22 November 2013

Noticeably foreign

I was talking with a fellow English-speaking expat recently, and he mentioned that he tends to whisper to his small son when dropping him off at školka and was therefore taken aback when another parent started to speak to him in English. 

Last week, my students asked me how I like the Czech Republic and Czechs in particular. I told them I was pleasantly surprised with how kind most Czechs are. 

'Oh, that's just because they know you are a foreigner,' one of my more vocal students declared.

This caught me off guard a bit because, like my fellow expat friend, I often find myself hiding my foreignness in public - to the point of whispering English words, but occasionally loudly saying a Czech word to demonstrate that I fit in. For example, on the bus:

'You'd like to have your dudlik, would you, Smalls?

A not-entirely-rational part of me is convinced that I fit in perfectly. Special treatment for a foreigner? Phaw, not happening, since I've fooled them all!

This week, I've been trying to find a middle ground between my unconvincing undercover foreigner and the stereotypical American Abroad who audibly assaults whole tram-fulls of locals with mundane English at a level that would seem to indicate someone has mistakenly sat on the 'volume +' button. 

Finding this middle ground has required some extra effort and an acceptance that it's ok to have a gaggle of school children eye me up as I discuss the finer points of a nearby tractor with Smalls.

The result has been mostly positive. Besides educating children on the English words for farm instruments, I also seem to have outed myself as the local foreigner to a number of middle aged women of the village, who now enthusiastically greet me in the street, shop, and post office, and smile indulgently at my awkward attempts at Czech small-talk.

In related news, we finally hung up many of our pictures from England. Progress, my friends.

The hall, now homier

14 November 2013

Working life, peppered dumplings, and student presentations

It's now been two full weeks of work, and I am pretty tired, but very satisfied.

'Pretty tired' is an understatement. Smalls had croup over the weekend, and then decided that sleeping with us was much better than sleeping alone. We suspect this is because he discovered that when he is with us in our bed, should he feel bored at, say, 2 am, there are plenty of pillows to steal, bodies to crawl over, and eyelids to poke. Project: Sleeping Smalls is still ongoing...

I teach for the whole day - all 7 periods - with only a barbaric 30 minutes for lunch.  While lunches are much too short, the cafeteria food is cheap, tasty, and not too unhealthy. There are two options, which are somehow pre-ordered on the lunch card. I haven't quite worked out the whole pre-ordering business, but it seems you choose one option the day before and then you are stuck with Lunch One or Lunch Two. So far, I have had two very tasty lunches (including L.'s most beloved 'school salad', which is grated cucumber with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar), one skipped lunch because I had to sort out some forms and my IT account, and one 'lunch' that has spurred me into reading the menu more carefully.

This last lunch was called 'šišky s mákem' and looks like fingers (if we're going to be school-appropriate) with pepper and flour on the top, and I was very disappointed when it turned out that was the lunch I apparently signed up for. However, I took heart in the three thirteen year olds who were waiting for their second plate in front of me.

Here's a picture from Google:
From: http://www.mimibazar.cz/recept.php?id=12285
It is, in fact, dumplings with powdered sugar, ground poppy seeds, and a generous ladle of melted butter poured over the top.

It was not something I would recommend, and the extra downside was that all of that sugar meant that I was buzzing and twitching all the way through the rest of my lessons. I probably shouldn't have also had the chocolate cake for dessert.

And, finally, in a somewhat related note: I am very sorry to the teacher who was teaching below me when one of my students gave her 5 minute speech on something she's passionate about (tap dancing), and then proceeded to - very literally and extremely enthusiastically - give a demonstration. For at least 3 minutes. I should have suspected something when she put on the tap shoes. 

08 November 2013

Mission: package recovery

I've just realised that the previous post might come off as bragging. This was completely unintentional. This entry was supposed to be the bragging one.

You see, re-entering the working world pales significantly in comparison with my greatest achievement of this past week (heck, probably of this past year): I have successfully freed a package from the post office.

This was not the usual post office. In fact, I just picked up a different package yesterday from the local, Village post office, and the interaction went like this:

Me: [handing over the paper to say I'd missed a delivery] Dobry den. Doufam ze, mam balik tady. (I hope I have a package here).
Friendly young man: Hm, Expatova? [Quick rummage] Tady. [Hands over package]. Potrebujeme pas. (We need your passport).

And that was it. I handed over my passport, he typed in a few numbers, handed it back, and we said goodbye. Estimated time spent: 4 minutes.

No, this was a very different experience. I was recently sent some very lovely items that were flagged up by the authorities as being over the limit of 30 EUROS.

As a result, instead of going to our local post office, the package went to the post office that specialises in imported packages and I was sent a letter informing me that I would need to fill in forms and pay a few fees.

The building even looks like an awkward pile of paper
L. helpfully called the office a few times to find out exactly what needed to be done, but ultimately, it was up to me to rescue my poor package.

My first attempt was right after my first day of teaching. I made it to the lobby and nearly to the correct floor before I gave up in despair.

The second attempt went better. It went something like this:

First, after a phone consultation with L. where he encouraged my to stop reading him the signs on the door, which he had helpfully translated as 'Office hours', and just go in, I went through a small, bland door. I found myself in a room with counter areas and what seemed to be a package handover area. I went to a randomly-chosen window and handed over the letter I had received about the package.

The lady typed in a few details, found another piece of paper in her file, stamped it, and gave me some directions in Czech. When it became clear I didn't understand fully, she commanded, 'Right!' Unsure of whether she meant the other window to our right or some other place to the right, I hung about desperately until she took pity on me and, with the assistance of another prospective package obtainee, shooed my out of the room with choruses of 'Doprava! Right!'

The second stage of my quest seemed to involve waiting outside another door until a light turned green. There were several lights and one was green when I got there, so I went in. This time, I had another lady, who explained in Czech that I would have to pay some money to free the package. I was expecting this and nodded bravely when she wrote down the amount. I fished out my wallet, but was instructed (still in Czech) that I would need to wait for some papers and pay at a different window. She printed, stamped, and had me sign three documents. Then I sat in nearby chair until she signalled that she had finished the final paper. It was stamped vigorously and then I was directed to the next station, a whole 2 metres away, to pay.

The man at the next window looked through all my papers, printed a few extra for good measure, took my money, and sent me back to the other women. She looked through the papers he gave me, and then printed and stamped yet another one for my stack.

Weighed down by an ever-increasing pile of well-stamped papers, I staggered across the hall to the original room and stood in the queue for the second window. The woman at this window looked through the stack of papers, scornfully discarding some of the papers seemingly at whim, and then informed me I needed to pay something. Picturing another series of offices, I pleaded, 'Ale, uz jsem platila!' ('But I already paid!'). However, this second fee was both smaller - and surprisingly - could be processed by her, no other counters needed.

And, thus, finally, the glorious moment came when I could stand at the package pick-up area, armed with a sea of papers, and demand my rightful package.

Estimated time: 46 minutes of my life that have been lost forever.

Also worth mentioning: the many trees that died so that my package could be free.

I expect Homer would have found rich material in the bowels of the Czech postal system. 

Chalk on my fingers

Winter is coming to the Village
Things have gotten much busier here in the Expatovi family recently. This past week, I started not one, but two new jobs. One of them is something that can be done during nap time (Smalls's nap time, not mine, unfortunately). The other is helping me break my addiction to the internet. I now spend two whole days away from the computer and, shockingly, the world still seems to be turning.

This second job is a teaching one, as an English teacher at a Czech high school.

Many, many years ago, this would have been my dream job. I started my studies at university fully intending to be a high school English teacher. Things changed though, and I've spent the past six or so years pursuing a different career.

And now here I am,  trying to get chalk dust out of my fingernails.

It feels very strange to come full circle like this. It also feels amazing to have proper, full health insurance coming my way soon (did I mention how much I love and miss the NHS?).

Even stranger is the fact that I am loving my new job. The students, for the most part, are really pleasant and engaged. The school itself is in a nice building and the colleagues are exceptionally friendly and helpful. Surprisingly, the cafeteria food is tasty and cheap, and the highlight of my mornings (downside: my lunch period starts at 11.30). I've had two days of classes, back to back all day, which were bloody exhausting, but also really good fun.

The other job that I mentioned might develop into something much closer to my ideal job, although I must say that this high school teaching gig could get addictive. A room full of students who generally laugh at my jokes is feeding my ego in a rather worrying way.

Meanwhile, Smalls has started attending a školka (nursery) for the two days that I'm terrifying teenagers with my enthusiastic hand-waving and bad jokes. 

Finding a place for him was exceptionally good luck. State-sponsored maternity leave in the Czech Republic has a few options for parents, but most take a 3-year break from work, with their job guaranteed for them at the end. State školky are free, starting from 3 years old. So, there aren't too many options for the under-3s. However, L. managed to track down a private školka right next to his work that isn't too expensive and takes under-3s. Even better, they were happy to take him at only a week's notice. 

As with his nursery in England, Smalls has settled in really well and is getting glowing reports. Apparently, he spent the last session happily stomping around a nearby park.

The only major downside so far, besides my poor abused feet, is having to get to grips with using the damn chalkboard. I really miss my PowerPoints.

01 November 2013

Halloween in the Village: attack of the toddlers

I didn't celebrate Halloween as a kid (no, dear parents, dressing up as 'your favourite Reformation martyr' doesn't count), but as an adult, I am a firm fan of the holiday.
Smalls taking a moment out of his busy schedule to show off his costume
In Exeter, we had some truly fantastic parties...although the year I gave L. a wizard hat and putting him in charge of making cocktails was admittedly not one of my most brilliant moments.

Our celebration this year was considerably less alcoholic than previous years. This was primarily due to the fact that over half of the guests were under five.

L. and I don't have the best record with the under-5 set of Halloween revellers. During our first year owning a house in England, we were in a major reconstruction phase involving tearing down all of the plaster in the living room when the door bell rang. It was only when we opened the door to a sea of expectant painted faces that I suddenly remembered it was Halloween night and the candy I bought weeks earlier was still in our old house. The spectre of us, completely covered in plaster dust, was completed by L.'s desperate apology that, 'We're really sorry. We  have no candy. But here, have a.....chunk of brick.' We didn't have another trick-or-treat-er for the remainder of our stay in the 'hood.

This year, I think we managed to get off to a better start with our youngest neighbours.

Halloween isn't celebrated too heavily here, and so I figured we would get a few of the eighteen or so families I invited from the village's toddler group (klubík, which probably deserves a post of its own)

It's a good thing we have a large garden, because nearly all of the mums, toddlers, and siblings that I invited came. At one point, I counted at least twenty-five guests running around.

Some of the action
It was a proper, glorious infestation of screaming toddlers in witches' hats. We had lots of space for them to ride their trikes, a few old mattresses for them to jump on (very popular), some funny Halloween decorations, and enough sugary treats to keep them buzzing for weeks. 

The bonfire at the end was definitely a highlight for all, and full of fire-roasted sausages, the kids toddled home for bath and bed. 

With the last of the guests sent off to bed, L. and I had a drink by the dying bonfire and congratulated ourselves on our first successful attempt at neighbourhood kids + Halloween.