Monday, October 31, 2005

romantic roadtripping

There are lots of nice things about being a teacher in the Czech Republic. One is that you can eat all the soup you want for lunch and no one will stop you. Another is that whole groups of people stand when you walk into the room. Another is that you occasionally get mail in multiple language inviting you to textbook conventions. And yet another is that for three weekdays in October you have Fall Holiday.

Last year I spent my Fall Holiday in Budapest with a bunch of guys. We made masculine noises, walked around, ate Hungarian food, and took lots of pictures.

This year, having Chrissy in the same time zone and all, I decided it would be pretty nice of me to bring her along wherever I decided to go. I also decided that although eating Hungarian food and taking pictures are noble pastimes, perhaps making masculine noises would not be tactful.

So this Fall Holiday, Chrissy, my teammate Beth and I made it a traveling trio and took to the road—Germany’s Romantic Road, that is. There are lots of things to gush about, but these pictures and anecdotes are more blog-friendly, so here goes:

1. We started on the Road at its southern tip in the Bavarian Alps in the city of Fussen, which means “feet” in German, near as I could tell. At least they made us walk a lot. In Fussen, our host declared that he spoke the language of Jesus. However, he followed that he doesn’t often speak with history’s most famous speaker of Aramaic.

2. This is a picture of Neuschwanstein castle, which was built so that Bavarian postcard makers would have guaranteed employment for many, many years. Honestly, this castle was so fantastic that it didn’t even look real. It’s the Disneyland effect, I guess, and art is made more real than life.

3. We learned after successfully following a set of barely understood directions that we speak German. As near as we could tell, all you need to do is speak English with an accent and every once in a while throw on a "schmidt" or "baum" or "flugen." Yeah, I'm sure the Germans thought we were idiots, too.

4. Eating is pretty much my main goal for a good vacation. This is me eating one of my very favorite traveling meals: a Doner Kebap, sort of like Europe's Big Mac, straight out of Turkey. Confused? Okay. Just try one as soon as you can.

5. In all, we visited five cities along the Romantic Road, including a measly two hours in Wurzburg, a pretty spectacular little city at the northern end of the road. I really want to go back there sometime. Here's a picture of a really scary-looking saint who's part of a bridge that I swear is a swindled and lesser copy of Prague's Charles Bridge.

6. We stayed our last two nights in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the crown jewel of the Romantic Road. Pretty much the whole town looks like this, which is to say "scrumtrillescent." It's also one of the only places in the world outside the North Pole where it's Christmas 356 days a year.

7. Here's Chrissy eating a "schneeball," which is a crunchy ball of deep-fried pastry, drenched in cinammon or chocolate or caramel or cream or whatever. These are in every shop window in Rothenburg. And everyone buys into this game. Believe me.

If you want to see some more pictures from our little trip, check out my Webshots page. Try the link in the upper right-hand corner of this webpage.

Monday, October 24, 2005

tricks and treats

Until today I've never taught a lesson on Halloween. After running through the lesson, four times, it's really not all that more fun than say, teaching a Christmas or a Thanksgiving lesson. But there were some highlights from the lesson, including:

1. when Jarka the policewoman physically chased three trick-or-treaters around the classroom when they threw four imaginary eggs at a stingy home-owner

2. when I explained that ghosts say "boo" (which is what cows say in Czech)

3. when Michal (a real-life smoker) gave me a cigarette lighter to lend a smidgen of realism to the jack-o-lantern drawn on the board

4. when Jindra the dentist stuck an unidentifiable piece of metal about a foot-and-a-half long into naughty, candy-eating Jaromir's mouth (no actual tartar or tetanus found)

5. when Ivana responded with "Give me candy" when I asked her what the children say on Halloween, before I did in fact give her a piece of candy

6. when George, then Pavla, then Kamila pretended to bob for apples

7. when Mira, another guilty egg-thrower, who was a Christmas tree for Halloween, obediently and quietly stood in jail for 5 minutes, still in costume

8. when Zdenek the costume shop owner told Kamila, the eager and aspiring trick-or-treater, to go check out the restroom when she asked if he had any mummy costumes (i.e. toilet paper)

I teach Halloween once more tomorrow morning, and then maybe once on Monday afternoon (Halloween day, come to think of it). Maybe I'll remember to take my camera for those, but this idea may be more trick than treat...

Sunday, October 23, 2005

what they thought of next

An annoying feature of this particular blog service is that with each new post I must delete two or three anonymous comments left probably by computers that have figured their way around such things that are written in the style of some stranger who reads blogs and likes this one and cares. At least they care enough to point me to some great product or service at the other end of the attached link.

I'm sorry if this post sounds like one of them.

But I just boarded the Skype train this weekend, and except for a little digitizification of voices in my ear, it was quite a wholesome experience. To wit: a call to Prague and the lovely love of my life cost more than a call across the ocean to my lovely parents, but compared to last year, when I would make calls to the same lovely people every weekend, this cost pittance. Oh yes. Pittance. Plus I got to wear a sleek black headset that I bought at Tesco. It has a microphone and makes me look a little bit more like Garth Brooks.

And from these phonecalls I learned that Chrissy also hates the expression "love on" (i.e. "Just go over to those kids and love on 'em, and when you're done, love on 'em some more.") and that my parents have yet another emergency room visit to laugh about. So technology just tells us what we already knew, I guess.

Just cheaper.

Friday, October 21, 2005

when it rains

Answer to my prayers, there was peace in the office this morning, and my colleagues were warm.

Only in the back of my mind, a prize package from home was in my hands today and then under my desk and burning up waiting to be opened.

Hefting my prize down the hall and the stairs, I stopped to na shledanou the porter, who wants to use his english whenever, and we had a patient conversation, two weak hands just grasping a conversation in two tongues.

Setting my prize on the floor (it was a heavy prize and I couldn’t hold it leaning to balance anymore) I talked some more and the deputy director hand delivered me another card from home and an english teacher came and cleared up the conversation (but I had been right on without her, come to tell).

Lugging my prize to the bus, my colleague and I rode home (the prize burning in my lap), talking about england, where I’ve never been, and how learning about a new place and living there are two different things.

Hauling my prize off the bus and up the stairs, I saw the woman from church who is an angel and who speaks some english, too, standing in my building taking donations for second-hand sale for charity. Leaning to balance, I stopped to dobry den her and say we’ll see one another this sunday. And she said no, which is yes.

And I opened my prize, finding all the possibilities for gingersnaps and a superchunky jar of skippy.

It pours.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

the savory of defeat

It was the coleslaw that did me in.

I decided that the coleslaw would be the best last bite: the one that sticks in your mouth as you’re getting up to leave the room. The potatoes weren’t dry and the minced chicken goo was much better than it looked, but the coleslaw was the kicker. I scraped some over to the side and began quickly stuffing the goo and potatoes into my mouth.

Czech men eat at an awesome speed. So quickly do they devour their lunches that there is still steam rising from the plate long after the food is gone. My boss, Frank, throws back our cafeteria lunches at this same alarming rate. I swear, I look away for one second, and his once plentiful rice has simply vanished.

So last year I decided to race Frank to the finish. A grand prix lunch sprint, if you will, with potatoes and meat paste and sauerkraut for our course. In order for a lunch to qualify, Frank and I had to order the same selection and have the soup. Usually I skip the soup—that’s a lot of food—but once I go for the bowl, the race is on.

I never once beat him. I took bigger bites. I stacked the meat and the cabbage together. I ate whole dumplings at once. I even quit chewing for a while. No good.

But this year things started to turn around. I had my first victory early last month. It was a sauerkraut goulash with flour dumplings and the soup had liver in it. But I finished it all the same, and looked up to see Frank washing sauce over his last dumpling. Success. I returned to the office wearing a broad, secret smile.

But my luck didn’t run out. I beat Frank to the finish twice more that week, proudly returning my clean plate and bowl to the window without a small stack in my hands. Two more lunches qualified the next week, and again, Frank was left to carry his own dishes.

So I came into the cafeteria today riding a five-lunch winning streak. And, with my spirits high and my stomach empty, I eyed the soup...and picked up a clean bowl. It was on.

I lapped it up quickly—Frank called it “pig slaughter soup,” and said that there was real pig’s blood in it; anywhere in America it would have been a well-laid trap, but soup that scabs is normal fare here—eyes on the prize, Joel, eyes on the prize. Frank was tilting the bowl to get the last bloody drops as my chair scraped loudly on the tile. It was me standing quickly to get in line for goo and potatoes. And as the cafeteria lady slopped on the meat, I took it as a good sign: the less the flavor, the less the savor—perfect conditions for a race.

But I hadn’t anticipated the coleslaw. Sure enough, it was that flicker of canteen gourmet that erased my edge. There’s no place for thinking in a school cafeteria, and when I looked up to see my opponent, he was scooping the last of his goo onto his last potato. His coleslaw was halfway to his colon.

It was the taste of defeat that stuck in my mouth. Morosely, I stood to carry a pile of dishes to the window.

Pictured: That's Frank on the left, and on the right, my Czech English-teaching colleague, George, enjoying a nice sweet-lunch of dumplings and cream. Frank usually smiles.

Monday, October 17, 2005

honza on the range

So last week on the bus I stood opposite a man who was supposed to be a cowboy. I looked down (he was sitting) at his nose, weathered like the Badlands, and admired his Sam Elliot moustache, like sand in coffee. His hands gripped a leather case, but it might as well have been a saddle stripped fresh from the horse, hot with the sweat of a day’s ride.

It was clear to me that this was a happy accident—that on a bus in Sokolov, where country music is the only thin link to the Old West, I saw a cowboy.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

by any other name

So whenever I play a game in class, I always have each group come up with a team name in English. There's a level of convenience in doing things this way, but it's mostly for my own entertainment. Every round I get a lot of "The Sharks" and "Black Angels" and "Girls For God," but in about 12 months of teaching at ISŠTE, I've gotten some really terrific names. Here are some of my favorites:

Tereza's Patriots - and I don't really know if Tereza even knew what a patriot was
Saturday - who chose "Monday" for themselves at first and then were downgraded first to "Friday" and then to "Saturday" when they refused to participate
Teletubbies - it's less the name that puts them here than that they laughed and clapped like little gnomes whenever they scored
The Worm - yeah, I had to ask them like three times if they were serious
Shark Killers - whose opponents were The Sharks, incidentally
Žlutice - so I compromised on the English rule...and because it means "Yellowtown"
Phoebe - this one came today, and I hope she reads this
Viva Saskatchewan! - I almost just called them the winners right then and there

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

beautiful words, wonderful words

So there are probably a million different ways to tell if an artwork is a good one. Perhaps some day I'll write down here the things that draw me to certain artists---be they writers or painters or singers or other such makers of beauty. But one thing pretty much always seals the deal for me:

When a work of art makes me itch deep down and either grab a pen to try and make something beautiful myself or just burn that I didn't make it first---that is a beautiful work of art.

I didn't write this song. But a lot of things I've written were planted by it. It's by a pretty great singer named Andrew Peterson. I hope someday you can listen to it. It's really quite beautiful.

I wanna open up my eyes
And see a more beautiful world
Let the hand of God Almighty
Sweep his colors through my life
I wanna hold tight to the laughter
And ride it like a child
On the winds that billow joyful
Through the sky

I wanna open up my heart
But you know, sometimes it's hard to find
Because I've buried it beneath the selfishness
That I've hidden behind
I wanna stand my ground unshaken
But I wanna tremble when I kneel
And let my song remain unbroken
Through the tears

So let me sing for the love
Let me love for the lost
Let me lose all I have
For what I found on the cross
Let me trust you with my life
Let me live to give you praise
Lord, let me praise you
For the grace by which I'm saved
Lord, let me sing

I wanna open up Your word
And let the thirsty enter in
So they can drink deep of the water
You've given to them
I want to run the race with vigor
I want to fight the fight with strength
And let my song rise from a whisper
To a scream

I wanna open up my arms
And embrace that old rugged cross
I wanna take pride in the reason
And be humbled by the cause
And when this lisping, stamm'ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I'll sing your praise
I'll sing your praise

So let me sing for the love
Let me love for the lost
Let me lose all I have
For what I found on the cross
Let me trust you with my life
Let me live to give you praise
Lord, let me praise you
For the grace by which I'm saved
Lord, let me sing

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

being a tool

A good thing about coming back to ISŠTE for year two is that there's less distraction of figuring out how to do, well, everything. A bad thing about this is that with less distraction, you're more aware of how you are a part of The System which people use---often against one another, and often without you really knowing the extent of it. And there's not really much you can do about it.

So we foreigners miss a lot, sure. But often what we see is the fly under your nose.

Monday, October 10, 2005

a west-bodacious weekend

So this weekend the West Bohemia Social Club put on an event for twenty ESI teachers from across the Czech Republic. Honza the hamster was also present. We dubbed the event “A WestBodacious Weekend.” And bodacious it was:

With so many people, everyone’s take on the WestBodacious is bound to be different. Here’s some slices from the weekend that I had:

A Friday rendezvous in Cheb prolonged the Great Streak: every single time I’ve been to Cheb I’ve eaten pizza. Viva la streak!

We had overnight guests for the first time in the new flat: five guys laid out on the floor, packed tighter than sausages and just as greasy.

A scrumptious breakfast (special acknowledgement to Kevin Dickson, BMK and Jihavlanka coffee grounds) preceded a trolley car ride to Loket, where Mike Harvey stole a terrific picture right out from under my nose. While we were visiting the torture chamber in the castle, Hank had some problems with the ticket lady:

Last year’s Canadian Thanksgiving feast produced a terrific picture of us mid-air, jumping in Sokolov’s Old Square. I maintain it is perhaps the best picture I have ever been a part of. This year we remembered the occasion by expanding the idea to eight jumpers in Loket’s old square. This one is just more fun:

I spent Saturday afternoon with my friend Matt Smith in Sokolov, enjoying conversation and my first viewing of The Italian Job.

Met up with the boys in Karlovy Vary for some dinner—pizza again! At least everybody can agree to pizza.

On the walk home to the flat, a high-speed police chase passed us on the streets of Sokolov. It’s a wonder that police mini-van kept as much ground as it did...

We messed around and talked, then bundled up, falling asleep to my second viewing of The Italian Job.

The guys caught a train early Sunday morning, returning to their homes for church and chilling. My sweet Chrissy hung around for church and lunch, and for the afternoon, where I had my third viewing of The Italian Job.

I really need to get some more movies.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

as we travel this sod

So I walked into a packed church this morning. And yes, this was noteworthy. The Czech Brethren Evangelicky church in Sokolov has a number of warm spots. A full sanctuary is usually not one of them. Come to think of it, the sanctuary itself isn’t all that warm. Huh.

The Czech Republic is known among missions organizations as one of the most atheistic countries in the world. Communism, fascism, imperialism and now capitalism have not been kind to the Czech church, to point the ism finger. West Bohemia in particular seems to be the darker corner of the country, with up to 75% or more of the people considering themselves atheists, to pull a statistic more or less from thin air. You get the idea.

Across town the Hussite church is having repairs done on their church building, so they need a place to hold service for the next two weeks. So this Sunday, two communities met together to worship. The fellowship hall (where we gathered) was full of voices as we sang together, and as the Hussite group interspersed parts of their sung liturgy into the service.

Next weekend, Czech Brethren’s sister church celebrates its 100th year, so all the sister churches will gather in Kynsperk just-up-river. The Hussites will meet in our Sokolov building, and I, unfortunately, will be in Prague on ESI business. It’s rough wanting to be in three places at once.

But this morning it was good to be with God’s community. Even though I didn’t know half of the faces there. Even though I didn’t get three quarters of what was said. Even though I couldn’t jump the language barrier and talk to the people there. I may never worship with some of these brothers and sisters until the Last Day that Pastor spoke about, but this Sunday it was good to be there.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

a literary statement

by Joel, B.A. English, TEFL certificate, reader of brochures

John Steinbeck is the greatest 20th century American novelist. And I haven’t even read The Grapes of Wrath. Yet.

I have thought so for some time, but recent reflection has reminded me that I am right.

First, that I read Cannery Row in one (albeit rather long) train ride and enjoyed it tremendously. Second, that Cannery Row (and other such Steinbeck fictions) does not set out to be clever, but just to weave together some stories about a particular community of people (and one gopher) who live in a particular place, which I think is a more honest way of looking at the world. Third, he wrote East of Eden, probably the best book anybody could ever read.

As an English major, and more importantly, as a writer of a blog, I declare the niceties of rhetoric moot except as I have decided to use them to the advantage of my argument. This is the rhetorical equivalent of a raspberry. Do not argue with a writer of blogs. It will only compound the nonsense, no matter how slick your Socratic method, no matter how sharp your Occam’s razor, no matter how plentiful your rhetorical allusions.

So there.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

the big o

So this weekend I left my industrial paradise in Sokolov and crossed this wide country Americans like to compare to South Carolina (size-wise, that is) to visit the Big O: Ostrava, the industrial paradise of Czech industrial paradises.

As industrial paradises go, Ostrava certainly has a lot to offer. A particular all-night chicken sandwich stand run by immigrants comes to mind. And also a victory statue of a tank. Other European cities have victory statues with men on horses. Ostrava is more modern and more realistic.

The purpose of my trip was to visit with the ESI teachers serving in the opposite corner of the country as me, to see how they’re doing, to share some time together, and to let them cook me some delicious food. Someone once said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I say: yes, and you can have my money, too.

One highlight of the trip was meeting the Christian community that these ESI teachers are a part of through Fishnet, the Christian language school/service where they teach. I’d always heard about how different an experience the Fishnet ESIers have from the rest of us (as useless as such comparisons are). Well, it’s the truth. They’re a part of something great that God’s doing out there. And so are we, when you step back to a better perspective.

Out there in Ostrava, I mean. And not that we aren’t part of something God’s doing right where we are, either. Oh, bother. “All the time, God is good,” or whatever you say at a time like this.

Other highlights were doing general nonsense with the notorious Kevin Dickson (himself), visiting Ostrava’s infamous Stodolni Street, and going to a concert to see the director of Fishnet’s band (whose infamy is growing) perform original English songs to a festival crowd hungry for more. They’re climbing the charts in this country, you know—and their band name means “little balls of happiness.” Indeed they are.

Much business also occurred. This business was not yours, so I will not bore you with it.

That’s what the rest of this blog is for.

pilgrim at river ohre

This "grandma" as the locals call an "indian" summer is definitely on its way out. I've been watching the woody hills our balcony looks onto and I swear that just today the deep green has lost as many as a dozen shades in some broad strips. A giant pencil has been rubbing them, eraser-down, all day, scattering curled flecks of color into the thick clouds bunched up overhead. Some baker has been sifting yellow sugar onto the trees directly beneath my window. I want the one next to the playground; it's gotten an extra helping and is sure to taste it.

I eat dinner every night to the death of flies. My windows are broad and clean and the flat is warm, and the flies moved in before I brought in the first box. Just how they got in here I haven't figured out yet. If I buzzed just right I could ask them where the OPEN sign is and then snoop around for the off-switch, but I don't think they remember, honestly. All day long they're beating against the glass, ignoring the peaches and apples on the window sill, trying to get back outside. After one or two days of this, the flies are quite done in are drop to the table, where I eat my scrambled-egg burritos and watch them pass into the next life.

Some of the flies go quickly, falling off the window and directly into that deep sleep of the ages. Others are more theatrical, writhing on the stage like a six-legged Desdemona. I imagine them on their backs balancing a beach ball, turning it round and round, willing the show to go on. I return later that night or for breakfast the next morning and there they lie, as though the weight of the beach ball eventually became too much. Someone has removed the beach ball overnight and left the body as a warning to those still beating their wings against the window.

Last week I saw a woman pluck a fly right off the glass on a bus the three of us were riding. She got hold of it by the wings and proceded to fling it out the opening in the window one seat ahead. Since then I've taken to treating the flies in the same way, leaving them distracted by all that view they want so badly through the window and plucking them off as if they were seedless grapes. Then I eat them.

Okay, that was just for shock. I really just open the balcony door and fling them out to their freedom, or mine, depending on your point of view. It's not so much that I'm afraid that they'll eventually discover my peaches and apples, it's just that you can only take so much death when you're trying to eat scrambled-egg burritos.