13 August 2015

An ode to the Czech cottage

I'm writing this in a 200-year old cottage, at the edge of forest, looking through the window to see the stars twinkling above a little pond. A rather large fish has just jumped up to snatch a mosquito (keep up the good work, my fine finned friends).

You see, I am following in the grand Czech tradition of spending a few weeks during the summer at the family cottage.

To be a true Czech, I would need to devote many of my weekends and much of my pay check to the care and maintenance of said chalupa, but fortunately/unfortunately we have plenty of work at our own house.

This isn't just any Czech chalupa (I say, with glowing familial pride), this is our family's chalupa and this is its story, as told to me in a mixture of Czech and English by L's grandparents.

Nearly fifty years ago, when Grandmother and Grandfather Czech were first starting their married life together and starting a family, they decided they needed a place to escape from the heat of Prague, and quite possibly the rest of the family. A place of their own.

This was during the Communist regime and, as Grandmother C. put it, 'Our friends were emigrating to the US and to Australia. We emigrated to the cottage.'

So, you can see that there was a lot of pressure to find a cottage that was just right.

How did you go about finding cottages for sale? I asked.

'Sometimes in a paper, sometimes from someone who knew something about someone who wanted to sell one,' said Grandfather C.

It was a slow process, made slower, possibly, by the exacting nature of Grandmother C.

They would drive for hours to look at a prospective cottage, only for Grandmother C. to utter the pronouncement that it was too big, too damp, too small, too new, too far, too just-not-right.

And then they found out about a dilapidated mill, on the edge of a tall forest, next to a charming pond.

'Much too big,' Grandmother C. pronounced. And then they both looked across the pond and saw it, a little cottage with a sloping roof.

It was in terrible condition. It was perfect.

They knocked on the door and asked the couple who lived there, with their farm animals in the room next door, who owned the cottage and if it might be for sale.

'They were very old,' said Grandfather C. with a laugh. 'Probably almost as old as us now.'

The couple rented it from the forest service and used to be the forest keeper's house, so Grandmother and Grandfather C. made a trip to the forest service's property manager.

'That cottage?!' The manager said. 'It's in terrible condition. We are planning to tear it down as soon as the current occupants move out. We have many nicer properties. You should look at them instead.'

So, Grandmother and Grandfather C. dutifully drove all over to look at the other properties.

But no, it had to be that cottage.

Not long after, the older couple moved (hopefully to a more comfortable abode), and Grandmother and Grandfather C. began to work on their fifty-year project.

They tore down a more-recently added barn attached to the house because the original structure badly needed a new roof and they didn't have the money to fix all of it. They reused the tiles. They rebuilt the stove. They replastered, repainted, reworked the house.

Nearly every bit of spare time they had - weekends, holidays - they drove from Prague to a tiny village in the middle of the Czech Republic.

'It wasn't anything like the roads now,' Grandmother C. said. 'There was no dálnice, no motorway. We drove for two hours, up and down through little villages. There wasn't even a proper road to the chalupa. We had to navigate really slowly through the holes in the path.'

Life at the cottage wasn't easy either. There was no electricity and no running water. Water had to be carried in buckets from a well near the mill, or, if that ran dry, from a well deeper in the forest. The toilet was a hole in the woods. The cottage was heated through a large, wood burning stove.

'We, of course, didn't have a chain saw. We just had little handsaws and would cut the wood' - Grandmother C. mimes a saw moving back and forth - 'like this.'

'Those were simpler times.'

They tell me that the nights used to be much darker, the stars much brighter.

We are now up late with our laptop screens glowing, the wifi light flickering merrily. The faucets bring water at a flick of the wrist. The shower is hot. The toilet (generally) works. A road now connects the nearby village to the one on the other side of the forest and motorcycles whiz past in the evenings.

A garbage truck comes trundling down the dirt road once a week to collect the rubbish.

Grandfather C. says he found a record that mentioned this cottage that was written in 1812.

'It said a woman with a French sounding name lived here,' he says. 'And that Napoleon's army came through here. But....' (With a laugh and a shrug). 

02 August 2015

The problem with having too many homes

I've been wanting to write some funny, cheery blog post for a few weeks now, but these last few months have been a special kind of awful...and it's definitely these darker times that make living abroad seem less like a fun and crazy adventure.

Of course, one advantage of living in Not The US (as L likes to remind me), is that I have two glorious months off, and he was able to get 2 weeks of annual leave in a row, plus some working-from-home time, so we headed back to the US for a whole 3 weeks.

My goodness, things get easier in one's home country. So, so much easier. Stranger on the street says something? No worries, not only do I understand you, you grinning, loud, cat-shirt wearing person, my cultural conditioning comes surging up from the depths of my memory and knows how to answer in an appropriate way. Very American mental high fives for everyone!

All of those foods that I miss and that I meticulously try to find on dusty shelves in specialty shops or try to recreate based off of suspicious online recipes? Guess what?! They sell them in the supermarkets! Main aisle. In cans. And they're CHEAP. What a beautiful, beautiful land.

And, of course, let's say I want to talk to my dad. And it's 11 am. Miracles of miracles, it is also 11 am his time, and so, I just meander over to my parents house and have a chat.

So, going back this time reminded me very painfully of all of the things I miss now that I live abroad.

Let me tell you about this amazing place where I'm from.

The mountains, my friends, are not mere pimples in the landscape. The fields stretch out luxuriously from mountain range to mountain range. The wheat shimmers and shimmies in a wind that has traveled for miles to run its fingers through their golden stalks. The air parts readily, the sun shines brightly, my dad sits on the porch, eating his fudge-sickle and rubbing his chemo-thinning hair.

And also loose dogs circle behind you to chomp on the back of your leg, as my nearly-faded bruise can attest.

I'm pretty certain that most of what I'm feeling is expat nostalgia brought on by a heartbreaking helplessness as I watch remotely through Skype and G+ while my dad is staring down cancer. It is so terribly tempting to pack a bag and move back (We could rent my sister and brother-in-law's second house! L could work from home! I could....work in Walmart...), but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be the right thing for Smalls and L.

And probably not for me, either. In many ways, the Czech Republic is now very much 'home' and the things that would be lost and left behind would also be painful and much missed. It is the 'too many homes' phenomenon, the inescapable flaw in this whole adventure.

Children, be wise. Fall in love with someone from your home town. Find a nice job nearby. Avoid having kids/pregnancies. Tell your parents in strictest terms that they are not allowed to get terminal illnesses. Friends will also need to be thus instructed. Also, spouses. And avoid getting too attached to adorable black kittens.

Yes, obey these instructions while wearing dog-resistant protective gear on your legs, and happiness is sure to follow.