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.
I am still in Brandýs nad Labem enjoying the hospitality of my family. Růžena has prepared many delicious traditional Czech foods for me: palačinky (cross between a pancake and a crepe), koláčky (pastry) and fruit knedlíky (fruit dumplings).
Knedlíky are a mainstay of Czech cuisine. The closest translation is our word “dumpling,” but forget everything you’ve probably known and eaten called a dumpling. Authentic knedlíky are light and fluffy but with a slightly chewy texture. They are steam cooked and can be shaped into a loaf or balls. If served immediately, while hot, they are sliced with thin string. Růžena uses dental floss-genius.
Guláš with knedlíky is a traditional meal and is good to the last drop of sauce! Dobrou Chut’!
Actually, I’ve been here for 2 weeks. I wanted to write before, but between jet lag, lost baggage, numerous technical difficulties, and adapting to my new surroundings, I’ve been, well, a bit overwhelmed!
I never thought I could undertake such a move alone, and let me just say, if You are considering a similar uprooting, be sure you have friends or family in that foreign place to take you in and help you get on your feet.
Kat (Kateřina) and her brother, Kuba (Jakub) were at the airport to pick me up. They live in a small suburb of Prague called Brandýs nad Labem. Nad Labem means “on the Labem River.” (The Labem is the Elbe River in Germany) Currently I am living with Kat, her mother Růžena, and Kat’s 13 year old son Bohdan in a lovely big house that sits high above the river. Kuba and his family live close by and I will introduce them to you later.
Růžena is an excellent cook and she prepares all of our meals. We sit at table together without the tv on, remember those days? Breakfast consists of various breads, ham and cheese, butter, local honey, and an assortment of Růženaś homemade jams: apricot, cherry, and strawberry. Lunch is the main, and only “hot”meal of the day. In the afternoon we have our coffee with a zakusek, a sweet pastry or dessert-often taken outside in the garden gazebo overlooking the river. Dinner is a light affair like open faced sandwiches called chlebíčky (chleba means bread).
The weather here is quite pleasant as the Czech Republic sits at 50 degrees north latitude. It is noon as I write this and 82 degrees. The high will be 87 with low humidity. Of course, like all people around the world, they complain about the “hot” weather.( I know all of you back home in the US, like me, are rolling your eyes right now.) So, when it is hot, we take our walks in the evening along the river. The scenery is simply idyllic dotted with ducks on the water and small boats anchored along the riverbanks.
Of course, my transition has not been without its share of difficulties and complications. I will say more about those later….. Until next time- Mějte se Hezky! Have a Great Day!
Dear Readers, It has been quite a while since I updated you with news about my pending move to the Czech Republic, and now everything is happening very quickly. It appears that my new life is “coming soon” just as the sign says. What I have been planning and preparing for so long now appears on the horizon. My house is under contract and my flight is booked for July 30th. I am excited and stressed at the same time. There is much still to do, although I have been working steadily to make this dream a reality. I hope you will follow along with me on my journey. Thanks for reading,
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.
Voter suppression isn’t new. It’s been around since before Jim Crow Laws. It has taken on many shapes and sizes like poll taxes, literary tests, intimidation, and physical attacks. Laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with some of these forms, but where old ones died, new ones were invented. Today, many are disguised as protection against voter fraud and some forms of voter suppression have never died, like intimidation by threat or force. But I recently discovered that it’s one thing to read about voter suppression, and quite another to witness how it unfolds first hand.
As most of you know, the Covid-19 Pandemic hs delayed my move to Prague. Since being temporarily grounded I have been finding ways to keep mentally active and to otherwise use my time in limbo productively.
When my county sent out an appeal for election workers a few months ago, I saw an opportunity to challenge myself with a new learning experience, and, to have a hands on participatory part in the most important election of my lifetime.
After testing and training I was selected to work as a “laptop operator” at one of the 9 “one stop” early voting locations in my county which ran for a period of 17 days. My job was to process voters in the data base and to print their paper ballots. Of course I also had to deal with updates, inactive voters, absentee ballots, and sometimes simply explaining to people how to mark the ballot. But my favorite part of the job was registering first time voters who could then immediately cast their ballot.
Living in a University town, as you might imagine, most of the voters I registered were young college students. Some were quiet and shy, others excited or nervous, all were polite and respectful. What you might not imagine is how complicated the process was to get them registered. The most difficult to process were those students who lived off campus and were from other counties and states. Besides a photo I.D. (school I.D.’s do not include addresses) they had to produce a document, from an approved list, that showed their current name and address together in our county. The state accepts utility bills, bank statements, pay stubs and government issued documents.
No student that I worked with had a utility bill in their name, only their parents’ name. Because they’re students they don’t work, so no pay stubs. They bank on-line and their accounts show their home-town address- as did every other acceptable government issued document like car registrations and passports. They don’t pay property tax or yet file taxes with the IRS so no luck there.
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.
“Due to recent Government cutbacks, The Light At The End Of The Tunnel has been turned off.”
I laughed out loud the first time I read this clever quip painted on a small plaque in a Hallmark store. But in today’s Pandemic environment, these words have the sting of truth about them and they’re not so funny. When every daily event, and all future plans must be filtered through the reality of the Coronavirus, with no end in sight, it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
As most of you know, for the last two years I have been working to bring a dream to fruition— to move to Prague and teach English. What you don’t know is how close I came to realizing my dream before the Pandemic struck. Last November I went to Prague for two weeks, had two job interviews, and got two job offers. My plan was to move there in June of 2020. Now I’m in indefinite limbo with no idea as to when the light will reappear at the end of that tunnel.
There are only two real responses to finding yourself in a darkened tunnel. You can scream and curse the darkness, ( all the while eating too much and “doom scrolling” online until you create for yourself an inert depression.) Or, you can stumble your way forward into the darkness with no assurances about what lies ahead.
Literally speaking, the human eye requires very little light to see in the darkness, even the dimmest of starlight will do. When confronted with darkness, our eyes automatically adjust. The pupils expand to let in more light and a transition occurs in our light sensing cells from the use of cones, which see color and detail, to rods that give us our night vision. The whole process only takes about 20 minutes to be at full capacity.
Now, if only the darkness of mind and spirit adapted as quickly or as easily! If you are like me, you may find yourself alternating between determination and despair. Most days I’m hopeful and productive, but some days I am too despondent to even try to accomplish anything. While contemplating my (our) current dilemma, I remembered this poem by Emily Dickinson that perfectly articulates our struggle to adapt to this new reality that we find ourselves in.
We grow accustomed to the dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darknesses—
The Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.
I try not to be too hard on myself during these uncertain times, and I suggest you do the same. Eventually, either the darkness will alter or our sight will adjust itself. Of course, things won’t be the same post Pandemic, but we will all find our equilibrium again, and Life will step “almost straight.”
Dear Readers, have you found yourself in a darkened tunnel of late wondering when the light will be turned on again? If so, I’d love to hear how you’ve been coping.