Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2016 at 11:22am by Darren Baker
Czech the Children - Chapter 1- Return to the ancestral home
American historian Darren Baker settled down in the Czech Republic more than twenty years ago. His new novel Czech the Children takes in many of his experiences in that time along with what it is like to bring up children in a bilingual family set between two cultures. Zen Recreations is happy to serialize it for the first time here on our pages!
There’s parenting and then there’s parenting between two cultures, and Darren Baker makes it a fun read.
Return to the ancestral home
For the sake of clarity, I should start by saying yes and no. I am Czech, but not really. You see, my parents were born and raised in Moravia, which sits smack in the middle of what was then Czechoslovakia. It was a country well entrenched behind the Iron Curtain, where life chugged along at what was officially dubbed a “normal” rate. The only real downside to it, according to them, was the travel restrictions to the West. So when they were eased up as part of the Prague spring of 1968, they decided to go abroad.
They went to America, the land they were raised to believe was full of guns, drugs, gambling, prostitution, racism, and homelessness. They were going to have to get used to this kind of culture, because as quickly as the border opened up, it closed again after Soviet tanks rumbled in in August 1968. They could still go back, but were worried a cloud of suspicion would forever hang over them, so they decided to emigrate.
I came along shortly afterwards. Being born in the US entitled me to automatic American citizenship, but perhaps not wanting me to be totally detached from my heritage, they gave me a distinctly Czech name: Vojta. It should be pronounced as Voy-ta, but the English “j” being what it is, I was called Voj-ta by friends and classmates. I then made the mistake of pride by trying to correct them: Voy, not Voj, but they just put the “oy” and “oj” together and got something like “voyage.” Inevitably, the nickname I got stuck with growing up was Voyager, and all the requisite jokes that go with being named after a famous spacecraft.
“Yo, Voyager, you number one or number two?”
It wouldn’t have been so bad had I grown up with the Czech language, but my parents divorced when I was two, my father took off to Canada, for what reason I still don’t understand, and my mother remarried an auto mechanic named Leon. I call him Leon because he was never really like a stepfather to me. He had several kids from a previous marriage and I feel he saw me more as a nuisance than member of the family.
He did make an effort to pronounce my name correctly, though, probably as a reward to my mother for only speaking English at home. Like many immigrants, she never quite shook her accent, and some people meeting us assumed I was Leon’s natural child and she an imported stepmother.
Even if she could have gone back to Czechoslovakia, I’m not sure she would have. Her parents had since died, other family went their own ways, and she had more or less become settled in her new life. Then of course there was Leon, who didn’t want to go anywhere, just stay home and watch sports, maybe go fishing once in a while.
I, on the other hand, was revved up with ambition by the time I hit my mid-teens. Since nothing puts a damper on ambition like being broke, and Leon always seemed to make sure I was, I got a job at a local McDonald’s.
During my interview, the manager explained that it had become the monster emporium it is thanks to someone whose parents, like mine, also emigrated from Czechoslovakia. This burger baron was even known for plucking hardworking youngsters from behind the grill and making them executives. Work hard and diligently, the manager declared, and the same thing could happen to me.
Only he didn’t lead me to the grill, but to the restrooms. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere and mine was the relief joint. The manager told me to make them sparkle and odor-free and some day he would pluck me from behind the toilet and make me a grill executive. Absolutely no piss on the floor, he warned me, and that went for the ladies’ room, too. It was a letdown to be sure, but I made do and in no time, I was indeed behind the grill and shining there as well.
And then it happened. A bigwig arrived at our store. In real terms, it was just the area manager, but in hamburger heaven he was considered a local deity. Good enough, I was determined to give him every reason to pluck me.
On average, a cook has twelve burgers sizzling away, but the grill can accommodate up to thirty-six during busy runs. It’s hard managing so many frozen patties at one time, and not sweating on them in the process, but if there ever was a time to prove I could do it, this was it. Flop, flop, flop, I had three dozen of them going, before flipping them over, then searing and smothering each with a wad of dehydrated onions.
I had just taken the first dozen safely off the grill when I noticed that the area manager and store manager were huddled together off to the side. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about but all the pointing was being done in my direction. With the area manager looking on, the store manager came up to me and demanded to know why in the hell I was cooking so many burgers when there was hardly any customers. Was I a moron or what? And what’s with all those onions I was using? Of course, I had been trained properly in the correct amount of onions to use, so I was obviously being neglectful or wantonly wasteful. I was ordered to go and see him immediately after my shift was over.
The area manager said nothing the whole time, just glared at me with a look of, “Boy, are you in trouble, fella.”
He was gone by the time I walked in to get my dressing down. Needless to say, my days were numbered after that. When it came, I didn’t let it slow me down, I simply walked up the street to Burger King and asked for a job there. The first question this other manager asked me was whether I had any experience. Sure, I told him. I can cook thirty-six burgers at one time, no problem.
“Great,” he answered, “and what about making the restrooms sparkle?”
Fast food was definitely out by the time I graduated from high school. I did some vocational training in high school, air-conditioning and refrigeration repair, found I liked it and got a job doing house calls. A downturn in the economy left me without a job in November 1989 and that’s when it happened. The Iron Curtain in Europe came down in one fell swoop. After more than twenty years, my mother would get to see her former homeland again. Leon wasn’t interested in going, so I went with her in the spring of 1990.
Prague and the rest of the country was stunning, a complete world apart. I was so taken by everything I didn’t even resent being seemingly isolated as my mother went about speaking in her native tongue with the locals and me not understanding a word. She tried to teach me a few, but family always makes the worst kind of teachers. The only word I brought back with me was “ahoj” because it’s the same “ahoy” we use in English to say “hi” on the open seas, only they use it everywhere. Why a landlocked country would choose a nautical term for “hi” was only the first of many ironies I was set to encounter.