Mushrooming time

A different spin on a walk in the woods

For many Czechs, mushroom hunting is a relaxing autumn pastime, one that is both connected to nature and has practical implications. From young children to grandparents with walking sticks, most of the Czech population actively enjoys mushrooming. Mushroom season traditionally runs from April to November. Now with the first few hectic weeks of back-to-school adjustments behind us, a chance to spend a weekend morning outdoors in nature is a welcome respite.

Mushrooming can be relaxing, but it does take getting used it, especially for finish-line oriented hikers like myself. As an adult, I’m used to reading the trail signs, calculating the distance and encouraging my children to “keep up a good pace.” Walking through the woods in Virginia, our family typically sets out to climb a peak or to reach a particular destination. Czechs, on the other hand, seem to be used to longer meanderings with frequent stops along the way. In the Czech countryside and forests there is nearly always an outdoor stand (or two or three) for grabbing a hot drink in the winter or a cool beer in the summer.

While hiking on the Czech marked trails, I’m always surprised when it seems to cut right along someone’s agricultural field or directly behind someone’s back yard. In the US, I’m used to seeing more NO TRASPASSING SIGNS warning strangers to back off from private property. We don’t typically hunt mushrooms in our forests back home, although a few dedicated woodsmen look for “morel” mushrooms. In the States we have a saying, leave only footprints, and take only memories and photos. Picking wildflowers in state parks is definitely a no-no, yet picking berries is generally okay. I’m not sure where picking mushrooms falls on that spectrum. Almost no one picks mushrooms in the States, and many people fear picking the wrong mushroom and getting terrible ill.

In any case, when my children found and uprooted an edible mushroom in the woods near the beach picnic area of the state park in my hometown, they brought their find proudly to our picnic table. Expecting praise for their sharp eyes, instead they received criticism. Embarrassed, my mother told them to put the mushroom back straightaway. Disappointed because, as they insisted, it was an edible mushroom, they glumly trudged to replant it. I tried to explain the rules, but I think it still didn’t make that much sense considering the freedom they take for granted in the Czech campgrounds and forests.

Unlike our typical hikes, mushrooming walks don’t have to have a destination, although we often cover quite a bit of trail in the thrill of the hunt. It’s not surprising to discover that the same children whose legs were too tired to walk another step suddenly become energetic once they spot their first edible mushroom. You can’t find mushrooms if you’re tromping through the grass and undergrowth at top speed. Mushrooming isn’t a test of speed. Training your eyes on the ground in front of you, while scanning the ground to either side, requires patience and discipline. Nor, is it a competition for noise, as my husband has frequently, but patiently, explained to the children when their cries echo through the forest. Loud noises might not disturb the mushrooms, but it sure does make the sport less pleasant for your fellow mushroom hunters. And, if you’re hunting for mushrooms in the Czech countryside, it is reasonable to expect that, unlike Little Red Riding Hood, you won’t have the woods to yourself.

Mushroom hunting usually doesn’t require heavy physical exertion, unless you count the act of stooping to the ground to pull the mushroom up by its root. Mushrooms should be identified before picking them, which, for me, means putting my head down to the underside of the mushroom cap to see if I can see spores or gills. According to Czech practice, all types of mushrooms with spores underneath are edible. This significant distinction means even four-year-old Samuel possesses the skill-set to be an independent mushroom hunter. Mushrooms with gills must be further identified, either by a Czech well-versed in mushroom picking or a local expert. While not all Czechs enjoy eating mushrooms, many non-mushroom eaters still join their families and friends to gather the mushrooms

The Czech traditional of mushroom hunting can even border on the religious, in a very nature-based commune-with-the-forest way. A few weekends ago I went into the woods with my Czech friend Lucka and our six children collectively. We traipsed along a path through tall, wet grasses until we found a semi-shaded spot that my friend thought might be good for mushrooms. When Oliver moaned that we surely wouldn’t find any mushrooms, Lucka, only half-jokingly, encouraged all the children to talk to the forest.

“Ask the forest to show you mushrooms,” she told Anna Lee, “you’ll find that the forest gives you what you’re looking for.” While I took her words to be simple encouragement to the kids to keep walking and stop whining, Anna Lee took Lucka’s words to heart. She headed off forging her own path, and within minutes she cried out that she’d spotted her first mushroom. That morning, we had a slim haul – only a handful. Still, we’d spent four mostly pleasant hours in the forest with six young children, which I thought was an accomplishment too.

With no training in the art of mushrooming, I am learning alongside my children. The most-effective (and amusing) course of action once I’ve spotted a potential edible mushroom is to call out to whichever of my children happens to be nearby and ask him or her for help. Both Anna Lee and Oliver will gladly feel the underside of the mushroom to see if it has pores, gently pry it from the ground, roots and all, and then whip out their pocket knives to clean it. Typically, cleaning the mushrooms requires cutting off bits and pieces, particularly from older mushrooms that have already been tasted by curious forest creatures. Sam simply bends down and plucks the mushroom up. Sometimes, in his enthusiasm, he gets only the cap, and then together we go back to pull up the stem.

Not one of our children is a mushroom lover; still, they all like to eat mushroom říphoto 1zky, breaded and deep-fried mushroom pieces. They like the tops of the immature modráky mushrooms the best and dislike the texture of the older, larger mushrooms’ spongier parts. Since the mushrooms we’d found earlier in the season hadn’t been good for řízky, the weekend after school started, we headed to Máchovo Jezero for round two.

The day before I’d competed in my first off-road triathlon at the lake, which in addition to the .5 km lake swim had included a 15 km mountain bike ride and a 5 km trail run. I’d pedaled and run as hard as I could through these very woods only hours before. Now, I was supposed to walk slowly. It was big adjustment. Promising to make řízky for Sunday night’s dinner, Radek turned the children loose when we reached the edge of the forest.

At his urging, they ran ahead of us, Oliver carrying a large, brown woven basket that Radek’s grandfather had given us specifically for mushrooming. Anna Lee held her own white wicker basket that she’d confiscated from the side of her bathtub where I typically store fresh washcloths. Anna also had her rybička, a small, pocketknife shaped like a carp that Czech children use for whittling,photo 2-2 camping and fishing. Oliver had a new Swiss Army pocketknife as a souvenir from our camping trip in the US. Samuel, no knife in possession, lugged some firewood behind him as he walked. In the forest surrounding the camp all downed wood could be taken and used at the communal campfire pits to roast sausages or have a bonfire. I’d brought along marshmallows from the US that we thought we’d try to roast later that afternoon.

Enthusiastic and boisterous, the children’s voices traveled through the woods. Explaining that mushroom gathering was supposed to be a relaxing, calm activity, we reminded the kids that we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. We wanted to use our eyes to see if we could spot some mushrooms, but it wasn’t a competition either. Basically, everything that we usually told them when we were hiking, we said the opposite.

As luck would have it, the combination of a rainy week and a few hot, sunny days afterward had made the forest prime for mushrooming. We found many of the modrák variety, a yellowish-brown capped mushroom with a reddish stem whose cap turns blue upon being touched. There were brownish leaves on the forest floor, so we had to look twice to discern leaf from mushroom. As the children trampled the wild blueberry bushes, Radek reminded them of the Czech wife’s tale that “every mushroom has a brother;” meaning they should mind their steps. Sure enough, most of the time we spotted the mushrooms in small clusters, usually amongst the blueberry bushes.

The kids got into the spirit of the hunt, and we soon had filled the larger of the two baskets. Before they were tired of looking, we called it quits. We’d promised to make a campfire, and we still had to pack up and get back to Prague for school on Monday. It had been a quick trip, but the time in the forest had yielded enough mushrooms for a dinner of řízky and a freezer for winter-time mushroom soups.

With babi léto (Indian summer) in the weekend’s forecast, it could be one of the last chances to go mushrooming before the weather turns again. I expect the woods will be crowded. Since my family has enough mushrooms in the freezer to last this season, I’ll probably suggest that we go on a family hike instead – perhaps one with a destination, just to mix things up a bit.


Storybook connections

Growing through reading

I had been bracing myself for the first day of school’s drive into town since last week, when I’d noticed workers blocking off a lane of traffic on our commute route to paint “BUS TAXI BIKE” indications. Getting to school on time had not been an easy feat in the past – and this was bound to make it even more of a challenge. Last year the traffic would start to back up by 7:50 a.m. Although taking the public bus into town is a possible solution, it would make the rest of my day more complicated. Much to my children’s dismay, instead of riding a bright yellow school bus like they’d seen back in Virginia, they were stuck with me, their white-knuckled chauffeur, who despite years of practice still dreads the stress of the school-morning commute on a daily basis.

On the first day of school I went to wake the children a few minutes early. I found Oliver unexpectedly standing in his room putting his clothes on in the dark. “Surprise,” he declared, “I’m going to be the first one ready today!” Although none of my three children had expressed excitement about going back to school, I was pleased that Oliver’s mood seemed cheerful. Anna Lee was also pleasant, if a little sleepy. She dressed in her new “American Girl” outfit, a pair of purplish below-the-knee leggings, a white tank top and a purple ballet-style sweater embroidered with the yellow silhouette of a dancer. She’d picked out the combination from the AG store we’d visited on our D.C. shopping trip; then had accidentally left the outfit in a drawer at my parents’ house. It’d come in the mail on Friday, and Anna was ecstatic she could show it off on the first day of school.

Only Samuel was distressed. On Sunday afternoon, while Anna Lee and Oliver had stocked their new art supply cases, sharpened their pencils and retrieved their lunchroom chips and key chains, Samuel had pouted. He wasn’t planning on going to school this year, he told me emphatically. He’d wait until he was a kindergartener, and then perhaps he’d go again. If he did go, he warned me; he certainly wasn’t going to sleep there after lunch. I assured Samuel that on the first day of school, he’d only have to stay one hour, just like the big kids. I figured we’d take it one day at a time. Since the first day of school for Czech children is officially only one hour long, it is often a celebratory day with parents taking time off work to take their children to an ice cream parlor or sweet shop after they meet their teacher.

Although I had declared the summer holiday a time for reading in English, at the request of their Czech school teachers, all three children had kept a journal in Czech of their favorite trips, activities or discoveries. On their first day of school, Anna Lee and Oliver packed their journals and a few pictures. Putting regular entries into the journals had required my repeated prompting, and in the end Oliver ended up with just five entries. Still, writing and illustrating the journals in the US had brought a bit of cross-over culture to the holiday.

This summer my children had also participated in the inaugural “Books on the Go” reading competition sponsored through the Class Acts multicultural organization in Prague. One of the Class Acts founders had devised the challenge in order to inspire children to read more in English over their summer holidays. Since many bilingual and multicultural kids attend Czech schools, there often isn’t enough time in the school year to do reading in both English and Czech. Not to mention reading in another language these children may have as a “home” language (German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian or Russian). The summer reading challenge encouraged each child to read at least 10 books in English. Emphasis was placed on participation, rather than competition, although a prize was to be awarded to both the Czech school and the international school with the most books read. There was no minimum length for the books, but a parent was required to sign the reading list.

Unlike with their Czech journals, I didn’t have to nag the kids much, if at all, to read in English. The contest itself was plenty of motivation for Anna Lee who began reading in June when the competition was announced. She soon had her ten books read and spent a good part of her vacation in America reading aloud one of my mother’s all-time favorites, “No Children, No Pets,” a story about three children and their mother who inherit an apartment building complete with sign – No Children, No Pets. Oliver was motivated to read in English because it meant he got an adult’s attention all to himself for the length of time he read. Still, he was curious if there would be a prize for finishing his ten books.

When we got to the awards ceremony which was held on the afternoon of the first day of school, my children and I were running low on energy. From the morning, we’d been moving in high speed. First, we’d rushed to school, though the traffic hadn’t been as bad as I’d feared, so we’d ended up arriving so early that we had to wait twenty minutes on the street until the school doors opened. Then, we’d hurried to the stationery shop to buy all the supplies their teachers had requested. Afterward, we’d stopped at an art school to register Anna Lee for a new art class. Finally, we’d driven across town in the rain to the Prague 2 park where the award ceremony was held.

Hungry, tired and a little bit cranky, the children hung on me and whined. Luckily, after I’d bought peanuts, pretzels and a drink to tide them over until we could find real food; they called all the children to the front of the pavilion to take a seat for story time. Story time was led by Jeff from Brown Box Books, one of the event’s sponsors. As Jeff read “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” and “The Lost Tooth Club,” I watched with other parents from a corner near the front. From my vantage point, I recognized the faces of children I hadn’t seen in a few years. Most were taller with longer hair and more mature faces. Many looked strikingly like their parents, whom I’d also not seen in years. Since Anna Lee had started the first grade, we hadn’t made as much time to go regularly to Class Acts events like the weekend puppet shows and storytelling that my children had loved as toddlers. It made me sad to realize how much time had passed since my kids had been with a group of other bilingual kids like themselves.

Story time was interactive, with children raising their hands to point out which tooth they’d lost or to respond to the question of whether they thought Miss Malarkey should go to school with a fever of 103.2. When Jeff asked the children if anyone knew what the word “DISCIPLINE” meant I could tell that some of the older children knew, but they weren’t quite confident enough to say it. At one point, Samuel was so interested in the story that he left his seat and went to sit on the floor directly in front of Jeff. From the smallest children like Samuel to middle-school pre-teens, they were all collectively absorbed in listening to the English stories. Watching them together, I was glad we’d made the effort to come.

By the time we left, both children had gotten their certificates for reading 10 books. Anna had also been awarded a new “Books on the Go” t-shirt and Oliver had earned a free zoo ticket. Yet, once in the car, when I asked them what their favorite part of the awards ceremony was, they all three answered: STORYTIME!

The trip back across town home didn’t seem to take as long as the trip there. Although at 6:30 p.m. the traffic was even worse than it had been at 3:30 p.m., at Oliver’s insistence we’d purchased the copy of “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” from the storyteller. On the way home, Anna and Oliver took turns reading the book to Samuel and poring over the illustrations. When we got home, they each picked a bedtime story for me to read aloud.

I was grateful that the first day of school had gone smoothly. Since I know that school life and Czech culture will soon takeover our daily lives as well as most of our weekend free time, I was glad to set aside a couple of hours to recognize my children’s summertime English reading achievements. As my desktop calendar reminded me: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are” — Mason Cooley.

For parents looking for English language books for their children in the Czech Republic, Class Acts has complied an extensive list of 13 Places to Find Children’s Books in English.