Stroller identity

Why I strangely miss Czech stroller culture

While spring cleaning our garage, my husband asked me to find a family who wanted the last remnants of our baby years – two strollers and a car seat. Although I didn't have a problem giving away the car seat, when it came to getting rid of the two strollers, I had sentimental attachment. When an email to friends resulted in no takers, Radek suggested that we throw the strollers away or leave them by the dumpster. They were collecting dust and taking up space we could use for bikes. But I refused. I had spent over eight years bumping along cobblestone streets with a child fastened securely in a stroller. Throwing them away seemed like tossing away part of my own identity as a mother.

When we moved back to Prague in the winter of 2005, I went everywhere on foot, pushing one-year-old Anna Lee in a stroller, getting to know the city again – this time as a family. Radek was job hunting, and I had no obligations other than looking after Anna Lee and making new friends. It wasn't easy to break into chatter with parents on the playground, but having a child in a stroller made me feel more a part of Czech culture than I had as a single English teacher. Even though Anna and I spoke English together, I felt that (at least until I opened my mouth) I belonged with the other mothers, fathers and grandparents who strolled in the nearby Riegrovy Sady and Parukářka parks.

In the beginning, I had a Graco brand stroller from the U.S. with rotating plastic wheels, a valuable feature for tight turns on the smooth floors of a shopping mall but impractical for bumpy city streets. Once the Graco’s front wheels got stuck in the grooves of the tram tracks. Trying to disengage the twisted wheels while the tram bore down upon us blowing its whistle but not slowing its pace, I made a note never to cross the tracks again when a tram was in eyesight, even if I had a green walk signal.

I envied Czechs who took their babies out after lunch to sleep in their prams rather than putting them down in cribs indoors. It was expected and understood that anyone caring for an infant who needed an afternoon nap would likely be found walking outdoors, sipping a coffee or chatting with a friend on a park bench with their babies sleeping peacefully nearby. There was no pressure to multitask: cook a meal, clean the apartment or do the ironing while the baby was sleeping.

Learning the ins-and-outs of shopping with a stroller was intimidating. In the hypermarkets there was no problem getting in and out with a stroller because the entrances were at ground level; there were elevators, and the aisles were wide. However, going into small shops was a different story. Sometimes the aisles were too narrow to turn the stroller around in, and I'd end up backing out of the store before I could make my purchase. Often, there were a few stairs which required asking for help or leaving the stroller outside. I was cautioned by locals that an empty stroller would be stolen, but one with a child inside would likely be fine. Tempting as it sounded, I never tried it.

Although I rarely saw babies parked outside shops in Prague, it was relatively common in the countryside or small towns like Vysoké Mýto where one of my Czech friends lived. Once during a visit there, at my friend’s instruction, we lined our strollers up facing the glass windows of the sweet shop in the main square. The children slept while we had a chat and a coffee, but I was still nervous.

Getting a stroller up the steps of a tram or bus required asking someone, usually a stranger, for help. It took me two full months of walking through the city before I had the courage to buy a tram pass. I thought having to ask for help would reveal that I was both a foreigner and a novice mother. The turning point came while waiting for the tram after a swim lesson with another Czech mom, I wondered aloud why she didn’t get on the first tram that stopped. She shrugged her shoulders and explained, “It didn’t look like there was anyone in the back of the tram that could help me.” She admitted that she had timetables on her refrigerator so that she could catch a handicapped tram or bus and didn’t have to ask for help. I realized I wasn’t the only parent who was struggling to adapt to stroller culture.

Over the years, I learned how to step onto the down escalator facing backwards, so that I could keep the pram level; to pin a cloth diaper with clothes pins for a make-shift sun shade; and not to get on a bus or tram when there were already two strollers at the same entrance. I learned to lend a hand whenever I saw another mother bumping a stroller up or down a flight of stairs; to enter the back metro car where there was space for the handicapped and to push the stop button on the tram or the bus one stop in advance when exiting with a stroller.

In a month, my youngest child will be five and he hasn't sat willingly in a stroller for the past two years. All three of my children are beginning to interact with the city and the curiosities of public transportation: walking short distances after school alone or with schoolmates, taking the train to swimming lessons and begging to ride the bus by themselves. Soon they’ll be old enough to get around the city, and I’ll retire my chauffeur’s dress. The knowledge makes me feel both proud and sad.

The other day, I met my friend Rebecca for the first time after the birth of her son. It was a cold, snowy morning, and I was surprised that Rebecca had come to the meet up without a stroller. She explained that it was easier trekking through the city with her six-month old son strapped to her chest in a front carrier. Even though she'd bought a three-wheeled jogging stroller, and despite listening to her Czech mother-in-law's worries that she'd throw out her back, Rebecca persisted. I also remembered carrying Anna Lee while we were hiking cross-country, but I couldn’t image toting her through the city day after day, though I know that many moms do. At the end of our visit, Rebecca tucked her sleeping baby back into his carrier and zipped the whole thing into her own oversize jacket. It did look convenient as well as cozy.

Still, I talked Rebecca into taking our umbrella stroller home with her for a day when her baby might be too big to ride in a carrier. At the very least, I told her that she could use it to pack the groceries in. With this stroller I had learned to navigate Czech public transportation single-handed. For years, I flew back and forth from the U.S. with it, and even after Samuel stopped using it, I'd kept it in the trunk of our car for emergency naps.

When friends, who are parents of two children under the age of four, dropped by to pick up a bag of Samuel's hand-me-down clothes, I convinced them to take the jogging stroller, too. With its 16-inch, all-terrain wheels this stroller could go (and had gone) just about everywhere, except Prague public transportation. We had hiked the trails in Český ráj , České Švýcarsko and in the snow-covered Krkonoše Mountains. I'd used the stroller to roller blade along the Vltava. It had come in handy, particularly when I needed to brake. Although my friends already had strollers, they agreed that the idea of jogging or rollerblading in Riegrovy Sady had its draw.

The new extension of the green metro line opened a couple of weeks ago. I read about the installation of porters instead of elevators to help assist passengers with disabilities or transport heavy luggage. I wonder how new mothers with strollers will react. Will it be a friendly, pleasant exchange or will it be something that they dread? I thought momentarily about borrowing a stroller (and a baby) from a friend and riding to check it out.

But, if the truth be told, just as sad as I am to see this period of parenthood draw to a close, I'm equally excited about watching my growing children as they learn to explore Prague and the Czech Republic on their own two feet. Having more room for bikes in the garage is an added bonus.

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