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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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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Christmas in Krakow

20141224_183736Just before Christmas, Andrew and I traveled with friends by night train to Krakow, to spend Christmas with their family. Arriving on Christmas Eve morning, we spent the day talking, drinking tea, and sampling Christmas pastries, then finished decorating the tree on towards the end of the afternoon. Traditionally, Christmas Eve dinner is the most important time during Christmas, and the reading of the nativity story, family meal, and exchange of gifts takes place then. At dinner we were introduced to the Polish tradition of naming wishes for each other, in which each guest or family member pairs off with another person one at a time, each stating their wish for the other person during the coming year. Everyone is first given a small wafer, and once you state the wishes for the other person, they break off a piece of the wafer, essentially breaking bread with you. A beautiful tradition, which pushes one to reflect on your friendships with others during the previous year, and what might be their dreams for the coming year.
Krakow has a well-preserved old town area dating from the 13th century, which includes a large city square, many beautiful older buildings with a wide variety of architectural styles, and many churches, most importantly the Basilica of St. Mary. The city walls to the old city were mostly torn down many years ago, and this area is now a shady walking park, which nearly encircles with historical section of 20141227_131144Krakow. Since the 1930s, a nativity scene competition has been held every December, and the entries are displayed either on the square or in a museum along the edge of the square. We went to view the nativity scenes during our stay in Krakow, and were impressed with the amount of time and work that each one must have taken. Most of them were replicas of local churches and cathedrals, with Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child shown in the center of the scene. While the Czech nativity scenes tended to depict Mary and Joseph in the midst of a village, sometimes displaying the rest of the village inhabitants and their activities, the Polish nativity scenes tended to display them in a cathedral, surrounded by other holy figures. The Polish nativity scenes were also much more colorful, using colored metallic paper to decorate the numerous towers and turrets of the churches.
During our stay in Krakow, we spent part of one day visiting the Wieliczka salt mine, a vast network of tunnels and large caverns totaling over 200 km. Our tour comprised only 2 km total, along tunnels that had been carefully lined with pine logs to prevent coll20141226_134150apse. Many of the larger caverns also contain tall structures built out of these logs, to stabilize the walls and roof of each cavern. There are over one million cubic meters (1.31 cubic yards) of pine used in the Wieliczka mine. Each cavern, or hall, has its own name and history; they are often named for saints or other important figures, and many contain carvings done in rock salt. During our tour, we saw a statue of Saint Kinga, patron saint of the salt miners, as well as a chapel devoted to her. This chapel contains a number of relief carvings along the walls, including scenes from the life of Christ and a copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper, as well as chandeliers made with small beads carved from the purest rock salt.
I am so thankful for good friends who invited us to stay with their family. This was a difficult Christmas for both Andrew and I; for me, I missed spending Christmas with my family, eating our Christmas meal together, talking and laughing before a Christmas tree hung with ornaments that contain so many memories. So I am thankful for the time we were able to spend with another family, learning new traditions, and creating more memories.

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A Day in the Life of a Teacher

It’s misty outside when I leave my flat, an early morning fog that muffles all sounds and wraps itself around the red-tiled roofs. The air is already warm and slightly muggy, heralding another humid day in a week filled with thunderstorms. My first student is at a building close to the local market square, and I walk along still-shuttered shops, occasionally meeting the owners as they arrive to open up for another day of business. Early morning commuters stream towards the metro entrance, some holding a latte from the  favored local coffee shop located along the edge of the square. As I near the building, the security guard spots me, and waves. He is used to me appearing every Tuesday for a Business English class, and quickly hands me a security pass and waves me through. This company has a more relaxed approach to security, meaning there are no metal detectors and my license is not scrutinized every time that I arrive.
An hour an a half later, I am heading back to the metro station, this time to head south. My next student has an office on the 22nd floor, with a stunning view of the countryside. Lush green hillsides, intersected by waterways, fade into the distance, broken only by the occasional hideous panelak apartment building, a relic of communism. During a recent lesson, the rainstorm began as I arrived at the building, and shadowy tendrils of clouds reached out to touch the nearby hillsides. I launch in to the lesson, an interactive one designed around a TED talk I discovered recently. Students are drawn to the intriguing topic of 30 Day Challenges, and I have found this to be a great listening exercise, as well as a way to introduce new vocabulary and discuss correct word stress in English. Afterwards, I head back to the bank of elevators to return to the lobby. During the long ride down 22 floors, I am reminded of the Czech approach to the classic awkward elevator rides. Here in Prague, the person entering the elevator greets the other occupants with a quick ‘dobry den’, and is then wished goodbye when they leave. During my first few months here, this repeated exercise sounded strange, but I’ve now come to see it as a way to acknowledge the beginning and end of the shared elevator ride, and a much better approach than individuals each staring at their cell phone.
The clouds form and darken throughout the day, and the heat rises. I stop for lunch at a favorite restaurant off Wenceslas Square that serves a wonderful Pad Thai, and enjoy a short hour catching up on emails and news. As a main metro transfer station exits at the top of this square, I often stop here to run errands, stop in at one of the several bookstores, or explore the winding roads that lead off it. A Franciscan garden, a hidden coffee shop, and a famed gelato shop are all located within a few minutes walk of this Square.
The end of my teaching day finds me deep in an article about the Taj Mahal with another Business English student. This article covers the digital mapping of heritage sites throughout the world, and contains many technology-related vocabulary words. This student is puzzled over the word ‘dome’, until I explain that the word is derived from the Italian ‘duomo’, house, as a cathedral (often containing a domed roof) was seen as a house of God. As the word for house in Czech is ‘dum’, this makes it easier for this student to remember.
A last metro ride, and then a walk through the farmer’s market just before it closes. I quickly buy farm eggs, fresh pasta, and a zucchini to roast later. On my walk home, I stop in at the coffee shop to buy a tub of lemony hummus with fresh-baked pita bread. The rain drops begin to fall as I reach the door of my building, and I ride the elevator to my floor listening to the ping of heavy drops hitting the metal siding of the elevator shaft. Once home, I open the windows to the cool air and the growing roar of a downpour. Large bursts of rain fall, so quickly it looks at first like a hailstorm. Pedestrians below dash to the shelter of awnings and open doorways, and a small band of teenagers runs shrieking into the deluge, reveling in the cool water after a long and humid day. I sit near the window, with a cat snuggled in my lap, savoring the distant rolling of thunder and feeling the coolness of the rain seeping into the room.

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An Evening in Istanbul

BlueMosque2     In the Old Town area of Istanbul, near the Sultanahmet tram stop, lies an open square bordered on one side by the majestic Hagia Sophia and on the other by the Blue Mosque. This square is nearly deserted in the morning, but fills up during the day, especially during the month of Ramadan. As we walked through this square early in the morning, we passed locals headed to the tram stop for another day of work, vendors sitting in front of mounds of simit (Turkish bagels) and pyramids of water bottles, and young men attempting to sell us a tickets on a Bosphorus cruise. The heat of the day was just starting, but already the air had a warm, scented feeling. Palm trees tossed lightly in the breeze, and the cat attached to a nearby stall napped contentedly on a pile of cushion covers.
HagiaSophiaJust after sunset, we returned to the square to watch the nightly tradition of breaking the Ramadan fast with a communal meal. Long rows of picnic tables had been set up along the square, their white tablecloths held in place with square boxed meals bought at local stands. Other families opted to bring their own meal, and the scents of kofte (meatballs), hummus, and naan bread wafted across the square. Families spread their blankets on the nearby grass, and sat talking and laughing together as the night fell. Andrew and walked the length of the square, pausing to buy homemade naan bread roasted and stuffed with feta cheese, and dish of watermelon squares. The naan bread was delicious, the feta cheese providing just the right note of saltiness to accent the freshly baked bread. Along one side of the square was a small, covered marketplace- stalls on each side, with arches between them strung with icicle Christmas lights. Mixed crowds jostled here- families out for a stroll and a little shopping, tourists looking for gifts for family back home. Some shopkeepers opted to practice their handiwork on site to draw customers, and crowds gathered around the hunched man patiently painting a traditional design on a coffee mug. A row of painted plates hung along the top of this stall, featuring bold fan-like carnations and stylized tulips. Further along, a stall featured wooden products, including beautifully carved book stands with intricate designs.
BlueMosqueNightAs we reached the end of the market. we turned back to look at the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque again. The night sky had deepened to a cobalt blue, and the pale minarets of the Blue Mosque stood out clearly against the dark sky. A banner in Christmas lights had been stretched between two minarets, proclaiming a Ramadan message. Behind us, the bulk of the Hagia Sophia rose, its walls a deep ochre. Floodlights lit up the outside walls, and smaller lights illuminated the minarets which had been added later. In front of us, the fountain started into motion again, its jets spraying water high in the air. Floodlights under the fountain illuminated the falling water, and children ran and laughed as the spray lifted towards them in the breeze. I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of conversations nearby, families laughing together under the night sky, and the sound of falling water. The Hagia Sophia stood in the background, silently watching, as it has for centuries.

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Becoming a Praguean

20140220_180055 (5) It’s ten minutes before class starts, and I’m running up the stairs of the metro station, hoping that I can quickly walk the last two blocks to the school and arrive before the lecture starts. The wind is chilly and brisk, and the passing trams only add strength to the measured gusts of the wind. Suddenly the melancholy tune of a street musician fills the air, rising above the morning crowds. I look up, trying to located the hidden musician, and realize once again how beautiful this city is. Tall, five story buildings line the winding street, each decorated with statues, latticed balconies, and scroll work around each window. Occasional buildings are decorated with painted pastoral scenes, or tall, ornate double doors with stonework or family crests above them. The morning class is forgotten, and I stop for a moment to let the peace of this city sink in.
This new life in Prague has been full of such moments. Yesterday afternoon I wandered down a small alley I had noticed earlier, and discovered an ancient church, intact, with beautiful stained glass windows. The alleys nearby all curve to accommodate this church, as the city has simply grown up around it. Now tall buildings dwarf this tiny church, and it lies hidden, only yards from a main street and busy traffic. Last week, a walk to the Voltava River, which runs through the center of town, brought me suddenly around a corner to a breathtaking view of Prague Castle. It sits on a hill west of the river, and dominates the skyline of the city. At night its exterior is lit, along with the other historic buildings near it, and the view at night from across the river is simply beautiful. Time seems to have stopped in this city, and I find myself slowing down to the city’s relaxed rhythm. I am gradually exploring the alleys which wind invitingly off the main roads, and many lead to quiet town squares, cozy pubs, and the occasional English bookstore.
There have been the occasional adventures in culture shock. That morning in the bakery when I carefully read and pronounced the name of the pastry I had selected, only to have the clerk freeze for a moment at my terrible Czech and then switch quickly to near-perfect English. I have since learned to have a friend write down a few Czech words on a slip of paper, and then to  use this when shopping for household supplies. I still find the Czech greetings of ‘Ahoj’ (pronounced Ahoy) and ‘Ciao’ (pronounced like the Italian greeting) strange, especially as I am neither at sea nor in Italy. I have twice been mistaken for a Czech, and once for a German, before managing to switch the conversation to English.
But I am happy here. I am gradually learning Czech, and learning to pronounce entire words and even sentences without vowels. I look forward to sunny days enjoying a latte in a cobbled town square, attending concerts in ancient churches, and visiting Prague Castle. For now, I sit in a softly lit pub, listening to the clink of glassware and the rise and fall of Czech voices, and watch the night gradually fall upon this city. And I am content.