Life loses its magic quickly. We grow up. Time instills in us fears that blind us to adventure, experiences which numb us to hope, and burdens that overshadow the lonely free spirit that sits caged in the corner of our souls. I tend to be a child most of the time.
For better and for worse, the process of becoming an adult has been a slow one for me. (The fact that I ate cookies for lunch and skipped dinner today may indicate as much).
But one of the advantages of going through spurts of ten-year-oldisms is the delightfully squeelish feeling of joy in circumstances beyond our control – like a perfect day, a letter from home, warm socks after walking through the rain.
Most often I get that feeling at school when I’m walking through empty corridors at the end of a good day and the windows are letting in soft sunshine. My footsteps echo. My shadow follows me along the wall of classrooms. My fingers clench so as not to scare the cleaning ladies at the end of the hall as I physically attempt to restrain my desire to burst into giggles or song or both. It’s that feeling like you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment but right where you are. It’s like Christmas morning.
But lately I’ve been bogged down with the grown-up side of life. The side which says I need to start thinking about my plans for next year, my friendships back home, my goals, my future… It’s hard to have those spasms of joy when you’re worried about tomorrow.
Last weekend I accepted an invitation to visit a friend and her family in a South Bohemian town called Česky Budejovice. I was looking forward to a weekend away from my regular rigmarole (though still letting it sit in the form of stress in the high priority seating located towards the front of my mind), but my friend doesn’t speak much (any?) English and I had never met her daughter (who is my age and attends a University in Prague).
For those of you who may not fully appreciate the total immersion language experience – it’s terrifying. Especially if your best (and only?) quality is putting people at ease through conversation. But that aside, it takes tremendous mental effort to be concentrating on understanding and responding in another language all day, to the point where you feel physically exhausted. We take it for granted both how much we use language and how little we need to think about it. And it’s just embarrassing having to pause before every word and still mix up conjugations, declensions, and vocabulary.
So it was with a brave face and a lot of trepidation that I walked into Ivana’s modest apartment and met her daughter, Katka. We had dinner and caught up on things that have happened since I last saw Ivana in the summer. None of us said much. Thankfully, the food was good enough to give us a viable excuse for silence. I helped clean up the dishes and we took a quick bus ride into town to see the old fortress walls and the river in the moonlight.
The walk back was long and I exhausted the rest of my conversational abilities on things like what my mom bakes for the holidays and who my favorite Czech singers are.
This is only the first night! I thought. I have two more days of this! The grown-up stress of wanting things to be socially appropriate and perfectly unawkward, to be a good house-guest and speak flawless Czech sat on my shoulder like a smug Cheshire Cat.
We got home and Ivana sat us girls down at the table, bringing out five trays of cookies and an assortment of candies, sprinkles and icing-trimmers. Setting down a bowl of lemon frosting, she gave us a satisfied look and a “Have at it!” grin.
I love decorating cookies.
Without meaning to, I began giggling fiendishly (Ivana actually had to ask if I was excited or upset).
For the record, I was definitely excited.
Czechs decorate their cookies differently than Americans. Much more thought and detail, much less icing. Katka and I cracked candies to peel their sugar coatings off the chocolate insides and lined sprinkles in loops and swirls with toothpicks (that takes precision, folks).
And right as I was adding sugar rays to my confectionary sun, I heard the click of a tape player followed by a voice I knew very, very well.
It’s a voice that, to me, is everything I understand about magic and happy Christmas-like moments. Because as a kid, this voice was magic and his song was Christmas.
For those of you guessing, it was Bing Crosby. His song “White Christmas” inaugurates our holiday season every year when someone tries playing it before Thanksgiving (and are subsequently denied the right to play music till New Years – Christmas music before December is WRONG). It then accompanies our tree decorating, our Christmas baking, our quiet nights by the fire. And then it closes the season off when we hear him sing it in the movie “White Christmas” that we watch after the big day.
So the song feels like home to me and home is always a special feeling.
I had to bite my lip to keep from crying, I was so happy (I imagine my hostesses wouldn’t have fully understood the display of emotion).
Ivana told me that the CD (which also included “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Winter Wonderland”) was their family-favorite and they listened to it every Christmas.
I literally just sat in my chair, exploding with warm-fuzzies for about a half hour. It felt so good to feel so good. To really be excited and content and peaceful with where I was in one moment. No phone out to take a snapshot, no thoughts about tomorrow or yesterday. Just me, my Czech friends, these cookies and good music.
That night set the pace for the rest of a lovely weekend.
We biked 34 kilometers over the course of two days.
I won’t mention names here for the sake of our friendship, but I was once forced down the length of Silver Strand State Beach on a bike and it was not fun. It was terrifying, mostly. And painful. There is no easy way to sit on a bike. (You know who you are, friend! Love you! . . . Hate you).
But I did okay this weekend. I only fell off my bike twice (in the same intersection, in front of the same car, in the period of about 20 seconds).
Turns out, biking is a lovely way to see the countryside. We cycled along rivers, next to lakes, through pastures and winter-green fields, around hills split by rusty train tracks, and on tree-lined lanes that led off into autumn wonderlands. It stayed just above freezing the whole weekend, which was the perfect amount of crispy-cold and blustery. Out in the country, it’s easier to see the gold and auburn leaves, something we only see in Michael’s in San Diego.
We also ran into a number of animals – horses, cows, sheep, deer, goats, ponies…something small, fuzzy and black with huge, curly horns… Katka laughed at how excited I got everytime we passed cows. Honestly, they’re just the coolest thing ever.
In town there was a special market for the autumn holiday this week. People were selling jams, honeys, flowered wreaths, wooden puppets and all sorts of home-grown produce. We bought a large pumpkin and some corn. Katka and her mom love to quilt, so we stopped into a fabric store to look at material. My glasses fogged up as soon as we stepped inside the warm little shop. Then it was on to art museums and old churches.
Saturday afternoon we drove to the “fake Stonehenge” which is exactly what it sounds like. We also saw one of the Royal summer castles and a hunting palace (essentially a massive man-cave for the medieval male).
Sunday afternoon we biked to the Zoo. Czech Zoos are smaller than American ones (though I was spoiled, growing up in San Diego). But I like the European versions because the animals are so close and the experience tends to be less expensive.
There was only one moment when I felt completely fatigued by the language barrier and had to excuse myself to my room to sit and think in English for a few minutes. But the rest of the weekend was one happy moment to the next. Just enjoying the ride, so to speak.
Finally, on Sunday, Ivana pulled out the pumpkin (which we had cooked down the night before) and said we should make pumpkin bread as I had mentioned the first evening that it was a holiday staple at my house. So I found a recipe online and the three of us worked in her tiny kitchen – I on the bread, Katka on the soup for lunch, and Ivana on a casserole for our dinner. All the while, a CD of my favorite Czech singer covering American classics like “Blue Christmas” wafted through the aroma-filled air.
I wish I had a jar to bottle up how I felt that afternoon so I could save it for moments when I am too engulfed in life’s deep waters to appreciate the little pieces of magic all around me.
I’m pretty resigned to growing up. I understand that life is full of worries and problems and responsibilities. But I’m also sure that if we stop making room for magic and childlike joy in our lives, our worries and responsibilities will seem much larger and more menacing.
I’m a firm believer in bad Mondays. But I’m also a firm believer in Christmas mornings, even if they come in October.