Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of life in different placements. This month, Samantha Steiner, a 2017 ETA in Argentina, talked with Mollie Schaefer, a 2017-2018 ETA in the Czech Republic.
1. Why the Czech Republic?
My initial curiosity in visiting the Czech Republic began in an art history class. We were studying Charles IV and Master Theadoric and my interest was piqued. When I began researching the country, I was amazed by its natural beauty. I’m most familiar with Bohemia (the largest of the Czech Republic’s three regions). The countryside on the outskirts of Prague is flat farmland that leads into mountain ranges. There are several beautiful forests and river; it’s a hiker’s dream. Lastly, there are so many castles here. As a child of Lord of the Rings, this was a huge draw.
2. How is the Czech Republic different from the U.S.?
This is a difficult question on a few levels. What is the U.S. like, and what does it mean to be different from it? My experience growing up in Alabama was starkly different from that of other ETAs who grew up in San Francisco, St. Louis, or even New Orleans. Superficially, the Czech Republic is comparable to the U.S. in the same way that most European countries fit a Western model similar to U.S. Of course, there are subtle differences right off the bat (i.e. cash-only establishments are not uncommon, no one talks on public transportation, and there’s a much more casual attitude toward alcohol consumption). Coming from Alabama, a very religious state, moving to a country that is described as “the most atheist” had its differences, too. In any case, there are larger culture differences that take some time to see. Czech people could be described as desiring different things than people from the U.S. Maybe it is just because I am a young person from the U.S., but it seems as though young Czech people are more comfortable with the idea of living and working in their hometown. When I ask students about university, they often discuss wanting to go to school close to home. It’s strange, considering that the Czech Republic is a relatively small country (especially in contrast to the U.S.), but — to my students in north Bohemia — the idea of moving four hours away seems lofty. I feel like I am slowly beginning to understand the larger differences. A fellow ETA described the country as “feeling more foreign the longer we live here.” That sums up my own feelings.
3. Could you describe your experience navigating issues of race, gender, or sexuality in the Czech Republic?
Issues of race, gender, and sexuality have been difficult to navigate, but I think that this would be true of wherever I lived in this current political and cultural moment. Personally (as a white woman), I am still learning how to discuss race, which often means I am listening to friends of different ethnic backgrounds discuss their experiences. I feel more comfortable having conversations about bigotry in my home-state, where most arguments against things like same-sex marriage are based on religion, whereas there is a different historical backdrop to racism and sexism in the Czech Republic. This makes entering the conversation very different than it would be in Alabama. As for sexism, I try to live life as an independent woman. There is a quote attributed to St. Francis that says, “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” I feel that way about sexism and living as a strong woman. Often, in my experience, living in a way that challenges bigotry against you is the best way to confront it.
4. What does a typical weekday look like for you?
Each day is a little different, but all follow a similar theme. My colleagues were kind enough to schedule me for classes that begin after 9:00 A.M. At the school, I work with seven co-teachers. Some teachers prefer that I hold one-on-one conversations with students, while with others I do classic co-teaching, and sometimes I lead lessons on topics of the teacher’s choice (i.e. Halloween, Christmas, etc.). My office is lively. As I share a desk with my mentor, it’s not uncommon that I’ll turn to her (literally) and ask for advice ranging from, “What’s our plan for the Friday lesson?” to “What should I do with my life?”
After school, I go to a local café to work on lesson planning, reach out to friends and family in America, and blog. I’ve picked up running and cycling. My placement (Turnov) is located near the Bohemian Paradise (a famous forest hosting two castles, rock formations, and woods fit for elves), so spending time in nature is delightful.
5. How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?
My colleagues are great about inviting me to things! One of the younger teachers invites me to spend time with her and her friends. Another teacher hosted a beer-tasting party where we tasted and graded different types of IPAs and APAs. Additionally, my mentor has invited me into her home on multiple occasions. Aside from these examples, I generally make an effort to get out of my apartment by doing work at a café or by eating out. I’m an introvert, so being alone for hours on end can be quite nice after a day of teaching.
Before I moved here, a friend of mine who taught in China encouraged me to “make friends with the place.” This advice has been helpful as some friendships can be difficult to form. I’ve connected to the sense of place in Turnov, learning which landscapes are best for different moods. Sometimes going for a hike or grabbing a cup of coffee is comforting, while navigating a Czech menu without the aid of a native speaker is the perfect challenge for an afternoon.
6. What have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an ETA?
One of the greatest challenges has been learning how to balance relationships with older students. I work in a secondary school, meaning that my oldest students are sometimes only three years younger than I am. Being an ETA fresh out of college, often means that my students react to me differently than they react to the teachers they’ve known for years. As students feel more comfortable with me, this can be a great benefit in class because it promotes conversation. However, the line between teacher, mentor, and friend can be difficult to perceive.
7. What have been some of the highlights?
Oh, there are so many! In my first month of living in Turnov, one of my co-teachers invited me to visit Prague for a craft fair. We wandered around, he pointed out vendors whose foods I needed to try, and we had a pleasant afternoon. Afterwards, we returned to our town for a music festival of sorts. There, we met up with the town priest (who is also a teacher at the school). We drank beer, watched a Bob Dylan cover artist, and got emotional together. Much later in my grant period, a different teacher invited me to visit the mountains with her and a group of friends. That weekend belongs in a storybook. My favorite part of it was going sledding for the first time. As an Alabamian, snow has been a rarity in my life, and there was never enough of it for sledding. We raced halfway down the mountain before we braked. As we were full of pickled sausage, goulaš, bread, pastries, and—of course—beer, we had a difficult climb back up. Then there are the countless serene moments of walking through the woods, everything painted in afternoon light, where I took a step back and wondered at my luck to live in such a beautiful country. There are so many instances like this, full of some type of magic, that are impossible to describe in words or photos.
Aside from that, as I mentioned, my office is delightful. Sometimes we talk about politics, other times my colleagues tell stories from before the Velvet Revolution (and the end of communism in the Czech Republic), or we discuss our weekends. It’s a great environment to grow and work in. They are supportive of me as a new educator without being overbearing. They invite me to join them in celebrating Czech traditions like All Souls Day (when Czech people visit and decorate the graves of their relatives), Christmas cookie baking and decorating (an essential in the Czech holiday season) or give me recommendations for things to do in town (ranging from visiting markets to attending concerts).
8. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in the Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic is one of the countries with a larger group of ETAs, and it is a close-knit community at that. As adjusting to international life proved challenging, these people became my greatest confidants. They are wonderful, and I am so thankful for them. There’s a lively Facebook message thread that is constantly buzzing with shared lessons, trip planning, and the like. In addition, the Fulbright commission is very supportive here. The director of the ETAs is helpful, encouraging ETAs to reach out if they need any support (from finding things to do in our free time, to getting GRE/LSAT study materials).
I have also appreciated the opportunity to live in a country that is both young and old. Although the country of the Czech Republic is quite new, there are traditions and structures which are nearly older than memory. It’s an exciting juxtaposition, especially as the Czech Republic’s recent history is so tumultuous. Hearing my colleagues’ stories about what they did after the fall of communism (i.e. traveled to Vienna with only gingerbread to eat, became toymakers, found some new enterprise) is an incredible experience. This, alongside my work with high-schoolers who are the first generation of this new republic, makes for a very enriching experience.
Practically speaking, living in the Czech Republic is pleasant for a lot of reasons. I do not have a car here, but the public transportation is easy to navigate and affordable. Turnov is walkable, and it’s easy to get anywhere I need to go. There’s a blend of small business and larger corporations (Lidl, DM, Tesco) that make grocery shopping easy. As a foreigner, figuring the country out (in a basic sense) has been quite easy.
Lastly, prospective grantees should apply to work in the Czech Republic for a lot of the same reasons that tourists choose to visit. The countryside is stunning and the cities are wonderful. There’s a wealth of nature to explore, and plenty of opportunities to do it. Hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, etc., are all popular. Cycling to a small town, sitting at a pub, sharing a beer with colleagues, and listening to their stories is an experience that is hard to beat. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the big cities. Sometimes living in a small town, eating the same food, and going to the same places can feel a bit isolating. This is easy to remedy by taking a train-ride a larger city. From Turnov, daytrips to either Prague or Liberec are a piece of cake. Brno (located in Moravia, the southern region) is less popular for tourists and is typically more modern. However, as I live in Bohemia, I generally prefer going to Prague. It’s an older city with modern elements; I find it quite charming. There’s an array of chic restaurants and traditional pubs, as well as an abundance of monuments to see, places to visit, and things to do. You can generally find anything that you want there.
9. How have your experiences in the Czech Republic changed you?
It’s hard to see how you’ve grown until you view it in hindsight. Midway through the year, there are a lot of ways I see myself changing (becoming much more assertive and dropping the Southern habit of smiling at everyone I pass). The biggest change is one that I think is a common theme for Fulbrighters. Transitioning out of college (where I was a high achiever with no free time) to a job where that gives me hours of leisure has been quite an adjustment. The director of the ETAs said, “This is the year to read every book and watch every movie you have ever wanted to.” At first I felt guilty for not being so stressed, but the Czech Republic has helped me embrace a healthier balance between work and leisure. After school, I may have a couple of hours of work to do (if that), but I am otherwise free to focus on other matters.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
At some point in their life, everyone should plan to visit the Czech Republic.
Mollie Schaefer is an Alabama native with a love in comfort food and conversation. She graduated from the University of North Alabama (UNA) as the first student there to win a Fulbright grant. At UNA, Mollie studied visual art and public communication. As an intensely dyslexic learner, Mollie hopes to work in education for non-traditional learners after Fulbright.