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Many happy returns

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We had a warm and wonderful Christmas in America. We kept ourselves busy, surrounded by family and friends. Subsequently, the return back to Prague was, surprisingly, a bit of a shock for me. I noted the change in atmosphere as soon as we stepped out of the airport; the damp rain, and an indescribable, but notably different smell to the air. The month away had also let me temporarily forget how the Czech service industry still lags behind other western countries. The woman who filed our missing stroller report didn’t really seem to care whether we got our stroller back. I reminded myself to take it easy and give my travel-weary nerves some time to regenerate.

Anna and Oliver had other troubles on their minds. Coming home from the airport, Anna gave an exasperated sigh. “We’ve got to start speaking Czech again, Oli,” she said to her brother in all seriousness. “We’re not in America anymore.” Oblivious to his sister’s distress, Oliver kept watching the planes out the window and asking in English when we’d be going back to Grana’s. Returning to Czech preschool helped smooth the kids’ adjustments, although I overheard Oliver saying “thank you,” instead of “děkuju” to his teacher a few times without even realizing his mistake.

I spent the first week post-journey in a jet-lag induced stupor. Our Christmas holiday had been filled with the usual joy of my family and seasonal traditions, as well as a fair amount of unexpected excitement. We experienced an ice-storm that knocked out the power at my parents’ house for two days. This also happened to coincide with the European winter storms that twice delayed Radek’s travel plans to meet us. Instead of being able to fly through storm-ravaged London Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, Radek was eventually rerouted through Switzerland. Although it doubled my drive time, from 5 hours to 10 hours, to pick him up at an airport farther north, I was nonetheless delighted that he’d managed to make it at all.

While Radek was still in the Czech Republic, he kept asking me how the children were doing and if they were fitting in with the other American children. It hadn’t occurred to me to notice, but as far as I could tell, there wasn’t much of a difference between our children and their similarly-aged American playmates. Mostly, my kids were blown away by all the American cartoons at my parents’ house, including a Cat in the Hat series and a new dinosaur show. My brother remarked how funny Oliver sounded sometimes when he used English prepositions in a Czech manner, such asking if we were going to go “on the party” instead of “to the party” or if we were “laughing to him,” instead of “laughing at him.” But I thought Oliver too, fit in for his age.

Spending Christmas with my family was particularly special this year because Anna Lee, Oliver and my nephew are all at the age when everything is still magical. To capitalize on the magic, my mother booked tickets for a Polar Express train ride in Bryson City, North Carolina, modeled after the book by Chris Van Allsburg. On the hour-long steam engine ride the children drank hot chocolate and ate sweets provided by dancing attendants. We sang a repertoire of Christmas carols and listened to the story read over the intercom. Half-way through the ride, when we reached the “North Pole,” Santa stepped aboard the train and gave each child a bell, just like in the story. As we drove back to our accommodations for the night, a sleepy Anna remarked, “Mommy, the North Pole isn’t so very far away after all, you know, because we weren’t on the train for so very long.” I just nodded in agreement. I had loved watching Anna sing the Christmas carols with such gusto. She, on the other hand, had relished receiving the special bell from Santa. On the train she seemed so at ease you would have believed she had lived in the States her whole life.

It was refreshing to see my children engaged in activities that I had enjoyed from my childhood. Our favorite week-time activity was going to the public library on Wednesday mornings for story hour. Although story hour was canceled due to snow one week, when the children’s librarian saw that Anna had come to do the program, she gave her one-on-one instruction on making a reindeer ornament. Both children loved selecting new books each week. I was blown away by the variety and quantity of material available. When the librarian asked me what I missed most about living abroad, besides being away from family and friends, without hesitation I said that we missed having such an extensive children’s library. Later she mentioned that a relative of hers was moving to Prague to teach English, and I was delighted that someone I knew, even abstractly, was setting off on a new Prague adventure.

Growing up I had also attended Sunday school. This year my mother took Anna Lee, who enjoyed learning about the Christian Christmas traditions. She was also very proud that her birthday was the same as baby Jesus’. Interestingly, a family friend at Sunday school had recently traveled in Vienna and brought back a “devil” made from prunes that she’d gotten in her shoe on December 5. This prompted Anna to tell the children of the Czech tradition of Mikuláš. It was a nice moment of cross-cultural sharing.

Now that we are back in Prague, it has taken me some time to mentally get used to the quietness. I miss having my family around to help with the physical aspects of raising three young children. But it was particularly nice to be able to share the holidays together. With our family recharge time, I know that we’ll now all have a bit more energy going into 2011. I am also grateful that our international travels went as smoothly as they did. Despite Oliver’s protests to the contrary, I’m glad we don’t have to get on any airplanes for the next few months.

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