Sunday, December 7, 2008

Here Comes Mikulaš (aka Santa Claus)!

Well folks, it’s been a long time coming. It has been quite a while since the last time I wrote. For a while, I deluded myself, trying to justify my inattention by stating that “nothing has really happened lately”. However, the more I look over the past few weeks, the more I notice a severe need to update my blog – and to let you all in on my most recent adventures.

Firstly, and certainly the most important difference in my life is my development into the status of teta, or Aunt, in my own language. My host sister Míša gave birth nearly three weeks ago to my “host-nephew”, Oskar. He is Míša’s first child, and he is absolutely perfect. Míša and her husband Petr spend much of their time in my home now, and I certainly can’t complain; I’m quite taken with Oskar. I’ve never had the chance to be an aunt before, and I relish this opportunity. I have been blessed beyond measure – how lucky I am to become fully integrated part of my family in this manner! It is better than words can express.

Now, on to slightly less prominent factors in my life. :)

The Christmas season has started here in Czech Republic. Since we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here (of course), there is no holiday to separate Halloween and Christmas, so the decorations have been out since October. The stores are full of Christmas merchandise, and have been all through November. The Christmas rush is in full swing, and will continue right up until the twenty-fourth, I believe. Although St. Nicolas could be found in chocolate form nearly everywhere in early November, Czech people in general prefer to leave their shopping until the last moment. Some things are the same no matter where you go.

There are a few differences between the way Christmas is celebrated here and the way I am accustomed to celebrating in the US. On December 5, for example, there is a special celebration in honor of St. Mikulaš (the Czech version of St. Nicolas, pronounced “Miculash”). On the night of the fifth, families with small children are usually visited by three people – Old St. Nick, an angel, and a demon. I’m not sure what purpose the devil serves, aside from possibly scaring children into behaving. It’s a tradition – it doesn’t need any real reason.

This celebration is also taken advantage of in schools; on December 5 my class was visited by an unruly group of demons (my fellow schoolmates dressed in dark clothes with faces painted black, horns on their heads, and chains draped around their shoulders), some angels (also schoolmates dressed up in white and gold – most of them were the perfect Czech examples of womanhood as I have described in my last blog post), and Mikulaš (another schoolmate who happened to be hung over, or so I heard from my friends). The devils ran around the classroom (the Chemistry room, to be exact), slapping the tops of desks with bundles of sticks and generally making a racket. Then the angels (one of whom was a cardboard cutout of a woman taken from a bank somewhere in České Budějovice and dressed in a white sheet, toga-style) made their way through the rows of desks, putting handfuls of candy on each table. Finally, St. Nick said something in Czech (that no one listened to, since he slurred a little). His short speech was followed by more running and howling and desk-beating by the demons.

I laughed my way through this presentation with the rest of the class, enjoying a break in the all-too-tedious subject known as Chemistry (it should be called Chem-mystery, as far as I’m concerned). Then the fun took an unexpected turn. A burlap sack was put over my head, and I was told that I had to go with the devils. ‘Surprised’ isn’t a strong enough word for my feelings at that moment. I knew that my schoolmates wouldn’t let anything happen to me, but I left reluctantly, all the same, not knowing what to expect once I was in the hall.

Making my way out of the room was a chore in itself. I was seated in the very back of the classroom, which is arranged in tiers – each row of desks is higher that the row in front of it, with a tall stair linking the two levels. The door is at the front of the classroom, naturally. I had to get from my desk in the back to the door at the front. With a sack over my head. And stairs that I could definitely sprain my ankles on if I made one tiny misstep. I laughed, allowing myself to be led from the room.

Out in the hall, the demons went about their noise-making routine, and I stood there for a bit with a couple of my classmates. Black stuff was put on my face, and I was given a bit more candy by the angels. Not too bad. Then I was sent back into the Chemistry room with my friends. The room was silent until I entered; then laughter filled the air. Apparently it was quite amusing for my Czech counterparts to see the only American in the school get smudged. I thought it was pretty funny too, so I laughed along.

That night, there was a big celebration in the main square in České Budějovice. An ‘angel’ (otherwise known as a fireman) ‘flew’ from Black Tower on a cable (extremely slowly), tossing glitter over the crowd. Then a huge angel came out and walked around the square, operated by many people. It was quite spectacular. Like the giant puppets you might see in a parade on Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. It was also the first time that I have seen so many people in town after 9:00 pm. There were small fireworks, said to continue every night until the middle of January! I greatly enjoyed myself, observing the festivities with my fellow exchange students Kayla and Wade, and my friend Vašek from school. We then went to dinner (at McDonalds, since the other two Americans and I were seriously craving some American cuisine, even if it wasn’t something that we would have wanted at home), then a cafe. I stayed with Kayla that night, and we had a wonderful time.

Christmas is coming in quickly, and unlike the majority of the people around me, I have been Christmas shopping for quite some time now. I had to think about my gifts far in advance, since I have somewhere around 75 people to consider, including all of the Rotarians in my host club and all of my classmates.

Along with the holiday season come holiday concerts. I’ve been singing with the school choir, Mendík, since the beginning of school, an activity that ties me to my life in Prosser. Every Friday morning at 5:45 I wake up, wishing violently that I hadn’t made the commitment to stick with this choir (because the practices are from 6:45-8:15). And every Friday during practice, I am glad that I force myself to get out of bed at such an unreasonable hour, because singing with that choir links me to all of the years I spent singing with my church choir – forcing myself to get up at what seemed like a highly unreasonable hour each Sunday morning and being glad for it, nonetheless.

Anyway, in the next few weeks, I will sing in two concerts with my school choir, one in Prague and one in Germany. I’m exceedingly thrilled, though nervous at the same time. I don’t have all of the songs memorized, and I’m not sure if that has to be done before the concerts take place. I don’t want to look like a fool. I’ll figure it out.

A couple of Rotary events have taken place since the last time I wrote, aside from the regular Wednesday-night meetings. My Rotary Exchange family was able to gather twice in November, once for a “Thanksgiving” meeting (which was definitely NOT Thanksgiving by my standards, nor by any of the other exchangers’, but was appreciated all the same), and two weekends ago in Praha for an early Christmas meeting. We exchanged Secret Santa gifts and generally enjoyed each others’ company from Friday to Sunday, and then caught trains home.

I love my fellow Rotary Exchange Students very, very much, but being without my family around this time of year is taking its toll on me. I miss my mum and my papa and my little brother and my puppy, that much cannot be denied. However, I have been blessed so far with a wonderful family and great friends, and though I miss my home and my family and my traditions, I would not call myself homesick. It is true, I miss my home, but not so much that I cannot enjoy being here. I still love Czech Republic, and I think that I always will. There may come a time when I want nothing more than to be at home with my family, and I can only hope that the feeling lasts a very short time. But for now, I am happy. It is not a bittersweet happiness; it is genuine and intense, and an incredible blessing.

When I look back on the last three months (which have simply flown by, I might tell you), I can hardly believe that I’ve been here long enough to experience all that I have. Day after day, I am offered opportunities, from traveling to Germany with my choir to simply going grocery shopping with Pavel, my host daddy. Every chance I take here brings me closer to the people around me, and I am discovering that my relationships are really what this year is all about. Each time I talk to someone in my class, I am greatly rewarded by their reception and eagerness to have a conversation.

If there’s one thing that I have learned about the people here, it’s that I, as the foreigner have to offer the hand of friendship first. Every time I stick my neck out and overcome my shy tendencies, I am greeted with an enthusiasm that makes me yearn to further build my relationships. That welcoming nature, and the feeling that my acquaintances are pleased to speak with me, whether it be in Czech or English, is something that truly draws me in to these people and this country. I appreciate these quiet Czechs more each day, and could not be more pleased to have landed in this country more than three months ago.

Na shledanou!

Thursday, October 2, 2008


After completing my first full month here in Czech Republic, I feel that it is now safe for me to address the topic of cultural differences without fear of over-stepping my still-limited knowledge of the country. As I expected long before my departure at the end of August (it seems so long ago), I have come across a number of obstacles due to the dissimilarity between the States and my new host country. Some of these differences are easy to see, – clothing, food, hairstyles, etc. – but others take more than a first impression to notice. Please note that it is the second kind of variation which takes the longest time to adjust to.

Upon first contact with Czech Republic, I noticed the obvious differences in style. It seems to me that Czech women just naturally grow into tall, impossibly thin beauties. Naturally, the clothing has been adapted to make this fact more pronounced. Most (if not all) of the girls my age, as well as many women who surpass me in years, wear “skinny jeans”, which, true to their name, cling very tightly to the wearer’s legs. Said jeans also tend to sit extremely low on the hips (to allow the perfect, flat Czech bellies to be exposed, I’m sure). I have yet to purchase a pair for myself, but I’m sure that I will eventually break down and spend a little money in order to fit in among my peers a little better. Now the perfect flat belly… I’m not sure that I can blend in that well.

The shirts have also been adjusted to “accommodate” the perfection known as the female Czech physic. Most casual shirts (as one would wear to school or on weekends) here are much shorter than one would find in stores in the States. As a result of these fashions (or possibly the fashions are the result), dress codes seem to
be all but nonexistent in schools here. That lack of discipline also applies to teachers; they can wear whatever they want any day of the week, unlike at home, where teachers have only “casual Fridays”.

It also interested me when I first arrived to find that the “punk” style is thriving among this country’s youth. The style that people in my hometown might describe as “druggie” or “bad-a**” is common-place here, which, I admit, startled me at first. The presence of black clothing, dark (slightly ridiculous) eye makeup, and completely bizarre hairstyles is a bit overwhelming at times.

The hairstyles are a culture difference all on their own. Hairstyles that seem completely irrational and strange to me can be found everywhere I look. Never before have I seen so many people with dreadlocks, and that includes the time that I spent in Bahamas. I have also noticed women walking down the street with hair cut at God-only-knows how many different lengths, looking as if they have just rolled out of bed and taken no time to look in a mirror before leaving house. And, oh the colors! Women of all ages dye their all of or sections of their hair completely random colors, including, but not limited to: bright red, pink, purple, blue and green. I have no idea why.

Among men, it seems as though haircuts are entirely optional. I see men with hair longer than mine! At the same time, I can point out a few guys with Mohawks or something similar, mullets (unfortunately), or completely shaven heads. It looks like nearly anything is possible in the world of Czech hairstyles.

As a point of clarification, these are not the “popular” hairstyles of Czech Republic. The oddities mentioned above stand out in a crowd. The average Czech wears his or her hair in a fashion comparable to hairstyles in the US, though long hair among boys is much more common here. L-O-N-G hair.

Another easily identified change that most people expect to come across is a difference in food; the culture effects what is prepared, as well as when, how, and how much. Czech people enjoy a hardy diet, similar to that of Germ
any, or so I’ve heard, involving lots potatoes and pork. I feared having to eat sauerkraut, having heard from a “reliable source” (Gordy) that it was commonplace in Czech Republic. I have yet to have sauerkraut placed in front of me (ha ha, Mom and Dad, ha ha), though I have eaten cabbage. Ivana prepares cabbage in a way that makes it less… overpowering.

Anyway, here in Czech Republic, breakfast is usually larger than what was normal for me at home. A regular weekday breakfast consists of a few small pieces of bread with some kind of topping, usually butter and jam or honey, or cheese and salami or ham, followed by a small bowl of yogurt with cereal. I also usually prepare a small pot of tea for myself in the morning to drink with breakfast. In the home I’m staying now, breakfast is larger on Sunday than any other day of the week, usually involving some fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to the previously mentioned array of food.

Although breakfast is huge compared to what I consumed at home in the States, lunch is the main meal of the day. It is tradition for a soup to be served first. Soups vary from vegetable and meat soups to bean soups to cold tomato “summer” soup (all of which are very yummy). After the soup has been consumed, one starts on the main dish, which is always some sort of very hardy food. Pork and potatoes are a common combination, as are dumplings with sauce, usually accompanied by pork or some other meat. At school, I find it a bit difficult at times to find something to eat that isn’t covered in some sort of sauce or gravy. I have this thing about soggy foods… Pork schnitzel and potatoes is probably my favorite dish from the school cafeteria. Dessert is also sometimes eaten after lunch.

Something that surprised me about both my first home and the cafeteria where I get my lunch during the school week is the constant presence of fresh fruit. There is always fresh fruit at my house, and the appearance of fruit in the school menu is not uncommon. I definitely like this change.

Dinner varies in size, sometimes proving to be just as large as lunch, but often it is smaller. When appetites are bigger, dinner is something much like lunch, consisting of many of the same kinds of foods. When we feel like eating less, or Ivana doesn’t feel like spending too much time preparing dinner, we eat something small, such as toast with scrambled eggs or bread with butter and cheese and meat – like breakfast. I think
that Ivana has a bit of a sweet tooth (which I can certainly sympathize with), so we often enjoy a small desert after dinner. When she can get away with it (which is only when Pavel isn’t home), Ivana makes something sweet for dinner as well, such as plum dumplings. Yes, they are as delicious as they sound. My host mother bakes some kind of desert nearly every week. There are at least three apple trees in my backyard, so many of the tasty treats that Ivana prepares are made with apples. All of them are delicious.

I have found that there is one sweet that Czech people enjoy that I simply cannot, however. Mák is a kind of paste made from poppy seeds and sugar. It is used in all kinds of pastries, as well as on plain pasta. The consistency of Mák is that of a… gritty paste, which makes it impossible for me to choke down. It’s the texture, not the taste. It feels a bit like eating mud (yes, I have chewed on mud before, thanks to the Lazy F mud sports a few years ago).

Speaking of inedible foods, I also found out just last night that I cannot consume hazelnuts, either. This discovery came about yesterday evening after dessert when Ivana cracked open one of the many hazelnuts that we have in the house (in addition to the apple trees, Pavel and Ivana have a hazelnut tree and a walnut tree, so we have been busy all autumn collecting the nuts as they fall). She offered me the nut, and I popped it into my mouth without a further thought, having never suffered from any food allergies. Less than five minutes later, my throat began to swell at the back of my mouth. I immediately took some Benadryl which I had thought to bring with me from home, and the swelling stopped. When I had convinced Pavel and Ivana (and myself) that I was alright and that the swelling wasn’t going to make it impossible for me to breathe or swallow, I went to bed. The swelling went away completely and all is well now, but I’ll be steering away from hazelnuts from now on, which is a shame because I rather liked the taste!

The cultural differences between the US and Czech Republic go so far beyond the obvious dissimilarities in fashion and food, though. The very way that people interact here is unlike my home. For example, hugging is nearly n
onexistent here. As someone who has always been the hugging type, this lack of physical affection is quite difficult for me to handle. You may take it for granted at home; people who know you and love you give you hugs.

Not here.
No such luck.

The interaction among family members is also very different here. Like many places, the wife and mother of a family usually takes charge of the housework. However, unlike at home, no one else is really expected to do anything to help around the house. In fact, I practically have to fight for chores, just so that I feel like I’m partially earning my keep in the house. I ask every night when Ivana is preparing dinner if there is anything that I can do to help. She always says no. I do my best to set and clear the table regularly, since there is little else that my host mom will let me do. When I catch her hanging laundry, I hurry to help, but she’s so efficient that there’s hardly ever anything for me to do. It’s difficult to know how to react.

Pavel does most of the work outside in the garden, but does little to help with the housekeeping. And by little, I mean very little, as in, he usually clears his own plate from the table after dinner, and that’s about it. I know that would definitely not fly in my home in the States, so it is difficult to cope with here.

The family dynamic is also different in the way that parents treat their children. I have seen only two extremes:
1) Parents who dote on their children, sometimes excessively. Showing love is one thing, but a few mothers here seem to try to cater to their children’s every whim.
2) Parents who… aren’t particularly… good-natured, shall we say. Czech people always seem to be in a hurry, and sometimes it seems as though parents think of their children as a hindrance, particularly when they don’t move fast enough.

However you view the parenting methods, bonds between family members are very strong here. For example, it is not uncommon for a newly wedded couple to stay with one set of parents until the couple is financially stable enough to live on their own. Parents care for their children even into adulthood, sometimes helping to buy houses for them. Families also often take trips to visit grandparents and other relatives who live elsewhere, whether in another part of town or in another city altogether.

Outside of family relations, interaction between friends is generally more formal here than in the States. As I noted before, hugs are not usual at all. Adults, upon meeting a friend, shake hands. People my age don’t even do that. Čao or Ahoj (informal ‘hello’) and a smile are usually the only greeting. It’s more frustrating than you might think – not being able to hug people… I’m not sure how I’m going to get used to it.

That’s just one difference to add to the (constantly growing) list of things I will need to get used to during my stay here. It’s an intimidating list, but it will grow shorter after a while. I know that the time will eventually come when I feel like I belong here; when I fit in with the customs and culture of the people surrounding me. I’m preparing myself for a long wait, but as long as I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I know that it’s all worth it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Czech Language Camp

Language camp was a blast. It was wonderful to have the chance to meet nearly all of the other Rotary exchange students in Czech Republic. The work load was tough -- we had "class" from 8:30 in the morning til 5:30 in the evening. We worked from breakfast to dinner, with a break for lunch (of course) and 15-min breaks every two hours. I had a headache nearly every day of the week, which was unfortunate. I think it was a side effect of all of the learning I was trying to cram into one short week.

All three of the teachers were very good. We had to jump from subject to subject during class due to the time limit, which was incredibly frustrating for me. I plan to spend this week at school organizing my notes from language camp so that I can actually use the information. I still don't really understand the conjugating much at all. Czech has seven cases. Seven! Not to mention the fact that subjects can be masculine, feminine or neutral. Although I have a natural knack for picking up languages, Czech is proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated. It probably would have been better for me if I could learn Czech from an English-speaking teacher. It's pretty difficult to learn Czech in Czech. Saying the word over and over again does nothing unless I have something to relate the word to.

Following dinner every night, there was an organized evening program. Monday night, we all went out bowling. I'm not sure how I did it, but I was the girl with the highest score, so I won a prize (hooray for chocolate). The second night, we went sight-seeing around Třebíč. Wednesday, we went to a local school gym to play soccer, volleyball and/or basketball. I played volleyball with one of the chaperons who was really good. I didn't realize how much I missed that sport, but I played until my arms were bruised -- literally. Thursday night, a local band was performing at the hostel where we were staying, so we had the opportunity to relax and enjoy some music. On our last night, we walked to another local school and played bocce ball until 12 am! Anna (who is also from my district) and I were on a team and we had so much fun -- probably more fun than normal people would have playing bocce ball. :) Each evening program turned out to be fabulous and very tiring. My roommates and I had a theory that the program facilitators were purposefully picking activities that would tire us out so that we'd just go to sleep when we returned to the hostel. For the most part, it worked. The evening program also provided some time to get to know the other exchange students.

I was able to make quite a few friends in the past week. The best part of these new friendships is that these people are going through the same experience that I am, so they really understand what it's like. Being on an exchange isn't taking a trip -- it's nothing like a vacation. You have to create another life here for yourself, which is something that a vacation or short trip doesn't require. It's just nice to know that other people are experiencing the same struggle, though each person's story is distinctly unique. One common trouble among most of us was the lack of physical affection that is shown here. At home, I am used to hugs and other displays of affection, but the Czech greeting is usually only a handshake, unless it is between family members. This change has been particularly difficult for all of us, so there was a lot of hugging going on in Třebíč.

The language camp was a wonderful experience. I feel like I learned quite a bit, but I know that there is still so much to take in. One step at a time, I suppose. I am very thankful for the opportunity to make new friends and share my story with them, as well as hear their stories. I know that I made some very valuable friends.

I started struggling with my first little bout of true homesickness as I was leaving language camp. It seemed so strange to be leaving a camp but not to be going home. I've come home from so many camps in my lifetime, so this experience was just similar enough to make me miss the way it had always been in the past. But as we always say in Rotary, "Nothing is better or worse, just different".

I went back to school on Monday, of course. Two of my friends, Mary and Věrka, are in France right now with the choir and will be gone for the rest of the week, so I have been having a little bit of trouble finding people to talk to.

I'm still trying to find my place here, which is quite normal, I suspect. :) I'm looking forward to the time when I'll fit in like I've always lived here...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Welcome to Czech Republic!

After much prompting from my mother and various other sources, I have decided to start a blog documenting my stay here in Czech Republic. Forgive me if the posts are few and far between. I am anticipating a very busy year.
School had not started by the time I arrived in Czech Rep., so I spent the first week of my stay walking around Ceske Budejovice. My family and close friends know all too well that I am… “navigationally challenged”. Sadly, this quality has not developed in me overseas. In fact, I think that I am more confused now than I ever have been. For that simple reason, my first week was a challenge. I have tried to familiarize myself with Ceske Budejovice (with little success) just by walking and observing. My first task of my stay was to change some US cash for Czech money. Of course, it was hard enough for me to find the place where my host father, Pavel, had recommended that I change my money. Then I had to try to make myself understood. The first week passed without any troubles.

On Saturday morning, I attended choir practice in a nearby town. This one action proved to be the most beneficial of the whole week. I was fortunate enough to make friends before school began.
I started school on Monday, September 1. My friends from choir were there to guide me throughout the day. We talked to the headmaster that day so that I could be transferred into my friends’ class. That has made my life much easier. School is going pretty well, aside from not understanding much of anything that is going on. I get a little scared at the end of each class because I never know where the next class will be. The students move from classroom to classroom like we do in the States, but the teachers don’t stay in a specified room. They move, too. I’m still rather confused about the way that the classes are organized. I’m sure that I’ll figure it out eventually.

The classroom dynamics are very interesting. There are rows of small tables in each room, and two people sit at each table. In most cases, the boys sit on one side of the class and the girls sit on the other. There are some exceptions (I happen to be one of them – I sit with a boy at my table), but for the most part, the two genders are separate. I have no idea why. Everyone seems to get along pretty well in my class, which is nice – I can’t accidentally make enemies. Until very recently, the guys in my class almost refused to talk to me. I talked to one of my friends about it, and she said that it’s probably just because most of the guys don’t speak English very well, so they’re afraid to talk to me. I think that’s funny. They’re afraid to speak in a foreign language in their own country to a foreigner who should be adapting by speaking their language. Soon, I will be the self-conscious person speaking a language far out of my comfort zone.

I have three good friends at school right now; Mary, Věrka, and Barbara. Věrka and Mary are from choir. I met Barbara on the first day of school; she is one of Mary’s close friends. Mary was wonderful to begin classes with because she is so high-energy and speaks English like a pro. Barbara is slightly less outgoing, but knows English very well and is very helpful. Věrka and I have become closer during the course of the last week. She seems to find me after every class, whether or not we have the next class together. I think that she realizes how confused I am; Věrka is wonderful about pointing me in the right direction and showing me where I need to be every step of the way. I’m incredibly thankful for both of them. They have made the transition into school much easier on me. I couldn’t be happier with the way things are working out right now.

My family is wonderful. I am living with Pavel and Ivana Hanzlik. They have three children, Magda, Miša, and Petr, but all three are out of the house. Both Magda and Miša are adults and have their own homes and I have had the pleasure of meeting them both. Petr is on a Rotary Exchange in Oklahoma this year. Pavel and Ivana and I get along so well. It is honestly astonishing. Honestly, I anticipated a few conflicts – or at least one conflict! I have been pleasantly surprised. The other day, Pavel and Ivana said that they hope that I will be with them for Christmas. Tonight, as Ivana was making dinner, I gave her a hug and thanked her for doing so. She told me (in her wonderful broken English) that I was her fourth child. Then she said something to Pavel, which he translated for me: “Ivana said that she is already sad because you will be leaving us”. I feel so welcome and loved here. It’s like living with another part of my family. It all seems too good to be true sometimes…

I am incredibly pleased with the way that things are going. I hope that this positive trend continues as the year goes on. With the help of my wonderful friends and host parents, and with a little luck, it will.