Reader Anna Fronková shares some stories from her Half-n-half family settling in the Czech Republic.
My young family and I, without my English husband, came to Brno in August with a determined plan for the children to learn to speak Czech. To the average reader, this might appear a bit nutty so I suppose I should explain why we came to this country in the first place. My Czech father and Slovak mother had recently returned to Brno after 25 years in Scotland – thus a fantasy started to blossom in my mind: why not take our kids away from England for a few years, so that they can once and for all learn to speak my mother-tongue properly? Why torture them in England with muddled Czech lessons when they could learn the lingo quickly and have the lifelong experience of living in a different place?
Some of you “Half-n-half” mothers might also have experienced this innocent fantasy when pregnant with the first child: “This little darling will speak three languages and ski like a babe…what a good mother I will be! Every morning I will sit the little sweetheart down to a Czech lesson, a bit of German perhaps too…”
Yes, indeed…I stuck to this plan only haphazardly with the first child and when number two came along, I was happy just to be able to blurt out essentials in English. By the time I had number three, I think I had lost the ability to connect the mouth to the brain, and after child number four…well, I was just a fruitcake for a few months – no speech came out, just streams of unintelligible nonsense and screams.
So project “Children to learn Czech” was sadly put on the back burner and it might have stayed that way had we not pulled ourselves together after the chaos following the birth of the kids. Within a couple of years, we were once again coming out regularly to visit family here. With each visit, I got progressively angrier with myself for not teaching them this fabulous language. They could not communicate with prababička (great-grandmother)! And they could not utter a thank you to tetička (auntie) when she brought them cakes! They could not sing the nursery rhymes, they could not go to ski-lessons, they could not ask for a drink, and never mind the stress on me having to constantly interpret for the four of them and my husband! But my family loved them! They indulged them with their overwhelming generosity and cursed me for being a bad mother and letting the language disappear! “Is this what the English do? How arrogant!” they bristled openly. Oh, how I had neglected my responsibilities!
Bad mother? “Yes!” screamed a voice in me. “Now sort it out!” So I did. My English husband Jeff frowned a bit at first, but eventually concluded that it be for the best, as it would allow him the opportunity to do some much needed reconstruction on our wreck-of-a-house in England. Apart from the necessary internal rebuild, I figured with nobody to distract him, he might also finally get to the dripping roof!
So, we have been here about six months so far. Let me tell you how I am getting on. I would tell you about the kids, but intelligent people know that kids survive and pick up the language like they do a virus. So they are fine. They miss dad madly, but Skype (with videocall) has helped. But me! Hey ho! My domestic pressure cooker is pitched pretty much permanently at a boiling point. I know plenty people have to survive life like this, but single motherhood with four kids is just not good fun. Plus, having no car and living an hour out of Brno is crazy. My romantic illusion of village life was insane, now that I’m experiencing the reality.
Take something simple like food shopping: I have to get on a train and then on a tram, with four young kids, a suitcase and a backpacker’s rucksack. Ridiculous as it seems, the suitcase and backpacker’s rucksack are a-must for all the shopping; the alternative would be 70 plastic bags. People must think we are travelling across Europe with all that luggage but no, it is just maminka doing the shopping. With four English-speaking, blonde kids, I am a walking spectacle. People stare at us, just to make the time pass. I can see bewilderment in their eyes as they notice leeks emerging from my backpack. And when the tram jolts violently, as it is prone to, these poor fellow-travellers often witness further amazing feats – like flying cauliflowers out of my rucksacks, as I try to save a toddler from being flung out of the window.
I know I shouldn’t moan about public transport. At least the rollercoaster ride is always on time. But in the determined haste to keep to the timetable, I have to suffer regular near-death situations!
Another example of chaos in numbers is swimming lessons, which are also in Brno. Even readers with less than three kids know that it can take hours to prepare the bags and provisions needed for a day on the town. Bread must be cut, buttered, ham has to be sliced, tomatoes chopped, jam spread, and the eggs, good energy boosters, must be boiled. All this Tupperware snapping can do one’s head in. On swim lesson days I also have to pack five swimsuits, five towels, five goggles, five bananas, five bottles of water, five chocolate bars, one portable Playstation and game, two coloring books with crayons, and, perhaps more importantly, the kids’ homework. Also needed is one dictionary to deal with homework involving Czech theory, my mobile phone, tickets, keys and my purse. Then, before we go, all children must queue to visit the toilet. Only after that can snowsuits can be zipped, hats tied down and if possible, matching gloves found and put on. The kids usually get hot at this point and little sweaty hands are particularly difficult to deal with. Then I need to lace up five pair of walking boots – that is 10 individual laces to tie in double knots! Of course I try to delegate jobs to the older kids, but such “project-management” can be more tedious than doing the job myself.
Last week I excelled so much in telling the kids what to do that I did not manage to do my own job. I left the swim suits basking on the radiator, instead of packing them into my bag. So imagine the kids in the changing room, standing in a line, naked and awaiting their swimsuits while I looked and looked and searched and searched my backpacker’s rucksack, but to no avail. The swimsuits were 40 km away. Drat! All that stress! All the way into Brno for nothing! I had to break the terrible news, “Sorry, no swimming today children, mum forgot the swimming suits. Get your clothes back on.” It was a statement that caused 5-year old Betty to burst into tears. She asked me if I was stupid. The correct answer would have been “Yes, I am stupid,” but instead I gave her a very stern look while my brain tried to work out what to do.
A rapid-fire of ideas came into my head in this order: 1.Run away. 2.Be brave! Face the scary monster of a teacher and tell her I forgot essentials and ask if we can all swim in our underwear. 3. Or better yet! Ask the receptionist to borrow stuff from the lost and found box.
Oh, the looks of contempt from the pool staff! The swim instructor asked if our underwear was clean! If so, she reasoned, we could swim in underwear, but it would be better if we were to get swimsuits from reception. I doubted that other people’s forgotten swimsuits would be cleaner than our underpants, but never mind.
The selection from the lost and found box was grim. Betty had to swim in age 8-10 boy’s trunks. This was a bad start as she is a pink girl and dislikes boys and boys things. My youngest boy Alex, age 3, had to swim in age 6-8 trunks. Anya, age 9, had to wear a lady’s size 12 swimming suit. And Tom, age 8, ran away, deciding to swim in his very clean underpants.
As for me, I’m a sturdy, big-boned traditionally build central European woman, but the best I could find from the box was a size 12 swimsuit. My dear daughter Anya had left the modern option of the two size 12s and had escaped to the pool before I realized. My suit had this stylish big hole at the front, where my loose tyres of a stomach hung through. The top was so small, it chopped my chest in half; I did not even look at myself before running out to the pool hall in a flurry. Later the swim instructor, I think admiring my four breasts and four buttocks exclaimed, “Oh! You managed to stuff yourself into that then, did you?” When I finally got out of that contraption of a swim suit, it had tattooed marks on my skin that remains for over an hour.
On top of everything else, I also had forgotten shampoo and a comb. We had to use plain soap out the bathrooms to wash our hair. With no comb, our heads were mangled mats which took some doing to untangle when we got home. But we survived!
Human will should conquer all!
And I will continue to survive I suppose. Just a little complaining here and there as a sort of therapy. I’ve resolved to remain positive. Only 19 days until my husband Jeff comes for a two week visit! With two parents around, all these tasks should be a breeze.
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. We welcome your feedback, please comment below.