Whipping girls and other normal Easter traditions

People are the same the world over. The farther I travel, the truer I find this to be.

Occasionally, however, in moments where I am confronted by a tradition or a habit of culture or custom that is new to me, foreign in its very essence, or antiquated to a point of appearing alien, I am forced to challenge my notions about people, and, in extension, about myself.

Easter Monday in the Czech Republic provides one such opportunity.

For those unfamiliar with the custom, Easter is celebrated on Monday in the Czech Republic. The four-day weekend usually draws many Czechs into the countryside. The seclusion of far-away villages has provided sanctuary from prying eyes and unwanted visitors since before the days of communism, though Big Brother certainly increased the incentive for Czechs to make a habit of leaving Prague for a few days whenever possible. It is very common for Czechs to have a cottage somewhere away from whatever big city they live in. So as Easter weekend approached, the cars in my neighborhood dwindled down substantially and by Saturday afternoon a stillness had settled over the whole town.

I live in a bit of a village myself. It’s been included into Prague’s city limits, but it looks like a picture clipping from a ‘40’s real estate magazine, complete with a main road winding from the town square, past our war memorial and old-fashioned store fronts, into the forests that crest the hills behind our honey-comb of houses. It’s a quiet place.

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Easter Sunday isn’t really recognized by most Czechs. Many spend the day painting eggs or baking lamb-shaped cakes. It’s Monday that everyone looks forward to.

…If it feels like I’m stalling, it’s because I’m just not sure how to explain this tradition to my American friends.

On Easter Monday, boys are given pomlázky which are whips made of pussywillow twigs and decorated with ribbons. Boys take the whips and . . . for lack of a better way to put this . . . hit girls.

Yes, there is a centuries-old tradition where boys chant a Czech poem and hit girls with whips (for “health and youth” because for what other reason would a woman subject herself to such antics?) and the girls have to give the boys painted eggs or chocolate. In fairness, the boys claim not to really “flog” that hard and the girls are allowed to throw ice water on any boy who tries to swat them after noon.

But no matter how many of my Czech students, colleagues and friends explained it to me, it seemed backwards and third-wordly. So, naturally, I had to see it for myself.

On Monday morning, coated and camera’d, I met my friend at the bus stop at the bottom of our hill. Taylor is like a glass of Southern tea – tall, sweet, and incredibly cool under pressure. She was also interested in this crazy tradition and since she lives in the city, we agreed to walk through my neighborhoods in an attempt to witness this phenomenon.

“I’m really excited about this,” she told me, eyes glistening from the cold. It was only about nine in the morning. She seemed as giddy as I felt.

Before we had even reached the stones stairs leading into the forest, a group of scraggly high school boys appeared from out of nowhere with whips. They saw us and made a move with their pomlázky held out like sabers. Taylor cried out in surprise and as we hurried away I said loudly in Czech, “Sorry, we don’t have chocolate.”

“Co že?!” They sounded frustrated and swatted their whips at the bushes until they reached the next house. As Taylor and I ascended the hill, we heard through the bare-limbed trees the gleeful shrieks of a woman and the chanting of the boys. Laughter.

We looked at each other.

“This is so weird,” said Taylor. We were both turning red. Some of that may have been the chill in the air. It did not feel warm enough to be April.

“I can’t even believe this is a thing,” I said as we climbed the hill. “This would never be allowed in the United States.”

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We climbed out of the forest and began down the crumbly streets of the upper neighborhoods.

“Mary, they’re traveling in packs,” said Taylor as we stepped into the middle of the road. Middle school-aged boys were indeed roaming around in groups of fours or sevens. They looked rather silly, strutting so confidently with their bowed whips and wicker Easter baskets, pulling their fuzzy hats and scarves over their ears to keep warm. Everyone in this country needs thug lessons.

We figured out very quickly that if we didn’t make eye contact and kept my very obtrusive camera visible at all times, no one would approach us. These boys were younger than the scalawags by the bus stop anyway.

Still, it did feel a bit like a safari ride. We’d spot a group of boys and stop to get a good picture, daring ourselves to stay still long enough to get a good shot as the mob came closer.

There were a number of fathers walking around with even younger boys, little toddlers who could barely hold their whips up. It was so cute and yet we wrestled with the concept.

Through the slats in a fence, we could see several families gathered in a backyard, making a circle around the whippees, taking turns swatting legs and handing out chocolates.

The US is currently having a “Women’s Rights” revolution with campaigns like #HeForShe, which have garnered attention from Hollywood stars and United Nations representatives alike. In a world where violence against women is being brought to account, it seems impossible that a tradition like this still exists, even if the whipping is playful and the purpose is for good health and chocolate eggs.

We walked through the rows of gated homes, watching spring’s earliest flowers struggle to bloom in the cold weather. The sun did come out eventually and with it came a wave of warmth and some much-needed Vitamin D.

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“I want to see someone actually getting whipped,” said Taylor, disappointed by the lack of excitement – most of the action takes place inside the garden gates or doorways, just out of sight, where the mothers wait happily to hand out the hand crafted eggs and bits of candy.

“Okay,” I agreed, “I think it’s time to go to the other side of the hill.”

The top of the hill houses a chapel and cemetery. The view of the surrounding valleys is one of my all-time favorites and this morning everything was washed in a cross-stitch of crystal light and velvet shadows.

We talked about the life of an expat, what it’s like living away from our families, how we’re supposed to adjust to going back home.

Home. Wherever that is.

“It’s things like these crazy traditions that make me wish I could stay here,” Taylor admitted.

I nodded. I get that feeling too. As the morning dripped away and the hoards of boys were joined by vivacious girls with baskets and whips, desperate to be included, our doubts about the appropriateness of this particular ritual seemed to melt away with it. Honestly, it was just nice to see so many fathers and sons out together.

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We walked to the village square and passed a group of youngsters, led by a girl of about eleven. They eyed us in a business-like manner before the girl said, “Neznáme lidi” – “We don’t know those people.” At least some of these rascals have standards. It’s not typical for girls to go get eggs, especially as they get older, but some of these rambunctious little females were clearly determined to break the mold.

As the square came into view, we heard a group of fathers and a handful of little children emerge from the alley behind us. It looked like a zoo excursion, everyone stuffed in jackets like marshmallows, holding hands in a line, being shuffled along by their dads.

The square was empty and quiet and our stomachs had begun to rumble, so we turned back, following the crooked lanes through lonely blocks of ancient houses before finding the forest path home again.

As we reached it, we heard the cries of a boy whose basket had fallen (or been pushed?) to the ground. Many of his eggs were broken on the street or rolling away to the freedom of the gutters. His pals laughed and kicked the eggs away from him and he sighed as he collected the remainders of his goods and re-basketed them.

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Taylor let out a little sigh.

“Poor guy,” she said as we watched him pick up his half-empty basket and braided whip and trod along after his friends. “He can’t go home without his spoils. That’s no fun at all.”

I looked at her, amused.

“You’ve certainly changed your tune.”

She smiled.

“It seems strange to me still, but harmless also. It’s definitely a family activity, isn’t it?”

It definitely is. Mothers and daughters paint the eggs together, boys and fathers go to neighbors and friends to collect them. I can see how it might not be fun to be a girl on this holiday, especially around the age when you just want to sleep in and eat all the chocolate yourself. But seeing the holiday unfolding, like an odd trick-or-treating ritual, somehow made it more human – more understandable. It’s not what it looks like from the outside.

I think that’s what our problem is. We approach the world with our preconceived notions of what is or isn’t okay. We try to interpret the world through lenses tinted with dust from our own experiences and way of thinking. But how much more would we understand our neighbors around the world if took our glasses off. What if, instead of trying to interpret or pass judgments, we simply aimed to experience the world around us. To live in someone else’s home for a day or a month or a year. Unfiltered. Unassuming.

Not to say that this would solve the world’s problems or that we would all eventually agree or even understand each other. But I think it would go a long way in developing empathy for one another in proving that, no matter how far you travel, people will be the same. Boys will chase girls; girls will ambitiously reach out for what is often given freely to boys; mothers will give freely to everyone in love; and fathers will be that pivotal role model, either in example or absence, the guiding hand to someone very young as they stumble along the road in the spring of life.

They call it Great Friday

IMG_7126Czechs call today Great Friday. The days leading up to Easter (which is celebrated on Monday) all have names. Green Thursday. White Saturday.

But today is Great Friday.

I find that especially interesting because most Czechs don’t actually understand the significance of the name – much like most Americans don’t appreciate Good Friday, and perhaps even less so because we don’t get to take the day off from school. My school in Prague closed on Thursday and won’t open again until Tuesday. Easter weekend, in a self-proclaimed atheist country, is just an excuse to squeeze in one last weekend of skiing or take a long weekend at the cottage. The meaning of the holiday gets lost in painted eggs and ancient traditions. Most Czech kids cannot even explain the story of Easter – though, now that I think about it, I’m not sure how many American kids can explain it either.

It is on these things I ponder as I walk home through the forest. I’ve spent the afternoon at the pub with some french fries, hot chocolate and svařák (mulled wine). It doesn’t feel like Easter. The day is cold and dark and I still haven’t emotionally recovered from the freak snow storm yesterday morning. Not even the patches of blue sky help the bare forest to look less empty and lifeless.

There are, however, tiny buds on all the trees. They’re barely visible, but I can see them, lined up in perfect rows like pearled ridges on a baroque crown. Grass is coming up through the chocolatey-brown dirt as well. It’s the only real green anywhere right now.

Down in the neighborhood the forsythia is blooming bright yellow, but the only flowers up here in the forest are the white petals swarming the trees on the slope like a thousand pale moths.

The thing about spring is that it comes so suddenly. And you don’t even realize how much you’re aching for the warmth of the sun and color of the earth until it’s there. You can’t see how much the winter has imprisoned your spirit until the rebirthing of the earth sets it free again.

It’s incredible, experiencing a real spring. The transition from grey winter to golden summer is nothing short of magical. It’s a miracle.

I wish for a spiritual spring for the Czech Republic – and for the U.S.

I wish that hearts that have been locked away in fear and anger, doubt and pride, would feel the warmth and richness of God’s love. That they would be reborn from the frozen ground and bloom in the hope of forgiveness and the promise of redemption.

I wish that they would understand why Great Friday is really Great Friday. That someone would tell them the story of a God who loves them so much, he sent his only son to die on a cross so that they might live. And then that son rose again, conquering death as the sun defeats winter, promising new life to all those who believe.

And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

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!”