At 8:30am last Thursday morning, I arrived at a field in nearby Ropice via car with one of Albrechtova’s agricultural teachers and three female students. Outfitted with my borrowed polka-dotted rain boots, I took in the view; after a few days of rain, the sun was glistening on the grass’s morning dew. I greeted two other students who had driven the tractor earlier in the morning to the field.
Translating, a student turned to me – “Our teacher wants to know if you’ve ever driven a tractor before.”
I shook my head and laughed.
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
I nodded. “Ano” (yes), I answered in Czech.
“Okay,” The student informed me.
“So first, you will sit in the tractor and watch two students drive. Then, it’s your turn.” While I had known for a few days that a tractor excursion was in my future, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be allowed to drive it myself. I looked a bit nervously at the few already-plowed perfectly straight lines. Who knew that I’d be learning to drive a big red tractor in a town of 1,500 in the Czech Republic.
I hopped in, ready to listen carefully in an attempt to not destroy their well-plowed work. Once inside, two agricultural students used their new tractor vocabulary to talk me through the steps.
“So, you will put down plow, press clutch and then first……”
“Gear,” Another student filled in for him.
“First gear. Then slowly release clutch and press gas here. Then you can go.”
“You want to keep the tire in the fallow.” The other student added as we bumped our way down the first plowing run. Despite the relatively simple instructions, tractor driving proved to be difficult at times. Driving is bumpy, you have to back up and avoid trees and other objects on the sides of the field, and sod occasionally gets stuck in the plow part of the tractor. Admittedly, I did kill the engine one time, but I was proud as can be when one student asked me, “Are you sure this is your first time driving a tractor?”
For the rest of the morning, I alternated between riding in the tractor, driving the tractor, and sitting in the field with the students taking breaks. It was my first time interacting with a small group of students, and I value the time that we had to get to know one another. Students in practical fields have certain days “out of school” for practical lessons. Some professions alternate between one week of class and one week of work, while others have off a couple of days every other week during which they have practical experiences.
The students at Albrechtova have a wide range in English level, which is largely dependent on their chosen field of study (some will take advanced final exams called “Maturita” and some will not). And, interestingly, I’ve noticed that many students with advanced English either spend time watching English movies/videos or playing video games and speaking in English over a headset to native-speaking friends.
A large majority of the students seem interested in getting to know me and take advantage of the chance to practice English no matter their level. It is wonderful to feel so welcomed. As I begin to build relationships in the school, I have been extremely thankful that many students have asked about the after-school clubs that I will soon be starting, have showed in interest in U.S. politics and the differences between our countries, and have invited me to join in on activities that they enjoy.
Just this morning, I said yes to attending a latin dance class taught by a student in about a week and going skiing with a student this winter (a sport I’ve never tried!). This year, I’m aware of the exciting opportunity to be both a teacher and a learner. In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to students about topics varying from American football, the difference in drinking ages and driving licenses, politics, healthcare, and university student loans. They’ve wondered and asked what students in the U.S. learn about the Czech Republic, whether or not I like Czech food and beer, and why I chose to come to their town.
Additionally, I spend time every day learning. My mentor has been kind enough to begin weekly (much needed!) Czech lessons with me, and I’m learning to distinguish the difference between Czech, Polish, and a regional dialect spoken in my area. I’m navigating a new school, different computer keyboard set-ups, and learning the proper greetings for people of various ages. Each week, I’m trying new activities and I’m learning to laugh at myself when I make mistakes. I’m navigating complex topics surrounding the current United States news and political situations. And, I’m learning to ask questions and listen to learn more about the life experiences of my new friends.
When I applied for Fulbright Czech Republic last October, I knew that being flexible and open were vital components for a successful application and a successful lifestyle as a Fulbrighter. Once I arrived here, I was reminded of how valuable these traits are because learning to “adult” for the first time in a foreign place can be challenging. For example, tasks that are mindless and part of one’s daily routine back home like running errands, paying a bill, or ordering at a restaurant become new adventures. I would like to give a major shoutout to the Google Translate app and especially, the photo → translate feature for saving me many times. I’m also lucky that I’m an adventurous eater with 0 food allergies!
One of my favorite things about Czech people is that they like to plan ahead and set times to do activities with one another. Going out to eat with friends is less common here, so many people prefer to go out for coffee or to try an activity. I love quality time and going to new places, and I am extremely grateful to my new colleagues at work for inviting me on many adventures already.
This past weekend, I was invited to attend a drag show and to go mushrooming. Originally, I don’t know which invitation shocked me more — the fact that a small village restaurant was hosting a drag show event or the news that most Czech people regularly participate in the fall sport/hobby/obsession that is mushrooming.
Both events were fantastic. At the drag show on Friday, I appreciated the attendees young and old who put their regular lives on pause for a moment to laugh and enjoy. My mentor translated some of the Czech jokes for me and I even was pulled up on “stage” with them to dance for a song.
I took Saturday to recover and to prepare myself for the full Czech “mushrooming” experience. On Sunday morning, I was surprised to see the crowd at the train station. The teachers accompanying me explained that Sunday morning is a popular time for many to head to the mountains for a day of exploration. There were older groups of “pensioners,” groups with mountain bikes, many with hiking gear, families, and others with baskets ready to be filled with mushrooms.
We rode the train for about 30 minutes south to a town near the Czech/Slovakia/Polish/Czech tri-border and began our walk up the hill. On our hike, we joked and laughed while they taught me about how to tell a good edible mushroom from a bad one. I made up nicknames for the bad ones – jellyfish mushrooms (nearly translucent), alien mushrooms (crazy orange colors), and monster mushrooms (large rotten ones). We spent the entire morning winding through trails, going deeper into the dark parts of the forest, and sharing the excitement when a good mushroom was spotted. There were many opportunities for good photo cameos with the beautiful mushrooms, which were surprisingly hard to find!
After a day of mushrooming, you’ll find Czechs sharing photos of mushrooms and discussing prime mushrooming conditions, but never sharing their prized mushrooming locations in the forest. After enjoying some freshly made cheese from a farm and a coffee at the top of the hill, we made our way back home where my mentor’s husband showed me how to clean and then cook the mushrooms. It was a rewarding feeling to make meals at home with our hand-picked beauties.
This Friday, I am headed to visit a fellow Fulbrighter in a nearby town called Frenštát and we will then head to Prague together on Sunday for a second Fulbright orientation. When I return, my teaching responsibilities will continue to increase now that my school has a confirmed schedule for the semester. I’m looking forward to getting to know more students in small group settings and to building relationships with those in my community — two things that make life here even more of a home!