Posted Sunday, July 24, 2016 at 8:00am by Darren Baker
Czech the Children- Chapter 7 -The J.R. snicker
The J.R. snicker
I found my in-laws already in Vet’s room when I arrived for visiting hours that afternoon. She was in bed, tired but beaming and looking happy, while our baby was swaddled up on a mattress placed in a tray on top of a cabinet, meant of course to give big people a better view. She was nicely asleep, and for five, maybe ten minutes, I stood over her, completely unable to take my eyes off of her.
I was hogging the moment and enjoying every bit of it. I later tried to explain that it was the zebra effect, referring to the fact that after a baby zebra is born, the mother shields it from other zebras to ensure it can later recognize her from among the thousands of striped patterns in the herd. It was a charming, reasonable, very scientific explanation, and it made absolutely no sense in this case.
Tereza was the name we gave her, the Czech equivalent of Theresa. At first I was a little unsure about the z in it, worried it would leave her name buzzing in the air. But this is a land where few people are called by their full names, Vet and I being just two examples, and the most common form used for Tereza is Terka. It’s pronounced “Tear-ka,” and in time it seemed fitting considering all the things she was tearing into.
The other good news to arrive that week came from the government. Worried about a declining birth rate, they were rewarding the parents of every newborn with a check for $100. Other financial incentives for becoming parents included being part of a national health insurance system that picks up the tab for births and hospital stays. Somebody like Leon, ever distrustful of anything resembling socialized medicine, would say you get what you pay for. We paid nothing and got an assembly-line delivery room, but it worked perfectly.
And you certainly can’t beat the maternity leave here, which starts six weeks before the due date and runs for six months at ninety percent salary. If the mother then chooses to stay home, she receives a stipend from the government until the child is three, nothing huge but enough to ensure the toddler has formula and diapers if the old man spends all his wages in the tavern or at the track. When Boleslav was a communist and his party owned everything, he was all for this system. Now that he was a capitalist and had to pay for it, he was less enthusiastic. Oh, how he longed for that golden age.
Now about these diapers. I knew before I met Vet that plastic disposables and wipes had yet to reach the market here. I had joined a colleague and his family for a hike in the mountains and was drawing in deep breaths of spruce-scented air when it became obvious their little two-year-old needed a change. Hearing the sounds of a creek nearby, we hiked over there so they could remove the soiled diaper and wash her up in the freezing creek. The poor girl howled like hell as you might expect, but for some reason she took it out on me. The whole rest of the day she kept growling at me běž (“byezh”), which in baby talk means, “Beat it, buddy!”
We were going to have to use cloth diapers, and not just one each time around but three, because the pediatrician said that padded thickness between the legs of newborns ensures good hip development. Reckoning with ten changes a day, that meant sixty diapers to wash, dry and iron. For the first week, my mother-in-law, the famed babička (“babichka”) of Slavic countries, took care of them. After that, Vet did the washing, we both hung them up, and I did the ironing.
It really wasn’t so daunting as the number sixty suggests, because they were just square pieces of white cloth. A swoosh with the iron this way, swoosh that way, nice even fold, and ready to go. Took maybe a minute for each, so you’re talking about at least one hour where you have to watch television.
But what television! With the arrival of the first commercial station, the floodgates to American culture burst wide open. Most of it was old, bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, an indication of the tight budget still gripping new ventures. The big question, though, was whether the budget could afford dubbing. If yes, it meant the Czechs going down the road of the Germans and French, who dub everything. If no, they would be more like the Dutch and Scandinavians, who simply add subtitles to original productions. For English-speaking tourists, this makes all the difference in the world, because even though English is taught as a second language in all these countries, there are few adults on the streets of Germany or France who can actually make conversation in it. But go to Denmark or Sweden and you will find that their daily contact with English from TV means all their years of learning it haven’t gone to waste.
The verdict here came quickly enough as Dallas began its run and even J.R. Ewing’s devious snicker was dubbed. For me it was a bonanza, because I grew up with this show, knew who was backstabbing who and sleeping with who, and so it helped my understanding of Czech quite a bit. Also, I could tease the others as to what might happen next. But these poor others, it meant they would have no end to their struggle with English, which was becoming ever more important not only for them travelling abroad, but keeping their jobs as well.
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