The Window Nook

Adventures in living abroad

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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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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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Reflections on a Lunch Hour

As I enter the bistro, the squeak and rumble of the passing trams is replaced by the muted clink of glasses and the hum of conversation. A bartender stands at the long counter, expertly pouring multiple glasses of beer and wine. Waitresses step quickly between tables, bringing steaming bowls of soup or plates heaped with beef bourgignon to each table. After a full morning of teaching two individual and two group classes, I am famished. I grab the last seat at the bar, motion to the bartender, and request the creamed pea soup with mint and one of the lunch options. Since discovering this small restaurant across the street from  my last class of the morning, I have become a regular patron here, and come at least three times a week. Many restaurants throughout Prague, including this one, serve lunch menus, often with two to four lunch options and a soup of the day, priced within the range of the stravenky (lunch coupons) that many businesses offer their employees. I’ve found that I can easily get a delicious lunch in the hour or so between classes, and the warm soups are an excellent antidote to the freezing winds that have recently become a part of the daily weather.
The pea cream soup is thick and rich, and I eagerly tear up a few chunks of bread to dip into the broth as well. As I savor the flavor of mint melded into this creamy bisque, I realize how much of my adaption to Prague has come through the medium of food. Wandering through farmers markets, tasting knedlik (dumplings) for the first time, learning how to cook roasted pumpkin soup: all these have been stepping stones in the cultural adjustment of living in a European city. When it is bitter and cold outside, I brew a strong cup of rooibos tea, inhaling the strong and vibrant aroma. Last week, when the sky turned wintry and gray, I promptly bought a sturdy pumpkin to chop and roast with spices. Weekend mornings are often marked with breakfasts of Czech bacon and Dutch pancakes, a recipe that I brought from home. When I need comfort food, I roast a chicken and relish the way the scent follows me into the study, reminding me just how hungry I am. For me, food is more than a daily chore or delight, it is a way to make sense of a new culture and rhythm. It quantifies, defines, measures and calculates the pattern of the days and weeks. In learning the specialties or comfort foods of a new city, I understand the culture that much more.
In the eleven months that I have lived in Prague, so many new things have gradually become a normal part of my day. Catching a tram in the morning to get to work. Learning to order coffee in Czech, or how to ask the grocery store clerk on which aisle I can find the flour. Learning to turn on a gas heater, to lock a door with European locks, or cross a street with both car and tram lanes. Waking up each morning to a view five stories up, riding an elevator that speaks to me in Czech, and walking on cobblestones when I step outside my apartment building. Finding my way in a medieval city with few straight roads and even less street signs. Learning that ‘no’ is actually Czech for ‘yes’. Walking to church every week through the perfectly manicured Senate gardens, with the towers of Prague Castle lit by the morning sun. Developing a sense for arriving at a tram stop just in time for the next tram, knowing which small streets will lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with fabulous food, and knowing how to navigate back to the nearest metro stop. Learning how to pick a good potraviny to frequent (the ones where they give they tell you a great recipe to cook the vegetables you just bought). Learning that if you didn’t really want the straight, unvarnished truth, you shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place. Knowing when to reveal that you are an American and when to stay silent and see what happens.
I know the streets of this city much more than when I first arrived here. There is the flower stand that always has the best hyacinths. The bakery where I first discovered babovka. The coffee shop where I meet with friends and talk. I still miss the foods of home- old-fashioned doughnuts, Theo’s chocolate, and my mom’s raspberry mousse. But I have acquired new comfort foods, such as chocolate croissants or creamy pumpkin soup. And this weekend? I’m going to brave the cold winds, search out the best vegetables at my favorite potraviny, and cook a hearty pot of soup. I’ve learned how to navigate, shop, communicate, and live in this city. I’ve learned to make friends, to make a home here. God brought me here, and I see that it is good.