PLACES (of the earth & mind)

A trip to Vienna

By the way, have I told you that John arrived safely? That Gunner arrived safely, albiet smelling suspiciously like cat pee?  That my sister Camilla has also arrived and is roughing it on our guest bedroom with nothing but a blow-up matress and an Ikea bathrobe? I haven't have I? Bad Blogger.

Yes the four of us are living in our empty apartment, dreaming of the day the sofa will arrive. Gunner is not partial to European scratch posts (too small) and so until his super-sized, U.S.-regulation scratch post arrives in the furniture shipment, he is growing out his claws in protest. He taps around the wooden floors like Fred Astaire. It echos. We all echo. 

The good news is that the Czech Government has awarded me with one shiny new 6-month visa! (And it only took me 3 months to get it.) John and I jaunted over to Vienna to pick it up last week. If I remember correctly, Vienna was voted to have the highest quality of life of any city in the world. I can certainly see why.

Vienna has this mix of European "oldness" (how else do I say that?  Everything here is "old" to me) with a mixture of new, clean, and elegant.

The cafes were gorgeous, the streets were clean the parks were lovely.  

There were plenty of bike trails, which Prague definitely lacks, and everything there gave the impression of high-quality living.

The only thing that turned me off were all the American and British chain stores that permeate the center of the city. The giant Cathedral stands opposite to three McDonalds, a few Starbucks, Forever 21, Zara. I taught "Cultural Imperialism" the other day. My students didn't have a problem with it. They love Big Macs. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on.

Despite Vienna's pastel lovliness, I was still happy to get back to Prague. Prague is Old with a capital "O". The city just feels like it was unearthed in some ancient castle cellar and brought out into the light fully intact but for a few scratches. It is dirtier and there is more graffiti, but I kind of like that. Well, not really, but I like what it means. The history is absolutely visible, and I mean the recent history. Communism ended here in 1989. I was in geography class! I remember coloring the eastern bloc in with my colored markers! Either I'm old or modern Czech Republic is incredibly young. Being here before all the grime of Communism is pressure-washed from the buildings makes me feel like I'm getting in on the ground floor of something. 

Yesterday, I had a date with the foreign police at the crack of dawn and I google-mapped how to get there by tram. The seemingly quickest way to go was through this large park:

There was a big gate around it, but the woman at the gate, puzzled though she was, said I could go in. Turns out it was a giant cemetary with some of the most ornate and massive tombstones I have ever seen. They actually laser-etch the deceased's likeness into the marble.

The grounds were lovely and some of the graves had flower beds on top which hosted gardens.

After I took a few pictures in the maze-like grounds, I hurried to the other side to get to my meeting, only to realize ten minutes later that there was no way out through the other side. After frantically locating an even more puzzled gravedigger, I found my way out. 


A potato on the run

Jhumpa Lahiri begins her novel Unaccustomed Earth with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorn:

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replated, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be in my control, shall strike thier fortunes into unaccustomed earth."

The point of his quote (and Lahiri's excellent book) are that those who stay in the same place for generations tend to be week potatoes. Or conversely (and more generously) the ones who hit the road tend to be made of tougher stuff.

My family is definitely a sack of sturdy potatoes. My great-grandmother, the matriarch of my family, was an immigrant from Yugoslavia in her thirties. Her husband boarded a sea-vessel on his own at age 12 in an attempt to make it in the new world. My mother's side of the family only arrived on the west coast 45 years ago. California is my family's adventure. 

So what's with my urge to flee? My only guess is that modern time moves at warp speed. Hawthorne spent 49 years on the eastern seaboard before he joined the foreign service and went to Liverpool. 27 years was more than enough time for me to get the itch. 

We Californians think we are very special (although, apparently so do the Texans...hehe). In all seriousness, the left coast is a pretty great home base. Being a Californian has always had some unspoken meaning to me. John and I have a theory about people who were born in or grew up there: they must come from adventurous stock. Someone in their not-so-distant lineage moved to gold country to pursue some dream.  A lust for adventure runs thick in our veins. When John's father was young, he raised and sold calves at auction in a small town in Nebraska. A few decades later, he raised his own children on the edge of the North American continent in the paradise of Manhattan Beach. See? The stuff dreams are made of.

So there you have it, maybe I am by nature a frontier woman. I have never had interest in the trodden path. Alright, that's a baldfaced lie...I've tried the trodden path it aplenty, against all better judgment. It always turned out to be an excrutiaing self-relavatory process that ended in failure. Jesus, this Pilsner is making me melodramatic. In truth, all that really happened was that I landed right back where I started...alone with my own self and my own talents and my own limitations. It wouldn't have been so devestating if I'd just accepted who I really was in the first place: one odd fry, looking for same. Maybe the reason things have worked out so well in the last five years is that I found another odd-fry and he was ready to hit the road too.

The thing is, moving to a new country is fairly easy. No really, I've done way harder figuring out how to pay back taxes, finishing college after a false start...losing ten pounds (which, by the way, happened IMMEDIATELY after I moved to a walkable city).

For as many people I meet who say they wish they could move abroad, I don't know why more people don't try it. Let's can join the military, that will get your ass on a plane in no time (although, good luck landing in a desirable destination). You can google "how to move to Europe" over a bottle of wine and end up in living in Prague two months later (true story, for another time). People seem to think that once you "grow up" and "have kids" you have to be realistic set down some roots. You know, do ADULT THINGS. I'm going to let you in on a little secret (and don't quote me on this):  I have....seen kids.....all over the world.  It's true! I've seen them learning Japanese in schools in Okinawa, playing in the parks in Paris, and (gasp!) backpacking with their parents in India. Say it with me: The kids. Are gonna be. FINE. They'll also be a hell of a lot cooler, more worldly, and less likely to turn into Sarah Palin if you planted their cute little buns on some unfamiliar earth.

So what's the point in moving abroad? All current economic troubles and political chaos aside, America is one amazing invention. In the eyes of many other cultures around the world, Americans are all inventions--success stories created out of thin air. Steve Jobs-style. (Oh they love the Jobby-Jobs out here.  He comes up my classes almost as much as Brad Pitt.) Why would anyone want to leave that land of endless possibility for the uncertainty of abroad?

The basis of our American origin-story is that we can become anything we want to be. It's not just an Army slogan. It is actually, legitimately true. And I don't really believe the so-called American dream has to have anything to do with making a fortune. I think it's about creating a life. So why not invent a swash-buckling, adventure-seeking nomad personality and move abroad for a year or a decade?

Unfortunately for Gunner, this maxim of endless possibility only extends to American homosapiens....a street kitty he will never be. However, his third move in five years did put him much closer to his life-long dream of snagging a Kielbasa sausage of his very own. 

And on that note--"Zaplatime, prosim!" (check, please)  It's time for me to go home. And by that, I mean, to my 4th story walk up down the road at 25 Jugoslavska, Prague 2. What a crazy dream.


Things I was going to do in Prague

1. Finish my novel. I mean, this is straight Moveable Feast sh*t!.......Girl up and moves to continent #3 to get some literary inspiration, rents a chilly, unfurnished apartment with a gorgeous view of the crumbling architecture, spends the pittance she earns on cheap wine to keep herself warm....After all, Prague is the new Paris of the Lost Generation, one hundred years later! (haven't you heard?) I need to find my flock of writers and artists. Where's my Gertrude Stein?

2. Learn how to use my fabulous new Canon SLR T3i. There is a photography class in Prague I want to take, but it won't fit with my nighttime teaching schedule. There is an endless supply of fascinating things to photograph. And yet, the beautiful Christmas present sits in the corner of my room, lonely. Teeming with unfulfilled potential.

3. See the sights. The castles! The cathedrals! The museums! But this requires time. In fact, all these things require time.  And time is one thing that's in short supply around here.

It's my own fault really. I was warned against working too many hours. My TEFL teachers told me that 25 hours was a full time schedule--what with the enormous amount of (unpaid!!) lesson planning hours I will spend just preparing to stand in front of a class. But I didn't listen. I went and got 2 jobs, for a total of 36-38 teaching hours a week. I barely have time to commute from class to class. I spend my weekends and late nights lesson planning. Anyone who thinks teachers are overpaid because "school gets out at three!" or whatever, needs to just simmer down and try it for one week. It is intense and it requires an enormous amount of preparation, done on one's own time.

It's Sunday morning and I'm about to spend my day lesson planning. If there is any time at the end. I might try to finish the book I began reading two months ago. 

I know, I know, waaah, poor me.

On the positive side, this is the view from my office/guest bedroom window. Pretty nifty, eh? And somehow I miraculously found the 2 hours it took to figure out how to animate this sucker....I feel some prose coming on....


Finger-bitingly cold

It's cold here. Really, really cold. How cold, you ask? Well, when I left for school Friday, it was negative 2 degrees F. Two nights ago, it reached a low of  negative 31 degrees F, the coldest temperature in Prague since 1985. Glad to know it's not just me and my thin blood. In fact, it's too cold to take my fingers out of my gloves long enough to take photos of the city.

Enter: a hot mulled wine called "Svarak" sold in a shop under the Charles Bridge.

 Fueled by a cup or two of Svarak, I was able to get some nice shots of the city.






The "If...., then...." factor

Last week I had to teach my Czech students the 1st Conditional (not to be confused with the Zero, 2nd or 3rd Conditionals). If you know what that is, then good for you smarty-pants. Personally, I had no idea what it was, and I have spent the last two weeks teaching English grammar points that I had only just learned the day before. Being a native speaker is an odd mix of expertise and ignorance: you don't know WHY we say something the way we say it, but you know it sounds off when you hear it spoken incorrectly. 

The 1st Conditional says that If something is true (present tense) then something will happen (in the future). It is used to express things that are future possibilities or predictions. Obvious?--yes. Now try teaching this to a room full of Beginner Czech students while using only words they've heard before.

I am reminded of the uncertain nature of the word "possibilities" as I try to make this Prague thing happen.  "But you're already there!" you think. "Why would you come home so quickly??"  The truth is, I have moved here on a wish and a prayer, and on the "prediction" that certain "possibilities" will open themselves up to me. Up to us. But nothing is certain. The various possibilities that must come true are wrapped around my situation in a never ending chain of "if..., then..." statments. For example:

If I pass my grammar exam, then I will pass the course.

If I pass the course, and if I get good recommendations from my instructors, then I will get a job.

If I get a job, then I will need a Visa.

If my visa gets approved, then I will be able to keep said job.

If I get an apartment, I will most likely qualify for a visa. 

If I get a job, I will be able to afford to pay for said apartment.

If I can get a single Czech realtor to keep a weekend appointment with me, I will be able to get an apartment.

If all these things happen in the next month, I will give the green light to John to drag Gunner's furry behind on a plane and come on out.

If all these things do not happen, I will have to call this a vacation, and go home....wherever that is.

I'm off to spend my Saturday afternoon at my instructor's office hours in the local Tea Shop. Flavored hooka, Chai and English grammar in the middle of Eastern Europe. What a strange new world.

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