Tractors, Mushrooming, & Drag Shows

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.

Visiting an animal exhibition with agriculture students

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.

Trying fried cheese & Czech beer – Smažený sýr and České pivo!  

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.

Enjoying the view with colleagues and friends

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! 

 

 

Czech Republic Fulbright

First week of work & establishing new routines

It takes time for new places to become familiar, to develop new norms and routines after old ones have grown to feel natural. In May, the moment that truly jolted me and forced me to realize that my time at Elon was coming to an end was not my final day of class or even my final day of student teaching. I was shopping at Aldi one Sunday afternoon, picking out my weekly essentials and determining how to best finish the food in my pantry during my final week. As if she knew that it was my last grocery trip, the check-out woman even complimented my strategic placing of items onto the check-out belt (heaviest items towards the front, bananas and delicate items at the back, obviously). 

I took my bags to my car and then pushed my cart back up to the store entrance. At Aldi, you must place a quarter in the cart to detach it from the others. I locked my cart back into the bunch retrieved my quarter and then returned to my car. The loom of graduation hit me suddenly as I set my quarter back down in its home spot in my little Honda Civic where it would typically wait until the next Sunday where I would retrieve it once again for our Aldi trip. But, this time, I realized that there would be no more trips. Instead, I pulled out my wallet and set the quarter into the coin pouch to later be spent and return to its normal life as a quarter moving from wallet to store and back again.

Not unlike that quarter, I’d soon be leaving my home base at Elon where I’d been returning for the past 4 years to join society in new larger ways and to develop a new routine in a new location. Now, in the Czech Republic, my weekly Sunday grocery trips are at a store called Kaufland that is filled with familiar products labeled with different names, items I’ve never seen before, and a challenge that comes every time I check out and have to tell the check-out person, “nemluvim ceske.”

This week, I (mostly) successfully navigated my first week at school. I presented an introduction Powerpoint in 5 different classes at Albrechtova and began building relationships with students. While an introduction Powerpoint may seem like a small feat, finding my way through a new school with very different routines can prove challenging. For example, in the Czech Republic, teachers do not have a permanent classroom, but rotate every class and use an office as their “home base.” Additionally, when the school bell rings (or at my school, a fun song), that means that students must be in their classrooms — not the teacher. The teachers do not make their way to the classroom until the final bell rings, then making their way from their respective offices. At Albrechtova, classes are spread out over 3 floors and in two buildings that are a 7 minute walk away from each other (confusing!). Additionally, students rotate classes on a bi-weekly schedule and have different classes each day.

In front of the main building of Albrechtova

I’d also been warned that students would stand when the teacher entered the room. I’m not quite sure if the looks on their faces when they saw me enter with their regular class teacher was surprise or nervousness (I’m sure it wasn’t too different from the look on my own face), but over the course of the first lesson, we grew more comfortable with one another.

I shared photos with the students of popular Texas cuisine, our average weather forecast in Grapevine, my family and friends, and of course, Elon. In turn, the students then told me about their practical fields of study at Albrechtova (even in English classes they are divided by this field of study), and asked me a variety of questions about Texas, driving licenses, gun laws in America, the border wall, and the American healthcare system. I attempted a few Czech words, made references to High School Musical and the infamous yellow school busses that have been made famous in American shows and movies, and before I knew it, my first week came to a close. Next week will be another week with an adjusted schedule before the school releases the permanent schedule for the semester.

Over the next few weeks, my mentor and I will be setting up some after-school clubs that I’ll be leading. So far, our ideas for clubs include some small group extra English lessons, an American culture club, English teacher lessons, and lessons to the non-English teachers. Many students commute to school via trains and busses, so we will have to see what types of clubs students are interested in. While this may seem like a lot of extra activities, some clubs will be bi-weekly meetings and as Fulbrighters, we do not teach a full course load.

As the weeks go by, I’ll be continuing to both establish my new routines and seek discomfort through saying yes and embracing new opportunities and invites that come my way. And now, a new Czech Kč coin has made its home in a special spot in my wallet, ready to be deployed each Sunday on my weekly trip to the Kaufland grocery store.  

Photos from the week:

Above: Photos taken in Tesin during a tour of town given by a Albrechtova student

Below: Enjoying a local concert & Polish beerfest with my mentor and her family

Celebrating my mentor’s husband’s birthday

Below: Today I am enjoying a local coffeeshop on a rainy Saturday. In my free time I am writing, blogging, and studying Czech!

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This post is not an official Department of State publication. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the Department of State, the Fulbright Commission, or the host country.

Czech Republic Fulbright