Tag Archives: Prague

A case of post-holiday blues

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Learning to face the emptiness with grace

Sometimes, the best part of a holiday comes after the fireworks have been set off, the Christmas tree has been taken down, and the house is quiet again. Right?

At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as the days of our US holiday flashed by at breakneck speed. As soon as I get back to Prague, I’ll have a chance to relax.

The morning after we returned to Prague, I dropped my children off at school dressed in my running clothes. Planning to get a head start on my New Year’s fitness resolutions, I intended to run the path through the woods between our house and the Vltava River before I went to work. Instead, I went home and fell asleep. Sitting up. At the kitchen table.

When I awoke 20 minutes later, instead of rousing to jog, I moved to the couch, covered myself with a blanket and slept on. When I woke up an hour later, I thought I was still at my parents’ house in Virginia. Then, I looked out the window, saw the grey sky, and realized I was back in Prague. It was January. And, it was time to go teach my English lessons.

Over the next few days, I helped my children prepare for their end-of-semester exams in school, complete make-up work, and readjust, in general, to the rhythm of our Czech lives. Which included, ice-skating in lieu of gym class, visiting their Czech relatives for babička’s rajská omáčka (beef and noodles served in a thick, tomato sauce), and logging the year’s first kilometers on cross-country skis. Even after a few days back, I realized there was plenty to look forward to in the coming months of winter in the Czech Republic.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel let down. At first, I attributed my fuzziness to jet-lag and a result of a super-active holiday. Our 12-day trip to America had been a whirlwind complete with holiday parties, outdoor hikes to fast-flowing waterfalls, and exploring the hip mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina with my parents, aunts, and uncles.

In recent years, Asheville had become the trendiest beer city on the East Coast, and Radek and I wanted to see the beer scene firsthand. At Asheville’s Wicked Weed taproom, we selected beers from a tap list that included American ales, Belgian lagers, German ales, and the brewery’s specialty – barrel-aged beers with names like “Milk and Cookies,” “Angel of Darkness,” and “Coolcumber.” Overwhelmed by the extravagant names and flavors, in the end, Radek and I selected a pilsner brewed from imported Czech hops. It was tasty, but not quite like a Czech beer.

Radek marveled that Americans would be willing to drink such intensely flavored beers one after the other, and I reminded him that drinking beer in the US at a microbrewery might not involve the same quantity of consumption he was accustomed to at a typical Czech pub. We were both surprised at the bartender’s insistence on seeing an ID from each person and serving only one drink per person (i.e. no carrying a round of drinks back to your table).

Throughout our stay in the US, each time Radek opened his mouth, the waiter, gas station attendant, or shop keeper with whom he was speaking would comment, “Say, I can tell you’re not from around here, where are you from?”

Lively conversations ensued about just where the Czech Republic is and what language Czechs speak. People we met also remarked on Oliver and Samuel’s European accents, despite both boys trying out regional expressions like, “y’all” and “ain’t” as well as dropping the final ‘g from verbs like “comin’” or “goin’” to sound more like their American cousins.

Being in America for shorter than usual meant operating at a continuous high-speed to get to see and do and soak up as much as we could. We even squeezed in a pre-dinner New Year’s Eve visit with the granddaughter of my mother’s friend who had driven an hour and a half to meet us and hear stories about our lives in the Czech Republic.

Eighteen-year-old Sophia was getting ready to come to Prague for a semester abroad at Charles University. Her grandmother and her parents wanted us to reassure them that Prague was a safe city. While Anna described the easy-to-use public transportation system; I answered Sophia’s questions about food shopping and medical insurance. Radek put a plug in for the city’s good clubs and cheap entertainment.

We had so much fun in the US, no one wanted to leave.

The most difficult part of returning to Prague, this time, was that, instead of being glad to be home (as they usually are when we return in the summer), my children were sadder than ever to leave America. They were homesick for my parents, their cousins, and even my childhood home, where my daughter read old Nancy Drew mysteries and my sons played with my brother’s 30-year-old Legos and Lincoln Logs.

A few days after our return, I listened to a webcast on WebMed. I realized that post-holiday syndrome, otherwise known as post-travel depression (PTD), is a relatively common condition, particularly following the major winter holidays when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also contribute to temporary feelings of being down.

Although I was pretty sure our children (and, to be honest, myself as well) were only suffering a natural let-down after having too much fun (along with, perhaps, the gloom that comes from too many grey Prague days in a row), I decided that instead of trying to pretend everything was normal, I would acknowledge their feelings.

We had a family dinner one night before Radek left for Germany. Radek had also noticed the kids were a little down. He said, “Guys, I know that it’s hard having part our family live so far away, but think about how cool it is that you get the chance to travel to see them.”

With Radek’s prompting, each child started to talk about his or her favorite memories from the holiday. For Anna, it was shopping with my mother and playing with her friend Raegan. For Oliver, it was shooting a squirrel with my father and Radek on my grandfather’s farm, skinning and preparing it, and finally, eating fried squirrel. And for Sam, the highlight of the holiday was a never-ending hike from Bridal Falls in the NC Dupont State forest, where he had to take off his pants to cross an icy-cold river with thigh-high (for him), fast-moving water.

My children often talk about how they miss my parents, and ask why we can’t live in America, too. However, for the first time ever, instead of just complaining, 10-year-old Oliver started calling both of my parents on Viber to chat. Before baseball practice or while he waited for me to put him to bed, he’d take his phone to the playroom, where the wi-fi connection was strongest, and call. Sometimes, they would do a video call, so Oliver could see my mom or watch the cat play.

Anna had already developed a habit of talking with my parents regularly, and despite being a little jealous that Oliver wanted to do the same, she understood his need to keep the communication strong.

I, too, knew how the children felt.

But, as I get older, I have also begun to realize just how important my post-holiday blues are. For me, it is a time of longing – when I yearn for what was, acknowledge that I can’t turn back the days, and begin to gather strength for the season ahead.

It is in the empty space, when the days seem grey, and inconveniently-timed phone calls to relatives who are just waking up (or heading to bed) can’t replace the longing to hug a family member in the flesh, when I know home is a place I carry with me.

As much as I want both worlds, I know that the beauty of life is in the tension – not the day-to-day continuity, but the break and the return. Recognizing this helps me get through the worst first days until my mind and body settle, and I return to my identity, as an American English teacher living (happily) in the Czech Republic with my half-n-half family.

After a few days, my children, too, get used to their classes, their sports, and their friends. And, they began looking forward to our next adventure. Anna reads a guide book I gave her at Christmas called Yellowstone Adventuring with Kids written by a family with four boys. When Oliver next calls my mother, she tells him that she’s counted her airline points and has enough for a spring trip to see us.

As the days pass, the experiences of this holiday fade into the quilt of our lives. Maybe, we’ll reflect on them next year (that is, if I am organized enough to get the pictures off the camera). In the meantime, I will do my best to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of living a half-n-half life. And, have faith that the positives still outweigh the negatives.

I will even get off the couch and squeeze that run in. Who says the best part of the holidays can’t come once they’re over?

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An apple a day

apple pictureStaying balanced by teaching English

After 15 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Prague (with a few gaps for birthing babies), this year I decided to quit. In lieu of teaching, I planned more writing, researching, and proofreading assignments – jobs I could do waiting at sports practices, after I put the children to bed, or in the mornings when they were at school.

I had been teaching the same afternoon conversation lessons to the same group of students (elementary school learners in first – fifth grades) for the past four years. I believed both my students (and I) needed a change.

Also, I needed more flexibility to provide better support (i.e. transportation, cheer leading, and homework help) for my own children during the hours when I had previously taught. Radek worked away from home during the school week, and I was the primary caretaker. The responsibility took its toll.

At the end of the summer, I informed the school and my students that my English conversation courses wouldn’t be held this year. I turned down offers for private lessons and arranged my schedule to be available when my children needed me. Then, I tried to work. But, I couldn’t focus.

During the month of September, I nearly drove my children (and Radek) mad with my inability to settle. I felt guilty when I greeted the parents of the children I had previously taught, and I tried to explain (again) why I couldn’t even teach private lessons this year.

When I expressed my frustration to friends, they replied, “But wasn’t that what you wanted? Freedom from teaching?” I nodded, but every time I said no to an offer to teach, I felt a bit empty myself.

Could it be that teaching was what I needed to make the rest of my life balanced?

Each night when I packed my children’s snacks, I put a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a sweet treat (i.e. a muffin or a muesli bar) into their snack boxes. My two older children were willing to experiment with the fruits I gave them. Oliver liked grapes, plums, and pomegranates, while Anna favored bananas, kiwis, and berries. Samuel always wanted an apple. When I tried to substitute a different fruit, he brought me his snack box after school saying, “My svačina was good, but where was my jabko, Mommy?”

I tried to explain to Samuel that he needed to diversify his palate and eat different fruits. He nodded and said, “I really like apples, Mommy.”

To get inspiration for the memoir I was writing, I reread my journals from arriving in Prague in the winter of 2002. Back then, teaching English was THE reason I had come to the Czech Republic, and my gateway to Czech culture.

On January 11, 2002, I wrote, “It is late, and I am exhausted. We taught our first lesson today. I was nervous. The 40-minute lesson flew by. In an instant, we were saying thank you and goodbye. The students are delightful. I am looking forward to developing a relationship with them over the coming weeks. I think I could become attached to teaching. So much planning. Then, your work is done. You are a bit like a zoo animal on stage during class. But, if you walk around, direct attention to the students, encourage interaction, then you disappear.”

I recorded my students’ words in my journal. Jarka, an adult student in my 7:00 a.m. morning class described her Prince Charming. “My prince has a beautiful, butterfly tie.” Miroslav, an engineer, wrote, “I learning English for five years in university but I learn English whitch brakes.”

 In response to Miroslav, I wrote, “Cheers to that. If we could all speak a little more English, ‘whtich brakes’ and convey the essence of our thoughts, it would not be bad at all.”

When I reread my journals, I remembered how much I had loved my beginner students. I wrote, “I can feel their pain, see the grimaces on their faces as they strain to understand me or watch as their cheeks flush and they stammer their words – slowly, painfully releasing them into the air. Waiting for a nod of approval from me, their teacher.”

In some lessons, particularly those with children, I felt much like a student myself. From teaching the preschool-aged Novak children, I learned more Czech than I did in my once-a-week “Czech For Foreigners Course.”

Before our English lessons, five-year-old Honzík said, “I am a Czech man. I speak only Czech, no English.”

His mother, answered, “Oh, if we want to be smart Czech, we must learn English.”

Sometimes she stayed during the lessons. “Where are your feets?” she would ask Honzík. “Tickly, tickly on your feets.”

While Honzík and his brothers chattered in Czech to me, I used hand gestures, symbols, and games to teach them colors, numbers, and basic phrases in English. I taught them the words for “hands” and “arms” since the children used the Czech word ruky for both; “feet” and “legs” since they said simply nohy; and I explained that in English there is a different word for “fingers” (prsty) than “toes” (prsty na nohách).

And, when it was the right time, I told Honzík’s mother that the plural form of “foot” is “feet.”

The Novak family seemed to like my playful approach, and I appreciated being in a Czech home and getting a taste of Czech family life. Not to mention all the Czech vocabulary I learned.

It wasn’t only my lessons with children where learning went beyond the language school. Once I hosted a “potluck” party for my high school students. Each student surprised me with a favorite homemade dish. We feasted on jaternice (sauasage), salty mushroom pastries, sweet poppy seed cake, apple strudel, and a homemade beránek (an almond flavored cake baked in the shape of a lamb). I made chocolate chip cookies, hot spinach artichoke dip, and deviled eggs. At first, everyone watched me eat and drink, a situation which I described in my journal as “funny” and “slightly uncomfortable.” Eventually, my students (and I) relaxed, and we spoke both English and Czech together.

For me, teaching English had always been an exchange – of languages, cultures, ideas, and words. Even though more than a decade had passed since my first lesson, nothing had changed about my desire to connect with Czech culture (and Czechs) by teaching English. Even though I now had my own children to look after, I realized (only by not teaching) what an important role teaching English played in my life.

I might not have been able to teach in the classroom this year, but the answer to my time-management dilemma was not to quit teaching altogether.

In late September, when an adult student that I had taught a few years ago wanted to start up private morning lessons again, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Teaching adult learners was something I had missed in recent years. Then, I went back to the first parents who had approached me about small group conversation lessons. I told them I was willing to try.

These days, instead of teaching in a classroom, I tote my teacher’s bag around Prague. It’s a black canvas bag from Books-A-Million. It’s filled with stickers, paperback First Readers, Highlights Magazines, and other tools to encourage English conversation. Like I used to 15 years ago, I teach in the public library and at my students’ homes.

My children were so disappointed when they learned I wouldn’t be teaching at their school (even if they had been the motivation for the change), they agreed to do all they could to help me continue teaching. When my lessons run into the afternoon, Oliver walks to the library where he reads while I teach. Anna has learned to take the bus home from school on her own. Samuel plays in družina until I can pick him up. On occasion, I may have to pause my lesson to take a call from a child who has forgotten what time practice starts or one who needs a lift. However, interruptions are minimal.

The week I started teaching again, Radek was working from home, which was a rare treat. He remarked what a good mood I was in, saying, “I’ve never seen you this happy before. Usually, only when your parents are here visiting.”

I told Radek I was in a good mood because he was home during the week, which was true. We all enjoy family life more together than apart.

However, I also knew that the energy I had been missing was coming back. For me, teaching wasn’t just a job, it was an essential component in my balanced life. I needed my students as much as they needed me.

On the days I teach, I eat lunch on-the-go. Like Sam, along with my sandwich and my treat, I’ve got an apple in my lunch bag.

Sometimes, sticking to what you like, may be the best way forward.