Is there ever an easy way to leave friends and family? Even though Prague has been home for years, my last few days with my family in Virginia are always emotional. Amidst the packing and the sad goodbyes, I squeeze in last-minute trips to the bank or to Wal-Mart to buy American-styled school supplies, just for fun, and the special floor cleaner that I can’t find here. I take the children swimming as many times as possible, even though there are thunderstorms each afternoon. We drive 10-minutes from the outdoor pool to the indoor fitness center where we wait out the storm in the locker room, so they can have a little more time splashing around with their cousins. We have nothing as convenient near our home in Prague, so we make the most of the opportunity.
Twice my mom and my sister-in-law take the three oldest grandchildren to children’s theater performances Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After the shows, the boys jabber about the chocolate “spies” who moved like evil superheroes in the dark across the stage while Anna relates her delight at eating lunch post-show in the adjoining café beside one of the actresses. She shows me an iphone picture and recounts part of their conversion to prove it. I’m sad to have missed the show, but when the phone rings announcing an impromptu visit from an out-of-town cousin, I’m relieved that I’ve packed at least two suitcases for the trip back and can take a time-out to enjoy her visit.
Although the chaos of our final days in the US is overwhelming at times, I know we’re making memories that’ll last us until the next visit. Two days before we fly home, my second-cousin drives two hours to meet us at the local park where her two children join my children and nephews to run laps from the playground through the dense rhododendron bushes pretending to be pirates and spies while the adults chat. The boys discover the nearby lake and take turns spitting into the water to see if fish might appear. My cousin brings a high-school friend that I haven’t seen in years, and later in the afternoon my mother stops by with my 90-year-old grandmother who sits in a chair at the playground’s edge and remarks how big all of the children have now gotten. She fondly nicknames Samuel, “the least one,” and he gravitates toward her, calling her “Mamaw” and pulling on her hand to go exploring with him.
The children have as hard a time as I do saying goodbye to our life in America, and I tempt them with mentions of going camping in Český raj and seeing their neighborhood friends back in our village. Anna’s motivated by watching gymnastics on the Olympics and looking forward to her first overnight week of gymnastics camp in the Krkonoše Mountains. Meanwhile Oliver is eager to show his father his new fishing skills. His fishing obsession began in the first days of our visit at the beach in South Carolina where we happened upon some fishermen who’d caught a baby shark. Oliver got to hold the shark and then watched as they removed the hook to release him. After that, my father took him for several trips locally and remarked that from baiting the hook with a worm to reeling it in and trying to remove the hook, Oliver was a fisherman in the making.
Of course, the biggest motivation to leave my family in the US is our return to Radek himself who’s been waiting for two weeks to see us. Still, we only reluctantly say our goodbyes. In the local campground, Anna made a new pen pal from Hot Springs, NC that she promises to write and Oliver agrees to color a picture for her friend’s younger brother. Their mother once had a German pen pal, so she’s keen to try the cross-cultural exchange, but warns us that if we don’t write back both she and her daughter will be gravely disappointed.
Once aboard the Air France flight to Paris, we have trouble checking our umbrella stroller at the gate and must let the stewardess mark it for our final destination in Prague. With a one-hour layover in Paris and a long walk to get to our departure gate, I can feel my nerves starting to fray before the plane even takes off. But we settle in and the children do their best to play their roles as international travelers. With headphones firmly inserted, they scream requests at me, drawing a few looks and one sympathetic smile from a French mother who’s traveling with her two much-older French/American boys to visit their Parisian relatives. “Been there, done that,” she remarks and reminds me that it’ll get easier, citing that her 17-year-old eldest had flown with his cousin two weeks ahead to spend more time in Paris.
As the noise level from our row rises and falls throughout the eight-plus hour flight, we attract the attention of three young Frenchwomen in the row behind us who order bottles of red wine and mixed drinks, even once the lights are dimmed for sleeping. Samuel, apparently also unaffected by the dim lights, begins to play peep-eye with ladies. When he finally falls asleep an hour before the plane makes its 6 am landing, his cries of distress upon awaking too soon elicit a flutter of condolences.
When the plane lands late in Paris, we race through security and customs to walk/run to our connecting flight. With less than 45 minutes to make the flight and three jet-lagged half-asleep children, I’m at the point of breakdown. Weighing 16 kg, Samuel is a chunk of a two-year-old to carry, so I’ve bought a monkey backpack with strap which we leash on at intervals to help us move faster. With Samuel trotting ahead and Oliver holding the leash, we draw a few quizzical looks from passers-by, but I’m more anxious to get safely to the next plane than to care how we look. At one point, I ask an Air France representative at a ticket counter if she can let me know if our plane has left, and whether it even makes sense for us to keep rushing. She stares back at me blankly, but when we finally reach the tiny gate reserved for the flight to Prague, they seem to know we’re coming. The gate has already closed, but they call to the plane and agree to let us board. Once seated, the children beg for the toilet and glasses of water then settle into a contented daze. By the time, we land in Prague they’re as excited to be back as I am.
Later in the afternoon on the day of our arrival home, our neighbors build a bonfire in the empty lot and we meet to grill buřty, a typical Czech campfire meal, and share stories of the summer. The buřty, short, thick sausages, sliced crosswise on both ends before roasting are left to cook until grease drips from the meat and the slightly-blackened ends curl up. After a few minutes of holding the roasting skewers, the children scamper off to play in the grass around the fire pit, and we devise a make-shift apparatus that roasts several buřty at once, leaving our hands free to cradle mugs of Pilsner beer that the neighbor has brought from the keg on his terrace. Although I’m too jet-lagged to have any alcohol in my system, spending the evening listening to Czech banter around the fire rounds out our return home. I know it’ll be a few days before my tongue once again cooperates to form Czech sentences, so I’m grateful to listen.
Once the meat is finished, Oliver runs home and brings back a bag of America marshmallows to liven up the evening’s food offerings. While he and Anna Lee debate the correct procedure for a perfectly-roasted marshmallow, I look at our house across the empty lot and feel a deep sense of gratitude, for the summer we’ve just spent in the US and for the graceful transition back to our life in the Czech Republic. Later, we’ll look through pictures from the summer and recount our favorite moments, but for now, it’s enough just to have my family in one place again and to enjoy a summer evening with friends.