Showing posts with label Kate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kate. Show all posts

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

Friday, July 4, 2008

My wish for you: Freedom

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Hello World! Hello Czech friends!

Today is the 4th of July, the day Americans celebrate our declaration of independence. It is impossible for me to read these words without awe - they move me that much. Thomas Jefferson wrote those words in his Declaration of Independence and they were unanimously adopted by men who were willing to risk their lives and property by signing it.

I remember when my Czech friend Kate said that Americans take seriously things the rest of the world has developed complete cynicism over - things like government of the people, by the people and for the people. It's true. When it comes to the ideas around the "idea" of America, I have the faith and belief of a child. I don't believe Czechs are any different about their belief actually - witness the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, and the Velvet Divorce. Czechs are no less outraged than we are when the ideal is not realized.

Here is how I will celebrate my country's holiday in Illinois.
I think it is very typical:

Yesterday I went to a symphonic concert of patriotic music that started with everyone singing the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem. The concert was held under the stars in a spectacular, recently-built outdoor amphitheater.

At Independence Day concerts, it is traditional to play the anthems of all the military services and for the veterans of each service to stand during their military branch's anthem. When these 60-80-year-old gentlemen stand, it humbles me and makes me grateful. You can literally feel the passion behind that phrase "the last full measure of their devotion" immortalized by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.

There must always be at least one piece by John Williams, a composer who is a national treasure (non-Americans may be most familiar with the movie music he wrote to accompany Jaws and Star Wars). This year the maestro chose the theme to Indiana Jones movies.

This year a new talent's work was featured called "Reflections on Rushmore." Written by a young Iowan named Michael Gilbertson when he was eighteen years old (two years later he is now studying composition at Julliard), the piece was an homage to the four Presidents featured on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Originally commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, this was only the second time "Reflections on Rushmore" had been performed. My local symphony is going to play the world premiere of his next work. Ironically, when looking for an image of young Michael Gilbertson, I found this wonderful Czech music project he was involved in - click here.

While I adore patriotic music, my favorite part of the concert was featured medleys of Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck. My least favorite was a medley of Beach Boys tunes. The Beach Boys were not meant for symphonic arrangement!

All 4th of July concerts I have ever seen always end the same way with the "Stars and Stripes Forever" featuring marvelous piccolo solos, enthusiastic hand clapping, and fireworks. Watching the fireworks from under the open roof made the booms just that much more powerful and fun.

Tonight I will make a very simple 4th of July dinner of brats cooked on the grill, corn on the cob and fresh green beans. Then I will join thousands of other people down at the Rock River for a truly AWESOME fireworks display. It is even more magnificent than Chicago's because the space it is delivered in is much smaller so the fireworks appear much, much bigger.

I wish anyone reading this: freedom.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My History with Czechs (final post)

It is such fun to befriend someone from another country and see your country through their eyes. Kate and I would spend hours discussing the difference between our two cultures. One experience we had together shocked me.

During Christmas, I invited Kate to a meeting of my PEO chapter. PEO International is a U.S.-based philanthropic educational organization for women. It supports the only college in the world owned by women, run by women, exclusively for women. PEO also supports the largest scholarship endowment exclusively for female graduate students from anywhere on the globe.

That evening my house was decorated for Christmas -- and if I do say so myself -- it was so beautiful! The ladies were pretty in their Christmas finery. The sense of community among us was so strong. Our program for the evening was to exchange Christmas ornaments and one holiday tradition that was important to our own families. It was a warm, magical evening as we shared traditions that were beloved to us.

Afterwards Kate said she had never experienced anything like it. The idea of women getting together with such a sense of purpose to enjoy each other's company would never be respected back home. It would be labeled a "hen party" by both sexes. Because men would deride such an endeavor, women wouldn't do it.

I could hardly believe this. Surely women are the same the world over? We love to get together and learn from each other. Indeed, the International Women's Association of Prague looks wonderfully stimulating and enriching.

What if Czech culture is really sexist when I get there? They do burn women after all, albeit witches, in effigy every Spring!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My History with Czechs (part two)

One day while Little Lenka was living with us, I ate lunch at one of my favorite restaurants and my waiter happened to be Czech (I am one of those people who ask all people with an accent where they are from - I suspect all expatriate types are like that). We struck up a friendship and he invited me to get to know his wife Kate.

Kate was a graduate student at the local university and we soon were enjoying lots of time together. She was in a traditionally male field and did not have much female company. I learned so much from these two! I loved hearing their observations comparing American and Czech life.

Kate said Americans were the most uncynical people she had ever met. She loved that we had no cynicism about anything we expected from our government and instead had indignation that whatever was wrong needed to be changed ...immediately! I think she found that level of connection, identification, and empowerment unimaginable (who knows - maybe that's changed in both places by now, this was 1992).

Kate said Americans laughed at things that a Czech would find unfunny as too simple. She felt Americans had the sense of humor of children. Not much blackness to it. And she was fascinated by American parenting. This idea of constantly building up a child's self esteem was foreign to her yet she could see the benefits to the child.

One of my attractions to Czech culture is the sense that ordinary people enjoyed it at a highbrow level. Back then, everything I read about Czech culture led me to believe people would do things like play as a string quartet in their living room.

Kate and her husband told me that under communism, friends would have "samizdat" (Russian for self-published) parties. Samizdat in Soviet-block countries was writing that would never be officially sanctioned by the dominant and all-powerful state. People would get together and pass around pages of forbidden Czech writing, page by page. The whole party would be completely silent as people sat absorbed reading and taking in what they weren't supposed to know. She said "can you imagine what it was like for us? We were completely denied our own culture. Can you imagine that the minute you are able to travel, your first trip is to Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower and the sights that everyone else in the world wants to see, but to go to the Czech Library to read the writings of dissidents who weren't published at home? To know your own writers!"

I am a First amendment fan and a lover of the printed word. At the time Kate and I had our conversations, I was serving as a trustee of my local public library board. It was my passion, back then, to make sure the people in my community had access to not only "their writers," but everyone else's writers. Still is. It was impossible for me not to fall in love with this vision of Czech culture.
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