Monday, 23 October 2017

Settling into autumn (on two wheels)

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
29 September 2017

Embracing the changing season

My hands grip the handlebars while my legs spin. I am heading toward a short (but steep) rocky hill on the wooded trail above the village of Úholičky. I need a burst of power to make it over the roots. When I crest the hill, I will weave my way through scrub bushes and scraggly pine trees before I head deeper into the forest. I can see my breath in the crisp air. It is late September, but there are leaves on the ground. Fall is coming.

I pass a runner heading in the opposite direction. Although it is customary to say, “Ahoj,” in the Czech Republic when you greet a fellow biker (runner or boater), this morning my energy is focused on the hill ahead of me. A nod is all I can muster. After successfully climbing the hill in the dry, summer months, I have slipped twice today. My feet have come unclipped, my bike wheels have spun out of control, and my forefingers have pressed down too hard on my brakes. So far, I have avoided tumbling, but I am getting annoyed.

The ground beneath my tires is damp and covered with leaves. The earth is moist and rich. I hear the plop of acorns as the wind shakes them loose. I scare birds as I ride past, and I see a mouse dart into a grassy mound. I should be rejoicing that my work schedule allows me this freedom for a mid-day ride, but instead I am spinning. Even on the inside.

In the weeks since school has started, my children have settled into their school year rhythm. Snack boxes and drink bottles are remembered (more often than not), homework is completed, books have been paid for. They are gradually adjusting to the demands of sports practices, music lessons, and (for the older two) navigating public transportation on their own when their days end before I can pick them up.

As each day draws to its close, I kiss them goodnight and watch them snuggle under blankets that spent the summer balled up because it was too hot for covers. Unlike my children, who seemed to have accepted that summer is over and autumn has begun, I am fighting the urge to settle.

Autumn is the hardest time for me in my adopted homeland. As the days grow shorter and a thick, grey layer of fog blankets the fields and hillsides near our house, I get restless. Despite the beauty and the abundance of harvest time – the reds, oranges, and yellows of the foliage, the richness of delicacies like roasted duck, pumpkin soup and apple strudels, and the sharp, nostril-burning smell of wood and coal fires – I am caught off balance.

While my soul would like to pause, to take a breath, and absorb the changes I see around me, my body (and my family’s lifestyle) tends toward continuous motion.

To date, our September weekends have been spent traveling (mostly on bike) around different regions of the Czech Republic. Along with biking the single trek trails in Nové Město pod Smrkem in the Jizera Mountains and gathering mushrooms with babička, we have ventured to Moravia, Southern Bohemia, and will soon visit Czech Switzerland. By now, I feel like a poster child for Czech Tourism.

In Moravia, we stayed in a restored vinný sklep (wine cellar) and biked a triangular path through the region’s vineyards. We caught the wine harvest in the tiny village of Hlohovec, toured the Baroque riding stables at the Lednice Chateau, and drank sweet, yeasty local burčák (young wine). We pedaled past fields of grapes, piles of hollowed out pumpkins, and stopped at every playground we saw. In Valtice, we witnessed dýňobraní (pumpkin harvest) and accidentally became participants in an international bike road race when our bike trail crossed the racepath. (Luckily, the lead cars scooted us onto the sidewalk before we got trampled.)

In Southern Bohemia, we combined baseball and biking. While 10-year-old Oliver played in a tournament beneath the Hluboká Castle, the rest of our family biked along the paved Vltava River cycle footpath toward České Budějovice. We saw hunters shooting ducks in the nearby pond and sampled sour apple cake at a riverside café. When we tired of biking, Anna climbed a ropes course, Samuel collected nuts, and I tried to explain the rules of American baseball to my Czech husband (for the hundredth time). Other families rollerbladed, gathered mushrooms, or rented scooters to pass the time between the baseball games.

There is something to be said for being a traveler in my adopted homeland with autumn on the horizon. In the past few weeks, I’ve tasted three varieties of Czech pumpkin soup – a thick, salty version with duck liver dumplings, pumpkin soup seasoned with yellow Indian curry, and spicy Thai pumpkin soup with red curry, coconut milk, and shrimp. I’ve learned new rules about baseball, and I’ve gotten to see a few more of the country’s magnificent castles.

After staining a load of laundry rusty-orange from the chestnuts left in my sons’ pockets, I realize that checking pockets before doing the wash is a necessity. I know to pack rain jackets (even when the forecast shows sun) and that children on-the-move need frequent snacks.

So many of the activities associated with autumn in the Czech Republic are beautiful in their simplicity – gathering mushrooms in the forest, making stick animals from chestnuts and toothpicks, and biking through the woods as the trees and bushes lose their summer fullness.

But, as I’ve packed and unpacked our large purple duffel and kept the washing machine in perpetual motion over the past few weeks, I’ve felt off-balance. Like I am competing in a race that I can’t possibly win, but knowing that I won’t be satisfied by simply finishing.

This weekend, we have planned a trip to Czech Switzerland (also known as Bohemian Switzerland) to hike (and bike) among the region’s sandstone rock formations, like its famous Pravčická brána, the country’s largest naturally formed stone bridge. The region is one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic, and we have rented a cabin with several other families. I’ve got my wicker basket packed for mushrooming, and after this ride, I had planned to load my bike into the car.

When I slip a third time, I am so frustrated that I hop off my bike and start to walk it up the hill. Then, something stops me. Even as I tell myself that it’s the wet trail that won’t let me climb the hill, and that I should just walk it up, I make myself turn around once more.

I pedal backwards on the trail for a minute. Then, I turn around and position myself for the approach. I clip my shoes into my pedals. This time, I don’t speed up when I get to the hill. I don’t look down at the roots and rocks. I look straight ahead and keep pedaling. Steady. Over the leaves and through the scrub brushes. I crest the hill.

At the lookout point, the fog has lifted and the sun is out. It is time for me to make peace (one pedal stroke at a time) with the new season.

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.