Friday, May 24, 2013

Czech Mate

It's taken me a while to come up with what to write for this post. Not that there is any shortage of things to write about by any means, but I started off on the wrong foot, and didn't want this to be a giant bitch-fest. I wanted to highlight the good, and be realistic about it all--culturally sensitive and fair. All in all it has been a great experience and I am really excited for the opportunity.  It's been a whirlwind of emotions, and I have learned so much--not only about my job, but about the Czech Republic, and about myself. I apologize in advance if my thoughts are all over the place and random. I am sure I will think of many more things to put in here as an afterthought. Let me start from the very beginning.

Shortly after being hired on at our company, my co-worker (I will refer to her as "C") and I got a phone call from our work in the midst of the 2 week training we were doing in Austin, Texas. We figured it was just to check in on us and see how things were going. Actually, it was a call to find out if we would like to go for an additional 3 weeks of training in the Czech Republic. We were so incredibly excited! We muted our conference call, jumped up and down, and hugged each other. This. Was. Happening. Good thing I hadn't sent my passport in for renewal just yet! Also, the Czech Republic...I knew almost nothing about it. Being the ignorant geographer I am, I ran to my computer and googled where it was. I had some serious research to do, and less than a week to do it. The kicker was that I would have only 1 full day home, and then I would be jumping on a plane yet again in a week to leave for 3 more weeks. Whew--that's a long time away from home, I thought. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I jumped at the chance. Literally.

The next few days were a blur, as we arranged our flights from afar. I did my laundry so that it would be packed and ready to go immediately when I returned home. There were details still unclear, but I knew it would all work out somehow. I immediately downloaded a book about Prague, to learn about the customs, culture, food, travel, etc. I learned helpful phrases like hello, where is the bathroom, please, thank you, how much, and goodbye. I didn't want to be that ignorant American who can't say a word in the language of the country I was visiting. This was my version of cramming for a test. I had no time to exchange my money since I arrived home on the weekend. Although I was physically home, I was mentally checked out. I felt badly, because my time home with my family was so rushed, but I had no other choice.

I left Sunday night for the Czech Republic. I had layovers in Minneapolis and Amsterdam. My flight from Amsterdam to Prague was delayed by 3 hours, so it made for an extremely long trip. I arrived in Prague, and a driver drove me 2 hours from Prague to Brno, where I would be staying for the next 3 weeks. I was excited, exhausted, and anxious all at the same time. Imagine being in another country alone, in which you don't speak the language. Even the words on the signs are not able to be understood, because they don't even closely resemble any languages you know. I had always thought that I could get by in most of the world knowing English, French, and Spanish, and mostly that has been true so far. I might as well have been on another planet, because that's kinda what I felt like when I stepped off the plane and into Prague. Instead of being my usual curious, chatty self, I fell silent in the back seat of the taxi. It made for a very long car ride all the way to Brno. The driver turned on the radio, and it was American pop music. C would be joining me 2 days later, and already I couldn't wait for her to be here.

Arriving at Prague's airport
So far, that is the only time I have been in a car since I have been here. I have walked everywhere, because the city is very walkable, and work is very close to where I live. Also, a note about Czech driving--of you are in the left lane, you can apparently flash your brights at the car in front of you and ride their butt, and they will move over to the right lane. The driver did this no less than 5 times, and each time, the other cars moved out of the way as if to say, "I get it, you are a crazy ass, and I am getting out of your way." The sidewalks and roads here are cobblestone. It definitely made me feel like I was in Europe, in that respect. For the most part, people walk, bike, or take the trams, and there are a few drivers out there, but not nearly as many as back home. There are a lot of dogs off leashes walking with their owners, and the big ones have fence-like muzzles. At the stoplights, there is a slow clicking sound for the blind when the light turns red, so that they know not to cross the street. When the light turns green, the clicking sound speeds up. I like the clicking sound. It's not pushy or annoying. Everything here closes very early. I work until 6p (but usually later) each day, and by the time I get out, most everything is already closed.

Panoramic view of Brno
When I first arrived at my flat, the driver handed me the key to my apartment and home for the next 3 weeks and said, "Bye bye." I fumbled the key into the lock and stepped inside the apartment building. It was pitch black, straight up out of a horror movie. I pressed my hand against the wall and felt my way down the hallway. Luckily, I have a phone app that is a flashlight, so I busted it out. The keychain on my keys indicated that my room was on the second floor, so I pressed the elevator button. I stepped inside and pressed the button for the 2nd floor. It was very tiny inside, which reminded me very much of Paris. When I stepped out of the elevator, I saw 4 identical doors. There was nothing to distinguish which apartment was which. I sighed, and started to try each lock with the key I had. The first lock, the key went in, I turned and turned it and the door didn't budge. I tried the other 3 doors and the key didn't even fit, so I went back to the first door. I jimmied the key left. I jimmied the key right. Nothing was working. I began to panic. I am NOT sleeping in the hallway! I thought to myself. I pressed the doorbell to the apartment next to mine. A very sleepy, irritated looking man answered the door in his boxers. He was on crutches. He kept pointing to his crutches repeatedly, as if to say, "Can't you see I am INJURED?" I pointed to my keys in the door, and apologized profusely. He turned the key hard and the door clicked open. Damn, I felt stupid! At least I was in the door, though. I have bad luck with locks. Yesterday I locked myself in a bathroom stall accidentally and couldn't get out for like 5 minutes. I was panicking hardcore and pounded on the luck so hard that I got a bloody knuckle! There was no place to crawl under the door because it was full length. And there was music blasting and nobody else in the bathroom, so I might have been in there a while! I calmed down and was able to get the door open, but it was a frightening moment. Hey, but at least I didn't have to pay to pee like at McDonald's. Let's just say that in an effort to not go broke, I have perfected the art of holding it.

Only in Europe. $ = "you're-a-peein'"
The apartment is nice! It has beautiful hard wood floors and it is big and spacious, and totally reminds me of the apartment I had in Montreal (but only has 1 bedroom compared to 3). It has big windows that face the street. I have the same amenities too: a washer, TV, couch, kitchen that's furnished, bedroom, and bathroom. Mostly the weather has felt like summer: warm and breezy, with lots of sunshine. On those days, I open the windows wide and let the fresh air in. The last few days it has been really rainy with thunderstorms, but I have miraculously made it home before the downpour. The sights, sounds, and smells are very different here. In general, the younger people speak English. Mostly I can point to what I want in the store and pay for it even if I cannot be understood. The people here are pretty nice. C and I met only 1 really rude person in a grocery store who was probably annoyed we didn't speak Czech. He rushed us along, didn't give us a grocery bag to carry our groceries in, and indicated that if C wanted her receipt she would need to dig through the garbage to find it. Here you have to buy your grocery bags if you want them--at least in the bigger stores.

Nice kitchen! 
This is where the "magic" happens. Well, not so much.
One thing I will say is that I have not been really impressed by the food here. I mean, on a normal day, I will eat literally anything: even weird stuff like jellyfish and sea cucumber. I keep trying things, hoping I will find some delicious dish I can't live without. No such luck so far, and I am a week and a half in. For breakfast, I usually eat a banana or a bowl of cereal and drink orange juice. For lunch, I walk to the cantina down the block from work, where they have an ever-changing menu. "Chicken day" is my favorite--you really can't f$#& up chicken. The beef and fish days I could take or leave. Our mentor here took C and I to a pretty decent pizza place, so that was also a good meal. I had a beer there--nothing exotic, just a Budweiser. The beers here have a lot of foam, which I like! When you toast, you touch glasses, and then tap the bottom on the table before taking a swig. C and I love and live for McDonald's--it tastes like it does back home, and is a huge treat. They also have Subway and KFC here, believe it or not! We haven't tried those places yet. We found a great gelato place in town that we frequent as well. I usually skip dinner because unless I am cooking, no restaurants in my area are open/appetizing even if they are open. C and I made spaghetti with just noodles and sauce and bread this past weekend. I have eaten noodles with butter some nights. The other night I made a frozen pizza, and it was absolutely terrible. I had one piece and ended up throwing the rest away. I also had some really terrible frozen fish sticks. Haha, I guess I will stick with what I know. One thing I do love that I have tried was the coffee. I hate coffee, but this coffee at work costs 12 Czech crowns, and is 1/2 coffee and 1/2 chocolate. It is to die for! I am so addicted, and hope I can find something like it back home. I also buy peanut M&Ms from the vending machine at work almost every day because they taste just like they do back home.

Wisconsin reppin'
Not only do I not know the language, but I also didn't know the money, or how to operate any piece of electric equipment in my apartment. I am learning by trial and error. The washer, the stove, the oven and the microwave only have pictures, so I can't even really look up what they mean. Oh, and the temperatures are in Celsius. So that has been a challenge. I don't have a dryer either, because people here just don't. They hang their clothes out to dry. Basically I do laundry on Saturday, and you can just imagine that everywhere you look there are wet clothes everywhere--on my kitchen chairs, the couch, the windows, my drawers in the bedroom, and the bathroom tub and vent. It's quite funny. I don't have any clothes softener either, so when the clothes are dry, they can damn near stand up on their own. It's pretty hilarious. I miss the way my jeans feel fresh out of the dryer. C and I know that we can only wash 1 towel/jacket/pair of jeans at a time, because they take days to dry! My bathtub also leaks, so every time I take a shower, the floor gets flooded and I have to mop it. I am getting better with the money here. The general rule is to round up to the nearest 0, drop a zero, and divide in half. So if something costs 500 Czech crowns, that's about $25. At the grocery store, I only buy what I can correctly identify by picture. I accidentally bought a tuna pizza. Yuck.

Yeah...3 knobs with random pictures? 
I haven't turned on the TV once. Not that I even watch it at home, but it's just kinda weird. I live in a bubble where I don't know what's happening in the news back home. It's like being at summer camp! I literally come home, take a shower, prep for my class the next day, squeeze in an episode or two of Mad Men online, check emails, listen to music, Skype with my mom or Josh (the time difference is that here we are 7 hours ahead), and then go to bed. Pretty boring. But I don't want to be out in my neighborhood alone past dark. C and I save the weekends for adventuring. Saturday and Sunday we went into town, which is about a 10 minute walk. We bought groceries and ate McDonald's. We took a lot of pictures too. We love to play "What Not to Wear: Czech Edition." There are some pretty crazy getups here, and a huge lack of undergarments--at least for the ladies.

Cheeky! No undies here! 

She's got a wedgie and a halloween skeleton shirt Martha Stewart can make. And no bra--good side boob action!
C and I don't stay out past dark. We had a work party yesterday, and walked home around 9p. The very next day, we heard from our students that there was a 20 year old male, Kevin Dahlgren, an American from Palo Alto, California, that had murdered his aunt, uncle, and cousins here in Brno just 2 days ago. It is said that he was sent for psychiatric evaluation in the states prior to coming here, and his family thought it wise to send him here to stay with his extended family to escape from the hectic life back home and start anew. He killed the family members and set fire to their house, and then fled to Vienna by train. He hopped a plane to go back to the U.S. and the authorities were alerted. They told the pilot on his flight, and when the plane landed, the police arrested him. He will most likely stand trial in the U.S. for a quadruple murder. Scary! It can happen anywhere, though. Here is the full story.

My phone doesn't get service here, but I can get on wi-fi at my apartment and wherever else it is available. It's my only communication with the outside world--so crazy! Sometimes I use the wi-fi at McDonald's. I rather like the though of being unreachable--at least temporarily. Netflix doesn't work here--the message I got when I tried it was "We are sorry that we haven't reached your part of the world yet!" I try to keep busy and not think of home too much, because it does get quite lonely at times. Call me American, but I truly miss the little comforts of home and things I tend to take for granted: driving my car, having a dryer, eating food I like whenever I like, watching Netflix, having carpet on the floor, finding what I need and want at the store, people speaking English, having cell phone reception...and the list goes on. I am so glad I have C--I honestly don't know what I would do without her. We talk about the things we miss back home and what we are going to do when we get back. Mostly, we laugh a lot also about things that are strange, new, and different. We will have many good stories and jokes that we will remember forever. We have been working really hard every day, so that makes the days go really fast and is distracting from thinking about home. Our mentor took us around the city center a bit, and that was nice. He is a great tour guide, knew quite a bit about the history, and has so kindly answered our countless questions, both in class and outside of it. He will be coming to Milwaukee for a few weeks and we are excited to return the favor of showing him around and exposing him to American culture. It's certainly been an experience so far! Stay tuned for more adventures! :)

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