Thursday, December 4, 2008

My new Czech family

For the last two and a half days I was visiting with Czech relatives. Not my Czech relatives, mind you, but rather my friend Rachael’s distant Czech relatives. You see, a month or so ago Rachael’s grandfather Vincent gave me contact information for their relatives that live in the Czech Republic. So before leaving California I sent them letters saying that I would be in the Czech Republic and that I’d like to visit them. Most of them live in a village in the far southeast, near Slovakia, called Suchov. But the Navratilovs live in the far west of the Czech Republic – close to Germany – in a town called Chodov (pronounced roughly: HOE-dove; dove as in dove into the water, not the bird), and that’s where I’ve been.

Chodov is very close (~25 minutes by bus) to the posh tourist resort Karlovy Vary, which interestingly enough has been overrun by Russians in the last ten years. Chodov itself is anything but posh, though it has a cute town square and church.

Most of Chodov’s 15-20,000 residents live in large soviet apartment buildings called paneláky, including the Navratilov family. Here are some paneláky:

Marie Navratilova and her granddaughter Sylva met me at the train station around 3 pm on Tuesday and took me back to their apartment, where I was immersed in Czech for no less than 8 hours. I was sitting in roughly this position for almost the whole time while I met and chatted with (=listened to... mostly!) different family members who stopped by. Marie is on the left, I’m in the middle (obviously) and Sylva is on the right.

I was repeatedly fed (with no chance of turning anything down!) everything from fried chicken – that’s right, not just an American treat! – to open-faced sandwiches and cookies. The food was all very Czech, very Slavic, so not quite like it is at home. There’s a lot more butter, more fried food, more mayonnaise. But it’s good in its own way!

I’m not sure if all the family members stopped by just to see the American (me!) or whether they always stop by, but they were all interested in talking to me, even though I speak slow and broken Czech and sometimes understand very little of the conversation, especially when they spoke quickly or used slang. I had to explain repeatedly that no, I was not a relative, but rather an old friend of Vincent’s granddaughter. Despite not being related, they all treated me like family!

I was proud of myself for following the conversations most of the night, and realized that family-style immersion would be the way to really learn the language fluently. The grandmother, Marie or Maruška, especially enjoyed talking to me. After she convinced (coerced…) me into staying another night, I realized that she must have really enjoyed the new company, or else enjoyed the novelty of speaking Czech with a foreigner whose speech she could correct and who she could tell stories to. And I’m a great listener in Czech, because I can’t speak very well, so that probably made it all the more fun for her! She wanted me to stay even longer, but I had to leave for my conference in Germany, so it was not possible.

The day after I arrived (Wednesday) I went to Karlovy Vary (the neighboring posh resort town) with Marie and her oldest daughter Pavla (Marie also has twins – Sylva, the mother of younger Sylva, and a son whose name I cannot remember). We first went to the glass factory Moser in Karlovy Vary, where older Sylva works. Unfortunately, Sylva was not there because she had to go to the doctor from injuring her finger on the job (as far as I understood), but her friend (boyfriend?) Radik was working and got us a tour for free. I even got to go up in the work area and blow glass. Here’s proof – I’m in the middle (doing a terrible job ☺) and Radik is on the right.

Then we went to the main promenade of Karlovy Vary, which has a series of hot springs (prameny), which are supposed to be good for your health to drink. Marie made sure I tried each one of the springs. Here are Pavla and Marie at the largest spring.

Karlovy Vary is quite a pretty town, and though photos don't really capture it I have to show you at least a few (for even more pictures, click here):

Marie and Pavla absolutely would not let me pay for anything all day, from the bus ticket to food to the little souvenir cup for tasting the hot spring water. I was glad that I at least brought a gift for them when I arrived so I wasn’t a complete freeloader!! Being with Marie was reminiscent of spending time with my own grandmother – constantly feeding me, giving me small presents, talking to me about her past, her youth, her hometown, worrying about me traveling alone and talking to me a lot in general. It was nice to get a dose of the Slavic grandmother treatment since I haven’t had my own for almost ten years now.

I left this morning for Regensburg, Germany where I’m attending a linguistics conference all weekend. But don’t worry, my Czech “family” adventures are not over. I’m planning to go to the village Suchov in the far southeast to visit my other non-relatives. The Navratilovs’ called and told them I was coming. They are expecting me next Wednesday. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Sandra said...

You made me nostalgic for Grandma too! Sounds like you've adopted a new family! I'm so happy you found some "family life" in Czech Republic.

Sandra said...

Where are the pictures of manhole covers and recycling bins???

Julia M. said...

I am so flattered that you noticed my theme of taking pictures of recycling bins and manhole covers over the summer! But I'm also sad that I didn't take these pics in Karlovy Vary. The recycling bins aren't such a big deal because they look pretty much the same everywhere in the Czech Republic, but the manhole covers in Karlovy Vary were cool... Sorry! :(

cg said...

I love the stories of hospitality! And to think people came from all over to see the red-headed American. :) And your stories about Grandma are so charming...thanks for sharing!