(Vsetín, Zlinsky Kraj, Czech Republic)- It gets better. Seems New Year’s Day brings with it hope for a better future or something which is why so many people celebrate it’s turn at midnight. Of course it will be midnight here before it is mid-night on the West Coast of the U.S. something about the earth turning and time zones and stuff like that (it’s very complicated I know). So we will celebrate the passing of 2013 here nine hours ahead of California.
Because their futures are not quite as long as their pasts, old people like to reflect, I’m no different. It has been an interesting year all toll one with some ups and some downs, but, as I have said before on these pages, more ups than downs. I think it has to do with being optimistic. In the short years since I got my CELTA cert from Cambridge University (yes THAT Cambridge) I looked for a position over seas to ply my trade teaching English as a foreign or second language. Some places seemed to be ideal. Sunny Spain, sunny Libya, sunny Baghdad or even sunny Greece looked promising. But it was not to be. I thought I would be relegated to continue my teaching in California, which really wasn’t a bad gig. I had elementary students and loved it. Then a got a bite to come here, Vsetín in the Czech Republic and voilà here I am. Not a bad landing methinks.
Nothing can shut me up faster than not being able to speak or read a language. There are some real benefits to that. First and foremost is listening followed closely by observation and then the plunge. For years I took teenagers to live and work in Derry, Northern Ireland. The program was called an “immersion” experience. But more that just an “experience” which is something that happens to you, it was more of two way street. The locals would experience American teenagers and vice versa. Over the course of the three weeks I would constantly remind the kids that we didn’t have all the answers, that we are guests in someone else’s home (land). Although the people spoke a form of English, it did not mean that we were there with new and better ideas and that they had nothing to offer. The culture that we were immersed into had been around long before the U.S. was even thought of. So respect was the name of the game. That may have been the hardest lesson for them to learn. We were not there to simply help the people we were there to learn cooperatively from them and work with them. You can read some of the goings on from the 1999 and 2004 trips here. Just click on “Derry Diaries”
Living in the Czech Republic in general and Vsetín in particular is like a grown-up immersion for me. Yes there is the experience of living with a totally foreign culture around me constantly, and yes there are people I work with that speak English when I need help with the bank or health insurance or paying the electricity bill. I am learning. I learned to listen when people talk, albeit haltingly, about their daily lives and their children resisting the temptation to jump in with a personal anecdote or two from my own life. That’s the all important listening part of an immersion, the stories. Then cultural events become the observation part which I follow up by asking genuine questions for clarification so I know why the event is done the way it is done. But then I am confronted with the language barrier. It is true I have learned a few survival words in Czech and a few words that are interesting but which I will probably never use in polite company. That’s the plunge into it part. I have become humble enough to allow myself to mispronounce the language while giving it a good college try. I have learned that if one is gentle with corrections (or funny) then the back and forth of me pronouncing Czech words and my students struggling with English words is not an effort in futility but an exercise in community. I don’t know if I will ever know enough Czech to order something at a restaurant all by myself, but I am beginning to recognize some vocabulary that I have written down. I will always be an American, (now, an ex-pat) living in this wonderful country. I will never be Czech and I know that. So my immersion continues on a daily basis. I can get around with little confusion in the grocery store now. I love my students and especially where they are coming from and I look forward to having class time with them every week. I have begun to respect the cultural differences between our two countries and realize that neither one has all the answers. And that is ok. We are working together on the questions. No need to go to war over a difference of opinion or outlook on life don’t you think?
Respect. Respect. respect. That is the main thing I have learned in 2013. Respect for myself, for the country I work in and especially toward the people I work with and for. Ignatius Loyola as one of the tenets of Ignatian Spirituality told us to cultivate the ability of “finding God in all things.” I like this, but at times putting it into practice is extremely difficult. Sure there are easy days when this is do-able. But most of the time it seems almost not do-able…almost. On those days I have to work a little bit harder and listen a little bit longer. It is usually in reflection that I can say, “Oh, yeah that was God.” Sometimes I have a whole series of “grace moments” but don’t realize it until I quiet myself and do some reflection on my day. When I do and I finally get it, it makes getting up the next morning a little bit easier. So far it’s worked.
My accomplishments so far have been minimal at best. I concoct what I think is a marvelous class only to have it fall flat on its face. On paper it looked great, in actuality…not so great. Rather than go with my gut on presenting some aspect of grammar I go with my head instead. I know that’s a mistake, but I do it at least several times a month. So with 2013 in the books and 2014 is just starting I need to take the one-day-at-a-time philosophy that has guided me for years and act on it in all areas of my life. Listen, observe and plunge.
and so it goes…