By Sonya Dubinina
I sit at half-a-Ping-Pong table with my laptop ajar. On the other side of the lid hangs a note with the words: “Hotel Reception” printed on them with a red felt tip pen. I am the stern hotel receptionist of an unnamed Italian hotel. I am to mean mug and pretend to be the least helpful person in the world. In a few minutes a group of lost Czech tourists will approach me asking for a note proving their residence here. Of course, I am not to give out such important papers to anyone who cares enough to ask. That would be careless and unnecessarily easy. I am to demand a piece of luggage from the group as proof of their residence here. These kids don’t stand a chance – their English is poor and their real life experience – meager. I know this because I’ve signed up to teach English to them 3 hours a day at this 10-day summer camp.
My first group of victims consists of the oldest of the boys – one from the advanced group, whose English is presumably good. I am hurting to keep a busy and annoyed grimace on my face; I break and burst out laughing. I gather myself up and ask the boy who he is. He’s struggling to ask me for a paper, on which it’s “vroten” that they live here. He cannot explain to me that he indeed is a resident at the hotel, so I send the lot away. Cannot help you, young Czech, if only you knew the irony of the situation – Czechs are notoriously bureaucratic – vestiges of good old communism. When I’d applied for my freelancer visa, I had to wait for a couple of months; and having gotten my brand new visa, I was supposed to register at the foreign police to later receive a special number on my trade license. I got charged $150 at the foreign police office for having lived in the Czech Republic post the 90-day visa-free entry mark. Even though I was waiting for my visa, for which I dutifully and patiently had applied within the 90-day window. I heard that others got spared the fee while I had to fork it up. Needless to say, I could really use the 3,000 crowns, about a third of my rent at that time. Minor annoyance, but one I had to endure in order to be fully legal. The headache many co-expatriates skipped altogether, residing and working in the country illegally.
So here I am making the kiddies run around; taking 15-minute breaks and talking on the phone. I cannot help but laugh. You can birth a girl in the Soviet Union, take her out of the mess a few years later, and, apparently, take the unpleasant artifacts of the fallen empire out of the girl too — she makes a terrible bureaucrat and a humble and friendly customer service rep. Nurture: 1, Nature: 0. Eventually everybody figures out the bag situation and soon I am done with my solemn duty as I go back to my bunk.
This is one of the games the Czech camp organizers occupy the kids with during the days. In the mornings I and another lucky soul teach a 3 hour-long lesson. This, of course, in the best Czech fashion, does not involve a coherent system or a program. For them it’s enough to call it an English camp: throw in a couple of native speakers and call it a success. I had to figure everything out on the spot, devise a clear lesson, and figure out the games and activities. Admittedly, that’s a big part of being a Native English Teacher in Prague – figuring your own way out, exuding your Native Speaker authority, and teaching what you deem good lessons. It rather surprised me when one of my bosses (I’m freelancing, remember?) while overly excited about having hired a Native Speaker (we’re quite the marketing gold in the language school industry) just sort of put me in a class of rowdy nine-year-olds and expected me to teach a good lesson. Every Friday. No local co-teacher, no program, no request, no advice. Welcome to Prague, new teacher, aren’t you happy? You wanted to teach!
It’s really hard to keep these kids’ interests. The levels vary so much that some of them barely know their ABC’s while others speak to me in intelligible sentences. We manage to get through the torturous three hours with drawings, sign language, dictionaries and bribery. Yes, bribery. You see the organizers have devised a currency (I am on the one dollar bill!) as a motivator. The kids got money for doing this and the other, and I have $4 per person I can award on a daily basis. The rowdy 11-year-olds, who seem to have learned zip in their schools are driving me nuts; and as any new pedagogue would, I try to find a way around it that does not involve shouting and corporal punishment. I promise them $2 each to shut up for once and sit still for a whopping 5 minutes. Of course one of them loses right away, while the other seems to have played this game before. Oh, the energy on these kids! Eventually I offer more money for 20 minutes, and the lesson goes much more smoothly. The money, of course, has value – there’s a market selling various company merchandise set up twice during the 10-day stint. The kids are more than happy to acquire baseball caps, neck pillows, and cheap wristwatches. I am ecstatic to pay them off to run my lessons smoothly.
I am not the most popular teacher, as I didn’t bring an American football with me like the other teacher. Frankly, I really don’t care for this place and I would gladly escape in the middle of the night if I was anywhere near the city. But we are far away tucked in the Czech mountains. It’s a fairly cool summer, and there’s nothing for me to do with the rest of my day while the kids literally go out and play. The food is standard Czech food, which means meat, potatoes, and sugar. At one point they serve a rather curious dish: pasta with cottage cheese (the sweet European variety), cocoa powder, and sugar on top. I was to mix it all together and enjoy. Later I find out from other students that this is a traditional camp dish – it provides the sustenance much needed in the wild. “And diabetes,” I think to myself. I await any fruits and or vegetables with the eagerness usually reserved for desert. By day three I taste a cucumber, on day seven – a tomato! Most of the time the food is hearty, processed, and hardly nutritious. It’s not this camp – it’s the whole country’s diet. Czechs are crazy about their sausages, their potatoes, their dumplings, and bread rolls. At some point we get bananas for a morning snack and I want to cry and dance for joy. You see, I had made a half-joking whiny childish suggestion about the said bananas one morning in the kitchen, and apparently I was heard.
It’s a very alienating experience this camp – I had not felt so lonely in ages. The other teacher and I have nothing in common (for starters, he’s older than my dad), the Czech adults are all ecstatic to have parties and a great old time with each other, and the kids – I’m surrounded by them 24 hours a day unless I hike up to a lodge and grab a beer. I do exactly that one day as I beat myself up for agreeing to give away 10 days of my life for $250. Summers are tough on freelancers. There are redeeming qualities, of course – I have barely spent any money, I have read a book I had been meaning to read for a while, I watched a few movies on my laptop, I breathed the fresh mountain air… But honestly, the rest of the native teachers can have that job. “Never again, I say, never again!” as I pack my bag and move all the way to Japan.
Sonya found plenty of castles and a long snowy winter in Prague last year. Frankly, she just didn’t care to reminisce about being snowed in and animal skin-clad for 7 months out of the year, and so here she is – a lizard in the sun, the rising sun of Japan that is. She is now spending her days in Tokyo confused and often lost, mesmerized, and bewildered.