The language of dreaming

When your child dreams in a language not your mother tongue

Prague wasn’t intended as my final destination. After working a year in public relations following university, I wanted more time to transition from student life, to real life, whatever that was supposed to be. Grad school was on my mind; I vacillated between an advanced degree in journalism or law. I took a class in San Francisco called “Creating a Life Worth Living,” where we mapped out our three most ideal jobs. My list included: 1) writer 2) teacher 3) café/pastry shop owner.

When my roommates decided to leave San Francisco, and I realized that I wasn’t ready to commit to a grad school program or to opening my own café, I teamed with a like-minded childhood friend who was also ready for an adventure abroad. Our plan was to teach English for a year or two in Europe. I wanted to make enough money to cover my expenses and see some interesting sights. I had hoped that I’d get a better idea of what I wanted to do when I returned to the US.

Twelve and a half years after my initial arrival in Prague, I’m still here. The “real life” of my dreams has long been shoved aside to make way for practical day-to-day duties. Although I believe that I’ve created a home for my family here; sometimes I don’t know where my own home is. I’m torn between feeling both Czech and American at the same time, depending on the situation. I think my children feel the same way, although for them, being multilingual and exposed to more than one culture is their birthright. Still, even for them, it hasn’t come without effort.

One recent night, we’d put our boys down to sleep together in our bed instead of in their own bunk beds. Since they both wake frequently in the night and come to our bed, I was hoping that by starting them off together in our bed, they’d sleep through the night peacefully and so would we. In the middle of the night, however, I was awakened by Sammy’s desperate cry, “mamko, mamko!” By the time, I’d reached him he’d started to wet his pants, so I took him quickly to the bathroom, and he fell straight back to sleep.

I, however, lay awake for hours thinking about how my three-and-half year old had just called me “mother” in Czech in his sleep. It was true that in recent weeks, Sammy had begun speaking to me exclusively in Czech. His vocabulary had grown exponentially in the six months since he started Czech preschool. We have lengthy conversations with me speaking to him in English and him answering me in Czech. Sometimes, I don’t even realize it until afterward. Frustrated, I’ve begun to try to force him to speak back to me in English. First, I tried saying, “What? Sorry, I don’t understand you.” Initially, it was a game. Then, he became frustrated too. We took it a step further and decided to make dinner time an English zone, with even Radek speaking to the children in English. It didn’t change things much. Our older children who are used to speaking English (with some Czech words inserted when they don’t know the correct English ones) continued to speak in the same way, while Sammy just decided he was done with dinner altogether.

Last weekend I went with three other Czech women for a getaway of sport and relaxation. Our retreat was in the Moravian wine country, and I was excited, if a bit nervous about the adventure. It was the second time I was going with this group of women. On the first trip we really hit it off, and I had thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I wondered if we could repeat the magic six months later.

Our instructors were also the same as in the fall. The classes were a combination of high-energy dance classes taught by Charles, a well-built, charismatic black man originally from London and ballet-type stretching led by Sona, a demure, Czech new mother with the poise of a ballerina. Over the short weekend, we stretched our bodies and our minds just as we had in the fall. Since we spoke mostly Czech, the first evening my head was spinning. Charles’s dance classes, taught in English with a bit of Czech thrown in for comic effect, were a soothing balance. After exercising, we sipped wine from the local vineyards and shared stories.

When I’d spoken with Charles back in the fall, he told me that he and his Czech wife had left London nine years ago to make their home in a small town near Zlin. He was the father of two children, and, like me, he thought family life in the Czech Republic was pretty close to ideal. Although he missed his eight siblings back in London, he was happy.

Over the course of the two evenings we had together, my friends and I discussed everything from our husbands and our children to our life philosophies and our dreams. I hadn’t laughed as hard or as often in months. When they asked me about how I’d adjusted to life in the Czech Republic, I answered honestly. Some days life here was great – other days if given the option, I’d happily teleport myself back to my family in the US, just to get a bit of balance. I told them about Sammy’s recent switch to speaking only Czech. Just talking about it and admitting that it bothered me seemed to help. Of course, they told me what I already somehow knew: forcing Sammy to speak English wasn’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. He had to want to speak English.

No one had made me learn Czech years ago. It was a choice. I made the decision because I wanted to have a home here. I didn’t want to live here without the security of knowing the language and trying to understand the culture. I’m grateful for my Czech home. I know that I am living out the dreams I’d had for myself many years ago. I’m learning to appreciate this more each day.

One case in point, I thought I knew all there was to know about Czech Easter traditions. However, just this week my son Oliver taught me a new custom. On Easter Monday, a Czech saying goes that you are supposed to wear something new. Having never heard this before, I asked Oliver why. He told me giggling, “So that a ram doesn’t poop on you, Mommy!”

On this light-hearted note, I’d like to wish Half ‘n Half readers a Happy Easter Sunday and Monday! I realize now that in the routine of my everyday life my dreams have, in fact, come true. I hope your dreams come true for you as well.





Hanging out the laundry

Line-dry idle time

After six years of pumping out fresh, dry clothes like clock-work, our dryer, without warning or apology, simply burned up. I first smelled it Saturday morning when I was tidying up the kitchen, but I attributed the burnt smell to a candle I had lit. When I went into the laundry room, I found the dryer’s START button blinking. There was a bundle of warm, wet and slightly roasted-smelling clothes inside. Undaunted, I simply pushed START again and went back to cleaning in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I returned an hour later that I realized something was wrong.

Radek was away for the weekend. When I called to report the problem, he expressed sympathy, but told me it would be best to wait. He hoped he could figure out the problem before we called a repairman. I took a break from the laundry to sit down for breakfast with the children. 

Both Anna Lee and Oliver had spent that Friday night at their elementary school as part of a world-wide program called noc s Andersonem (night with Anderson). There they had read fairytales and celebrated Hans Christian Anderson’s 209th birthday. Anna’s third-grade class was given the job of describing Anderson’s home in Denmark, while the fifth graders were responsible for designing a special late-night bojovka (adventure game) with scavenger-hunt tasks related to particular Anderson fairy tales. As the youngest students, Oliver’s class drew pictures of Anderson’s fairy tales and watched the older students’ presentations. 

My children interrupted each other as they recounted the details of the evening’s bojovka, a common thrilling fixture of Czech summer camps and school overnights. As they walked in the dark to different stations in the school, they encountered famous Anderson fairy tale characters, such as the Ugly Duckling, the Littlest Mermaid and even the Emperor without his clothes. Getting past the Snow Queen and safely back to their classroom was the final task.

Anna and Oliver were delighted to tell me in detail of the characters they’d encountered, both new and familiar, and of the history they’d learned about Anderson. They also seemed pleased to linger a few minutes over their eggs and bacon, waiting to listen to my reactions to their adventures. Finally, I sent them to clean the playroom while I went to hang the wet laundry.

Shaking each piece and smoothing it before I hung it on the drying rack, I was reminded of my earlier experiences washing clothes in the Czech Republic. In my first few months in the Czech Republic I’d gotten used to hand washing items and laying them to dry on a radiator in my apartment. Since it was winter, the central heating was on and the clothes dried quickly. I only had a handful of items with me. I soon learned the trick of airing-out my sweaters and jeans that weren’t dirty, but smelled of second-hand smoke from bars and restaurants.

For serious washing, my roommate and I took our bag of laundry via tram to a laundry-mat. It was an expensive and time-consuming way to spend a Saturday. So when my new-boyfriend Radek offered that I could bring my dirty clothes with me when we visited his mother, I readily agreed. He didn’t have a washing machine in the apartment that he rented with his friend, so he always took his laundry home, he explained.

Upon arriving in his hometown Friday evening, Radek announced that we needed to make a stop at his grandparent’s apartment before going to his mother’s. We caught his grandparents just before bed and chatted with them for a few minutes. On his way out the door, Radek casually mentioned to his grandmother, “Oh, I’m just going to run get my laundry from the car. Emily’s got a few things that need to be washed, too. Is that okay?” Mortified, I couldn’t speak. Although I protested, his grandmother smiled and nodded as she took the bag from Radek’s hand. She waved us on our way.

When we returned later to his grandparent’s apartment for a typical Sunday lunch of snitzel and potatoes, Radek’s grandmother showed me my laundry. It had been carefully ironed and folded, even my underwear. I thanked her profusely and told her (or at least tried to) in Czech that I hadn’t expected her to do my laundry, I had just wanted to borrow her washing machine. Radek translated and she laughed and patted my cheek. Later, when I asked Radek why he didn’t do his laundry himself, he told me that his grandmother was the best at ironing his work shirts.

Although that was the last time that I took my laundry to my future-in-laws, Radek’s tradition of taking his clothes to his grandmother’s continued until he bought our first apartment in Prague. We installed a washing machine under the kitchen counter top, just to the right of the sink. It is a spot I later discovered that was fairly typical for a European washing machine. Like most Czechs, we didn’t have a dryer. The drying rack held a prominent position in our living room, and I soon became used to ironing everything that I wanted to be soft and smooth, even underwear.  

Over the years, I’ve grown pampered by our dryer. It saves me time and effort by tumble-drying most of the clothes my family wears. The ironing I’ve done of late has been limited to Radek’s button-down shirts or synthetic fabrics that I don’t choose to dry in the machine. When our dryer suddenly stopped working, I realized how fortunate I am to have the modern equipment that makes doing laundry a mere blip in my housekeeping routine. As I began smoothing the clothes and laying them out on the drying rack and around the house on top of the radiators to dry, I realized how much more time it was going to take me to get my family’s clothes back into their drawers ready-to-wear.

Still, I couldn’t help but look back with pleasure on an earlier time when drying my clothes meant experiencing and adapting to a new culture. Although many of my Czech neighbors and friends also have dryers now, I find that they are far more selective about the items they choose to put in their dryers. Usually, clothes are still hung to dry while sheets and towels are dried in the automatic dryer. I’ve got friends who swear that line-dried clothes, particularly those dried in the open air, not only smell better but stay in good shape longer than those dried in the dryer.

While I am grateful for the modern convenience of the automatic dryer, there is a certain feeling of satisfaction in a job well-done that I get when hanging laundry. I remember a friend who didn’t have a dryer and didn’t like to iron, once telling me that smoothing the wrinkles from her husband’s shirts when she took them off the drying rack was one of the greatest gifts she gave him. It seemed kind of ridiculous to me at the time, but I now think I understand.

Although I’d like to reflect more on the benefits of the modern dryer, since our dryer isn’t yet fixed, I don’t really have the time. I’ve got to go iron some underwear.