Thursday, November 30, 2006

More on Traveling with Kids

First off, you need firmness in your own mind about what is important - saying please and thank you, hello, goodbye, and insuring reasonably adequate sleep, reasonable food, reasonable safety. Some of these do need to be stated firmly to children or relatives; some require your ingenuity. For example, if relatives are majoring in cake and candy, and you will be with them for some days, purchase bags of fruit, "For all of us." Cut some up, and feed it to your children! Teach your children how to handle unfamiliar things safely - stairs, perhaps; a large highway, a small highway; snakes in the garden? Bees? This learning is at least as much a part of their vacations as visiting Disneyland! However, perhaps your greatest strength is your ability to be flexible. Relatives do things differently? Think what they do that you appreciate. The museum is closed? What is of interest there outside - maybe statues? Or, the children can play stone school on the museum steps, while you think what to do next. One suitcase is lost? Fill out the paperwork, and buy a new dress. Take as much as you possibly can as an adventure. Yes, sometimes hand the kids over to their father or grandmother, and chill out ALL BY YOURSELF.

The child doesn't always want to be flexible. Three-year-olds particularly don't like things moved around. You can help by taking special pillowcases, which you pop onto pillows in airplanes, trains, hotels, and relatives' houses. You may also turn routine variations into special treats. For example, you're quite sure the four & five-year-olds will never go to sleep if their eight-year-old sister is in the room, which is how Auntie arranged it. So eight-ear-old sister gets the special treat of staying up with Uncle and Auntie an extra hour! Let the children interact with those you visit: that's one of the reasons you're going, isn't it? You don't want a 40-year old child later saying; "My mother, my grandmother, and my three aunts were all exactly the same," do you? You want them to have special individual memories of each of these special people. Here are some things my grown children have said to me: "I remember my two-year-old birthday party Grandma had for me." "Grandpa helped me with my homework when I was in fourth grade in the States for two months, and he always made me finish it!" Do not talk for your child! Of course, you can explain anything necessary, but if the child can talk, let the child talk to his relative! Furthermore, if basic safety is observed, let them go. The three-year-old goes with his grandmother to visit the pigs. He comes back clean, but if he doesn't, does it matter? My children were washable, and yours are, too, aren't they? Grandpa swears, and you don't. "I don't use those words, and neither does Daddy. But, don't you love that song Grandpa sings to you? Please sing it for me." Uncle Jim is about to help Veronica roller skate. You don't want her to skate without kneepads? Improvise. Maybe you can use extra large Band-Aids [plasters] on her knees. Perhaps, it is more important for her to have this experience with Uncle Jim, whom she may not see again for several years, than to go through life with totally unscarred knees. Or, go buy some kneepads. Your children normally have their own rooms. "Steve, today you are so lucky. You'll be in a bunk bed in your Cousin Tim's room." You think Maria will be terrified of owls hooting from the woods while she is sleeping on auntie's screened porch. "Oh, Maria, you have a special treat. You'll see some stars through the screen, AND! You'll be able to listen to owls hooting. Auntie has a book about owls. Let's read it and then listen to the owls together." I wish you many special experiences of love, joy, learning with your family and your extended family this summer!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Brezina - War and After

George & his parents left in April, 1948. They drove to Prague and visited his aunt, and left silverware with her, without saying anything.

Afterwards they drove to Pilsen and had lunch in a hotel, and left the car in the yard behind the hotel. Then they took the train to Stribro where an uncle met them, drove them to Tachov, and beyond to a mill in the woods. After dark the mill owner took them to meet the smugglers - a boy & a girl, about 16 & 17 yrs. old. They went on a string through the woods, with George in the middle. They had a bag of food, and a suitcase of clothes, George's stamp album, & a box of Rina's jewelry. Some of this you have seen our girls wearing - for example, the cross, which the family bride wears, dating from the Battle of the White Mt. in 1620 (a section of Prague now, fairly near the airport). They also took a green onyx ashtray which Rina has in her room here now. The companion side-table Aunt Hana has in Prague. These were gifts to Josef Hucl, George's grandfather, when he was head of Bank Slavia. (Mucha window, St. Vitus Cathedral) One summer recently this man from the mill came to visit Rina at her sister-in-law's near Pilsen! He brought with him a cloth napkin they had left in his mill!! Rina gave it to him.

Across the border into Germany they spent the rest of the night in the kitchen of a farmhouse. In the morning a vehicle of the OSS picked up the family to take them to the county seat for questioning on the status of the then present life in Czechoslovakia. (George drove me to these places in the early '90's.) The next night they spent in Regensburg where they met two men, friends, who had also just escaped! These men had offered to take George's father along - but he had refused, saying, "only with my wife & son". Then they stayed in Bamberg for awhile, waiting for trunks they'd given a man who came in a little truck to Brezina to be brought by smugglers, but this never happened. Then they were in a refugee camp in a town called Berg north of Frankfurt and lived in a noodle factory for about 4 months, and afterwards for just over a year in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart. Then they took a ship to Africa, and the train to Rhodesia where George's dad had a position as a farm manager.

In refugee camp there was sometimes a little schooling - one man who later wrote for Newsweek for years attempted to teach the children history. George sold shoes and newspapers. His father was a Rotarian, and the Atlanta, Ga. Rotary Club sent shoes, clothes, socks. Lots of socks were singles, but hand knit, so the women unraveled them & made new things. Food was very sparse, but in Ludwigsburg it was somewhat better. George remembers his dad, who had a few American dollars, taking him to the Army post to the canteen to eat - oh, wonderful tasting - waffles.

One of the initial things Bozenka, George's school mate, from Brezina, now living across the road in the blue house, said in April 1990 when we first visited was, "I could ride with you to school in the coach when it rained." Gasoline was not used for anything so minor as taking children to school. The war quite annoyed his aunt - she had to take the train from Prague to Pacov, and then the coach met her. She was used to traveling by car. Farms were important to the Germans, so there was fuel to take milk to Tabor to the dairy co-op. George remembered that city better than Pelhrimov, our own county seat. Bread used to be baked in an oven once a week, but during the war they baked several times a week, so that visitors could take it back to Prague with them, where bread was very scarce. Butter was churned by hand, at home, secretly, as all the dairy products were supposed to be delivered to the co-op. Apples were locked-up in the room that is our furnace room now.

When Germany first occupied Czechoslovakia the crown was high compared to the mark. The Germans lowered the crown, and encouraged the Germans to come shopping. George's grandmother was quicker, and managed to buy enough chocolate and coffee to lock-up and last through the war.

It was fun for young boys to see soldiers and armaments, but then one would hear of someone who'd been taken away & shot, so war was not so much fun. George watched German tanks & troops moving east for many weeks on Route 129 above us; some time later the remnants came back for days. Once there were 1000 German soldiers in the farmyard where they slaughtered animals and cooked meat; on the upstairs veranda (which we are now repairing) were 7 downed Russian flyers. The seven year old boy walked freely amongst them all, and never revealed anything. Or I would not be telling this story!

The universities were closed, and many of the students were sent to work camps in Germany. So, if you could, you would offer students important jobs, such as on a farm. To Brezina came Vaclav Icha, a sculptor who had been George's father roommate, along with Prince Karel Schwartzenberg, at cavalry school in Pardubice. Icha sculpted George's grandmother and did some sketching. Mostly Icha is remembered for making "bathtub gin" and partying. "Uncle" George Homolka, George's father's cousin, studying medicine at Charles University, helped with the bathtub gin, but also helped with supervision of the alcohol factory.

After the war, in Oneonta, NY, as in many other American schools, classes outfitted Junior Red Cross boxes for the poor children in war-torn Europe. Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloth, Lifesavers, crayons, pencils, eraser, small notebook, a small toy. BUT NO WAR TOYS. The children in Europe are tired of war. Meanwhile, the children in Europe were collecting real bullets, hand grenades, and guns. My mother, in Oneonta, NY, read in the newspaper about the poor children blowing themselves up, as did Rina here at Brezina. So she warned George to report any weapons he might find. This was while he was dismantling bullets on his play table. Luckily no one walked by with a lit cigarette, or I would not be telling this story, either. Later, at refugee camp, they benefited from the Red Cross boxes - the toothbrushes lasted for some years after they had arrived in Africa.


Monday, October 02, 2006

First Accomodations at Brezina (publication date?)

Many of you moving to the Czech Republic have temporary accommodation provided by your company. Usually these include hot and cold running water, electricity, heating, beds, a sofa, and a kitchen!

Our permanent accommodations lacked most of these amenities. We bought some mattresses and moved out of the hotel. The mattresses were the old Czech-style three-piece, so we had to put our suitcases at the foot, otherwise the mattresses moved around the floor during the night. The village firemen left a few tables, chairs and dishes. Within the week, some of our boxes arrived by air. Then we had blankets.

The first day we cried “Eureka!” when a helper broke into our room with washbowl and cold water faucet. We proceeded to wash the filthy floors.

Parts were damp. Until we got a furnace in the hallway, where the one bathroom was, towels would be wet in the morning if we forgot them.

Electricity functioned here and there; some plugs even worked, so we bought an electric hotplate. Buying meat was difficult, because butcher shops in our area were closed for several weeks for privatization. I did not realize that one might buy fish and chicken at the little grocery store. Finally, in another town in a sort of supermarket, I found poultry and proceeded to buy a slepice. Slepice had been one of my first Czech words – taken from a book. I didn’t know this meant “tough hen” rather than “tender chicken.” I boiled and simmered it on that hotplate for three hours and we gnawed it for supper. The next day I cooked it some more.

Former experiences can come in handy in a new situation. For five years I had been camping coordinator for several Girl Scout troops. One of my tasks was teaching girls and adult helpers how to make fires. Since my children were scouts, or helped with campouts, they are all expert fire builders too. If I ever say to you “I [or he/she] am keeping the home fires burning”, please realize that this is a literal statement of fact. Now there’s a woodshed; back then I hunted sticks in the park.

We had plenty of visitors, with varying agendas, for example “My grandfather did the tile stoves for your grandmother. Perhaps I can help you.” One Sunday we had 18 visitors, five arriving before we were dressed! We lived here and there around the zamek, choosing rooms that had both their inside and outside windows and/or woodstoves.

When one of my daughters heard about all the work her sisters had done, she began claiming that we hitched Tibbs the cat to a little cart to clear rocks from the fields. This is not true. Tibbs had his own extremely important work to do: catching mice. Tibbs also loved it that many doors didn’t work and he could run in and out at will.

With my interest in words, I soon learned to say a phrase which beautifully alliterates in Czech, although not in English: Bydlím ve starým, strasným, spinavím, studenýn zámku – I live in an old, terrible, dirty, cold castle. Daughter Caroline stayed with Aunt Hana in Prague when she worked on The Prague Post. One morning, Hana was making tea and laughing. “Why are you laughing, Hana?” asked Caroline. “Well, you know what your mother says.…but a castle should be old.”

Friday, September 01, 2006

September 2006 - Hunting Parties

Everyone looked forward to autumn hunting parties. The Zamek was filled with people, some of whom spent the night; hot soup lunches were taken out on a farm
wagon, or sometimes held at a hunting lodge; there was a gala dinner in the evening, followed by hours of singing folk songs. From the game bag, what wasn't to be eaten soon, or given to participants, was taken to a Prague restaurant featuring game. The little boy gloried in the visitors, the hunt, the dinner, and learned countless songs.

His mother went on the hunt unless there was a very large party, in which case she
spent the day at the Zamek helping his aunt and grandmother prepare dinner. Fires in tile stoves had been lit and fed - from an unobtrusive corridor - for most of the week. It the party would be in the smaller room, seating 12, the table was set with hearts and onions china. [Finding broken pieces in the park, I gave them to a daughter who collects this china.] When the party was in the Grand Dining Room they used blue flowered china with delicate gold accents, a service for 24. [In 1991 my husband found the gravy boat lid.]

The forester organized the hunt, sending invitations, and planning where each person must stand to shot. He sent invitations to people he wanted as well as to those whom the owners wanted. He made certain that inexperienced hunters were
kept out of the way of danger. Deer hunting was in October with only a few hunters, one of whom skillfully blew a hunting horn. Other hunts were for grouse, hare, and pheasant. The forester kept a careful account of who shot what.

After the hunt everyone came to the Zamek from forest and field to change out of possibly muddy hunting clothes. Ladies left aprons in the kitchen to don something elegant. All gathered in salon or dining room for the evenings festivities

The person who'd shot the most game became King of the Hunt, but the second in line became the king's fag. He might have to pour wine for everyone, chuck out the jester, or crawl under the tables pretending to bite people. Perhaps sometimes the
forester skewed the numbers a little?

The last great hunting party was on December 15, 1947. A very honored guest was General Heliodor Pike. One year later everyone who'd been present had escaped, or had been imprisoned or executed. Recently my husband commissioned the art restorer and painter Petr Hempl to do a portrait, nowin our Grand Dining Room of General Pika. Hempl painted him in uniform, although he had actually worn battle dress. Pika greatly impressed the boy during the hunting party, and afterwards when he read of Pika's trial, sentencing, and death. Pika's name has been restored. General Heliodor Pika Street is the street behind the Diplomat Hotel leading past the military buildings.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

March 2006 - Spring!

Arrival of Spring seemed a fantasy. This winter had so much snow, so much below zero weather. There were so many inconveniences. Acquaintances, in a cabin while a house is being built, after the first big snowfall parked, walking for half an hour; our forester rented a bulldozer to move snow to reach cut trees; one of our drivers waited for an hour and a half for someone to help get a vehicle off an ice patch; in our furnaces we were interlacing wet boards with dry scraps and sawdust to keep fires going. Many mornings my husband opened the shutters exclaiming, ironically, "Ahhh. A winter wonderland." The worst thing was watching a friend have an accident on the road while here snow was being cleaned off a roof to prevent it collapsing.

We greet Spring deliriously. Prague spring comes earlier than in the Czech-Moravian Highlands. One year a daughter and I climbing Petrin Hill kept exclaiming over the flowers already blooming there. But spring comes to us soon. A first sign is the snowdrops blooming in a corner of the lawn. They're a protected plant, but they seem happy and every year there are more. I begin examining the flower beds: tulips and daffodils are poking up; forsythia, golden showers, are blooming; roses are sending out shoots. I check the herb garden. Did the summer savory last over the winter? Is the mint planning on taking over the oregano, or is it sticking to its own place? Have the peonies begun to come up?

Donning rubber boots, I check the garden. Are the tulips and daffodils there coming up? How is the asparagus doing - especially considering that one driver likes to haul the tractor over their spot? What will we put in the greenhouse? I also need to make sure I have pumpkin seeds for Halloween and Thanksgiving pumpkins and not just gourds as we had last year. Well, the Czech word "dyne" does refer to both of these vegetables... I look at the small nursery: before it gets too warm we really must move a tree to the park for one of the babies who hasn't had his planted yet. Some fences need repair.

It's good to hear the birds singing again. We open some windows. We put the park benches back outside, and can't resist sitting for a while. We start hanging sheets and dishtowels on the clothesline to benefit by sunshine and fresh air. But I leave the basket upside down! Those birds have no manners. And you might just as well take along rags and cleaning solution when you go to sit on a bench.

Tractor drivers are plowing the fields; the farm manager is getting the seeds and directing the planting. We check to make certain that the canola, planted in late summer, is doing well. [It's those brilliant yellow fields you see in the countryside a few weeks from now.]

Leaves on trees and shrubs are emerging. Before very long apple and cherry trees are blooming along the roadside, overwhelming in their beauty. The orchard, too, with its apple, plum, and pear trees is wearing its finery. You hope no late frost will kill the fruit buds.

It's fun to show children how everything is starting to grow. In a few weeks we can plant nasturtiums - nice big seeds for a child to handle. If you bring your children to visit us when it's mud-season you're welcome to borrow a bathtub, and I've got various pieces of outfits you may also borrow when you've washed away the mud.

Don't let minor difficulties keep you from enjoying springtime!