Returning home

Reflections on re-entry to our Czech life

Jet-lag compounded by exhaustion from an impromptu welcome home barbecue at our neighbor’s house across the street has the children sleeping late into the morning. Oliver and Sam are a tangle of tanned limbs in our master bed; meanwhile, Anna sleeps coverless in her own single bed. Surprisingly, it’s warmer here than it was back in Virginia, although a rain shower last night has cooled the air. After having grown accustomed to air-conditioned spaces, I have to readjust to the humidity. It feels at once familiar, yet strangely new, just as I myself do on our first morning back in Prague.  

It’s nearly ten a.m. and I’m knee-deep in sorting through suitcases and duffle bags, separating clean clothes from dirty, and unpacking a few specialty items I’ve brought back from the US. I put Chef Paul’s Magic Salmon Seasoning, Jet-puffed marshmallows and Nestle chocolate chips in the pantry and arrange a couple of inexpensive picture frames on the buffet. New school shoes go in the closet, and I find a shelf in my nightstand for the writing journals that I scavenged from the bottom of my childhood closet.

Into the frames I’ve put pictures from the summer that Cathy, the office manager at my dad’s office, printed out for me. There is a shot of Radek, Oliver and my nephew Xander proudly holding the catch from their first deep-sea fishing trip, a 38-inch Cobia, which we later grilled for dinner. Another picture shows Samuel and his cousin Kingston sitting on a stack of old lumber in my grandfather’s barn waiting for their turn to drive the farm tractor with my father. Their lips are purple from lollipops, and they look wistfully at the viewer.

The last photo is of my parents’ five grandchildren lined up together in the sand at the beach. Oliver’s hands are thrown in the air and he has his goofy smile he reserves for pictures. Xander and Samuel look straight ahead, grinning for the camera. Anna Lee, the oldest and the only girl, is holding a throw net filled with tiny silver-colored minnows. Kingston, the youngest, looks at the camera mischievously. Like a band of adventurers, they named the minnows and moved them back and forth from sand buckets to shallow tide pools where they built sand castles, bridges and tunnels. Samuel even constructed a track from the Czech Republic to America, a long narrow groove in the sand that minnows could only traverse by Fisher Price boat with Samuel’s permission and a valid passport from both countries.  

At the end of June, as we were at the airport to head to the States, we were stopped by the Czech exit border control because our children were traveling on American passports, but they did not have visas as they are also Czech citizens. Although we’d traveled exclusively using their American passports for the past nine-and-a-half years, this year our connecting flight was in London (outside the Schengen zone), and thus our children weren’t allowed to leave without their Czech passport or a valid visa as American citizens. Even despite having Czech birth certificates and documents that proved their citizenship, we weren’t allowed to leave. Four days later, we successfully flew out, having re-booked our tickets (with a hefty fee) and applied for and received expedited short-term Czech passports for the children at our local town hall.

The ordeal left a distinct impression on all the children. In addition to Samuel’s water track, during the summer they made paper passports from neon-colored index cards. They stamped them and drew pictures of things they’d seen or done in America. There was a picture of the tree frog Oliver had caught at the farm, and the bird’s nest they’d discovered with three tiny eggs that they watched hatch into baby birds. There was Rascal, the neighbor’s cat who let himself be picked up and put into the back of the pedal tractor.

Once they made their passports, they practiced denying one another exit from the Czech Republic. Samuel stood like a guard with his hand outstretched reaching for the passports and then shoving them back into his siblings’ hands with a grumpy satisfaction that seemed to match those of the border officers we’d encountered. “Nope, wrong pass,” he’d declare. “You need a český, not an americký pass to get here.”

At the end of the summer on the night before we left for the airport to return to Prague, my Dad took Anna Lee and Samuel for one last look at the farm. It had been our first destination upon arriving to my hometown and had remained a favorite during the time we were there. The children and my father had dug carrots and potatoes from the soil. They’d rigged up a pulley in the loft and sent plastic grocery bags full of corn up and down the loft opening. They’d ridden countless laps in the tractor around the flat bottom land. On the last night, they came back with grocery bags full of sweet corn and green beans and armfuls of mums which my mother’s sister, who was visiting, arranged in five different vases. She positioned the fresh flowers in rooms throughout the house while I packed suitcases and lamented that it was time to leave already.

Back in Prague this morning, I feel like going outside to cut some fresh hydrangeas or to pick the few raspberries I noticed yesterday on my welcome-back walk through the garden. The geraniums need pruning and most of my potted plants are brown, dried out and should be replaced. It feels like the kind of day to work outside with children’s shouts in the background. I can still hear the children back on the farm squabbling over who got to ride the tractor first, who got the longest ride or the most turns.

If we had been at my parents’ house, they would have been up by this time already, begging for pancakes and to watch the Disney Junior channel. At my parents’ house, the television was a part of the children’s morning routine. While my mother showered and dried her hair, they climbed into her bed and watched cartoons. Watching television in America was both a cultural experience and a summertime treat. I listened as Anna Lee and Oliver tried to work the new expressions like “Like really, you must be kidding me?” into spoken banter with their cousins. With the background noise of the television, the children’s laughter and cries, the telephone’s incessant ringing and extended family and friends coming in and out, my parents’ house at times seemed too-full. I longed for peace and quiet. 

Now that I have it, I miss the noise.

I don’t remember falling asleep last night though I recall hearing the boys, fresh from their bath fueled by adrenaline and the thrill of being home with their father again. They begged and pleaded for Radek to wrestle with them. Feeling tired, I lay down on Sam’s lower bunk as the boys bounced and wrestled on our big bed. And that’s how they fell asleep. Three boys of different ages and sizes tumbled together on the bed.

I know that as soon as the children wake, their presence will make the house seem at once ours again. Their shouts and exclamations will wash the unlived-in feeling out. I won’t have time to contemplate the weight of being caught between here and there. However, before I return to living in the chaos of the moment, I sit still in the quiet house and make myself embrace the awkward caught-in-between feeling.

With each trip to the States and back, I am able to face this feeling a little more.