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Too much Czech?

Blending in and absorbing a foreign culture

My neighbors joke that I am now Czech. That after living among them for more than ten years, I am one of them. “Už seš naše” (you are ours), they declare with what seems like satisfaction, usually when I catch a joke or make a retort to one of their witticisms. I argue back, citing the ways and reasons that I am still, and will forever be, American. Secretly, of course, I am proud that I can understand their jokes. At least a little. That sitting at the pub for hours listening to Czech banter doesn’t give me the headache that it did in earlier years.

Although I am reluctant to admit, it’s not as easy to keep my cultural identity as it was in the beginning. Czech humor hasn’t totally rubbed off on me, but I find myself more tolerant of the self-depreciating Czech sarcasm than I used to be. I wear slippers religiously, and I’ve even gotten into the habit of changing into “home clothes” when I come from teaching. I’m over being shy in the sauna, and I’ve gotten used to ordering a soup before my main course.

I’m happy with the life that I’ve created here, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far in adjusting to Czech life and standards. In transitioning within and conforming to the standards of mainstream Czech culture, have I lost a part of my cultural heritage, that one day I’ll look back and regret not having?

I ask myself the same question of my children. They are still small – four, seven and ten years old. But already their roots in the Czech culture are strong. They speak Czech at school, at their sports practices and in their after-school clubs. At home they play together, challenge one other, argue excessively and even dream in Czech. When I prompt them to speak to me in English, I get a blasted with a blend of Czechlish.

Mommy, can you zavázat my boty?” (Can you tie my shoes?) from the youngest. A moment later, the middle one calls out, “Mommy, how do you rozdělit třicet-šest na šest? (divide 36 by 6). And the oldest declares, “Mom, can you remind me that I have a referát on Ellie Golding due next čtvrtek?” (oral report due next Thursday). I don’t blame them for speaking a mix of languages. I find myself doing the same thing in certain instances. Rarely do I call Samuel’s preschool anything but školka, Radek’s mother is always babička and the after-school child care is simply družina.

Are my children lazy? Is it my fault if they are unaware of some essential English vocabulary? Am I a bad mother for letting them get so thoroughly assimilated into Czech life that it has become a struggle to get one complete sentence uttered in English?

I remember years ago at a bilingual family gathering on Kampa striking up a conversation with a native New Yorker who’d been living in Prague 14 years at that time. She was waiting in line with her five-year-old son at the park’s public toilet. I was counting my crowns to make sure I had enough loose change to pay to go myself. Having recently discovered the convenience of being able to let my toddler-aged son pee discreetly in the bushes when we were caught in the city with no toilet nearby, I asked her why she didn’t let her son do the same. She told me that she’d also done it when he was smaller, but now that he was five, she wanted him to use the public restroom. She didn’t want her son growing up thinking that he could pee on the streets even though it was accepted practice among full-grown Czech males. She saw a chance to show her children the way it was done in her home country, and she was not about to let the opportunity slip past.

That day, I thought she was nuts to wait in line and pay 10 CZK when he could have scampered off and peed anywhere, no questions asked. Now, I am beginning to understand.

When you live in a place long enough and work hard enough at trying to blend in, after a while perhaps you begin to look back and wonder what it was you were originally trying to achieve.

After a recent discussion in her classroom about understanding children from different cultural backgrounds, 10-year-old Anna came home and told me that when her teacher mentioned other children with non-Czech lineage, she hadn’t included Anna. According to Anna, the teacher said it was because Anna’s diktát looked like the other Czech kids’ papers. Knowing that oral dictations in Czech language and grammar were one of Anna’s least favorite school activities, I wondered how Anna felt about her classification. Anna seemed a little puzzled, but okay with being told that she was just like the other Czech kids.

On the other hand, I began to wonder what would happen if Anna came into an American classroom. Would her Czechness stand out? Would she seem like an ordinary American fourth grader? Is there such a thing? How would Anna (or I) have felt if her teacher had told her that she didn’t have a “Czech” diktát? Would she question her place in this country she’s called home for nine years?

An English-speaking friend living in Vinohrady told me about a program in the Czech state elementary school that her bilingual son will start attending next year. In recent years, some Czech schools have created a special připravná třída (preparatory class) for rising first-graders who need more help adjusting to Czech school. In the traditional Czech system, these children would be left in preschool for an additional year. In the schools where it is implemented, the prep class will slowly prepare these children for school. Although the program is targeted for Czech children who may not be ready for the traditional first-grade due to speech or development delays, I think that this program and others like it could be invaluable for school children from non-Czech speaking families.

As a child, blending and fitting in at school is essential. Of course, children attending Czech state schools need to be familiar with the Czech culture and its language. However, any help from within the Czech school system toward understanding the different cultures that exist and thrive within the Czech Republic, should in turn help students from non-Czech or mixed backgrounds have a positive school experience.

On some level, I could have made a life in Prague without learning Czech. In general, Czechs tolerate the numerous non-Czechs who live in their country, and many will gladly practice their English speaking skills with you. However, unless you speak Czech, you are basically limited to what’s available to the English-speaking community. I didn’t want to be have a life that was limited by my language inadequacies. I wanted to feel like I belonged where I lived. I am not someone who thought she’d end up spending the rest of her life living in the Czech Republic. Maybe I won’t. Maybe my children won’t either. Their choices aren’t mine to make.

However, while I still have a chance to influence some of the little things in my children’s lives, I paid my first visit to the Korunni street branch of the Czech public library in Prague 3. Thanks to the Storybridge project, this branch has a sizable selection of English-language children’s books donated by the English-speaking community in Prague. I hadn’t been there before because it’s on the opposite side of town from me. Nonetheless, I checked out three read-aloud books by US authors and brought them home to read to Samuel and whoever else might want to listen. I may not be able to expose my children to other cultures only by reading to them; however, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Next on my agenda, I’m planning to address peeing in public with my boys. That is, just as soon as I get them to say a complete sentence in English.


Cross-country skiing

The trials of learning a new skill

My last experience with cross-country skiing was over 10 years ago. Most of the experience has been wiped from my mind, save for a lingering memory of a biting cold afternoon and a mild sense of frustration. The Czechs make cross-country skiing look effortless. I’ve admired them sliding along the frozen lake at Lipno and across the flat, rural landscape on our drives toward the mountains. It’s a beloved winter sport in this country, and the Czechs are pretty good at it, both on the international cross-country scene and locally in the Jizerské Mountains, where the Jizerská 50 (a 50 km cross-country race) is one of the country’s most famous. When there’s good snow conditions, the Jizerská magistrála with its 170 km of groomed cross-country trails can be as crowded as a highway leading out of Prague on a Friday afternoon.

Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country has the benefit of being both inexpensive and able to be done without waiting in long lines. Czech tourism’s website paints a tantalizing picture of cross-country skiing in the Jizerské Mountains: “Do you know that feeling when a white trail stretches off into the distance before you and your cross-country skis slide contentedly along step by step?”

When our neighbors invited us for an adults-only Valentine’s weekend of cross-country skiing in the Jizerské Mountains, Radek and I agreed to join them. Radek grew up skiing in the Jizerské Mountains, and although he hadn’t been cross-country skiing in several years, he’d spent his childhood exploring the very trails that we wanted to try. His first skis had been his mother’s. When his mother told me that she used to enjoy cross-country skiing, I figured if she could do it, then so could I. Although I’d seen the recent World Championship coverage on TV, which showed cross-country skiing at its tough, competitive height, I was looking for light, non-strenuous exercise in peaceful, natural wintertime surroundings. I wanted to experience the picture described in the tourism brochure.

Although Radek considered buying cross-country boots and only renting the skis and poles, (perhaps he figured like him I’d like the sport so much that we’d want to go often), in the end, we rented everything from our local Happy Sport. For 600 CZK we were able to rent two sets of boots, skis and poles for the weekend. I overhead some discussion between Radek and the salesclerk about whether we needed skis with šupiny (scales) or klasik, but since I didn’t know the difference, I didn’t worry. When we loaded the skis into Radek’s car, they were so long that we had to wedge them from the trunk through the crack in the middle seats between Samuel and Anna Lee. On the way to babička’s to drop off the kids, Samuel rode with his hands cupping the ends of the skis. They seemed suspiciously long and narrow, but I assumed skiing on them couldn’t be that much trickier than downhill skiing.

I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that like most sports, in cross-country skiing a certain technique is required in order to be any good. When I clipped my boots into my skis, memories of my one previous experience with Radek in the Jizerské Mountains some 10 years ago came back. I remember why I hadn’t instantly fallen in love with the sport. Just standing still on cross-country skis on an icy, slightly uphill path was a challenge. I dug my poles into the slick ground and waited for instruction. Radek and one of our neighbors glided off up the hill, using a striding motion that looked easy enough to replicate, but proved harder in reality. I watched the other two women in our group start off ahead of me and tried to copy their motions. Soon I was shuffling along at the rate of one slide-forward, one slide-backward, one slide-forward again. I was making slow progress, but my arms were getting tired from digging into the hard snow and my legs seemed to be using up a lot more energy than was evident by my slower-than-walking pace. At some point, most of the others switched from sliding to skating, which unfortunately proved even harder for me than sliding.

Determined not to give up, I trudged along on our mostly uphill path until we reached the elusive magistrala. True to its description, the magistral was easier to ski on mainly because it was flatter, but also because the snow on the path wasn’t as icy. My troubles, however, began once we started our descent. Despite the downhill being ever so slight, I could not get my longer skis to cooperate. Even though I tried to wedge them into a snowplow (the recommended method for slowing down), I couldn’t get enough pressure into the ice to stop sliding.

Over the downhill section of our trip I fell repeatedly. Hard. On the ice. I hit my knee, my tailbone and my upper right thigh. I bruised parts of me that I didn’t even know could bruise. By the time we’d reached our 10 km halfway point, I’d fallen three times, each time harder than I’d ever fallen while downhill skiing. I wondered why I wasn’t wearing a helmet; however, it was only the bottom half of my torso that was taking the beating.

During a particularly hard fall, I almost caused another neighbor to go down after me because I fell sprawled across the track and my poles clipped her skis when she slid past me. When I got to the bottom of the hill where our group was waiting another neighbor glided over to check my status. He gave me a hug, and I promptly burst into tears. Oblivious to my emotional distress, or perhaps trying to keep out of the line of fire, Radek chatted with another neighbor until I managed to get a hold of myself. Although he encouraged me to put my skis back on and try the snow plow again, I refused until we got to level ground.

I trotted down a one kilometer long hill, feeling a bit foolish, but with each sure-footed, ski-less step gaining a little more of my previous equilibrium. I grinned gamely to the Czechs who were gliding up the hill, and tried to affect the air that I was walking just to take a break, rather than walking down defeated. My surroundings were breathtaking – trees coated with a thick, white layer of ice; evergreens standing vivid against the white backdrop. I saw a lot more of the scenery on foot than I did on skis. While I was gliding, I had been concentrating so hard on my technique that I hadn’t had a chance to look around and enjoy myself.

By the time we reached our cottage, we’d covered 20 kilometers. I’d fallen six times in total, and I was totally and completely undone. The evening was saved by listening to the stories from the rest of our group. Each person (besides myself) had fallen only once, but listening to the complaints about aching muscles and bruised tailbones made me feel a bit better. We went to the sauna, drank wine and chatted around a fire in the cottage restaurant.

The next morning, Radek was game to go again. Although I protested, in the end, I acquiesced, with the caveat that we try a different trail. No one else wanted to join us, so we drove 4 km to Severák where a flattish trail across the fields was frequented by small children and older adults. The average age for a beginning cross-country skier must be about eight years old, and on this day I saw much tinier skiers skiing alone and being pulled by their parents through the field. My experience was a 180-degree about face from the day before. We skied 8 km without me falling once, and because the snow was slushier and wetter, I was able to snowplow to a stop without getting out of control.

However, my delight at finally getting up enough speed to pass one skier on the last stretch soon vanished when I saw her elderly face in the parking lot. Bracing herself on her ski poles, she tiptoed through the icy patches in the parking lot, muttering in Czech to her grandson, “I must go slowly now, or they’ll have to carry me off to hospital.” Walking in the wintery conditions seemed more difficult for her than skiing had. I admired her resolve, and I wondered what I’d look like cross-country skiing when I was 75.

Perhaps, Radek was right. Maybe it was all about learning the technique.

There had been a few moments during the weekend when, as the website had promised, my skis slid contentedly along step by step. There weren’t many times, but on the flat stretches, particularly the second day, I seemed to get the hang of it. I even managed to skate a bit. After watching me ski the second day, when I thought I’d notably improved, Radek said he’d put the idea of buying our own equipment out of his head. It’d take us 10 years of skiing at least twice a winter to make up the cost of buying our own. I agreed that it sounded like nonsense especially when the equipment had been so cheap to rent. Secretly, I thought I might save my money and buy a pair to practice on the sly.

Although we haven’t made plans yet to go again this winter, my birthday is coming up, and babička has agreed to babysit. If the downhill trails don’t get much more snow, there’s a good chance you’ll find me trying my skills on the cross-country trails. There’s nothing like the challenge of a skill yet unmastered.

Skiing on the Jizerská magistrála

Making connections

Teaching English and learning to listen

I come from a family of talkers. Making polite chitchat and navigating a conversation is a skill I learned in my early years, mostly by listening to the women in my family as they talked their way through church potluck dinners, monthly bridge group meetings, recreational league basketball games and Friday night high school football. Among Americans, women from the US’s southern states are particularly known for their conversational skills. Although my Virginia hometown wasn’t exactly southern, it was rural. When you are living in a small town, people-watching and rehashing the minutia of daily life rise to the forefront of viable diversions. We didn’t have a movie-theater or a shopping mall.

For most of my childhood, however, I was shy. My fourth-grade teacher told my mother that she had to make the other children quiet in order to hear me answer a question. At church on Sundays as a preteen, I kept my eyes averted when someone from the congregation asked me a question. If my mother happened to be within earshot, she gently but firmly reminded me that I needed to straighten up, look the questioner in his eyes and give my best answer. Much of the time, she was able to adjust my attitude without actually saying anything. I knew what was expected of me, but most of my life it seemed that I was surrounded by people who talked better, faster and more confidently than I ever would.

Then, I moved to the Czech Republic. Czechs are not particularly prone to chitchat. Whether more reserved by nature, or as a result of years under Communist rule. It seems to me that Czech people do not engage as happily or freely in idle banter as Americans do. When I first met Radek, I thought there was something wrong when, on long car rides, he fell silent. Now I’ve come to enjoy the freedom of riding beside him in comfortable silence. On the other hand, my mother turns on her Southern charm to engage Radek in conversation during their car rides together and, for the most part, he willingly obliges.

In more intimate settings, Czechs tend to open up, speaking about their jobs, personal lives, children and hobbies. Still, my Czech friends don’t seem overly curious to ask questions of me (or anyone else they’re speaking to). They might offer glimpses of their own lives, but rarely do they delve into their acquaintances’ personal details. In this more subdued conversational culture, my years of conversation-training became a skill I wanted to put to use. As soon as I was able to string together enough words to make a semi-coherent sentence in Czech (grammatical correctness aside), I began asking questions.

At my first few gatherings with my husband’s family, I realized that his cousins (women about my age) were never going to approach me to start a conversation. In truth, no one, except Radek’s grandmother, ever used to speak directly to me beyond a polite greeting. Drawing forth on false brazenness I must have inherited from my mother, I began initiating conversations. I asked Radek’s cousins questions about their children’s interests and habits. When his cousins finished talking, I then offered them unsolicited updates on mine. I asked Radek’s grandmother how to make apple strudel and his grandfather about the best times and places to pick mushrooms. I asked Radek’s aunt about her garden, and Radek’s mother about traditional Czech recipes.

In this way, I’ve navigated more than ten years of conversational banter in the Czech Republic. I’ve learned a lot about the Czechs I’ve chatted with, and I’m willing to bet that they’ve learned more than they thought they would about me.

Now, for better or worse, I’m trying to parlay my “talking” skills into my conversational lessons with Czech elementary school children.

It seems to be working. In the beginning of the year, the second graders looked at me suspiciously, perhaps wondering what their parents had gotten them into by signing up for English Conversation Club. These days, they arrive a few minutes early to class. They seem to thoroughly enjoy our routine of playing games, listening to songs and having fun. They are full of things to say, but since their English is at a rudimentary level, there isn’t too much free chatting going on. Still, we do the best we can.

I ask questions, mostly the same ones, over and over. Hello, how are you? Whats your name? How old are you? When’s your birthday? What’s the weather like today? What month is it? What day is it today? What day was yesterday? What day will tomorrow be? Do you like football? Do you like bananas? Can you jump up and down? Where’s the pencil? Who’s that? Are you hungry? What’s your favorite color? I follow up on my questions by asking more questions, and I get the children who are able to ask questions too.

I can see progress. When Lucka, a shy, gentle student in an otherwise all-boy class came to her first lesson, she got tears in her eyes as soon as I asked her name and age. Worried that I’d unintentionally embarrassed her, I let her be for a few weeks. By the time I gave out first-semester rewards, she was the first student to earn 10 stickers for class participation. Better yet, she smiled and said “hello” every time she saw me out of class in the hall.

As time has passed, I’ve realized that for most of the Czech parents whose children I’m teaching, my primary credential for teaching their children is the fact that I’m a native English speaker. The egocentric part of me would like to remind them that all not native speakers make good teachers, and that I have a TEFL teaching certificate and a university degree in English. But it isn’t really important why they want me to teach their children, and more important that their children are learning. For my part, I’m flattered to have the job.

When I spoke to another second-grade student’s mom, she told me that although her son Tomas wasn’t keen on having another English lesson, she had signed him up for the second semester. “He needs to hear you speak,” she told me. Tomas’s mom had no illusions about her son’s English ability. It’s going to take a long time, she told me, but it has to start somewhere. She knows because she’s teaching herself English from a book, and then practicing it with an English-speaking friend. She told me it’s difficult for her to understand her friend’s speech. She wants her son to start his English language journey while he’s still young, so he doesn’t face the same obstacles she has.

I can empathize with my shy students. I, too, know how hard it is to muster up the courage to answer a question, particularly in a second language. Which is why, on occasion, I’ve broken the rules and let the children hear me speak Czech. Although some ESL teaching theories say that in the classroom English should be spoken exclusively, I’ve had success using Czech in limited doses to help clarify instructions, keep classroom order and occasionally to let the children share things about their lives that they might not be able to express in English.

In this manner, my students have told me about English-speaking relatives who give English books as Christmas presents, an older brother who listens to English songs at home, a half-sister who’s married to an American with children who speak only English, computer games they like to play in English, and so on. As I listen, I try to elicit words that my students do know in English, and to get them to repeat back at least one sentence of their story in its English translation. It is hard work and progress is slow.

Last week, as I packed up my English bag after our lesson, three of my second-grade students hung around to help. While they stacked the notebooks, organized the stickers and put the books back in order, I thanked them. “You’ll be reading books like these next year,” I told them. “English is going to get easier.” They wrinkled their noses in confusion. I tried again. “Next year, will be better. You’ll see.” Finally, I translated my praise into Czech. Their faces lit up. As we walked down the hall together, they began to tell me everything they knew in English. The listed the names and types of pets they do have and pets that they would like to have. They didn’t stop talking until we reached the after school care room where we said our goodbyes.

I have 52 new friends between the ages of 4 and 12. I’m teaching them to speak in English, and they’re teaching me to listen. My childhood lessons have finally paid off.

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

Christmastime clarity

Solidifying our blended holiday traditions

“Hey Mommy, look –I’m Jesus!” Samuel grinned as he pulled a red Santa’s cap further down on his head. With his ears sticking out, he looked a lot more like one of Santa’ elfish accomplices than he did Santa. He looked nothing like the Jesus I knew from Biblical pictures, but I also knew that any attempt to explain the rather significant differences between Jesus and Santa Claus would be lengthy and likely confusing.

Oliver stopped arranging the Nativity figures to check out Samuel’s get-up, then said dead-panned, “Don’t you know that Jesus is dead.” Samuel looked puzzled for a moment. Then he switched gears and came to me. “Tell me the truth, Mom, did you put the elf on the mirror?” We received the elf and his accompanying Elf on the Shelf book last year in a secret package from the US. The elf arrived in time for St. Nicholas’s Day, and the kids named him Jingle. According to a recent secular holiday tradition, his job is to watch and report back to Santa on good behavior or misdoings. Each night he moves to a different spot and no one in the family is supposed to touch him. Luckily, I could truthfully answer him that I hadn’t touched the elf (although he didn’t ask if his father had).

Since turning four, sorting out the concept of telling the truth has become a big deal for Samuel. Like most conversations with my children, it is conducted in both languages simultaneously. A recent discussion went like this: “No, Mommy, I really didn’t write on the door frame. Jasne (clearly) I didn’t. Well, maybe omylem (accidently), I put cisla (numbers) on the door because I wanted our house to look like a hotel.” I have spent a lot of time trying to explain the importance of telling the truth, mostly with no sense of headway. I was pleasantly surprised that Samuel had grasped the concept, even if it meant facing his interrogation.

Over the years, whenever people have asked who delivers the Christmas gifts to our children, Jezisek (baby Jesus) or Santa Claus, I’m eager to answer that we do it as we do most things that are important to us – “half ‘n half.” Since Anna Lee was born ten Christmas’s ago, we have alternated where and how we celebrate Christmas each year. On the years that we’re in the Czech Republic, we do Christmas the Czech way. And on the alternating years when we travel to the US for Christmas, we follow American traditions. Along the way, we have also created a few family traditions of our own.

This year we’re traveling to my parents’ house to have an American-style Christmas, which I’ll admit has my children more confused than I anticipated. While the older two children remember a bit about Christmas in the US, their memories are selective. I overheard Oliver tell Samuel that “Santa must be real because once I saw his footprints in the snow outside Grana and Opa’s house.” Or Anna’s recent remark after reading an American Christmas book, “I think they don’t have Advent wreaths in the US like they do here because I looked in Corduroy’s Christmas book and they didn’t have them.” She also asked me why her book showed stockings hung at the ends of the beds in the US and not over the fireplace like we do at my parents’. And she’s mentioned how much she’s looking forward to going to church. When I told her that she’d go to church on her birthday, she was delighted. She remembered taking Communion at the Christmas Eve service two years ago, and she told the boys about the bread and juice they’d get to drink. For her, church is a treat related to her American heritage. The midnight Christmas Eve service is the only one I’ve attended in the Czech Republic myself.

With no active memories to draw from, Samuel is full of questions. On the way home from his preschool on Tuesday afternoon, he tells me that he has only two more days, and then he isn’t going to school. Thinking that he’s gotten mixed up about when we plan to leave for the US, I remind him that the week has five school days, and he is going to school on Friday, too. Finally, he tells me that he isn’t going on Friday because St. Nicholas, the devil and the angel are coming to visit his school. He’s scared, he says, though still smiling, because he explains –“maybe the devil will take me away in a bag.” After I reassure him that no one is going to take him anywhere; he reluctantly agrees to go to school. Then Anna chimes in, “Actually, the devils did take some boys in my class away in a sack last year. They made them all dirty and then they brought them back.” Samuel’s eyes grow wider, and once again he refuses to go to school.

While celebrating St. Nicholas on the eve of December 5 is a long-standing tradition throughout much of Europe, the Czech interpretation’s strong emphasis on the role of the devil seems more unique. In recent years, Czechs have taken the St. Nicholas tradition and turned it into a kind of pre-Christmas, Halloween-esque dress-up free-for-all. If you go downtown on the evening of December 5, you can see costumed teenagers and adults walking through the squares, usually in a trio, with St. Nicholas reading from his book of deeds, angels giving out candy and devils rattling their chains and threatening to take the naughty away to hell in a potato sack. You can find St. Nicholas parties around town, and upon request (and with advance booking) the trio will come to your home and scare your children right in their own bedroom. The devil makes an appearance in many Czech fairy tales, and he even has a key role in the modern Czech interpretation of the ballet Nutcracker. Frankly, if I were Samuel, I doubt that I’d want to go to preschool either.

We’ve never invited St. Nicholas to our house, much to Oliver’s dismay. In years past, we have attended community St. Nicholas events. This year, however, I think Samuel’s experience at preschool will suffice. On Thursday afternoon, I tell his teacher that he’s quite scared about Friday, and she tells him not to worry because he’s a “good” boy. I wonder to myself what she’d say if he’d been a “naughty” boy, but I decide that the conversation isn’t worth pursuing.

In this first week of December, we’ve decorated the house, even though we are leaving for the US ten days before Christmas. Bemoaning the fact that we won’t have a real Christmas tree this year, the children insisted on putting up their artificial miniature trees. We also got out the wooden Santa Clauses and holiday-themed ceramics they made in school last year. When the Christmas market opened in Dejvice, I bought an evergreen swag so at least we’d have a bit of real greenery on the front door. Samuel helped me tie on a red and white ribbon and hot-glue gun bright red berries on it. Finally, we got out some flat, wooden ornaments that my mother painted years ago and hooked them onto the swag. There was a kneeling angel, a skier, a little drummer boy, one of the wise men and a stocking filled to overflowing, all hanging side by side. “It looks like a miniature tree, doesn’t it?” I said with satisfaction. “It’s the prettiest wreath, we’ve ever had,” Anna declared in agreement. “It looks weird,” Oliver commented. “Why didn’t you just get a real tree?”

As a consolation for no tree, the boys and I baked a batch of gingerbread cookies. They wore their chef’s aprons and hats, and we sent pictures to the US. Before we managed to decorate the cookies, the boys ate them all. They weren’t as sweet as the sugar cookies we usually make in the US, and when my father called, Samuel told him that he’d like to bake with him, too. My dad agreed. Then my dad asked them if they’d like to help decorate the Christmas tree this year. I was floored, ever since I could remember my parents have bought and decorated their tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But my dad promised the children that this year they’d wait until we arrive to decorate the tree. The children have been beside themselves with excitement.

Counting down the days until we fly to the US, our house has been filled with the tingle of anticipation. Christmas itself takes a backseat to the thrill of getting to see our family and friends in the US that we haven’t seen for months or years. The children are more worried about who will greet us at the airport and whether they’ve got the right passports to make the trip, than they are about which of the traditions will be front and center this holiday.

Being a bilingual kid often means dealing with a bit of confusion, particularly around holiday time. But, to me, the benefits of knowing both cultures outweigh any negatives. I think my kids would agree.

The way the cookie crumbles

Spreading hospitality through cookies Chocolate chip cookies were a standard go-to dessert in my family growing up. Whenever my father felt the inclination for a chocolate treat, he took out the mixer and whipped up a batch of Nestlé’s Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, per the recommended recipe on the back of the plastic yellow packing. Chocolate chip cookies have found their way to the Czech Republic and although they are not yet a standard café dessert offering, you can often find some version of them in many coffee shops and supermarkets. I’ve sampled them all, though I haven’t found any as of yet that taste like the cookies I know from home. When Radek and I got married in my hometown my parents prepared welcome packages for out-of-town guests who stayed at the local hotel. In addition to a few regional products like a can of Mountain Dew and a bag of Virginia roasted peanuts, my parents included a goody bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies. When I asked my father how he’d managed to make so many batches of cookies in addition to getting all the wedding preparations straight, he just smiled. Later, he admitted that he’d frozen several batches of the dough in advance. The cookies made an impression. No less so on the visiting Czech contingency, who later remarked that, to their own surprise, the American cookies were delicious. Over the years, I’ve experimented with making chocolate chip cookies in Prague using a variety of recipes. I have tried the three different textures of traditional Czech white flour, both smooth and crystallized brown sugar, and I’ve substituted different types of chocolate for the Nestlé chips. From my experience, an Orion 70% dark chocolate bar works well cut into squares for the chocolate chips, but really any chocolate bar chopped up does fine. As an interesting aside, Orion was formerly Czech owned but now operates under Nestlé. I’ve made cookies with nuts and without, I’ve even added rolled-oats and dried fruits. The only thing that all these attempts have in common is the attitude that I typically don when making the cookies. Whenever I’m cooking or baking from an American recipe, I’m nostalgic. The American measuring cups and teaspoons are part of a set that I got for our wedding. Although it takes a bit of mathematical juggling to convert things like butter from sticks into grams or making adjustments for the character or fineness of the sugar, I tend to do the estimations on the spot. When my children come to help, for a minute, I imagine we’re in my parents’ kitchen. I let them lick the beaters, even though there’s raw egg in the batter (mainly because my father always let us) and sometimes they drop the cookie dough onto the pans for baking. Their attention for the mixing process doesn’t last long and I am usually instructed to give them a shout out when the cookies are finished so that they can taste test. When it comes to tasting, Radek prefers his cookies crispy and nearly-overcooked, while the children like a soft, almost undercooked cookie. I actually don’t like eating chocolate chip cookies as much as I like making them, so I’m glad to have a reason to give part of the batch away. I have observed that my Czech friends and neighbors never come visiting empty-handed. When I invite a Czech friend over for coffee, she usually brings flowers, some pieces of a traditional Czech cake or a bakery dessert, small toys for the children, chocolate or bonbons. Even when my next-door neighbors drop by for an impromptu Friday afternoon coffee or a glass of wine, they come bearing hospitable gifts. I try to remember that this is the custom here and to keep a few extra sweets or packaged hors d’oeuvres on hand for such occasions, but when an invitation comes on the spur-of-the-moment I am often caught without. I’m embarrassed when I have to go somewhere without bringing my hostess something; however, my Czech friends are gracious and never make me feel out of place when I show up invited, but empty-handed. On the other hand, I have also witnessed the fuss made over any homemade item that I bring to our neighborhood barbeques or friends’ children’s birthday parties. My chocolate chip cookies are now a staple of neighborhood gatherings, and I know that even though they’ll be placed on the table with the children’s snacks, I’ll find adults sampling them and then asking me for the recipe. I’ve translated the recipe into Czech and upon request I’ve passed it on to neighbors, friends’ of neighbors, and teachers at my children’s school. Once I brought the cookies to Samuel’s preschool and the teachers were so delighted that one of them asked me where she could buy the chocolate chips. I ended up giving her the recipe and my last bag of Nestlé’s chocolate chips. I knew we were going home for the summer, and we could get more there. Yet, my motives behind spreading appreciation for chocolate chip cookies are purely selfish. Many years ago, pre-kids and before I could speak Czech very well, I realized that surviving a social gathering where most of the attendees were Czech required a bit of courage. Holding a plate of chocolate chip cookies helped boost my confidence, and it also provided a pleasant medium for a conversation starter. I felt better knowing that I’d brought something original for guests to enjoy, and I also felt more open to initiating to or responding to a conversation. Twelve years and three kids later, you might think that I would be confident enough to socialize with our friends and neighbors without needing to hold a plate of cookies. But I’ve discovered that bringing something to a gathering that reveals a bit of my American heritage is often just the right spark to get the typically more reserved Czechs to open up. Anna Lee’s tenth birthday is coming up this Christmas, and we’re planning a party at home to celebrate it in a few weeks. In addition to a horse cake and horse-themed party favors that Anna chose over the summer in the US, a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies is on the party food list. I think I still have one bag of Nestlé’s chocolate chips left. But perhaps, as a representative gesture of Anna’s mixture cultural heritage, I’ll use the Orion chocolate. Maybe I’ll ask her if she wants to give the Nestlé chips to her classroom teacher to use in their traditional Czech Christmas sweets baking. Blending traditions and maintaining my cultural identity while adapting to life here can be a challenge. Keeping my family’s ritual of baking chocolate chip cookies and sharing them keeps me close to my roots. As the holiday season approaches, I encourage you to take a moment in the madness to prepare one of your family’s favorite foods or desserts. Eat it with them or share it with a neighbor. Think back on your fond memories of making the dish or eating the dish in the past. And try to instill a little of that delicious nostalgia into the kind of holiday experience you’d like to have this year.