An Englishman in Prague – Teaching English to the Capitalist Classes

Looking up at the whiteboard, in an office-turned-classroom covered, with the four Conditionals – the relativity theory of English grammar – prettily annotated with timelines and in a way that my student actually understood made me just a touch proud of how far I’ve come as an English teacher. I’m not deceiving myself by thinking that I’m a good teacher, as a lack of confidence, serious application and decent chat hinder elevating myself to that plain, but I’m certainly better than the rookie of March 2011.

When I started my TEFL course in Prague alongside twenty-two other scared and confused potential teachers of the world’s most lucrative language, I was shocked by how little grammar I knew. In fact, it was the Dutch contingent, learning vocabulary from terrible English-language films and grammar at school, who had the jump on us. A pronoun and a verb were as far as I could go whereas vital grammatical terms like the Past Perfect Continuous or the Gerund (which, to be honest, still perplexes me) just sounded like complicated nonsense.

By trial and error I now know enough to get by in most situations until an advanced English speaker calls me up on it and inevitably embarrasses me. Being a grammar Nazi is definitely a curse as you hear mistakes from native and non-native speakers outside of the classroom and the smartarse part of your brain wants to point them out but you know you will always sound like an obnoxious know-it-all, so you can’t. There are also the depressingly geeky arguments to be had with friends; ‘Is stupider a word?’, British English versus American English, and so on. And not forgetting a Scrabble war but the less said about that the better.

I work full-time for a school who use their client database to give me lessons with adult learners either in businesses or public courses in their premises. Like with any job, teaching English has good points and bad. For one thing, it’s an incredibly disjointed affair as a typical day involves four hour-long lessons spread over twelve hours with the gaps usually filled in with lesson planning and travelling to far flung areas of Prague. Since Capitalism began steamrolling through the country post-1989, multinational corporations have been popping up in every spare space in their glass fortresses. So, this forces me to regularly travel from one end of the Metro line to the other then to Narnia and finally to the Centre of the Earth, with a good book as an essential anti-zombie device.

On the other hand, the pay is pretty decent. It’s nowhere near the standards of the gold mines of South Korea and the Middle East where they pay you in Swarovski diamonds and unicorn dust but I earn enough to live in a flat in the most beautiful area of Prague next to the Old Town Square and eat out and casually drink more than I could ever afford to in the UK. This is subsistence living though as I’m very unlikely to ever save for as much as a pair of jeans. What’s more, I often have long days but I don’t work long hours. Not many other jobs would give me the time and flexibility to lounge around a park all afternoon when it’s hot, watch a Tuesday morning Sopranos marathon in my boxer shots or write this blog in the middle of the day (fully clothed).

The differences in language and culture allow for many humorous moments to collect and share. Take the following disturbing exchange from my first ever private lesson whilst still in training.

“So Katja, what are your interests?”

“I like my dogs.”

“Okay, what else?”

“I like baking cakes.”

“Nice.”

“And I like handjobs.”

“… I’m sorry?”

“Handjobs.”

“Hmmm how do you mean?”

“Sewing, knitting…”

Once I had worked out that she meant handicrafts, my heart retreated back down my windpipe. After all, Katja is certainly not a beautiful, blond Czech nineteen year old but a housewife in her sixties who likes knitting jumpers and baking chocolate sponges.

There are also many other small instances that brighten up an average day spent with frequently dry businessmen, like a student repeatedly referring to the outcome of a project as ‘the final solution’ and my own accidental ability to make my drawings of the United Kingdom look like incredibly detailed penises (or is that peni?).

You also learn a lot about a country. For instance, the Czech Republic as a whole is pretty tolerant but is a tad racist towards certain groups. A shameful tried and tested method amongst English teachers to fill any dead space at the end of a lesson is to merely utter the word gypsy. This incendiary term is like saying immigration to a closed-minded Brit or like a drop of blood to a shark. Inevitably, the incredibly racist person begins with the ominous stock phrase of ‘I’m not a racist but’ and lurch into a fifteen minute tirade about the gypsy evil.

At the end of the day, it’s a job that lets you live in some pretty cool places and all you need is your mother tongue. Looking towards the summer when I will most probably move on from Prague – the world is my oyster.

An Englishman in Prague – Affordable Skiing for Incompetents

The average Czech person loves the outdoors nearly as much as their beer. When asked about the weekend, nearly every one of my students – except one group whose extra-curricular activities are harder to get out of them than secrets out of a dead person – will inevitably answer (wrongly but endearingly) ‘we were in the nature’ – a stock Czenglish phrase which is the equivalent of the Germans ‘making a party’.

The extent to which the Czech’s love their outdoor sports is evident no more obviously than on the ski slopes and ice skating rinks. As the visibly English skaters lurch around the ice rink with the smoothness of Frankenstein’s monster or precariously wind their way down the slopes there are inevitably hundreds of six year old kids doing figure-of-eights around them making these despondent figures feel as small as possible.

Skiing in the Czech Republic is very cheap, especially when done as a daytrip like my first one that I joined on Sunday. For the same price as my hastily-bought, modest ski trousers (about £40) I got return travel from Prague to the ski resort of Herlikovice, one-day ski hire, a lift pass, two meals and two beers. Herlikovice is one of many fairly small resorts in the popular Krkonoše Mountains on the border with Poland and boasts just four major slopes – one for beginners and a couple of intermediates – and a few minor expert runs. This is ample for those that only have a day to spare or those that want a gentle reintroduction to skiing, like a ‘once every five year’ skier like me. The main complaints from the Czechs is that the ski resorts can get quite busy which is why many of them choose to travel to the Austrian Alps instead.

The only way in which I can be classed as a real man is that I really can’t multitask. This is especially true when it comes to any mechanical or technical things like driving, typing and skiing. Behind the wheel, when I am concentrating on the physical act of driving I lose all sense of direction and my conversational skills are even worse than usual. This one-track mind really came into effect when I was skiing on Sunday. The skiing itself went okay – no injuries, a minimum of wipeouts and a gradual curve of improvement – but walking without falling over, standing still and carrying skis all became tasks that I couldn’t competently juggle with the responsibility of not killing myself on the slopes. Really, I felt like a childlike walking disaster when in the presence of the other members of the group.

The day began in ignominy as I failed to master even the simple manual ski lift. Sitting on the horizontal bar rather than letting it drag me, I soon came tumbling off in front of a bumper audience surely mocking me under their collective breath. I gathered up my scattered equipment and tumbled down the slope Bambi-like to rejoin the queue. The embarrassment didn’t stop there as, when I tried traversing the rather simple turnstile for the second time in ten minutes, I managed to somehow get caught straddling the barrier with one leg and ski on one side and a leg and a ski on the other with the metal hurdle stuck on ‘do not pass’. A new crowd formed behind me as I struggled like a cow stuck on barbed wire and I had to awkwardly take the skis off and regroup on the other side with people again taking sniggering side glances in my direction. Eventually I got to the summit of the beginner slope by showing the kind of concentration reserved for a tennis player in a grand slam final or a surgeon performing major surgery on the Pope.

The remainder of the day passed off relatively trouble free except for a pivot that ended in the splits right before a group of teenage girls who shouted some kind of abuse aimed at my permanently damaged genitals. The weather was really good for skiing as the snow pleasantly fell throughout the day and the slopes stayed largely ice-free. Due to my cowardly temperament I never fully enjoy skiing as my mind always stays finely balanced between terror and self preservation and excitement so I believe I always hold back a little and never truly let myself go kamikaze-style.

The main thing I learned from this experience is that you can’t become a professional ski master with one day of skiing every five years.

An Englishman in Prague – The Introduction

I start this blog with trepidation after the abuse I have meted out to the two-a-penny expat blogs out there showing either the depth a piece of budget toilet paper or cringeworthily trying to change the readers’ lives. This is just intended to be my cynical, sarcastic take on life as an expat in Prague.

I’ve been living in Prague for ten months so I’ve lived through the glorious summer months and into the onset of a remarkably mild winter – you can take the Englishman out of England but you can take the inane English conversation out of the Englishman. I spend my days pretending not to be socially awkward as I teach English to groups of Czech businessmen throughout the far flung business parks of Prague. This can be a fascinating position that gives you an insight into the Czech psyche from real non-foreigner hating Czechs that you just wouldn’t see as a visitor. But it can also be frustrating as you realise that the Czech psyche doesn’t have too much scope for the imagination.

Prague is a wonderful city to live and I certainly do mean to brag when I say that I can see an eleventh century church from my bedroom window and that all the historical hotspots of Prague are no more than a ten minute wander away. This stands in contrast to my previous lodgings in England where picturesque views have included a petrol station, a Netto discount food store, an ad-hoc rubbish tip and a mammoth congregation of social clubs.

There are the obvious benefits to living in Prague; their beer is the probably the closest thing to God’s urine you could imagine, the city-wide transport system is so efficient it makes the German’s look like lazy, disorganised layabouts, the women need no introduction and you bump into historical moments and awesome architecture everywhere you go.

As I get used to the city, I now feel a certain dislocation from Prague as a tourist destination and one thing I have begun to realise when I come up against the visiting hordes is that the average tourist is a very strange animal indeed. Only on holiday would anyone take a massive quantity of photos of doors, shop window displays and plaques and unleash them on unsuspecting, and bored to tears, relatives. Only on holiday, does anyone have such a complete lack of spatial awareness as their group spreads out across the pavement like the formation of a fighter squadron. Anywhere else, staring upwards immersed in a chosen monument whilst strolling down the middle of a road would get you killed but in Prague you have large numbers of others drunk on architecture to protect you and traumatised drivers who are very used to it. You do, however, have an angry expat staring bullets into the back of your cranium as he stalks his way down the road to his next lesson.

Living right in the centre not only gives me the pleasure of the tourists but of the damp smelling armies of the homeless. I have woken up to the bulk of a homeless man sleeping across the door to my flat on many occasions. The problem is that I live on the fourth floor of a securely locked building with an electronic key needed to enter. They’re resourceful, these guys. The people of Prague have even cleverly nicknamed a wooded area near the shady main train station “Sherwood Forest” due to the profligacy of crime and the homeless who live there.

As with everywhere, some things can get to you. The Czechs in the service industry can be reserved to point of rudeness (until you meet them in the safety of their offices) and will never tire of ripping you off. More importantly than anything else, good cheese is really hard to get hold of and their idea of spicy is plain rice with a dash of paprika. What I would give for a block of Cathedral cheddar and a lamb Madras right now.

Throughout the months, I have seen many Americans cut their losses and go home with their fairytale unfulfilled as maybe they find that Prague is a little too similar to where they escaped from and with flaws of its own. I, on the contrary, am not ready to go back yet. Onwards!

About Me

Hello

I’m John Guzdek, a twenty-six year old freelance copywriter and reviewer and part-time English teacher, originally from Leeds and now based in the heart of Europe in beautiful Prague.  Since successfully graduating from the University of Northumbria with a First Class BA Hons in History and Sociology in 2007 I have been building up a portfolio of freelance writing jobs for a range of happy clients.

I am currently engaged in a number of thriving, ongoing freelance writing projects. I have built up an archive of over two hundred well-received film reviews for an established movie website and over four years I have been writing focussed marketing copy for brochures, sales emails and websites for a reputable travel company. Also, in my spare time, I love to write travel articles to chronicle my wide travelling experiences from East Africa to Australia and many places in-between. I have even dabbled in model essay writing (God help me).

My part-time work as an English teacher complements the day job brilliantly as I am really getting to grips with the components of what makes really good writing as well as turning me into a member of the grammar police.

My job is to please you – I can be witty, serious, low brow, high brow, technical, or straightforward and, most importantly, I can write for any audience you choose. Deadlines are no problem, you can always be assured of a high quality end product to meet your specifications with a quick turnaround.