Monday, January 29, 2007

More Prague Journal Self-indulgent ramblings

January 17, 2007 5:48pm

So, entered the local paper store to buy some plastic page protectors. Was dismayed to discover that most of the stock was behind the counter. I tried to scope out where what I needed was so I could simply point, and when I thought I had figured it out, I waited until all the other customers had left to make my move.

Me: “Dobrey Den. Mluvete Anglitsky?”

Her (young girl behind the counter): “Neh.”

Me: [sh*t]. “Uhhh, chelabich…” [pointing]

Her: [looks at me like I’m a retard who should be barred from attempting Czech. Also looks totally confused at my attempts. Walks over to are I pointed. Pulls something out. Looks at me with raised eyebrows.]

Me: [squints to see what she is holding up. It is an overhead projector sheet.] “Neh.” [Motions down to the next shelf.]

Her: [picks up one of what I need. Demonstrates to me that I can open the plastic to put something inside.] “Sprechen Sie Deutsch.”

Me: “Ein bischen.”

Her: [Looks like my “ein bischen” of “Deutsch” is not going to help. After all, I never learned “I’d like some plastic sheet protectors and, by the way, how much are they?” in my one semester of German.]

Me: “Francais?”

Her: [Laughs like “no way in hell.”] “How many?”

Me: [Ah ha, so she was paying a little attention in English class after all. Too bad I have no idea how many I actually want. Shrug.]

Her: “Hundert?” [Ah, so we’re back in Deutsch now. Too bad my brain has switched to French and refuses to switch back. All I can think now is “combien?”]

Me: [Falling back on English] “How much?”

Her: [Pulls out piece of paper and writes number on it. Damn European system of writing numbers makes it impossible for me to tell what she has actually written. It is only two digits, though, so I have enough. I think.]

Me: “Okay.”

Her: [She rings me up: the plastic sheets, a binder, and a small notebook--ironicaly enough, the notebook is going to be for taking notes on Czech. She writes down another number which I am mostly able to decipher--three digits now, first digit is a one, so I give her 200 Crowns.]

Me: d’ouqueey [That’s not how it is spelled in Czech, but I figure the way I say it is as indecipherable as they way I just spelled it, so it adds to the overall effect of the story.]

Anyway, as I walked out the store, I started thinking about the Ocean City tee-shirts that say: “Welcome to America. Now speak English.” I wonder if this girl was thinking “these damn foreigners. Why don’t they learn Czech?” I think about those tee-shirts a lot here: as I go to the grocery store or the bakery, as I try to buy a metro pass, as I enter a store and have a question but don’t know the Czech. As I interact with people here, part of me is back in the United States, thinking about the times I worked in a store and helped customers who didn’t speak English. Was I the type of person I would want to encounter here? I think maybe I was, but still, language creates such a strong connection between people. We don’t see it when we are surrounded by people who all speak the same language, but when we are removed from the group, at least for part of the day, we feel the lack of connection acutely. It is a sense of being untethered--unconnected to anyone around you. For the first few days or even first few weeks, it is freeing. The sense of being anonymous--of not having to listen to the nasal tones of North American English. The new language is exotic and mysterious, and it creates the perfect acoustic backdrop for the new sights and smells one encounters in a new place. After awhile, though, one beings to feel disconnected from these sounds. The frustration of not being able to communicate grows, as does the sense of isolation. Now, when one hears those formerly nasal tones of North American English, they become an anchor to which one can attach oneself. Even if one is not a part of the conversation, one feels a connection with the speakers--a connection that even the speakers are not aware of--as one throws a rope around the solid foundation of linguistic similarity and feels briefly secure.

(Hmm, switched from second person plural to third person singular. Don’t like that, but can’t make up my mind if I like “we” or “one” better in this. At the end, the use of “one” all the time sounds silly--it interferes with the message of the piece. On the other hand, “we” feels a little too inclusive for something like this.)

In 9 days, I will have been here for one month. (Future Perfect)

January 21, 2007 8:19am Sunday

So, I got moved into my new place. Very cool. I actually had wireless internet access yesterday for awhile, but I think the person discovered that there were others piggybacking onto his internet and now it is gone. Oh well. I want to see if I can convince my roommate to go halves on internet.

Had a pretty good day yesterday--got to talk to mom over the internet using Skype. Went to tea with my new roommate, and I also went to a drumming workshop with my former roomie’s boyfriend (fresh back from the States). I am going back tonight for some Chicken Mole (I’m bringing the Guacamole--I offered because I thought I still had internet access and could double check my recipe, but now I think I am just going to have to wing it.) Oh, and I went for a jog yesterday morning--there is an excellent park next to the building and it is mostly level (it is actually at the top of a hill, so at one end of the park you can look out over Prague--the view is excellent).

6:07 pm

Feeling a little crappy. Ugh. I was supposed to go have Chicken Mole, but I’ve decided to stay in tonight and just rest. I will probably go to bed/take a nap in a bit here. I don’t have to teach at all tomorrow, so I can spend the day resting/planning lessons. The lesson planning is getting easier--I don’t know that I am really getting any better with my teaching, though. There is still so much I need to work on. I need to work on my transitions and my comprehension checks (I do check comprehension, but I don’t do it the way it was taught in the TEFL certificate class I took. I don’t know how the school here feels about all that. I’ve tried to do comp check questions the way the certificate program taught, but they just feel so awkward and forced, and the students look at me like I’ve lost my mind. I also need to work more on my teaching presence. I’ve gotten better, but I’m still not where I think I should be. I have figured out how to keep the students from using too much Czech AND I’ve discovered that giving the students time limits on pair work and individual class work keeps them focused. (It doesn’t really matter how long I actually give them. Sometimes I say they have five minutes and then I give then seven if they need it. Sometimes I say they have five minutes and I give them three. But just announcing the time they have seems to be the most important thing.)

So, I’ve taken on a new student. That puts me at 28 teaching hours a week. No more. Absolutely not. Actually, this student may just be short term. She only has three more lessons that she paid for--and I’m supposed to see if she wants to renew her lessons or not. I’m taking over for another teacher--the teacher I spent New Year’s Eve with (remember the resolution story?) is going back to the States and this was one of her students.

Starting to feel a little nervous about my LEGO lessons--new class, you know. I guess it will take me a couple of weeks to feel comfortable with them (it generally seems to take me at least three lessons before I start to relax a little).

I know I’m just writing about nothing right now--sorry. I had some very deep thoughts yesterday during my run, but I’m still processing them, turning them over and over in my mind. Once I’ve turned them over a few more times I may record them here. Just some thoughts on the nature of time and my identity as a newcomer--part of that is learning the prejudices of the new country (this second thought is going to be something that I will have to deal with with some of my students, I think. I think I first need to learn more about the prejudices here and then determine how I fit into the social structure, and then determine how I want to deal with certain things in the classroom. I know this makes absolutely no sense, but my brain is still turning it over--it only started this process yesterday, so I guess I’m only still mixing the ingredients--or even just making a list of what to buy). But I’ve already decided that ignoring it is not an option. Part of learning a new language is learning a new culture, and the culture I want my students to learn in my classroom is one of tolerance and critical thinking. (Of course, that is easier said than done, which is why I need to mull over how to accomplish that goal).

January 22, 2007 9:03am

So, according to CNN, January 22 is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. I can see that. When I woke up this morning, the little bit of light coming through my curtains made the room look Picasso blue.

Ah, but the television! I have to describe the television! I have the strangest assortment of channels on my telly! I have four Czech channels on the regular service, and then I have satellite service. On the satellite service, I have CNN, BBC Parliament, and Al Jezerra (sp?). I also have ten to fifteen channels each of British shopping (QVC?), British electronic roulette and bingo, and British worship (including one Islamic channel, on which so far I have seen services in Spanish, English, and Arabic). The absolute best two channels, though, and the one channel of Welsh news (yes, in Welsh), and the British/India pop music video channel (a little goes a very, very long way. It is mainly Indian guys singing while [scantily-clad] white chicks dance in the background.) So far, the big news story on CNN and Al J. is the Celebrity Big Brother scandal in England (well, not really a scandal… more like… I don’t even know… just junk). Anyway, the ticker at the bottom of the screen on CNN informed me that more troops are dying in Iraq, so at least I’m getting a little bit of news here.

The internet has never returned after that first day. Ugh. I knew it would go away, but I had hoped I’d have access a little longer than I did. Oh well.

So, according to CNN, we are supposed to get nailed with snow this week. Ok, there was no mention of Prague or the Czech Republic, but that banner of white and blue and violet passed right over us in the satellite image (so how does Budapest warrant mention AND a temperature label and Prague doesn’t even get mentioned? I mean, how many people even know where Budapest is? Prague is way more important!)

It is soooo cold in my room right now and I’m unable to focus on the thermostat instructions. I feel almost like I’m coming down with a cold, but I know I’m not.

January 29, 2007 8:49pm

Wow, I’m really bad about writing in my Prague journal. Maybe it is because I still feel like I am scrambling to get anything done (usually just before it really needs to be done). This week I get to deal with timesheets. Yeah, big deal, you think, but my time sheets are four pages long AND have to be accompanied by eleven sheets of signed papers. Ugh.

I hardly know what to write about now! I don’t even really know where to start! I know I need to explain my taffy law of time further (with examples) AND explain the circumstances behind my Murphy’s Law adaptation now known as the Law of the Friday Morning DVD. Maybe I’ll start with that. Yeah. Although I just hope I don’t feel traumatized all over again-especially considering that I’m trying to settle down to get some sleep.

So, I have this three hour conversation class every Friday. What fun! You think. Wrong. Wrong with capital letters and a deadpan expression. Trying to come up with three hours of interesting conversation topics and ideas for a group of post-secondary kids (about 19-23) is excruciating. I took over this class from a teacher who did not, as I had previously thought, leave Prague but who had decided that trying to come up with ideas for this class was just too damn hard. I’m inclined to agree. So, last week, I decided that I would do a lesson on school shootings with them, then plop them down in front of a nice DVD (Bowling for Columbine). Easy Peasy. One of the other teachers for the class rented the movie for me and assured me that there as a DVD and TV on the floor where I teach the class.

Now might be a good time to halt my story and explain a little about the interior geography of my school. It is tall and narrow, and there is no lift (elevator). The classes are held on the top two floors (the fifth and sixth floors, I think). The library is down in the basement. The school is always insanely crowded with teachers and students, and the classrooms are always being used.

Anyway, I got to my lesson early on Friday to make sure I could find the DVD player. It was not on my floor, so I went up a floor. Turns out there is one DVD player and it is on the top floor. It is also bolted to the TV, which is, in turn, bolted to the cart. Okay, I can deal with this. I went down to the library and asked if there was another DVD player I could use. The librarian opened a cabinet and VOILA there it was. So, I went upstairs, grabbed a TV, rolled it over four wooden door stop thingies (thump, thump…thump, thump… etc) and entered the classroom. I had six students (yea!), and I conducted the first part of my lesson and everything went well. I let the students go on break a little early, and I went down to the library to make some photocopies. I almost made it out. In fact, I did. I was the next floor up when the librarian came panting after me to inform me that she needed the DVD player back. Now? Yes, now. Right now. Turns out she had promised it to another teacher the day before. Now? Yes. Is there another DVD player? No. Does this teacher teach on the floor that has a DVD player? No.


So, with five minutes of break time left, I race up to the top floor (pant, pant) and see if there is a free classroom for the next two hours. Hell no. I race back down a floor and tell my class I’m going to be a little late, grab the DVD player, and race down to the library (pant, pant). Then, I race back up to the top floor to check again. Nope, nothing free. There is one class, though, that has not shown up yet. The next class has a name on it and I recognize the name, so I race down to ask that person if I can swap with her. Turns out she is not the person on the classroom door (the person on the classroom door happens to be the wife of the owner of the school), and by the way, can I take another class? I mention that I am in the middle of a class right now and that I will come back to see her about that later. So, I race back up to the top floor, look at the classroom again, and decide to risk it. I race back down a floor, tell my class we are moving and to follow me, and grab the TV cart (thump, thump… back over the wooden door stop thingies) to put it back where it belongs. I lead my students up a floor, grab the new TV cart (with DVD player), and roll it into my newly conquered classroom (thump, thump). The students sit down, I load the DVD, turn everything on (yes, it all worked), and go to start the movie. Only… where’s the remote? I need the remote to change the language track from Czech to English (otherwise what’s the freakin’ point, right?). Notice taped to the side of the TV: see librarian for remote. So, I race down the stairs (thump, pant, thump, pant). The librarian has no idea which remote it is, so she gives me all of them. I race back up (thump, pant, sweat), pass the remotes out to students, and we start (simultaneously, of course) trying to switch the language track. No luck. I grab back up all the remotes, race back down to the library, and give them back. The librarian looks for some other remotes, but doesn’t find any. Finally, I suggest she look on her computer to see who checked it out last. Oh. The head of the Academic office. So I race up there and find—an empty office. I head out, defeated, and run into someone I know. I briefly explain the situation to her, she marches into the Academic Office, rummages the desk of the head of the Academic office, and pulls out a remote. I start to weep. No, I don’t, but I race back up (pant, thump, sweat, sweat, pant), burst triumphantly into the illegitimate classroom holding the remote over my head, and then spend the next ten minutes (with the class) trying to figure out how to work the damn thing. I finally wind up restarting the DVD, which decides at this point that it is not going to play. I pull the DVD out, clean it up, put it back in and –it works! And then I get the language track switched to English! And we settle down and watch the blasted, freakin’, son-of-a-whatever DVD. (And I formulate my modified Murphy’s Law, henceforth to be known as the law of the Friday morning DVD).

And I’ve just realized that I’ve written this story in the historical present (with a couple of exceptions—perhaps where I wasn’t paying attention too much). I may have to use it in a class now (except for the fact that the historical present is mainly an oral tense, though I used it here to give the story immediacy and frantic tension). (First sentence of this paragraph in Present Perfect, used because of its close temporal relationship with the preceding paragraph—hard to explain).

Hey, hey, hey! Back on the internet. Maybe I can post all this tonight!


At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Shari said...

Well, I just came home from orchestra rehearsal, and I needed something to do to get me settled down so I can sleep. (Are you always slightly wired after a rehearsal? I know I am.) I brought up your blog, and there was all kinds of good stuff to read! Thanks for making me laugh so that I can go to bed with a smile on my face. :-)

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Ovonia Red said...

Good to know my stories helped put you to sleep! Wait until I get around to posting the "raining debris in my shower this morning" story. Sure to get a yawn! (I'm just teasing you, you know that, right?).

Well, off to punch holes in handouts and staple (my ADULT students cannot keep track of the papers even when they are stapled. Sigh.)


At 7:54 AM, Blogger Captain Disgruntled said...

I thought your comments on the connecting nature of a common language were downright profound.

So there.

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Shari said...

I know you were teasing. :-) And all it really did was calm me down so that I have a chance to sleep - not put me to sleep.

Captain Disgruntled is right - some of your comments were downright profound. :-) That's very true about the language. It made me ponder some of the experiences I've had with people who speak other languages, although none have been as prolonged or have left me as isolated as yours. I don't know how you do it.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Ovonia Red said...

Shari--I'm not actually that isolated with the language. I speak with my roommate in English, and I am surrounded by English teachers at the school. I speak in English with my students, and my landlord speaks English. In many ways I am less linguistically isolated here than I was in Valence, France (where very few people knew any English and I spoke in French with my co-workers and roommates).

Still, even with all my English interaction, I still feel isolated on the Metro, or completely helpless in a shop... It is a difficult experience, but I think it is one that everyone should have (though maybe not as extended as mine!). It really opens your eyes to how many things you take for granted and how many things are different/foreign/confusing when you are an "outsider."

Anyway, I will try and have some more profound statements soon. I think I still owe an explanation of taffy time.


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