“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell a story. Make some light.” – Kate DiCamillo
I am a firm believer in writing our own stories. Life is story and story is life, and life is easy in our comfort zones. Stepping out of our normal routines sometimes means tapping into a long-held dream, saving dollars and coins in a jar, and taking action by making the plans. In this case, stepping out meant the pursuit of fun times and family travel. Destination: Europe, with my three almost-grown teenage sons.
Every once in a while, I note that my sons are far taller than I am, and are growing into themselves, which I love. This has always been the goal. But I also note that times with the four of us won’t always last forever. I love it when we are together. And so, taking action on the “I wish we could go back to Prague” wistful dinner conversations, I booked tickets last fall for us to travel to Europe together. It is a dream trip, and it came true. I am so grateful.
For some reason, tickets across the pond landing in Belgium were astoundingly reasonable, so that is where we began: in Bruxelles.
We had a few hours to spare before our next train, so we took the chance to have a local breakfast of waffles and walked around the Grand Place. With a clear blue sky, the buildings shone. It was beautiful – a place filled with sunshine, the sounds of footsteps across cobblestones and spoken French and Flemish, with the fragrance of chocolate accompanied by pristine architecture.
The hours to our next stop didn’t quite go as planned – our trains got mixed up with a cancellation, which was lost in translations. And so we boarded the wrong train, but luckily still made it to our Amsterdam destination to see best friends, arriving only an hour later than planned. We spent days with them in their native Haarlem and enjoyed days on bikes, at the beach, and at the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh museums in the city. It was wonderful.
We flew out to Prague and landed amidst the celery green fields waving with wheat in the morning. Most things have not changed at all in the five years since we’ve repatriated to our native US after living in Prague from 2009 – 2013. Our favorite nearby restaurant on a pond still serves the same pizzas and goulash. The same heavy trucks still consume the narrow roads. The village potraviny still operates exactly the same way. Daily life has continued without us, which was good to see. Our apartment rented through TripAdvisor impressed us immensely with its views over the Vltava River, National Theater, and Charles Bridge. We soaked up every minute in our former home. (More to come in future posts…)
Our final stop was a bit of a reach, but it, too, wowed us. We flew to Milan and took trains south to the coast and stayed in obscure Cinque Terre. It surpassed our hopes with its fun, natural surroundings, and beauty.
Finally, we boarded trains through Nice, France, and returned for a night in Bruxelles before returning to the US.
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. -Miriam Beard
I have been living in the Czech Republic for almost two years now, have taken oodles of Czech lessons, and can officially attest that the Czech language is one of the most difficult in the world. Czech words are not easy to read, write, or pronounce. In college, I minored in Spanish, which I enjoyed immensely. But Czech, with its many different endings and formulations for a single word, combined with the difficult pronunciations of single letters of their alphabet, is a far different animal, especially for English natives.
Despite its difficulty, I’ve pursued learning enough Czech to get around well. And it has paid off countless times. The Czech people respond when foreigners attempt to speak in their language, even when it doesn’t come out perfectly. So, before you consider visiting,
5 Czech Words to Know When Visiting Prague
1) Hello : Ahoj — Said like [Ahoy] This is an informal term used for familiar friends at greeting, and for answering the phone.
2) Good day: Dobrý den [Sounds like Doe-bree den] This is most commonly used in Czech for all greetings. Even when someone enters a room, a “dobrý den” is mumbled by everyone in the room. The response, “Dobrý den” right back.
3) Thank you: Děkuji [Sounds like Dya-koo-yee] This version is the correct way to say thank you, though slang has brought a new word — “Dike” or said like Dee-kay.
4) Please: Prosím [Sounds like Pro-seem] This word you’ll hear often in Czech, especially because it is used to say please and you’re welcome.
5) Good-bye: Na shledanou [Sounds like Na shlay-dan-ow] This expression is used every time you leave a store, a restaurant, or leave someone. There are a few different pronounciations, including the slang Na Skle or said Na Sklay.
One of the best investments when traveling to another country is a language program translator uploaded to an iPod or an iPhone. My favorite is the iTranslate app. I use it all the time.
What helps you the most with languages when you are traveling?
“There is something particularly fascinating about seeing places you know in a piece of art – be that in a film, or a photograph, or a painting.”
― Sara Sheridan
I wanted to share a photograph for Light, an innovative new camera company, and their Vantage Point project displaying the best shots of a favorite place in your hometown or a place you have traveled. Since I love photographs that take me places, I decided it would be fun to participate. The compact camera looks pretty fun, with multi-aperture capability in a small and light new gadget that would fit in a pocket. I’d love to try it.
I’ve always toted around my Nikon, a seven-year-old camera body D90, with two lenses. I love hearing how other photographers who embrace their photography as a dedicated hobby / semi-profession plan their lenses. One of my co-workers has oodles of lenses. When he asked me what I shoot with, I smiled, a little embarrassed. I’ve never been one to want to accumulate unnecessary things. I have two camera lenses: the one the D90 came with, an 18 – 105 mm kit zoom lens, and a heavy zoom lens with a range of 70 – 200 mm. I love and use them both equally.
When it comes to a great photograph, I think several elements have to work together. Lighting is always number one for me. Then composition, subject, and then the illusive choices selected by the photographer’s eye. When a photograph has it all, it’s magic.
One photograph I’ve taken and posted here on my site before is the photograph I took on Charles Bridge, in Prague. My family and I lived in Prague from 2009 – 2013, and within a couple of months learned fog is a norm for Prague, especially along the Vltava River. Remember the first Mission Impossible movie starring Tom Cruise? The story began with gunshots on a mysterious bridge shrouded in fog. That was Prague’s Charles Bridge along the Vltava River.
I’ve written about it before. The Charles Bridge is a place where I spent a lot of time, holding a steaming cup of coffee from the Lavazza cafe near St. Nicholas Church on Malostranske square. The Charles Bridge speaks. If you stand on it long enough, especially in the off-season on a day with few tourists, you can hear its stories: of Kings and processionals, of whispers of centuries of wars and hostile occupations, of floods and near-miss disasters, of changing governments and protesting people, of peace, fleeting as it may be. The stones have stories. You can feel them.
It is this that the photograph captures, I think. There is a sense of something more than light, composition, and subject. That is why I love this photograph and want to share it again, here. It is my all-time favorite photo I’ve taken, so far.
The Light Co is posting their favorite photographs of places on their Pinterest site here. And if you’ve shot photography with the new Light camera, share what you think with us — I’d love to hear!
“Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.” -Carlos Ruiz Zafon in The Angel’s Game
Being scared happens. It’s part of living. And, sometimes it’s what teaches us who we are, and how to be brave.
I’ve had a few scary instances in my life … of being followed when I was a 16-year-old model in New York City, more than once; of failing when I’ve dared greatly; of having hard conversations when they’re necessary; of the route when all hopes fail; of being alone, left in the darkness, and all the crazy scenarios our minds can cook up when we’re tired or we feel we’ve reached the end.
A Village Street Near My Home outside Prague
But there is one true happening within the last year that sticks out as scariest in my mind. My story involves Swat Teams, burglary, nighttime, and the very not-secure back door to our rental house. True Stories at JessicaVealitzek.com, and since Jess’s site is now undergoing renovation, I’m posting the piece here, as well:
A True Scary Story from My Days in Prague
When my writing friend, Jessica Vealitzek, asked me and some of the other ladies on the team at Great New Books to write a “The Time I Was Most Scared” essay for her blog, True Stories, I knew instantly what I should share. But I wasn’t sure I could share this story out loud. Then, this past weekend, I talked with one of my dear friends overseas whose home was just targeted and knew this story must be told. Living as an expat in Prague, the spying capital of the world we were told, is not the easy life it’s sometimes made up to be. It’s pretty scary, in fact. It’s an example of one of the extra-trying experiences I had while an expat with my family in Prague.
The Time I Was Most Scared
One of the best things about living overseas is the appreciation an expat feels when he or she returns home. It’s not the result of the home place becoming suddenly shiny or more beautiful, but of the depth of difficulty of the experiences while abroad. I can say this from experience.
One evening in my first year of living in Prague, I sat in the school auditorium amongst a loud conversational buzz. Dozens of languages passed around me, and I remember thinking the excitement might be over the fifth-grade music performance. Then, soon, an Egyptian woman in front of me shared the news: a man had been shot in front of the director of the school’s home.
I grasped for details. What happened? Why? Who was it? And heard the dissatisfying answers – a man had been sitting in his car on the narrow street, another car drove by, a gun appeared in the window and shot the man. It happened in the same small village just outside Prague which my family and I lived in.
It sounds shocking, doesn’t it? But this is the world of Eastern European expats, a Jason Bourne-type reality.
For a couple of years, the Bourne factor settled a bit. Our car alarm sounded on occasion outside our house when we hadn’t parked inside the wall. People dressed as Polizie visited our house and demanded to see our passports, visas, and other important things. Expat friends warned against leaving garages open and valuables in open areas inside homes because theft is common, even if it’s daylight and people are home. These instances became normal. And then one day in my fourth year in Prague, our lives went from silence to chaos, not unlike hearing the Communist village loudspeakers blaring their frequent warnings, echoing through the narrow streets.
A friend whispered to me about a friend whose house had been invaded by a “Swat Team” at 3 a.m. that morning. The men jumped the front wall, pounded the front door, and demanded entry. They told her in broken English that they needed to “check her house because her garage door was open.” Her husband was out of the country on a business trip. They were armed; she let them “search” the house.
Then it became personal a night or two later. Our garage door began going up on its own in the middle of the night.
The first time, my husband and I both heard it, and thanked God it squealed and squeaked on the tracks every time it went up. Our dog went crazy, but there was no one there.
The second time it happened, our dog woke us from deep sleep, and again, there was no one there. We asked our landlord to please change opener system to one with a rolling code. But these things take time in places like Czech Republic.
By the third time our garage door went up on its own in the middle of the night, I was sure the “Swat Team” would come rolling in. They didn’t.
But then a night came when my husband was out of the country, and a friend called to tell me about the break-in at the house of the first friend, who’d had the “Swat Team” at 3 a.m. It seemed sure they were coming to my house next.
I remember my heart beating outside my chest, trying to figure out what to do. Our house had an alarm, but we lived so far on the outskirts of the village, I knew no one would do anything. All of our neighbors were Czech, and often an alarm would sound, but no action was taken. And, calling the police, though I spoke adequate Czech, was pointless. They were the opposite of help.
We had two doors into the house—the front door, which locked with a deadbolt, and the back door, which was all glass and locked by the turn of the door handle. I was at home alone with three children for the week.
And so, that night, out of desperation, I secured the back door the only way I could. With duct tape.
Every hour of every night that week, I felt on edge, waiting. I knew it was coming. And yet it didn’t.
My husband returned and saw the duct tape striping the back door and laughed. But within a week, expensive cars with dark windows began staking-out our street. 24/7, men in long black trench coats sat in their cars blocking access to our tiny road, sometimes walking up and down the cobblestones. I truly felt fear then, the kind of fear that makes you use duct tape to try to seal your door.
Now, living back in the United States, I’m able to laugh about that duct tape job. But at the time, I was more scared than I’d ever been in my life. Rightfully so. It turns out the men in black stayed at the end of our tiny street for over a month, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And, friends in Prague have since then had their house turned upside down with a terrible break-in.
I remember the horrible feeling of living through each day with a bulls-eye marking my head, my house, my heart. It was a Bourne world, every day, in Czech Republic.
One thing is for sure: I learned what fear tastes like. It’s distinct, unsettling, and lingers. I know the experiences will fuel my writing for a lifetime.
Next week is a big week here — I’m celebrating 5 years of blogging with a giveaway!
Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone. ~G.B. Stern
“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” -Johannes A. Gaertner (1912-1996) Art History Professor, Theologian, Poet
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” -Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) Philosopher, Mathematician
appreciation [əˌpriːʃɪˈeɪʃən -sɪ-] noun
1. thanks or gratitude
2. assessment of the true worth or value of persons or things
Not long ago, a wise friend wrote a spontaneous comment to me about the expat experience. She, too, had been an American who had lived for an extended period of time outside the United States. And she, too, had moved back to the United States recently with her family. I have thought about and repeated what she said many times over the past few weeks, as I and my family transition from our almost 4 years of living abroad in the Czech Republic. What she said was this:
“The best thing about being an expat is the appreciation you have for everything when you return.”
“Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” -Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child
Isn’t that what happens when the first snow falls? We watch in amazement as the muddy autumn world turns a crisp winter white. It’s as if the lacy flakes dance and twirl and mimic our hearts during the first snowfall — we feel lighter, more joyful. Snow turns us all into children again, if we let it.
This past weekend, in Prague, we had our first gorgeous snowfall. Yes, we suffered through an October snow that snapped tree limbs and piled atop colored leaves still on the trees. But this snow was different. It was the kind I classify as pure magic.
My family and our dear friends’ family met at the National Theater for an afternoon Advent Concert. It was beautiful (next week, I’ve decided I have to blog about the Theater, which I LOVE). When we exited the Theater, a shimmering of pixie dust glittered in the air, stirring the Castle and the Vltava and the vintage trams rumbling by the legendary Cafe Slavia into a magical land.
By the time we walked into Old Town Square, snow fell so thick it coated even our eyelashes.
The Christmas market stalls set up in Old Town Square sell Prague ham from a pig roasting on an open spit, Trdelnik from roasting bars turned above a fire, mulled wine from barrels, and handicraft items. A giant Christmas tree stands near the monument of Jan Hus, overlooking it all. An evening in Old Town Square during Christmastime is an experience not soon forgotten. And on a snowy evening, Prague’s Old Town Square is pure fairy tale.
For you: Where is your favorite place to experience a snowy evening? Have you been to Prague in the wintertime? What were your impressions?
“Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form inself on the edge of consciousness.” – Raymond Chandler, from The Big Sleep
If there would be one scene that defines Prague for me, it is the serpentine Vltava River winding through the city. Bridges cross the river at regular intervals, artistic in their arches, their Gothic architecture, and their spacing. Vintage red trams cross several bridges, along with cars and trucks and buses. But one bridge in Prague is completely special: the Charles Bridge.
“The monumental Nelahozeves Castle, one of Bohemia’s finest Renaissance castles, is situated on a gentle slope overlooking the Vltava River in the village of Nelahozeves (birthplace of the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák), approximately 35 km north of Prague.”
-from the website (Lobkowicz.cz) of the former Czech royal family, the Lobkowiczes
Music has always been an important part of my life. Not just rock music (which I love, and blogged about going to see U2 in Vienna and Coldplay in Prague), but classical music as well. This is the story …
I distinctly remember the day I chose what instrument I would play when I was a girl in the 5th grade. My family had recently moved from the South (Texas) to the cosmopolitan North (suburban Philadelphia), and I was an awkward 11 year old with a hard twang of an accent, dressed in prairie clothes my mother made and double braids my mother braided every day, and stood taller than my male 5th grade teacher. Yes, that was a tough time. Music was one of the things that saved me, I’m sure.
The cart the music teacher rolled into the school auditorium had been loaded with instruments — flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and a violin. Perhaps a few more. But I remember I only had eyes for the stringed instrument. When the teacher saw the size of my hands, she told me I needed to play something larger than a violin. A viola or cello, she said. I agreed. A viola sounded nice.
For the next many years, I played my viola. I toted it with me when we moved to another new state, and also when I ventured to college. I played the same viola when I became a mom and after, at friends’ events or at church. My viola still sits upstairs in a special boy-proof spot. The sheet music waiting inside the viola case still calls my name, though I don’t play it nearly as often as I like. Several of the pieces inside the case were written by Beethoven, and one was by Dvořák — all are favorites.
Fast forward to Czech Republic, where I currently live with my family. One day, when playing the music from my viola case, I recognized a name written at the top of the music, in German. Lobkowicz.
Soon, I discovered the 7th Prince Lobkowicz had been the prinicipal sponsor of Beethoven, including his 3rd, 5th, and 6th symphonies. Stunning!
And Dvořák grew up literally beside the Lobkowicz family castle called Nelahozeves Castle in Nelahozeves, Czech Republic (then Austrian empire). It was then, at these discoveries, that I began to dig in to see everything I could about the rich history in this enchanted region near Prague. Seeing all of the history, standing inches from the original Beethoven manuscripts, hearing the music played in castles and theaters near Prague — these all have left an imprint upon me and my life.
So, I must share them here as best I can with you — today, Nelahozeves Castle.
The Lobkowicz family has made an enormous mark on the world, through so many things, but also through music. Last week, I featured one of the Lobkowicz castles, Strekov Castle. I have talked about the Lobkowicz Palace inside the Prague Castle. And following, photos from one of my visits to the Lobkowiczs’ magnificent Nelahozeves Castle.
One of the most incredible parts of the Lobkowicz story happened when their properties and possessions — castles, music, palaces, and everything — were confiscated by the Nazis in 1939 and then by the Communists in 1948. In recent years, since the fall of Communism and the Soviet bloc, the Lobkowicz family has been working to restore all that had been taken from them, and put back on display for the public to see.
And since photography isn’t allowed inside the Lobkowicz properties, you must go and see the incredible exhibits for yourself. Priceless music, art, household items, armor — the Lobkowicz palace and castles are must-see places when you visit Prague. For more, visit their website at Lobkowicz.cz.
For you: What are your favorite classical musicians? Do you play an instrument? How does seeing such history and grandeur affect you?
“Střekov castle is situated in the village Střekov in the city of Ústí nad Labem. It was built at the beginning of the 14th century on a basalt rock above the river Labe to protect the important waterway and to collect duties. Střekov castle enchanted many world known artists notably Richard Wagner who was inspired to write a poem that served as basis for the libretto to the opera Tannhäuser.” -Wikipedia
One of the most surprising learnings from my time in Czech Republic has been discovering the number of castles throughout the small country. Czech Republic is roughly the size of the US state of South Carolina, 30, 000 square miles, with about the same number of inhabitants, 1.3 million. But imagine, in a country of that size, Czech Republic has over 2000 castles and palaces.
I’ve traveled to see many, and have found a few in places where I never would have expected to find a castle. One is only a few miles from my house.
Recently, my family and I took a roadtrip north to see a castle owned by the Lobkowicz family, renowned for its dark and looming presence above the Elbe River. That castle is Střekov Castle, near the town of Ústí nad Labem, close to the northern German border. (pronounced Strzh-eck-ov)
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m not sure there is a way to become an expat besides just taking the leap. Actually, a leap from a cliff into a murky pool of water. There is no way to know if, on the other side of a Trans-Atlantic move, it will work out until you try it.
It’s like diving into a murky water, fast moving in parts and slow moving in others, and the views along the river are all unknown. Everything is unknown. Where will we go? What will we do? Where will we live? How will we make a life in the complete unknown?
Those were all questions in my mind when I leaped, with my husband and three young sons, into the darkened water that was a move across the Atlantic, from quiet and predictable suburban Ohio, USA, to an endlessly interesting village just outside Prague, Czech Republic, three years ago. It was an act of faith.
Before the move, during the swirl of days of selling our house and cars, and packing our furniture for its two month trip across the ocean, we had a two-day seminar with a Cultural Trainer to prepare us for our new country of residence, to help brace us for becoming citizens outside our home country, expats. Most of the things our trainer said were daunting, and all seemed impossible. But I made a practice of making mental notes to keep me for the coming months and years. Those notes — they have all paid off in full. And, after three years, I can honestly say ALL of the unbelievable things the trainer said have been or become true. Continue reading My 3 Years in Prague