Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The spirit of the season...

The holidays are fast approaching, or are really in full swing. I generally consider my birthday to be a bit of a kick off party for the holiday season. I had a lovely day this year on the 17th of November. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, and there were lots of very interesting documentaries to celebrate the event. My birthday was the only free day, so we weren't able to make it to Prague to see any of the celebrations, but it was nice to at least watch TV and see all the changes that have taken place since my 11th birthday.
Mark has shared so much with me about the way life was here. Even though he doesn't personally remember it, he has a lot of insight into all that his people suffered during that dark era, and a real appreciation for the freedom they now have. It was really lovely to celebrate my birthday on such a monumental occasion for this country that has been my home for the past couple of years.
I have some nice plans to teach my students about Thanksgiving tomorrow. It's always great to be able to take the time to be thankful for all the good things in my life. I have so much to be thankful for this year. I'm still amazed to see the ways God is continually working in my life, and in the lives of the people around me. I feel so blessed to be with Mark, and to see how God is guiding both of us even when times are hard and our schedules so busy.
There really are so many things to be thankful for. As I look around at the plight our world is in, how money dominates the thoughts and lives of so many of us, I wish that we could all look deep into our hearts and see all there is to praise God for. Life isn't perfect, but I can see so many ways in which I have been blessed.
I feel like I'm rambling a bit now. My thoughts are wondering to all the things that need to be taken care of before Friday when I will head to Prague for the Thanksgiving Retreat, but as I look at the faces of my friends and family on the new cork board I got for my birthday, I can't help but be reminded of all the beautiful people God has placed in my life. Some have been present for short seasons, others since my life began, but all of them are so very precious to me. I just hope they all know how happy I am to know them, and how I pray God's peace will be abundant in their lives.
I know the holidays are a time when life enters into a breakneck pace of hectic activity, but it really is my prayer that we will all remember the joy of being a part of a community, a group of people, loved by God. It is the true spirit of the season. So now I'll end with a game that I believe has truly blessed the classes I've shared it with:
Thankercheif, Thankercheif,
Around you go
Where you'll stop
Nobody knows.
But when you do
Someone will say
What they are thankful for today...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Diary of a Day

I've been journaling now for over 13 years. That's more than 4,750 days that I've cataloged in my far from perfect handwriting. Handwriting I generally figure is a better code than Cherokee. When the letters e, c, a, o and possibly several others can all end up looking about the same, and other letters turn into nothing but straight or partially curved lines, it's difficult to look for patterns. I've been forced to confess that, on more than one occasion, I've had difficulty deciphering what I've written myself. Yet I don't find my journaling to be pointless. Perhaps these are not words that I'll share with others, perhaps they do little to uplift or encourage the people around me, but they do provide an outlet, a pure release. I hold nothing back and I discover volumes. Compulsion or no, it's not something I see as something I want to, or should, consider giving up. While it would be wise for me to put my attention where my mouth is, to actually produce something of literary value, I still find it impossible to imagine giving up on the journaling process. (sigh)
Anyhow, I thought it might be rather entertaining, not to copy things out of my journal, but to give a glimpse into the diary of a day. I won't say that this is a typical day, only a day that really did happen. In truth, it's more on the rare side, as will be evidenced by the things contained herein which do not fall under normal Sarah characteristics (there I go talking about myself in the third person again. This is becoming epidemic rather like the swine flu, which has now closed a couple local schools...and I believe taken over the body of my roommate...)
So here it is, the events of yesterday:
I got up a little after 7. This was rather a relief, seeing as how, of late, my body has been waking up at some point in the 6 o'clock hour. Not because I'm suddenly well rested, but just because it has decided to be awake. I've been attempting to take advantage of these extra minutes, and discovering that I still don't get much more done, mostly because I just don't think very quickly so early in the morning. Yesterday, however, after being awakened by Kathryn around 2 AM saying "I'm not, I'm not sure about that one. I'm REALLY tired," in her sleep, I was happy to be able to sleep until a more reasonable point in time.
I got up and proceeded with my usual morning routine: shower, breakfast with devotions, hair drying in order to keep all Czechs happy that I'm not needlessly putting my health at risk, a reply text to Mark's sweet good morning greetings, then off to work.
I'm blessed to live at the base of an ancient square. The buildings in the middle date back to the 14th century, a time before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I wander up the cobbled square, morning fog thick as the clock tower chimes the news that it is now 8 o'clock, followed by some musical interlude. I'll confess the music is a little on the tacky side, but there's something quaint about it as well.
I arrived at my office around ten past and set to work planning for my class. Unlike Tuesday, when my class never arrived, I was teaching my usual daily class, and there were 6 of them today. We're studying modal verbs. I'll confess, I seldom used the word "must" and am pretty much certain I NEVER used the word "mustn't" until coming to this country and teaching British English. At this point, however, I'm perfectly comfortable explaining that we use "have to" when talking about laws or rules imposed by some authority, and "must" when talking about personal requirements - as in I really MUST get my hair cut and died soon.
Class mostly went well, although I had three boys in class, which tends to mean trouble. There was a lot of Czech in the boy corner, and I actually had to turn a little strict teacher and address it. I did it in a rather round about way, however. When one of the guys was giving me an answer on the board he "missed out" on the very interesting Czech conversation his classmates were having. When he was done answering me I apologized to him for trying to teach him something and keeping him away from their clearly riveting dialog. (sigh) But that is what teaching is about some days.
As soon as class was finished I rushed to my office to put on my coat and head to the next item of business for the day: a teacher observation. Part of my role as a CA involves going to the schools of the teachers in my group and watching them teach. It's not so much to critique them as to give me some insight into the schools they're at and the students they're working with. I walked quickly, wanting to get there during her break, and on the way a most distressing thing happened, one of the buttons on my lovely blue pea coat popped off :( I was not pleased. Fortunately, I saw it happen and it didn't even fall to the ground, just hung there from its hole looking a little lost and forlorn as my coat flapped open a bit wider than usual. I stuffed the button in my pocket, reminding myself that Kathryn is an accomplished seamstress and would no doubt be able to help me in some way.
I sent Karina a message as soon as I got to the Gymnasium where she works, and a few minutes later she came down to meet me. I was in the school a couple of times last year when Laura's family stayed there, but it was always when there was no school so we weren't able to get into the side where her office and classroom were, so it was really interesting to have the chance to see the school in action. Karina showed me to her office, and while we chatted a bit about the class and her students she got a call from the director saying he'd like to come and meet me. Just as class was about to start there was a knock on the door and Karina let Mr. Zidek in. I really don't have a whole lot of experience doing things in an official sort of capacity, but it was fascinating to have this important man at the school greeting me and praising the teaching abilities of Karina. It's always good to hear how people are impressed by our teachers here.
We then went into the class and Karina went into teacher mode. I enjoyed watching the interactions with the students. There were only 6 in attendance out of a possible 17 or 18. Seems the swine flu was already having an impact. I also enjoyed the chance to check out the student work that adorned her walls. One of the really nice things about observing other teachers is that it gives me more ideas of how to improve my classes as well.
When the class was finished Karina walked me back out to the front of the school. I ran into a student there who is also a friend of mine from church. He was on his way to a gym somewhere near my house, so we chatted on the walk. Always nice to catch up with people and to feel like I really am connected to the community here.
Once home I went into action mode. There always seem to be so many things I want to get done during my "free time." I started off with making repairs to my coat. Kathryn did, indeed, have needle and thread. I won't be quitting my job and becoming a seamstress anytime soon myself, but the button hasn't fallen off again yet! A quick lunch was next on my agenda. Kathryn made a run to Tesco, and when she came back I sat with her in the kitchen while she had her lunch. It was nice to just sit and visit with her. I feel like I don't do that often enough, and it's something I really want to improve upon. She had classes to teach, despite the fact that her body was burning up with fever and she was achy all over, so away she went. Then I moved on to catching up in my journal. I was on top of things today, and managed to catch up quickly. Much to my amazement, I still had time left in my day to get other things done.
Our floor has this...hmmm...maybe incredible is a good word...ability to grow dust bunnies. And we're talking serious sized rabbits, not just cuddly little guys. So I took a moment to vacuum the flat. It's not a very big space, so I was able to take care of things quickly. This left more time for checking in on the 5 or 6 lexulous games I'm currently competing in on Facebook. It's a bit of an addiction as well, but provides some real team building, as well as connection with siblings far away :)
I continued to be in awe of the fact that I still had some time on my hands. I pondered over several ways to spend these blessedly free minutes, and decided to make some music. Mark, dear man that he is, has left his keyboard here. While I often feel guilty that he isn't able to practice very often, it's so nice to be able to play every now and again. It was nice to be able to burn off a little creative energy.
And suddenly, it was time to go back to work. I teach FCE on Wednesday, and needed to do some planning for my class. I had an observation by Kelly last week, and she'd given me some good ideas about how to make the text book come to life a bit, so I put some of her advice into action, and it worked quite well. My class was good, the students talked, and hopefully learned a thing or two.
Wednesdays are also our team days. All the other girls are ill to some extent, so it seemed only appropriate that I be the one to cook tonight. I'd asked Karina's advice on dinner plans, and she'd requested my broiled open-faced sandwiches, so I picked up the ingredients and hurried for home. The place was empty when I arrived, so I had some time to get things done. Tammy's birthday was the 30th of October, but we didn't really celebrate it all together. Karina was in England at the time, and the rest of us took the little trip to Regensburg, so we never really "did it up proper" to quote a dear former roomie of mine. So, having been given a boxed cake mix by Sam a few weeks back when I did observations in Sokolov for just such an occasion, I whipped up a cake. Yep, that's right. I made a cake. This was actually only the second time in my life that I've made a cake. I know that's pathetic, but the first cake I made was for Griffon and Geoff's wedding, so that was a pretty serious event that I still feel pretty impressed by. While it was cooking I threw together the sandwiches. The girls all showed up whilst I was in the process, and soon we were all enjoying a "home cooked" meal :) Wow, did I ever feel domestic!?!
After breaking bread together we spent some time studying the Bible together, sharing about our lives and praying for one another. It really is great to be a part of a group united in purpose. We're all different people with varied gifts and abilities, and yet God has placed us here to love and to serve and to grow. It's a beautiful thing. Sometimes hard, but beautiful.
After the cake, which came complete with blue and pink sprinkles that were meant to resemble purple, Tammy's favorite color, and candles, the sickies from the other side of town headed home. After evening texts and e-mails with Mark the day was nearly done. I finished it off with writing in my journal. That's right folks, I wrote for the day on the day, something I seem to have trouble doing very often anymore. Then I curled up in bed, read for a while, and went to sleep.
So there you have it, a day in the life, start to finish. Just to make this all a bit more interesting I'm going to add a few photos from last weekend when Mark and I went to Plzen. It was a nice day. We just wandered around a while and learned about the history of beer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Early Birds

When Jarmila first proposed teaching the Early Birds to me, I began to quake in fear. Typically, this class has been held at 7 AM. For those not immediately in the know, the thought of Sarah teaching a class at 7 AM is pretty much preposterous. True, she used to clean the amazing campus of Simpson college at 5:15 AM, but that did not require speaking. And if it did, the speech didn't necessitate friendliness. She was also allowed to go quickly back to bed once her duties were completed, telling herself she was soon to be paid for a bad dream that involved a really incredible sunrise.
Moving back out of the third person, probably wise when speaking about myself, after the initial shock of hearing the proposed class coming from my bosses lips, her following words assured me that I would be able to survive. She'd told the students, one of which is her sister, that the class would be held at 9 AM, rather than 7. Seeing as how 9 is the time my classes always begin, I sighed with relief.
Granted, there are other reasons to have a healthy fear of the Early Birds. Maybe fear isn't quite the word I'm looking for. There is nothing frightening about the people, per say, but more about their level, interest in actually speaking English in class, and attendance, or lack thereof. They've received titles like "forever beginners," and for good reason. After approximately 7 or 8 years "attending" classes at Winfield, they still scarcely scrape beyond an elementary level when it comes to grammar. Not that I'm going to crow about my splendid Czech skills, but it's hard to teach a group who have been here for so long, doing all the activities out of all the books we have, and still not progressing to a higher level.
Of course, figuring out a lesson plan becomes rather irrelevant when they just don't come to class. Last week I had one student. The week before last: one student. This week: no students. While it has given me plenty of time to catch up on correcting FCE essays, pondering what to do in my upcoming class, and catching up on Lexulous, I can't help but think about the two extra hours I could have been sleeping...But such is life. And having the Early Birds as part of my repertoire means I'm at my contracted number of hours.
So, as the minutes tick by, I'm thankful for the little chance to catch up on my blog so I can breathe a little easier this afternoon. It's a Tuesday, which means I only have one more class and then I'm free for the rest of the day. Mark comes at 3 and we're hoping to go to the church and play the piano there. Then, I have plans to cook. Miraculous, I know. I guess I could have used this extra free time to shop for dinner. Ah well. Maybe I'll at least make a list so I don't wander listlessly (if only Kathryn read this she'd be pleased with my pun.) around Albert for ages. Maybe I'll have to change my facebook status just so that Kathryn can enjoy the moment. Anything to create a bonding moment amongst teammates :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Halloween in Germany

On Halloween I headed out bright and early in the morning to meet up with Mark. For having a 5 day weekend, I sure didn't get to sleep in much. Or at all. Well, technically I did sleep in on Thursday, until about 8, when I got up and scrubbed the floors in my flat...yeah. Anyhow, I met Mark and then we headed out to Germany to spend the weekend with his sister and her family. I must confess I was going through all sorts of levels of nervousness. None of Mark's family speaks any English, so it was going to be a language overload weekend for sure. Gives me a chance to understand more of how he feels when he ALWAYS has to talk to me in English :)
My German skills are rusty at best, and really never were much to write home about. But I was determined to at least try to communicate with his family. I can't say I did the best job with his sister. I kept losing all ability to speak when she talked to me, but I was at least able to follow most of what she said to me. It was easier with the kids: Nathalie (10), Jennifer (8) and the twins Nicolas and Christian (2 1/2). Kids are more forgiving and less intimidating in general. So I did my best to say a word or two here and there to them. Even manged to come up with some nice simple sentences.
A little while after we arrived Mark and I went with Nathalie to her church. She was practicing to be part of a ceremony there. It was really sweet to see these kids really wanting to take part in their faith. I also was able to take some cute pictures of Mark and his oldest niece. They're about the same number of years apart that David and I are, and they have a very special relationship that was really amazing to see.
It was a really busy day. When we came back we had lunch and then Mark and I took Nathalie and Jennifer in to the city so we could enjoy the sights. The family lives in a little village just outside the city of Weiden. Mark, who always has plenty to say about Czech history, wasn't quite as well versed on German history, but we enjoyed our little walk around with the kids in town.

When we came back we dressed the twins up and they joined us on a little walk outdoors. It was really cold and they were really active. It was rather a relief to get back to the house once again. It's been a while since I've spent much time with little kids, and it's a lot different when you know them well and can speak a language they actually understand...
In the evening I was surprised to learn that they actually celebrate Halloween in Germany. I really had no idea. So Mark and I helped the girls get ready for the event. It was fun to help them put makeup on. I was reminded of the last time I went trick-or-treating, which was in Alaska. Oh the memories of the girls bundled up in huge coats to walk through the snow with their costumes on the outside...Oh the memories.
The whole event was pretty exciting. Mark had never really experienced Halloween before, so it was great to go around with him, and watch how he responded to it all. While the Germans do celebrate Halloween, it's not nearly the huge affair it is in the US. There were a couple houses with pumpkins out, and a few decorations, but it was mostly pretty low key. The best part was when the kids would go to the door and say their trick-or-treat auf Detusch, and then the people would disappear into their houses to ransack their cupboards in search of something to give them. The kids really scored. They got whole bags of Haribo gummies, packages of cookies and even a whole bag of chips. Definitely not totally prepared, but it was fun.
At one house, while the kids were all intent on their task, I held back around the corner and waited. Mark wondered if was getting bored, so he let me be as well. Then, when they came back around the corner I jumped out and scared them all really good. It was so much fun to hear them all scream :) A great night.
We stayed the night there, and then headed back to Cheb in the early afternoon on Sunday. I had some time to play with the girls a bit, and by the end the twins were warming up to me more and more. Hopefully we'll have a chance to visit them again before they all forget who I am. In all it was a really lovely visit.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Regarding Regensburg

Last Friday my teammate of three years, Tammy Henrich, celebrated her thirty-wonderful birthday. I always appreciate the fact that she attains a newly esteemed age a couple of weeks before I follow suit. It gives me something to hold over her head that I can smile about. This year her birthday fell in the midst of a long weekend. The 28th of October is the day that the country of Czechoslovakia was created in 1918. Rather amusing that this day remains a holiday, despite the fact that it represents a country that no longer exists. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia celebrate the day, however, and so we had an extra long weekend as it coincided with this year's Fall Break as well. So Tammy decided that in order to truly celebrate the monumental occasion of her birth we should leave the country.
For the past couple of years friends of mine have been singing the praises of the city of Regensburg, Germany. They said that it was rather like visiting a smaller version of Prague. It made me curious, but the opportunity to go there had never presented itself before. Therefore, Tammy, Kathryn and I headed out bright and early on Friday morning to check it out.
Before we could depart, however, we were all in need of Euros. While not being under the Euro system means that things here are generally cheaper than they might otherwise be, it does pose a small problem when traveling. Fortunately, I've found a nice little exchange booth with a friendly grandfatherly-like proprietor. I'd checked the times, and saw that it would be open at 8 which should just give time for us to make our exchange before rushing the rest of the way through town to catch our 8:22 train to Marktredwitz. Things were going all right in the beginning Kathryn and I approached the hole in the wall business shortly before 8, encouraged that the sign was already set up outside, only to watch the man step out, re-lock the door, and saunter slowly into Billa, the nearby grocery store. Had I been thinking, the logical thing would have been to call out to him somehow, requesting a quick audience before he went in search of something for breakfast. Instead, we stood, slack jawed, and watched him walk away.
The night before this venture, while having pizza with Mark, I'd talked to Tammy about the prospect of doing our fund exchange and then catching the train. It had all seemed totally doable at the time. I'd given a "piece of cake" type of reply, and figured there had been no lie told. As soon as I hung up, Mark, always the practical - or should I say pessimistic - one, pointed out that there are worst case scenarios that must be taken into account. For example, there could be a long line of German tourists ahead of us in search of Czech Koruns. There could be a money shortage, or the transaction could take 12 minutes per person. I'd shaken my head at him, insisting that I really did know what I was talking about. And then I just watched the man walk away.
As Kathryn and I stood there, the minutes slowly ticking away, our eyes inspecting each person who exited the grocery store, and our chances of making the train rapidly decreasing we began to envision what was likely happening inside the supermarket. It went something like this: Every day Miroslav (or insert whatever other common Czech name you wish) went to Billa to pick up a tasty snack to nibble on before things got really hectic inside the exchange booth. His choice was never hard to make. He knew what he liked. He got what he liked: a couple of fresh rohliks, six precut slices of eidam cheese, a package of ham, and a Jonagold apple. It was predictable, and the very predictability of it brought him comfort. With the ever changing rates of exchange, it was nice to have something that wouldn't change. But there was something in the wind. He was thinking of all the construction being done on the street in front of his shop. He was thinking of the the way the sky was turning so gray and dull. He was worried that another early snow, combined with the cumbersome construction, might decrease the number of people coming to Cheb for sight seeing purposes. Suddenly, his eyes wavered in the baked goods section. He was confronted by piles of rolls with various ingredients baked right in. There were sunflower seeds, grains, cheese, even chocolate erupting from these little goodies. The thought of his plain rohliks sickened him a little. There was so much he had been missing. And it was all right here. All within the reach of his hands. And beyond that he glimpsed trays of cheese in varying hues, not to mention the sausages and packets of salami. He'd never even realized that apples came in more than the red blushed green Jonagold form. The fact that it was now 5 minutes past 8 and his hours stated he would be open at 8 no longer had any sway over him. He had choices to make. Choices galore....
At about ten past 8, just as Kathryn and I were beginning to think we'd be better off just withdrawing money once we crossed the border, the man did reappear. He strolled along, watching the tractors at work tearing up the walkways, and slowly approached us. Upon seeing us standing there, clearly waiting for him, he smiled cheerfully and greeted us. It was hard to be irritated with this jovial Czech, especially when you see so few of them in the customer service profession. We labored through the general explanations that we don't really speak Czech or German. Having worked with him before, I really wanted to continue being as friendly as possible, even though time was definitely shoving me along. As he typed in the conversion for me I wondered if he'd always been so slow. Eventually he did get us our money, after having to borrow Euro change for me in order to work it all out. He then requested if he could buy more change from me, but we really did have to be moving.
I've never been a runner, let the record state. With the exception of the few years I attempted to run the 100 meter dash in grade school, I've long known that running was not my calling. We won't even go into the years of sports induced asthma. But today, running was definitely called for. Kathryn and I both kicked it into high gear, sprinting across the two intersections just ahead of changing lights. We pushed just hard enough that we were able to merely hustle up the hill, rather than taking it at a full run as well. Fortunately, Tammy had gone directly to the station and purchased our ticket, we were able to go directly to the train.
After all the for-story, I must confess that there isn't nearly as much meat in the rest of the tale. We had a decent trip in to Regensburg. With more than an hour "lay-over" in Marktredwitz we were able to walk through the old section of town and take in the shopping mall before continuing on our journey. We arrived in Regensburg around 11:30 with really no idea what we were going to do there. We found a map that we didn't really read correctly, and wandered around for quite some time before finally finding anything of interest.
Our first meeting with beauty took place within a little park. It was quite beautiful, and we enjoyed walking around and enjoying the fall colors therein.

From there we made our way to the Danube River. Apparently, as I just read on another website, Regensburg is the oldest city along the Danube. It really is a gem of a city. We saw the ancient stone bridge there, which is rather reminiscent to the Charles Bridge in Prague. It actually passes over three rivers (one of them might be a canal) and offers really lovely views on both sides.

From there we went on to see the massive St Peter's Cathedral. There were quite a large number of impressive churches in the town, but this one is by far the most incredible. We enjoyed it inside and out, marveling in the crypt that sited the bishops in this place from as early as 617. That's right, not 1617 but 617. Really makes you pause in awe now, doesn't it?

We wandered around, after a quick lunch at McDonalds, and enjoyed a number of beautiful churches, including the Lutheran one in which I lit a candle. I took a copy of a little poem about the candles that are lit there which I can attempt to loosely translate from the German:
Here in the still
I light a candle
And come into peace for a moment
Here in the still
The light of the candle represents my life
in another light.
Here in the still
He speaks, "I am the Light of the world"
and "You are the light of the world."
Here in the still
I light a candle for the people
Who need the Light.
Here in the Still
My candle keeps burning
When I go.

Here is the church as well as another one we looked at.

After all the churches, (and a little shopping in which I got a great new gray knit hat!) we made our way to the palace. Unfortunately it was already closed, but we were able to get some really amazing pictures in the courtyard of one of it's old churches.

So in the end, I did manage to get at least a few lovely fall pictures in :)

After all the wandering we decided to take train that would have gotten us back to Cheb around 7:30. Unfortunately we were delayed and ended up having to kill another couple hours in Marktredwitz. We found a nice little cafe and were just thankful we hadn't taken the later train we'd originally planned on, because if it had been delayed we might have been stuck there all night...
In all it was an interesting day, and I can definitely say that Regensburg is a city worth the visit :)