Sadly, my blog will no longer run on Fridays in The Prague Daily Monitor’s Life section. However, a new Half ‘n Half website is under construction, and I hope to have it ready for you soon (ETA late March-early April).
The Half ‘n Half blog pieces about my Czech/American family’s adventures in the Czech Republic will continue to be a feature of the new website. Stay tuned for “Bringing up Bilingual Bookworms” with an interview from a Dutch librarian who has raised multilingual readers of her own. And, on a lighter note, how waiting in lines can be a cultural experience.
Keeping a balanced lifestyle while raising children abroad will remain one of my top priorities. To learn more about the rituals I use to stay sane (most of the time) while raising kids far from home, readmy storyon The Sanity Plan website.
With the new Half ‘n Half site, I would also like to offer some practical, helpful information about Czech culture to readers. To do so, I need your help.
If, like me, you’ve found yourself making a home (temporary or long-term) in the Czech Republic, what are the aspects of Czech culture that you are most curious about?
Whether it’s adaptation to the Czech lifestyle, specific travel tips (i.e. what to do/where to go/what to see) to best enjoy Prague (and the Czech countryside) with your family, how the educational system works in the Czech Republic, or how to keep on good terms with your Czech in-laws (!) — please let me know.
I’d love the opportunity to write about topics that interest you and to learn more about my adopted homeland at the same time.
Likewise, if you are a Czech living abroad who would like to share a bit about what it is like to keep your Czech heritage alive while living outside the Czech Republic, I am interested in hearing your story. What do you miss most about life in the Czech Republic?
Send your story ideas to email@example.com or write me in the comments section on Word Press. (The new blog will have a contact page.)
I meet Martina at Café IF in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood. Café IF is a trendy spot, serving exquisite pastries, fresh smoothies with names like Vitality and Elixir of Youth, and boulangerie breakfasts of quiche and soft-boiled eggs served in a glass. Although the coffee list includes espresso, cappuccino, and a flat white, Martina asks for a filtered coffee. The waiter shakes his head and brings her an espresso with extra water.
“That’s a shame. I love filtered coffee. Pour overs are quite popular in America now. It’s one of the things I’ve gotten used to. Having a big mug of warm coffee beside me while I work,” she tells me. “Now, the bread in America is a different story. Don’t get me started on how much I miss Czech bread,” she smiles.
Martina is a Czech speech therapist living with her Czech family in the Rocky Mountains of the American Midwest. I am an American TEFL-certified (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher living with my Czech/American family in a village on the outskirts of Prague. Martina is visiting the Czech Republic for a few weeks. At the urging of our friend, Katerina, we have agreed to meet to swap experiences.
Martina and I both wear bright glasses, like to sip large mugs of coffee, and are mothers to three children each. But, we have slipped away from our families this Saturday morning to chat about a different topic of mutual interest – speech. Particularly, speech development in bilingual and multilingual children.
While Martina is a trained speech therapist, or logopedka, my interest in speech is on an amateur level. Over 15 years of living in the Czech Republic and learning to speak Czech (as well as accompanying my own children to years of Czech logopedie), my natural curiosity for the intricacies of the language has grown. Plus, I have deep respect for anyone who holds the key to the elusive “ř” (or r-hacek) sound.
If you are unfamiliar with the Czech language, the “ř” (or r-hacek) is a rolled “r” followed by the Czech “ž” sound. It is described on quora.com as a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill. It is the hardest sound in the Czech language. I’m tempted to ask if Martina has any tips for adults who can’t say “ř.”
Instead, I ask Martina about her work. What does a speech therapist do when she’s transplanted thousands of kilometers from her clients? Czech is not exactly an international language, and I doubt there’s much need to replicate an authentic “ř” sound in Colorado.
When her husband’s job led her family to relocate to the US, Martina had the opportunity to see first-hand how a child begins the journey of becoming bilingual. As she discovered, many different factors can affect this journey, including age, personality, genetics, and individual learning style.
Martina’s eldest child didn’t speak a word of English for six months (not at school, not at home), communicating instead in his own kind of sign language. Then, one day while playing soccer with a friend, he turned to translate instructions from his mother to his friend. At once, he began talking in full sentences. “I was so surprised,” Martina says with a laugh. Meanwhile, her preschooler started to mix English words into his Czech sentences soon after the family’s arrival in the US. “It took him months to be understood, and he was quite frustrated at times.”
And the baby? According to Martina, “She is an example of how I would think a bilingual person should be.” Since Martina’s daughter learned to speak in both Czech and English after her family’s arrival to the US, English comes naturally for her. She doesn’t mix the languages.
At the same time as Martina’s children began speaking English and adjusting to life in the US, Martina discovered a large gap in the quality of speech aids that were available to Czech speech therapists.
I nod as Martina tells me this. At each speech therapy appointment in Prague (the cost of which was covered by my child’s state health insurance), I was asked to bring along 20 CZK (circa 1 USD) for materials. In return, my child would receive one black-and-white photocopied page. We were instructed to take this page home, color it, and practice.
The page continued a list of words, pictures without words, or a short poem to practice a specific letter sound. If I was lucky the therapist would scribble some instructions about how to hold the tongue or how wide to open the mouth. When my boys needed to learn the sykavky (the sounds made by the letters S, C, Z, Š, Č, Ž), our therapist suggested that I make my own cards. Speech therapy was a challenge (on many levels).
Martina’s move to the US convinced her to take a professional risk. Seeing the need for well-developed, engaging materials for Czech speech therapists and parents interested in helping their children master proper sounds, Martina created a website called Logopedie s úsměvem (Speech therapy with a smile). She smiles as she tells me this.
She started a blog, hired a graphic designer, and set up an e-shop. Soon, Martina was selling a wide variety of brightly-colored, graphically-engaging materials including picture cards, puzzles, and books. Her materials spanned the areas of speech, hearing, sight recognition, memory, and fine motor skills for toddlers, preschoolers, and school children.
She even developed an online course called S Jonášem do školy (Going to School with Jonáš) and began offering speech therapy online. Since she wasn’t physically in the Czech Republic, Katerina (our mutual friend) managed the e-shop and distributed the products.
What was the reaction to the products in the Czech Republic?
Katerina, who has joined us at the café, says, “At the first conference for speech therapists last autumn, I had only the display materials on the table. Everything else was in a box under the table. Therapists kept coming up to me saying, ‘We’ll take everything you have.’ My son and I couldn’t open the boxes fast enough.”
Looking at the bright graphic picture cards Katerina has brought for me to see, for a moment, I feel sorry that my children’s Czech speech therapy days are behind us.
Still, I am curious about Martina’s children’s language skills – do they code-switch like mine, have they mastered the dreaded “th” sound in English, which language do they feel more comfortable speaking English or Czech?
Martina has a set of her own questions for me. She asks me whether my children make mistakes in English grammar and requests for me to demonstrate just how to make the “th” sound properly. She also wants to know how I feel about the Czech language – isn’t it difficult?
While we share our speech stories, the café fills up. The waiter stops by to see if we want something else. Martina orders a tea. I ask for a second coffee, then change my mind and opt for the Elixir of Youth smoothie. The smoothie is made from blended avocado, spinach, and some sweet fruits. I discuss the ingredients with the waiter.
After the waiter leaves, Martina says, “Your Czech is good.”
“Thanks,” I tell her. “I have had a lot of speech therapy.”
It is true. By averaging one speech therapy appointment a month over the course of nine consecutive years (from the time Anna turned 3 to the time Samuel turned 6) I estimate I have logged about 3,240 minutes (or 54 hours) in a Czech speech therapist’s office.
What I don’t tell Martina is how good it feels to sit in this café for a few minutes and chat with someone else who has a similar story (even if hers is from the other side of the ocean). I have spent so much time worrying whether my children will be able to make the perfect sounds in their native languages, I have forgotten how much reassurance can be gained from the simple pleasure of sharing my experiences and listening to someone else’s.
Of course, I would like for my children to fit in and to be accepted in both the Czech Republic and the US. And I would like for them to say all their sounds like natives. But, I have come to realize that raising children who can communicate in multiple languages and navigate different cultures is (and should be) more important than having children who can pronounce “th” in English or “ř” in Czech perfectly.
To communicate in any language means taking a risk. Sometimes we will sound like native speakers. Other times, we may need a speech therapist with a smile (and good materials) to guide our path.
Martina and I could keep talking, but we realize there is a group in line for our table. Martina’s children are waiting for her at their grandparents, and I have promised to take my children to ice skate at a village rink this afternoon.
We make plans to keep in touch. And I promise Martina if my family’s anticipated summer travels take us anywhere near Martina’s US home, I will look her up.
What could be better than another visit between a Czech-speaking American who lives in the Czech Republic and an English-speaking Czech who lives in the US?
Nothing. Just remember to serve them both a large mug of filtered coffee.
Dear Half-n-Half readers, exciting changes and a new website for the blog are on the horizon this spring. Many thanks for your continued readership and support. If you would like to continue reading these stories, please consider signing up for updates by clicking the Follow button at the bottom of the page.
In our house, it’s common to hear 7-year-old Samuel say, “Mommy, can you zavazovat my tkaničky?”
To which I respond, “You want me to help you tie your shoelaces?”
“Yep.” He grins.
“They got so zamotanýwhen I tried to sundat my boty after the hříště.”
“You got them tangled when you tried to take your shoes off after you came in from the playground?”
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Sam smiles wider. I loosen the knots in Sam’s mud-streaked, neon orange laces, and he slips his chubby foot into his black Adidas hiking shoes. It looks like he’s walked all afternoon dragging his untied, knotted laces through the slushy mud pit that his school’s playground turns into during the mild, rainy days we’ve had since Christmas. Sam knows he’s old enough to do his laces by himself. He also knows, if he’s persistent, I’ll help.
“There. Try to put the laces into bunny ears like I showed you.” While Sam struggles to tame his crusty laces into submission, I fight to push my frustration aside. Muddy laces can be washed.
But is it selfish of me to wish for my son to make one complete sentence in one language?
Sam isn’t the only one in our house who speaks Czechlish. When I ask if he has homework, 10-year-old Oliver says, “Nope. I don’t have many ukoly today. The teacher didn’t rozdávat the new učebnice.”
Before I can give him a lesson in English grammar (i.e. Don’t say “nope” to your mother and homework isn’t plural) or fuss at him for using Czech words when speaking English, 13-year-old Anna bursts into the room.
“Guys, who drank all the šťáva?” She glares at her brothers. The boys shrug their shoulders and look guilty.
All three of my children speak two languages fluently (Czech and English) and are learning a third (Spanish) and bits of a fourth (German). Instead of turning cartwheels at my family’s linguistic versatility, I find myself beating my head against a wall with the effort I put into decoding my children’s sentences.
I should be grateful that slipping in and out of languages is my children’s birthright. Instead, I am wringing my hands. Does it matter if Sam says most of his verbs in Czech? Should I tell Oliver (again) that the word for homework is uncountable in English? And, what do I say to Anna about a word like “šťáva?” In Czech, šťáva can mean anything from the juicy sauce of cooked meat to a sweet fruit or herb-flavored concentrate that is diluted with water to make a beverage. It’s not exactly “juice” but “syrup” doesn’t quite fit either.
I know many parents of multilingual children who share my frustration.
Code-mixing is a common characteristic of bilingual children, particularly in early childhood when a word in one language might be easier to pronounce or to remember than its equivalent in the second language. Although studies show code-mixing may pose challenges to vocabulary development in early language acquisition, by now, my children are old enough to have developed substantial vocabulary in both languages.
And, I have noticed (unlike when they were younger), they don’t code-mix with everyone. When speaking with their Czech babička (grandmother), they speak Czech. Nor, do they confuse English for Czech at school. With my parents, they speak English. Same with their English-speaking friends. Code-mixing seems to be a treat they reserve for their father and me.
The thought has crossed my mind that code-mixing, or speaking Czechlish as my family likes to say, could be one of those things my children do just to drive me crazy. (It ranks right up there with picking their toenails in bed or leaving half-eaten sandwiches in their book bags.) But, I hated to make that assumption without proof. Most of the time it seemed as if my children code-mixed subconsciously, almost as if they didn’t even realize they had swapped out an English word for a Czech one.
On Science Daily, I found an article called, “Speaking Two Languages for the Price of One,” which suggested that bilinguals who switch languages consistently are able to avoid the negatives of code-mixing or code-switching. (Research for the article was originally published in the Psychological Science journal.)
From the article, I learned that if bilinguals used the same substitutions (for a word or a concept) each time they spoke about it, they could eliminate time lapses which were often associated with switching languages. However, the research study found that while bilinguals were used to code-mixing, many did not do so consistently when left to their own speech patterns.
What do the benefits of consistent code-mixing mean for my family?
Reading about the normalcy of code-mixing helped me take a step back from my frustrations. Years ago, as brand-new parents, Radek and I made the conscious decision to break the one-parent one language rule (OPOL) in favor of a more as-the-situation demands language. (Groan.I know. How could we?) In our defense, I think we were visiting babička and got fed up with all the back-and-forth translating.
We simply spoke English with English-speakers (and during visits to the US), and Czech with Czech family and friends (and everywhere else in the Czech Republic). The children learned Czech in school, but I spoke English to them at home. Somehow it worked. Apart from their Czechlish, our children weren’t lagging in their vocabulary skills in either language. (Their accents are a different story, but more on that next week.)
After reading about the benefits of consistent code-mixing, it suddenly didn’t seem that strange that my children favored speaking Czechlish with me. Since my children know that I speak decent Czech and would most likely understand their Czech words, I wasn’t surprised that they thought (at least subconsciously) that it was faster to use Czechlish than to translate their thoughts completely into English.
Did my realization mean I would stop correcting them?
However, it did make me feel better to know they aren’t code-mixing just to drive me crazy or because they’re lazy (two assumptions I had prior to discovering the research).
I can accept the fact that some words are harder for my children to translate from Czech into English, either because the direct translation doesn’t have as clear a meaning, or because they are words used primarily in a Czech situation (i.e. school words like šťáva, družina, skříňka, šatna, tělocvik – see Key below for translations).
Still, it doesn’t mean I plan to ignore their code-mixing.
Nope. I plan to keep correcting their Czechlish whenever I hear it. How else will their language skills continue to improve?
When I told my plan to Samuel, he said, “Ok, Mommy. I rozumět you. And, if you don’t zvladnout the Czech, don’t worry, I can pomoc you.”
Yep. He’s still working on those tkaničky, too.
Does your family speak Czechlish? If you have any experiences of code-mixing (from any languages), I’d love to hear them.
Next week on Half-n-Half learn more about building strong language skills from a Czech speech therapist (who’s currently living in the US).
Getting away for the weekend is one of my family’s favorite things about life in the Czech Republic. Regardless of the season, once Friday afternoon arrives, we love to hit the road. Summer camping trips to Český Ráj (Bohemian Paradise) and rafting trips near Český Krumlov lead into autumn biking weekends in the Moravian wine region, followed by winter ski weekends in the country’s Krkonos, Jizera, Sumava, and Ore Mountains. When spring rolls around, we head to České Švýcarsko (Bohemian Switzerland) to hike again.
Our weekend travels often take us no farther than the country’s borders (i.e. a drive of one to two hours), yet they set the tone for the rest of our everyday lives. Sometimes, it seems as if we live weekend-to-weekend. Our duffel bags stand packed and ready near the laundry room door.
In this country where adventurers, nature-lovers, and mushroom-pickers abound – we are not alone. Getting out of the city and into nature doesn’t necessarily mean getting away from people, as Czechs in general use their weekend leisure time outdoors.
Being around other people can be a benefit where children are concerned (see tip #2 below). Pre-planning, negotiations, compromise, and flexibility are key to making a family weekend away work, especially in the winter when extra clothing and special equipment are often required (see tip #4).
Even if you aren’t ready to tackle an overnight, the Czech Republic is small enough to take a day ski/hike/trek trip anywhere in the country. No luggage required except for a day-pack.
Here are a few of my family’s best tips (and good spots) for making a winter weekend (or even a day) away, one that everyone will remember (in the best possible way).
#1 Plan Ahead
Decide what the primary goal of the weekend is. Do you want to downhill ski on slopes that will test your abilities? Go for a long day hike and stop for garlic soup and fruit dumplings at a mountain lodge? Put your children into ski lessons while you and your partner hit the slopes alone? Are you traveling with a group that includes non-skiers and skiers? Do you want to spend the evening playing a family game in a cozy cottage or socializing with friends in a restaurant?
Finding accommodation at this point in the winter can be tricky, as the Czech Republic is a small country and winter weekends are booked months in advance. However, if you have the urge to leave the city, check local websites (see where to go below) or www.booking.com for last minute deals. Try e-chalupy to rent entire cottages for multiple families.
#2 Travel with Friends (preferably ones with children)
From hard-earned experience, I’ve learned that family ski (hike, raft, bike, etc.) trips are best enjoyed with friends. Seriously. Trying to convince my three to brave bitter winds or heavy snowfall to hit the slopes on our own can be a chore. On the other hand, when we travel with friends, I often have to drag them off the slopes at the end of the day. Then, they usually just exchange their skis for sleds or shovels to build a snow fort.
Traveling with others requires prior planning, flexibility, and patience (see tips #1 and #5). But the benefits can be worth it. In addition to fun on the slopes, traveling as a group can bring added benefits – games and late-night conversation, splitting cooking responsibilities, and the chance for your children to share their skills (and learn some new ones) from their peers.
#3 Organize Food, Snacks & Drinks (before you go)
Have you ever been driving down highway D1 passing Czech cars loaded up with everything from a potty chair to a runner sled strapped on the top? Czechs travel prepared. From packing snacks for the car, to taking sandwiches on the slopes, or tucking a thermos of hot tea into their day packs, Czechs seem to know what it takes to keep themselves (and their children) physically satisfied while adventuring.
After watching my friends whip out sandwiches on the lift mid-morning to give their children, I finally caught on. Whether you carry your food with you or just plan where to stop (i.e. the Yeti Hut on Lipno’s back side has my children’s favorite hot chocolate while their après ski bar near the Fox Park is great for drinks while children sled), make food a fun part of your weekend away.
#4 Rent equipment & book lessons ahead of time (or call ahead)
Rather than scrambling last minute to find the right downhill or cross-country skis (as we have often done), consider renting your children’s equipment for the season back in Prague. Happy Sport has several locations in Prague and one in Hradec Kralove.
#5 Be Patient & Flexible
When traveling with children, remember that flexibility and patience are key. Things are likely to go wrong. And, you can’t control the weather. Take it in stride. Some of my family’s most memorable vacations include hiking in thick fog on the ridge above Špindlerův Mlýn, trying cross-country skiing (and falling repeatedly) in the Jizera Mountains, and playing rousing games of Dixit while listening to the rain beat down on the cottage roof.
A Few of Our Favorite Czech Ski Spots (totally subjective)
The Lipno Ski resort in the Sumava Mountains (about 30 minutes from Cesky Budejovice by car, 200 km from Prague) is a great place to bring your family for their first ski experience. With the largest children’s ski areal in the country (Fox Park), gentle slopes, and plenty of activities for non-skiers (i.e. waterpark, Hopsarium, ice skating on Lake Lipno, and a treetop walkway, the Lipno resort is designed with families in mind. Ski and snowboard lessons are available for adults and children in Czech, English, and Dutch.
If cross-country skiing is more your style, head to Boží Dar, a ski town in the Karlovy Vary Region of the Krušné Hory (Ore Mountains) about 125 km from Prague. Enjoy the downhill runs at the region’s largest resort, Klinovec, in the morning, then swap out for an afternoon of cross-country skiing on kilometers of gently rolling, groomed trails. Boží Dar is an ideal place to introduce your family to cross-country skiing. And for aspiring snowboarders, Klinovec’s new Funparkhas jumps and railings even for beginners.
The Spindlruv Mlyn ski resort in the Krkonos Mountains (145 km from Prague) is the Vail or Aspen of the Czech Republic. With a cute downtown straddling the river, shops to browse through, high-end restaurants and an active nightlife, Spindl offers a wide variety of options for skiers and non-skiers alike. After a day on the slopes, try snow tubing or tobogganing, or visit a water park. For last minute accommodations, check the local website or check here for more tips for families.
Though not as large as Spindl, Pec pod Sněžkou (200 km from Prague) is another popular family-oriented resort in the Krkonos Mountains. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to use a T-bar (or anchor) style lifts, this is the resort for you. Although the resort does have two chair lifts, the numerous T-bar lifts and mountain cottages scattered on the slopes give Pec a retro feel. The summit of Sněžka(1603 metres above sea level), the Czech Republic’s highest peak, can be reached by cable car from Pec, although fall or spring are more ideal times to make this hike with children.
The Jizera Mountains are best known for the Jizerská magistrála, a network of 170 km of cross-country skiing trails. The magistral is the site of the country’s most famous cross-country race, the annual Jizerská 50. Visit the region for this year’s 51st race series (February 16-18), which includes the traditional 50 km main race, team races, a 10-km family race, and a mini-race for children.
Whether you decide to book a weekend away or just head to the mountains for a day trip, I hope these tips may help.
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 rajskáomáčka (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?
Exchanging 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.
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.
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.)
Life in the Czech Republic with my Czech-American family