Sunday, 1 July 2012

Storytelling Sunday - An English Girl Abroad

Straight after university in the early 90s, rather than joining my classmates in the competitive race for a teaching job in the South of England, I applied for a post as a Native Speaking English Teacher in the Czech Republic. I'm not proud to say I told my Mum over the phone instead of face-to-face but, to her credit, she was excited for me, and so I embarked on the most formative 2 years of my life.
 I arrived in the small Czech town of Humpolec a pretty naive 22 year-old (despite having spent 4 years away at college, I was still a light-weight in the drinking stakes and had never had a serious boyfriend).
I worked in the Gymnazium (grammar school) where I taught every pupil aged 11-18 through the medium of English. No translation allowed. Although I was a qualified English teacher, I had had no TEFL training and very few printed resources were available. I reinvented the wheel in many lessons, spending hours coming up with imaginative ways to put across the intricacies of English grammar. It was quite gratifying when I came back to Britain and got a TEFL-teaching post in a language school here to find so many of 'my' ideas in the resource books.

Some of my best memories of my life still stem from my time in Humpolec: I spent a Sunday making Christmas biscuits with the womenfolk of one of my colleagues' families. Several hours in a hot kitchen with 6 non-English speaking women eventually produced in excess of 300 cookies which would be consumed over the Christmas period. They were delicious.

Christmas is a special time in the Czech Republic (as you know, I'm a Christmas addict anyway): I was fascinated by the live carp splashing in barrels of water at the market waiting to be taken home and kept in the bath until they are cooked on Christmas Eve.
Mikulas (Dec 5th) is when St Nicholas goes around the houses accompanied by an angel and a devil to check whether the children have been good all year.
It was common for townspeople to own small country cottages (Dacha) and I passed many a weekend by the lake Tanavka. My enduring memories are of copious quantities of locally-brewed lager (I still hate the stuff so I quickly learnt to provide my own beverages) and vodka consumed round a roaring fire on which a whole suckling pig had been roasted. There were always one or two guitarists present and we would sing long into the night. One of the many thing I love about the Czech culture is that everybody - young and old- knows the same traditional folk songs. I even learned a few myself.
I attended several graduation balls during my 2 years. They were very formal occasions, opening with a display dance by the graduating class followed by a parents' waltz and -horror!- a teacher's dance. The students were then presented with their leaving scrolls and showered with small coins which they swept up for luck. It was apparently bad luck to count it until after the last exam was finished.
After the formalities, the evening quickly dissolved in yet more lager and vodka.
There is no doubt - the Czechs can drink. they are one of the most gentle and hospitable peoples I have ever known, but it is literally NEVER too early for alcohol! In the winter it was perfectly normal for the teachers to share a shot of vodka before their first class at 8.15am, and everyone's name day or birthday had to be toasted. This was quite an eye-opener for me and I never really learned to like it. The local regarded my non-alcoholism as just a mildly amusing English trait - a bit like drinking tea with milk!

My 'bar Czech' became pretty good quite quickly though. 'Jeste Jedno' (one more) means another beer. You have to specify if you want any other beverage. 'Na Zdravi' (Cheers) was one of the first things I learnt to pronounce, having been told that Bill Clinton had toasted Preseident Havel with 'Nadrazi' (railway station)!

I could witter on for hours about my memories of this amazing country, but I think I might save it for another Storytelling Sunday, or you won't have time to visit Sian and catch up with everybody else.


Ruth said...

Such lovely memories for you!

Missus Wookie said...

Oh I really liked seeing the details from the layout - lots of fun memories, thanks for sharing.

debs14 said...

Fascinating stories. What an adventure you had, at a time when teaching abroad would have been quite a novel thing to do. How brave of you. Love the Bill Clinton anecdote!

Louise said...

such lovely memories to have

heart.hearth.home. said...

How wonderful you got to experience this in your twenties and then to share it with us. And how brave you were. It must have been quite difficult at times with such a challenging language barrier.

scrappyjacky said...

Sounds like a wonderful 2 years.

Mel said...

Wow this sounds like a great experience. I am a teacher and couldn't imagine vodka shots at 8.15am but some days you'd wish you had had a shot!

furrypig said...

what an interesting thing to do sounds amazing and retold as if it was yesterday!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting 2 years.

Chipper said...

I love to experience other cultures. This would have been a tremendous adventure!