by D. Sam Matyjasik
Hansel and Gretel
I worked at Lercova, the “Blue School”, with Mirka. Lercova is a primary school, equivalent to our elementary school. Mirka is a very fun teacher who uses music to help teach a second language. She is quite a delight to be around. I taught with her primarily in her 4A and 5A classes and occasionally worked with her 3A class. The kids were so enthusiastic to meet me, a native English speaker.
I liked the look of her classroom, with long tables going around the edge of the classroom forming a “U” shape. I liked this because it kept the middle of the classroom free for the teacher to utilize the open space. Her room had windows on the east side of the building so whenever I was teaching in the mornings, the sun was lighting up the room. The children were frequently smiling at me as I taught in this classroom. I’m grateful for this experience because the faces of the smiling children are an everlasting memory of sunshine for myself.
From the first day of teaching to the last day, the children would laugh at me for usually unknown reasons. They were so cute, covering their mouths to try and hide their laughter. I think they were laughing at me, not with me. Oh, well, I thought, I can get them to laugh along with me. It was funny because I would just describe mundane things about myself to the class and the kids would laugh out loud. They were easily amused, unlike adults. I reckon they probably laughed at me so much because of the novelty of the situation—a male native English speaker in their classroom giving EFL (English as a Foreign Language) lessons. And to add to this, I am a bit wacky compared to the norm and have been called weird, strange and more or less kooky frequently throughout my life. (The qualifications for normal are hastily overlooked here for the pulchritude of this piece.) Luckily, I am easily amused so I adored the children and their frequent outbursts of laughter.
When I caught on that the kids would laugh no matter what, I started to consciously add humor to the lesson. For example, one lesson was on the present tense. One female student was asked if she plays with dolls. She said, “Yes, I play with dolls.” Then Mirka asked me if I play with dolls. I seized the moment and said contrarily to expectation that “yes, I play with dolls!” The children burst into a roaring laughter. I believe putting some personality alongside teaching evokes an emotional response to assist learning retention. I feel the students picked up on this humor and personality, especially Markéta and Zuzana. These two girls ran up and said hi to me in the square during the Days of Sušice. Little gestures like this enabled me to feel part of the community and a bigger picture.
One day we were practicing the present continuous tense. Markéta and Zuzana were acting out a play. The goal was for the class to guess the play’s name. They also were to say aloud the present tense, continuous actions in the play. Zuzana was crawling around the classroom. I couldn’t understand what she was doing until she started barking. Then she crawled around more and lifted her leg like a dog to pee and made a pee sound effect “SSSSS!” This was hysterical to me. I couldn’t stop laughing and neither could the class. I was impressed with her ingenuity. We all guessed the name of the skit, “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Returning to the English lesson, we all took turns saying actions the girls had performed during the skit. Markéta and Zuzana went from one action to multiple actions to acting out a play. I was proud of their initiative.
The girls inquired when I would be teaching next because they wanted to act out another play and have me guess the name. The next class the girls went into the back room and put on make up. Zuzana put make up on that made her look like a cat. Another student put on a wig to look like a witch. Markéta put on make-up to rosy up her cheeks and put on a white g-string over her clothes. This was quite comical. Markéta and Zuzana acted out the play “Hansel and Gretel”. After I found out the play was “Hansel and Gretel,” I wondered what the “white thong” had to do with anything. Was it a play for attention or creativity? But the bell rang and the students had to leave. Since then I have returned from Sušice, but the mystery still remains. I think it was a case of kids being kids—being silly for the sake of being silly.
Sheep are like people and people are like sheep
I am fond of reading funny newspapers. I brought a few of my funny newspapers (“The Onion” & “The World Weekly News”) to use as teaching material. I used pictures from an article in the “The World Weekly News” in which sheep were depicted anthropomorphically and humans were on all fours crawling around like sheep. There were many amusing pictures of sheep dressed like farmers, jumping rope, driving motorcycles. The children were laughing at the pictures. I had the children cut out pictures of the sheep to glue to our giant paper for a collaborative project using the “present continuous (progressive) tense.” They also had the choice to draw sheep on the giant white poster board.
Mirka placed the giant piece of paper on the floor in the middle of the classroom. The children all sat around and placed their picture where they wanted glue it. The students could work individually or in pairs. Their objective was to use the “present continuous tense” by writing a sentence below their picture. If students worked in pairs, then they needed to write two sentences. Or if they finished quickly, they could write more sentences. When we were finished we read aloud.
The students were so proud to share and to read their work aloud to the group! There were about 15 pictures covering the big white poster board. The students laughed and giggled as they read their sentences. One student, Honza, drew a picture of a sheep riding a bicycle. He read the sentence “this sheep is riding a bicycle.” Another student had a picture of a sheep smiling and creatively wrote, “My sheep is brushing her teeth.”
In every group there is a joker. Mirka’s class joker, David, had a picture of some sheep drinking beer. He wrote the sentence “This sheep likes drinking beer.” Mirka laughed and said “children will be children.” The whole assignment was a hoot! The students loved using their imaginations and creativity to express themselves and their work in English. I felt honored and dignified to have an activity go so well with the students. I vividly remember their big cheeky smiles of amusement from the assignment in English.
Life is worse than fiction. Fiction should be more bizarre and terrible compared to real life. Tragically, it was not for women who walked on a Death March from Terezín. I hadn’t heard of the Death Marches until I traveled to Hartmanice, CZ, where twelve women died after spending the night in a barn. Most of my knowledge of the Holocaust has come from films like “Schindler’s List” and “A Beautiful Life”. Personally, movies are more detached for me because I have watched lots of movies and tend to be objective about the content.
The Museum of Czech, Jewish and German Co-existence in the Mountain Synagogue in Hartmanice was experiential because I felt closer to history. I wasn’t learning about history in a textbook or seeing it depicted on a screen. I was in the land, the location that the history books refer to. I felt closer to the suffering of humanity in the presence of where the suffering took place.
The Synagogue had a cold feeling. I was surprised at this because I expected there would be a warm feeling since the Synagogue had been renovated in 2003. I saw pictures and heard stories about Jews and Germans before and after the Holocaust, about the resettlement of the Germans after the war and the disgust Czechs felt living under communism. Being a prisoner in a concentration camp or living under communism is a fight for life and survival I can’t even imagine. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived the concentration camps, wrote that hope was one of the most powerful emotions that helped keep people alive. I don’t know how I could have remained hopeful in those terrible circumstances—torture, humiliation and genocide—that Czechs, Jews, and Germans suffered during World War II and its aftermath.
In Hartmanice, 12 Jewish women on a death march had spent the night in a barn on a local farm. They died and are buried in the cemetery at the end of town. Some of our group walked from the Synagogue to the farm. Walking to the farm was eerie. Along the walk were green pastures and a comfortable temperature. Consciously, I could view the country houses and my friends I was walking with. Yet my subconscious mind knew about the atrocities and looked at the surroundings as if through a thin curtain, not revealing all nor hiding everything. I perceived that how strange that this was a regular barn and farm life, cows mooing and the sun setting in the distance. Yet behind the Šumava summer day was a cold, grotesque history. We arrived at the location where 12 women stayed for the night on their death march. I was curious to approach what I believed was the barn the women stayed in. I looked into the barn where there were deep hoof prints all over the ground. I thought this would have been a terrible place to try and sleep during winter. How scary it must have felt to know that you could be killed anytime, or that your body might give out anytime. How could one endure, live and last?
I recalled accounts of the Death March in the Synagogue museum and how the women were unmercifully treated in hopes that they would die sooner rather than later. I was shocked to learn that a woman with epilepsy was murdered because she was having a seizure. I thought how awful to be corralled, whipped and treated as an animal. There was the chilly feeling inside me despite the summer air fooling my senses.
What does this experience mean? I can’t do anything about what happened, I can only learn about it? I am not a great problem solver but I thought I could learn from the quiet feelings and sentiments I have had from this experience. A feeling is so close to the root of experience that I hope to remember not only the facts of the death march but also those eerie, immutable sensations that silently slip into our hearts when we learn of the unspeakable.
I feel moved that I must love those around me and stay in contact with old friends. I feel compelled to do what I can with my small corner of the world and to reach out to the strangest human I don’t know. I hope to understand awful feelings before I and/or humanity become numb to feelings. I believe if we grow numb throughout the years that life would become more meaningless. If this happens then it is true what one of the few women to survive the Nazi death marches, Eva Ehrbenova, said, “Death is the only freedom.”
No Story is Complete without Romance
The Otava River runs through the center of Sušice. The Czechs recreate in and around the river: swimming, sunbathing, riding bikes, walking alongside, quietly sitting, or conversing with friends. The river is the aorta of this city, bringing life, love and vitality to the town.
Where is my heart? Does it still work? A heart rhythmically contracts and dilates pumping life, lust, and love through the carcass. Yet for most of my life, I’ve avoided the heart, i.e. the love that flows and dances as it circulates.
One night I sat by the Otava River in contemplation. The river was calm and very conducive to reflection. I thought about the river metaphorically, both the river outside and the river of blood inside myself. I thought how I have been sitting by the river (of life) a long time alone. Not a long time in minutes, hours and days. But psychological time, which appears to be the heart of time. Where hours seem like minutes and seconds seem like minutes, and moments like lifetimes. To be in love is to experience psychological time at its best.
For a long time I put off love, and instead sought enlightenment. At least in my own particular idiom. I’ve sat by the river like Siddhartha looking and waiting for enlightenment. Yet enlightenment is like an electrical storm in the desert, with lots of lightning, thunder and bravado, and not a lot of moisture, life and revivification. A big cloudy, stormy potential of experience, but with little experience yielded, except for an encore of the empty desert. If emptiness and aloneness is the answer. No, love must be the answer.
I wish to love my life. To be the hero in my movie. Maybe my movie is allegorical. I thought, let my heart laugh and follow where it wherever it goes. Next to the river is a coffee shop called Café L’amour. I thought this is a crazy trip. Why not see if it can get a little more crazier. Just like Seal sang, “We’re never going to survive unless we get a little bit CRAZY.”
I went into Café L’amour and wryly ordered a cup of coffee. The lady didn’t understand English and called for a girl from the back. The girl came out, easily took my order and began conversing with me in English at the table.
Her name is Terezca. She studied English in secondary school and at Charles University in Prague. She didn’t believe her English was that good, but I thought it was great. She is great. I was on the edge of my seat and excited to meet her. She has short brown hair with an orange splash on the left side of her bangs. She has a svelte figure with a surprisingly nice brown tan. My favorite feature—her beautiful green Czech eyes.
When I held her emerald green gaze, my intellect was lulled to sleep. I thought God must have thrown those starlets into her eyes so I could see the wonder and beauty of the stars at all times. My mind forgets the details of some of our conversations. But my heart vividly remembers the impressions of Terezca: smiles, giggles and that silence in between words and above words, where there is mostly eye contact. Direct eye contact. We quickly became friends, and were “on the go.”
Terezca, like most Czech youth, seemed westernized, liberal and untraditional. She had an iPhone and was very proud of it. Because they were not sold in the Czech Republic. Luckily she had an old cell phone that I could use. She got me a Sim card and got the phone working for me. I felt special. She loved to use text message to communicate. And it was cheaper than talking. I love the Czech language with all the beautiful markings it adds. But unfortunately I don’t understand or speak Czech. So I switched to texting in English.
We flirted, texted, and hung out often. She took me on a beautiful bike ride along the river. It was timeless biking along the trail of the river with the lush green trees providing a cooling shade. We stopped at a little restaurant to have a drink in a conversation. She was hesitant to drink, and I found out why.
She told me that her drunken alcoholic father abuses her mom. He gets drunk and often becomes violent and starts beating her mom and she has to step in to stop it. And sometimes she gets hit. I assumed that this happened a long time ago, and that her parents were probably divorced. But I was dead wrong. She disclosed to me that this not only happened in the distant past but also in the recent past. I asked her the last time her father physically abused her or her mother and she said about a year ago. I asked her, how come her parents didn’t get a divorce, and she said that her mom wanted to survive the abuse for the best interest of the family. I asked Terezca, if she would get divorced, if her husband began to physically abuse her and she said yes.
I queried how come you don’t call the police. She said because the police come and if nothing is happening in the moment they can’t do anything or don’t do anything. This disgusted me, because a few days earlier I had stepped on the grass in the town square, and people admonished me not to step on the grass, because I could get in trouble with the police. This altered my perception of the Czechs, because generally underneath the surface, Czechs are a bright, warm and thoughtful people. There is a dark side of alcohol and or alcoholism. And I can understand why she wouldn’t want to drink, and why she would blame alcohol for much pain, suffering, strife and tears.
One night she was texting me late and worried that her dad, who had just arrived home drunk was going to beat her mom again. I didn’t know quite what to do or text. I felt helpless and told her to text me or call me and tell me what to do. She just asked that I stay up with her. Luckily, nothing bad happened. I believe she has likely had many long horrific nights in her lifetime that few people know about.
I am still feeling disbelief and denial about her domestic abuse. I think to myself that the Czechs are cool people; this doesn’t happen or couldn’t have been. This kind of thinking is probably what helps perpetuate violence and abuse. My dad was emotionally and verbally abusive in my childhood. To this day, I am not quite sure how to reconcile the relationship with my father. As a child, I could only feel what was happening in our family and believed that what I was experiencing was normal.
One of the reasons I have avoided falling in love is because my worst fear is to repeat the emotional abuse and terror of my childhood on my own innocent family! To speculate, how could I have a relationship with her father if we hooked up? How the hell would the “meet the parents” go? “Mr. Physically Abusive Monster, meet my father, the more evolved Mr. Verbally and Emotionally Abusive Cyclops.”
I feel pessimistic about my future as a father. Our masculine virtues that have been handed down dictate to us to be independent, territorial and to dominate. From this frame of mind, it seems we males are supposed to kill ourselves figuratively, so we can live a domestic enslaved life. Unfortunately, we males are too competitive and have learned that we will never be the hero mom is and our only choices are between apathy, being a Bill Cosby Dad or turning into a brutish caveman. To analogize, Mother’s Day is like the Christmas holiday, filled with joy and generosity. Father’s Day is like Columbus Day, an acknowledgment of planting a flag, but a dark degenerate history that people feel uncomfortable about when you dig it up. God help us domestic dads.
Most of my relationship with Terezca was fun and flirtatious. However, there was something subtle missing in our relationship like the last note of a blues scale. Something got lost in the cross-cultural communication. There was something different about the courtship. Moreover, besides the cross-cultural thing, there was the big town/little town thing. We had often told each other that we liked one another and so I prepared myself to take the relationship to the next level, that is, the first kiss.
She hadn’t really given me an opening for a kiss in the time we had spent in Sušice, which I didn’t understand. We planned a trip to Prague together, and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to put the moves on. As we toured around Prague, I grabbed for her hand and yes, she let me hold it. I thought this was a good sign, an omen for good things to come. Later at a park bench I tried to kiss her, but she declined. I told her I was confused and didn’t understand. She told me that a month earlier, she had gotten out of a relationship. I now understood, but wasn’t pleased. I was bummed and moped around for the rest of the night. I learned that our cultures are quite different. The Czechs often travel with one another just as friends. I am accustomed to our US American culture where we have different connotations of traveling together and gestures and speeds of relationships. For example, if I traveled with a girl to Las Vegas, Nevada, it would mean more than “just friends”. I would expect a different kind of relationship and/or outcome.
The next day I woke up refreshed and in a better state of mind. I was able to reconcile myself with the disappointment and resolved that whatever relationship she’s comfortable with is okay and I wouldn’t force anything upon her. The next two weeks, we still hung out. But we didn’t hang out as voraciously as we had. Project “New Eyes” ® came to a close and it was time to say goodbye.
Terezca took me for a walk in the Šumava National Forest. It was very pretty and serene. At one point, we stopped on a bridge, and she pulled out a little box. I opened it up and “Luck be a Lady” – it was a heart shaped earring that was broken in two pieces. This symbol of the heart broken in two, combined with the gesture that she would get one half and I would get the other half seemed an unmistakable token of attraction and affection. A moment of wonder came over me—is she an evil genius, and I the worst reader of body language of all time? Quickly she dispelled all disbelief and suspended doubt, and gave me a beautiful kiss on the bridge. I was very happy for this moment. I felt that I had gotten a taste of that love that I had ludicrously sought out when I read the sign “Café L’amour.”
Life is over when the music is dead
We had our celebration for all the Project “New Eyes” ® participants today. Unfortunately, while I was attending the farewell celebration, some anonymous person broke Zdenka’s acoustic guitar, that I lent to Erin for the performance. I was in shock and disbelief when I discovered the broken guitar. It was snapped in half from the neck away from the music board.
Nobody would claim or exclaim anything about the broken guitar I walked around with. I felt ashamed and helpless until my friends helped out. I was very proud of my colleagues and friends, who quickly came up with some money to donate to buy a new guitar. I still feared my host mother, Zdenka’s reaction.
She was out of town for our Project “New Eyes” ® farewell celebration on a trip Bonn to see if she could be a participant on a TV quiz show, sort of like our Jeopardy. I was quite disappointed to tell her about the broken guitar. I’d had a rapport with Zdenka for the whole trip. Unbeknownst to me, she had seen the guitar in my room before I got to tell her about it. She was furious. It was almost like she had a hard time putting into words, her hurt, disappointment and anger. I felt devastated and blue. My worst fears were coming true. I also was frustrated because the responsibility wasn’t totally mine and I couldn’t quite communicate this to her in the heat of the moment. My host father, Franta, and host brother, Honza (Johnny), had disappointed looks on their faces. I felt like a failure, and that my PNE mission was a disaster. And maybe more importantly, that I’d lost the accord and harmony of our cross-cultural communication.
I offered her the money I had collected, but it almost seemed more of an insult than a remedy. I went to my room, frustrated. I didn’t know what to do. The timing of this incident was awful, because it was right at the end of the trip when my intentions were to celebrate, exchange gifts and have some merriment before my final departure. In my lackluster interpretation, the guitar became a symbol that I had broken some sacred trust or vow. I broke down and began to cry. I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief about the idea that I was a slouch, a letdown and unworthy. I cried to Zdenka to try and communicate again after a break. I didn’t know what her reaction would be because she was so upset a few moments earlier. I squeezed out a few words about how the time being here memorable, meaningful and heartfelt, and the incident was not what I intended and that I was sorry. I probably mumbled some other inarticulate words. She put her finger gently over my lips and made the sound shhh. This was a very friendly and forgiving gesture. She said, “no worry or cry, Sam. It is only a guitar.”
I wish I could have avoided the whole experience and accident. But that wouldn’t be life, because life isn’t perfect. This was the low point of my trip, a catastrophe one couldn’t plan any better. A perfect monkey wrench to throw into the program. But the broken guitar experience was quite humbling and meaningful in the sense that my host mother and I were able to drop the masks that we all routinely wear in life and relationships and just be what we were for the moment.
Decompression, Conclusions and Paradigm Shifts
The PNE trip was over and I was simply trying to select some music from the same old iPod I’ve had for the whole trip when a reverie struck me. A black rabbit hole of personal inquiry.
What music do I identify with now? What message do I identify with? Should I create my own lyrics? Every choice I make says something about myself. Is there any escape? Which enclave or American culture do I want to belong to? Hip Hop? Country? Jazz? Symphony? Alternative? Indie? Pop? Reggae? What group? What clique? What biases are assigned to me? Which ones am I choosing? What ideals? Where should I work? Do I like my job? What institution should I join? What organization? What goals to choose? What philosophy? A new philosophy? Am I democrat or republican? Neither? Can I jump back into the old lifestyle I had? What do I want…
All these questions and many more were clearing my mind. I liked that I didn’t have to answer them, I just thought about them. I let the anchor on the question line go as deep as it could so I could know where the bottom is. It just felt so cathartic to ask so many questions, because before the trip I had beliefs and conclusions. I had no need, reason or inspiration to doubt or question them. With all that I experienced in the Czech Republic, I had a new way to see the world. I looked at old settled beliefs with new eyes. I felt like I used Descartes’ method of query that if something can be doubted, then consider it false. Most of my inquiries seemed as if there would be obvious solutions to a passerby on the street. Yet most passersby don’t stop to think. We just go on living as if today were yesterday.
Do I wish to resume my role in the zombie nation? I can look at facts to assist my conclusions and beliefs but nothing can be proven. I must personally decide. I arrived on May 9, 2008 in the Czech Republic. I stayed with the Jileks. I taught English at the Lercova primary school and the Komensky secondary school. I also taught English to pre-intermediate and intermediate adults and teenagers with Erin Haley. I went to teacher workshops. I was a waiter for a night at Svejk. I ate klobasa, watched fireworks and went to the Days of Sušice. I watched the movie “Once” with Czech students. I taught basketball to some Czech students. I earned credits for linguistics, practicum and cross-cultural communication classes. I danced a slow dance and I kissed a Czech.
There were many first time experiences: The first time I went to Europe. The first time I lived in another place besides Utah. The first time I taught English to kids or adults in the classroom. The first time making long distance call back to the US. The first time staying the weekend at a cottage where heating the water came by the means of burning wood. The first time hearing the Czech language. The first time reading a Czech menu. The first time learning about the Czechs. The first time experiencing being an outsider, a minority in another culture. It wasn’t that all these experiences were simply novel, they were meaningful also.
During the weekdays in the Czech Republic we would meet at eight o’clock in the town square, then go out to eat and socialize. I got to meet and know many people. This opportunity allowed me to learn more about the culture and to teach more English to the Czech citizens. I believe I spoke more English in the month I was in this Czech Republic than I have ever spoken in any other month of my entire life. I used English to talk to my host mother, to my student friends, to my friends from the University of Utah, to Czech teachers. Almost every minute of the waking day was an opportunity to talk in English. Talking gave way to questions and answers and explanations in English. I spoke so much and often that I thought I was going to lose my voice. But thankfully I didn’t.
I believe my capacity to categorize and remember experiences and events in the Czech Republic became overwhelmed. (Because the trip was so intense, but in a positive way. It was eustressfull!) Just as when learning a second language, there is only so much capacity for short-term memory comprehension, recognition and recall. I believe that I experienced so much in the Czech Republic that experiences, memories, and recollections were being pushed out of my consciousness. Maybe if I would have slept more hours in the Czech Republic, the memories would have been better encoded and solidified to my long-term memory.
Comprehensible input is essential when learning a second language. The experiences I had in the Czech Republic were out of this world for me—I didn’t have the neural network to comprehend and categorize these experiences. These new circular experiences didn’t fit into my old square peg places for experiences to be stored. I believe my frontal lobe had to grow and mutate to accommodate these new perceptions and experiences.
Now I am back down to Earth, and I am trying to make sense of my experience of being Czeched out. I believe my spaceship crashed in the Czech Republic. I was ET in the Czech Republic, except I wasn’t feared, distanced or quarantined. I was enchanted, embraced and loved by the Czechs. The Czechs treated me as a deity of the English language, like I had the authority to pronounce correctness and incorrectness because I was a native speaker. I was the vicar of English, but I didn’t pontificate, and I didn’t use my English expertise to kid excessively or condescend. Our Czech hosts treated me with respect and this inspired me to reciprocate this attitude and disposition back to the Czechs.
I believe I matured more and grew younger because of the trip and its mission. I believe I’m not so set in my ways and the Czech experience was just what I needed to make my life more livable. I believe the Czechs take the good with the bad. I believe the Czechs socialize as much as Americans watch TV.
I believe I socialized with the Czechs so much that I felt part of their lives. Being part of and involved in the Czechs’ personal lives and growth healed the black holes of my green heart chakra. I believe when your heart and personality are affected by an experience you have been touched at your core and are transformed!
I believe The Czech experience added the primary colors I yearned for my experience of life. I now see the world through a Kaleidoscope of colors. No longer only black and white and two dimensional. I believe that “when the student is ready the teacher will come.” I was the student and the Czech experience was my teacher. Previously, the only place I felt part of a community, culture or bigger picture was either at church or when I was high or drunk. In Sušice, I felt part of a community and a bigger picture without being in church. I believe while conversing in English and sharing culture and experiences we were in “church,” that is, a sacred place.