Winter Break: A Czech Christmas

Maybe I should have been more concerned when I missed my bus to Prague, surely an omen of bad things to come. Maybe I should have freaked out a bit more when I finally arrived at my metro stop, 30 minutes outside the city center, and found myself in the middle of fields, with a sketchy cellular signal and my friend, who was supposed to meet me, nowhere in sight. Maybe I should have been more on guard when a little Czech lady I had never met whispered, “Janelle?” and told me to get in her car. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so relaxed when my friend and I were later pulled over by the Czech police, at 5 a.m. the morning after Christmas, for reasons we still can only guess.

Somehow complete calm engulfed me throughout my three days in Prague, where I spent the holiday with a friend-of-a-friend’s adorable Czech family.

Adorable cannot even begin to describe my Czech Mom for the weekend. In self-taught careful English, she said gems like, [on the Internet] “This is ‘Google.’ I think it’s international,” or [on feeling sick] “Twice every winter. It’s the fucking… genes? Is it ‘genes’?”

In all seriousness, this woman is the sweetest thing, and clever, too. Each morning she drove to the flat where she was kindly hosting us, and delivered breakfast. Then she drove us back to her flat, where she made us lunch. There were coffee, tea and Czech beer tasting interludes too, of course.

Christmas itself was a magical affair, and while the family said it wasn’t very traditional, it was far more traditional than anything I have ever experienced before. We had the honor of decorating the tiny Charlie-Brown-esque Christmas tree, which was later surrounded by presents for everyone — even us orphans.

There was a classic dinner table setting, with holiday cookies, dates, chocolate, bread, wine, apples, a bell and other necessities. After a nontraditional spread of endless potato salad — unbelievably good — and schnitzel, some traditions emerged. One at a time, each person at the table cut an apple in half, and if the core made a star (spoiler: the core will always make a star), that person would have good luck in the coming year. After that, each person made little “boats” with candles, and set sail in a big bowl of water. The candles symbolized our future journeys.

We orphans whispered the same phrase to one another a lot that weekend: “Is this real?”

This uttering occurred frequently post-celebration as well. That night, December 24, we explored Prague by night and understood why so many fall in love with this city. With all its regal monuments lit up, and the old and stately main square bustling with the wonder-struck, and the castle glowing across the Charles Bridge…

The views from Vsehrad were also breathtaking from every angle.

But otherwise, I didn’t see a whole lot of Prague or see any of the sights in daylight. There simply wasn’t the time, not when there was family time!

On Christmas day, my friend and I trekked across the city to a couchsurfing event — a party for the temporarily homeless. There were local surfers, and travelers from as far as Brazil. There were middle-aged hippies and freethinkers, and American expats who said things like, “Love brought me to Sweden. George Bush kept me there.”

There was wine-induced merriment, and ride and couch offers all around. There was dancing into the wee hours of the morning. On Christmas! Queue the recurrent question, “Is this real?”

Obviously, the unreal was real. The unreal beauty of Prague is real, as everyone knows and as we expected. But the absolutely unreal kindness and generosity we experienced, and the spontaneous community of freethinkers …

Well, maybe I still need to be pinched.

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