Many years ago, after college but before I had children, in that sweet spot of time where my options were slightly more open to world travel, I spent some time studying in Prague, Czech Republic. I signed myself up for a Teaching English as a Second Language course, designed to help me find a job teaching English abroad. I had never been to Prague, but I did extensive online research and rather than stay in the suburb of Prague where the school was with the rest of the students in my class I decided to rent a flat right in the center of the city, just a block or so from the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle on a charming little street called Nerudova.
I fell deeply in love with Prague shortly after arriving, and spent hours upon hours exploring the city, dragging myself home only when my legs got too tired to walk anymore. One of the most remarkable aspects of my trip to Prague was that it happened to be the first time I had ever traveled alone, and the first time I lived alone. My tiny little studio flat was perfect, kitted out in all Ikea stuff (I even had a little “locker” as a closet that held approximately four items of clothing) and I bought myself a little plant from Tesco and put photos up of my family back home. Although I would later buy a cheap cellphone like all the other students were using, for the first few weeks my only way to communicate was via the pay phone on the street a few doors down from my building. I had no wireless internet, no phone, and didn’t know a single person in my building. I loved it, and was also incredibly, profoundly lonely. After class each day I would take the metro back into Prague and would walk back to my little flat, make myself dinner, and get into my homework, just me, myself and I. My Czech was so bad that I rarely tried to talk to anyone except out of necessity, and I felt isolated from everyone around me. Although I fell deeply in love with the city, it was tinged with this disconnectedness from the people in it.
Although a lot of people spoke some English, many didn’t speak a word of English, including my landlord (I had rented the flat through a third party company with someone that spoke English but also had zero idea where I put my garbage bags). I discovered this when I tried to ask him where to put my garbage. I found him one morning and tried to use my English to Czech dictionary to ask him “Where do I put my garbage?”, only I couldn’t find the word garbage in the dictionary. So there I stood, this twenty something year old American flipping through a tiny book asking this seventy year old Czech man “Uh, where do I put my, um…” flip flip flip “Where do I put my…” Here I start to pretend to crumple up a piece of paper, make a face at it (indicating that it is garbage and therefore repulsive) and throw it into the imaginary garbage can I am looking for, then smiling like, oh hey, it’s a garbage can, at which point I would finish this pantomime off by shrugging my shoulders like “WHERE THE F IS THE GARBAGE CAN, DUDE?!”. All the while I am thinking why the HELL is the word garbage not in this dictionary? This guy just stares at me the entire time, at first amused, and then annoyed, at which point I decide to just walk away because I didn’t want to be late for class, leaving him utterly confused.
A few days would pass before I finally realized WHY garbage was not in the dictionary. It was a dictionary I bought in London, and the word I SHOULD have been looking for was “trash”, not “garbage”. “Where is the TRASH can?” would have worked.
This failure to communicate just served to enhance my loneliness, and although I hung out with other students on the weekend, I was still very, very homesick. I found a little shop that rented out American DVDs and sold other items you couldn’t find in Prague like microwave popcorn, tortilla chips, and peanut butter (which my Czech student I was tutoring in English thought was “totally disgusting”). It was like Shangri-La, especially since the only channel that came on my tiny tv was German MTV and I desperately wanted some sort of English speaking SOMETHING in the background while I worked on my homework. Once in a while Pimp My Ride would come on in English with German subtitles, and they played music, but I simply missed hearing English spoken, I missed understanding people. So I rented TONS of DVDs, I watched a lot of Sex and the City, and would go through two or three movies a night. Which was great, at first. But then I quickly went through their small selection at the shop, and started to move into the movies I wouldn’t normally want to watch out of desperation, like Corky Romano. I watched that four or five times, at least.
Now, I had avoided renting Love Actually because it was a holiday movie, and it wasn’t winter, it was closer to Easter, and I was a purist when it came to holiday movies. I only liked them during the holidays and they were otherwise nonexistent to me during other parts of the year. But I was desperate, and I rented it. This was getting close to when my Mom was going to come visit, and I keenly felt the homesickness that was creeping around the edges of every hour of my days there.
I think on that particular night I was done with the mountains of homework the TEFL course required and was probably having a glass of white wine that I bought from the tiny grocery store down the street. They had this really incredible South African white wine, the name of which I sadly don’t remember, that probably cost about four dollars, and I went slowly through their supply of it and once it was out they never got any more. But on this night the South African wine was plentiful, the loneliness was palpable, and this movie opens up with families greeting each other at an airport.
I lost it.
I cried like I hadn’t cried in years. Self indulgent sobs wracked my body as I watched this scene, wanting to see my family and friends so badly it physically hurt. And then I of course did what any normal person would do, I got ANGRY with the movie. I did. I got so angry that this seemingly harmless holiday movie would unhinge me emotionally that I turned it off, slapped it back into it’s case and left the flat that very second to return it to the store. Partly because I didn’t want to be alone in that flat anymore, partly because I wanted to try to call home, partly because I just needed to walk. Even after the long walk I was still so worked up, and probably thoroughly confused the dreadlocked employee as I threw the DVD onto the counter and stormed back out without saying a word for fear I would start crying again.
After the release of returning the DVD and realizing everyone at home in the states was asleep, I decided to hop onto a tram, a new tram, one I had never taken, I was so tired from my walk of anger I couldn’t walk that whole way back. And I got lost. But as the night fell, the lights came on, and I watched from my seat on the quiet tram as I saw parts of the city I had never seen before. I finally got off in front of the Dancing House, this crazy, winding, bendy structure that looks like something out of a modern fairy tale, and I thought, my mom will love to see this. And I was so proud of myself for finding it, albeit by accident. But now I knew which tram to take, how to get there, and I felt connected to my mom, who was at home in NJ sleeping, even though I couldn’t call her, or give her a hug.
I went back to the DVD place a few days later, after a long enough time that I felt less embarrassed for my behavior on the night of the Irrational DVD Return and rented Love Actually. I cried again, but this time I watched the entire film and I loved it so much I watched it over and over. Each time I watch it (I watch it all year round now) I’m reminded of that feeling of connectedness. Of being connected to people I love even when they’re not around because of that love, and being connected to people in general, of making those connections even when it seems unlikely. I’m reminded that even if you aren’t close by, the love is there, always.
Not long after that I cornered my landlord again after much practicing of “Where do I put my trash?” and once we successfully vaulted that minor word hurdle he then would engage me in conversation every time we came across each other and I got a chance to practice my Czech while he told me mainly about the Czech Republic National soccer team. I think. I learned enough Czech to tell him about my mom visiting, and introduced them when she finally got there, he was my first Czech friend, this seventy year old landlord named Pavel.
So, my favorite holiday movie doesn’t include Santa, it doesn’t include make believe, it doesn’t include presents. It just includes love. Although the Elf on the Shelf and decorating the house and wrapping presents and Frosty the Snowman are so cute and I wouldn’t trade that stuff in, I like being reminded about what makes the holidays special. The love in my house is what makes it special. Being with the people I love makes it special. I honestly don’t remember if I got the items on my list when I was five years old for Christmas, but I remember spending it with my family. I don’t have the toys I got that year for Christmas anymore, but I have the love of my family still, I will always have it, and that is all I need.