Lunch in a foreign land

I’ve grown quite fond of Czech lunches, but it occurs to me that many of my friends back home may be surprised to see what exactly we eat here at midday.

A few things you should know about Czech culture, before we begin. Lunch is the big meal of the day. Breakfasts vary from family to family but tend to be light and dinners are more of a “tea” or “leftovers” kind of thing. Lunch is where it’s at. Also, soup is always, always served with lunch, though my school has an optional soup line and I don’t always partake.

Another sidenote: There are two menu listings at my school and I’ve finally learned enough Czech to know how to avoid the weirder things, so the following pictures are several weeks worth of the “better options” in my school’s cafeteria.

Pork and potato dumplings in gravy with soup, apple and juice (called šťáva).
The meat / carb ratio in this country can be a little disturbing. As in…very, very little meat. Ever. Thank goodness the carbs are good enough to carry the show by themselves.
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Battered pork with boiled potatoes, soup, apple and šťáva.
Cultural observation: nearly ever dish is served with some kind of sauce. Dry meals are unacceptable. If you gave a Czech a steak served by itself, they wouldn’t know how to eat it.

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Dumplings in strawberry sauce, apple and tea.
Yes. This is lunch. And, yes, it tastes exactly the way you’d expect it to.

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Fried fish with boiled potatoes and yogurt dressing. And šťáva.
I still occassionally have trouble understanding the lunch menu. “Jogurtoví dresínk” is always a tie-breaker. It redeems the foulest of foods.
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Mini-meatloafs, potato mush, carrot and cabbage salad with potato / sausage soup, an apple and šťáva.
It should be mentioned that even though that meatloaf looks a lil’ suspicious, it’s the bomb.
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Beef and vegetable stir-fry with rice, yogurt and šťáva.
I avoid the rice whenever possible because it tends to be too salty – a side-effect of living in a country where all the cooks are smokers.20150116_115234

Pork and noodles in “Universal Brown Sauce” (I didn’t make up that term – Czechs actually call it that), with soup and šťáva.
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Pork, “Universal Brown Sauce (with chunks of hot dog!)” and mashed potatoes with dill / potato soup, a chocolate-banana cake and šťáva.
Mashed potatoes in this country are really more like pureed potatoes. Very soupy. Very delicious.20150120_124902

Pork and gravy with bread dumplings, soup and šťáva.
Bread dumplings are always a good call. Always.

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Sausage, mashed peas and pickles with a piece of “chocolate cake” and šťáva.
Believe it or not, this is one of my favorite meals here. “Chocolate cake” is in quotations because there isn’t enough chocolate in that bread for it to be considered ‘chocolate’ or ‘cake.’20150127_124252

Pork with spinach, gravy and potato dumplings. Dill / potato soup and šťáva.
This is another one of my favorites and it also happens to be a very traditional Czech meal. Sometimes in restaurants, they’ll serve the spinach with garlic cloves. Mmmm, good!20150203_124147

Fried rice, beets, pea soup, a kiwi (because, why the heck not?) and šťáva.
For those of you who are too American to know this, the beets are the diced up red things. Deeelicious.20150204_124316

Mini-yeast rolls in cream sauce, soup, apple, šťáva.
This is the most “un-lunchy” lunch we are served at school. The cream sauce is basically sweetened-condensed milk. I cannot find the redemptive, nutritious value in this food – pretty sure there is none. I guess it just goes to show that every culture has their “soul food.”
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Devils in the hallway

I could hear the chains rattling on the second floor the moment I stepped into the stairwell. The bell had just signaled a break and scuffling of feet and creaking doors drowned out the somewhat ominous clank-chink-clank.

December 5 is Svátek Svatého Mikuláše – St. Nicholas Day. Typically, gifts are given and the Christmas atmosphere kicks into high gear.

But that’s certainly not the only thing about this peculiar Czech holiday.

You see, the tradition of Svatý Mikuláš includes three important figures – St. Nicholas himself, who appears not as a jolly old man, but as a bishop in flowing white robes; angels, sweetly designated to hand out candy; and the devil, the most prominent figure, if for no other reason than that people love a bad guy.

In schools, and in smaller villages and neighborhoods, I’m told, people will dress up as these characters and … well, I was about to find out just what exactly goes down on December 5th in the Czech Republic.

An hour before my first lesson, I trooped into school with a camera and a lot of expectation. I missed this event last year but it’s pretty widely talked about.

In 9.B, boys and girls were busy fixing their costumes and make-up. Each of the ninth grade classes had one Mikuláš and the rest of the unruly students were divided between the ranks of devils and angels. Our Mikuláš in 9.B was a sweet, albeit extremely wry, boy of average height and above-average prankishness. The angels were all girls (except for one, very small boy who donned a wig and satin nightgown just for the occasion) dressed in pretty white gowns, halos and fake wings.

But the devils are what really stole the show. Czech devils aren’t like American devils. There is no sheik suit, no slick horns, no sharp chins or forked tongues. Czech devils, which appear routinely in the popular (though cheesy) fairytales shown on television, are furry and fiendish. They have masses of black hair, vests of animal skins and fur-covered boots. Soot-painted faces gleam as the chains around their waists and shoulders rattle.

My students – though exceptionally cute on a normal day – looked every bit the part a Czech devil. For the girls and the smaller boys, this was an entertaining transformation. For the few gents who’ve already topped six feet, it was an intimidating one.

“Oh, sorry,” said a boy with a shaggy wig as he bumped past me. I caught a glimpse of his face and smiled.

“Hey!” I said, tugging on his elbow for him to stop. “What are you doing here?”

Radek transferred schools last year, a move he didn’t want to make. Leaving for Gymnazium in eighth grade and missing the ninth and final year is like moving to a new high school as a senior. You miss your old friends as they do the “senior thing.”

“I skipped class for the morning,” he told me with a sheepish grin. Radek was a favorite in 9.B and he sometimes comes back when the school has a special program like today to visit his old friends.

“Well,” I said, giving him a friendly pat, “It’s good to see you.”

He walked away and I heard my name. Three devil-decked students ran up to me with charcoal in their hands and began smearing my face.

“Having fun, are we?” I asked, not daring to move but not entirely sure what else to do. They giggled maliciously as someone gave me a mustache.

The bell rang again, issuing children into their classrooms, but 9.B waited in the hallway. Time to work!

In a few minutes, their class teacher bustled over and hurried everyone upstairs to 4.E, a ferocious collection of ten year olds. The door was shut. The hall was silent.

Then, the devils began pounding against the doorframe, yelling at rattling their chains.

It was enough to scare me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a fourth grader in this country.

The door swung open and in trooped the posse of celestial beings, led by the dear old saint brandishing his tinfoil staff.

The angels stood aside and the devils ran through the classroom, smearing kids’ faces with chalk and chortling gleefully. Now and then, someone would grab a kid and drag them from the room.

Old Saint Mikuláš just leaned patiently on his cane with a disapproving look at the students. When the last fourth grader had been wrestled out of the room, kicking, yelling and (usually) laughing, Mikuláš glared down the remaining children.

“Well,” he said sternly in Czech. “Are you going to sing?”

With some encouragement from the two teachers in the room, the kids bumbled their way through a song and the angels glided their way between the desks passing out candy.

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Mikulaš 2014

IMG_2612I slipped into the hallway. Here was a different scene entirely.

None of the corridor lights were on and even the large windows did little to illuminate the setting as grey sunlight seeped through thick panes of glass.

In the relative darkness, I could see what can only be described as a divine struggle.

It appeared as though several of the fourth grade boys had escaped and the devils seemed to be chasing them down. Most of the trapped souls were huddled between the darkly masked ninth graders, a few still attempting to break free. Sometimes they would be offered a potato, sometimes they’d be painted in more charcoal, and sometimes (if they put up enough of a struggle) they’d be shoved back into the classroom – kicked out of hell for bad behavior.

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The six graders were next and things played out similarly. The raid, the singing, the candy, and the havoc in the hallway. The only difference was that the sixth graders were much less inclined to sing for the company of fidgeting angels, all tugging at their skirts and halos or hijacking the classroom chalk to scribble on the board behind them. Frankly, it looked like the devils were having a lot more fun.

The eighth graders were even more difficult to coax into song, and certainly too big to carry out of the classroom. Several of the more willing victims were led away, the rest sat looking as though they weren’t sure if imprisonment in the hallway wasn’t better than singing in the classroom.

There were no fugitives on the run this time as most of the eighth and ninth graders are friends. They allowed themselves to be painted in black and lumped reluctantly back to the classroom to resume lessons when the angels finished their routine.

The seventh graders downstairs were much like their sixth-grade counterparts, only harder to get out of the room. A larger boy refused to leave his seat, so the cheeky ninth grader grabbed his chair and dragged both ‘the horse and his boy’ from the class amid roaring laughter. A few moments later, another boy was shoved back into the classroom with a potato sack over his whole body. He found his chair and sat down without ever taking the bag of shame off.

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By far, the fifth graders were the most entertaining. This is largely because 5.B houses some of the most rascally boys I have ever encountered in my life. It only took a few moments for my ninth graders to realize they might have been wearing the costumes, but they weren’t the real devils in this situation.

Captain of Chaos and Scallywag-Sweetheart Extraordinaire is the one and only, Lukáš. He’s got eyes the size of planets and a smile that spells trouble. He can squirm his way through the eye of a needle and he’s faster and more agile than any boy I’ve ever met. I spent the better part of last year trying to figure out how to get him to sit in a chair for more than three minutes at a time. I was largely unsuccessful. He climbed into cabinets, stole my keys and held them for ransom (that was a lesson: don’t ever bargain with the terrorists), and hid under my desk for nearly fifteen minutes before I realized where he was. The last one was a special feat for him just because he had to stay so still to go undetected.

The devil in charge – an equally headstrong girl who had positioned herself as the unofficial ringleader of the devils’ squad – had taken Lukáš from the room and was attempting to subdue him.

I could have told her, he would not be subdued. When I slinked out of the classroom and the forcefully cheery sounds of singing, Lukáš was grunting, elbowing and kicking like a spring colt. He bolted loose and took off down the hall, passing Radek who was dragging another runaway back fromt the stairwell.

It took the whole squad of ninth grade devils to stuff Lukáš into a bag, everyone holding a limb or a part of his writhing torso.

Even as his subduers tried to drag him back into the classroom, Lukáš squirmed and fought, finally breaking out of the bag in front of all his school mates.

IMG_2587Most of the devils collected in the doorway to watch the events that followed but I crept back into the hallway where Radek was waiting by a windowsill. It didn’t occur to me that something might be the cause of his isolation – he was always a quieter student.

“What do you think of everything?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, not wholly sure how to answer. “It’s definitely interesting. Much different than anything we do in the States.”

He looked at me as if that answer weren’t enough for his question.

“Honestly, I think it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so much fun. But It’s also a little sad to me.” His face drew in and he looked puzzled. “It’s sad to me because I know Hell is real and we’re making fun of something without understanding how serious it is. We’re joking about getting dragged away, but the truth is, without Jesus or the love of God, that’s exactly what will happen to us.”

He nodded his head. I’m not sure if he was processing what I just said or just trying to understand all the English. He speaks well, but second languages are difficult, always.

Having completed the ritual in the last class, 9.B and their teacher asked me to take their picture on the stairs.

“Is everyone in?”

“Can you take one with my phone too?”

“Where’s Radek?”

“Someone’s standing on my tail!”

Then we all marched down to the principal’s office to sing for her and the vice-head with the other ninth graders, 9.C.

I let them do their thing and quietly slipped back up the stairs to my office. Sitting the hallway outside my door was Radek. He was leaning crosslegged against the wall the same way I had seen him every Wednesday afternoon last year before our afternoon English lesson. But this time he obviously wasn’t waiting for anything.

“Whatcha doing?” I asked, sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of him.

“Oh, just sitting,” he said in rather a Pooh Bear voice.

“Do you like your new school?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. There was some hesitation.

“Are you making new friends?” I asked. More hesitation.

“So what’s going on?” I asked. It’s one of those questions you already know the answer to but you know they need to tell you anyway.

“I’m not sure if I can say it in English,” he said. Emotions are complex, even in your first language.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I think I understand.”

“You do?”

“You miss it here but you can feel everyone moving on without you, so even though you come back, it’s not really the same.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s about it.”

“I know that feeling pretty well, too,” I said. “I kind of have it right now.”

He looked at me curiously – as if the idea of adults having feelings was totally foreign to him.

“Well, I have to go back to America in the summer and I don’t know if I’ll ever be coming back,” I said. “It’s hard to leave a place you love and feel like you belong.” He nodded again. This time I knew he understood what I was saying.

I went back to my office and he, I assume, rejoined his friends when they finally made it back to their own classroom.

Sometimes we find ourselves in dark hallways sharing our hearts with unexpected people. I think that’s partly because we always underestimate how much humans have in common with each other until we stop and listen, and partly because dark corners are more common than most of us assume.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the clutches of devils that make us wrestle and fight to get back to the safety of the classroom and no one will bat an eyelash because, what’s not normal about that? No, what’s not normal about struggle? What’s not normal about that on-going battle between our sin natures and the renewing of our hearts through the Lord? We fight impatience and doubt, discontentment and distrust. We wrestle and squirm and struggle. Welcome to the life of the Christian soldier.

I think it’s important to remember a few things.

1. Moving on or away may be hard, but God’s plan is always, always better and more beautiful than ours. And when we cling to what is slipping away, we find ourselves both without what we had and without what God is giving to us – we’re just alone in a dark hallway, refusing to move on.

2. The struggle with our flesh will not end until we draw our last breath. When we’re tired and ready to give up, we need to turn to the Lord and his Word to renew our strength and continue the battle. Always, always fight your way back to the classroom.

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.