by Klinton Smith
The last day in Prague, before Project “New Eyes” ® began, I had the opportunity to tour the concentration camp at Terezín with fellow participants Cindy, Kevin, Emily, Amanda, and Sarah. It was a sad, though worthwhile experience. As we arrived, countless rows of headstones of the victims of the camps greeted us. As we walked through the camp, we were told numerous stories of how people were tortured, shot, and treated as if they were less than human. We also heard stories of a few people who were able to escape. All the while though, I felt as though it would be nice if my family could experience this with me, rather than these five strangers who I had only known for a few days.
I remember as we left the camp, I felt as though there was a damper on our last day in Prague. We walked around Old Town Square quietly and decided some food would raise our spirits. As we entered the first restaurant that had a welcoming feel, we looked to find that we were the only customers around. The waiter greeted us and showed us to our table which was in a lower cellar down a steep spiral staircase. Amanda’s eyes could not be pried from our lucky waiter as he showed us to our table and gave us our menus. As we all ordered our first drink, it was remarked that the Czech people must be very smart to have such steep staircases to help drunkards sober up before they actually leave the cellar. It was a very enjoyable meal, and an opportunity to relax and decompress after our devastating tour of the camp. After a few drinks, Amanda noted that there was an item on menu called ‘Hot Love.’ We decided we would share it; she couldn’t really eat much more, though neither could I. We figured the next time we could get hot love in a restaurant would be a while away or possibly never. With liquid courage running through her, she caught the waiter’s attention the next time he passed by, looked him straight in the eyes and proceeded to ask, “Can I have some hot love?” To this day I’m still not sure if she was referring to the waiter or the ice cream, but the waiter proceeded to bring us a delicious bowl of warm berries surrounded by ice cream. As we left that restaurant, someone had left her email for that waiter, hoping to hear from him soon.
We walked the city, passing through old town square, looking out along the waters from Charles Bridge and stepping through a few small shops. All the while the moon had crept out, and while Cindy and Emily were tired and wanting some rest before the long journey to Sušice, the four of us decided to go out for a drink of absinthe, since it seemed to be the drink of Europe. We entered a quaint restaurant with children running around the tables giggling while their parents sat at their table telling jokes laughing. We ordered ourselves a round of the green spirit as well as a plate of onion rings. We said cheers to an enjoyable study abroad and downed our drinks. Amanda’s eyes were watering from holding it in her mouth and we all laughed.
Day of Arrival
I will never forget the journey to, much less the first day of being in Sušice. On my last night in Prague before Project “New Eyes” ® began, I had not gotten home until about midnight. I imagine I smelt rather unfriendly and looked about the same, being quite nervous about the journey ahead. We awoke the next morning early; I swear the club music from the streets below had just ended a few minutes before I awoke. Our traveling group of Cindy, Kevin, Emily and I, left the Traveller’s Hostel, en route to meet up with Amanda and Sarah.
Not 100 steps from the hostel, everyone, including Cindy, noted that Cindy had way too much baggage. Stumbling along the street and about ten steps behind us, Emily looks at me, and then back at Cindy, and in a friendly volunteering voice said, “I’m sure Klinton could carry a bag for you.” At this point I shot a look at Emily stating, “You look quite able yourself, and you should really stop volunteering others.” I quickly put on my headphones to help ignore the situation. Reluctantly, Kevin, being the only gentleman in the group, sighed took one of Cindy’s black and white bags with wheels and a rope to drag it with. Though the bag had wheels, Cindy had loaded it top heavy. An older bag that basically was long way on the bottom and top and short ways on the front and the back, it would always begin to fall as we took any sort of turn or bump along the cobblestone streets. I began to look at the black and white bag as a challenged mutt whose legs you couldn’t see because the hair was in the way of it, and thus began Kevin and I lightly kicking Cindy’s bag, degrading it by remarking that it was a very stupid dog.
We entered the metro station and were buying our tickets; Emily was about twenty feet ahead. As we rode down one of the very confusing escalators that always make you feel as though you lose your balance, Emily ran ahead to the loading area, out of sight. The next thing we hear is her screaming, “We have to go! The train is taking off!” I began to run towards the train as I notice Kevin just behind me muttering obscenities. We had barely made the train, and off we went. We approached the train station and met up with Sarah and Amanda. We were very lost, and with a dozen buses around us, Emily and Amanda went out to search for information as the rest of us guarded our luggage. As we stood around commenting about our empty stomachs, Amanda arrived with information that the ticket office was closed. Doubts started to run through each of our heads, but before that could really be concerned, Emily came running towards us, and with little breath left in her said, “I found the bus to Sušice, we gotta go right now! It leaves in one minute!” Sarah piped in, “There’s another bus in twenty minutes, we could catch that and grab some food now?” By this time Emily was once again about twenty feet away yelling back “No I wanna get there right now!” We all ran quickly to the bus, sweat beginning to come down our faces as we approached the bus. If looks could kill, about the time the driver set his eyes on us and all our luggage, Project “New Eyes” ® would have had six less participants. Disgruntled, he opened compartments under the bus where we loaded our luggage and the next thing we knew we were off to Sušice.
A Welcoming Taste of Sušice
As our bus pulled up to a station in a small town that was Sušice, we unloaded ourselves and our luggage. As I looked around my eyes could not focus past my glasses. It was pouring rain and we had little clue of where we walking. We hoped to unload our luggage and grab a bite to eat. However, forty-five minutes later of walking one way, then another, then back that way again, we were still lost. We were starting to get run-down from the lack of food and the consistent rain, and I was not afraid of showing it. After cussing out the map holder for not being able to read it, Amanda and I created positivity high-fives. They were really just high fives, but Amanda is always so cheerful and I would like to hope that that type of energy would interchange with my own.
We finally found the Sokolovna where we unloaded our stuff. We then walked the shortest distance possible to the closest restaurant around. As I stumbled through the door, there were a few men at a table drinking their beers who looked up at us as if we had come from a different planet. We gathered at a table opposite from them in the room and began to peruse the menu. A waiter came around, asking what we would like to drink. This is not to assume we had an idea what he said, more so just pure assumption. Prague had become a familiar place, where English is used almost more often than Czech. Cindy turned to the man, “Well I would like a coke, please.” The waiter stared, blinked and tapped his pencil to paper as though he was ready this time around. “A coke?” Cindy stated once more. More blinking and paper tapping proceeded as the waiter started to look as though he had confronted the first Martians. Cindy’s eyes shifted as she said once more to the man, “a coke-a-co-la?” “Cola!” the waiter nodded happily moving around the table as the rest of us ordered our colas and pivo. While the waiter went to get our drinks, Amanda and a few others began flipping through their phrase book that they had been using zealously since we arrived in the Czech Republic. They were frantically translating parts of the menu looking for what would suit their appetite.
I need to explain that I had no need to learn Czech. I had never envisioned going to the country; had my mom not insisted on showing me where it was on the globe, I would have had no idea where the country even was. When I learned that the Czechs had their own language, I smirked to myself wondering how many people knew the language, let alone even knew that they had their own language. Project “New Eyes” ® was the fastest way to get the school credit I needed, as well as giving me experience in the classroom that I was eager for. Hence, before leaving I had decided to commit myself fully to my studies and work in the classroom, and to not even bother, maybe even resist, learning Czech. Nonetheless, I was starving at this point, and grabbed Amanda’s phrasebook after she had finished her exhausting vocabulary builder. I found the word for chicken, closed the book, turned to the waiter and pointed at one of the three items on the menu that I supposed said chicken, though I could have eaten anything at that point.
You will have Eight Children in your Family
Living in the Kašperské Hory Dětský Domov was an experience that I could have never prepared for. Being an only child, I like my space, am not very good at sharing, and I really don’t play well with others. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t stand children and just end up saying awful things about them, even when they are around. Nonetheless, I did learn a bit about myself as well as how to interact with children. Kind of.
When Ms. Kučerová first drove me and Cindy Stearman from the Welcome Party at the Sokolovna in Sušice to the Dětský Domov in Kašperské Hory, I could not imagine what kind of place I would spend the next 4 weeks in. Acting like an excited puppy in the back of a car jumping from window to window watching the trees fly past the car, I was starting to wonder if I would be living in the woods on the top of the mountains. As we approached this large 4 story building, my mind raced as I could only imagine dozens, and dozens, and dozens of germ infested, loud intrusive children running from the bottom floor to the top floor all day long. As we entered the quiet building that was colorfully painted, there were well-behaved children who before I could even resist, kindly took our luggage up flights of stairs to our flats. This is an understatement of how wonderful these children were.
I will never forget my first dinner with them, though they were always the same. As I came in the room, I would be welcomed to the table. Then before I could even see what we were eating, a plate full of food would be placed in front of me. Conversation would consist of hand gestures or motions with our faces. After finishing dinner and before I could stand up, one of the children would take my plate right from me and take it to be cleaned. I felt like a special member of the family. Because of their kind, friendly interactions, this place would be my home away from home.
Teaching in the Middle of Nowhere
Living in Kašperské Hory, I’ve never felt more stranded in a world where gestures hold more meaning than words. It is though I were on another planet. If I lived on Mars and talked to Martians then talked to Czechs here, I would be unable to discern what language belonged to which race, just as much as I would not have a clue what anyone said.
There were really five places that I spent the majority of my time in Kašperské Hory. There weren’t many other places around the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere is exactly where I felt I was, and I wasn’t afraid to tell anyone that. Of course, I spent the most time in the Dětský Domov where I played with the children or worked on my homework with my music blaring through my flat. I would start my day off very early planning last minute lessons. This is not to say that I was a bad teacher, I just usually come up with things on my feet quicker.
I would then end up going to school where I would usually meet up with Sarah, and my teacher Jiřina. With Jiřina supervising, I would teach her 9th grade class, as well as co-teach her 7th grade class with Sarah. The two classes were very different atmosphere wise. My 9th grade class was two classes put together, younger smart kids, with older kids who couldn’t care less. One day I talked with Jiřina about why the kids cared so little. She remarked that, some of these children live high in the mountains away from the school. They don’t want to go to school because, well, they are kids. Unfortunately, their parents did not want them to go to school either because it was so far away, or they were needed at home to work around the house. The law requires the students to go to school, but because the parents did not want their kids to go, a child’s bad actions would never go punished.
My 7th grade class was always willing to participate, and working with Sarah was very enjoyable. It was filled with different characters. Sarah and I never bothered to learn any of their names, though many of them had their own nicknames. There was the ‘goofy kid,’ who was about 5 inches shorter than everyone else, had yet to hit puberty, and could never resist the good opportunity to imitate a fart sound during class. Then there were the ‘kitty girls,’ two girls who asked Sarah and me if we owned cats. When I replied I did not, their interest in me died instantly. Sarah let the girls know that she had a cat, and they were lit with excitement. There was also my personal favorite “Geen Simmons.” Maybe I just wasn’t listening for the name the first time around or maybe because it’s pronounced how I wrote it, but this young man was completely obsessed with the band Kiss. Each time either Sarah or I would call him to the board, he would put his hands up in the air and walk down the isle with his tongue out like Gene Simmons.
Needless to say, after all the excitement from class Sarah, Cindy and I would normally end up at the local pizzeria which was called… the pizzeria, I think. Either way, they had the most delicious Hawaiian pizza one could ever imagine. We always had the same waitress who was tolerant of us from the beginning, and became friendlier each time we returned. On the rare occasions that we had extra room in our stomachs, Sarah and I would venture a few steps down the street to the local ice cream shop. The ice cream was cheap, plentiful, delicious, and cheap. We always got sundaes. The ice cream would be covered with fresh bananas and mine with hot chocolate syrup, a recipe to fix any cloudy day.
Finally, there was Kašperské Hory’s reliable supermarket, labeled COOP TUTY. After a majority vote, because of my constant campaigning, it was pronounced the coop tooty. Mara felt as though it was pronounced otherwise, but everyone else was reassured that it was the tooty. This place had some wonderful sausages, delicious cheese, and just about everything else one could expect it to have, though those were the only two things I bothered to buy there. I only bothered with the necessities.
Lockouts, Police and the Last of Absinthe Thursdays
Each Thursday of the program, all of Project “New Eyes” ® would locate itself at Sušice city hall for classes, and at night Restaurant Kanon for a delicious dinner and a movie night that would never really catch on. On the first Thursday, there were a lot of things up in the air. Anyone with the program was always welcome, and about forty people came, which is clearly more business than this restaurant ever had at one time because they ran out of food. The dinner was running late that night, and I feared Cindy and I would have to leave early because of the bus schedule. Sarah let me and Cindy know that we were more than welcome to get a ride with her back to Kašperské Hory. When her family arrived at the restaurant and realized there was no more food, they went in search of food elsewhere while everyone else watched the movie. Once they returned, around 10 o’clock, they drove Cindy and I back to the Dětský Domov in Kašperské Hory. As Cindy and I pulled to open the door of the building, it stayed firm. With Cindy more than a little tipsy, she turned to me, “Don’t say we’re locked out, well we’ll just stay at the Best western across the street.” As we scurried across town, that being about 100 steps, we realized that the best western had closed by ten o’clock as well. “Well, I’m going to go get the police then, someone has to help us,” Cindy said dejectedly. Waiting outside of the police office, after about 5 minutes of Cindy likely trying to communicate with the police officer, Cindy and an officer stepped outside and we made our approach back to the Dětský Domov. The Police officer knocked furiously on the door, waiting for someone to answer. As no one came to the door, he pulled his cell phone out, looked on the side of the building where there was a sign with the phone number listed and began calling the Dětský Domov. He began talking quickly in Czech into the phone, and after about another five minutes, someone came and let us inside. I have never been more embarrassed.
A week later, I noticed that we were just about half way through this program. I had been doing very well with my classes, and very well in resisting learning Czech, something I just had no use for. Just the night before I had done better than expected on my first teaching observation, there was a need for celebration today. It seemed as though Steve’s and Heather’s classes were twice as long as they were the week before. Even though they were informative and enjoyable classes, I had spent enough time with pencil in hand and head in the classroom. Five o’clock finally came, and as we were finishing our classes, Rai walked with me, Kevin, Emily, and Will to the beer garden where we would meet with Martin to get the keys to the cabins at which we would be staying the night. Kevin suggested that we get a beer and I quickly reminded him that it was Absinthe Thursday.
Rai’s eyebrows rose as we walked past her with little grins on my, Kevin and Will’s face with a shot of absinthe in one hand and a delicious beer in the other. Kevin’s eyes watered as we finished the shot and begin to talk freely amongst ourselves waiting for Martin. After taking care of business, we all walked to Restaurant Kanon. Once there, our glasses were filled again and I enjoyed a delicious plate of fried cheese and krokety, or French fries that are shaped like balls, I think. It always took a while to get everyone served at the restaurant, and as day fell into night, and our stomachs full of delicious food and alcohol, A few of us decided that the night was young that we should take our enjoyment to a relaxing club called Kloub.
I feel at this point at this point, I should put a disclaimer on what may have happened that night, not because anything was inappropriate, but more so because everyone may have fuzzy memories, and conflicting recollections. As we gathered around the table, the guys all ordered a beer and absinthe and began our night. As we all downed our absinthes I notice that there is a half glass of green still in front of Kevin as he is looking down with a flushed face.
He looked disgraced as he mutters, “I just can’t.” I stared at him bewildered, “Well you can’t just waste it!” He slid it towards me and I did the night justice as I gulped down the rest. As the music got more enjoyable, and the conversation got more slurred, Heather, our writing teacher joined us. Before she could sit down I ordered her healthy shot of vodka and for me another absinth. It was a moment where teacher and student could sit at the same table as friends and enjoy each other’s company. I’m sure we toasted to something memorable as we smiled and drank up.
As the night ended and the drinks had been consumed, it was time to leave, but as I stood up I quickly realized that I may have had more than I first thought. As we walked along to river back to the cabins in the pitch black of night, I held closely to Emily in hopes of not falling into the river, while Kevin was forced to escort Will’s zigzagging body. I don’t remember the rest of the night. I’ve been told I locked myself out at one point, as well as I woke up to find myself in a disgusting mess. That morning, I had my opportunity to say for the first time, “I’ll never drink again.”
The end of a Program and the Beginning of a Something Special
With Absinthe Thursday’s behind me, time began to fly past as I grew more accustomed to my settings, spending more time with my children at the Dětský Domov, spending more time working out lesson plans for observations with Rai, and for the first time beginning to feel as though I could call this place home. Of course this feeling never really settled in until the last week. On the last day of the program, at the closing party, I met an amazing friend, Lucie Halasova. From that party we spend almost every waking moment together for the next two days. It was a very special friendship that feels like a dream now. Every moment was so enjoyable with her, but alas, it only was for my last 3 days Susice. With both our lives moving in different directions, I wonder if we will ever see each other again. Regardless, it did not change the fact that on my last day in the Czech Republic, I went to a bookstore and made a large purchase of Czech Language books. Perhaps there is a reason to learn this language.