The last couple weeks have been an interesting re-transitioning into my expat life. Going home jars me because I am trying to reconcile the idea of having multiple homes around the globe.
It’s always nice to look forward to institutions and traditions that repeat every year that remind you of where you are and why you chose to be an expat. One of these is Stužkovák, a shortened name for the “Sash” or “Ribbon Ball” that serves a similar function to American prom.
One big difference is that this one takes place in January. I’m not sure why, and no one else really does either. Maybe because students largely do the planning and have time in the first part of the year to focus on that, and also because students leave in May after spending a month taking their leaving exams. Since kids can drink at age 18, they are actually allowed to do this at their “prom,” as opposed to American proms which take place the night before graduation in order to discourage that.
As you can see in the photo, dress is also a very important part of the Czech prom! Boys wear nice suits and girls show off beautiful gowns. The three different classes (Oktáva, 4A, and 4B) walk out in succession and stand for an uncomfortably long time (my legs hurt just looking at all the ladies in their high heels) while they watch videos each class has made to reflect on the previous years and while the ribboning ceremony goes on.
The ceremony involves classes standing in two lines and approaching their class teacher one by one to be pinned or sashed, depending on what they’ve chosen, as well as being… well… knighted, or at least touched on their shoulders with a sword by the class teacher to symbolize the noble nature of their long school journey 🙂
As a treat during the reacclimatization process, I went to my favorite cafe Cukrárna Cherry, where I always sample their beautiful and ever-changing chocolate pralines.
From left to right: strawberry, whiskey, grape (yes grape-flavored chocolate, and it was bomb), hazelnut, raspberry marzipan.
Really, I just needed an excuse to show this picture. I salivate every time I see it.
But I just love the atmosphere of that cafe, whether to sit and chat with a friend, read a book or catch up on some work.
I’m trying, in the new year, to find ways to rededicate myself to Czech – specifically how to best motivate myself to be constantly in contact with it even when I’m just sitting at home. I love to read, and I’ve attempted magazines and novels in Czech, but they are too complicated and really require focus and concentration, whereas when I sit down in the evenings to read, I just want to relax.
So finally, with some literary inspiration from my experience in Israel, I’ve found the solution.
I’m in love with Winnie the Pooh. It is one of those children’s books, like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, that have so much to offer adults as well as children. During my semester studying in Israel, I bought it (on sale, in fact!) as the perfect souvenir. I even have it here in Czech when the mood strikes me.
The great thing about reading Winnie the Pooh is that since I know it practically by heart anyway, I can understand what’s happening even when I don’t know all the words. That helps me learn vocabulary better.
And I actually have fun reading it.
Speaking of fun, I’ve also started reading a series of children’s “fairytales” (Pohádky z mechu a kapradí) known by nearly all Czech people who have watched the evening program Večerníček which has been on Czechoslovak TV since 1965. These tales, written by Václav Čtvrtek, feature the characters Křemílek and Vochomůrka (on the cover, right) in stories like “How Křemílek and Vochomůrka planted a seed,” “How Křemílek and Vochomůrka made rosehip tea,” or “How Křemílek and Vochomůrka sewed trousers,” which follow the two silly but beloved characters’ misadventures while exploring some important cultural themes.
This brings me to something a little different. I had actually thought to myself, after Israel when I decided that travel was one of my main goals, how to memorialize my trips through souvenirs. I would have to start collecting something that wasn’t too heavy or bulky and could be carried with me, and ultimately not take up too much space. I thought of collecting Winnie the Pooh in all different languages, but of course this breaks the “heavy” and “small” rules.
I’m partial to collecting, and I have a few different kinds of collections. A lot of people collect magnets, but that doesn’t appeal to me. So what are some options when you want to keep something from so many places that touch your heart?
You’re going to take them anyway, and you can always recycle them. But why not keep them as mementos (or collage with them)? They can even be reused upon your return!
If I had a lot of money, I’d buy paintings and prints, but I don’t, so I buy postcards everywhere I go. Sometimes I send them to friends and family, but usually I buy an extra for myself. I sometimes even send postcards to my future self upon my return. Then I hang them around my apartment to remind me of all the special places I’ve been.
You can find postcards everywhere, but my rule is they have to be unique. None of the ones with tourist pictures of the city collaged together with the name of the city written all over it in different languages. If they’re funny, like the postcards from London on the bottom right, even better.
This is especially cool in CZ, where all different beers and brands are connected with different memories. Bonus if you can create some necklaces or earrings with them. Speaking of which…
I’m an earring addict, but this “collection” has the added benefit of being wearable. I love putting them on display during the day for all to see. All of the earrings have a special feeling and remind me of the time and place when I bought them, so I’m keeping the travel spirit alive even when I’m just walking around my neighborhood. What you can see is a collection of US, Israel and Czech mainly, with some Greece, and I have so many now they’re becoming unruly and I’m trying to stop “collecting.” The problem is this is my favorite way to remember my travel experiences! I even tried using my cheese grater to organize them, but they don’t all fit anymore…
These aren’t available everywhere, but you can find them at least in CZ, Slovakia and Poland. Many travel and nature-loving Czechs collect them as they make their way around their country’s finest offerings, and hang the little scenes as positive reminders. As you can see if you look closely, there are well over a thousand of them. This is just a sample of my collection. I don’t buy every one I see; mainly those in the most special locations to me.
Speaking of which, during my 2016 visit, I took Coke cans from Israel and Palestine in the spirit of starting to collect them. I don’t drink Coke, which makes it harder because I sort of forgot to collect them on my following trips. I only remembered to take one from Lviv, Ukraine, so maybe I will resolve to collect them only in places with non-Latin alphabets. 🙂
Yes, this is explicitly against those rules I gave in the beginning, but life is no fun if we don’t break the rules sometimes. Plus I’m incurable.
When I was first packing my two suitcases to come to CZ, I knew I’d need to bring some good reads to keep me happy. I told myself not to go overboard, but all the same I brought 15-20 books with me (and that was making sacrifices).
After living somewhere long enough, you are never able to pack yourself back into those two suitcases. We never really keep those types of travel resolutions, do we? I mean, you can’t expect a bibliophile to not buy books no matter how impractical it may be (and I have boxes and boxes of them back in New York for my future home library). You choose whether the number of books is terribly impressive or impressively terrible.
Left is “before Czech” and right is “after Czech.”
Those aren’t even all of them, just the ones that were actually in their shelves (I have a bad habit of starting to read a book, getting distracted by five other ones, then leaving them strewn all over the apartment). I have a nice collection of Czech-authored books, as well as a 1960s Kiev addition of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was an unbelievable find from Lviv and a huge comfort on the 14-hour ride home.
Ultimately, what you collect should be special to you, and give you all the tingly feelings of the excitement of exploring a new place, no matter where you happen to be while looking at or holding your souvenirs. In this way, I’ve been successful.
So wish me luck for now on my literary journey as I pretend to be a Czech child, and pray that the books don’t eventually overflow off the shelves and drown me before I can read them all.