Amy Neuman’s home phone number has an 802 area code and a 649 prefix, but it rings in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Amy and her husband, Scott Neuman, along with their three children, moved to Prague from Norwich in February of 2013 when Scott was transferred by IBM. The Neumans had never really considered the idea of moving their family so far away, but the opportunity came up and they took the leap.
Thoughtful and introspective, Amy is the co-founder and former Executive Director of the Norwich non-profit InspiringKids whose mission is:
To educate and empower every student to become philanthropists by donating their collective time, treasure and talent to make a difference in their communities while engaging in activities that support the learning objectives and priorities of educators.
By connecting with and improving their communities, kids recognize the impact of their actions, take responsibility for improving their world, and proactively effect change over their lifetime.
The Neumans, both 45, have known each other since they were 8 years old and attended the same elementary school outside of New York City. They became sweethearts during their senior year of high school. Both went on to Cornell University, and then, at 23, 18 months after graduation, were married.
Their children – Annie, now 17, Henry 15, Emma 12 – acclimated to living in a foreign city quickly. They attend a pre-K through 12th grade international school where their schoolmates hail from 60 different countries. The school has a rule that they don’t accept any more than 20% of their student body of any one nationality.
“Many of the families at their school are career expats; they are Ukrainian, Korean, Russian, Australian… they come from virtually everywhere. It’s a relatively small school,”Amy explains, which made the transition easier. “Coming from a place the size of Marion Cross worked well.”
As intrepid as the family has become, Amy doesn’t pretend it was easy at first. “Prague can be gray and bleak, depressing,” she admits. “I think that there were a total of 10 hours of sunlight for the first six weeks we were living here. Plus, lots of people smoke. That has taken some getting used to!”
“When we first got to our apartment, the kids and I got locked in the elevator and an alarm went off,” she continues. “Scott had to travel for work the day after we landed and our stuff from the States would not be delivered for weeks. The morning after we arrived we had to register with the police (required of all new residents). From the police station, Scott left for Bratislava and we took a cab back to the apartment. I can remember thinking, ‘What have we done?’ Our flat was essentially empty, our phones and internet were not set up and Scott was gone with no way to communicate with us. Thankfully we found the pizza place not too far away and ate there every day that first week. So at least nobody went hungry!”
They’ve also made friends who have helped. “Our experience with the Czech people has been very good. There is a cab driver named Tomas,” Amy says, who will come pick them up anytime they call. “He loves practicing his English.”
And then there is Renata Brenisinova, the woman who tutors Amy and one of her daughters in Czech. She, too, has become a friend. “The language is so hard,” Amy confesses. “Annie and I take lessons, so it’s better than it was. That said, it still feels like gymnastics in my mouth. A few years back, while standing in the airport in Venice, Annie was looking at all of the signs in Italian and said, ‘So this is where all of the vowels from the Czech Republic ended up.’ Luckily people in Prague for the most part speak some English.”
The language isn’t the only thing that is challenging about being in Prague. Some of those challenges are the things you would run up against living in any city. For example, the Neumans don’t have a car, which means they have to walk everywhere, or take a cab or tram.
“In the Upper Valley, you know you can jump in your giant car – you know, the one that fits all the kids and their stuff and has dents all over it – and go to the Co-op and load up on what you need for a week. Here we only buy what we can carry. Grocery stores are a 10- to-30-minute walk or tram ride away. We go to a local butcher shop and I try to speak Czech. They laugh at me because I am butchering their language. But we can usually make ourselves understood.”
Then there are trips to the orthodontist or the hospital for the occasional injury. “The hospital complex is so different from the beautiful city center. They are cement block, soviet-era buildings where everything is tiled in an institutional mint green and the lighting is not terrific – the kinds of places that make DHMC with its big windows and airy spaces and art on the walls and live piano music seem like a dream.
“Plus,” she continues, “the medical personnel typically don’t speak English and their whole approach to medicine, never mind a bedside manner, is quite different.” She tells the tale of Emma’s injury during a Thanksgiving Day basketball practice at school. “It wasn’t broken. But the school nurse said, ‘Get an x-ray.’ We were given papers that we couldn’t understand, sent down long corridors and to various offices to pick up more papers we couldn’t read. Finally, we get to the exam room and the doctor grabs Emma’s leg with no warning and pushes super hard until she yells. Then he gives us a piece of paper and sends us down another hallway.”
Despite the off-hand way she describes the trips to various doctors, Amy is anything but cavalier about what her kids are experiencing abroad. You can tell after talking with her for just a few minutes that she is as centered as she is funny and game.
“At home [in Norwich] the kids had things almost every weekend. We would always be driving someone somewhere, to a practice or a game. Here the kids have practice 3 times a week, but none on weekends. We live a solid half-hour away from their school, so there isn’t a lot of going back and forth. When they’re home, they are home.
“We didn’t really anticipate that we would have all this togetherness, but it has been really, really fun. The kids have been somewhat of a captive audience. We play lots of games in the evenings – once a week at least. This is one of my favorite things.”
“The best thing about being here,” Amy continues, “is that I feel I have been given this gift of time with the kids. If we were at home in Norwich, Annie would be driving now. She’d be off on her own. That’s just the natural order of things. Here I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with her. I feel like that’s something that might not have happened had we been home.”
It’s been educational too, and, true to the tenets of InspiringKids, the Neumans have made sure their children have had a well-rounded experience.
“We volunteer at a soup kitchen at the St. Thomas church every Saturday morning. All of us get up and take the tram together across the river. We have been doing that for 3 years now and we’ve gotten to know the people pretty well.
“The kids will have conversations with the regulars every week – they are comfortable with us and love to talk. We’ve gotten to know their stories and struggles. We’ve become friendly with a refugee from Pakistan who landed here in Prague a year or so ago and now volunteers at the soup kitchen as well.
“Then there is Roma, a homeless gentleman who has a palsy and uses crutches. This man’s English is very good and Annie, Henry and Emma will sit down on the bench with him and just talk. He’ll make suggestions to the kids about things they should see and he’ll tell them how to get there. He’ll follow up the next weekend to find out if we’ve gone.”
“Our experiences at St. Thomas definitely expose us to the incredible struggles that many people experience everyday. Living here has also made us more aware of the incredible sacrifices that people have made throughout history,” Amy reflects. Indeed, history is in evidence all around them.
“A good example is the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, just six blocks from our apartment. We kind of stumbled across it about six months. We learned about these Czech and Slovak paratroopers who, in 1942, sacrificed everything to defeat the Nazis. They had assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, one of the head Nazi generals, and fled there to hide. The Nazis came after them. Rather than be captured, these guys committed suicide. You can still see where they hid and there are still bullet holes in the outside walls. My kids could see with their own eyes what it must have been like, what real sacrifice is all about.
“We also went to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp right outside Linz, in Austria, where the families of those Czech and Slovak soldiers,” along with some 13,000 others, “were sent as reprisal. Seeing one place and then the other, and knowing about the connection, made WWII history so real for all of us.”
Traveling is one of the things the Neumans do a lot of. They’ve been to the beach in Croatia where the locals couldn’t understand the concept of collecting sea glass. “There’s so much of it there because no one picks it up. They said to us, ‘Why are you cleaning our beaches?’”
“We have a big map in on the wall in the kitchen with colored pins showing the places we’ve been. Everybody gets a color. Red is for the places where the whole family goes. White is my color,” Amy says with what sounds like chagrin. “I have the fewest pins because we travel so much as a family.”
But the Neuman kids have been all over the place on their own too, on school junkets. Because of the way the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) is set up, they compete in sporting events, have choir concerts and other activities in places like Moscow, Budapest, and Bucharest. They will go for a 4 or 5-day tournament at one of the member schools. Annie was recently in Moscow playing softball.
“It’s less competitive here overall than it is in Vermont. Emma came home from a trip one day and said, ‘Mom! I have three new friends from Warsaw!’ It’s more social, more about meeting people and making friends. In fact, the most coveted award is the sportsmanship award – a very different emphasis,” she adds appreciatively.
While they don’t let news of terrorist attacks stop their activities, Amy and Scott do factor them into some of the decisions they make about traveling.
“We went to London for Easter, two weeks after the bombing in Brussels. I tried to work things out so we were above ground as we traveled around the city,” she admits.
“There is also a lot of chatter here about the refugee crisis. Many Czechs are skeptical about taking in any refugees. There have been anti-refugee rallies in Wenceslas Square, which is five blocks from our apartment.”
And they’ve hosted a lot of travelers, too. Friends, friends of friends, and family members have taken turns staying in their guest room. “We’ve loved that,” Amy says.
In the end though, Norwich is still HOME. All of the Neumans are attached to it and committed to coming back. Before they went away, Scott was one of those guys you see in the winter doggedly maintaining the ice rink in front of Marion Cross.
“We have magnets from everywhere we’ve traveled to stuck on the hood above our stove here. Right in the middle is one from Vermont with a covered bridge on it.
“That’s our place. That’s what the kids refer to anytime they are talking about ‘home.’”
And they do get back regularly. They’ve kept their house in Norwich. It, along with their two dogs and a cat, are looked after by a friend who is staying there for the duration. Plus, Amy’s parents live in Hanover. The Neumans come home each year for Christmas and for a time during the summer, although the Neuman kids are all off on various excursions for part of this summer.
Aside from occasionally consulting at her children’s school, Amy has not been working and spends less time rushing around than she did at home in Norwich. “I’ve had the opportunity to be in my own kitchen. I read more and rest more, spend more time with my kids. And I spend a lot of time learning about this incredible place.
“Living in Norwich is like living in a fairytale. When I describe life in the Upper Valley to my friends here in Prague, it sounds ridiculous. From the Gingerbread Festival, Halloween at the Norwich Inn, Dan and Whit’s, all of the resident Olympians and even the ‘broccoli heist’ at Killdeer Farm a few years back. It is all so unreal. Living in Prague is like living in a historical fiction novel. There is a heaviness to the city – so much history and culture, so much ornate architecture and a kind of anonymity – all of which I have come to love. I am so grateful that our family landed in Norwich almost twelve years ago, and I am grateful that we have also had this incredible adventure abroad.”
She says again, “I feel like I have stolen time.”