Acts of Kindness and the Czech Triangle

(Romana, Jitka, and I eating ice cream in Tabor)

As I write this, I am sitting in the middle of the Soběslav square, as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The middle of the town sits a mere 12 steps from my apartment, making me feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be living in such an accessible place. I am sitting on a dark grey bench made of a solid sort of wood that gives off the impression that it has been here for centuries. In fact, the whole town gives off the same sort of vibe. There are brightly colored shops, from pharmacies and grocery stores to restaurants, surrounding the square in every direction. Next to me, there is a couple enjoying a late afternoon snack, another couple having a conversation in the shade, and a family just taking in the fresh air. Children run across the cobblestones, screaming for their parents to lift them up into the air. In a sense, this could be any small town in America, but in some of the most important ways, it really couldn’t. Besides the obvious difference of everyone speaking in Czech, there is rich history here that underlies not just the architecture and visual elements of the town, but also the attitude of its people. It is difficult to not sit here and imagine what the town must have looked like centuries ago, what sort of stories lay hidden, as the clock tower rings out. But I know that with each person I meet and each new place I visit, I am even more intrigued and interested to learn more.

I have been in the Czech Republic for four full days, and just in this sort period of time, I have experienced the full embrace of Czech hospitality. This started when I was met at baggage claim at the airport by my mentor, Romana, with a sign in her hands and a smile on her face. We had spoken numerous times over the summer to hammer out details of my journey, but this was the first time we had met in-person. She was and has been lovelier than I could have expected. She has an infectious energy and excitement about her, and you can’t help but smile when you’re around her. She has been absolutely invaluable, and there are not enough words for me to express my gratitude to her.

The second person to welcome me to Czechia was Adéla, my landlady. The details of my housing had been coordinated over the summer through WhatsApp, and Romana sending pictures as she went apartment hunting. The apartment we chose is located right on the square and is the perfect space for me to come home to after teaching. Adéla reassured me that she and her sons lived in the flat downstairs and that if I needed anything at all, she was just a call away. She suggested that if I wanted to go for a walk or was coming back from somewhere after dark, that she was happy to come get me to make sure I got home safe. Living in a different country, away from everyone you know, inherently feels a little scary, but Adéla has helped me feel safer. She brought me tomatoes from her garden yesterday, and it is these casual acts of kindness that really warm my heart.

I spent most of Wednesday in a fog of jet lag, but Thursday, I felt much better. I went on my first run here, following a trail that Romana had recommended, and only getting lost once! Baby steps for the win. I then went on a guided tour of Soběslav that Romana and Adéla had coordinated for me. My tour guide was Michal, an enthusiastic history buff and recent graduate of the secondary school that I will be teaching at in a few weeks. He provided me with some much needed historical and cultural context, walking me through the two main churches in the town and the castle. We dove deeper into the conflicts between Catholics and the Hussites, the patronage of the Rosenbergs in Southern Bohemia, and the impact of World War II. Suffice to say, I had a grand time and emerged from the tour with a better understanding of the town I will call home for the next ten months.

Friday was a long day. It was the day for the “Czech Triangle.” This was the name that Romana had come up with to describe the geographic relationship of the towns Soběslav, Bechyně, and Tabor. These towns are all about 20km from one another in a somewhat triangular shape on the map. I spent early morning in Soběslav, the afternoon in Tabor, and the evening in Bechyně. First item on the agenda was to meet with Petr, the school’s headmaster, and David, an English teacher at the school. It was great to see the inside of the school for the first time and to meet Petr and David. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by just how open, welcoming, and kind everyone is. David, as the hockey coach for the local youth teams, offered to show me and Romana the ice hockey stadium. I had seen the rest of the sports complex— massive soccer field, track, sand volleyball court, two small sided soccer courts, basketball court, and numerous tennis courts— the day before on a walk with Romana. Walking inside the hockey center and hearing David proudly talk about his daughter who plays with the local boys team, I was reminded of a book I read a few years back called Beartown by Fredrik Backman about a small hockey town in Sweden. I watched the last 10 minutes of the ongoing match, found myself thrilled to be watching live sports again, and knew this was absolutely the right town for me to indulge my love of both playing and watching sports.

(Romana, Me, and David at the Ice Hockey Arena)

From there, Romana and I drove to Tabor to figure out if we could set up a Czech bank account where my stipends would be direct deposited and to also purchase a Czech SIM card. The bank account was being opened by one of Romana’s friends, Pavla, who worked really patiently with us, because opening a Czech bank account as a foreigner is no cakewalk. After two hours, Pavla told us the processing of the account could take awhile, recommended that we go ahead with lunch, and promised to call with updates. From there, Romana and I walked through Tabor first seeking out an O2 shop to buy a SIM card before looking for a place to eat. Tabor is larger than Soběslav, with more shops and restaurants as well as more vegan/vegetarian options. We chose a nice bistro that agreed to remove the meat from their penne for me, and met one of Romana’s friends, Jitka. She is an English teacher in Tabor and had actually hosted a Fulbright ETA there in 2020. Note another casual act of kindness: Jitka brought Romana and I each jars of black currant marmalade fresh from her garden. She also had a lot of good advice and recommendations for visiting Tabor in the future. We explored for awhile, traversing the info center and bookstore, before stopping to get some ice cream from a place that Romana insisted had “the best ice cream ever!” I got mango sorbet, and I’ll admit that it was fantastic! We then made our way to a coffee shop that had a really great aesthetic appearance, with lots of plants and bar tables and colorful couches. From here, we split ways with Jitka, and headed back to the bank to pick up Pavla and drive to Bechyně, where both Romana and Pavla live.

Reaching Bechyně, we stopped at Romana’s house so that I could meet her boyfriend, Vojtěch, before we headed out for a walk around town. Bechyně was really beautiful, with these large bridges overlooking the river Lužnice, and a lively town square with many restaurants and outdoor dining. I also loved getting to know Romana’s dog, Amy, and her lively and playful demeanor. Before soon, the sun was setting, and Romana brought me back to Soběslav to finish out the day of the Czech Triangle.

(Me and Romana’s dog, Amy)

It has been a busy few days, but I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to explore and find my bearings. Everyone I have met has been lovely and welcoming, and there is so much natural beauty around me to admire. Tomorrow morning, I head off for orientation with the other Fulbright ETAs where I will spend four days, getting to know them better and also receiving some preparation for the start of the school year.

The sun has slid lower and live acoustic guitar has started to echo through the square. Time to go pack my duffel for the orientation!

See you in the next one.

Packing for Ten Months

As I write this, I am flying high above the clouds, crossing over the length of the United States and the vast Atlantic Ocean. I am on a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam where I will have a 2.5 hour layover, and then connect to a 1.5 hour flight to Prague, my final destination.

My last few days and weeks in Houston were marked by spending time with friends and family, but also packing basically everything I owned into two checked bags, a duffel carry-on, and a backpack.

The first decision I had to make in regards to packing was whether I wanted to bring one or two checked bags. I will freely admit to having an overpacking tendency, but honestly, packing for ten months in a foreign country seemed to call for bringing lots of items. From previous ETAs I had heard the refrain that packing light is generally better, and that I could buy whatever I needed either in my Czech town or in one of the bigger Czech cities. While that method seemed reasonable, the decision to buy or pack is really dependent on each person. Personally, I preferred to pay slightly more for an extra checked bag than have to buy entire wardrobe pieces abroad.

After having made the decision to take two bags, my mom and I began laying out potential shirts, sweaters, pants, dresses, and shoes that I may take with me to the Czech Republic.

Here is where I mention how instrumental my parents were in this packing process. My mom started about two weeks ago— laying out clothes and other essentials in the guest bedroom so that I would have a better idea of what I had and what I needed. Both my parents and I were running around different stores trying to find last-minute items, and there were long days put into fitting everything into these suitcases. So a massive thanks to the two of them— I couldn’t have done it without them!

My packing list, which I have attached a picture of below, was split into multiple categories— Tops, Bottoms, Sweatshirts, Shoes, Backpack, Documents, Toiletries, and Miscellaneous. I then added an extra category— Things to Buy. I would recommend trying to figure out what you do not have in the house and may need to take with you— power adapters, sunglasses, winter jacket, etc. That way, you have some time to have your items shipped to you before departure.

Space and weight saving tips: I did my best to spread the weight of the heaviest items— jeans and sweaters mainly— across both bags. I rolled all of my t-shirts, I packed most of my shoes into the duffel carry-on to avoid that weight in my checked bag, and I stuffed socks into all of my shoes. In my duffel, I also kept an extra set of clothes, in case my checked bags were misplaced or temporarily lost.

The biggest factor in choosing what clothes I should bring was versatility. I needed to choose tops that would work in both casual and professional settings, on top of jeans, on joggers, and on slacks too. The same went for jackets and dresses— I wanted to toe the line between professional and casual to avoid bringing single-use clothing items.

My backpack consisted of all of my electronic devices— I was bringing a laptop, a tablet, a camera, and all of the related chargers and accessories. One of my more exciting purchases was actually a camera clip that would sit on my backpack strap and would allow me quick access if there was a shot I wanted to grab. I intend to create some vlogs while I am in the Czech Republic, and just from my time at the Houston airport, I have already seen how useful this clip has been!

When it came time to weigh the bags, I used a bag scale we have had for years. It loops onto the handle of the suitcase and then as you lift the suitcase, the handheld scale calculates how heavy the bag is. I was right around the 48-49 lbs mark for both bags, and the scale proved rather accurate, with no major troubles when checking in the bags at the airport.

For my travel day outfit, I chose clothes that were loose and comfortable, but also super functional. My jacket has 4-6 good pockets for easy access for my passport, chapstick, and phone. My pants also had lots of zipper pockets to help me make sure nothing important fell out as I made my way from airport to airport.

Packing for ten months was daunting, because it felt like no matter how much I took with me, it would still never be enough to recreate my home. Maybe the key is in realizing and recognizing that my apartment in Soběslav will be a home away from home, and as such, will be different. I am sure there was maybe some part of me that thought if I took enough things from home, I would not miss it as much. Truth is that I am going to miss Houston, my parents, my brother, my home, and my friends immensely, but I am also excited for what will certainly be a transformative and incredible life experience.

The most important item that I packed is a set of nine pictures— pictures of my family, of my friends, of some of my most enjoyable memories of the last year. This is my way of bringing Houston and the people I care about with me to the Czech Republic and paying homage to all they have taught me, as I journey forward in life.

See you in the next one.

Mluvíte česky?

Dobrý den! This past week, I started my formal Czech language learning. Lots of people have been asking me if I know how to speak Czech since I will be living there for ten months. The answer is quite simply no— but I am learning! Some countries have a language knowledge requirement in order to apply to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ie. most South American countries, Spain, and Germany, to name a few), but the Czech Republic does not require applicants to know Czech. Most ETAs are not fluent in Czech, and because of that, it is generally a good idea to at least educate yourself on the basics to make the whole experience just a little easier.

So I signed up to participate in a 2-week immersive Czech language course offered through Charles University in Prague. In normal years, the course would be in-person with students flying in from all over the world to learn Czech and stay in dormitories. However, with COVID-19 ever present, the course is being offered online through Microsoft Teams.

The Czech Fulbright Commission offered a $500 stipend for any of the ETAs who wanted to take a language course over the summer, and I decided to take them up on the offer.

The course, Czech for Compatriots, is offered Monday through Friday for two weeks. Every day, I sit for three 90-minute blocks of Czech lectures and lessons. There are thirty-five students who are participating in this course, but the very first day, we were split into three classes— Beginner, Medium, and Advanced. Safe to say, I was happily in the Beginner class with my only Czech exposure happening through my 150 day Duolingo streak.

On the first day, the course director, Marika, explained the outline of the course and introduced the three instructors as well. A few students offered up reasons for why they were learning Czech, and I was amazed at their stories. There was a middle-aged architect from Brazil who had started learning Czech to better understand his favorite Czech designer. There was an Eastern European woman in her 30s who had married a Czech man, and wanted to improve her Czech fluency. A neuroscientist from Montevideo, a grandmother from Buenos Aires, the list goes on and on.

In my beginner class, I have met the most incredible people. There are seven of us— three from Argentina, one from Uruguay, one from Burma, one from Serbia, and me, from the States. All of my classmates have relatives, usually grandparents or parents, who are Czech, and it is super enjoyable to have such an international, multicultural class.

Each day, we go a little further in the textbook, Czech Step by Step, learning greetings, numbers, and practicing dialogues and phonetics. Our teacher, Helena, informed us on the first day that Czech is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but for us to make a real go at it, her number one rule was to not be shy. It can feel awkward and embarrassing at first to relearn alphabets and force your mouth and tongue to create the necessary pronunciations, but that initial discomfort has to be set aside when learning a foreign language.

It has really been the little things that have made this course so worth it. Technically, sure, I could have bought the textbook on my own, and attempted to learn Czech by myself. However, when it comes to pronunciation, having a teacher has been useful in getting realtime feedback and intensive practice. It had never even crossed my mind that the stress on words would be different in Czech. In English, the stress is often on the first syllable, but can also be quite varied. In Czech, the stress is always on the second syllable, a discovery I likely would not have made without a teacher.

There have also been very fun and silly moments together— to practice our phonetics, we sang verses of a Czech song. People singing at different pitches and speeds plus the added delay of a video call; if you have never sung foreign language songs with others over Zoom, I would recommend it for a good laugh!

I am currently halfway through the course, and I am absolutely positive that I made the right choice in signing up. I have met fantastic and interesting people, learned Czech vocabulary and grammar, and gained a better understanding of Czech culture.

One of the first phrases we learned was “Mluvíte česky?” which means “Do you speak Czech?” Before this week, my answer would have been an unequivocal no, but now, I can say maybe just a little bit, and who knows what my answer will be in ten months!