Friday, December 18, 2009

A Different Sort of Home for a Different Holiday

Prague is a complicated place, for me. The sensations that are wrapped up in, through, and around this city are so multi-dimensional, concerning so many different parts of me, of family, of memories and future, of linguistic phenomena... it's like a sensual explosion of self-discovery.


Getting here was certainly an adventure. I came by train, dragging my suitcase down three or four cars to find my compartment. My compartment mates were not the dressed up girls or older couples on vacation that I had passed in the other compartments, no; in my compartment were three guys, in their twenties, some pierced, some tatooed, drinking beers before moving on to whiskey.

In my head I was thinking, how is this possible? Then, This never would have happened to Betsy on her train trips through Europe. No, I live in the 21st century, when it is okay to put young women in cars alone with three strange men...

Of course I was making a mountain out of a molehill. There were two Dutch guys, friends, and a German, who made the trip from Dresden to Amsterdam frequently for work. They watched TV on a laptop, I watched the last episode of "Glee" on my iPod. (It was excellent.) Then, at some point, a German man got on and insisted through huffs and puffs and pouts, rather than just talking like a normal person, for bed. (The younger German in my compartment even said, "Whoa, tiger!" to get him to calm down!) So I got in my bunk, too, and the others went to an empty compartment to kill a few hours.

I woke up around 8, looked out the window at the sunrise - a layer of pink sitting on the horizon - and thought, "Hooray! Prague in an hour and a half!" I dozed until we pulled into a station, the name of which included the word "Berlin".

That did not seem right. I tried to picture a map of Europe in my head, wondering if we really were in Berlin, and if you could really get from Berlin to Prague in under two hours.

The answer is no, you cannot. We were 326 minutes delayed.

At least I got to enjoy some scenery. The snow in Berlin made everything look dirty - you know the dusting that is not enough to cover any of the unsightly things, but enough to make everything look filthy and old in comparison to that fresh white snow? It was like that. But once we were in the country, it was very pretty. And the landscape is so rugged! hills and bluffs and huge wide rivers... Oh, I have missed this sort of topography.

We finally arrived at Holesovice station - I knew we were in the Czech Republic when I saw the haceks on the signs for Decin station - and I stepped off the train just as Kata, my second cousin, and her daughter Ema came up the stairs to the platform. I had finally arrived in Prague, where I am spending Christmas and New Year's.

And that's when the strange feelings and thoughts and observations and memories start coming.

Well, really it started with the Decin station. I had only seen the name written without accents, but when I saw the sign, I knew how it was supposed to be said. My father's language is one that I can pronounce, to a certain extent. I can read, I just don't know what I am saying.

Then I start hearing things, reading signs. Zlaty means gold. I remember that. And Cerny is black. And Most is bridge. And these are all words I saw on signs during our tram ride through Prague. Short phrases sound almost as familiar as English, though I don't know what they mean. When I hear the translation, it's like deja vu - I knew that.

Of course, the Czech Republic is inextricably linked with my father - but so many different versions! I saw three bridges in a row, and thought of the time, 5 years ago, when the whole family was in Prague. Dad showed three small bridges, directly above and below each other, and said proudly, funnily, "Now, kids, here, we have a tri-bridge situation."

And then there's the memories, the little ways Czech was always present in my childhood: my dad speaking Czech, which mostly happened in the background - Dad on the phone with the grandparents. Or when my grandparents visit, and Dad stumbles along, his English showing through where his Czech has worn thin from under-use. Letters that came for my father on rustling paper as thin as tissue paper, in air mail envelopes with the blue and red borders, in writing I found illegible - whether it was the handwriting or the language that I didn't recognize, I don't know. The occasional box of oplatky that my grandparents sometimes brought after a trip to the Czech Republic, the unreal stories my Dad told to me and sometimes my classmates at school about running away in the middle of the night, and those flickering silent movies of him and his sister, as children, fighting corn-husk wars.

And even dimmer, and weirder, are the memories of my first time in Prague, when I was four. I think some of these memories are the re-fabricated kind, growing in my mind out of stories and pictures and home videos and my mother's Gourmet article. But some things I remember for sure: Kata and Lucka playing with... comics? bubble gum wrappers? Something which they kept very specially in an envelope and took out to admire. The amazing playmobil farmhouse we got for Christmas. Looking out of the car at several inches of snow, and footprints and car tracks in that snow. A shop window like some sort of elaborate vending machine. I think I remember even breakfast on Christmas morning, and then, of course, the Christmas tree sparkling with real candles, and my brother and I on our new hobby horses.

And that's not even the half of it. I can't explain it all, but it's so strange to come here. Memories and a strange feeling of having found something that's missing, but not being able to reach it. It is so strange to feel like, in a way, I belong here, or come from here, that this is somehow a home, and on the other hand being such a stranger to it.

I've decided that 2010 is the year I start making an active effort to learn Czech. In the past, each time I've come to Prague, there has been a reason not to start learning. In 2003, I was living in France, and I needed to focus on French, not get distracted by another language. In 2004, I was with the family, speaking our bubble of English, like all of the other tourists. But this time... my Dutch could use a distraction, I'll be here for nearly three weeks, and... it's time.

In the past, when I have mentioned to my father or grandparents that I want to learn Czech, that I wish Dad had spoken it to us more as children and think it's too bad that I don't speak it, they have told me, "Oh, Czech is a useless language, you don't need to learn it." But now I speak two useful languages (French and Spanish), and after this many trips to the Czech Republic, where I actually have family, it would indeed be fairly useful for me to speak it.

So I will start now, while I'm here, because at the age of 22 I still don't know how to conjugate a basic verb in what was my father's primary language until he was... well. Not much older than I am now. Which gives this undertaking a nice sort of symmetry, a link to the past and my Dad. It's time to start, and hopefully after this year, I will be closer (proximity-wise, I mean; my father and I to have a very good relationship) to my Dad and be able to test out whatever I learn and practice pronunciation and conversational skills with him. I will treat him as an untapped resource of great cultural value!


Thérèse said...

Nice post, thank you. And the Czech--good luck with that.

Grace said...

Thanks! And thanks for the luck, because I am quite certain I will need it; Kata has been trying scare me with horror stories. And not even about the cases!

Charles Shere said...

There should be a word, somewhere, in some language, for that unique kind of memory, a memory in your cells, inherited I suppose somehow, of times and places and sounds and smells you haven't "really" experienced yourself, but which are legitimately embedded in your memory conciousness. I find that in surprising places: in Bisbee, in Oklahoma, several places in Europe. It has interesting triggers: trams, horses, dirt clods, snow. It's important, I think, to be aware of this, as well as not to suppress it, or to let it decay. And for all this to happen at Christmastime! Lucky you! Jste velmi šťastný holka! Vytěžit maximum z toho!

Grace said...

You're right, Grandpere, and I'm pretty sure it does exist in some languages - or something similar, anyway. There's all of those aboriginal languages that have lots of different words concerning the Dreamland, I think that's kind of along the lines of what you mean. But nothing in English! What do you think, inherited memories? Genetic experiences? And those aren't even words, but phrases. Hmm.

Giovanna said...

What a wonderful post--I remember feeling sort of similarly about Prague when we went that Christmas--I loved it in the winter. Somehow it made it seem more layered and mysterious. And I didn't even have that inherited memory.

As for that word (for those inherited memories), better get Simon on it!

pavelz said...

I LOVE your post so much!
Whatta nice ceska holka!
And I do agree with youall that there ought to be a word for that feeling, and therefore I am starting one: ancestronostalgia. You might think it’s a word-in-progress; I’d agree, I think it could still be improved by adding several other roots; it seems that dejavuancestronostalgia might be even stronger, better word... yes, it is. Almost perfect. Everyone, please add something to it to get to perfection... or is it perfect already?

Gracie is in Praha! Funny how that seems somewhat special to me.
And sorry that I didn’t teach you Czech, I was busy looking for my socks in the dryer in the basement that day (Simon is still not coming back with them) ;-)
But it’s even better if you do it yourself.
Marketko Lazarova!!!!! Watch out here comes Grace!

Lof Dad
(sorry I didn't write in Czech but I am really busy.. you know what ;-)

Grace said...

So true! O Simon, where art thou?!

But so far I am definitely jumping on the "Prague in Winter" bandwagon. I really prefer it to the summer. It seems like a city that belongs under a thin layer of snow, rather than the hot summer sun, don't you think?

Not that I would deny the full four seasons to its inhabitants!

Grace said...

Whoa! Dad! We posted at the same time!

So never mind Simon, keep looking for Dad's socks, we don't need you for the word contest anymore! I might add genetic? "dejavugeneticancestronostalgia"? Or try to squeeze "memory" in there somewhere?

I am looking at my Czech book right now and my mind seems to be melting as I whisper repeat, "co to je? to je stul. co to je? to je auto."

But that's what I love about Czech - even though I don't understand more than a few random words, it always sounds so familiar. So it's not that bad.

But still thanks for not commenting in Czech because, well, I don't speak it yet...