“There are four stages of homesickness. First the honeymoon, then the hostility, followed by a feeling of home, eventually with a bit of humor.”
by Maya Souiedi
I found out about Project “New Eyes” ® from Heather Hirschi, my writing professor. She showed us a short video about the experience of the 2007 participants in the program. The snippet included shots of the Bohemian Forest—lush, green and inviting; Czech children grinning from ear to ear; and voices of all the participants telling their brief, yet amazing stories. I was hooked. I had to go, no matter what means I had to take to get the funds.
After class that day, all I could think about was getting away. I needed to get away. My life had been mundane, sort of repetitive, and I needed something new. I believe there was no better way to do that than to travel the world, get out of the shell that I’d called home. That night, I went to my grandfather’s house and told him about the most amazing study abroad trip that has come my way. From the way I looked at him, he could tell I was very excited. I mean I had the opportunity to go abroad before, but I always hesitated because I was worried that I would not make it by myself without my family beside me to hold my hand. He knew the time was right for me to go and explore, so he wrote me a check that night that covered the expenses. I could not believe what was happening. I was going to the Czech Republic.
Our first assignment as a participant of PNE was to keep a daily journal. For the first three weeks of entries, I did not once mention going away. The reality finally hit me a few days after my 22nd birthday. Here is what I wrote that day:
Okay, it finally hit me, I’m going to the Czech Republic in a little over a month!!!! I got my passport finally! Now all I need to do is buy my ticket. I can’t wait to have that culture shock when I first get there. I don’t know what to expect. Like when I first moved to the United States, I envisioned cowboys, and millionaires, and green pastures, and New York City like buildings—I did not know what was coming!! Utah is so beautiful—nothing like I imagined. The mountains are so majestic and grand— they made me feel like a little ant driving home from the airport. It’s funny how I randomly remember things—I remember the minute we arrived at my grandmother’s house—I was so shocked and excited by the sight of grass, I ran and just rolled in it… Life is so relaxed here, so stress free compared to Lebanon. I’m wondering if the kids in Czech have ever seen the Simpsons, and if it’s translated, do they get some of the jokes? Because some things they say, I think can’t be literally translated, I guess you can say they are unique to English.
With my gigantic red pack slung over my shoulders, I walked confidently through Salt Lake City International at 5 am. I was only going to Boston for two days to relax before my trip, but I knew what was next. Two days later, my good friend, Baker, dropped me off at Logan International at about 3 in the afternoon. I don’t remember being nervous, just anxious and thrilled to be somewhere I have not been before. I was up for hours. Not sleeping makes you cranky. Made me cranky. A few drinks on the international flight set me straight. I cried, I laughed, I wrote, I wanted a cigarette more than anything the whole time. I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at about 6 am. From there, I grabbed what looks to be the usual breakfast for Germans, a hot croissant, and a cold glass of beer.
I started getting nervous as soon as I got on my flight to Prague. I was supposed to meet James Sewell, another PNE participant there, but I worried, “What if James and I don’t find one another at the airport? Am I going to be stranded with nowhere to go? What about the pick pocketers I read about in Culture Smart? Are they going to rob me and leave me high and dry and helpless?”
Actually, truth be told, the minute I landed in Prague and got my bag, the confusion on my face drew a lady about my age toward me to ask me if I needed any help. She very kindly asked me, “Where do you go?”
“I need to find the bus to Dejvika.”
As soon as we stepped out of the airport sliding doors, she lit up a smoke, and offered me one. I addictively took it, stuck it in my mouth and fiddled in my pocket for a lighter, but she beat me to it and lit it for me. She walked me to the bus stop and told me that the bus “It come on every ten minute.”
I thanked her, but she had walked away when I put my bag down. That was my first Czech encounter.
James and I eventually crossed paths. He saw me waiting at the bus stop, and waved his arms from the cabin. I knew it was him because he is the only redhead with a newsboy cap on. I was so glad to see him, and I didn’t even know the kid that well. There is something comforting about knowing someone else is in a similar situation to you. From the bus stop, we hopped on the metro that took us to old town where our hostel was located. We walked around town with our packs slowing us down, sweating us down, wearing us down. Eventually, I asked a random man who had just stepped out of his parked BMW where Dlouha is. He pointed me straight ahead. Czech people seem really nice. Giving me cigarettes and directions and all.
Ten days into this ordeal…
So far, my experience in the Czech Republic has been a love hate relationship. More love than hate lately, though, and I do believe I’ll miss this place once I’m back home in Salt Lake City. I haven’t felt like an outsider for a long time and coming to this country, or to be more specific, to Kašperške Hory, I feel like I am the only brown colored person other than the Romani, who are looked down upon.
Going to Prague for three days before coming to this village was deceiving. There tourists walked the streets, and I felt like one of the many outsiders, just a passerby, just a visitor in Praha. I met some amazing friends, Paula from Argentina, Vedi from Connecticut, Joseph and Fabio from Sicily, we were all not at home, not really looking for a home—we were just enjoying ourselves on vacation, and I was ok with that.
Coming to Sušice, I was mesmerized by the beautiful fields of vibrant yellow and green, and the homes with rusted red roof tops, old men, women and children biking down little narrow cobblestone street, this is just like the movies, surreal. Sušice is small, but not as small as Kašperské Hory. The idea of living in a town of 1400 is still shocking to me. The silence is predominant in this town. The people are quiet by nature, reserved, and I am the loud American.
I’ve cried myself in the shower so many times, it’s hard not breaking down every time something reminds me of home, yet at the same time, it’s nothing like home. I want to be home, comfortable with my family, in my own house, in my own comfort, in my own place, I don’t want to be surrounded by strangers, I don’t want to be a stranger. I am used to being me, with my Chee, and my cats, and my sisters, and my mom, and I know where I’m going, I know what I’m doing… Now I’m here, in Kašperské Hory, and I don’t know anything. Who am I? I’m not sure, I thought I was stronger, I thought I could manage. Am I right to feel this way? Why do I feel so alone?
My first week in Kašperské Hory is a little hard to explain in words, I am still not sure at this point what I am resisting, maybe it’s the ability to get comfortable in a foreign place, maybe it’s the growing pains, or maybe it’s the over-thinking Maya, the one who never lets herself go, always needing something to call her other half, not knowing that she is a whole on her own. I’m not sure.
All I can say is that now my eyes are starting to open. I’ve realized that the only thing holding me back from being myself is myself. I am so grateful for this epiphany. I won’t be walking in the dark anymore, I am no longer blinded, I can discover who I am, and I feel released, I feel better than any way I could describe this feeling.
I am also being schooled by the world of experience in many different aspects. I now understand that I don’t have to speak someone’s language to talk to them or to connect with them at such a deep level. I love the children at the Dětsky domov so much and they love me back. I can feel that, even though we cannot communicate it in words. I feel especially close to the older girl—Kristyna who is 17, and in her last year at the Domov; Nikola, 15, sassy as hell, and an amazing hip-hop dancer; and Aneta, 14, one of the children in my “family”, who hugs me every time she sees me, and always wants to make sure I am fed. Although Kristyna is the only one who can speak little English, more than half the time she doesn’t need to translate for me and the girls because we somehow manage to get each other. I am grateful to have five sisters now, Elsie and Sally (my sisters at home), Kristyna, Nikola, and Aneta.
A few days later… tensions rise…
It’s hard for me to write about this trip, because I am still on this trip. The Grateful Dead say it best, “… what a long strange trip it’s been…” It’s still tough to take it all in. I’ve seen many faces, and heard many voices, but only a selected few have stuck with me. Two nights ago, Sadie, Todd and I walked over to Lambo, a small local bar up here in Kašperské Hory. We were greeted by a friendly bartender in her fifties. Sadie and I ordered Černý Pivo, and Todd, well I don’t really recall what Todd ordered. We sat there under the dim lights, a breeze through the window, talking about the usual… nerds, life, girls—typical gossip.
About a half hour later, Vladimil (who insists that I call him Patrik, apparently he thinks I can’t pronounce his name), the owner of the Pod Vezi, which is the neighborhood pub next to the Dětsky domov, walks in and plops down at the bar. He looked tired, long day it seemed. I went up to him and invited him to join us at our table. Todd was in the bathroom at the time, and Patrik felt the need to order us a round of shots. I believe that was the first time my lips got a taste of that sweet nectar they call Fernet Citrus. So we sat there, the four of us, basking in the smoke, and listening to Patrik telling us stories. I carefully studied his lips so I didn’t miss anything.
At some point, an old man sitting kiddy corner from us—balding, white hair, big round belly, little drunk twinkling eyes—comes and sits at the head of our table, next to Sadie. His younger friend, mid-twenties (I don’t recall his name) sat next to him and Patrik. We were talking for a while, with Patrik and the younger boy translating every once in a while for the big man. I remember the boy telling us that he only knows a few things in English: shift, enter, delete, escape… Todd, Sadie and I laughed, we were enjoying ourselves.
Eventually Patrick left, and we were left with big guy and young boy. That’s when things started getting a little awkward. Sadie and I were talking to the big guy, he started shouting every once in a while. Maybe not shouting, but raising his voice so you could breathe the hostility. Todd was busy talking to boy, and at some point, big guy attacks, starts shouting, “PROBLEM, PROBLEM,” picks up the ashtray, throws it on the table, ashes go flying everywhere, Todd looks in shock at what just happened. Sadie looks at me and repeats, Maya we should go, Maya we should go, we need to go…we scurry out of the bar, leaving my little red lighter behind. As we ran in the streets, we could hear the big guy yelling, tak tak tak tak, TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK… We stop behind a wall, next to the pay phones, and when Todd catches up with us, he says the boy was telling him, “probably, problem, you go now.” We didn’t just go, we booked it out, the big man’s voice echoing through the streets, chasing us as we ran. Once we paused I could feel my heart beating so fast, I thought it would just out of my body. Sadie cried.
Talking to her, talking to me…
I like to talk, and listen, and I’ve been doing a lot of both on this trip. The other day, Kristyna and I were on a walk with the girls, and we started talking. Here is a little view on her life. Kristyna is a beautiful young woman. Her story is intense. As a Romani teen, she moved into the Dětsky domov. She is one of 15 children in her actual blood family. She speaks little English, but over the past couple weeks, it has improved with practice… conversations about love, lust, depression. I love how this girl opens up to me. She has told me things she wouldn’t dare share with the stredas and tetas, or other kids at the orphanage. She listens when I give her advice, which is something painful to hear, yet truthful. But I see sadness in her eyes. I want to help her, and shield her from the cruelty that this world contains.
Kristyna is dating this boy her age, Petr. Petr is white, wears glasses, and has hair cut into what I would call a rat tail. Kristyna and Petr don’t have a ‘healthy’ relationship. During “Den Susice” when the kids came down from Kašperské Hory for the day to watch the festivities, Kristyna bought a black wig. She longs for long, luscious black hair she can run her fingers through. I saw her that day with a big genuine smile on her face, sporting the long hair, letting it billow in the wind. That was what I remember.
The next day in Kašperské Hory, the three girls and I went on our usual walk, while we smoked malý Start cigarettes. I looked in Kristyna’s eyes, and I could tell something was wrong. So I asked her. At first she shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. I wondered where her new hair was, so I questioned her about that, hoping that somehow I could reach out and connect with her. She shook her head, her eyes beady, glassy—she looked as if she wanted to cry. Then she spilled the beans…
“Last night, I came home, excited to show Petr my beautiful new hair, but I disappointed him. He told me that I’m not good and my hair, the new hair is even uglier. He snatched the wig off my head, and waved it around in the air as he shouted insults in my face. Then he started dragging it around in the dirt like a mop. It’s ugly he told me, it doesn’t look good, and you don’t look good. ”
She stopped and looked at me, frustrated with love, I could see it in her eyes. I hugged her, squeezed her, and told her that she is beautiful. She looked away as soon as she heard the compliment. I have heard similar stories from her before, and this infuriated me. I grabbed her face, and made her look at me.
“KRISTYNA YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL, YOU ARE SMART, YOU ARE YOUNG. Don’t let HIM control you. Don’t let him tell you WHO YOU ARE. You are who you are, and if he doesn’t like it, fuck him. There are so many good men in this world, and I hope that one day you realize that this piece of shit you call your boyfriend is not one of them.”
“But I love him,” she responded quietly, as if she knew it wasn’t really love.
“Love is respect, my dear, love is trust, love is loving someone regardless of what they do… but love is not putting the other person down. When you love someone, you want them to be happy, and to succeed, I LOVE YOU, KRISTYNA, he just keeps on trying to break you down. You don’t need this. You are a strong woman, and you’re only 17. You deserve to smile your whole life, you’ve been through enough already.” Just by the way she was looking at me, I could see that she was truly listening, and that gave me hope to believe that Kristyna might change her life.
Although we’re advised throughout our writing careers not to start a story with, “The dictionary describes ‘insert vocabulary word here’ as…”, I’m going to do it anyway. The dictionary describes rhapsody as
1. an instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation; and
2. an ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm.
What am I doing here? Well, I teach kindergarten once a week at the Skolka, to hyper, unruly five-year-old children. For the rest of my time, I mingle with the locals, and try to make this experience worth every moment.
I’m a twenty-something Američanka who rocks cowboy boots and short shorts in this somewhat deprived-of-fashion town of Kašperské Hory. I am boy crazy, and I’m totally ok with that. I like boys, I can’t help it. I like to have fun, and I can’t help that either. What can I say, I like good times.
I’ve fallen for quite a few boys out here. First Luboš, the English speaking hunk who works in the tourism office. His poop brown eyes—or wait, I’m not supposed to describe nice brown as poop brown—well regardless, his eyes are dreamy and big, and he cuts his own wood to burn for heat, for God’s sake. Can it get sexier than that?
Following Luboš, I met Tom, the forest ranger. Need I say more? He’s a forest ranger.
When I think “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I don’t think of the Queen song. It’s odd what the heart can do in such a short time. Mine has gravitated towards a gorgeous Rastafarian with long black dreadlocks and a make-you-melt smile who doesn’t speak a speck of English. I’d seen him around town, at Honza’s coffee shop, at the Pod Vezi, and walking his dog. We finally met one day when I was sitting on the grass outside the Dětsky domov on a Sunday afternoon with the girls. He was sitting on the benches with his friends outside the now closed Pod Vezi (Patrik needs his day of what he described as, “Sunday, sleep, eat, pivo, smoke, sleep, eat, pivo, smoke, and repeat”). We had been eyeing each other every time we are in the same place. And today it’s no different. He looks at me, I look away, I look at him, he looks away.
The girls quickly ran to the group of boys. Nikola was teasing me earlier about looking at the dreaded boy. I see her talking to him, him talking to her, and then the both of them looking at me. She runs back to me, with Krystina to translate. She talks fast, and eagerly, like the excited teenaged girl that she is. Krystina slows it down, “The boys say come hang out, and the boy with the dreadlocks say you are beautiful, he say you a princess.” I go over there, a little flattered, I must say. Uncomfortable as it felt not being able to speak common language with these boys, I felt content. I felt good vibes and good energy exuding from those around me.
We get to asking each other questions, with Krystina as our translator. I find out his name is Martin, and he likes Pearl Jam. He’s gorgeous, I think to myself. The girls have to go inside to do chores, and I was left alone with the three boys. I motion drinking with my hand to my mouth. “Pivo?” I asked all of them, but I was looking at Martin. Somehow all of them felt the vibes, and it turns out to be Martin and I alone going to Honza’s for a glass of Pilsner.
Silence is sometimes uncomfortable. We sat there, looking at each other, one beer turned into two. Okay, I say to myself, I need to try to get some words out of this kid, I can’t just let him go like that. At the same time I utter a word, he utters one too. “Mi hablo poco español” he says to me. Well, that’s a start. The Spanish I know consists of Taco Bell commercials, and not having cable, watching futbol matches on Telemundo, the guy yelling GOOOOOAAAAAL and then blabbering too fast so I can’t understand. My English/Czech dictionary handy, I ask him how old he is. He’s 22. He’s lived in Kašperské Hory all his life. He built the Hotel Kašperk next door, along with the other twenty construction workers for this town. His dog’s name is Jack.
“Pojď sem” means come here. I am learning about him, and from him, even though we don’t speak the same language. We are improvising and the product is so enthusiastic, so hopeful, so beautiful. “Plavat?” he asks after four or five beers. I know what plavat means because I went swimming with the kids at the Horažďovice Aqua Park a few weekends before. He’s asking me to go swimming with him. I’ve only known this kid for about three hours, and I here I am getting in his car, driving to the aqua park to go swimming.
We did a lot of swimming, in the water, and in other places. That’s to say the least. One night, sitting on his bed in his dimly candlelit, incense smoke-filled room, I notice that he has my eyes of Buddha tattoo on a piece of paper hung up on the wall. I have never met anyone who knows what that symbol means, and in his little English/Spanish, much Czech way, he explained to me what it meant. I feel a connection with him. I rarely feel comfortable around strangers, let alone foreign strangers in a different country, and that night, I slept in his bed, next to him, smelling him. He smells like herbs, like nature, and I’m stuck in this moment—his rough construction man hands rubbing my back, relaxing me, putting me off to dream land.
We spend a lot of time together, and I’m leaving soon. I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I leave. Is he going to be on my mind? Am I just trying to get away from my issues with my boyfriend at home? I don’t know right now, but what I do know is that he is forever engrained in my memory, he is what I will remember forever as my Bohemian Rhapsody.
Sick and tired…
I’m tired. Tired of stares, tired of feeling awkward, tired of my lack of speaking Czech, and tired of the weather changing. I want some peace. I want to lie in a gigantic bed made of down feathers. I want to be alone. No one in sight. My brain hurts, my whole body aches for comfort.
I want to stare into the sky, look at all the stars, and have all the time in the world to count and name each one. I want to open or close my eyes at any moment I damn please, for any period of time. I want the night in the day and the day in the night. I want something different but I’m not sure what that is. How much more can I ask for being here in the Czech Republic, it’s a drastic change—but the feeling is not quite right. The people here are warm, yet not too friendly. I wouldn’t want to piss them off while visiting their homeland, but I’ve already managed to do that.
I don’t want what I have, and I don’t have what I want. But I don’t know what that is either. So I’m back to square one. I don’t want to go home, I don’t know what home is. There is one person I truly miss – my dad. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen him in months… wow I haven’t seen my dad in six months. Is that what I’m missing? I’m not sure.
I need to scream, to jump, to be dizzy, to cry, to lose my voice, to break something, to freak out. Lose it. Is that healthy to say? What the hell is healthy anyway? Smoking forty cigarettes a day? Running ten miles a day? They both consist of taking your breath away.
Home, or not Home?
The last Tuesday in Praha..
It’s almost over. Sitting here reflecting on the past weeks, cigarette in hand, pivo on the table, happiness in my heart. I was anxious, feeling scared about going home changed. Salt Lake is still the same. My soul matured with the distance from it all. I am Maya, I am a bubble of good energy, I can make it anywhere in the world as long as I am at peace with myself, open to change.
My friends tell me I am funny and easygoing, and that’s a change from the Maya who was a little uptight, attached to another half back in Utah. Prague is beautiful, Czechs are beautiful, strangers and passersby are beautiful. Village life is so peaceful, surrounded by hills, quiet, reflection is perfect at any time.
Life is full of opportunity—you just have to seek it. I’m not only talking about work, but friendships and relationships and weirdness—they’re all just an opportunity away, but within reach if you are willing to stick your arm through that dark hole of a window into the darkness, take that chance, live it up! Open-mindedness is key, adjusting to new situations is hard, but getting through the rough parts, the falls, the nervousness, the homesickness only makes one stronger, bigger, better. Steve calls it “new eyes”— when your mind is transplanted, widened, opened—when you can see and understand further than you ever thought you could.
My “new eyes” are humbling. They have shown me that what I thought I knew is so little; that my belief that I am only a half who always needs a counterpart is faulty, I am on part of this whole that we call the world.
There is so much more to say, but words can’t describe the intense changes in me. I need some time away from it, just to sit with the good and the bad memories, and try to eventually let me, pen in hand, elaborate it on paper.
Going back to the States….
Okay, so I’m away from it all. Erin is right, sitting for hours at the airport is sort of a lonely feeling. After what I thought was a perfect night of goodbye celebration, my stomach and head hated me for putting them through hours of hugging the toilet.
It gets worse. I couldn’t figure out how to set my alarm last night, and this morning I shot out of bed at 4:45, “I’m late, I’m late,” smelly, no time to shower, grabbed my pack, ran downstairs, and luckily made it to the airport by 5:15. I made what turned out to be a rather nauseous flight, and in Frankfurt had a five hour layover where I slept on three chairs like a dead woman. Anxiety, especially while traveling, blows. I feel bad for the girl I’m sitting next to and those around me because I reek.
I can’t wait till I get to Boston and take a much needed shower. I can’t wait to get home. Well, that’s not so true. I’m anxious about going home, about Derek (my boyfriend) changing, me changing, but Salt Lake is probably still the same.
I just need to write. I’m not quite sure how to feel right now away from it all. It’s been five days since leaving CZ. The first thing I noticed when I landed in Boston was being able to speak the same language as the majority. For some reason, it was not comforting. I just felt bored with the people around me. I yearned for change, for something to be different. I spent a day in Boston hanging out with some old friends, but I was not the same.
Something in me has grown, matured, ripened, but after five days I still can’t put my finger on it. I am thankful for Project “New Eyes” ®, and the opportunity to widen my horizons.
I miss the feeling of something new sparking inside me. I haven’t had that since I’ve been home. I miss Martin, I miss the children, I miss the greenery, I miss the good beer, I miss hearing Czech being spoken all around me.
Thinking about the past..
How lucky am I to have experienced the Czech Republic and gained a new vision on the world. I look back to the time before I headed out to new lands, met new people, and experienced new things, and I feel as if I was so naïve. Thinking that life here in the States is simple and easy, that’s one mistake. In Czech the people are so appreciative of the simple things in life, they don’t need big cars, they don’t need fashion, and they don’t need the superficiality we add to things here in the states. Czechs are satisfied after a simple meal of potato dumplings and meat, a glass of pivo, and sitting, enjoying, working in the garden. I don’t want to live my complex life with a car, and bills, and stress all the time. Here we are moving, hustling, bustling, all the time, can’t we just stop for a moment and take a breather, try to see things from a different perspective?
I remember going to the synagogue in Hartmanice. No words can really pin down the way I felt that day. Intense, sad, shocked, disgusted, proud… Thinking about Nazis just gives me the chills, the fact that my skin color and the way I look would have been reasons to kill me. I was proud to see how these people have overcome so many feats in their lives, not just during WWII but living under Communism and the suppression of the Iron Curtain.
Regardless of what they have been through, they still see the sun shine, breathe the air, smell the flowers, and try to love what they have for what it is. I vaguely remember speaking to an old woman on the bench outside of the TUTY supermarket across from the orphanage, she told me about having to escape to England when WWII started and that she lost both her parents on the death march, and that she appreciates every day because she luckily made it somehow to safety and got to live her life. I recall her telling me that she comes back to Kašperské Hory every summer because this is her home, this is who she is, this is the ground that she is cultivated from, and she likes to come back because of the simplicity of it all, the relaxation that she experiences in this town is unbeatable.
What I gained from this trip is priceless. I have changed as a person, and as a student of the world. I now try to understand things from multiple perspectives, not just the one because the world is full with many different thoughts and people and creations, and I am just one among the many, and my lifestyle is just one among the many. I want to go back, I want to adapt to living simply.
I’ve already started here by selling my car, and vowing to use public transportation for as long as the world is round. I want to cut my own wood, build my own cabin, and garden. I want to cook dumplings, and make fried cheese, and brew my own beer. I want to love those around me, take what I need and share the rest. I want to be more like the Czechs in the way that they are reserved until you get to know them.