On Thursday December 19th, I stood nervously in the underground tunnel in the Cesky Tesin train station, glancing back and forth between my phone and the staircase where Harrison would be arriving any minute. For months, I’d been anticipating this moment – the hug, the comfort, and the simple time spent together again with the person I love.
Harrison’s arrival was the true kickoff to the beginning of my Christmas season here in the Czech Republic. He appeared on the stairs, lugging two backpacks, with stories of his first experience in Prague in tow. My nerves relaxed and we celebrated his arrival and recent graduation at my neighborhood pub, with a Czech classic meal choice, svickova, Pilsner beer, and a welcome shot of Slivice.
Over the next two and a half weeks, we’d spend some of our best moments together so far: ringing in the New Year with twelve Hungarians at a house party, exploring cobblestone of cities founded in the 12th and 13th centuries, co-teaching an English lesson together, and of course, making some classic public transportation mistakes.
The Christmas concert
The morning after Harrison’s arrival, Friday, Harrison’s welcome to my Czech home continued with a visit to my school. Since it was the last day before break, we had no regular lessons, just a morning Christmas concert and celebration. The concert was “American” themed, a creative idea that some of the teachers had to involve me and teach the students a bit about American tradition. Alongside two of my students, I gave a short explanation of some of my own Christmas memories, and of course, I gave Harrison a surprise shoutout. In good spirits, he stood, waved, and let out a friendly, “ahoj,” much to the audience’s delight.
Sharing my new home
While there were many destinations, sights, and adventures to come, the most memorable part of this Christmas for me was having Harrison with me to share what I’ve come to know and love about this wonderful country. He witnessed the generosity of several classes of students who got me thoughtful Christmas gifts, saw the huge confusing building and schedule, that only now are beginning to feel familiar for me, and met so many of my colleagues and new friends.
We began our time together with 5 days spent in the Cesky Tesin area, visiting the homes of two of my colleagues and sharing stories about our experiences, traditions, and laughing a lot. We had an extremely international group, at one point or another having conversations with friends from the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, France, and Hungary!
While visiting one colleague in a nearby town, we were shown several big plastic blue “kiddie pools” of sorts full of swimming carp. This can be found in each Czech town, where men sell live carp for Czechs to buy for their traditional Christmas meal. Czechs have the option to have the fish butchered on-site where they can buy the whole fish, or just a part (for example, the head for the starting fish soup), or, in the super traditional fashion, they can take the fish home live and put it in their bathtub to be killed and prepared at home.
The Czech Christmas dinner
Served alongside the carp is potato salad (quite similar to ours!). Our Christmas host family, my lovely Czech mentor’s family, also served a pea soup to start and schnitzel (which is common especially for kids who do not like the taste of carp, or who don’t like the process of picking out the many bones). Harrison and I tried and enjoyed everything, especially the pea soup!
Czechs are also known for their many, many varieties of Christmas cookies, which are very small and delicious. One colleague gave me a gift with over 15 different types of cookies!
Some other interesting Czech Christmas traditions include fasting on Christmas morning (the 24th of December), waiting until seeing the first star to begin eating, putting a coin under your plate for good luck, and receiving presents from baby Jesus, not Santa! Also, young women take one shoe, turn around, and throw it backwards towards the door. If the toe of the shoe points towards the door, it means that they will leave the house in the next year.
While Harrison and I both wished that we could also be home for Christmas, we really enjoyed learning about the Czech traditions and were grateful to be able to spend time together. We Facetimed with both of our families, opened presents together under my adorable Christmas tree, and generally enjoyed the spirit of the season. Thank you to both of our families who made us feel so loved from afar!
Central European Adventure
After celebrating with my mentor’s family, it was time to begin prepping for our trip. One huge perk of being in the Czech Republic (often called “the heart of Europe”) is being located near so many other great countries. We traveled between each country by train, and each journey was between 3.5 and 4 hours. These tickets typically cost between $15 and $20 USD per person and include a seat reservation.
Our itinerary was as follows:
- Brno, Czech Republic
- Budapest, Hungary
- Bratislava, Slovakia
Our journey began with a train from Cesky Tesin to Brno, Czech Republic, where we stayed for 3 nights in the nicest Airbnb that I’ve ever stayed in complete with an outdoor jacuzzi, indoor sauna, and cool high-tech features like automatic blinds and electronic kitchen cabinets. Brno is the Czech Republic’s second largest city, home to a little over 350,000 people. You might remember it from my blog about the first Fulbright orientation.
We spent our time in Brno exploring slowly — enjoying many of the same things that we love to together back home. We took some nice walks to see the castle, the cathedral, and walk through the old center of town where the Christmas markets were still going strong. And of course, found great spots to eat!
We checked out a variety of pubs, and one cocktail bar called Super Panda Circus where we had to ring a bell to enter and were whisked away by a waiter dressed as a cymbal monkey to an upstairs bar made to look like the circus. Bartenders flipped bottles, flamed drinks, and created creative drinks each poured elegantly into a different type of glass.
We also spent one evening at the movie theatre, and one afternoon visiting a cultural center where over 60 different nativity scenes were on display. My personal favorite was a “hipster nativity scene” complete with Mary and Joseph taking a selfie, the wisemen on hoverboards with amazon boxes, and solar panels on the roof of the barn.
Rock climbing in Brno
Coincidentally, Harrison had heard about the city of Brno before I even applied for Fulbright. Over the past two years, he has discovered a love for rock climbing, and when he’s not at the climbing gym, he can often be found watching videos to improve his technique or watching videos about the world’s top climbers.
One of these climbers, Adam Ondra, happens to be from Brno, Czech Republic, where he opened a climbing gym a few years ago. It truly felt like things had come full circle as we explored the city and made our way via public transport to the climbing gym, where I hung out and read a book while Harrison did his thing (always very impressive to watch!).
Our next train took us into Hungary to the capital of Budapest. While Hungary has approximately 10 million citizens, there are almost 15 million ethnic Hungarians worldwide. Nearly 2 million Hungarians live in the ever-expanding capital of Budapest, which many think looks like a larger Prague.
Harrison and I agreed at the end of our trip that Budapest had been our favorite overall experience because of the unique opportunity that we had to be hosted. Two years ago, I worked as an intern for Fort Worth Sister Cities in Fort Worth Texas. There, while working as a camp facilitator at FWSCI’s International Leadership Academy, I met several Hungarian high school students, including Bogi and Kristof.
When Harrison and I began planning this trip, I reached out to both of them to let them know we’d be in town. Bogi and her family generously offered to host us during our stay, and Kristof offered to spend an afternoon showing us around the city. I can’t express how thankful we are to have had this chance!
Bogi and her family live on the outskirts of the city, in a suburb accessible by a suburban train line. Her family’s home is cozy and beautiful, with a large garden where her father brews his own palinka, a traditional fruit brandy that has its origins in Hungary. Over the course of a few days, we were treated to many homemade Hungarian specialities. My personal favorites were the Christmas cookies and a homemade Hungarian stew — tiny homemade grated noodles topped with hearty beef made outside over the fire in a cauldron and served with pickles.
During the day, Harrison and I would explore the city, sometimes lucky enough to be joined by Bogi’s family, Bogi and her boyfriend, or by Kristof. It was so cool to not only see the sights, but also to get a small glimpse into what daily life looks like. And of course, to visit with old friends once again!
Some of the highlights were visiting Parliment, Fisherman’s Bastion, Hero’s Square, the Central Market Hall, and the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. I already am dreaming of a second trip here in warmer weather, with more time spent outdoors in the many beautiful parks or in the hills of Buda.
New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, we rang out 2019 with new Hungarian friends at Bogi’s house. We chatted with new friends and old, danced around the living room, and *tried* to join in when the Hungarian national anthem played on TV after the countdown to midnight. Truly, it was a sad goodbye with our Hungarian host family at the end of the trip, not knowing when we will see each other next, but feeling so grateful for the memories shared together.
Our final stop was back in the land of the Slavs in the Czech Republic’s “sibling” country of Slovakia. Bratislava is one of the smaller capitals of Europe with a population of only 430,000, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in history, food, and wine.
Our Airbnb was located perfectly in the heart of old town, and after spending most of our days in Budapest filling them to the max, we took the chance to slow down and enjoy our last few days together. We took many walks, including one free walking tour, visited the Town Hall’s history museum, and once again, tried a bunch of delicious local cuisine.
On our last evening, we ate at a really nice upscale restaurant, where we each had two glasses of wine, entrees, then shared dessert all for a little under 50 dollars. I share this only to convince you, if I somehow haven’t already, that your next trip should definitely be to central/eastern Europe!
As always, saying goodbye isn’t fun, and the week after the goodbye is always the hardest, hence my slight delay on this post.
After returning from Bratislava, we were lucky to have one more day in Cesky Tesin, my first day back to school after break, before we had to say goodbye. Harrison came with me again to the school where we had the chance to co-teach a lesson! What a fun chance to plan together and show Harrison a little taste of what I do here.
I’m so thankful that we had the chance to celebrate 3 and a half years together here and share so many new memories. While we probably won’t get to see each other in the spring, we are looking forward to being reunited in July when I return back to the United States. Harrison is now back home with his family celebrating a late Christmas in Texas before his new job starts in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina where I plan to join him in a short 6 months!
As always, thank you for reading, and Šťastný Nový Rok, or Happy New Year! I hope that your year is full of love, heath, and of course, many adventures.
This blog, TasteTravelTeach, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Courtney Kobos and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.