Saturday, 26 July 2014

Thankfulness for my Czech home

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
22 November 2013

In conjunction with the American holiday of Thanksgiving, the month of November is often used as a time of reflection to innumerate all the things one is thankful for. With Thanksgiving coming up this Thursday, I’d like to take this opportunity to note the things I’ve come to be thankful for over the last six years I’ve spent writing this Half-n-half column. When I first started writing the Half-n-half for the Prague Monitor in 2007, I could have never predicted that I’d still be writing today. In the first months after starting out, I was surprised to have found enough themes to keep me writing through that Christmas. From time to time, readers and friends have asked me where I come up with the ideas for the weekly column. Mostly, I use my family's experiences, but I also owe a great deal of credit to the feedback from my readers.

Over the years, I've explored a range of topics that have to do with the melding of my two home cultures: Czech and American holiday traditions, aspects of Czech culture, parenting and educational trends. I've dabbled in writing about Czech politics. Experiences with Czech rules and regulations have prompted stories about driving abroad, insurance for foreigners and visits to the foreign police. From my husband's family and our Czech friends, I've gotten ideas for stories about Czech cooking and drinking habits. Topics like nudity, spa culture and how love is expressed have emerged as a result of my own interactions and experiences. Columns on Czech appreciation of nature and the outdoors reflect my observations and participation in year-round sporting activities. I've written about language acquisition in a blended family many times.

Traveling back and forth between two cultures and continents always provides plenty of fodder for reflection. The process of writing Half-n-half has in itself been of greater importance than anything I've actually written. I'm grateful to my readers, who over the years have engaged me in dialogues and discussion. Sometimes I get emails from other foreigners living in the Czech Republic on how they balance their own half-n-half life here. Other times, I hear from readers abroad who've visited the Czech Republic or have ancestral roots here and want to stay engaged with the country and its traditions. Occasionally, there are practical questions from new arrivals to the country about how to arrange insurance or how to apply for a rodné číslo. I've been asked by food aficionados for Radek's babička's recipe for svíčková. Alternately, readers have written in with their own cooking tips, such as which chocolate bar makes the best chocolate chip cookies. Readers have given me food-for-thought for future columns, and helped validate, as well as to question, my observations about life in the Czech Republic.

The stories my readers have shared with me have been woven into the fabric of my life. My very first reader-response came from Jason in Dolní Bevča who wrote me about his family's Halloween celebration. Instead of a simple door-to-door trick-or-treating experience, to Jason's family’s surprise, they were invited in for a lengthy visit at their Czech neighbors complete with food and shots of slivovice. In a later email, Jason taught me the expression štamprle, which means a shot or a jigger. He was the first non-Czech to clue me in to the culture of drinking as a village pastime, and the first American I've corresponded with who can claim to have burned hruskovice (a pear liquor) in his kotelna, a typical Moravian tradition. Since I was living in an apartment in Prague's Zizkov neighborhood at the time, I didn't realize how insightful his village observations would prove.

Then there are readers who, as parents of bilingual children, have written in with their own observations and experiences with language acquisition for bilingual children. There was Jason the Slovakian, who wrote me in response to an article about cooking traditions. He told me about his two-year old daughter, who was learning to speak in both Slovak and English and could already distinguish the difference when she heard French or Spanish phrases thrown in. Another insightful and hilarious set of correspondence came from a reader and mother of four, Anna who moved from England to spend a year in a village near Brno so that her children could connect with her own Czech/Slovak heritage and learn to speak their mother's mother tongue properly. She wrote a popular guest column detailing her experience of going shopping for food on public transportation with her four small children. Her children managed to not only survive, but thrive in a culture so different from what they knew back in England. She also gave me an extensive list of recommended English-language reading for my own children. In response to my article about the Czech tradition of adding an "-ova" to a female surname, I was introduced to a female journalist from the Czech weekly Tyden who was also writing a piece about the "-ova" tradition. She ended up interviewing me for an article on dětské koutky (children's corners) in shopping malls; dropping a child off to play while parents go shopping was normal to many Czechs, but I still had my reservations.

There have been many other readers whose wise observations have touched my heart, I wish I could recount all of them here. But I also want to stop and reflect on a few of the small reasons, in addition to my faithful readers, that I'm happy to be living here in the Czech Republic.

1) I get to wear slippers at work. The Czech habit of indoor and outdoor clothes and shoes, means that even within offices and schools, employees often have the option or obligation to take their shoes off. While at first I resisted the slipper requirement for teachers at the Czech elementary school where I'm teaching, I've quickly gotten used to slipping into a pair of comfortable Birkenstocks. Even at home, as is common in most Czech homes, we leave our shoes at the door. It makes for easier clean up and keeps stomping to a minimum.

2) Overnight and weeklong school field trips are a routine part of Czech public school education. I'm grateful that my children have the option of going for a week-long trip to SVP (school in nature) or ski-training school, to take regular walks to the local library, to ride public transportation to visit the local university for science fairs and to sleep overnight at the school with their homeroom class. It took some courage on my part to let our children go on their first school overnight. However, giving children independence and responsibility early on is a part of Czech culture that I've been glad my children can experience.

3) Police officers use tranquilizer guns and not lethal ones when possible. Just this week, I read an account of a police officer shooting and injuring an eighteen-year old boy who had started a fight with a shop owner in Prague's main train station. The report described one shop assistant with a bloodied face and the boy as being under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. One tranquilizing shot was fired. No one was killed and both of the injured parties were taken to the hospital. An investigation is underway as to whether the policeman fired his arm with due cause. This is in sharp contrast to reports I've read of recent gun use by police in the US.

4) When my husband pays me a compliment, I know that he really means it. Czech culture isn't big on flattery and complimenting for no reason. I may not hear praise often, but I can be certain that when I do, it's earned. In the past, parents weren't known for praising their children for their efforts, but only on their merit. There weren't medals given out for participation, although this approach is changing with the times. I use effusive praise with my own children, and when questioned, I can always excuse myself as being an over-eager American mom.

5) It's okay for boys to wear tights. Tight-wearing is a common practice among the preschool set from early fall through late spring, regardless of gender. In a country where boys are still told by their parents and school teachers not to cry, because crying is for girls, I'm kind of tickled at seeing all these "manly" little boys running through their preschools in tights.

6) I get to meet new people whenever I'm willing to make the effort. From my experience, despite their more reserved exterior, Czechs are genuinely curious about other cultures. Whenever I go out of my way to give a smile or start a conversation, it's usually well-received. My mother wins the prize for her outgoing friendliness on her regular visits to Prague. Many Czechs, whom I only know in passing, still remember meeting my mother with fondness. I am trying to follow her example.

Thank you, once again, for helping me continue to share Half-n-half stories, and for helping me find my home in the Czech Republic

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.