Here’s a link to today’s Half ‘n Half story on how I learned to speak Czech (and it wasn’t in a language school).
Have a great weekend!
Here’s a link to today’s Half ‘n Half story on how I learned to speak Czech (and it wasn’t in a language school).
Have a great weekend!
Here’s a link to today’s Half ‘n Half story on (finally) getting my Czech driver’s license.
Bringing 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.
Transitioning 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.
The art of slicing carrots and arranging greens
I didn’t marry my husband for his salad-making ability, although it was one of the things my mother pointed out to his advantage during his first trip to the US many Christmas’s ago.
In the middle of the pre-Christmas dinner hubbub, Radek wandered into the kitchen where the female family members were gathered and asked if he could do something. I don’t know if Mom was trying to test her houseguest from the Czech Republic, or if in her haste, she said the first thing that popped into her mind, “Why don’t you make the salad?”
She dumped the ingredients on the kitchen counter. Without asking for instruction, Radek set to work. He rinsed the bagged lettuce and arranged it in an oblong wooden bowl. Then he chopped carrots and cucumbers. He sliced strawberries and alternated them with blueberries in a symmetrical pattern on the top of the greens. Next, he added spring onions and crumbled feta cheese. He topped the lot with toasted slivered almonds. It was a salad worthy of a picture. In a family that appreciated the details, he made his mark.
Flash forward fourteen years later.
Radek picked my mother up at the airport and dropped her off at our house. I was waiting in bed, recovering from knee surgery. “There’s a small salad in the fridge,” he called out over his shoulder as he headed back to work. Mom went into the kitchen and came back carrying a plate wrapped in plastic foil. “Is this what he meant? It does look like one of Radek’s salads. It looks almost too pretty to eat.”
In the art of food preparation – making salads, decorating birthday cakes, rolling out sushi – as well as other aspects of domestic life that require detail work – repairing chain links on a mountain bike, trimming children’s toenails or gluing hundreds of crepe feathers onto cardboard angel’s wings – my husband is the master.
I am lucky to have him. Working alongside “the master,” however, is enough to drive any sane person crazy, at least if the person’s standards in the kitchen tend toward the “good enough” to move on and get something else done. While waiting for him to finish mowing and trimming the lawn, I’ve been known to feed and bath the children and feed myself, plus fold a load of laundry, having learned from experience what “just give me 5 more minutes” really means.
Five-year old Samuel put it into a kid’s perspective. One night when Radek was getting ready to bake, Sam asked, “Mommy, can’t you make the muffins, not Daddy?” When I asked him why, he replied, “Well, Daddy never wants me to help because I make things messy. And then he has more work to do from me.”
Unlike my baking style, which welcomes help from little hands but is apt to leave a trail of flour and drippy batter, my husband is precise. He likes to cook from a recipe, preferably one that’s gotten good reviews. He isn’t big on substituting ingredients to the point that he’d rather go without than improvise.
In other aspects of life, though, my husband is laid-back. He is the one who lets eight-year old Oliver whittle in the backyard with his pocketknife. He thinks Anna Lee, at 11, is old enough to walk alone from school to the city library and wait for us there. And he has no problem with Sam driving the electric 4-wheeler in circles through the field near our house as long as he’s wearing a helmet. When Sam had his first spill with the 4-wheeler, overturning both the vehicle and himself, Radek watched from a distance until Sam picked himself up, dusted off and righted the 4-wheeler.
Ask Radek if you can help him make a salad, however, and you’ll see another side of the man all together. Pre-dinner conversations at our house run like this:
Him: Would you like chicken or egg on the salad, baby?
Me: What about both? Or we’ve got some goat cheese in the fridge? We could have that too.
Him: Goat cheese doesn’t really go. I don’t think we need it. We’ve already got grilled veggies and asparagus, so how about chicken?
In our house, making a salad requires prewashing, then spinning the greens to dry, chopping the cold vegetables and finally sautéing or grilling some extras (mushrooms, peppers or a piece of meat). Our typical base consists of arugula, baby greens or field greens. Often, we mix the three. When I can find it, we use fresh spinach. We don’t use pre-cut baby carrots or already washed apple slices not because we don’t want to, but because they aren’t available at our local grocery.
How I cut an onion (which knife I use and how large I slice the pieces) used to be a bone of contention in our marriage. It was right up there with how I repeatedly forgot to say “si” and “se” in the conjugation of certain Czech reflexive verbs (Don’t ask me which ones, please.)
My husband’s desire for a salad to be agreeably presented runs over into his general feeling on how one should present oneself to the world (which includes using correct Czech grammar to the very best of your ability). Why would you offer your guests or your family a salad made from ingredients that have been thrown together, when you could take your time and choose to do it right?
If a salad ever needs spiffing up, however, Radek turns to me for help. My special dressing is a combination of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, mustard, honey and lemon juice. It is the antithesis of his perfectly prepared salad. There are no set proportions. Radek wouldn’t try to replicate it because it doesn’t come with instructions.
In the same way that my husband has a feel for placing julienned carrot wedges alongside marinated artichokes or boiled eggs, I like to think that I have a sense of how much sweetness or tartness the dressing needs to complement the salad.
In truth, I make more of the salads for our dinners than he does, mainly because I’m finished with work sooner. And, I have a confession to make. He’s rubbed off on me. While I’d like to proclaim that I’m still of the “good enough” camp, when it comes to salad making, I now like mine to look pretty too.
Mom and I ate every bite of the salad that Radek left for us. We appreciated the presentation, the colors and the flavor. We both knew it tasted even better because we hadn’t had to make it ourselves.
Perhaps, the only thing better than knowing how to make a gourmet salad, is finding someone to appreciate it.
When your child’s best doesn’t make the cut
In late April, after the snow thaws but before the lilacs bloom, thousands of Czech students aged 11 – 14, sit for half-day school entrance examinations in the subjects of Czech, math, logic and general knowledge. The results of the tests will determine whether these students will be accepted at a Czech gymnasium program. The tests aren’t mandatory and many students choose not to take this route. However, for those that attempt to make the cut, it can be a stressful process.
This year, my eleven-year old daughter decided she wanted to prepare for the entrance exams to an eight-year gymnasium program. The eight-year program was started about twenty years ago to encourage motivated elementary school learners who knew early on they wanted to attend a university. Until that time, only four-year programs existed. If you liked school and enjoyed studying, chances were, you’d get a spot.
But times have since changed, and the entrance exams today at the best Czech gymnasiums are a competitive process that weed out all but those who score in the top 10th percentile. Many parents and educators are against the system, saying that it “ruins a child’s childhood,” and puts unnecessary pressure on students to perform. Results for the country’s nationwide leaving exam Maturita, furthermore, show little statistical difference between four-year and eight-year graduates.
Recently, the Czech news also has debated the validity and future of eight-year gymnasium programs, claiming that the entrance exam and preparation process favor motivated parents rather than talented children. The children who are likely to be accepted at the top state schools are those whose parents who place a premium on their child’s education and are financially able to foot the costs of all the practice tests, private tutoring and preparations materials necessary to succeed.
As it turned out, about one-half of the students in Anna’s fifth-grade class were planning to apply to an eight-year gymnasium. As parents, we agreed we’d support them, come what may.
We were warned the competition would be tough. Most of the eight-year gymnasiums opened one or two classes of up to 30 students a year. For the better gymnasiums in recent years, applications numbered more than 450 for up to 60 spots. About one out of every ten students was accepted. I spoke with friends whose children had attempted the exams in previous years and hadn’t been accepted. For the most part, the kids were bright and had done well on the exams, but there just wasn’t space.
We knew the risk was high of Anna not getting a spot, still she wanted to try. Like other families, we visited open house events in November and early January. Each child could only select two schools. The exams were specific for each given school and results couldn’t be transferred to any other school.
Anna trained at home for the exams, working a little most nights from October to mid-April in addition to her regular schoolwork. Our neighbor gave us her daughter’s old workbooks, and Czech mothers of older children recommended practice courses and trial tests. We invested time and money in the process, reduced her extra activities and set aside weekend family time for practice.
Sitting together on Anna’s single bed, we’d pore over multiple choice logic questions and try to figure out where her thinking had gone awry. For the math problems, she’d often discover a simple mistake in metric conversion or misreading the question. The Czech language and literature sections gave us both the most trouble.
When we were stumped, we called in our lifelines. We asked Anna’s Czech father or our Czech school teacher friends. Once we put a question to my son’s twenty-some-year-old guitar teacher. Sometimes our lifelines didn’t know the answer either, or at least, they had to think about it for a while, use a dictionary or check online.
By March, Anna had spent more time and energy preparing for the exams than she had on any single thing in her life. She decided to apply to two of the best state schools in Prague, which also happened to be the most convenient schools location wise. I thought about encouraging Anna to apply to a school with an easier application process, or trying one of the private gymnasiums that have become popular as the trend in the country shifts toward more integrative, Western-style education. But deep down, I believed in the Czech state education process. Plus, I didn’t want to pay for a private program.
As for Anna, she wanted to shoot for the moon. And I stood beside her. Her father, who claims that he has gotten where he is in life, in spite of (rather than because of) his attitude toward formal school education, chose to let us lead the way. If Anna got into a gymnasium, he promised her a new mobile phone. I wondered about the wisdom of the deal, but left it between the two of them.
Finally, the first test day came. I joined hundreds of other parents with grim but hopeful faces. We left our sons and daughters, some of whom were tearful, others jittery, at the doors of the gymnasiums they had chosen. Both days Anna was nervous and teary-eyed. I wondered if someone from the school would call to say that she hadn’t been able to handle it.
But she went in. She took the tests. She did her best. When she came out, she didn’t talk much about the tests. Instead, she told me about her new friend from Russia who had the prettiest bag Anna had ever seen. They had exchanged numbers and planned to keep in touch.
We received the results four days later. Anna had done well on both sets of tests, missing only 1 question in the Math section, but still, she fell shy of the mark. She wasn’t accepted at either school. When she found out, Anna burst into tears and declared that she’d wasted a year of her life studying.
I admit, a part of me was thinking about all those times that she could have gone to bed earlier, read aloud in English just for fun or spent a Saturday afternoon goofing off instead of learning logic in a classroom. But I knew that she’d come a long way, in terms of scholastic knowledge, but more importantly in her sense of independence and self-motivation.
So, my daughter wasn’t accepted at gymnasium. It hurts. And it doesn’t seem fair. But, the truth is, if I had to do it over again, I think I’d let her do the same thing.
Sitting together on Anna’s bed, both trying to understand a concept that seemed totally foreign. The glimmer of light when we thought we’d come upon a solution and the total flash of clarity when something finally clicked – yes, I’d do it all again. Would she?
After the disappointment had worn off a bit, I mentioned to Anna that I was sure glad the studying was over, but that I’d miss learning together with her. Anna agreed.
In two years, Anna can take the gymnasium exams again. Chances are high, she’ll be successful. She knows the process and she knows how to study. If she’s not; we both realize, it’s not the only way forward. In the meantime, it’s clear that she feels a sense of relief. She’s started learning the 50 US states by heart (her idea not mine). She’s reading the Harry Potter series again (one book in Czech, the next in English) and she’s perfecting her front flip on the trampoline.
She’s still trying to convince her dad to buy her the phone, based on her effort not the end result, but that’s one battle I’m not getting into.
Links to May & June stories from the Prague Daily Monitor and Prague.tv
Techmania in Pilsen, CZ – Sunday afternoon science center visit – treat or chore?
Biking around the world in Třebon, CZ- Touring the country’s fishpond region on two wheels
Bohemian Paradise – Exploring the Cesky raj region with kids
Curry Palace – A family-style restaurant brings authentic Indian and Bangladeshi food to Letna
Prague Daily Monitor
Witching Burning in the Czech Republic
A community event with a fiery twist
When I grow up
Reflecting on 10 years of motherhood in the Czech Republic