Sunday, March 8, 2009

Czinese Friends

My husband and his family came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in the mid-80's. My mother-in-law, when she was a student at Charles University in the 50's, became close friends with L-, an exchange student from China. After college, the friend returned to China to work as a translator. For a few years they remained good friends by mail, until the time came that Czechoslovakia was no longer a favored communist friend of China. Receiving letters from Czech friends was dangerous for the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, and the friendship was put on hold--though I'm sure they both could only imagine it was a permanent change.

Fast forward 40 years, and my in-laws had immigrated to the U.S. One day, completely out of the blue, my mother-in-law got a letter from L-. She and her husband had immigrated to Canada. Since then, they've visited one another's homes. And Friday night, Pavel and I visited L- and her husband in Vancouver.

First we had the tour of their apartment--the walls are covered with B-'s paintings (L-'s husband). He too had been sent to study in Czechoslovakia. In his case, it was to learn about fashion design--not what many of us would expect to be a draw in 1950's Eastern Block, but Prague was one of the more fashion forward cities behind the curtain in those days. He returned to Beijing to start the fashion program at a university. But he was also a traditional Chinese watercolorist.

L- went to Czechoslovakia for the language. She still works as a translator--her bookshelves are full of the Czech works she's translated into Mandarin, everything from Seifert poetry to Hrabal, Hašek, and Kundera. She'll be traveling to Prague in a few months to work on her memoir.

And she cooked us dinner. Roast duck, a steamed carp-like fish, beef with peppers, beef with tripe, soup, and potatoes with Sichuan pepper. Which incidentally is not pepper at all (though the package she had called it gray pepper). And to drink? Pilsner Urquell.

I spent the dinner smiling and nodding; conversation was in Czech, with occasional Chinese between L- and B-, and occasional English between Pavel and myself. For me it was 3 hours in that odd state you fall into when you don't understand the language. I get bits of the Czech, enough to have a clue of what people are talking about. But mainly I don't--so on the one hand, it's extremely fatiguing. But at the same time, I find myself dazing out a bit, and also getting more than I usually would from visual clues and mannerisms. Either way, I was very tired at the end of the night.


Kathleen Bauer said...

Please let us know when L-'s memoir comes sounds fascinating. Thanks for the portrait of this intensely interesting woman!

Giovanna said...

Yes--will definitely keep people posted...though I suppose it will be in Mandarin and Czech first! :)

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