Lessons Learned in Slovakia

Every winter, all schools in Poland close for two weeks so that families can have vacation time and the children can rest from their studies. The school I work at, Oxford Centre, also closed for two weeks but all the teachers had to work for one of the weeks. For my week on duty, I was asked to go to Slovakia for a week-long ski trip. The kids would go skiing in the morning and in the afternoons they would have various activities which would include an hour of English games with the two native English speakers that went on the trip. Aside from me, the supervisor of the native English speakers at Oxford Centre, Adrian, went on the trip since he goes snowboarding. I quickly learned that of the adults on the trip, I am the most inexperienced skier. I was chosen because I had skied before in the past, unlike the other Native English speakers at Oxford, but that doesn’t say much. Despite my lacking skiing abilities, there are several lessons I learned from my week in Slovakia.

I Learned How To Ski

Even though I skied before in the past, it turned out that skiing is not like riding a bike – at least for me. My first run down the bunny hill was embarrassing. I fell down at least three times during my first run and I had a hard time getting back up. All the Oxford kids seemed to be better than me. Since the ski instructors prioritized helping the kids with their skiing, I had to teach myself and try to mimic the other skiers. It took a lot of trial and error, but I managed to get down the hill without falling, but I was still very slow. Even though it was embarrassing for me that all the adults and kids witnessed my horrendous skills, I made the decision to not let that get to me. I was open with the kids about my skills, and that did not change the way they looked at me. They did not respect me any less just because I was terrible. If anything, they cheered me on as I improved.

I Can Survive Without Internet

But I will admit that it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was really annoying to have no WiFi. Even phones with data could not pick up a strong enough network to use the internet. My personal phone is useless outside of Poland. The lodge we stayed in did have a computer with internet, but we had to pay one euro for every 15 minutes! I did use it twice to make an important payment and then check it the next day to make sure it was verified. The only other place we had WiFi was when the kids went swimming. Overall, we didn’t need the internet. We were kept busy on the slopes, and then with our afternoon and evening activities. When I did have free-time, I just caught up with my reading list on my Kindle app, or I would play the games that did not require WiFi. Besides, this week was meant to be a week in nature and to spend time with each other and not necessarily glued to our phones and tablets. However, I will admit that with a language barrier between me and the rest of the group make this a difficult task.

You Can Survive on Bread and Butter

Well, at least you can survive on that diet for a week. The lodge we stayed in provided cleaning and cooking services so that none of the adults would have to worry about making meals on top of everything else. The Slovakian man who owned the lodge gave us some sort of pork product almost every single meal. For breakfast and supper, we had bread, butter, cheese and sliced ham. Sometimes it will come with tomatoes and a slice of cucumber. For lunch, we were given some sort of pork with sauce as well as watery soup. Since I don’t like pork, I did not each any of it and stuck with bread all week. All the kids hated the food as well as the other adults. On our last day, we all went out to McDonald’s. I never thought I would see the day where I felt like I was eating something healthy at McDonald’s. After all, McDonald’s grilled chicken wrap actually had fresh greens inside.

Slovakian is Similar to Polish

Before leaving for this trip, I thought that the kids would be forced to speak English to the Slovakians since the country had their own language. It turns out that Slovakian is not much different from Polish and that the kids on the trip understood a lot of Slovakian. English, however, is not something most Slovakians understand. The owner of the lodge could talk to the adults and kids, but with me it was a different story. I was suddenly the odd one out since I was one of two native English speakers, and the other one has an intermediate level of Polish. Whenever we were at the slopes and wanted to buy a hot drink, I found that it was easier to order with my beginner’s level of Polish instead of English.

Kofola is Nasty

I have never heard of Kofola until I visited Slovakia. Suddenly Kofola was advertised everywhere and were found in all the shops. A couple of kids on the trip told me that I had to try it, and so I did. I never tasted a soda more repulsive than Kofola. It tasted like a mixture of cough syrup, vanilla, and Coca-cola combined. Apparently Kofola is a soda combination of coffee “kof” and Coca-cola “ola” thus resulting in the infamous name “Kofola.” I gave it a few sips and even set it down for a day and tried it again, but it was still nasty so I gave it away. None of the kids wanted it. In fact, I caught them kicking it around in the lounge area in the lodge, so I just threw it away.

Sometimes a Smile is All it Takes to Break Language Tensions

This is not a new revelation for me, but this was definitely true for me this week. There were about 8 adults on the trip and roughly 40 kids from age 8 to 16. As I mentioned before, I am the only one of two native English speaking adults, but I did my best to show my respect by trying to use the little bit of Polish I do know. On day one, when one of the Polish ski instructors met me, he gave me a clearly disappointed look when he found out that I couldn’t speak Polish. He made it clear that he didn’t not know much English, but we tried to find ways to communicate and get along. He would teach me a few Polish phrases and gesture the various words he tried to communicate to me, and I would do the same. Each night, I would have to share a room with a Polish woman in her early 40s. She hardly talked to me, but I would smile and ask her simple questions in English. It turned out that she knew quite a bit but was afraid to use it in fear that she would “mess up.” I find that this is a common problem with English language learners. My job as a teacher is to first become a safe person to practice and mess up in front of. It was amazing to see a difference between day one when we hardly talked to the last day where she would freely talk to me. And finally there was the Slovakian owner that all the adults complained about. He was annoyed with the kids and got upset over a scratch a kid made on the table. He always looked grumpy when he served us our daily pork. Even though I absolutely hated the meals, I decided to smile and thank him each day. Even though we could only communicate through my minimal level of Polish, I could tell that he liked me because I simply smiled and was polite. He and the other adults did not get along, but he liked me. Maybe it is our lack of communication that made us pleasant to the other, but I like to think he thought I was different than everyone else.

Always Bring a Swimsuit – Just in Case

During one of the days on the slopes, I met an English speaking Slovakian who was helping a group of beginner skiers from Greece. I heard him talk to them in English, and my natural instinct was to stop skiing and introduce myself. I wanted to meet a Slovakian who can tell me a bit about his country so that I could learn more. I asked him what I should know about Slovakia, other than having amazing mountains and ski slopes. The only other thing he told me was that I needed to check out were the thermal springs and visit one of the spas. On Wednesday afternoon, our group went to an indoor-outdoor spa that had pools that were heated by thermal spring water.

Unfortunately, I did not bring a swimsuit. I seriously thought about swimming in my underwear, but I figured no one would appreciate it so I brought my camera to take pictures. The more of the springs I saw, and after dipping my feet in the water, I was kicking myself for not bringing a suit. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I was told to bring a suit, but because I hate what I look like in a swimsuit, I decided against swimming. Bad choice. In that moment, I did not care. I wish I got in the water. Sadly, I didn’t.

To be Humble

Throughout the week, many children got sick. Most of the cases were the common cold, but there were a handful of kids who had a temperature. For two of the ski days, I was asked to stay behind with the sick kids, take their temperatures, and give them medicine if needed. I knew the unspoken reason why I was chosen to stay behind with the sick kids was because I was the worst skier of the adults. Even though I wanted to continue practicing, I knew that my first line of duty was the be there for the kids, especially when it comes to sickness. I had to go into the two days with the right attitude, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise despite the sickness. There was one boy named Michal (pronounced Mee-How) who just wanted someone to talk to. He was one of the few Polish kids who went beyond greeting me in English. He loved learning English and wanted to practice with me even though he had a temperature. He told me about an English competition he entered and his hope to win. After his temperature reading, I gave him medicine and he promptly threw up. My initial reaction was to jump away. I cannot stand vomit, but as the adult in the building, I had to do something. That required asking the Slovakian workers for cleaning supplies. Since they don’t speak English, I had to rely on Michal’s roommate (who only had a cold) to communicate for me. I felt embarrassed that I could not be the one to speak. I am the adult in charge and I should not make a child translate, but everyone involved knew that this was the only way to effectively communicate. Throughout week, I felt little next to these children would could ski better than me and communicate to the Slovakians while I couldn’t. But I had to be at peace with this. Besides, being an adult doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to be better than the kids. Let them take pride in their abilities while the adults step aside every now and then. Once I came to terms with this, I enjoyed the rest of my week.

Overall, Slovakia has been a positive learning experience for me, even though during the week I counted the days until the trip was over. Sometimes you need to make the best of the situation you find yourself in and be determined to enjoy yourself even if your are served nasty pork every meal, or if you don’t know how to ski very well, are asked to stay with sick children, cannot communicate with most people, and did not bring your swimsuit for the spa. I will not say that I wish to repeat my week, but it is certainly a week I cannot allow myself to forget.