by Sierra Baird
Traveling to another country with different customs and a different language makes me look inward at who I really am. What is my culture? I know I have one, but identifying it is like describing the smell of the room that you’ve been sitting in all day. You know that it has a smell to it, you have smelled other smells but the one you’re in might be better described by someone who walks in the room after being away for a while.
When I was planning for this trip to Sušice, Czech Republic I didn’t know what to expect. For some reason when I plan trips I tend to think it will be an out of body experience. But this adventure is very much an in body experience. I am still every bit of who I am, just misplaced and a bit awkward. I am learning things that a five-year-old learns, like social rules, walking and driving paces and how to find what I need at a grocery store.
Since being here in the Czech Republic when I go shopping I try my best to avoid eye contact. I do this, not to be rude, but to not have to go through the whole, I don’t speak Czech followed by nodding and awkward laughing. For the most part people are understanding and try to help when they can. However, one time I was trying to buy yarn at a store. I couldn’t tell how long the yarn was that I wanted to buy so I needed to ask. I got a knot in my stomach, the kind you get when you know you’re going to come across as stupid and there’s nothing you can do about it. I told the worker that I don’t speak Czech and then continued by trying to mime, what I though was a good portrayal of my question. Being fluent in American Sign Language, I feel like I have an advantage with facial expressions and body language. So I pointed to the yarn, then with my hands I made the gesture that typically means length, you know like when someone says, “I caught a fish this big,” at the same time with a puzzled look on my face. Clearly meaning how long is this yarn? Genius, or so I thought. The lady watched my feeble attempts and then gave me a look that made me feel an inch high and laughed. And it wasn’t the nice awkward laugh that I was used to when there was miscommunication. It was the, “you look like an idiot and I’m not even going to try to understand what you’re saying.”
Cameron, my husband and I have been staying in the Albrechtice castle. Albrechtice is a village of about 20. The castle, which would be better described as a couple of bigger houses on a fairly large farm, overlooks most of Albrechtice, which is in the middle of a forest, and today Tomaš took us for a hike. The forest is full of tall skinny trees and green mossy rocks. Tomaš explained that for every tree that they chop down for firewood or for building, they plant four in its place. The hike was breath-taking, literally and figuratively speaking, and the forest is calm and peaceful.
There is a lot of history that colors this village. The castle that we are staying in was taken over by communists for about 20 years. They left the once nice castle nearly destroyed. Tomaš and Mila have been renovating it since they’ve been here, about four years. On their property there’s a church, the oldest church in the Czech Republic. We haven’t gotten on the grounds yet because it’s only open for a short time on Sunday for services. Tom and Mila, (who we have been staying with) also have a farm with cows, goats, sheep, pigs and a bear dog, well that’s what we all called him, bear. He is a monster of a dog that could have eaten me with one bite. Tomaš and Mila own their own company where they sell hay for animal feed. There’s always work that needs to be done on a farm and this family is always working. We couldn’t have been put with a better host family. Most nights we stay up late just talking about the differences between here and the U.S. Tomaš loves cowboys and knows more U.S. history than we do. Before we know it it’s midnight and our stomachs hurt from laughing so much.
Being in the Czech Republic has been a chance for me to see a different culture and a different way of life. Czechs aren’t terribly different from Americans, they strive to be better and improve their lives. They care for their family and their children’s futures. But there is a difference, maybe it’s because I don’t understand the Czech language, or because I don’t know if the cars are going to stop for me when I cross the street.
Facial expressions and hmmm sounds seem to hold different meaning out here, or at least some of them. I would often talk to Mila, about anything, life, school, work. And quite frequently she would say “hmmm?” so I would repeat myself, trying to speak slower and clearer. This continued for weeks, “hmmm?” she would say so I would do my best to clarify. Then one day she did it again “hmmm?” but then followed it with a response to what I was saying. Wait, she understood me? Then what was the “hmmm?” all about. Turns out that what sounded like a question to me was her way of telling me that she was involved in the conversation, comparable to our saying “oh” and “yeah” to reinforce to the speaker that you are into what they are saying. I had to laugh and then explain to her that, no Americans don’t say everything twice it was just a miscommunication on my part. She got a kick out if that and would smile from then on whenever she said “hmmm?”.
Cameron and I have experienced many adventures while being here. We have milked a goat, hiked a mountain, hung out in pubs, and rode a train. Cameron helped a cow give birth; it was Tom’s Dad’s cow. This was the second or third cow that has given birth since we’ve been here and it seems that when a cow is giving birth it is a big ordeal and every man rushes to help. So this time Cameron also rushed to help.
Apparently, the mother cow is very wild so they shot her with a tranquilizer to calm her down, but even with that it took three men to stabilize her. The calf was bigger than expected and in the middle of the whole process he stopped moving. At this point they needed to get the calf out of the mother or the mother would die too.
I’ll spare you some of the more graphic details, but not all of them. The men couldn’t pull him out, even with all of them pulling on the calves legs (and these are strong men), so they decided to tie a rope to the legs and pull her out with a truck. Cameron was the one they chose to drive the truck so after everything was in place he drove until the calf was born.
This was an emotional ordeal, especially because the calf wasn’t moving when it was born. They announced that the cow was dead. Everyone was coming down from the experience when the calf started making noises. They jumped up, grabbed him by the hind legs and started shaking him to clean the gunk out of his throat so that he could breath, eventually they were able to stabilize him and he lived.
Being on a farm was a great reminder of people’s goodness. Farm work is hard work, and the men who work on the farms are tough. But something as simple as a calf being born can bring a group of working men to their knees and send them scrambling around doing whatever they can to help the calf live. They have a tradition here to name calves after someone who was there helping at the birth. This calf was named Cameron.
My experiences here make me want to change for the better. The people here are avid recyclers. And the grocery stores don’t use plastic bags to bag groceries. Being here makes me want to be a more resourceful person, kinder to the earth. Here on the farm Tom and Mila tell us that they use every part of the animals they kill so as not to be wasteful. Every part including the brain, heart and even the blood. Which is nice in theory, but since I’m a vegetarian it makes me a little nauseous.
Cameron and I don’t drink alcohol, and when we told our host family you would have thought we told them that we don’t drink water. Since then they have tried to get us to drink an assortment of different alcohols, including non-alcoholic beer. They’ve tried to get us to eat beer cheese and even bathe in a beer bath, which is quite expensive but our host family said they would pay. We politely declined all of the offers but we are now very aware that we’re possibly the only people in the whole Czech Republic who don’t drink, or at least it seems that way. I guess you could say that’s part of our culture. Cameron and I are LDS, which is more commonly referred to as Mormons. For us, keeping our bodies clean from any addictive or mind altering substance is important. Avoiding anything that would alter my judgment gives me more control of my body, and I’ve come to realize how much I like that part of myself.
I’ve started a listening post here in the main square. It is just what it sounds like, a place for people to come and talk, about anything they want. The idea was started by Mabel Barth, a woman from Colorado who believes that the world needs more listeners. At first, I was afraid that no one would come. But on the first day I had two people come, one right after the other. They stayed for a long time, too. I find that it’s not hard to think of what to talk about. Because of cultural differences the conversation carries quite well, both of us anxious to learn about the other.
One lady that I talked to that first day got a phone call from her son. He told her that he passed his exams for entrance into a language school. She was so excited that she insisted we celebrate and she bought us ice cream. The other lady that same day also bought me ice cream. I wasn’t particularly hungry for ice cream but I was touched by the gesture. On that day the gesture of ice cream said to me “even though you’re far from home, where things might seem different and uncomfortable, let me help you feel at home.” I started to tear up while eating my second round of ice cream but crying over ice cream seemed as odd as herding goats and eating cow heart, just to name a few of my out of place moments here. So I didn’t cry, but for a short time I did feel very much at home.
The listening post has been a way for me to open myself up to those around me. I feel enthusiastic and vulnerable at the same time. I am reminded of basic human kindness and charity that people have, and of the impact that these qualities can have on a foreigner. The listening post is, to me, a way to hear what’s in the hearts of others, because, as it turns out people do open up, and they do let you in. And isn’t that why we’re here? What more could we give each other than our undivided attention? To feel alone is to forget that you are not the only one out there. It should serve, though sometimes doesn’t, as a reminder that even though we are surrounded by people, that unless we let them in it’s worthless. So I guess I believe, at this juncture in my life, that to be lonely is to be too selfish to let anyone in. And if that is the case, we miss out on so much with no one to blame but ourselves. That being said, I have often felt alone and afraid. And have thought that to open myself up would take away from who I am. Even though it has only ever left me in a better place than I was.
The scenery here is unlike any that I’ve seen before. To say that hills are a brilliant green and roll like the ocean doesn’t do it justice. It’s been raining a lot lately. Rain tends to make me feel new, like I have a second chance at life, and the timing is usually such that I want to take it and run with it.
During my time here I’ve been team teaching a community adult English class with Leigha. There are about ten students in the class and their English skills vary greatly. For my part I decided to focus my time on preparing the students to teach the class something on the last day. I told them they could teach anything they wanted but I wanted them to prepare it. The younger students in the class took the idea and ran with it. I was so impressed with their creativity.
There were four students who I was worried about because their English was not as advanced as the younger students. I reiterated every class that they could come to the listening post and we could spend as much time as they would like going over their topic. Two of these students did come to the listening post. One insisted that she didn’t need to work on her project so instead we just talked. I knew at that moment that she would not show up on the last day. Two of the students seemed indifferent to the class and I only half expected them to show and present their topics. And one woman, who was quite a bit older than the rest of the students, came to the listening post to go over her topic. I was so happy that she did because I knew she wasn’t understanding much in class. You have to understand that this was a self-placed class, so all of the students had to identify their own English levels, which is very difficult. Petra, the older student had a hard time keeping up with the pace of the class. I was painfully aware of this, but since the other students were so advanced I had to make a choice of whether to really challenge the advanced students or to work at a slower pace for the few who weren’t understanding.
When Petra came to the listening post I was thrilled. We started out with small talk, I realized then just how much she was understanding, and it wasn’t much. She even told me frankly, “I don’t understand you in class, too fast.” Ouch, but I guess I already knew that. We sat for hours going over her project. First we wrote bullet points for her topic that she would teach from. Then I asked her to teach me her topic and she looked at me like I was crazy. After much wrestling with how to approach this I decided to help her write down word for word what she would say. She was teaching about how to stay fit, being a swimmer and walker herself she was very knowledgeable about the topic. At one point in her speech we decided to have her teach the class about heart rate by asking the other students to stand up and run in place for one minute while she timed them, and then had them check their heart rate. We both smirked about how this would use up some of her time and make it so she didn’t have to talk as much.
After we had written out her whole presentation I asked her to present it to me. She still hesitated, but seeing that I wasn’t going to change my mind she started reading from the paper. When it got to the point that taught about heart rate she just skipped ahead as if she had done it. I jumped out of my seat and started running in place. She got a kick out of that. I remember it was so hot that day, and I was in dress shoes, but I wanted so badly for her to feel capable of performing the task that I had set for her. When she had finished the presentation we hugged and went our separate ways. I still didn’t feel 100% that she would show up on the last day but I was hopeful.
And so it came, the last day of class. The students were all nervous, and for absolutely no reason, they did a great job. But when I entered the class the four students mentioned including Petra were not there. I expected that the three wouldn’t be there but I told myself that Petra still had time to show up, it wasn’t uncommon for her to be a minute or two late. The class drew to a close. The students had finished up presenting and then got big smiles as they presented me and Leigha with beautiful roses. I felt so lucky to have students so willing to learn and participate, but I had a knot in my stomach that Petra didn’t make it. I knew why, I knew she was terribly shy and that she felt that her English was behind the rest of the classes, but after all the time we spent, and how fun it was going to be to have the class jog in place and learn about heart rate.
The days drew to a close quicker than expected. Cameron and I decided to take a train to Slovakia to visit a friend of our Lubka, whom we met in Provo. Lubka is from Slovakia and was home at the same time we were there. Leaving was like a whirlwind, time was speeding up and there was still so much to do. We said goodbye to Tomaš who was leaving that morning to go work on his father’s farm and wouldn’t be back before we left. We then traveled to the train station in a hurry because the train was just about to leave. Mila helped with getting our suitcases on the train before it left. For some reason, which seems odd to me now, the train attendant left the door closest to us open as we pulled away and there was Mila standing in between train tracks just watching us. She is a strong farm worker and the whole time we were there she just seemed like one of the guys, not much emotion. But as we pulled away we just stared at each other and I could see that we were thinking the same thing, time had somehow deceived us and gone way too fast. Would we ever see each other again?
That train ride ended up being one that tied my whole journey together. Seeing emotion in Mila for the first time. It didn’t seem enough to say thank you. They had given us a place to stay. They brought us into their family and fed us, and shared their lives with us. As we came to another stop one of my younger students walked past us to get off the train, what were the odds? We smiled and said our goodbyes. At the Project “New Eyes” ® closing party, Tomaš’s sister handed us a gift from their parents. With time so rushed we didn’t get to open it. As we were jostled around on the train we remembered about the gift. We pulled out an envelope that looked like a card, but it wasn’t a card. In the envelope were two pictures of a cow. One of the pictures had typed on it “CR, farma Svojše, Cameron.” The picture was of small Cameron, the cow that Cameron helped birth.
Riding on trains gives me a feeling that’s hard to describe. This time in particular gave me a knot in my stomach. Would I ever come back to Sušice or Albrechtice and see these people that I have come to love? This moment made me feel lost in emotion. I did something important. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and it made me feel like I had accomplished something. That moment all the lesson planning and losing sleep over students was worth it. Then my phone buzzed. I didn’t buy a phone card so I wasn’t able to make calls but I was able to receive emails. This was the email I received:
I’m sorry, than I didn’t stand on the finish. Thank you .You vere very patient with me.
Your the oldest student PETRA VLČKOVÁ