Hiking my way to feeling at home

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve slowly been noticing an internal transition between the mindset of exploring my area as a visitor, to a shifted, “oh wow, I live here” feeling. In addition to now having been here for almost 2 months, my new mindset has been especially spurred by the occurrence of two recent events: a local festival celebrating the changing of the seasons and a teacher’s trip to the mountains of Slovakia.

My first visit to Slovakia!

The first of these two events took place a week and a half ago. On Saturday October 5th, I attended a local Silesian “Jarmark” festival in a nearby town called Dolní Lomná with two teachers from my school. The teachers generously allowed me to borrow traditional clothing passed down from their family members and taught me more about Silesian history in the region.

Getting dressed in traditional Silesian clothing

At the festival, I worked alongside several Czech people my age to welcome people and offer them programs, bread, and raffle tickets. Throughout the day I hung out with my new Czech friends and enjoyed the atmosphere, folk music, and an area with animals. Despite the rain, it was one of my best days in the Czech Republic so far because I was able to make new friends, try great food and drinks, and have a true local experience. I even made it into a local paper, which summaries the events from the day!

I recently realized that when Fulbright ends, I will have spent a total of almost 1.5 years out of my (then) 23 years alive living in places outside of the United States. I can’t yet perceive the affects that my time here will have on the rest of my life, but I know that it will have a profound impact.

One of the things that continue to amaze me during my long-term travels is the connection that one can feel with others all around the world. A couple of handfuls of times in my life, I’ve met new friends that I instantly “click” with. The type of friendships that flows naturally from the beginning and makes you feel at home. It happens infrequently, yet I’ve seen first-hand that these moments can truly happen anywhere. An important part of my identity and my passion for traveling has been shaped through these interactions and the realization that these deep moments of human connection and understanding don’t just happen when people are similar to us and have the same background, but also when they have lived lives entirely different from our own.

For me, learning language and seeking to understand the differences between my language and the languages of others also enhances the process of getting to know people and life in a different culture. For example, I’ve learned that in Czech, “teach” and “learn” are basically the same word. I’m fascinated by how people here may conceptualize the process of teaching and learning entirely different than those in English speaking countries as a result of language. I often wonder if this difference in language contributes to the less formal boundary or relationship between teachers and students here.

And of course, differences in language also lead to moments of humor. For instance, in the United States, we know “Black Friday” as the big day of sales after Thanksgiving that has more recently perhaps turned into a weekend of sales. Here, however, they have adopted the term “Black Friday” to just mean “really huge sale.” Basically, every Friday at the mall is Black Friday!

Another funny moment took place earlier this week when I was walking through past a pond with ducks in the park with a friend. I reminded him of the word “duck” in English and he taught me the Czech word, “kachna.”

He then explained further, “This duck is a kachna divoká. Wild duck. In the Czech Republic we have two types of ducks. Wild ducks, and home ducks.”

I stared at him confused, thinking that I must be misunderstanding something in translation.

He continued, “home duck is kachna domaci. Duck HOME.” I stared blankly, still sure I was misunderstanding until he added, “Wild duck… Home duck… Home ducks live at home. Wild ducks don’t have humans to depend on for food. They don’t have stable homes.”

That part really got me and I started laughing, realizing that I had understood him correctly the whole time. Still laughing I repeated, “They don’t have stable homes…So are you saying…they’re homeless ducks?”

A picture of the homeless ducks for your viewing enjoyment

I love that my job here at Albrechtova and my life here in the Czech Republic allows me to learn new things every week not only through the differences in language and as a teacher, but also through learning about the school’s many professions and fields. Last Tuesday, I accompanied another group of students to the nearby town of approximately 55,000 people, Frýdek-Místek. The trip consisted of three tours: first, an Armenian cake factory called Marlenka, then, a tour of the town’s castle, Scloss Friedeck, and finally, a tour of the Hyundai Manufacturing factory. You might be wondering, “Courtney, how do you understand all of these tours in Czech?!” Thankfully, I have wonderful students who accompany me on these day-trips who are practicing their English because they hope to work in the hotel/tourism industry. Basically, they act as my personal guides and therefore, it is a great opportunity for both of us.

My two wonderful students & guides for the day

When I don’t have a guide with me…things don’t always go quite as smoothly. The other week, I naively assumed that finding a nail salon would be an easy task. Excited to treat myself in the afternoon, I did some online Googling and headed out after school to the main street in town. I found the small salon I was looking for, Google Translated an explanation to show the workers, and walked in. The only woman working was helping another client and (I think) motioned that she was too busy. Strike one.

Not giving up, I found another salon a couple blocks further down. It was empty, but looked nice enough at first glance. The two women working managed to communicate that while they did not do fingernails and therefore could not take off my gel nails (my main reason for coming), they did do pedicures. I felt a bit awkward leaving after awkward language-barrier ridden communication and figured since I’d walked over to town already, I’d say yes.

Once we walked further back into the small shop, I could see that the place hardly could be categorized as a “salon.” It was a small space that looked more something set up temporarily in a home than a professional setting. I was quickly seated in a rolly desk chair and my feet were placed in a glorified motorized bucket filled with lukewarm water. Because the chair was on wheels, I couldn’t even sit comfortably without rolling around. On my right a wooden board haphazardly hung nailed into the wall with 8 or 9 random nail polish bottles that looked like a little girl’s collection and an assortment of tools one could only hope were sanitary. I surveyed the surroundings skeptically and wondered if I should leave, but with my level of Czech, I figured I should probably just suck it up. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

The woman used what I would describe as similar to a potato peeling scalpel to take the dead skin off my feet, did an absolute disgrace to my cuticles, and propped my feet up on her lap when she was working on them. I accepted that there was no hope this “pedicure” would last more than a full day nail when I saw the first pass of the nail polish brush on my toes. She didn’t seem to notice the color (or lack therefore) and I sat there uncomfortably trying not to roll backwards in the chair and nodding randomly while she rambled to herself in Czech.

Just when she was nearly done with her second coat (which did not even come close to making the color opaque) and I was almost free, the impossible happened. It got worse. While she was trying to grab a Q-tip to salvage the job, her elbow knocked the haphazardly placed wooden board with the polish and the open purple bottle she had set down spiraled towards the floor, landing with a smack upside down in the bowl of water that my feet had just been in. She screamed as the polish splattered everywhere. Purple nail polish covered the water, the floor, and the wall. She started yelling in Czech to the other woman in the shop. I kept my face as blank as possible, wondering how my “afternoon treat” had turned into such a hysterical failure.

I contemplated just asking to leave with wet nail polish as she abandoned my feet and started scrubbing the wall to no avail. But…how would I even communicate that in Czech?! Eventually, she accepted that the wall was going to take more than a few minutes of scrubbing and awkwardly finished painting my nails with the same purple bottle that she had just fished out of the water. I waited the absolute minimum amount of time for my nails to dry, handed over the cash, and zoomed out of there as quickly as you’ll ever see me move. I haven’t even told any of the teachers at my school this story out of pure embarrassment, so if you’re reading this now fellow English teachers, I’ve learned my lesson and will definitely be asking for recommendations next time – haha!

 I think I’ve mentioned in every post so far how great my English colleagues are at my school. As mentioned above, they definitely could have pointed me in a better direction if I had asked them. Luckily, this past weekend, I was able to see that the great staff members at Albrechtova extend far beyond my department. On Thursday afternoon, 40 out of the 60 teachers who work at my high school piled onto a charter bus and headed south towards the Low Tatra mountains in Slovakia.

A beautiful view from the top of a castle

Although Czechoslovakia used to be one country, the Slovak people have their own language (which is similar enough to Czech that they understand each other, but different enough that a native can tell if the speaker is Slovak or Czech), some special Slovak foods, and some cultural differences. It was my first time visiting Slovakia, and I was thankful to have a whole squad of teachers to explain things to me, point out some cultural differences, and of course, translate when necessary!

Hiking with other teachers

Throughout the course of the weekend, we visited an astronomical clock, went on two hikes and a couple of nice walks, visited a castle and spent the evening singing, playing games, and enjoying a few Czech and Slovak beverages at the cottage. We lucked out with near-perfect weather and I was thankful for a chance to bond with many colleagues whom I had not met before. While language can become a barrier when it comes to social interactions, I tried my best to use my limited Czech to show that I care and want to interact, and I am so grateful to be included alongside my Czech colleagues.

Enjoying a walk near the cottage
New friends!

Sometimes it’s the small but funny moments where it suddenly hits me that I’m really here living my dream teaching and traveling. On Thursday night of the trip, some of my new friends/colleagues and I were outside in the rain at 1am playing Frisbee and a hide and seek game in the beautiful Slovakian mountains and I had to take a moment to remind myself that this is real life.

Slowly but surely, Český Těšín is becoming my home. And…one week from today… my parents will be landing in Krakow, Poland and coming for a visit! I couldn’t be more excited to show them how much I’ve already grown to love this place.

This blog, TasteTravelTeach, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.  The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Courtney Kobos and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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