When the alarm buzzed at 6:20 a.m. the other morning, I went down to prepare coffee and steel myself for the regular morning madness. As I drew the curtains, I was startled by an unusually bright morning light. Instead of eating breakfast in the accustomed wintery darkness, we sat warmed by the pinky, orange sun shooting rainbows of light onto the dining table. Although there was still snow on the ground in spots, it was clear that a seasonal change was underway.
In response to the first glimpse of early spring sun, Radek got out his ladder and took down the outdoor Christmas lights. Samuel happily rediscovered his outdoor playhouse that had spent the long winter under the terrace. And I took the sunshine as a sign to set off on a 16 km run through the woods to Roztoky and along the Vltava. The wooded path was a mix of melted snow, deep puddles and thick mud, but that didn’t stop a few other runners, a couple of bikers and some adventurous families from traipsing through the slushy mire. The creek babbled fiercely and the post-snowy ground revealed small, green shoots and fresh foliage. Spring was on its way at last.
After living through nearly a decade of Prague winters, I’ve come to notice that Czechs greet spring with an enthusiasm usually reserved for special occasions, like weddings or the birth of a child. As winter layers are shed in favor of lighter jackets, and woolen hats are exchanged for thinner, cotton caps or headscarves, Czechs seem to similarly shed their winter reserve. On the way to and from picking the children up at school, parents that had walked past me silently in the snow now greeted me with friendly hellos. Longer days also means more time to dawdle outdoors, and we parents have started chatting outside the school while the children run circles around us.
One of Anna Lee’s classmates tilted her face toward the sun and spread her arms. “It’s time to dust off the terrace furniture and sun ourselves,” her mother commented with a smile, “won’t you come over for a coffee?” Now that the wind has lost its winter bite, so have the inhabitants of this country (myself included), I mused.
My feelings echo one American photographer friend’s response to the ongoing seasonal change. One March first, she posted a picture of light shining through her balcony door with the caption, “Finally.” A day later, she posted another picture of the first green shoots with the caption, “Hope.” Her third exclamatory post spoke for itself: “I’M WEARING SUNGLASSES!” Another friend remarked that after a January with only 20 hours of sunshine, wearing her sunglasses in Prague was a genuine treat. I couldn’t figure out how to verify the hours of sunshine reported in January, but it doesn’t really matter. I share both of my friend’s joyous attitudes toward the recent spurt of sun.
From late-October to mid-March, when the sun’s not shining in Prague, it makes even the short winter days drag on in a gray haze. Everyone seems a touch grumpier. In fact, SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects millions of people world-wide. Interestingly, more women, especially between the ages of 20 and 40, suffer from SAD. While I wouldn’t claim to have suffered from clinical SAD, I do know that getting through the winter days in Prague seems challenging ever year. My energy level is low, and it’s hard to stay on task when all the days seem to run together in gray monotony.
With spring’s welcome light comes increased outside activity. Just watching the sunrise in the morning makes me itch to get Samuel into his outdoor clothes and to go explore our garden for signs of spring. One day, the temperature reached 12C and the sun shone brighter than it had in months. I shed my winter coat in favor of a heavy sweater and vest, and Samuel and I headed for the woods. We watched ducks returning to the thawed pond and saw several mothers pushing strollers along the path. Drier since the weekend, with almost no trace of leftover snow, the path had gotten its own new lease on life. Children on bikes and scooters rode up and down its muddy length and a fisherman had set up just off the path at the far end of the pond.
Later that afternoon, the children in our neighborhood lingered on the street as they walked home from the bus stop, calling to me to see if anyone was at home to play. When Anna came home from school, she rushed to change into sweatpants to go out and swing before we had to leave for gymnastics. She swung and then rode on her scooter so long that we arrived late to gymnastics, but I figured the dose of sunshine probably did more for her mood than arriving on time.
After his morning outside, Samuel fell asleep in the car on the way to gymnastics. I parked the car along a gravel road that runs above the train tracks. Enjoying the silence and sunshine, I sat and idly studied the passersby. A few weeks ago, it would have been dark by that time, but although the air was brisk, the sun was shining. Four teenagers dressed in black walked by, laughing and joking. A man dressed in a blue workman’s jumpsuit stopped by the tracks for a quick pee. A few dog walkers passed on the grass beside the car. Then I saw her.
She was little, bent, and walked with a crutch. Despite the crutch, she walked determinedly, past the car and onto the uneven grassy path. Like the teenagers, she headed toward the trees and the train tracks beyond. With her winter bonnet and dress coat, a red skirt, nude hose and high boots, she made a funny picture hobbling across the train tracks on a path that seemed more appropriate for wayward teenagers’ afternoon ramblings. She was carrying two shopping bags and was clearly on a mission.
As she passed the car, I noticed her bulging shopping bags were filled with long, thick branches of pussy willow. The branches stuck out from the top of her bags, freshly cut, with gray, fuzzy blossoms, like kitten’s fur, just begging to be touched. I watched as she gingerly shuffled across the tracks and up the path on the other side. Her quiet determination epitomized for me spring’s slow, but persistent, arrival in Prague. It’s not time yet for the flashy shows of spring flowers or the hot sunshine that will follow in May and June. But keep your eyes open, and you may see the unlikely.
I woke Samuel and we went for a walk before picking up Anna. The sky was darkening and a chill had fallen, but there was still the hint of spring and, I hope, a tentative promise of sunshine for tomorrow.