Zen Recreations

Please, I want some cheese

A general election followed the week after Terka’s birthday and she took her new motorbike to accompany Vet to the polling station. Pregnant woman with a toddler in tow, she looked like an ideal supporter of the left-leaning Social Democrats and their plan to increase social benefits. I met up with them in the park after school so we could go shopping together at the local supermarket. Coming home, we joined our neighbor in the elevator and, noticing our single bag of groceries, he said we could have five for the same money under the old system. But, he added, there would be nothing in those five bags except bread and salami, and neither would be fresh.

   The nicest thing about working in schools is the time off in summer, which really came in handy for us this year. Vet was in her final months and even bigger than at this point during her last pregnancy. Running around after Terka plain wore her out, so when the school year ended, I took over watching her for most of the day. It was a good opportunity to play catch-up with her English vocabulary, which hadn’t made much progress since she first uttered “tea.” One morning she asked me for sýr (“seer”), but I hesitated before opening the refrigerator and told her to say “cheese.” She innocently thought I was saying “please” instead, so she quickly started rubbing her hands together in the Czech habit of begging someone to do something for you. It was so sweet. She got the cheese without further ado.

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My mother flew out to celebrate Terka’s first birthday and the little girl didn’t quite know what to make of this strange lady in her midst. That first morning she stood in her pajamas staring at her for about five minutes before her morning routine snapped into gear and she went about going here and there with this and that. The day being sunny and warm, we spent it up in the mountains with Terka behind me in a babypack. She loved it and kept slapping me on the back of my neck so much that it was nice and tender for the sunburn that came later. Lunch at a restaurant was a trying affair, because these were still the days when your typical dining establishment had no baby seats or highchairs, but plenty of slot machines making all kinds of racket.

   Coffee at the in-laws went much smoother, although I could tell there was a bit of unease between my mother and Vet’s parents. That’s probably because I didn’t understand everything they were talking about and so had a clearer perception of their body language.

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Pulverizing the Cookie

Where upsetting plans and protocols really affected us, though, concerned breast-feeding. We were hoping Terka could go one year this way, but the gynecologist advised us to give it up now, else Vet would be completely exhausted trying to nurse and carry a child at the same time. He was right on that score, so by nine months Terka was on bottled milk with a slapdash of vegetable puree for lunch.

   Her only drink outside of milk was tea. It became her first spoken word, and not the Czech equivalent, because tea is easier to say than čaj (“chai”). By now she had six teeth, four on top, two on the bottom, and was still hungry as ever, making her a nice little plump girl with big brown eyes, brown hair curling at the back, a bubbly smile, and one-two chuckle. Being able to walk with a steady gait now, I figured it was time for her to learn a few games and simulations.


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Sweating out the baby news

Vet and I were a couple when I met the Mads the next time in a bar. They invited us to go for a bike ride to the ruins of an old castle about sixteen kilometers (ten miles) away. Just a short excursion, they said, nothing too challenging…except all the hills along the way! We were so exhausted by the time we got back that we completely crashed and woke up swearing from then on to keep biking strictly for pleasure.

   That went for our vacations, too, after the Mads told us about their latest one to the island of Corsica. There they got up every morning at seven o’clock, ate their soup, made sandwiches, packed up their tent and gear, and walked along these rugged paths for the next ten hours. Just before nightfall they dropped everything, built up their tent and camp again, cooked more soup and sang songs before completely passing out until the next early morning muster. They did that for eight straight days and paid dearly for it. Hell, why not join the marines and get paid instead, I joked, but it fell completely flat.

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The Magic Carpet

With Terka, it was close to madness, because despite all the toys she had, she always preferred to play with something that could be best described as equipment. Keys, video tapes, remote controls, cheese grater, broccoli steamer. I even found her playing with this heavy-duty spring once, but have no idea where she got it from. She even preferred what might be termed industrial noises over all the lullabies coming out of her crib music box. Front door slamming shut, oven door slamming shut, dial tone. Offer her a rattle or bottle of vitamins to play with and she’ll easily take the vitamins.

   Finally, at about nine months old, came the biggest of the firsts: walking. You never know when it’s going to happen, you just stand them up, pull your arms back, and say, “Come on!” They may either stand there totally confused or pull a famous look of despair, maybe both before dropping back on their haunches. We didn’t exactly stage the event, but it just so happened that we were taking turns horsing around with her on the bed while the other one filmed the action.

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Outdoing the drive-in

Five days was the standard time for releasing mothers and their newborns from hospital. I was happy for that. When I worked at McDonald’s, the overnight cleaning lady once claimed she had a kid in the morning and was back to scrubbing and mopping at midnight. Doing the drive-in one better, you might say. She certainly had the physique and demeanor of what you might call a tough broad, and my respect to go with it, but I found the Czech system more to my liking. Besides ensuring there were no post-natal complications and that breastfeeding was on track, I needed the five days to scrub and mop our own home to make sure everything sparkled for the little one.

   We acquitted ourselves as new parents quite well, if I may say so. Terka helped by sleeping through most of the night, taking her baths in stride, and not being finicky about feeding. Indeed, her appetite became ravenous over time. She would break out into a sweat and keep one hand pushing behind her head to make sure her suckling was not interrupted until she had her fill.

   What really impressed me was the ESP that apparently exists between mother and child. One afternoon Vet was sitting there and suddenly said, “Oh, she’s hungry.” I turned towards the bedroom and then back to her with the father-ain’t-got-a-clue look.

   “What hungry, I don’t hear a thing.”

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The J.R. snicker

I found my in-laws already in Vet’s room when I arrived for visiting hours that afternoon. She was in bed, tired but beaming and looking happy, while our baby was swaddled up on a mattress placed in a tray on top of a cabinet, meant of course to give big people a better view. She was nicely asleep, and for five, maybe ten minutes, I stood over her, completely unable to take my eyes off of her.

   I was hogging the moment and enjoying every bit of it. I later tried to explain that it was the zebra effect, referring to the fact that after a baby zebra is born, the mother shields it from other zebras to ensure it can later recognize her from among the thousands of striped patterns in the herd. It was a charming, reasonable, very scientific explanation, and it made absolutely no sense in this case.

   Tereza was the name we gave her, the Czech equivalent of Theresa. At first I was a little unsure about the z in it, worried it would leave her name buzzing in the air. But this is a land where few people are called by their full names, Vet and I being just two examples, and the most common form used for Tereza is Terka. It’s pronounced “Tear-ka,” and in time it seemed fitting considering all the things she was tearing into.

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In the baby swing of things

The rush of adrenaline ensured I could do without any sleep before school started that morning. For the celebration there, I brought along some hard candy to pass out to the students, and for the staff, a bottle of whiskey. This is where I should detour to explain something about alcohol in school in those days.

   I first encountered it when the school janitor, this nice old gent who remembered the Nazi occupation, one day whispered for me to join him in his handyman’s room in the cellar. His wife was a teacher at the school and she frowned at the way I seemed so friendly to the students. This was a society where high school teachers were called “professor” (as opposed to “comrade” in the old system) and students were required to stand when you entered the classroom. Her generation could sense that style of orderly discipline slipping away with invasive influences like me coming along.

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We live close to the foothills of a mountain range, the tallest of which stands at about four thousand feet and can be seen from our apartment. For our honeymoon, we took a popular footpath to the top. The day was bright and sunny, and since it was blueberry season, our hands were stained a dark bluish-red by the time we reached the top in mid-afternoon. We could’ve been there earlier, but it’s also mushroom season, and Vet, like nearly everyone else here, is mad about scouring through the brush looking for them. But because of our late start (honeymoon and all), the ground had been picked clean by the time we got there.

   I could tell that was the case when we arrived just as this family was marching out of the woods with several baskets filled above the brim. Grandpa was the last one to emerge, and seeing me, he immediately averted eye contact and grinned, which could only mean, “Good luck, buddy.”

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The cunning little vixen

There are two gems in North Moravia just miles apart, the villages of Štramberk and Hukvaldy. Let’s talk about the latter for now because I was there over the weekend. It’s famous for the ruins of a castle perched high on a hill, shrouded by tree cover until you get to the top. The compound still evokes a medieval atmosphere, especially as night begins to fall. Many of the walls remain, moreover, intact and could possibly withstand a siege from hordes of tourists if word about it got out to the wider worldwide public. The village itself is the birthplace of Leoš Janáček, Czech composer currently enjoying a revival in America. His walks through the beautiful wilderness here are evoked by a statue of a fox commemorating his opera The Cunning Little Vixen. It stands at a crossroads where you can continue through the nature reserve or go on up to see the castle. Either way, you can’t go wrong.


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