Keeping cool while navigating life’s bureaucratic moments
Overall, I’m happy that my family lives in the Czech Republic. I can list the reasons why, and I often do, usually when prompted by a Czech friend or a visiting foreigner. The other day while cycling in the woods near Roztoky, I unexpectedly came upon a fellow group of cyclists from Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC. I’m not certain whether I was more surprised to find this group of tourists so far from the downtown area, or if they were more surprised to find a fellow North American who spoke some Czech and knew the local ferry schedule.
During our fifteen-minute wait for the ferry, they peppered me with questions about what I was doing living in the Czech Republic. Being parents and grandparents themselves, they were curious about everything from my children’s ages and linguistic abilities to whether I filed my taxes with the IRS. One particularly wry gentleman even asked me half-jokingly if I was still with the same Czech man who’d gotten me into this life in the first place. Another man from Seattle told me that he had grandchildren in Alaska whom he seldom gets to see. He asked me how often I make it back to the States and if my family comes here to visit. We talked about Skyping with our far-away family members. We chatted, as people typically do during chance meetings, and then waved cheerful best wishes and goodbyes. From Prague, they were heading on to bike in Vienna.
Unlike many expat families who relocate for their jobs, my husband and I made the choice to return to live long-term in the Czech Republic before either of us had jobs. We both had had the experience of living and working in Prague before we moved to America together. Returning married and with a one-year old, we found our lives in Prague, and Prague itself, different than how we’d remembered it. Adjusting to Czech parenting culture took some getting used to. Now it seems normal for my children to wear tights under their pants in the winter, to eat soup every day at school before their main course, to dress in slippers at school, to beg for salami sandwiches in their snacks, and to attend after-school courses in nearly every subject imaginable because Czech school ends by lunchtime.
In the beginning, I didn’t realize how comfortable I’d feel living here, nearly ten years later, speaking the language and adapting to the culture. The benefits of having more time for family life, weekend leisure time largely spent outdoors, longer vacations, the chance to stay home with my children until they were three and later to create a flexible working schedule were just some of the reasons we decided to stay. Feeling the responsibility of exposing our children to both their Czech and American heritage and taking the opportunity to raise our children bilingually, lent itself naturally to living for some extended time in the Czech Republic.
Yet, there are some things about Czech culture that I still don’t understand. I am surprised by the independence children are given at a young age, being trusted to walk to and from school by themselves or to go with friends to the neighborhood playground after school. I’m equally shocked by the legacy Communism has left on some organizations like the kid’s club in a village near our house.
After getting a tip that the club had good, affordable music lessons, I submitted a pre-registration form at the beginning of September for Oliver’s guitar lessons with preferred times. Per instruction, I arrived at 2 pm on October 1, the day of registration, to wait on the street in front of the school until the opening ceremony finished and official registration began. After the director made a speech, about 40 other parents and I pushed and jostled our way to get into the center, up to the first floor to another line. By the time my friend got near the front of this line, she told me we were standing in the wrong line for guitar and needed to get in the back of the other line. In the end, when it was our turn, there were no spots left on any day that Oliver had free. The price for the course was 50 CZK for a 30 minute music lesson, so I don’t blame the crowds who showed up. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that this was the accepted system. I heard grumbling from other Czech parents who left without getting their children into the classes they’d hoped to, even from those who had children that had been enrolled in the lessons in years past.
I knew I wasn’t alone in finding the system antiquated. However, I didn’t see anyone trying to reason with the director. According to other parents, at this particular school this system had been in place for years and wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. Back in September, I had tried to ask the director what would happen if I couldn’t show up right at 2pm on October 1, and he had told me if I wanted a spot for my son, then I needed to send someone else to stand in my place. When I tried to explain that I didn’t have any relatives here, he challenged me retorting, “You’re not alone here in the Czech Republic. Find a friend to stand in line for you.”
When he made the comment, at first, my blood boiled. I thought who was he to assume that I had friends who would stand in line for me. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone to do it. Of course, he was right; one of my friends did offer to stand in line for me since she was going for her daughter. I didn’t even have to ask her. Whether waiting in line to get a music lesson or to see the doctor, Czechs seem to take it all in stride. Similar to the way my friend from Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be bothered about traffic jams; it’s just a part of life.
Often the people who work behind the desks at doctor’s offices or town halls are not the most accommodating. Yet, I watch person after person waiting in line and calmly absorbing often disappointing information. For instance, despite your efforts to read the signs and listen to the rules, in fact, you’ve been waiting in the wrong line. There is no recourse, but to now find the correct line and wait at the back of it. It is not uncommon to be sent to wait by a closed door, which usually has a sign up that says “no knocking.” More than once I’ve waited for what seemed like a very long time at such a door only to be reprimanded for not knocking because they didn’t know I was there.
Dealing with minor inconveniences is a part of daily life no matter where you live, but sometimes I am surprised by how difficult little things seem. I recently learned that the orthopedic division of the hospital doesn’t take walk-in-patients, even if it’s an emergency, and that the emergency room of the same hospital will then refer you to an orthopedic doctor, but can’t tell you where to find one. This I learned after I fell and dislocated my knee this past week while jogging in Stromovka Park. As I lay on the ground, several people passed me, although no one offered to help. I have been in a similar situation before, having fallen while running in the woods near our house. Even though I was bleeding, no one that I passed questioned what had happened or stopped to see if I needed help. While it seems strange, I know that if I had asked someone specifically for help, I would have found a willing hand (or two or three). Still, the passiveness of the culture as a collective sometimes unnerves me.
Although we’ve bantered back and forth about the possibility of moving to the States one day, neither Radek nor I is in any way ready for a change of scene yet. My children might argue differently, but I know their vision of America is as a land of plenty (plenty of family, plenty of space in my parents’ large suburban house, plenty of refills at the soda machine). But I am sure this would change once they lived there long-term.
I remind myself of my deliberate, conscious decision to live in the Czech Republic. However, on bad days, I long to pack a suitcase and to grab the first (preferably non-stop) flight back to my roots. Where, on a routine trip to the grocery store, I might run into my former third-grade elementary school teacher who stills calls me by name. She remembers more about me as an eight-year-old than I think I know now about my own daughter. Where my grandmother, at age 93, still lives by herself with the help of several kind women who get her dressed to go out and take her to the local drive-through for a vanilla milkshake.
Recently, when I was feeling out of sorts with the world, I went into the Prague 6 town hall to apply for Anna Lee’s permanent Czech passport. Upon getting to the window, the officer asked for her birth certificate. Realizing in dread that I’d forgotten the certificate at home, I turned to explain that we’d have to come back another day. Unflustered, the officer asked me for my identification and carefully matched my information with the information on Anna Lee’s temporary passport. It’s all here, he told me, don’t worry. Snapping Anna Lee’s picture with a semi-smile, he told us to come back in three weeks.
Step by step. There are ups, and there are downs. And certainly together, it makes for a more interesting ride.