Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dobry den Praha!

It is now 2:59PM local time. I awoke about an hour ago.
In Prague, the metro stops running at midnight, but it resumes service at 5:00am. Realizing that we would stay out past 12, our crew kept the metaphorical “train” rolling until 5. Thus, I got home at around 5:30. I actually feel pretty good.

I suppose now would be a good time to relate my horrific arrival. To make a long story short, my delays in Dublin put me in a bind. Upon arriving at the airport, I discovered that Bank of America put a hold on my account because of fraud suspicion. Although I had clearly explained to them well beforehand that I would be using my ATM/debit card in the Czech Republic in July, they still f'd up. Wonderful.

So I found myself running on less than an hour of sleep after 30 hours of shenanigans on planes and the streets of Dublin with only 20 Euros in my pocket, no phone, no transportation, and no internet connection. Wireless was not available at the airport, so I was unable to make a call to BOA. I had explicit instructions that my housing fee had to be paid up front in Czech crowns and I had nothing. After approaching the information desk in the airport, she paired me up with a Brazilian dude that was also after an internet connection. She directed me to the Marriot across the street. So with all our baggage, I explained to him in Spanish that he did not really understand or trust that we had to file over to the hotel to get internet. Portuguese isn't as close as it sounds. Upon arrival there, it took about a half hour to purchase 15 minutes of internet use that I realized did not work on my computer, so I had to use a desktop in the lobby. It did not have the internet phone program Skype that I use to make calls. For a moment I tried to run the cable directly through my laptop, thinking I was real clever, but it didn't work either.

After saying my goodbyes to the Brazilian still trying to communicate with the front desk, I filed back over to the airport, and shared my woes with the information desk again. She directed me to a phone that was on the other side of the airport that took me another half hour to find. By this point, I was sweating buckets and not thinking clearly at all. I finally found the phone, but ALAS I had no change. Wonderful.

Hesistating to purchase a calling card with my euros, I found a swipe-and-call phone booth and called the emergency line of my program. I landed at midnight and it was already almost past one. The woman I spoke to from TEFL Worldwide told me not to worry about the money and just catch the shuttle that they had arranged for me. So back outside the airport I went.

Shooing numerous cab drivers away, I waited for another half hour or so before realizing that the last shuttle left at one. Great.

I went back in to the information desk, by this time I think the woman and I had a blossoming friendship going. She advised me to try taking a cab. I thought, maybe this will work. So as I shuffled out again, a guy smoking a cigarrette asked "cab?" Yes, I responded and explained my financial situation. He immediately said "no problem!" Now we are getting somewhere.

So off I went. The ride was a long one and the cabbie seemed to not know the hotel I was supposed to meet the woman at. It would be no stretch to say I was in anxious shambles. Something about the driver rubbed me the wrong way and my imagination started to run wild. Central/Eastern Europe has a unique vibe. It may come from the crooked nature of Soviet rule and industry, it may be the disbelief in the use of deodorant, but as we took one dark, deserted street after another, I convinced myself that he was set to jam the brakes at any moment, demand my wallet, computer, iPod, and camera and kick me to the curb. His strange taste for acoustic American pop music and frequent glares in the rearview only made things worse. I clutched my pen and prepared to use it if necessary. I was strung out like a kite.

Fortunately, my fears did not become reality, but I was anything but home free. We pull up to the hotel and he turns and says 40 euros. Wonderful.

In every sense, he was furious. He quickly locked the doors so I couldn't get out. Again, I begin to fear for my valuables.

Me: "I told you at the airport I only had 20 euros."
Him: "You said euros, I said I accept euros."
Me: "I don't have any more"
Him: "Well then we go to cash machine"
Me: "That's quite impossible...(and then I proceeded to explain my deteriorating relationship with Bank of America)"
He was less than sympathetic.

Leaving my bags in his trunk, I ran into the hotel and found the woman I was to meet. I decided she may be able to make some headway in Czech. They conversed and the jist was that he may have misunderstood what I said because of his English, but I was on the hook for the fare. I was too tired to be clever enough to make a peace offering of free private English tutoring lessons. With the help the woman, I dig deeper in my wallet and discovered some US dollars. $9, in fact.

We concluded by agreeing I would give him another $10, so I handed him the $9 and we split. We got far enough away that he was too frustrated to chase me over a buck, but I heard some ungodly Czech curse words.

When I finally called BOA on Monday and had something to eat and drink for the first time since Dublin, I had to explain to the employee that yes, the Czech Republic is a country, I was quite starving and would appreciate if he could fix things as soon as possible, and no, it is not spelled like "check." Typical bank.


To get things started last night, most of my fellow teachers-in-training met up for dinner last night at a Mexican place. We got there after an adventurous journey in the complete wrong direction. At one point, I borrowed a map from a pack of rowdy Brits from Birmingham as they filed into a pub. Because of my chops, they didn’t believe I was American, but rather thought that I was a pimp of sorts. Prague has stretch limos that are basically brothels on wheels and dudes approach potential customers on the streets. After assuring them I only want to use their map, they gave my chops a tug and then directed me towards a park where they claimed you could…

For once, I think I will censor myself. Let’s just say there are some strange things happening in the bushes of some of the parks here.

It sure is cheap. I like to gauge how expensive a city is on the average cost of a beer. In Copenhagen, you may recall beers ran between $8-10. Here, you can get a half-liter (17 ounces, just over a pint) for around 20 crowns. 18 crowns to the dollar makes for about a buck a beer. This is dangerous.

It raises one of the greater challenges I’ve faced. Everything is crazily cheap, but it does not feel like it when I’m tendering 100 and 1,000 crown notes. After dinner, beers, etc. last night, I still only managed to spend ~400 crowns (~$25USD). Amazing.

Thursday was a big day. I taught my first 45 minute lesson alone and I managed to purchase a lighter for my stove with what little Czech I know and made myself a nice stir-fry dinner.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Dobry den!”
Cashier: “Dobry den.”
Me: “Prosim vas [hold up hand, make lighter motion with thumb, friction sound with mouth]?”
Cashier: “__________?” (I think she said the Czech word for lighter)
Me: “Ya!” (nodding my head like an anxious dog, practically with my tongue flapping)
Cashier: “Yo.” (goes and gets one from the other register)
Me: “Djequi!”

Only a few words, but I felt very accomplished because she understood me immediately. The woman that typically works the register laughs at me (more like with me) every time I come through her line and try to speak Czech. Sometimes I go twice a day. Four days in, I feel like I really have the hang of it. It’s a great feeling.

Much of the comfort I feel already comes from the conclusion I reached when I left Spain. People are living a pretty similar life over here. The language, food, and cultural differences aside, it is not too hard to adjust to with the right attitude (meaning that at times you’ll be unable to make yourself understood, but it comes with the territory).

There are still some adjustments. For one, I’ve found it difficult to run here. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many sidewalks here as the my neighborhood layout, as it is further from the center is really just a series of apartment buildings and condo areas connected by main roads and the subway. Also, I get crazy looks from all the locals. Running is not at all common here; even more so further from the city center. Many Czechs would prefer to stay home, drink 3 liters of beer and eat sausages that contain a week’s worth of fat and cholesterol.

My course is intense. Our days often run from 9:30-6 and we are constantly learning a new method or planning a lesson in groups or individually. Though it has kept me busier than I expected and kept me from exploring the city much so far, I think it is incredibly rewarding. When I step foot in my first classroom, I feel like I will know what I’m doing. It’s made me appreciate the art of teaching. So much of effective education comes out of creative and thorough planning beforehand. The idea is to show up, be organized, control the flow of the classroom, but let students do all the work during class. If you are able to explain things clearly and plan effectively, the teacher becomes a passive presence while students take control of their activities and worksheets.

This weekend, I hope to actually “see the sights.” Hopefully then I will actually have some pictures to show off.