Four weeks ago I arrived to the Czech Republic with two small bags and one large one, threw my things inside my small apartment in Podbořany, and headed to Prague. In four weeks I’ve met all my fellow ETA’s in Brno, toured Prague, and seen quite a bit of the Czech Republic. I’ve also been sick three times and spent days in my tiny apartment fretting over if I actually have enough time to work on my book, which is a giant priority, as the full draft is due in July and I’m doing extensive research.
I’ll be real: it’s been hard. Every day is different. On some days everything feels totally manageable. I love teaching, I love my fellow faculty members and my mentor, and I’ve met several people in town who I enjoy. The language barrier is an issue, as I knew it would be. Sometimes it feels like scaling a broken fence, trying to communicate with people. I wish I knew more Czech. I wish I’d had my visa earlier so I could have come to Prague and taken language classes. But I am learning, doing my Duolingo and also going to a Czech lesson once a week. I also wish I had more free time. I knew I was signing on for a challenge because of my book and the work I need to funnel towards it. While I would love to spend the majority of my free time with people, I need to make space for writing. The words I need to write are on a constant loop in my head. If I’m tired and sleep in past 5:30am then I often spend the rest of the day stressed about the writing time I lost.
I know that once things settle down I will have a better feel for my routine and be able to gauge how many commitments I can take on each week. What I don’t like doing is turning down weekend plans because I need to spend the two days researching and writing. I want to be able to take advantage of being in the Czech Republic and enjoy life here. I especially want to enjoy the people, and learn Czech. It’s funny; whenever my mind reaches for a Czech word I can feel it tooling around. Often it comes up with a Hindi one instead. I think it all feeds into my writing: teaching English, trying to learn Czech, being immersed in a brand new environment. It’s also very stressful. I have phone dates with friends (thank goodness) but nothing replaces the feeling of sitting down with someone and having an intimate conversation with someone who speaks the same language as you. And dating? Forget about it. The town I live in has 6,000 people, and most of the men my age are married. Beyond that, many don’t speak English, or if they do, not to me. I am also very different from a typical Czech (or, let’s be honest, American) woman. I am not married and don’t have kids. I don’t necessarily intend to do either of those things- they aren’t priorities for me and I have never dreamed of having a wedding or having children. I’m also queer, which is something I haven’t discussed with anyone in my town. I don’t know if I ever will.
What I dream of is a house. In my free time I sleuth around on Zillow, looking at houses in America. I dream of owning a house and maybe fostering children. I dream of having a community. I knew, in taking the Fulbright, that I was deferring this dream. But I also know that unexpected things can happen. Life can be surprising. And doing things that are challenging encourages growth, as long as we remain open to life.
That’s been my word for a while. Open. Open, even when it’s scary and I feel misunderstood. Open, even when I feel the intense pressures of societal or cultural expectations bearing down upon me. Open, even when doing something as simple as going to the grocery store feels like a Herculean task. I don’t know what’s on the other side of this, except for a finished book. And that’s okay. I can take it day-by-day, right? Today I am in Prague, and tomorrow I go to another short conference with my peers. On Tuesday night I head to the Embassy, where we will all have dinner with the ambassador. On Wednesday I go back to Podbořany, taking a roundabout route on a train because there is no direct way back to the village.
As I write my book, which is a hybrid and involves remembering and writing about very uncomfortable times in my life, I think about young Anastasia and how she thought of her life. When I started fighting forest fires I’d already been homeless several times, starting at age twelve. I didn’t know what unconditional love felt like. I didn’t know what it felt like to be safe. And that still lives in me. I can feel it press up against my skin; the anxiety, the fear, the mistrust. I can feel it and remind myself I’m safe. I think that’s what growth is.