Well folks, it’s been quite a while since I updated my little blog. Much has happened since I last wrote. I’ve been putting off updating my blog simply because so much has happened in the last two or three months and I don’t know how to organize my thoughts. In fact, I think this entry will have to come in parts so that I can cover as much area as possible.
First of all, I’m glad to report that I made it through my first Czech Christmas (who knows, there may be more to come) with only a single minor hitch.
The only small hiccough that came up was the traditional Czech Christmas food. For the most part, I have little difficulty with food. There are some things that I don’t like to eat, and a couple that I simply refuse (sauerkraut, for example), but I do not consider myself to be very picky. However, the traditional Czech Christmas Eve meal consists of carp (one of the ugliest, most disgusting fish I know of) and potato salad. That’s pretty much it.
I live on the Yakima River in Prosser. My younger brother catches carp from our back yard, but there is one major difference: we never eat them. To me, they taste like mud. Carp is the kind of fish one cuts up to use as bait, not the kind that one buys from the grocery store and serves to one’s family at Christmas time. Needless to say, I struggled a little bit with that aspect of the meal, but I am proud to say that I ate my slab of carp without so much as a single gag (thanks in part to a giant mound of home-made potato salad that distracted me every few bites from the muddy taste in my mouth).
My host mother, Ivana, also prepared fish soup. Now, if you’ve ever eaten the white porridge-like breakfast “food” known as grits, you can probably imagine the texture of this soup. Imagine grits, but watered down, and then imagine that it all tastes like fish and there are little chunks of carp in it. Blah. It was definitely not my favorite soup. I am also proud to say that I ate this soup twice, but that was my limit. I had to say no to further installments of fish soup for fear that my stomach would simply not be able to handle it.
I swear that Ivana must have made over 200 cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We hung some of them on the Christmas tree. Some were used to mark the days of Advent. Others were simply eaten after lunch and dinner. That’s right: lunch and dinner. I think I gained 10 lbs just during the Christmas season.
Aside from food troubles (though I wouldn’t call the overabundance of cookies a “trouble”), Christmas with the Hanzlík family was wonderful. Just like Christmas in Washington, the family got together to celebrate and I felt like a fully-integrated part of it. I know that I have been truly blessed.
Outside of family traditions, Christmas in Czech Republic is quite different from Christmas in the States. For one thing, they don’t have Santa Clause. In fact, I was surprised by how anti-Santa some people are here. It took a little explaining to figure out exactly why that is the case.
Some of my Czech friends would give me dirty looks in the weeks before Christmas when I would sing songs about Santa Clause – normal American Christmas songs. At first, I had no idea why this was happening. When I finally asked, one of my friends said “We have Baby Jesus. Baby Jesus is our Santa Clause.” Well that didn’t make me very happy, because I thought that my friends were trying to tell me that Americans worship Santa Clause. It also didn’t make sense to me that a worship substitution would bother them, since the population of Czech Republic is widely atheist. I tried to explain that Santa is not a substitution for Jesus, and that we do not worship him. “Jesus is the reason we celebrate. Santa Clause is just an added bonus,” I said. After much discussion, I found that this was not the problem at all.
You see, according to Czech tradition, Baby Jesus delivers the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, usually after dinner, but before bed-time. Gifts are therefore opened on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day (December 25). The way many Czech people see it, Santa Clause is taking over the traditional role of Baby Jesus – the magical gift-giving role. Their traditions are being shut out by a fat man in a red suit, and they don’t like that very much. This realization came as a bit of a shock to me, but it certainly helped me adapt to the cultural traditions surrounding Christmas in this country.
Silvestr (New Year’s Eve)
On December 31, I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Czech Republic. Here, it is called Silvestr (pronounced like the name “Sylvester”) because it is the Silvestr Name Day. (Every day of the year has a given name. People here celebrate Name Days much like birthdays. For example, December 4 is Barbora, so on that day, my friend Barbora received small gifts and hugs and attention.)
Anyway, I was invited to my friend Maruška’s house to celebrate Silvestr with her and a couple other friends. We watched movies and had a lot of fun. At midnight, fireworks were set off by people all over České Budějovice, so we stood outside in the snow to watch, each toting a small glass of sparkling wine to bring in the New Year. Watching fireworks light the sky above České Budějovice was truly an incredible experience.
My friends and I stayed up long after midnight watching movies, putting together a puzzle, snacking, and just enjoying each other’s company. I think I slept most of the following day. :)
On February 13, I moved to a new family. I am now staying with the Chmelík family. I feel like I am still adjusting to the changes. Things are very different here. Not better, not worse, just different. My host father, Petr, speaks very little English, and my host mother speaks none, so communication is a little more difficult here. On the other hand, though, I can feel myself picking up the language a little better now.
There are other differences between my new family and my past family, but it seems pointless to list them out. It all just takes a little getting used to after living with the Hanzlík family for so long. I miss my first family now nearly as much as I missed my family in the States right after I left the country. I know that, in time, I will settle into life at my new house, and until that time, I’ll just keep smiling.
The first weekend with my new family was spent in the Krkonoše Mountains. My host parents also offered to bring Kayla Edwins, my fellow exchange student and closest friend in České Budějovice. Kayla and I don’t ski, so instead we all went for a hike on the second day of the trip.
Let me just tell you, hiking in the snow is quite a workout. We were completely exhausted by the end of our excursion. Immediately upon arriving at our room, both Kay and I crashed, sleeping for heaven only knows how long. We woke feeling very refreshed, so we decided to go out that evening. Kayla and I went out on our own to look around the resort-like town in which we were staying. (As a side note: my host family and Kay and I were staying in the lodge in the Krkonoše National Park, not in a hotel. So although the town was very tourist-oriented and sported high-class hotels and restaurants and nice pubs, our accommodations were not so swanky – one small room for all four of us, plus a kitchen the size of a closet and a toilet in another part of the building. Don’t worry, folks, I was not spoiled rotten on this trip.) The town was very beautiful and was filled with people speaking all kinds of different languages. We ate ice cream at a café and milled around outside in the snow, then returned home around 10.
On the third day of our trip, my host parents took us to a glass factory in a nearby town. We were lucky enough to tour one of the oldest hand-blown glass factories in Czech Republic. Having never actually seen glass blowing before, this tour was particularly interesting for me. It still astonishes me to think that so many people work on one piece, and that even though the materials they work with are extremely hot, they do their work with confidence and efficiency, making truly beautiful creations. The process fascinates me.
On the fourth day, Kayla and I stayed in while my host parents went out to ski. They decided while they were out to cut the trip short and leave that afternoon (we were originally going to stay until the next day) because the weather forecasts predicted more heavy snowfall in the mountains. We packed up out things and cleaned up our room and were on the road home around 4 pm.
The trip as a whole was pretty fun (though during the hike, Kay and I were both wondering why in the world we had agreed to come to the mountains at all…). I enjoyed spending time with Kayla, as well as getting to know my new host parents.
During the winter months, I have also had the pleasure of attending a number of formal balls. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a dress from my friend Věrka, and winter is what I call “Ples (the Czech word for a ball) season”, so it is not uncommon for a girl to wear the same dress more than once (which is great for an exchange student who can’t afford to buy 4 different dresses).
I attended my first ples at the school where my brother-in-law, Petr, teaches (this was before I moved to the Chmelík family). Kayla also came so that I wouldn’t feel completely awkward. We danced a little bit (not enough for me) and then went home with Petr around midnight. It was a fun introduction to the world of Czech formals. You see, dances here aren’t anything like the dances I used to attend at high school at home. In the beginning (from 7-12) there is a live band, which plays some swing, a little rock, and a bunch of well-known pieces. So Kayla and I danced to some of the songs and left without knowing the second half of the ples was going to be completely different.
The second ball I went to was the Annual Rotary Ples. It was my duty as an exchange student to perform the opening dance with a partner. I invited my good friend Jakub from school. The dance was very simple – a promenade – and went by very quickly. After that, Kayla, Jakub, Wade, and a few other kids our age got to hang out together, dancing when we felt like it. I had a blast!
About three quarters of the way through the night, a guy asked to dance with me. Little did I know that this guy (who looked to be about 20) was a dance instructor. He danced with me once, and apparently liked the way that I danced because he danced with me the rest of the evening. I think I spent about as much time with my feet off the floor as I did with them on. (As a disclaimer, I really don’t know how to dance that well. I simply know how to be led. If a gentleman can lead, I’m usually pretty good at following.) I danced until two in the morning, all the time to a large brass band. When Pavel motioned that it was time to go home, I was not yet ready to leave.
The last two formals I have been to have been Maturitní Pleses, or graduation balls. I went to these with my friends from school. Formals in Czech Republic are a little different from formals in the States. Especially graduation balls.
For one thing, it is open to the public. Many parents and other loved ones attend. It is also tradition for the graduating class to get drunk before the dance even starts. Then, they continue to drink all night long (because the legal drinking age here is 18, a bar is usually open for those students of age and the adults present – inside the same building as the ples takes place), and end up getting totally plastered. That makes for an interesting night.
The music at the beginning is the same. Then after midnight, the band leaves and is replaced by a DJ. The ples turns into a club. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much techno music in my life. I stayed and danced until 2 each time, even following the first with an after party at a nearby pub. I had a wonderful time with my friends.
During the next few days (only 3, actually), I will be preparing for my family to visit! They will arrive on March 23, and will depart for the States again on April 8. I cannot even express how excited I am to see my mom, dad, brother, aunt and uncle! We will spend some time in Czech Republic, and then do some traveling within Europe. I am looking forward to the hugs and kisses of my family. The reality of it still hasn’t sunken in yet… it seems too good to be true.
Well, folks, it looks like you’ve just about caught up with my hectic life now. Thanks for taking the time to read all of this stuff. I’ll try to be more regular about this from now on. Not that there’s much left; only a few short months from now, I will be on the plane home. Until then, I’m going to enjoy every moment of my time here!