Autumn Czech Culture & Adaptation Travel

Babí léto

September 30, 2011
Oliver enjoying the summer weather

Welcoming the warmth of “old lady” summer

The apple tree in back of our house is blooming again. When I looked out the window the other day, at first I thought the new, fuzzy white blossoms were milkweed from the surrounding fields or a gigantic spider web. But once I went to check closer, I realized we’ve got a confused fruit tree that missed the message about autumn’s arrival. One gardener friend didn’t seem overly concerned. She attributed the new blooms to the warm spell that’s graced Prague in the past few weeks. What could we expect in a country with such unpredictable summer weather? It’s babí léto, she declared.

In these parts of Europe, babí léto or “old lady’s summer” is a ritualistic period at the end of summer that refers to a series of warm days after the first frost (or a longer cold spell). In the US, we call it “Indian summer.” Although it usually happens in late September or early October, I’ve lived in Prague long enough to know that any sunny day, regardless of how it’s named (or when it comes around), is worth taking note. So for the past month and a half, any warm day has been reason to celebrate.

It’d been warmer in June, before we left for the US, than it was when we returned in early August. Czechs typically spend their summers at their cottages, where they garden, forage for forest mushrooms, sunbathe and visit the lakes or water parks. When we talked to our Czech friends, they lamented not being able to swim, camp or even hike in the woods as much as they’d planned during the rainy summer months. Děda said the mushrooms weren’t worth much this year because of the weird rainy spurts. And while we were away, our garden tomatoes had stayed a sickly orange hue, most splitting open before they’d fully ripened. Our grass flourished with the extra rain, however.

My daughter Anna’s first remark when we walked out of the Prague airport in early August was how different Prague was from America. The sky was gray and overcast, so I assumed her comments were weather-related. But she explained that she meant the buildings, the people; in short everything was gray and sad. I felt bad that her initial reaction to her home country was negative, especially since those were the first words she greeted her father with. In truth, Anna’s comments echoed sentiments I usually experience when I first reenter the Czech Republic.

Anna had haltingly spoken Czech with the stewardesses on our flight from Amsterdam, commenting that everything seemed different, including the people. Not surprisingly, her initial negative reaction disappeared after a few days at home. While being reunited with her neighborhood Czech friends and her fellow bilingual friends helped smooth out the language adjustment, time and weather seemed to do the most to improve her disposition overall. Having a period of sunny days in late August gave our family the chance to make the most of the end of summer.

Radek suggested we go for a family camping weekend before the weather turned cold for good. So we headed to the Sedmihorky park in Český ráj (Czech paradise), located about 100 km north of Prague. A UNESCO protected geological park since 1955, Český ráj is known for its unique sand stone formations in the shapes of chimneys, towers and tunnels, as well as caves and a plenty of outdoor tourist attractions like hiking, biking and water sports. Over the years, we’ve been repeatedly drawn to the camping in Sedmihorky, particularly for its wide array of kid-centered activities, including workshops, exercise classes, arts and crafts activities and nightly fairytales. Of course, the camp’s extensive children’s program makes it often crowded with families with young children like ours, but it made for a great kid-centered weekend, despite a full-day of rain the Saturday we were there.

On September 1, the first morning of school, our outdoor thermometer read in the single digits. But, just in time for a last hurrah, warm weather again graced the country as school got underway. Having a warm September after a less-than-ideal summer isn’t a novelty in the Czech Republic. In a land that’s used to dark, harsh winters, the Czech people embrace the last days of summer sunshine with exuberance. September is traditionally a month for end-of-summer outdoor theater festivals, music concerts and sports days in local parks. When the sun shines, bikers take over the country roads and the wooded paths around our neighborhood, and the local villages hold vinobraní (wine harvest) celebrations with traditional folk music, games for children and local crafts.

It doesn’t take much prompting to encourage Czechs to enjoy the outdoors when the weather is cooperative. In the past month, we’ve averaged at least one neighborhood barbeque a week, not to mention several impromptu bonfires for roasting párky (hotdogs) and drinking burčák (young wine) harvested in mid-September. Despite the fact that school’s begun, the warmer weather has made it hard for my family to get into our autumn routine of early bed time. There’s just too much nice weather to enjoy. We’ve taken the kids to bike along the Vltava river and back through the woods to end up at the local brewery (along with the rest of the village), to enjoy a beer before sunset.

This past Wednesday, September 28, the national holiday for Saint Wenceslas, was an excuse for further end-of-summer celebrations. We’d planned to spend the day relaxing at home, but one of our friends invited us last-minute to accompany them to Nurnberg to spend the day at Playmobil fun park. Although the 250Km-drive meant several hours of car travel, our kids jumped at the chance to visit a new outdoor attraction with friends. Radek and I also thought it’d be fun to enjoy one last day of nice weather together. The park was everything we’d hoped it might be, reasonably affordable and with plenty of educational, water and movement-based activities for children of all ages. Even we adults took turns on a balance beam, much to the children’s amusement. We couldn’t have asked for nicer weather either.

As we left the park, the sun was still shining, but there was a chill in the air. The trees surrounding the park had already begun to turn luscious shades of red, orange and bronze. Autumn was well on its way in Germany and would soon leave its mark in Prague, but in the meantime, we plan to enjoy our babí léto to its fullest.

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