An interview with a Czech girl

The first thing you notice about Kačka is her smile. And it’s the first thing she gives me when she comes in off the dusky street into the soft lamplight of Costa Coffee. Kačka is one of my good friends in Prague and she had agreed to sit down for a proper interview over a couple of lattes. She takes the seat opposite me across a small, round table with our coffees and a complimentary Czech magazine which we both ignore.

“If you put this on your blog, will I become famous?” she asks with a playful grin.

“Most likely not,” I say, honestly. “Not that many people read it.”

“I want to be famous, Mary,” she says with a tone that suggests if this interview doesn’t lead to a red carpet she may not grant a second one. “What are you going to ask me anyway? Are you going to make me sound like your crazy, weird Czech friend?”

I laugh and promise to be fair. She takes a sip of her latte, clutching it with both hands. There’s a fishbone ring on one hand and her fingernails are brightly painted. She looks ready for an interview.

IMG_1361Describe yourself in eight words.

“Like a full sentence? Or just eight words?” she asks. “Outgoing – spontaneous – cheerful.” She stops and grins. “I guess I shouldn’t be too complimentary of myself. Let me think – crazy? And trusting. I trust people and haven’t had any bad experiences yet. Friendly – adventurous. What are we at, six? Seven?”

“Seven.”

She leans back in her chair to think. Her T-Shirt says ‘Hot Chocolate, Sofa and TV – Perfection.’

“I don’t know what the word for this is. I know what I want to do but I still don’t have the guts to do it. Like last year when I wanted to study at the Hague but in the end couldn’t make the move. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just chose the safer option. Maybe I just wasn’t ready? I don’t know what the word for that is. Does that still make eight?”

I nod.

What are some of your hobbies?

“Traveling,” she says before I even get the question fully out. “And not just traveling, but adventurous traveling.”

She sets her face onto the palm of her hand and lets it stay there while she thinks. Laughing she admits, “Going to cemeteries. I’ve been to cemeteries in the Ukraine, Sarajevo, Istanbul. The one in the Ukraine had two young people, married, who died in some accident. Their graves were decorated with hearts and things. It was really romantic and beautiful. In Istanbul we were just above sea level and you could see everything. Gorgeous.

Breaking into universities to attend lectures,” she adds. “I did that in Turkey.”

She pulls her hair back, tucking it behind her ear before resting her chin on her hand again.

“Fairs. Anything with roller coasters. The wooden roller coaster at the fair in Stockholm is supposed to be the highest in the world, but I was only 15 when I went, so maybe it would be a little less cool now.”

Do you think you’re a typical Czech girl?

“No,” she says decidedly. “I have lots of friends from abroad. I think a lot of Czechs are shy to speak English but that changed for me when I was traveling. I think I’m friendlier to strangers than most Czechs.

“Czechs are hardworking but not all of them are very ambitious. It’s hard to generalize because not everyone’s the same. Don’t get this wrong, I’m proud of being Czech, I just don’t think I’m like most young Czechs. That doesn’t mean I’m better or worse – just different.”

What do you think of Americans?

It takes a while to get her to stop laughing and give a straight answer.

“Loud, over-excited, friendly even when they don’t mean it. Maybe a little shallow? They don’t speak foreign languages. Really self-confident and really good at public speaking. Like, even if they don’t know what they’re talking about, they just sound really good.

I’m going hitchhiking to Berlin with some American friends over Easter break, actually. It should be really fun.”

We talk about Berlin and Kačka admits that she usually gets along really well with Germans and Scandinavians. “Too bad the beer in Scandinavia is freaking expensive.”

She tells me that beer is an important part of the weekend ritual. Friends start in a hospoda (pub) before going to a concert or over to someone’s house to bake international cuisines. Finally she says, “Really, I just like to be with people who like to do stuff.”

What are your four top life goals?

“First, to be happy and not regret things. When I’m an old granny, I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I was freaking awesome when I was younger, that I traveled places and did things. So second would be to travel as much as possible. I want to visit all of the continents. You can come with me when I go to Antarctica,” she adds, laughing.

“I want to find someone to share my crazy life with – someone crazy enough to put up with me. But it doesn’t matter when I find him. Sooner better than later, but I’m not in a rush.

“Four? I want to stay in touch with all the amazing people I’ve met and to meet new ones.”

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What do you do to feel happy when you’re upset or sad?

She tosses her blonde head back with a laugh and says immediately, “Eat chocolate.”

Then her head comes down to her hand again and she says more thoughtfully, “I do something unusual. Go on a trip to a new city, explore something new. Or do something crazy and fun like bungee jumping.”

What is the best thing about living in Prague?

“You’re asking the wrong person,” she giggles ironically. “I like Prague. I grew up here, it’s home, and I’ll always be happy to come back, but I’m not planning to live here.”

She finishes her latte as I scratch out notes. When my pen stops she says, “If you live in Prague and you’re not just visiting, the best thing is finding all the hidden places in the city. There are so many cool pubs and libraries. Prague is also really international with lots of students and tourists. It’s not a boring city to live in.”

She looks at me and I can tell she’s already planning her next grand expedition.

What are you doing for the Easter holiday?

“I’m going to Berlin!” Her excitement level spikes as she talks about her trip and the people she’s pulling together for it. She tells me her family will be out of Prague for the holiday and she doesn’t really celebrate it anymore.

“When I was a little girl I hated this holiday because all the boys got to go around collecting chocolate eggs and I had to stand at the door and wait for them,” she says, referencing the Czech tradition of boys getting eggs and chocolate from girls by whipping them with be-ribboned rods. “So then I decided to go get eggs from people too, even though I was a girl, and I guess they let me because I was so cute. They wouldn’t now. I’m too big. So we’re going to Berlin instead. What do you do in America? You look for bunnies in the garden or something, right?”

It takes us a minute to clear up the misconceptions about American Easter traditions.

Is there anything else you want to add?

“Don’t be afraid and do whatever you want to do, no matter what society thinks. Like that Steve Jobs quote, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish,’ right?”

She smiles and blinks.

“Now can I ask you questions?” she asks me.

I chuckle and nod.

“Do you like Prague?”

“Yes.”

“Are you happy?”

“Not always,” I say. “But I always have joy.”

“Is that because you believe in God?”

I nod again. “Happiness is circumstantial. Joy found in the promises of God is lasting.”

“Can I come to your wedding?”

We both burst into sad laughter.

“If that blessed occasion comes to pass, you shall be invited,” I promise her. “But only if I can come to yours too.”

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We pack our things and leave the cafe. The street is finally getting dark and the trams glide alongside us like great, red ships in a rippled sea of cobblestones. The metro tunnels are packed but our car rocks through the underground with plenty of standing room and the occasional empty seat. Kačka is still trying to think of good interview questions for me.

When we get to my station I wait on the platform with her for her next connection. This is where we part ways.

“Okay,” she says, looking at me squarely. “Do you think Prague has changed you?”

“No,” I say. “Well, maybe. I mean, I’ve definitely changed in the past two years. But I don’t know if that was Prague or just time.”

“Would you have changed in the same ways if you were in San Diego? Or Madrid? Or Dublin?”

“No,” I smile. “It’s been different in Prague.”

“Of course it has,” she says, happy I’ve finally come to the right conclusion. “Everything in our life affects us – the people we know, the places we go. We are constantly being shaped by the world around us.”

She stops abruptly and we glance at each other, simultaneously sharing the same thought.

“I’m so freaking philosophical right now!” she yells excitedly. “This has to go in the interview!”

 

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Hope and Cheesecake

Spring is deceptively cold, this I know. So, as I watched the minutes till my bus tick away, I changed my sweater another time. There has to be a balance between eskimo and flip-flops, but, as a San Diegan, those are the only two levels I know. Czechs dress very specifically for the weather – down to the half degree. Californians wear basically the same thing for anything between 60F and 85F. Whenever something falls outside those “extremes” we declare either global warming or arctic freeze and prepare for the end times.

In the hope that the day would be warm, the long-sleeved sweater got replaced with a light shirt and a fluffy windbreaker.

7:30 is a tad early for me to be up on a Saturday morning, but I will make the rare exception for farmer’s markets. Náplavka’s, I’d heard, was rather a nice one. And I needed a break from the winding road of my weekly worries (which never seem to take the weekends off). It was a brisk bus ride and a sleepy metro toward one of Prague’s wharfs where I linked up with my Czech friend and guide, Katka. As soon as we stepped out of the tunneled stairs into the pale sunshine of the early morning, I knew I should have brought the longer sweater. It was cold.

The market had just opened when we arrived. Only a few other early-risers perused the stalls of fresh fish, local honey, traditional baked goods (with koláče the size of a bike wheel), painted pottery and several robust-smelling foreign dishes. Around us, people walked by with bags for their purchases of fresh-baked bread or their bundles of flowers. I had 50 crowns in my pocket (about $2.50) and I intended to use every last coin.

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Cheeses are in plenty here, though you won’t find any yellow rounds. White cheese only – rough, sour and pungent smelling. They’re usually coupled with a sausage stall where links hang from the roof and rolls of salami are wrapped in greasy white paper, waiting to give someone’s cholesterol the worst day of its life. Today they were steaming meat in a big cooker next to the stall.

One vendor, shivering in a light jacket of his own, scarf wrapped thrice around his neck, had a whole row of home-made jams and jellies in oddly shaped glass jars. Apple, lemon, strawberry, current.

Not much farther down was a pretty girl with a long blonde braid, guarding an array of cakes and quiches. Black poppy seed cake slept beneath a thin glaze that dribbled down the sides. A carrot cake sat gracelessly in the middle of the table. And then there were cheesecakes. Cheesecakes with almond toppings or berry glazes. Cheesecakes with chocolate crumbles and creamy fillings. Just yesterday, Marilyn and I had been talking about cheesecake (a rare find in Prague). My mouth watered looking at them.

At the end of the promenade was a fish wholesaler, taking wiggling, live catches from a bin of water and slapping them down upon a slab to be hammered and gutted. That was a little more than I could handle that early in the morning so Katka and I took a break from the market and found a piece of the wharf not occupied by a vendor. For a few minutes we just watched the sunlight flicker on the silky waters running below us.

The Vltava is a thing of beauty. Swans flock her shores and bridges of every stripe and color criss-cross over her from one end of Prague to the other like the crooked stitches of a beanbag.

The stalls stretched all the way down the wharf between the old train bridge and the fancy one which trams glided across.

Walking back through the hum of activity, we stopped to get a meat pastry and some kind of crazy-delicious Asian sandwich roll. Our treasures gripped between frozen fingers, we found a block of cement beneath the stairs leading back up to the city’s winding tram system and pulled up our feet, enjoying the spot of secluded sunshine.

“I don’t know about sitting here,” said Katka, examining the block. Czechs don’t tend to sit down in public places like bus stop curbs, stairs or ground of any kind. Americans, however, have no problem plopping down where-the-heck-ever so, following my example, she finally took the spot next to mine.

“What’s life without a little dirt on the seat of your pants, anyway?” I asked as we traded bites of our breakfasts.

I feel like I’ve gotten the rhythm of this country. Not much surprises me anymore. I don’t feel offended when old women on the bus give me judgemental looks for not wearing weather-appropriate clothing. I know there are unspoken rules about what meals you can and cannot eat dumplings with that are followed almost religiously. I hear the birdlike chatter of Czech kids on the sidewalk and I know what they’re talking about, I can guess where their feet are taking them. I know that Spring is looked forward to in Prague like dawn awaits the sun – that the world changes when the clouds part and the light lasts longer and the surface of the earth finally begins to thaw and warm. Czechs love spring.

We finished our food and walked back to the metro. Katka wanted to visit the other market in Prague. I’m not a huge fan of the metro and I hate changing lines, but I did both obediently (if a little begrudgingly), following Katka around like the whiny twelve-year old I often am.

The second market, tucked beneath the shadow of an old cathedral on a littered lawn, was much smaller and much less exciting. There were some odd bobbles, tulips, and a very tempting display of cake rolls. But I wanted cheesecake.

Our stroll was short and before long we were back on the metro, re-rumbling across the tracks to the first market.

Our second trip down the plank onto the wharf gave us a much different view. In just an hour the number of people had quadrupled. It was a sea of people coming from all directions – even the river, as ferries landed passengers onto docks below the wharf!

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We struggled through the wall of people to find the cheesecake again. There was a line this time, though not too long a one to deter us from our delectable mission.

Blueberry cheesecake with chocolate-crumble crust was purchased. We stood on a dock just above the glittering water and ate every bite with immense, immeasurable joy.

Sailboats drifted down the river as ferries cruised by, making waves that came slapping up against the sides of the dock. Trams and trains rumbled overhead and the swans below us posed elegantly for pictures and breadcrumbs. And the sun was out. The day warmed up gloriously.

I definitely made the right call on the jacket-sweater decision.

I think a lot of us spend time in long mental-winters that keep us cold and dreary and lost. I think humans long for hope the way they long for spring – some sign that the earth will turn and the flowers will bloom, that the endless night will melt away into something better and brighter. And while it can be hard to trust that God does in fact have a plan – that his timing is perfect and will be revealed to us eventually, it’s reassuring to know that the same God who made us also made spring, which comes every year without fail.

And for me, spring, sunshine and cheesecake taste enough like hope to keep me going till the way becomes straighter.