Holy Moley! I started writing these refections on my year in the Czech Republic around the first days in July and now it is first days of August! I realized it has taken that long to remember some, not all, of the experiences of the past 10 1/2 months. I’ve obviously left some stuff out and my reflections on my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakow will take up another separate entry soon. But for now, I will dangerously attempt to mention a few names and thank-yous to the people who helped me integrate into the life I experienced in Moravia and more specifically Walachia. I say “dangerously” because I will miss a few names, not on purpose mind you. If you don’t know where Moravia is, check a map. It’s in the southern part of the Czech Republic (not Czechoslovakia. The Czech Republic and Solvakia are separate sovereign states, as of 1 January 1993). I still get that question when I meet people here. “How was Czechoslovakia?” And I reply, “They were both great places.” “Huh?” Then I have to school them in history…over and over again but that’s ok…I’m a card carrying teacher of sorts. It’s my job. Somebody has to do it. But getting back to the people I met…there are no words big enough or colorful enough to label them, that is, if i really wanted to label them, which I do not. They are people, wonderful people and I wish I could take you all back with me to meet them.
I’ve mentioned many of them already but a focus on some of the students, however not all, should be made here. I have to say of all the classes that I taught, there wasn’t one that I did not look forward to. This sounds a little cheesy but they were all great albeit not easy at times, but great. There were so many different personalities so many stories and each class had a unique and a deadly sense of humor and energy of course. I only met them once a week which doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but in those meetings we accomplished our English goals for the class as well as having them share their stories of their families and their work. True, not everyone was fluent in English and sometimes it took a long time for them to express themselves, but express they did. One of the things I learned in the CELTA course I took years ago was to ask Concept Checking Questions, or CCQs. These are short questions used in place of “do you understand?” a question that really is useless in the classroom. Why? Because if students do understand the question ‘Do you understand?‘ they will probably just say ‘Yes’ to keep you happy, and not to embarrass themselves if they don’t. And conversely if they do not even understand the question ‘Do you understand?’ they will say ‘Yes’ anyway, again, just to keep you happy. The “understand” question puts the student in an uncomfortable position especially if they really do not understand. CCQs are short questions the teacher asks after making a point in grammar or a reading. These yes/no questions are different because the answers reveal the student’s knowledge and understanding of the concept you have laid out for them without the “do you understand?” bit. But enough of that, you can check out the CELTA website for more info on this technique…but I digress.
So back to my main point before the music starts and I am ushered off the stage… I want to publicly thank Markéta who shlepped Susan and I around her village of Hovězí for the Christmas market there and Luba who lent me herexercise bike when I was doing rehab after my knee surgery; Petr who generously had me over to his house for a lunch and a dinner so I could meet and spend quality time with his family; Robert and Iva who took me out on a Saturday afternoon so I could see the countryside and villages and who both consciously spoke English in the car so I wouldn’t feel left out. Iva also provided Susan, Marcus, Blanka and I with tickets to the final ball of the season. A fun night of dancing and music with Vsetín high society (it was the only time I wore my tie). To the ladies at Climax (pronounced Clee-max…get your minds out of the gutter, people) who made getting up at 5 am on cold Wednesday mornings for a beginner class at 7am at their factory, bearable and always a hoot. People like Lucie and Dáša and Jiřina and Monika and Silvie and the others (especially those who brought in food) I will be grateful to you for a very long time. They made me laugh every Wednesday morning. Wednesday was also travel day by bus to the town of Valašské Meziříčí for my three classes. The journey there was made all the more fun by the people like Milan and Jana and Pavlína and Zuzana and Marek and Jakub and so many others in those classes who kept the pace stress-free and full of laughter. I learned many useful Czech swear words from these good people which I have sinced used with the TSA.
Thursdays were packed with a morning class at the charity Diakonie just across the street from my flat on the 6th floor of the “Empire State Building” of Vsetín. Good people doing God’s work in sometimes impossible situations. It was through them that I began my clandestine outreach to the Roma community. Back at school, Thursday afternoons were spent with kids aged 11 to 14. Honzik, 11 was a private student and I throughly enjoyed his humor and it made me happy when I was able to make him laugh. Somedays he was serious but most days he was (and me too) silly. I followed his class with two more kid classes which I also enjoyed. It would take me a week of preparation and trial and error to try and get those hours filled with different activities every week. Teaching adults is one thing but teaching children is a whole other approach. Balancing the grammar sections with music, short movies, drawing and games was my weekly challenge. Somedays they were squirrelly and I had to change gears quickly to push ahead. But during these classes I was able to bring out my inner artist and singer and dancer. If I looked like a fool, I really didn’t care. (I think even after a year together they still think I speak Czech.) The last class of the day was with Michal, Eva, Jana and Lukáš. Most of this class was rather low-key but not without it’s humor. Scattered throughout the week were private classes. Monday it was Petr,a businessman whom I mentioned above and who also took me to the roof of the “Empire State Building” of Vsetín. Tuesdays I spent with my friend Salvátor a just-turned 16 high school kid who was also our guide around the Christmas/Svatý Mikuláš festival in his home village of Valašské Klobouky not far from the Slovak border. And my Japanese friend, Shinya a transplant to the Czech Republic from the home office in Japan. He was proud of the fact that he had visited 9 of the 12 United Nations preserved historical sites. He informed me of a gentlemen’s sushi cafe that I should visit in Bratislava. The dinner cost €449. I later checked on line and found out why it was a “gentleman’s” club. Needless to say I didn’t have the scratch for fish food when I visited Bratislava later in the year. I’ll let you guess. Also on Tuesdays I had a mom who took classes with me while her two boys had class elsewhere. She was basically on again, off again, but our infrequent time was pleasant and productive.
Wednesdays, before my two evening classes I would have a class or two depending what week in the month it was. One class was with the CEO of a company that makes medical products for women as well as with the production manager of the same company. As at Climax, these classes were on-site. I remember walking from the company headquarters to the school about a half mile away in the winter and feeling the bone-chilling cold while I carried a video projector and my computer. Even with my long-johns on I could feel the cold. To round out the week on Friday before my last large group class of the week, I would have a private lesson with the Valeks. In an earlier piece I told you about them inviting me into their home in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm where I was treated to the talents of their kids in an impromptu concert. That whole day, and evening, was very special and words don’t do the experience justice. By the way, if you are ever in Moravia you really need to visit the Wallachian Open Air Museum. It’s a full scale wooden village that authentically represents Czech life from a different era.
As I told you earlier, remembering and writing names is always a dangerous business and I apologize if you were not mentioned. Your names are written on my heart, just not on this blog. Omissions are unintentional. (I am required to say that). So with that in mind I send out the following thanks, to Jana who picked me up from the train station last August when I had no clue where I was and brought me home to meet Lance and Lukáš. It was my first venture into a Czech home…ever. Coffee and small talk (very small talk because I was drooling from the jet lag and sleep-talking) and then it was off to my flat. The duvet thing was the first serious hurdle I had to over come. I didn’t know how to stuff the thing inside the other thing. Jana was very patient with me and demonstrated. I was set for the year. She took me to the electronics store to buy a coffee maker which became my IV for a year. I was ok for now. And thanks to Lance for our moments driving back from Valmez to Vsetín on Wednesday evenings when we were both knackered. I appreciated the conversation or the comfortable silence depending on how we felt. I also appreciated our occasional Saturday morning trips to Albert’s Hypermarket with Lukáš which really did make me hyper. To Karel who unselfishly took time out of one of his busy afternoons to install a stand-up shower over my tub. I thanked Karel every time I took a shower (which was regularly in case you are keeping score). By the way, a big thank you to whoever provided instant hot water on cold cold days in the bathroom of my flat. To Blanka and Marcus for sharing adventures to strange new places and your flat for home cooked meals. Love you and your kids, although Marcus’ jokes need work. Oh yeah, and thanks for burdening me with Game of Thrones, Marcus! Now, I can’t stop watching. To Eliska for welcoming Susan and me into your home in the forest, a swim in the reservoir and a peaceful evening with great food. To Petr for our philosophical discussions while you were either putting in my incredible Czech dancing washer or putting together my furniture and wardrobe. To ReEnna and her family for an unforgettable weekend in Kutná Hora, 5+ stars on the Travel Advisor page. To Katka and Mirka for your humor and energy and for taking the time to chat with me. To Zuzka for your friendship and humor and for the experience of walking through a Wallachian forest above magical Jablůnka in the rain in the dark to be scared out of my wits around Halloween. And to my neighbors across Na Plavisku street, Lydia and Eva and the kids for (1) making friends with me and (2) making me feel at home every time I visited. And to my dear friends Hanka and Karel and Krystof for including Susan and me in your outings and luscious dinners. And to my traveling companion and colleague on a new adventure now in Spain, Susan. I really don’t think I would have gone to as many places if it wasn’t for your urgings to get up and go. Although you had the maps and stuff, remember it was me who got us on the right train going in the right direction on some of those trips. I was Lewis to your Clark (or maybe you were Sacagawea). And thanks for teaching me that when you talked to me in your Scottish accent you were actually speaking English. I should mention my former colleague and friend David, a Canadian who
did have an impact on my year in the Czech. Yes he did drop over at odd hours for coffee and yes he was a spirit in motion, but our conversations were interesting and sometimes, but not always, insightful. But as the final months wore on, he began to fall off the radar and eventually he was gone with the wind. Wherever you are David, the best of luck to you. I’m looking again at the names I have listed above and I know I have forgotten someone and the name will come to me after I publish this thing. But I did try my best.
I am home now, in the drought stricken land of California. It’s beginning to feel right again. The first few weeks I was back it felt like I never left, but as time goes on and we have a sunrise and a sunset the time in-between is settling down. I have no regrets (well I would have liked to teach the Czech kids classes baseball) and although it seemed too short, it was a long-assed year. I am grateful for Lance and Jana to have hired me (an elder citizen) in the first place and for forcing me to find out where the Czech Republic is on the map. Had Lance chosen the “other” guy instead of the “eager” guy, things would have been different…way different. So he is wise. Over the year I went through periods of loneliness of separation from my family and my best friend, my wife and I know she did to. I think I learned a bit about myself in the process of living and working in a land where English is not the main language. But I’m back and we’re off to new adventures together as the Paul and Kathy team again. Oh we probably won’t hop a train to visit castles or strange little villages with funny names, but there are baseball games and journeys to Safeway to look forward to. Oh yeah and there’s a grandchild on the way. That will be a great trip, fer shure, dude. And it’s all good I methinks.
…and so it goes…