by Sarah Arnoff
We arrived when it was raining. Rain is not a good morale booster when the recipients of the unfortunate precipitation are already tired, hungry and completely lost. My map had nearly gone to pieces even though we were attempting to huddle under a doorway and a single umbrella. So we turned to Emily’s map which she had actually taken the time to laminate. There were six of us in our little group. We had more bags than arms to carry them, but we managed to wander up the streets of the town trying to follow signs written in foreign phonemes which turned out to be Czech.
After ﬁguring out that we had actually revolved around the meeting spot several times like extremely blind vultures circling a dead gazelle, we entered the Sokolovna: our dry solace. Even though we were hours early for the Project “New Eyes” ® study abroad orientation we were just glad we were in the right country. So we dumped our bags and went out to ﬁnd our ﬁrst meal in Sušice, a town in the south western quadrant of the Czech Republic somewhere between Prague and the German border. Population: 11,500. Pubs: 61. The place we were to call home for the next four weeks.
Obviously our trip didn’t get off to the right start, but if the weather didn’t welcome us, the people certainly did. Normally, the typical American tourist isn’t exactly greeted with open arms in certain parts of Europe. But the ﬁrst thing I met was open arms when I arrived to meet my host family, the Scheinosts. A farm family of ﬁve, the Scheniosts welcomed me into their home as a sixth member. The oldest, Tomáš, doesn’t live at home anymore. He has his own farm, wife and son. Two others students, Sierra and Cameron, stayed with him. Tereza, a tall, pretty student in her twenties with a degree in psychology, is planning to come to the University of Utah in the fall to polish her English.
As the main English speaker in the house she usually dictated the conversations between me and her parents. She constantly berates herself about her English and her accent but I think her English is quite good. When she arrives in the states I don’t think she will have problems communicating though she will disagree with me on that.
Years of growing up and helping out on the farm have toned her into a strong ﬁgure though her manicured nails, high heels and designer bags may belie her farm girl upbringing. She drives a periwinkle Škoda model car with a stuffed ﬂying pig hanging from the rear-view mirror. She taught me how to drive stick-shift in that car, though she didn’t know the words for gas, break or clutch. So she just hit my legs whenever she wanted me to use a certain pedal.
And the youngest, Kristýna, is a sporty 15 year old and accomplished snowboarder. A lover of all things teenagery, she immerses herself in a bright wardrobe of patterned t-shirts and skinny jeans spattered with buttons. High-tops with luminous shoe-laces and magenta streaks adorning her brown hair (newly acquired during my stay) complete her look.
Their parents František and Ivana speak practically no English but their open home and open hearts were all the communication really needed. They are the people I would imagine to be running a cow farm in the Czech countryside. I didn’t know I had presumptions about Czech farmers until I met them. František is a slightly short man with dark hair and beard. Quiet and hardworking he enjoys watching Czech soap operas with his daughters after a hard day on the farm (Kristýna’s favorite is “Ordinace” while Tereza likes “Kobra 11”).
Ivana is a large, soft spoken, cheery woman with hands practiced at the art of skinning rabbits but would really never think of causing harm to anyone. Completely dedicated to her children and her year-old grandson, she gives them everything she can and more.
They live on the family farm in a village called Svojše, population: 15, pubs: 1.
They have ﬁve dogs, ﬁve cats, ﬁve horses, ﬁve sheep and 100 cows. That’s how they make their living, with cows. They raise them to be sold and keep them near the house, letting them wander from ﬁeld to ﬁeld with the occasional escapee. And if such is the case the three German shepherds will gladly chase the rogue one back to the other side of the fence. The Scheinosts were my family away from my family in my home away from home.
Every Thursday evening after classes, students, friends, host families and anyone else who wanted to join, would meet up for dinner at the Kanon restaurant in Sušice. We had dinner and some would stay after to watch a Czech ﬁlm shown in the main room. The inaugural Thursday we ﬁlled the restaurant. All of the American students and professors, part or all of their host families and other associates showed up. The proprietor of the Kanon restaurant, a large fellow with a jolly mustache and disposition, ushered half of us outside while the rest sat in the back room.
We shared the menus and decided what to order with the help of the English speakers in our families since the menus were all in Czech. I was part of the outside group and we were having a good time with our beer or cola or rum. We waited for the waitress to take our orders growing hungrier by the minute. And waited. And waited. We found out that the inside group already had their food before we had even ordered. A waitress came out and was inquired about the situation.
“Kitchen is too small for everyone,” she explained. So we waited some more but ﬁnally we got our orders taken. Most of us wanted to order salads since it was the ﬁrst time we were able to get vegetables sine we had arrived. But we were informed that the restaurant had run out of vegetables. Basically it was close your eyes and point after that. But we got our food and it was delicious.
My host parents arrived later than most of the other people. They chatted with the other Czechs there and were as far as I could tell having a good time. I watched the movie with some others in the main room, Up and Down. When the ﬁlm was done and I walked out, they were gone. I posed the question nagging my mind to Steve:
“Where did my host parents go?”
“They went to go get something to eat,” he replied.
“They didn’t want anything here?”
“No, the restaurant ran out of food.”
My ﬁrst encounter with food, or rather the quantity of food I would be experiencing while in the Czech Republic occurred the ﬁrst time I met the Scheinosts. And it was only a salad but it was huge. Every meal after that, home cooked and laced with add-ons and side dishes was packed with more than I could ever hope to digest properly. It was too much but the problem was that it was all delicious. Ivana cooked as a major hobby and she was practically a chef. One of the things that I’m sure she lost sleep over was worrying if the people at the dinner table that night got enough to eat. The main question of the day posed to me by Ivana would be “Sarah, hungry?” and most of the time I was quite the opposite, still full from the overly generous meal prepared an hour earlier.
A morning in the latter half of my stay, my teaching schedule had temporarily changed so I could not take the bus in the morning to school. Both my savvy English speakers were gone at that time. Kristýna was a snowboarding camp and Tereza was on her weekly trip to Prague where she worked with autistic children.
The night before the change I had to communicate to František and Ivana that I needed to be at the school later than usual, and since the bus couldn’t get me there, they would have to drive me. I managed in my excellent Czech to tell them the basics.
“Ja v… škola v…” and I wrote down the time 9:30 on a pad of paper. They understood, I needed to be at the school at 9:30. I was bubbled up with pride that I had gotten the information through all by myself. So we all went to bed and slept until morning.
The next morning I awoke and got ready for the day. One thing was unusual however, there was no breakfast laid out on the table. I thought Ivana was just not up yet and she would come strolling through the door with a cheerful “dobrý rano” followed by an inquisitive “hungry?” But it didn’t happen. 9:00 came and went and they were still not up. I went around with my morning routine still hoping they would get up but starting to lose optimism. I ﬁgured their alarm hadn’t gone off by the time 9:15 showed up and I decided I would have to wake them up.
The ﬂoor of their bedroom is bare plywood and as I tip-toed (I don’t know why I tip-toed since my mission was to wake them) into their room, I stepped on a particularly squeaky spot which shouted out a large creak. Now, did you ever go into your parents’ room when you were a kid and wake them up in the middle of the night. Maybe you were hungry, or there was lightning outside, or you had a slight fever, but whatever you went in there for, they immediately sat up in panic mode when awakened. Well that’s what happened when I stepped on that squeaky board.
Both František and Ivana shot out of bed wondering what was wrong. I tapped my wrist and said “škola…” and being very punctual people they wanted to know what time it was. I tried to say it was 9:30 but it came out as 10:30 and then they really began to panic. Ivana marshaled me into the living room babbling in Czech repeating “promiňte, promiňte” excuse me, excuse me with gestures of apology and distress. I tried to calm her down and tell her it was ﬁne and that I was not going to be late for class. She nodded but was still showing obvious signs of agitation. Then she grabbed a plate of pastries out of the fridge and offered them to me.
“Sarah, hungry?” She asked. I grabbed one of the tarts to appease her since feeding people calms her, and rushed out the door with František who drove me to the school. I was not late for class but František was clearly upset with the event of oversleeping.
Later, in the evening when Kristýna returned, we recounted the story for her. She laughed and told me what the real cause of the chaotic morning. When I had written 9:30 on the paper, Ivana thought my nine was a one. Thus thinking that I needed to be at the school at 1:30, not 9:30.
I was not only fed sufficiently at the Scheinost residence, but everywhere else as well. I often sought refuge at the pizzeria after classes with Klinton and Cindy, two other students living nearby. They were both staying at the Dětský Domov, the children’s home, where children of the Roma minority group (gypsies) lived if they could no longer be cared for by their families. Klinton’s constant (and I mean constant) complaint during his stay was that we were in the middle of nowhere. But he could take comfort (and did everyday) at the pizzeria.
The waitress there got to know him so well, she had his usual, a cola and a Hawaiian pizza, ready every time. The Hawaiian was the only thing understandable on the menu. But I tried to get something different each visit which led to some interesting surprises; tomatoes, asparagus and anchovies, for example.
There was also the ice cream parlor where for around two dollars a magniﬁcent sundae piled with fruit, chocolate sauce and a sugar wafer would be delivered to you complete with sparkling pom-pom decoration. The bagety shop in Sušice where they put savory dressing on sandwiches and corn on pizza. And the good ol’ Coop Tuty grocery store. They can ﬁll you needs from klobasa to Kinder, just follow the orange sign.
Yes the food of the Czech people is terriﬁc. So much so that I returned to the states better fed than most Americans and a little pudgier as evidence.
There’s one bus that comes into the little mountain village of Svojše at 7:08 in the morning. So on teaching days I would get up to a breakfast of hot tea, cheese and bread already laid out for me. Walking down the metal steps on the side of the house I’d say hi to the rabbits (“They are for eating,” Tereza informed me when I ﬁrst arrived.) and go around front to say hi to the two German shepherds tethered there. Gonzo the ten-month-old would always strain at his leash whenever someone came by. A playful puppy, though fanged and huge, he wants everyone to be his friend.
Out the gate still decorated with ribbons, wreaths and painted egg shells from Easter a few months before, I’d face the lush hills in misty sunshine. The cows mooing in laments of boredom in their passive cow lives. I’d follow the road up to Svojše’s only bus stop to await my ride. Three other bus patrons would join me at the stop, all students. A ninth grade boy, a curly-haired girl and her mullet laden younger brother. We’d greet each other with the casual dobrý den and climb aboard the bus when it arrived.
The bus driver was a rickety old man whose hands shook as he handed me my ticket. Was I wary that an 80-year-old man crossing the border into senility was driving a large bus through treacherous mountain roads winding above rushing, icy rivers and cavernous death cliffs? A little. But 16 korunas and 20 minutes later I was always deposited safely and punctually in the town square of Kašperské Hory, population: 450, pubs: 9.
The school is toward the end of town. A looming yellow building that dominates the street on which it sits, it looks more like a haunted asylum or horror movie prison than it does a school. At least I’m sure the kids felt that way about it. But inside it is most definitely a school. Arrive after eight and the door would have to be buzzed open via a conversation with whoever was monitoring the intercom at the moment. Which could be a likely problem if the person had no idea what you were saying.
I was assigned to teach 7th and 8th graders under the supervision of Jiřina. Jiřina is a remarkable woman who never intended to be an English teacher. She was an accountant who had spent time in America and knows English ﬂuently. The school so persistently begged her to come teach she left her accounting job to attempt to teach middle school students. But an attempt can nowhere near describe what Jiřina does.
She draws her students to her and not only does she help them learn English efficiently, her students come to her for anything. Often while walking back to the teacher’s lounge after class we would be stopped by a number of her students who wanted to greet her, ask a question or just chat. She connects with her students on a level deeper than most teachers can only hope for.
Usually my main class was the 8th graders. There were ten of them but even though the number was small, they were still a difficult class. It was hard to teach them because 1) I had no idea how to teach 8th graders and 2) they don’t give a damn about anything anyway. Having them sit and stare at me for most of the period was not very reassuring. I was warned about one student in that class, the trouble maker. He was loud and obnoxious and spoke at inappropriate times, but he turned out to be my favorite student in that class. Because even though he was loud and obnoxious and spoke at inappropriate times, at least he was giving me a response.
The 7th graders, on the other hand, were a different story. Klinton and I co-taught the classroom of 21 hormonally deranged pupils and what a wild ride it was. We knew the class was getting a little too loud when the ancient teacher who looked like something straight out of “Tales From The Crypt” interrupted the lesson to ask if there was actually a teacher in the room.
Truth be told, Klinton and I didn’t actually know our students’ names. We referred to them during our planning sessions by their nicknames and when confronting them face-to-face we just addressed them as “you.” There was The Cool Kid who had bleached hair and a too cool for school attitude even though he always had a good answer to contribute to the lesson. There were The Kitty Girls, two girls who sat in the back and were so named because when I was introducing myself I said I had a cat and they giggled. There was Goofy Kid, a short kid with glasses and curly, black hair. The class clown. The kid one step behind in the puberty department than the rest of the guys in the class. Then there was our grand source of entertainment: Geen Simmons. An overly-dedicated KISS fan, he always had their logo drawn on his arms and whenever he came to the front of the class he would throw his arms up and stick his tongue out. We called him Geen Simmons because when we were talking to him after class one day he asked us if we knew Gene Simmons, only he pronounced Gene “geen.” When we ﬁnally ﬁgured out what he was saying, we gave him the thumbs up and stuck to calling him Geen.
I enjoyed getting to know these students. We taught each other tongues twisters and animal noises and sang Queen’s “Bicycle Race” together. Teaching was supposed to fuel most of the impact from my involvement in Project “New Eyes” ®, but I came back from it with an unexpected cognizance: I don’t want to be a teacher. At least not now. I can see myself teaching at a later point in my life, but right now, as my major career path, it just doesn’t ﬁt. Granted, the experience gained from teaching in the foreign will benefit me, there is no question about that. I’m glad I came to this place and I’m glad I did my best in the assigned interactions, but I have to save teaching until later and find something else to do in the meantime.
I remember most of my students very clearly, from The Trouble Maker to Geen Simmons. I also remember the people who were not my students but were still progressing as best they could toward the same goal. Throughout the town of Kašperské Hory there were several people I met that were trying to learn English. The man at the Star ice cream parlor who was proud to get the total of our sundaes correct in our language. There was Tereza’s aunt who worked at the Park four-star hotel, with whom every Tuesday evening I would eat dinner and chat. And the cashier at the Coop Tuty who was eager to say the price numbers and determined to get them right, even if it did hold up the line for 10 minutes.
It seems a lot more difficult for these individuals to learn English since they don’t attend formal classes like the younger generation. And they hardly ever deal with native English speakers in their daily lives either. Most of the visitors that pass through are German bikers or touristing seniors deposited via coach bus in the square for an hour to take near-sighted pictures and explore the town’s quaint nature.
So why do they still want to learn English? The non-English speaking teachers at the school would often be skittish around Cindy, Klinton and me in the teacher’s lounge. They were silently polite but would give us little recognition beyond a nod in greeting. We didn’t understand this behavior until Jiřina explained it to us. They were embarrassed. Knowing English is the way to get ahead in society and they were self-conscious of the fact that they couldn’t speak it.
That seems to be the opinion, not just of the school teachers, but of many others in the Czech Republic. Even Tereza shares that view. She told me coming to America is an expensive sacriﬁce for her family, but an extremely good investment. If she can perfect her English, not only will her chances of a successful career increase, but having spent time in America will put her over the top. I hope the unorthodox students of Kašperské Hory can succeed in their goal to learn English without formal training. Their progress will be very slow but learning the language is a thing of importance to them. Such a thing of importance that they should be able to grasp it if they are determined.
The Rest of The Story
Since Ivana didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Czech, we would communicate through the dictionary. Conversations took twice as long this way but they were usually twice as good.
Every once in awhile, she would take out the dictionary and point to the word that means “homesick” and then point at me. “Are you homesick?” is what she was asking. I could always honestly shake my head and say no, I wasn’t homesick. And in extremely limited Czech vocabulary I would tell her that I liked it there, in the Czech Republic, in their home. She would then smile and wrap her large farm wife arms around me in a motherly embrace.
She cried when I left. She squeezed me tightly to her and babbled through the tears. Tereza rolled her eyes. “Oh mummy,” she muttered as she ushered me into the car. As she drove me for the last time to Sušice, she said, “If this is how she is when you are leaving, think of what she will do when I leave!”
And so I left Sušice with a heavy heart and even heavier suitcase. Back to Prague on the sweatiest bus ride of my life in a place that doesn’t believe in deodorant. But I didn’t really mind the heat or the sweat or the giant woman next to me taking up half my seat. I just wanted to turn around and go back. I leaned my head against the window and watched the countryside go by. I sat in the Sunday trafﬁc and sulked until my towns and pubs were far away.
At least it wasn’t raining.