On Spanish Time

IMG_6022Bringing a third language (and culture) into our family’s linguistic mix

Anna turned to wave at her brothers and me. Then, she lifted her suitcase off the security belt and disappeared with the other travelers into Prague’s Terminal 2. It was Anna’s first solo international flight, and my stomach did a flip flop as I watched her stride off. She looked confident and self-assured. A few minutes later, she texted a picture of Gate C11 with a sign saying the departure time to Bilbao.

To help our children see the benefits of learning a third language, we had initiated a summer swap with close friends who lived in Spain. Our friends were a Czech/Spanish family whose 12-year-old daughter had been Anna’s first friend in her Czech preschool years ago. Neither girl had known that the other was also from a bilingual family, but they had lined up together on the first day of preschool and had stayed friends in the years to come.

This summer, nearly a decade after the girls met, our friend’s daughter joined us for two weeks of our US vacation. The girls spoke English together, made slime at my parents’ house, and watched the fireworks at a baseball game on the 4th of July. They checked out Nancy Drew books from the library and ate my father’s garden vegetables. My mother delighted in introducing both girls to her friends by saying, “This is our friend from Spain, and this is my granddaughter from the Czech Republic.”

Now, Anna was flying to the Basque region in the north of Spain. She would spend the first week on her own with our Czech/Spanish friends and their extended family. The rest of our family would join her for the final two weeks. Anna (and her younger brother Oliver) had been taking private lessons in Spanish for a few years. However, until this year, neither child had been able to put his or her language skills into practice beyond the weekly lessons.

In Prague, Anna attended a public Czech school called a “jazykova skola,” (language school), a distinction which meant that the school offered additional lessons in the children’s first and second foreign languages. For Czech students, mandatory English lessons are taught three times a week starting in 3rd grade. A second foreign language is mandatory from the 7th grade, but often taught as early as 6th grade. Anna’s school started its second foreign language in the 6th grade, offering German, French, Spanish and Russian. Anna chose Spanish because she knew the basics.

This spring, Anna’s first ever trip to Spain had been a 10-day school trip with her Spanish teachers and 40 classmates ranging from 6th-9th grades. The trip wasn’t mandatory, and parents were required to pay circa 650 USD for the plane tickets, language instruction, and home stay. Still, most of the parents of Anna’s classmates agreed, the experience was an opportunity worth funding.

Anna and her classmates lived with Spanish families, attended morning language school, and took afternoon sightseeing trips through the Andalusian region of Spain. Anna returned from Spain with a better command of the Spanish language. She was also full of enthusiasm for the lively late-night culture. When we spoke on the phone at night, she talked about Spanish tortillas, visiting an arboretum, and swimming in the sea.

As both Radek and I have learned from years of living in a foreign country, attaining fluency in a second (or third) language comes faster when you need to use the language – to order food, to communicate with locals, and to express your preferences. Immersion isn’t easy.

Yet, years of speaking Czech in my daily life have shown me that having patience (and a good sense of humor) are as important as being able to perfectly roll my “r” or make the authentic Czech “r with a hacek” sound. If I were as shy speaking Czech as I had been in my high school French lessons, I would have never learned as much or gotten as far as I have living in Prague.

For our children, adding Spanish to the Czech and English they already speak seemed logical. Our friends’ bilingual children were already learning English and French in school, in addition to the Spanish and Czech they speak at home. Years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that I’d be parenting children who speak three or four languages. Now, it seemed normal.

In Basque country, Anna would take surfing lessons, taste “txistorra” (spicy traditional local sausages) and homemade flan, stay up far later and sleep far longer than she ever had in her life. She’d communicate in Spanish with our friends and their cousins, order ice cream on the boardwalk, and shop in the local supermarket.

When we joined Anna, we would swim in the Bay of Biscay’s clear waters and walk to a local historical landmark, San Juan Gaztelugatxe on the day of the patron saint of Biscay, the Virgin Begona’s birthday.  We would run from a “galerna” (sea storm) when white clouds and strong winds appeared at the edge of the beach, eat mussels, and drink red wine from the Rioja region just south of us. Oliver would try to surf, and all three of our children would practice saying, “agur” (goodbye in Basque), when we left a shop or a cafe.

We’d learn that Basque culture should not to be confused with Spanish culture and that “El Ratoncito Perez” (a rat) is the Spanish tooth fairy. When we biked up the winding hills, I’d learn to shout “coche” to warn bikers ahead of me of approaching cars. Oliver and Sam would fish with a Basque fisherman who showed them how to bait a many-legged worm, and they’d see their surf teacher carrying a basket of freshly caught octopus.

The green hillsides, blue waters, and rocky cliffs of Basque country would be the backdrop for our family’s first experience in Spain. As we sat in the outdoor cafes, shared tapas with our friends’ family, and watched our children fly past us on scooters, I listened to the languages at our table – Spanish, Czech and English – the words rolling over me and wrapping around me, seeping under my skin like the sand from “la playa” that was everywhere.

When Anna waved goodbye to us that day at the Prague airport, I couldn’t have imagined the experiences that awaited her (and the rest of our family) in Spain. But, a part of me must have known, because once upon a time, many years ago, I had been a similar girl who waved goodbye.


Welcome Home (Czech style)

Trip to PragueTransitioning back to life in the Czech Republic

Waiting at airport security for our return flight to Prague, my 10-year-old son, Oliver, said, “Mama, can we talk Czech now?”

Although it seemed strange to break out our Slavic phonetics when we were standing on American soil, the time had come in Oliver’s mind to jump back into our Czech lives. For the past decade, my family has taken a summer trip to the US. My children always surpass me with their versatility, both linguistically and culturally.

After five weeks speaking English, I couldn’t have uttered a coherent sentence in Czech, even if I’d needed to. I told Oliver he could speak whichever language he wanted, if he left me in peace to read my book on the plane.

Later, waiting at Czech Airlines’ baggage claim for our missing luggage, my mind still didn’t switch into Czech mode. With my children’s help, I remembered the word for “kufr” (suitcase) and stumbled through dictating our address. A more confident command of the Czech language might have sped the process along, but my mind was stubborn.

Unlike my children, I can’t switch languages (or cultures) on cue. I need a little bit of time (and a beer or two) to ease back into life in the Czech Republic.

But, circumstances don’t always allow for a gradual transition. Luckily, Czech beer isn’t hard to find.

Within a few hours of our arrival in the Czech Republic, I was sitting on our neighbor’s terrace with Radek and two other couples. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and the garden birthday party for our neighbor’s 7-year-old son was underway. Our neighbors had postponed the party till Sunday, so that our family could join the fun, too.

I wasn’t thrilled about being thrust into a social setting straight upon return. But, there’s not much of a chance to ease back into Czech life slowly, when you find yourself seated at a table filled with Czech delicacies and surrounded by neighbors who expect you to eat (and eat) and who never let your glass go empty.

We drank white wine and cold beer from the local Unetice microbrewery and snacked on “chlebicky” (open-faced sandwiches) topped with garlic spread and fish paste. Our children played on a slip-and-slide and sucked on slices of watermelon while swatting the occasional bee. Some children wore bathing suits, others wore their clothes, and the smallest ones were naked.

Between slides, they hurled water balloons at each other, jumped on the trampoline, and had a scavenger hunt. Although they were far more interested in playing than eating, eventually, we all had cake and sang “Happy Birthday” (in English).

The temperature was supposed to reach 35 C mid-week, which for the Czech Republic was record hot. I sat on the terrace with beads of water rolling down my arms and legs. Air-conditioning in the US seemed a distant memory.

As I listened to my neighbors, Czech words and expressions seeped back into my memory bank. When I tried to jump into the conversation, English was all I could manage. For the moment, it was enough.

As the afternoon wore into the evening, our neighbor lit his grill and brought out hamburgers and skewers wrapped in aluminum foil. Prepared in the Slovak style called “zivanska jehla,” the skewers were made from thick chunks of pork, chicken and beef alternating with slices of bacon, onions, mushrooms, and peppers. They were delicious.

When we had eaten seconds (and had turned down thirds), my eyes grew heavy. My children were sprawled on the grass, jet-lag winning out over the adrenaline that had powered them through the afternoon. It was time to go home.

The neighbors shouted their goodbyes. We received invitations to come back for leftovers the next day, offers to join the other moms in an outdoor yoga class, and tips for which pools to visit during the coming heat wave.

On the walk home, the sun was setting above our house, and I heard a rumble of thunder. I thought about what we had to look forward to still. There was swimming (with the masses) at the outdoor pool in the village of Kralupy nad Vltavou; camping at Macha Lake, an hour’s drive from Prague; and picking strawberries, carrots, and red currants in our garden, which had grown wild during the month we were away.

It wouldn’t feel like summer, if we didn’t get soft serve, the kind you wait in line to buy on a village street corner, served in swirled flavors like butter cookie and vanilla or blueberry and chocolate. We wanted to take our inflatable raft and paddle from one side of Macha Lake the other. And we planned a family bike ride through the forests near us. We’d finish at the Unetice brewery, where the children could order raspberry soda, and we’d have a beer.

Before the heatwave had passed, we would visit my husband’s family, where his mother would serve us hen soup and a meal of roasted rabbit, white cabbage, and dumplings. She’d tell us how she’d sweated over the meal and shrug off my offer to help her with the dishes. We’d have seconds, turn down thirds, and be sent home with leftovers. We’d exchange a few more pleasantries with our neighbors as they worked in their gardens or puttered around in their garages.

As the days passed, words in Czech would come easier for me. Sure, I’d make mistakes. But fueled by the generosity of our Czech friends and family and, the occasional beer, I would transition back into my life here. I wouldn’t be as fast or as skilled as my children. But it didn’t matter.

Whether you’ve traveled far to visit family or have spent your holiday relaxing and exploring close to home, I hope, like mine, your transition home is a smooth one.