It’s July and I am back in Menlo Park, California sitting on my porch overlooking El Camino Real and it feels like I never left. Was it a dream? That’s the thing that has been rattling around in my head as I try to concentrate on season two of Game of Thrones. (Now I know where Tyrion Lannister got the scar on his cheek.) But what does reflecting on a year in the Czech Republic have to do with Game of Thrones you ask, I really don’t know, it just gives you a slight insight into how my mind functions, or doesn’t. There is no logic here, it just is. On a cloudy but warm afternoon back in August of 2013 when I arrived in Vsetín in Southern Moravia, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. (I’ve never been to Kansas so actually I wouldn’t know anyway.) Vsetín isn’t a typical Czech town with curvy medieval streets that one would think these ancient country towns would possess, but there was a charm that is hard to describe now. It’s located in a river valley surrounded by green hills. It’s streets are laid out in a grid with high rise apartment blocks lining the streets and the hillsides. This was where I would call home for the next 10 or so months. Dazed as I was from traveling from the West Coast of the new world it looked OK to me. Since I didn’t know any better I just went with it.
My first encounter with a local was with one of my bosses, Jana who picked me up at the train station and drove me to her home so I could meet Lance, the other co-director of the school and their kids. Their warm welcome in my jet laggy state gave me the feeling that I had landed in the right place. Outside of these folks, I didn’t know anyone in town but in time this would change. I really didn’t have time to feel lonely I just felt tired and worn out after the trip here. Par for the course I suppose. We moved on to my flat near the center of town. I saw the bed and I knew immediately that I needed a nap and so lay down for a bit. The flat was big enough, and located conveniently within walking distance to the bus station and the train as well as food stores and a bakery. (see the “tour” of the flat in an earlier writing.)
The language difference was the first thing that hit me. Both the spoken and written Czech language doesn’t sound anyway familiar to my Western ear. I had a few notebooks that I carriend around with me to write down phonetically, different words and their meaning. I practiced saying them when I was alone in my flat, but still had trouble with some of the sounds which don’t exist in English. The written words turned out to be very difficult to pronounce, but I tried. The language’s basic principles are “one sound, one letter” and with the addition of diacritical marks above letters to represent sounds which are alien to Latin script, it became very difficult to perfect. There are 42 letters in the Czech alphabet compared to 24 in ours. So, for example, they have “c” as well as “č” both of which are pronounced differently. Then there is the “r” sound and the other “ř” sound which,even after 10 months I never got right. Not even close. One of the towns where I was to have classes is called Valašské Meziříčí. (Say that fast 5 times…) I guarantee you, it does not sound like it is spelled. I used the shortened form of the town “Val-mez” which, for me, sounded like a typical California city. The language must be a conspiracy or inside joke created specifically for foreign born English speakers so they sound like dunces. At the end of my stay I only knew two sentences, “Sorry, I don’t understand Czech.” and “Where is the ATM?” Given a little more time…I probably could expand on my vast vocabulary.
Living where I do in Northern California we have something close to a fall season. Some of the trees do change color, but it seems like the leaves are gone before the richness of a full-blown fall happens. In Vsetín, the colors of the changing leaves seemed to last for weeks and the hillsides exploded in colors I had only seen in pictures of New England in the fall. It was beautiful. By now, I had a full compliment of adult as well as children’s classes on my schedule and finished each day, except Friday at 8 pm. That took some getting used to but after a while it just became second nature. I would come home after classes and cook dinner, usually in the coat I was wearing, and sometimes my hat. I did this on purpose, because had I stopped to take my coat off and hang my hat, I would want to sit down for a while which would lead to going to bed. And going to bed was always welcomed after a long day. The people I taught came to be more than students, they became friends and although the day was long, I always looked forward to being with them. I would try and pronounce my “new” Czech words and they would laugh at my pathetic renditions of their language and they would laugh at themselves at their English pronunciations. So it all balanced out. We both tried to “get it.” That’s what got me out of bed in the morning and hiking to school every day. I enjoyed their company.
By now, I had met my traveling companion and erstwhile guide and teaching colleague, Susan, from Scotland and after our initial forays in trying to understand each other’s form of English we went off on various adventures around Moravia. I must add here that I had a growing pain in my left knee which made it difficult to walk. It was an odd pain, because some days it was fine and other days it would be very difficult to walk the short distance to school. I usually put on a brave face and soldiered on. (Later, in April I would have the knee operated on) Susan and I had many adventures over the year and during the fall we travelled by train to the city of Olomouc. The story can be found here. Finding places to visit in a day and hang out was easier than I expected and Susan was the master of choosing what to see and where to go. The whole year was more enjoyable for these expeditionary and fact-finding missions we comfortably took on.
In stories like this it is always dangerous mentioning names because at my age I will forget to mention some and that is not really a good thing. So I’ll try my best and if you find your name missing, know that it wasn’t intentional.
As I said, at the beginning, I didn’t know a soul in the town but as I also said, that changed dramatically as the weeks turned into months. Among my colleagues at the school I was blessed to meet their families, supped with them and trudged through forests with them. Among these were Blanka and Marcus, Hanka and Karel, Zuzka and Jakub, and later on ReEnna and Petr as well as Jana and Lance. Wonderful and welcoming people who included me in their activities. We hiked, we had lunch, we chatted about stuff. The Czech Republic was beginning to feel more like home. I used to tell people that it was during this time I ceased to be a tourist and became a resident, albeit a foreign resident, but a resident none-the-less. It was a good feeling. The transition made more smoothly by actively listening and asking questions and sincerely enjoying their company.
(coming soon, Winter and Spring)
…and so it went…