Saying farewell to a neighborhood icon
Two diggers, a surveyor, and several vans come one morning. By mid-morning, the property has been marked in bright orange surveyor’s chalk. By mid-afternoon, the larger digger has shoveled out a ditch half a meter wide and a meter deep. A pile of dirt and rocks rises to the height of the neighbor’s evergreen hedge. Looking down, from my bedroom window, it is as if they are creating a maze, a series of tunnels that someone could hide in. Every time the digger backs up and swivels around to dump a heap of dirt into the pile, he backs so close to our evergreen hedge that I hold my breath.
If seven-year-old Sam were to fall into the ditch, he would have a hard time climbing out on his own. But, it is mid-June, only three weeks until summer vacation, and my children are at school, reviewing for end-of-the-year tests, taking field trips with their classes, and trying to cram last bits of Czech grammar into their heads before the summer holiday.
Radek and the neighbors are at work. Besides the diggers, I am the only one home to witness this transformation. Although I have chores to do – laundry from our weekend camping trip, a story to write, and English lessons to prepare – I decide to bake Sam’s birthday cake. As I beat the butter with sugar, add eggs, then flour, baking soda, and vanilla, I look out the large windows by our terrace. I see the new home owner-to-be chugging bottled water in the 28C heat. I try to remind myself that this excavation is a positive thing.
Ten years ago, our children claimed the empty lot before we did. You could say they took advantage of the “freedom to roam” act, an act which allows the public in some European countries, including the Czech Republic, to access public and private land for recreational purposes (as long as those purposes do not damage or destroy the land). When we first moved to our house in a village on the outskirts of Prague, I didn’t know such an act existed. Nor could I have ever imagined that the strip of land that separated our property from our nearest neighbors would become something special.
This rectangle of space, with its knee-high grasses, prickly rose hip bushes and wild cherry trees, was a place where my children (along with the neighbors’ children) ran free. When the kids wanted to build a bunker, they met in the empty lot. After they finished their homework, they gathered around a broken-down porch swing that someone once left in the lot. When the children shot nerf guns or played hide and seek in the thick brush, they didn’t wonder if they were trespassing. The land belonged to everyone. The land belonged to no one.
Over time, we adults joined our children in the empty lot. We celebrated birthday parties, roasted the first sausages of the season in the spring and the last marshmallows of the summer. We held April 30th čarodějnice (witch-burning) bonfires and Halloween parties. We cut a path across the empty lot to walk our dogs and to reach neighbors who lived behind us.
The lot acquired a permanent fire pit where we burned brush and old Christmas trees. Before a large gathering, we, who lived closest, would bring out a table and chairs, beer mugs and wine glasses, sometimes silverware and real plates. A neighbor at the end of the street who had a riding lawn mower would trim the grass in a semi-circle around the firepit. Another neighbor dumped compost and planted pumpkins.
In the beginning, when my children were smaller, I worried. Should I let them go on the empty lot? Why didn’t they want to play in the sandbox or climb on the tree house in our fenced in garden, where it would be easier to make sure they were safe? Radek laughed at my fears. Look at the other mothers, he advised. I argued. But, their children are older. Ours are so small. Why should I let them out on their own?
Still, in my heart, I knew Radek (and my neighbors) were right. Living in a country where our children could safely play together after school and roam the neighborhood without supervision was something I had dreamed of years ago when I was a new mother leaving my then infant daughter in all-day daycare in the suburbs of New Jersey.
So, I watched them from my kitchen, a pack of children aged 3 to 13 – hunting for snakes, gathering wildflowers, pretending they were explorers from lands far away. Sometimes, they argued. I heard raised voices, saw sides being taken. Sometimes, someone ran home to tattle. But, for the most part, they came only when they needed to drink, eat, or get a Band Aid.
Later, they would ride their bikes and electric 4-wheelers across the empty lot, learn how to feed wafers to the neighbor’s Česko-slovenské wolf dogs by putting their hands out, careful not to curl their fingers up so they wouldn’t get nipped. Later, they would use their pocket knives to slice open sausages for grilling.
Sitting on a folding chair, warming my hands in the bonfire’s heat, I learned things, too. I learned fifth grade was a good time to let my older two ride the city bus alone. Why I shouldn’t plant spring flowers until after the May 10th frost. I learned that soft cheese mixed with fresh garlic made a tasty dip. And, when (just a few weeks ago), it was time to allow 2nd grade Sam to travel through Prague guided by his siblings.
One summer, the empty lot would also teach our children (and us) about the consequences of independence. It was the morning after a ritual end-of-summer Sunday night bonfire. Two neighborhood children begged to be allowed to start their own fire. Although their parents didn’t say yes, the children got matches and started a small fire. When they were bored, they peed on the fire to put it out and went to play somewhere else. But, it was too hot, and the land was too dry.
Within minutes, the small fire spread across the empty property. The flames leapt to our evergreen hedge and set it on fire. The fire marched across our grass, engulfed our trampoline in flames, melted Sam’s plastic clubhouse to the ground, licked at the wooden eaves of our terrace.
By chance, a neighbor from behind us saw smoke. He called the fire department. He and his mother-in-law ran to our house, grabbed our hose, and tried to put the flames out. Another neighbor arrived and sprayed water on the cars that were parked on the empty lot. Someone called Radek at work. Five fire trucks came.
When I heard there was a fire, I was two hours from home. My children and I had arrived from the US the night before, and we had left the house left early that morning to drop Oliver at a Boy Scout camp near Orlík Dam. By the time I returned to our house, the last fire truck was pulling out. My yard was filled with neighbors standing and staring. Smoke and ashes were everywhere. Someone offered me a shot.
For some time, there were no more bonfires. That fall, together with our neighbors, we dug out the dead evergreen bushes. We replanted our hedge. The scorched grass grew back. Our children learned that matches weren’t to be played with. The neighbors’ children grew into teenagers, and they didn’t have free afternoons to run wild. (Although, they did make time to tutor Anna and Oliver in Czech when I asked.) Time eased the hurt.
The following spring, we gathered in the empty lot for a barbeque. (Hoses and fire extinguisher on hand, just in case.) Slowly, the empty lot tradition returned. Younger children from the streets behind us joined my three, who had now become leaders.
Then, we got word that the empty lot had been sold. We joked that when the owners came to see their land, we’d tell them they couldn’t build there; we had taken it over as a community. We signed papers approving their construction plans and road access. We had one last barbeque and invited the new owners. We waited.
While Samuel’s birthday cake rises in the oven, I mix butter, sugar, and milk for butter cream icing. After school, Anna arrives in a flurry. She is sweaty from climbing the hill from the bus stop. Before I can give her instructions, she dumps sprinkles on the iced cake, arranges chocolate letters to spell S-A-M-U-E-L, and sticks an “8” candle in the center.
While we wait for Radek to arrive with the boys to start Sam’s birthday celebration, we see that the new owners, a family with four children, have come to check on the day’s progress. Their youngest daughter is 13, just like Anna. The mother of the family and I are former teaching colleagues.
As we step onto their property to say hello, the mother greets me, “Welcome to our land,” she says.
It feels strange to be welcomed to a place that has been a part of my daily landscape for over a decade, but I say, “Thank you.”
We watch as Anna and her daughter leap over the ditches gouged into the earth, climb up the rock pile, and run away to pick the wild strawberries in our garden. We chat about the best techniques for composting (she is an expert – I have no clue).
Other neighbors gather. Radek and the boys arrive. Samuel’s celebration is postponed. The children take a basketball and dribble it past one another on the road. They take off their shoes and socks (except Oliver who leaves his socks on) and run across the empty lot, up and down the rock pile, and through a mound of sand that the builders have dumped. No one, not even Sam, wants the night to end.
Finally, I bring out towels, wash sandy feet in our outdoor hose, and convince the children it is time to go inside. We wave goodbye to our neighbors-to-be and promise to invite them to ours next time.
When we gather as a family of five around our dining table to sing Happy Birthday to Sam, I think about the blessings of the empty lot. And, I am reminded that sometimes endings are beginnings in disguise.
Love your writings Emily. You were very brave to move to a new country and have a life there. I appreciate what you have done. Susie
Susie, thanks very much for reading! I know you have witnessed first-hand the changes Jonathan’s family has adapted to as they have transitioned and set up homes in different countries. It looks as if they are really settling into life in Portland. Hope to see you this summer.
Great post, Emily. I didn’t expect the happy ending. Looking forward to seeing everyone in the states.
Thanks, Teresa! I think the “happy ending” was a mindset shift, which is sometimes the best way (it seems to me) to handle change. It always knocks me off my feet at first, then I gradually shift gears and move in a positive direction. Can’t wait to see you all!
Love hearing about your life with the family in the Czech Republic. You wear so many hats and still have time to write this great blog. I look forward to more.
Hi Madeline, I’m so glad you enjoyed the story, and I’m looking forward to staying in touch! I’d love to exchange more writing with you, and hopefully someday read some of your stories on your own blog. Many thanks for writing. Emilyl
Emily I know you’re hiking in the West with your family but I just finished reading this and read parts to my half Czech (but born in a Czech community in New Jersey) husband. Who had an empty lot like this one in his childhood. And did all the same things. And set it on fire once. I even walked my dog in this empty lot when we started dating. And then one day – the town built a school on the empty lot. And Frank married me — and moved away. Endings and beginnings as you say so well. Now we have a wondrous, big empty lot here in Prague next to our condo. Our bedroom windows look into total green even though a few years ago the lot was readied for sale by the city and many of the trees were cut down. They’ve grown back to join all the old but still productive fruit trees which survived. Running or walking the well trodden path through the lot you can’t see the street or the panelaky buildings across the street. i love this lot and fear the day the company which now apparently owns it will no doubt sell it to a developer who will likely build several apartment buildings on it. Definitely it will be an ending. Not sure about a beginning. I intend to write about my empty lot in my own blog if I can find the time. I’ll link to this piece – definitely because I love it and it made me aware I could write my own story about my own empty lot.
Hi Stephani! Thanks so much for reading the Empty Lot story, and for sharing your own story about your own empty lot in Prague. It is a really special thing to have a secret-ish space that is yours (and isn’t) at the same time. For adults, as well as children. I hope you and Frank have had a good summer in Prague. I regret that we didn’t manage our coffee date at the end of June, but I hope you’ll get in touch with me next spring and that we can meet up again. I would love to read your empty lot story, so please do send me a link when you write it. (P.S. I am also super curious to see what progress has been made with our neighbors and their new house once we return.) Take care, Emily