Last night, I drank both the Czech Republic’s and Slovakia’s national drinks— fernet stock and borovička— and thought about both political history and my parent’s divorce. My folks split up in the early 1990s, the years the maps were changing— the time of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the official Czechoslovakia split in 1992.
I remember those years as the years the maps changed: mid school year, we got brand new maps of Europe. I remember adjusting my brand-new bra straps and staring at a poster of people with sledgehammers. The caption read, “Berlin, 1989.” I remember staring at our brand-new map of Europe, with the country lines re-drawn. I remember trying to connect these events in a far off, different land to things happening in my own life, and coming up short. I was fascinated, but it seemed so far away.
I have been trying to figure out why I remember the years that Czechoslovakia split, the years communism fell with the Iron Curtain, why those years were carved into my memory. The American midwest is far away from eastern and central Europe. I’ve realized: the years the maps changed were the years my life changed. While my parent’s divorce was expected, and worked out amicably in the end— it was, undeniably, a turning point, a demarcation point in my life. The next year, I entered middle school, and left childhood behind in more ways than one.
As I’ve been teaching middle school here in the Czech Republic, I’ve been particularly reminded of it, that change. Middle schoolers are awkward: between kids and adults, between innocence and indifference. They have energy and smarts, but little experience. What I’ve struggled with is the self-conscious-ness they have: how shy they can be, how uncomfortable they can become. Whether it’s cracking voices or just plain shyness, they seem deeply reminded of how they are between places. Undergoing a significant change, they are neither here nor there, not at carefree as kids nor given the responsibility of adults.
Which makes teaching them tricky. An activity needs to be fun, but not childish— and engaging, yet not too adult and boring. And watching my students reminds me of me, at that age: exhilarating, yet deep down, upset at how I can’t control what’s happening around me. The world is shifting, yet there is nothing one can do about it.
Except, of course, as an adult, to drink and muse. About fernet stock and borovička: two very different yet interesting liquors. I actually prefer fernet citrus to fernet stock: it’s sweet and rich, quite complex, a little cloying but good mixed with a bit of tonic water. Borovička reminds me of gin, that sharp taste of juniper, but a much richer, sweeter, subtler aftertaste. Two lovely, yet wholly separate, drinks.
Leaving the Czech Republic to visit Slovakia reminds me, somehow, of childhood: the time between here and there, between being an adult and leaving behind toys. Now, as I am about to leave graduate school, and stumble completely into adulthood, I’m reminded of things shifting: and a change that is both profound and inevitable.