Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Little Lenka Loving Life

What a pleasure it is to see Little Lenka thriving! These are pictures of her and her husband Steve and their two children. She has grown into a wonderful Mom and wife (I knew that would happen) and an accomplished third grade teacher. Lenka is pursuing her MA in education.

The greatest joy is to just experience her happiness. Lenka says "we are blessed, truly blessed." She's right. Look at these cute kids!

Since I've seen her she has visited over 39 states and been on eight safaris in Africa (her husband Steve grew up in Zambia). Lenka says she thought life was rough under communism in Czecho but after seeing the poverty in Africa she has changed her version of "rough".

The first thing we did when I got there was call up Lenka's mom in Czecho to say hi and tell her I'm moving to the Czech Republic. That was fun! Her mom could hardly believe it was me and could hardly believe the news. It will be immense fun to reconnect with Hana in person! Ahoj Hana!

In the "it's a small world" department, the lady in the house behind us in this picture has a sister who leads bike tours out of Prague for Trek.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

How do expats cook their favorites from home?

I have a lot of cookbooks. I still have my Betty Crocker's Boy's and Girls Cookbook that my mother gave me in 1969 when I was ten years old. It is falling apart but there are so many memories in that book:

- my first recipe that I became a known for within my family as a young cook, Apple Crisp (my sister and I used to make the topping and skip the crisp sometimes to just park ourselves with a bowl and a spoon of butter, sugar, flour, and cinnamon in front of 'Gilligan's Island' TV show when we were kids - true heaven when you're ten),

- the Enchanted Castle Cake that I made daughter #2 for her eighth birthday party complete with frosted ice cream cones for the turrets and Hershey's chocolate squares for the drawbridge and moat,

-the incredibly silly Raggedy Ann salad I made out of peach halves, raisins for eyes and celery stick legs for daughter #1 when she came home from college for the first time to remind her she may be an adult now but can still come home and be a kid occasionally.

What I served to whom, at what dinner party or special occasion, in what community are noted in the pages of my cookbooks. I love paging through them and remembering special times. All of my notes about how I would customize the recipe to fit my family's feedback are on those pages. What do expats do when they go abroad? Do they haul all of their cookbooks with them?

Daughter #1 solves this problem by not buying cookbooks. She like to read EVERY cook's feedback on a given recipe so she uses She even takes pictures of her cooking for the site! Her cooking memories will build up over time on her profile. That's a new generation's solution though. I adore my cookbooks. Do I have to type up or scan my favorite recipes and have digital versions of all my favorites? Do tell.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

'Little Lenka' Lives!

And she lives one hour away from me here in America! And she's going to the Czech Republic for the summer!

I wrote about the young Czecho woman who came to live with my family on May 2nd and May 4th (I'll create links when Blogger gets that feature fixed). At the time Lenka came to live with my family, she was a teenager and Communism had been gone from the country just three years. We lost touch and haven't spoke in SEVEN years.

I am going to visit her on Sunday and meet her husband and two kids. Lenka has two kids! She is now actually the age I was when she came to live with me. Half of her life has now been spent in America. She says "how did you have me come live with you? We have family come live with us every summer because everyone is overseas and it's hard. I don't do well with that. I am more selfish than that." I chuckled. The greatest joy is when you hear former teenagers acknowledge your parental thinking occasionally. I can't wait to hear it in my own kids.

Lenka and I are going to try and surprise her mom with a visual Skype call or at the very least a regular old phone call. That will completely freak Hana, her mom, out.

This is going to be fun!

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Last Day of High School

Yesterday was my youngest daughter's last day of high school. I'm so proud of her. All tasks are done and the Constitution test is passed. She is graduating.

She created and hand wrote thank you notes to 27 different staff members. I'm proud that my child knows the name of her high school custodians and security people and went out of her way to thank them. She understands how each and everyone of them contribute to her experience. Most importantly, she tells them!

Last night our high school had Senior Awards night. This event actually means more to me than graduation because it's more dignified. It is such a pleasure to hear everything that the kids have done and to learn more about young adults in her school individually. I was so pleased that her boyfriend's mother and grandmother were able to join us.

My daughter definitely felt the love; I'm grateful for that. She was honored six times. I kinda sorta wished though that someone had mentioned everything she did for the school over the last year to sorta help explain why she was honored so much. So in case she reads this, here is my thank-you:

Thank you for spending every day at school during your junior-senior summer organizing 100 of your peers to put on a freshman orientation so that incoming freshman feel empowered and comfortable on their first day of school. You selected an inspiring speaker to help freshman set their goals. Each new student was shown where their classes are. You and your peers taught them the school song. You passed on pride.

Thank you for raising $2,000 to create and publish an eight-page full-color magazine all by yourself during that same summer. Your magazine showed incoming freshman how to be successful as freshmen. You can be proud that you helped them think of opportunities and challenges they may face before they come up. It was a fun, beautiful piece of magazine publishing. Your first of what I believe will be many.

Last night, you felt the appreciation of your school. All this week, I hope you feel the appreciation of your family. You have made us all so very happy.


Mom xxxoooxxx

Thursday, May 22, 2008

American attitudes about taxes

Reading about European taxes makes me think a lot more about my own. People complain that my community in Illinois is a high-tax environment but I wish more people would do a cost/benefit analysis of what they get for their money. I find it’s always an INCREDIBLE value.

For example, the airport here charges me approximately $130 a year for tax support. Every-time the three of us fly to Denver directly from my airport, I save $30 each bus fare to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Our 3-4 hours involved riding the bus is also time that could have been used a different way. That’s worth money. Using my own airport, I can leave my home and be on the plane sitting in my seat in 20 minutes. Extraordinary!

The airport manager’s goal is to have the airport so busy, we don’t even pay taxes to support it. It becomes self-sustaining. My airport tax cost-benefit calculations do not even count the benefit to me of all the jobs that are created by having a terrific airport in my community. There are a lot of those jobs. So I easily get my money worth on that investment.

I pay approximately $130 for my local public library. I try to get at least quadruple the investment back every year. That’s just with my use, not even counting my children’s use of the facility. That is so easy! It allows me to avoid the cost of cable TV (currently running $70 at a minimum in my community) or a membership to Blockbuster or Netflix. I see books I want to buy in the bookstore and then go to the library and borrow them. I read and check out magazines and newspapers that I enjoy but don’t want to subscribe to yearly. Does it really matter if I read Architectural Digest in the month it’s issued? I think not.

Again, those calculations don’t include my children’s use of the library (I especially appreciate the local scholarship database) or all of the other people in my community who are uplifted to a higher, better place by the use of the facility. Surely less taxes are consumed overall when more people become self-sufficient.

Today I was thinking about what an incredible value the school system is. My children’s school system gets horrible press. What urban system doesn’t? One has to proactively choose a school system and a program within a school system just the way one would choose a melon at the market.

I choose to move to my community specifically for these schools. Within the larger system, there was a tiny gifted program getting by on funding scraps because it’s not particularly valued by the community. My children have received incredible individual mentoring from these teachers. Mostly, because they were open to it.

If I had sent my children to a gifted program in a university town, everyone would want in and everyone would be eligible. But in an industrial town, rigorous academics aren’t as highly valued because that’s not where the money has been made in the past. Money, for both the owners and the workers, has been made in manufacturing. All of that manufacturing has now moved to China. That’s another topic.

The high school my children attended had the schizophrenic distinction of being named one of 1700 “drop-out factories” by John Hopkins University (for the last twenty years only half of the freshman class went on to be sophomores) and “one of America’s 500 best high schools” by U.S. News and World Report all within the same quarter.

The little tiny gifted program my children are in turns out ACT scores in the top 1% of the nation. My oldest daughter left there with enough Advanced Placement credit to save $16,000 in tuition (one university semester). One boy I know of was able to start his college career with so much advanced placement credit he was classified as a second semester sophomore when he started college!

If I add up all of the money saved through advanced placement credit, scholarships obtained etc. and hold it up what I’ve paid in property taxes over the last five years for all services (school, airport, city, library, etc.), I’m still money ahead.

Of course, no one is out “selling” parents on this gem of a curriculum. Most people just see how rough the neighborhoods are. It can be a very rough place. I’ll never forget one young man’s joy when he saw his passing Constitution test grade. Passing that test was his last to-do item before graduating. He could not stop shouting with joy “I’m out of the ‘hood! I’m out of the ‘hood! I’m going to graduate!” I still tear up when I think of him. That too is an education for my children.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Armchair Traveling with Rick

Who is this Rick Steves guy? The guy who gets an entire bay at Barnes & Noble for his guidebooks? Doesn’t he know when he retires, if he’s ‘the brand’ he’ll get less money for his travel company when he sells it because there won’t be a Rick Steves there anymore?

I shouldn’t have worried on his behalf. I get the feeling Rick Steves is doing just fine. And having watched four or five of his travel videos I can see why. One should never underestimate the power of enthusiasm. Rick Steves is so ENTHUSIASTIC, it’s infectious.

Rick Steves looks like a guy right out of my childhood: a good, Scandinavian Lutheran small businessman who could be carrying his wife’s dish to the church basement potluck. He instantly inspires trust. His celebration of European small business people and his constant reminders that if you ‘corporatize’ your travel (with hotels, food, travel companies, etc.) you are missing out on the real Europe. It’s very rare to hear someone in America media urging viewers to spend less money!

Occasionally he’s likely to show something that is so culturally shocking to me, it makes my jaw drop. I haven’t been to Europe in thirty years so I soak up every bit of it. What I really appreciate about his videos is that 1) you can tell there are tons of political opinions that he’s trying hard to hold back while he focuses on teaching us about Europe, 2) you can see the educator and life-long learner in him. It’s not only with the content he shares in his shows, but in his appreciation of the retired educators leading small tours all around their own European neighborhoods.

Rick is forever pointing out the “fantastic new European infrastructure” that makes mass transit so easy. It’s true too! One of the most surprising things to me is that no matter what country I investigated for a possible move to teach English, a car appeared to be completely unnecessary. It’s incredibly easy to travel the length and breadth of these countries without one! I wish we had that. I am currently estimating my transportation costs in Prague to be 1/10 of what they are in America.

When he shows naked sculptures of humans in European museums, he makes it understood that it’s risky to show these things on American TV because so many people will object. Unbelievable.

He constantly urges his viewers to not have a “dumbed-down” travel experience. He alludes to, but doesn’t explain, about the forces dumbing down our culture. What forces??? Name them! I want to hear every single political thought gained from the constant comparison and contrast between both these two continents!!!!

Luckily, I can. Off camera, it turns out, Rick Steves is not shy in the slightest about sharing what he thinks when he compares American and European culture. To be honest, his politics are so thoroughly documented on his web site and blog, that I’m surprised he’s given access to Public Broadcasting for his shows during the current administration. We need more people like Rick Steves in American media challenging us to do better.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Armchair Traveling with Tony

I avoided travel videos like the plague during my parenting years. What would be the point? As Barbara Walters has pointed out, “a woman can have it all, she just can’t have it all at the same time.” Besides, moving five times to advance my career counts as travel. Now that my parenting years are coming to a close, I’ve become obsessed with borrowing travel videos from the library.

I don’t have cable (cable television will be for my years 80-95 when I have nothing else to do and have presumably used my years of mobility to the utmost) so I had never seen Anthony Bourdain on the Travel channel. Looking at the cover of his books “Kitchen Confidential” or “The Nasty Bits” I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I’d always heard that his books were heavy on testosterone. Women gush over this guy and I never could see the attraction. Must be some sort of bad-boy fixation.

I get it now. I’ve borrowed every copy of his show “No Reservations” from the library that they own. These shows are a blast. Each show is literally so much fun to watch I would practically get giddy when I got a new one. I was immediately struck at how beautifully Tony uses language but it’s the self-deprecating charm that is the funniest. Sometimes it does feel like we’re listening in on a locker room conversation (Tony in Iceland) but when he went home and showed his native New Jersey (complete with endearingly-bad hair pictures from high school – anyone gets extra points for sharing those) it’s funny.

My very favorite show was one he did on Malaysia that featured two memorable locals: a tattoo artist who teased Tony unmercifully and this ancient, tough-as-nails old man who Tony showcased in a way that made you see the old guy’s magnificence. The old man was from an ethnic group I’m unfamiliar with that used tattoos to illustrate their life’s journey. I have never, ever understood the point of tattoos but when Tony Bourdain received a tattoo in the spirit of this ethnic group to commemorate his journey, it actually made sense. And given that his viewers were present at the creation of the tattoo, every time we see it on a subsequent show, it’s a reminder of all those shared travels (even if our travels were merely vicarious).

A guy I work with tells me that the Travel Channel has Anthony Bourdain marathons on the weekend. That would be like eating the entire box of chocolates in one sitting! It’s far better to dole each show out in dribs and drabs and just giggle for a couple days afterwards at all the fun in each one.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Walking to Work

In a perfect confluence of gorgeous Spring day, $4 gallon gas, and a continuing desire to lower my carbon footprint, I decided to try walking to work yesterday. The path looked pretty.

It took me an hour each way. There was only sidewalk 10% of the way. The rest of the way pedestrians were expected to walk in the street, I guess. The assumption was likely there would be no pedestrians. American has a long way to go before we have all of the varied infrastructure to combat global warning.

I also decided whatever I saved on car gasoline probably was spent heating the water for the second shower I took because of my walk. I did get two hours of free exercise though and it was fun.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Toward a more just America: It's Time to Pass the 21st Century GI Bill

I have followed the career of Senator James Webb ever since he gave an outstanding rebuttal to President Bush's State of the Union Address last year. The Senator perfectly articulates the angst of that segment of America that is bearing the cost of the Iraq War through military service while the rest of us received tax cuts.

Senator Webb is proudly sponsoring a 21st Century version of the GI Bill to honor these people for their service. The GI Bill of WWII paid for our best and brightest veterans to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and our country was well-served by their subsequent accomplishments. Examples of people who benefited from the GI Bill are President Gerald Ford, who attended the University of Michigan, and Senator John Warner, who went through both undergrad and law school on the GI Bill. There were millions of others.

Surprisingly, both President Bush and Senator John McCain are against the bill, describing it as "too expensive." The military is also against it because they think they will lose even more experienced people who leave to take advantage of the benefit.

It's my belief that it will create a surge of ever more talented people entering the military. American higher education can cost a small fortune. I think young people will "play the odds" of not getting hurt and sign up for service in droves. Regardless of what I think of how our policymakers have chosen to use our military, what I care most about is that the people who serve are honored both verbally and financially for the nobility of their service. It's the least we can do.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life"

There is a first-rate article in Oprah Magazine (yes, I'm an official member of the cult) this month by Julie Morgenstern excerpting her new book When Organizing Isn't Enough. I would link to the article but it hasn't been loaded onto the magazine web site.

Julie says, "Let's say you want to make a major change...but you're stalled. Here's the things: You can't be a new you without to some extent dismantling the old you."

I like my present "you." I don't want to transform my "you" as much as I want to transform my "life." This article spoke to me because the inertia of making an almost 180-degree turn in my life (paring it down, living alone again without my children, moving across the world, beginning new work in a new culture) can be overwhelming. I can see how people stall and don't go anywhere! It's a lot easier to stay put and not do the work or feel the feelings of loss. Because there are always feelings of loss.

She says:

I devised a four-step system to help people manage their own transitions with grace. I call it SHED, and though the process isn't always pleasant or easy, without it life gets stalled. Clinging to the old, the irrelevant, the stagnant holds you back. It can confine you to a space that no longer fits, denying you the opportunity to be your truest, best self. By releasing your attachment to obsolete items in your space and schedule, you gain the energy and clarity to make changes in your life, find your passion, or deal with the transition of divorce, an empty nest, or retirement. SHED is a transformative process for letting go of things that represent the past so you can grow and move forward. The SHED steps are:

Separate the treasures - Identify and unearth the items and obligations that energize you and have value for the next chapter of your life.

Heave the trash
- Let go of any activity or object that depletes you; the result is a significant opening of time and energy.

Embrace your identity - never mind your stuff. This is your new opportunity to reconnect to your most authentic self.

Drive yourself forward - Begin to fill your space and schedule with activities, experiences, and items related to your future goals.

This blog is a big part of "embracing my identity so I can drive myself forward" to "separate my treasures and heave my trash." Frankly, shedding an old skin can be exhausting. But I find that change is ten times more exhilarating when I make it happen rather than let it happen to me.

What helped you make the transition from full nest to empty nest or from one country to another?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Baby Steps toward Selling

My baby step toward selling this house that I'm celebrating today is that the lawn man did two solid days of work on the yard and the wild "forest" of uncontrolled trees the original owner/developer left growing in the backyard. The trees and understory bushes don't look quite as untouched now. I'm not sure that's a good thing. At least the organic debris on the "forest" floor is cleaned up and not fuel for a fire (I'm trying to think like a very critical buyer - all I ever saw was the beauty of the trees).

My next two vendors to deal with are the painters and the carpet layers. The painters are supposed to paint this week. Carpet to come the following.

Daughter #2 has become addicted to applying for college scholarships. Every week another "yes" comes in. Her goal is to have her first year entirely financed from scholarships. So far she is at 60%. She is making her father sooooooo happy. That's a good thing.

She has additional assignments to turn in plus a United States Constitution test to pass before she officially walks across that stage.

May we all keep on task this week and focus on what's in front not in the future!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Prague zoo sets out to save Indian gharial

Prague has snagged itself quite a civic entrepreneur at the local zoo. Yahoo News reports the zoo's first conservation project is an attempt to save the Indian gharial. Sounds like a very strategic marketing decision to make your institution's first project some cool, weird animal people haven't heard of before. The picture of the animal that goes with the news story is obscured. I guess the only way to really know what it looks like is to buy a ticket and go see it for ourselves. Bravo, Mr. Fejk. Click on the title for the whole story:

The zoo, a modest 111 acres (44 hectares), has been rated by Forbes Magazine as the seventh best zoo in the world, according to the Prague city website.

Much credit is said to go to the zoo's dynamic young director, Petr Fejk, the first non-zoologist to head the establishment who is credited since his appointment in 1997 with boosting visitors from 400,000 to 1.3 million last year.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Prince is a Pauper

Here is an interesting article from Boston Magazine about recovering from communism in the Czech Republic. "The Prince Is a Pauper" tells the tale of William Lobkowicz who left his Boston apartment and real estate career to reclaim his Czech title and castles, which had been confiscated from his family when the communists took over. Click the title for the link to the whole story.

"The adventure, he knew, would be rife with other challenges, as well. The restitution laws had a catch: A family could have its treasures back, but nothing could leave the country. That little detail had the effect of destroying the value of reclaimed Lobkowicz properties, since no antiques or art dealer is going to buy something he can't sell on the international market. Had they been able to auction, say, their original painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (made in 1565, it's one of 45 surviving Brueghels in the world), the sale likely could have funded the entire restitution effort. Instead, these assets were, in a cruel sense, priceless. To the family, though, regaining control of their heritage was worth the expense. It was a way to circle back in time, to make this dark chapter of exile an interruption in their story instead of an ending.

Rather than targeting only the most meaningful properties, William and his lawyers made the decision to go after everything that had once belonged to the Lobkowiczes, pursuing every acre and building, every old rifle and violin. Proving such ownership might have been impossible were it not for the Communists' curiously meticulous note-keeping, which left behind a paper trail—a veritable treasure map—detailing every piece of property, where it had been seized, and where it ended up. Still, the process was extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming, spreading William's limited resources thin. But it was what the entire family wanted.

The small pieces came together first: a court declaring that William was the rightful owner of, say, a 17th-century sofa, at which point he and the lawyers would dash off to the proper castle and quite literally haul the furniture down the stairs, load it into the back of a van, and zoom off into the Czech sunset. During those early trips, William would reflect on his grandfather, who'd been forced to abandon the very property now being reclaimed. "I think he would have been happy that we were able to come back here, and his country was free again."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tourist for Today

Inspired by all the reading I've done of my favorite Prague and Czech expat blogs, I headed out with enthusiasm to play tourist in my own town today -- with spectacular results.

My community is fortunate to have the #1 rated Japanese gardens in all of North America. They were created by a local industrialist, John Anderson, who fell in love with Japanese gardens he had seen in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife decided to create their own.

This is a wondrous Spring day, made all the more beautiful by the lack of any pretty days like this preceding it. Seventy degrees. Blue, blue skies. Birds are singing. Finally, the Midwestern crabapple and dogwood around town are starting to bloom.

I walked into the brand new Anderson Gardens Visitor's Center with no expectations and was overwhelmed with the level of excellence. What a gift this couple has given to my city! My eye was immediately drawn to the brand new restaurant (it just opened last Thursday - who knew) and the gorgeous view of the flowers and rock gardens below.

In my excitement I chatted up a lady who turned out to be the restaurant manager. She had read about the owner stopping construction on his visitor's center and new restaurant because he couldn't find the perfect executive chef. She said Mr. Anderson, the garden's owner, wanted the new chef to be able to design his own kitchen to his own exacting chef specifications.

Sue, the restaurant manager, after reading this story, appreciated the patience and exacting nature shown by John Anderson in his search for the perfect person. She, told her up-and-coming, as-yet-undiscovered executive chef husband that he might want to take a look at this opportunity. Her pride in her husband and her advocacy for his work brought tears to my eyes. She took me back to the kitchen to meet him. What a pleasure to experience their joy as this new venture begins to charm my area!

Afterwards I went out into the gardens and enjoyed the waterfalls, the Japanese tea and guest houses, and feeding the koi in the numerous ponds. One of the ladies in the gift shop said that the Japanese do not turn their heads when enjoying a view from a garden bench. They stare straight ahead and when they are ready, they move to the next spot so that they can then again look straight ahead at the view they would like to focus on. In this way, they completely see the scene before them. I tried this at a pond overlook and lost myself in the garden reflections. I felt like I was 17 again and seeing Monet's paintings of pond lillies and the light at Giverney for the first time. I haven't thought about that in a long time.

The gardeners change the patterns in the Zen gravel gardens every three days. Each pattern represents water. A favorite pattern appreciated by the staff is one where they put a rock in the middle of the gravel and the gardener designs the ripples that emanate outward.

The website does the gardens some justice but not complete justice (being able to hear the garden sounds was a nice touch).

I want to go back when the Japanese irises are blooming.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My History with Czechs (final post)

It is such fun to befriend someone from another country and see your country through their eyes. Kate and I would spend hours discussing the difference between our two cultures. One experience we had together shocked me.

During Christmas, I invited Kate to a meeting of my PEO chapter. PEO International is a U.S.-based philanthropic educational organization for women. It supports the only college in the world owned by women, run by women, exclusively for women. PEO also supports the largest scholarship endowment exclusively for female graduate students from anywhere on the globe.

That evening my house was decorated for Christmas -- and if I do say so myself -- it was so beautiful! The ladies were pretty in their Christmas finery. The sense of community among us was so strong. Our program for the evening was to exchange Christmas ornaments and one holiday tradition that was important to our own families. It was a warm, magical evening as we shared traditions that were beloved to us.

Afterwards Kate said she had never experienced anything like it. The idea of women getting together with such a sense of purpose to enjoy each other's company would never be respected back home. It would be labeled a "hen party" by both sexes. Because men would deride such an endeavor, women wouldn't do it.

I could hardly believe this. Surely women are the same the world over? We love to get together and learn from each other. Indeed, the International Women's Association of Prague looks wonderfully stimulating and enriching.

What if Czech culture is really sexist when I get there? They do burn women after all, albeit witches, in effigy every Spring!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My History with Czechs (part three)

One of the delights of knowing Czechs back in 1992, was hearing stories about Czecho love for Americans thanks to Patton's Third Army. An American man who had the pleasure of being one of the first Americans representatives in western Czecho after the Velvet Revolution gave a speech at my Rotary Club about what a privilege, an absolute utter privilege, it was to be one of the first Americans accompanying the American ambassador into Plzen when truth could be spoken for the first time.

All the Czechs greeted the official party with fantastic enthusiasm along the roadside waving flags and smiling. It was a love fest. All sorts of hidden American souvenirs came out of hiding from Czech attics and garages, even Jeeps and tanks, because the Czechs were not allowed to say that the Americans had done the liberating of Plzen in WWII -- not the Red Army. Here was the proof!

Little Lenka said Czechs knew it was a lie but that is what the Soviets demanded new generations be taught. She said one thing that proved to young people that it was not the Soviets who liberated Plzen is that the Soviets could never provide a decent explanation for who all the black people were in pictures from that time (American soldiers).

I love those stories. All of it makes me reverently proud of my country.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My History with Czechs (part two)

One day while Little Lenka was living with us, I ate lunch at one of my favorite restaurants and my waiter happened to be Czech (I am one of those people who ask all people with an accent where they are from - I suspect all expatriate types are like that). We struck up a friendship and he invited me to get to know his wife Kate.

Kate was a graduate student at the local university and we soon were enjoying lots of time together. She was in a traditionally male field and did not have much female company. I learned so much from these two! I loved hearing their observations comparing American and Czech life.

Kate said Americans were the most uncynical people she had ever met. She loved that we had no cynicism about anything we expected from our government and instead had indignation that whatever was wrong needed to be changed ...immediately! I think she found that level of connection, identification, and empowerment unimaginable (who knows - maybe that's changed in both places by now, this was 1992).

Kate said Americans laughed at things that a Czech would find unfunny as too simple. She felt Americans had the sense of humor of children. Not much blackness to it. And she was fascinated by American parenting. This idea of constantly building up a child's self esteem was foreign to her yet she could see the benefits to the child.

One of my attractions to Czech culture is the sense that ordinary people enjoyed it at a highbrow level. Back then, everything I read about Czech culture led me to believe people would do things like play as a string quartet in their living room.

Kate and her husband told me that under communism, friends would have "samizdat" (Russian for self-published) parties. Samizdat in Soviet-block countries was writing that would never be officially sanctioned by the dominant and all-powerful state. People would get together and pass around pages of forbidden Czech writing, page by page. The whole party would be completely silent as people sat absorbed reading and taking in what they weren't supposed to know. She said "can you imagine what it was like for us? We were completely denied our own culture. Can you imagine that the minute you are able to travel, your first trip is to Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower and the sights that everyone else in the world wants to see, but to go to the Czech Library to read the writings of dissidents who weren't published at home? To know your own writers!"

I am a First amendment fan and a lover of the printed word. At the time Kate and I had our conversations, I was serving as a trustee of my local public library board. It was my passion, back then, to make sure the people in my community had access to not only "their writers," but everyone else's writers. Still is. It was impossible for me not to fall in love with this vision of Czech culture.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My History with Czechs (part one)

It's very hard to know or remember now, just how forbidden and mysterious everything was behind the Iron Curtain before it fell. Americans didn't know much about the people and places involved. All the news that seemed to come from there was always produced with a "minder" in tow, so therefore suspect.

It's also hard to remember just how completely mind-blowing it was when the Berlin Wall fell. It turned out nobody in those countries believed anything their governments were spouting. I never thought I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall, never even dreamed it was possible, and when one country after another demanded change, it was incredibly moving.

No people's story was more moving than the Czechs. I remember how they would gather in Wenceslas Square and demand their freedom. Their ability to achieve all of that, with deliberate and collective non-violence was simply awe-inspiring to me. It still is. I believe 500 years from now, 1,000 years from now, future Czechs will savor that moment of themselves at their finest.

The Velvet Revolution made me want to get to know these mysterious people, and as corny as it sounds, reach out my hand in friendship. Welcome to the world! I signed up for a pen pal exchange started by a Minnesotan who was equally inspired by the new freedoms to connect. I began a correspondence with a woman in Plzen named Hana and a woman in a small town near Karlovy Vary named Lenka. We dubbed the woman near Karlovy Vary "Big Lenka" to not confuse her with Hana's daughter.

It was deeply interesting to hear about their lives and all the changes they were going through. Instantly, entrepreneurial tendencies surfaced. During communism, the lady in Pilzen's husband had worked at the giant Skoda Works. It sounded like the sort of place that would be featured prominently in a May Day poster celebrating labor -- communist heavy industry and dreary beyond belief.

Big Lenka's husband began his own business as a truck driver. He was ripped off by a business partner and it made me sad that their first experience with capitalism was one of the pitfalls. But both couples persevered. I enjoyed being the "entrepreneur cheerleader."

We invited the oldest daughter of the couple from Pilzen to come live with us for a summer to experience American life and enjoy our daughters. I truly believe we changed her life. She came to America speaking hardly any English and learned mostly from my children. At that time, Little Lenka was 15 years old.

What I think Little Lenka enjoyed learning most, and what changed her life forever, was the American idea of delaying marriage until one had first invested in oneself with college and independent single life. She asked questions about this idea constantly. All of her friends back home would be married with babies on the way by age twenty. She decided the American way of delaying marriage was better.

Talk about entrepreneurial! Little Lenka immediately sought and received a scholarship to attend an American school when she got back home. Then she sought and received scholarships from generous Czech Americans to attend university in the United States. She went to Rotary clubs all over the American Midwest to talk about the evils of communism and how great America was. No pay involved. Just gratitude. She then married an American. I'm embarrassed to say that I have lost touch with her and her family. Nonetheless, I'm proud of the role we played in changing this young woman's life.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

First Things First

I've done enough reading about Prague to know that today in "Lover's Day" where couples go to kiss under the statue of a famous Czech poet and celebrate Spring. It is very hard to not completely immerse myself in all things Czech because I am so excited to get there.

My child has the same problem. She's trying to focus on taking care of the last 20 days of high school when she is so "over it" and excited about college. Yesterday, when returning to class after being gone most of the last week, one of her favorite teachers jokingly said "well, look what the cat dragged in."

Her whole day was like that. Later, the principal boomed out her last name as she was walking down the hall and said "Get in here." After she slinked into his office worried about what she was in trouble for (don't get me wrong - my kid is very well known and respected by the administration of her high school). He gave her grief about missing so much school and said to her "size 10 1/2! You need to know that's my shoe size in case you have any trouble graduating." I just laughed when I heard that. I can hear him now. I'm glad she's getting it from all sides.

Transitions are hard. What I need to be doing is reading stuff about selling my house rather than reading stuff about Prague. I meant to have it on the market a month ago. A month ago! First things first. Get this house sold.
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