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Half-n-half: Old toys, timeless fun

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Since January I’ve been taking Anna Lee to a Czech pre-school (školka) for a couple afternoons a week. Although our search to find an open spot in a Czech state školka never proved successful, I did mange to find, through a friend’s recommendation, a Czech children’s center that functions as a private školka. It was not my first choice, mainly because of the timing (only a half-day afternoon spot was available), but the location is ideal and Anna seems to enjoy herself there. Plus, she’s getting a taste of the školka structure she’ll hopefully experience next school year.

The smoother Anna’s adjustment to the new school, however, the more forlorn the 10-minute ride back home had become for Oliver. Certainly, I’m happy Anna is having a chance to experience school culture and becoming more independent in the process, but this means I’m left with a sad little brother who points at her empty car seat and shouts emphatically, “Anna” and “olka” (his version of školka) all the way home. When my kids are at home together, they’re constantly playing fairytale make-believe games or setting up Legos. Anna is the mastermind behind their games, and Anna’s absence is painful for Oli.

On one recent afternoon, the skies were gray and the early January snows had melted, turning our road into a muddy slip-in-slide. It didn’t seem like the right day for the playground, and I didn’t feel like running any of the errands on my to-do list, so I decided we would check out a museum in Roztoky. I’d seen the Středočeské museum’s sign back in the summer when we biked through Roztoky a couple of times, but I’d never stopped to go in.

When I lifted 20-month Oliver out of the car, he seemed surprised that we weren’t at home or at Tesco and squeaked “walk, walk.” As soon as it became apparent that his wish would be granted, he trotted off down the sidewalk, grinning in delight. We went through a tunnel toward the museum’s entrance. Oliver headed straight for the grassy grounds surrounding the chateau that housed the museum. Before we could buy a ticket for the exhibition, he led me through the small park, tugging my hand to point out a few still-frozen puddles. When his hands turned icy from picking up pebbles, I guided him toward the cafe/entrance.

In the cafe the barista gave Oliver a Lotus wafer and wished us a pleasant tour through the exhibits, promising to give Oliver another wafer when we returned. I had a few reservations about taking my active, babbling toddler through the museum, but I figured I’d risk it since one of the main attractions was a wooden toy exhibit.

As it turned out, in the separate salons we entered, we were the sole visitors. Each exhibit guard we met greeted us pleasantly and seemed genuinely pleased to have a distraction from reading the paper. In every room, Oliver returned the guard’s welcome with his version of “Ahoj!” and a cheerful grin.

When we entered the building with the wooden toy displays, the guard gave me a stern lecture about not allowing Oliver to ride any of the antique wooden rocking horses or sleds. However, after he finished lecturing, he then kindly pointed us toward the back of the exhibit where a square carpet held modern versions of the rocking horse, wooden cradles and dolls. There was even a coloring table with worksheets for older children to color in an antique doll or soldier, and a few black and white pictures of famous Czech artists as children playing with their toys.

I expected Oliver to enjoy the play area, but instead he was fascinated by the intricately carved, brightly painted miniature wooden farm displays. He “oowed” and “ahhed” at the wooden doll and toy cradle displays, but he kept returning to the glass cases which housed the farm animals. Here Oliver stood agape making “baaa” sounds at the sheep and clicking his tongue “clock-clock” for the horses. He paid particular attention to one miniature house/barn set up where a donkey was positioned with its head sunk deep into a mound of hay. Oliver “clocked” to get the donkey’s attention and no matter how many times I explained that the donkey wasn’t alive, Oliver persisted as if he believed the donkey was only seconds from turning around to greet him.

Only with the utmost determination did I finally persuade Oliver to leave the toy exhibit. The toys were so finely carved and carefully painted that I couldn’t imagine how parents in previous times actually let children play with these pieces of art. The life-size toys, such as the rocking horses, sleighs and doll cradles, were masterfully carved and beautifully painted in a vibrant array of traditional Czech colors.

When we left the wooden toy display, we headed next door to visit the baby carriages and cradles. In addition to baby carriages and cradles, the room was also filled with baby dolls, old-fashioned clothing, and a few household and children’s clothing magazines. I was awestruck by the baby carriages, which looked a lot like armored tanks with their heavy, boxy frames held up by rail-thin wobbly tires. Many of the carriages still had their original bedding (thick comforters color-coordinated to match the carriages’s exterior frame), and it was interesting to note how the styles and shapes of the carriages differed. There was one massive stroller for dvojčata (twins) that was by far the largest baby carrying contraption I’ve ever seen. I used to think the modern-day strollers were a mother’s fashion statement, but these carriages took that assumption to the hilt.

Less than impressed by the carriages, perhaps because he still has to ride in one, Oliver was more willing to leave this display and head toward our final stop, the first-floor of the chateau, where we found two large rooms filled with different nativity displays. With their animals and stable scenes, Oliver was again entranced, particularly by those which had realistic-looking animals. We moved from one nativity to the next amid Oliver’s exclamations of “ook” (look) and “other” (another) or “este” (ještě or “more”). He babbled back in forth in English in Czech, making animal sounds in both languages, much to the amusement of the guard. When I finally realized it was nearing time to pick up Anna Lee, we went back to the café so Oliver could earn his promised Lotus wafer.

We found the kavárna nearly empty except for a table with an older Czech couple, with whom we struck up a conversation. The couple were grandparents to a little boy Oliver’s age who was also a member of a multi-cultural family. Although they had their grandson along for the afternoon, he was asleep in his stroller outside the cafe window, so Oliver didn’t get a chance to meet his potential new playmate. In the end, we ended up exchanging mobile numbers and agreed to meet up for a playground visit once spring arrived.

I held Oliver’s hand as we left the museum and headed back to the car. Both of our moods had improved and I was grateful that we’d made the effort to try something out of the ordinary, just the two of us, while Anna was at school. Visiting the museum with Oliver had been a treat, particularly watching the pleasure he got from each new discovery. Meeting the new playmate had been another bonus, which reminded me that doing something non-routine can sometimes have even unexpected benefits.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please comment below or write to [email protected].

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