Apart from exchanging the obligatory “dobrý den” with the moms at school or neighbors out walking their dogs, I haven’t had any new encounters for months. My daily routine, while pleasant, is primarily comprised of a series of ordinary moments. Sometimes, I forget that I’m raising my family in a place that is so far from where I grew up. My roles and responsibilities probably wouldn’t be much different regardless of where my family was to live. Our life here has settled into a pattern that is reassuring, even if it lacks the excitement of the unknown.
When we lived in the city, I used to have more regular contact with strangers. Occasionally I’d meet a fellow non-Czech settling into life here and we’d strike up a conversation. Talking with others in a similar situation gave me a chance to reflect and look at my life from another perspective. Learning how other non-Czechs came to call Prague their home is always a topic of fascination for me. So, it was with marked interest that I agreed to meet up with a friend of my mother’s cousin who’d recently arrived in Prague. A few months ago, I’d given Karen what little advice I could via email, but my memory of being a young, new arrival in Prague was foggy.
When Karen contacted me after her TEFL course had finished, I was eager to meet and see how her first impressions of Prague compared to mine nine years ago. I could tell from her emails that a lot had changed, at least technologically. When she told me she had Internet in her apartment, images of traipsing to the center to check email at Bohemia Bagel or the Globe flashed through my mind. Those Internet cafes provided the only real connection to my family back home, but were also great places to meet up with other English teachers and to share experiences. I wondered where the aspiring-TEFL teachers communed these days.
Karen agreed to meet me in Dejvice, since I had to squeeze our rendezvous between the children’s morning preschool and Anna’s afternoon dance lesson. When I arrived at our meeting point five minutes late, I was pushing Samuel in his stroller, while trying to explain to Anna, who was also pushing a sleeping Oliver, why we were going to have a chat with someone that we didn’t know. I was sweating and a bit grumpy. When I saw Karen from a distance, I watched her reach into her handbag and check her phone, probably wondering where we were. She seemed remarkably unencumbered and free. I realized, in an instant, that once upon a time, I’d been a similar girl.
After we’d exchanged introductions, my initial question, rather inane, was, “How do you like Prague?” Expecting to hear about Prague’s architectural beauty or the thrill of navigating the narrow, cobblestone streets, I was surprised to hear her reply, “It’s been an intense week.” Karen’s training program had ended, along with her temporary housing, and she’d been simultaneously looking for an apartment to lease, applying and interviewing for teaching positions and trying to make sense of the regulations pertaining to work permits and visas. It didn’t take much imagination to put myself in her shoes. Yet, I also envied her adventure, the freshness of it all and all the open possibilities. We chatted about potential work and about visa issues. Apart from suggesting a few leads regarding employment, I mostly just listened.
As we sat in the park, Anna would run back to check on us or to get more snacks. She’d found a playmate at the other end of the square near the children’s equipment, and we could hear them shouting in Czech back and forth. Overhearing Anna switch languages, Karen exclaimed, “that’s so cool,” and we began to talk about the amazing linguistic abilities of children. She was also interested, as I had been when I first arrived, in finding a position working with children. I remember some of the first Czech words that I learned to use regularly had been from teaching private lessons to young children. Playing simple games with the young students had opened the door for a back-and-forth language exchange that proved nearly as useful as my weekly “survival” Czech class.
After an hour of visiting with Karen, we said our goodbyes. The children and I continued to Anna’s dance lesson, and I assume Karen went back to process of sorting out the bits and pieces that might enable her to build a life in Prague. In between the stress of apartment hunting and job searching, I hoped she was also enjoying the thrill of getting to know a new city and a new culture.
Shortly after my arrival in Prague I’d received an email from my mother with the contact of an American woman who’d married a Czech and lived in a village near Prague. My mother had gotten the contact from a family friend at church. The family friend sang the woman’s praises and said how happy the woman was living in the Czech Republic. Among my initial emails searching for a job, I wrote to the woman. Never getting a response, I let it ago. Soon enough I found a job and had started to settle in on my own. Looking at my own busy life as a mother of small children, it was easy to imagine how the woman could have been too busy with her own life and forgotten to reply. It didn’t matter.
When I received the first email from Karen, it made me feel as if I were the lucky one. I have no illusions that I really gave Karen much useful advice; honestly, she didn’t seem to need it. I believe, given a little time, the uncertainties of her new adventure will begin to fall into place. Our brief chat gave me the chance to step back and reflect on the turns my life has taken thus far. And meeting someone new simply brightened my spirits. Apart from feeling rather old in comparison, I love the idea of the cycle of life and sharing experiences. Perhaps someday one of my children will be the newcomer to a distant city, and they’ll have an unfamiliar contact to look up. I hope they’ll have a pleasant chat ahead of them.