My First Christmas without Mom

Christmas time has come to Prague. Not to be a grinch, but I’m a bit bah humbug about the whole affair. Christmas was a special time when I was a child. My mother would wake me early and start with a stocking, then it was time to open the presents. She loved Christmas. Occasionally, I would spend Christmas with my dad, and my grandparents. They switched off. I’m not sure how they came to the agreement of who-gets-the-kid-when, but I’m sure it broke my mom’s heart not to have me with her.

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The idea of “the family” was so important to her, so idyllic. She really wanted the white picket fence, the little house, the nuclear family, the perfect Ozzy and Harriet holidays. I imagine when she was a little girl living in the anger and depression that surrounded her and her big sister that she would watch those 50’s and 60’s television shows, and dream about how when she grew up she would have that kind of life. It didn’t work out. There was never a picket fence- not of any color. My mom’s desire for this television life only grew more desperate as she grew older. Her body aged, but she grew into more and more of a child.

When I left home at 18 Christmas kind of ended for me. I would occasionally visit mom, and sometimes my dad’s side of the family, but once grandma Ogin died I knew that the Ogin family Christmas’s were over. I remember one of my cousin’s saying that very same thing. It was grandma Ogin who held that family together. I don’t know why I grew so cold to Christmas. It just didn’t mean anything to me. I’m not religious, and “family,” well, it wasn’t like television. I like the lights, I think it’s pretty, but that’s about it. When I see images of Black Friday and other mania missions of purchasing, I think it’s a fairly gross holiday. Still, I understand that it matters to people, and it is a special time for them. It had mattered to my mother.

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This is my first round of holidays after my mom’s death, and all I feel is regret. Regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to go home and spend every Christmas with her- no matter how stressful it was at times- I still should have done it. But, that’s what death does it brings up all the should haves and could haves that the living has to deal with and settle alone. Christmas doesn’t change anything.

I’ve gone to all of the markets in Prague and I buy the hot wine, have a sweet treat, take pictures of the trees and the lights and I try to feel something. I don’t, I don’t feel anything; not joy or grief. But, I am in Prague, and when I can pull myself out of my misery to see beyond my grief I am aware that not everyone gets to be where I am right now. Death or no death I’m still experiencing life, and to some my life is glamorous because I am traveling, and death be damned.

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So, I’ll continue to force myself out into the lights amongst the smiling strangers, and the children, and the sweets smells, and warm steam rising from cocoas, hot wine, and late night coffees. I’ll climb towers and snap photos of picturesque images. But, honestly, I found more joy spending time in the Kampus museum looking at paintings and collages than I did wandering in the markets, and I think that is okay. It is okay to see it as just another day especially when each day should be held as spectacular and precious, and just because my mother is dead it doesn’t have to hold anymore power of grief over me than any other day of grieving.

And, look at that castle, my mother would have been so impressed.
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Now, if it snowed…maybe the Prague Christmas would seduce me. And, I always appreciate a proper seduction.

Travels into Bohemia: Drawing Maps with a Stranger

You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do
and it’s breaking my heart in two
because I never wanna see you sad girl.

Don’t be a bad girl.

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The Czech man and I shared the train car in silence for about an hour. I am not sure what prompted him to break the silence but he began to speak to me even though I could not understand him. He knew I was going to Cesky Krumluv because I had shown him my ticket before I sat down. I handed him the ticket said, “prosim?” And then pointed to the seats. “Ano, ano,” he replied. I sat down and we smiled those strange tight smiles that you smile when you know that you can not communicate. There is a holding back in the smile because the next instant behind a genuine smile is the impulse to speak. The smile is lost and stuck in a sort of limbo. It doesn’t know if it should stop smiling. There is no where else for it to go. There we were stuck in awkward silence with these lost grins. There was a moment in China when I had first experienced this lost smile. I stood waiting for an elevator in my apartment where the school had housed me, and as the doors slowly parted I saw the kind face of one of the Chinese head teachers at my school. We both greeted each other with a surprised, “ni hao,” and behind this simple hello brimmed the communication, “Hey, what are you doing here? So surprised to run into you here.” Our smiles were bright and open, but just as quickly as the elevator doors slide open and then closed we remembered that we could not speak the same language and our smiles fell into the same tight smiles as the one I shared with the Czech man on the train. That silence of inability is strong. The desire to communicate is visceral and real. There is a poignant moment of realization that the moment is lost like  our smiles.

“Cesky Krumluv?” He said.
“Yes. Ano.”
“Ceske Budejovice…”

…And he began to pantomime instructions to me. “Smer”, he said. I had seen this word many times in the train station and metro and I had guessed that the word meant exit. “Ceske Budejovice smer…” and somehow out of only recognizing one or maybe two words I figured out that I needed to get off the train in Cseke Budejovice and transfer to another train. The beauty of all of my understanding of the word smer is that I was incorrect in my translation. The word means direction, but my guess of exit is what saved me from missing my transfer. To clarify my understanding of what the man was telling me I handed him my journal and had him draw his communication. I needed to transfer in Budejovice, but where was I to find my connecting train? I decided to worry about it once I arrived.

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Clear enough instructions.

Once the man knew that I understood him he began speaking to me more freely as if I could clearly understand the Czech language. I realized at that moment that I didn’t even know how to say, “I don’t speak Czech.” I continued to smile at him and nod my head, and in truth, I was straining to understand. In retrospect it is amusing that I would attempt to understand words that attached no meaning to my native language, yet I still tried.

“Cesky Krumluv…Ceske… Historicky.”

Any word that I slightly recognized caused me to jump with a small jolt of excitement.

“History? Ano. Ano.”

He grabbed a magazine from his bag. The cover had an image of what looked like a viking and the title ‘Historike Ceske’. He leafed through the pages and showed me a picture of a castle, and then he began naming off places. Then an amazing thing happened. I understood that this man was telling me of all the historic places in Bohemia that I should visit. He also told me how many kilometers by train or walking it would take to get from one place to another. Again, I had him draw me a picture. In my journal he made a scratch pad map of where I should visit and what places to stop to transfer to the next place. We spoke in this manner with drawings, and his use of one or two English words and my understanding of one or two Czech words for thirty minutes. Once we had exhausted our abilities to communicate we both returned to our silence and watched the sky and the trees quickly stream past our window.

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I felt free as I often do on trains. There is a magic to traveling by train that I never experience or feel when I’m on a plane or traveling by car. Although, all forms of transportation delivers you to a place it is on a train where I feel like I am truly traveling. It is on the train when I feel truly free. It breaths life into the saying, “It is not the destination, but the journey,” for me. I’ve had the experience more than once in my life that it isn’t the moment when I am in a new place or the moment when I am leaving a familiar place that brings me happiness. It is when I am in-between. I am nowhere. I am leaving and going simultaneously. Time is crossing paths with the future and the past and it is in this moment where I am present. Now. Now I am going. I don’t dream of the next place or long for the place I had left. I am only here on the train listening to the wheels singing against the rails, and watching the trees and the life outside, the entire world, flow by like a river. I flow with it into nothingness and everything, and that is when I am free. My home is the train.

We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate.

The Art of Travel- Alain De Botton

Botton, Alain De. The Art of Travel. New York:Pantheon Books,2002. Print.

P.S. A tip on traveling:  The best thing to take when traveling from Prague to Cesky Krumluv is the student agency bus. It is cheaper and faster than the train, and it takes you directly to the city center. Still, there was a personal advantage to my making the mistake of taking the train. I just happen to love trains.

Travels into Bohemia

As I grabbed my pack and left the apartment for the final time, Cat Steven’s “Baby it’s a Wild World” played on repeat in my head. My spirits had been low as of late, hell the spirits are all over the place,  for reasons and no reasons at all. It’s tender footing and walking on eggshells in this brain. Having Cat Stevens as a companion at the moment was encouraging.

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Leaving the apartment on Kublelikova in Zizkov, Prague.

Oh Baby, baby it’s a wild world. It’s hard to get by just upon a smile girl.”

I sat on a Czech train gently cruising deeper into Bohemia. It has been years since I have ridden a European railway. At first I was confused to where to sit. In China the seats are open and similar to the seating arrangements as Amtrax, America’s rail line. This train was compartmentalized by little rooms with sliding doors and eight seats to a compartment.

I sat in the darkness with an older Czech man as the train went through a tunnel. We had been silent because I don’t speak Czech and he cannot speak English. The light in the train car was dim and I could barely see. It gave me a moment to think on how rarely I travel so impulsively on my own. Although, many people could say I do this all the time, but more often then not I have a place to stay at my destination; this time I did not. I suppose I did the same thing in Ireland many years ago, but that’s another story.

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The train to Cesky Kumluv

Originally I had planned to make this trip with my new friend Keiko. We had met during our TEFL training at The Language House in Prague. Most of the other students had found places to live, and jobs, but Keiko whose final destination was South Korea, and myself whose final destination seems to be god knows where (due to visa and passport issues) were left to our whims while we had money. Keiko had been using couchsurfing a website that connects travelers to people who are happy to open their homes and host them for a night or two. Keiko suggested we should couch surf together for a week. It was decided. We had planned to go to Kunta Hora for a day and then the next day we would head for Cesky Krumluv.

It is amazing how quickly things can change, literally things can change in a mater of five minutes or the click of a link. Keiko has a love affair with Poland. She had been there before and had a friend who was a DJ in Warsaw (I think Warsaw). As we sat on my bed looking on our computers Keiko read a link to her friend’s radio show. He told her to listen because he had mentioned her. She sighed heavily. “I wish I could go to Poland. The only thing that is keeping me from going is money.” She sighed again and then clicked on another link- and there it was an offer for her to volunteer teach in Poland. All she had to do was get there, but the weeks accommodations and food would all be provided. And like that, a wish and a click, plans had been changed and Keiko headed to Poland.

I was solemn for a moment, but only because I knew I would not see Keiko again in person or at least not for many years. This lifestyle brings lasting strong friendships that are maintained through social media. In the past you knew you had to say good-bye possibly forever, but now we can always look at each other’s pictures and send a message on birthdays and on those occasions when we realize it has been years since we have said hello to that dear friend you met in that foreign place. If I am going to be entirely honest with myself another reason for my brief but somber mood had to do with my newly developed and increasingly uneasy anxieties. I would classify it as a fear. Fear of what exactly I’m not too sure. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and worry, but since China, since my mom’s death it seems to be stronger. Although I feel like there have always been twinges of anxiety- after all I’ve had more than one panic attack, I suppose it is fitting for it to manifest itself in new and exotic forms.

With all these nightmares
It’s a wonder that I
ever made it out from
my childhood
bedroom.
– Annabelle, Zizkov

There has always been potential for me to be someone who hides and lives in books and television series, and movies. In a way it was how I was raised. Mother and I always watching movies together. The last few times I had visited her it was hard to get her out of the house at all. A lot of it had to do with the pain that she was in, but she had always hid from the world that was so often cruel to her. The movies and the series, and the books were better, safer, they eased her pain and they helped her forget her sorrows. I know this life very, very well. I grew up with an overwhelming feeling of being trapped. Trapped in poverty, trapped in a small town, trapped with her, always looking out at what other people do. I was afraid if I left she would die, and eventually she did. We all do.

I pushed these feelings away as I watched Keiko do the necessary planning to make her very last minute bookings to Poland, plus her Skype to her concerned mother. Keiko turned to me before she called her mom. “Just wait she’s going to warn me that I could be sold into sex slavery.” That is exactly what her mom worried about. I chuckled remembering my mom having the same worry when I was in Prague fourteen years ago. It must be so hard on parents with their children dashing around the world when the news produces images of such terror. As she spoke with her mother I decided to do our planned trip on my own. I looked for places to book in Krumluv, but for some reason I was not able to book anything. So I would just have to take my chances and hope to find something once I arrived.

Running through the train station with only five minutes left to catch my train, I stumbled through incredibly broken Czech asking people to help me find the platform. Miming in the Czech Republic had been far more successful than my miming attempts in China. Through the assistance of strangers, I found my platform, and my train and sat down in the compartment with the nice older man who shared in the silence and the darkness of the tunnel.

“Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world, I’ll always remember you as a child girl.”

To be continued…