Life in a Tiny Village (and a few days in Prague)

Four weeks ago I arrived to the Czech Republic with two small bags and one large one, threw my things inside my small apartment in Podbořany, and headed to Prague. In four weeks I’ve met all my fellow ETA’s in Brno, toured Prague, and seen quite a bit of the Czech Republic. I’ve also been sick three times and spent days in my tiny apartment fretting over if I actually have enough time to work on my book, which is a giant priority, as the full draft is due in July and I’m doing extensive research.

I’ll be real: it’s been hard. Every day is different. On some days everything feels totally manageable. I love teaching, I love my fellow faculty members and my mentor, and I’ve met several people in town who I enjoy. The language barrier is an issue, as I knew it would be. Sometimes it feels like scaling a broken fence, trying to communicate with people. I wish I knew more Czech. I wish I’d had my visa earlier so I could have come to Prague and taken language classes. But I am learning, doing my Duolingo and also going to a Czech lesson once a week. I also wish I had more free time. I knew I was signing on for a challenge because of my book and the work I need to funnel towards it. While I would love to spend the majority of my free time with people, I need to make space for writing. The words I need to write are on a constant loop in my head. If I’m tired and sleep in past 5:30am then I often spend the rest of the day stressed about the writing time I lost.

I know that once things settle down I will have a better feel for my routine and be able to gauge how many commitments I can take on each week. What I don’t like doing is turning down weekend plans because I need to spend the two days researching and writing. I want to be able to take advantage of being in the Czech Republic and enjoy life here. I especially want to enjoy the people, and learn Czech. It’s funny; whenever my mind reaches for a Czech word I can feel it tooling around. Often it comes up with a Hindi one instead. I think it all feeds into my writing: teaching English, trying to learn Czech, being immersed in a brand new environment. It’s also very stressful. I have phone dates with friends (thank goodness) but nothing replaces the feeling of sitting down with someone and having an intimate conversation with someone who speaks the same language as you. And dating? Forget about it. The town I live in has 6,000 people, and most of the men my age are married. Beyond that, many don’t speak English, or if they do, not to me. I am also very different from a typical Czech (or, let’s be honest, American) woman. I am not married and don’t have kids. I don’t necessarily intend to do either of those things- they aren’t priorities for me and I have never dreamed of having a wedding or having children. I’m also queer, which is something I haven’t discussed with anyone in my town. I don’t know if I ever will.

What I dream of is a house. In my free time I sleuth around on Zillow, looking at houses in America. I dream of owning a house and maybe fostering children. I dream of having a community. I knew, in taking the Fulbright, that I was deferring this dream. But I also know that unexpected things can happen. Life can be surprising. And doing things that are challenging encourages growth, as long as we remain open to life.

That’s been my word for a while. Open. Open, even when it’s scary and I feel misunderstood. Open, even when I feel the intense pressures of societal or cultural expectations bearing down upon me. Open, even when doing something as simple as going to the grocery store feels like a Herculean task. I don’t know what’s on the other side of this, except for a finished book. And that’s okay. I can take it day-by-day, right? Today I am in Prague, and tomorrow I go to another short conference with my peers. On Tuesday night I head to the Embassy, where we will all have dinner with the ambassador. On Wednesday I go back to Podbořany, taking a roundabout route on a train because there is no direct way back to the village.

As I write my book, which is a hybrid and involves remembering and writing about very uncomfortable times in my life, I think about young Anastasia and how she thought of her life. When I started fighting forest fires I’d already been homeless several times, starting at age twelve. I didn’t know what unconditional love felt like. I didn’t know what it felt like to be safe. And that still lives in me. I can feel it press up against my skin; the anxiety, the fear, the mistrust. I can feel it and remind myself I’m safe. I think that’s what growth is.

Praha Národní muzeum.

Praha Národní muzeum.

Hops!

After two weeks here, I feel like I’m finally adjusting to life in my tiny little village. There is no coffee shop, which has been difficult as coffee shops are one of my favorite places to write, but there is a small cafeteria across the street from my apartment. I find it challenging to go to these places because I don’t want to be in a situation where someone expects me to speak Czech. I’ve traveled a lot, but never lived in an area where so few people speak English and where people can’t immediately spot that I am different. This is the privilege of being a native English speaker, I think, that no matter where I go I can usually find people who will understand me. But I need to get over it. Now that I know how to tell people that I can only speak a little Czech, I can do anything.

I am bogged down in book research but steadily moving forward. I’ll be teaching about seventeen classes a week and will soon start a film club (I have to figure out the logistics for that). This, and some outside English lessons, take up a little over half my time here, and the rest is mine. I haven’t had so much free time in a long time. I love it. I’m currently reading about about Native Americans and how they tended for the land in California before white people arrived. The incredible thing about writing a research-intensive book is that I am learning a lot. Even if, on some days, I spend hours reading and researching and condense that knowledge into only a couple paragraphs, I know I am absorbing the knowledge I need to write an informed book. It’s challenging to say “no” to people here, but unfortunately I need to prioritize my book, outside of school.

Last weekend my mentor and her husband took me to a hops processing facility near our village. I’m lucky to have my mentor; she’s incredibly generous and kind. It was a gloomy day, and we smelled the hops before we turned into the driveway. In the hops regions the soil is the color of an old tangerine, deep and reflective orange. This is the soil that produces good hops. Hop production in the Czech Republic dates back to the 8th and 9th centuries. A few years ago there was a tragic decline in hop production due to drought, but I didn’t hear anything about that when I visited the plant, so apparently hops production is back to normal levels.

When my mentor told me we were going to see how hops were processed, I pictured something like the big breweries where I grew up in Washington State. I went to high-school near the Olympia brewery. There are certainly plenty of breweries like that in the CR, but this was a small plant consisting of one large building and two outbuildings, surrounded by fields of hops. It was drizzling when we got there, and we parked in a muddy spot. In one of the outbuildings the workers, clad in rain gear, stood chest-deep in some recently harvested hops. They strung the hops (which grow on long, leafy vines) over a line which was raised and pulled into a machine that sorted out the hop buds and the leaves of the plant. The buds were then sent down a chute into a vehicle, and then loaded into another machine near the larger building. That machine functioned like a moving shelf, scooping up the hop buds and depositing them into the drying rooms. When we were escorted into the drying room by my mentor’s friend, who works at the plant, I was surprised by the heat, and the close, humid smell of the hop buds (flowers?). Outside the drying rooms were sleeping quarters for the workers. Every year the hop harvest less than a month, but the workers must be ready to get up and move the hops out of the drying rooms every eight hours, so it’s a round-the-clock kind of job. There is a row of twin beds lined up along the wall, and posters hung up over each bed. The Simpsons, subtitled in Czech, was playing on a small box-television perched atop a high shelf. There was a young man sprawled across an old couch, watching and relaxing.

It’s fascinating to think that so many of the world’s hops are shipped from these old-fashioned processing facilities which dot the Czech countryside. Almost every floor of the facility has circular and square shaped holes meant for the hops to be dumped down, down, and down again, until they reach the basement level, where they’re dumped into large, sturdy brown bags that weigh about 45 lbs. each (the hops are very lightweight when the drying process is finished) and lined up to be shipped across the world.

Orientation

Prague; a hostel with a window facing a street and a verdant green park. The shaking of the tram as it passes every ten minutes. A coffee shop down the street where I can order a cappuccino in English. Turns out I can do nearly everything in English when I’m in Prague. Other places, not so much. My time in Prague was spent coming to terms with not living in a city anymore, hunting down my favorite green curry paste and turmeric and a few books by Czech authors to get me through the month until I am in Prague again, where I’ll have another short meeting with my fellow Fulbrighters. The city itself is beautiful; the faces of the buildings are painted varying colors (lemon and soft lemon, vermillion and mint, baby blue and soft aquamarine, pinks that glare bright in the sunlight) and they’re adorned with flourishes (cherubs, women holding pots while their robes swim around them in the static wind, barely-covered men who hold up door frames). In the town square I was met with throngs of tourists, their phones encapsulated by selfie sticks, all positioned perfectly to capture the hour as it is was displayed on the famous astronomical clock. After traveling so much I’m not sure I hate tourists anymore so much as I understand that I am one of them, my own camera also out of my pocket, ready to preserve a moment I’m busy wanting to preserve instead of experiencing. Mostly my phone was in my pocket. I went to the Mucha museum and contemplated his muses, what their lives were like, if they made art too or simply sat on lounges to be painted, as it seems they did. Muses. What are they, anyways? Why are they most often women?

At the National Gallery I watched people document their trip on Instagram and in between my watching I stared at the impressionist collection the curators had gathered, some of it unmoving, most of it absorbing. I gazed at the Manet and Gaugin and found myself longing for Tahiti, or to learn to paint, so I could share what I was feeling without having to compress it into words. I thought about how incredible it was to be looking at a painting after the person who painted it was no longer here, to see through their eyes, to follow their brush strokes and perception.

In Prague I was nervous about Brno, where I knew I’d be meeting the other Fulbrighters, all of whom are much younger than I am. It’s not that it’s unfamiliar, but that it’s never been easy being older, knowing that I spent my twenties trying to find footing as a human being and often failing. I reminded myself of some of the lovely people I’d met as an undergrad and graduate student. I reminded myself that this experience is what I make of it, and that many of my peers were likely also feeling nervous, not knowing how they’d be perceived, how they’d fit in. That being nervous about these things is not necessarily an individual experience, but a universal one, shared by nearly everyone.

And Brno was fine. More than fine, lovely. I was so impressed by some of the incredible people I met; how kind they were. How intelligent and thoughtful. I know I’ll leave this experience not only with a deeper understanding of myself and the Czech Republic but also with some American friendships. Brno was day after day of teaching and cultural workshops. We took a trip to the Roma museum, where I cried while watching a video of Roma people detailing their experiences in concentration camps and also listened to the stark similarities between the Roma language (which has many dialects) and Hindi (a language I studied). After our tour a Roma man who was working with the community discussed his experiences and I left with a deeper understanding of the elements at play in the CR. Brno itself is a city full of students, pubs, sculptures, a castle, and an incredibly deep and absorbing history. It’s located in South Moravia, far from where I’m doing my ETA. Its basin has been inhabited since prehistoric times. One of its biggest attractions is Špilberk Castle, founded in the 13th century and, in the 17th century, turned into a prison. Now it’s a tourist attraction. They serve a delicious pistachio gelato there.

My mentor took me on the train back to Podbořany- a trip that took several hours. We were both exhausted. We discussed my upcoming school schedule and some plans for outings. We shared personal thoughts. She’s lovely and incredibly generous. Because I am an older ETA we are closer in age than many of the other partnerships, and I appreciate her very much. All of the people from my town have been so generous- maybe this is one of the many advantages of living in a very small village (vesníce). I rode from the train station with her and the school’s director. They taught me to say “oh my God” in Czech. I listened to them have a long chat while staring out of the backseat window and quietly eating my McDonalds chicken wrap. It was peaceful. I was glad to get to bed.

Yesterday I went to Bohemian Switzerland National Park with my neighbors, who also rented my flat to me. I was exhausted but also excited to spend a day with Lucie, her two daughters, and her parents. All of them will bashfully say that their English isn’t good, but we communicated quite well, although I had some trouble explaining complexities. It only makes me want to learn more Czech. We walked thirteen miles through the park, and I was so impressed by their two daughters, both under the ages of fifteen, who hiked with so much joy. From what I’ve seen, many Czech people naturally enjoy the outdoors and prefer to spend their free time out of the house, excepting some days to cook and clean. The park was stunning, reminiscent of both the Catskills of New York and the Pacific Northwest (two of my favorite places). I did spend a lot of time being quiet, contentedly quiet, and submerging myself beneath the strange sensation of being in a place which looked familiar and was also entirely foreign to me.

Today I have a welcoming party in a few hours. I’ll go down to the plant store and buy some flowers for my host. I’m exhausted, to be honest, and feeling that lingering homesickness which is, now, quite familiar to me. I’m most looking forward to finding some routine and settling into the school year, and having some time to work on my book, because I have a lot of writing to do.

All of the people from my town have been so generous- maybe this is one of the many advantages of living in a very small village (vesníce).

Here I am

Yesterday I arrived in the Czech Republic. I thought it wouldn’t happen. Since my notification in June, I was sure it wouldn’t happen. Everything was down to the wire and the visa takes two months. Three days before I was to leave, it arrived in the mail, attached to the inside of my passport. My Czech visa. And here I am, in Podbořany. Before I got here I spent four days in London with a dear friend; it was the perfect transition because I’m semi-familiar with London but it’s also foreign to me, and I was able to work through my jet lag before arriving here.

Upon my arrival in Prague I was met at the airport by Miŕka and her husband Martín. Miŕka’s English is practically fluent and because she learned British English she sounds quite British. She’s a small, beautiful woman with highlighted blonde hair, and she shook my hand (a Customary Czech greeting) and handed me a long-stemmed red rose. She had to use the restroom so Martín and I stood awkwardly together waiting for her, neither of us able to communicate well with the other. I immediately wished I’d tried to learn more Czech before coming, but had been so overloaded with book research and teaching that it wasn’t a priority, especially because I wasn’t sure if my visa would arrive on time. On the way to Podbořany Miŕka talked. She loves to talk, and I was grateful for her talking, because it helped me feel familiar. Her husband calls her “hipperactive” and pokes fun at her excitement, and they are a very cute couple.

Miŕka points out fields of hops to me and consults her translation app in order to inform me that the biggest crops in our region are hops and grains. The hops are pre-harvest; they twist around large cylindrical logs and cling onto the thick strings hung above them, bright green visually and in scent. They’re surrounded by brown fields. I spot a man with a woven basket walking through one of the fields and Miŕka says he’s harvesting mushrooms. “Many people harvest mushrooms here.” She asks me why I’ve chosen the Czech Republic and I tell her that I’m interested in Czech literature, but also that I’m fascinated with how the country has moved forward after the raising of the iron curtain and so many years of communism to become one of the greenest and progressive countries in Europe. I can’t explain to her that I was drawn to the Czech Republic for less tangible reasons. That my intuition told me to come here, to apply for my Fulbright here. “I’m very excited to be here,” I say truthfully, knowing that many people don’t quite understand a life lived by intuition, or that it’s hard to translate ephemeral decisions across languages with only the use of phone applications.

We went for lunch with her two sons, who were both very sweet and charming, and I had my first Czech meal- potato pancakes with meat and gravy. There is a Czech name for this and eventually I will be using a Czech keyboard to type my posts so will include more Czech language, but that time is not now. I also had my first Czech beer, Pilsner Urquell, which was very delicious. It was around noon. After dropping the boys off, we went to the bank, where we spent two hours trying to open an account for me (unsuccessfully), and then picked the rest of the family up and drove to a nearby town called Žatec, where we went to a T-Mobile store and what Miŕka called a “cafeteria,” essentially a cafe, where we had ice cream and coffee. I noticed the servings of ice cream were much smaller than one would get in the U.S., and the coffee was Nespresso, familiar to me. There was a plaza with a statue that Miŕka said was built during the plague. Many Czech towns built similar statues, apparently to ward off the evil that the plague brought. I didn’t take a picture because it was too sunny, but I hope to go back to the town and look around more sometime soon.

We also went to see a small astronomical clock (picture posted here) and had another beer at a brewery, which was equipped with a large, expansive playspace so parents can come with their children. Quite handy for the winter months! Again, the beer was amazing. Finally, I was dropped off at my apartment. The first apartment I’ve had all for me in over a year. It’s small and cozy, with lovely skylights that allow the light in, a small kitchen, living area, and bedroom, as well as a bathroom with a washing machine. Yesterday I bought a few plants, and I predict it may be a small jungle in here by the time I leave, as plants are my favorite way to make a space feel good and there is a plant shop beneath my flat! Wow, I’ve only told you about one day! There’s so much more to share! I will try to post here often.

The small astronomical clock in Žatec, which shows each astrological sign as a season and illustrates what must be done with the hops within that season. The small skeleton pulls the string on the bell that chimes at each hour.

The small astronomical clock in Žatec, which shows each astrological sign as a season and illustrates what must be done with the hops within that season. The small skeleton pulls the string on the bell that chimes at each hour.

My first Czech meal.

My first Czech meal.

Americans are soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Czech people are hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

-Czech Saying

Leap, Leap, Leap

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Exactly seven years ago today I was headed into work at the Staybridge Suites in Syracuse, NY. I’d driven across the country less than a month earlier in my purple Honda Civic, which topped out at a whopping 30 mph when going uphill. A month earlier, on May 8, I’d attempted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, having read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD. I l set out on the two-year anniversary of my mother’s suicide, taking a picture of myself in my hotshot hat at the trailhead. I’d been a firefighter. I could do it. I needed to prove to myself that I could move beyond the grief surrounding my mother’s suicide.

But the trail crushed me, masticated me, left me a pulpy mass of tears and saliva, my calves burning and my pee trickling florescent orange. I quit on the fourth day, after receiving an email from Syracuse University notifying me of my acceptance and detailing my financial aid package. The trail itself stopped me; I reached a gulch I couldn’t cross without sobbing. That was the day I learned to quit, to be gentle. To accept that failure is part of the process.

Syracuse was a new life, is what I thought, but when I arrived with $400 in my bank account I knew I needed money and took what I could get. I’d worked as a hotel housekeeper before and accepted a minimum wage job at the hotel, where I had to wear a long sleeved shirt under my uniform to hide my tattoos. Maria, a genuinely kind Cuban woman, showed me how things were done and I spent six days a week cleaning room after room after room, wondering about the lives of the people whose nightstand detritus I shifted gingerly in order to dust with a rag coated in glass cleaner. One man left his air conditioner on high and the room dark; I always announced myself when entering. Others left windows open so the air was balmy, and littered their floors with trash and dirty towels. Some left piles of coins for me on the nightstand, some left me notes saying thank you and several dollars. I never made more than $500 every two weeks- that’s the way minimum wage panned out.

I look back at that time in my life and think, I knew nothing. Same as I know nothing now. I thought I’d signed on for a new life but things shifted slowly, glacially, and I had a lot of pain and heartache ahead of me despite having started college. I was thirty-one, soon to be thirty-two, and would struggle to find my place as a non-traditional student. My self-consciousness about my age and economic position was near-crippling; I was surrounded by students whose wealth was signified by their Uggs and fancy down jackets, their Macbooks and iPads, the easy way they moved through the world, confident that things would go their way. My dad died in my second year. We’d never been close, but I was now parentless in a land where family visiting days were the norm. I quite literally put my head down and got to work. By the middle of my second year at Syracuse I was working three jobs while taking a full credit load. I had a minuscule life outside of school. I shirked social situations because of anxiety and struggled with bulimia, which I’d had since I was thirteen years-old. It wasn’t until my last year of undergrad that my life seemed to ease open. I had a good therapist. I had hope.

I was accepted into the MFA program at Syracuse, the entire reason I’d come to the school in the first place. I graduated in 2015 from undergrad, summa cum laude with honors, and the novel I wrote, a book that may never be published, won best overall Capstone. I’ll never forget the sensation of standing on that stage, hearing my name called, feeling almost as if I wanted to vanish on the spot while also sensing a new part of myself easing its way out of some sort of shell, sensing a new way of being in the world.

Last year I graduated with my MFA, the first in my family to receive a graduate degree. Neither of my parents had made it through high-school, and neither of my parents were there to congratulate me or acknowledge my hard work. But other people have; over time I’ve built a community of friends and far-away family. I’m so grateful for that. After graduating with my MFA I spent a year feeling lost in the world, yet again. The feeling of being lost is familiar, more than belonging. I traveled to Nepal and had an incredible experience, despite having my wallet stolen in Kathmandu. I traveled to Vietnam and then came home after the failure of my credit card companies to mail me replacements. I was supported by my friend-family the entire way. I took a nanny job in Seattle in January, maintaining a 50 hour work week while working on a book proposal, waking at 5am each day, working on weekends. I worked for two incredible families, with two incredible baby girls. And two weeks before I left my nanny job to teach in Hawaii I was offered a book deal. Two weeks later, I was offered a Fulbright in the Czech Republic. I’ve said yes to both.

So, this blog post is the beginning of a journey. I will resume posting on my blog, which I had stopped doing for years, mostly because I was tired of hearing myself complain, of hearing my own helpless voice as I trudged through what felt like miles of knee-deep mud. I do hope that I can inspire people to dream big. So big. It’s taken me an entire lifetime to get here, and “here” is not guaranteed. “Here” is not a real place. The work doesn’t stop.

Thank you for reading. I hope to post again soon.