15 March 2017

Cycling in the Czech countryside

The Czech countryside is charmingly dotted with an incredible number of little churches, chapels, and religious monuments.

I'm starting to feel like something of an authority on them as I've passed an awful lot recently on my bike.

In case you skimmed the previous sentence, I'd just like to stress that this sightseeing has happened while I was cycling, on a bike, with my own two legs.

So, yes, this is just to confirm that I have joined the multitude of cyclists infesting Czech country lanes, March to November.  We mostly come in singles or doubles, but we are multitude and a not-insignificant source of irritation to most drivers.

There are fewer cyclists on the road when it's cold, wet, and windy, so on those days, we tend to nod at each other in a 'I acknowledge you and your hardcore ways' or, perhaps, 'I also have lots of chaos at home that I am skillfully avoiding'. I once got a passing 'Ahoj!' from a fellow escapee and I take that to mean I am a certified member of the club.

It's no wonder, really, that the Czech Republic has so many cyclists. The countryside is relatively flat, the climate is fairly predictable, Czechs tend to value being active outside, and, as mentioned previously, there are lots of interesting things to look at as you speed/huff by.

There is an increasingly more comprehensive network of cycle trails throughout the Czech Republic (Cycloserver shows them online and this helpful blog post talks about signage). Most of the trails follow a combination of country roads and paths through forests and across fields. Some of the marked cycle paths look suspiciously like just very muddy meadows.

I've been avoiding the non-paved trails since a particularly muddy November ride, but was back to the exceptionally-satisfying puddle dodging this weekend.

I was on something of a mission. Like I said earlier, there are lots of little religious monuments. Some are statues, but most are these mini-chapels which were built along roads, especially near crossroads, presumably to mark the roads and encourage reverent thoughts (as most don't seem to offer much in the way of shielding one from the elements).

Late in November, before the snow came, I rode past one of these mini-chapels which was striking in its peculiarity. Most of the mini-chapels are painted white or in muted yellows, pinks, or reds. But this strange one was white with a bright blue alcove. Even stranger, it was in the middle of a field, nowhere near a recognizable road. If I remember correctly, it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is also a deviation from the norm as most of the mini-chapels I've seen don't seem to have a named saint as their sponsor.

So, there I was, on a windy, wet November late afternoon, in the middle of a field which smelled very strongly of manure. And there, before me, this otherworldly chapel, white and bright.

I've been meaning to go back to see it again, maybe even to take a picture to prove that it actually exists. A few weekends ago (after the snow receded), I tried unsuccessfully to relocate it, but last weekend, having studiously combed through Google maps, I was ready to attempt my luck again.

'Podstavec soch sv. Salvátora' initially got my hopes up as St. Salvatore sounds like someone who would be worthy of a Southern European blue. After battling up a stone-and-mud track, though, it became apparent that, though nice, this was not the monument I was looking for.

The next mini-chapel seemed to be in the right place and the view from Google maps at least made the roof look similar. So, back on my bike and over yet more puddles and stones.

This chapel was so disappointingly weathered-white that I didn't even take a picture.

Perhaps I should have gotten more emotionally attached to a full-sized chapel.

The search continues next weekend - wish me luck!

10 January 2017

The choice to live abroad and its assorted consequences

I was chatting with my Czech teacher after a lesson a few weeks ago and she mentioned that she'd been considering moving to China for a bit, but ultimately decided to stay.

'Oh, thank goodness!' said my mother-in-law who had been keeping Smallest amused during the lesson. 'Think of your poor mother! It's much better not to go abroad. Expatova will tell you how hard it is. You made the right choice.'

This past year has certainly brought to the forefront what I've given up by choosing the path I did. Would I have chosen differently if I'd known all this eleven years ago?

There were an awful lot of big choices this year.

Smallest seems to have some issues with one of his ears, and while we're in the process of figuring out what's going on, his pediatrician was adamant that he should not be flying. I was wrestling with what to do as my dad became increasingly bed-bound - go to the US without Smallest? Not go to the US at all? Take Smallest regardless, doctor be damned?

I decided in the end to go -twice- and to go sans baby.

Fortunately, Smallest was fine, Smalls got over his envy, L probably managed stay-at-home parenthood better than me, our savings account will recover eventually, and I got to pat my dad's lovely dad-hands and sing some of his favourite tunes with him.

There were, of course, many days that I felt like I should jump on a plane to be with my parents and had to choose not to.

To go, to stay - both choices, both opening and closing ways.

There have been a lot of consequences of my choosing to live abroad - some minor (extortionately priced Cheerios, for instance), some much, much larger. I certainly didn't anticipate most of them when I packed my two suitcases and left the US for good.

I was bemoaning this fact to a very wise friend who noted that I wasn't really a special case. Everyone makes path-not-taken choices, expat or not. (Though she did say it in a much nicer way.)

There also would have been consequences for choosing not to live abroad.

And, if we're going to be assessing route-altering choices, there have been many non-expat related  choices I've had to make. University, university degree, getting married...and of course, the arguably biggest (even bigger than moving abroad), was my choice to have children (bless their cute little life-shaping socks).

Just as this year has highlighted the naivety of my twenty-year-old self and the consequences of leaving everything but the contents of those two suitcases behind, it has also helped me understand the importance of acceptance.

When I chose to get on the plane to the US without Smallest, it was a choice made out of love and made with acceptance for whatever the consequences might be. And it's given me a great deal of peace to remind myself of that.

So here's to a new year of new choices. Here's to giving up on trying to find some mythical 'right choice' - especially for decisions in the past. Here's to a future of love-based path-selection.

14 October 2016

Saying goodbye from a distance

I talked to my dad a few days ago. I stared at him in the slightly-pixelated video on my phone. He was propped up in his hospital-grade bed, and from the other side of the ocean, it seemed so unnecessary. He looked so young. So like my dad who should live forever. Or at least past retirement age.

My family who is with him now would, of course, tell you a different story - one better grounded in the day-to-day realities of someone who is at the very end stages of a savage manifestation of cancer.

But here is how it looks from my side: I've had my suitcase sitting next to my bed, half packed, for nearly two months. I (or rather, a very helpful L) have changed my plane ticket, pushing it out to a later date. The 'in my experience, probably only two weeks left' from the lovely hospice nurse has long been eclipsed. I find myself at events that I only agreed to because I thought for sure I would be gone when they happened.

And so, even as I jump at every sound my phone makes, deceptive thoughts have started to filter in.

Smalls and I recently had a discussion that I would be going to the US soon for his granddad's funeral.

'Please can I come with you? I really want to come. I need to see how they take the cancer out of him,' Smalls told me.

I explained that this time, sadly, they couldn't take the cancer out.

But as the weeks stretch on, my belief in the inevitable is getting shaken.

Maybe it doesn't have to end this way, the deceptive hopes whisper. Doesn't he look so young in the fuzzy Skype video?

While it is breaking my heart to be so far away, I can see how I am also sheltered at this distance, only able to theoretically imagine the midnight panic attacks, the adult diaper changes, the increasing occurrences of seizures. And so I'm stewing in cocktail of equal parts guilt for not being there to help and hope that perhaps things that I can't see aren't really happening.

So, here I am, spending mornings hanging laundry with a giggling Smallest and relaxed afternoon walks home from preschool with Smalls, with the cat lounging on my lap and drinking a cup of tea with L in the last light of the day, in a bubble of nice normality.

But how to reconcile this with the unseen things happening at my other home with my thoughtful, witty, hardworking, motorcyle-riding, snorting-at-his-own-jokes dad?

Damned if I know.

'And why will you die?' Smalls blurted out during a call with my dad.

'We'll talk about this later,' I said with brisk authority.

However,  I'm really better suited to being the asker rather than the answerer of that question these days.

So, to stick to topics that I am certain about: What I do know is that my dad is very much loved and the world has been a better place with him in it.

And I can't describe how much I wish it didn't have to be this way.

30 July 2016

Living outside of Prague

When we first talked about moving to the Czech Republic, I was dead set on living in a flat in Prague. And not just any flat. In my dreams, this flat would be in Vinohrady or Dejvice or, even better, in the trendy-but-not-too-dodgey bits around Letná . The flat would be large, of course, with many delightful historical features and would manage to have both a lovely view and not too many stairs.

For a number of reasons (including, but not limited to the price of large, delightful flats in desirable neighbourhoods), we ended up instead in our village and it's taken some time for me to fully embrace our rural setting.

What started as acceptance when I saw our happy kitties racing up the apple trees and a very satisfied L building bonfires and tending to his unruly tomatoes eventually evolved into genuine appreciation when I started planting my own things and (perhaps more crucially) Smalls started running, jumping, and creating his own very loud soundtrack. Thank goodness that no downstairs neighbours' hearing was harmed during Smalls's toddlerhood.

But now, this appreciation has blossomed into love.

Smallest, the newest addition to our family, was born into a lovely April. The canola fields boarding the village were in full eye-searing yellow. But inside the village, the cherry and apple trees offered a more sophisticated picture. The days were sunny and the evenings only a little crisp.

And I discovered that I have an adorable baby who will sleep if pushed around and around and around the village in his pram.

So, we see the village in the morning light. And the afternoon sun. And during the last glimmers in the evening.

I've memorised not just our neighbourhood, but also the old part of the village, the very old part of the village, and both of the newly built sections. I've explored the paths over the fields and started preliminary investigations on the nearby villages.

L should be pleased to note that cost of the new-secondhand pram that I insisted on buying is down to less than 1.5 CZK per kilometre.

These walks are easily the highlight of my days and I've really enjoyed getting to know the village.

And while I've been out in my explorations, the village has also gotten to know me.

Older women stop to discuss how Smallest is growing. Does he sleep at night? Has he gotten over his cold? And the strangely popular; Are you breastfeeding?

I always exchange a friendly 'Dobrý den!'with the blue-haired boy down the road who seems to be out at least once a week applying new decals to his car. He always gives a cheery wave while contemplating where to best put 'Rides only for cash, grass, or ass', but mercifully does not inquire about my lactating abilities.

'It's going to rain. You'd better walk quickly!' paní učitelka from across the street tells me as she gathers in her laundry.

'It's going to rain,' says the white haired man from number 94, as he, as always, takes his bike for a walk up the hill.

'It's going to rain,' I tell Mr. R's dog.

Mr. R's dog is almost certainly the scruffiest mutt in the village and, while occasionally I see him with Mr. R., more often than not, the poor chap is gamely taking himself for a walk. Or, somewhat humoursly, he joins other owners with their well-groomed, well-bathed dogs on their walks. ('It's not mine!' one woman felt the need to declare a few weeks ago when she, her dog, and the tagalong went past).

Mr. R's dog nods at me and continues sniffing his way home.

While it's nice to get advanced warning of impending meteorological events, by far the best benefit of village life is the number of friends I now have in the village. Friends, who often sit in their gardens or on their balconies in the pleasant summer evenings. Friends, crucially, who invite me to stop for a glass of wine and a chat while Smallest (sometimes) sleeps in his pram.

And finally, getting to know the village better also means that one knows who to contact if, say, one should be thinking about which route to take, dinner plans, schedules in September, what to do over the weekend, and how to find meaning and purpose in life BUT NOT, importantly, about the exact location of the keys to the front door.

While I didn't particularly enjoy going from neighbour to neighbour with my very helpful father-in-law asking if they had a very tall ladder and a desire to help us break into my house via the top floor window, it was somewhat gratifying that two of the three neighbours I tried came ready and armed with their ladders. The third wasn't home.

Before help arrived, I had a rather anxious fifteen minutes of peering through the patio doors wanting so very desperately to be on the other side. There was something about seeing our living room from the (literal) outside that really brought to the forefront of my mind the thought that there behind that stupidly locked glass door was, unquestionably, my home.

So, you can keep your Art Nouveau metalwork and the tree-lined avenues with hip cafes. Smallest and I have another few laps around our village to go before it rains.

16 June 2016

Speaking Czech in the maternity ward

My plans for my pre-baby maternity leave consisted of:
1. Organise the house.
2. Vastly improve my Czech so that I could calmly chat with the midwives whilst giving birth.

The Czech textbooks (yes, all three of them) were dutifully located and dusted off, but I spent about as much studying as I did organising, which was significantly dwarfed by the time spent wobbling from the sofa to the toilet, faffing with my collection of pillows, and eating antacids like (very subpar) bonbons.

I wasn't so concerned about actually giving birth. First of all, L was almost certainly going to be there. And secondly, the baby was coming out one way or another, regardless of my language skills. As it turned out (as mentioned in the previous post), the amount of vocabulary necessary to actually give birth was pretty much limited to some heart-felt moans and ‘HE’S COMING!’ from me.

However, my big concern was how comfortable it would be with my Czech for the pretty much mandated post-birth hospital stay. One big difference between the UK and Czech approaches to maternity care is that while the UK system is very eager to turf out new mothers at the earliest opportunity (or, even better! Just stay in your living room – we’ll come to you!), the Czech system is pretty insistent that one shouldn’t even consider leaving the confines of the hospital for at least three nights. 

Since I have a very bouncy four-year-old and a half-organised house, I decided a few days of having my meals delivered to my bedside wasn’t such a bad idea.

Not only did I survive on my sloppy Czech, my time in the hospital noticeably improved my language skills. In the postpartum 'I am amazing, look what I did!' haze, I lost nearly all of my shyness about appearing foreign. While previously, I would see if I could ‘pass’ as Czech through well-timed head nodding and stringent reliance on the words I know how to pronounce properly, in the hospital, I found myself cheerily telling all-and-sundry, ‘Mluvím anglicky a trochu česky.’ [I speak English and a little Czech].

I cheerily butchered sentence after sentence about newborn care and the state of my delicate bits. I learned a few new vocabulary words, including the delightful pupeční šňůra (umbilical cord). I tried to listen in on my roommate’s late night telephone conversations (which, if I understood correctly, detailed the process of her giving birth in the hospital car park!).

The first nurse I talked with following the birth set my expectations for the rest of the stay rather low when she turned to my roommate and tutted that it was so terrible with these women who don’t speak Czech. I thought this was a little unfair considering I had understood and responded appropriately to all of her instructions about caring for the baby, myself, the room, the bed and had only stumbled on filling in a form regarding permissions for a variety of procedures.

However, most of the other staff were lovely and patient. A student doctor and a very nice paediatrician both spoke very good English and helpfully translated whenever I was unsure about what people wanted to do to me or my baby.

Things were going so well that I even decided to ask for help with breastfeeding my sleepy newborn, and confessed to the paediatric nurse on her rounds that I wasn’t sure what to do since he didn’t seem to want to feed. The nurse told me I was clever, patted my shoulder reassuringly, checked my latched, told me not to worry – he was probably just sleepy – and to try again later. As she was finishing up her paperwork, she gave me another pep talk about my cleverness and more reassuring pats.

I was a little befuddled as to why she was being so terribly nice when I realised that instead of saying he didn’t want to feed (nechce kojit), I had said that I didn’t want to feed (nechci kojit).

So, bonus points to Nemocnice Hořovice for being breastfeeding-friendly.

My new plan for maternity leave post baby is to vastly improve my simple verb conjugations.

28 April 2016

Giving birth in the Czech Republic

Last week, the smallest member of our family decided to enter the world. In spite of being a few days over his due date, he managed to shock me with his arrival. I was half-convinced I was going to be pregnant forever.

Birth basics
My waters broke in the early morning, but since I had only a few small contractions, I decided the best course of action would be to go back to bed. Fortunately, L convinced me that we should at least call the hospital to see what they would want.

'They said to come straight away,' L told me.

'Yeah, but I don't think they really meant it,' I said. 'Did you tell them I don't have any contractions?'

I faffed about adding extra things to my hospital bag and filling in forms while L paced about and tried to talk me into putting on my shoes and getting into the car, as well as transferring Smalls to a tired-but-excited Babi and Děda. 

After a 30-minute drive on a deserted motorway, we were at the hospital and I was still not contracting convincingly. 

So, I was quite apologetic to the nurse who booked us in and prepared to be told off for wasting their time. The visage of a disappointed Babi loomed.

However, the nurse was surprisingly serious about the whole thing, insisting we change into hospital-issued clothing (Bah! We'll just have to change back when they realise I'm not really in labour.), had the doctor take a look, and then, mysteriously, escorted us to the labour and delivery room.

The labour and delivery room was very nice, as far as these sorts of rooms go. And I wavered between feeling a little guilty that we would be taking up a room that surely some other more-contracting woman would need and looking forward to catching up on my reading on the adequately-comfy sofa. 

I suspect that you can guess what is coming next.

A hard-and-fast two and a half hours later, and I had a snuffling Smallest curled up on my chest. 

The book was never opened.

Giving birth in Czech
I'm happy to report that my lack of fluent Czech did not prevent me from giving birth.

When the midwife said, with some urgency, 'To bude brzy!' [It will be soon!], I understood.

When I realised it would be even sooner than she predicted, and that the space around my bed was concerning lacking in people, I said (in English...and since this is my version of events, with the calmness of the Orgasmic Birth woman), 'HE'S COMING!', and people came running over.

The very kind midwife patted me reassuringly and repeated, 'Tlačte'. Through the searing whiteness of contractions, I couldn't remember if that meant 'breathe' or 'push'. So, I did both. And it seemed to work.

I have some vague memory of the midwife instructing the nurse to hand her the scissors (me: Oh hell no! Better make a big push. Or possibly breath.), but in the memory, they're both speaking in English. So, I'm not sure exactly how accurate it is.

UK vs. Czech Births
My first son was born in the UK, in a very calm, very intimate, very long home birth. It was an incredible and powerful experience. It was also a little traumatic, and I avoided the room where it all took place for weeks afterwards. (Right over here is where I was in the most pain of my life. Care for another cup of tea?)

For a number of reasons, including an institutional hostility to home births, such a birth wasn't something I considered this time around.

This birth was also incredible and powerful, though somewhat less intimate. In some ways it was better (no need to worry about the state of my rugs or sofa); in some ways, it was worse (I really wanted gas and air again). Overall, though, it was pretty much the best hospital birth experience that I could imagine, and I would highly recommend Nemocnice Hořovice.

And, finally, it's amazing how quickly This was a mistake! What was I thinking?! I don't suppose there's another way to get it out?! is over-written by My gods, you're perfect! I'd do it all again tomorrow for you and your sweet, pouty lips. 

Bloody biology.

04 April 2016

A visit to the ER: Czech versus the US (with gratuitous swearing)

A few weeks ago, one of our 'Amazingly Ever-Sharp!' ceramic knives was on the hunt for blood.

It started by attacking L as he reached into the basket for it.

'Ow! F*ck!' L growled.

I had two sentences fighting for control of my tongue.

Sentence 1: 'Hm, are you sure that's a word we want to teach Smalls?'
Sentence 2: 'I'll get you a plaster.'

It is a very fortunate thing that Sentence 2 won, because not five minutes later, that very same knife deviated from my plan to slice through a hunk of rather old bread and instead sliced through my finger.

'Oh, f*ck,' I said, and two thoughts made their way into my brain.

Thought 1: Probability of Smalls gaining a new vocabulary word: much increased.
Thought 2: This is going to require more than a plaster. 

One of the things I've gotten very used to here in the Czech Republic is the 'socialist' healthcare that is often decried by my conservative American Facebook friends.

While in my experience, Czech hospitals aren't as glossy as American hospitals, they are not without their advantages.

First off, I pay under $200 out of my paycheck a month for all of my health and social insurances. I had the choice of two official health insurance companies. And even better, I don't have to talk to my insurer - all of the billings are handled by the medical offices.

And let's talk co-pays. There have been some changes in recent years about how much Czech healthcare users are required to pay, but recently, following outrage and controversy, the mandatory co-pay for visiting a general practitioner has been reduced to....nothing. The shocking amount required before? 90 CZK ($3.79).

Since my bloodied finger happened in the evening, we headed off to the emergency room, which still requires a co-pay, though probably not as much as most American health service users pay.

Case in point: a few years ago, when we visiting my sister and brother-in-law in the US, my brother-in-law came into the house with a very large, blood-oozing wound on his head. L and I were getting ready to sort out getting him to the emergency room, when my sister said the immortal words:

'I'm not paying $500 just because my husband was doing something stupid.'

Here in the Czech Republic, the amount L had to pay because his wife was doing something stupid: 90 CZK.

Perhaps the best part of the whole experience was when we walked into the examination room and the on-call doctor looked up from his desk, laughed a bit, and said, 'Ahoj!'

So, L had a chance to catch up with a childhood friend while my finger was expertly stitched.

And, on an equally positive note, not only has the 4 cm gash healed nicely, the only time Smalls has used 'f*ck' remains the time he solemnly looked me in the eyes and said, 'f*cked.'

While I was still scrambling to think of the best way to deal with the situation, he added, 'It's true!' and I realised he had, in fact, said 'fakt' (i.e. the Czech word for 'it's the truth/a fact').

And so I'm pretty sure his vocabulary, unlike my poor finger, has emerged from the bloodbath unscathed.