Showing posts with label TEFL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TEFL. Show all posts

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hanging out with old friends in Wichita, Kansas

After my daughters and I spent a few days in Arkansas, my children and I parted. It was incredibly satisfying for me to know they were both now college educated. My oldest was on her way about to take the next step in life, getting engaged. My youngest daughter had a few days at home with her father before she started her new job as an Oscar Mayer Brand Ambassador and Weinermobile Driver.
Nhan and Gulnara
with her baby bump
My next step while I was home in America was to rent a car to drive to Wichita, Kansas. That may seem like an odd destination for someone to go to all the way from Istanbul, but I had wonderful friends from Prague living there (Gulnara and I had done TEFL training together) and I wanted to be present with them at an exciting moment in their lives. Gulnara and Nhan were expecting their first child! Oh, how my friend Gulnara had longed for this! It was wonderful to see her slow down and "listen" to this growing child inside of her.

I loved, loved, loved being pregnant and was so sad when my own second pregnancy was done because I knew it was the last time. It's such a wonderful time in a woman's life feeling a child inside growing, stretching, and kicking.
Gulnara and me
As always, one of the great joys of spending time with Gulnara and Nhan is their amazing hospitality. The first thing Nhan did when I walked in the door was chop open a fresh coconut with a big machete and hand me fresh, cold delicious coconut juice. How fun is that?

Every morning I enjoyed robust coffee from the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans that Nhan made me with their wonderful coffee maker. I remember when I was a little kid thinking that coffee was so dark no one could actually drink it and like it. How our tastes change over a lifetime! Now, thanks in no small part to Turkish coffee, I love deep, rich coffee. Wow, was that good.
Nhan cooking up
some crayfish
Doesn't that look amazing?
Vietnamese noodles
with carmalized onions on top
Peking Duck
Warren Theatre
in Wichita, Kansas
One night when Gulnara wasn't feeling 100% and needed to rest, Nhan and I went to watch "The Avengers" in 3-D on Wichita's IMAX screen, which is six stories high and 100 feet high. The Wichita IMAX theatre cost $7.2 million and features the largest digital screen in the country. I'm not much of a comic book girl but the movie was so fun and so engaging in 3-D, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I saw it with "overseas" eyes. Our entertainment industry gets so much admiration from folks in other lands, I walked out the theatre feeling very patriotic.

I look forward to hearing all about Gulnara and Nhan's child's development. Even though pregnancy reminds me of the wonders of life, it didn't make me want to be a grandmother any sooner though. I sure am loving this expat life!

You might also enjoy these other blog posts about my trip home to America:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Yea! I'm Back in Prague

I'm glad to see this guy
is still going strong
in Prague's Old Town Square.
He produces endless smiles,
joy, and singing in those passing by.

I started this blog to move me forward to some very specific goals:

1) graduate youngest from high school.
2) sell my house.
3) move to Prague and take a TEFL class.
4) live in Prague teaching business English.

My youngest graduated from high school and is now in her junior year of college.  I moved to Prague, took my TEFL course and started to have the time of my life.  Six months into it, I had to go back to the States because my school waited 2.5 months before applying for my visa and it wasn't ever issued.  I tried to reapply for a visa from the States. I was told I was denied a second time (although I never actually received a letter saying so).

My daughters and I

I spent a very lovely 10 months in Madison, Wisconsin.  Madison is a city frequently chosen by magazines as the #1 most fabulous place to live in all of the United States.  I can heartily agree! Madison was a physically beautiful, intellectually-stimulating, healthy, wonderful place to live.  I may end up there some day, who knows. While I was back in the States, I finally got my house sold and watched my oldest daughter graduate from the University of Wisconsin (she did it in 3.5 years while working 20 hours a week and serving as president of one of her student organizations. Yea, Daughter #1! Somebody hire her please, she's amazing.).

But living in Madison was not what I wanted to do with this portion of my life here on Earth, so having accomplished all of the goals I set out to do, I'm ready to start Part II of Empty Nest Expat.  This part will be more spontaneous.  My goal is to write a very specific book about the Czech Republic.  I can visualize the entire thing in my mind.

I have come back to Prague to see if I can get a residence visa from the Czech Republic to live here while I write. I've applied for what is called the živnostenský list which is essentially a business trade license so that I can earn a living while I'm here writing. I am absolutely horrible at bureaucratic paperwork like visas and the like and am actually pretty proud just to have figured out (with the help of friends) how to do the živnostenský list without an agency's help. Having applied for this business trade license, and been approved, I will then have to move back out of the Czech Republic to apply for a residence visa (don't bother asking, I don't understand it either). Still with me, or have your eyes glazed over?  If they've glazed over, welcome to my world.

House of Týn Church

When I got back to Prague and first saw the spires of the House of Týn Church, I cried.  They were so damn beautiful!  And then I cried when I was on Revoluční, and realized I was going to have my first chlebičky in 10 months at my favorite kavárna (coffee shop). Oh, the joy of familiar Czech pleasures!

I hope I'm successful living here.  That's why I say Phase II of Empty Nest Expat may have to be more spontaneous.  I'm not yet ready to give up my Czech dream, but if I have to do so, I'll read up on how to develop Buddhist non-attachment to what I want and then find a country that welcomes me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Czech Government Delighted Me As a Consumer

"Can you tell me," asked my native-Czech student shyly near the end of a lesson one day, "anything you see here that is better than in your country?"

"Can I? YES!" I answered enthusiastically. "Czech people haven't the faintest idea how FABULOUS their transportation networks are. They are simply amazing."

Hlavni Nadrazi
the Main Prague Train Station
 What I admire:

1) Czech transport makes Czechs more competitive. Here's why: In America, it is suggested that 15% of the average household budget be devoted to paying for transportation. That usually includes cars for both parents and possibly for any teenagers living at home, car insurance, gasoline, and licenses for the car and drivers. That's 15% of American salaries, which run higher than Czech salaries.

Czechs don't need to spend so much of their salaries on transportation because it's possible to survive, indeed thrive, without a car. Not only can companies locate in the Czech Republic and get high-quality, hard-working, highly educated, often multi-lingual employees, it's possible to pay them less because they don't have these household costs that exist in America.

How low are the transport costs in the Czech Republic? Envision living in a city of 1.3 million and paying a mere $300 a year to get around. And if you want to be able to travel through the entire country (similar in size to the U.S. state of South Carolina), an annual train pass is only $100 more! Can you imagine, my fellow Americans, being able to get around your entire state for only $400? As far as I can tell, Czechs spend around 8.8% of their salaries on transportation.  What a competitive advantage in the global fight for jobs!

On the Hlavni Nadrazi
train platform
where you can catch a train to Plzen
or another city or village 

The comfortable seats
on a City Elephant Train
What's missing: stress!

Czechs have the most extensive rail network density in the entire EU.  Railways were built to transport the military in the 19th century.  A CFO for a construction company pointed out to me Communist government also made it easy to create this incredible system of national and metro railways because the apparatchiks just 'appropriated' whatever property was needed from the citizenry. Property owners weren't compensated. If a government such as mine were to develop this today paying retail prices to property owners, the cost would be exorbitant.  Bummer.

Right up this Metro escalator
is one of Prague's newest malls.
Prague kids don't need their parents
to drive them there.

The kids can't get in too much trouble.
See those spiky things?
There will be no sliding down that shiny metal
all the way from the top!

2) Czech parents don't have to be chauffeurs! When children are between the ages of 10-16, American parents spend their "free" time chauffeuring them from one activity to another. Think about this, America.  Imagine your city safe enough that your 10-year-old and his friends could get on the metro and go to hockey practice without you driving them there! Yes, remarkably, Prague is that safe.  Tweens and teens travel on the metro and trams unchaperoned as they pursue their interests.  When Czech children are free to explore the city, Czech parents have a vested interest in making sure that all parts of the city are safe, not just their neighborhood. Surely, that lessens crime.

Czech students on a field trip
using the Prague metro
to get from Point A to Point B
3) Superb public transportation facilitates learning outside of a classroom. It's a giant hassle to take kids on a field trip in America.  The teacher has to coordinate a school bus, discuss it with all the other teachers, get liability release forms from each parent, etc., etc.  Plus securing that bus is all dependent on whether or not there is budget for it that year.  Is it any wonder field trips are dying out? In the Czech Republic, the teacher can just take her class on ever-present public transit that serves everyone! No need to call ahead and order a bus just for her and her kids.  Kids don't need school buses to take them to school either.  They ride the metro like everybody else.

Poetry in the Metro

4) Public transportation creates readers which is good for democracy and good for wealth creation.  One issue poor families face in America is 'a poverty of print.'  No books in the household and no billboards even in their neighborhoods (companies don't bother advertising to folks with no disposable income).  Low-income children don't start kindergarten with the pre-literacy skills developed by observing readers and reading materials on a daily basis.  A sight seen again and again on Czech transport is a variety of people greedily opening their book with such reverence it reinforces the message that reading is fun. At-risk kids in the Czech Republic have other role models beside their parents.  I've even see Czech parents use that transit time to read to their kids!

All those readers create a healthy market for print newspapers and weeklies which is great for democracy.

Good readers grow up to earn 20% more than average readers. Constant reading builds up a skill critical to wealth creation.

5) Public transportation is safer than driving. Americans curtail their activities because they fear driving when drinkers could be on the road.  I went out with full confidence on New Year' Eve in Prague because I knew I didn't have to worry about dangerous people on the road. It's a little crazy, isn't it, to deprive ourselves of activities because we fear driving?

A new, less predictable, driving danger is becoming known: texting while driving. It results in driving so distracted it is the equivalent of twice the impairment of driving while intoxicated.  Why not bring laptops and electronic devices on public transit to use that time to accomplish work undistracted rather than try to work and drive at the same time?

6) Public transportation creates a pedestrian culture that limits obesity.  I offer my own experience.  Twenty pounds lost in the Czech Republic in six months without trying! But think of the money slimmer people save the country's health care budgets with less chronic diseases caused by overeating and inactivity.

Life goes on!
Here a Czech takes home
a Christmas tree on the metro

 7) Public transportation limits human isolation. You know how people who have just broken up with someone have a grudge against the opposite gender?  It would be hard to keep that attitude alive using Czech public transit. You may not be in love, but everyone else is.  My goodness, I've never seen so much public smooching in my life! On the metro, you'll see couples in love, families moving their household furniture, students studying madly for a test, and people on their way to a potluck with a dish balanced on their lap.  I think it's healthy and gets people outside of their own head to see the wonderful parade of humanity that happens on the metro.  It's a conversational banquet too.  I can't count the number of interesting five-minute conversations I had with perfect strangers on the metro!

The futuristic feel
of the Prague Metro
is part of the fun

8) The Czech Republic is already armed with an infrastructure that limits global warming. Every family that uses public transit saves 20 lbs. of carbon emissions annually from entering the atmosphere. Czech people already have it built!

9) Public transit keeps the air cleaner. - the street my language school was on was like a valley of trapped car exhaust.  I'm sure vehicle traffic has made the air in Prague less healthy for the people who live there.

10)Public transit creates a very livable city. In a city of 1.3 million people, I could go home for lunch!  That's what delights me the most.  The incredible, extensive transport network allowed me to move into Prague without a car and get about the city without any anxiety.  An English teacher in Prague gets to know how to use the metro, trams, and buses in combination with each other so extensively it would be normal to get from one side of Prague to another in 20 minutes.  If I was going someplace new I just used a first-class website to help plan the trip.  All included in my $22 a month transit pass.

An elevated Metro tube
headed into Luziny Metro stop
in Prague
The Challenge for Czechs

Czech families with the funds available are purchasing cars.  Because that strata, articulate in their demands, tends to get listened to in a democracy, there's a danger that public transit budgets will begin to favor highways more than public transit.  In America, 80% of the money goes for highways and 20% for transit. Our transit looks like it too. It's not world-class.  How will the Czech Republic maintain it's fabulously competitive transit system if the loudest citizens value something else?  Are you rich enough as a country to afford both? We aren't - or at least haven't prioritized it that way. What would Prague and other cities be like to live in if the car became the dominant vehicle of choice? Would you have additional costs to your society if obesity was higher, carbon emissions, pollution, and foreign oil imports were higher, stress was higher, human isolation was higher, educational costs were higher, and household expenses were higher?

Czechs, do you understand what an infrastructure gem this is? Have you purchased a car? What do you think will be favored more in the next twenty years? Vehicle traffic or transit traffic?

Americans, does this appeal to you at all? Is there any American area that comes close to this level of transit service?  What kind of public transit do you wish you had where you live (I would love high-speed rail from Madison, WI to Milwaukee and Chicago, Illinois. Rockford, Illinois is a city the size of Plzen that would explode if it had any kind of rail service to Chicago, 90 miles away.

You can also read my previous post about what I valued about the United States Government:

The United States Government Saved My Life

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to Make Friends In Your New Country Before You Become an Expat

I suppose expats become old hands at arriving in a country and figuring it all out. The first time sure isn't like that. It's a bit, well, daunting! Luckily, there are resources to help you!

One of the first I discovered was I loved it because it was so beautifully organized. There were stories about life abroad as an expat, lists of expat/international women's clubs, and advice about settling into specific countries from expats who live there. My friend Sher put together the advice for the Czech Republic and it's dead on!

And how do I know Sher? Through! The coolest feature on the site is called "Your Blogs." It lists country by country expat blogs in each country. There were two others listed for the Czech Republic and I became friends with both ladies (even though, I haven't even met one of them because she lives outside of Prague!). It helps though to have a blog yourself so they can get to know you as much as you get to know them.

When I was looking at other possible countries to teach English in, the country specific blog directory was really helpful. What are those blog writers writing about in their blog? All I had to do was read the Ukrainian expat blogs to see I didn't have an interest in moving there. In Kiev, they were freaking out about keeping the heat and the lights on because of continual power outages. Next country! Not going there. I need heat.

One day I looked at African blogs. In one country, the expat were worried for their physical safety and the physical safety of people in that country. Next country! Not going there. It's an incredibly powerful resource from REAL people. Are the writers having fun? Are they being exposed to new ideas? Can they afford living there? Do the locals make them feel welcome? Does the local government treat them with respect?

So take a look at The site is celebrating it's third birthday on January 16th - (Happy Birthday Expatwomen!) Even if the only traveling you are going to do is in your armchair. Your vision will expand as you take in other people's experiences in faraway places. You might even end up with a friend or two.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Sense of Community

In TEFL class one day we were discussing using obituaries as a way of sharing real texts with our students. My friends in class who weren't North American needed an explanation of what an obituary was. They must not have them in Europe for ordinary people.

"I wouldn't want my life written about in the paper," one my European friends declared. "What's the point of that? More privacy please! Besides, who cares if I die beyond my family?"

"Lots of people care," I replied. "you're part of a community. If your Dad's retired barber dies, you'd want to know. If your childhood teacher that educated 25 years of students in your town died, a lot of people in the community would want to know. People impact more than just their immediate families."

Unconvinced, my dear friends turned back to the assignment.

"See, Ian," I tsked-tsked to my Canadian flatmate, with all of the know-it-all certitude of someone who had spent two weeks in country. "This is why horrible things happen on the European continent. They don't have any sense of community."

"They don't have community?" he said with a incredulous grin. "They have universal health care."

Point taken.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Czech government denied my visa

This week I got the bad news that the Czech government denied my visa. I shouldn't have been surprised. They've denied the visas of my fellow Americans in my TEFL class, not once but twice. I was devastated. It's taken me several days to write about it without crying.

The Dream

I fell in love with the Czech Republic back in 1989 watching the Velvet Revolution on TV. Ever since then, I've wanted to experience this culture that seemed to have brought down communism nonviolently with raised BIC lighters in Wenceslas Square, not cold war spending (the Czechs actually credit the cold war spending -- not the BIC lighters, but that's another post).

The more I found out about Czech people, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know about people who have so beautifully kept a highly human and highly cultured "second culture" alive when the official totalitarian culture was anything but human. What intriguing people. I vowed to live among them someday.

A newspaper man in Minnesota, suggested that Americans back then should help Eastern Europeans adjust to capitalism. I happily signed up for two pen pals, specifically requesting they be from the Czech Republic. We wrote long letters back and forth, way before the Internet, and I cheered them on as they started up small businesses in their respective communities. We wrote back and forth for years. Finally, the daughter of one of my pen pals came to live with my family for a summer and eventually settled in America.

I also met a lovely Czech couple in my hometown of Ames, Iowa from the Czech Republic. Kate Sladka was doing graduate studies in plant pathology and Josef Kedlecek, her husband, was putting her through school while working at a locally-beloved Ames restaurant (now that I've read Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" I appreciate his job choice even more).

Kate grew up in this
beautiful apartment building
right off Old Town Square

Kate and I spent hours talking and she told me about all of the beautiful architecture where she lived in Prague in a very special part of town called Old Town. When I found my apartment in Prague, I was less than 10 blocks from her home! Now that I've gone and tried to find her and knock on her family door less than 100 feet from Old Town Square on Celetna, I realize how much her eyes must have ached for that mediaeval, Gothic, and art noveau architecture! I was stunned by the actual beauty of where her family lived. It was even more exquisite than I could ever have imagined. Her view was out of a fairy tale.

I was stunned to learn
that my friend Kate
had this incredible view of the back side
of the House of Tyn

I finally got here Kate!
Seventeen years after we talked.

The Reality

I finally figured out how I could come to the Czech Republic and experience it by reading Rolf Potts book "Vagabonding." His premise is that Americans vastly overestimate how hard it is to see the world and support themselves as they do it. I saw that, I too, could do this. All I needed to do was get a TEFL degree and begin teaching English. Teaching English is the easiest and fastest way to get into a country because there is so much need. Czechs working and moving up in multinational corporations need English because it's the international language of commerce.

So I choose a language school that promised: a guaranteed job after attending the TEFL course, full VISA support, health care, and free Czech lessons so that I could quickly integrate into the culture. Not a single word of it came true. I don't know why my school didn't follow the law. Maybe it's more profitable to have places opened up for the next TEFL class coming in, I don't know. I had relied on them to know the paperwork of their own country. I made an error in taking them at face value and trusting. Frankly, I'm proud to have "some trust in me" because you know how closed down people can get when they feel betrayed.

My fellow TEFLers and I loved Prague so much, that we were willing to give our school a second chance. "We applied for your visas incorrectly the first time, but this time will be different." It took me a month and a half to find work in America when I came back with only two days notice. I only looked for temporary work at a reduced pay level so that I would be fair to a potential American employer. After all, I was going to race back to the Czech Republic at the end of the summer!

I had invested over $5,000 to sell everything in America and move to the Czech Republic the first time. I happily shelled out the money for another Czech visa because this time it looked like my school had educated itself about how to follow the law and we would not be penalized for their past actions. Indeed, the administrators told us that many times. "Come back! You will not be denied."

My unfinished Czech Business:

I am completely and totally head over heels in love with the Czech Republic and it's culture. I feel like I was just starting to scratch the surface! I loved to share my excitement in my blog over each wonderful discovery. I only went out of town twice in six months because I wasn't focused on seeing all the tourist sites at first, I was focused on setting up my life. I intended to live there for years.

There are so many fabulous things in the Czech Republic I never got to see. I never saw the beautiful square of Telc, I never saw and experienced drinking spa water at Karlovy Vary, or the romance of Cesky Krumlov, I wanted to see Jan Kaplicky's stingray building in Cesky Budovice when it was finished, and modernist and cubist buildings in Brno. The Sumuva! Mushroom hunting! Czech skiing! I wanted to eat pickles in Znomo and marvel at the aqueducts and pretend I'm a partisan in the Znomo underground. What does Moravia look like anyway? I wanted to go to a Moravian wine festival and call up my friend Sher a little tipsy and tell her how much fun I'm having! Insert scream of dismay here! I wanted to see it all.

The people I care about there that I will miss. I dread having to explain to my pen pal in Western Bohemia that I traveled half way around the world to spend time in her country because of how she and others described it but hadn't yet come to her city to see her. I was waiting until I spoke Czech better so we could have real conversations face-to-face. I wanted to knock on her door and surprise her by greeting her in good Czech.

I did get to see my other pen pal in Plzen, (a future post), but since I visited her she has since become very sick, close to losing her life. I would love to go back and see her and cheer her on to a full health recovery. I never did find Kate Sladka despite knocking on her family door at 10 Celetna over and over again. I have no idea where she is.

What was so wrong with us being there?

I know governments have to look at things from a macro level, and one should never take things personally. It's not personal. That hurts too! The impersonality of it all. But how could excited and enthusiastic English teachers bring harm to the Czech Republic? Teaching English felt like our gift to the Czech people. We felt like we were doing out part to bring you into the global community as fast as possible after forty years of repression. We sure weren't doing it for the money. The work was damn meaningful to us.

I can't imagine Czech tourism advertising budgets are very big. At a time when tourism is down 20% (Prague Post, 6/3/2009) and Prague hotel room occupancy is down 8.5%, and now half of the hotels in Prague are expected to go bankrupt (Prague Post, 8/25/09) wouldn't the enthusiastic blogging of expats talking to the folks back home about how amazing the Czech Republic is be a welcome development to the Czech government? My friends would have resulted in seven week long room rentals at the small family hotel near my apartment over the course of 2009, but I know that expat bloggers are great for business beyond the immediate impact of their own families and friends.

I never heard of Cesky Krumlov from Czech Tourism advertising. I heard of Cesky Krumlov through an amazing English-language blog written by a Brit skilled in community development who constantly celebrates the specialness of that place. That one woman is probably responsible for more foreign visitors to Cesky Krumlov than Czechs know.

I don't know what my next move is. I'm honestly in mourning and it's going to take some time to deal with the disappointment. I would have loved to come back to Prague with the free ticket I have but the Czech consulate in Chicago could give me no solid advice. "It's all up to the foreign police, you may get in as a tourist, you may not. They might turn you back at the airport." Without solid guidance that my money in the Czech Republic wouldn't be wasted this time, I'm staying home. See, I can learn. Stay home. Sadly, there is no welcome mat out in the Czech Republic.

The beginning of this sorry saga:

What Just Hit Me?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Can't Visa Departments Be More Like UPS?

I had a friend who was a real estate broker. He said that when people sell their home they enter a period of "temporary insanity." I totally understand what he means. People get stressed out because there's so much on the line and the turnaround times are usually tight.

I feel the same way applying for a visa. I'm really starting to get stressed out because I haven't heard a word about my Czech visa. My company promised me and others, "no problem! you will get your visa within sixty days from applying. Our owner has met personally with the foreign police and that will happen. You will not be denied." Those sixty days are up in five days on August 17th.

Three weeks from today I have no idea where I'll be living. Is it the Czech Republic? Or America? If it's the Czech Republic, I need adequate time to respect my employers and give two weeks notice. If it's the Czech Republic, I should have given notice on my apartment here in Madison already. If it's the Czech Republic, I have a free ticket non-refundable back to Prague at the end of the month, I do not want to miss that plane. The whole economics of going there is based on using that ticket provided by the Czech school I'd be working for. If it's the Czech Republic, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

Government should not make people feel powerless. Their job is to empower us. Yet, waiting for a visa is easily one of the most powerless feelings ever when dealing with a government. All I want to do is come to the Czech Republic and empower Czech citizens with English language skills so they are more globally competitive. I get the benefit of living my dream of enjoying the Czech people and their culture. It's not so outlandish a request. A win-win.

Wouldn't it be great if a visa department was more like UPS? These package delivery companies figured out long ago, that so much is stake in some people's package deliveries, that customers were going to be calling every four hours saying "where's my package now?"

How did those companies deal with that constant customer anxiety and need for communication as to the status of a "package?" They put in tracking software so a customer could punch in a tracking code and see where it was at any given time. Has my visa left Chicago? Where is it now? Has it moved from Bureaucrat A to Bureaucrat B's desk? When is it scheduled to be delivered back to Chicago so I can take days off to go to the Czech Consulate and get it? Give me some sense of control and power back over my own future! Where's my visa? Talk to me!

Here's more on this story:

What just hit me?

I'm a better American citizen for having gone through this

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kari's Excellent Adventure

A vibrant young TEFL student has just arrived in Prague from the great state of Minnesota.

I had initially hoped to be there to greet her. I'll have to do the next best thing which is read her blog.

Kari is on day three of her Prague discovery. I've created a link to "Kari's Excellent Adventure" on my list of Czech expat blogs.

Kari, pictured here with her mom, is the daughter of my childhood friend and neighbor Julie Waters.

Update on 9/6/2009: Kari has graduated with her TEFL certificate from the Language House and is now off to mainland China to begin her teaching year. Because the Communist Chinese government censor Blogspot and Facebook from their citizens, Kari has had to restart her blog at an uncensored site. You can access it there. Here is the link to her first blog describing her Prague adventures.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My First Taste of Czech Village Life

The waffles are cooking!
In early Spring, my friends Jana and David invited our TEFL class out to see their home in a village outside of Prague. Little did we know our class was soon to scatter to the winds due to our visa problems! We're now in the States of Oregon and Wisconsin in the USA, Croatia, and Istanbul, Turkey. What a wonderful day we had though. It was the first time I had ever visited a Czech village, heard about buying a home in the Czech Republic, learned about how Czech taxes work (it's so interesting!!!), and just generally hung out to a non-city Czech vibe.

Jana and David had bought their home and remodeled it to take advantage of a fantastic pastoral view of the valley outside their kitchen. The original walls of their home are so thick! I admired how strategic they were to purchase right on the railway line. Gas prices may be cheaper today but it won't always be so. Jana and David have their own well water, pay a minimal price for garbage pickup (like 500 crowns or $25 a year), and also have minimal property taxes.

The idea of minimal property taxes was a new one for me. Here's what I love about it. The Czech government instead has a consumption tax of 20%. I know, if you're in America and you hear 20% sales tax, your hair stands on end. But the delightful thing is, I never notice paying it! It's included in the price of everything and since everything is cheap it's not a big deal. And isn't that futuristic and capitalistic to tax people on what they consume? Not their creativity in what they earn?

Home Sweet Home
with a
beautiful and typical Czech tile roof

Here's three HUGE advantages of the Czech way of doing things as far as I can see: when property taxes aren't so high, people don't feel compelled to sell their home immediately just because the kids grew up and moved away. Indeed, these village homes are often lived in for life and passed on to the next generation. Now how carefully do you think people are going to take care of a home if it's going to last their whole life and part of their children's? Czech tile roofs are expensive but they frequently last for 80 years.

Wouldn't minimal property taxes attract tons of foreign investment to the Czech Republic? Tell me if I'm not understanding something here. If you knew you could buy property in the Czech Republic and wouldn't have to pay $4000-5000 or more in yearly property taxes for a detached home, but you would have to do so in America, where would you buy a home if location wasn't the issue? An apartment building? An office building?

The third advantage of consumption taxes that I can see is that the money goes in one big pot and is distributed EVENLY for education. The quality of your schools doesn't depend on whether or not you're parents can afford to live in a great school district. I find that admirable. Isn't that a children-centric way of doing things? What do you think, gentle readers?

Enjoy our beautiful brunch and then we're off to catch a train for our afternoon road trip -- wait, it's not a road trip, -- it's a TRACK trip!

Is it just me,
or does Czech glass rock?
I loved this chandelier!
The original wall to the house
before David and Jana
added on - it's so thick
The view from the new kitchen window
Jana and David
Three gal pals:
Gulnara, me, and Anna

Justin knows how to entertain little girls.

Two ladies who don't need tiaras
to claim princess status
Jana shares her art work with us
Racing to catch the train that comes every half hour.
Yes, America, you read that right.
And no, the Czechs have no idea what outstanding service that is.
They take it completely for granted.

If you're Czech and reading this, I used to live in an
American city of 150,000 who would have loved train service
to Chicago (around 3 million people) - no train yet.

There are probably less than 1,000 people in this village
and the residents can walk to the train station
which comes right through their town.
Czech train infrastructure is INCREDIBLE.
Cost to Prague and back -
less than $2
for a half-hour ride each way.

You might also enjoy the rest of the adventure:

July 7, 2012
A postscript to this post:

The producers of the TV show House Hunters International were looking for an expat family to be featured in their show about Prague housing. As I had lived in a mere apartment, I thought "who do I know in Prague that has TV charisma. They should get this opportunity. David and Jana! The two of them are sooo funny and say the kind of things that have you silently giggling -  they are complete and total hams. I thought they'd be perfect." I asked David and Jana if I could forward this post to the producers and they said yes. Voila! It's now a TV show with over 9,000 hits on YouTube. Who knows how many people watched it on TV. 

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 1

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 2

The third episode is blocked. Jana and David probably would not recommend going through this process to another couple. They felt it was contrived as the show needs to set up he wants/she wants scenarios for dramatic tension. It also is contrived because in David and Jana's house, they themselves did the remodeling. It's a good reminder not to believe everything you see on TV.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What Just Hit Me?

My dream of living in the Czech Republic came true. It just didn't last.

As of Friday, I will no longer have legal status to remain in the Czech Republic. I must leave immediately or risk a large fine and a ban on being inside one of the fifteen Schengen countries for the next five years.

I have no idea why this happened. When I signed up to teach in the Czech Republic, one of the reasons I chose the school I did was because they advertised "full visa support" to everyone. Wonderful. Moving to a foreign country is overwhelming enough. Having a knowledgeable local handle all of the paperwork in a way that is in accordance with all laws gave the whole school a value-added appeal. I relied on that.

I arrived on November 6th. I took a TEFL course and was offered a contract in December. My school applied for my visa in Berlin at the Czech Embassy on January 21st, almost three months later.

Did that leave the government enough time to process the visa? I don't know what is enough time. Is there a visa department benchmark statistic somewhere that shows how one country gets it done in two months but another country takes longer and isn't getting it done fast enough? I have no idea what is a reasonable length of time and have no way to judge. Wait, yes I do. I have to leave the country so I guess it's not fast enough!

I started to get some inkling of how serious the situation was thanks to a fantastic article in the Prague Post. I have appreciated the journalists at the New York Times for years because of how they affect the life of my nation, but this woman and this paper published an article that directly affected my life! I can't thank them enough. Being a new expat, and having relied on my employers to secure my required paperwork, this article helped me understand the danger I was in of losing the life I had built here:

Since I have no idea if my visa will be approved or denied, I could leave the country and fly back to the States and find out as quickly as one day later (if that's when an approval comes through) that the job, friends, apartment, neighborhood, and church I had to give up was a big "oops, you can come back in now."

The government sent registered letters to the Americans in my TEFL class to come to immigration (what the Czechs call the foreign police). We each spent an entire day there. I kept thinking surely Czech taxpayers have something better to spend their money on then harassing Americans who are here to help Czech people improve their English so that Czech people can compete more effectively for multinational jobs? Yet this seems like some city-wide or country-wide initiative trying to make some sort of political point.

The day started out very scary. All of these men had muscles the size of a Zizkov bouncer and the jail cells were right behind the door. One of my fellow teachers, who regarded this as one big lark to tell the grandchildren about one day pointed out, "look there's an American in there already!" Thanks. Not helpful.

There wasn't enough staff to process us quickly. It took from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. to get out of there. The foreign police made us sign documents in Czech I didn't understand or we couldn't leave. I know my father was rolling over in his grave because he always said "read everything thoroughly before you sign it." Sorry Dad. I couldn't read it.

The foreign police told us we were lucky the deportation prison was full otherwise we would have to go straight to the prison. Given this was the Thursday before Obama's visit, if we had gone there, do you think the American Embassy could have spared a staff member to come get us? No.

Even with the prison remark (which I couldn't tell if it was a joke since this was translated secondhand), the men in this office treated us with professionalism and kindness. They were nice. This seemed such a poor use of their time and taxpayer's money! They gave us a one-month extension to our tourist visas which I thought was to give the government more time to finish the paperwork.

So one month later, there is still no visa. I must leave. I have done all of the wailing, raging, and asking for help a person can do.

I asked all of my expat friends if they could help. I have asked Czech friends for help. One of our teachers went to the American Embassy and asked for help (they said, "sorry, we can't help that these schools lure Americans here with false promises. There is no answer.")

But I'm not sure the blame is so clear-cut on my school. The minute the way they were doing things proved not to be effective, they changed their procedures. They loophole they were using to apply for our visas in Berlin is the same one used by the American government when they apply for visas for their employees at Radio Free Europe.

My school, which is a different one than the one mentioned in the article, is not making us whole but at least they are paying for the ticket home. I spent about $5000 to come here having rented my house, sold my car, and all of my possessions. They know we have a right to be angry and have said as much.

Czechs ask me, "couldn't you just stay here and work illegally?" I can't do that. If a person works illegally, they are not free. Lately, I've been reading about a Czech patriot named Michael Kocab. He said, "a nation that does not value it's freedom, does not value itself." Well, doesn't that also apply to us as individuals as well? I need freedom.

The hardest part was trying to say goodbye to my English students when it all came down to "there is no answer." I was devastated and they couldn't understand my too-fast, emotional English! But each and everyone of them taught me something and I will value the time I had with them for the rest of my life. I will value the time I had in this beautiful, amazing country for the rest of my life. I only wish the dream could have lasted.

I want to give the last word to the journalists and paper who helped me understand that this was a bigger story than just me and my little TEFL class. Here's their editorial about the situation, aptly titled "The Dream is Over."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Recession places gag on languages

This week in the Prague Post there is an article about how the recession is affecting language learning. Cost-saving cuts to employee benefits are hitting the industry hard.

The great thing about language teaching is that a language teacher's revenue comes from multiple streams of income so that if one company cuts their language benefits the teacher's job isn't entirely gone. A teacher then just works to fill that missing 10% and it's usually replaced quickly.

Click on my title to read the story.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Hip Hotel in Smichov

Right after I finished my TEFL certificate in December, I realized I hadn't seen anything in Smichov, the neighborhood where my English school was located. I had pretty much beat a path from the metro to the school front door every day. Finishing our certificate was like coming up for air and seeing Prague again for the first time.

I set out to explore what else was in the neighborhood and happened upon this very cool hotel. I loved seeing that what captures my imagination about American culture captures Czech imagination about my culture. Jazz! How fantastic!

The big inviting front windows

The world's all time favorite jazz musician -

It's hip! It's happy!
It's Herbie Hancock!

On the way to the dining room through the lobby.
Don't you love those light fixtures?

Lounge under Lionel
on his vibes

Some hotel lobby bars empty out.
Other people seem to respond
to this one as much as I do.
This is midafternoon!

Surprisingly, with all of this great jazz memorabilia,
the Angelo Hotel doesn't have live music.
But the incredibly helpful front desk manager
got out a map and showed me every place in Prague
with great live jazz.

The jazz wall behind the front desk

Ray Charles and Miles Davis
serenade the dining room in black and white

The dining room in midafternoon
ready for that night's business.

You can click on my title to reach
the Angelo Hotel's web page.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Three Hours in Berlin

No, I did not tell them it should read "Welcome TO Berlin."

The Brandenburg Gate
In the strange logic peculiar to governments, several of my TEFL classmates and I needed to go to the Czech Embassy in Berlin to do paperwork to allow us to stay exactly where we are in the Czech Republic.

"Don't get into any trouble," our guide said,
"since your passports are all back at the Embassy.

It seems odd to ask thousands of foreigners such as my classmates and myself to help warm the planet by requiring a drive out-of-country four hours each way all in the name of filling out three forms. But I, for one, am willing to put up with quirky governmental requirements if it allows me to work in the Czech Republic, plus go on a delightful trip to Berlin with my compadres.

Actually, being in Berlin was a bit sobering. We had three hours of "liberty" while our paperwork was processed. The Czech Embassy is in old East Berlin. We set out on foot to see the sights from there.

In three hours, we saw three commemorations of shameful acts of the German government. If someone comes to my country's capital and has three hours there, please dear God, I pray that it will always be inspirational.

First, we saw the Brandenburg Gate. That's the inspirational part of what we saw. If it looks familiar, it's because it's probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Europe. President Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton have all spoken at this site. Reagan's words were probably the most powerful:
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
We walked over to the Tiergarden and realized where we were standing was exactly where the wall had been. It was so obviously insane that this large united city was divided there for decades. I found it unfathomable. Yet when the wall was up, I found the idea of it ever coming down unimaginable.
We noticed a giant new memorial and wandered over. None of us knew anything about it so we started to explore. It's called The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It went up in 2005. We learned later that there was a museum underground to explain it. We missed the museum because we came from the Brandenburg Gate (like I assume the majority of tourists would) and the entrance was in the opposite corner.
I couldn't imagine a more solemn theme but the design of the memorial at first brought out the playfulness in everyone. I know that's not the reaction the architect was seeking - but all of those blocks of stone cried out for tag or hide-and-seek.
The stones get larger and larger
as you enter, eventually engulfing you.
But as we spent time among the stones, the feeling of being buried underground, beneath layers and layers of ash was overwhelming and oppressive. The memorial made it's point.

It's not everyday you see the word homosexual
in a street sign.

We assumed this was
pointing to a memorial for

The Murdered Homosexuals of Europe.

I felt my usefulness
since none of these young people
would have known what the giant banners
with the word "Stasi" all over them
referred to: The German Secret Police!
It was a museum in the actual headquarters
of the Stasi describing how the
East German Government
continually spied on it's own citizens.

Before coming to the Czech Republic,
I did not realize it wasn't just the Soviets
who invaded during the Prague Spring.
It was all of Czecho's neighbors, like the GDR, too.

Trying to escape meant death.
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