by Jane Bobet
I tried to keep my mind a blank slate before I traveled to the Czech Republic. I had certain expectations about the classes we would be taking from our University professors, because that was somewhat familiar territory. But I tried my best to keep my mind off the uncertain terrains of the experience: Czech language and my host family, mostly. It would have been an anxiety-inducing endeavor, trying to predict how these two unknowns would affect my experience.
I also made a conscious effort not to paint a mental picture of Sušice. Any images my mind would have fabricated in anticipation of living in a small European town would have been, first, mostly culled from Disney cartoons and romantic comedies shot in Los Angeles, and second, impossibly perfect and wholly unrealistic. Any real place, inhabited by flesh-and-blood humans who need things like umbrellas and toilet paper, would have fallen far short of my lofty expectations, had I allowed myself to indulge in daydreaming. So I didn’t, for the most part. I’m glad I made this choice, because the fact that I arrived in the Czech Republic with my mind as open and unprejudiced as I could make it allowed me to take in some small things that I might have missed if I were spending time adjusting expectations. And, most importantly, this decision meant that I was pleasantly surprised by many of my experiences during this program.
I was surprised by how much history influences the lives of Czech people. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many adult Czechs refuse to speak the Russian they were forced to learn in school under Communism. That’s quite recent. But events of centuries past still seem to inform many things here: Czechs and Austrians, for example, have been feuding for hundreds of years, and whenever Austria is mentioned today, twisted sneers are often seen on Czech lips. Last year, Czech and Austrian citizens took it upon themselves to block the countries’ shared border with their cars for several days. Both groups hoped this would protect their respective countries from the undesired influence of the other. Naturally, the Czechs I spoke to roundly affirm that Austrians started the whole business.
I have gotten along really well with my Czech host family, and have learned a great deal about the country’s history from them. The parents don’t speak English, but we have managed to communicate reasonably well. When we go on outings together, I am deluged with historical information: exact dates, architectural details, cultural context. I listen to their rapid Czech and wait for translation, with my patented bland, expectant half-smile. Most of our direct communication occurs via smiles and abstract clucking noises, alternatively affectionate and apologetic.
Through my host brother, official translator of our excursions, we maintain a more concrete dialogue. In this way I can understand the running commentary his parents keep as we drive through the many small towns surrounding Sušice. They point out the factory that made woodworking equipment until it closed in 1950, decimating the local economy; a border town that was exempt from taxes in the 1600s because its residents served as lookouts for the king (a fact its current occupants proudly lord over people in neighboring villages); the artificial lakes created as fish farms three hundred years ago, which supply hungry Czechs with their Christmas carp to this day.
Driving in the countryside near Sušice is an intense experience. The violent greens of pastures and forests seem almost impossibly vivid, and the vast fields of the yellow flowers used to make cooking oil and biofuel shock the eye. Split-log fences mark the occasional property divide, but the many cows are generally free to graze at will in this Enid of grass and dandelions.
This scenery makes my heart heavy; it makes me yearn for something I never lost. A part of me is hungry for this life. But I am brought back to earth by another historical tidbit from my “guides”: Rivalries between the tiny villages we pass can be fierce, even now. My host father, who grew up in Nezdice, was forbidden to marry any girl from neighboring Strašín for this reason.
After the second world war, many ethnic Germans living in what was then Czechoslovakia were forced to leave their homes. When the area’s new Czech residents found the winters too harsh, they left. The towns were then used for target practice, and many were destroyed entirely. Pictures from a valley from 1939 and 2005 show this backward progression: all traces of the civilization that thrived there seventy years ago have been erased. Grass grows thickly over what was once a road. Thousands of dandelions occupy patches of land once cultivated as kitchen gardens. Trees have sprung up where soil was once worked: cleared for farming and raising animals.
Residents of Sušice have been very welcoming of the group of Americans that has descended upon their town. I believe one reason for their hospitality is that it was American troops who liberated the city at the end of World War II. This first occurred to me when I met my host brother’s grandmother. She seemed to enjoy having me in her town, in her home. She was 15 when the war ended. She smiled gently at me as she recounted, in Czech, how the U.S. soldiers taught her to say “hello”, admired her blonde hair, and gave her her first taste of chocolate.
My host family, in addition to providing me a link to Czech history, was incredibly welcoming and warm. This was not exactly surprising, though I was glad to confirm that the impression I got from the emails we exchanged was correct. What was unexpected, at times, was the way I felt myself fitting into their lives.
I remember watching a Czech cartoon with my host family one night. It had no words, so everyone got the jokes at the same time: a treat I had taken for granted until we watched a subtitled movie together, my reactions occurring a few beats after theirs as I read the scrolling text.
My host mom piled me up with blankets and pillows, making sure I was warm and comfortable. She kept adding more, until nothing of me was visible but a pair of eyes and a few tufts of blonde hair. I struggled to breathe and to communicate my appreciation for a moment.
Another time, we were all out on a Sunday, exploring a nearby castle. They had been graciously showing me around all weekend, and I relished the opportunity to see everything they suggested. We were making the trek up the hill to the castle when I had a bout of sadness. I felt overwhelmed, trying to juggle assignments for Monday’s classes and time with my host family. And I missed my real family back in the States. I was mortified when I started to cry. My host parents were, of course, concerned, and encircled me in their arms, making soft, sympathetic sounds. We were communicating just fine then, and I felt truly looked-out-for.
When I finally calmed down enough to explain my breakdown (and to apologize profusely for it), my host mom had already gotten out her cell phone and called a friend of hers who spoke English and knew Steve Sternfeld. She was calling to ask her friend to tell Steve that Mrs. Muzikova did not appreciate him overloading her host daughter with homework.
A horrified look must have crossed my face. I was embarrassed enough that my host family had seen me lose control of my emotions; it would be too much for my professor to get yelled at because of it. I quickly got them to call it all off, but I did have to talk to the English-speaking friend and convince her that I was, in fact, perfectly fine, really, just having a bad day, and that there was no reason to lay the smackdown on Steve.
After the stress of the moment left me, I realized the humor of the situation. Then I began to appreciate the fact that my host parents were ready to spring into action and protect me from anything that might have upset me while I stayed from them: from excessive homework to boredom. This realization almost started me to crying again, but I managed to keep my cool this time.
I got fairly close to my host brother, Pepa, during the time I spent with him and his family. Just a couple of years younger than me, he was a good friend and an excellent source for information about all things Czech.
The first time I went out alone in Sušice, I got lost, and called him, upset that I would be late to meet his grandmother. He found me (only a block away from the apartment, which didn’t do much to lessen my embarrassment), and kept saying, “don’t cry over something so silly, it is no matter,” and patting me awkwardly on the back.
A couple of nights later, the two of us went out with one of Pepa’s friends. I sat across from the two young men in a pub, drinking beer and making conversation. Pepa’s friend asked me to teach them English swear words, and I was somewhat surprised to learn that they knew pretty much every one I could throw at them. “We have watched many American movies,” they said, and I set about trying to stump them, as if to prove my true mastery of the seamy side of English language.
The Pepa who wanted to know every bit of English he could is, not surprisingly, the same Pepa who already knew a great deal. He showed off his mastery of history to the whole group of American students one day when we were actually receiving a lesson from someone else. We talked at length about books he had read in English. I bemoaned the fact that I could not help him with his advanced calculus homework, and marveled at the gusto with which he threw himself into the work anyway. We discussed the minutiae of the English language for hours.
But, besides being a friend and a source for academic entertainment, Pepa was, on occasion, a little brother. He and his mother and I were walking up to an old mine we wanted to visit, when Pepa spotted a small snake on the trail near our feet. He picked it up and started coming at me with it, trying to scare me. After I got over my slight freaked-out, irritated feeling, I realized that this was, perhaps, the kind of emotion my older siblings had had towards me growing up. This was quite the realization for the baby of the family, and one I was not expecting. But at the same time I was filing away this revelation, I was realizing my place as Pepa’s American host sister. It was nice not to always be treated with kid gloves as a visitor, but to also be teased as a member of the family. It turned out to be a great moment—one that made me feel incredibly at home, like I really fit into their family equation while I was there.
I mentioned that the Czech countryside provoked an intense response in me. This led to another surprising revelation, more personal in nature than the last: I have been craving solitude, and I feel more self-aware.
In my first days with my host family, I had to focus on taking everything in: some things in the Czech Republic (especially the language, and even the way in which things are accomplished generally) are quite different than what I was used to as an American, so performing small tasks like buying tissues or sending a text message took on a new level of difficulty. But almost as soon as I had gotten on the plane to being this whole adventure, I had felt a sort of settling-in, and I even my inevitable awkwardness in life away from home didn’t overshadow that fact.
I believe I was somehow settling into myself. Settling into myself as the sort of person who is capable enough to navigate something so strange and different. Settling into myself as someone who is, in fact, genuinely excited to do so. Later, I settled into the idea that I am a person who enjoys being put slightly off-balance, out of my comfort zone.
I realized that a lot of the time, I just wanted to have the space to think and be alone. I wanted to think about these new perceptions of myself, but it wasn’t just that. I spent a lot of time reading the English novels I had brought along with me, including The Fountainhead, which convinced me to be less guarded in my journaling about the trip, and also that I probably don’t have the artistic vision to become an architect. I thought about the nature of Czech consonant sounds, and practiced the particularly difficult, tongue-rolling “scr” and “rzj” sounds under my breath. I walked peered at the tiny chapels and crucifix-topped edifices around town and, wondering about their construction and significance. I people-watched. I learned how to say “Hi, good dog!” and tried to make some canine friends. I walked alongside the river, occasionally fighting the urge to jump in the cold water and start swimming after the ducks. I smoked contemplatively.
Of course, I did spend a great deal of time with my host family, and I began to feel more engaged with our group of Americans. But my solitary reflection time seemed to spread a patina of peaceful quiet over my days. It colored my moods, making me feel less anxious and overwhelmed and more open to whatever may come.
Spending six weeks away from home, I reasoned, would be a good opportunity to see how much I really rely on the familiarity of Salt Lake. It is, after all, where most of my friends, family, and favorite restaurants are. I can easily immerse myself in the routine I have cultivated in Salt Lake, and go days without taking a moment to consider whether or not I am happy. It strikes me that I was unaware that there are parts of my Salt Lake life that leave me unsatisfied. I had to go halfway around the world, remove myself from those easy everyday distractions to come to this realization. Since coming home I have had moments of intense frustration with nothing in particular. I force myself to think them through, and what comes up is that, in many ways, I am ready for a sea change.
I would like to experience the rush of travel in my everyday life. This may come from moving to a new city, a new state, and trying to fit in. Or, it may simply come from being more honest and vulnerable in my current situation. But I would like to use my trip to the Czech Republic as a starting point for something new. I’d like to take what I experienced there: the people I got to know, being stranded in the wrong language, unable to say “no, I can’t eat that,” my week in Prague without anyone I knew, my newfound knowledge of central European history, the agonizing task of writing about myself when I just feel like forgetting I am me—I would like to take all this, and use it as a reminder of the ways in which life can surprise me.