the mornings when they were at school.

I had been teaching the same afternoon conversation lessons to the same group of students (elementary school learners in first – fifth grades) for the past four years. I believed both my students (and I) needed a change.

Also, I needed more flexibility to provide better support (i.e. transportation, cheer leading, and homework help) for my own children during the hours when I had previously taught. Radek worked away from home during the school week, and I was the primary caretaker. The responsibility took its toll.

At the end of the summer, I informed the school and my students that my English conversation courses wouldn’t be held this year. I turned down offers for private lessons and arranged my schedule to be available when my children needed me. Then, I tried to work. But, I couldn’t focus.

During the month of September, I nearly drove my children (and Radek) mad with my inability to settle. I felt guilty when I greeted the parents of the children I had previously taught, and I tried to explain (again) why I couldn’t even teach private lessons this year.

When I expressed my frustration to friends, they replied, “But wasn’t that what you wanted? Freedom from teaching?” I nodded, but every time I said no to an offer to teach, I felt a bit empty myself.

Could it be that teaching was what I needed to make the rest of my life balanced?

Each night when I packed my children’s snacks, I put a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a sweet treat (i.e. a muffin or a muesli bar) into their snack boxes. My two older children were willing to experiment with the fruits I gave them. Oliver liked grapes, plums, and pomegranates, while Anna favored bananas, kiwis, and berries. Samuel always wanted an apple. When I tried to substitute a different fruit, he brought me his snack box after school saying, “My svačina was good, but where was my jabko, Mommy?”

I tried to explain to Samuel that he needed to diversify his palate and eat different fruits. He nodded and said, “I really like apples, Mommy.”

To get inspiration for the memoir I was writing, I reread my journals from arriving in Prague in the winter of 2002. Back then, teaching English was THE reason I had come to the Czech Republic, and my gateway to Czech culture.

On January 11, 2002, I wrote, “It is late, and I am exhausted. We taught our first lesson today. I was nervous. The 40-minute lesson flew by. In an instant, we were saying thank you and goodbye. The students are delightful. I am looking forward to developing a relationship with them over the coming weeks. I think I could become attached to teaching. So much planning. Then, your work is done. You are a bit like a zoo animal on stage during class. But, if you walk around, direct attention to the students, encourage interaction, then you disappear.”

I recorded my students’ words in my journal. Jarka, an adult student in my 7:00 a.m. morning class described her Prince Charming. “My prince has a beautiful, butterfly tie.” Miroslav, an engineer, wrote, “I learning English for five years in university but I learn English whitch brakes.”

 In response to Miroslav, I wrote, “Cheers to that. If we could all speak a little more English, ‘whtich brakes’ and convey the essence of our thoughts, it would not be bad at all.”

When I reread my journals, I remembered how much I had loved my beginner students. I wrote, “I can feel their pain, see the grimaces on their faces as they strain to understand me or watch as their cheeks flush and they stammer their words – slowly, painfully releasing them into the air. Waiting for a nod of approval from me, their teacher.”

In some lessons, particularly those with children, I felt much like a student myself. From teaching the preschool-aged Novak children, I learned more Czech than I did in my once-a-week “Czech For Foreigners Course.”

Before our English lessons, five-year-old Honzík said, “I am a Czech man. I speak only Czech, no English.”

His mother, answered, “Oh, if we want to be smart Czech, we must learn English.”

Sometimes she stayed during the lessons. “Where are your feets?” she would ask Honzík. “Tickly, tickly on your feets.”

While Honzík and his brothers chattered in Czech to me, I used hand gestures, symbols, and games to teach them colors, numbers, and basic phrases in English. I taught them the words for “hands” and “arms” since the children used the Czech word ruky for both; “feet” and “legs” since they said simply nohy; and I explained that in English there is a different word for “fingers” (prsty) than “toes” (prsty na nohách).

And, when it was the right time, I told Honzík’s mother that the plural form of “foot” is “feet.”

The Novak family seemed to like my playful approach, and I appreciated being in a Czech home and getting a taste of Czech family life. Not to mention all the Czech vocabulary I learned.

It wasn’t only my lessons with children where learning went beyond the language school. Once I hosted a “potluck” party for my high school students. Each student surprised me with a favorite homemade dish. We feasted on jaternice (sauasage), salty mushroom pastries, sweet poppy seed cake, apple strudel, and a homemade beránek (an almond flavored cake baked in the shape of a lamb). I made chocolate chip cookies, hot spinach artichoke dip, and deviled eggs. At first, everyone watched me eat and drink, a situation which I described in my journal as “funny” and “slightly uncomfortable.” Eventually, my students (and I) relaxed, and we spoke both English and Czech together.

For me, teaching English had always been an exchange – of languages, cultures, ideas, and words. Even though more than a decade had passed since my first lesson, nothing had changed about my desire to connect with Czech culture (and Czechs) by teaching English. Even though I now had my own children to look after, I realized (only by not teaching) what an important role teaching English played in my life.

I might not have been able to teach in the classroom this year, but the answer to my time-management dilemma was not to quit teaching altogether.

In late September, when an adult student that I had taught a few years ago wanted to start up private morning lessons again, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Teaching adult learners was something I had missed in recent years. Then, I went back to the first parents who had approached me about small group conversation lessons. I told them I was willing to try.

These days, instead of teaching in a classroom, I tote my teacher’s bag around Prague. It’s a black canvas bag from Books-A-Million. It’s filled with stickers, paperback First Readers, Highlights Magazines, and other tools to encourage English conversation. Like I used to 15 years ago, I teach in the public library and at my students’ homes.

My children were so disappointed when they learned I wouldn’t be teaching at their school (even if they had been the motivation for the change), they agreed to do all they could to help me continue teaching. When my lessons run into the afternoon, Oliver walks to the library where he reads while I teach. Anna has learned to take the bus home from school on her own. Samuel plays in družina until I can pick him up. On occasion, I may have to pause my lesson to take a call from a child who has forgotten what time practice starts or one who needs a lift. However, interruptions are minimal.

The week I started teaching again, Radek was working from home, which was a rare treat. He remarked what a good mood I was in, saying, “I’ve never seen you this happy before. Usually, only when your parents are here visiting.”

I told Radek I was in a good mood because he was home during the week, which was true. We all enjoy family life more together than apart.

However, I also knew that the energy I had been missing was coming back. For me, teaching wasn’t just a job, it was an essential component in my balanced life. I needed my students as much as they needed me.

On the days I teach, I eat lunch on-the-go. Like Sam, along with my sandwich and my treat, I’ve got an apple in my lunch bag.

Sometimes, sticking to what you like, may be the best way forward.