For the last session of the weekend, I told the students I had heard that Czechs were great storytellers and that the Czech fairy tales were wonderful. They took it from there, proving to me that Czechs are truly the best at "once upon a time" stories, glowing with their warm and subtle humor. Both groups chose to enact Czech fairy tales by the Capek brothers, both "new" fairy tales - the cat and the dog, who made a pie by throwing in everything they could think of, and the envelope without an address, which took years to deliver. The director came in wrapped in a shawl as an old woman carrying a basket of gifts for each of us. By the end of the weekend, I had two new private students to fit into my busy week's schedule. So much for keeping Mondays free.
When I arrived for the second "English brush up" weekend in Bast, there was a drawing class in progress. In the old school style, students meticulously copied drawings of the masters, moving a covering sheet of paper over the image as they worked from top to bottom. The teacher talked about techniques and clucked at them "no, no, no" (no means yes - short for ano, very confusing for me!). I offered to help in the kitchen. The director was cutting up cow stomach for the very pregnant little dog's dinner. She gave me three lemons to squeeze, by hand, into a pan of cut up pumpkin. All my little paper cuts were burning as I tossed the mixture with sugar for cake (everything sweet was called cake). I chopped enormous mushrooms with a double bladed tool that resembled the bottom half of a small rocking horse. These ingredients went into the hearty vegetarian country meals that kept us going for the weekend.
In the students' closing fairy tale, an old story, a poor farmer and his wife were unable to pull a huge sugar beet from the ground and enlisted help from the local animals. Lunchtimes, one of the drawing students, originally from Greece, taught us Greek folk dances - we kicked up our heels in a big circle. I have agreed to teach one of these workshops each month through the spring, and look forward to returning to the warmth of this little learning place.
A dainty older woman and friend of the flat owners, called me and asked if she could come and visit, interested in English lessons. She came with a project of her own to start with: handwritten letters from Isabella, British girlfriend of her Czech uncle, from England in 1943. Both the young uncle and his lover died soon after, he in a plane, a military pilot, she of an illness. Fascinating and touching, we came to know their fragile relationship stretched over distances, a compelling exploration. In her last letter she wrote "You didn't realize that passion is all taking and that love is all giving." This student brings me news of art galleries around town. When we last met, she listed five exhibits and added after each one, like a punctuation, her sternest schoolteacher directive, "I think you should see this."
Many students comment in bits and pieces about the Communist era - the inability to speak freely, to travel and to learn about international cultures, to make their own choices for careers and lifestyles. They are a quiet reserved people, reluctant to show emotion, and I wonder how much of that came from living through the occupations of the past century. In one lesson where we explored extreme adjectives (e.g., absolutely fantastic, terribly depressing), one student remarked "this is so hard and funny because we never talk like this!"
In a harrowing experience, I was required to register at the office of the Foreign Police after receiving my work visa from Dresden. The office opened at 7:30 a.m., but I was advised to be there earlier to get in line. I arrived at 5:15; there were already about a dozen people there. Right before the door opened, there was a crush of people pushing from two directions to fit through a narrow doorway then up a staircase, narrowing again. The goal was to get up the stairs and get a number. I couldn't even see the stairs as I climbed, sandwiched uncomfortably between heavy coats and insistent bodies. Not everyone that came each morning was able to get in, so the crowd was desperate and determined. I had been briefed about what to expect, but it was terrifying when it actually happened. Apparently this is the normal process, and I'm supposed to do it again in February to renew my visa.
One morning I had no early class and I had planned to take my time. I looked out the window to find thick fog, I could hardly see down the street. This was it! The morning I'd been waiting for! The perfect weather to get those classic photos of the Charles Bridge in fog. Quick, before the vendors set up and the hoards of tourists arrive I bundled up and took the metro to Staromeska, the old town stop, and walked down to the bridge. Just me and a handful of photographers and morning people. It was as mysteriously beautiful as it looked in pictures. The looming figures overhead, the bridge receding into cloud, figures emerging black and distinct as I walked its length, then fading into ghostly shapes.
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