Sunday, February 20, 2011

Here at the Christian International School of Prague, it's been a week of mixed emotions, a week of good news and bad news, and along with both, a new set of prayer requests. Let's do the bad news first, save the good news - just like dessert - till the end.

I lost a roommate this week, which means that the school also lost a 2nd grade teacher. Five days ago, Janna walked into school to an out-of-the-blue email announcing that her visa had been denied. A flurry of calls between the Czech staff here and the Czech embassy in Bratislava where she'd applied followed,
which produced the following information: the visa had been miscategorized under "Volunteer" instead of "Missionary", and Janna had not submitted the appropriate paperwork for a "Volunteer." According to the Czech embassy, nothing can be done about the error and so Janna will have to leave the country immediately. By the time the week is up, she'll be on her way back to her family in the USA and I will be a roommate short.

A few special prayer requests for this situation:

First, pray for Janna. As you can imagine, she's rather discouraged by the situation, and the passing days (each one bringing her closer to the day she'll leave) have only made her feel worse.

Second, please pray for the school: Among the perils of being an overseas missionary school is that the teaching staff is constantly fluctuating because of visa denials, or a lack of support. And in this case, the lower elementary teaching staff was already stretched thin over the first three grades in the school; without Janna, they'll be stretched thinner still.

Please pray finally for a new roommate: in February, I have a hard time imagining how my third roommate and I will find somebody to take Janna's place at this time of year (particularly since we don't know of anybody coming to Prague for ministry in the next few months) but it would help out a great deal with the bills to have somebody living here.

Have I depressed you enough? OK, then, we'll move on to . . . .


If not at the flat, it's been an excellent week in the classroom. In the classroom at least, it's been an excellent week. My 12th graders and I finished a unit on Dante this week, a unit that took us through the Inferno and then into the Purgatory and Paradise. Preparing to teach this week, I raided all my old Classical and Medieval Literature notes (thank you, Dr. Silvester) and a few from graduate school (thanks to Dr. Dayton) and planned out each lessons: As a class, we studied Dante's allegorical theory, the philosophy of Hell and of Heaven, the relationship between the soul and God, and divine justice and mercy.

As an English lover, I quickly learned that books that I love do not usually merit equal love by normal people (Paradise Lost, anyone?). My students earned major brownie points, then, by asking that we read not only a section from the Purgatory but also from the Paradise. Altogether, the trip through Hell and then through Heaven turned out to be a rich one. In his trip through Hell (for those of you who've never been privileged enough to read Dante), the poet writes of his initial separation from God. Ahead of him he can see the sun rising over a hill, saying that,

I raised my eyes and saw its shoulders robed
with the rays of that wandering light of Heaven
that leads all men aright on every road.

Clearly, Dante speaks with a double meaning here. At the literal level of the text, the sun that he glimpses does in fact "lead all men aright on every road" - in other words, provides the light necessary to walk a straight line from Point A to Point B, anywhere on the planet. Allegorically, however, Dante has another meaning: this sun is the "light of Heaven" and thus signifies the Son of God as well, the "true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world" (John 1:9). And so, we learned, Dante glimpses the Wisdom of God at the very opening of his great epic.

At the same time, this Wisdom is not one he can reach. Lost in a dark forest, he encounters a series of beasts that prevent him from reaching the hilltop and looking clearly at the sun. Literally , all this simply means is that Dante "turned to go the way he came" - retreating (naturally enough) from the leopard, the wolf, and other beats. Allegorically, the students concluded that this retreat symbolizes the state of the human soul: though aware of God's wisdom, there is no possible way to reach that wisdom directly. Like Dante from the sun, the soul is divided from God, and the only way to reach it is by going through Death itself.

Later, we had deeper discussions: the great extent of God's mercy, shown in the Purgatory when he extends mercy for "one little tear" shed in true repentance (think of the tiny mustard seed to which Christ likens faith), and the likelihood of Dante's salvation, considering that he was part of the medieval Catholic church. Each of this questions drove us as a class deeper into theological questions and discussions about God. And for believers and unbelievers alike, such questions are valuable: they add to the students' knowledge of God (God as at once merciful and just, a holy God) and demand that believers maintain an active, dynamic relationship with just such a God.

In other classes, we raised similar questions: The 11th graders read a selection from Milton's Areopagitica (another favourite of mine, thanks again to Dr. Silvester) and discussed Christian discernment in reading choices; the 9th graders are studying the human sin nature in Lord of the Flies. Incidentally, the 11th graders also earned major brownie points this week by telling me that they liked Areopagitica - wahoo!

And so the prayer request here is that class will go on in just this vein, that every class will encourage students to not only develop academic knowledge but also spiritual wisdom. In a few days, the 12th graders will take a test, and I will expect them to tell me (for example) about Dante's allegorical theory. It's important that they retain their knowledge of allegory, but it's even more important that they retain their knowledge of the relationship between the soul and God, the division between the two and the ever-present, ever-growing mercy of God.

And now, what everybody has been waiting for: a post about cultural quirks. Last time, I wrote about doorknobs, so today, I will dry to top that: I am writing about gas stoves today - in particular, my gas stove (picture below). A few of you know this story already, but it bears retelling.

About six weeks ago, I moved into my apartment, and since it was the dead of winter (and still is), it was a priority for me to make tea and coffee - good hot drinks to keep me warm. No microwave and no electric kettle meant that my only option was to purchase a pot and heat the water the old-fashioned way. So I picked up a tiny little 150-crown pot (about 7 USD) at Tesco one evening, took it home, filled it water, put it on the stove, and - nothing. The stove would not start. I tried every burner, multiple times. Still nothing. Then, I checked to make sure there was a gas tank beneath the stove; it was there. And the stove still wouldn't start. I drank some cold milk and went to bed.

A few days later, I asked a fellow teacher about the stove, and she suggested that (of all things) the stove was not only a gas stove but also a hand-lit stove. In other words, I had to actually hold a burning match down to gas. Picture Megan, the Human Torch. My roommate Janna and I decided we were game, though: she elected me to hold the match, and she turned on the gas, and - nothing. Tried another burner, and nothing. At that point, we went out for pizza - the only hot meal possible in a kitchen where the stove doesn't work.

Afterwards, we walked in the door, and I had a revelation: At home, we have a gas grill. To turn on the gas grill, we have to first turn on the gas tank beneath the grill and then turn on the grill. And so, I checked one more time beneath the stove: sure enough, there was a switch there, hidden far at the back. I squashed my head and shoulders into the cabinet under the stove, wrenched the switch around, and then we tried the stove again.

And it finally lit. Since then, I've boiled eggs, made croutons, and (best of all) made a toasted cheese sandwich on the stove. However, although the stove lights, the stove trouble is not over. Stoves in the Czech Republic have a few interesting quirks: Most of them are gas stoves, involving open flame. I set a panful of bacon grease on fire in the kitchen when I was 14, an experience that only contributed to my fear of fire; since then, I've been steadily getting over it as I prepare bacon and potato soup and toasted cheese and other delicacies on it.

Apparently, it's not unusual to have a hand-light stove. To start it, I light a match and then hold the burning match (and, just so you know, Czech matches burn about twice as fast as American ones, for whatever reason) in one hand. With the other, I reach down and turn the gas on until I hear it hissing. At that point, I touch the match to the gas and watch the whole burner burst into a circular flame - very scary the first time, but rather rewarding after that.

Among the various perils of the gas stove is that the flame is very easy to turn off and on - rather too easy, in fact. Quite a number of times, I've carefully held a burning match to the flame and watch the burner spring into action, put my pan with a toasted cheese sandwich on top, and gone to turn down the flame - and then accidentally turned it off altogether. At that point, I need to take the pan off and relight the stove.

Also, the burners themselves can be rather interesting. I've included a picture here, and as you can see, there's not much to a burner besides a couple of prongs to set a pot on.

In the case of my 150-crown pot, the burner is actually too large for the pot. And so, whenever I boil an egg, I balance the potful of water very carefully on the prongs, just exactly level, and then I hope that it doesn't tip and send up a hissing noise as the water hits the open flame.

Sometimes, I even wonder whether I will miss the gas stove when I return Stateside.

Monday, February 7, 2011

If you've survived 'Snowmaggedon' in the Midwest and are still reading my blog, welcome back! Just to make you a teensy bit jealous, it's been 50 F here for the last three days (about 10 C) with an electric blue sky. I seized advantage of the glorious weather recently to take this picture (and a whole bunch more like it):

For the past week and a half or so, life has been more tiring than expected. In particular, last week only had three days of classes (a break between quarters, and an inservice day, cancelled the other two), and the only grading I had tonight were the 9th grade response questions on Lord of the Flies. So far, my major accomplishment for the evening has been choosing how to abridge the Knight's Tale for the 12th grade class tomorrow and creating an outline for the next Lord of the Flies class (we'll be going over the wise / unwise decisions that characters make). And so I made a decision: I'm going to make this post short and sweet.

A few prayer requests, a cultural story, and I will bid you all a very fond goodnight (and then go much some Disko cookies for dessert):

Last week, I handed each student a yellow piece of cardstock and asked them to jot down a personal prayer request for me to remember. I've been reading through the requests, and I noticed several students thanking me for being willing to pray personally for them. A gratitude like theirs tells me two things: First, that they have good parents who teach them to say "please" and "thank you"! Also, I remember how encouraging it can be to know there is someone who prays specifically for you, someone who is not just praying "God bless Megan in the Czech Republic" but who knows our needs here and brings them before the all-powerful God in prayer.

And so, a couple important requests right at the beginning of the post:
  1. this school desperately needs its own building. Right now, high school kids trek back and forth between two apartments, each about a block away from campus; they also have buildings in the main campus. The distance makes it hard for them to be to class on time, makes it hard for the teachers to set up in their classroom, and divides the community. Also, we cannot pursue accreditation with ACSI until we have our own building.
  2. the relationships between teachers and students (like, me and my students) and then between the students as well. Over the past week or so, I've felt as though I've gotten to know individual students a little better: I raved about Ender's Game with one of my 12th graders and had a mini personal conversation with a 9th grader. I've met a few parents too, including a couple from Idaho and a couple from Canada (the Canadians are always feeling toasty in the Czech Republic; the Canadian science teacher here will wander out into the snow with flip flops). I'm excited, on the one hand, to see these relationshisp grow; on the other, I keep reminding myself to be proactive in the relationships - to reach out to students, not to seem distant. Among the school's top goals is maintaining a close-knit, loving community, and I want to contribute to that community and so let Christ be seen here at CISP.
  3. the 12th grade students, in particular. My student Jessica told me the other day that her family was in the process of purchasing tickets to return to the States this summer - 4 going home, and 3 coming back; she'll be staying Stateside to attend a Christian university. Going off to college is always scary, but it's extra scary for these students, who will be half a world away from their family and in a culture that is basically alien to them (probably if any of them are reading the blog, I've really depressed them now!). Anyhow, do pray that these last five months will prepare them for that transition - academically, socially, spiritually.
And like all my polite students, I thank you for your prayers. :)

Today's post is on the Czech lock system - a very small part of the culture that nevertheless plays a very large role. The Czech locks do not operate like American locks; it is not a simple matter of shoving the key into the lock. No, the Czech lock must be turned over twice to the right, and on the third time turning to the right it finally opens the door. Nor do the Czechs actually have doorknobs; generally, they simply have a door handle, and it is the turning of the key (along with a bit of pushing on the door) that opens the door. In other words, they look like this:

All of this has led to a few rather interesting experiences for me:

Occasionally, the Czech lock system makes it difficult for me to open the door. A few days ago, someone closed (and locked) the door to the staff room in the school, and so when I arrived, I dug out my keys and set to work turning the key in the lock. First I turned it one way, twice. The door didn't open. I turned it the other way, twice again. Still didn't open. Turned it back the first way. No luck. (At this point, I was starting to feel that my M.A. degree would have to be revoked). I jigged the key in the lock a bit, just in case. Nope. Eventually, someone came out from the office (which is inside the staff room) and opened the door for me. I didn't dare shut and lock the staff door after that.

Sometimes, difficulty unlocking a door is entirely the door's fault. My own apartment door (see the picture below) is a case in point.

When we first moved in, the door worked rather worse than most Czech doors. We'd flip it around twice, and then on the third time, we started performing gymnastics. To get the door open, I couldn't simply turn the key around one final time and push. Instead, I had to lay all my things on the floor around me and put both hands on the door key. I had to lean back, so I was pulling the door towards me and to the right. And then (while turning the key all this time), I had to really wiggle the key in the lock - a-WHACK-a-WHACK-a-WHACK-a-WHACK! Sometimes, the door opened at this point (bashing my fingers into the doorjamb at the same time); that's if I was lucky. If I were unlucky, the motion-sensitive light outside the apartment would turn off and leave me in the dark. At this point, I had to take a step backwards and wave my arms (think of those people who direct air traffic on the tarmac) to get the light to turn back on, and then the whole process began again. Since then, the door has been fixed, and I still thank God whenever it opens simply on the third turn.

Finally, the security measures in the Czech Republic are rather different (because there are no doorknobs). A few of our single teachers leave in a flat with a special padlock, a padlock with five bolts. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of that particular lock, so you all just get the story instead: Two of the MKs here in the Czech Republic lived in a guest room in that apartment for six months, attending the school here while their parents worked in the south of the country (the parents have since moved to Prague). The girls were home alone one morning, and a strange guy came and knocked on their door. Being well-trained, they didn't let him in or anything, pretended not to be there, but he came back twice more that day. Later, they had to leave the apartment to go to the grocery store; when they got back, they couldn't fit their key into the lock. It simply wouldn't go in. At that point, they called the police and discovered that someone had put hot wax into the door: the wax molded to the key shape, and so all the burglar would have to do is stick a special tool into the wax and turn it over.

Despite their experiences, though, the locks are pretty safe here. We girls simply leave our key on the inside of the door all night, to prevent possible intruders (it's nearly impossible to get in with the key on the inside of the door). Also, all apartment buildings have an outside door that locks, like this:

and an inside door that locks. If you don't have the key for either door, you don't get in. Feels quite safe, overall.

Thanks for your prayers! I'll keep you posted.