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.