by Jay Rowley
Nature of Awakening
One afternoon, I was walking alongside the Otava River in Sušice, Czech Republic. There were groves of trees on my right side, and to my left, the meandering river. I had been stressed about something, but suddenly I felt an amazing feeling of rejuvenation; I felt completed by something. I stepped away from the paved pathway and sat down on a wooden bench to gaze at the river. The breeze blew over my shoulders, and the whistling trees echoed their soothing sounds. The small ducks swam and the clouds above moved quickly, like floating pieces of art that were designed just for that moment–nature’s sonnet. The small birds, the magnificent clouds, the towering trees, and the green grass, everything was in unison, and for the first time in years, I felt my heart opened to nature. I initially signed up for Project “New Eyes” ® both for the traveling and teaching experience, but what I experienced alongside that river is just what I had been searching for, I just didn’t realize it.
Who am I? An inner voice asked,
And what am I doing
Living in the Czech Republic?
Why is it that I am next to the river
When I should be with other students
Talking about teaching and
Preparing my next lesson plan?
A Crooked Street
I walked across town for home. As the moonlight shone down onto the streets, I stumbled over some cobblestone, and two old ladies standing in a doorway looked at me and probably thought I was drunk. Yellow lanterns flickered, as I glared down a narrow, crooked street at a black cat crossing my path. It looked hungry and briefly it looked at me. Its eyes glowed, and it wandered off into the night. I could smell beer and smoke lingering from a nearby pub, and I heard people laughing. I stopped at the bridge and took pictures of the lantern’s light reflecting off the river. The town from that angle looked like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I suddenly felt the urge to paint, and I wish I’d had brushes and a canvas, but since that was impossible, just like that, my inspiration vanished–just like so many good ideas: if one cannot immediately write them down, they disappear forever. I looked again into the river, and I felt relaxed. I had to teach the next morning, and I felt both nervous and excited, but at the same time, I asked myself, “Am I born to teach?” I traveled to the Czech Republic to study to become an English teacher, but was I really geared to become one? I had tutored English in previous years, and I had taught for a year in Japan, but was I really a teacher at heart? After a flood of questions tangled my mind, I let go of the confusion, breathed in the cool air, left the river and walked home.
Why I Started Teaching…
After the 911 terrorist attacks, I furloughed myself for one year from the airlines where I worked, and wondered what I was going to do for money. I had spoken with a colleague of mine from work who said he had taught English in Korea and had many fun and interesting stories, plus he made lots of money, so I considered doing that myself. Within a month, I went on-line, found a teaching job in Nabari, Japan, hopped on a plane and left.
Many people thought I had a screw loose for spontaneously traveling to teach English in a country I knew nothing about. All I knew was that I loved Sushi and adventure, and I had found a way to earn money. For me, traveling to Japan sounded like the perfect plan. I had traveled to 40 countries previously, so I believed living and teaching in Japan would be a breeze. Traveling abroad didn’t scare me except for the occasional plane turbulence, getting mugged in Panama, and the food poisoning I suffered in Thailand. So when I arrived in Japan, I thought I would work, make some easy money, travel around, and head back home. Needless to say, after my long, difficult year in Japan, I returned home with a long, shoulder length hair shaved bald, a heavy heart and a broken spirit. Teaching English was anything but easy. I discovered I didn’t know anything about my own language; I just knew how to speak it. I also learned that living in another culture was so stressful and confusing at times, that I continually found myself hiking in nature to help me relax. I knew little of myself when in Japan, but what I did discover was that nature was my only friend when everything else failed.
After returning from Japan, I returned to the airlines and felt myself returning back to normal. I started traveling again and found that brief visits were more my style. Just as I preferred short stories to novels, I also preferred skimming the surface of cultures, rather than studying them in depth. However, I soon found I missed the challenges of teaching, so I started taking classes at the University of Utah to earn my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate. That’s when I found Project “New Eyes” ®. I initially signed up for two reasons: teaching experience and the adventure, but I later discovered I wanted to know if I would again lose sight of myself while living in a foreign county.
Airports and language barriers
Stressful foreign relations,
Speaking with hand gestures-
Smiling for defense,
The tension builds
And the journey continues…
Back in Salt Lake City, Utah, I usually don’t enter a convenience store with a smile, but instead I go about my business rarely acknowledging anyone. However, in the Czech Republic, I discovered that smiling was my only defense against illiteracy. I remember walking into a store on my first day in Old Prague. I was hungry and wanted food, but I didn’t feel comfortable entering a restaurant, because I couldn’t read anything, so I walked around the Jewish ghetto until I found a small, quaint convenience store where an old Czech woman greeted me. I ended up buying two bananas, a coke and a carton of orange juice. As I approached to pay, the old woman said something in Czech, having no idea I was a foreigner until I shook my head indicating I didn’t understand. She immediately perked up, trying her hardest to make the awkward situation easier. She said, “I no English,” and stood there, shy and bashful. I too felt uneasy because I couldn’t say the phrase–I don’t speak Czech. After I paid her the money, I bowed–a survival skill I had learned while living in Japan—it was more instinct than courtesy. I then headed back to my hostel for a quick Czech lesson on how to say: I don’t speak Czech. I ended up learning the phrase, plus a few others, but I felt frustrated because I couldn’t express myself properly.
I’m in another country,
Listening to different languages,
I feel foreign and different,
I enjoy it; I just cannot speak…
Even though I try,
I feel like isolating myself,
And going about my business?
My life in Susice…
I sat around a wooden table with the Mares, my Czech host family, eating dumplings and meat. Everyone looked at me, and then complete silence. I didn’t know if it was my presence, or if the Czechs preferred silence. At first, I wondered if I should strike up a conversation, but I kept quiet and waited. Jakub, the 17-year-old, knew plenty of English, so he ended up translating. Yan, the father, would glance at me and then ask questions in Czech. Jakub translated, and we ended up having interesting conversations about politics and other topics. I felt uneasy at first not speaking Czech, but as time passed, the Mares family ended up being very interesting people, and we had lots of laughs and deep conversations.
For the first two nights in my Czech home, I slept on a bed with no blankets or pillows. I thought that was the Czech way, so I used my traveling backpack as a pillow, and I put a couple of shirts on to keep myself warm. The next afternoon, as I peeked into Jakub’s room, I saw he had pillows and blankets, so during lunchtime as my host family and I gathered around the wooden table, I politely asked, “May I have a blanket and a pillow?” Vera, the mother, opened her eyes wide and said, “Oh my God!” to Jakub. She couldn’t believe that nobody had told me my pillows and blankets were tucked away under my bed in a drawer. The Czechs put away their bedspreads and pillows during the daytime–just like Americans would their shirts and pants. Jakub asked, “I thought you would have asked the first night!” and I said, “I thought you Czechs didn’t use pillows.” We all laughed and continued eating. That night I slept well with a warm blanket and big, soft pillow.
The Mares planned many outdoor activities for me, so I felt right at home. We hiked up Svatabor Hill and ate wild boar, canoed down the Otava River, ate mushroom soup in the Sumava National Forest, played ping-pong tournaments, attended many music concerts, and ate delicious home-cooked meals. My life with the Mares was both relaxing and exhausting. I had no idea the Czechs were so active until I experienced it for myself. I remember reading in my Czech culture handbook that Americans usually had a hard time keeping up with the Czechs, and I now firmly agree with that statement! I also had everything I wanted. Jakub burned my digital pictures to a CD’s for me and translated whenever possible, I had daily access to the internet, Veronica, the sister, and Vera, the mother, taught me how to cook guloshva–my favorite Czech soup. Yan, the father, played music on his guitar and sang songs, and Yan, the older brother, invited my friends and I to an adventure ropes course. At times, communicating with the Mares was difficult because of the language barrier, but overall, I didn’t feel stressed or uncomfortable ever. I felt I had the perfect host family.
I knew I had no choice
And I couldn’t relax,
I knew I had to take a stand
And become an English teacher…
I arrived at the Komenskeho škola (school), and my heart beat quickly and my nerves were on edge. I felt very uncomfortable having to teach a bunch of kids I had never met before. Spontaneity is how I work best, but I worried about being under qualified to teach. I wanted to give the kids their money’s worth, and I didn’t want to let them down. I met Milan, the Czech English teacher with whom I worked, and he said, “Are you ready?” All I could say was “Yes.” I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t prepared, but I figured I had better break the ice. Even though I had taught English in Japan for a year, I had the same uncomfortable knots in my stomach, and there was no cure: I had to face my fear. The night prior, I had spent four hours at Café L’amour drinking lattes and preparing for the English lesson. Milan asked if I wanted to use music to teach English, I quickly agreed. As we walking into the classroom, the kids stood up and waited for Milan to announce, “Good morning, class.” I stood to the side while he spoke. The kids yelled back, “Good morning, teacher,” and then Milan said, “Please take your seats.” My heart started pounding harder as Milan pointed to me and said, “This is Jay. He’s going to be your teacher today. He’s from the Untied States. Please say hello.” And just like that, I was the teacher. I felt like caving in, but I knew I had to teach, so I took a deep breath, and started my lesson.
The rush of teaching is an amazing feeling: The journey through a six-stage lesson plan, the answering of questions, the trial and error process, the confused stares from the students, the happy participants who want to learn more, and the powerful emotion of relationships were all experiences I had in the Czech Republic. Some of my lessons went well, while others totally failed. Within a week, I had suffered and conquered from both emotional distress and new-founded confidence. I learned a great deal about myself as a teacher such as not liking the conventional ways of teaching, and I prefer being creative with the students, and believing that every one of them is an artistic genius. I myself enjoyed learning through creative activities and hands-on experience, rather than sitting in a boring classroom with a humdrum textbook. Some of my favorite teachers have been weird, eccentric and creative people. They strayed from the norm to create a unique, memorable classroom experiences. Even though I didn’t exactly know how to do that in the Czech Republic, I went into the classrooms with those thoughts, and I hope to one day teach like the teachers I still admire to this day.
My English-music lesson was a hit with the students, and everyone participated. During one of my classes, Milan took pictures of me teaching. I was so engrossed in teaching that I didn’t even know he was taking pictures until at the end of class when he asked the students and me to group together for a photo. He then showed me a dozen photos of myself writing on the chalkboard. I really thought that was cool of him, and I will treasure those photos forever.
I also learned that I prefer teaching small private classes or even one-on-one English classes versus large groups. I have come to admire full-time teachers for the work they do in the classroom. I don’t know how they find the time to prepare for all those classes. I taught at a private English school twice with Mrs. Vlasta. She told me after class that she had 32 classes per week. I felt ridiculous complaining about my six classes because I thought the preparation was too heavy, but 32 classes, I couldn’t imagine. Mrs. Vlasta smiled and said, “It’s hard, but that’s my job.” I could tell she was a born teacher and loved her job. After teaching four adults, I knew I preferred teaching adults versus kids, even though adults were more cautious and apprehensive about learning than kids.
Moment of Music…
Three older men walked onto stage and start playing jazz. The Czech piano player, Emil Viklicky, played energetically, and his fingers moved more quickly than I thought possible. The bass and drums jammed alongside him, and my headed bobbed like a chicken as my Dionysus spirit awoke. My spirit soared as the intricate jazz entered my blood stream. My foot tapped, and I didn’t want the music to end. I could feel all my stress vanish as the music soared through the air. The drummer, wearing dark shades, smiled as his drum beats rippled through the audience. The bassist, a scholar, let his hair down and played as if he were just blessed by the hand of divine intervention. His fingers moved at lightening speed, and his dark, deep tones vibrated and healed the souls. Each song had spirit and heart, and each note was uplifting. I wanted nothing more than to shout with joy? The concert lasted for an hour and a half, and for that time, I wasn’t in the Czech Republic or even on this planet but was one with something greater than myself. I felt alive.
There were many music concerts during my stay in the Czech Republic; I felt I had finally found a place where I could retire. Besides the amazing beauty and nature, the music scene flourished. I play bass guitar and am learning the harmonica, and listening to the different bands in the Czech Republic awakened my spirit for music.
One morning, I went inside to a music store to buy a harmonica. The shopkeeper didn’t speak English, so I had to use my well-versed hand gestures to show him I wanted to buy a harmonica. Even though I told him, “Nemluvím česky,” which meant I didn’t speak Czech, he kept on talking. I thought that was funny. After he understood I was looking for a harmonica, he handed me one and gestured for me to play it, but I didn’t know how to play, so I said no. He looked confused, so again I gestured that I was playing a bass guitar. He smiled and pointed to the bass guitars hanging on the back wall. I grabbed an electric bass to play, and he grabbed an electric guitar. He hooked both guitars into an amplifier, and before we knew it, we were playing an amazing blues jam. We couldn’t communicate through language, but through the language of music, the barrier vanished. We played for 10 minutes. Afterwards, we shook hands, and I bought a harmonica and left. For the rest of the day, I walked around town feeling inspired and filled with inspiration to play bass guitar and harmonica again.
George Fork – Ghost Riders in the Sky…
We boarded the train. Suddenly, an older Czech man boarded the train. He looked similar to Willie Nelson but without the pony tails. He had a wrinkled face with crazy but honest eyes.Wearing a gray-trimmed hat, he leapt onto the seat next to me and yelled, “Jak se maš!” which means, How are you? in a loud, strong voice! He grinned and waited my reply. He started mumbling something to me, but I couldn’t understand. He then reached down into his bag and offered me a drink from his wine box. I said, “No thanks” (ne díky). Then I quickly added, “Nemluvím česky.” Which meant I don’t speak Czech. That’s when he started singing. He grinned and tried to speak English, but I think he was too drunk to remember anything. He shook my hand and pointed to himself yelling, “I George Fork!” Then he looked to me. I said, “Jay,” and pointed to myself. He said, “Jake!” I replied, “No, Jay!” He said, “Jake!” He laughed and took another shot of wine. Then he pointed to his necklace, which was a silver cowboy hat and a horseshoe. He yelled, “Cowboy,” and cried, “Yee Haa!” Allie and I laughed. People on the train were staring. I didn’t care, but Allie looked nervous. As the guy sat there singing strange Czech songs, I hummed—Ghost Riders in the Sky—da da dada da da dada da da da da–and instantly, he started singing Ghost Riders in the Sky in Czech as spit flew from his mouth and veins popped from his neck. I thought to myself—this guy is a cowboy from the Wild Wild West. I handed my camera to Allie, and she snapped a few shots. The guy didn’t notice; he was too busy singing. As the train came to a halt, he stopped singing, swaggered off his seat, and shook our hands. He stumbled from the train and waved through the window, his wine spilled from the box as he waved and shouted, “Na shledanou!” (Goodbye).
My Life, the River…
When my heart is free
And I follow my intuition,
The options are limitless,
And nothing hinders me…..
My time spent in the Czech Republic was special, and I learned so much and met so many kind and interesting people. I enjoyed the moments of talking and standing next to bonfires, learning how to speak in Czech, befriending English teachers, playing chess, hiking, canoeing, and living with a Czech family. I enjoyed watching international films on Monday nights at the Kloub, and most of all, I enjoyed walking along the river and feeling inspiration from the flowing water. I learned much about myself and valuable information about the Czech’s and the Czech Republic.
Once more, before leaving Sušice, I looked to the river, and I saw it was a reflection of my soul. I was an English teacher, an Airline agent, an artist and musician flowing through life like a river.