The Transforming Search For a Pumpkin in Prague
When you live abroad, you wish to remain American while fitting into your surroundings. You want to be true to yourself while finding what is authentic in the place you now call home. Finding this balance is hard, but the search can be rewarding.
Take our pumpkin hunt in the Czech Republic. Our favorite restaurant in Prague is serving pumpkin soup, and we ask where they got their pumpkins. It turns out they buy their squash from a very posh French grocery store called Fruits de France.
Even if Paris does now celebrate the end of October with jack-o'-lanterns under the Eiffel Tower, buying overpriced pumpkins from the French is too much to contemplate.
We decide to try a farmers' market outside town. An hour and two tram rides later, we are in a field of cheap and attractive produce. One old farmer has huge green squash, but no pumpkins. When we ask, he explains that he had some in his fields, but that they caught frost the night before, and were no good to eat. We explain that we'd like one anyway.
"Oh this is for your holiday, isn't it?"
My wife, in her lovely Czech, tries to explain Halloween.
His blank smile tells us that the very idea of buying inedible pumpkins, or maybe just the idea of doing business with Americans, is enough amusement for him.
I come back the next day with canvas bags, and buy two pumpkins. We weigh them on his big scale - 30.3 kilograms, nearly 70 pounds. He helps me put the bigger one in the bag, and asks if I have a car. I don't, and he helps me carry them for a while. As I pick them up, he gives me his bemused smile, perhaps expecting me to use the handle and break it. But I know how this is done. As a boy, each year I sold my grandfather's pumpkins from our front lawn to make money for college. I start to explain this, in Czech, to the old farmer, but see from his expression that his daily allowance for amusement at Americans has been reached again. So I think instead of how my grandfather could be similarly amused by cityfolk, and the resemblance is enough for me. Now I'm smiling, too.
I take the trams back to the city, sweating a little on a cold day, and people make way for the unusual baggage.
As I near home, one incoming passenger sees my pumpkins and smirks. He recognizes me instantly as American: I have a huge, orange pumpkin on my lap. I smile back at him. I know that he's an American, too - or he wouldn't know what the pumpkins signify. It takes him half a second to see that, in spotting me, he's given himself away. His expression becomes reflective and melancholy. He's trying to pass as local, he's been unmasked by Halloween, and he doesn't even have any pumpkins.
You don't have to choose between where you're from and where you are. Indeed, the only way to learn about your new home is to air out your old personality in the new surroundings.
If you're prepared to amuse old Czech farmers and young American cosmopolitans on the same afternoon, for the sake of some big pumpkins, you can be happy living abroad.
And when you smile back at both of them, you're really smiling at yourself, because as you mix nostalgia and novelty you're already not quite the person you were.
* Tim Snyder, a historian working at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., just completed a year of research in Prague.