A day in the life of an expat

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Zbraslav — The view from my bedroom window.

It is still dark when I hear the gate shut behind me at 7:00 a.m. but, all things considered, it really isn’t as cold as it could be for a mid-November morning. I walk down the hill towards the bus stop, savoring the brisk air, the fading gold of the still-lit lamps and the sleepiness of the quiet street I live on.

I’m up earlier than normal for a Monday (by a whole ten minutes, which is absolutely shocking), but I have a big day – no, a big week – ahead, and getting a head-start is something I’ve decided to practice as I evolve into a somewhat-responsible adult.

The bus stop is lacking a few of its regulars this morning, or maybe it’s just that I’m early. If that’s the case, I should be early every morning because for once there are seats available when the 338 finally pulls up. We climb aboard and I ask a woman if I can scoot into the seat between her and the window. She looks disgruntled, but I’ve learned to be active in pursuing open seats on public transportation.

Everyone is quiet. The girl standing by the door is nodding off. There are mostly high school students and business class workers on this bus. The blue collar employees will have been up earlier and the younger students are probably only just now finishing their breakfasts. The city’s university students roll out of bed at all hours, prisoners to the arduous schedules of their respective faculties.

The drive into Prague is a pretty one at any time of year, but in the late fall it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Too early for hoar frost and too late for the bright tresses of autumn leaves, the river valley and its surrounding hills and forests look dark and brooding. Everything is maroon, grey and chocolate brown, except for the river which runs like molten silver between the winding misty banks and pepper-grey trees.

I switch buses just outside the city center and head out for the suburbs again. It’s still dark, but the veil is slowly being lifted off the earth and the heavens are peaking through.

Across the river and up into the hills opposite the city, I get off at my final stop and it’s finally light. Mornings aren’t bright this time of year. Everything is grey and hazy. Honestly, it feels a bit like living in a fogged up snowglobe. But I don’t mind. The only time it ever looks like this in San Diego is right before the holidays, so this has put me in a festive mood.

Because I have the time, I stop at the grocer by my school – Albert. It’s my VONS equivalent here and, frankly, it’s beginning to feel like home-away-from-home. I was happy to see the cardboard Christmas tree cutout in the entrance and their growing supply of holiday chocolates (which include chocolate villages because, why not?).

Normally, I might grab a pastry (freshly baked Czech pastries are indescribable), but today I grab a warm, whole grain, bread loaf about the size of my hand but shaped like a diamond. I also purchased a small container of tomato-cream cheese spread. It all comes out to less than $1.50. Happy holidays, indeed.

The walk to school from this direction is one of my favorites. The path leads past several blocks of apartment highrises, each separated by a scruffy lawn and shaggy trees. The path itself is also lined with trees, which means that as I walk I am shuffling through piles of fallen leaves. This is probably the last week they won’t be a problem. The color has already drained from them, but at least they’re dry. After the first rain they will turn into a slimy mush that grabs unsuspecting humans and drags them to the ground. Zombie plant life is the worst.

Students troop into the school from various directions. They all seem to come in pairs of two, leading me to believe that our school really is a reincarnation of Noah’s Ark. Not only do the inhabitants possess certain animal-esque qualities, but on a proper Monday it really can seem like forty days and forty nights before we’re finally able to leave the building.

Inside, I’m greeted by students smiling through mouthfuls of rohlíky, their hurried breakfasts eaten on the way to class. They try to high-five me but their arms are full of art supplies.

Today, I don’t teach until second period, which means I have the first hour to eat my own breakfast and finish grading tests from last week. I’m finally learning how to grade on a curve, but it’s hard because I really just want to give everyone #1s. (They don’t give letter grades here – they allot numbers 1 – 5. I’m adjusting, but sometimes someone still gets a 2- or a 1+).

During second period, my sixth graders practice the Thanksgiving play I wrote. Everyone wants to be a rabbit or a squirrel. The boys absolutely refuse to be Pilgrims because they don’t want to have wives.

When class finishes, I troop back down to the second floor where my office is tucked away in a dark hall off the stairwell.

Mondays mornings are quiet for me because I have three free periods in a row. The bell rings and the chatter in the hallway dissipates into classrooms. I grade more tests, taking immense pleasure in giving the best students ‘reward’ stickers, though sometimes I feel like the kids who really need stickers are the ones who can’t get above a 3 no matter how hard they try. If I were a sticker company, I’d start a line of spaceship stickers that say, “Shooting for the stars is hard, but we’re so proud of you for trying!”

Just before noon I wander down to the cafeteria. It’s almost empty so it is extremely quiet. As nice as the peacefulness is, I think I prefer the loud mobs of cheery students with bright faces and mischievous eyes.

Option one today is an herby carrot sauce (more like a gravy, really) and beef chunks with boiled potatoes. It’s one of my favorite dishes here because for some reason it smells like home. Option two is a dish with bread dumplings and something Czechs call “universal brown sauce.” I am thankful I selected option one. The menu is in Czech so I don’t always know what I’m getting. Typical of Czech culture, both options come with a soup – today it is garlic and potato. I set my tray down, fill my glass with a sweet šťáva and set aside the yogurt granola bar for later. Then I bow my head and thank my Creator for his many mercies. And there are many.

At a quarter to one, I teach a small class of fourth graders. It’s an afternoon conversation lesson so it’s much more casual, though I’m trying to help them understand that casual doesn’t mean chaos.

My last lesson of the day is one of my favorites all week. Four ninth graders, two adorable seventh graders, varying levels of English.

We push two tables together and I whip out an English card game (based on characters from Frozen, because, duh).

“I haven’t seen this yet,” complains one of the boys. “There better not be spoilers.”

There are definitely spoilers.

Class wraps up and the kids stay a few extra minutes to help me put up chairs and to say goodbyes. I love those classes where no one wants to leave right away.

The pitter-patter of their feet down the hallway fades and the echoing of their laughter softens as they disappear around the corner at the end of the corridor. I lock up the windows and head back to my office.

More papers to look at, lessons to finish for tomorrow. Also, there are a few recipes I have to check before I leave. Thanksgiving is this week and I’m cooking for two different feasts, so as soon as I finish tomorrow’s prep, I grab my coat(s) and scarf and head out on the next round of errands: finding ingredients.

Not yet 4 o’clock and it’s already getting dark. I leave through the teachers’ exit to find the sky sprinkling tiny water droplets. Mentally, I prepare myself for the zombie-leaves that will be here tomorrow.

I take a bus back into the city center. We drive through a forest, down the hill towards the river. The wispy, pepper-grey trees look like a multitude of ghosts and forgotten spirits lifting their arms in despair, bare and melancholy in the early clutches of winter. Change is hard.

The whir-thump-thump of the bus finally stops and I climb down into a roaring metro stop. It smells like people, concrete and cinnamon. The latter is courtesy of Fornetti bakery which sells pastries and kolače at the top of the metro platform.

But I’m not hungry so I rush down the steps and hop on a rushing blur of red and white that whisks me off to Wenceslas Square (“It’s really more of a rectangle, isn’t it?” – said every American ever).

It’s completely dark when I top the metro stairs and the long “square” is lit by lamps and store fronts, some of which have already strung white Christmas lights. I walk towards the top, catching tid-bits of conversation as I go. A young father is trying to teach his son how to say, “Taxík” as they hurry through the rain.

I hurry too, trying not to slip on the wet stones,. No matter how practical you think your shoes are, they will never be a match for wet cobblestones. I find myself sliding every few steps.

I’m off to the Candy Store, a British merchandising shop that carries Anglo-American products that are otherwise impossible to find in Prague. It’s a harder-to-reach store but it’s always worth it. I wander in and stay for longer than I need, distracted by all the tastes from home that I miss or equally new tastes from ol’ England that I’d love to try. Vegemite, anyone?

But I’m here for brown sugar and canned pumpkin, both of which I find. Last year there was canned cranberry, but, alas, it is not in stock anymore.

Purchases tucked into my bag, I set off again. This time, it’s Operation Dinner.

I don’t tend to eat much in the evenings since moving here. Lunch is the big meal of the day and I’m not always hungry in the evening. Sometimes I’ll grab a thin slice of pizza at a bus stop on my way to Czech lessons or buy some fruit at a Potraviny outside class. But tonight I’m feeling like a sandwich from Bageterie Boulevard and nothing is going to stop me.

Bageterie Boulevard is a cross between the French-cafe version of Subway and HEAVEN. They have the best potato wedges in the city and arguably the best hot chocolate (which is almost always out of stock).

But best of all, the closest one is just downhill from me.

The cars that roll by seem even louder in the rain. Rainwater slaps against their tires and harmonizes with the gentle grumble of their engines. Traffic lights reflect off the wet street surfaces making everything feel even more like Christmas (because, as a San Diegan, Christmas and rain will always be synonymous to me).

The problem with the route I’m taking is that it never works. It’s a part of Prague I like to refer to as the Bermuda Hexagon. I have never entered it and come out where I wanted or expected to. Five minutes can turn into an hour quicker than you can say, “Well, where the heck am I now?” As soon as I reach the park bordered by the creepy old stone church I realize, I’ve been lost here before. There’s nothing left to do but keep walking, so I do. And few things have a stronger pull than the promise of dinner.

When I finally find myself, I’m so far away from where I meant to be. However, this faraway place also has a Bageterie Boulevard and it’s a nicer one. Good things sometimes do happen to me.

I crawl inside, drenched, and order a sandwich and coffee. The boy behind the counter seems extra nice. Either he’s impressed with my attempt to speak his language or he feels bad that I look like I just got pushed into a river.

I take my food to the upper level and find a little table that looks out over the avenue. Directly across from me is Cafe Louvre. It’s pretty famous and, with the insides lit softly, I can see the blue and rose-colored wallpaper and neatly dressed tables.

Down the street, a shopping center brandishes its Christmas lights.

But inside Bageterie, all is calm and quiet. Families talk in lowered voices and friends chat in hushed tones. A few students are scribbling through essays or reading books.

I wish I could stay longer, but I know I have to brave the wet and cold again. It’s time for Czech lesson.

It’s a long walk through puddles and slippery sidewalks to get to my tram, but I don’t mind. I love the rain. As I approach my tram, I notice that a work crew is putting the Christmas lights on the trees in the square.

My Czech teacher is one of a kind. She always seems to be in a good mood – though, as a teacher myself, I recognize that it could very well be an attitude she pushes herself into for the sake of her students. I appreciate her for it.

But she’s funny and kind and puts up with most of my nonsense, so the hour and a half flies by. I say goodbye to the Italian man who was also in class today. Our girl from Hungary is missing this week.

Going anywhere in cold weather takes time. Hats, scarves, boots, gloves. Layer upon layer is put on to protect from the thistley pangs of the cold.

And it is cold outside. And wet. The tram stop is pretty full and there are no seats when the 9 pulls up. By this point, I’m just ready to get going. I’ve been out of the house for the last 14 hours. I want to go home.

But the way home is a long one. Tram to metro. Metro to bus. It’s a lot of running down stairs and squeezing through marshmallowed people decked in their winter coats, trying to make short connections and cut my commute down to as short a time as possible. It still ends up being almost an hour.

Right before I dive into the metro entrance, I notice two policemen guarding a sectioned off corner of the walkway. Between them is a large puddle of something much redder than rainwater.

I pause for a moment in the blending of motion around me and wonder what happened before tripping down the stairs, back into the abyss of the underground labyrinth I hope will take me home. I hope everyone makes it home tonight, despite what that puddle might suggest. Not every day ends the way we hope it will.

When I finally sit down in the safety of my last bus for the day, our last cycle around the sun fades into one blurry, tired memory. No one is speaking on this nearly empty bus, dimly lit by three mellow-yellow bulbs.

The ghostly scenery is gone, replaced by pitch blackness and silhouettes of trees or bridges barely outlined by streaks of blue and grey.

It’s a short walk from the bus to my house, but it’s the best part of my day. It’s three minutes in which I am not in a hurry and have nothing to do but keep putting one foot in front of the other. At the very edge of Prague, a village nestled in quaint woods and the sloping banks of the Vltava, Zbraslav is the kind of place where falling asleep at night is easy. The nightly noises are calming, like the train that whistles across the river, pulling and pushing its way across the tracks. Even the continuous dribble of rain is pleasant. Smoke wafts from chimneys and the lamp posts reflect in the wet stones beneath me.

It was dark when I left this morning and it’s dark as I return at 8:45. The lane still feels sleepy, though now falling asleep, rather than waking from it. It’s chilly, but all things considered, it’s not as cold as it could be for a late evening in November.

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