by Sadie Dickman
In a country where ‘no’ means yes and ‘scvrnkls’ is a word, communication doesn’t always go smoothly.
If you asked
I’ve stopped telling people I stayed at an orphanage in the Czech Republic. “Dětsky domov” translates literally into “children’s home,” which is a much more fitting description of the place. So, were you to ask, I’d tell you that about 30 kids live at the dětsky domov in Kašperské Hory. I’d tell you that most of the kids are not orphans, and that they don’t live all together, but rather that they are divided into little families. Each family has three or four caregivers, called tetas and stredas (aunts and uncles) who rotate caring for the kids. I’d tell you that the kids from each family live together, eat together, play together, and share a room like real brothers and sisters. I’d tell you that they have a big backyard with a playground and even a little swimming pool. I’d tell you all these things, but even then you wouldn’t really understand how non-Oliver-Twist it really is. You’d have to visit.
If you did visit, you’d see that the dětsky domov is not a sad place, although some of the kids ended up there for sad reasons. As you walked through the halls, you’d see brightly colored paint and framed artwork the kids made. You’d see shoes strewn across the floor and you might wonder exactly how it is that the aunts and uncles successfully get so many kids fed, dressed and off to school in the morning. Were you to eat lunch with the kids as I did, you’d notice that the food is remarkably good- homemade pastas and dumplings and beef with gravy (although I never got used to the Czech habit of eating spaghetti with ketchup). But I think you’d get the best sense of the place at night, right before bedtime and after the older kids help the little ones change into their pajamas. If you peeked into the living room around 9:00, you’d see them all watching TV, curled up together, some falling asleep already. If you visited.
Jessica and Dominika
Seven kids live in Skupina 3 at the Dětsky Domov. Among them, though, Jessica and Dominika are real sisters; they share the same dark hair and eyes and a bedroom. Sometimes, when their aunt lets them, they push their two twin beds together to make one big bed.
Once, I peeked into their room to ask if the girls were interested in making bracelets from colored embroidery thread. They tried to explain to me that they had to go clean up the family room first. But, because neither knew the English word “clean,” we were forced to communicate largely through pantomime. Jessica first acted out cleaning herself. She rubbed her hands in her hair, up and down her arms and legs. I asked her if she had to take a shower. Perhaps Dominika and I could make bracelets in the mean time?
“Ne.” This wasn’t it.
In a revelation, Jessica remembered the word “sitting room,” so I pointed at myself “me?” and to the family room “sitting room?”
Finally, Dominika pantomimed cleaning the bedroom – making the bed, dusting the shelves. Finally I understood. The girls must do their chores before we play. We quickly decided I should come back at eight (“me tady osm.”)
We repeated this dance when I returned at eight. I tried to ask the girls if they had homework. Czech words that would have been useful in this situation: homework, work, worksheet, essay. Quasi-applicable words I actually know: škola (school), zítra (tomorrow)… and I can pantomime writing. Needless to say, this was not sufficient and where Jessica and Dominika had recently succeeded, I, an ESL teacher, failed. I left to go look up “homework” on the Internet.
Discipline in Czechlish
One place I find drastic cultural differences between Czechs and Americans is in the classroom. Czech children get away with a degree of misbehavior and disrespect that would earn most American students a trip to the principal’s office. This sets up quite the challenge for the visiting American teacher who is unfamiliar with the students, the classroom, the routine and, perhaps most damaging, the language. They tell me that one of the most important things a language teacher can do is to prepare ahead of time word-by-word instructions for the class activities. And I’ve learned that one of the most important things a language teacher can know is that regardless of how much you prepare, shit happens.
I prepared an activity one day for the third grade class that required all the students to get out of their desks and sit together on a rug in the back of the classroom. I had forgotten that sharing the rug with the students would be about 40 stuffed animals and 10 giant pillows. I soon found myself facing a dilemma: how to get the 9-year-old class clown to relinquish a stuffed giraffe and sit quietly when I am unable to talk to him? I can certainly talk, but I long ago learned that talking and communicating are very different things. However, if I have learned anything from the children at the Dětsky Domov, it’s that it is possible to communicate all sorts of complicated ideas through gestures alone. I gently grabbed the boy’s arm and tugged the giraffe from his hands. Maintaining my grasp on his arm, I helped the boy to his feet and directed him quickly and quietly to his chair. After he sat down, I pushed my finger to my lips. “Shhhh.” Turning back around, I was surprised to see the surprised looks on the children’s faces. It was as if no child, no matter how unruly, had ever been dismissed from an activity before. After he sat silently for several minutes with puppy-dog eyes while the other children played a game, I gestured for the boy to rejoin the class.
Sušice / Šumava
Even when I am alone, everything I see speaks about the character of this place. Some things whisper. The roofs and doors and telephone poles are quietly different from those at home. Laundry peeks out from balcony railings, silently and subtly suggesting something about the lifestyle of these residents.
Other times, things shout. Workmen with heavy machinery repairing broken cobblestone streets yell about the intersection of past and present and the value of the city’s heritage. Mullet-sporting and dreadlocked men and women positively scream about differences in fashion and aesthetics.
I venture out “into the woods.” I expect the woods to be anonymous. The signs and the streets and the doors and the dogs that give away the city are absent from the woods. Nothing screams. And yet even in the woods, I know I am not home. What gives it away? Something here still whispers… the tall trunks of trees and disposition of the light filtering through and the makeup of the carpeted ground whisper of the Šumava and of Bohemia.
I spent some time in a Czech hospital during this trip, thanks to my buddy, ruptured appendix. In the hospital, I pray a bit. I’m lucky; I rarely find things bad enough to pray about, and I’m not religious, anyway. My prayers are more of a way to hedge my bets than a true expression of faith. Like, if there is someone listening, it won’t hurt to ask.
My prayers in the hospital begin the same way they always do. “God, if you’ve got time, I need some help. First, save the starving kids in the world and the victims of war and rape and murder (I think mostly of Africa, at this point), cause they need your help way more than I do. But then, if you’ve got time, please don’t make me have surgery. I’m really scared, and I’m alone, and I really really don’t want to have surgery. Please, just make it be really bad food poisoning or something.”
I can say with certainty that this is the only time in my life that I have begged for food poisoning. It’s funny, because I sort of imagine god having a stock of miracles that he can grant. If he uses them too quickly, or on the wrong people, that’s it. No more miracles until tomorrow, and the last thing I want is for him to use a miracle on me when he could have used it on some sick kid somewhere in the world.
For four and a half days, I lived in the women’s surgical ward (chirurgicke ženy) at Strakonice Nemocnice. I left once to walk to the instant coffee machine in the hallway. The hospital was dated, but clean. Each of the rooms on my floor held two to four beds, and each had walls of a different color. I stayed in what I’ll call the green room, but when I hobbled through the halls during my recovery, I also saw the yellow room, the purple room and the pink room. The green room held four beds – mine was the only one that didn’t have a view of the t.v. I figured this was fitting, since I was also the only one in the room who couldn’t understand what the hell was being said, anyway.
The first two days after my surgery, I was allowed to consume only čaj, which translates literally into tea but is so fruity that it is basically the Czech equivalent of fruit punch. The third day, I got kava, Czech coffee that tastes oddly like Ovaltine and Folgers mixed together. The fourth day, I was allowed to eat, which was a curse in disguise, for hospital food consisted of what may have once been rice and meat but was now mushy white stuff and mushy gray-ish brown stuff with some sort of sauce-ish stuff on top. I ate bread and butter.
I talked to almost no one during my hospital time, save the occasional English-speaking doctor. When my friends visited, I talked a bit but mostly they talked and made me laugh, which hurt, but in a good way. The nursing staff communicated to me by means of the Czech-English dictionary on my bedside table. Occasionally, a nurse would pick up the book and flip slowly through the pages, questioningly asking “today… walk?” This was, I knew, not a request but a demand; the questioning tone simply signified her doubt about the foreign words. The following is all the hospital Czech I learned in return:
bolest n. pain
inject n. injection
I didn’t talk to my roommates, either. Our conversation was limited to a polite “dobré ráno” each morning, and perhaps “dobrou noc” as the light was turned off each night. After the daily visit by Steve and my wonderful friends, the youngest and friendliest of the three roommates sometimes caught my eye. She said “kamaráda” and then stretched her mouth into a wide American-style smile and pointed at it, and then at me. I smiled and nodded in return. Normally, I would look eagerly at this as an opportunity to begin a conversation with a willing Czech participant. We would exchange a few words loaded with meaning, and I might learn some new Czech. She might ask me about New York City or George Bush, and we might touch on my appreciation for Czech beer or discuss the difficulty of the Czech language. In the hospital, though, I felt totally apathetic toward my kind Czech roommates who flashed me furtive smiles each time we made eye contact.
Once, my visitors delivered to me three drawings made by kids from my family at the Dětsky Domov, thus sparking the most extensive conversation with my friendly roommate. Soon after they left, I caught my roommate’s eye and gestured toward the pictures. “Dětsky Domov. Kašperské Hory,” I said. She gingerly made her way to my bedside table and picked up the folded collection of pictures. As she leafed through them, a small Czech-style smile unfolded across her face. She called over a nurse and showed her the pictures, telling her (I believe) that I was staying at the Dětsky Domov. They managed to ask me how old the kids were, and I managed to answer. “Tři” with a gesture signifying someone low to the ground and then a flash of 15 of my fingers to signify the age of the oldest children. The nurse and my roommate seemed satisfied with my answer and turned their attention to the rest of the items on my table. As they leafed through my things – the photos and letters from my friends in a language they couldn’t understand – I sat back and watched them and, despite being in a hospital rather than on a proper vacation, and despite the fact that I still couldn’t get comfortably out of bed, I was content.
My belly isn’t mine. It belongs only to itself. It’s swollen and tinted orange from some cleanser used during the surgery. Dotted across my stomach are three tiny blue-green dots, carefully concealing – no, protecting – three tiny surgical scars. Thick black stitches jut out at ugly angles. I guard my abdomen carefully (belly seems like too personal a word), yet it sometimes betrays me with brief, angry pangs when I twist or bend inappropriately.
The rest of my body has remained loyal. My legs feel lean and strong; they long to get out of bed and back into the woods. My hair, despite going several days unwashed, falls coolly and carefully around my face. My toes are pink and round, my skin, a healthy, radiant olive brown.
I forget about my unhappy abdomen. I relish in the “mine-ness” of my body.
My belly and I don’t so much long for the woods themselves – the trees and rivers and big black slugs – as for the temporary home I’ve found in Kašperské Hory. The little town is so enclosed by the Šumava forest that it feels as though the town couldn’t exist without its guardian trees. Were the woods to begin to crumble and collapse, the town would surely disintegrate as well. The cobblestone streets would crack and split and the steeple would fall from atop the pink church. The fountain would fracture in half, and its water would drown the museum and the grocery store. All the beer taps in all the coffee shops and bars would bust open, spewing amber colored pilsners and deep, woody černý pivos from open pipes.
The first time I met Luboš, he wore sunglasses. Mara must have arranged the meeting – coffee at the only coffee shop in town. But, I couldn’t see his eyes, and so it wasn’t until the 2nd time I met Luboš that I really started to like him. His eyes communicate so much about him. Deep and brown and warm and sexy and sparkling and mischievous and inviting. He invited us everywhere – our unofficial tour guide.
A bunch of us visited St. Mikolaš church in his old Subaru (quite possibly the only one in CZ) in the rain. Luboš had to make special arrangements with the caretaker of the church because it wasn’t open to the public. When we arrived, he collected a large set of skeleton keys, and we ducked in the darkness of the 14th century chapel. Inside, we wandered, mouths agape at the quiet ancientness of the place. Luboš blew across the pipes of an old disassembled organ and they sounded with a hollow, low resonance like when you blow across the top of an empty bottle.
A few weeks later, too soon after I left the hospital, I found myself following Luboš, Heather, Maya, Jane, and Zdenda (Todd’s host brother) up a hill through the forest. The forest around Kašperské Hory sparkles. I don’t mean this as a metaphor for the magical aura the forest has… it literally sparkles. There used to be a glass factory in the area, and as I heard it, the factory blew up, scattering glass everywhere. As I walk through the forest, I alternate between looking upward at the high canopy and down at the ground beneath my feet, scavenging for glass.
In addition to glass, the ground holds another curious secret. The area is riddled with old mines. Sometimes, the entrances run horizontally, and you can explore their creepy dankness with a flashlight. Other times, though, they drop straight down through the hill on which you stand, or they hide behind a giant boulder.
We soon arrived at a whitewashed church with a creepy secret. Next to the church is an ossuary, where bones from the surrounding graveyard are placed after they are exhumed. Though, the term “placed” indicates too much care – the bones are tossed into huge wooden bins where they lie intermingled with hundreds and hundreds of other human skeletons. We’re not sure why or when the bones are dug up, although Prof. Sternfeld and I developed two competing theories. Either the families of the unfortunate dead ones failed to pay rent on the graves (a common requirement in Europe) or the cemetery simply has a policy of exhuming skeletons after a certain number of years to make room for new graves (which is common in some countries, like Switzerland).
Luboš didn’t always take us places, though. Maya and Todd and I often visited him in his office. We sat at his desk and listened to Gnarles Barkley and drank Turkish coffee. We showed him pictures of Salt Lake – “This is my dad, my dog, my house in the winter (“So much snow!”), my favorite bar (“You look drunk”). He grew up in Dlouha Ves (long villiage), a nearby small town. So, like many Czechs, Luboš was a mine of local information. He knew the best bars and restaurants and who owned them; he knew which was the oldest church in the region and where the oldest bell was housed; he knew hiking trails, the caretaker at Kašperk Castle, the best Czech food and music. Best of all, though, he knew Czech. Of course, we were in the Czech Republic, so most everyone knew Czech. But, unlike the others, Luboš was as interested as we were in talking about language, rather than just talking in a language. He constantly had questions about English slang and how to use it and was very handy at translating menus. Our last night in town, he taught us the longest word in Czech (which I can by no means remember) and a Czech adjective with no vowels (scvrnkls – meaning something that has been knocked over or pushed down). This was his final parting gift, and with an awkward hug, we said goodbye to our fleeting friend.
Nikola and I sit at the kitchen table in Skupina 3. I listen as she talks between big bites of the poppyseed cake we are eating for dinner. She’s just finished telling me that when she was little, her mom and dad and a doctor gave her three surgeries – one on her legs, one on her feet, and one on her heart. I know about the surgery on her heart because she lifted up her shirt and drew an imaginary line down her chest and then made the shape of a heart with her two hands.
Now, however, she is asking about my recent surgery. She asks me in Czech to see the bandage on my stomach (“Prosiiiim”), and when I say no she plays me like a harp and switches to English. “Pleeeease.” Her two hands are pressed hard together in front of her as if in prayer. A little bit of poppyseed cake flies out of her mouth, but her ploy works. I relent and lift up the hem of my shirt.
My belly looks a mess, I know, because I’ve just spent the morning looking at it in the mirror. Low down, I’ve got two scabby soon-to-be-scars dyed blue by some antiseptic. The incision in my belly button is covered by a large, thick bandage that juts out obviously beneath any shirt I try to wear, and the skin around it is red and irritated thanks to the surgical tape that stuck on it. Nikola stares for a moment at my stomach. She reaches out with one hand and strokes my arm one time. “Iloveyou.” She doesn’t know exactly what it means, only that it means something nice, and she says it as if it were all one word. Then she sighs, sits back, crosses her legs and her arms and shakes her head softly as if to say “I’ve been there, man. Surgery’s a bitch, but what can ya do?”
I imagine her look on the face of other, older people. Men and women who sigh, sit back, cross their arms and shake their head. Maybe they even say “I’ve been there, man. Surgery/war/gettin’ laid off at the plant/fightin’ with the wife’s a bitch, but what can ya do?”
If you asked
If you asked, I’d tell you more. When I’m traveling, even the most mundane things seem to be worth talking about. I’d tell stories about napping by the river, grocery shopping and sitting in a field with Todd watching the sun set and the bats come out. I’d tell you about playing ball, campfires, towers of books; kissing a boy in Prague and 75¢ ice cream cones and drinking whisky in the rain.
If you visited, you’d see much much more. You’d see the pink church and the black beer and the green woods; a big welcome and a small piazza and a long sense of history; hundreds of dreadlocks and thousands of cobblestones and dozens of knedlicky and maybe one bearded mayor. Small, Czech-style smiles.
Hopefully, though, what you won’t see is the inside of a hospital.