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The language of dreaming

When your child dreams in a language not your mother tongue

Prague wasn’t intended as my final destination. After working a year in public relations following university, I wanted more time to transition from student life, to real life, whatever that was supposed to be. Grad school was on my mind; I vacillated between an advanced degree in journalism or law. I took a class in San Francisco called “Creating a Life Worth Living,” where we mapped out our three most ideal jobs. My list included: 1) writer 2) teacher 3) café/pastry shop owner.

When my roommates decided to leave San Francisco, and I realized that I wasn’t ready to commit to a grad school program or to opening my own café, I teamed with a like-minded childhood friend who was also ready for an adventure abroad. Our plan was to teach English for a year or two in Europe. I wanted to make enough money to cover my expenses and see some interesting sights. I had hoped that I’d get a better idea of what I wanted to do when I returned to the US.

Twelve and a half years after my initial arrival in Prague, I’m still here. The “real life” of my dreams has long been shoved aside to make way for practical day-to-day duties. Although I believe that I’ve created a home for my family here; sometimes I don’t know where my own home is. I’m torn between feeling both Czech and American at the same time, depending on the situation. I think my children feel the same way, although for them, being multilingual and exposed to more than one culture is their birthright. Still, even for them, it hasn’t come without effort.

One recent night, we’d put our boys down to sleep together in our bed instead of in their own bunk beds. Since they both wake frequently in the night and come to our bed, I was hoping that by starting them off together in our bed, they’d sleep through the night peacefully and so would we. In the middle of the night, however, I was awakened by Sammy’s desperate cry, “mamko, mamko!” By the time, I’d reached him he’d started to wet his pants, so I took him quickly to the bathroom, and he fell straight back to sleep.

I, however, lay awake for hours thinking about how my three-and-half year old had just called me “mother” in Czech in his sleep. It was true that in recent weeks, Sammy had begun speaking to me exclusively in Czech. His vocabulary had grown exponentially in the six months since he started Czech preschool. We have lengthy conversations with me speaking to him in English and him answering me in Czech. Sometimes, I don’t even realize it until afterward. Frustrated, I’ve begun to try to force him to speak back to me in English. First, I tried saying, “What? Sorry, I don’t understand you.” Initially, it was a game. Then, he became frustrated too. We took it a step further and decided to make dinner time an English zone, with even Radek speaking to the children in English. It didn’t change things much. Our older children who are used to speaking English (with some Czech words inserted when they don’t know the correct English ones) continued to speak in the same way, while Sammy just decided he was done with dinner altogether.

Last weekend I went with three other Czech women for a getaway of sport and relaxation. Our retreat was in the Moravian wine country, and I was excited, if a bit nervous about the adventure. It was the second time I was going with this group of women. On the first trip we really hit it off, and I had thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I wondered if we could repeat the magic six months later.

Our instructors were also the same as in the fall. The classes were a combination of high-energy dance classes taught by Charles, a well-built, charismatic black man originally from London and ballet-type stretching led by Sona, a demure, Czech new mother with the poise of a ballerina. Over the short weekend, we stretched our bodies and our minds just as we had in the fall. Since we spoke mostly Czech, the first evening my head was spinning. Charles’s dance classes, taught in English with a bit of Czech thrown in for comic effect, were a soothing balance. After exercising, we sipped wine from the local vineyards and shared stories.

When I’d spoken with Charles back in the fall, he told me that he and his Czech wife had left London nine years ago to make their home in a small town near Zlin. He was the father of two children, and, like me, he thought family life in the Czech Republic was pretty close to ideal. Although he missed his eight siblings back in London, he was happy.

Over the course of the two evenings we had together, my friends and I discussed everything from our husbands and our children to our life philosophies and our dreams. I hadn’t laughed as hard or as often in months. When they asked me about how I’d adjusted to life in the Czech Republic, I answered honestly. Some days life here was great – other days if given the option, I’d happily teleport myself back to my family in the US, just to get a bit of balance. I told them about Sammy’s recent switch to speaking only Czech. Just talking about it and admitting that it bothered me seemed to help. Of course, they told me what I already somehow knew: forcing Sammy to speak English wasn’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. He had to want to speak English.

No one had made me learn Czech years ago. It was a choice. I made the decision because I wanted to have a home here. I didn’t want to live here without the security of knowing the language and trying to understand the culture. I’m grateful for my Czech home. I know that I am living out the dreams I’d had for myself many years ago. I’m learning to appreciate this more each day.

One case in point, I thought I knew all there was to know about Czech Easter traditions. However, just this week my son Oliver taught me a new custom. On Easter Monday, a Czech saying goes that you are supposed to wear something new. Having never heard this before, I asked Oliver why. He told me giggling, “So that a ram doesn’t poop on you, Mommy!”

On this light-hearted note, I’d like to wish Half ‘n Half readers a Happy Easter Sunday and Monday! I realize now that in the routine of my everyday life my dreams have, in fact, come true. I hope your dreams come true for you as well.





Hanging out the laundry

Line-dry idle time

After six years of pumping out fresh, dry clothes like clock-work, our dryer, without warning or apology, simply burned up. I first smelled it Saturday morning when I was tidying up the kitchen, but I attributed the burnt smell to a candle I had lit. When I went into the laundry room, I found the dryer’s START button blinking. There was a bundle of warm, wet and slightly roasted-smelling clothes inside. Undaunted, I simply pushed START again and went back to cleaning in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I returned an hour later that I realized something was wrong.

Radek was away for the weekend. When I called to report the problem, he expressed sympathy, but told me it would be best to wait. He hoped he could figure out the problem before we called a repairman. I took a break from the laundry to sit down for breakfast with the children. 

Both Anna Lee and Oliver had spent that Friday night at their elementary school as part of a world-wide program called noc s Andersonem (night with Anderson). There they had read fairytales and celebrated Hans Christian Anderson’s 209th birthday. Anna’s third-grade class was given the job of describing Anderson’s home in Denmark, while the fifth graders were responsible for designing a special late-night bojovka (adventure game) with scavenger-hunt tasks related to particular Anderson fairy tales. As the youngest students, Oliver’s class drew pictures of Anderson’s fairy tales and watched the older students’ presentations. 

My children interrupted each other as they recounted the details of the evening’s bojovka, a common thrilling fixture of Czech summer camps and school overnights. As they walked in the dark to different stations in the school, they encountered famous Anderson fairy tale characters, such as the Ugly Duckling, the Littlest Mermaid and even the Emperor without his clothes. Getting past the Snow Queen and safely back to their classroom was the final task.

Anna and Oliver were delighted to tell me in detail of the characters they’d encountered, both new and familiar, and of the history they’d learned about Anderson. They also seemed pleased to linger a few minutes over their eggs and bacon, waiting to listen to my reactions to their adventures. Finally, I sent them to clean the playroom while I went to hang the wet laundry.

Shaking each piece and smoothing it before I hung it on the drying rack, I was reminded of my earlier experiences washing clothes in the Czech Republic. In my first few months in the Czech Republic I’d gotten used to hand washing items and laying them to dry on a radiator in my apartment. Since it was winter, the central heating was on and the clothes dried quickly. I only had a handful of items with me. I soon learned the trick of airing-out my sweaters and jeans that weren’t dirty, but smelled of second-hand smoke from bars and restaurants.

For serious washing, my roommate and I took our bag of laundry via tram to a laundry-mat. It was an expensive and time-consuming way to spend a Saturday. So when my new-boyfriend Radek offered that I could bring my dirty clothes with me when we visited his mother, I readily agreed. He didn’t have a washing machine in the apartment that he rented with his friend, so he always took his laundry home, he explained.

Upon arriving in his hometown Friday evening, Radek announced that we needed to make a stop at his grandparent’s apartment before going to his mother’s. We caught his grandparents just before bed and chatted with them for a few minutes. On his way out the door, Radek casually mentioned to his grandmother, “Oh, I’m just going to run get my laundry from the car. Emily’s got a few things that need to be washed, too. Is that okay?” Mortified, I couldn’t speak. Although I protested, his grandmother smiled and nodded as she took the bag from Radek’s hand. She waved us on our way.

When we returned later to his grandparent’s apartment for a typical Sunday lunch of snitzel and potatoes, Radek’s grandmother showed me my laundry. It had been carefully ironed and folded, even my underwear. I thanked her profusely and told her (or at least tried to) in Czech that I hadn’t expected her to do my laundry, I had just wanted to borrow her washing machine. Radek translated and she laughed and patted my cheek. Later, when I asked Radek why he didn’t do his laundry himself, he told me that his grandmother was the best at ironing his work shirts.

Although that was the last time that I took my laundry to my future-in-laws, Radek’s tradition of taking his clothes to his grandmother’s continued until he bought our first apartment in Prague. We installed a washing machine under the kitchen counter top, just to the right of the sink. It is a spot I later discovered that was fairly typical for a European washing machine. Like most Czechs, we didn’t have a dryer. The drying rack held a prominent position in our living room, and I soon became used to ironing everything that I wanted to be soft and smooth, even underwear.  

Over the years, I’ve grown pampered by our dryer. It saves me time and effort by tumble-drying most of the clothes my family wears. The ironing I’ve done of late has been limited to Radek’s button-down shirts or synthetic fabrics that I don’t choose to dry in the machine. When our dryer suddenly stopped working, I realized how fortunate I am to have the modern equipment that makes doing laundry a mere blip in my housekeeping routine. As I began smoothing the clothes and laying them out on the drying rack and around the house on top of the radiators to dry, I realized how much more time it was going to take me to get my family’s clothes back into their drawers ready-to-wear.

Still, I couldn’t help but look back with pleasure on an earlier time when drying my clothes meant experiencing and adapting to a new culture. Although many of my Czech neighbors and friends also have dryers now, I find that they are far more selective about the items they choose to put in their dryers. Usually, clothes are still hung to dry while sheets and towels are dried in the automatic dryer. I’ve got friends who swear that line-dried clothes, particularly those dried in the open air, not only smell better but stay in good shape longer than those dried in the dryer.

While I am grateful for the modern convenience of the automatic dryer, there is a certain feeling of satisfaction in a job well-done that I get when hanging laundry. I remember a friend who didn’t have a dryer and didn’t like to iron, once telling me that smoothing the wrinkles from her husband’s shirts when she took them off the drying rack was one of the greatest gifts she gave him. It seemed kind of ridiculous to me at the time, but I now think I understand.

Although I’d like to reflect more on the benefits of the modern dryer, since our dryer isn’t yet fixed, I don’t really have the time. I’ve got to go iron some underwear.  



Things that go bump

Cultural differences in dealing with and overcoming childhood fears

When I was quite young, a neighbor had their house broken into. Evidently, I overheard my parents talking about how the thieves hadn’t been caught and subsequently refused to go outside in the backyard alone for a year. Although I have no recollection of my childhood fear of burglars, I’m getting a taste of how such a childhood fear looks from an adult’s perspective.

Six-year old Oliver has always been somewhat fearful, at least compared to his two siblings. Caught in the middle of a family of act-first, think-second “go-getters,” Oliver’s caution and introspection often comes across as fear. On the ski slopes, he skis slowly to avoid falling. Meanwhile his older sister whizzes by so quickly, an adult skier stops to reprimand her to slow down and pay attention. Oliver will walk his bike down the semi-steep hill near our house while I hold on tightly three-year-old Samuel’s jacket collar, making sure his excitement doesn’t take him down the hill faster than his legs can manage.

When we pull into the garage on a winter afternoon and it’s already dark outside, Sammy and Anna Lee hop out of the car and storm through the house – Anna to her room and Samuel to the playroom. Neither of them stops to think whether there might be burglars hiding in the bathroom or thieves brandishing knives in the closet. These frightening thoughts (and more) flash through Oliver’s head as he sits in the backseat and waits for me to open his door, walk inside the house first and close the garage door securely behind us.

Once Oliver’s safely inside our house, he camps out on the couch while I make dinner. He entices Samuel with toys and magazines to stay in the bathroom while he’s going to the toilet. He convinces either Anna or Sam to bathe with him so he won’t be in the tub alone, and once he’s tucked snugly in bed, he begs and pleads for either Radek or me to lay down with him until he falls asleep.

I confess, as parents, neither Radek nor I is very sympathetic to Oliver’s fears. At the end of a long day, I don’t want to have to walk upstairs and stand in the bathroom while Oliver is brushing his teeth because he’s scared that thieves might come through the roof window and get him. I don’t want to hear him call my name every time he hears something, just to make sure that the thieves haven’t gotten me and are coming for him next.

While I try to listen to Oliver and reason with him, Radek’s reaction is more along the lines of “Stop this nonsense.” He doesn’t want to listen to Oliver tell him about the things he’s scared of. He wants him to pull himself together and just get over it. To tell the truth, so do I. However, I’m notably more interested in trying to get to the bottom of why he’s scared.

I have noticed that my husband isn’t the only Czech who expects his child to face fears and get over them quickly. Czech culture in general gives children the independence to walk to and from school, ride public transportation by themselves and even stay at home after school by themselves until their parents come home from work. On our dead-end lane during the weekends and school holidays, the children are allowed to go from garden to garden and to play in the vacant lot. There’s not much supervision until mealtime, and then the children are expected to come home and eat with their family. However, there are still certain cultural tendencies that reign strong. Boys shouldn’t cry, as crying is for girls and only then, for little girls. I’ve heard both my husband and mother-in-law repeat those words to Oliver, as if, in the middle of an emotional moment, he’ll suddenly remember, “Oh, yeah. I’m a boy; boys don’t cry.”

The Czech parents that I know don’t spend a lot of time coddling their children or taking them to the psychologist to let them talk about their fears. Going to see a psychologist or talking to a counselor still carries a stigma in this pragmatic, do-it-yourself culture. This person needs help and isn’t strong enough to do it for himself. In general, the Czech culture is more private than what I knew growing up in a small Appalachian town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Czech children, and particularly boys, seem to be expected to solve their problems without needing help from an “outsider.” When I mentioned taking Oliver to see a psychologist, just to talk about his fears with someone who wasn’t a parent, the Czechs that I spoke with seemed to think it wasn’t necessary. He’s got to just get over it, they said. Maybe they’re right.

But between now and when Oliver “gets over” his fears, it’s a rocky road at our house when darkness falls. As long as either Radek or I is willing to give up a portion of our evening sleeping in one of the boys’ bunk beds until they both fall asleep, things go smoothly. But on the nights that I don’t have thirty minutes to spare I can feel the stress on both sides. Knowing that I was once a fearful child, I sympathize with Oliver.

I remember not too long ago, when we still lived in Žižkov in Prague, whenever I used to ride the tram home after dark, I would always run from the tram stop down the long street to our apartment. I know I looked ridiculous doing it. But, after having the misfortune of being once mugged in Vinohrady, I figured it was better to look a bit silly and run from the tram home than to stay at home because I was too scared to go out after dark. When first we moved to our house out of the city, sometimes I missed the noise and activity of town, especially at night. When the neighborhood was quiet and dark, I didn’t know whether to turn on all the lights in the house, or to appreciate the quiet.

Life in the Czech Republic can be pretty idyllic. There’s plenty of time spent outdoors in this culture that regards weekends as time for family, sporting activities and relaxation. Even the most popular activities seem pretty laid back, such as gathering mushrooms in the forest, walking through the city parks or visiting shops and cafes. And for the most part, the Czech Republic is a fairly calm and safe place. I want all of my children, especially Oliver, to grow up believing that they live in a safe place. They shouldn’t be afraid to go into their house when it’s dark, nor should they be scared to play hide and seek with the neighborhood children on a starlit summer evening. Radek has fond memories of afternoons spent alone in the woods as an older child. After reading Karl Maj’s books about the American West, he spent time traipsing through the forest daydreaming about what that life might have looked like.

When Oliver first came back from his week in the mountains, it seemed his fears were stronger than ever. He had watched a scary movie one night while there, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. I told him that I understood. To this day, I still avoid scary movies when I can (to which Harry Potter classifies). Real life can be too frightening at times for me to ever want to scare myself with fiction.

I overheard Radek giving Oliver some advice the other night. They were sitting on the couch together, after a bike ride where Oliver had repeatedly jumped off his bike to avoid going down any steep down hills. Radek asked Oliver if he knew what his biggest enemy was. Oliver thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Fear,” Radek replied. If you let it, it will always stand in your way. Oliver took this thought to heart for a minute, then he snuggled up to his dad and said, “Daddy, it’s time to go brush my teeth. Who’s going to stand in the bathroom tonight, you or Mommy?”

Taking it one day at a time seems to help though, and I’m looking forward to warm summer nights to show Oliver how much fun hide-and-seek in the dark can be, catching fireflies in my parents’ Virginia backyard and going to sleep under the stars in one of Český raj’s campgrounds.

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Spring time has sprung

Spring time has sprung

Enjoying the new season as a temporary mother of one

The past week’s spring-like temperatures of 15C have fired me up with a post-winter enthusiasm that has prompted two trips to the recently re-opened local garden center. I went under the pretense of just looking. The warming sun’s rays have also prompted me to wash our winter coats and boots for storage and dust off the boys’ baseball caps – and pledge to wash my windows.

Delicate purple crocuses and slender green daffodil stalks have peeped through the mulch bark border along our garden’s edge. Our hydrangea plants have green buds, and decorative grasses have sprung up in the space that was only rocks last week. Each day, I can tell the flowers are a little taller and the ground is getting a shade greener.

Over the weekend, Radek hooked up a children’s trailer to his bike and we took three-year-old Samuel for a first-ride of the season, an ambitious 40-kilometers that left my leg muscles aching the following day. Our scenic route took us through the woods in Statenice, up by the airport, through the magnificent craggy rock formations in Sarka into the Stromovka park, across the Vltava, past the zoo and finally across the river again via ferry to bike through Roztoky’s tiche udoli (quiet valley) and end at the Unetice brewery.

The scenery was breath-taking, and the outdoors was hopping with activity. We weren’t the only ones with spring on our minds. During the ride we passed whole assortments of people enjoying the weather, some serious bikers, people out walking dogs and local policemen patrolling on horseback. We saw families picnicking with hammocks in the park and children trying out new rollerblades on the relatively smooth path from the zoo to Klecany where the ferry docks. Older Czechs with walking sticks and canes stopped and smiled at Samuel when we passed. Biking with the sun’s warming rays on my back, winter was a distant memory.

While half of my enthusiasm stemmed from spring cheer, the rest likely corresponded to the conspicuous absence of two-thirds of my offspring. While we were in Prague celebrating spring, Anna Lee and Oliver were living up the last days of winter. On Saturday, they’d had left for a week-long ski trip to the Krkonose mountains with their Czech elementary school. The school’s annual “lyzak” (ski course) was offered for children from 2-5 grades with a special exception for first-grade Oliver as the brother of a third grader.

I had my reservations about letting the children go for a week to ski without us, especially after watching the ambulance during our family’s spring break at Lipno make back-and-forth trips from the ski slopes to the nearest hospital. With the mild weather this winter, ski slopes in the Czech Republic were kept in operation only through the use of technical snow, which was icy in the morning and heavy and slushy by the afternoon. The conditions were ripe for broken arms and legs.

The ski trip was a regular extension of Czech children’s out-of-school physical education with about half of Anna Lee’s third grade class attending. We’d committed to it last November, before we’d known what kind of winter we had in store. Both Anna and Oliver were excited. At least, I figured, the kids would have a chance to ski a few days more before they traded skis for bikes. And they’d be learning the valuable lesson of independence and self-reliance that the Czech school system fosters early on with its out-of-school overnight activities.

Waiting beside the bus, I took a deep breath, gave them both giant kisses and reminded them to put sunscreen on their noses. Then I waved as hard as I could until the bus finally pulled away.

Then, Radek, Sammy and I got down to business. With only one child at home, things were simple. Without his older siblings to influence him, Sammy was at once agreeable – he ate what we ate (Vietnamese Pho, green salads and spicy Thai pumpkin soup) without protest. He got his wheelbarrow and gardening gloves and helped cart away branches from Radek’s spring trimming. He rode in the bike trailer without complaint, glad to pedal when he could and happy to sit and watch the scenery. He was delighted to choose not one, but two bedtime stories, and to have the luxury of both parents reading to him.

A friend sent me a whats app message: “How’s your week going? One child – no child, right?” I hated to admit it, but having only Samuel at home threw me back to my first days in Prague as a new mother to one-year old Anna Lee. The possibilities seemed endless: swim lessons, trips to the park, visiting with friends. This week I could finally do what I hadn’t managed to do in years.

But there were drawbacks. At the brewery instead of going to the playground to interact with the other children, some of whom he knew from our neighborhood, Samuel sat contentedly on my lap, waiting to go home. At home, instead of rushing up the stairs to the playroom to see if his toys were where he’d left them the day before, he pulled on my arm and begged me to go up with him. He wanted me on the street to help him ride his big-boy bike and to play tennis with him in the garden. At bedtime, without the comfort of Oliver on the top bunk, he expected me to lay down with him until he fell asleep.

Time passed. Samuel went to preschool, I taught. We spent afternoons on the road in front of our house, practicing on his bike and waiting for Radek. He talked his blend of Czechlish, and I answered him in English. One day turned into the next.

Then, Anna called to say that she was worn out from skiing. She missed us; she was ready to come home. It was only Tuesday. The next night, she and Oliver called together. He was homesick, hungry and thirsty. He’d already spent the pocket money we’d given them on sweets and drinks. I suggested he drink water from the tap. Anna offered to buy him a lollipop with her last 16CZK. I suggested they forget the lollipop and asked Anna if she could read him a story instead and settle him into bed. She told me that she needed to sign off and promised to find his teacher.

On Saturday at noon, we’ll go to the school and pick them up. I’m ready. I’m sure they will be too. Although I’ve missed them dreadfully, I know that this week has been an important one for them as well as for us back at home. We’ve gotten a re-taste of life with one child, and I can’t deny that it’s been fun.

But, I’m ready now for the chaos and the madness of life with our whole family together again. We won’t be able to bike 40-kilometers; if we make half the loop together, it’ll be impressive. I’ll be back to cooking more and relaxing less. Cleaning windows will have to wait.

Unless, perhaps, I can convince the three of them to do it for me.

Half ‘n Half is moving! To my new wordpress site at Look here for more stories about our life and adventures in the Czech Republic. You can also subscribe to my new email newsletter for updates by writing to