A Slice of Humble Pie…

Do you have a problem with pride? Do you think just a bit too much of yourself? I have a great solution to troubles such as these. It is as follows: Go to a foreign country where your language (or one you know) is not spoken. Move to a small town away from the capital and/or tourist centers. If you are lucky enough to find one, get a job. Live with no more than one or two people who can speak your language. Wait for a few months. Your level of pride should drop by orders of magnitude within weeks.

I have lived in the Czech Republic for over nine months. When I leave my flat and the safe haven of the internet I am surrounded by the Czech language. In my school hallways, in restaurants, at church, on the street. The positive part of this is that I have learned a lot without any formal study. I know numbers and foods in Czech better than most of my students do in English. I have basic greetings down. I know the days of the week and I have learned the months as the year has gone by. When I return to the US I have a handy response to the question “So do you know any Czech?” “Sure. Máte průjem?” (Google translate it my friends, haha).

All these small successes have lately gone to my head. In the past month, I have been picking up more and more words from conversations I hear. Every time I understand a new word it adds to my pride. Thoughts like, “I’m in control here.” “Or I can handle this, why study?” And then as these things tend to do, a series of events occur and I am reminded of how helpless I really am. A man stops me and asks a presumably simple question. I sheepishly say I don’t speak Czech. He looks at me strangely and walks away. I go to the bank and not seeing the English-speaking guy I usually talk to, I realize I cannot even ask anyone if he is there.

All this serves as a great object lesson I think. I don’t have it all together. Never have, never will. When I have successes and I speak correctly or understand something new that is a blessing and worth being happy about. But I cannot forget that right around the corner is another place to slip up and fall if I let myself get too puffed up by my victories. Perhaps it is fortunate I have lived in a foreign land for ten months illustrating this point so clearly?

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Doing Things

A week ago I related the story of my student who passed her Maturita exam. It was awesome and being a teacher is a huge part of my life here but it is far from the only part. The single-handedly best thing about being in a place for a longer period of time is all the cool stuff you get to do, especially with the locals.

Do you know where Sokolov is? If you do, it is probably because of me being here. I know I didn’t have a clue where Sokolov was when I got the email last April. I literally google-mapped it that first day, remarking casually, “hmmm, it’s pretty close to Germany…” Did you know one of the prettiest little castles in the Czech Republic (a place full of castles by the way) is a 20 minute bus-ride from Sokolov? It’s called Loket and I got to explore it yesterday.

The teachers in nearby Cheb planned an awesome event to close out the year for their English club. They called it “The Thing” and kept it as an immense secret for over a month. What it ended up being was a day-long scavenger hunting, question-answering, silly-photo taking extravaganza. We were put into teams of 3-4 and were set loose on the quiet, cobble-stoned streets of Loket. We took photos jumping on a stage. We reenacted a castle siege. With spoons. Some students stripped to their skivvies and jumped in the river (double points!) We imitated statues we saw and posed with goats. It ended with a relaxing afternoon hanging out by a camp fire as a big group.

I only have a month left here in this country that has been my home since August. But as I sat by a beautiful, lazy river yesterday, eating a giant Czech sausage while chatting with Czech students I thought to myself, “Life is nothing if not interesting…”

Did that just happen?

I just had a great weekend. Let me explain.

I left home in Massachusetts last summer in early July. I have been in the Czech Republic since early August. Since before I left my mom has been discussing various possibilities of what a visit here would entail. In the last few months we finalized things. My mom would come to London for a week and stay with my sister and then come to Prague on Friday night. I would pick them up, show them Prague, my town and my schools and see them off Sunday back to Prague. As the days approached it was fairly exciting. I have never had family visit me overseas in the past few years. I would get to show them where I have been living and share my life with them a bit. It would be great.

And then the volcano that cannot be named struck. Days before my mom and sister’s flight. It was quickly surmised that the trip wasn’t going to happen. My sister would try to get a flight back to London ASAP but my mom was left to cancel her trip. I was disappointed to be sure but I felt worse for my mom. All the expectation was gone and she was left with a week of regret and sadness. Totally lame.

I went about my business last week and decided to plan a weekend in Prague anyway. See friends and the city. It would be nice. On Thursday I noted my sister was catching a flight back to London. I was happy for her. On Friday I woke up like normal and taught a couple classes. I then went online and was shocked to see a note from my sister saying my mom got a seat on her flight too via standby. More shocking: they would be in Prague that night as originally planned.

Just crazy right? This past weekend has been great. I spent time with my family in Prague, my town of Sokolov, and the capital city of my region. I took them to restaurants, showed them my flat and schools and really enjoyed myself. It was over far too quick. But it was just awesome.

I will end with two small insights. Meeting a lot of different people since graduation I have realized how important family is. When people have good family relationships things are pretty sweet. On the flip-side I have seen few things that can cause more heartache and emotional damage than a dysfunctional family dynamic. I am truly thankful for how my family supports me and loves me. But know that even if my family wasn’t what they should be, my relationship with my creator is an anchor that is something I can never get from something here on earth. Lastly, it was humbling to be reminded today that going overseas is not just about YOU making sacrifices. Your family, whether they support you or not, give something up too. Some handle it better than others but it is never easy. I have about two more months left in this year here but this weekend will be seared in my memory for a long time to come.

Student Notes

One of the fun things that almost everyone brings up but you never think of until you get over here is that the students don’t speak English. At least not fluently and certainly not confidently. To be fair I have to say the majority of my students can handle simple conversations and understand most of what I tell/teach them. However I have a few classes that quite literally know almost nothing. They speak to me in Czech without a second thought and have trouble reading short sentences in English properly. A fun challenge to say the least.

Another fun thing that Czech schools do is they substitute in-house. That means if a teacher is ill or absent they will just throw that teacher’s students into another teacher’s classroom. I would say this has happened about once every week or so on average here. Now if I spoke Czech this would be simply a mild annoyance of having an extra 10-15 kids in the classroom. But I don’t. And the students who get put in my class usually only take German, not English. Do you see where I’m going with this?

A funny side effect of this is students invariably have to go to the bathroom during class (heaven forbid they go in the 10 minutes before or after class…) But of course my German sub students have no clue how to ask this in English. One daring students however asked his english classmates for help and gave me this note a month ago,

“KAN AJ GOU TU FARMA”

I looked quizzically at this note for a second before I figured it out and students told me what he wanted. You, dear reader are probably confused. Let me break this down for you.

Kan=Can. “C” is very different in Czech. Whenever they have a hard “C” sound they put a “K” instead. For example California=Kalifornia. The English student probably told him “can” and he thought quite logically “kan.”

AJ=I. Czech is phonetic so every letter has the same pronunciation. “J” is always pronounced like “Y” in English. So when this student heard “I” again he logically produced “AJ.”

GOU=Go. Simple Mistake.

TU=To. Again simple mistake.

FARMA=?? Not a clue what he was going for here but perhaps it’s close to the German word for toilet? I kind of doubt it though.

The moral of the story is I often have to do as much thinking and deciphering as my students do when we are in the classroom. Oh, and I let him go to the bathroom.

Another Czech Republic Morning…

One thing that is interesting about being overseas is how laid back people are. By that I mean things seem much less politically-correct and such. Upsides to this include people don’t sue as much. Downsides include things are ok that seem wildly dangerous to me. In any case it keeps you on your toes here. Here is one example.

This past Wednesday my basic school had an Olympiad of sorts. Basically the teachers and I played various relay games in the hallway of the school while all the students watched. It appeared that the festivities were planned by one of the 6th year classes who are around age 11 or 12. The girls were dressed like gangster boys with big jeans, shirts, hats and bandanas. The boys were dressed like women. Skirts, tank-tops, wigs and other assets. It was all a bit silly but entertaining as well. It’s hard to remember what school was like back when I was in middle school but I’m fairly sure of one fact: I never crossed-dressed.

So another exciting morning passed in a foreign country. Did I mention I earned a certificate and chocolate bar for my efforts?

Thoughts on ples…

I attended my school’s last ples on Friday night and thought I would offer some closing thoughts about them.

1) I love the egalitarian nature of a ples. Anyone and everyone comes. Grandparents, parents, friends, younger siblings. The only requirement it seems is you should know someone at the school. Dancing happens throughout the night and it is almost exclusively the pleasant, romantic type of a happy couple or the fast paced excitement of people who actually know how to dance. The grinding that is so popular (and explicit) in the states is nowhere to be seen. As a teacher told me on Friday though, of course this isn’t the whole picture. The main hall was the room for the “mummies and daddies” as he put it. Downstairs a disco type area was set up for students. I never went in but what went on there might be a bit different from what I generally saw.

2) Czech’s love of alcohol was in full effect. Beer is truly a part of the culture here. Many towns have their own local brewery and many people drink copious amounts. At restaurants you generally get more beer for the same price or even cheaper than a bottle of water. IDs are never checked anywhere. As a Czech explained to me “It’s illegal to buy alcohol if your under 18, so why would you try?” Plus I imagine the desire to make money trumps the desire to check someone’s ID and refuse a sale. I saw this first hand when in the middle of a ples a student asked me to dance. She seemed nice enough but as soon as we got to the dance floor I realized she was absurdly drunk. Needless to say it was an awkward few minutes.Getting Czechs to not drink would take away one of the things that is deeply rooted in their culture. At the same time I think it is good to be here as a younger than average teacher who stays sober for an entire evening even after the champagne toast with the students.

3) Midnight surprises are delightful, entertaining and so entirely over-the-top that they would NEVER happen in the states.

In closing, living in a foreign country can be kinda neat…

A Hopefully Entertaining Hodgepodge…

So it’s been an unusual long while since I wrote a blog entry. Not exactly sure why but I have a few thoughts and explanations. Firstly, I took on a GIGANTIC topic last time and while I’m glad for the comments and conversation it started I realize I need to be wise in my choice of what to write about. Secondly, while I always have a lots of thoughts in my head at all times it’s important that I don’t spew out all of them all the time. That would probably offend people a lot plus make my blog unbearably long. When I write an entry I really strive to make it something worth reading, pondering and talking about. And sometimes just to laugh or giggle a bit. Fortunately I’m a Christian and overseas and this creates lots of topics and ideas. So with that in mind here are a few thoughts about life in the Czech Republic.

  • Being overseas without a TV has made Youtube and similar sites a godsend. I can access newspapers, sports events, not to mention my friends via the glorious World Wide Web. Easily abused? Of course. Incredible thing I can’t imagine people overseas did without only a few years ago? That too. (Hulu and NBC’s Olympics coverage are notable exceptions to the internet’s awesomeness. Apparently these sites think Americans don’t live abroad. Lame.)
  • Pleses (Graduation Balls) are really sweet versions of prom. Prom was a lame extension of the popularity gauntlet that is High School. A ples is a community extravaganza/dance/graduation ceremony that anyone young and old can attend. I love its fun and egalitarianism.  I have one more ples to attend this month. I expect it to be epic.
  • My town has a pretty similar winter to New England so no big deal. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • I hate when I spell a word so wrong that the spell-check, i.e. the machine that is supposed to detect and fix mistakes, has no suggestions. A real downer for the self-esteem.
  • Fun fact: Beer is cheaper than water here and IDs are NEVER checked. Ah cultural differences.
  • Czech houses generally look profoundly ordinary on the outside and are CRAZY nice on the inside. I know because I went in one yesterday for lunch. It was fantastic.

That’s enough for now, hopefully I’ll have something a bit more substantive next time. Until then, peace.