Showing posts with label Czech customs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Czech customs. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain" by Peter Sis

Yesterday I read a children's picture book that took me right back to the nine months I spent in Prague, Czech Republic.

Peter Sis, a Czechoslovak immigrant to America in the 1980s, wrote about what it was like to be born at the start of the Communist regime and grow up in a totalitarian system.

When I lived in Prague, I had listened with extraordinary intent to Czech friends who had gone through this history. I loved hearing their experiences, their wisdom from what they had been through, and learning from them how people and families cope with a dystopian reality.

Peter Sis has compressed his own history and his nations' history into this graphical history that can be read in less than an hour. He bore witness! He warned! It's as if he is handing the reader at home the conversations we expats got to have in Prague with our Czech friends about what it was like.

I can't recommend the book enough. It would make a wonderful book to read together as a family for an intergenerational discussion about freedom.

This book has been widely acclaimed both as a Caldecott Honor book for distinguished illustration (the author's wonderful drawings help tell the story), and as the winner of the Siebert award for the most distinguished informational title in America, for children, in the year it was published.

Here is a short interview with the author.

From "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"

“When my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life— before America—for them.”                 —Peter Sis

You may be interested in these other reads:

The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia" by Milan Simecka

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic

In Prague, You Can Enjoy Reading "Café Europa" at the Café Europa

WWII was worse for Central Europe than even our histories and memories tell us

Heda Kovaly, Czech Who Wrote of Totalitarianism, Is Dead at 91  

Understanding Iran: The Power of One Graphic Novel named "Persepolis"

The 'Empty Nest Expat' blog is on Facebook! Follow my adventures there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Mistletoe Growers are Leaving Money on the Table

Glorious Czech mistletoe
on display

One of the Czech Christmas traditions I fell in love with was the way Czechs hang their version of mistletoe. "What do you mean 'their version?'" you might ask. Well, the Czechs have very different mistletoe than Americans. I don't know how that's possible. A plant should be similar everywhere, right?

Mistletoe for sale
in the open air Christmas markets.

You can buy it in it's natural state
or flocked with silver or gold.

American mistletoe, which I have probably purchased once in my life, is, in a word, wimpy. It comes prepackaged in plastic and forms a forgetable round ball about the size of your fist. Most mistletoe is usually purchased for the giggles when it is strategically hung somewhere with young people such as a sorority. It is not a must-buy Christmas tradition for every household and business in the United States. Quick, American readers, tell me exactly where you saw mistletoe for sale in your community. I bet you didn't run across it without asking for it. In the Czech Republic, it's sold everywhere and it's displayed everywhere.

Mistletoe is purchased by all ages.

So I have an idea for American mistletoe growers. You are welcome to take it. I have no intention of using it. I do not aspire to be the American mistletoe maven. All I ask is, if you decide to implement this idea, do something nice for Czech people like start a scholarship fund for Czech students to come to America and study. Heck, maybe this isn't even an idea for Americans, but for Czech businesspeople looking to export.

Fresh mistletoe waiting to be cut
on the roof of a Christmas market booth.

Someone needs to sell this kind of mistletoe in America. I saw it displayed all over Prague in homes and businesses alike, usually hung on the wall with a big fat red ribbon. It was so beautiful. And I could tell, that for Czechs, there was an emotional response and a tradition far beyond mere giggles. This represents beauty, home, tradition. I often saw it displayed in places where Americans would display a traditional wreath. How much money could be made if mistletoe growers captures just 20% of the wreath space in America and supplanted it with mistletoe? Wreaths are nice. Yawn. But I bet America would respond to someone shaking it up a little.

I'm here to serve. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pavel's Prague, Part II: Grand Cafe Orient

Recently I asked my friend, ballet dancer Pavel Pisan, to show me his three extraordinary cafes in Prague. I knew that Pavel would know some really divine places and he did not disappoint. It's such a pleasure, I think, to show off and get to share your own culture. Do you know what you would show off where you live, gentle blog reader? What would you want a visitor to go away raving about?

We started our cafe tour at Cafe Emporio on Jindrisska. The second place Pavel took me to was so architecturally interesting. The cafe is housed in the House of the Black Madonna. Could a building name be more mysterious? More alluring? The House of the Black Madonna was designed by Josef Gocar, the Czech cubist architect whose work I fell in love with at Legio Bank.

Josef Gocar's House of the Black Madonna,
in Old Town Prague
at the corner of Celetna and Ovocny Trh

It was the first example
of Cubist architecture in Prague.

While Josef Gocar is appreciated today,
the authorities were worried back in 1911
that he would design something
that didn't fit into the neighborhood.

He incorporated this Black Madonna
from the baroque buildings that were on this site
into his design, honoring rather than
repudiating, what came before.

The Czechs know how to take any functional object
and increase the pleasure it gives
just by the way it's presented.

Here is a scrollwork detail
from the outside lamp.

The House of the Black Madonna
houses not only the cafe that was our destination,
but the Museum of Czech Cubism
and a display of Czech cubist art
curated by the Czech Museum of Fine Arts.
Alas, I haven't seen those two parts yet.
I simply must come back.

We had come to see the Grand Cafe Orient,
the only surviving Cubist interior in the world.

Won't you join us inside?

The view out the cafe windows
of the surrounding art deco and baroque
buildings along the old coronation route
that is Celetna Street.

Notice there are no supporting pillars in the room,
Gocar's innovation was building with
a reinforced concrete skeleton
eliminating the need for ceiling supports.

The renovation of this space
was all based on photographs of the
original cafe.

Czechs consider Gocar
their greatest architect
from the 20th century.

Me too.

If you saw Prague,
you'd know that what
an incredible accomplishment that is.
The competition was steep.

Everywhere else in the world,
Cubism was expressed in painting and sculpture
(think Picasso).

It was only in Czechoslovakia,
where artists of the period
expressed Cubism in other mediums too:
architecture, furniture, and decorative arts.

Cotton bolls decorate

this cubist vase.

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay to have
a cup of coffee here because the secondhand smoke
was so overpowering it felt toxic just to be in the room.

Czechs smoke like factory chimneys.
Candles aren't enough.

After Cafe Emporio,
the feeling from the cafe inhabitants here
was low energy.

Pavel was disappointed that a site
of such national significance
could be so indifferent to the customer experience
and sort of take it for granted.

He said,
"maybe it's best to come in the summertime,
it's fun to sit out on the balcony
and watch the people below."
I was grateful to just have seen it!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My First Taste of Czech Village Life

The waffles are cooking!
In early Spring, my friends Jana and David invited our TEFL class out to see their home in a village outside of Prague. Little did we know our class was soon to scatter to the winds due to our visa problems! We're now in the States of Oregon and Wisconsin in the USA, Croatia, and Istanbul, Turkey. What a wonderful day we had though. It was the first time I had ever visited a Czech village, heard about buying a home in the Czech Republic, learned about how Czech taxes work (it's so interesting!!!), and just generally hung out to a non-city Czech vibe.

Jana and David had bought their home and remodeled it to take advantage of a fantastic pastoral view of the valley outside their kitchen. The original walls of their home are so thick! I admired how strategic they were to purchase right on the railway line. Gas prices may be cheaper today but it won't always be so. Jana and David have their own well water, pay a minimal price for garbage pickup (like 500 crowns or $25 a year), and also have minimal property taxes.

The idea of minimal property taxes was a new one for me. Here's what I love about it. The Czech government instead has a consumption tax of 20%. I know, if you're in America and you hear 20% sales tax, your hair stands on end. But the delightful thing is, I never notice paying it! It's included in the price of everything and since everything is cheap it's not a big deal. And isn't that futuristic and capitalistic to tax people on what they consume? Not their creativity in what they earn?

Home Sweet Home
with a
beautiful and typical Czech tile roof

Here's three HUGE advantages of the Czech way of doing things as far as I can see: when property taxes aren't so high, people don't feel compelled to sell their home immediately just because the kids grew up and moved away. Indeed, these village homes are often lived in for life and passed on to the next generation. Now how carefully do you think people are going to take care of a home if it's going to last their whole life and part of their children's? Czech tile roofs are expensive but they frequently last for 80 years.

Wouldn't minimal property taxes attract tons of foreign investment to the Czech Republic? Tell me if I'm not understanding something here. If you knew you could buy property in the Czech Republic and wouldn't have to pay $4000-5000 or more in yearly property taxes for a detached home, but you would have to do so in America, where would you buy a home if location wasn't the issue? An apartment building? An office building?

The third advantage of consumption taxes that I can see is that the money goes in one big pot and is distributed EVENLY for education. The quality of your schools doesn't depend on whether or not you're parents can afford to live in a great school district. I find that admirable. Isn't that a children-centric way of doing things? What do you think, gentle readers?

Enjoy our beautiful brunch and then we're off to catch a train for our afternoon road trip -- wait, it's not a road trip, -- it's a TRACK trip!

Is it just me,
or does Czech glass rock?
I loved this chandelier!
The original wall to the house
before David and Jana
added on - it's so thick
The view from the new kitchen window
Jana and David
Three gal pals:
Gulnara, me, and Anna

Justin knows how to entertain little girls.

Two ladies who don't need tiaras
to claim princess status
Jana shares her art work with us
Racing to catch the train that comes every half hour.
Yes, America, you read that right.
And no, the Czechs have no idea what outstanding service that is.
They take it completely for granted.

If you're Czech and reading this, I used to live in an
American city of 150,000 who would have loved train service
to Chicago (around 3 million people) - no train yet.

There are probably less than 1,000 people in this village
and the residents can walk to the train station
which comes right through their town.
Czech train infrastructure is INCREDIBLE.
Cost to Prague and back -
less than $2
for a half-hour ride each way.

You might also enjoy the rest of the adventure:

July 7, 2012
A postscript to this post:

The producers of the TV show House Hunters International were looking for an expat family to be featured in their show about Prague housing. As I had lived in a mere apartment, I thought "who do I know in Prague that has TV charisma. They should get this opportunity. David and Jana! The two of them are sooo funny and say the kind of things that have you silently giggling -  they are complete and total hams. I thought they'd be perfect." I asked David and Jana if I could forward this post to the producers and they said yes. Voila! It's now a TV show with over 9,000 hits on YouTube. Who knows how many people watched it on TV. 

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 1

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 2

The third episode is blocked. Jana and David probably would not recommend going through this process to another couple. They felt it was contrived as the show needs to set up he wants/she wants scenarios for dramatic tension. It also is contrived because in David and Jana's house, they themselves did the remodeling. It's a good reminder not to believe everything you see on TV.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Could Tap Water Come to Prague Restaurants?

A Czech company is trying to bring tap water to Prague restaurants. What a terrific development! But it's doing market research to see if Czechs would pay for tap water. Why would someone pay twice for something they've already paid for once through their taxes. Tap water is already theirs. It's a mystery to me Czechs haven't demanded it sooner at the table. Click on my title to read the Prague Post story.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Something Better Than Valentine's Day

Yes, yes, I know ladies, you're looking at my headline with befuddlement and asking "what could be better than Valentine's Day?"

The Czechs would tell you that what's better than Valentine's Day is their day for lovers, May Day.

In recent years, the insensitive business forces of globalization have used the fact that our world is getting more and more interconnected to try and export typically American holidays like Halloween and Valentine's Day to the Czech Republic. It would never occur to me that a successful business could be made from selling people stuff for holidays not their own. That doesn't stop corporations from trying.

But they Czechs say they don't need Valentine's Day. May Day is their day for lovers. Indeed, the whole month of May is "the month for lovers." The Czech tradition is that lovers must kiss under a blossoming tree on May 1st. In Prague, they have an entire hill overlooking the city, called Petrin Hill, filled with blossoming trees that are just starting to peak.

What I love about the tradition is it is the same for students and moguls alike. It isn't about spending money. It's about spending time together. It's human. Not corporate.

So while it's easy to think yet another romantic holiday would be harmless on anyone's calendar, how would all you American ladies feel if the Czechs tried to sell you on the idea of celebrating Easter their way: with these crazy pomlazkas (braided willow branches) that are used to beat women's behinds until they hand over a colored egg! Not quite ready to adopt that idea, are we?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Infant Jesus of Prague

My friend Sher and I decided at the beginning of the year that one of the things we were going to do together was visit each other's churches here in Prague. Now suggesting this to your pals is not something one does in one's twenties, is it? That already tells you something about us.

Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church
in Mala Strana, Prague

Is this idea one you can propose to all of your friends? No. You can have a whole passel of friends and not one of them might be interested. It's awfully nice to be able to share faith with someone though, isn't it? It seems intimate. If you were getting to know someone what greater representation of their culture is there than how they worship?

Sher and I are both Protestants but it's hard to find the same denomination over here that we went to in America. She attends Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in Prague and so I joined her there one Sunday.

Sher's big smile
is caused by seeing sunshine!

My friend Sher lives with chronic illness, asthma and the like, and if I can brag about her for a moment, she does so with considerable humor and grace. The three weeks prior to meeting her on this Sunday she had spent in salubrious solitude (otherwise known as quarantine to those of you not euphemistically-inclined).

Imagine, three weeks in a city apartment and not being able to go outside! Could you do it? I don't think I could. She figured out how to turn it into a positive experience by setting all sorts of goals and accomplishing them.

I love going to other people's churches. Back home in America, I especially enjoyed going to black churches because the music was usually gospel and usually amazing. If a Czech went to an African-American church it might seem as exotic and as foreign to them as Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church seemed to me. I had never been to a church that was packed with people from all over the world who had come on pilgrimage to see something.

The church is sooo busy that it has multiple masses over the weekend in Czech, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Once Sher attended a Japanese mass there just to see what it was like. This isn't the kind of church that builds great local community because the out-of-town attendees are usually here for just one service.

Why have all these people come to this church? Because they want to pray to the Infant Jesus of Prague, otherwise known as The Prague Bambino.

I first heard of the Prague Bambino in Bohumil Hrabal's book "I Served the King of England." But others have heard of it through more conventional religious means. Wikipedia has a nice, short explanation of how the legend started here. Sher also explained that many people find praying to an infant representation of Jesus less intimidating than the full grown man.

While I found the Infant Jesus of Prague statue exotic to my own faith, one thing that happened during the service unexpectedly took me right back to my childhood. The Philipino choir singing for the service sang every verse of the great hymn "How Great Thou Art." My grandmother and mom used to play it on the piano when I was growing up. Mr. Hendrickson, my childhood neighbor who sang at my wedding, also sang this hymn frequently through the years. Hearing it made me homesick. It was beautiful.

The beautiful baroque altar
at the front of the church
is almost fully restored

The priest's pulpit
off to the side.
It's unused
in our more informal times.

Pilgrims from all over the world
pray to the Infant Jesus of Prague
for deliverance from their suffering
after the service.
Note the "thank you" plaques
on the side wall for answered prayers.

The Infant Jesus of Prague
or the Prague Bambino
in his glass case and white clothes

A beautiful baroque side alter
at the church

This is how people
stay warm in these old churches.
The pumice stones attached
to the backs of the pews
radiate gentle warmth.

The spiral staircase up to the Museum of the Infant Jesus.
Seamstresses express their faith by sending the Infant Jesus
clothes from all over the world.
Several of the most spectacular outfits are on display.

The exquisite craftsmanship
on these outfits
is meticulous.

This beautiful red overcoat
with the dragon came from Vietnam.

Immediately after Sher's day out, she had to go right back into her salubrious solitude because she got sick and so did her husband. Her can-do attitude regarding chronic illness is as beautiful expression of faith as this church.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Czech Fashion Report: Tall Black Boots

This pretty lady bought her
very cool hat in Uzbekistan
to go with her black boots

All over Prague this winter, women are wearing boots! Tall black boots predominate but a few other boot colors get in there.

Ivory boots in Old Town Prague

I was telling one of my Czech girlfriends that "European women really live up to their stereotype as chic, sophisticated dressers."

A lovely Czech lady
at Novy Smichov Mall

She asked "exactly how do the ladies live up to that stereotype?"

"Why, all of these ladies in their black boots. It looks urban and hip and feminine!"

She laughed. "Actually," she said, "we just spend a lot of time outside and the boots keep us warm."
Olga from Ukraine says,
"Here you can wear whatever you want."

I asked a new Ukranian friend if this was the reason for the knee high boots and she nodded yes adding "I love Prague because you can dress to be comfortable. Here you can wear whatever you want."

Yet a third European woman shared her pride unprompted at finding a pair with an elevated sole so that her feet never actually have to touch the cold pavement.

Shopping at Swarovski
in Old Town, Prague

Another stereotype bites the dust. It still looks nice though. And since we recently had an unusually harsh cold spell in Prague, I can see their wisdom and not just their fashion.
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