Eight countries, God-only-knows-how-many cities, and two long-haul flights later, it’s a new year! In every culture, the New Year is a time to look forward to the future and hope for good things, but it’s also a time to look back at the good and the bad of the year before. Usually, that means sitting around and sharing stories and pictures with friends and family.
As it is, my family spent New Year’s in a hotel room, sleeping. Of the three of us present, two of us were down with the flu, two of us were catching a plane at 7 am on New Year’s Day, and only one of us could understand a lick of the Italian New Year’s concert broadcasting on Rai 1. Needless to say, we didn’t have the traditional New Year’s celebration this year.
Therefore, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite stories from the past year of traipsing and traveling. Enjoy! I certainly did (for the most part).
It didn’t really get cold in Poland last winter until after Christmas, and it stayed cold for quite a while. Naturally, this is hell on pigeons. The poor little bird brains have no idea how they should deal with the cold, and inevitably end up huddled together in masses above air vents.
Interestingly, it was the bird brains that created one of the most humanizing moments of my time in Poland. Sitting in Rynek Główny in Kraków, I was watching the children run at the masses of pigeons huddled over the underground air vents and send them flying everywhere in a fluttering wave that never got higher than three feet off the ground. One little boy in particular was having a good time. He couldn’t have been more than three, and could barely run fast enough to scare the birds. Every time he got them to fly away instead of simply scuttling off, he squealed with that diabolical delight that’s so cute in children and worrisome in teenagers.
One pass at the pigeons sent all but one of them flying off. The little boy walked up to the pigeon that was left, lying on its back with its legs stuck straight up in the air. He bent down close to look at it, pulled up, and called for Dad. The man looked over, saw what his son was pointing at, then immediately began to shuffle the little boy away, saying over and over, “On śpi, on śpi.”
He’s sleeping, he’s sleeping.
Have You Ever Been Kicked by a Horse?
The Direct Method of language teaching, which I used while I was in Poland, is all based on call and response: The teacher asks a question out of the book, the student reads the answer out of the book, and the process repeats until the student can answer the question without reading the answer out of the book. From a teaching standpoint, it really is just as boring as it sounds.
Luckily for both teachers and students of the Direct Method, the writers of the textbook have sprinkled some very incredibly stupid questions into the body of the text, which keep things lively. One of the favorites among the teachers for jokes is, “Would you feel great pain if you were kicked by a horse?” (Bonus points: There are multiple variations of this question, used to illustrate different grammar points.) The students always enjoy speculating on that one. I, however, was almost able to give my students a first-hand account of what it felt like to be kicked by a horse.
One winter evening, I was taking a stroll through the Planty in Kraków. The sun had gone down, the street lights were on, and Wawel was all aglow. My lovely stroll through snow-covered Old Town was brought to an abrupt end when I made a startling discovery: Someone had left their horse under the tree that I was also walking under.
It being rather dark, despite the street lights, I didn’t see the horse until it had taken a practice kick at me. Needless to say, my stroll turned into a quick sprint to get out of there before the horse decided to kick for real.
To this day, I have no idea why there was a kick-happy horse tied up under a tree in the middle of Kraków. I also, thank God, have no idea how much pain I would feel if I were kicked by a horse.
Mind Your Language
The Duomo in Milan is gorgeous – never have I seen so much detail in a single building. Even the roof is intricately carved with statues of the saints and gargoyles. For a few extra euro, you can climb up to the rooftop terrace and take in the craftsmanship close-up.
When I went to visit the Duomo, there was extra security at all the entrances. Before I went up, I was stopped so that the security guards could check my purse, which, to be completely fair, is really the size of a weekend bag. As he was looked into the bag, he started talking to me in Italian.
Now, I’ve studied Italian for about four years, and this was a basic conversation: Hello, how are you, where are you from, what are you doing in Milan, that kind of thing. The course of our chit-chat led me to tell him that I was an English language instructor. At this point, he asked me a question that sounded to me like, “Quando hai iniziato?” When did you begin?
I told him, last month! I just started my new job. He looked very confused.
“How old are you?” he asked me in English. The question he’d asked me in Italian was “Quanti anni hai?” I was nowhere close.
First experience of the Milan accent: Fail.
I left Poland and went to Edinburgh for a long weekend in June. When I got off the plane, the first language I heard was Polish. When I got to the hostel I was staying at, the receptionist was speaking Polish.
I left Italy and went to London in December to visit a friend. When I got off the plane, the first language I heard was Italian. When we went to the Tower of London, a man spoke to me in Italian and I answered him in Italian without thinking.
It would seem that I have a habit of leaving non-English speaking countries to go to English-speaking countries only to end up not hearing English while I’m there.
Czech Your Manners
My parents and I went back to my favorite city, Chicago, for a weekend last summer. Chicago has always been a favorite weekend spot for us, and we have no problem finding things to do every time we go (especially since I lived there – now I know all the secrets).
This time, we went to the Bucktown Art Fair, Bucktown being one of the neighborhoods in Chicago. The art fair was fantastic. It was an actual art fair, not the typical glorified craft show, and the artists were displaying their pieces and making more at the actual event. The photography booths, I thought, were particularly good.
We wandered into one booth, which was displaying black and white pictures. Almost all of them were of Chicago or Prague, and they were beautiful. The most amazing thing about them, though, was that there were no people in any of them. I have no idea how you get a picture of either the River Walk in Chicago or the Charles Bridge in Prague without at least a few people, but this guy did it. Naturally, we asked him about it.
“I don’t do people,” he said, rather brusquely. We laughed at him, then realized that that was his serious answer. He didn’t do people.
A few more attempts at polite conversation with him made it plain that he had a strong Eastern European accent; In fact, he was sinking his teeth into his w’s in the same way I’d been hearing for the past nine months. As it turns out, he was from the Czech Republic.
“Are you from Prague?” I asked, looking at all of the pictures of that very city scattered around the booth.
“Not all Czechs are from Prague,” he said, clearly offended. “This is where I am from.” He pulled out a picture of a farm, which some trees scattered about and mountains in the background. I flipped it over and saw ‘Moravia’ written across the bottom.
“I know where that is,” I said. “I lived just on the other side of the mountains, in Silesia.”
Immediately, this guy was my best friend. He started showing me all the pictures he had from that area of the Czech Republic, and he told me about how he had come to be in Chicago.
By the time I left, I even got a plastic bag to carry the prints that I bought.