Sunday, December 30, 2012

We went to a fairy tale land

This vacation has not gone as planned.

At. all.

Thank goodness we rented an apartment through airbnb. If we had been sick and holed up in a hotel room this whole time, there probably wouldn't be a We anymore. Only one of us would have survived.*

*it would not have been this guy.

We've been following a pretty regular pattern of one day on, one day off. We'll go out and see some sights, and it'll take it all out of me and I'm in bed the whole next day. I should probably take it a little more easy and not go so hard when I am out of bed, I'm determined to see something while on this darn vacation!

So yesterday, the Mister and I met up with the tour guide who showed us around town on our first day in Prague and he drove us south to a medieval village called Cesky Krumlov.

Literally translated, the town name means "Crooked Czech" or "Crooked Bohemian." Kamil, our tour guide, told us that originally there was more to the name that made it mean "Crooked Czech Town" but that was too much to say so it got shortened. The original parts of the village were built as early as the 1200s and a post Communism boom in tourism has helped to bring the old buildings back to their wonderful historic luster. Here are a few photos.

Oh. We stopped by the Budweiser Budvar brewery on the way down. This is where the real Budweiser has been brewed for several hundred years.

The town is built along the southern banks of the Vlata River, which flows north to Prague.

The castle is on the left, the cathedral of St. Vitus is on the right. Two hotties in the middle. amirite? 

This is the lower castle, the oldest part of the castle that got a "facelift" during the Renaissance (ie around the mid 1500s)

All the detailed artwork on the facades of all the buildings was so amazing! The castle was handed down from one wealthy family to the next for hundreds of years. As each family ran out of money, another one would step in and...spend money on parties and entertaining guests till they went broke. It was very Downton Abbey. But in Bohemia.

Behind me is a plague column, built during one of the many plagues to try to ward off the evil spirits that were causing all the deaths. I'm standing in the town square down the hill from the castle.

The upper castle is on the hill behind the Mister. Tchotchkes and quaint buildings are  featured as well.

One of the families built this elaborate passageway to connect the lower castle to the new theater in the upper castle some time in the 1600s.
One of the perks of staying in a fully functional apartment? You get to burn cook your own dinner after a long, cold day of sightseeing! 

The Mister was down for the count today, complaining of the same ails I had at the beginning of our adventure (minus the pink eye), so we didn't go anywhere today. Tomorrow's goal: leave the apartment.

...If we can accomplish that we're going to try to see the Prague castle, visit a museum or two, and find me some shoes for New Year's Eve!

Here's hopin'!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, December 28, 2012

Chillin' and illin' in the Czech Republic

Yeah...that post title is pretty darn bad. My apologies.

So the Mister and I are finally on Christmas break! After two Christmases spent in Saudi--one working, one sitting around the house awkwardly until our families were awake enough to Skype us--we now work in a school that observes an American school calendar. It is SO nice!

We considered going home, especially since my aunt was diagnosed with cancer this fall, but decided to spend half the money and go to Prague instead. I have had my butt kicked this semester with learning the new curriculum, re-adjusting to teaching 6th grade again, and just transitioning into a new country and school. I needed this break like whoa.

So it only stands to reason that I get sick as a dog not 24 hours after we touch down in the Czech Republic. I think most of my ails are due to the onslaught of tree pollen and allergens that just don't exist in Kuwait. My sinuses are angry at me. The entire right side of my face is blocked up tighter than an LA highway at rush hour.

Adding insult to injury, I got something in my eye yesterday as the Mister and I was out for some sightseeing and as I swept it out of my eye, I must have introduced some sort of nasty pathogen which decided to fester itself in my eyeball overnight. I woke up to my left eye being crusted shut and all kindsa redness and inflammation.


My misery has been compounded by the fact that all pharmacies have been closed until today because of the Christmas holiday and there are no over the counter medications sold in grocery stores or mini-marts. So I haven't had any ibuprophen, no Claritin, NOTHIN' to try to ease my pain!

Fast forward to this afternoon. I decided that this eye nastiness wasn't going to work itself out pleasantly, so I found out where the nearest eye clinic was and decided to venture out.

Hard to tell, but that's one red eye on the right there.

I found the address, packed myself up with my passport and some money and hopped a cab.

Don't worry, Moms. The Mister came with me. He kicked some serious Angry Birds butt the whole way there.
We got dropped off at this unassuming building on a side street. No ambulance bay, no big blue signs with a bold H to indicate this was a hospital. I never would have imagined it was a medical facility. Thankfully there was a nice lady at the information desk as we entered the complex. I pointed to my red inflamed eye and she said, "Ah." followed by a string of Czech. She got a map of the hospital, circled what I assumed was the eye clinic and wrote down what I assumed was an office number.

Apparently we look Italian. She gave us the Italian map of the hospital instead of the English version.

We made our way to the "ocini klinika", only to find that the information desk in that wing was closed. We were greeted instead by tiled hallways and LOTS of Czech signs. This place looked unlike any hospital I had ever been to. First of all there were no people! We saw a few cleaning staff popping in and out of closets, but no nurses station, no "Dr. So-and-So, please report to room such-and-such" over the loud speakers. No other patients that we could see. It was odd.

The information desk for the eye clinic is on the right; that wooden inset past the double doors.
Eventually a kind man must have read the helplessness on my face and took mercy on me. I pointed to my eye, he said, "Ah. Come." and I followed him to a yellow room. A nurse happened to be coming out of a door, he explained something to her in Czech, pointed to me, I pointed to my eye, and she pointed to a chair.

...alright. We were getting somewhere.

At this point I had no idea that I was actually sitting in the waiting room do a doctor's office.

There he is again. Killing those pigs. That white door led to the doctor's office.
The nurse came out and asked for my passport and my insurance card. When she saw that I wasn't an EU citizen she shrugged and said, "Ah. Will pay cash." That wasn't a problem. She took me back and I met with a very nice doctor and his student. They inspected my eye and he wrote me a prescription. The doctor decided that I had an "infection from some garbage from the window."

Translation: something had gotten blown into my eye and it had caused an infection.

He wrote me "a recipe" for antibiotic drops. I paid the kind nurse CZK 516 ($27.21) and headed to the pharmacy near the hospital entrance. I hadn't realized that the 516 covered the doctor's visit AND the prescription! I picked up a box of ibuprophen with my eye drops and paid another CZK 198 ($10.44) and was on my way.

At the end of it all, I had spent just over double the taxi fare to visit a medical professional and pick up a prescription! Dang! There might be something to this whole socialized medicine thing after all!

We got back to our apartment a little while ago. I picked up some dinner..

washed down with a dessert of Oreos, obviously...
 ...and now the Mister and I are resting up before an early morning visiting a UNESCO world heritage site tomorrow. Many more pictures and stories to come, I'm sure.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saudi, American, and Kuwaiti students: Similarities and Differences

One phrase you hear teachers say all the time: "Kids are the same everywhere." And to some extent, that phrase is true. I've found many similarities in the way my students learn. Certain teacher tricks have worked in all of my classrooms. Others are only suitable for a more Western-centered culture. Sorry, researchers. Your theories are not always applicable everywhere.

One common question I get from my teacher friends is what the main differences are between the cultures. It's hard to answer that question concisely. So here's how I'll explain my long answer: I'm going to give you a common school scenario and break it down for you. Please keep in mind that: 1. I've given a bit of a humorous twist to all of these descriptions, 2. I worked at a private, all Saudi, all-girls school in Saudi Arabia, and from what I've heard many things have changed at that school since I've left, and 3. my current school is a mix of Kuwaitis, other Arabs, and students of European descent (American or otherwise). I can only report what I've experienced, so these descriptions probably don't apply to ALL schools in these various cultures.

A school-wide assembly, American style
Step 1: A few days, possibly even a week before, the assembly schedule is emailed out or posted in a common area. This details the altered lengths of the class periods and reminds teachers that the assembly that was announced a month ago is coming up.
Step 2: On the day of the assembly, the kids will start first period with "When is the assembly?," even though the assembly schedule is always the same and you have it clearly posted on the class board. "When is the assembly" questions generally taper off by the middle of first period.
Step 3: Students generally walk in an orderly fashion to the gym or auditorium. Conversation between the students is kept to a dull roar. You're able to maintain a normal volume to be heard in conversation with your colleagues as you walk your classes down the hall.
Step 4: The gym/auditorium is relatively loud, but not unbearably so, as the entire school files into the room. You seat your class in the first available rows in the section of the bleachers assigned to your grade level. You allow your class to talk because...what else are they going to do? Might as well get it out of their systems now.
Step 5: Once the principal/guest speaker steps up, a hush comes over the crowd. It takes approximately 10 seconds (30 seconds on a bad day) for the entire auditorium to get quiet so the presenter can be heard.
Step 6: During the presentation you just have to scan your class every 30 seconds or so and give one or two knuckleheads The Look for whispering a conversation. Should technical difficulties arise, students generally snicker and say a few comments, but the attention of the audience never strays too far.
Step 7: When the assembly is over, students applaud for the appropriate length of time and generally wait their turns to file out of the bleachers/auditorium seats. The biggest concern you have is watching for the errant few who will walk ON the bleachers instead of in the aisles.

A school-wide assembly, Saudi style:
Step 1: The morning of, possibly even the afternoon before, the assembly is announced. There is no assembly schedule posted yet, administration is still figuring that out. You're not sure which classes you will or will not see, but be ready to stop everything and head to the auditorium at a moment's notice.
Step 2: At the beginning of every single class period, all 25 of your students will individually ask, "When are we going to the assembly?" Another popular one is, "We're supposed to go to the assembly now. Abla So-and-so said." The questions never stop, even as you are walking to the assembly.
Step 3: Students have two speed settings when going to the assembly: turtle or The Flash. Students also have two volumes: silent or Banshee. You have to check sometimes to make sure your ears aren't bleeding, the volume in the hall is so loud. You have to hold you head less than a centimeter away from your colleague's in order to hear some of what she said as you herd your (and everyone else's) students down the hall.
Step 4: The auditorium is deafeningly loud. Most of the school is filing into the room, but a few strays take advantage of the chaos and "get lost" on their way to the auditorium. Conversation between students are held by shouting across the room (in English and Arabic), by BBM, and by yelling at the person sitting in the adjacent seat/rows. Your students have scattered throughout the room, so you select a section of the auditorium and adopt them as your own. You try in vain to get them to bring their volume down to a human level and put away the handheld devices in preparation for the presentation.
Step 5: Once the principal steps up, conversation continues as it has been for the past 10 minutes (it takes a while to get everyone in. Not all the teachers got the memo that the assembly was starting, so their classes had to be rounded up individually. Others had a behavior situation on their hands and decided their classes weren't going to the assembly as a consequence and it took the students 8 minutes to wear them down and finally let them go). Eventually the audience gives the principal 10 seconds of silence to start her introduction before the whispered conversations begin again. Within 25 seconds the conversations in the audience have reached full volume and by the time the principal is done with her introduction she is having to yell to ask the audience to quiet back down. Silence is never really fully regained.
Step 6: During the presentation you are the only teacher scanning the crowd (sometimes you realize you are the only teacher IN THE ROOM) and trying in vain to get the students--any students--to follow your instructions. Eventually you take advantage of a luxury Sisyphus never had: give up and just let the boulder roll down the hill.
Step 7: Approximately 10 minutes before the 30 minute assembly is over, a flood of "emergency" bathroom requests are made. Once one teacher allows one girl to go, all bladders in the room are instantaneously filled and it's hard to contain the crowd. By the time the assembly is actually over, only 75% of the audience remains and they exit any way they like, scattering to all parts of campus except for the classrooms where they are supposed to go.

A school-wide assembly, Kuwaiti style:
Step 1: The assembly is announced at least 1 week in advance and the assembly schedule is emailed out and posted in a common area.
Step 2: You post the assembly schedule on your board and mention it during the bellringer at the beginning of first period. Students are still surprised when the class period is over early and you get the barrage of "When is the assembly?" questions as students are filing out your classroom door.
Step 3: Students generally walk to the auditorium. A few break off from your class to find their friends, but they return back to you once you get to the auditorium door. You don't get the chance to have much of a conversation with your colleagues because there's very little bottleneck until you reach the auditorium door.
Step 4: The volume in the auditorium is not loud at all. You're able to maintain a normal volume level as you round your students up and direct them to your assigned rows. All your strays find you and you don't have to hunt anyone down.
Step 5: Even before the principal/guest speaker steps up, most of your class has stopped talking. One or two of the boys are playing a game on their iPhone5, but they put it away as soon as you give them The Look. It takes approximately 10 seconds for the entire auditorium to get quiet so the presenter can begin.
Step 6: During the presentation you just have to listen for wayward whispers and quietly say the name of the offender for the conversations to stop. You only have to do this 3 or 4 times throughout the entire hour long assembly. You're sure the iPhones find their ways back out of pockets throughout the assembly, but the students are stealthy and you never actually catch any of them in the act.
Step 7: When the assembly is finished, your biggest concern is whether or not your colleagues will follow any sort of pattern when escorting their students out of the auditorium. No one runs, no chairs are stepped on, and all students find the appropriate classrooms within 2-3 minutes after the assembly.

I make it sound like my school in Saudi Arabia was a total circus, and on some days I definitely felt like a ringmaster (ok, a clown), but there are definitely aspects of that school that I miss. All of the schools where I've worked have their redeeming qualities that I will remember fondly.

Vicariously yours,

Uneventful Eid

**I apologize for the ridiculously long silence, readers (if we have any readers left!). I've started several posts and just haven't finished them. I just found this one that is rather boring, but completed. I'm going to post anyway; more for my benefit than anything else. Enjoy?**

This year marks the first time the Mister and I have stayed put for the Eid al Adha vacation. Our first year in Saudi we went to Dubai and last year we were in Spain with my family. I still don't have my residence visa for Kuwait yet, so we had ourselves a little staycation in Kuwait. I must say that sleeping in my own bed, lounging around all day without feeling guilty about not taking advantage of the touristy fun, and cooking in my own kitchen is a pretty good way to spend a long weekend!

Eid al Adha is the feast of the sacrifice. It celebrates the return of pilgrims from the Hajj (annual pilgrimage to Mecca) as well as the near sacrifice of Ismail by Abraham (that's the Islamic version of the story). There is a lot of slaughtering of sheep, goats, camels, and various other livestock. My dad tells stories of the streets in his childhood home being filled with the blood of the sacrificed animals. Because we have always travelled, I've never seen this kind of carnage, so I wasn't sure what to expect this year.

This is the closest we've gotten to seeing the sacrifice: families in Morocco bringing their sheep to the butcher to be prepared for the feast. So many sheep are slaughtered during Eid al Adha that this is the busiest time of the year for Australia and New Zealand!
Long story short: it was pretty uneventful! I didn't see any blood at all. There were a few sightings of sheep in the backs of trucks on their way to their doom...even one sheep stuffed in the way back of a Chevy Tahoe, but we didn't stumble upon any of our neighbors in the middle of their slaughter. The feral children (the neighborhood kids who are allowed to roam the streets unsupervised) had a great time with the firecrackers and I think we might have heard a few celebratory gun shots, but other than that, it was just a quiet weekend at home.

While America is dealing with a hurricane on the east coast, presidential elections, and cold snaps, we're enjoying temperatures in the low 90s, Halloween preparation, the first rain of the school year, and mall walking. Just a typical weekend in Kuwait.

Eid Mubarak, y'all!

Vicariously yours,