Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the games we play

Lately, with winter vacation, a round of colds, forbidding weather and all, we've spent a whole lot of time inside, cooped up in our third-story apartment. And boy, does Jonah need a playmate!

Tim and I, the dutiful parents we are, have been taking turns indulging our son who would otherwise turn into a category 5 tropical storm.

Here are the roleplays Jonah has involved us in lately, listed for memory's sake:

• pirates and monsters
• fire boy and fire girl
• Eyeore and Christopher Robin
• cashier and shopper (usually the shopper walks away with free merchandise AND money from the cashier to boot)
• teacher and preschooler
• daddy/mommy and child
• cook and restaurant guest
• doctor (sometimes rather medieval in his style; fond of bloodletting, for instance) and broken leg person
• person who is afraid of bad guys and a guy who shines his flashlight at and hits the bad guys with swords (spoons, actually) and, in the end, saves the person who is afraid

the birds and the bees

I had no idea it would come so soon. Just the other day Jonah asked me how babies get inside moms' bellies; how babies are made. He didn't want just a simple explanation, trust me. I tried many versions, all true, but "clean." He kept asking for a more in-depth explanation until I had to get into the biology of it. I kept it simple, but finally, as if I at last gave him the answer he was looking for, he was satisfied enough to move onto the next activity. His tool bench, was it?

Days later I read what good old Dr. Spock et al have to say about preschoolers asking about where babies come from. I am proud to say that I think Dr. Spock would have approved of how I handled the situation.

I have vowed to myself that I will be better than my parents about teaching my child about sex. My parents never talked about sex, even when I tried to initiate the conversation as a child. They just let me stew in my own embarassment once I realized sex was apparently something embarassing to talk about. I learned everything I've ever wanted to know about sex from Woody Allen. Just kidding. It was from my peers in the neighborhood and in grammar school - not a very reliable source, to say the least.

Though Jonah has lately been curious about body parts, shapes, skin color, etc., I wouldn't have guessed "the birds and the bees" talk would come so early. Geez Louise.

Friday, December 26, 2008

he got it this time

Yes, it's true. Jonah got lots of great presents this Christmas, but what is worthy of mention is that he really got what Christmas is all about for the first time at this age (just a little over three).

We celebrated with my grandmother on Christmas Eve with a traditional meal of soup, fish, and potato salad. My baking skills are an embarassment, so good thing my grandmother did most of the baking. I tried the traditional Christmas bread (very similar to challah), but had to throw it away in the end. My grandmother's was so much tastier. Edible, actually, unlike mine. Fortunately, the only type of cookies I attempted were no-bake cookies, which turned out fabulous (one of the two types I made anyway).

My favorite presents were: clothing (which I don't treat myself to very often), a beaded necklace my mom made, and a music gift certificate from Tim. The gift I dread the most but that is the best for me is an exercise mat and weights. Believe it or not, I asked for it. You get what you ask for, as they say. To my own surprise, I actually used both today. Now if I can only keep up the good work...

Tim's favorite present was probably the GPS navigation screen the family got for the car from my dad. Tim loves the robot's female voice with a sensual and sofisticated British accent. He says the present is better than a therapist for our relationship. He is right since our most heated bickering usually takes place while trying to navigate in the car. Like my dad says, the worst thing is two drivers in one car.

Though Jonah was sick with the flu, he actually perked up in the evening. Well, who wouldn't with so much magic in the air and so many presents under the tree? Jonah's two favorite presents were a cash register with a shopping basket and cans, but the number one prize goes to a tool bench with a whole set of tools, nuts, and bolts, and the like. See for yourselves:

Monday, December 22, 2008

two days in the mountains

We spent the weekend in a winter wonderland in the mountains of northern Czech Republic where my childhood friend goes with her family. When we showed up, there was hardly any snow on the ground, but luckily for us, it snowed all night Friday and half of Saturday. On Sunday, the snow began to melt and after we left, the rain washed the rest of the snow away. So, we were very lucky to sled, hike and frolic in this:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

happy bolidays

first holiday special

Well, well, well. We just had another first. This time a first performance. Earlier this week, Jonah's school held a holiday party, complete with the traditional feature of a besídka, or Christmas performance, for the parents. As a kindergartener I too entertained my parents like a trained little monkey. Fortunately, Jonah's school didn't take the occasion too seriously and it turned out casual, albeit a bit chaotic at times.

The kids demonstrated some of their daily yoga routines and sang a few folk songs. The children who stay in the program all day (not Jonah, who leaves after lunch) also performed a Christmas play.

Surprisingly, Jonah was shy and wouldn't sing along with the kids. Following another mother's lead, I went up "on stage" and put Jonah in my lap. Once I did that, he joined in, which he normally does enthusiastically. In the four months that we have been here, Jonah has learned at least a dozen Czech folk songs, and he has been speaking more and more Czech, which he seems to enjoy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

something in my throat

I was starting to feel like I was coming down with something. My throat was hurting. But I decided to go to my grammar school class reunion anyway. I only got to see those guys once before (which was last year) since finishing school with them twenty-one years ago. This time, we got together in a square, all done up for Christmas, lit up with little lights, bustling with an arts and crafts market and a couple of hundred of people in small groups, all bundled up in the near-freezing weather.

First things first. We ordered some hot drinks from one of the stands: mulled wine for some and not punch for others. We gossiped and laughed, while gathering in numbers. Next we stumbled to a nondescript pub with food that one of my classmates called cafeteria-like, which he said he had guessed just by reading the menu. Of course, the pub was already filled to the brim with smoke, which only got worse when others in our party lit up cigarettes. Mind you, smoky restaurants are just about the norm here. I have only found one non-smoking place in Prague, but about that later.

Well, three hours into the night, my throat was so sore that I decided to call it quits. I gathered everyone up for a group shot and plunged into the night to descend the escalators down into the tube that leads home.

By morning, my voice was completely gone. An anomaly for me. I had to cancel my English classes. The next day, my condition continued. I was hoping the laryngitis wasn't permanent, like Tim with a not-so-faint glimmer in his eye fleetingly remarked it could have been. Everyone was high-fiving my husband: "It must be so nice to have a silent wife!" Meanwhile, I was giving those very same people the finger in the pocket.

Now, three days later my voice is back. There, albeit raspy. So, we decided to take me to town for an outing -- since I was back to presentable -- to the only non-smoking restaurant we know.

The place would be great if the food was better. They have a large children's corner with toys that keep Jonah busy so Tim and I can actually talk grown-up style. Once, Tim found something suspect in his tomato soup. It turned out to be a rather large cluster of wood splinters, possibly chipped off a wooden spoon. We took a break from that place, but decided it was worth another try, which it was. But today was another story.

When I finished my soup, lo and behold, I had a funny feeling in my throat. Like something was stuck in the back of my mouth. I drank some water. I coughed. I went to the bathroom to gargle. Nothing. Finally, I looked inside my mouth. You wouldn't believe what I saw: a long splinter-like thing, lodged into my left tonsil like a cupid's arrow. What???

I tried to get at it with my finger, which only made me gag. Then I tried swishing more water around in my mouth to no avail. I panicked and got the whole family to follow me into the women's bathroom to answer this: "Do you see what I see?" Tim didn't seem too phased. He tried his luck with his finger. Much a do about nothing.

I even went as far as briskly walking up to the waiters, who all seemed to be on some sort of a permanent break behind the bar, grooving to the music and flipping through fashion magazines, hoping they'd have the magical tool I needed. I asked for tweezers, but only got blank stares as I obviously interrupted the staff cocktail party dangerously close to the cash register.

We had to hustle home, food in boxes. Though Jonah was concerned, he did look forward to the home surgery. At first, he was going to take the matter -- or should I say tweezers -- into his own hands, but I told him an adult would be much better suited for that task, assuring him that I felt no pain, but that the mouth and tonsils are delicate and one has to be precise. Daddy would do the job while Jonah shone his bright, cat-shaped flashlight from uncle and aunt in my mouth.

Daddy, who as a teen wanted to be a nurse, washed his hands like a doctor would, soaping them up diligently. He dislodged the sucker with one swift move of precision. Jonah got to shine into my mouth and to look at the intruder, which turned out to be nothing but a very long piece of some sort of a spice. Perhaps sage?

A friend of mine commented that all this throat business could mean something. She said: "Find a healer - and get some work done on your chakras!" Though this sounded a little odd at first, I did, just to see, look up the "throat chakra." And here is what I found: In ancient Indian medicine with a two-thousand year history of healing, Vishuddha, the Throat Chakra, governs communication and growth through self-expression. Emotionally it governs independence, mentally it governs fluent thought, and spiritually, it governs a sense of security.

It just so happens that all these issues are very pertinent in my life right now. Now I'll have to meditate on this deeper meaning. And all it started with was just a little something in my throat.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

a blast from the past

Do you remember the stories I shared with you about our last Portland landlord, the asexual, caulk-obsessed robot? Well, I realized I had taken a photo of one of his notes to us to prove that the issue of "hard" vs. "soft caulk" really did play a central role in his relationship to us, possibly his life. See for yourselves:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

the three of us

at a tram stop

Saturday, December 06, 2008

the devil was here

Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), anděl (angel) and čert (devil) showed up, ready to give the good children fruit and candy and the bad ones coal & potatoes, with the worst kids threatened with being taken to hell, a Czech tradition every 5th of December.

Jonah sure as hell didn't like the devil. He brought a whole bag full of weapons (spoons) just in case he had to ward off the evil. Before the event, he also spent some time practicing his "show" tune (one of the myriad of folk songs or poems each child is obligated to perform for Mikuláš), creating a contingency plan and psyching himself up: "I'll go to his (the devil's) house and I'll make farts, put in my pocket and throw at him."

I say: smart guys plan ahead for whatever situation could arise.

He sat on Mikuláš's lap to sing a song and say he's been a good boy all year. Jonah was brave and for that he was rewarded with a bag of goodies. It was almost like Christmas.

Jonah even recalled last year's Mikuláš event when I showed him this picture I took there. He said: "Mommy, did we buy pickles there?" Which we did. They were homemade by the devil himself, I swear.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

emotional IQ

Something that I'm proud of as a mother is that I've been encouraging Jonah in his natural sensitivity to emotions and that I've been raising him to show and talk about emotions openly. He is very loving and affectionate and able to describe and debrief on how or others are feeling -- quite an accomplishment at his young age, I think, though I don't have much comparison with other kids his age right now.

Jonah is very loving and affectionate with family members and he expresses himself clearly concerning matters of the heart.

Today I became frustrated with how often he changed his mind about which way he wanted to take home from school. When I raised my voice, he quickly tried to calm me: "Mom, don't act all crazy. Let me hug you and kiss you to make you feel better." Talk about diffusing tension instantly!

On a slightly different topic, I've read that at this age, pre-schoolers start experimenting with white lies. Today I witnessed just that. I was asking Jonah about his friends at school. He said he mostly likes to play alone (common for three-year-olds). But then, out of the blue he said: "I sometimes throw dirt behind boys' shirts." He looked at me for a reaction. When he saw my disapproving face, he changed his tune: "I was just making a joke." I then tried to engage him in talking about it, but he insisted it was really "nothing." Tricky, tricky guy.

he remembers

The other day, Jonah looked at the chandelier in our apartment. About the only consoling thing about this hideous brass ceiling fixture is that sometimes its shapes ignite Jonah's imagination.

Looking at the light, Jonah mentioned that it reminded him of people riding horses. He said: "There is a horse for mommy there, one for daddy, one for Jonah and one for mommy's baby."

I was touched that he included Amalia in the world he was imagining.

Yesterday on our way home from pre-school, we were talking about kids growing bigger. Jonah was excited about the idea of becoming a man some day. He asked me if "the baby" was going to grow bigger too, so we talked about Amalia again. My simple, yet truthful answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity.

What a sensitive little boy.

sister was here

My sister was here. What can I say? I love that girl. And so do Jonah and Tim.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

sister time

It's been a busy time. My sister's visiting from New York, playing shows around the country and Europe. Like a groupie, I followed her and her group to the mountains in the north of the Czech Republic two days ago to a town where I went to "allergy camp" as a child. It was my first time back after at least 23 years.

Let me explain. As a child, I had a chronic cough, caused by allergies to dust, feathers, fur... you know, those common allergens in the air. So, my parents sent me away to the mountains to a kid sanatorium, of sorts, on the recommendation of our pediatrician. The idea was to --far from the polluted cities where my family always lived -- get some fresh air, coupled with a host of therapies, such as inhaling steam in a dark basement while playing a plastic recorder under the supervision of a stern nurse.

In essence, the concept made sense. And sure, fresh mountain air is good for just about anyone. But five weeks in a medical environment --granted, trying not to seem too hospital-like -- away from everything you know as a child can feel a bit lonely, to put it mildly. Needless to say, I usually got so homesick that I literally made myself sick and had to be plucked out of the hands of the comrades in white coats and taken home well before my stay there was supposed to be over.

Now with the trauma of "allergy camp" long gone, visiting that little town of 900 people was a whole different experience. I could actually appreciate the town's beauty. The town, set on a mountainside and surrounded by forested slopes, is centered around a few healing geysers, discovered more than a thousand years ago. It has a promenade, built in the 1800's, but has been a spa town for hundreds of years. Under a foot of freshly fallen snow the place had an aura of magic.

The town apparently has only one theater, which happens to be a movie theater. I realized from looking at the schedule that my sister's show was sandwiched between two movies: Goat Story (bear in mind that goat is a vulgar word for "boob" in Czech) and "Space Monkeys." Quite amusing.

My sister's show was truly special. She and the other musicians, one Czech, the other an American living in Germany, sounded so great. For this parent, the whole experience was a treat, away from the hum drum of city life and a welcome -- albeit brief -- break from motherhood.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

my thieving people

Alert the elders, alert the elders! The Czechs were just voted Europe's worst thieves. Yay for us!

"A study by the British Centre for Retail Research revealed that Czechs top the list of 22 of Europe’s biggest shoplifters."

Read more here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

latest developments

1. Jonah has been liking preschool. On holidays or weekends, he often asks to go to school. He sings the songs he learns there and mumbles to himself in Czech when he plays. He is on his way to becoming bilingual. Nearly every day he yells to go back to school once we get home.

2. Tim continues taking Czech lessons at a language school twice a week and is making quite a bit of progress. He has made some friends in the class that he sometimes hangs out with outside of school.

3. It's been great to reconnect with old friends. I have some great friends in Prague, most of whom I've known since childhood. I have been making sure to see them at least a couple of times a month. Just today, I took Jonah to visit one of my newer friends and his partner. We actually met over the internet three years ago because I started listening to his podcast. Then we wrote back and forth for a while and finally met in person when I visited Prague. Both he and his partner are wonderful people. They bought an old farm house about 50 miles from Prague that they have been renovating. From their porch, there is a view of distant fields, forest and a medieval castle. They have three dogs, three cats and three ducks. Jonah had a fabulous time running around with -- or should I say among -- their animals today and "helping" in the garden.

4. I have been spending a lot of time reflecting and reevaluating nearly everything about life and coming up with new projects for the future. Not sure yet what will transpire.

5. Spending time with my dad and grandma has been very special. Jonah enjoys them too. The other day I went to meet my grandma and to see a concert she invited me along to. Jonah was upset that he couldn't come, saying that babi was his mom too. I think what he meant is that she is family.

6. I am amazed at how the few things we brought with us to Prague (two duffel bags each) are enough. As long as I have access to the internet, I feel that I can keep up with the news in politics and my friends' lives. Beyond that, all I really need -- aside from my lovely little family -- is food, shelter (our simple, furnished apartment), and clothes. I used to think of myself as someone who is attached to things, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The computer (okay, and my camera and iPod) is about the only material object that is important to me... I surprise myself sometimes.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

never again

Today I attended the commemoration of Holocaust victims at the Pinkas synagogue in Prague, the walls of which have the names of Czech Jews who died in concentration camps, inscribed. Many of them were my relatives.

The event took place on the day Kristallnacht happened seventy years ago. Most of the people who attended were the generation of my grandparents and my parents. Almost no one younger than my parents was there.

I cannot begin to describe the emotions I felt, being there with my father whose parents survived concentration camps, and his cousin who herself is a survivor. I held myself back, because when I really think about it, the emotions that well up are just too strong for a quiet and solemn gathering such as today's was.

And what scares me about the Holocaust is that the vast majority of the "unaffected" people just stood by while the targeted groups were rounded up and virutally decimated: Jews (my dad's family), communists (my mom's father), gays, and the Roma. And others didn't just stand by. More than enough Czechs willingly collaborated with the Nazis, and so many had no qualms about taking what wasn't theirs.

And what really hits home is that the Holocaust wasn't that long ago, or somewhere in a faraway land, but here on this soil and the soil of Germany and Poland. It is a true miracle that my grandparents survived, that I am here and that Jonah can now walk on the same soil, in the same streets where my family lived peacefully, with great hopes for the future prior to the 1930's.

uncle was here

We just parted with Jonah's Uncle Andy, who visited us for a week in Prague. He must have left overwhelmed, because we did not let him rest. Jonah was filled with excitement and bounced off the walls practically the whole time his uncle was here. We walked around the city, visited my relatives, had a tour of the Senate, where my father is a legislator, and my father's theater. We ate at my uncle's restaurant, took Jonah to the circus and left town overnight for some sightseeing. In short, it was a busy week.

I have attached some pictures of our adventures. More can be found here.

Andy at my grandmothers, about to enjoy a typical Czech dish of potato dumplings, cabbage, and pork:

at the Gothic (14th century) castle Kost (which means Bone):

In Prague's Wenceslas Square:

voterado follow-up

Because this year, for the first time, I could cast my vote for U.S. President, I, of course, got all wrapped up in the whirlwind of this election. However, because we are living overseas, I felt strangely isolated in my fervor to learn about what was happening on the political scene in America and what Americans were thinking and feeling.

I've been thinking about politics quite a bit and feeling emotional about, not so much the symbolic, though the pure fact that Obama will be the first African-American president and the first U.S. president with an Arabic (Barack) and tribal African (Obama) name (by the way, did you know that Barack means "he who is blessed?") is nothing short of monumental. I, the idealistic skeptic that I am, have been more concerned about the tangible, wondering how the new administration will shape the future of the country I love so much. Of course, the answer lies in what we, the citizens, do to affect the policies of our country and our communities; in how much pressure we exert on our local and federal representatives to legislate the changes that we feel are needed.

Now more than ever, I want to be part of the change and I am thinking about how to get involved in working towards the future I envision. More on that later. But now I just want to say that though I voted for a third-party progressive candidate -- a choice I stand by proudly --, I am happy to see Barack Obama get elected. By the same token, I have no illusions about the kind of legacy his administration will leave behind. Still, I feel energized about joining others in taking concrete steps towards creating a more socially, economically and environmentally just world.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Of course, though faraway from the madness of American politics, we are eagerly awaiting the results of the U.S. Presidential elections. In fact, I will be tempted to stay up all night, I'm sure, as we are nine hours ahead of the west coast and the election results will just barely be starting to come in around midnight our time.

Tim's brother Andy is here, visiting from the U.S., which has been just fabulous. He's as excited and curious about the election. We talked about setting multiple streaming stations with all our computers. I think I need to stock up on some snacks liquor for mixed drinks too to sweeten the anticipation. Though the boys seem to prefer beer.

This is my first U.S. election to participate in actively. I am, after all, what some call "a new American." I have always followed politics and elections, more and more intensely the older I get.

As many of you, my readers, already know, I did not cast my precious vote for either of the anointed candidates because I feel that, most importantly:

1. Neither truly represents my values.

2. Neither has proposed legislation that adequately addresses the changes that I believe are needed in domestic and foreign policies (such as ending the war in Iraq and Afghanistan; cutting military spending; vowing to support the creation of a green economy based on truly renewable resources, not coal, nuclear power or offshore drilling; doing away with Bush's destructive education reform, No Child Left Behind; and creating a universal -- read single-payer -- health care plan).

I am well aware of the risks and the arguments against voting for a third party candidate. I know that at this point, the way elections are run and publicized, none of the third party candidates have a chance of winning. But I have given this phenomenon a lot thought over the years and feel that:

1. Voting one's values is the most morally sound thing to do.

2. The argument of voting out of fear of "the other" candidate winning doesn't hold much water anymore. Especially since the last presidential elections were won by the Democrats who cowardly didn't challenge the election-fraud-skewed results and questionable court rulings.

3. The Democrats, on a national scale, haven't proven that they deserve the progressive vote (tacit and outright support of the Bush administration policies, such as the USAPATRIOT act, War on Terror, increased Pentagon budget, and the Wall Street bailout).

4. Voting for a third party candidate is a small step in helping to open up the system.

5. Voting for a third party candidate whom I deem to be more progressive sends a strong message to the Democrats that they are not meeting the needs or gaining the trust of the progressives.

And if anyone counters my choice with 'the race card,' well, my answer is that I actually voted for a candidate who happens to be a person of color AND a woman. She is a former congress person, Cynthia McKinney. And I'm proud of my choice. This woman has the guts to stand up to some scary people: she has questioned the Pentagon papas about where huge sums of missing money have gone, she has rightly raised some difficult questions about 9/11, she has been a true people's advocate and she has paid dearly for her gutsiness. She was smeared in the press, dismissed as shrill and crazy, and was followed by the secret service in attempts to intimidate and silence her.

So, to sum up, before I spend all morning writing this, though I know my candidate will only get a miniscule percentage of the presidential vote, I feel good about having voted in alignment with my values. Still, I'm anxious to see what happens tomorrow. Scores of my friends are excited about the prospects of Barack Obama becoming the next president, so I'm curious to see what happens. Election fraud and voter intimidation and disenfranchisement are already wreaking havoc, so the reactions, if any, of the various candidates to those will also be interesting. See election problem reports here, here and here.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Prague in the fall

my little prince

The other day when I was picking Jonah up from school, I realized that I had forgotten my quarterly bus pass at home. Oops.

It's important to say that the Prague transportation system is amazing. Fast and efficient. Not like those Portland buses that people have to get on one at a time, paying the driver with exact change. No wonder it takes like two hours to travel two miles. In Prague it's an honor system. You get on and the chances are you may or may not be caught by the "checker guys" as I like to call them.

So when I picked Jonah up, I told him I forgot both my bus pass and my wallet. He was very concerned about what would happen as a result. I assured him that at most, the "checker guys" would just ask me for money. A lot of money which I didn't want to have to pay. The clearer I tried to explain the situation, the more questions Jonah had and the more concerned -- or should I say agitated -- he grew.

Suddenly, he whipped out an imaginary sword and, with the fierceness of a samurai, began to demonstrate with resolve how he would protect me if I got checked: "I will take out my sword," he shouted. "I will poke them. I will hit the check (or Czech?) guys down!"

My little guy --barely three feet tall-- had made up his mind to fight the evil dragon to save me.

Long pause. Double take. "Mom, what the check guys do to you? They hit you?"

I explained again that there is probably nothing to worry about. And surely enough, we made it home unchecked.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

the flag was still there

Okay. This is funny. Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia (now two different countries -- just in case you may have forgotten -- Czech Republic and Slovakia). It was a public holiday. The schools and most shops were closed. An annual celebratory parade displaying military splendor was organized and the media were filled with programs commemorating the occasion.

I caught a glimpse of a very interesting program on the ethnic pride of Czech people. Unfortunately, my son shouted through half of it, so I could only make out the occasional half-sentence. However, I found the topic fascinating.

Czechs range on their feelings of attachment to their heritage so vastly from person to person and from generation to generation that it is almost impossible to conclude from a collection of interviews on the topic that there exists a coherent relationship between the Czech people and Czech national or ethnic pride.

Because, in part, the country is small and has so many times been betrayed and simultaneously overrun by huge and hungry superpowers and subject to various top-down, destructive regimes, including fascism and totalitarianism, the Czechs tend to be humble, careful, mistrustful and somewhat self-effacing peoples. If I may generalize, based on my own perceptions and conversations with others, Czechs tend to often feel a bit inadequate. Communism and the "iron curtain" closed doors for so many people. The Czechs who stayed, felt cut off from the rest of the world. As a result, still today, many Czechs feel they don't know enough or are from a country that's too small to make a significant mark on the map. Many of my fellow country people are harsh on themselves, insisting, for instance, that their language skills aren't good, though large numbers are proficiently multilingual. Czech people even make fun of themselves and their "Czechness."

Most of my friends, when quizzed about their national pride, instantly protest, equating national pride with fanaticism and even fascism. So, a man waving a Czech flag is immediately suspect to many and seen as either a crazed soccer fan, or much worse, a possible skinhead. (And let me assure you, the neo-nazi community here is powerful and growing). So to the average Czech, I gather, Czech food and countryside are nice, but Czech pride is for the fanatics.

Now for the funny part, at last. Jonah glanced at the TV just at the point when a Czech flag, filmed in black and white, was waving all across the screen. He said: "Mom, turn of the TV. I don't like the flag waving. It scares me." How Czech of him!

waxing lyrical about the political

I thought that upon moving to the Czech Republic, my focus would shift somewhat; that I would devote more of my time to learning about the political scene of my birth country as well as Europe, but I find myself increasingly focused on the political happenings in the U.S. I obsessively read the news and opinions on the presidential election, economic crisis, the recent developments in America's military and foreign policy areas (aren't they almost one and the same?).

Most of all, I am interested in the underreported nuggets, the stuff that lies buried underneath the stories du jour that has larger implications for the society that I have come to know and call my own: the U.S. After all, I have spent the last twenty plus years, the vast majority of my life, trying to understand the United States. The majority of my friends are some of my family live there. And we plan to return there. So, I have a huge stake in what happens in America.

I voted in the U.S. presidential elections for the first time since it was last year I finally became a U.S. citizen. Though this act filled me with excitement, I know that voting for president and voting in local elections are only marginally important steps in affecting change. And I struggle with that. A part of me feels that I am so behind in understanding the structures which shape my life: the stock market, the government... I feel like I am finally just beginning to understand and to gain historical perspective. But just studying all this takes so much time. And I want to do more than vote and continue to educate myself in areas of history, politics and finance. But I, like many others I suppose, can't figure out how and where to best bite down for the long haul.

In a recent article Taking Politics Seriously: Looking Beyond the Election and Beyond Elections, the authors argue the obvious: that "voting matters, but it's not the most important act in our political lives." They urge:

Traditional grassroots political organizing to advance progressive policies on issues is more important. And even more crucial today is the long-term project of preparing for the dramatically different world that is on the horizon -- a world in which an already unconscionable inequality will have expanded; a world with less energy to deal with the ecological collapse; a world in which existing institutions likely will prove useless in helping us restructure our lives; a world in which we will need to reclaim and develop basic skills for sustaining ourselves and our communities. . . Our political work should focus on connecting with people on common ground, articulating a realistically radical analysis, and working from there to construct a just and sustainable society.

I think about that. I have a fantasy of creating an intentional community where friends live together, grow and cook food together and share resources, even childcare. I probably sound like a crazy hippie, but I don't care. I've had a similar dream for years, but have not articulated it to too many people. A dream is a dream and it's fine to imagine, but there are more immediate issues to work on. Where does one start?

I am well aware that I am speaking from a position of privilege. Many people don't really have the choice of whether to fight for a cause. They are getting laid off in large numbers, for instance, or getting moved from their land. For those people the struggle is about survival. I, on the other hand, can sit back and flip through issues like through a rollerdex.

The environmental and economic crisis both still feel faraway, but they will hit and they will hit all of us hard. So, who's ready, just like James Brown said to: "get together and get some land, raise our food like the man, save our money like the mother?"

I'm half-joking, of course. But I'm also half-serious. I think that a more communal style of life is in order. It is the future. But I do want to devote some of my time towards working for social justice. I just need to find the entry point. Have you found yours?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

bum in the park

Jonah: "Take me in the police car."

me: "You know what? No drinking in the park. You're under arrest. I'm taking you away in the police car."

Jonah: "Thank you!"

Monday, October 20, 2008

when the caca hits the fan

What is your plan, where do you want to be if... or dare I say... when the world, or more specifically the U.S., goes to shits? If the financial crisis hits as hard as the Great Depression -- and it already has in many parts of the country -- what is your plan?

I think about these things. My grandparents had lived through the war, bombings, near starvation, concentration camps. My parents lived through a totalitarian regime, which I also remember all too well. I have lived through waves of poverty myself when food stamps were assurance that there would be food on the table.

Already three years ago, I was telling people that I think a financial crisis of gigantic proportions was going to erupt, but back then to most I sounded like a bit of a nut.

My husband and I don't own a house or property, which could be both a plus (no mortgage problems or need to be tied down to a location post the housing bubble burst) and a minus (no property we can call our own, no place to grow our own food).

With interest, I read an opinion piece entitled Not My Financial Crisis -- I've Got Literally Nothing to Lose. I have a few things in common with the author of the piece. I own nothing (except for a car and some furniture) and I am used to living paycheck to paycheck. If, however, as a result of a sour economy, there is no work to feed me, that would be a whole different story.

I was struck by the author's ability to be so unaffected by the grim reality of the Wall Street meltdown. In fact, his lighthearted attitude made him a bit suspect to me, but perhaps there is a message in his piece: if you are someone who has experienced poverty before, and are someone who is resourceful, you may just be okay. Still, a deep-seated fear hovers just beneath the surface when I ponder the effects the crisis could have on me and my loved ones. I remember being poor, but my most recent stretch of years has been lived in relative comfort. To lose that scares me.

The most uplifting part of the article was the author's idea, when there is no work to be found in the city, of going to an organic farm and working for room and board. With almost no real-world skills such as sewing, cooking, or repairing things, helping on a farm, my friends, is something I can see myself doing if push comes to shove. I have weeded and planted before and I can do it again. I love being in nature, cultivating things that grow from the ground, taking care of animals.

If I trusted humans more, I would say that perhaps the financial collapse could lead to more alternative and healthier ways of living; less of a dependence on the stock market, multinational companies, and international trade built on abuse of workers and the environment. I would like to see people find different ways of taking care of themselves: barter, cooperate and pool resources, consume less, transform their communities into environmentally friendly and sustainable local economies...

Enclaves around the world are already doing this. Many more would like to live in this way.

I, and many of my friends, are drawn to the ideas of creating a more sustainable and community-oriented model within the larger society, but many of us resist the idea as well, because we have been raised in such an individualistic culture, where the very idea of success is tied into each person making it on his own; where competition and the attitude of looking out for number one is the emphasis. We are afraid of having to compromise too much, of losing ourselves too much in a cloud of people, because we've been taught that to find ourselves and to be ourselves, we must travel alone (and later in life inside our nuclear family bubble made up of a spouse, two kids, and a dog).

So back to my original question: how do you think the financial crisis will affect you (or is already affecting you)? What do you foresee the/your future to be like in the light of this economic meltdown? What is your vision for change?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

how mama voted one day

Our neighborhood post office is a small hold-over from the previous regime. The lines are always at least twenty-minutes long and the service at best mediocre.

While I was standing at the post office window, finally getting my first U.S. Presidential election absentee ballot weighed and stamped, a man in one of the other queues began to shout obscenities at the top of his lungs: "You fu**ing bastard!!! It's because of you that I've been stuck here for two hours....!!!!"

The recipient of this pitiful caricature-of-a-man's venom was an old gentleman standing meekly with his seventy-something-year-old wife at the front of the line, dealing with a clerk at the window. True, the old man had been there for quite some time, but he was clearly being helped.

I won't repeat what the insults were, but let me assure you, they were all vile. None of the fifty or so customers said anything to him or each other. Ho, hum, just another day at the post office.

I told the clerk who was weighing my letter that they had some rude customers. He responded with: "You know, that is nothing out of the ordinary."

I took on the mission of taming the beast single-handedly, telling the a-hole (without using that word) to calm down and not be so rude. That seemed to shut him up, but what the heck do I know since soon thereafter I left for home, reeling from the adrenaline rush stemming not from sending in my vote for the first time like I had hoped, but from speaking up against an injustice at my neighborhood post office.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Out of the blue today Jonah looked at me and said: "I'm dead." He seemed to want a reaction. I asked him what he means. He said that he is sick (which is not the case). Remembering my therapist's advice, which I have already taken to heart and used some months ago, I responded: "You know, Jonah, when someone gets sick, that person usually gets better. Most sick people don't die."

Surely enough, he was thinking of Amalia. I had thought about her earlier the same afternoon, but alone, in a different room. I didn't think there was a trace of sadness on my face anymore. Perhaps coincidentally, Jonah remembered her too. It's been eight months since her death.

Jonah asked me about "the baby." I said that she died. He asked why she died and I told him that she had trouble breathing, which he asked me to explain. To make the situation comprehensible to a three-year-old, I told him she was born that way. Jonah asked me what her name was. I said: "Amalia."

We talked a lot about Amalia after her birth and death, but after a while the conversations stopped. The processing became more quiet and private.

"What was she Malia for?"

"Daddy and I liked the name."

Our conversation continued like this: "You remember all about our baby still," I said.

"Yes." (Pause) "Is she still there?"

"No, she is not at the hospital anymore. She died."

Jonah seemed satisfied with how discussion went and we hugged. My sweet boy, still carrying this tragedy, incomprehensible to a toddler, inside, without trauma attached to it, I can only hope.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

the ghosts of Moravia

We just returned from a weekend away in Moravia, the eastern region of the Czech Republic. Among the yellowing trees and damp grassy hills I forgot all about the financial crisis, upcoming elections, and Bush striking down the Posse Comitatus and deploying troops domestically. The concerns of the day gave way to the expanse of freshly harvested fields and story-filled silence of the centuries-old stone walls we brushed against on our trip.

My grandmother came along and we stayed in an old mill in a secluded valley on the shore of the Jihlava river.

The building was a sizable old farm house with large barns and horse stables. In front there was a playground perfect for Jonah, and just beyond the playground, horses grazing under apple trees all day.

One day the father of the owner even brought his goat to chew on the nettles next to the playground. Jonah and I fed and pet it. I managed to get the goat involved in a lengthy bleating exchange -- a conversation, if you will, between woman and beast, carried out back and forth, clear across the meadow.

This magical valley was located only a five minute drive from the historical town of Třebíč, a place with one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. We spent a morning and an evening walking around the old Jewish neighborhood, much of it dating back to the 1500s and beyond.

Above the town lies a five-hundred-year-old cemetery which we also visited to pay our respects to the community which no longer exists in this town. Walking down the cobble stone lanes in the town made me uneasy deep inside my core, unsettled by the tragedy of it: everyone gone, the neighborhood half-empty, half-gentrified.

On Saturday we made a trip north to the Pernštejn castle, towering discretely over forested hills and narrow valleys; a castle which dates back to the 1200's, but whose style is predominantly gothic. This time we toured the place, getting a glimpse of what life may have been like in the centuries past.

One ghost story we were told haunted us. A servant who lived in the castle always skipped church service, primping in front of a mirror instead. The priest grew so angry he cursed her for it. When he did, the earth opened and swallowed the girl whole. She continued to visit the castle as a ghost, it is said. From the day she disappeared into the ground, the mirror, still hanging on the wall in one of the rooms, has been said to make every woman who looks in it turn ugly. The women in our group grew nervous, bowing their heads and looking at the ground as we passed the mirror, believing themselves too beautiful to stand up to the curse.

Another ghost used to appear at the castle, which the Swedes attacked during the Thirty Year War in the 17th century. The ghost was a woman who predicted good or bad things depending on the color of the gloves she wore. White meant good and black bad.

Jonah continued to ask about the ghosts, trying to understand that they were gone now. Finally he settled, albeit reluctantly, on the idea that the ghosts went underground and have not been seen since.

More pics here (scroll all the way down and on the next page).

Sunday, October 05, 2008

an inspection... already?

Barely a month into my new job, management already decided it was time to evaluate me. I was given notice that I would be observed in one of the several one-on-one English lessons I teach. They claimed it was routine procedure. Each instructor is observed once a year and my time was last week.

As per my manager's request, I turned in my lesson plan and copies of materials to be used. My boss's assistant had the privilege of, over coffee, bright and early in the morning, watching me spin the web of magic in my class -- you know, just doing my thing and doing it well, like I always do... ehm, ehm.

Sure, it was awkward to have an observer sit in on an English lesson with only one student, but I did my best to be as natural as possible, reducing my secret-pact-type face-making I just can't bear to eliminate completely, to a minimum. My student cooperated and, together, we impressed the woman.

She asked to meet with me last Friday. During the evaluation, she told me that she liked what she saw and gave me a couple of suggestions for improvement, which, I must say, were not bad at all.

Phew. Now I can go back to muddling through my before-most-people's-work-day-starts lessons half-asleep. My review is done!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

castle time

For our getaway today, I suggested we go to Kokořín Castle, about 60 Km north of Prague. I had never been there, but from the pictures it looked like an amazing place. This time, we invited my Grandmother Anna along.

Though it's been gray and rainy lately, today the sun was out. The trees have begun changing colors, so the sunshine and the gold and rust-tinged forests surrounding the castle provided the perfect backdrop for the experience.

The castle is located in a large nature reserve called Český ráj, or Czech Paradise, full of quaint valleys, forests and sandstone cliffs. The medieval castle of Kokořín is perched atop a sandstone ridge. From the towers, one can see the surrounding forested hills and some distant fields. The area feels remote and peaceful, the perfect contrast to weekday city life.

On the way back we stopped in a classic, but dilapidating village beer hall for lunch, where, as Tim writes: "the three-toothed proprietor handed us menus then told us the two things we could actually order."

More pics here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

a trip to remember

Imagine taking a trip to an unknown town, stepping out of the car, and just beyond the leafy crowns, happening upon a majestic Gothic cathedral, towering over tree-covered hills and a medieval town where silver mines once bustled with activity.

Imagine entering a seven hundred-year-old chapel, carved into a sandstone hillside; a place of worship where what is natural blends with what was created by man: the unadorned, parchment-colored walls; firm, yet delicate arches, lit by the pure, soft light streaming in through the clear lead glass windows.

Then, as Tim, Jonah and I did yesterday, picture strolling down a cobble stone street, lined with statues of angels and saints, past a 17th century monastery, and discovering a hidden, windy alleyway, dating back at least eight hundred years.

The legend has it that a wealthy man living in the lane had a a beautiful daughter. He was so miserly that he didn't want her to marry for fear of losing his fortune as dowry. Instead, he walled her in in the cellar where she starved to death. Her ghost haunted the house for generations, predicting the house would be destroyed. Eventually, the house did suddenly collapse, leaving fifteen dead behind.

Every ancient town has its legends. In Kutna Hora, there is magic in the air.

Down below, on the other side of town stands a world-famous ossuary, a chapel adorned with chandeliers and altars made of the skulls and bones of those who died in the black plague. It is said the chapel holds between forty and seventy thousand human skeletons.

Some would say making art from human remains is morbid, even sacrilegious, but surprisingly, I found the place beautiful, much like I find Mexican Day of the Dead art beautiful.

A truly amazing trip. More pics here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

what a day

At daybreak, I hear some distant rustling and make out Tim leaving the bed, and going to Jonah's room. Through the fog of sleep and the earplug wall, I gather that Jonah is awake and calling us. I fall asleep again and wake up to the harsh sound of the digital cock crowing in my ear. Time to get up, gather the paperwork, eat, get dressed, feed number one son, rush him to school and -- on this special day -- make a trip with my sweet foreigner (for the first time in our relationship, it is his turn to be the foreigner... not counting our two short visits here years ago), not to work since my student cancelled class today, but to the... drumroll, please... Foreigner Police. Sound familiar?

Thanks to my dad's clout, we've been able to avoid the overnight wait on the street and we could go directly to the director to apply for Tim's residency. When we finally made our way into the offices, the first thing Tim spotted near the door was, in a classical Western style, a jail cell, albeit with shiny metal bars and a brand spanking new bench. No, the jail cell was not brimming with sullen, mud-smudged faces. It was empty, the door wide open, ready for its lucky prey..

With just one phone call, the director arranged for us to hand our paperwork in to one of the clerks with no wait! Lucky, lucky for us, as some wait for hours, even days on the street for their number to come up, literally.

The clerk handled our request in a routine matter without the crudeness that Czech clerks are known to wallow in. With flashbacks from the times of the Iron Curtain, I sat there quietly, my palms sweating, as if a cat had eaten my tongue, for fear of saying the wrong thing and ruining the process for my husband.

The clerk seemed to derive more pleasure than usual from the act of stamping the various documents at hand with an unusually large assortment of stamps, using red ink, as a gatekeeper of utmost importance should, and tickling the air with her fingers while selecting each stamp she would use as if they each were an exotic chocolate truffle. I concluded that this lady's bedroom must be a sad and lonely place.

We are now only one document away from Tim obtaining his temporary residency status. Soon he will officially be an alien. That much closer to outer space.


After a morning spent at the Foreigners Police with stamp fetish lady, following a quick stopover at work, I picked up Jonah from school, needing to rush him home because of an appointment I had set up with my dad. Alas, today was set aside by some darn forces of the universe to be Hurricane Day of the preschool mood palette, but I apparently didn't get the memo. The hurricane hit at exactly 12:40 p.m. and didn't subside till exactly 1:15 p.m. which doesn't seem like much time in the large scheme of things, but imagine carrying a thirty-pound sack of potatoes gone wacko with flinging arms and legs gone berserk, all to the cacophony of hellish screaming along a busy city street, up and down seemingly endless flights of stairs and escalators, and on the subway, filled with rush-hour crowds. The picture wasn't pretty.

I got home sweaty, at my wits end, with my heart about to jump out my throat. The fit stopped a short while thereafter as mysteriously as it began.

I changed and said my goodbyes, hoping to make it on time to my appointment with my dad and one ambassador. My dad, the Senator, had asked me to interpret from Czech to English and vice versa. Interpreting is a new skill for me. I don't do it often, and thus haven't trained my brain synapses to connect the two language centers properly. When all goes well, interpreting can be a satisfying experience, but if the right word doesn't come, that can spell trouble. Fortunately, the occasion was informal and a meal provided. I'm easily amused and food is the only bribe I need. Give me a good meal and I will twirl a hoola hoop on my nose.

Now I'm ready for a good night's sleep. Tim is in the next room doing his homework for Czech class, Jonah is finally asleep after Day of Many a Hurricane. More soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

my little poet... and you wouldn't even know it

About a week ago, Jonah improvised his first rhyme in Czech while eating a salad with sunflower seeds:

semínko, maminko = a little seed, mommy

My grandmother was there and it warmed our hearts. Mine too, since I was fifty percent of the rhyme :)

Saturday, September 20, 2008


1. We are finally settling down into our new lifestyle. Jonah enjoys a good degree of predictability, so any sort of a semblance of routine helps to make him feel at ease. He still complains he does not want to go to school, but doesn't seem tortured by his experience there.

2. I am getting comfortable in my new job. Most of my courses are with individuals, which is not my preferred arrangement, but it will do for now. Most of my students are quite pleasant and the tasty complimentary coffee I am always offered at one of the companies is a treat in this land of mostly inferior and overpriced coffee. (Alas for this coffee lover!)

3. I travel quite a bit for work every day since I teach English to people in their places of employment. I always take public transportation, which is clean, predictable, fast, and efficient. Mostly, I take the subway. The nice thing about the subway is that there is no view, and thus I don't feel tempted to constantly be distracted by the sights and sounds of the hustle and bustle on the streets. On the subway there is not much to look at other than the fellow passengers, which gets old really quick. So I am finally able to squeeze in some reading!!! I always skim the news, then move on to a book. I'm really enjoying reading.

4. We are so eco! Tim and I (and Jonah) only drive once or twice a week. I take public transportation nearly every day and walk at the very least thirty to sixty minutes a day (this includes walking up and down many, many flights of stairs leading to the subway entrance, our apartment building floor, etc.). We don't have a dryer, so we hang dry our clothes... Also, Tim noticed that there isn't as much packaging here on products, so we make much less garbage here than in the States.

5. Our next door neighbor must be slightly wacky. She is an old lady who lives alone. One day -- she must have waited for the precise moment when we emerged out of our apartment -- she opened the door and invited us in, which I politely refused. A little too fast too soon. She must be lonely. Tim later pointed out that she was already talking to us before she managed to swing open the door. The lady is constantly talking to, or should I say at, Tim in the hallway even though he and I have both told her numerous times on separate occasions that he doesn't understand Czech.

6. We have managed to take a couple of trips to the countryside. Yay! Today's trip was to the Karlštejn castle. Here is a pic.

7. I have found several health food stores which sell organic or quality ingredients for the things we are used to cooking. The only things I haven't been able to find, why I have no idea, are: canned black beans (the dried ones taste horrible even when soaked and cooked properly); organic unsweetened cheerios for Jonah; and good -- I mean good -- coffee. There are still some odds and ends I haven't located, but I think I know where to look next time.

8. Between classes, I have had a few chances to walk around the city a bit. Here is a pic to prove it. More here.

9. Most of our paperwork has been handled. ID's, health insurance, car insurance, you know the deal. We are almost done with all our relocation-related bureaucracy. Not quite, but almost.

10. It's been great to spend time with my grandmother. She has taken me to classical music concerts and has cooked up a storm! Today Jonah told her he loves her. What a sweetheart - both of them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

city living, country dreaming

In the mornings, I usually get up at 6:30, get ready for work, wake up the boys, eat breakfast and take the subway to one of the companies where I teach (mostly individual) English lessons. Often I have two sessions a morning, sometimes just one. Tim takes Jonah to school on the subway, then comes home to work.

After my classes, I take the subway and/or tram back to the language school that employs me, to prepare for the next day. The school is only a five-minute walk from Jonah's preschool, so after I'm done preparing for the next day I pick him up after lunch. We get home and afternoons are spent playing at home, in a nearby park, running errands or visiting friends or family. Jonah has refused to nap since we've moved back to Prague. Sad, but true.

The other day one of my students canceled class, so I had an extra hour to take in some of my favorite sights for the first time since my last visit to Prague a year ago. I went up to the Prague Castle, waded through thick tourist stew to the remarkably deserted Castle Gardens and a couple of the most wonderful viewpoints of the city. It felt sinful to wander like that in the middle of a workday, taking in the last summer rays, and snapping photos like only a foreigner would.

This weekend we walked around some of the oldest parts of Prague as a family (with my Grandma as well), the Old Town Square, which dates back to the early Middle Ages, being one of the sights.

Saturday afternoon Jonah and I drove out to my dad's favorite fishing spot about 45 minutes outside of Prague, following him on the way out and returning on our own. I still get nervous driving here since I don't know all the traffic laws and signs, let alone my way around, very well (shhh... ). But I found my way back just fine.

The countryside is so peaceful and pretty. My dad likes to fish on a lake in an area where he spent his summers as a child. He has made friends with many of the people that spend their summers on the lake in houseboats, so Jonah and I got to look inside one of the tiny summer houseboats and to roast weenies with the lake shore dwellers. All nice folks, I must confirm.

My dad wore his fatigues for the occasion. Apparently, a man must disguise himself properly when in nature around here. The Czechs do love their army garb. When in the woods here, do as the Czechs do: always wear your army stuff... just in case! And just so you know, anything with a U.S. army badge wins special points!

When we arrived to the lake, one of my dad's friends immediately jumped into his houseboat, emerging just a minute later in an army cap, boots, and a fatigue onesie - belly protruding, mind you. He was ready for the fishing occasion of his life, for which I am afraid he waits every night of the summer. On the shore of the lake he unfolded his apparatus: a stand for his four digitalized fishing rods which beep at him when something or someone, hopefully Mr. Fish, tugs on the line, so he can interrupt his weenie roasting and rum drinking and come check on his potential harvest. Genius, I thought!

We were lucky. My dad took Jonah and me on the lake in a row boat, then showed Jonah his fishing tricks (which are called "chumming the waters" and are illegal in the States, Tim tells me). My dad invited Jonah to hold the fishing pole with him, and together they caught a little fish, which Tim, Mr. Montana Fishing Know-How, in a manner of one word reduced to a sardine. I though it was more the size of a smallish trout, but what do I know about fish?

Nevertheless, we had a grand time running around the woods surrounding the lake -- at its deepest some 230 feet deep -- under which hides a village that was flooded long ago, thanks to the construction of a nearby dam. Tucked away in the woods on a tiny peninsula near my dad's favorite fishing spot, only a small abandoned chapel remains.

I have put some more pics here for your enjoyment.