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.

IMG_4620IMG_4626 IMG_4632

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.

Teaching the younger crowd

Generating enthusiasm and bolstering confidence

How do you get ten wiggly second-graders, released from their loosely supervised after-school care and put back in the classroom, to stop poking their neighbor in the side or fiddling with their locker keys, to sit up straight, listen closely and speak clearly? Short of standing on my head or announcing a fire drill, I haven’t really found the ticket yet. There’s a popular classroom management tongue-twister where the teacher says, “1,2,3…eyes on me,” and the students respond, “1,2…eyes on you.” It worked to quiet down my restless first-graders last year. However, those students had the benefit of a Czech-speaking assistant who was able to step in to help clarify rules and discipline issues. They also had textbooks, an established curriculum and English lessons before lunchtime. Regardless, I still need to channel my class’s enthusiasm for horsing around into enthusiasm for learning English.

Keeping and maintaining my 30 second-graders’ interest has proven to require a tremendous effort. But it’s not the only change I’ve experienced this year. Rather than return to the English program in the state school where I taught last year, this September, due to changing Czech educational requirements for foreign language teachers, as well as a desire to be my own “boss,” I’ve started my own business teaching English.

I finally took a big step and applied for a trade business license, a procedure which seemed in theory a lot more daunting than in reality. I’ve had to broaden my thinking beyond questions of classroom management, standards and curriculum and ongoing skills assessment to include the nuts-and-bolts questions of running my own business. I needed to communicate effectively and professionally in Czech and English, to set my course rates and policy, to pay my own insurance and social benefits.

As I’ve muddled through my first few weeks as a business woman, setting up my own business bank account and learning how to issue invoices. I’ve wondered if it would have been easier to find a reputable language school and start teaching there. I knew I wouldn’t have the freedom that I have now, but I probably wouldn’t feel the pressure either. When I feel discouraged, luckily, it doesn’t take long before I teach another class, and I remember again why I chose to branch out on my own. Marketing my courses as speaking-focused, I am encouraging both my young children and my adult students to actively “own” their English language education.

Generating enthusiasm and interest in learning English, I think, is often the first step toward making significant linguistic progress. With this attitude, I believe that a 45-minute well-organized English “club” with songs, role-play and practical question/answer sessions can do a lot to supplement the more traditional English language instruction in a Czech state school. Once children have the desire to improve their own English, progress can come quickly. Likewise, without self-motivation, students tend get through their English classes without ever really knowing what’s going on.

Over the years, I’ve heard complaints from Czech parents saying that their adolescent children don’t actually know anything once they are put into a situation where they are required to interact in English with native speakers. Despite having attended (per Czech state requirements) at least three hours of mandatory English language instruction a week from the 3rd grade onward and often making all “A’s”, many teenage Czech students aren’t prepared to actively use their English. Czech schools commonly offer school trips abroad to England for students in the upper grades of elementary school. It is during such trips that children often discover they aren’t able to manage basic communication in English. Of course, this situation becomes upsetting, both for the parents back at home who’ve paid for their child to have a good first-hand experience in a native-English setting, and for the child who doesn’t have the adequate skills.

While parents assume that the children don’t know “anything,” and that all the years of mandatory English have been a waste, I saw it differently last year in the conversational classes that I taught to 9th graders. Many students knew more than they thought. However, perhaps because they were embarrassed about their pronunciation or didn’t know how to put a complete sentence together or how to make practical conversation, it took a huge effort just to communicate basic information. Being persistent and showing a genuine interest in my students paid off. Even though my students figured out that I understood Czech, I spoke only English in the classroom, and I tried to show them that speaking with mistakes is an important part of learning. Correcting their spoken mistakes in a respectful, but consistent manner and using magazines and online material from real teenage life helped. At the end of the year, even my non-talkative students were eager to share their post-elementary school plans with me. Although I only saw them once a week for 45-minutes, I could tell that they had made progress, particularly in their confidence.

I didn’t intend to teach lessons in a school setting this year. Instead, I planned to lead some private and small-group lessons in my home, mostly to adults, although I promised a few of the mothers that I was teaching that I’d try to set up small groups for their children as well. Then, in the back-to-school parents’ meeting, a few of the parents in my son Oliver’s second-grade classroom expressed their dissatisfaction with the school’s English program. My name was suggested as a potential native speaker teacher, and with the parents’ endorsement, Oliver’s classroom teacher went to the principal and asked about the possibility of opening an English club after-school activity. I was granted permission to rent a space from the school, and to offer optional after-school English classes. The second-grade teachers offered the optional “extra” English class to their students, and in the end I created three groups of ten students each.

I have had enough teaching experience to know that activities that work well for one class often don’t transition to another class. Still, I was surprised to discover that the lesson plans that I’d planned for the three classes worked in the first class, but not in the second two. Or they worked in the first two classes, but not in the third. The classes were on different days and at different times; the students had a mixed range of abilities but they were all in the second-grade. After a few weeks I realized that I was beginning to see some trends. While my Monday class liked to read and to be read to, my Tuesday class wanted to play fiercely competitive games, most preferably team games with football names like Sparta and Dukla. My third class had a few students who wandered away from the carpet to look around the room at the crafts or out the window. In order to capture my wanderers’ interests, I taught them a chant. We made it through 11 rotations of our “what’s missing” chant guessing the missing vocabulary word before they wanted to change games.

Because many of these students know that I’m Oliver’s mom, they expect me to speak English and they do their best to answer me in English when I give them instructions or ask them questions. Although I can sense a high level of frustration when they don’t know what I’m asking them to do, I’m trying to read their clues and keep my instructions and my expectations as low-key as possible. Generating enthusiasm and interest in the English language is my primary goal. I’m not trying to replace their classroom teachers; I’d just like a chance to make their English language experience a bit more fun and hopefully more productive as time goes on.

I don’t have all the wrinkles ironed out of my English program yet. In fact, I doubt that I will anytime soon. Still, I’m grateful that I’ve taken the challenge.

To balance out my new professional life, I’ve started taking piano lessons, too. My teacher, Irina, is a young, talented pianist with little tolerance for sloppy hand position or improperly played scales. I’ve had three lessons so far, and in my last one I was intimidated near to tears because my pinkie finger kept flying off the piano, and I couldn’t get the proper curve in my hand when I played ascending and descending notes.

I’ve got a ways to go with my piano, but when I put myself in the role of a student I see how important it is to be a good teacher. I’m determined to find a way to get my wiggly second graders to focus and have fun learning English. It’s got to be easier than practicing my scales.

Ups and downs

Keeping cool while navigating life’s bureaucratic moments

Overall, I’m happy that my family lives in the Czech Republic. I can list the reasons why, and I often do, usually when prompted by a Czech friend or a visiting foreigner. The other day while cycling in the woods near Roztoky, I unexpectedly came upon a fellow group of cyclists from Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC. I’m not certain whether I was more surprised to find this group of tourists so far from the downtown area, or if they were more surprised to find a fellow North American who spoke some Czech and knew the local ferry schedule.

During our fifteen-minute wait for the ferry, they peppered me with questions about what I was doing living in the Czech Republic. Being parents and grandparents themselves, they were curious about everything from my children’s ages and linguistic abilities to whether I filed my taxes with the IRS. One particularly wry gentleman even asked me half-jokingly if I was still with the same Czech man who’d gotten me into this life in the first place. Another man from Seattle told me that he had grandchildren in Alaska whom he seldom gets to see. He asked me how often I make it back to the States and if my family comes here to visit. We talked about Skyping with our far-away family members. We chatted, as people typically do during chance meetings, and then waved cheerful best wishes and goodbyes. From Prague, they were heading on to bike in Vienna.

Unlike many expat families who relocate for their jobs, my husband and I made the choice to return to live long-term in the Czech Republic before either of us had jobs. We both had had the experience of living and working in Prague before we moved to America together. Returning married and with a one-year old, we found our lives in Prague, and Prague itself, different than how we’d remembered it. Adjusting to Czech parenting culture took some getting used to. Now it seems normal for my children to wear tights under their pants in the winter, to eat soup every day at school before their main course, to dress in slippers at school, to beg for salami sandwiches in their snacks, and to attend after-school courses in nearly every subject imaginable because Czech school ends by lunchtime.

In the beginning, I didn’t realize how comfortable I’d feel living here, nearly ten years later, speaking the language and adapting to the culture. The benefits of having more time for family life, weekend leisure time largely spent outdoors, longer vacations, the chance to stay home with my children until they were three and later to create a flexible working schedule were just some of the reasons we decided to stay. Feeling the responsibility of exposing our children to both their Czech and American heritage and taking the opportunity to raise our children bilingually, lent itself naturally to living for some extended time in the Czech Republic.

Yet, there are some things about Czech culture that I still don’t understand. I am surprised by the independence children are given at a young age, being trusted to walk to and from school by themselves or to go with friends to the neighborhood playground after school. I’m equally shocked by the legacy Communism has left on some organizations like the kid’s club in a village near our house.

After getting a tip that the club had good, affordable music lessons, I submitted a pre-registration form at the beginning of September for Oliver’s guitar lessons with preferred times. Per instruction, I arrived at 2 pm on October 1, the day of registration, to wait on the street in front of the school until the opening ceremony finished and official registration began. After the director made a speech, about 40 other parents and I pushed and jostled our way to get into the center, up to the first floor to another line. By the time my friend got near the front of this line, she told me we were standing in the wrong line for guitar and needed to get in the back of the other line. In the end, when it was our turn, there were no spots left on any day that Oliver had free. The price for the course was 50 CZK for a 30 minute music lesson, so I don’t blame the crowds who showed up. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that this was the accepted system. I heard grumbling from other Czech parents who left without getting their children into the classes they’d hoped to, even from those who had children that had been enrolled in the lessons in years past.

I knew I wasn’t alone in finding the system antiquated. However, I didn’t see anyone trying to reason with the director. According to other parents, at this particular school this system had been in place for years and wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. Back in September, I had tried to ask the director what would happen if I couldn’t show up right at 2pm on October 1, and he had told me if I wanted a spot for my son, then I needed to send someone else to stand in my place. When I tried to explain that I didn’t have any relatives here, he challenged me retorting, “You’re not alone here in the Czech Republic. Find a friend to stand in line for you.”

When he made the comment, at first, my blood boiled. I thought who was he to assume that I had friends who would stand in line for me. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone to do it. Of course, he was right; one of my friends did offer to stand in line for me since she was going for her daughter. I didn’t even have to ask her. Whether waiting in line to get a music lesson or to see the doctor, Czechs seem to take it all in stride. Similar to the way my friend from Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be bothered about traffic jams; it’s just a part of life.

Often the people who work behind the desks at doctor’s offices or town halls are not the most accommodating. Yet, I watch person after person waiting in line and calmly absorbing often disappointing information. For instance, despite your efforts to read the signs and listen to the rules, in fact, you’ve been waiting in the wrong line. There is no recourse, but to now find the correct line and wait at the back of it. It is not uncommon to be sent to wait by a closed door, which usually has a sign up that says “no knocking.” More than once I’ve waited for what seemed like a very long time at such a door only to be reprimanded for not knocking because they didn’t know I was there.

Dealing with minor inconveniences is a part of daily life no matter where you live, but sometimes I am surprised by how difficult little things seem. I recently learned that the orthopedic division of the hospital doesn’t take walk-in-patients, even if it’s an emergency, and that the emergency room of the same hospital will then refer you to an orthopedic doctor, but can’t tell you where to find one. This I learned after I fell and dislocated my knee this past week while jogging in Stromovka Park. As I lay on the ground, several people passed me, although no one offered to help. I have been in a similar situation before, having fallen while running in the woods near our house. Even though I was bleeding, no one that I passed questioned what had happened or stopped to see if I needed help. While it seems strange, I know that if I had asked someone specifically for help, I would have found a willing hand (or two or three). Still, the passiveness of the culture as a collective sometimes unnerves me.

Although we’ve bantered back and forth about the possibility of moving to the States one day, neither Radek nor I is in any way ready for a change of scene yet. My children might argue differently, but I know their vision of America is as a land of plenty (plenty of family, plenty of space in my parents’ large suburban house, plenty of refills at the soda machine). But I am sure this would change once they lived there long-term.

I remind myself of my deliberate, conscious decision to live in the Czech Republic. However, on bad days, I long to pack a suitcase and to grab the first (preferably non-stop) flight back to my roots. Where, on a routine trip to the grocery store, I might run into my former third-grade elementary school teacher who stills calls me by name. She remembers more about me as an eight-year-old than I think I know now about my own daughter. Where my grandmother, at age 93, still lives by herself with the help of several kind women who get her dressed to go out and take her to the local drive-through for a vanilla milkshake.

Recently, when I was feeling out of sorts with the world, I went into the Prague 6 town hall to apply for Anna Lee’s permanent Czech passport. Upon getting to the window, the officer asked for her birth certificate. Realizing in dread that I’d forgotten the certificate at home, I turned to explain that we’d have to come back another day. Unflustered, the officer asked me for my identification and carefully matched my information with the information on Anna Lee’s temporary passport. It’s all here, he told me, don’t worry. Snapping Anna Lee’s picture with a semi-smile, he told us to come back in three weeks.

Step by step. There are ups, and there are downs. And certainly together, it makes for a more interesting ride.

Mushrooming time

A different spin on a walk in the woods

For many Czechs, mushroom hunting is a relaxing autumn pastime, one that is both connected to nature and has practical implications. From young children to grandparents with walking sticks, most of the Czech population actively enjoys mushrooming. Mushroom season traditionally runs from April to November. Now with the first few hectic weeks of back-to-school adjustments behind us, a chance to spend a weekend morning outdoors in nature is a welcome respite.

Mushrooming can be relaxing, but it does take getting used it, especially for finish-line oriented hikers like myself. As an adult, I’m used to reading the trail signs, calculating the distance and encouraging my children to “keep up a good pace.” Walking through the woods in Virginia, our family typically sets out to climb a peak or to reach a particular destination. Czechs, on the other hand, seem to be used to longer meanderings with frequent stops along the way. In the Czech countryside and forests there is nearly always an outdoor stand (or two or three) for grabbing a hot drink in the winter or a cool beer in the summer.

While hiking on the Czech marked trails, I’m always surprised when it seems to cut right along someone’s agricultural field or directly behind someone’s back yard. In the US, I’m used to seeing more NO TRASPASSING SIGNS warning strangers to back off from private property. We don’t typically hunt mushrooms in our forests back home, although a few dedicated woodsmen look for “morel” mushrooms. In the States we have a saying, leave only footprints, and take only memories and photos. Picking wildflowers in state parks is definitely a no-no, yet picking berries is generally okay. I’m not sure where picking mushrooms falls on that spectrum. Almost no one picks mushrooms in the States, and many people fear picking the wrong mushroom and getting terrible ill.

In any case, when my children found and uprooted an edible mushroom in the woods near the beach picnic area of the state park in my hometown, they brought their find proudly to our picnic table. Expecting praise for their sharp eyes, instead they received criticism. Embarrassed, my mother told them to put the mushroom back straightaway. Disappointed because, as they insisted, it was an edible mushroom, they glumly trudged to replant it. I tried to explain the rules, but I think it still didn’t make that much sense considering the freedom they take for granted in the Czech campgrounds and forests.

Unlike our typical hikes, mushrooming walks don’t have to have a destination, although we often cover quite a bit of trail in the thrill of the hunt. It’s not surprising to discover that the same children whose legs were too tired to walk another step suddenly become energetic once they spot their first edible mushroom. You can’t find mushrooms if you’re tromping through the grass and undergrowth at top speed. Mushrooming isn’t a test of speed. Training your eyes on the ground in front of you, while scanning the ground to either side, requires patience and discipline. Nor, is it a competition for noise, as my husband has frequently, but patiently, explained to the children when their cries echo through the forest. Loud noises might not disturb the mushrooms, but it sure does make the sport less pleasant for your fellow mushroom hunters. And, if you’re hunting for mushrooms in the Czech countryside, it is reasonable to expect that, unlike Little Red Riding Hood, you won’t have the woods to yourself.

Mushroom hunting usually doesn’t require heavy physical exertion, unless you count the act of stooping to the ground to pull the mushroom up by its root. Mushrooms should be identified before picking them, which, for me, means putting my head down to the underside of the mushroom cap to see if I can see spores or gills. According to Czech practice, all types of mushrooms with spores underneath are edible. This significant distinction means even four-year-old Samuel possesses the skill-set to be an independent mushroom hunter. Mushrooms with gills must be further identified, either by a Czech well-versed in mushroom picking or a local expert. While not all Czechs enjoy eating mushrooms, many non-mushroom eaters still join their families and friends to gather the mushrooms

The Czech traditional of mushroom hunting can even border on the religious, in a very nature-based commune-with-the-forest way. A few weekends ago I went into the woods with my Czech friend Lucka and our six children collectively. We traipsed along a path through tall, wet grasses until we found a semi-shaded spot that my friend thought might be good for mushrooms. When Oliver moaned that we surely wouldn’t find any mushrooms, Lucka, only half-jokingly, encouraged all the children to talk to the forest.

“Ask the forest to show you mushrooms,” she told Anna Lee, “you’ll find that the forest gives you what you’re looking for.” While I took her words to be simple encouragement to the kids to keep walking and stop whining, Anna Lee took Lucka’s words to heart. She headed off forging her own path, and within minutes she cried out that she’d spotted her first mushroom. That morning, we had a slim haul – only a handful. Still, we’d spent four mostly pleasant hours in the forest with six young children, which I thought was an accomplishment too.

With no training in the art of mushrooming, I am learning alongside my children. The most-effective (and amusing) course of action once I’ve spotted a potential edible mushroom is to call out to whichever of my children happens to be nearby and ask him or her for help. Both Anna Lee and Oliver will gladly feel the underside of the mushroom to see if it has pores, gently pry it from the ground, roots and all, and then whip out their pocket knives to clean it. Typically, cleaning the mushrooms requires cutting off bits and pieces, particularly from older mushrooms that have already been tasted by curious forest creatures. Sam simply bends down and plucks the mushroom up. Sometimes, in his enthusiasm, he gets only the cap, and then together we go back to pull up the stem.

Not one of our children is a mushroom lover; still, they all like to eat mushroom říphoto 1zky, breaded and deep-fried mushroom pieces. They like the tops of the immature modráky mushrooms the best and dislike the texture of the older, larger mushrooms’ spongier parts. Since the mushrooms we’d found earlier in the season hadn’t been good for řízky, the weekend after school started, we headed to Máchovo Jezero for round two.

The day before I’d competed in my first off-road triathlon at the lake, which in addition to the .5 km lake swim had included a 15 km mountain bike ride and a 5 km trail run. I’d pedaled and run as hard as I could through these very woods only hours before. Now, I was supposed to walk slowly. It was big adjustment. Promising to make řízky for Sunday night’s dinner, Radek turned the children loose when we reached the edge of the forest.

At his urging, they ran ahead of us, Oliver carrying a large, brown woven basket that Radek’s grandfather had given us specifically for mushrooming. Anna Lee held her own white wicker basket that she’d confiscated from the side of her bathtub where I typically store fresh washcloths. Anna also had her rybička, a small, pocketknife shaped like a carp that Czech children use for whittling,photo 2-2 camping and fishing. Oliver had a new Swiss Army pocketknife as a souvenir from our camping trip in the US. Samuel, no knife in possession, lugged some firewood behind him as he walked. In the forest surrounding the camp all downed wood could be taken and used at the communal campfire pits to roast sausages or have a bonfire. I’d brought along marshmallows from the US that we thought we’d try to roast later that afternoon.

Enthusiastic and boisterous, the children’s voices traveled through the woods. Explaining that mushroom gathering was supposed to be a relaxing, calm activity, we reminded the kids that we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. We wanted to use our eyes to see if we could spot some mushrooms, but it wasn’t a competition either. Basically, everything that we usually told them when we were hiking, we said the opposite.

As luck would have it, the combination of a rainy week and a few hot, sunny days afterward had made the forest prime for mushrooming. We found many of the modrák variety, a yellowish-brown capped mushroom with a reddish stem whose cap turns blue upon being touched. There were brownish leaves on the forest floor, so we had to look twice to discern leaf from mushroom. As the children trampled the wild blueberry bushes, Radek reminded them of the Czech wife’s tale that “every mushroom has a brother;” meaning they should mind their steps. Sure enough, most of the time we spotted the mushrooms in small clusters, usually amongst the blueberry bushes.

The kids got into the spirit of the hunt, and we soon had filled the larger of the two baskets. Before they were tired of looking, we called it quits. We’d promised to make a campfire, and we still had to pack up and get back to Prague for school on Monday. It had been a quick trip, but the time in the forest had yielded enough mushrooms for a dinner of řízky and a freezer for winter-time mushroom soups.

With babi léto (Indian summer) in the weekend’s forecast, it could be one of the last chances to go mushrooming before the weather turns again. I expect the woods will be crowded. Since my family has enough mushrooms in the freezer to last this season, I’ll probably suggest that we go on a family hike instead – perhaps one with a destination, just to mix things up a bit.