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.