Storybook connections

Growing through reading

I had been bracing myself for the first day of school’s drive into town since last week, when I’d noticed workers blocking off a lane of traffic on our commute route to paint “BUS TAXI BIKE” indications. Getting to school on time had not been an easy feat in the past – and this was bound to make it even more of a challenge. Last year the traffic would start to back up by 7:50 a.m. Although taking the public bus into town is a possible solution, it would make the rest of my day more complicated. Much to my children’s dismay, instead of riding a bright yellow school bus like they’d seen back in Virginia, they were stuck with me, their white-knuckled chauffeur, who despite years of practice still dreads the stress of the school-morning commute on a daily basis.

On the first day of school I went to wake the children a few minutes early. I found Oliver unexpectedly standing in his room putting his clothes on in the dark. “Surprise,” he declared, “I’m going to be the first one ready today!” Although none of my three children had expressed excitement about going back to school, I was pleased that Oliver’s mood seemed cheerful. Anna Lee was also pleasant, if a little sleepy. She dressed in her new “American Girl” outfit, a pair of purplish below-the-knee leggings, a white tank top and a purple ballet-style sweater embroidered with the yellow silhouette of a dancer. She’d picked out the combination from the AG store we’d visited on our D.C. shopping trip; then had accidentally left the outfit in a drawer at my parents’ house. It’d come in the mail on Friday, and Anna was ecstatic she could show it off on the first day of school.

Only Samuel was distressed. On Sunday afternoon, while Anna Lee and Oliver had stocked their new art supply cases, sharpened their pencils and retrieved their lunchroom chips and key chains, Samuel had pouted. He wasn’t planning on going to school this year, he told me emphatically. He’d wait until he was a kindergartener, and then perhaps he’d go again. If he did go, he warned me; he certainly wasn’t going to sleep there after lunch. I assured Samuel that on the first day of school, he’d only have to stay one hour, just like the big kids. I figured we’d take it one day at a time. Since the first day of school for Czech children is officially only one hour long, it is often a celebratory day with parents taking time off work to take their children to an ice cream parlor or sweet shop after they meet their teacher.

Although I had declared the summer holiday a time for reading in English, at the request of their Czech school teachers, all three children had kept a journal in Czech of their favorite trips, activities or discoveries. On their first day of school, Anna Lee and Oliver packed their journals and a few pictures. Putting regular entries into the journals had required my repeated prompting, and in the end Oliver ended up with just five entries. Still, writing and illustrating the journals in the US had brought a bit of cross-over culture to the holiday.

This summer my children had also participated in the inaugural “Books on the Go” reading competition sponsored through the Class Acts multicultural organization in Prague. One of the Class Acts founders had devised the challenge in order to inspire children to read more in English over their summer holidays. Since many bilingual and multicultural kids attend Czech schools, there often isn’t enough time in the school year to do reading in both English and Czech. Not to mention reading in another language these children may have as a “home” language (German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian or Russian). The summer reading challenge encouraged each child to read at least 10 books in English. Emphasis was placed on participation, rather than competition, although a prize was to be awarded to both the Czech school and the international school with the most books read. There was no minimum length for the books, but a parent was required to sign the reading list.

Unlike with their Czech journals, I didn’t have to nag the kids much, if at all, to read in English. The contest itself was plenty of motivation for Anna Lee who began reading in June when the competition was announced. She soon had her ten books read and spent a good part of her vacation in America reading aloud one of my mother’s all-time favorites, “No Children, No Pets,” a story about three children and their mother who inherit an apartment building complete with sign – No Children, No Pets. Oliver was motivated to read in English because it meant he got an adult’s attention all to himself for the length of time he read. Still, he was curious if there would be a prize for finishing his ten books.

When we got to the awards ceremony which was held on the afternoon of the first day of school, my children and I were running low on energy. From the morning, we’d been moving in high speed. First, we’d rushed to school, though the traffic hadn’t been as bad as I’d feared, so we’d ended up arriving so early that we had to wait twenty minutes on the street until the school doors opened. Then, we’d hurried to the stationery shop to buy all the supplies their teachers had requested. Afterward, we’d stopped at an art school to register Anna Lee for a new art class. Finally, we’d driven across town in the rain to the Prague 2 park where the award ceremony was held.

Hungry, tired and a little bit cranky, the children hung on me and whined. Luckily, after I’d bought peanuts, pretzels and a drink to tide them over until we could find real food; they called all the children to the front of the pavilion to take a seat for story time. Story time was led by Jeff from Brown Box Books, one of the event’s sponsors. As Jeff read “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” and “The Lost Tooth Club,” I watched with other parents from a corner near the front. From my vantage point, I recognized the faces of children I hadn’t seen in a few years. Most were taller with longer hair and more mature faces. Many looked strikingly like their parents, whom I’d also not seen in years. Since Anna Lee had started the first grade, we hadn’t made as much time to go regularly to Class Acts events like the weekend puppet shows and storytelling that my children had loved as toddlers. It made me sad to realize how much time had passed since my kids had been with a group of other bilingual kids like themselves.

Story time was interactive, with children raising their hands to point out which tooth they’d lost or to respond to the question of whether they thought Miss Malarkey should go to school with a fever of 103.2. When Jeff asked the children if anyone knew what the word “DISCIPLINE” meant I could tell that some of the older children knew, but they weren’t quite confident enough to say it. At one point, Samuel was so interested in the story that he left his seat and went to sit on the floor directly in front of Jeff. From the smallest children like Samuel to middle-school pre-teens, they were all collectively absorbed in listening to the English stories. Watching them together, I was glad we’d made the effort to come.

By the time we left, both children had gotten their certificates for reading 10 books. Anna had also been awarded a new “Books on the Go” t-shirt and Oliver had earned a free zoo ticket. Yet, once in the car, when I asked them what their favorite part of the awards ceremony was, they all three answered: STORYTIME!

The trip back across town home didn’t seem to take as long as the trip there. Although at 6:30 p.m. the traffic was even worse than it had been at 3:30 p.m., at Oliver’s insistence we’d purchased the copy of “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” from the storyteller. On the way home, Anna and Oliver took turns reading the book to Samuel and poring over the illustrations. When we got home, they each picked a bedtime story for me to read aloud.

I was grateful that the first day of school had gone smoothly. Since I know that school life and Czech culture will soon takeover our daily lives as well as most of our weekend free time, I was glad to set aside a couple of hours to recognize my children’s summertime English reading achievements. As my desktop calendar reminded me: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are” — Mason Cooley.

For parents looking for English language books for their children in the Czech Republic, Class Acts has complied an extensive list of 13 Places to Find Children’s Books in English.


Returning home

Reflections on re-entry to our Czech life

Jet-lag compounded by exhaustion from an impromptu welcome home barbecue at our neighbor’s house across the street has the children sleeping late into the morning. Oliver and Sam are a tangle of tanned limbs in our master bed; meanwhile, Anna sleeps coverless in her own single bed. Surprisingly, it’s warmer here than it was back in Virginia, although a rain shower last night has cooled the air. After having grown accustomed to air-conditioned spaces, I have to readjust to the humidity. It feels at once familiar, yet strangely new, just as I myself do on our first morning back in Prague.  

It’s nearly ten a.m. and I’m knee-deep in sorting through suitcases and duffle bags, separating clean clothes from dirty, and unpacking a few specialty items I’ve brought back from the US. I put Chef Paul’s Magic Salmon Seasoning, Jet-puffed marshmallows and Nestle chocolate chips in the pantry and arrange a couple of inexpensive picture frames on the buffet. New school shoes go in the closet, and I find a shelf in my nightstand for the writing journals that I scavenged from the bottom of my childhood closet.

Into the frames I’ve put pictures from the summer that Cathy, the office manager at my dad’s office, printed out for me. There is a shot of Radek, Oliver and my nephew Xander proudly holding the catch from their first deep-sea fishing trip, a 38-inch Cobia, which we later grilled for dinner. Another picture shows Samuel and his cousin Kingston sitting on a stack of old lumber in my grandfather’s barn waiting for their turn to drive the farm tractor with my father. Their lips are purple from lollipops, and they look wistfully at the viewer.

The last photo is of my parents’ five grandchildren lined up together in the sand at the beach. Oliver’s hands are thrown in the air and he has his goofy smile he reserves for pictures. Xander and Samuel look straight ahead, grinning for the camera. Anna Lee, the oldest and the only girl, is holding a throw net filled with tiny silver-colored minnows. Kingston, the youngest, looks at the camera mischievously. Like a band of adventurers, they named the minnows and moved them back and forth from sand buckets to shallow tide pools where they built sand castles, bridges and tunnels. Samuel even constructed a track from the Czech Republic to America, a long narrow groove in the sand that minnows could only traverse by Fisher Price boat with Samuel’s permission and a valid passport from both countries.  

At the end of June, as we were at the airport to head to the States, we were stopped by the Czech exit border control because our children were traveling on American passports, but they did not have visas as they are also Czech citizens. Although we’d traveled exclusively using their American passports for the past nine-and-a-half years, this year our connecting flight was in London (outside the Schengen zone), and thus our children weren’t allowed to leave without their Czech passport or a valid visa as American citizens. Even despite having Czech birth certificates and documents that proved their citizenship, we weren’t allowed to leave. Four days later, we successfully flew out, having re-booked our tickets (with a hefty fee) and applied for and received expedited short-term Czech passports for the children at our local town hall.

The ordeal left a distinct impression on all the children. In addition to Samuel’s water track, during the summer they made paper passports from neon-colored index cards. They stamped them and drew pictures of things they’d seen or done in America. There was a picture of the tree frog Oliver had caught at the farm, and the bird’s nest they’d discovered with three tiny eggs that they watched hatch into baby birds. There was Rascal, the neighbor’s cat who let himself be picked up and put into the back of the pedal tractor.

Once they made their passports, they practiced denying one another exit from the Czech Republic. Samuel stood like a guard with his hand outstretched reaching for the passports and then shoving them back into his siblings’ hands with a grumpy satisfaction that seemed to match those of the border officers we’d encountered. “Nope, wrong pass,” he’d declare. “You need a český, not an americký pass to get here.”

At the end of the summer on the night before we left for the airport to return to Prague, my Dad took Anna Lee and Samuel for one last look at the farm. It had been our first destination upon arriving to my hometown and had remained a favorite during the time we were there. The children and my father had dug carrots and potatoes from the soil. They’d rigged up a pulley in the loft and sent plastic grocery bags full of corn up and down the loft opening. They’d ridden countless laps in the tractor around the flat bottom land. On the last night, they came back with grocery bags full of sweet corn and green beans and armfuls of mums which my mother’s sister, who was visiting, arranged in five different vases. She positioned the fresh flowers in rooms throughout the house while I packed suitcases and lamented that it was time to leave already.

Back in Prague this morning, I feel like going outside to cut some fresh hydrangeas or to pick the few raspberries I noticed yesterday on my welcome-back walk through the garden. The geraniums need pruning and most of my potted plants are brown, dried out and should be replaced. It feels like the kind of day to work outside with children’s shouts in the background. I can still hear the children back on the farm squabbling over who got to ride the tractor first, who got the longest ride or the most turns.

If we had been at my parents’ house, they would have been up by this time already, begging for pancakes and to watch the Disney Junior channel. At my parents’ house, the television was a part of the children’s morning routine. While my mother showered and dried her hair, they climbed into her bed and watched cartoons. Watching television in America was both a cultural experience and a summertime treat. I listened as Anna Lee and Oliver tried to work the new expressions like “Like really, you must be kidding me?” into spoken banter with their cousins. With the background noise of the television, the children’s laughter and cries, the telephone’s incessant ringing and extended family and friends coming in and out, my parents’ house at times seemed too-full. I longed for peace and quiet. 

Now that I have it, I miss the noise.

I don’t remember falling asleep last night though I recall hearing the boys, fresh from their bath fueled by adrenaline and the thrill of being home with their father again. They begged and pleaded for Radek to wrestle with them. Feeling tired, I lay down on Sam’s lower bunk as the boys bounced and wrestled on our big bed. And that’s how they fell asleep. Three boys of different ages and sizes tumbled together on the bed.

I know that as soon as the children wake, their presence will make the house seem at once ours again. Their shouts and exclamations will wash the unlived-in feeling out. I won’t have time to contemplate the weight of being caught between here and there. However, before I return to living in the chaos of the moment, I sit still in the quiet house and make myself embrace the awkward caught-in-between feeling.

With each trip to the States and back, I am able to face this feeling a little more. 

Pedal, stop, pedal, stop

A family biking trip along the Rhine

For the last two springs my husband had dreamed of organizing a biking tour along the Rhine River in Germany. It all started when he read an article online highlighting the perks of the Rhine River culture – kilometer after kilometer of flat, paved biking trails; touring boats transporting sightseers (and tired bikers) back to their starting villages; wine cellars featuring German Riesling; riverside cafes with playgrounds where our three kids could unwind after a day of pedaling. Upon hearing the description, I was sold too.

Radek scoured the internet for a family-sized accommodation. There weren’t many economic options for a family of five. Either we could book two rooms in a hotel or look for an apartment. Eventually, Radek found a suitable apartment rented by a family in Alken, a tiny, historic village situated on the nearby Mosel River. The Mosel wasn’t as large or as well-known as the Rhine, but the accommodation was affordable. From the pictures, Alken, with its steep vineyards climbing up to the picturesque Burg Thurant, looked like a fine base point. We would be within a short drive of the famous Lorelei rock on the Rhine in St. Goar, and we agreed that we’d try the Rhine after we biked for a day on the Mosel.

We took advantage of the national holidays at the beginning of May and started off from home at sunrise Thursday morning for our 600-plus kilometer journey. We were to spend the long weekend (four nights and five days) in Germany, and we aimed to bike 100-plus kilometers in three days. Our children enjoy visiting new places, and Samuel, the youngest, is particularly infatuated with sleeping in “hotels.” (For him, anything that isn’t his own bed equals a “hotel.”) Apart from the long car ride, I believed the children would gain as much as we would from the experience. On the drive there, we practiced a few conversational phrases in German. The kids seemed to catch on to the language although their sense of geography was lacking. I needed to remind them repeatedly that we weren’t going to Italy or Slovakia.

Many hours of highway driving later, plus a few rest stops and countless answers to the kids’ “How much longer till we get there?” inquiries, we finally arrived in the sleepy town of Alken. Neither Radek nor I speak much German, and unfortunately we found ourselves at a disadvantage in this region where we discovered English a rarity, rather than the norm. Our hosts spoke only German, although their teenage daughter offered a few words in English. Apart from another young woman at the information center, we didn’t find anyone else who wanted to or could speak to us in English. Walking the village’s streets after our long journey, we didn’t find an open restaurant, so we settled for dinner at the ice cream parlor. Three children’s sundaes and two glasses of Riesling later, we declared dinner over and returned to our apartment to feed the children leftovers from the car snacks. The wind was fierce and the temperature hovered around 10C, but we hoped the conditions might improve for biking the next day.

When we visited the local information center, we realized that we’d arrived pre-season for many of the region’s attractions. The boats that stopped in Alken to transport bikers would start in June or July and many of the restaurants and riverside cafes only opened in high-season. The family-oriented wilderness and outdoor park in a nearby town was open, although when we drove to explore it, we discovered that half of the park and all water-based rides were closed. With the overcast sky and the impending rain clouds, the atmosphere seemed more appropriate for snuggling by a fire than for biking along the river, but we agreed that we’d start out in the morning and let the day unfold as it would. We passed several castles just in the 20 kilometer stretch from our village to the next largest one, and we promised the children that we’d go inside at least one for a tour.

It wasn’t long though before we realized that biking with the children along the river might not be as pleasant as we’d anticipated. The advantages of the flat, paved riverside path were all but lost on the kids who would have preferred biking “off-road” over stumps, across bridges and through the woods. The endless stretches of pavement only heightened their repeated “How much longer till we stop?” questions. We also soon discovered that six-year old Oliver couldn’t drink from his water-filled CamelBak, scratch his head, or blow his nose without stopping. It seemed that every kilometer he needed to perform at least one of the three actions. He was also got anxious if Radek pedaled more than a few bike lengths ahead of him, despite the fact that I was also beside or directly behind Oliver the entire trip. He wanted all five of us to stick together.

Anna Lee was more coordinated with regards to drinking without stopping; however, she tended to veer off her straight course whenever she took her eyes from the path and looked around, so I had to repeatedly remind her to keep her handlebars straight and look ahead so as to avoid bumping her brother or other bikers. She then complained of being bored and too tired to pedal further. Samuel, riding in a bike seat behind Radek, was nearly too-big for his seat. He spent the time banging on the biking backpack Radek wore, which was nearly in Samuel’s face, and trying to chat. The wind blew Sam’s words away, and Radek had to pull over and stop whenever Samuel insisted that his daddy actually respond to his chattering.

The kids drank so much water from their CamelBaks that they needed to pee multiple times an hour. When we did make pit stops, the kids then wanted to throw rocks in the river; feed swans or find a playground and have a snack. When, after a few minutes of biking, the boys stopped to throw rocks into the river, Samuel accidently threw a rock into Oliver’s head creating a bloody gash. Although a tissue stopped the bleeding, our moods were already beginning to sour. It was Day 1, and we’d only ridden three kilometers. It was going to be a long three days on bikes. I’d hoped we’d pass other families with children also on their bikes, but the tourists we encountered were middle-aged Germans bused to the region in large groups to bike and wine taste. They did a double-take when they saw our family of five, although from their expressions I couldn’t decide if we were an annoyance or a pleasant distraction.    

Eventually, we found a romantic village for a lunch of schnitzel and potatoes. Once off their bikes and left to explore by foot, our children again became the happy travelers I’d seen on other family vacations. They found hiking sticks and traipsed up and down the windy village streets, admiring the castle ruins and vineyards perched on steep, rocky hillsides. The kids discovered the small tracks on the mountainside for the grape picking baskets and spent an excited several minutes explaining to one another how the grape pickers load up the baskets and send the grapes down the mountainside. We bought ice cream and promised them another hike to explore the castle back in Alken as soon as we pedaled home. In this manner — pedal, pedal, stop, pedal some more—we managed to bike some 30 kilometers.

By the end of the first day, Radek and I were wiped out. However, once the children were off their bikes, they got a second wind. They were eager to play games and explore our apartment. We finally convinced them to go for a walk through the castle and its vineyards, but only by promising ice cream at the end.

Walking up to the castle in Alken, Burg Thurant, we found a path directly up through the steep, rocky vineyards. Oliver and Sam hurried ahead while Anna Lee dawdled to pick wildflowers. They measured themselves against the grape wines and delighted in sending small pebbles racing down the steep hillside. They ruminated for several minutes about what would happen if they tumbled down, and then we quickened our pace to reach the castle at the top. Once on top of the hillside, we had a bird’s eye view of the river and village below. The kids pointed out landmarks – the school, a playground and a cemetery. Suddenly, it began to rain and beyond the castle in the distance we saw a double rainbow. We took a different path down the mountain through the forest and reached the village again just as it was beginning to get dark.

We stopped for ice cream at one of the riverside hotels and discovered live music, a singer playing the electric piano singing country songs in English. The restaurant was filled with retired-age Germans who began to dance, much to the children’s delight. Although they begged Radek and me to dance, we declined. They received sidewalk chalk along with their ice cream, and in the moonlight they decorated the parking lot closest to our apartment.

The following day we pedaled along the Rhine, which the children found larger, but even more boring than the Mosel. The third day we took a break and visited another castle, this time taking a tour of the inside. On our last day, armed with snacks, sidewalk chalk and renewed enthusiasm, we hit the bikes again. We pedaled until we found a nice spot for lunch. Then we loaded up the bikes in the car and began the long drive back to Prague. We didn’t reach our 100-kilometer goal, but it was enough.

When we asked the children what their favorite part of the trip was, I wasn’t surprised to discover that their best memories had nothing to do with biking. Anna Lee loved making the wildflower bouquet, while Oliver remembered having the best time using his radio walkie-talkies with his Dad when we hiked through the forest. For Samuel, playing hide-and-seek in the vineyards with his siblings was the highlight of the trip.

Radek and I enjoyed the biking yet we, too, had our best memories off the bikes. It hasn’t deterred us from planning future biking trips with the kids though it has reminded us to keep our own goals in perspective. Pedal, stop, pedal, isn’t such a bad way to make some lasting family memories.


In search of “bleeding heart”

Family bonding through gardening

On my mother’s annual spring trips to Prague, one of our first stops is a garden center. We stroll the aisles looking for seasonal plants. My mother identifies the plants she knows and tells me their English names. I love the hands-on learning experience. The gardeners smile at our blending of Czech and English as we make our selections. As is often the case when my mother comes to visit, I discover that acquaintances with whom I usually speak Czech are, in fact, well-versed in English, too. 

My mother and her sisters inherited their passion for flowers and outdoor beauty from their father. My grandfather planted his tulip beds twenty years ago and this spring they came up as full and hearty as ever. My mother describes them to me over a coffee in the garden center. I hold a picture in my mind. I wish I knew his secret.

Sixteen years ago when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly during a surgery, my grandmother and her daughters were left with broken hearts and a full garden that needed new hands to tend it. Over the years, my grandfather’s magnificent tulips have become a source of family pride and a testament to my grandfather’s enduring “green thumb.”

When my mom arrives in Prague and takes a look at my straggly tulip bed, she offers to help dig up the old bulbs and to treat me to new bulbs for next year. Having tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, for the past five years to grow tulip bulbs that last beyond a season, I am envious of the confidence with which she gives her advice.

Anyone with knack for gardening earns my admiration. When I try to explain what it means to have a “green thumb” to my Czech husband Radek, he understands but can’t find the equivalent expression in Czech. Like me, he has learned everything that he knows about gardening in recent years. We are gardeners by default. We just happened to buy a house with a yard in the suburbs. Now, six years after having moved out of the city, we are beginning to see the fruits of our outdoor labor. The way our yard space is developing has begun to give me as much, if not more, pleasure than decorating the interior of the house did years ago. Watching the children pick fresh berries, snap sugar peas and run circles through the soft, green grass brings me a certain satisfaction that I wouldn’t have expected.

Our first task six Mays ago was to seed the grass. A team of gardeners, one or two adult men and several shirtless teenage boys who all seemed to be related, seeded the grass in a two-day whirlwind. Radek bought sprinklers and extension hoses, which he set-up around the garden. He left for work after giving me explicit instructions about the order and the time I was supposed to water each section. For the parts that the sprinklers couldn’t reach, I needed to stand with the hose and water it myself. The kids and I made a game of it. Our water bill was high, but by the end of the summer, we had grass. That summer the kids thought that growing grass was more fun than going to the swimming pool.

From the beginning, Radek had an eye for the overall landscaping of the garden. He selected the trees and decided how we’d place them in the yard. He designed different rock and mulch beds around the garden. He even planted a cheery tree himself, as according to Czech tradition, every man is supposed to build a house, have a child and plant a tree. However, he left the fun part – selecting smaller bushes and plants to fill the beds, finding terrace pots and woven baskets and rotating the seasonal plants — up to me. Armed with a colorful gardening catalog, I talked to friends who gardened, checked out the gardens around our neighborhood and waited for my mother’s annual spring visit. Each year, often with my mother’s advice, we bought (or acquired) a few more plants.

When my friend decided that the bonsai lilac plant on her terrace needed space to grow free, I welcomed the new arrival. Another American friend gave me a second lilac bush for my birthday and the two stand by stand, reminding me of the lasting gift of friendship. At the end of WWII, when the Allied troops came to Prague, they saw the gorgeous purple blossoms of the lilac trees. Our lilac bushes remind me of Europe, while the forsythia tree beside it reminds me of summertime play in a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard. My own children have discovered the bush in recent years, and making a fort inside of it is on Anna Lee’s “to-do” list again this summer.

When the shady spot behind the garage didn’t suit the flowery bush we’d selected, we replanted it to a sunny spot at the back corner of the garden. We put hydrangeas in the open space. I knew the flowers from my parents’ garden, and I loved their various shades of white, dusty rose, pink and even blue. My mom suggested we fertilize the hydrangeas with coffee grounds to see if we could get their colors to change. Anna Lee dutifully dumped coffee grounds around their base for a season. When the blossoms finally came, we were all taken away by their lavish beauty. On my mother’s next visit, she suggested that I cut a few clippings for indoors and let some dry so that I could display them longer.

When visiting, my mom ventures out on short walks through the neighborhood and reports back to me. Her favorite garden is on a gravel path down the hill from us with a little weekend cottage tucked on the right side. The garden isn’t fancy, nor is it big. It is however, meticulously well-kept by a smiling white-haired couple. They have a border of tulips and peonies that would please my grandfather, and they rotate their smaller beds with seasonal plants in complementary colors. Their vegetable bed has strawberries and tomatoes and their apple trees hang over the gravel path, tempting passersby to pluck one. It was in their garden that my mother saw the plant she determined to buy for me this spring. It is colloquially called “bleeding heart,” and when not in bloom, it’s a rather normal green bush. Its blooms are delicate and eye-catching and my mother thought she knew just the right spot for it (to the right of the rhododendron bush).

Despite several trips to different garden centers, both big and small, my mom’s visit ended before we found our bleeding heart. A few days before she flew out, she settled for buying me geraniums instead. At her request, we selected six red geraniums of the traditional variety. They looked hearty and full-blossomed, although it was too early for them to be in bloom. We carefully chose six flowers in a line and doubled checked that their unopened buds were reddish. Uniformity would look the best, she assured me. With Samuel’s help we potted them before she left.

At the end of her trip, she suggested that I go down to the cottage to see if I could catch the owners outside and ask them where they’d gotten their bleeding heart. Maybe they’d give you a clipping, she ventured. She asked me for a favor, too. Could I please take a picture of the cottage with its garden for her? One picture for each season. She’d frame it and have a Czech garden all year-round hanging in Virginia. I promised to try, and I agreed to keep looking for the bleeding heart.

Although it’s nearly time for us to start packing for our summer trip to the US, I still haven’t found the bleeding heart. Nor have I been able to figure out what the plant is called in Czech. But it’s on my list. When the geraniums bloomed a week or two ago, I took a picture to send to my mom. They are exquisite, lush and multi-blossomed. There is only one problem. They’re all, except for one, pink. When I told Mom, she laughed. You never know what you’re going to get when you start a garden, she said. Usually, the combination is better than what you had originally planned. I have to agree.    

The language of dreaming

When your child dreams in a language not your mother tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Hanging out the laundry

Line-dry idle time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Things that go bump

Cultural differences in dealing with and overcoming childhood fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life in the Czech Republic with my Czech-American family