The Window Nook

Adventures in living abroad


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Fishing In Moravia

TopofWorld     It was only an hour after dawn when my alarm went off, soft-but-insistent nature sounds gradually increasing in volume until sleep was impossible. As I slowly awakened, an unfamiliar ceiling reminded me that I was far from my flat in Prague. Yesterday I had traveled to Zabreh, Moravia (eastern Czech Republic) with friends to visit family. We arrived mid-evening, and were treated to a sumptuous feast of roasted chicken, Czech sausages, beer, salads, desert, etc. Our hosts had created a covered brick patio behind their house, with long benches, a fireplace, counters for beer kegs, and a porch swing. At the edge of their yard, a small river trickled past, and the wind rustled through the tops of the birches planted along its edge. We feasted on grilled meats, sipped our beers, and shared stories of past adventures late into the night. As the fire died down, we lingered over the table, listening to the murmuring of the water and savoring the delicious tiramisu. Heading to bed, we agreed to an early start for a morning of fishing in a private pond, with the promise of large trout for those lucky enough to catch some. At 11 at night, mellowed with a glass of beer, 6 am sounded reasonable, even easy. But much less so the next morning. I dragged myself from bed, braided my hair, and stumbled down to the car, mumbling something about coffee. The small car zipped through the residential streets and out into the highway to the next town, loaded with fishing poles, water bottles, and a carton of food. The morning light fell gently across the fields, while those farms close to the hills remained in shadow, still slumbering before the brightness of the coming day. A few hairpin turns later, we arrived at our destination, a small crop of buildings guarded by a serene black cat. The brick and plaster house was set against a steep hillside, topped with a small feeding shed. From the covering of trees on the right, I could see a small line of deer venturing towards the food, including a small-footed, graceful doe and rambunctious fawn. The reloading of our cars being completed, we set out again, racing up the highway to a gated entrance that led down to the secluded pond. Two large ponds filled the small tract of land, bordered by a rising hills that housed a herd of cattle on one side. A partially finished cabin stood close to the lake, two stories with a sharply pointed roof and a row of windows along the lake side. Flowing water fed each lake, and gusts of wind scudded across the water, creating patterns of rippling waves that rose and died away. It was the quietness that struck me, the sense of being far from cities and traffic, the only sounds being the light sighing of the wind in the trees. This was peaceful. I wanted to curl up on a deck chair and nap the morning away. But there were fish to be caught.
Armed with fishing poles, carefully selected bait, and sheer determination, we spread out overSunset the two ponds, casting, reeling in, and casting again. As the morning wore on, we took breaks in the half-finished cabin, eating onion and sausage sandwiches while looking out over the water. At the end of several hours, we had caught a bucketful of rainbow trout. Wrapping them securely in plastic bags, we headed back, stopping along the way to sample a local cheese shop and briefly visit the ruins of a castle from the fourteenth century. Crumbling walls enclosed a small fortress set on a high hill, and enough walls remained to make out the layout of the original structure. The hill commanded a wide view across the tall, wooded hills beyond, with houses and farms clustered along the curving valley road.
The next morning we drove further towards the foothills, stopping at a nature center and heading steeply up the hillside, deep forests giving way to mountain blueberries and areas of large boulders. A short, steep climb through large boulders took us onto a promontory of flat rock, overlooking the countryside. Farms and forests stretched for miles in each direction, and the air smelled perfectly fresh. We sat together on the rocky ledges, savoring the view. Gradually, we headed back down the mountain, walking slowly in groups of twos and threes. During the long drive back to Prague that night, I thought back over the memories of this weekend. The sharing of stories over beer and sausages. The rippling of the breeze over the fishponds. Looking out over the countryside from the rocky promontory. And the next night? Dinner was roasted trout with lemon and garlic, flanked with zucchini. I have a feeling the rest of the fish will not last long in the freezer.

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The Importance of Paying Attention

PragueSunset     It was while watching the pressurized, fermenting wine shoot from the bottle and soak everything in a one meter radius that it dawned on my that no one warns you about these moments. When moving overseas, I prepared for jet lag, and language difficulties, and different food. Important documents? Safely in envelopes, with copies made just in case. Suitcases packed? Yes, right up to the 50 lb limit. You are warned about vaccines to get, wars brewing in nearby regions, and the craziness of airline policies. But it’s the little things about settling into a new life that can loom large, like ordering your morning latte and discovering that coffee is made differently here. Or getting used to small cakes and tarts, instead of American donuts and Starbucks scones. It’s going to pour yourself a glass of wine to relax at the end of the day, and finding yourself soaked in a thick, sticky liquid that was at one point was wine but has now morphed into a mutant life form intent on destroying your kitchen.
It had started the previous day as I wandered through the farmers market, looking for vegetables, bread, and flowers. I discovered a stall selling burcak, a fermented wine that is made once a year in the Czech Republic and served during the annual Burcak Festival. After sampling a glass, I invested in a 2 liter bottle (yes, wine comes in 2 liter bottles here, as does beer), and laid it sideways in my shopping bag. Not realizing this was a fermented wine, that needed a loose cap to release the escaping gas, I tightened the cap securely after I discovered it leaking into my shopping bag, then put it in the fridge for around 24 hours. Twenty-four long hours, during which the gas released by the wine built up quite a lot of pressure on the flimsy plastic bottle, pushing it to bursting point. Had I noticed this when taking it from the fridge, it would have saved a lot of trouble, but it had been a long day, I was intent on relaxing with a good book, and I barely noticed the change in the bottle. Unscrewing the cap released jets of pressurized burcak wine in every direction, spraying the floor, counter, cupboards, and myself as I frantically tried to tighten the cap. A week later, I was still scrubbing burcak off the stove, the fridge, and even surfaces that had been perpendicular to the jets of wine. How burcak managed to get inside the oven is beyond me, but I found it there too.
The truth is that moving to a new country stretches you to new limits. You will have wonderful times of standing before a beautiful sunset and whispering ‘I really live here’. Those moments sneak up on you from nowhere, unplanned, and fill you with wonder and awe. They simply can’t be manufactured. But go to a romantic spot at twilight, hold hands with your husband as you stroll along the winding streets, and chances are a street musician will choose that moment to select a nearby street corner, unpack his guitar and tip jar, and start into an off-key version of a Western love song, sung with gusto and passion but not, unfortunately, talent. You will look at each other and laugh, remembering this moment as another example of the unexpectedness of life. And then there will be those challenging moments. Standing in my kitchen, soaked with sticky wine, I called a Czech girlfriend. As I poured out my story of woe, she started to giggle. By the end, we were both laughing at the craziness of the situation. ‘Welcome to the Czech Republic’, she said. Since then we have laughed together and we have cried together, but I often look back to that moment. I wanted a restful hour, not a kitchen splattered with yeasty wine. But I found a friend.


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Ten Signs You Have Lived in the Czech Republic for More Than a Year

1) You have a favorite morning cafe, pub, and zelezarstvi (home goods supply store).

2) For any unexplainable or incomprehensible situations, you use the phrase ‘TIC’ (This Is Czech). This applies to crazy drivers, grouchy bureaucrats, and unhelpful post office clerks.

3) You have learned to shop by photo- when you find a useful item, you take a photo, then use this photo to find the same item if you happen to go to a different store. Also, you have been lectured by a clerk at the supermarket on the correct Czech word or pronunciation of the Czech word, before being pointed in the direction of the item.

4) You have nearly perfected the art of pretending to understand every word of Czech spoken to you. What you actually do is listen frantically for any familiar word, give your best guess as to the most likely question, and answer accordingly. This usually works, with occasional interesting results.

5) You know the difference in meaning between ‘my Czech friend’ and ‘my friend who is Czech’. The first accompanies you to government offices as needed, the second meets you for coffee.

6) Mangled, misconstrued, or missing prepositions no longer bother you, as long as you are not in ‘teacher mode’. Nor do missing articles. British pronunciations still rankle.

7) Your accent has changed and you find yourself being mistaken for a British person. Oh, the horror.

8) You are still discovering new coffee shops, new parks, and new hidden gardens that you never knew existed. Originally, you thought this was a phase, but are pleased to find that it lasts indefinitely.

9) You have reduced at least one student to helpless giggles by recounting one of your stories of mishaps while settling in.

10) When asked what you miss from the States, besides family and friends, you find yourself mentioning random items, such as super glue, or old-fashioned donuts.


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Unwritten Rules

Prague is a city of unwritten rules. Thou shalt not stand on the left side of the escalator, although this is nowhere to be found on a sign in the metro stations. It’s just how it is done. Thou shalt have exact or close to exact change when paying for anything, unless you want to subject yourself to the fearsome glare of the waiter who must now go off to find change. While on a train last weekend, I watched the conductor ask the other passengers in the train car if anyone had change for a 200 crown note. Fully half the passengers patiently hauled out their wallets and searched for change. It is simply well-known that no one selling anything carries a great deal of change, as this is the responsibility of the buyer. If you are buying produce at the grocery store, it is important to weigh your fruits and veggies and get the printed price tags from the electronic scale, or you will find yourself holding up a line at the checkout while you race back to the produce section. Also, parks here do not close at dusk to reduce to possibility of a visitor falling in the dark and suing the state. This general situation is covered under the unwritten eleventh commandment, thou shalt not be stupid. This commandment is hauled out at various times, to deal with everything from jaywalking to racing down escalators. One Sunday morning, I watched a local resident berate a pair of tourists for failing to yield the open center space of the metro train to a couple with a stroller (this is standard procedure in metro trains, as this open space is generally the only space wide enough for strollers).The tourists, unfazed by this diatribe delivered in Czech, shrugged in confusion and resumed eating their slices of pizza. The local resident then switched to English to deliver his verdict of ‘tourists’. In addition, thou shalt remember that Thursday is called ‘little Friday’ for a good reason, and not expect any emails written after lunch on Thursday to be returned until Monday. This rule also holds true when a national holiday falls on a Thursday, in which case the Wednesday before then becomes a partial holiday. If you have any official business to get done that week, it’s best to start early. Tipping is not a set ten or fifteen percent, but often a rounding up to the nearest hundred crowns. If your waiter was terrible, it is acceptable to leave a one crown tip. But never shalt thou bow to the demands of your waiter for a set fifteen or twenty percent tip. At this point it is best to flee, and find another restaurant to frequent. Finally, thou must remember that Czech bureaucracy is unfathomable at best. If you ever find yourself filing forms in quadruplicate, it is best not to inquire exactly why. I’d continue, but my cat is glaring at me. Apparently it is tradition that I give out kitty treats within ten minutes of coming home. Another unwritten rule I must learn.


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A Plea for the Status Quo

The other week, the powers that be decided to close various metro stations for repairs. Being relatively new to this city, I was unaware that this translated to ‘avoid trams at all costs’. The many passengers who would ordinarily be happily spread out along a long metro train were now forced to squash into small, outdated trams. And me? Well, I wasn’t going to walk, so I bravely pushed into the mass of passengers and found a relatively open spot near the window. I have to say, trams were definitely one of the strangest experiences for me as I adjusted to Prague. Buses, I understand. Trains also.  But trams? They are an odd combination of the two, belonging both to the road and the rail. They create another line of traffic in the center of an already multilane road. Many trams here in Prague are small and older, with diminutive windows, single rows of seating along the outside of the passenger area, and tall holding rails down the center of the tram. During rush hour, the only limit on the number of passengers is whether or not any newcomers can cram themselves in. Can’t reach a holding strap or rail? It is impossible to fall anyway when you are mashed against the person next to you. In a nation of outdoor enthusiasts who value the wide open spaces of the countryside, this has led many to perfect the ‘Tram Stare’, a sort of blank expression of suspended presence. This is the look of one caught in a windy rainstorm, who has hunkered down as far as possible into their jacket and is busily imagining themselves on a beach somewhere else. Even when not riding a tram, one is still painfully aware of them. Many moments spent pondering the gorgeous late afternoon sky over Prague Castle have been interrupted by the agonized squeal of a tram negotiating a tight corner. The older trams can be recognized by the higher pitch and longer length of their screeches, a sound which carries even through windows into flats near the trams lines (such as mine). The newest trams,however, contain three elongated sections of seating, with wide aisles, highly polished wooden seats, and tall tinted windows. These trams have larger electronic boards to clearly announce  the next stop. Also contained in the board is a large clock which states exactly how late you currently are to your appointment. Drab gray and faded upholstery have been replaced by polished chrome and tastefully muted shades of red. These larger trams glide nearly noiselessly along the tram lines, allowing one to easily say goodbye to a friend at the tram stop without having to shout over the squeak of the arriving tram. Last week, I had the rare experience of riding one of these newer models. It was awful. I missed the antiquated seats. I missed the crazy quirkiness of the windows that may or may not open and steep steps down to the doors. I even missed the tortured screech around corners. It was as if a well-loved teddy bear, with curmudgeonly face, missing button eye, and worn fuzziness, had suddenly been replaced by a packaged barbie doll. Oh, I’ll eventually get used to the new trams. I may even come to like them. But I will always miss the inimitable character of those older trams. They are simply unforgettable.


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Czech Bureaucracy

It’s been an eventful weekend here in Prague. I had a run-in with Czech bureaucracy and the local supermarket ran out of our favorite brand of beer.  I’m not surprised though. Any weekend which begins with me giving Shakespearean advice to our cat is bound to turn out to be an odd weekend in the end. For the record, she didn’t seem inclined to heed the advice, but then, she is a cat. More than that, a cat prone to avidly chasing her own tail. So, I’m not holding my breath. Regarding the beer, I think we will be able to subsist on another brand for a day or two. Andrew decided to cope with this phenomenon by trying out Kofola, the Czech version of Coca-Cola. Let’s just say this was a failed experiment. Those who say Dr. Pepper tastes mildly like a mixture of Coke and cough syrup have never tried the concoction known as Kofola. I will call it an acquired taste. In the meantime, I am making a trip downtown to stock up on our chosen brand of beer. I have found that a bottle of Czech beer is the perfect way to relax after a long day of teaching or dealing with bureaucracy (frequently my days include both). In my first weeks here, I frequently heard the phrase ‘Czech bureaucracy’, usually uttered just before a tortuously long story involving the many steps necessary to fulfill a relatively simple matter such as renewing an Opencard transportation pass. I assigned these stories to my ‘urban myth’ category, little knowing that I would eventually build my own repertoire of these crazy stories. These legends? There are not myths. If anything, I had heard the abridged versions of them. Take the standard maxim of customer service in the US, namely The Customer Is Always Right. In Prague, in the private sector, this maxim is usually changed to The Customer is Usually Misguided and/or a Nuisance. This can vary a bit based on whether the clerk or waiter happens to be having a good day, whether you can speak or at least attempt to speak Czech, and simply the luck of the draw. I have received glares and a lugubrious sigh when entering a small shop, as if I had disturbed the quiet of the store by barging in. Then again, I should add that I have received great recipes for the vegetables I buy at the local corner store,  so there is obviously a wide range of what constitutes customer service. In the government sector, this maxim becomes The Customer is Always Wrong, and It Is Our Duty to Educate Them. Each office has their own rule, regulations, and traditions. These regulations are viewed with the same hallowed reverence as one might attach to a the traditions of the English monarchy.  As such, it is the job of each agency to take bewildered expats and indoctrinate them in the ways of bureaucracy. Ask an agency to do something that is not tradition, and they will be instantly put-out and offended at the mere mention of such a thing. This usually necessitates either a long lecture in Czech to your accompanying translator (which is then translated as ‘they can’t do it that way’) or, to an unaccompanied expat, a sigh and a short lecture involving written dates, a website with a translation, or waving of hands toward another official. Act flexible and slightly less-than-bright, and they will enthusiastically take you under their wing, introducing you with zeal and fervor to The Way Things Are Done Here. This approach can net you all sorts of freebies in the private sector as well, from waived bank fees to extra helpful information that will save you time. I have to say that my experiences here have made me long with misty-eyed nostalgia for those long waits at the local DMV in the US. Yes, they are grouchy there too. But they have potted plants. And chairs. Lots of chairs. On second thought, I should get a few extra bottles of beer. Just in case. I might need them the next time I have to renew my Opencard.


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A Lenten Decision

It was Thomas a Kempis who noted that ‘habit overcomes habit’. I find this comforting, as far too often I am caught up in the worries of today and tomorrow, with worries of potential problems thrown in for good measure. I daydream, I allow my imagination free rein, and end up entangled in ‘what if’, losing sight of ‘what is’. Perhaps because of this, I have always been drawn to the concept of peace. Rest, if you will. Those who know me well have learned that one of my favorite hymns begins with the lines, ‘When peace like a river, attendeth my soul’. I had always thought of this analogy as speaking to a volume or quantity of peace. And this may also be true. Recently, though, I spent an afternoon waling along the Vltava River, watching the swans glide slowly along the current, feeling the fresh breeze and sunlight lesson the struggles of the week. My soul was gently restored that afternoon. And I carried that strength with me for several days, before the stresses of the week pushed it back once again. A river waters the earth around it. It completes a support system needed for plants and wildlife. It creates a haven for those who choose to walk near it, an oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. I believe this is what the author had experienced. He had known this ministering presence, and it had carried him through one of the darkest periods of his life.
As I’ve considered what to give up for Lent, I realized that what most enslaves me is worry. Worry flows into any empty recesses of my mind and overruns my prayers. Yet I know that resolving to give up worry will only create more of a vacuum to be filled by something else. I do not wish to simply trade in this habit for another, one possibly worse. I find that much of my needless worrying comes from leaving a few vital questions unanswered: ‘Do I truly believe that there is an overarching plan to my life?’ ‘Do I truly believe that God is with me, regardless of circumstances, and that He cares for me more than I can ever imagine?’ ‘Can I walk in this faith, not turning to the right or left, trusting that He will give me all the strength I need for each day?’ And since I know the answers to these is indeed yes, I know that my greatest fears are never beyond the power of God.  ‘As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him’. This is more than a beautiful turn of phrase. It is grounded in reality.
So on this day, I choose peace. A still abiding in the haven that has been given to me. I will rest in the peace of this slowly moving stream, drinking in the stillness and beauty that it provides. I have found my path, and it lies along this river.