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.