Outdoor Life

Bundled up for winter fun

January 16, 2009
Anna & Oliver beside a large snowman in our yard

With the cold snap, even backyard skiing is possible

Returning to a snow-covered Prague last week was a shock after the mild holiday weather we’d experienced in Virginia. As we exited the terminal in Ruzyně, the icy air stung my throat. Thick snowflakes covered the sidewalk, and I was glad that I had the children’s winter coats, hats, mittens and scarves in my carry-on. Once appropriately attired in our heavy-duty winter gear, we squeezed the kids into their car seats and set out from the airport for home.

Along the way my grumpy post-holiday travel blues were replaced by a rising sense of delight as we drove past the pristine snow-covered fields outside Prague. Anna Lee’s constant snow-related chatter and Oliver’s repeated exclamations of “Wow!” further buoyed my spirits. The snow was falling heavily as we headed home, and I hoped we still had some US-bought marshmallows left over for the hot chocolate I planned to make as soon as I took a short nap. I briefly wondered if the snow would stick around long enough for us get our jet-lagged selves outside to play.

Remembering the disappointment of the previous two mild Czech winters, I tried not to let the kids get overly excited, but it was too late to stop Anna Lee, as she plotted with Oliver about building a snowman “straightaway” and trying out the new skis that Ježíšek had brought her. As the children’s anticipation heightened, I remembered my husband’s offhanded comment over Christmas that it was going to be a cold winter. He’d read an article where Czech rangers had reported that wild animals were storing up more fat than usual. At the time, I hadn’t given the article, or Radek, my full attention as we had been running around in short-sleeve shirts in Virgina.

However, as I shivered in the car, I had a few flashbacks to Anna’s first, very snowy winter in Prague in 2005. Anna was just learning to walk, and I couldn’t get over how many protective garments were required by Czech custom to ward off a potential cold or sickness, even for stroller-riding babies. I had never heard of a fusak (sleeping bag) for a stroller before we moved, but here every baby was nestled into one during the winter months. The walking-aged Czech toddlers wore one-piece belted snowsuits with hats pulled tightly over their ears and tied snuggly underneath their chins. Many kids even wore scarves tied over their mouths to warm the frosty air before they breathed it in. Most of the time, all that was visible of a properly dressed Czech baby was a pair of sparkling eyes.

In difference, Anna made her first foray into the snow dressed in baby jeans and a winter coat. She had a hat, but it didn’t have ear flaps and it didn’t tie. Although her jeans had seemed fun back in the US, she definitely didn’t match the fashion of Prague’s youngest snowsuit wearing set. I vowed to conform, and the rest of that winter, Anna wore her snowsuit exclusively. It seemed a little strange to take her to cafes and restaurants in the snowsuit, then strip her down to her undershirt and tights, but I observed most other Czech families doing exactly that. I always got a chuckle watching Anna run through the play centers in just her turtleneck and tights, but she fit right in.

If this first snow was any indication that the winter of 2009 would be as cold as the rangers had predicted, then our family was in for an exciting winter of outdoor fun. Since learning to ski is a prerequisite for most Czech children, we had decided that this winter Anna could give it a try, and with that idea in mind, she got a pair of skis for Christmas. Czech grammar schools and even many of the preschools take annual week-long ski-trips to the mountains. Since Radek grew up near the mountains, it didn’t seem that strange that his schools took the annual trips, but once I asked around, it seemed to be a statewide tradition for all the grammar schools.

Curoius to know if all Czechs really skied, I asked Radek what happened if a child didn’t know how to ski. He replied,”Then I guess they go cross-country skiing.” His comment was corroborated by another Czech friend of ours, a Prague-native, who grew up hating her school’s winter trips because she was the only kid in the class who couldn’t ski. When my friend reminded me that the Czech Republic is bordered by mountains and most Czechs would have to drive less than 2 hours to reach a decent ski slope, I could see why schools would incorporate annual ski trips into their curriculum.

Although I also grew up within a 2-hour drive from a regional ski resort in West Virginia, we usually went only once or twice a year, more for the thrill of a new and different activity than because we were experienced skiers. During our trips, we invariably saw a considerable number of adults learning to ski for the first time. In contrast, I’ve rarely seen an inexperienced adult Czech skier.

Last winter we watched children smaller than Anna at the ski resort Severák in the Jizera Mountains near my husbands hometown (about an hour and a half north of Prague). Anxious for Anna to get a taste of the winter sport that both Radek and I enjoy, we rented tiny skis for her one afternoon, and she gave it a shot. She coasted back and forth from Radek to me on a flat stretch of snow for about 30 minutes before complaining of being cold and tired. Not bad, we conceded, but we didn’t want to force her to participate in an activity that probably required more balance and coordination that she had at the age of 3. So we opted to wait a year before giving her an actual ski lesson, and Anna gladly transferred her energy to sledding.

Looking out at the snow-covered hillside of Severák that afternoon, it was clear that we weren’t the only parents with skiing aspirations for their young children. In fact, we watched several kids Anna’s age or younger who had surprising coordination making turns and stopping on command. Most of the smallest children stayed in the designated kid park, riding the moving carpet up a gentle incline and then barreling down into the arms of a waiting parent before starting the cycle again. It looked like fun and plenty of hard work, not least of all for the parents who were repeatedly lunging to rein-in their pint-size dare devils. Throughout the family-centered resort, we saw children skiing and snowboarding. We couldn’t wait until our family could join them.

Even before we’d unpacked our suitcases, Anna convinced Radek to help her dress in her ski gear, and they headed outside to practice in our (flat) front yard. While Oliver shouted encouragement,”Me too! Me too!” from the sled, Radek pushed Anna around in circles.

When I opened the window to ask if anyone was ready for a hot chocolate a few minutes later, I caught a glimpse of Anna leaning forward in a good crouch with her hands on her knees. Whether or not she ends up liking the sport, she definitely had the look of a skier. I snapped a couple pictures for the record, just in case her interest turns out to be short-lived.

After a few more afternoons in the yard, and a short, but successful, hour in the Severák kid area, Anna has continued to enjoy herself on skis, so we’ve made plans for a traditional Czech mountain trip. Since the forecast calls for more cold weather, we’ve decided to make the most of our time while there’s still snow and bundle up for another week of outdoor fun.

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