PLACES (of the earth & mind)

Chamonix Mont Blanc!

John, Alexandra & I popped over the Chamonix to visit Camilla and get a taste of the apres ski. (Never thought I'd be in a "popping over to France" situation, but that's life for you!) It was a little more "apres" than "ski", but that was just fine by us.  

We hit the epic mountain on the second day, but the first day we spent walking around the town. We snagged the window seats at Elevation 1904, and as the day dimmed and the dog-tired off-pist skiiers made there way to the pubs, I captured many a sun-tanned face. There is something wonderful about the exhausted body after a day of truly great skiiing. I love happy-people watching.


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On the street, in the cold

The first sound I heard this morning was Gunner moaning from...where exactly was it? Is he under the bed, is he sick?  Wait, no, maybe it's not Gunner, maybe it's Alexandra's on a Skype call in her bedroom. Is she crying? What could be the matter? Should I go in there and check on her? No, it sounds further outside.  Is it someone talking on a bullhorn in Namesit Miru, the church square half a block down the corridor from our flat? What are they saying? How are they posssibly holding a political rally at this time of the morning on a Saturday and in this cold?  I get out of bed and make some coffee, sit on the couch and open my laptop. And then I hear it again, rolling past me on the street below.  It's the tram! I can make out the faint sound through my double-pained windows. The cold has actually changed the sound of the tram wheels grinding on their frozen metal tracks. It sounds like the tram is crying as it passes. It's that cold.

10F degrees actually. I thought that once the thermometer went below 32F it pretty much all felt the same. It turns out there is a big difference between 32F and 10F and it makes a huge difference in how long you can be outside without losing feeling in your nose.

We were eating lunch at a pizza restaurant the other day and there was heavy and consistent traffic outside the window. Three men, one woman with a baby in a stroller and one small boy, I'm guessing 3-4, stood in a loose group between our window and the street. The men were 30-ish, mullet-ed, pony-tailed. They had squeegies and spray bottles and alternated moving in and out of the traffic, trying to make a few crowns washing people's frozen windshields. The woman stayed on the side with the children, stepping side to side under her long cotton skirt, chain smoking over the stroller, watching the men, while the young boy stood still with his hands in his tiny courdoroy pockets, looking into the stroller at the baby. They were there for at least the 45 minutes that we were at the restuarant, but by the time we left the restaurant, they had moved to a perhaps more promising corner. Are they Gypsies? I keep hearing derogatory things about Gypsies from my Czech students and friends. Things that make my California-grown-politically-correct ears hum and make me uncomfortable in my seat. The Czechs are blatantly discriminatory against Gypsies in what, from my distant positition seems like a chicken and an egg problem: Discrimination...can't get jobs...don't work...make money from begging...maybe to a little stealing.....why work?...discrimination....and around again. But like I said, I'm a bit of an armchair philosopher on this one. The Czech (and Slovaks, and Russians) have no sympathies in their hearts for the Gypsies. 

Maybe this is what they do as a family, on a Friday afternoon, go out and watch dad squeegee cars in the shocking cold. I found myself too shy and embarrassed to run out of the restaurant and give them money. I considered buying them a pizza. But, what if I misunderstood the situation? Would it be insulting? There's no way they spoke English. How could I explain myself? To be honest, I found myself actually quite mad at the mother. Is there no place, other than this cold corner, that you can take your children? No homeless shelter is going to turn out a mother and babies in this cold, if in fact, they don't have a place to live. It seemed to me that it was her choice to keep her children standing there all day while she watched her husband/boyfriend/brother (who by the way spent most the time joking with his friends, not comforting the woman, not picking up the 3 year old and squeezing the cold out of him). Reading this, I sound like an ignorant, arrogant middle-class jerk. How dare they be poor, how dare they let their children stand out in the cold. In India, I saw them force their children to roll in dirt wander through traffic begging for money. In Vietnam, their children work the cash register at the family store at 1:00am. In Cambodia, they dress their children up with three coats of make-up and costumes and send them into the strobe-lit tourist nightclubs to beg for money. And here the poor children keep their mother company while she keeps her boyfriend company in the bitter cold while he tries to score a few crowns. Can I judge what a family makes their children do for money? If the mullet-ed boyfriend uses the crowns he earned for cigarettes, can I despise them all and join my Czech friends in their judgment? If he gives the crowns to the woman and she uses the crowns to buy milk and bread for the children can I forgive that they both made a baby and a 3-year old stand in the freezing cold for hours?

I can go 'round and 'round, but I guess the only truth I can come to is that there's no real place for my judgment in this scenario. It's just the way the world is.



Oh that's so American of you...

Certain things betray one as American, just as I'm sure certain things betray one was Austrian (never crossing on a red) Japanese (a penchant for dashboard-scapes of small collectable plush toys) Indian (a strong, persistent and unabashed stare at any foreigner) Italian (the need to walk in inpenetrable 30-person tourist-packs, tight jeans, puffy fur jackets on men, hightop sneakers, really awful haircuts, need I go on?).

So, what are the things that give away one's Americaness? According to our Czech friend Karel, asking someone "How are you?" upon meeting them is very American. So American, that Czechs quite literally don't know how to respond - it often befuddles them. I should have gathered as much, as I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to this rhetorical question. I used to ask my Czech students, as they filed in the classroom door, "How are you, Honza? And Hana, how are you?" and the questions would literally stop them in their single file tracks, backing up a line of disgruntled students out the door. After each had spent a moment or two considering my question, I'd usually get a response detailing a mixture of physical ailments, dwindling job prospects, and an overall feeling of malaise. I know the Czechs are a complaining people - they openly and proudly admit how much they complain! (It's the Czech pass time! some of them tell me.) I just figured that my question was giving them a platform to complain, and it was my own fault for asking it. 

My landlord is working on remodling the flat below us, and I often see him on my way out the door in the morning. By the looks and sounds of it, he's got a lot to complain about. The first thing I always say to him is "Dobre Den" (Good Day) and then, embarrassed that I don't have the Czech to go much further, I say "Jak si Mate?" (How are you?) This always prompts a fluster of hand movements, hands to head, clenched fists shaken at the ceiling, and then an exasperated wave, motioning me to just go on with my day as his was not worth commenting on.

Karel tells me that "How are you?" is something Czechs would never ask each other, unless it was half way through the converstation when you were truly, genuinely interested in an honest response. They think it's somewhat fake that American's ask this. When you think about it, it's true - we're not looking for a real answer. We're looking for "Fine." "Great!" "Couldn't be better, how about those Dodgers?!" We don't give negative responses to that question, unless we're trying to bring the other person down, and an American would never do that. The Czechs on the other hand....

I've also been told that I was "so American" by another American who has lived here for a few years longer than I (therefore, qualified to judge). What was my transgression? My penchant for fire safety, apparently.  See, most of the building doors here in Prague are locked at night, from both the inside and the outside, but SOME of them are actually locked all day long. In fact, almost every time I leave this friend's apartment, I get to the bottom, realize I don't have a key, and have to walk back up to his floor to get the key, which I then have to keep in my pocket until I remember to give it back to him.  Now, what exactly does one do when that building is aflame?  This door is about 2 inches thick, solid oak, and there is no way I would be able to kick it in, especially with flames lapping at my backside, as some of my manlier friends insist they would do. What is the purpose of a door lock that keeps you IN? Especially in the middle of the day? I don't think it's especially American of me to think that's a dangerous situation, not just for Americans, but for....pretty much all mammals. Maybe that's just the dormant personal injury paralegal in me.

Speaking of safety or lack thereof, take a look at these fantasic skating devices some Czech parents cooked up in their steelyards:

Did you catch that? That was a rusty, metal, home-fashioned ice-skating crutch built for youngin's who have barely learned to walk on sneakers, let alone ice skates. Sharp at it's angles, and about knee high for your average full-grown adult, of which there were about 150 skating on this particular rink on this particular day.

When I first saw it, I thought, wow, what a genius homespun contracption.  And then I saw someone fall and almost lose an eye.  But who am I to judge. That would be cultural imperialism.


Snowy Fashion

I woke today to giant snowflakes. Big chunky ones...each the result of collision after collision of microscopic flakes, forced into a swirling tango as they swooped through the corridor in front our building. At 9:00 it was only a light dusting.

By 11:00 it had become a more persistent snow, prompting responsible shopowners to locate their snow brooms. Wenceslas Square turned into this... 


and this...

...and had me thanking my foresight in wearing the Hummer of snow boots. The big-daddy Sorels, lined with felt and fur and enough tread to take out a Smart Car if the need presented itself. These bad boys are about 7.5 lbs. each, and seemed an absolute necessity in the wilds of wintery Spokane, where we lived across from a 100-acre snowy park and went skiing every other weekend. I'll admit they look absurd in the city, especially in contrast to the stilettos which the women STILL insist on wearing. The other night, while walking to dinner, John pointed out one woman who seemed to be walking on 6 inch metal chopsticks for heels and she was striding along, as if she were ice skaing, unlike myself who still has to walk with my eyes to the street to avoid landing flat on my face.

I also have purchased one of those serious winter coats, which place me squarely on the fashion map of Moscow, Warsaw or...Prague, I guess. It's a parka that goes down to mid thigh, and belts nice and tightly around the waist (there's no excuse for these girls not to show their figures) and feels like someone has wrapped me with a waterproof comforter and rope. It's delightful. It also makes me wonder why I've been dressing like the Michelin Man every time it snows. More practically, I'm never, ever cold in it.  It has a giant hood, with a rim of fur, that actually narrows my peripheral vision to about half a foot to the side of directly in front of me. When I walk with John in the metro or on a crowded street, I have to stop and swivel my head to both sides to make sure I haven't lost him. 

As I was crossing Vodickova Street today, a street that intersects with Wenceslas Square with a constant flow of trams, I forgot to swing my head to the left and the right to make sure I wasn't one giant Sorel bootstep away from becoming a street-crepe. Half way into the street I panicked and threw my hood off to see if there were any trams coming. At that moment, a woman coming in the opposite direction caught my eye and I knew, by her relaxed look I knew that I was safe, for surely you could see in the reflection of the pedestrians coming at you if you were going to get hit by a tram, couldn't you? 

And it occurred to me that it's the flow of foot traffic that keeps me warm here. I mean, it's cold, really freaking cold. But it's hard to feel that walking to work in 24F Degree weather is unbearable when you are surrounded by people. People in fashionably belted fur-rimmed parkas. People in stilettos. People in shorts and stockings. And don't forget the Japanese girls in bunny hats and mouse mittens. It's a fashion show out there. There's no time to feel cold. 



Looking Forward

So, it's been one year today that I moved to Prague, and apparently, I need a vacation from living in Europe. Ohhhh Waahhhh!!......right? Who wants to hear it? Not you, I'm sure.

If there's one lesson that can be garnerned from my 2012, it's that there is no magical place that strips you of your worries or your cares or your responsibilities. That place is a state of mind. You can have it anywhere in the world, even in the lonliest and most drab hole. Conversely, happiness can evade you even in one of the most magical cities on earth.

Since my last blog entry was sometime in the spring of 2012, it seems that some explanation is needed. Where have I been? Based on the amount I talk to family and friends (hardly ever), you'd all think that I'd either gone native or disappeared all together. 

At the same time, the fact that my last entry was over 8 months ago seems to be somewhat self-explanatory. I have had nothing to say, nothing to share. I have been working so hard that I have made myself sick. I have turned weekends into workdays, failed to travel, failed to write, failed to live.

There's something about a blog called "The Wanderlusting Expat" that requires a certain aspirational story. "Gather 'round, let me enthrall you with a story of travel, excitement, adventure, and **wanderlust**." I don't write this blog to tell you all about my anxiety, my frustration, my depression. That's the thing about depression, you're not allowed to admit it to your husband, to your mother, even to yourself. Especially when you're depressed amidst the year of uprooting your family and moving to a city in a country you'd never been before, thinking "hey why not?" like you were 22 years old without a care in the world.

I'm not going to wade too deeply into the reasons I've not been blogging, nor am I going to pretend that I'm living the dream.  I am, however, going to try to be honest and consistent in 2013. I've decided that the one place to do that will be my blog and my writing. There are interesting things happenening over here in Prague for sure. There are revalations and happenings and encounters that would make you all laugh and cry, I'm sure. I'm going to try to tap into them more deeply this year, and every now and then look up from the cobblestones (while still trying not to trip) and admire the absolutely goregous skyline.