Tag Archives: Czech Republic

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.  




Spring time has sprung

Spring time has sprung

Enjoying the new season as a temporary mother of one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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