by Emily Primrose
“Why on earth would you want to go to the Czech Republic?” “Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere cool like London or Japan?” “What is there in the Czech Republic?” “It’s a former communist country right? Is it safe?” “Are you really sure about doing this?” These were some of the questions that people asked me when I first decided that I wanted to participate with the University of Utah’s study abroad Project “New Eyes” ® (PNE). To be honest, I didn’t really know why I wanted to go to the Czech Republic. The fact that the program was in the Czech Republic meant nothing to me at the time; it was the program that I wanted, not the location. All I knew was that I wanted to do a study abroad and PNE would let me earn multiple credits towards my Teaching English as a Second Language certificate, and I would get some teaching experience abroad by teaching English in a Czech classroom. I knew that it was time for a change—life in Salt Lake had become too predictable. Every day was more or less the same: wake up far too early, quickly grab a granola bar and dash down to class hoping to make it on time, run to work the minute class finished, come home, grab a quick dinner and study until I could let myself go to bed, wake up and do it all over again. I’d settled into my routine and was letting myself coast through classes. My life was stagnating. I needed to get away to reinvigorate me with the desire to learn and grow. I needed some time to escape from the familiar and experience the unknown.
I quickly convinced my parents that this was something I needed to do and they agreed to help me get there. I started planning my journey—something that I’m very good at. I got in contact with my Danish friend, Helle, to see if it was possible for us to meet up. I figured that as long as I was in Europe, I should use the time to visit a friend that I hadn’t seen in several years. I started researching Prague and seeing what I could find about Sušice, the town PNE is based in. It was incredibly distracting for my school work to have all this research piled on top of me, but I was excited to sift through my new information, to find out more about what I’d thrown myself into. The more I read about the Czech Republic and the more I e-mailed my host family, Roman and Helena Makrlik, the more I knew that I’d made the right decision in committing myself to PNE. Yet, I was working with some big ideas and expectations in mind. After reading the essays of the students who went to Sušice in 2008, a part of me wanted to find love in the Czech Republic. I wanted to leave the Czech Republic having had some grand revelation about my life and who I am. This did not happen. At least, it didn’t happen in the way I anticipated.
In all the time that I was preparing to leave for Sušice, I never felt scared the way it seemed some people were. I did have times where I was worried about what my host family would be like, but I kept in mind that it would only be for a few weeks, and I would have gotten to see Helle. I faithfully read about Prague and the Czech Republic from some books I picked up and was given the Culture Smart book from Steve, the director of PNE. One thing that made me slightly nervous was that the books said Czechs were very reserved closed off people, some to the point of being rude. According to these books, customer service in the Czech Republic left something to be desired.
One of my first evenings with the Makrliks, Roman told me how Czechs are very reserved people and slow to join others for parties and other types of events. Even at that early time with the program, I was shocked to hear this because reserved Czechs weren’t at all what I experienced. Perhaps I just met the friendliest Czechs and managed to avoid all the reserved people, or perhaps it’s just the nature of PNE, but not once did I feel like Czechs were reserved. Everyone I met seemed very excited about getting to know new people and participating with PNE.
I do believe that PNE is one reason that people in Sušice were so friendly, but I also experienced Czechs in other cities that were incredibly helpful. In Prague my first day, Klinton and I were completely lost trying to find our hostel, and as we stood on a corner trying to figure out the map, a nicely dressed gentleman came up and asked us if he could help us find our destination. His English wasn’t the greatest, but he managed to point us in the right direction, and he even managed to ask us how we liked President Obama. He smiled, gave us thumbs up and said “No more Bush…”
Getting to Sušice was an adventure. On the rainy Saturday we left, I met up with Klinton, Sarah, Amanda, Cindy, and Kevin so we could figure out how to get to Sušice. Together we braved the rain and ran all over the metro station dragging Cindy’s terrible suitcase over the cobblestone roads trying to find the right bus to get us to Sušice on time. We finally just started asking bus drivers if they knew which bus went to Sušice. We found the right bus when some girl translated to the bus driver for us. The bus driver waited patiently for us while we dragged all the luggage over, and once we were en route for Sušice, he printed us a schedule of all the stops and explained to us which one we needed to get off on. It was an adventure that could have completely ruined us if not for the incredibly nice people that helped us.
Once I met my host family, they immediately welcomed me into their home and lives. After leaving the opening ceremony at the Sokolovna, we went and visited Helena’s Granny. Even though she didn’t speak any English, she still welcomed me into her home, sat me down, put a tray of kolač, delicious Czech pastries, down in front of me and told me to eat. After one piece, she kept telling me to eat more and more. One thing I learned very quickly was that Czechs don’t like to take ‘no thank you’ as an answer, especially when it comes to food. They will put a giant plate of food in front of you, and if you manage to get through that plate, a second one quickly follows.
Another person that quickly dashed my preconceptions of reserved Czechs was Radka Zelena, my host teacher. I had been nervous about what it was going to be like working with a Czech teacher because I didn’t know what the interaction between Czech teachers and students would be like, and I didn’t want to make a huge social faux pas, giving myself and other American teachers a bad name. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Radka was so friendly when I met her, all my nervousness about being in a Czech elementary school vanished. I was terribly pleased to find out that Radka spoke English fluently; there were only a few times when she would lose a word and together we’d work to find it.
One night towards the end of PNE, Amanda and I walked up to Radka’s house where I was spending the night so that Amanda could call her host mom, Martina, at the hospital where she was working an all night shift. I assumed that Radka would be alright with letting Amanda come up while we waited even though it was getting later in the evening. I assumed this mostly because Radka had already chewed me out a few nights earlier when we were trying to figure out where the group of students who stay in Sušice on Thursday nights was going to sleep. She shook her finger at me and said, “How come you didn’t tell me that you needed a place to stay? You can come stay at our place. I can’t read your mind, so you need to ask when you need something.” Having been properly chastised, I asked her if I could stay, and I learned that the Czechs I met would do anything for me if I needed; I just had to ask them.
So Amanda and I walked up to her house, and were immediately offered coffee and tea. When Amanda got a hold of Martina and was leaving to meet her at the hospital, Radka insisted on walking us down and she directed us easily through the hospital to the correct department. That night Radka met Martina for the first time and Markéta (Amanda’s weekend host mom) for the second, and the three of them immediately hit it off. They were all talking in Czech while Amanda and I just sat there and picked out a few words of their conversation about PNE and men and kids and many other things. Our quick walk down to drop off Amanda had turned into an hour-long visit of friends chatting. Had I not known that they hadn’t met before, I would have believed that they’d known each other for years. To me, this is not people being reserved or closed off. This immediate comfortableness was the norm for my experience, not the exception like I was afraid it was going to be after reading those books.
Teaching English is a large portion of PNE; Monday through Wednesday were the days we needed to be in a classroom working with a teacher teaching English. Because I didn’t know a lot about the way PNE would work once we arrived in Sušice, I was apprehensive about how I would be placed into a school—it’s hard enough here in the States where I speak the language, I couldn’t even imagine how it would be trying to figure things out when I had no clue what was going on. Fortunately enough for me, Roman and Helena had gotten in contact with Radka, and had already arranged my placement at the local elementary school months before I’d arrived in Sušice. I was very relieved to know that I had a place and I didn’t have to worry about trying to find a placement on my own. My first morning to observe in the classrooms, Helena made me breakfast and walked me to school. I got to spend the first hour in the kindergarten with Matyáš before Helena came and picked me up and took me over to the primary school to meet Radka and my students.
Our first class of the morning was the third grade. Radka had me introduce myself and tell a little bit about where I came from – my first test at working with these kids. One thing the kids loved was when I said, “I am here to help teach you English, and you can help teach me Czech.” They all perked up and after that they would come and bombard me with Czech words to learn. During the breaks between classes, the kids would approach me and ask me questions. Whenever we didn’t know the words, they would draw a picture or grab the object. Sometimes I would just have to smile and nod if I couldn’t decipher the picture, and I think sometimes they would do the same to me. One of my easiest communication moments was with one of my first graders, Kuba, who loved dinosaurs. He would hold his fingers pointed off his head and charge me saying “Triceratops!” I would bend my arms and chase him back growling “Tyrannosaurus Rex.” We never needed pictures or lots of words; we connected in his love for dinosaurs.
I quickly learned that I am not meant to be a primary school teacher; I should just stick to middle and high school. I have never been so exhausted after teaching a group of kids. Those little ones are a huge bundle of energy, and it seems to take so much more energy from me to hold their attention. During our weekly check-in meetings, I remember saying, “I love to be with these kids, and I love to play with them, but if I had to be their teacher forever, I think I would go crazy. Primary school teachers are a truly special breed of teacher.”
Now that I’m away from my Czech kids, I find myself missing them terribly and wanting to be there to teach them and play with them. Even though it was sometimes very difficult to teach them, I would never trade the time I spent with them. Working with these kids reminded me how much I love teaching, and it reassured me about my decision to become a teacher. It was putting all the theory classes into practice and finding what worked and what didn’t. It was feeling like a total failure as a teacher, then wanting to work so much harder to prepare for the next day. Instead of just skating through, it became all about the students and helping them learn. My failure would be at the cost of their learning, which is unacceptable, so I had to step it up and work so that we could all succeed. I think that in the short time I was there, I did make a difference to these kids, even if they only learned a few new words, so it makes all the exhaustion and planning worth it.
We had to write about our worst experience for the article about PNE in the Sušice newspaper, but I didn’t really have anything to write about until the last day that I actually taught my students, as cliché as it sounds. When I stood in front of them looking into their adorable little faces and had to tell them that I had to go back to Utah, it was the worst thing that I had to do my entire time abroad. Even the kids that I thought didn’t pay very much attention to me were the first to tell me thank you for teaching them and that I was a nice teacher. As we were gathering the students to go outside to play a game to end class on a happy note, my heart completely broke as my fourth-grade class clown, Daniel, burst into tears and clung to me sobbing. After school let out, I had several kids walk me the two blocks home, and then come back to visit later that evening. Even now it chokes me up to think about that day, and it makes me miss them so much. I truly hope that someday I can see them again; they were all such an amazing group of kids. I was very lucky to have them even for a little while.
I’m the type of person that can be comfortable no matter where I am. For me, the word ‘home’ has been synonymous with ‘house,’ so I’ll often be out with friends and say “let’s go home” meaning back to their house, or I’ll be on vacation and say “let’s go home” meaning back to the hotel. It hasn’t really ever made a difference to me. One evening mid-way through the program, I was wandering through Sušice alone feeling a bit homesick. I wanted to talk to my best friend in Utah, but the time difference made it so it was too early in the morning to call him. So, I momentarily let myself wallow in my feelings, and, once I got back to a computer, settled for writing him a message on Facebook continuing our earlier conversation, and including the fact that I was really missing everyone in Utah. The next day when I checked our conversation, what he’d written me back stopped me in my tracks. He wrote, “I think that being homesick is good. It means, to some degree, that you understand how important your family is to you, that home isn’t just a physical thing—wardrobes, furniture, a late night TV show—it’s a state of being, I’m home. To miss home is to accept the humanity in yourself, I think.” I realized that whenever I was saying “let’s go home,” it wasn’t that I was meaning the place as being home, but it was the people I was with that made it home. Home was going with my friend or family to a place where we were together. Yes, home sometimes was going back to the hotel, but the important thing was that we were together.
So now that I’m back in Utah, I’m happy to be home with my family and friends, but I can honestly say that I am homesick. I’m homesick for Sušice. I found a home there; a real home, not just a physical location. This isn’t to say that I don’t love the Czech Republic as a place. I love the countryside and all the small villages. I love the rolling green hills covered with poppies and bright yellow rapeseed. I love looking up to the church, Kostel sv. Vavrince, between Hrádek and Tedrañice. I love the centrum in Sušice with the Hotel Fialka on one side and the city hall on the other. I love traveling to the zámeks and hrads (chateaus/castles). I love walking along the Otava and Vydra rivers. But all of these things are just things. They aren’t what’s important. They aren’t home.
What makes Sušice home is Roman and Helena staying up late to chat with me in impromptu English lessons, labeling pictures with body parts, and discussing what it was like when the Czech Republic was Communist. It’s giggling with Helena like sisters as we make kolač and knedlíky (dumplings), and it’s practicing martial arts with Roman. Home is Matyáš asking to play cars or catch, learning to say škoda (pity) whenever we’d drop the ball. It’s telling him in English to brush his teeth and get ready for bed and receiving the mischievous ne rozumím (I don’t understand) when I know exactly that he does. Home is baby Markéta demanding to be pushed in the swing or go for a walk. It’s watching her climb on objects far too tall for my comfort, hearing her scream “chcete” (Me too! Me too!), and squeezing her close first thing in the morning. It’s Granny stuffing me full of kolač and gingerbread, insisting that I keep eating while she just watches in contentment. Home is stealing cherries from the neighbor’s tree with my students and being walked home even though it’s only two blocks. Home is working side-by-side with Radka, teaching our students the best we know how. It’s being scolded for not asking to be taken in for the night. It’s these things that make home; it’s from these people that I found love. It’s what I think of when I think of the Czech Republic and my Czech home.
So even though I didn’t come home from the Czech Republic with a boyfriend or having had a major life changing revelation, what I walked away with is so much better. I walked away with a new Czech family and friends who love me and miss me the same way I miss them. Though it wasn’t the life changing revelation I expected, somewhere along the way of my adventures in Sušice, I found the change that I needed; I came home with a renewed desire to learn and truly live.