The path less traveled

Quality family time on a Sunday nature walk

I proposed the idea for a longish family walk Sunday morning to Radek. As a caveat, he suggested that after our outdoor family time we squeeze in our own workouts. On the weekends we usually alternate, with one of us biking or running while the other watches the kids then we swap. Afterward, we do something together with the children – a family lunch, a trip to an indoor water park or ice-skating at one of the local hockey stadiums. But I was missing a good dose of relaxed outdoor time with my children, the emphasis decidedly on the word relaxed.

Czech culture highly values sport activities. Elementary schools offer annual week long overnight ski courses, often from the 1st grade; in and around Prague bikers commute to work even in the winter; hockey stadiums have open skating hours on the weekend; and, when the weather is below freezing, there are also plenty of outdoor ice skating rinks and local ponds. As long as there’s snow in the mountains, Czech ski resorts are packed with Czech families and their miniature ski prodigies.

From my perspective, Czech parents rarely look daunted as they pass on their winter sports know-how to the next generation of budding athletes. However, in difference to their parents’ calm and cool “now, isn’t this fun?” smiles, I’ve seen Czech children, my own included, looking stressed as they try to carve smoothly or push themselves up from the ice after a fall.  Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to see parents toting aspiring pint-size skiers down the mountains in backpacks when their toddler’s little legs (or their parents’ patience) have given out. I often wonder who is having more fun.

While my family isn’t prone to such extremes, the physically active Czech lifestyle fits in with our idea of what families are supposed to do together in their leisure time. However, convincing our children is often a different story.

Which is why, more often than not, Radek and I choose to get our own exercise done first on weekend mornings and then do something together as a family. Although I feel a twinge of guilt when I pass another family walking together along the same path that I’m cruising on solo, Radek reminds me that our kids get exercise and stimulation in their weekday after school sports activities. They’re happy to relax on the weekend. In fact, they would prefer to stay at home and play with their toys or watch a movie. When we go ice skating or skiing, usually we have to persuade them that it’s going to be worth their time. Yet, once we get into the groove of skiing, skating or biking, they, too, have fun.

On this particular Sunday morning, I wanted a chance to be outside together without the distractions of housework, phone calls, meal preparations or to-do lists. We’d been playing catch-up for weeks, trying to get back into the rhythm of Czech life after our trip to the US. I wanted to relax.

But as the kids dragged their scooters up the grassy incline, I wondered if it had been a good idea after all. Our boots and pants legs were caked with thick, dark mud, and the wheels and running boards of the scooters were coated with a muddy goo that made their feet keep slipping off when they tried to ride. It was mid-January, but in spite of a few snowflakes in the air, the ground was not frozen, only wet. We’d been forewarned by a neighbor who’d been out for an early morning run that the path from Statenice to Roztoky had turned into a muddy mess. Unwilling to give up my vision of a relaxed family day walking outdoors, we stuck with our plan, with only a slight alteration in the route.

At Radek’s discretion, we opted for an out-of-the-ordinary route in hopes of avoiding the worst of the mud. Walking up the hill past our house, we intersected a newly-cut path that took us through the fields along the cliff line above our normal route. The children were excited to be on the new path, especially when they spotted young trees with hand-lettered name tags like “Hedwig,” “Andulinka” or “Pan Jablko.” There was even a “Magic Strom” and an “Abraham Lincoln.” We passed a picnic table and benches and a communal fire pit. The kids wanted to stop for a snack, but we persuaded them to keep moving. When the path turned and headed uphill, they became less enthusiastic. I was saddled with pushing Oliver’s scooter while Radek carried Samuel’s motorcycle and simultaneously rode on Anna’s scooter. The children said they could manage walking, but that was it.

Our five-kilometer half-way point was a well-known family-run pub at the edge of Tiché Údolí  (quiet valley) in Roztoky. It was called Zvířátka (little animal) and served Czech pub specialties, including langoš (deep fried dough patties), tasty homemade soups, lamb sausages and pork ribs from the grill and a seasonal fruit kolač for dessert. Zvířátka had an outdoor garden with a rabbit hut, a children’s sandbox and a space to park bikes. During the colder months, you could sit inside and get warm by their wood fire, listen to classic American rock n’ roll hits and read the cheeky, retro signs lining the pubs’ walls. If you were patient enough, you could pet the pub cat. I encouraged the kids to keep walking so we could get to Zvířátka and treat ourselves to something delicious.

In the Czech Republic, regardless of the season, it is a common weekend pastime for families to take longer walks or treks through the woods, often with a pub or restaurant as a destination. Many of my Czech contemporaries have vivid memories of the treks they took with their parents. One Czech friend, now married to an American, told me that when she was young it was nothing to pack a backpack with a snack lunch and a drink and start out walking with her parents. “We’d go 15 or 20 kilometers,” she told me, “without thinking anything of it. At that time, there wasn’t anything else to do, and we learned quite a lot about nature this way.”

In the Czech Republic, there are some 40,000 kilometers of well-marked hiking trails maintained by the Czech Tourist Club. Some of these paths seem like little more than short-cuts through large expanses of privately or publicly owned property. I am never clear who owns the property as there are often only yellow, red, blue or green hiking signs to give you, at best, a general sense of where you might expect to end up. While there are designated restricted forest areas throughout the Czech Republic; for the most part, walking in nature through unfenced fields still seems to be a popular pastime. For our walks and bike rides near our house, we regularly use paths through fields and woods instead of riding on main roads.

As we approached the top of the knoll, we saw a sign cautioning dog owners to put their pets on leashes. When we crested the hill, there were at least 50 sheep and goats mixed together grazing in the fenced off pasture at the top of the cliffs. The children hurried ahead of me, slipping and sliding across the muddy path to get as close to the electric fence as safety permitted. Suddenly, our walk seemed a bit more interesting. Their attention was hooked as they admired the sheep and the goats, commenting on how much hay they had and wondering why some of the goats had jumped the wire to stand on top of the hay bales. I got out the camera to photograph the kids with the animals in the background.

Radek then began pointing excitedly to a sheep that was lying down relatively close to the fence. She was lying on her side, heavily pregnant. In fact, we had come upon her mid-labor. As we watched, a baby lamb dropped from the mother and down to the ground where it lay bleating. At first, the mother seemed to ignore it, standing up to lick the red placenta blood and taking a few bites of grass. Another sheep or two walked over and sniffed the newborn, then walked away. As we watched, the mother walked back toward her baby. She licked and nudged it until it began bleating louder. Then she walked off to munch on some grass again. She turned her back to us and gave her attention over to another tiny newborn that had been born, we supposed, only moments before we’d arrived. My children huddled as close as they could to the fence and began to barrage us with questions.

Why is the lamb crying? What is the red stuff coming from the mommy’s bottom? Why is she licking it? Why doesn’t the lamb look like a baby lamb, but instead like it’s covered in a bag? Why is the mother eating grass and not going to it? Where is the daddy? Oliver asked this final question, and turned to Radek. As if Radek, being a daddy, should know.

I had the camera out to chronicle the walk, and Radek urged me to take pictures. I don’t know why I didn’t begin snapping away. But in the moment, perhaps remembering how I felt after giving birth myself, I wasn’t sure if it was really appropriate to take pictures. I stood and watched the mother sheep as she watched us, slowly and quizzically. She turned her back to us, but she didn’t seem frightened. The children were as quiet as mice. I decided we might as well stay and watch as long as they wanted to. Once Radek realized that I wasn’t recording the event, he took the camera from me and began snapping shots.

The newly born lamb struggled to get to its feet and Oliver turned to me and said, “Mom, lambs have it better than we do, don’t they?” That little one is already trying to get up by itself.”

After watching a bit longer, we started walking again. The children’s mood had changed. They skipped energetically through more mud, past a mountain bike jumps course and down the woods into Tiché Údolí. At the restaurant, the children ordered greasy langoš and a bright orange fountain soda. When the owner heard me trying to figure out what each child wanted on his or her langoš, she kindly brought them a plate with all the fixings: ketchup, shredded cheese and garlic so they could prepare their own. They each had an ice-cream popsicle (a decidedly non-Czech winter time treat) for dessert.

On the walk home, Anna and Oliver alternated playing “taxi” pushing Sammy on their scooters so he didn’t have to walk, and we’d get there sooner. Even though it was the return trip and we’d been outside most of the day, the children were filled with more energy than they’d had when we started. That night we put pictures of the lamb’s birth on a flash disk so Oliver could show it at school the next day.

In the end, I skipped my bike ride. Our family walk had given me the relaxed exercise I’d expected. And we had fortuitously taken a less traveled path at just the right time to see something quite unexpected. I hope we might have another relaxed family day again soon.

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The things we carry

Shuttling between a two-country existence

Are we going to make it?” Radek’s question hung in the air. Although I’d already packed five suitcases to the acceptable weight of 23 kilos each, the jury was out as to whether I’d fit the rest of our things into our carry-on luggage. It was the night before our return flight to Prague and we were debating whether or not I should pre-purchase an additional bag online. Radek voted to try to squeeze everything in and hope for lenient personal at the British Airlines check-in desk. I wanted an extra bag to avoid having to make last-minute, what-to-leave-behind decisions in front of lines of people.

The process of deciding what to bring back with us to Prague after our three-week Christmas visit to America had taken me the better of two days to accomplish. Although the rest of my family doesn’t understand why packing takes so long; they leave the packing to me. Unarguably, we had a lot of baggage with us. We always do.

I wish it was different. I wish I could claim to be one of those well-traveled, multicultural families who knows how to take only a few pairs of clothes and our toiletries, to soak up the culture of a new place by snapping pictures and eating local food. Unfortunately, we are not that family.

When my family sees an American shopping center, we want to take advantage of it. While Radek and I buy clothes, the children shop for new school supplies, Crayola brand colored pencils with erasable tops, lined-notebooks and neon-colored construction paper. I buy teaching supplies for my English classes, Nestle chocolate chips, Halloween decorations and paper Valentine’s.

Each time I had a suitcase near full, I’d zip it up and lug it onto my parents’ bathroom scale. A few years back Radek or I accidentally broke the glass on a scale by placing a suitcase directly on it. Now we weigh ourselves first; then we weigh ourselves holding the suitcases. It’s not the most precise method, and more than once I’ve a bag that I thought would be easily under the 23-kilo limit to be overweight according to airport scales. Still, it had become a ritual of our departure.

Regardless of whether I’m actually flying or whether I’m just picking up or dropping off a family member who is traveling, my nerves act up as soon as I enter an airport. I begin to feel both sweaty and clammy; my stomach cramps; and I have an urgent need to go to the bathroom. It doesn’t help that my airport experiences have, for the most part, been smooth and without incident. My body instinctively prepares me for the worst.

Perhaps, my fears are not totally unjustified. Four Christmas’s ago while waiting for Radek at the international arrivals gate in the Dulles airport, I was informed by an airline stewardess that my husband had been taken to secondary questioning, and (she winced when she said it) “hopefully would be along shortly.” Another time Radek, the children and I were all sent to secondary questioning upon entry to the US, again because of a technicality with Radek’s green card. Crossing over in the other direction, last summer our family was denied exit from the Czech Republic, missing our plane and delaying our departure for four days. In contraction to a new Czech law which stated that any Czech citizen must enter and leave the country as a Czech, our children had only American passports.

Depending on the circumstances that day or the mood of a particular immigration official, any travel experience could be more or less pleasant. Increased safety regulations, more detailed document checks, larger numbers of people traveling by plane have all contributed to the headaches that often come with modern day international air travel.

Yet over the years, my largely positive travel experiences have proven my inner fears wrong time and time again. My worst travel experiences are often as benign as trying to wheel 115 accumulated kilos of luggage out of the airport and up over the parking lot curb without knocking a suitcase off the pile or running over one of my children’s toes. Pack lighter, perhaps? You would think I’d know that by now.

But even ten years of accumulated positive air travel experiences never stop me from worrying about the minutia. What if the customs officer goes through our baggage? What if I give the wrong passport to the wrong immigration officer? What if I forget to put all my liquids in a Ziploc bag? I don’t have any fears of actually flying. Instead, it’s all the rules and stipulations about transitioning my family from one country to another that keep my stomach in knots.

While traveling alone with my kids I once got a particularly brusque Irish officer who gave me a hard time. In the rush to remove jackets, shoes and belts from everyone, I had forgotten to get my clear liquids bag out from inside Oliver’s suitcase. While we waited our turn, the guard made snide comments about how people who didn’t follow directions were likely to miss their flights. I contemplated taking his name and asking to see his supervisor, but in truth, I just wanted to get my bag back and get on with our journey. A few minutes later, the guard was stopped mid-barrage when, as he handed over Oliver’s bag, my children each gave him a smile and, unprompted, said, “Thank you.” “At least you taught them manners,” he grumbled. Taking my lead from the children, I smiled too, and we hurried off to catch our flight.

If a Czech customs officer had opened any one of our suitcases on our return trip from the States this year, he may have been surprised by what was inside. We weren’t carrying contraband electronics or expensive gifts. Even the Jack Daniels “Devil’s Cut” bourbon and the hickory-bourbon barbeque sauce that we were bringing back to Radek’s grandfather were inexpensive novelties.

This Christmas our return-trip suitcases included a set of kid’s magic tricks, 1500 feet of multicolored parachute rope, three reels of white icicle Christmas lights, two sets of bicycle-printed cotton bedding, six small, white replacement salad plates from our wedding pattern, a few new Christmas ornaments and a Wiz Kidz category vocabulary game. Everything seemed very important. At least it had when I packed it.

I know we have everything we need back at home. Still, I peruse the stores with the children, looking for something different, something, perhaps, that when I use it back in the Czech Republic, it’ll remind me of America. It is my family’s collective acquisition of small trinkets and tokens that cause me to pack each suitcase with caution, trying to squeeze it all in, or at least to squeeze in enough to last us until our next trip. In a way, I think that the packing and, later back in Prague, the unpacking give me the physical transition I need to mentally transition myself from one country to the other.

In this life of regular back-and-forth travel between the US and the Czech Republic; hindsight often seems better left well alone. When we discovered that we could buy both the liquor and the barbeque sauce for Radek’s grandfather back in Prague (for cheaper too), we just chalked it up to experience. If we were really in it for the traveling, our suitcases would have been small backpacks. In trying to give my children experiences from both their home countries, sometimes I’m prone to excess.

When we returned to Prague, Oliver hurried upstairs. He took a blank piece of computer paper and drew a plane on it. He printed the words, “WE MADE IT” under the plane. He and Sammy laid out the Hersey’s candy they had brought back from their Christmas stockings. They called Radek and me up to see. “We’re having a, ‘we made it’ party!” they declared and invited us to join them.

I saw no reason not to celebrate too.

.Summer in US 2014 001