My husband’s salads

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.







School entrance exams – effort or result?

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

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

Half ‘n Half on the Prague Daily Monitor and

As of April 1, 2015 new Half ‘n Half stories will be published regularly on in the site’s “Family & Kids” section as well as back on the Prague Daily Monitor on alternate Fridays.

See below for links to recent articles.

Prague Daily Monitor

Many thanks to readers for continuing to follow Half ‘n Half this past year on my blog. I’m looking forward to giving you some fresh stories to read. As always, please let me know if you have a particular topic to explore or comments to share about life in the Czech Republic.


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.