Philip sat on a pillow at the end of the bench he shared with his mum and big brother, with his dad sitting at the head of the table beside him—a perfect place for him to sneak tomato salad off of either parent’s plate and to flirt with me as only an almost 1 year old can do. Petra sat across from me, making sure that I had what I needed and instructing little Petr (5) and Sara (3?) in proper etiquette. Little Petr sat at the end of the long bench he was sharing with his mum and little brother torn between telling us about the first birthday party he had attended, playing with the Lego police station, and looking at the American. Sarinka had immediately claimed the chair next to me and prayed over our dinner. I wish I spoke Czech to hear that prayer, as her parents fought back laughter throughout it. Petr sat at the head of the table helping little Petr and Sara talk to me. It was wonderful to have dinner with a family and to talk with my dear friends who I haven’t seen in 5 years. I also started brushing up my Czech, and was surprised at what I started remembering.
Ida offered me an apple after we sat down. She and her husband Petr sat across from me on the brown bench typical of the older trains where the floors are not carpeted, the seats are not individualized, and there is a small shelf just under the window to put a thermos cap of tea in easy reach of the facing benches. Petr had already stowed my luggage on the shelf over my head and we had hung our jackets up on the hooks provided. As we ate our little snack of apples and tea, the snowy fields and forests passed us outside the window. It was a cold day (-20 C), but the sun was shining and the train carriage was warm. We glided through small villages, occasionally stopping in some of the places to pick up new passengers and drop off our fellow travelers. I was the only one with an unwieldy palm tree suitcase, but why get a suitcase that looks like everyone else’s when you can get an outrageous one (Ok, seriously palm trees aren’t outrageous. Except when the weather is in the -20s.) and immediately recognize it anywhere you have to pick up your luggage? Sorry, back to the scene. As we got closer to the village, we started followed a stream. It was a great backdrop to our snack and conversations about mutual friends from OH, science fiction, music, and a tiny bit of theology.
“Good morning, children,” Valéria greeted her class of 7th form students. “Good morning, Mrs. Fáberová,” they chorused, while giving me curious looks.”
“This is my friend from the US, Eliška. Why don’t you all ask her your questions?” It was the last class of the day and students had interviewed me all morning as a means of a conversation class. Most of the classes were a bit shy of actually asking me questions, but as soon as Valéria gave this class freedom to talk, three of them immediately raised their hands to ask me one of the many questions they had written in preparation of my visit.
“How are you?”
“Do you like the Czech Republic?”
“Do you have any pets?”
“Do you have any children?” (Right, this must have been after Valéria told them I was 22.)
“Do you have a boyfriend?” (And why was this question after the children one?)
“Do you have a brother or sister?”
“How many pounds do you have?” (American English verses British English-does she mean how much do I weigh or how much money do I have?! I answered with my weight, I think she meant money…)
“Where are you from?” This question was the most fun because Valéria had a map of the US on one of the walls and I got to stand at the map, pointing out Dayton on tiptoe, then showing them that I was born in Colorado and had lived in all of those other states. Then I could go on the other map and show them that now I live in Bristol, UK. After my interview we played telephone using Christmas phrases. I got to take a turn as a student and play with everyone, then Valéria asked me to be the inventor of the phrases and she played. It was so much fun to be in the classroom, especially in an English classroom in another country. Think I can include this in my experiences at job interviews?
It was the morning that we were leaving for Slovakia. We had all gotten up early to make the 8 hour car trip (probably longer due to the snow!) and were at the end of a delicious breakfast of bread (which made me want to have a very high carb diet) cheese, meat, peppers, and tea. Before we left the table, Jana asked that we pray together. We joined hands as a family and for about 10 minuets prayed together, in Czech and English. God showed me how big He is with this small, seemingly insignificant gesture. Here I was, with a family I had last seen 5 years ago, joined with my brothers and sisters in another country. More than that, I got to pray with people who came to know God through my parent’s and others influence. My pathetic attitude at English Camp in 2001 (trust me, I was one GROUCHY 13-year-old that week) was no detriment to what God was doing in the lives of the Fáberovi. He worked through the relationship our families developed and through the relationships with other Christians met through English Camp to create this wonderful Christian family who shared their Christmas with me as if I was a close relative. What a huge blessing to be able to pray with these dear friends!
After arriving at Valéria ’s mum’s house in Slovakia and getting everything ready for her return from the hospital the next day, we decided to walk over to visit Valéria ’s sister and her family. The sun had already sunk below the western horizon and it was still pretty cold, though not the -20 C of a few days before. I was quite bundled up: hat, scarf, gloves, and hood pulled up over my hat. As we waited in Babka D’s driveway for Zuzka to tie her boots, a car pulled up and Valéria ’s nephew, Matej, hopped out and came to great us. He and Vilo and Valéria all shook hands and kissed each other on the cheeks, a custom I grew to like after meeting all of Valéria ’s family. Before Valéria had time to introduce me, Matej had grabbed my hand in a handshake and pulled me over to him to kiss both my cheeks! At this Vilo and Valéria started laughing in a shocked kind of way and as Zuzka stood up behind me, finished with her shoelace, Valéria introduced me in English as Eliška. Matej floundered in English, apologizing, blushing, and generally embarrassed. “Sorry! I thought you were Zuzka!” Matej made his escape and we continued on to Valéria’s sister’s house, where the story was told (I think it was told more often than any other story over Christmas) with much gusto and hilarity.
The candles on the advent wreath were lit in the middle of the table as we sat down to dinner Christmas Eve. Our shot glasses of slivovice (CZ spelling) / slivovica(Slovakian) clinked in a toast of good health (“Na zdravie”) over a plate of honey and a plate of wafers as we began the evening’s celebration. I hadn’t asked why they were on the table, assuming that they were some part of the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Slovakia. I wasn’t wrong, and as soon as we were finished with the slivovicaValéria stood up and took the plate of honey over to Babka Fáberová and painted a bit of honey in theshape of a cross on Babka F’s forehead while saying a blessing (something along the lines of “may God give you good health this year/bless you”). Valéria made her way around the room, painting honey on Babka D’s forehead, her aunt’s forehead, Vilo’s, mine, Jana’s, and Zuzka’s in order of our ages. Before she sat down her mum painted a honey cross on Valéria’s forehead. Then we broke the large wafers and dipped them in the honey as a sweet starter to the evening.
After telling my family’s Christmas traditions, including the fact that my brother and I take turns handing out gifts, Zuzka offered to share her duties of passing out gifts with me. Each of us found gifts under the tree for the people in the room and handed out the gifts. I loved that each of us opened our gifts one at a time, giving us plenty of time to thank the people who gave us the gifts, complete with kisses on the cheeks. The best part was the surprise at the end: Zuzka’s gifts were hidden throughout the house and in order to find them we had to read the clues hidden in the tree with our names on them. It was great to go hunting though the house, bring the gift back and open it after laughing about the hiding places. Valéria and I had a gift together, hidden in the washing machine. When we asked Zuzka how we would share the gift, she just smiled and told us to open it. Inside the package we found two pairs of the same socks! It’s not Christmas without receiving socks, right?
This was my family for Christmas.
The bell in the church began to toll at midnight, moments after we pushed our way into the aisle and took our stand next to the pews. There were so many people in the church that there was standing room only. To our side there was an amazing nativity set that looked like it showed the entire village of Bethlehem, not just the typical manger scene. The first thing that happened was the sounds of Mary and Joseph looking for an inn. Jana stood in front of me, turning every now and then to tell me what was happening, as I didn’t understand much other than “Amen” and “alleluia.” Vilo and Valéria stood behind me on the other side of the aisle and their other family members were up in the balcony. It was a pretty service, but I wish I spoke the language so that I could understand more. I think that a midnight mass is a cool way to celebrate the birth of Christ.
After not seeing big mountains in 5 years, I saw this driving home:
One of the other cool things I did on this trip (I did so many cool things this time around!) was attend a reunion of English Camp students. See:
It was so cool to meet people that my friends from SDPC know as well as renew my friendship with people I met in 2004! The highlight of the evening was at the end, after food, games, and a slideshow of pictures from America and England. I worried that it would be boring, but they seemed interested in the pictures, especially the ones I could scrounge up from church picnics of people they knew. Oh, sorry I was going to tell you the highlight and got sucked into talking about the boring part of the evening! The highlight for me was when we prayed before heading home. This may not seem like much, but I remember 2001, before any of these friends knew Jesus. I’ve gotten to see how a ministry I support and have been involved in has developed and has produced fruit. I am tearing up just writing this! To see God rescue my friends from a life without him into the covenant family, to have brothers and sisters as well as friends in the Czech Republic is beautiful. I am so excited for heaven so that I can understand their praise to God fully, rather than only a few words in their prayers. How beautiful that God has made his family from all of the nations! He is so good.
Petr Blaško nodded to me that it was time for me to be introduced to the church in Česká. He had forgotten to do so the week before, so Vojta and Radka picked me up on their way to church from Jablonne so I could come to church and be introduced properly. Petr and I walked up to the front where he stood in front of the mic and I stood to the side.
“Dobré ráno,” I smiled at the congregation.
“Good morning,” Petr translated, causing everyone to laugh. I love that he did that, because laughter like that is something that makes everyone more relaxed, both the speaker (me!) and the audience (who were listening to some foreigner).
I told them how wonderful it was for me to worship with them the week before and that day and how our church prays with joy for the congregation there. I also gave them a greeting from SDPC, similar to when Vojta was at our church. (Side note: Isn’t it cool that the same year God sent us someone from Česká for a few weeks He sent someone from SDPC to Česká? I love how he makes those connections!) Then I was able to thank them for continuing the work with English Camp and how it had made an impact on me at the reunion the night before, where I got to see first hand how God has been answering our prayers for the ministry of English Camp and for our new brothers and sisters who are products of the English Camp.
Even though it was only 5 o’clock, the daylight was gone from outside and the sudden coldness from the sun’s absence was again being felt. Fortunately for me I was not feeling any of the cold, but was curled up on a couch next to Clare in a warm room, talking with the Turnau family about the last 5 years of our lives, since the last time I had seen them. At the risk of being repetitive, it was so relaxing and wonderful to be with friends who I’ve known for nine years. A bit of continuity in my crazy, busy, discontinous lifestyle. Their house was the same as it was 9 years ago (ok, the artwork had changed and the kids looked hugely different than they had 9 years ago, but the house itself hadn’t changed like mine had with 3 moves since 2001). One big change: I have become an adult. No longer do I sleep on the pull out bed in the girl’s room. I’ve moved on to the couch in the living room! The biggest reason for this is most definitely the fact that my parents weren’t with me, but still! I must say that returning to the CZ as an adult has given me a better perspective and I like it a lot. Maybe some day God will have me live there again. Who knows?