Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is It That Obvious?

I was listening to the most recent episode of This American Life, at the point where refugees are talking about the most ridiculous things they had heard about America but could not believe, when I realized I was out of sugar. After being sick for days, I finally feel like my head is my own and my stomach is no longer revolting. In celebration, I decided to bake brownies. The chocolate was melted, flour reserved, eggs cracked. But I had no sugar. I paused the podcast and my baking to run down to the corner store.
The corner store in my neighborhood, which is referred to as Zalabi and seen in Kolín as the equivalent of living in Jersey, is much smaller than any I've experienced in Prague. It's a lot like the shop across the street from my flat in Daegu, except there's no pampered yappy-type dog to step over. There's barely room for one person in each stretch of the U of shelves. But at six-thirty, after the local grocery has closed for the night, the place is usually packed. There are weary workers buying frozen foods for dinner. An old woman is buying bread. A boy pops in to grab a candy and drop a crown on the counter without waiting in line. I listen to the Czech all around me and feel content with my understanding. "How many here?" the shop keeper asks the worker about a bag of rolls.
"Seven rolls and three buns," he replies.
I realize, suddenly, that as far as most people know are concerned, I look the most Czech of anyone in the shop--being neither Romani nor Vietnamese. I am thinking about the refugees on the radio show. Half of these people might warrant asylum because of the way this government treats them while the other half came here in the past in search of a better life. I am not a refugee of any kind. I did not escape the oppression of my government. Yet, I came here seeking something, too. Adventure, maybe. But I have also come a great distance to find happiness. We speak about the same amount of Czech, you and I, Mr. Shopkeeper, I think. This feeling of being an outsider, it's something we share.
As I place my sack of sugar on the counter, I begin to count out eighteen crowns. He asks,
"Vere you from?" in English.
Thoroughly taken aback, I say only, "New York."
I wonder how he knew. Did I look at my coins like a puzzle in my hand? Did I pause somewhere I shouldn't have? How did he know? And while it may seem irrational, a small part of me believes he felt my sympathy and understood all that was going on in my head while he rung up the customers ahead of me in line. This feeling of being an outsider, it's something we share. I thought it so loudly, he heard it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Singing into the Void

I've explained before that part of the draw for Czech trains for me is the ability to open the window and stick out one's head. This weekend, I was sitting in a compartment with the door and the window open, as it was quite warm. I was feeling sick (preschool germs have finally knocked me down, missed two days of work this week for the first time in months) and just trying to make it through the train ride. I was sitting near the door of the compartment when I noticed a boy in his mid-teens standing at the open window in the hall. He had his headphones on and was nodding his head along. Suddenly, he stuck his head out the window and sang along with everything he had inside of him. I can't imagine how cathartic it must have been--to be surrounded by people on a full train but able to sing as loud as you want to, answered only by the rushing air around your head.

I wanted to follow suit but instead sat and thought about all the songs that have been so poignant to me lately. Which one would I sing out of the window of a moving train?
I think that I've decided upon "Open Road" by Kris Delmhorst.


"I will climb onto that train
Find a seat that's got no view.
I will take what I need with me
I will not take what I don't.
I will say that I will be back here but I know that I won't.
I will live with empty pockets,
I will live with empty sleeves,
I will know that there is nothing in this world I cannot leave.
I will tell my friends I love them
I will hope that they know
I need nobody beside me on this open road."

Sometimes, it gets draining making up answers to questions like, "When are you coming back to the States?" or "What are you doing after this?" These are questions I don't want to answer. I don't have answers for them. I make up plans to talk about so that I can answer these questions, but I'm not passionate about my answers. I am passionate about what I am doing right now. And my friends may be getting married, having kids, and buying houses. But I am content to live with my empty pockets, with my head out the window of a train.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Měla babka čtyri jabka

Every day before lunch, we say this poem in English, which I learned from my Waldorf mentor, and an equivalent in Czech. I love the way the Czech poem sounds, even if I can barely pronounce it an only have a rough idea what I am saying. I recently re-discovered a book of Czech nursery rhymes at school and I have a few that I love hearing the kids say. They just sound so magical. I tried to read them and found that I could actually understand them. Then, obviously, I needed to translate them for real. I am always in search of new hobbies--and what better than translating verses from a language I've never studied?

This is my first attempt, and my favorite Czech rhyme:
Měla babka čtyri jabka
a dědeček jen dvě.

Dej mi, babko, jedno jabko,
budeme mít stejně.

Grandma had four apples
and grandpa only two.

Give me, grandma, one apple,
and we will have the same.

But this doesn't have the same sort of ring to it. Here's what I came up with, though it clearly needs improvement:

Four apples had Grandma
Grandpa had just two.

Give an apple to poor Grandpa
Dear Grandma, won't you?

So yes, it loses lesson that 4-1 and 2+1 are the same, but it keeps the general feeling of the poem.

My second poem in Czech is:
Foukej, foukej, větřičku,
Shod' mi jednu hruštičku,
Shod' mi jednu nebo dvě,
budou sladké obě dvě.

Blow, blow, wind,
knock down one pear for me
knock down one or two for me
they will both be sweet.

This one, I'm more proud of:
Blow, wind, blow through the air
Knock me down a juicy pear
Let one or two fall from the tree
Oh how sweet they both will be!

I'd like to say that there's a practical reason for me to be translating these rhymes. I'd like to say that it's part of a plan to teach my children English using the rhymes they are familiar with. But it's not. It's simply another way to pass my time. And I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


This is going to be one of those intensely photo heavy, long posts. All photos courtesy of Jess, Andrea, and Sara as I did not have my camera. Most of the best days in my life are those days that I look back on and, in retrospect, realize were absolutely amazing. Some days, though, you realize in the moment that they will be the best days of your life. This is the story of one of those days. **

When I was 18, my main group of friends was referred to as "The Table." We ate lunch and dinner together every weekday while on the weekends we came together for brunch and dinner. The Table was primarily straight-edge, so our Friday and Saturday nights involved going to the movies, candy shop, or playing cards on Jenn and Denise's floor. But brunch on the weekend--that was our time. It was a marathon for us. Ten thirty to one. As many plates as we could eat. Glorious were the days when they had the make-your-own waffle station. Jenn seemed to live for them. Kim could pack in more food than any of us, despite her small frame. But brunch was always bittersweet. We knew we were fighting against the clock, that we had a full day of homework ahead of ourselves and no amount of scrambled eggs would make it go away. We would leave in the early afternoon, resigned to a day of study.

But in the real world, Sunday brunch isn't procrastination's last hurrah, it's the weekend's last hurrah. Whatever happened that weekend, however disappointing, there's still a full day ahead of you to turn it around. There's no homework looming overhead, but there is the knowledge that the week begins tomorrow. Every Sunday is like the last day of summer for a school kid. You know that it's all you've got left and you have to make the most out of it. Our traditional brunch has been referred to as the "Hangover Brunch" but to me it's more of a debriefing session. We gather at someone's flat to cook, eat, and have our last drinks of the weekend. This Sunday, we started with Bloody Marys (my first!) and after we ate our way through a few hours of lounging in the kitchen on the windowsill, we finished up brunch with Magical Mermaid Mimosas. When the pitcher was finished, we finally decided to move to the park to bask in the beautiful weather (in spite of all those warnings about volcanic ash). I looked, calculating, at the empty bottle of twist-off champagne, the full bottle, and the half-empty bottle of Fanta.

"Guys!" I shouted. "We pour half the bottle of champagne into the empty bottle, then top both off with the Fanta, put the caps back on, and bring them with us to the park!" Someone quipped about the beauty of twist-off champagne caps. But then, we did. And it was glorious. *

We went to the park and found the perfect spot in the sun to drink our Champagnta. **

And drink it we did! When you mix in Fanta, you can barely taste the 48 crown (~$2.50) bottle of champagne! *

We decided that the slightly opaque sparkly stuff in the green bottles looked like what they drink in the garden in the movie of Harriet the Spy and this made Champagnta even better. *

I was pretty excited to have dressed so ridiculously for brunch. "I strive to make every moment of my life a photo opportunity" may have been my Champagnta-tipsy quote of the day. *

But while we were laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, an Austrian boy in a photography class actually came over and asked to take pictures, so, really, we made an impression. *

You'll note that most pictures are of the five of us girls. Brunch is usually high in estrogen and any boys who end up with us seem a bit exhausted. There's a reason he's on his own little towel instead of The Blanket (The Definite Article Blanket, as it were). And that reason is girls and... **

PUPPIES! The park is full of them on a Sunday afternoon and the Czechs aren't big on leashes. We called over as many dogs as we could and attacked them with affection, making cooing noises. This dog, however, found us. We noticed her urinating on the head of a guy passed out a few yards from us. Then, suddenly, she was on our blanket. "She likes other people but not me," the owner said when he came to retrieve her. What we did not get a photo of was the pig.

"Is that man walking a pig?" asked Jess. We all looked over and debated whether or not it was indeed a pig.
"Is that pony?" asked Jess, about a very large poodle at a great distance.
But, the porcine leashed animal came closer, and revealed itself to, in fact, be a pig. Eventually, Lauren and I were on the way to the bathroom and I managed to ask the owner if we could pet it. He apathetically agreed. We pet a pig. Its nose was kind of sticky, its fur was sparse, but it was a pig, and we pet it. ***

Eventually, the one bottle of champagne split two ways ran out.
"Guys! We buy two more bottles of champagne and one bottle of Fanta..." I began.
"And split the champagne amongst four bottles and top it off with Fanta!" someone else finished.

So Sara and I went to the same shop where she had purchased the makings of the Magical Mermaid Mimosas to get more supplies. We ended up with the same cashier and Sara gleefully told her to have a good day. We certainly were having one. We returned triumphantly and the crowd applauded.

At this point, the splitting the bottles became an assembly line procedure. Pour the champagne, pour the Fanta, cap it, overturn it to mix but don't shake. ***

In the end, we had four more bottles of Champagnta. "I'll call you breakfast, and you brunch, and you lunch, and you dinner!" **

As we neared the end of the bottles, we did feats to show off how we were still not drunk including hand stands, somersaults, and cartwheels. Throughout the day, friends came and went. There was frisbee and football. There were guitars and surly chihuahuas. As the sun went behind the clouds and slowly began to set, we moved to the beer garden and had a last round of drinks and foosball for the weekend (for some of us, at least).

It seemed to most of us that Monday morning was more brutal after a beautiful Sunday, but I think that on some level we all preferred an amazing Sunday and rough Monday to two mediocre days.

*From Sara
** From Jess
*** From Andrea

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We Find Magic Everywhere

When your job involves reading fairy tales at least three times a day, you start to view the world like one. I used to look for magic in the world, but lately, it just appears everywhere. We had a bunch of short willow branches in water from making pomlazka (willow whips, oh Central Europe) for Easter. I noticed that they were starting to bud and thought they would make a beautiful little fairy house. I stuck them into the ground to make a little hut. I explained to the children that this will attract the fairies to our garden as long as we took good care of it. As soon as I explained this to one student, he went and found flowers to put on top. Another found an empty snail shell while a third (for reasons I don't quite understand) sifted some small stones out of the sand table to put in the house. I then went around and collected the snails from all over the garden. I placed them in the house, explaining that the fairies ride on snails like we ride on horses. This also kept the snails safe from little feet that are wont to trod on them. Accidentally squishing a garden snail is much more heartbreaking than accidentally squishing a spider. The look of horror on one boy's face when he stepped on a chestnut that he thought was a snail was reason enough to corral the little guys.

But the fairy house quickly became known the the children as the snail house. "Šnek šnek šnek!" seems to be all I hear in the garden these days. They love to look in on the snails, give them little things to eat, and place flowers on the top of their house. The snails, to me, are magical little creatures in their own right, even if we've forgotten about the fairies who ride on them. My only previous knowledge of garden snails from Strawberry Shortcake. Snails, to me, were always aquatic and less than adorable. So, to see real life eye stalks is like stepping into a fairy tale!

I watch them and can't help but imagine being a fairy or Strawberry Shortcake riding on them myself. I recognize that in reality, it might be less than thrilling to ride on a snail, no matter how small I might be, but but... the eye stalks! They wiggle around and when they poke something, they go back in or wrap around it. They're incredible! And I've got about thirty more snail pictures, but I'll leave the šneky for another time.

Sometimes, magic comes in the form of an ambrosian Sunday morning cocktail. The Magical Mermaid Mimosa was born out of the desire to have root beer floats at brunch. Unfortunately, root beer does not exist here and vanilla ice cream is scarce (or topped with things). So, I picked up orange soda and strawberry ice cream one morning and figured it would do. It certainly did. We discussed how to make this delightful drink a bit more... alcoholic. Vodka? No. Rum? Perhaps. Tequila? Yes, but it is Sunday morning. So, champagne! Thus was born the Magical Mermaid Mimosa. Champagne, orange soda, and strawberry ice cream. "This is what girls in frilly pink dresses grow up to drink!" said Lauren.

It was hard to get a picture that properly showed the beautiful foam on the Magical Mermaid Mimosa or how it made one feel like one had just stepped into a victorian fairy tale, but this does show it a bit. Lauren coined the term Magical Mermaid Mimosa and later on I thought more about the use of "mermaid" here. In Hans Christen Andersen's original Little Mermaid, sea people live three hundred years but have no immortal soul, as humans do. So when they die, their spirit doesn't rise into the ether. They simply turn into foam and float on the sea. The foam on top of the Magical Mermaid Mimosa is like the sea foam that holds the essence of such magical creatures.

(Thanks to Jess for her M.M.M. photos)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ahoj, Jaro!

I was talking to a friend the other day about how strange it is to go from the Northeast to a place that actually has a full season of Spring. We're used to it going from 30's to 60's in a week's time, with some minor fluctuations. I'm not sure I've ever experienced this much 50's in my life. And when the season takes time to progress, you can actually see the different flowers and types of trees because they don't all suddenly bloom at once like an explosion, but slowly like a verdant fireworks show.

And this gives me hope about things that are slowly forthcoming being worth the wait. Yesterday, I woke up in the middle of my bed.

Friday, April 16, 2010

iTunes Recognizes You Are Lonely

I've been a big fan of the Genius feature on iTunes/iPod since it came out, even if it does give me "Gold Lion" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on every playlist it creates. It makes me question what kind of music I do listen to, in general, if these are the songs that it has decided are related to song X. I generally assume it relates songs based on artist, genre, and tempo. But today, my iPod seemed far too... sentient.

I put on Song X, which, I grant is kind of a lonely/broken heart song, but it's fairly upbeat and not by a band I would describe as music for the broken hearted. And yet, it's like Genius knew what the theme of the song was and provided me with 25 songs in various stages of heartbreak and moving on. Instead of a list of songs, I have composed a letter to "you"--whoever this heartbreaker may be, using the lyrics of the most melodramatic of the melodies on this playlist.

I feel like a fool so I'm going to stop troubling you, but I don't know who I am, who I am without you--all I know is that I should. I wish I could buy back the woman you stole. And I try not to worry, but you've got me terrified. I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay. No, this is how it works. I'll be the one who'll break my heart. I'll end it though, you started it. I can be alone, yeah, I can watch a sunset on my own. Take these rings and stow them safe away, I'll wear them on another rainy day.

Seriously, Genius, save it for when I actually get dumped.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Playing Favorites

Today, I got hit in the face again. Most of the time, it's an accident. Other times, kids get really upset and, being pretty new to this earth they haven't yet found a better way to express their emotions than punching me in the face.

Today was a different story. I was kneeling before a three-year-old boy to put on his unnecessarily large hiking boots. While I was bent over one, double-knotting it to his specifications, he held the laces of the other boot and whipped me purposefully in the face with his boot. The blow was accompanied by the typical blinding white pain that you get when you are struck in the eyes and nose. I didn't even make a noise. I was shocked by the pain and by the action. When I finally opened my eyes again, the boy sat in front of me looking pleased.

It's hard to balance being a preschool teacher with being... human. He's three, I keep reminding myself. But how can I not be upset with someone who just whacked me in the face and enjoyed it so? Another student of mine loves to speak with me in English, he loves to tell jokes, he loves to make me laugh (see photos above). When one two-year-old boy was crying for mommy, another one put on a silly hat and danced in front of him. How can one not favor these kids over those who seem to enjoy causing hurt? I know, I know, children who are acting out are doing it for a reason but when push literally comes to shove, how can a teacher not have feelings?

I guess, what makes a good teacher is her ability to accept those feelings without letting them interfere with her work. This is what I strive for daily.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In Which a Large Rock, Again, Changes My Perspective on Life

Last week, before a brief bout of second winter hit the Czech Republic, I came home from work and was determined to enjoy spring on my own. I'm still getting used to living on my own (stocking the pantry, being the only one responsible for buying toilet paper) and being on my own (on Friday nights, I am beholden to no one). Korea, in 2008, was the first time I had lived alone during the fall. And though it was lonely, it pushed me to become more independent. Now, I am heading into my first spring alone. I am so affected by the seasons that while I may have learned to live alone in the fall, I feel like I'm starting from scratch with this whole being alone during the spring thing.
A series of jokes has led to a friend and I calling single life "Beartown." The extended metaphor is a comfort. I am watching the trees bud in Beartown for the very first time, it seems. The last time I wasn't living with a girlfriend through the thaw into the summer was 2005--and even then I was in a fairly big relationship with someone a few hundred yards away. I'm used to coming home on a beautiful day to a woman who will hang out in the grass with me. If she was busy, there were usually friends nearby with whom I might sit and watch the water.

But I find myself in Beartown, which happens to exist at around 50 degrees of latitude and thus offers sunshine well past what I am used to in early April, coming home from work with hours of daylight and good weather spread out ahead of me. And, honestly, sometimes when I close the school gate behind me and begin walking home, I feel like I have an ocean to cross before I can lay my head down. I have seconds and minutes and hours to fill up, which in the winter I was fairly content to do indoors, baking and listening to podcasts. But as the sun refuses to go down for hours after I arrive home, I need to be doing something more. Some days, I am exhausted from a long day of Hokey Pokey and battles of will with little people for whom reason is years away. Those days, the couch and a pair of knitting needles don't feel like such an admission of failure. However, after a good day of fort-building and gut-busting laughter, I am ready for more.

So, last Thursday, I decided to take a book outside and read. Having grown up in a harbor, the river pulled me to its banks. I walked along the path, looking for a spot where I could get closer to the water. What made me turn away from the water, I'll never know, but I caught a glimpse of a small cliff covered with grass, moss, and flowers. This was to be my spot. Instead of going lower to find seclusion, I would go higher. This is the direction my life has been taking--I've been picking height over depth for a while now, while not entirely conscious of the decision. This girl who suffered through sandy sandwiches every summer day of her childhood, has picked the mountains time and time again. Up I climbed and settled myself. I could see the river, I could feel the grass under my bare feet. In reality, the glacial erratics of Eastern Long Island and the cliffs that formed some ancient fortress for Prague aren't all that different, if ya' close y'r eyes. It's just rock. Rock, rock, rock. How I wanted to feel the rocks below my feet and the waves pulling the sand from around me. But this cliff, this cliff offered me something new! I could boulder here!

I climbed back down, having only read a few pages, and quickly returned to my flat, dropping the bag full of afternoon reading supplies as I opened the door. I changed, gathered up my gear, and headed back down to the small amount of exposed rock near the river. I'd never been bouldering outside before, I'd never gone rock climbing alone at all. I'm sure I was breaking all sorts of safety rules if not a few actual Czech laws. But I stretched and I climbed up a few feet. I looked to my left and set a goal. Two, three, four times, I got stuck at the same spot. I hopped down and tried to plan my route. I got back to the rough spot and could not find a place to put my left hand. I always like to take a hand hold before moving my feet. I realized that I needed to trust my instincts, moving my feet and allowing my hand to follow. When I made it across, I felt so accomplished. I had conquered so much. I had overcome my fear of going out alone and staked out a new spot for myself where I can read--content to be alone. Crossing that gap in the rock was like climbing Apsan. It wasn't really a goal I had until I found myself with nothing else. Now, beautiful days don't fill me with the dread of loneliness. I can again see endless possibilities instead of moments to fill up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


So, I have to admit that lately I have a ridiculous obsession with diagraming things. It started with the hierarchy of expat needs, but now I think of at least ten diagrams a day. I diagram the thesis of a conversation in my head, whenever possible.

I've also been making a lot of color work knitting charts, so I found the strange need to use something equivalent to MS Paint to edit them. I find myself being a self-righteous Mac user, the kind of person Lisa and I vowed never to become all throughout college. But here I am. And as someone who grew up with Windows 95, I knew that everything I needed to do could be done simply in MS Paint. So I downloaded a shareware equivalent for Mac and now... behold the diagraming.

We start off with the old favorite: The Venn Diagram. John Venn, I thank you for your contribution to humanity. My favorite mental Venn diagram lately has been related to how much it sucks trying to learn another language as a native English speaker. There are two things that make English, a language for which orthography is so arbitrary we might as well make it pictographic, a fairly easy language to learn to speak: we don't really have cases or genders for nouns. This means that whether a noun is a subject or an object, it's usually the same word. The bird runs. I eat the bird. Same same. And while we may assign gender to specific (and generally sentient, ships be damned) nouns, these don't affect how we match them with adjectives. I eat the tasty male bird. I eat the tasty female bird. The bird is tasty. Same same same.

So far, I have not studied a language with this ease of use. They all require that when pairing a noun with an adjective, I properly match the case, gender, or both. If I had to pick which, case or gender, was easier to learn, I'd definitely pick gender as there is a maximum of three, double that for singular and plural, and you've got six possible ways to end a word. So, Spanish, your bubble is definitely the easier of the two in this mix. Finnish, while it has an exciting lack of genders even in the first person singular pronoun that makes all of us queermos jump for joy, requires that I decide before placing an ending on restaurant whether I am going up to (but not entering) or going inside of said restaurant. Cases, you are the bane of my existence. I submit. But now, the double whammy: matching case and gender. Latin and Czech, for this reason, are actually more difficult to some extent than the infamously impossible Finnish. I have to decide not only if I am going to be in or at the restaurant, I have to remember if it's a boy, girl, or other.

Trying to learn languages from this perspective makes them all feel impossible. I curse them for having cases and genders, when really, I should be cursing English for its simplicity. Why oh why did I have to grow up speaking such an easy language so now these concepts which exist in most languages are so foreign to me? I might lament. But I wonder what it's like from the other side. I know from experience with English language learners that they do want to gender nouns in English, "The restaurant, she is so nice!" But what I don't know is if you grow up with cases, do you want to say "I will meet you in the restaurant-u"?