Showing posts with label travel history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel history. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Three years of conversations in a Muslim country distilled down to 13 minutes and 49 seconds

Moving to a Muslim country is a chance for an expat to confront one's own Islamophobia directly. It works too. I love living without fear. Instead of learning through American media what Muslim people are like, I'm learning from them directly and listening to them share with me how they see things.

If you want to know what it feels like to be an expat, this man's talk has distilled the kind of conversations I've had with my Muslim friends over the last three years down to 13 minutes and 49 seconds. I ask you to listen to Mehdi Hasan, speaking at the Oxford Union, with an open mind and heart, as otherwise there really isn't any point in listening. You would miss the whole experience of what it actually is like to be an expat.

To all my Muslim friends as you begin your celebration of Ramazan during what will be a very hot month, I say: "Ramazan Mubarak!"

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Turkey's Ethnic Diversity

Turk, Kurd, Bosnian
Circassian, Nomad, Immigrant
Laz, Albanian, Georgian
Alevi, Sunni, Şafii (what is that?)
One of the things I love about Turkey is something it has in common with America: ethnic diversity! I always say Turkey is as diverse a vegetable stew as America - it just has different vegetables. And all of those vegetables are new to me. I met a Turk or two before I came here, Bosnians too (often new immigrants to America), but I am sure I never met a Kurd, or an Alevi (hadn't even heard of them before I cam here). I only knew the word Circassian from reading Mark Twain, they are now a diaspora people for the most part. I met a Laz woman once during spontaneous outdoor dancing in Turkey, but to see their culture I would need to go up to the Northern Black Sea coast. Albanians, Georgians, Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks help make up the Levantine culture that is so wonderfully fun to experience because it is so different than what I am used to at home.

Once you've experienced diversity, do you find going back to a homogeneous society kind of boring? I do. It's all the differences that make life interesting.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Been There, Done That," only in present tense

At Topkapı Palace
with a trusty audioguide
around my neck
Wow! How exciting. I'm part of a trend documented with a three-page travel story in the New York Times. What is it? Solo travel. According to the article, Google reports that solo travel searches are up 50 to 60% and becoming larger all the time. Women make up 70% of solo travel, although men do more solo adventure travel like mountain climbing. The article also explains the difference between solo travel and single travel.

 Where does the article recommend a solo person go if they want to explore a new city? Istanbul! I'm here, I'm doing that! Click here to read the entire article.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Voting in the American Election as an Overseas Voter

This week, I cast my ballot in the American election. I was proud to have not blown it off but to have figured out how to do it. Figuring it out could be overwhelming, but it really helped to just call the Board of Elections where I last voted and ask them how to do it. There is a military and overseas voter specialist in both the city and county election office. I found it reassuring that two specific people actually had their name attached to making my vote count, and it wasn't a shared responsibility with an entire office, possibly becoming no one's responsibility.

They told me to go online, using my Colorado driver's license, and activate my registration for this election which I did. On September 22nd, all military and overseas voters were emailed instructions on how to download and return an email ballot.

It wasn't as simple as downloading an attachment, clicking on the right box, and then emailing it back. If it was going to be emailed back, it had to be printed, signed, scanned, and sent back. I printed it and then faxed it back. I figured there was less chance for someone to change my ballot if I sent it to the office then if I sent it through email. Fax seems less secure than electronic communication, but in this instance it made me feel more secure. I am basing that on well, no knowledge whatsoever! I called the office and confirmed that it had been received though and I had done everything correctly so my vote would count.

Overseas voters give up their right to a secret ballot. I was okay with that. Again, I am basing that on, knowledge to the contrary that it could be a bad thing.

Thinking about how to make my vote count gave me a feeling of vulnerability. After all, there are people running for office who are okay with my children not getting equal pay for equal work, who want to criminalize private family planning decisions, who approach decisions of war and peace with a buccaneer's attitude. It matters deeply to me that my vote count. I also felt that I couldn't complain, if I hadn't done my part by voting.

I am a much, much more globally-aware voter than I was four years ago. I've grown a lot in perspective since I moved abroad the day after Obama was elected in 2008. While I've always followed foreign affairs, now living overseas, I have a view from the other side informed by living in a completely international community talking with people from all over the world everyday. I understand that it is not just about America and what's best for us (although I appreciate that many Americans find that view hard to give up and don't see why we should).

I see how important our leadership is in so many venues and that it has to be informed by voices from the entire planet. It isn't just about us, because the complexity of the world has grown, and so many decisions are about all of us.

America has unique advantages: size, wealth, a shared tongue, and a stable, old, democracy renewed with ideas from the world's finest research universities. Nations can try and band together to replicate our size, but as the EU has shown, it is harder than it looks. It's interesting to me that one party still calls for sending issues back to the States, rather than solve them at a federal level, when our problems have gone from local to national to now global. To send issues back to smaller units of governance would disadvantage the people's representatives when trying to regulate behemoth global corporations. But maybe that's the point of their philosophy.

I hope leaders like Obama and George H.W. Bush, who are so good at creating a consensus among multiple poles of power all around the world, are our future. The people are currently deciding in this election whether or not to go through life on their own or to instead decide we're all in this together. I hope we choose to see that not only are we are all in this together - it's not just as a nation, but as a planet.

Thanks to all the people who made my ability to vote possible in 2012: American veterans, female sufferagettes, the Founding Fathers, public servants in election offices - see - we're all in this together.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

There is No Need to Save Face in Sweden

Can you see the people near the bottom
of the magnificent Vasa Warship?

There were so many things that impressed me about Sweden but one of the most fun to experience was that a couple of the top tourist attractions in Stockholm all involve human mistakes.  And the Swedes are OK with that!  They not only don't hide them, they tell you the fun stories behind each one.  

The most prominent human mistake on display in Sweden is the Vasa Warship Museum.  A couple of hundred years ago, King Gustavas of Sweden wanted to go raise hell in Poland and had one fine warship built for himself to use invading Polish harbors. When he had it built, he spared no expense in putting all kinds of colorful, scary carvings on it intending, of course, to have Polish sailors peeing in their boots when they saw it coming.  The Swedish king wanted to use it to sink every Polish ship in their harbor and block all activity.
 Restored carvings
showing how the ship was painted in
full color that
conveyed the King's might

Unfortunately, someone's shipbuilding math was off.  Had the entire ship been one meter wider or less top-heavy the ship might have had a fighting chance to complete it's mission.  It looked unstable in the harbor but none of the king's advisor's had the courage to keep it from sailing.

When a strong wind hit it shortly after launch, the ship leaned enough to one side that water starting pouring into the open windows used for the cannons. It sailed all of 20 minutes before sinking, blocking the Swedish harbor, not the Polish one.

Three hundred years later, a Swedish archeologist decided that Sweden needed to bring the ship up from the depths of the mud and now the whole thing is on display.  I'm not a guy, but when I entered the museum and saw this giant, gorgeous instrument of war, even I got a testosterone rush.  It was 17th century shock and awe.

Scary and beautiful carvings
on the back of the ship
sans their color

Hearing about how bad math doomed the ship reminded me of Henri Petroski's wonderfully readable book about the role of failure in design called "To Engineer is Human." Doctors bury their mistakes, but poor shipbuilders, builders and engineers have to experience all of their failures publicly.  VASA museum tour guides are very used to the giggles that come out of tourist mouths like mine as we contemplated how embarrassing it all must have been.

I ask you though, hasn't the Swedish bravery in showcasing their mistake given that warship a higher purpose?  Kids, look what happens when you don't do your math homework!

You might also enjoy these other posts on Sweden:

A Week In Sweden

Daydreaming at Stockholm City Hall

Visiting the Nobel Museum

Visiting Sweden: If This is Socialism, Sign Me Up!

What Idea(s) Captured Your Imagination in 2010?

The Swedish Tourist Attraction that Didn't Attract Me

If It Were My Home: Comparing Sweden to the United States

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not All Who Travel Must Leave Their Armchair

There are times in one's life when there is no possibility of travel.  When illness threatens, for example, or there are numerous small children to raise, or when the budget just doesn't allow for it. But there are still ways to allow the imagination to take off and see far-off lands and consider peoples and places that are new to us.

Recently, I discovered a blog that encourages precisely that sort of thing.  The Global Reading Challenge encourages people to select a book from each continent of our globe and read it.  This is exactly the sort of deep dive into each other's point-of-view that isn't happening enough in the Internet age of reading chunks of information.

As an American, I would often hear a recitation of American authors from my European friends that they enjoyed.  I have to admit, when an Italian teenager on the subway bumped into me and I was expecting something rude to come out of his mouth, he instead responded to my American accent and described all of his favorite outdoor American writers from Jack London to Jon Krakauer.  His favorite American writing? I was curious to hear what it would be.  ''The American constitution - where it says you have the right to pursue happiness. Beautiful!'' he said.

How could I not feel that this young man understood my culture after he shared what he had read about it? It would be impossible! The Global Reading Challenge has easy, medium, and advanced levels of challenge.  Wouldn't this be a fun challenge to do with a teenager in your family if you are a parent or grandparent? Has your book club challenged itself to read around the world? Click on my title to access the blog and reader reviews of suggested titles.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Drivers and Passengers without Borders

As an American, one of the things that impresses me about Europe is the amount of political risk-taking the average European is willing to step up and try as a citizen of the EU.  To tinker with elements of government as basic as currency, and border controls, and levels of local vs. continental control requires a level of shared vision that I find extraordinary in such a compressed space of time. These people are really taking thoughtful yet exciting risks with their governance.

I look at the resistance to change in reforming an outrageously dysfunctional element of American society,  health care, and then compare that to European real and actual political risk-taking and marvel at what they get done.  I celebrate one of the EU reforms that I believe Europeans cherish:  the right to cross country borders within the EU without inspection or stopping. It completely serves the people's interest.

Our travel itinerary to Sofia
included crossing the borders of
Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

The ability to just drive through the border
stopped when we reached Serbia.
Serbia is not a member of the EU.

 When you are here in Europe,
not being a member of the EU
seems like you and your fellow citizens
have lower class status.

Everyone piles out of the bus
while we go through Serbian border controls.

It was definitely a pain to stop
when everywhere else
the people's representatives
have negotiated speed.

That's how it feels and looks to an American.  I'm interested if it appears the same to Europeans.  Do Europeans without membership in the EU get treated as second-class citizens? Do they feel like second-class citizens? Do those of you who are Europeans cherish this right to cross borders as much as I think you do? What other reforms do you cherish?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Safely in Sofia

Good morning from Sofia, Bulgaria! What a fantastic, comfortable, and easy bus trip that was. There was so much to look at.  It was the first time I was in Moravia, Czech Republic. I loved seeing all of this beautiful wine country.  The bus drove through Brno, and I remarked to my bus companion "wow, so many panalaks (Communist working housing that looks like an American housing project). It's too bad."  "I don't see them that way," she said. "to me, it's normal."

I had always heard that Bratislava was a Communist architecture monstrosity, but it didn't look so bad as we drove through it.  My Slovakian companion showed me the historic castle up on the bluff overlooking the Danube.  The Danube River was large, filled to the brim, and it looked worth singing about. The bridges in Bratislava were beautifully designed and quite striking.

From Bratislava, we drove on toward Budapest. I loved seeing this crazy Hungarian language on all of the road signs.  In both Slovakia and Hungary, it looked like the topsoil had been eroded away (Iowans care deeply about such things - we're topsoil proud).  Hungary had beautiful wildflowers, especially fields of wild red poppies.  I wonder if Frank Baum, the man who wrote "The Wizard of Oz" had been to Hungary.  Remember when Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies? I don't think buses go through the pretty parts of a city because I didn't see any historical parts of Budapest, only globalized McDonald's drive-thrus and Aldis. Not so compelling.

A friend of a friend was on the bus and she prepared me that we would have to sit for a long time on the Serbian border because it wasn't a part of the EU. I'm glad she had told me this because it took a good hour.
Most of our journey through Serbia was in the dark.  My only real outside contact with anything Serbian was going into two globalized large convenience store/gas stations that could have been anywhere in the world. That hardly counts!

We arrived a half-hour early.  I chatted up three Bulgarians the whole way and they were so kind and helpful to me when we arrived in Sofia.  They helped me haul all of my luggage to the storage facility and translate with the staff there.  Truly, when I have an interaction like that, it makes me vow to look out for foreigners who need help when I'm also traveling.  These Bulgarian bus drivers were so nice and helpful too.  I was the only American on the bus. Now it's time to connect with my Sofia couchsurfing host.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I've Got a Ticket to Ride

I decided to take a bus to Istanbul because I knew it would be a volcano-proof plan, I wouldn't have to stay awake watching my luggage like on a train, and I simply wanted a sense of the geography and distance I'm traveling.

My daughter asked, "Does it get to count as a country you've visited, if you just ride through it?" I thought yes.  I told her, "well I count Poland and all I did was go through the Warsaw airport."

"That soooo does not count!" she insisted. What's your standard, gentle reader, for saying, "yes, I visited that country?"  I figure if you breathed their air, you visited it.

This morning, I"m boarding a bus at 9 a.m. for a 27-hour bus ride to Sofia, Bulgaria.  It's a little wierd to be looking forward to a 27-hour bus ride, but hey, that's me. The route covered is fascinating.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I'm moving to Istanbul!

Today is a blur.  A sunny, potentially relaxing day in Prague but still a blur. I'm packing up my things because today marks my last day in Prague.  I hope it's "just for now." I realized when I came here this time that my love of the Czech Republic wasn't going to be fulfilled by just coming for a couple months and doing my to-do list of sites. It's not a "if it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium kind of feeling." This is a life-long passion for a country that has only increased, not decreased with my three months here.

My 90 days in the Schengen zone is up, and I need to move somewhere out of the Czech Republic to apply for residency.  I looked at Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and Russia in addition to Istanbul. Everyone raves about Istanbul.  And I have a friend there.  It made me count up how many times I've moved to a new place without knowing a soul: eight.

I have been truly blessed with incredible friends here in Prague, especially in my church home of St. Clement's Church.  They sent me off with much love!  Well, here, my chaplain tells it well. I'll let him tell it, you can read my plan, and I'll keep packing.  And returning library books.  And dropping off thrift items.  You know what these kind of days are like!  Click on this link to read my plan. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dvorak Embraced Spillville, Iowa; Spillville, Iowa Embraced Dvorak

When I left the Czech Republic last year, I flew back to the American Midwest. Within two weeks, I needed to go to my home state of Iowa for my Uncle's funeral. My mom, knowing how blue I was to have left Prague when I loved it so, suggested we stop in Spillville, Iowa to see the Bily Clocks/Antonin Dvorak exhibit.

Haven't heard of it? I'm not surprised. Spillville, Iowa has all of 400 people.

When famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was in New York City composing his New World Symphony, he longed for the company of his Bohemian countrymen. Rather than going all the way back home for a dose of "Czechness," his secretary urged him to go West instead to the tiny village of Spillville, Iowa which was chock full of Czech immigrants.

The building where he and his family lived has been turned into a museum. It showcases two themes: Dvorak's summer in Spillville, and the breathtaking woodworking creations of some bachelors farmers who became famous handcarving incredible clocks. They are called Bily Clocks and they have to be seen to be believed. It's hard to conceive that the two craftsmen who created them never traveled more than 35 miles from Spillville and only went to school through 5th grade. The tour guide winds up every mechanical clock and shows you it's movements.
It's not every town of 400 people
that have an honest-to-goodness
tourist attraction like this.

If you are the slightest bit interested in woodworking,
creativity, or spirituality you should see these clocks.
The farmers viewed them as a way to glorify God.
Museum guests are not allowed to take pictures of them.

The building can't be missed.
It's on the main thoroughfare through town.

I teared up when I walked into the gift shop
and was surrounded by a whole room of Czech stuff.

Fairy tales written by the famous Czech author
Božena Némcová

I enjoyed learning about Dvorak's stay both in New York City
where he completed his New World Symphony
and in Spillville, Iowa.  
There was lots of interesting background on
American reaction to his Symphony.

Americans, including Dvorak's patroness,
were determined to develop "American music."

When Dvorak, himself an "oppressed person,"
if you want to call him that
as a Czech in the Czechlands
during the Austrian-Hungarian Empire,
suggested to Americans they had all the material
they needed for a grand American-style music
in the music of African-Americans and Native Americans.
White Americans derided his ideas
with a bemused "Imagine he said that!" attitude.
White America said it in Decorah, Iowa
where this article is from.
But they said it in New York City too.

Dvorak was ahead of his time.

His first morning in Spillville
he went down to the Turkey River
and enjoyed the birds singing
even before he talked to anyone in town.

I can imagine being in Spillville
felt very much like being in a Czech village.

Since I worshiped at St. Clement's Church in Prague,
I was delighted to discover a St. Clement's Church in Spillville.

Other signs of Czech life:
the oldest Czech school in America.

The church  and church cemetery
at St. Wenceslaus Church.
Dvorak liked to play the organ here.

A few years after the Velvet Revolution happened, the tiny village of Spillville was newly energized to put on a festival costing $60,000 celebrating their Czech heritage.  That's a lot of ambition for a tiny town of 400.
Bravo to them.  Click on this link to read about it.  Click on my title for more information about the museum.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Welcome Wall Street Journal Readers

Welcome Wall Street Journal Readers! I was delighted to see my blog featured in "Blog Watch" by WSJ Online Editor James Willhite in the Wall Street Journal Technology Section yesterday. Thank you, James. I appreciate having the greatest business minds on the planet stop by and say hi!

For those of you who may have missed my mention, click on my title to go to the article. For those of you who want a bit more background on my adventure, here's an interview I did with Expat Blog Directory last fall here. For those of you who want to share my journey from here on out, welcome. The best part of blogging is the created community and friends I've made from undertaking this deeply fun endeavor.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Real and True Blessings

I've safely arrived in Madison and am up early because I can't sleep. Maybe because it's high noon in Prague. Luckily, there's some leftover lemon chiffon birthday cake from my daughter's 21st birthday and ice cold milk.

My journey was totally awesome. Have you seen the floor at the Prague airport? It's perfect for rollerblading! They should shut down the airport for a day and just let everybody try out that floor - it's huge.

I hung out with a 23-year-old Quebecois waiting for the plane. He was so excited about the Obama administration. Wow, it's nice to hear that again. Appreciation for an American administration by someone from another country. I had to ask him about his own region's politics.

"Are you a separatist?" I asked.

"Yes. Being part of Canada is like trying to make a woman love you who doesn't want to love you. She still wants to live in the same house cause she she wants the house, and she doesn't want to be alone, but she doesn't love anymore. Quebec has been sleeping on the couch for years."

Later I asked him, "does all of Quebec use that analogy?"

"No," he said proudly. "It's mine."

My flight was booked on Swiss Air. Oh my, do the Swiss know how to pamper people. That eight hour flight went by quickly, helped by interesting passengers, a totally fantastic entertainment system, and good food and wine. It was like being cocooned for eight hours. I watched the movie "Burn After Reading" which had me rolling in my seat it was so funny.

Part of the time on the flight, I sat and mused how truly, truly blessed I am with my friends. I know I said it yesterday but to be given so much love in so short a time by so many people, it was such a gift. I could not believe the outpouring of caring. That is my real and true blessing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."

Friday, January 30, 2009

You Could Feel Something Like This Coming

Today the Governor of my former state of Illinois was thrown out of office without a single legislator rising to defend him. Having spent four days in Springfield, Illinois in October seeing the Lincoln sites that inspire so many Americans (including our new President), I could feel that the situation back then wasn't sustainable. He didn't have a friend left before the news came out about the Senate seat he felt was "golden."

Click on the title to read my post from back then. If you're interested in reading about the Lincoln sites that inspired Obama, please click on the Lincoln label.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My First Week of Teaching English

I have just completed my first week of teaching English and it's been really fun. My class load is twenty hours a week, which is just right for me. It makes me full-time in my company. Usually teachers teach between 23-30 hours, but since I'm new to lesson planning, I would like to stay at this level for awhile until I speed up. In our TEFL course, we averaged about six hours of planning for every hour taught. Obviously, that's not sustainable in the real world!

My friends who have visited Prague or the Czech Republic during communism or shortly afterwards always use the word 'bleak' to describe the place. The beauty of arriving here twenty years after the end of totalitarianism is there have been twenty intervening years for the place to be fixed up. I must say, my classes are in beautiful, stunning locations.

One class is in an ancient building with castle type doors overlooking formal gardens. Several others are in a brand new corporate headquarters with wonderful light. Yet another is in the Czech Republic's tallest building on the highest floors.

Everyone is nice. They are surprised when I display any knowledge of Czech culture (like knowing who Svejk or Smetana are). The beauty is, with such a homogeneous culture, that everyone sitting around the table knows the name of their classic book character or who their classic composer is. Not everyone around an American business table would have the same cultural knowledge and background.

A couple of my students need to talk and be understood by native speakers in Britain or America but most need to speak to other people in countries like Spain or India who are speaking English as a second language. The first time I confronted this, I was so stunned and impressed that one of my students needed to speak English as a second language (her first language being Czech) to someone else in another country who was speaking it as a second language (their first language being Finnish) that I couldn't help but admire the level of commitment it would take to not only know the second language but the linguistic quirks of the other first language spoken (an example is Czechs always forget to use definite and indefinite articles in English because they don't have them in their language).

I told that to other teachers and both said, "oh no, it's much harder for someone speaking English as a second language to talk to a native speaker than to someone else speaking English as a second language. When they both have it as a second language, they use ESL English in conversation which is slower and less complex than a native speaker's language." Still, when you see people 40-60 years old valiantly working on their 15th year of learning English, often learned in bits and pieces along the way, you can't help but be impressed by their commitment. They are lucky that their companies are paying for them to learn English (it is the official language of all sorts of companies) but that also makes it harder to learn because they can't completely leave work behind in the classroom and relax. They are liable to be pulled out or called away in the middle of a lesson.

I'm really excited to learn from my students all about their culture and their interests. Czechs are the most well-travelled people I have ever met. One student told me that their parents constantly goad them to travel because the parents couldn't do so under communism. I routinely meet people who have been to exotic places like Cuba, Nepal, Tibet, Bolivia (pretty darn far away for a Czech!), and even the Kamchatka Penninsula (you mean, that's a place you're actually allowed to go visit??? I thought it was a Russian military zone!).

Their version of Mexico (an inexpensive place to visit for a week of sun) is Egypt. Visiting Egypt for a week of sun sounds incredibly exotic to me. Going there would be a major undertaking for an American leaving from America but apparently there are all sorts of cheap and routine flights from Prague. It's all in where you're starting out from.

One downside when beginning teaching is directions are often incomplete. The first thing I did was assign all of my students homework creating a written description of how to get to their office because anyone substituting for me is not going to go through what I did trying to find these places! This week has also been freezing cold so I'm running around Prague in heels, lost, with frozen fingertips and a runny nose while carrying a laptop. Next week calls for some adjustment!

I will also forever be nicer to foreign people because of my experience here. I will pop into an office asking for directions and the lady or man there will sit me down while they print me out a map of exactly where I'm going. Day after day, ordinary Czechs show me lovely kindnesses without a second thought. Czechs make this experience fun.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Travel History

I knew I needed to get out of the country when I looked at my expiring passport and I had only one stamp. Over the last ten years, I left the country only once! How did this happen? That trip was fantastic too. It was my first trip to the DR: Dominican Republic. I heard constant happy, melodic island music plus had a wonderful dream fulfilled of riding a horse at full gallop down the beach with my friend. Now that was fun.

Prior to that trip, my adult travel was an amazing month in Europe as a high school graduation present from my mother when I was seventeen. I went to Spain, France, Monaco, Switzerland, and England. Absolutely fabulous! That was the first time it dawned on me that another country could do something better than mine. That thought never occurred to me growing up because Americans constantly meet tons of immigrants who work very hard to get to our country. It must be better, right?

So what did the continent offer that America could learn from: anything the French made with flour (baguettes, croissants, Napoleans...) and Parisian and London mass transit. What a gift it is to provide safe mass transportation to the tween and teen population! Wait - what a gift it is to their previously-chauffeuring parents!

I also went to Cancun, Chichen Itza, and Tulum, Mexico when I was married to enjoy the beach and Mayan ruins.

In my childhood, my favorite out-of-country travel was a deeply memorable trip my family took with friends through Canada on the train. We started in Winnipeg and went west. The adults had private rooms to sleep in and we kids had berths.

How cool we thought we were to sleep in those berths! Cracker Jack candy had done a commercial back then where two people passed a box back and forth between a berth so we had to do it too. Nowadays, there probably isn't a mom alive who would let their kid sleep in a berth with only a curtain protecting their child from anyone walking through the sleeping car.

Chateau Lake Louise in Beautiful British Columbia

Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia

One of our family friends who went with us had this thing for fantastic five-star hotels. Vivid memories of that Canada trip include the Banff Springs hotel, the Chateau at Lake Louise, and tea and crumpets at the Empress Hotel on Victoria Island. Truly, I was blessed as a child.

Actually, group travel with friends is a blast. It's so hard to accomplish since budgets vary. My one cruise was with seventeen people (split evenly between kids and adults) to the Bahamas. In way, for my kids, it was like the train. I let them run all over the ship because it seemed safe. Every meal we would sit with someone different from our group. Everyone could do their own thing or hang with each other. A perfect arrangement!

About a month after we came home from that trip, it made the news that the ship we had been on was repossessed for lack of mortgage payment. All of the passengers, over 3,000 people were unceremoniously dumped in the Bahamas. Ouch. Glad it wasn't me.

I am more broadly-traveled in the United States. When I visit Alaska I will have seen all 50 states. There is still so much to see in my country! I could never tire of it. There's a brand new National Park I haven't visited - the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Only about 200,000-300,000 people visit it each year.

I am currently living in Illinois and there is TONS I have yet to see here: the new Lincoln Presidential Library, Starved Rock State Park, the Palisades State Park along the Mississippi, actually the entire river road on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, the exhibit the Mormons created at Navoo, Illinois documenting their massacre (always important to expose myself to someone else's point-of-view), and all the ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. Actually Chicago is so fantastic I could spend a month there and still not see everything I want to see. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan

In every state, it seems there is this secret, hidden part of the state that is fairly non-commercial that only natives know about. In Michigan, it's the western coast of the mitten. What drop-dead gorgeous scenery! Only Michiganders and Chicagoans are in on the secret. The rest of the country thinks Michigan is all about declining manufacturing and union troubles because that's all the news they ever hear about the state. In Illinois, the secret place the natives know is the southern forests. Most Illinoisans don't even get down there.

Sunset on Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois
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