ETA Spotlight Interview: Claire Shoshana Seid

by Sinia Amanonce

In 1978, the Křivoklátsko Nature Preserve became a UNESCO protected biosphere. This unique mosaic of natural elements is where ETA Claire Shoshana Seid is serving her Fulbright term. In this interview, Claire talks about her pet cat, unexpected events of her Fulbright term, and how living in the Czech forests has taught her how to develop a thicker skin. 

Fast Facts: 
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: Ohio University Honors Tutorial College, Sociology/ Diversity Studies
School in the Czech Republic: Střední škola lesnická a Střední odborné učiliště Křivoklát
Favorite Czech Word: “My favorite is probably “já nevím” [I don’t know] because that’s the phrase I use the most.”
Favorite Czech Food: “I only know the name in English as my students have told me, but it’s called hunter’s cabbage. Besides that I like smažený sýr [fried cheese].”
Favorite Quote: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” - Assata Shakur

Claire, please tell me about yourself. What are your hobbies? What do you like to do?
I am an activist… Sorry, my cat is in the way.

That’s cool. We have to talk about your cat later on in the interview.
Oh yeah! You bet!

But about you first.
Right. I like cooking, baking, hiking, making things, and being with friends. I like doing work for social justice and things of that nature. I mostly did that in college.

Did you apply for Fulbright at large or through university?
Through university. I went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio - shout out! I applied during my senior year. I definitely knew that I wanted to live abroad and be able to support myself.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for Fulbright?
I chose the Czech Republic first because I love Prague. I first went there for my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, so I lived in Prague for a month before applying. I thought it was great and I thought the rest of the country would be as equally interesting, strange, fascinating, and different.

Did you get your TEFL certificate while you were still in university?
Yeah, it was all part of the plan.

The plan? Tell me more about this “plan.”
I had a plan throughout university. I knew, as I was going into college, that I wanted to get a Fulbright Scholarship. That was always part of the plan. Do you know that Paul Simon song? It goes, “I said aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?” I asked my parents what that was and it sound great so I thought “heck yeah, that would be a great thing to have and to do.”

Is that how you first heard about the Fulbright? Well I researched different types of Fulbrights. I’ve always wanted to live abroad and there was an office of Nationally Competitive Awards at my university, so I went and told them “here’s what I want and here’s what I’m good at.” Then, they suggested that I apply for the ETA position and I did.

What else is there to this great life plan of Claire Shoshana?
The plan was to go to college, work on things that make me more competitive for a Fulbright, and to work on things I’m interested in. I signed up for a lot of scholars programs and did a lot of independent research. I got my TEFL. I was interested in education already. I did my honors thesis on alternative education, mentioned that interest to Fulbright, and they placed me into a forestry school. So the plan was university, things, TEFL, Fulbright, and then the plan stopped. Now, I currently do not have a plan. Fulbright was my “next step” but I forgot to plan the next step after this.

I think that’s exciting. Having Fulbright turn into the year in which you plan the next part of your life gives you the freedom and space to think about your opportunities as they come at you. Now that you are currently in your Fulbright year, what do you think of the program?
It’s been really great. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve gone through a lot of things I would have never done. Namely, live in the rural wilderness of the Czech forest to teach English to lumberjacks [laughs]. It’s very different but honestly, I love my placement.

What’s the town you’re living in like?
It’s not exactly a town. We are an hour hike away from a village of 700 people.

Yeah, we live in a boarding school for students who want to be foresters, lumberjacks, or veterinarians. We have a small campus in the Křivoklátsko Nature Preserve. The students live here Monday through Friday, and then they go home for the weekends. We have two main buildings for classes, dorms, a workshop, a gym, some laboratories, we have bees, and a garden in a greenhouse. We have a wild boar as a neighbor. One of the teachers found her in the forest, adopted her, and she lives in a pen across the street. Her name is Tereza and she eats our compost… [Laughs] these are things I did not expect.

And you’re living with your husband and your cat, right?
Yeah! My husband and my cat - my tiny family in the forest. My husband, Paul, is teaching business English and English to kindergarteners in Rakovník. He volunteers there three days a week. He keeps the house, cooks dinner every night, and takes care of the cat while I’m at work. It’s really great. He’s been using this time really productively to do a lot of self-discovery and a sort of “spring cleaning of the soul.” I think it’s been good.
The cat is is one of the beautiful presents my students have given me. They found her in the forest and they knew I like cats. They were like “Hey Claire, do you want a cat?” They showed me the cat and I was like, “Yeah, definitely. I definitely want this cat.” I took the cat home. I showed up at the door with the cat and one of my students and asked, “Paul, can we have a cat? Here she is!”

This is a quite typical way in which Czechs acquire pets. Someone just shows up with the pet, but at that point, the pet is already there, so there is not much else to do.
It is very effective… Then, after I took the cat, my students kept asking me if I wanted other animals that they had on hand! They tried to give me an African Snail. I told them the cat would eat it and I’m not sure if that is true, but I didn’t want a snail… The students have also given me some art and a machete. They’re great, really great.

What do you enjoy the most about working with your students?
Honestly, my main goal for teaching English and learning Czech myself is to be able to communicate with them effectively. My students are all so interesting, so cool, and so funny. I love when they figure something out and they are thrilled. That’s my favorite moment. They have this “aha!” moment when something clicks, and then, all of a sudden, they are using it and speaking with it. Whatever “it” is - a grammar point, vocabulary point, or a culture point. It’s really nice to be able to teach each other about our lives and our cultures through this process.

That’s great! Has your experience differed at all from your expectations of this year?
I did not know I would be so isolated. I thought English proficiency would be higher. Those things have been challenging. I expected it to be more cosmopolitan.
When I thought to myself about a Fulbright year, I did not expect to be placed in a forestry school. When I first arrived, I didn’t really like nature and now we hike all the time - several times a week. We go outside and take the cat on walks. I’m more nature loving and learning to become more sturdy.

I think Fulbright throws the unexpected and challenging at all of our scholars. How was it adjusting to the Czech Republic in general?
It was difficult. It’s very, very different here in thousands of small ways. For example, last week, someone slaughtered a pig outside my window. I heard an animal screaming and when I looked outside, I saw that my neighbor had wrestled a pig to the ground. I thought to myself, “Wow, I have never seen something so big die before.” Then later that day, I was scheduled to meet my students to build birdhouses. I told them what happened and they were like, “So? This is normal. We have pigs and we kill and eat them. Where did you think your food came from?” I had to start eating meat [laughs]. I was a vegetarian for 6 years, but it’s very impossible here in the Czech Republic. Everything delicious has meat in it.

You were vegetarian then, out of necessity and to adapt, you began eating meat. What do you think of life changes like that?
It was a big deal to me because I’m also not eating kosher. But, I cannot avoid eating pig in the Czech Republic. Everything has meat and milk.
I was vegetarian before too! The options are bread with bread and bread. Or dumplings and fried cheese.

It is definitely challenging. On the other hand, what has been the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
The new relationships I’m making, primarily with the students. Everyday we are learning. The more English they learn and the more Czech I learn, the easier it is to communicate and be friends. Slowly but surely, being able to communicate with someone you could not communicate with 7 months ago is really rewarding. It has given me a lot of new perspectives on what is life, what is normal, what is good, and what is interesting. My students have shown me a totally different experience than what I had growing up in L.A. We are different but we find communication and friendship, which is really great.

To sum up the interview, what advice can you give to upcoming ETAs?
Get sturdier. Develop a thicker skin. Realize the Czech Republic is not American that you will have to acclimate. You may think, “How different can the Czech Republic be?” It is very different.

What do you mean? How do you develop a thicker skin?
I did it by coming here and having things be very difficult. If you can practice flexibility, relinquishing control, and endurance of things that are unpleasant, it’ll prepare you for the strangeness of living in a new country. I think that’s the thing that gets you down over time. Realizing just how persistently difficult and strange everyday interactions are. I mean just going to the grocery store was very stressful. Obviously, you can’t read the ingredients. What if you end up with this and not that? You’re going to have to talk to someone and they probably won’t speak English. It is rare to find someone that speaks English around me, at least for 17 kilometers in any direction. It is going to be, for a while, a bit unpleasant to do everyday tasks. But everyone’s experience is different! Mine is very strange.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I’ve definitely learned to be, as I said, sturdier. I feel like a stronger and more balanced person. I know more of what I can do and how to be independent. I think our marriage is way stronger now than it would have been if we had spent a year in America. I’m coming out of this stronger, both physically and mentally, with a stronger marriage, and a ton of Czech vocabulary about the forest. I’m more adaptable now.

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