Category Archives: Holidays

A case of post-holiday blues

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Learning to face the emptiness with grace

Sometimes, the best part of a holiday comes after the fireworks have been set off, the Christmas tree has been taken down, and the house is quiet again. Right?

At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as the days of our US holiday flashed by at breakneck speed. As soon as I get back to Prague, I’ll have a chance to relax.

The morning after we returned to Prague, I dropped my children off at school dressed in my running clothes. Planning to get a head start on my New Year’s fitness resolutions, I intended to run the path through the woods between our house and the Vltava River before I went to work. Instead, I went home and fell asleep. Sitting up. At the kitchen table.

When I awoke 20 minutes later, instead of rousing to jog, I moved to the couch, covered myself with a blanket and slept on. When I woke up an hour later, I thought I was still at my parents’ house in Virginia. Then, I looked out the window, saw the grey sky, and realized I was back in Prague. It was January. And, it was time to go teach my English lessons.

Over the next few days, I helped my children prepare for their end-of-semester exams in school, complete make-up work, and readjust, in general, to the rhythm of our Czech lives. Which included, ice-skating in lieu of gym class, visiting their Czech relatives for babička’s rajská omáčka (beef and noodles served in a thick, tomato sauce), and logging the year’s first kilometers on cross-country skis. Even after a few days back, I realized there was plenty to look forward to in the coming months of winter in the Czech Republic.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel let down. At first, I attributed my fuzziness to jet-lag and a result of a super-active holiday. Our 12-day trip to America had been a whirlwind complete with holiday parties, outdoor hikes to fast-flowing waterfalls, and exploring the hip mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina with my parents, aunts, and uncles.

In recent years, Asheville had become the trendiest beer city on the East Coast, and Radek and I wanted to see the beer scene firsthand. At Asheville’s Wicked Weed taproom, we selected beers from a tap list that included American ales, Belgian lagers, German ales, and the brewery’s specialty – barrel-aged beers with names like “Milk and Cookies,” “Angel of Darkness,” and “Coolcumber.” Overwhelmed by the extravagant names and flavors, in the end, Radek and I selected a pilsner brewed from imported Czech hops. It was tasty, but not quite like a Czech beer.

Radek marveled that Americans would be willing to drink such intensely flavored beers one after the other, and I reminded him that drinking beer in the US at a microbrewery might not involve the same quantity of consumption he was accustomed to at a typical Czech pub. We were both surprised at the bartender’s insistence on seeing an ID from each person and serving only one drink per person (i.e. no carrying a round of drinks back to your table).

Throughout our stay in the US, each time Radek opened his mouth, the waiter, gas station attendant, or shop keeper with whom he was speaking would comment, “Say, I can tell you’re not from around here, where are you from?”

Lively conversations ensued about just where the Czech Republic is and what language Czechs speak. People we met also remarked on Oliver and Samuel’s European accents, despite both boys trying out regional expressions like, “y’all” and “ain’t” as well as dropping the final ‘g from verbs like “comin’” or “goin’” to sound more like their American cousins.

Being in America for shorter than usual meant operating at a continuous high-speed to get to see and do and soak up as much as we could. We even squeezed in a pre-dinner New Year’s Eve visit with the granddaughter of my mother’s friend who had driven an hour and a half to meet us and hear stories about our lives in the Czech Republic.

Eighteen-year-old Sophia was getting ready to come to Prague for a semester abroad at Charles University. Her grandmother and her parents wanted us to reassure them that Prague was a safe city. While Anna described the easy-to-use public transportation system; I answered Sophia’s questions about food shopping and medical insurance. Radek put a plug in for the city’s good clubs and cheap entertainment.

We had so much fun in the US, no one wanted to leave.

The most difficult part of returning to Prague, this time, was that, instead of being glad to be home (as they usually are when we return in the summer), my children were sadder than ever to leave America. They were homesick for my parents, their cousins, and even my childhood home, where my daughter read old Nancy Drew mysteries and my sons played with my brother’s 30-year-old Legos and Lincoln Logs.

A few days after our return, I listened to a webcast on WebMed. I realized that post-holiday syndrome, otherwise known as post-travel depression (PTD), is a relatively common condition, particularly following the major winter holidays when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also contribute to temporary feelings of being down.

Although I was pretty sure our children (and, to be honest, myself as well) were only suffering a natural let-down after having too much fun (along with, perhaps, the gloom that comes from too many grey Prague days in a row), I decided that instead of trying to pretend everything was normal, I would acknowledge their feelings.

We had a family dinner one night before Radek left for Germany. Radek had also noticed the kids were a little down. He said, “Guys, I know that it’s hard having part our family live so far away, but think about how cool it is that you get the chance to travel to see them.”

With Radek’s prompting, each child started to talk about his or her favorite memories from the holiday. For Anna, it was shopping with my mother and playing with her friend Raegan. For Oliver, it was shooting a squirrel with my father and Radek on my grandfather’s farm, skinning and preparing it, and finally, eating fried squirrel. And for Sam, the highlight of the holiday was a never-ending hike from Bridal Falls in the NC Dupont State forest, where he had to take off his pants to cross an icy-cold river with thigh-high (for him), fast-moving water.

My children often talk about how they miss my parents, and ask why we can’t live in America, too. However, for the first time ever, instead of just complaining, 10-year-old Oliver started calling both of my parents on Viber to chat. Before baseball practice or while he waited for me to put him to bed, he’d take his phone to the playroom, where the wi-fi connection was strongest, and call. Sometimes, they would do a video call, so Oliver could see my mom or watch the cat play.

Anna had already developed a habit of talking with my parents regularly, and despite being a little jealous that Oliver wanted to do the same, she understood his need to keep the communication strong.

I, too, knew how the children felt.

But, as I get older, I have also begun to realize just how important my post-holiday blues are. For me, it is a time of longing – when I yearn for what was, acknowledge that I can’t turn back the days, and begin to gather strength for the season ahead.

It is in the empty space, when the days seem grey, and inconveniently-timed phone calls to relatives who are just waking up (or heading to bed) can’t replace the longing to hug a family member in the flesh, when I know home is a place I carry with me.

As much as I want both worlds, I know that the beauty of life is in the tension – not the day-to-day continuity, but the break and the return. Recognizing this helps me get through the worst first days until my mind and body settle, and I return to my identity, as an American English teacher living (happily) in the Czech Republic with my half-n-half family.

After a few days, my children, too, get used to their classes, their sports, and their friends. And, they began looking forward to our next adventure. Anna reads a guide book I gave her at Christmas called Yellowstone Adventuring with Kids written by a family with four boys. When Oliver next calls my mother, she tells him that she’s counted her airline points and has enough for a spring trip to see us.

As the days pass, the experiences of this holiday fade into the quilt of our lives. Maybe, we’ll reflect on them next year (that is, if I am organized enough to get the pictures off the camera). In the meantime, I will do my best to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of living a half-n-half life. And, have faith that the positives still outweigh the negatives.

I will even get off the couch and squeeze that run in. Who says the best part of the holidays can’t come once they’re over?

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Christmas without a carp

Christmas Market 2016Exchanging Czech traditions for an American Christmas experience

For the past three Christmases (and many before that), my family has become temporary caretakers of a large, bottom-dwelling carp. Although having our Christmas dinner swimming in the bathtub a few days before we serve it on the table seems strange (even for many Czechs), it is one of the Czech holiday traditions my sons adore.

For my pint-size fishermen, nature-lovers, and budding scientists, having the carp alive at home is something out of a fairy tale. (Albeit, not one with a happy ending for the carp.) However, my family is not vegetarian, and I respect my sons’ desires to know more about the fish that they’ll later eat.

Over the years, my children have named our carps, studied the shape of their scales, and the way their gills go in and out when they breathe. Last Christmas, they even put on their swim suits and snorkel masks and got in the tub with the carp for a brief (ice-cold) swim.

On the morning of December 24, Oliver and Sam are also on hand to help my husband, Radek, butcher, gut, and clean the carp in preparation for our Christmas dinner meal. Last year, the boys cleaned the scales and laid them at each person’s place following the Czech tradition of putting a carp scale in your wallet to bring wealth.

Still, I didn’t realize how much having a carp meant to my children, until seven-year-old Samuel asked me a few days ago, “So, where are we going to get the carp this year, Mom?”

Sam knew we were traveling to the US (a first in many years) to spend Christmas with our American family. I assumed he also knew that we’d have turkey and honey baked ham for Christmas dinner along with a slew of Southern-style vegetable casseroles.

“What? No carp!” Sam exploded when I explained that carp wasn’t a traditional part of Christmas in America. “How are we going to have Christmas without the carp?” Sam was more disappointed about not having a carp (and, he doesn’t even like the taste of carp,) than he was when he found out he’d have to wait an extra day before he could open his presents.

In Czech tradition, Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24, and Ježíšek, baby Jesus, brings the family’s presents after dinner has been served, but before the family settles in to watch Czech fairy tales on television. Arriving unseen while children are still awake is a much trickier feat for Ježíšek than Santa, who gets the benefit of visiting during the night. My children have spent many a car ride philosophizing about just how Ježíšek does it.

Apart from missing their carp, when I asked my children what they were most looking forward to about this Christmas holiday, they unanimously agreed (and this doesn’t happen often) that spending time with their American family would be the highlight of this Christmas.

Of course, there were specific traditions each child remembered from years past. Anna, who will celebrate her 13th birthday on Christmas Eve, was excited about seeing the results of the National Gingerbread House Competition on display at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Oliver wanted to go fishing at Lost Lake with my father, and Sam hoped there would be sugar cookie dough to roll out when we arrived.

As my children’s enthusiasm grows stronger, and the countdown to Christmas Day drops into the single digits, I am as much looking forward to the coming holiday as I am reminded of Christmases past, spent both in the Czech Republic and in the US.

There was the first year that I brought my (then) Czech-boyfriend to my hometown to meet my family and friends. (Radek had initially invited me to travel with him to Ecuador but having never spent Christmas away from my family, I convinced him that the Appalachian Mountains were every bit as cool as the Galapagos Islands.) I remember wondering if we would still like each other as much out of the Czech Republic as we did in Prague. Luckily, we did.

There was the year my waters broke at a Christmas party on December 23, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. My daughter, Anna Lee, was born a few hours later. Shortly after sunrise, she was washed and delivered to me in a Christmas stocking. In Prague, there were years of bathing in the bathtub with the carp looking on from his bucket, and years of following babička through the supermarket in search of sadlo (pork grease) and the right kind of Czech flour to bread and fry the carp fillets. There were Christmas recitals, school Christmas fairs, and Christmas afternoon shots of Becherovka exchanged with our Czech neighbors.

And there was the Christmas, many years ago, when it looked as if our family might not be able to celebrate the holiday together at all.

I still remember how I stood, sweating and nervous, at the Washington Dulles International Arrivals gate waiting for Radek to come through immigration. I stood for hours, afraid that if I sat down or stopped my diligent watch, I might jinx our chances of being together. I remember watching other families reunite with hugs and kisses, balloons, and Welcome Home banners.

At some point, a stewardess from the airlines came to tell me that my husband had been sent to secondary questioning. If he made it through, he would be with me shortly. At that time, Radek still maintained his green card, and we traveled often between the US and the Czech Republic. I had arrived in the US a few weeks earlier with our children. I was thankful they were with my parents and didn’t know yet that Radek had been detained.

While I waited, I remember making a deal with God, promising that if he could just let Radek through to join me and the children, I’d give up our “half and half” lives. We would pick a home base, and we wouldn’t try to travel back and forth. Radek did come through questioning, eventually, and we did spend that Christmas together. Soon afterward, he gave up his green card in favor of a normal tourist visa. Each time we travel, I am aware of how precious it is to have the freedom to live (and cross borders) together as a family.

But, there is one part of the deal I couldn’t keep. Now more than ever, I realize that it is precisely because of the traditions we have created in our “half and half” lives—traditions like hand delivering my father’s cream cheese coffee cakes, singing Christmas carols in Prague with other mixed families, and even keeping a live carp in the bathtub — that we are who we are.

My family is incredibly fortunate to be able to know and experience two different cultures first-hand and to learn about other cultures and traditions through our relationships with friends, the children’s formal school learning, and our travels. We live a privileged life.

I have never been persecuted for my beliefs. And, I have no idea how it feels like to be forced to choose between my family, my friends, or my country in search of a better life. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have to know what it means to be a refugee. Yet, each time I (or someone I love) cross a border, my hands sweat, my heart pounds, and I feel as if I can’t breathe.

My (dream) wish, this holiday season, is for families around the world to be free to celebrate, in their own unique ways, with the people they love close by their sides.

And, if you happen to be celebrating in the Czech Republic, could you please save a carp scale for Sam.

Happy Holidays!

Half-n-Half will return in January 2018.

Austria Family Picture

 

Why I’m grateful for a Bohemian perspective

5 reasons to appreciate life in the Czech Republic (all year long)

With Thanksgiving and the arrival of the advent season, my social media pages are packed with posts about gratitude and getting ready for the holidays.

Some posts ask practical, how-to-celebrate questions. Like the one I saw on Prague’s CrowdSauce group for expats. “Does anyone know if they sell oven cooking bags for turkeys here?” Or another, from a friend in the US, “Veg or no veg on Thanksgiving?” with the hashtag #everyonejustwantscarbs.

Friends post images of their children baking cookies, just-out-of-the-oven pumpkin pies, and invitations to Christmas home tours. I’ve read tips on keeping holiday festivities simple, how to shift the focus from gifts to quality family time, and why fighting during the holidays means you care.

In the spirit of showing gratitude for my adopted homeland, I’d like to share a few reasons I’m glad to call the Czech Republic home.

A Czech Sense of Humor

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the dry, self-deprecating Czech humor. My Czech friends aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves, or to turn a criticism into a joke to deflate a tense situation. My neighbor recently damaged her car by hitting a low cement wall while pulling into her driveway, (a maneuver she does every day without incident).

Later, when we were confirming our Thanksgiving dinner menu, she texted, “If you can’t find a turkey for the Thanksgiving meal, don’t worry, I can find something to run over.” From talking with her, I knew she felt horrible about the incident. Instead of letting it get her down, she allowed herself (and her friends) to see the funny side.

Watching my Czech friends keep their sense of humor, even when life throws surprises, reminds me to do the same.

In 2005, Czechs were asked to vote for the greatest Czech of all time. Jara Cimrman, a fictitious character first introduced to the public in a satirical play in the late 1960s, won the most votes. (Unfortunately, he couldn’t receive the award because he didn’t exist). Check out Radio Prague’s full article on Cimrman to get a better picture of Czech humor.

Czech Love of Nature and Getting Outdoors

Mushrooming, walking in the woods, snow-skiing (cross-country and downhill), iceskating, road biking, mountain biking, climbing, swimming in natural ponds and rivers, trekking, tent camping, caravan camping, sleeping “pod širákem” (under the stars), rafting, canoeing, kayaking … the list goes on, and I’d be hard-pressed to find an outdoor activity, that Czechs don’t do.

In the years I’ve lived here I’ve learned (among other skills), when in doubt, pick only mushrooms with cylindrical tubes not slats – and always ask a local. Rafters and bikers greet each other by saying, “Ahoj!” Fruit hanging over fences and along country lanes is fair game for picking. Cross-country skiing is best learned when it’s not too icy, and a pub with warm drinks is nearby. Extra socks and spare underwear are essential for any kind of outdoor activity, especially when kids are involved. Czech humor is even more important than extra socks and spare underwear when learning how to cross-country ski.

A Socialized Healthcare System

For the past 13 years, whenever my children or I have been sick, injured or otherwise need the advice of an expert, we go to the doctor. Sometimes we make an appointment, other times (as in the case of sick visits to a primary care physician) we go and wait. Never have I had to worry whether insurance would cover the visit, or if I could afford to pay the doctor’s bill.

Health insurance is mandatory in the Czech Republic. The Czech state pays for children, students, and mothers on maternity leave. Working individuals make monthly health insurance contributions which are supplemented by their employers.

My family has been fortunate. We haven’t been sick much. Still, I’ve delivered two babies, had an emergency appendectomy while 34 weeks pregnant, undergone knee surgery, ridden in an ambulance with an injured infant, and mothered children with ear infections, tonsillitis, knocked out front teeth, stitches, and more.

My children have rarely received antibiotics (only for bacterial infections when needed), and I’ve been well-versed on the importance of home remedies when appropriate – honey and onions to loosen up coughs, homemade ginger tea, bed rest, and tvaroh (a fresh, curd cheese) wraps for mastitis.

Yes, there are linguistic and cultural differences. Western-style bedside manner can be hard-to-find. Sometimes, the wait is long, and the equipment is basic. Still, I’m grateful for each visit to the doctor’s (and those times when a home remedy makes a visit unnecessary).

Abundant (& Affordable) Cultural Activities for Families

From an early age, Czechs are taught to appreciate (and cultivate) a rich, creative life. From playing musical instruments and singing in choirs, to creating puppet and marionette shows and learning the art of oral recitation (as early as preschool), Czechs have a long-stranding tradition of valuing art’s contribution to society.

Even during the Communist period, Czech artists, such as film makers Karel Zeman and Jiri Trnka, presented imaginative, rule-breaking works to entertain, educate, and inspire their fellow citizens. Czechs like to go to the theater, attend classical music concerts, and watch fairy tales on television.

Many Czech cultural events (seasonal festivals, crafts markets, museum exhibitions) are offered free or at low cost. The country’s public transportation network (comprised of trams, buses, the metro, and trains) allows school groups to go on frequent field trips, families without cars to get nearly everywhere, and older children to gain a sense of independence as they explore Czech culture on their own.

My ten-year old son enjoyed his first Czech opera this fall, The Devil and Kate, performed at Prague’s National Theater. I was happy to accompany him, especially once I discovered (midway through Act I) the English captioning.

A creative life spills over into my family’s leisure time. In addition to going to the theater, my children often put on impromptu shows for us (as well as any visitors who happen to be present). We’ve had magic shows, dinosaur shows, zoo exhibitions, and guitar performances. They’ve narrated excerpts from Josef Capek’s classic, O pejskovi a kočičce (stories about a dog and a cat who keep house), and each December 5, they dress up as St. Nicholas, a devil, and an angel to celebrate Mikulas.

As a parent, I’m grateful to live in a country where planning our leisure time is not a question of what to do, but rather which option to choose.

Loyalty (Friends & Family)

As I scoured local stores this week looking for sweet potatoes (bataty in Czech), pumpkins, and fresh cranberries, I was struck by my options. Although the availability of specialty items has sky-rocketed in recent years (which makes holiday food preparation one step easier), the basic components of my family’s Thanksgiving meal haven’t changed.

For the past 12 years, my family has celebrated Thanksgiving in Prague with friends of Czech, American, Slovakian, French, and Polish descent. We serve turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn pudding, salads, pumpkin pies, and whatever else anyone brings to the table. We rotate houses and take turns preparing the turkey. By now, we know what to expect and how each dish should taste.

Our children put on shows, perform magic tricks, and exclaim over the different languages they hear. We are the closest thing most of us have to a family in Prague. After the years of joining together, for this one day (usually Saturday after the official Thursday holiday), we behave as family. There are arguments (who had the toy first), political discussions over wine, and maybe a tear or two.

Giving Thanks

With each passing year (and every new Thanksgiving celebration), the Czech Republic has become a place I’m increasingly grateful to call home. Not because it’s where I have my permanent residence, or because life has gotten easier for my family over the years. (Both of which are true).

Experiencing life through a Bohemian perspective has opened my eyes to a culture and a people that have taught me to laugh at myself (when I can), to get outside (as much as possible every day), to appreciate the privilege of going to the doctor (when necessary), to show my children theater and art (or let them perform it for me), and to value old friendships that feel like family.

Wishing you and your family a joyful holiday season!

(If you happen to be looking for oven roasting bags, try Makro or the DM drugstore.)

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A November Hike at Pravcicka Brana (2016)