30 Things I’ll miss when I leave Prague

My departure date is quickly approaching and it seems like everything I do reminds me of something I’m going to miss when I’m home. I’ve spent roughly half of my adult life (ha. as if.) living in this city, and I feel like I’ve grown up in it, like a branch that has been grafted into a tree. Will adult life even function the same way in a country without guláš? I think not.

So to cope with the impending dread of leaving my little nest here and returning to the Great Unknown (read: the future), I’ve made a list of all the things I’ll miss about Prague.

Wait. Mary. Stop. This sounds like a hooooorrible coping mechanism.

NO IT ISN’T. I DO WHAT I WANT.

So, we’ve been a little emotional lately… Let’s get back to that list, shall we?

  1. Public transportation. Otherwise referred to as a guilt-free excuse to leisure read.
  2. Cobblestones.  Also grey-brick sidewalks and dirt paths through the forest.
  3. Thick hot chocolate. It’s actually really like melted chocolate. You could use it as dip. Or cement. Delicious, dark cement.
  4. Donuts for 12 cents. Or really, just all food being extremely, unbelievably cheap.
  5. Swans. Everywhere. All the time. And feeding them on the river banks is one of the best ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. IMG_3985
  6. Beer. There is no point in drinking American brews now. My standards have been raised. Also, it’s cheaper than water.
  7. Pretty money. Like, why is American currency just green? Are we the only country that doesn’t have fancy colors on our bills?
  8. Dumplings. Potato dumplings, bread dumplings, fruit dumplings, stuffed dumplings.
  9. Train rumbles. There are few areas of the city where you can’t hear the gentle hum of a train chugging along its tracks or see it’s speeding on its merry way
  10. People dressing like they care. European fashion is real.
  11. Picking my own food. Spring and summer are resplendent with forest berries and mushrooms and everyone in Prague has some kind of garden with fruits and vegetables to share all season. Fresh. IMG_2238
  12. The Charles’ Bridge. Because it’s a thing of beauty.
  13. Street performers. And for that matter, sausage and pancake vendors.
  14. Fried cheese. Can we please, pleeease make this a thing in America already? 20140605_181837
  15. The Vltava. Pity those who don’t live next to a river.
  16. Trdelník. Dough, roasted over coals, coated in cinnamon and sugar.
  17. Czech holidays. Especially the crazy ones, like the day the devils come and drag children out of their classrooms or the day they burn the witches to beckon spring forward.
  18. Randomly hearing fireworks all the time. Because they’re legal here. And people like to party.
  19. Being just a day away from everywhere else in Europe. They don’t call it the Heart of Europe for nothing.
  20. Czech humor. Dry, sarcastic, and unapologetically honest.
  21. Sitting down to eat. You don’t walk and eat here. You eat. You enjoy. The bond between human and food is respected here.
  22. The social acceptableness of eating alone. It’s done. It’s normal. No questions asked.
  23. The community. Prague is too small not to run into people you know on the metro on a frequent basis.
  24. The seasons. Prague looks magical in all of them. IMG_2659
  25. Wild Boar. Not that I’ve seen any yet. I’ve smelled several and heard one. And their tracks are visible all summer along forest paths. I guess I’ll just miss the possibility of seeing one.
  26. Chocolate. They sell chocolate here in huge bars with nuts, fruits, cream fillings and gummy candies. It’s out of this world.
  27. Crazy hair. I see someone on the bus with a mullet at least once a week.
  28. Having a pub or grocery store on every corner. They may all be exactly the same, but as long as they’re serving Staropramen or selling rohlíky then I make no complaints.
  29. Tartar sauce. I’m not sure if I can go back to ketchup after two years on the sauce. We’ll see.
  30. The sky. All summer long. IMG_0506

5 Things I learned from teaching 4th graders in the Czech Republic

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My first day teaching in Prague was probably one of the most nerve-racking of my short existence. I spoke exactly four words in Czech and knew my fourth graders would have limited English abilities. Because Murphy’s Laws about the universe are cringingly on-point, I got lost on my way to school, so the hallways were empty as I ran through them to find the fourth-grade classroom. Giggles erupted when I entered, disheveled, nervous and late. Twenty-two sets of eyes watched me with curiosity and amusement as I timidly made my way to the front of the room. I pulled out my vastly inadequate lesson plan, took a deep breath, and began the most torturous, terrifying, tremendous two years of my life.

When teaching, it is only natural that we also learn, but I had no idea just how much of an education I would get from those fourth-graders.

1. Words are our least important form of communication.

My first lesson was that words matter very little, although that’s strange to admit that as an English teacher. Children use their whole bodies to communicate, twisting themselves into knots as they tell stories and ask questions. Every movement is unchecked and unfiltered, the sincere, subconscious expressions of a child’s thoughts and feelings. It’s intimidating, only because as adults we spend so much time crafting our body language into socially appropriate constructs that mask those feelings. I learned quickly that I had to lose that mask, because saying, “Stop! Don’t do that!” or “Yes! Good job!” made no impact, even on students who vaguely understood what the phrases meant in English. Far more effective were the moments I knelt down next to a student and made eye-contact on their level, or gave someone’s hand a little squeeze when they seemed nervous about speaking in front of the class. Sincerity became our classroom translator.

2. A spoonful of sugar really does make a difference.

My teaching experience was minimal before taking the full-time position in the Czech elementary school. Aside from the ‘new job’ adjustments, there was the cultural learning curve. Things like ‘inside shoes’ and student-teacher etiquette, not to mention the vast array of Czech cuss words that I would learn from students all too quickly, had me frantically double-checking my every move. My greatest fear was that a teacher would walk in on one of my classes just in time to see my students playing toss with someone’s shoes, sandwich or school keys as I would be desperately trying to make everyone get off their desks and sit in chairs like normal people. Sometimes being a teacher feels like playing whack-a-mole – as soon as you get one kid down, another one pops up. Particularly endearing was their habit of hiding in the cupboards, behind the chalkboard or under my desk at the beginning of each lesson. One boy managed to remain undetected in a rolled-up wall map for half of class before he finally fell over and came spilling out. So when the school Head told me that a city inspector was coming to sit in on one of my classes, I justifiably panicked. Shockingly, when the inspector took a seat in the back of the classroom, all of my students suddenly became angels. Everyone stayed in their seats. Not a hair was pulled nor a pen thrown. They even got through singing the Hokey-Pokey without someone deciding to put “in” something inappropriate or dangerous. But as we finished the lesson, as the inspector gave me a smile on her way out the door, as the class exploded once again into chaos, releasing all the pent-up energy, I realized that our perfect lesson may also have been our most boring one. And I’d gladly sacrifice perfection for the sake of a little joy.

3. You can’t be everyone’s hero.

But that’s not to say that all of my ventures in teaching have been success stories. A hard truth about teaching – and about life – is that you can’t be everyone’s hero. You can’t swoop in and magically fix everything. Although most of my fourth-graders flocked around me like ducklings when I entered the cafeteria (as the only American teacher in school, I was the local celebrity), begging for high-fives and shouting out their much-rehearsed, “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, there were a few who would turn their shoulders so I couldn’t see their faces. They were the same ones I struggled with in class and sent home with poor marks in their report books. I ignored it for a while – give it time, right? But one day, one of those students accused me of not being fair in a classroom squabble and had to hide his face in his sleeve, embarrassed by the tears streaming down his cheeks. Czechs have a very strong sense of ‘fairness’ and to allow violations to the balance of justice is a heavy crime. I sat down and tried to explain why I had to do what I did. I tried to tell him that I understand how hard it is to be a student sometimes, but when I reached over to give him a reassuring pat on the back, he jerked away. He wasn’t the only one who cried that afternoon. I was the bad guy in this situation and there was nothing I could do to change that for him. No amount of explaining would fix the image of the unfair teacher he saw me as. Alone in my office, I finally faced a fact I should have learned in high school. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone will want your help.

4. Everyday is a new start.

The amazing thing about ten-year olds is their ability to bounce back. I walked into one lesson to find all my little pupils up in arms because the class ‘sweetheart’ had unwisely told her best friend who her class-crush was, and her best friend proceeded to make the information public (proving that human nature is essentially the same, the world over). The jeers and tears had to be stopped and more than one broken-heart had to be mended before we could begin our regularly scheduled program. I assumed there would be a changing of the seating arrangements the next day – after such a political upheaval, I hadn’t expected any of the old alliances to be intact. But there they all were, laughing and sharing the last bites of their snacks, as if yesterday had never happened. That must be why kids are able to survive an institution as mentally and emotionally arduous as elementary school. You have to be able to start fresh everyday with the same innocence and trust and hope you had the day before, no matter what has happened.

5. If your heart doesn’t break a few times, you’re not using it right.

I knew I wasn’t going to be in Prague forever. I knew getting attached was a bad idea. The plan was to be distant, respectable, forgettable. But as I watched the teachers who remained aloof – whatever their reasons – and as I tried it myself, I realized how difficult it is to do what we do without putting our whole hearts out there. As a teacher, you have to be ready to listen to excited whispers, laugh at silly jokes you don’t understand, and hug little people who need to know that someone sees them. That’s just it. You have to see your students. You have to show them that you care, which means you have to actually care. It took me a year on the other side of the world to realize just how great our capacity is, as humans, to love. It took me a year with some very rowdy ten-year olds, who have hearts with ever-open doors and incalculable room for affection, to understand that some things cannot be lost, only added to. And that may be the most important thing I’ve learned from these children. Without even speaking the same language, twenty-two fourth-graders taught me the importance of loving people, no matter how briefly.