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Sean McAneny: When Will I Be back?

Sean McAneny is a legal assistant in Western
New York. He taught English at the only Military High School in the Czech Republic for the last year, located in Česká Třebová. On average, 150 young Americans apply annually to assist with teaching English at Czech high schools. Only about 30 of those applicants end up getting the opportunity . They know in advance that neither Prague nor Brno will be their final host destinations. Most of them are heading to smaller towns, at schools where students are less exposed to native English-speakers. After his 10-month Fulbright grant, Sean reflects on this policy, highlighting the “range of experiences that are not cosmopolitan but distinctly Czech.” In addition, he recounts lessons that he had experienced during his time in the Czech Republic. Being placed in an “outdoorsman’s paradise,” Sean spent lots of time hiking in the countryside, exploring the “slower pace of life,” a common observation of American expats living in Europe. In the end, Sean came to the conclusion that “Work is the distraction from simple, natural living, not the other way around.”

One of the virtues of the Fulbright program is that it deliberately places English teachers outside of Prague. There are several reasons for this. First, there are plenty of English speakers in Prague and therefore less of a need for English teachers. Czechs in Prague are the most likely of any to have contact with the language and with its native speakers. Further, part of the challenge of Fulbright is navigating a new cultural environment, a challenge which would be undermined by having one’s native tongue so ubiquitously known and understood. Second, by being placed outside of Prague, we English teachers get a range of experiences that are not cosmopolitan but distinctly Czech.

That Prague is the beautiful capital of this country is about the extent of the average American’s knowledge of the Czech Republic. So, my experience living in Moravská Třebová has not only broadened my understanding and appreciation for this country, but it has also allowed me to share a side of it with folks back home that would have otherwise never known anything else. Conversely, the odds of people in Moravská Třebová colliding with an American are necessarily much lower than those for the typical Praguer. Both sides are equally rewarded with an experience in knowing something deeper, more specific about the other party.

Photo: Hilly countryside around Moravská Třebová, Fall 2021. 

With all that said, I am profoundly lucky to have been placed here in Moravská Třebová. Our proximity to the beautiful rolling highlands of Vysočina Kraj and the mighty Jeseníky Mountains make this place an outdoorsman’s paradise. Indeed, I have enjoyed my fair share of hiking around the Bohemian and Moravian countryside, but one needn’t look too far beyond the town limits to find peace in the natural environment. I have really appreciated the single-trek for its unending promise of solitude and repose.

Likewise, the town itself has everything I could need, but perhaps more importantly, it has nothing which I do not need. This is to say everything has its place and anything more would be fine but ultimately unnecessary. In the US, one becomes almost numb to excess: shops and stores open at all waking hours, on every day of the week; a service sector dedicated to the principle that the customer is always right. Taken to its extreme, this excessive ideology can delude the American into believing he is entitled to such on-demand service. It was then an adjustment to find shops closed at rather inconvenient times and to wait patiently for the right moments to stop by the bank, the post office, or the grocery store. A constant refrain you’ll hear from American expats living in Europe is that they cherish the slower pace of life, but what one does not anticipate is that this is accompanied by a sense of loss and of frustration. Though I wanted to enjoy the scaled-back lifestyle, I had to reconcile this with my American conditioning to be always in demand of something.

Photo: Moravská Třebová, Fall 2021. 

I can see now that there is another ideology at work here. Not that the customer isn’t always right, but that we are first and foremost people with private and inner lives and that our public, customer selves are not to be identified with too strongly. Along with excess, as an American I have an innate impatience for the superfluous, a predilection for productivity. Sometimes recreation can evoke a feeling of guilt, a feeling that I ought to be using my precious time more efficiently; even hiking can be turned into a competition or an exercise in personal perfecting. Working with my Czech colleagues has taught me that this is a distortion and that we really ought to be out hiking all day and that the rat-race of productivity is nothing more than an illusory game of one-upmanship. Work is the distraction from simple, natural living, not the other way around.

Indeed, folks here seem more aware of the fact that we are just another species on a very precious planet and thus have a more reverent regard for nature. I have really appreciated the ubiquity of gardens outside of Czech homes and the enthusiasm for a good walking path between linden trees. I deeply admire the practice of growing a little bit of one’s own food and have enjoyed some fine pickled mushrooms, radishes, and even some home-made apple liquor made with the caring hands of Czechs who spend much more time in nature than your typical American.

Photo: Sean with his mentor and colleague Hana Oyelakin Ferlíková, October 2021. 

This town would not be like a second home to me if weren’t also for the welcoming people that live here. I am eternally blessed to have had Hana Oyelakin Ferlíkova as a mentor this year. Not only has she provided me endless professional support, she and her family have also shown me the hidden wonders of this great country. I am thankful, too, for my colleagues and students at the Vojenská střední škola for teaching about service, commitment, and flexibility in times of great stress. My roommate and fellow English teacher, Gianna Hickman, and I were lucky to meet a group of young parents who took it upon themselves to speak with us and meet on occasion for tea and informal chatting. Thank you to Adela, Michal, and the parents at Kruček for such a warm welcome.

The first few months of any longer stint spent abroad are filled with many undulations in emotions. It took me until about March to truly feel comfortable living in a place so far from home. I can remember the first time I had this feeling of peace in Moravská Třebová. It was a Sunday afternoon on a hike to Peklo with some members of the community joined by refugees of the war in Ukraine. The openness shown to these displaced people was nothing less than inspiring and it made me feel like I could truly be at home in a town like this. Even though I am a vegetarian (a challenge of Czech living in its own right!) watching others roast sausages and sing songs around the campfire at Peklo had a quality of home that I am not sure I have even known back in New York.

Photo: Sean in the classroom, October 2021. 

As my time winds down here, I am trying my best to take in all that which will be missed; from hiking among the impossibly vertical pines to feasting on far too many kolačy. Though I am not sure exactly what the future holds, this place will be with me wherever I go from here. The one question that my students ask that both breaks my heart and fills me with joyous hope is: when will I be back?

Editor's notes:
You can read about Sean's experience teaching at a military school in an earlier blog post.
The Czech translation of this original text was published in the printed version of Moravskolezský zpravodaj (local monthly newspaper) in August 2022.

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