This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachel Landau is a native New Yorker, who is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the small town of Hranice, Czech Republic. Having pursued Environmental Studies for her baccalaureate degree, Rachel was placed at a Czech high school specializing in the field of forestry. Along with her teaching duties, she has participated in as many activities as possible with her students, ranging from taking dance lessons, making home visits, to even going out on a hunt with students. Rachel works earnestly and dynamically to make the most of her grant year as possible, serving as an exemplar of what the Fulbright Program is all about, making lasting connections across cultures and countries- a message that’s as important as ever today. Read below to find out about Rachel’s myriad passions, and her experiences spending a year teaching English at a forestry high school in the Czech Republic.
-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
- Hometown: Hollis Hills, New York
- University, Major: SUNY Buffalo, Environmental Studies
- School in Czech Republic: Střední lesnická škola, Hranice
- Age: 22
- Favorite Quote: "Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man"- Pirkei Avot
- Favorite Czech food: “I love koláč, especially the tvaroh koláč!”
Hello! Can you please give some personal background details? Where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
I am from Hollis Hills, New York; it’s a part of Queens. I studied Environmental Studies, but I also did a lot of pre-health related subjects, like microbiology, physiology. I’ve always been interested in healthcare, and I’m considering a career in this field.
With my interests, I adore English and German literature, and I love languages in general. I love folk music, but the kind that’s 300-400 years old. I very much enjoy music of all sorts, and I like singing in different languages! I like history as well, specifically, medieval history. Also strange as it might sound, I enjoy talking to strangers. Just the strange encounters I have, and even if I never see them again, I like collecting all of these sort of, bizarre personages. These people you meet for five seconds, and the person on the bus who talks to you for too long… And aside from just making friends and getting to know people, I also love to be introduced to their families and see their home environments.
And what are you passionate about?
I love stories. I like to tell, collect, and memorize them. In some of my classes, if the students are particularly hardworking, and we finish working a little early, I will tell them a story. I usually choose something like a classic story from English literature. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is what I’m telling right now. I tell them in little episodes during the last five to seven minutes of class. It’s such a pleasure for me, because I get to tell people all about “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and do the gesticulations. They seem to really like it! So I’m passionate about listening to stories, and retelling them.
I’m also passionate about- it sounds so horribly cliché, but I suppose its cliché for a reason- it’s very important to me to be immersed in people’s cultures. I want to know the pop culture references. I want to know what people eat for a regular Wednesday night dinner with their family. I want to be immersed, and I enjoy being as exposed to as many different ways of life as possible. Even in the United States, because it’s just as diverse there, in terms of how people live, and go about their lives.
And why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
It sounds very, very silly to say, but I didn’t know very much about it before I got here. Honestly, all I could remember from learning about it in high school was the Defenestration of Prague, and these dramatic, historical events that stuck in my head. I realized these things were sort of caricatures. It’s not really that deep, it’s kind of superficial, and I wanted the challenge of having to learn a language I literally had zero exposure to. I do know quite a lot of German, and people often ask why I didn’t go there, and I love Germany, but I wanted to be here, and see what it’s like here, to explore, and to make my own family and friends here, have my own roots. My curiosity drove me. I was excited by the challenge of having to start from square one, and learn as much as I could before and upon arriving.
And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I saw it in one of the offices at school. It was the Office for Scholarships and Study Abroad; it’s this general umbrella, for opportunities to go abroad, and learn, teach, or work, somewhere else. I saw it in the office there.
Did you have a moment of being like, “What’s that?” Like, “Maybe, I could do that?” Was it something you were immediately drawn to, or was it something you saw, and came back to later?
Oh, I was drawn to it immediately. At first, I was a little intimidated initially; like there’s no way I could possibly get it, but I still wanted to try.
And you got it!
So, how did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
Oh, that was fun actually! I figured okay, I don’t know if I’ll get it, but on the off-chance that I do, I should probably learn some Czech! So, I took a lot of pains to try my best to get some kind of foundational vocabulary. I downloaded two apps on my phone, I had my učebnice, my own little textbook and workbook, and I bothered the International Students’ Office ladies, “Can you find me a student who is originally from the Czech Republic who might want to sit and have coffee with me?” Eventually, I found two different ladies! They were wonderful. They answered all of my questions, gave me pointers, they would speak to me in Czech, just to help me tune my ear to it. And then before I came, I studied like crazy, reading about the history, and trying to learn as much of the language as possible.
And can you tell me about the town you’re living in this year? What is it like?
My town is called Hranice, and it’s in Moravia. It’s a town of about 22,000 people. The town is actually quite interesting because on the one hand, there are lots of housing developments, but if you move into the center, there’s this lovely, quaint town square and these winding pathways around it, and the baroque church! Then, if you go further south, it’s very green, quiet, and hilly, so you have kind of a taste of everything in this town. I like that; I like the very different neighborhoods, the vibe. I live in the center of town, and everything I need is within walking distance. What’s fun is that because the town is so small, I constantly see people that I know! Not just students, but for example, the lady who works at the bakery I like the most, my neighbors, my colleagues, and it’s really nice, and kind of foreign to me to bump into people I know all the time.
It sounds wonderful! And what is the school that you’re working at like?
My school is a forestry school. Most of the students live in the boarding houses, one for girls and one for boys, and they live there five days a week. They learn history, Czech and foreign languages, mathematics, and science, however, because it’s a forestry school, there’s a special emphasis on subjects like tree harvesting, forest stewardship, forest sustainability, forest pedagogy, which is teaching children and adults about the forest- why it’s important, how to protect it, and how to use it for economic gain while at the same time preserving the ecosystems. So, while it’s a very specialized training, they also learn about what students in other schools would be expected to know.
They do a lot of practical education. They spend quite a bit of time outside. It’s built into their weekly schedules, and they do some pretty difficult, physical labor. Even now, in this bitter cold, they’re out in the school forest working and learning. And it’s like -8 or -10 degrees today.
Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I do a lot of after-school activities. I do coffee hours at the girls’ boarding house and at the boys’ boarding house. It’s not separate, it doesn’t matter what their gender is; I just go to the different boarding houses so it’s more convenient for students. I took dance lessons with my students, and was in a choreographed ball with them! I’ve been out on a hunt with students, and I’m quite frequently invited out to do things. I really enjoy the experiences I’ve had talking with students, hearing the names of their parents, where they’re from, some funny stories, or being invited to their houses. They’re from all over Moravia, so I’m getting this really comprehensive picture of life in the central and southern Moravia region, as well as the Moravia-Silesia region. It’s giving me a very holistic view.
And what do you like about teaching English?
I like teaching English because it’s something I’m passionate about, and it also is something that will be very useful for my students in their lives in terms of their careers, but also maybe it will facilitate them making friendships with people from all over the world, and having a broader view of the world from that.
What is one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far this year?
Oh man, that is perhaps one of the most difficult questions so far!
You can pick a few. It’s not so strict.
Oh, thank you! So far, I suppose even the very simple everyday things. These little victories that remind me that I really do have a life here, and however limited it may be, I do have the ability to actually talk to people, and interact with them in a meaningful way. Really establishing a rhythm of life here, talking to people, and trying my best to make them smile. And the balls were wonderful! Hubertska was so nice! It’s like their maturitní ples [the Czech equivalent of prom and graduation], but it has a forester flavor to it, because during the ceremony, when the graduating seniors come in, they actually carry with them the animals they caught on the hunt into the ballroom!
Yes, really! Dead deer, pheasants, foxes, wild boar! And there’s trees, and pine needles everywhere, so it has a real forester flavor to it.
That’s amazing! I’m impressed.
Yeah, it was really cool. Something else I should mention, is that my colleagues at the school have contributed enormously to my experience. They have opened their homes to me, and I get to hang out with their children, and go to my mentor’s house for Sunday lunches... It’s domestic bliss, I suppose. I have a real soft spot for that kind of thing.
That’s wonderful! But what for you is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Well, unfortunately, my Czech is functional, but it’s not good enough to express myself wholly, and likewise, I can understand, but not well enough for people to really tell me things in great detail. So, the fact that I miss things, or it gets lost in translation, and I can’t connect as deeply as I could if I did speak the language fluently. It can be very frustrating. And of course, Czech legalese is frustrating; I had an issue with customs, and my mail. My friend helped me, but so losing a little bit of self-sufficiency because of language issues, is something I’m working with.
And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Just all of the unbelievable people you meet, and the experiences and things they share with you. Trying things I never thought I would do, things that were never even on my radar to begin with! And obviously being in a different place, with different customs. It’s nice to just notice the differences, the subtle ones and the big ones, and to enjoy them.
What is something interesting you have learned about Czech culture?
It’s very interesting to listen to people. I like asking people, especially older people, who have lived in both the old regime and the current socio-political environment, and it’s very interesting to listen to their stories, and in their estimation how the last regime has influenced society and people’s mindsets. I find that really interesting, and other things… I’m thinking of very small things. I love celebrating people’s svatek, their name day. We don’t do that at home so much, it’s not really a thing. Little things, like celebrating people’s name day, all of the wonderful beer there is to choose from, having people laugh because I can’t remember the name of a dish I like. I don’t know, these things don’t paint a very big picture, but-
But sometimes it’s the little things that can make the biggest impression, that when taken altogether form a bigger picture.
Yes, so just the little things that stand out to me. My students teaching me campfire songs, listening to all of these interesting folk singers; it’s really wonderful!
You are about halfway through your grant now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I’m looking forward to more wonderful weeks at school, and more casual hangouts with students. Rewarding experiences in the classroom, but also fun, silly, memorable things outside of the classroom with students, teachers, and friends. Spending more time with them, and learning more from them.
What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I take it very seriously. I really take forging lasting relationships very seriously. That resonates the most with me. Aside from being a good teacher, and motivating my students, and making English interesting, applicable, and enjoyable for them, I would say even more so I’m just really interested in forming lasting relationships. I want to have family and friends here forever. People who can come visit me in New York, and meet my family and friends at home, and I really like that we have so many opportunities to exchange things about our cultures. We ask each other questions, and it seems like we’re all learning a lot from the exchange.
How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I have been flirting with a number of different career trajectories, and the question has been eating at me for months. Actually, it’s making me consider teaching a lot more than I had considered it before. But it has also given me the chance to really take initiative. I like that this is my life. I take care of my house, and all of these things for myself, and if I want it, I have to go and do it even if it’s difficult, because perhaps there’s a language barrier, it doesn’t matter, just try. So, just to step out of my comfort zone even more so, and to enjoy it, rather than worrying about whether I’ll make a mistake.
What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I will likely go back to school and pursue either a Master’s degree, or I’m considering going to nursing school. I’m not entirely sure.
And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Yes, keep an open mind. Do not be afraid of making really silly, or sometimes terrible, gaffes. Laugh at yourself, and be constantly aware of how incredibly special it is to be living somewhere else and to be taken in, and treated like a daughter, or like a friend by somebody abroad. These people who welcome you into their lives, they are really part of your integration, and even if you know a language perfectly, what is it if you don’t speak with other people? In brief, seize upon all of these different opportunities to get to know people, and to try new things. I’m sure everyone says that, but everyone says it for a reason, because it’s true and important.
And for my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I am profoundly happy with everything. Every day since I’ve been here has been somewhere between great, good, fantastic, lovely, or wonderful. I’m really happy with how things are at school, and with how things are outside of school. I’m just really happy.
|Rachel Landau, in a student’s backyard. Hranice, Moravia|