Heja!

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Look! It’s Sweden! A square in Stockholm, to be slightly more exact. And a cafe where you can get some amazing hot chocolate. Which you need, even in July, because it’s Sweden.

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Thanks again, LOT

From now on, I’m banning myself from flying through the Warsaw airport in late June/early July. At the moment, I’m waiting for more information about a flight to Copenhagen that’s been delayed at least an hour and a half, but the amazing thing is that almost exactly a year ago – a year and a day ago – I was in this exact same position. After arriving from Tbilisi early in the morning, my 6-hour layover stretched into an 11-hour one. A friend and I took advantage of a particular duty-free item to make the time pass faster and they further softened the blow by giving us sausages for dinner . . . Looks like I’ll have no such luck this time.

Was that already a year ago? Was that only a year ago? My mind can’t quite process it.

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Oh right, I’m a teacher!

Let’s change topics from the last post, shall we? I haven’t written a whole lot about my actual job, so I’ll take this opportunity to do so. I teach high school, and as you may know/remember, adolescents are some of the funniest/most frustrating people out there. From that, it’s probably clear that I’ve had some pretty hilarious moments in class. 

- When I started rambling on about baseball and how it’s my favorite thing about America and how my goodness it’s been a whole semester and I haven’t talked about it yet . . . 

Petr turns to Mirek and says, loudly, in English, “She still hasn’t realized that she’s in the Czech Republic.”

- When I made them make up their own trivia questions . . .

Mirek, to the other team: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Other team: ‘You would, you jackass’ looks, discussion, then, “The chicken.”

Mirek: “Oh I’m so sorry, it was the egg, what a shame.”

- Most classes, upon hearing my description of an IPA as a beer that doesn’t have foam at the top: “It’s not beer.”

- I teach a lesson where I make them write stories describing how the people in pictures got sick/injured/depressed, which never fails to entertain. Summaries below . . . 

Running picture: A unicorn took out his leg. 

Puking picture: He’s looking for his beloved fish that somehow got into the toilet. 

Depression picture: She’s the victim of a civil war, but she used to be the rich wife of the dictator. 

Skiing picture: He got attacked by a yeti. 

- In response to the question, “What’s the worst injury you’ve ever gotten, and how did it happen?”

Martin: “When I was younger, I had both of my legs bitten off by a white shark, but then I prayed to God, and they grew back.”

Filip: I’ve never gotten a serious injury, but once I destroyed a sink with my head. 

David: It was my sink!

- When my teacher was trying to prod her students into remembering the meaning of the word “adultery”: 

Teacher: Petr, you must know this, what’s your favorite thing to read?

Petr: Porn?

- When I ask them to tell me their names and something that they like that begins with the same letter, so that I (supposedly) remember better:

“I’m David and I like destroying.”

“I’m John and I like jingling.”

“I’m George and I like Gandalf.”

“I’m Filip and I like the Federation of Russia.”

And finally, the one name that I could never possibly forget . . .

“I’m Stevie and I like sucking.”

Me: shocked stare/laugh

Stevie: You know, like on a lollipop. 

No one really got why I was giggling like a fool and why I made Stevie choose something else that he liked, so later on I took pit on him and told him the less vulgar of the two more common meanings of the verb to suck, which in some way I feel validates my entire purpose here. I can’t leave straight, teenage, English-speaking boys thinking that they can go around saying that they like sucking, right?

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A Farewell to Mr. Mellow

Hey, boo. Hey Arch. Arch-dog. Sweetheart. Hey, bud. Booley. Booie. Archer. Hey, my Archerboo. Archie.

I saw him for the first time at the pound – in my memory, he’s pressing his face into the bars of his cage and sticking a paw through, a big, floppy paw that was the first thing to draw me to him. I want a big dog, and a puppy that’s gunna turn into a big dog’s gunna have big paws. After a few days of deliberation, we brought him home, and when I finally freed his squirming body from the confines of my arms after the car ride, I noticed that he had left a small wet spot on my pant leg – a problem that would often plague his early years. But no matter – the pants went into the wash, and I had fallen in love well before he peed into my lap.

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At first he fought bitterly with Valentine, the dog who would become his constant companion, the subordinate to his alpha, because as frail and pathetic as, in many ways, he was, he was still the alpha in the house. The problems started early with the surfacing of his hip dysplasia and the ensuing hip surgery, but they did nothing to dampen his spirit. I often wondered if he actually felt pain when he limped, or if his drive to play simply overrode it; games of fetch would continue far past the point when he stopped moving agilely. The prescribed recovery process after his surgery even revealed another of his favorite things – fetch in the water. We would go out to Bobbit Hole, a big swimming hole at a bend in the Eno River, and throw sticks for him until we actually worried about his ability to walk the mile and a half back to the car. He would often bring the stick back, drop it in the water, and bark for us to throw it, of course not realizing that while it was within his reach, it was well out of ours.

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The exhaustion would hit when we got home, when he would practically fall down in front of his water bowl and then put his whole face into it, splattering more water around himself than he drank. In more energetic moments, he would eat in courses, grabbing as much food as possible into his mouth, toting it to the next room, and then eating it bit by bit in there. Valentine, ever the graceful girl, never picked up any of these habits – they belonged to Archie, and Archie alone. She never fought for his toys, ran after a stick, followed him when he jumped up on our sleeping heads during nighttime thunderstorms.

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What was it about him? I suppose that if you’ve ever owned a dog, it needs no explanation. The silky smoothness of the fur on the top of his head, the warm, earthy smell of his ears and paws, the black fur like eyeliner right around his eyes. He had such a personality, that dog did. His emotions were always written clearly on his face, in his eyes. Desperation when he wanted his toy thrown, insolence when he deliberately ignored being called, fear during storms, happiness when I would come home late and he would pad up to me ploddingly, his head down, his tail making big, sweeping wags behind him.

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I remember a moment with him from when I was only 17 and he was still a puppy, far away from the 95-pound dog he would grow into. I had stayed up late to watch a movie, so I was the last one to take him outside. It was a cold, clear winter night, the sort of night when the stars twinkle more than usual and even the air seems to shimmer with the promise of frost. After wandering around the yard for a while he sat down on the grassy part in the center of the yard and I knelt down with him, as close to his warm puppy body as possible. It’s all mixed together for me now, the chill of the air, his warmth, the stars, with his little face right in the middle of it. Brown and black, floppy ears, soft fur, really, he never changed. However many more memories I have of him now, somehow I’m left with that one standing out in my mind, a moment of peace, a moment at the beginning of a life that had already and would continue to add nothing but joy to mine during the all too brief time that they overlapped.

Thanks, Archie. Love you, boo.

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Hey, I’m 24!

It’s sort of like this, I guess.

But in all seriousness, I turned 24 a few weeks ago, and my birthday has only now just ended. Or will end probably tomorrow, when I finish eating the delicious homemade pizza that was one of the very thoughtful (and definitely the most nourishing) gifts that I received. Once again, my childlike love for my birthday was not diminished by everything that’s gone on in the last few weeks.

It all started pretty normally, with a trip up to Liberec’s most famous landmark, the Jested tower, with my parents. Luckily, it was open even on Easter Monday, a fact that was not true for the pub where I had made an online reservation for later that night. When we found that out, we went wandering around the city looking for a suitable place that was open, ending up at the pub across from one of my schools, where I go for beers every week after volleyball. Now, this place is no great shakes. Just your basic pub, tables and chairs, a lot of smoke, nothing fancy, but it’s got good food and beers for 21 crowns. And especially because my parents wanted to actually get a taste of how I live in Liberec, it made a lot of sense to have it there.

(Side note about Easter in the CR – they celebrate on Monday, and the main tradition is that guys walk around with whips made of braided willow branches, hitting girls and getting either chocolate or alcohol from the girls they’ve whipped. Just thought that was worth a mention.)

It was a surprisingly fun night, considering that most people had school or work the next day and that most of the Czechs had already spent the morning drunk from their Easter caroling. I got to see quite a few of my favorite people in Liberec, my parents got to meet my friends, and I ended up with a hangover worthy of a birthday, which, of course, was the point. Honestly, that would have been enough. I celebrated. Done. However . . . it wasn’t.

So, on Friday, my friends had a surprise party for me. I knew it was happening, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was told to show up at a friend’s place before 7 and to dress casually, which I did, and then I was promptly blindfolded and led into a car. Luckily I was assured that the blindfolding wasn’t completely necessary, because after a few minutes on the windy mountain roads just outside Liberec, I wasn’t feeling so hot, so I had to take it off. By then it was clear, though. I was about to have another quintessential Liberec experience — cabin party!

Idyllic, right?

This is another reason why I think that Czechs just know how to enjoy life more than Americans. Normal people, not just millionaires, have cabins outside town where they can go for the weekend, enjoy the outdoors, ski, whatever. This particular cabin was stocked with literally everything we needed to have an awesome night, including beds for all 14 people that came. Apparently, with almost no coordination at all, the people involved had brought enough food and alcohol to keep everyone full and entertained for the whole time, including a delicious breakfast the next morning. Grilled chicken and fish? Check. Cake? Check. Marshmellows? Check. Nutella? Check. Beer? Is that even a question?

The real point is, though, that seven months after arriving in a city where I knew no one, I had one of my best birthdays to date. Really goes along with how the rest of this year has gone, I think. Only three months to go — I’ll try to blog more than three times before then, shall I?

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You have to wonder . . .

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Why a Georgian flag would be hanging in Bratislava over some posh store. Maybe the colors went with their image?

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American Smile

Teaching abroad, you hear a lot of stereotypes about Americans. We have lots of fat people. Everyone likes fast food. There are American flags outside of every house. Everyone has an American smile.

An American smile? I asked, the first time I heard it. What do you mean, an American smile?

I got different answers. Everyone has straight, white teeth. That’s an American smile. An American smile is very big. Americans are always smiling, even when they’re not happy, so an American smile isn’t always genuine.

Think about that one for a minute – it’s true. Americans always put on a nice face. If you’re at a restaurant and you’ve just gotten in a car crash and you’re going to have to pay $3000 and wait two weeks to have your car back and you were at fault so it’ll raise your insurance payments and be on your record forever and the waiter asks you how you are, what will you say? I’m good, you’ll say. I’m fine, maybe. I’m okay, if you’re feeling especially beat up about it. Under no circumstances would an American ever say you know, I’m not so good. I’m having a terrible day. 

I think I’ve mentioned this before, that not all places are like that. Czechs are notoriously not that way, as evidenced by the thousands of tourists who return home talking about how rude the Czechs are. They’re not rude, they just don’t bother to have American smiles.

But those smiles, where do they come from? Some would say it’s a lack of genuineness, and it is, sometimes. Let’s say the waiter who asked you how you were has a table sitting next to you who has sent their food back three times and spent the whole time complaining about the noise, the choices on the menu, and how they’d prefer to have a waiter who was a little more careful with their orders, the waiter still has to smile. He’ll be smiling even as he thanks the customers for leaving him a nonexistent tip and a nasty table to clean up. There’s un-genuine for you.

There are other reasons, though.  It sucks to have to learn them, but sometimes we do. 

I just found out that my dog is dying. This is not something that I’m in any position to deal with. This is my dog, the one who I picked out at the animal shelter and named after my hockey hero and whose pictures are everywhere, on my phone, my walls, my Facebook, my desktop background, etc. This is the dog who I guiltily single out as my favorite while trying not to let the other one catch on. This is the dog who wakes me up panting in the middle of the night when there are thunderstorms because he knows that I won’t kick him off the bed or be annoyed to lose sleep because of him. This is a dog who now has a prognosis of about 60 days, while I’m not supposed to go home until the middle of July.

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So what can I do? I never planned that the last time I said goodbye to him would be the last time I saw him. It may still not be, for any of a couple reasons, a possible medical miracle among them. My last four months here will now have a dark shadow lurking behind them that I never expected to have (he’s only seven!), and I can’t just spend the entire time crying.

 I found out on a Sunday, which of course meant that I had to go to school on Monday. How do you get through the day? There’s only one way that I see – the American smile.

This is how it’s not just a lack of genuineness. First of all, it’s an energy saver. It’s like city vs. highway driving – once you get up to 65, it’s easier on the gas mileage to just keep it at 65 than to be stopping and starting. Once you get that smile plastered on your face, it’s a lot easier just to maintain it than to lose it and have to compose yourself all over again.

It’s also protection. I would imagine that most of us are comfortable breaking down in front of a few people, but certainly not in front of everyone you run into in any given day. At home, yes. With my friends, probably. In the English office at school? I’d rather not, thanks. If I’m smiling, no one thinks that anything is wrong. If I’m smiling, when people ask me how I am I can say good. If I’m smiling, I don’t have to fully face that shadow when I don’t want to.

Maybe it’s cowardly, to have that smile. Maybe healing comes faster if you have to face things more often, something like that. But as it is, I’m going to let my culture take the fall for this one, and maybe, because it’s so well-practiced, no one will know that this American smile is different from the one I usually wear. 

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