When I first arrived in Prague, it was late and I was worried about reaching my hostel before dark. I was dragging three quite heavy pieces of luggage. (Believe it or not, I thought I was packing light.)
I knew I was only three blocks from my destination, but didn’t know quite how to get there. I approached two dark haired girls who appeared to be in their early 20’s. I pointed to my map and revealed my most friendly, quizzical smile. To my amusement, they passed by quickly while one waved her hand at me as if dismissing an annoying insect.
Perhaps an alternative plan was in order. Fortunately, three young “tweens” had seen this exchange and immediately rushed over to rescue me. They pointed me in the right direction for my nightly shelter. This was the initiation to my 2009 study abroad program to the Czech Republic. An instance of Czechs and balances, I suppose.
My second day in Prague, a number of us took a tour of the Terezín Concentration Camp. This was not an execution style camp, but more of a holding place, and fatalities usually occurred because of disease or starvation.
One of the trivial facts that really bothered me was the illustration of the swimming pool. The German officers and their families, of course, had much nicer accommodations than the prisoners. The captives were also forced to build a swimming pool for the officers, a pool the prisoners would never get to enjoy. I guess the simplicity of this detail upset me because it is the only thing I can appreciate. I cannot even remotely relate to the other war atrocities. There is nothing in my life experience that even comes close.
I think we left the concentration camp with a sense of revulsion, but also resolve, and a heightened awareness of how such events had been perpetuated by complacency.
In further considering the effects of World War II, I was prompted to wonder about the Beneš Decrees, and where the retaliation cycle would lead.
I recently read about the Beneš Decrees, their immediate effects, and also long-term ramifications. Between 1940-1945, the Czechoslovakian president Edvard Beneš signed the Beneš Decrees, stating that they would maintain stability in post-war Czechoslovakia. These Decrees were in retribution to German World War II aggressions, and forced Germans living in Czechoslovakia to leave of the country. Their property was also confiscated. This was referred to as “resettlement” on the part of the Czechs, but as “expulsion” to the Germans. Unfortunately, the Germans were not given an option in this matter, and the exodus resulted in the death of more than 100,000 people, who were simply at the mercy of their government’s decisions.
Regrettably, I discovered, emotions still run high regarding this issue. I am amazed at the response on both sides of this controversy, and very much saddened that in the 60 ensuing years, not much seems to have been resolved.
Recently, the Beneš Decrees were reaffirmed, partly to avoid payment of compensation or restitution. To me, this seems like rubbing salt in the wound. I believe an attitude of contrition on the part of the Czech Republic would go a long way toward healing emotional injuries.
My experiences in the Czech Republic ended up being a lot of what I expected, but also a lot of what I didn’t.
I expected the ancientness. It was wonderful and amazing, but expected. The old buildings, and cobblestone streets transported me to a different time and place.
What I didn’t expect was the average, everyday normality of the people, especially the children.
I’m not quite sure what I thought this culture would be, but it certainly wasn’t ordinariness. Everyone here is simply going about their lives pretty much the same way as in any community or culture. Go figure.
During the week, the children go to school. After a tough work day, a preferred adult activity is relaxing at a pub. Pivo (beer) is a favorite beverage and is consumed in MASS quantities.
I was assigned to a very small town called Kašperské Hory. I lived at the Dětský Domov Children’s Home, and the kids were the biggest surprise of all. I was quite certain they would be frail, pale, sticklike youngsters, with protruding bones and hollow eyes, who ate gruel for each meal. They would spend their days lurking fearfully in the dark recesses of their rooms. They would all be named “Oliver” or “Annie,” and it would be my duty to be their champion and rescuer.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The children were happy, healthy, and roly poly. Their laughter, chatter, play, and noise level, were incessant. The aunts and uncles assigned to care for them did an excellent job, and I believe the children felt sheltered and secure.
Then there were the aunts and uncles. They were wonderful with the kids, and treated them as their own.
Each week, the kids participated with them in special outings and entertaining activities, as well as chores and responsibilities.
I was stunned by how beautiful the children were. Many of them had very dark skin and black hair. Others were blue-eyed blonds, and were also amazingly attractive.
I was surprised at how normal their “families” were. The kids were divided into groups of eight, and they couldn’t be more like regular brothers and sisters. My family of kids consisted of five boys and three girls, ages 11-16. There were Pepa, Frantisek, (Fanda), Petr, Dominik, Stefan, Jesika, Dominika, and Nikola, and they laugh, tease, fight, and hassle, like any other group of siblings. One day, Petr found a rather nasty spider creeping up the kitchen wall. I immediately went over to kill it with my shoe, but he protested. “No, no no.” He then called his “sister” Dominika, saying something along the lines, I suspect, that he had something exciting to show her. She came into the room and he pointed to her “surprise.” She screamed frantically as any young lady of refinement would do, and her arms and legs began spinning wildly in her effort to vacate the room.
On another occasion, the children were swimming in their backyard pool. One of the teenage boys pulled himself up on the edge, preparing to jump out. However, he moved a little too quickly, and his trunks slid down around his thighs. His bare butt was exposed and the others laughed. He then ran gaily across the grass with his arms flying like a dainty fairy. We all giggled hysterically.
One evening, right after we had eaten our usual dinner of dumplings and beef, Aunt Jitka, (Eet-ka), called everyone together in the kitchen. I couldn’t imagine what was happening, as there were a number of prizes lying on the counter. Aunt Jitka called each child’s name one by one, and they were allowed to pick out which trinket they wanted.
The first teenaged boy picked a warm comforter for his bed. A girl picked a bottle of lotion, and another some special shampoo. Each in turn, selected something. It was great to see them get some fun little extras, that weren’t actual necessities.
At one point, one of the aunts helped me out of a dire situation.
I was trying to fix my hair one evening, and having a difficult time. (My hair is possessed by an evil spirit). It was too bristly and frizzy, and even weirder looking than usual. I knew the aunts cut the kids hair; perhaps one of them could help me. I ran down to the main family room to see if I could find some aid. Fortunately, Aunt Herka was there. She’s a sweetie, tall and skinny, with long wavy brown hair. I acted out my request with scissor fingers, (cut vlasy), and she understood immediately. She found three pairs of scissors, but motioned to me that they were all too dull. I saw my chance slipping away, and was very concerned. Herka looked up some words in my English Dictionary, (This is not a hair salon). Yes, I understood that, but this was an EMERGENCY! I immediately looked up the Czech words for “desperate,” and “ugly hair.” She agreed and gave me a lovely haircut.
I placed 700 koruns ($35) on the table, expressed my immeasurable thanks, “Díky, díky, díky,” and started up the four flight trek to my apartment. She shook her head when she saw the money and tried to chase after me. At the top of the fourth flight, we were both completely exhausted, and barely able to catch a breath because we were laughing so hard. She was finally able to close my left hand around the bills and headed back down. This, of course, was my easy win. I simply waited for her to walk down two flights, and dropped the money on her head.
An aspect of our “fun time,” was pizza Mondays. After Sarah, Klinton, and I had taught school in the morning, we always stopped at the Italian restaurant. Being creatures of habit with no imagination whatsoever, we always ordered the same thing. Klinton ate Hawaiian pizza, and I gobbled spaghetti carbonara. The last time we ate there however, Sarah became courageous and ordered an unusual pizza. It had lots of anchovies on it, which she didn’t care for at all. We decided there was a reason why we stuck with our old favorites.
I enjoyed traveling on Thursdays and Fridays to Sušice (Su-shit-za), where we had classes and were able to explore.
The first thing I remember about Sušice is color, vivid, intense, color. The fields in the surrounding areas were not just green. They were a luminescent, brilliant green, as far as I could see, and beyond. Sušice itself, was also very vibrant. The buildings were rarely painted just one color. They had trim colors, trim accents, and accent accents.
Then there was the “Days of Sušice Festival.” I had never seen such color. There were booths of every size, with every imaginable product; clothing, housewares, shoes, food, drinks, trinkets, and souvenirs. To look down an aisle in the town square was a risky undertaking. Your vision receptors would be bombarded with too much brilliance to even comprehend. Reds, blues, greens, yellows, and purples, all combined to attract and hold your gaze.
The end of the week was enjoyable because I was able to dine and converse with our teachers, Steve, Heather, Rai, Mara, and Karen. I also got to know my fellow students much better, and had a great time with them.
We had a bit of a mishap our first Thursday, when we returned home from Sušice. Unfortunately, it was a little after 10:00 pm and the children’s home was closed and locked. Klinton and I were astonished and didn’t know what to do next.
We decided to get a room at a motel, and tried two in our little town. They were also both closed. Unbelievable. I guess that should have been expected in a town with a population of 450.
I thought perhaps I could get the police from the station across the street, to call the home for us. I entered the office and gestured wildly, trying to explain what had happened. A policeman crossed the street, and called inside to have them let us in. Aunt Herka and Uncle Petr came to the door. There was a bit of a heated exchange, but we were allowed in. They then demonstrated to us in no uncertain terms, that we must call if we were going to be late again. Lesson learned.
Sundays, to attend church, was an unparalleled adventure of almost ten hours. In Utah I have no problem traveling to church in ten minutes. In the Czech Republic, however, I was required to travel to Plzeň, which was a one way, five-train trip. Fortunately, Teacher Mara knew where we were going or I would never have attempted the journey.
My usual Salt Lake City church gathering consists of over 500 shiny, neatly dressed members. Our Plzeň community though, strained to reach 30, and almost everyone was casually dressed in jeans or slacks, even the women.
A young man kindly agreed to translate a meeting for me. Some of the lesson was spoken in English, and it made me laugh when he would repeat even the English phrases. He explained how difficult it was to switch quickly back and forth between the two languages. It was a wonderful experience.
The contrast between these circumstances was remarkable and forced me to consider my own ethnocentrism in assuming that in the United States, we did things the “right way.”
I loved my time with the school kids. I taught a day class of 5th graders, and a night class of all ages. Maybe it’s been a long time since I was in an elementary school, but these kids seemed very intelligent to me.
One day, in order to help me figure out who they all were, we played the Name Game. This was done with the entire class standing in a circle. As each child said his or her name, they made up a motion to go with it, such as clapping or kicking their feet. These children were ingenious and came up with some very interesting actions, including arm flips and head twists. Then the next child would say each previous child’s name, in addition to making up a motion of their own. I was amazed at how quickly they were able to whip around the circle, and still recall all the preceding names and movements. Smart kids.
They were also adorable. I didn’t always understand what they were saying, but they good-naturedly took part in whatever assignment or activity we were doing. They especially loved acting out stories and fairy tales.
It was impossible to spend time with my family kids and not have a great time. They constantly kept me entertained with their antics. Most of them could probably be professional comedians.
I had the greatest difficulty getting good pictures of them. (No, not because of my crappy camera). The kids delighted in running from me. They would race into the hallway or dodge into another room. Sometimes they would simply turn their heads or dive under the sofa pillows. It got very frustrating. Finally, they decided to cooperate and let me take some pictures. Fine and dandy. There was only one catch. Every time I’d take a snapshot, they’d flip me off. They thought this was terribly funny. They hadn’t the slightest idea what this meant, only that it was a bad sign. So I have a number of exceptionally cute pictures on which I’m going to have to cut the hands off.
I had to be careful what I taught the kids. Little Nikola was constantly interrupting me when I was trying to work on the computer, and would hit me with balloon-like pillows. I started pretending to punch her in the face and said “shut up.” It wasn’t long before Nikola’s entrance into a room was immediately followed by a pretend punch and a screamed “shut up.” I decided I needed to be a little more cautious with my language.
We had a lot of fun at the dinner table. We enjoyed “stealing” each other’s food. Little Stefan, especially liked this game. He was the smallest of the children. With his dark skin, shaggy black hair, and prize-winning smile, he couldn’t have been any cuter.
My first week there, he was a little shy and wouldn’t interact too much. The food game changed all that. I would pretend to steal something off his plate, then he mine. Petr also, would take something from me, kiss his fingers, and directly consume it. Eventually, all I had to do was sit down next to Stefan and shift my eyes to his plate, and he would dissolve into a fit of giggles.
One night, I ate a banana and left the peel on the table. Nikola gave it to me as a real banana. I pretended to be incensed because it was empty. The other kids laughed hysterically, and each one in turn had to present me with the banana peel. This event was replayed many more times with no reduction in laughter. Kids are easily amused.
One particular evening, I was even more entertained than usual by their antics.
They amazed me with their “kidliness.”
Pepa and Fanda were both intently involved in computer games, much too engaged to be bothered by the trivialities of the others.
Jesika and Dominika were sitting on the floor side by side. They each put their arms straight out in front of them, crossed them, and clasped their hands. Then they pulled them into their chests, twisted them, and straightened them back out again. They did this several times in unison with increased speed. Later Dominika would request doing the Hokey Pokey, as she loved to do each night. I often wondered why I had thought it a good idea to teach them this dance.
Nikola was playing one of her favorite games. She would sit down beside me on the sofa and lovingly stroke my arm. “Ohhhh,” she would say sweetly, “roztomilá,” (you’re cute). Then suddenly the sweet caresses would cease and she would scream, “NE ROZTOMILÁ.” (You’re NOT cute). Whereupon, I would tickle her ferociously, and bat her into oblivion with a pillow.
When she tired of this game, she stood up and started bouncing up and down to some hard rock music on the TV, violently playing a nonexistent guitar. She was wearing her new pajamas. They were light turquoise cotton, sleeveless, with legs to her knees. She looked charming.
When she tired also of this activity, she collapsed onto the couch next to Stefan, and decided it was time to get her back scratched. She told Stefan emphatically and insistently that this was his responsibility, and kept lifting his hand to place on her back. Finally, Stefan resignedly threw out his little arm and commenced with his designated duty.
The high point of this evening however, was “the dance,” made even more appropriate by the fact that both boys were in T-shirts and shorts; Petr’s were green, and Dom’s red.
As Dominik sat primly on a chair, Petr decided that an impromptu dance was in order. He walked over to Dom, bowed gallantly, and requested a dance. Dominik demurely acquiesced and the magic began. First they began moving cheek to cheek with their arms extended. After a few elegant steps, Petr put his hand under Dom’s back and dipped him almost to the floor, with Dom’s arm gracefully lengthened. He next picked him up and swirled him grandly around the “dance floor.” Dominik’s arm was again charmingly extended. Both boys had gigantic grins on their faces, and I was doubled up with laughter. For their final amazing move, they both turned their backs to me, bent over, and slapped themselves on their bottoms. At this point I had no breath or energy left and I slid off the couch, collapsing on the floor with mirth.
Occasionally, I brought the children ice cream bars (nanuk), which they dearly loved. The day before I was to return home, I again promised to bring the treat. One of the girls asked me something along the lines of, “Cindy…..something in Czech I didn’t understand….and then America.” I assumed that she was asking if I was flying home the next day and I replied, “Ano, Amerika zítřek.” (I’m going to America tomorrow). Whereupon, all the children let out a long spontaneous sigh. “Ohhhh….” This made me feel good as I knew that I’d be missed. However, another of the children immediately asked, “America zítřek?” (America tomorrow?) and then “nanuk dneska?” (ice cream today?”) She wanted to make sure that these two events occurred in the correct order. It was then that I realized where I stood in their priority list, and I chuckled.
I was not in particularly good spirits my last night at the Dětský Domov. I gave away all the candy I kept on our kitchen counter, in case the kids were in dire need of nourishment. I gave away all the lotions and shampoo I had amassed. Finally, I gave away my Tommy Hilfiger watch to Markéta, one of the 14 year olds in another family, since I wouldn’t need two watches once I got home. Then I sat down and gloomily wondered how I could possibly get along without these children.
The next morning as I was descending the stairs with my suitcase, I spotted Markéta. She gave me a huge grin and happily pointed to my watch on her wrist. Again, I wondered how I would get by without them.
Finally, it was our last night in Prague, and we traveled back to the hostel. Originally Kevin, Emily, and Klinton had slept in a room which housed 16 people. They assured me that this was not at all convenient, as there was nowhere to change clothes, and on our way home decided to go with four to a room. I shared a room with Klinton, and Kevin was across the hall. Early in the evening, I returned to our room where Klinton was taking a nap. I didn’t realize he was asleep, and frightened him. He woke up with a shriek. Later that night as I was falling asleep, I heard Klinton coming in the door. I decided to tease him a bit. I jumped up in bed and yelled, pretending I was scared. I was absolutely mortified when I realized it wasn’t Klinton at all, but our Iranian roommate. As I tried to explain my seemingly irrational conduct, he started laughing, “I like your behavior,” he said affably, in his broken English.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Czech Republic, but it was far too short. I wish I could have stayed much longer. I had a lot of teaching and learning yet to do. I’m still wondering how I’ll be able to survive without the kids. I wonder if it’s possible to adopt an entire orphanage…