Sunday, August 31, 2008

Valdstejn Festival

This weekend we had a big festival in Cheb to celebrate Albrecht Wallenstein (or Valdstejn in Czech). You can see some information about it in Czech here
There are some pictures there too. It was really a lot of fun.
So a little very vague background information, Wallenstein was this general who got a little power hungry back in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and decided to just take over all sorts of places. He was gaining more power than the Emperor, which obviously no Emperor can allow to happen, and he was therefore murdered right here in a building on Cheb Square. The really funny thing is that he wasn't Czech, and he was kind of a bad guy, and he was murdered by the authorities basically, but now they have this massive festival revolving around him. Doesn't really make much sense, but it was a lot of fun.
On Friday it started with a medieval market in the square and then his march into town.
He then gave a speech that we couldn't really understand a word of. But it was all pretty fun. The coolest bit was that a bunch of the people in costume were hanging out at the pub right below our flat so I was able to sneak this picture without them even realizing it.

That was pretty much the end of the festivities for the night. The next day, however, it was an all day event. It started with the market again. We bumped into this American guy, Caleb, who lives here in town, with his adorable daughter Misha. She'd been really cranky the night before, but today she was a whole new person and had a great time catching fish!

After hanging out at the market for a while, we made our way to the castle where Laura had information that "something" would be happening. We weren't exactly sure what, but we'd heard rumors of free food, which is always a big draw to me. I'm not a big eater, I just always like it when I don't have to pay for food, because having to pay for something that keeps you alive always seems a little bit wrong to me. Go figure.
We stood in line for ages, not really sure why we were even in there, but in the end we were rewarded. We were able to go into the castle for free where we got some great views of the new steeples on St Mikolas, as well as getting to see the performers hanging out in costume. Oh yes, and we got our free chicken! Go us!

After that we went down to see the battle by the river. We couldn't really see very much as there were tons of people there. But we at least got to see Wallenstein as he taught the young boys how to go to war :)

In the evening Laura and I were back at the square to sample the interesting food choices. She was super excited about everything, and convinced me we should try out the crazy meat. Anyone who knows me very well knows that trying out strange meat is usually not something that I'm super excited about, but I went for it anyway. Naturally I chose the thing that was the closest to a hotdog. Laura was a bit braver than I and went for the one with the black skin. Just couldn't bring myself to do that one. I did have some Kofola on tap though. Always a treat :)

In the evening there was a massive fireworks display. It was really quite impressive. I think it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in Cheb actually. It's just so bizarre that they went through so much work to celebrate this random person. Ah well. Now I just need to get to the museum to finally see his bedroom and the infamous bloody pajamas that he was killed in. Good times.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The joys of the Foreign Police

For those of you unfamiliar with the traveling life, there are some things about being in a foreign country that just aren't the most pleasant. It's great to live an international life, to see new places, to meet different kinds of people. Dealing with governmental ANYTHING, however, is generally less than fun. Especially when it is completely disorganized.
Upon entering the Czech Republic with a proper Visa, it is standard procedure for people to go to the Foreign Police Office within 3 days of arrival. My memory of the trip last year is rather blurry by this point. I remember feeling nervous. Not because I'd done anything wrong, but because I had the feeling that, one wrong move and they'd boot you out of the country for good. Just because they can. Just because they're having a bad day.
It goes along with what happened to Tammy's paperwork last year. Her papers were all exactly like the ones filled out for Naomi and me, but someone else looked at them, decided they didn't feel like stamping them, and so they sat there for months until we went down there and Jarmila straightened things out and she eventually got her visa.
My first trip there things did go fairly smoothly. Jarmila was there and she made sure we got in fairly promptly, and dealt with any questions they had. Naomi and I were able to play mute Americans and all was well. This year, however, things were...different.
Because this is my second year, I wasn't actually going to declare myself, but merely to pick up the visa that was already there waiting for me. On Tuesday Jarmila and I headed over to the office only to see that the place was pretty much packed out. With only an hour and a half before the office closed, she knew it was unlikely that we'd be able to get in. So we headed back to the office and she said I could try again the next day, but that she would be busy, so I'd have to go alone.
Panic flooded me, but, fortunately, Tammy was ready, willing and able to go along with me after the 20 or so hour bus ride she'd just gotten home from. So Wednesday afternoon the two of us headed to the dodgy looking building that houses the offices of the Foreign Police. The place is situated way back in the corner of an old gray stone building that looks in desperate need of a makeover. The elevator is small and creaky, and not attached to the doors, so when you go up you're literally watching the door wall slide past you.
When Tammy and I arrived at the tiny waiting room there were probably 20 or more people, mostly Vietnamese, crammed inside looking tired and smelling...well, strongly. Now let me digress for a moment to talk about Prague. In a phone call with Kelly the other day I was informed that, currently in Prague people are coming to the Foreign Police office at 1 AM and still not managing to get in that day. There is a system there in which people receive a number, and then can generally figure out how many hours it will be before said number is called. They can then leave the office and come back and check on their status. It's similar to picking up prescriptions at Queen Mary Hospital, for those in the know. Or like waiting at the DMV. Let me say now that, in Cheb, the "system" doesn't really exist.
On the door to the office there is a sheet of names. Supposedly they are meant to represent some sort of order, but they just don't. In my experience all the names are Vietnamese. There will be 30 names on the door, but they won't necessarily represent any of the people inside. A family member comes down early in the morning, writes down ten names, and then leaves. Those with their names written then show up at various times of the day and expect to get in. The problem is, the people inside the office don't care about that list of names at all. They don't look at it, and they certainly don't follow it. Neither do the people who come in and wait patiently for their turn inside. After two hours of waiting outside the door, they certainly don't want to see someone stroll in and just go inside because they claim their name was on the door first.
Now I'm all for having a system. But when the system is completely ineffective and not followed by, well, ANYONE, it's really not a system at all! What actually happens is people come and hover around the door, leaving scarcely enough space for it to open. As soon as it does manage to move the crowd a bit, the people at the front rush in. Then there are the people with "connections" who are able to make a magical appointment that allows them to rest peacefully on the padded benches until an official comes out and calls their name, creating a sea parting effect for them to enter through.
When I arrived, the best course of action appeared to be getting as close to the door as possible, without getting in the way of people who were there before me. All I needed was the visa that was sitting inside waiting for me. It would take all of five minutes to process things and I'd be done, while most of the people there had mounds of paperwork to go through. Not a very encouraging picture. Then, when people came after me and seemed to think that pushing and shoving, and no doubt calling names that I couldn't understand, was a good idea, I was far from thrilled. The growing aroma of foulness, and the fact that my stomach was trying to consume itself because I'd forgotten to bring a granola bar, didn't help.
Things went on...and on...and on...v-e-r-y S-L-O-W-L-Y...
I was pushed and shoved and talked about, and did my very best just to stand my ground. After more than two hours a group of people decided to make a run for it. When the door opened to let one of the lucky ones come back out, at least ten people rushed through it. Still being quite full of the fear of the law, I wasn't about to do anything that might risk my own check mark on the "Nice" list, so I stood my ground outside the door.
After that little rush things got pretty heated outside. The following conversation is a mixture of what Tammy and I could understand in Czech, and what was clearly demonstrated through body language and the obvious fact that none of us were pleased with the "system." Even before the rush had gone in the lady in front of me, who I'm guessing was Ukranian, had been getting antsy and irritated by all the people who had been trying to say they were before her, even though they came in much later. She'd been giving them little pieces of her mind, sometimes audibly, and sometimes merely in her posture. After the little escape, she was no longer content to be silent. She let the room full of Vietnamese people know just what she thought about their cutting in line. In return one of the Vietnamese ladies pointed to the list as though it was their answer for everything.
They went back and for for a while and then the Vietnamese lady asked the Ukranian if her name was on the list. When she firmly said "No" (I'm thinking this was out of principle) the Vietnamese told her "then go home!" No doubt the words that followed were choice, and the Vietnamese lady plugged her ear and said something to the effect of "I'm not listening," while the Ukranian went on about how she'd like to be able to spend the day at home or having something to eat rather than standing in line, but she'd done the responsible thing and wasn't about to be denied her rightful position. I just did my best to stick with my spot.
There was a Vietnamese boy, probably around 14 or 15, there who made a comment about the mess in English. I commiserated with him, and felt safer with a human connection in the crowd. I certainly wasn't there to step on anyone's toes. I just wanted my visa!
A minute or so later the crowd that had forced their way in were ushered harshly back out by one of the officers with a "Shoop Shoop!" which means, Hurry! One of the girls in the group was clearly amused and laughing. She'd just seen a moment and taken the opportunity and now she was just as amused to be out again. "Terrible" she laughed, and I knew then that I had another understander and replied and felt more secure, even as the others raged angrily about some rights they felt they had because someone else had written their names on the list.
After clearing out the interlopers, the officials hurried the Ukranian inside. I was happy to see that her patient waiting had paid off. I was even happier when, a minute or so later, they let me in.
Once outside of the crush, the atmosphere changed dramatically. The officers, feeling in no way pressured by the crowd, took their sweet time to do things. All the same, my visa was in my passport in a matter of minutes, and I was able to get out of there, wishing the boy good luck as I made my way through.
It's amazing the relief I felt once I made it out of the building. So much oppression in places like that. I'm sure glad I don't have to worry about anything like that again for a long time!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Oh First Weeks

So coming in country a week early basically means I have two first weeks. First weeks are such a bizarre phenomenon. It's amazing how a single day can seem soooo incredibly long. There is just so much to be done, and everything seems all consumed with waiting and figuring things out. I mean, it feels really comfortable to be back. Everything is familiar and all, but still there are so many uncertainties.
I tried to go to the foreign police yesterday. I need to pick up my new visa and declare that I'm once again in country. We got there a little after ten and the place was packed with Vietnamese. Since they were closing at 12 Jarmila figured out pretty quickly that we wouldn't be able to get me in, so I was able to go home for a few hours before it was time to come back and do some testing for new evening students.
Since the registry attempt failed yesterday I'm off there again this afternoon. It's nothing like in Prague where Kelly informed me people are coming in around 1 AM and still not able to get in that day. I can't even imagine. But still, the thought of sitting in a tiny crowded room for hours doesn't exactly appeal. I can't go in early either, because we have to be here for testing if anyone shows up, so I'm basically just sitting around and waiting right now. (sigh)
The weather has turned a happy corner the past couple of days. Monday was dark and dreary, but we had sun yesterday, and it looks like it's back again today. Of course I'm likely to be cooped up in the foreign police office all day long, but at least I know the sun is shining, and that really does make a difference. It's still not exactly warm, but it's better than nothing. Of course our flat is sooooo cold, that it hardly makes a difference if the weather is nice outside. It's an old building with not much insulation. Actually reminds me a lot of Mother's Choice in that respect. Big old cold building. At least we do have central heating that'll turn on in a couple months so we won't have to sit around wearing massive coats and scarves indoors.
I'm a bit nervous about next week. We still haven't been able to find anyone to help us out for teaching in the morning classes. I'm not sure what will happen there. I know Jarmila is really stressed out about it. But what can we do? I know it'll be quite stressful and busy the first whole month, but the first week of class always has it's own brand of stress.
With every new job I've had, I've noticed this pattern at the beginning. The first week, and sometimes the second as well I find myself saying, "this is my first day of work. This is my second day of work. This is my second week of work..." and so on. Then suddenly the weeks begin to snap by. "Wow, it's already the weekend. I can't believe I've been here for six months already." Only to slow down again near the end as anticipation of return trips home and a bit of a holiday creep in. Just an observation.
It's really interesting to be able to experience these first few weeks through the eyes of Laura as well. For her, everything is new and exciting. I took her out to Atika the night before last and she was so enamored with the place and with the food. I don't think I've ever seen anyone get so excited about Czech food. She got Naomi's favorite meal: turkey medallions with mushrooms and krokety. She was a big fan. Sadly, we never really saw the three legged cat.
Every time we walk outside she marvels at the things she sees. It's such a good reminder of what a special place this really is. It's all so familiar to me. It's easy to take it for granted from the beginning. But Laura brings this fresh and exciting take on everything. It really helps me out somehow. Several times she has commented on how crazy it is to be living here. She's turned to me and said, "can you believe we actually live here?" To which I reply, "well yes, because I've already lived here for a year." But her enthusiasm is beautiful to see.
I haven't seen Tammy yet. She's supposed to be back in town now, having been in France teaching at an English camp for the past couple of weeks. She'll only be around a few days before she goes in for laproscopic surgery in Prague. We're really hoping this will take care of the horrible stomach pains she's been having for more than a year now. The really bad bit being that she won't be able to help out during the extra busy first month.
Not much else to report. Cheb is still Cheb. There are a few new stores open, a few repair jobs that have been finished and new places under repair. The steeples of St Mikolaš have been renovated and tower majestically over the square, looking more like something from Prague than Cheb. Other than that, things are pretty much the same. I'm enjoying living so close to the square. My "commute" has been pretty much cut in half, and the climb is more gradual so I don't end up a sweaty mess by the time I get to the office. Very nice! Also it's so much easier to just go out. Everything is just right in front of us. I think it will be a lot better for socialization. Tammy's flat still isn't finished, so she'll actually be staying out in my old flat for the first month or so before moving in to our building. We don't have internet in our flat yet, but that should be working soon.
Well, I've got a test to go do, so I should go.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Back in Czech

I was greeted back in Czech by a familiar sight. A small boy urinating on a tree at the airport. It was one of those things that just made me sigh and say, "looks like I made it."
On a brighter note, I also ran into one of my students at the airport. It was so nice to see her. She'd just gotten back from a holiday on the beach. Very nice suntan. Made my time in California seem less significant after the bad weather we had at the end of summer in Moscow. Ah well.
I had no trouble getting the bus to Karlovy Vary, and there Jarmila met me and drove me back to Cheb. It was a comforting feeling, driving into town and just knowing everything about the place. She took me directly to my new flat, and it is sooooo nice. It's quite a bit smaller than my old flat, and has a little less storage space, but other than that, it's really quite amazing. So clean and beautiful. I'm really excited about the proximity to everything as well. I think it's going to be great.
Laura, who got in on Saturday night, was also happy to see me here. She's doing a few things on her own today, and then I'll take her around.
I'm just in the office briefly today. Mostly to be online it appears. We still don't have our schedules, but it's going to be a REALLY busy September because we are short a couple of teachers. Tammy is having her surgery next week which puts her out for two weeks, and the other native teacher Jarmila was going to hire was a flop, so we're waiting until October for his replacement. Hope I'm ready for this!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Excessive amounts of time spent on downloading CDs...

It's amazing how much time one can spend on really menial tasks. But with airlines continuously lowering the amount of weight one can carry for "free" and with the addition of a quality computer and an ipod to my repertoire, I figure it makes most sense not to pack along my entire CD collection. For those not fully in the know, I'm rather attached to music. I'm a bit opinionated about it as well. Therefore, having my music collection at my beck and call is a happy sort of thing for me.
Last year I wanted to put more on my computer, but I unfortunately didn't have internet access at the time, and anyone who has ever downloaded CD's without the help of Gracenotes is well aware that it's a royal pain to type in all the information. And having 162 Track 1's doesn't make it very easy to find the song in question. Therefore, this year I'm being aided in the process by the internet, however it still takes a considerable amount of time to get all the music I want successfully transfered onto my computer, so I figured now would be a good time to type something up. Oh, and I've recently discovered that when you put a CD on they now download the cover art to go with it. A very happy addition :)
I can't say that I'm positively brimming over with new news, but at least there's something to read for the faithful :)
I wrote a letter to David today. 12 pages of glorious Sarah handwriting on the finest selection of Lisa Frank, etc, stationary available to me. Whilst doing it, I was amazed to recall the period of my life when I would generally write 5 to 7 such letters by hand every week. And I just couldn't stomach wasting a 27 cent stamp on anything less than 8 pages. I cringe to think of how much the stamp for this current letter is going to put me back. It was a lot of fun in it's own little way though. I'm hoping he finds some entertainment in my style of humor. And, being well aware of how lovely it is to receive anything when one is far from home, I'm sure he'll at least appreciate having something to open! (hint: basically what I'm saying here is that I ALWAYS enjoy word from anyone, whether electronic or otherwise...)
I also spent about 3 hours writing in my journal. It seems to be the minimum these days if I even want to take a crack at how far behind I am these days. I'm less than a week behind now, but it's still a long road to hoe...I've been thinking a lot about farming imagery lately for some reason...
In other news, I've sorted through all of my clothes that I can find, and I'm now ready to start making decisions on what t-shirts are going to make the cut this year. When one only has the ability to take enough to have different outfits for a maximum of two weeks without having to just rearrange the order of the clothes it's really hard to decide what to bring along. It is absolutely necessary to ALWAYS have at least one Whence He Came t-shirt. Seeing as how I have enough to wear a different one every day for more than a week of those alone, I'm not facing a shortage. However, I have to limit it to just one, in order to give equal opportunities to other clothing styles. And, naturally, I can't exactly wear them to work in. I do, however, make sure they show up in photos in all the countries I visit, and I'm pretty sure I've been the first WHC clothing wearer in quite a few countries. I'm going to guess I'm definitely the first in Czech and Poland...anyone want to fight me on that point?
So that's what's been taking over my life, besides the outdoor work as mentioned in my previous post. Now I'm just trying to finalize CD choices, and then I need to go through pictures.
Janet and the boys are coming up tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to that, but it means I need to have most of my other things together before they get here. And so I sit, and type, and wish the world well...I'm hoping for a good year, and trying to ignore that the temperatures in Cheb right now are in the low 60s...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

For a moment in the evening

Time just really isn't on my side I've got to say. It evaporates without even giving my feelings a second's thought. I find that it has somehow been a week since I left training, and I still really haven't managed to get much of anything done. That's not really true. I've spent the past couple days working on fencing:

Discovered some muscles I'm pretty sure I never used before yesterday. It's quite amazing the amount of work there is to be done. I spent about an hour and a half chipping away at concrete around an old fence post, only to somehow make the post even more securely locked in the clay-like ground than it was before I started. Frustrating how all it took was a bit of pounding by Brian and he was able to lever the blasted thing right out. I'm glad I'm not a man, but there are times when I find myself a bit infuriated by how things like that just ARE easier for them.
Anyhow, I thought I'd take a quick moment before I lose momentum and just feel like reading, and update with some pictures from training as well as this past week I've been back in Idaho.
Just because I had so much fun riding in the back of Frank's convertible, I thought I'd feature it here just for kicks. Here are Joanna and I on our first ride. We felt pretty rock star cruising through Pasadena. Silly girls that we are :)

Here are a couple pictures of us on the scavenger hunt. My team, though we technically lost, would have won if the second team didn't follow us to the answers having found their first clue a bit faster. Our first one was rather tricky, and they ended up just getting lucky. I've never been a sore loser or anything. Of course, I really wasn't part of the hunt as I was only allowed to follow behind and observe. They made that bit a lot easier this year by having all new clues so I couldn't have helped them even if I had tried. So here's one of my new roommate Laura and the Slovakia girls, Katie, Kate, and Kim and then one of Aaron, Laura, and Katie enjoying our dinner afterwards.

And just for old times sake, I had to make sure we made it down to Roscoe's Chicken 'n Waffles. Gotta say it remains a unique experience, although it was lacking a bit without Katie and Joel doing syrup shots like last year :)

My time with Rebekah didn't turn out quite as I had planned it. Her car broke down the day before she was supposed to come and whisk me away for the weekend so I could see the new house she's renting and finally get to see the place she's been working for the last three years. Fortunately she was able to get a rental car, so, although it was less time than we would have liked, we did get to spend a moment or two together. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I've developed this odd fixation with taking photos revolving around food most of the shots that I have of our time together are related to meals. Of course, since In N Out is a pretty big part of the southern California experience it seems rather appropriate that we have one eating our classic cheeseburgers, and the other one is of us at Connals, which is a classic training eatery.

And of course the sunglasses were there too...

So that pretty much sums up training. I really am thankful that I was able to be there. I would have rather not had it take up time during my summer at home, but it really was quite valuable to work on team building. I think without being there it's hard to be a part of the new community. Especially when so much of the community this year will be made up of these new people who I've just been getting to know. Also, it was a great chance to see Rebekah who I would not have been able to visit otherwise.
It's been nice hanging out with the family up here too. It hasn't been all work. There have been fun play and cuddle times as well:

Tomorrow I'm intending to attack my room and see if I can figure out what I need to bring back to Czech with me. I'm definitely intending to switch up my wardrobe a bit. You would think that I would have found some contentment in the simpler life. It always seems that those people who only have one or two outfits have it so much easier. They don't have to think about what they will wear. They just wear it and get along with life. But I have to say I rather enjoy the spoiled life, and it's been glorious being surrounded by all the rest of my clothes. Now it's time to pare it all down again and figure out what I'll be dragging back across the world with me.
Well, for now I'd best get this tired bag of torn and overworked muscles to bed. There are still post holes to dig out there after all!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Heading back to Moscow

Well, it's been a long couple of weeks, and now I finally get to go back for a few more days with the family. I'm actually really glad I was able to make connections with the new group of people that will be on our team this year. While I've been fairly exhausted, and would naturally have enjoyed more time with my family and friends, it's been good to be a part of what is going on here. I can see a lot of potential in this new team, and I'm looking forward to serving and encouraging them this year.
I head back to Czech on the 23rd, so there isn't a whole lot of time to bask in the glow of Americana, and take in those final moments with the people I love on this side of the world. I did get to see Rebekah briefly. Her car broke down, so in the end I didn't get to see her new house, but she was able to come here and stay the night, so we had a great time just hanging out and talking. Five hour phone calls are GREAT, but being together for real is even better, and I'm so thankful we had the chance.
My bag is all packed, and I'm pretty sure the weight is decent, so now I'm just killing a couple of hours until the red van comes to take me away...