Last week, I was on loan to a church in Hradec Kralove.
For those of you who don't speak Czech, the town name is pronounced like this: "HRAH-dets KRAH-loe-vae". Hradec is about two hours by train from Prague, in the the northeastern part of the Czech Republic. In Hradec, I joined a local evangelical church with a city outreach. We offered English conversation classes to the local elementary schools and to the adult community, all taught by a Native English Speaker: Me.
What I Did
Essentially, I led elementary- and middle-school children and adults (thankfully not together) in conversations that ranged in topic from pastimes and the weather (yes, really!) to reviews of American literature and Czech politics.
Much as I enjoyed the elementary students, I am going to tell you about the adult ones (I enjoyed the adult groups more). A little background: We formed two groups (an Intermediate group and an Advanced group), and each group met three times, each time at the church. The classes were always a mixture, perhaps half believers and half unbelievers; the goal was for the unbelievers to begin to feel comfortable with the church's presence in the community and with the church members, so that they would be willing to come again in the future. Especially with the Advanced class, conversation took off and directed itself, because the "students" were confident that they knew what they wanted to talk about, and so I often found myself ditching the beautiful lesson plans I had drawn up in favour of reviewing practical terms (in the case of the Intermediate students) or simply chatting with the students.
Perhaps the best way to give you an idea of these classes is a story: My Advanced group had been discussing Czech culture and history when suddenly one of the women leans across the table towards me. Irene was a middle-aged woman with dark hair, glasses and a passionate expression; she was an English teacher in Hradec, and so her English was quite good. Completely derailing the earlier discussion, she asks, "Do you like Twilight?" Being the blunt person that I am, I replied, "No." She then went on to describe why she, in fact, liked it: She thought Twilight was good reading for teenagers because Edward and Bella had a romantic relationship in which they postponed sex, which was a good example for the teenagers in the Czech Republic. (Incidentally, Irene is not a believer and lives with her boyfriend.) I countered that Edward is a controlling, manipulative and peeping-tom boyfriend, and valuable as postponing sex is, controlling people make bad boyfriends. Another night, we discussed unusual jobs, and one of the women told us about her position at a local hospital, testing for birth defects; Irene told us about working in the States at a hotel and accidentally saying something completely inappropriate to her boss because her English was still poor at that time (Thankfully, he was an older gentleman and responded kindly).
What made these classes, Intermediate and Advanced alike, so valuable was the way that each one was an "icebreaker": building relationships between the women of the community and the women of the church. In a way, my role in Hradec was that of a catalyst. In a chemical reaction, the catalyst itself is unimportant; the catalyst is the matchmaker who brings two people together but herself is unmarried. In Hradec, my English classes and I were only of limited inherent importance; the church did not expect the English classes to end with or even include a full gospel presentation. English was the "matchmaker" between the church and the community, a way of bringing two people (or groups of people) together in what would hopefully become a longstanding and valuable relationship.
Where I Lived
Although the original plan was for me to stay in a hostel in Hradec, I wound up staying with the family who originally invited me to help out at their church; I also ate several meals with other members of the church. It was a week of learning to be Czech, which can be summed up with the following stories:
Perhaps the most delicious, representative Czech meal I ate was Friday lunch. I had spent the morning at the nearby elementary school, and then my Czech guide and I swung by this woman's house for lunch. Lunch began, as is traditional, with a soup. She served a variant of chicken broth, but I have also seen lentil soup, Mexican bean soup, and spinach soup served as the first course. Each one is served with a large soup spoon in a large, shallow bowl; the remainder of the meal is not served until everyone has eaten their soup. After we finished up the chicken broth, our host brought roasted chicken and potatoes to the table; there was also a bowl with washed lettuce. The bowl of washed lettuce sat untouched while our host piled potatoes after potatoes onto our plates (thankfully fewer on mine) and added a few pieces of chicken. And still the lettuce sat there ignored. Not until the chicken was completely eaten and the potatoes vanished did people help themselves to the lettuce.
Honestly, the food was delicious: The chicken was tender and not overcooked, with a sauce of rosemary and garlic and perhaps a little onion; the potatoes, covered in the same sauce, were equally delicious. But I felt like I waddled a little bit as I left the table, after a week of eating lunches of the same size and content as that one. In many ways, the Czech Republic is still "Old World Europe" and its eating habits have not adapted to the health food kick of the Western world; it prefers beef and chicken and rabbit (Yes, I ate rabbit while I was there; it tastes like chicken) to salad and vegetables.
Perhaps the most challenging part of my Czech experience was the shower. Czech bathrooms are often not as carefully constructed as American bathrooms, with their elaborate shower heads and clear shower doors. Most Czechs also shower in the evening. I chose to keep showering in the morning, but I learned to deal with the Czech shower while I was at it. Essentially, the "shower" is a bathtub with an extendable shower hose and head attached to the faucet; there is no shower door or even shower walls. My first morning there, I decided the best way was to put my face to the one bathroom wall and my back to the bathroom floor. The result was Lake American Traveler beside the shower, one that I used up more than two towels in mopping up. After that, I put my back to the one wall and directed the shower stream in the other direction; this was usually a more effective plan.
So many more stories remain of my week there. I talked about the Roma (Gypsy) people with my hosts, talked about Stargate Atlantis with the elementary students, met many believers eager to share their testimony, and so much more. But it's almost midnight here, and so I bid you a very fond, Dobrou noc