Shut Up and Eat

No matter how many times I travel to the Czech Republic, no matter how much time I spend there, no matter how culturally sensitive I think I am, I manage to make one mistake after another.

For example:

I arrived at the offices of my colleagues at Caritas College of Social Work early on a Tuesday morning, and the way the office area is constructed, I made quite a racket as I climbed the steps and greeted the first colleagues I saw.

Soon there were several of us gathered around, every one of us calling out greetings– here a hug, there a handshake–when one voice rose above the others and asked, “how are you?”

“I am excellent,”  I said, in that expansive way Americans do, an exclamation point at the end.

Some little voice in the back of the crowd repeated it, “excellent” with a surprised little laugh, and I didn’t give it much thought, but I remembered it because the tone was one of embarrassed surprise, or something else.


I thought of it again just as I fell asleep that evening, and it came to me. 

When I said I was “excellent,” what I meant was this:

My flights were all on time. I had no trouble negotiating the train and the tram with all my luggage.  I had slept well and felt rested.  I am  so glad to be here,  and I am especially happy to see each of  your  smiling faces, and therefore, in this moment, everything is just perfect, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.  The traveling experience that brought me from Owensboro to Olomouc had been an easy and, therefore, an excellent one.  And look! All of you!

What a Czech hears is this:

“I, Greta McDonough, am an excellent person.  My life is excellent.  Everything about me is excellent.  I have no need for improvement, at all, ever.”

Well, you can see how this might come across.

At lunch that first day I sat with my colleague, Miluska, and I asked how she was.  She wanted to know first, did I want the Czech reply or the American one.

As Americans, when we toss out the casual, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” we mean,

“Hi.” 

And we keep walking because we don’t expect (or want) much of an answer beyond, “I am fine.”  When we toss a “how are you” in a Czech’s direction, he or she thinks you mean it, and they have already stopped to tell you how, exactly, they are.  You, on the other hand, have walked past them and already turned the corner, leaving them confused, and I am going say, hurt.

I asked Miluska for the Czech answer. 

She told me about her weekend (busy) and her general health (okay but she is tired) and also, I think, how she had slept the night before.  Then we turned our attention back to our soup. As we were eating in the school canteen, other colleagues joined us, many surprised to see me, and this necessitated more greetings, more conversations, or so I thought. 

I turned my attention to this person, asking how they have been, then I turned to the person on the other side, and before long I noticed I was the only one who still had food left on her plate.  I was doing the polite table talk that we have been taught.  I was doing the table talk I always do in the Czech Republic or at any social or business gathering where food is served.

But then my friend, Viktor, let me in on a little secret.  It seems that Czech children are taught not to talk while eating.  It is impolite, unsafe. You won’t choke if you don’t talk.  You won’t distract others and cause them to choke, and after you master this rule of etiquette then you will be able to conduct yourself in polite society with confidence and consideration. 

Well, who knew? 

I wondered why the Czechs seem to fall on their food, why restaurants and cafes are so quiet, with perfectly behaved children whispering questions to their parents, if they speak at all. I imagine with some shame the hours of irritation and indigestion I have caused Czech  friends with my mealtime prattle.  What must they have been thinking?
“Won’t she ever shut up?” may be one thing.  “Didn’t her mother teach her any manners?” may be another.

I have almost trained myself to say “dobry den” instead of “how are you?”  Dobry den isa short, quite serviceable  phrase that means, simply, Good day.  It requires nothing but a dobry den in return.

Now, if I can just learn to  shut up and eat…

Thanksgiving, 2018

Early last week I awoke to just the tiniest spitting of snow, but it was enough to prompt me to update my Facebook status with the single word, SNOW!  I had posts telling me how warm it was at just that moment in Florida, where, we assume, the poster was. But such news of 86 degrees and flip-flops is to miss the point.

I  was not complaining, I was extolling.

It was the week before Thanksgiving, a week of preparation and anticipation of the holiday season, and snow is an important part of that.  My Czech friends celebrate St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.  It is a feast day celebrating not only the saint but also the harvest, and it is also mid-November when snow first begins to fall.  They say that St. Martin often arrives on a white horse and legend tells us if it snows on St. Martin’s Day, it will also snow on Christmas. 

So, yes, snow in mid-November is a hopeful harbinger of the season to come. 

For the first time in a while  I am in the Christmas spirit,  so I am in the mood to think about early snows, and new wreaths for the doors, and even as I write, my eyes are stinging from particularly pungent holiday home fragrances, the ones I purchased in frenzied sprees all over town.

I thought I would give the plug-in warmers and go—several of them—and this evening the Winter Wonderland Fir Forest is arm wrestling with the Cinnamon Apple Crisp, while the Bayberry Christmas Baby battles with the Holly Snowflake Soufflé —who knew snow smells?—I have made myself quite ill from it.

My little home is so overwrought with olfactory sensation that I had to leave the Christmas scented pinecones in the car or risk being done in completely.  I know the exact date and time that my Christmas tree purveyor will open for business, I have collected several versions of the traditional Czech Christmas cookie recipes—the ones that look like little crescent moons—and I have researched the proper flour with which to make them. 

But first, we have to get through tomorrow.

Or perhaps, I should say that first, we get to enjoy tomorrow.

Thanksgiving is the gateway holiday for all the tinsel and lights and baking and overspending and late-night wrapping and general hoopla.  It has as its mythical center the table, and those gathered around it, and the main event is not so extraordinary—it is just a meal, and we have those all the time.

But it is a special meal and we go to some trouble to take care with the menu, to prepare favorite food, to pore over crumbling and spattered recipe cards, to honor and properly serve up the past on new dishes.  We are to be gracious hosts and charming guests—guests who show up on time, keep the conversation light, who behave and use the right fork.  Guests who should help with the dishes and at a reasonable hour, go home.

It isn’t so much a serious holiday, as it is a proportional one. We expect to have something good to eat, to be with family and friends, to share some laughs.  There will be pie. We hope it goes off without a hitch, but if it doesn’t, there is always next year. 

Or next weekend. 

If you just didn’t get enough turkey, or you didn’t like the dressing, you can have a do-over, just about anytime you want.  And if the company disappointed, you can sit down with better company, or sit down by yourself and not have to fool with anyone, and all that dressing just for you.

I have done this.  Made another turkey, baked another pie, whipped up the sweet potato casserole the way I remember it, the way I like it best.

Christmas, when it disappoints, disappoints for good and all.  We ask so much of it.  Ask  of it magic, and delight, we ask of it resolution of all old hopes and hungers and hurts.

But Thanksgiving is the adult in the room.

It is about feeding each other, which we may do in a myriad of ways. 

Thanksgiving is appreciative and transitional, as the celebration of harvest ushers in winter. 

I am going to enjoy it in the moment.

And then I shall go get my tree.  I hope it snows.