Every fairy story needs a forest. It’s the untamed space, the protector of all possibilities and impossibilities. In Bohemia you really can ride through the forest and happen upon a castle; in spring every forest is enchanted. Birds, flowers, and hundreds of shades of green let you lose yourself, forgive the world a little for winter. I stay with Alena during a one-day school break, the equivalent of Labor Day. During our short bike ride (short bike ride in the Czech Republic = roughly 10k) through nearby villages, she points out huge piles of wood, tree branches, and even old furniture in the middle of a field. “Today is Witches Day,” she explains, the night for burning old brooms and symbolically banishing the spirits of winter. Some children are even in costume. As we cycle through a stretch of private forest, Alena points out a herd gathered at the other end of a cleared pasture. “White deer,” she explains. I thought white stags were mythical creatures that granted wishes when you caught them. But here they are, a whole herd of wishes caged in and waiting patiently.
The soul of the Czechs is in the forest. Extensive climbing, biking, hiking, or skiing are routine weekend pastimes; folk songs and even the national anthem praise the beauty of forests and village life. Though the communist collectives put an end to the patchwork of small village farms, every family has some kind of cottage, be it only a small shed or a trailer with a garden plot on the edge of town. The forest is guardian of a long, proud, heartbreaking Czech history, not to mention their wealth of songs, stories, legends, and heroes. Through centuries of losing and finding themselves, the forest is a wild place that keeps them safe.
The Czechs love their land in a very literal, tangible way. Spending the day in Alena’s village, I see residents on their knees in every yard caring for extensive gardens. Czech cooking staples are hearty vegetables that can be stored, dried, pickled or preserved: potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, celeryroot, beets, and cabbage. They appear most regularly in soups, an essential part of every Czech lunch. “I feel like a witch when I’m making soup,” Alena once told me. Just a few weeks into the season, her orderly furrows already boast thriving sprouts of tomato, peppers, garlic, onion, and parsley. In the farmhouse built by her grandfather, only a refrigerator and electric stove supplement the original kitchen furnishings, including a large wood-burning stove and an abundance of beautiful old dishes. Seeing both her kitchen and her garden, I think she could hold her own against any witch’s caldron.
Witches and gardens make me think of Rapunzel’s story. After stealing cabbage from the witch next door to satisfy her second-trimester cravings, Rapunzel’s mother gives up her child in exchange. But no one rescues Rapunzel from her high tower, instead she escapes out of sheer lovelorn desperation, jumping out the window into a thicket of thorns. It takes ten years of wandering orphaned, homeless, blind and alone before the fortunes of fairy-stories consent to reunite her with her prince. There’s no princess and no hero, only tears of joy after suffering and searching so long. You can almost forget the witch and her garden. You can almost forgive what your mother did to you, for cabbage.
The Christmas holidays are long gone but I’d like to share a little about living with nuns. They really are great people, full of lovingkindness and mercy unto the stranger and alien among you and all sorts of virtuous stuff you only find in a King James Old Testament. I’m quite moved by how they go out of their way to talk to me and care for me—they really have made it a way a life around here. I wrote this way back at the beginning of December, and it seemed like a good time to share.
I could feel the quiet strength of the Advent message as we gathered around a room lit by a single candle. The words meant nothing more to me than the leaping shadows of the wreath in the center of the room, but I understood. She was asking us to consider what the Advent season means for us, to open our hearts for preparation. To listen.
“She talked about gifts,” a friend explained afterwards. “In the season of preparation, we can prepare ourselves not only to give to others but also to receive. To be open to what others offer us.” And I wanted that so badly. I spend so much time and emotional energy longing for love without opening myself to receive it. I unlock the doors to my heart but I leave them closed.
After the gathering was Convent Open House—the one day of the year when boarders are invited to see the nuns’ living space. This really challenged my stereotypes about nuns. Every room had a prayer corner with an advent wreath, but they also had plants sometimes, artwork, a few pictures, and always many books. Even living amongst them, I imagined them just praying all the time and thinking about God and feeding the poor. But they study! They read or make music or teach. One sister had a whole shelf of biology texts and reference books; many rooms had a Czech-Italian dictionary to help them work through some theological literature. I was very pleased to find many of my favorite C.S. Lewis books in the convent library.
Priorities here are unmistakable. My main criticism of Catholicism at large has been that it gets off-track from the essentials by elevating saints, doing penance, and going through the motions of rituals, but I’m the one who’s making too big a deal about these things. In this household, absolutely everything points toward worship, prayer, study, community, and service. And it’s not limiting like I imagined (“poor nuns, it’s a good thing they’ve got treasure in heaven because life here can’t be much fun”). With their individual and corporate life fixed on Jesus, they are creative, fun-loving, curious, adventurous, humble, and breathtakingly generous.
I finally asked one of them why she became a nun. When she understood my question she paused for a moment. “Inside,” she explained, pointing to her heart, “God calls me. I didn’t want to go. For two years I wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t even think about it. And then one day I really knew.”
I’m humbled again. Among my other nun stereotypes, I assumed desperation was always a part of a decision to take orders. Either running away from some aspect of life, or a dramatic conversion where one swears to devote one’s life to the church. Or that you get brainwashed or drafted into it as a kid, before you know any better, or you’ve run out of other options and at least you’ll have a steady job this way. I’m used to hearing about “callings from God” for ministry, missions, etc. But to be a nun?! I wouldn’t listen either! If God calls me to be a missionary at least he can change his mind after a few years! I don’t really hear about women leaving the sisterhood except for Maria Von Trapp and she clearly had a higher calling to make sweet German music with a family full of children.
Now don’t get me wrong, as of yet I’m definitely not called to be a nun. But I am called to give my best and my all to seek and serve my God every day for the rest of my life. It’s a full-time commitment and I’m only living it part time. I might have a prayer corner in my room, but there are a lot of other corners too. And the truth is that I’m scared of what I’ll miss out on if all of it belongs to God.
Prepare yourself, says the advent speaker. Open yourself to that which others would give to you. I want to say yes to the good things that God wants to give in every corner of my life, because good is the ONLY thing he gives me. That is who he is, all the time.
Can I prepare my heart this season to trust the goodness of his gifts? Can I be open enough to accept what he is already offering?
At my first Toastmasters meeting a few weeks ago, I was asked to give an impromptu Table Topics speech as if addressing a personified version of my native country. Sappy as it all sounds, I was surprised to find I had quite a lot to say:
They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and every time we part I find new ways that I love you. I’m so grateful for the ways you’ve helped me grow into the person I am today. I’m proud to represent you to everyone I meet here. And I love you, I really do love you, no matter what happens to you and no matter what you do.
That being said, please stop blowing yourself up. Seriously. It’s not like I can give you a hug, and I’m too far away to even come to the funeral.
Slow down, America. You’re running so fast you can’t even remember what you’re running after, or running from. Tell yourselves stories sometimes. None of us have very deep roots but that’s all the more reason to treasure the ones we have
America, be kind to each other. Your differences are precious, and the people who don’t agree with you aren’t half so stupid as you’d like to believe. Dish out benefit of the doubt like you’re salting the highways on a February morning in Michigan. Try to love yourself, even the parts that aren’t working so well as you had hoped they would.
Your beautiful forests, lakes, rivers, prairies, mountains, and coastlines need some care. That breathtaking scope of land, sky, and sea is yours to enjoy, but it really won’t protect itself. Take pride in how well you keep house. Try to breathe fresh air every day, and try to keep the air fresh for breathing later.
Make art, America. Build things with your hands. Sing along. You don’t need everything you buy. Practice generosity, especially with newcomers. Everything you have was once a gift.
You’re young, America, but you’re old enough to think about tomorrow. Take care of your community, value the elderly as well as the children. Cherish your family. So many of you wrestle with mental illness, it’s a crying shame we can’t talk about it. Look for truth, not just answers, and expect to be surprised. Listen to each other. Love yourself.
Carnival doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like the Catholic holiday for celebrating sin: if we have to be somber and penitent for 40 days we might as well throw a seriously secular party beforehand. Since most Czechs aren’t religious, they don’t recognize Lent or Carnival, but a Catholic school in an atheist country seems like a great place to celebrate BOTH!
At my school, this means a giant school-wide costume-contest-parade. Individuals, groups, and sometimes whole classes prepare costumes, march up to the main square of town, parade in a circle, and present to the judges who award prizes for the best individual and group costumes.
Since all this happens in early February, part of the trick is finding a very warm costume too; “cross-country skier” is a fairly popular choice every year. I think it’s especially fun for students to see their respectable professors in crazy costumes. The school principal, for instance, was decked out as a basket-toting village granny, looking like he’d stepped right out of a children’s fairy tale.
I was informed that the student government had picked me to be one of the judges, on a committee of teachers and students. The other teacher spoke good English, and had a large umbrella the judges could huddle under since it was snowing quite a bit. However, he was dressed as a Christmas tree, so we all had to look out for swinging branches if he turned to look at something.
What to wear to a school costume party? I lost a little sleep over that one, since I didn’t bring much costume material with me. But I had a big red silk bathrobe left over from Halloween, so I thought I could make something of it. I turned out “Vaguely Asian,” and felt a little uncomfortable just throwing together all my Asian stereotypes and calling it a costume. I just said yes anytime someone asked about my costume. “Oh, you’re Chinese!” Yes. “Oh, a samurai!” Yes. “Aha, a geisha!” Yes.
But my concerns about political correctness vanished when I saw a quarter of the graduating class sporting turbans and burkas. More than one terrorist also appeared that morning. All in good fun, I’m sure, but I was rather shocked. Needless to say none of them took home any prizes.
The word for Carnival in Czech is Masopust, more or less “meat” and “fasting” put together. So in that spirit, the grand prize is a pig head. Yes, a literal head of pig, apple in the mouth and everything. Second and third prizes are also smaller, less glamorous cuts of pork. This year’s winners included one of the smallest kids in school appearing as a smurf, a group doing great impressions of Czech presidential candidates, Gandalf with a few dwarfs, a class of dominoes that fell on top of each other if you pushed one, and a couple from “Grease” who are probably still recovering from frostbite.
At the end of the procession, we all got jelly-filled donuts, a very standard Czech pastry. We rushed back to school to thaw out, and just for fun I wore my samurai robe to all my classes.
Chipmunks are widely recognized among Czech teens as “the Hollywood animal.”
Nowhere to be found in the Czech Republic, and too ubiquitous in America to acquire much zoological or cultural significance, their only blitz onto the international scene has been through striking cinematic performances. One never sees a film chipmunk casually munching acorns in a park, no, the chipmunks of Hollywood have ambitions. They have aspirations. They expect attention.
So in class examples or student writing, it is understood that any chipmunk, no matter how humble its beginnings, can achieve fame and stardom in the big city if it works hard and believes in itself.
Because that, my friends, is the Chipmerican Dream.
Wednesday was Liberation Day here in Czech, celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. The Czechs are not especially patriotic people, so there was no parade or any sort of pomp and circumstance. Perhaps end of war and start of communism make this particular victory somewhat less sweet for the Czechs. However, it was nevertheless a beautiful spring day and a national holiday, so everyone headed outside. One thing I’ve learned gradually here is just how outdoorsy Czech people are. Long hikes, bike rides, canoe trips, or ski excursions are quite routine when in season, and it seems like everyone has some plot of garden to tend to.
But I spent Liberation Day picnicking with my dear friends near a small lake in the forest nearby. We enjoyed perfect picnic food, perfect weather, perfect company. I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon.
Maybe you’ve wondered what life is like as a Fulbright ETA but your attention span demands song and pictures and anecdotes of cumulatively no more than five minutes.
Well today is your lucky day.
For our Fulbright midyear conference, we were asked to prepare a five-minute photo slideshow from our first five months as English Teaching Assistants. The result seemed like an entertaining and fairly accurate summary of my life thus far here, so I’ve finally pulled together a recording to share with all of you. Enjoy!
I wrote this at the beginning of September, shortly after arriving in the Czech Republic. It seemed a little angsty to post at the time, but it’s interesting to read now. Maybe not everyone works like this, but it’s a pretty nice sketch of what happens to me when I uproot and start settling into a new place.
If you get the same illness often, you start to learn the signs early on. As a music student I obsessed over the tiniest dry spot at the back of my throat because even a common cold meant I might not sing properly for weeks. I always had ample medication on hand in case it got worse.
That’s how I feel about my current condition—culture shock, homesickness, jet lag, the sheer newness of everything mixed up together. I’m surprised how much of it is familiar, even though it’s been years since I went this far away from home. Most prominently it means emotional swings. With relatively little in between, I spend my days either through the roof with joy to be here or wishing I could just be home. Several times now I’ve heard an alarm-clock sound and thought, “am I going to wake up now?” Either because it’s too good to be true, or because the adventure was nice but I’m ready to cook breakfast in my very own kitchen.
There are other things that feel familiarly out of place—I spoke plenty of Czech today and now there’s fatigued muscles in my tongue, jaw, and parts of my face I never paid attention to before. A conversation that goes beyond small talk with anyone is a prize I would put up on the fridge if I had one. I think my dormitory and school smell like Spain, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the construction materials, the air, a little catholic-ness about it. I get tired faster and need to be alone, but alone-ness can be dangerous—solitude with relaxing music and a familiar book can be a recipe for homesickness.
With a thousand new things happening every day, my grey matter gets clogged with too many stories to tell. There’s no one I can tell everything to, but even as I do things and meet people, a corner of my mind is composing these experiences into messages or conversations to share with someone else. Sometimes I’m overflowing by the end of the day, and there’s simply nowhere to put it all. During my exchange year in Spain five years ago, I journaled obsessively and excessively, to the point of inhibiting meaningful interactions with real people. In retrospect I chalked this up to introverted homesickness. But I’m realizing now that, at least for the first few months, my writing didn’t stem from loneliness. There was just too much world in one day to keep in my own head. Sheer excess of thoughts to process nearly rendered me mute at times, and my journals served as a sort of external hard drive to make room for the next day.
So I know well enough to expect this all to stay the same, even heighten, in the next few weeks. When I’m feeling great, I enjoy it. When I struggle through Czech, I tell myself there’s a light at the end of the tunnel but I probably won’t see it for another month. There’s a lot of overhead that goes into strong relationships, and it’s exhausting to be friendship-building with everyone I know at once. But even when I’m wishing I were home, I try to experience all the emotions as they come while knowing they are both real and transitory. Just like in Spain, I write letters and sing old songs and slowly but surely make friends, but this time I’m not so whiplashed by mood swings that I’m scared to ever get pregnant.
I guess I have grown up a little.
I am rather ashamed of my blog sometimes. I write infrequently, I forget to take pictures, and the ones I do take rarely show up in my posts. In three months here, I have not given my followers much to look at.
Now I get to brag about my students. My sixth graders have started a pen-pal connection with a school in Houston. I have been looking for a way to challenge the motivated students in my classes, and they are all quite enthusiastic about their pen friends, so I invited them optionally and on their own time to make a blog post, video, or photo slideshow to share on our pen-friend blog. It could be about Christmas, school, our town, anything they want.
I didn´t get much response, so I figured they had all forgotten and I would have to try again after the holidays. But two weeks later I receive this beautiful video tour of Hradec Králové created and narrated by my students. The entire class got together in their free time to make this, and it includes pretty much all the important sites of our town. I more or less begged them to let me share it on my blog because it is so much better than anything I have put together. Plus this way you get to see my amazing students. If you had kids like this you would love teaching too.
Thanksgiving might be my favorite time to be an American. I can feel the MLK Day spirit, I get choked up at the national anthem on Independence Day, but how wonderful that before all this, before the United States of America was even a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eye, there was a celebration for giving thanks. And what a story to celebrate! This week I got to teach about Thanksgiving, and in retelling the story I realized anew just what strength and courage we honor in these humble American heroes.
The year is 1620. Enter 102 Pilgrims who’ve wanted all their lives to worship and raise their families without closed doors and hushed voices. Add 30 crew members and a traumatic 65-day Atlantic crossing. “The middle of nowhere” is an understatement to describe their landing site, and most of them do not leave the boat for another few months aside from some construction, scouting, and laundry.
Coincidentally, they have landed on an abandoned community’s already-cleared farmland, complete with stores of corn left to honor the dead. The starving Pilgrims are almost dead themselves, so why not help themselves, right? But sickness is rampant, leaving only half the colonists alive by Spring.
Grieving and desperate, they now receive the most impossibly unexpected gift. Their first native American visitor greets them in English, and soon they have a peaceful, cooperative relationship with their new neighbors (who were gracious enough to overlook the unscrupulous desecration of their burial grounds). Only with the help of Squanto and his kin do the Pilgrims gain the skills they need to survive and thrive in this New World. I can’t get over how bizarre this is. First, that Squanto even survives slavery in England and a return to his homeland. Simple European infections wiped out whole tribes of native Americans, but somehow Squanto lives in the Old World for years without contracting anything deadly. Then, he succeeds in returning to America, and happens to settle exactly where the Mayflower inadvertently landed.
The first successful harvest is more than sufficient cause for a party. The Pilgrims’ community is stable and growing, and by God’s grace they have received a better welcome to the New World than they possibly could have asked for. If that doesn’t call for pumpkin pie, I don’t know what does.
During my Thanksgiving lessons, I was surprised by how little my students knew about this holiday. “Turkey . . . ?” was the only concrete detail they could provide. In this way, it might be the most American holiday we have. There’s no way to commercialize and export it. No one but grocery stores, poultry producers, and gas stations really make much money off it. Even Hollywood hasn’t touched it much. And it’s so historically rooted that no one else in the world really wants it. I wish I could say that giving thanks, not just Thanksgiving, was an American tradition. But today I’m thankful for these American ancestors to remember, for a story worth retelling, and for one day marked on every calendar to practice gratefulness.