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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

my little school boy

I bet you've been wondering about how Jonah is doing with his preschool adjustment. Well, let me tell you. You probably remember the post about his first day when he so resisted going to school that he threw a huge tantrum during rush hour on the subway and I had to carry his flailing body up and down flights of stairs and on and off the train, just hoping he doesn't hurt himself or other fellow passengers. Fortunately that type of a crying fit on public transportation only happened once. Phew! Let's hope that chapter is behind us for good.

Still, as you can imagine, the first few days at school were pretty awful. He cried so much that I was afraid we, the parents, traumatized him for life. I was ready to give up trying. Then he got a cold and stayed home for two days. I was sure we would have to start from zero again, but to my surprise, Jonah only cried the last two minutes of the entire morning the first day back after his cold, and today he didn't cry a bit. In fact, I am under the impression that he is actually starting to like school!

His teacher seems sweet, as does the French class teacher, who calls Jonah something like "Jus-Jus" (pronounced "Zhoo-zhoo") and who always praises Jonah's qualities based on his daily progress and achievements. Today, for example, I was told Jonah has a good memory because he retained information from a story told to him several days ago.

I am proud of my little boy. It's hard to be in a strange new environment, away from everything he knows and feels comfortable with, immersed in a not-so-familiar language in a not-so-familiar place. Thank goodness he's doing better at school. Let's hope things keep looking up.

Monday, September 08, 2008

grammar school time

Last week when I came home after one of the English lessons I had taught as part of my new job, I asked Tim to please correct the mistake in the following, taken from a textbook: "The doorbell's ringing. I'm going to go and see who it is."

He said: "What mistake?" Precisely what I thought as beads of sweat formed on my forehead while staring at the textbook in front of me, listening to my student struggle to come up with the correct answer. My only hope was that my student would interpret my silence as a purposeful teaching strategy.

In all of my years as an English teacher, I've never had to think about, let alone explain, the difference between the two simple future forms "going to" and "will." How would you, my dear blog readers explain the difference (without looking it up)? (By the way, if you want to test your grammar, you can see how well you do with the use of "going to" and "will" here.) The problem is, of course, that in real life the two forms are often used interchangeably.

Like many native and non-native English speakers, I use the language, but am not always sure what the rules are or what grammatical forms I am utilizing at the moment. Often far from it, I am afraid. On top of that, I am now supposed to be an expert on grammar, able to explain it as issues arise at the drop of a hat.

To my dismay, the Czechs drool over grammar. Many, it seems, would rather spend time poring over verb participles than loosening up and having a spontaneous, real life conversation in English for fear of failure or humiliation.

Even as somebody who has gone to school to be an English instructor, after a couple of lessons where grammar looms large I find myself feeling inadequate. Sitting in a room full of British teachers who during new hire training spouted out perfectly distilled grammar rules and spot-on explanations like they are family recipes or curses didn't help. The one American in the room -- a writer and college-level writing instructor -- and I sank deeper and deeper into our chairs as the training went on, feeling left behind in the dust of English-as-a-Foreign-Language Teacher Olympics.

Fortunately, since the above-described lesson, during which I sweated bullets, as some say, I have already had a couple that have gone well and with ease. Let's hope for more of those. (And for more free delicious coffee that I am served at one of the companies where I commute to teach nearly every morning!)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

contest: guess what time it is

Beer (or "pivo") time. Yes, but take a look at these candid camera shots of typical Czechs and tell me what time of day you think I took these pictures. The person closest to the correct time of day will win a small surprise via email.

P.S. Contest ends Saturday!

babi time

This morning I didn't have to work, so I made plans to go on a walk around Prague with my beloved Grandmother Anna. She is one of the dearest people in my life. I am so glad to be able to spend time with her. Would you believe she is eighty years old? So far, we have seen each other at least twice a week. Here are a few pictures from our walk this morning. More here.

On the "Bridge of the Legions" or "Most Legií" over the Vltava River:

In a part of Prague called "Malá Strana" or "Small Side":

At John Lennon Wall: