Monday, September 6, 2010

How I came from Prague to live in Northampton, MA.

If you read my blog, you know I've been back in America since May. What I don't think I've explained is why. I've been waiting until things were settled before telling. As both of my jobs and my class begin this week and I am sitting in my new apartment, I'd say we're good. So, here's a summarized version of the past year for all of you who are new here:

I graduated from Smith in 2009 and set off in late July of that year for a month long intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course at TEFL Worldwide in Prague. The course kicked my ass and I (mostly) loved every minute of it, except being stressed all the time and writing papers on Saturday nights, but it really did prepare me for teaching English. After graduating, I was unemployed and almost homeless for a bit before finding an awesome flat and securing two jobs in Prague. My main job at Excellent Skola said they would sign my work visa papers, but not help with the visa process at all. Let me just mention, that any visa process is pretty complicated and terrifying, but of course this one was entirely in Czech.

After applying to 200+ jobs and attending some 15+ teaching interviews, this was as good as it was going to get so I took it. Lots of people want to teach English in Prague, so there is a lot of competition. They gave me the phone number of a lawyer I could pay to do my visa and he stopped returning my calls, so I found my own. My landlord Jiři liked to take frequent month long vacations to Miami, and as I needed a notarized and signed document and lease that guaranteed me a place to stay for a year, this significantly slowed the already time-limited process. At the end, the lawyer I hired to help was shitty and didn't get my paperwork done in time, nor did she bother telling me she was running behind after an entire month, so the day before my tourist visa was to expire, I found out I wasn't getting my work visa.

This was somewhat okay, because by November, I was stressed all the time. I liked my other job at TeaTime Skola, but my main job exploited me as much as they could. Though I signed a contract agreeing to this exploitation because I was desperate, it got to me over time. There are only so many times I can watch my boss take 30% out of my paycheck for taxes that weren't going to the government (I wasn't on the books) and healthcare I wasn't getting before wanting to cutabitch. Add all the shit they yelled at me for constantly that wasn't my fault, like asking my boss where my class was held because they didn't include it in their e-mail, and I was done with this company. When I had a crying mental breakdown because of a scheduling conflict, I realized I could do better. So, I put in my months notice and my last day was something around December 15th. While I loved Prague, there were some things missing in it for me. I was basically drunk the entire 6ish months I was there and while I do love getting completely schwasted and going to absolutely mind-shattering clubs (see: Cross Club) while dancing to experimental techno music and buying weed in stores behind the bar, I like having at least an OPTION of doing other things. I did not find this option. I'm sure my ideal community was there somewhere, but at that point in my life I wasn't willing to sit at a job I hated to find it.

Plus, my goal was to travel. I had so many friends living all over Europe and no time off to do so as my jobs were barely covering my rent. I figured if I left I wouldn't have to pay rent to begin with and so through some questionable means, I "extended" my tourist visa. I traveled to Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Ireland and England. I worked on farms in exchange for food and a place to sleep through HelpX, stayed with friends, and couchsurfed (via You can read about all of those adventures in this blog, but needless to say, even though I ran out of money at the end, got a horrible stomach virus while sleeping in a tipi with no indoor bathroom and came home bedridden with mono for a month, this past year was easily the best year of my life. I met so many amazing people with a similar sense of adventure. People who actually do things instead of talking about them. During my travels, I heard some amazing life stories and bumped into some people who had been traveling as long as 6 years! I made friends on planes, trains, bars, you name it. I felt as if I had really found my "people". It also made clear several things:

1) I want to live in Europe. I am still figuring out how to explain this decision well. There are many levels to this desire that I can explain if you ask, but what it comes down to is this: When I am in America, I find that I spend my time counting down to other days, hoping time flies quickly to the next vacation, adventure, etc. During the two years of my life I lived in Europe, I woke up every day excited about my life and felt generally more balanced between work/leisure.

2) To achieve #1 without being a slave to large language schools my entire life, I need to be at least bilingual. Thus, I have been learning German. While I am not yet fluent, I have been learning pretty rapidly. My education started in January while I was traveling and working on a farm in Germany, but I did not actually begin studying until March. Starting in March, I got hold of a German text/workbook and put time aside every day to do part of a chapter. I can now say, I am pretty much done with the book. Starting in June, I found a private German tutor whom I met with twice a week for most of the summer. She was a huge help and while our first lesson began with me not even understanding how to tell time, our last lesson was conducted almost entirely in German. Through Couchsurfing, I also found a German conversation partner, whom I met with a couple times and became friends with. I am also auditing intermediate German at Smith this year, but I'll get to that later.

This brings us to the now. I decided to apply for a Fulbright grant that will provide me with a job, visa, health insurance, and a travel stipend to teach English in a German school should I win. While I was originally planning to go back to Germany in August, I realized toughing it out in America for the year was worth it for this opportunity. Luckily, Smith College, my alma mater, agreed to let me apply through them even though I graduated, which increases my chances of succeeding and provides much-needed structure and support.

Once I decided to stay in America for the year, I made a choice to move back to Northampton, MA, where I attended university. It's a great little town where I still have some friends, rent is not too expensive, there are lots of lesbians, and endless amounts of coffee and vegan food. I can also audit classes at Smith for $50, so that helps my German cause. Not too shabby. After 2 trips to Northampton over the summer, I found a great apartment right near my favorite coffee place and one of my favorite bars for a very good price. I live walking distance to town, have a big kitchen, two porches, a closet in my bedroom and a backyard. Let me tell you, this was not easy to find. Of the 15 or so places I looked at, most of them were tiny and disgusting or with older women or men trying to replace their children. In one place I wasn't ever allowed to have people over for more than 15 or so minutes. In another, the roommates wanted absolute quiet at all times. Or there were the people that were too hippie for me, and I generally think of myself as a pretty progressive person, so that's saying something. It's all about balance.

Getting a job was much easier and I secured several interviews before I even moved up here. I now work at a small cafe in Haydenville and at Trader Joes. As I have a class 3 mornings a week, it made a 9-5 pretty impossible. I will probably have endless coffee in my life and a discount on awesome food so really things are pretty great. Now it's all about working the kinks out of my schedule as I am currently working 7+ days in a row without a day off starting tomorrow. After not having a full-time job for over a year, this is going to be interesting. Though, I think the variety will help.

My Fulbright application is due to Smith in late September. I've been working on it all summer and I have to say, I don't know how people do this while still in school. It has all been a LOT of work, but so far I've learned a lot about myself and what I want in the process. I've also learned how to write for a grant, which is an entirely different kind of writing from anything I've done previously. Before the end of this month, I have to complete my German language evaluation as part of the process. This is the part I've been shitting myself over. Almost all applicants have studied German in university for at least two years while I only began 6 months ago. I must say, I have a lot more motivation than I had while I was in school, if only because I don't HAVE to do it. And damn, have I studied hard. I know more German than I ever knew of French after 8 years of studying it. I am still terrified though because I'm not sure I've managed to cram 2 years of university-level German into my brain in 6 months. Wish me luck!

That's the general gist of it all. Basically, I am here this year to learn German, apply for the Fulbright grant and refill my bank account. My feelings about being back are mixed, but after my crazy year, it is nice knowing I'll be in the same place for 12 months. In August/September of 2011, I am packing my bags and heading back abroad whether I win the Fulbright or not. Until then, I'm looking forward to another New England fall.

I will definitely have more updates in here during the year, but I figured this post was very overdue.

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