I have spent two of the past 3+ years living on different continents from my own. I have lived under a thatch roof in a former game reserve in South Africa. I have lived in a communist-era style flat in the Czech Republic. I have learned about different cultures and (however clumsily) embraced them. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I have had or the people I have met in those places for anything in the world.
One downside to my travels is I have missed out on the fall season the last two years here in New England. Fall in New England is my favorite season and place in the world. It gets colder but not too cold. The leaves are beautiful. Cross Country, my sport, is in full swing. Returning to America this summer I knew I had a job lined up coaching cross country. I was excited for all the expected reasons. The past couple months I have been able to live, breath, and experience the sport that I have missed for 3 years.
It all culminated this past weekend on an absolutely stunning mid-60s, mid-November day. My team had its last race, a regional championship against private schools from all over New England. My school had the privilege of hosting. Three large races were part of the race program. I could only take a small piece of the credit because I wasn’t the meet director but things went off without a hitch. People were giving me rave reviews about how well everything went.
After the day had ended I was exhausted from running around and yelling all day. It took me a good two days to recover. But it was a fantastic day and a fantastic way to end the season. South Africa was beautiful and incredible. The Czech Republic was fascinating and awesome. But there can be no doubt, sometimes Home is nice too.
A year ago on my birthday I spent most of the day en route and then in a foreign hospital. I found myself in a room with 4 other men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 70s. I got demolished in chess by one them. We could speak about 10 words to each other as I didn’t speak Czech and he didn’t speak English. The following morning I was operated on in a foreign country.
This year my birthday was rather different. A lot happened yesterday, but the following anecdote will suffice to describe it. At the end of August I started coaching a high school cross country team. 16 boys, 5 girls. It is my first time as a head coach. We had a race on Wednesday and if we had won I had planned to tell them thanks for the birthday gift: my first win as a head coach. We lost so I decided to simply play it cool. My two assistants wished me happy birthday at the start of practice, how they knew I wasn’t aware. I then ran the practice as normal: warm-up, run, core exercises, stretching, thoughts about the race the day before. Then per usual we came together for the end of practice prayer and cheer. Except instead of saying LCA (the school’s name) they broke into “Happy Birthday.” And then as we broke apart as a group one of the guys breaks out a full-size birthday cake.
This was no ordinary cake. It didn’t merely say “Happy Birthday” or have candles in it. It was picture of me transposed onto the frosting. Completely edible and delicious. One of my runners had gone onto Facebook and found a photo of me (we aren’t friends…I need to update my privacy settings…), printed it out and took it to the cake store. My assistant coaches gave me a nice card with a Dunkin gift card attached. The team had all signed a paper wishing me a happy birthday.
I’ve known these people less than a month. I apparently mentioned that my birthday was in 9 days in passing 9 days ago. I cannot express how utterly surprising all this was to me.
It’s easy for me to see the negatives in the world, to be cynical, to moan about all that is wrong. But people, as capable of they are of evil, also have a wondrous ability to do good. I saw that yesterday in my team and it was simply fantastic.
After my week at Sandy Cove Ministries I was able to drive down to the summer camp it runs in West Virginia. It’s a basic sleep away camp for kids but it is distinctive by its fun and its focus on Jesus. I have worked all or part of four previous summers there as a counselor and was returning this time to help out for two weeks. I ended up taking care of a cabin of boys each of the weeks I was there.
Returning was fantastic if also a bit weird. The last time I was on staff was in 2007. I knew camp well but many of the new staff had no idea who I was. Of course there was a good number of staff still there who I knew and that made meeting many of the others that much easier. I was happily surprised that by my first day off on Thursday I was having a blast with people I hadn’t known the week earlier.
Camp is a hard place to work. It is busy, tiresome and sweaty. There is lots of food but no air conditioning. You are responsible for your kids essentially all the time besides your day off. The schedule can quickly become burdensome. And yet I and many others keep coming back. Giving up camp completely just isn’t an option, at least not yet.
Even amidst all the difficulties I love camp. More than probably any other place, camp is a place where I can just relax and be myself; a slightly crazier, sillier version of myself to be sure, but me nonetheless. Kids are kids, they don’t judge you; they just want to have a good time and to feel loved. Working together with other staff in the same chaotic conditions garners a commitment to each other that I have experienced in few other places. Tying is all together is a collective belief and practice of Christianity which is simply refreshing. I have been to some great churches in my life but few things beat a Vespers service with 200+ hyperactive kids singing worship songs.
Camp has had an indelible impact on my life and development since I was kid. I’m so thank ful for being able to return and will surely return again.
I returned home from just over a year abroad on July 18th. I was supremely blessed to find myself (again) at a place as awesome as Sandy Cove Ministries a mere week after my return.
Sandy Cove is a Christian Conference center in Maryland that at least one member of my family has been going to every summer since 1989. Over twenty years, crazy right? But it is just that super. Amongst many, many things it offers it specializes in week long family vacation packages during the summer. Adults and parents come for good speakers, worship and childcare. The kids (including me over 10 years ago) enjoy the massive amount of activities available including: swimming, boating, mini golf, softball, zip line, soccer, basketball, tennis and many more. We also get to hang out with other kids our age and learn a bit about the Bible as well. All around Sandy Cove offers an excellecent package deal for a fun and impactful break from life.
This year was a bit different. I haven’t been here as a “vacationer” in over 5 years. But amazingly the dates worked out so I could be here all week with my Mom, sister, brother-in-law and my beautiful 5-month old niece who I just got to meet this past Sunday. I wasn’t young enough for the kids programs and don’t have my own family just yet but it was still great. I played mini-golf and Disc-golf. I did some stand-up at the talent show. I parasailed. I got some great insights from the speaker I can use this fall as I begin coaching. It was a huge blessing to be back here.
I highly recommend looking up Sandy Cove if you get a chance. They are a great ministry offering rest and reflection for all.
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…”
It’s been a bit since my last entry but it’s amazing how fast time can go during the week once you start teaching all your classes. Today I wanted to share with you a rather unique but exciting part of Czech culture,that as a teacher here I am getting to experience.
The cold and dead of winter is Ples season here in the Czech Republic. What is a Ples? The literal translation is a “Graduation Ball” and the closest American equivalent is a prom, however there are big differences. Graduating from Gymnazium (high school) here is a big deal and you you have to pass a very difficult exam in the spring to do so. But a few months before that, every graduating class has a Ples. The graduating students wear fancy ball gowns and the men wear suits. Family, teachers, friends and classmates are all invited and come as well. A Ples evening includes lots of dance numbers from students and outside groups. A band plays most of the evening and everyone who wants to can dance.
The centerpiece ceremony of the evening is about halfway through the night. The graduating students line up and are called by name up to the stage. As they walk up they get pelted with Czech coins. It is pretty awesome as tons of coins get thrown at these students. It’s a miracle no one gets hurt but it’s real fun to watch. After the ceremony these coins get collected and it helps pay for the Ples. Once on stage they are presented with a sash saying “graduate” (in Czech) and a flower. After this there is a teacher-student dance (I got to dance with a student) and a student-parent dance.
To cap the evening every Ples has a “midnight surprise.” Generally organized by the graduating class it is a fun or silly presentation or dance of some kind. At Friday’s the class dressed up in Hawaiian garb (boys in coconut bikinis of course) and danced to a great medley of dance music.
I have been to three Ples’ so far with potentially two more to go (classes work differently here, there are a lot more than one per school). It has been lots of fun to see teachers and students all dressed up and having fun outside school. Being able to experience something like this as an English teacher and a foreigner has been very interesting but also lots of fun. I look forward to my other Ples’ in the coming weeks!
So this is my last night in London and as I should be horribly tired and busy with travel and school until probably Wednesday I thought I should give a recap while it’s fresh in my mind.
I ended my trip by going to my favorite English soccer team, Fulham Football Club (they play in London). As an American it’s hard to follow and get into European soccer but this is where the best players play and so a few years ago I picked Fulham as my favorite, most because they seemed interesting and had around five Americans at the time (they still have one). I been learning and following ever since. Going to this game today was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip. Fulham didn’t play great but they won and it was a great experience as a fan to be able to watch them.
Why was it so great? One word: atmosphere. British soccer just has it. In American sports, you have jumbo-trons, cheerleaders, time outs, distracting music. Often you’re so faraway from the action it doesn’t even matter. Here in Britain it is different. It’s just the fans and the soccer. Fulham’s stadium fits just over 25,000 people. The stands go right up to the field, you are so close to the action and players. No big screen, just a scoreboard with the clock. The fans know exactly when to cheer, clap and chant, it was awesome. I must also say the away fans were fantastic. One entire block of stands behind one goal was filled with fans of the other team and you couldn’t help but feel their presence. They chanted, jumped, jeered. They were magificent. I’m glad they went home sad but thanks for the effort guys.
So here in short are a few other things I did in London.
- Went to British Museum and saw the Rosetta Stone.
- Went to Tower of London and saw crown jewels and lots of cool, old stuff.
- Went to a Church service in Wesminster Abbey. Very cool.
- Saw Buckingham Palace and walked around a lot of London.
- Met up with a few friends and had lunch and hung out in a London Pub.
So now I fly back tomorrow just in time to start teaching again come Monday morning. But it was a great trip and I’m sure after a few days I’ll be readjusted back to the lovely land of the Czechs.