Incredible. Five months have passed since I moved to the Czech Republic. And now it is Christmas. A very beautiful time indeed here in this most ancient and mystical city. Every square is decorated with a tree and many buildings are draped in lights. Floral shops are filled with mistletoe and evergreens to trim your home with natural beauty. Here is just a sampling…..
Christmas trees aren’t the only thing in abundance now. In a city that patronizes the arts like few others, there is no lack of musical concerts to sample. I recently attended the Vánoční Cantata pro Unicef, the Christmas Cantata for Unicef at the Municipal House, a magnificent Art Nouveau architectural gem in the city center. The Prague Symphony Orchestra performed a symphony by Saint-Saens and then were joined in the second half by the Kuhn Choir of Prague, and the Radost Praha Children’s Choir. The all-enveloping sound of voices, pipe organ, and full orchestra was exhilarating in the perfect setting of Smetana Hall.
Of course, as the saying goes, “there’s no place like home” and my favorite tree in Prague is the one right here in my neighborhood square, Karlínské Náměstí. So, dear readers, wherever your home is, I wish you a Christmas that is merry and bright.
My very special student, Lucie, treated me to a birthday cocktail and gourmet confections at IF cafe on Kampa Island. It is owned by the renowned pastry chef, Iveta Fabešová. That same evening, unbeknownst to us, the cafe was technically closed for a St. Martin’s Day Feast. Iveta generously invited Lucie and I to join in. She served me a huge plate of roast goose with dumplings and sauerkraut. It was delicious!
It’s hard to believe but one week ago I was in Warsaw. As I previously mentioned, I had no choice but to fly there for my long-term visa interview at the Czech Embassy. Much to my surprise and delight, the experience was a pleasurable one. The consular who interviewed me was friendly and engaging, sincerely wanting to help me secure my visa. He carefully crafted my responses to the standard questions as I spoke freely about my hopes and aspirations while living in the Czech Republic. When he made his final edits to the document, translated it back for me and I signed it, two hours had passed! So, now I wait. Again. When (and if) I am approved, I will have to fly back to Warsaw to pick up my visa in person at the Embassy.
Last weekend I spent a day at the Botanical Gardens with my new friend, and fellow-teacher, Sybil. Coincidentally, Sybil is from South Carolina so we automatically have a lot in common! The weather has just been spectacular here in Prague for weeks, so I have taken every advantage of it by spending most of my free time in the outdoors. I have heeded the warnings of everyone that when November comes, it will be cloudy and cold most days. But this particular Sunday could not have been more perfect! See for yourself.
Tonight Sybil and I are going to do Halloween right- we are going on a ghost tour of Old Town including the old Jewish ghetto and cemetery. The cemetery dates back to the first half of the 15th century. Approximately 12,000 tombstones have been counted here, but about 100,000 people are buried here! I will share more about the old Jewish ghetto of Prague in a later post. I can’t think of a better place to see a ghost, can you?!
Today is a National Holiday – Czech Statehood Day and the Feast of Saint Wenceslas (Svatý Václav). Most businesses and stores are closed as well as government offices. Wenceslas is the Patron Saint of Bohemia, the Spiritual Protector of the Czech Lands. He was actually “just” the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 935, but he was elevated to Sainthood and posthumously declared King by the Catholic Church after his assassination in 935. Only 24, Wenceslas was murdered by his younger brother, aptly named, Boleslaus, the Cruel.
Although he lived such a short life, Wenceslas managed to gain a reputation as a heroic and virtuous leader, and he became revered not only in the Czech Republic but in England. He became symbolic of what a good and kind king can, and should be. If youŕe old enough, you may remember singing about him at Christmas time…..
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen. Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…….
An ancient legend, (not unlike that of King Arthur), says that in the country’s darkest hour, in order to save it from ruin, this statue will come to life and lead an army of knights who now sleep beneath the Czech mountain, Blaník. As Protector of the Czech Lands, it is only fitting that it was in Wenceslas Square that the Czech people gathered and protested, and eventually drove out the occupying Soviets in 1989.
I have landed in the Karlín neighborhood of Prague 8. It is referred to as the “Brooklyn” of Prague with good reason. Tree lined streets, magnificently restored old buildings, cafes, coffee shops and wine bars on every corner, all with a real neighborhood feel.
This is the entrance to my building on Křižíkova Street. It is a fine example of Art Deco that abounds in Prague, built in 1905.
But things weren’t always this way…..
In August 2002, Prague suffered one of its worst floods in history.
One of the hardest areas was Karlín. This is a view looking down my street, Křižíkova. But the flood had its upside. It spawned a renaissance of this neighborhood and led to the revitalization of businesses and the preservation of its gorgeous buildings. The work continues and I see reconstruction and new construction all around me.
In the coming weeks, I will introduce you, dear readers, to the various parts of mz neighborhood, which is already beginning to feel like home.
One year ago today I was standing in Wenceslas Square in Prague celebrating with thousands of others, the 30th anniversary of The Velvet Revolution. On November 17, 1989 a non-violent revolution began in what was then Czechoslovakia. It lasted until December 29th and it brought about the end of Soviet controlled Authoritarian rule in that country. November 17th is now celebrated as Independence Day in the Czech Republic.
Dear Readers: Democracies, like Relationships, Do Not Run on Autopilot- they must be protected, cared for, and worked at to maintain. They can be chipped away and eroded over time unless we are vigilant and fight for their survival. Study your history and you will learn that no empire, no government, has lasted forever. None are guaranteed.
If you assume that learning to speak Czech is difficult- you would be right. I have been working at it for two years now and am finally getting the hang of it. In the introduction to one of my Czech textbooks, the author marvels at how the Czech people have managed to keep their language alive and well during so many occupations of their homeland. He comes to the conclusion that it is due to their “Secret National Defense System,”
….. their language!
“I imagine that Czech was so difficult for the foreign invaders that they were unable to interact in a meaningful way with the Czechs”… and so they… “eventually tired of not being able to communicate much of anything, to anyone, they left, leaving the culture unaffected.” (401 Czech Verbs by Bruce Davies and Jana Hejduková)
The most difficult part of the language is its system of 7 different Cases in which nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and most numerals change their endings according to the Case used. The Cases define the relationship between words in a sentence, ie. who or what is the subject, direct object, or indirect object, etc. (Word order is not necessarily important in Czech but is crucial in English) For instance, here are some spelling changes for the word: domawhich means home: “at home” is doma, “go home” jdi domů, “leave home” opustit domov, and “in the home” v domě.
On the flip side, Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it easy to pronounce and spell- unlike English with all its silent letters like: “k” in knee, “b” in climb, “h” in hour, “w” in answer, and “gh” in thought. But more about the history and structure of English in another Post…
Did You Know That Queen Elizabeth I Spoke 9 Languages Fluently?
“She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italianextremely well.”
–Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Ambassador 1603
People often speculate as to which language is the most difficult to learn, usually assuming it’s the one that they speak. But difficulty is all relative. Relative to how similar the language is to your own (grammatically and phonetically), how well you learn in general, and of course, how motivated you are to learn it, among other things.
That being said, I checked out the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) ranking of world languages based upon their level of difficulty for native English speakers. The FSI provides training for U.S. foreign diplomats, so I figured they would know. They have divided languages into 4 categories with Cat 1 being easiest and Cat 4 labelled as “exceptionally” difficult. No surprise that Spanish and French fall into Cat 1 and that Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are Cat 4. The bulk of the languages fall under Cat 3, which is where you will find Czech. (I won’t argue)
Of course, I am highly motivated to learn Czech as I plan to live and work in the country. But why should you learn to speak another language if you don’t plan to leave the U.S? Why should you be a polyglot (like Queen Elizabeth) and not a monoglot? Based upon my own experience, and with the help of Dr. Neel Burton, author of “ Beyond Words: The Benefits of Being Bilingual” (article appears in “Psychology Today” online July 2018), I would sum it up this way….
It enriches your life. As Dr. Burton points out,multilingualism is closely linked to multiculturalism. As we investigate and learn another language we naturally come to know and appreciate that culture. Your understanding, empathy, and compassion will expand.
It connects you to the world which is increasingly interconnected through the Internet and other technologies. Now more than ever before we travel, trade, and work with people and businesses around the world.
It’s good for your brain health. Learning a foreign language is a great brain exercise that increases gray matter. It works the part of your brain that handles executive functions like analysis, problem solving, working memory, multi-tasking and attention control.
But, I suppose, there is a fourth, and very simple reason to learn a foreign language- it’s fun! How cool is it to be able to talk with another person in a second language? In my next post I will talk about tips for language study that have helped me.
Dear Readers, do you speak a foreign language? What has been your experience with learning another language? I’d love to hear about your language journey.
“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’ Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’ Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’ For This Old World Is Almost Gone”
Traditional- Attributed to, and Recorded by: Blind Willie Johnson (1928), Reverend Gary Davis (1956), and Mississippi Fred McDowell (1959) Like all Traditional songs, the lyrics vary between performers and in written versions
Lately I find myself singing this old gospel/blues tune a lot. It is based on a parable from the book of Matthew (25: 1-13) often called “The Parable of the Ten Virgins.”
The story goes that there were 10 bridesmaids awaiting the coming of a groom to escort them to a marriage feast. After being delayed, the groom finally arrives at midnight to collect them. (They are all sleeping due to the late hour) Five of the women have their oil lamps well supplied with oil ( and wicks trimmed!) and are ready to go with him. But the other five have to go out to the store to purchase oil for their lamps and so aren’t ready to go when the groom appears. As their “punishment” they are shut out of the wedding feast.
The parable is an admonition to “be ready” of course. It was a wildly popular religious theme during the Middle Ages as evidenced by its influence in Gothic art. Paintings and sculptures of the Ten Virgins decorate numerous churches and cathedrals all across Europe including Notre Dame in Paris and Reimes.
“Brother Don’t you Get Worried Brother Don’t You Get Worried Brother Don’t You Get Worried For This Old World Is Almost Gone”
“Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’ Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’ Sister, Don’t You Stop Prayin’ For This Old world Is Almost Gone”
The most practical thing I’ve been doing is to continue learning the Czech language so that when I finally do arrive in Prague, I won’t be a total beginner. I’m also sorting through my best teaching materials and digitizing them (since I can’t travel with reams of paper), as well as creating new lessons from ideas I’ve had for a long time but have never had free time to develop. As any teacher knows, putting all this together is extremely time consuming and virtually impossible to do when you are actually teaching!
But let me be quick to add that while these activities are my ideal, I often fall short. My self-expectations turn into merely good intentions and I feel a lot like the woman in the picture above…….too tired to care where I last left my lamp.
Dear Readers, what have you been busy doing? How have you, and how are you keeping your lamp trimmed and burnin’? I’d love to hear from you.
The writer has made an attempt to draw the hammer and sickle, the symbol of solidarity between the peasant farmers and the industrial working-class- first adopted during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Every day as I tromp up the stairs of the parking garage returning to my car after teaching, my foot falls on this message written on one of the step landings. I often wonder about the stranger who wrote it and why? Was he or she in need of an encouraging word at the end of every day in order to come back to work the next? A reminder that their paycheck wasn’t the whole story?
After recently receiving my first pay check from my new teaching job, this message has been on my mind a lot. As most of you know, I am in the midst of pursuing a new career in teaching ESL. In case any of my readers are considering the same, I should make it abundantly clear that ESL is not a lucrative career. It is difficult to find anything more than part-time work here in the U.S. I teach a four hour class five days a week. I spend long hours of preparation for which I am not compensated. Class attendance is sporadic and within the same class I must adjust to students who are at multi-levels of English ability.
But still, the work is rewarding! Most of my students are appreciative and motivated, thanking me at the end of every class. Watching them with heads bent tackling a worksheet, I feel so proud of the effort they are making. It is the combination of our efforts that creates the payoff. The school doesn’t half compensate me for what I’m worth, so I have to seek the intangible wage. And I’m grateful to the mysterious encourager who scribbled these words on the step knowing that someone else needed a reminder of their true value at the end of every day as well.