Ahoj Slovakia took on new meaning last Wednesday, when I greeted Tomaš Trnovec at the international arrivals gate A at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. LOT 1 from Warsaw had arrived at 3:30 PM, but it wasn’t until 6:30 PM that Tomaš emerged from customs, wearing a black “I Love NY” T-shirt, and new blue Nike Airs basketball sneakers. He was carrying only one suitcase, but apparently the customs official had examined its items piece by piece, trying to determine the larger context of Tomas’s trip, from these bits of circumstantial evidence. It seems like a critical discussion point was an explanation of Tomas’s contacts in the US, and as a result my name made it into the documents included in his passport. On Friday, when we went out to by some work shoes, Tomas explained to me his reason for traveling light: work related clothes would make the customs officer suspicious of this 20 year old Slovak with modest English skills traveling alone to the US without a work permit.
So the first week has been spent outfitting Tomas with the essentials: including a cell phone, toiletries, insurance so he can drive our cars . . . . Tomas’s first discretionary purchases have included a California Angels baseball cap, UW-Whitewater shorts and shirt for working out at the University weight room, cigarettes, (yes, an apparent non-sequiter that I have been trying to get to the bottom of) and a case for holding his I-pod.
I bought Tomas a summer membership to our University fitness facility so he could work out. We have already worked out three times during this our first week, and so far Tomas has been for the most part a diligent student in following my directions of how to systematically move through the various muscle groups. Our only disagreement is on the necessity of exercising legs and stomach, which I am a big proponent of.
Our work outs have quickly taken a practical dimension in my hurry to give Tomas situations where he could help-out. We spent our second full day together raking, tilling, and then spading a plot of land that we hope to turn into a little family garden. The raking was the result of our late start: grass had already established itself before we laid tarp down last month to mark off a garden; tilling was an exercise in futility because the roots of the grass made the surface impenetrable, so we shoveled by hand the entire garden, aerating it to a depth of almost one foot. The dirt, however, was too wet to crumble and spread, so our little plot is awaiting some dry weather in order that we may return with the tiller.
Dry weather has been somewhat elusive. We have had more rainy days than dry since Tomas has arrived. We are thinking now, a week after making our first attempt at the garden, that we will need to rake what we spaded before a second attempt at tilling, which may not come until the weekend.
Tomaš has worked now on two sites, both at a modest distance from home, weeding, mulching and planting. The commute has given Tomaš the opportunity to practice driving, as have our trips to the fitness center (I prefer to go by bicycle, so Tomaš is using the car on his own).
As my niece told my mother, it can’t be too appealing thinking about spending the summer with a 50 year old guy and his three-year old toddler. . . So far, Tomaš has not had much time to relax with others his age. He has met both my sons, but so far there haven’t been any arrangements to hang out. He did have a chance to talk a couple of days to a college-age student, Laura, who is seeking to get a little Slovak before spending some of the summer teaching English in Slovakia. The both seemed to enjoy their conversations, but now several days have gone by without follow-up.
So far Tomaš has been spending his free time in his room, watching American movies with Slovak dubbing and facebooking and skyping friends and family. These outlets are very double-edged: the isolating effect of culture shock can be quite profound, yet the electronic umbilical cord that the computer provides Tomaš with his Slovak home deflects him from valuable opportunities to make connections in his new home. Moving to a different country where you have neither language, friends, nor regular employment is a daunting task, and I look forward with both compassion and concern to the difficult road ahead. Living in a foreign country is not an easy task in even much more favorable situations. There is a special skill-set that is animated by the willingness to be open minded about things and a willingness to play the fool, which small kids can do so well and which accounts for their impressive feats of learning. Tomaš is a soft-spoken young man–which is a temperament that will put him at a little bit of a disadvantage. To his credit, he has shown every willingness to eat all of the nutritious, low-calorie, fruit and vegetable oriented cuisine that constitutes the daily diet of the Lima Center Lenchos. Whether or not Tomaš will succeed in developing a truly nurturing routine here, so that he can give of himself fully, is something that remains to been seen. Meanwhile we walk the line of offering aid and comfort while making every effort to foster Tomaš’s independence and sense of personal responsibility.