Why? To Feel Alive, to Harvest Smiles!
They watch me intently, looking into my eyes, one foot ahead of the other so they can easily charge forward, they are waiting for- three two one GOOOO!And off they sprint forward at the speed of light, their hair in wild staccato catching up!
I turn around to see that colorful fast bunch of wildly screaming Czech, Slovak and American kids blasting by me, starting this favorite game “follow-the colorful-arrow -treasure -hunt”, and I am in heaven.
When I moved to San Diego, soon I discovered quite a rarity in this beautiful seaside town: A Czech and Slovak House in an unusually large and charming urban park called Balboa Park. (But where is the big statue of Balboa, then?JJ)
Would you believe it, I would call my parents, there is an International village in this town and WE, Czechs, have a cottage there! And soon I learned all about it and was fascinated: Built with other 14 cottages for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-1936, each belonging to the nationality living in San Diego in that year. And for a short time, this cute Spanish style red tiled houses served as embassies!
It was Paul Drugan, the visionary charismatic humanitarian director of the Expo (and a total newcomer to San Diego!) who not only came up with the idea of the expo itself, but also with the neat project of an international village, and even arranged federal funds for its building. In sharing cultures and heritage, he correctly saw a way to tolerance, joy and peace in the world, and he found an apt name for this mini hamlet: the House of Pacific Relations.
His philosophies fit perfectly mine. His charming village teased my expat’s pride so much! I wanted to join the effort of sharing who we are: how we dance, sing, bake, speak, think… I wanted to brag with all modesty about our castles, Cubist architecture and Renaissance towns, our colorful historical journey, so everyone understands just why Czechs do not smile as much 😍! I wanted people to know about all of those inventions Czechs offered to the world: like contact lenses, blood types, fingerprinting, snow mobiles, lithography, mechanical pencil, arch lamp, turbine and yes, sobering stations🥂 :) , just to name a few!
But where is my modesty, really?
Let me explain why that beaming pride: You Americans were not doubted much, you are a huge strong wonderful nation with luxuries I could only dream about! My nation was historically hushed, doubted, underestimated, tramped on, always chased to the corner, centuries under somebody's rule.
Remember Antonín Dvořák? Even his publisher who made lots of money off his music told him he wants to Germanize Dvořák‘s name as “it will look so much better if people thought you are a German", so he was told! It may be only one anecdote but truly an epitome of how people looked at my nation that lacked for centuries borders, official language, and independence.
So I come from a nation with an incredible urge to strive and show to the world that yes, we actually are worthy. As our first president Masaryk said in 1918 when we finally got our independence: We must be exceptional, educated, informed, multilingual, diligent in order to stand in line with strong nations. And on the way in our Czech history, next to some notable academic and artistic successes, we developed qualities I love: a great dose of common sense and unusual pragmatism, sense of humor, non-violent nature, love for discourse... that is performed in our pubs that became the ancient symposia of polemics about politics, religion, history and such, all discussed over the greatest Czech Pilsner beer! Habsburgs taught us in their 400 year rule over Bohemia how to keep our heads about us, then others came to tramp on us in 1938 and yet others in 1968…but now we are free and I am one of you! I am never doubted, never chased in the corner. On the contrary, sometimes I feel almost celebrated and I have to turn around if it is really me in whom these kind Americans are genuinely interested in, and amused by the fact that I came from the beautiful city of Prague. :)
And for those kind people and anyone interested I love to share my heritage!
So I joined the Czech&Slovak cottage and started a monthly children’s program. How perfect it was as my first child was born! My friend Jana played violin, my husband guitar and here we go: We sing Czech and Slovak songs, we dance, we do crafts, we play puppet shows, we do contests keeping that language of ours live! And with that came annual Christmas Party, carnival, bonfires, lectures, public performances, then a Poe Street Band and Dancing Queens were founded, a friend established a folklore group, and later I started meeting with children weekly for our Czech circle and mini-school that I keep till today every Wednesday….
All of this started over 20 years ago with seven families on our list …and today? My children are 22 and 18, and they became my right hand helping a new generation of Czech and Slovak children to keep their roots to be known, and our list of members grew to several hundreds.
But wait! We forgot about the children running around the Bay today! Here they are, dutifully reading and fulfilling the tasks: they follow the chalk arrows to reach an envelope-like sign carefully drawn on the edge of their path. It means somewhere around is a letter, written on burned around the edges colorful paper that will conceal a task they have to fulfill. And they do: Yoga, gymnastics, naming the capitals of the world, singing, climbing trees... and the last task is to lie on the ground in the circle and stay still for three minutes. I mean perfectly still!! I measure the time, stand above the children who obediently close their eyes, lying there motionless ….and I reflect! I feel a sweet bond with these children, even though they are not mine! To see how they try to take the perfect dance step, how they strive to be first in contest, how they do crafts with undivided attention is precious and heartwarming to watch. Lucky me!
So such was my past happy eventful Saturday. The big treasure chest with 10 pounds of sweet was found in a huge pile of wood shavings that my husband devised for a perfect hiding place, arts and crafts table is cleaned, the last strudel gone, and I enjoy my friends and my family around, observing our soccer-tennis players showing off their game and then teaching the children this great sport that deserves the next blogpost!
The urge to share with others the beauty of language and art in general was instilled in me by my wonderful generous parents, and I know they are happy that their legacy continues on a different continent!!
Thank you all for coming and for not being deterred by the worst parking ever!
Thank you, Alena, for tending our buffet, thank you all moms from my Czech school, thank you Petra for lining up with me the treasure hunt, thank you to our soccer-tennis team for joining us, and mainly thank you to my family!