Last Monday, exactly 7 days ago now, Robin Williams committed suicide. Last Monday, like every Monday this summer, I was at work from 8am-4pm. The news about Williams was announced a bit after 3pm. This is significant only because it meant that I was at KQED when the news broke. In fact, one of the Forum producers broke the news.
She lives in Marin, so she always has a tab open to the Marin Independent Journal; Robin Williams lived and died in the jurisdiction of the Marin Sheriff’s Department, and they led the investigation. They wrote the press release and the Marin IJ were the first to see it and publish it. Our lovely producer saw the press release, and told us about it so fast that nothing came up on Google. (Because, as Dan pointed out, Google is an important source: “If it isn’t on Google, it isn’t true!”)
After a simple email to the entire news room with the news and the link, everyone was moving. Within about three minutes, Forum producers had determined if Williams had ever been on the show (he hadn’t). About three minutes after that, the emails started and the people walked down to ask if he’d ever been on the show. Since photos don’t exactly come across well on radio, people were looking for audio clips, which we unfortunately couldn’t provide.
We’d planned a show for the 9am hour. In fact, there were two shows planned (each 30 minutes). As sometimes happens, however, breaking news replaced the previously selected topics, and a Robin Williams show was instantly being crafted. By the time the decision was really made and the potential guests lined up, it was nearly 4pm. And, with the time sensitive nature of the show, the producers did all the work anyways. They know who’s been on Forum in the past, who they’d most like on the show, etc, without needing to ask questions, which always slow down a process.
It was fascinating to watch the process of breaking news being digested, interpreted, and reported on in the station around me, as tragic as that news may have been. I certainly didn’t expect anything along those lines when I began my internship at Forum, but it was certainly an interesting experience from which I learned a lot.
One of the things I do at my internship is take photos to post on social media. Who I end up taking photos of is pretty arbitrary (usually I end up taking photos if we have time and they have time and Michael has time…), but getting to take them is pretty cool. And, even though I don’t need recognition of my work, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get recognition for a bunch of publicity photos, it was nonetheless exciting to get a compliment from one of the producers on Tuesday – she told me she was impressed by my “eye” and “artistic sense.”
I will admit to feeling proud of the idea behind this photo, based on the quote that I heard during the interview. When it ended, I asked him which tattoo was his favorite and if I could take a picture to go with his quote. Then I feel like I had the ability to see a good angle for a cool second photo, but I don’t necessarily feel like it is anything special – the quality and lighting were pretty poor.
But the comment made me start thinking about the realities of practicing. They say practice makes perfect, right? And even though I don’t think you can ever be perfect at an art form like photography, I certainly think you can get better. That’s what I thought about waaay back last year when I first got my new camera, and I think that I’ve gotten better over time at seeing a good shot and also at actually taking a shot that shows what I actually see…
When I was in Malta, I saw this awesome photo I wanted to take. And then I took it and it wasn’t really awesome at all. In fact, it was kinda blah.
But then, I lay down on the ground, and took an awesome photo, which turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted.
I’ve also noticed, here and there, the difference between photos I take and photos my friends take. When we went to Italy, for example, Ashten and I wanted the same picture from the same place in Riomaggiore. I could say that she’s just fundamentally more beautiful than I am, and thus her gorgeous radiance makes everything around her look better. Or maybe I’m just better at photography.
Don’t get me wrong – there are still lots of things I can be better at. In the mosque photo from Malta, it would be a better picture if the mosque was centered between the plants at the bottom, instead of slightly blocked and over to the right. And the picture I took of Ashten would have been better if I’d had her take a half step to her left – she would be blocking that unslightly tree, and also more of the harbor would be visible.
Nonetheless, it is fun to notice that I’m getting better at photography. I know a number of phenomenal photographers (Sam Alavi, for one…), and I always compare my photos to theirs and feel inadequate. But I am learning things, and it is nice to know that other people notice that too. So thanks for the compliment, Irene! And I hope that I can continue to get better at photography!
When I write blog posts, I write them in the moment. Usually, I have some thought that I realize would make a great start for a post, or I have some experience I really want to record. I often think of this blog as my journal or my diary, it is the way I record what is going on in my life, and I am just sharing it with everyone else in the whole wide world. The point of saying this is to remind both myself and you, my readers, that each of my blog posts exists as a snapshot of a moment. Usually, I write my posts straight into my blog. Less often, I write them as word documents and just cut and copy later. With the exception of my posts in foreign languages, I almost never edit a post before it goes up, just like I wouldn’t edit an entry in a diary.
Like everyone else, my life is a roller coasters of ups and downs. I’ve had a lot of ups this year, but as the end of my time in Prague approaches, there are a lot of downs too. I’m trying to be honest as I record what I’m feeling, even when my feelings from one day to the next are opposite. With that said, I want to share two posts I wrote in word documents in the last few days. They are, interestingly, basically contradictory. The one is full of excitement about my growing language skills, while the other expresses frustration with those same skills.
Me and Czech TV
I’ve been traveling a lot these past few weeks (Paris, Cinque Terre, and Malta all in one month) and it has been seriously great. But the result of traveling a lot is that I’ve had very little down time. Especially since we’ve been in the midst of finals, all my extra time has been spent frantically writing papers and studying for those tests.
But this weekend, I’m not going anywhere. Technically I am, but I’m just accompanying my family to grandma’s house. Which means I’ve had the time to just hang out with my family.
I’ve been cuddling with Emma and got kisses from Jachym when he got home from school today. All this kid time means I’ve also gotten to watch some cartoons. Morning cartoons, afternoon cartoons, evening cartoons. There isn’t anything fundamentally interesting about watching cartoons if you are no longer a child. Watching cartoons has actually been a bit like torture over this year, because I am stuck watching cartoons that I don’t even understand. So I stopped watching them sometime around February. I would still sometimes watch other TV shows, like Castle, in Czech because I knew the plots well enough to use them as a sort of lesson in Czech.
But then, this week, I watched some cartoons. I watched some with Emma this morning, and then some with Jachym this afternoon. And I realized at some point that I wasn’t just absentmindedly staring at the TV screen waiting for the program to be over so we could do something else, like I had been earlier in the year. This time, I was actually watching them. And understanding them. Not translating them for myself, but actually understanding them. In Czech!
Now I realize that these are TV programs for children, and so they fundamentally have easier vocabulary and lots of visual clues. But I also know that these are programs in a foreign language. And these are programs that just a few months ago I found incredibly frustrating because even if I devoted 100% attention to them, I wasn’t able to understand even half of what was going on. But now, I can sit on the couch and watch the cartoons like any other kid. I don’t understand all the words, but I catch enough to figure the rest out. I use the images as context for the sentences I don’t understand. I don’t try to translate, but let myself learn through osmosis.
Obviously, this moment of realization was exciting and, honestly, a little overwhelming and disappointing. I’m about to leave, and I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on this language. I can read stories to the kids and feel like I’m actually reading them. When something seems strange, it might be because I don’t understand the words. Or it might be that the story is actually about a biting sweater and another sweater made of spaghetti. (Kids stories can be a little … strange.)
As I finish my time here in Prague, I’ve been continuing with the habit I’ve picked up here in this city filled with coffee shops. I’ve joked multiple times that there is a café on every corner, and more than once I’ve made it my goal to find a new favorite. Needless to say, I have many.
But I’m not the type of person to just go sit aimlessly in a café sipping a cappuccino. I go with friends, and we chat for hours. Or I bring my computer or my iPad or a book and I write the papers I need to write or I read.
I’ve fallen in love with the café culture here more than I ever fell in love with cafés in Boston or San Francisco, not because there are necessarily more cafés here, or a greater variety, but for some other reason I couldn’t put my finger on.
I finally figured it out.
I hate working with headphones in. Not that I can’t do it or that I find headphones uncomfortable, but just that I enjoy hearing what is going on around me. I like to hear the clink of plates or the low voices of people around me. But in the States, where all those conversations are in English, I overhear something I find interesting, and all of a sudden I am no longer focusing on what I am reading, but rather that I’m thinking about the conversation I am listening to. But here, in the Czech Republic, where everyone is speaking a foreign language, that hasn’t been a problem. Every so often there is a table speaking English, and I hear that and find the language notable, but very rarely is the conversation notable as well. So I ignore it as easily as I ignored the conversations my brother and dad would have while I was in high school.
Today, I’m sitting in a café, like always. Like always, the conversations around me are in Czech. But this time, I understand most of what is happening and I can’t focus anymore. I am listening to these conversations around me, understanding enough to want to understand it all. And it is distracting.
I finally figured it out.
I love having background noise, and as long as I couldn’t understand them, dozens of conversations could happen around me and I wouldn’t be bothered.
It feels like I have been doing my homework in the eye of a hurricane all year long. But now, the eye has moved, and the wind is blowing my papers away and I am getting wet. And it is distracting.
Perhaps this is why I never fell in love with doing work in cafés in Boston. I’ve gotten lots of distraction-free work done in Diesel, where you have to pay for internet. But that was in spite of the atmosphere, not because of it. I would go to Diesel with headphones and playlists because otherwise I’d happily sit in a corner and eavesdrop. And here, with just two papers left to write in Prague, the same thing is happening to me in Czech.
So I guess getting good at this language is a double edged sword. I was hoping to bring my love of cafés as work spaces back to Boston, but now I suspect that won’t be happening. At the same time, learning that I need my headphones in cafés here too is a little exciting, because it means that my latent language skills are growing exponentially! Just in time to go home…
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got a good answer or come to any sort of conclusion regarding how I feel about these discoveries. But you can be sure that there will be lots more posts about leaving coming up. Consider this a warning – my blog is about to get sentimental.
We’re finishing up our first week of the two week Czech Intensive portion of this semester. Which means, of course, I’m making my way through the second first week of Intensive Czech. In some ways, this time around is more intense, but in others it is much calmer.
On the more intense side:
- We speak basically only Czech. This surprises me and amazes me simultaneously. If you had asked me when I got here if I could survive four hours a day speaking 95% Czech, I’d laugh at you. But here we are, and this is the reality.
- We have a new, and intense textbook. I like it though. Yes, it freaks me out to see all the instructions in Czech and the sheer size of it (~200 pages), knowing we’re going through the whole thing this semester. But it also excites me to see how much I’m going to learn, and some of the grammar is already instantly simplified because of the professional presentation of it.
- We’re learning dozens of new words a day. This happened first semester, but the words were usually related (like, all the numbers, or a series of logical and important verbs). This semester’s words are more random, dependent on where the conversations take us. New words from today included, but were not limited to: mluví o (speak about), puberták (teenager), přijemný (annoying), obsazeno (taken), čiše (decanter), vrchní (head waiter), přát (to wish), drobné (coins, change), česněk (garlic), zelí (cabbage), kulajda (a specific type of traditional soup with cream, eggs, and mushrooms), potok (brook), krájet (to dice), štouchane brambory (mashed potatoes), žizen (thrist), and švýcarsko (Switzerland).
On the calmer side:
- We know each other. Basically everyone in my class I knew from last semester, so it makes personal dynamics less stressful. We know each others’ quirks, and we already have the inside jokes that get us through the long days of studying.
- We know what to expect. It doesn’t come as a surprise that we get lunch one day and not the next, or that just becaue the schedule says x, y, and z doesn’t mean that we’re sticking to it; in fact, chances are pretty high that lunch gets shifted up one day and back the next.
This isn’t to say that Czech right now isn’t intense. Because it is. We have pages – pages! – of homework each night, and my brain literally hurts when the day is done. But I’m loving it. Because it means I’m learning, which is what I’m here to do, after all. And I feel like I’m on the verge of really being able to communicate in Czech. It’ll definitely take a lot of hard work, but I feel like I’m right there. Like there are only a few more things to learn and then I can say anything I want to say. The declinations that just a month ago seemed so incredibly impossible are coming to me now. I don’t have to think so hard for them to pop into my head, and more often than not the ones I let pop in without thinking are right. More and more, I’m able to understand a word, or words, from context, which means I have to look up words less and less in day-to-day conversations. I’m starting to consider at what point trying to listen and understand conversations on the trams becomes eavesdropping. I sometimes even find myself looking forward to conversations all in Czech, because I feel like I’ve accomplished something significant in terms of the language. Like this morning’s interactions with Emma:
Emma HATES it when I ask her Jak se máš? (how are you?). Hates it when anyone asks, actually. Because their last homestay, Jorge, who was only in Prague for 10 days, never learned anything else. So he’d ask her all the time. Let’s just say they didn’t get along.
Sometimes, we ask Emma how she is as a joke. To make her angry, because she’s cute, and it is funny. But she’s been sick, and I was genuinely curious to know how she was. So I asked her, this morning, Jak se máš? And she scowled. But I didn’t laugh, or give up. I knew what was going on, so I told her (in Czech, of course!) that I’m not Jorge, but that I actually want to know. And then I asked again. And she answered. And it all happened in Czech.
Maybe next time I ask her, she’ll know I really mean it right off the bat.
I don’t like making New Year’s Resolutions. I think they’re stupid. If you want to make a change in your life (actually want it), why wait until the first of January? But that doesn’t mean I don’t make them. I do. Every year. One or two, and I almost always fail to keep them, like the vast majority of the world. I always say I’ll exercise more – in the beginning of 2012, I kept that all the way through the end of February. In 2012, I made the only New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever kept – to read 52 books over the year. I did that in 2012, and I did it again in 2013, and I plan to do it again in 2014. But not as a resolution, but because now I’ve gotten into the habit of reading a book a week. Obviously, when it comes to finals week and show week and other stressful weeks, I don’t find the time to read an entire book. But then there are times, like summer and Christmas, when I’ve got more time than I know what to do with and I read a book a day. And, obviously, some of these are re-reads, or children’s books, but sometimes they’re Murakami novels or classics like Pride and Prejudice or nonfiction about wars.
This year, I’m not making any big year-long resolutions, but I am making a little year-long resolution and a giant January resolution.
1. 2014 – Learn something you want to share everyday. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be academic. It just has to be something I find exciting and want to share with someone. It could a single vocabulary word that is funny, or some new theory about the origin of the universe. It could be something silly about our favorite TV shows to share with my friends from home, or something intellectual to ponder over dinner with my dad. It doesn’t matter, but it has to exist.
I’m already full of random facts, that I share with people all the time. Sometimes in appropriate contexts, sometimes not so much. So maybe I’ll have 365 new facts at the end of the year. (In reality, we only remember about 1 in 10 things we learn, so maybe I’ll have 35 new facts to share.)
The impetus for this resolution is simple, really. I have always thought of myself as a learner. As I get older and people ask me what I want to do with my life, I don’t have any good answers for them. When I ask myself, I decide I want to learn every day. What better way to make sure I am doing that then to make sure I’ve learned something to share with someone every day? I don’t know what I’m doing with my life at this point, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing after I graduate, or even next summer. But I do know that I am in college to learn, and I’m in Prague to learn, and so that’s what I’m going to do. And that brings me to my second resolution – my January resolution
2. January – Learn Czech. I am making a resolution to learn Czech this month. Which sounds silly, because I’ve been learning Czech for the last four months, and will be learning Czech for the next five months. So why am I making it such a big deal for the month? There are a bunch of reasons. For one, I don’t have classes for the entire month, so I might as well give myself something to study. Two, I came to the Czech Republic to learn Czech. I came for the year so I had a better chance of learning Czech. If I’m not going to do it now, then when? Three, I feel like I’ve stalled a bit in my learning of the language. As if I got to a point sometime middle of last semester when I said “I can survive. I speak enough Czech to get my basic needs across, and if there is something more complicated that I need, there are always English speakers close enough to help me.” Which is not the attitude I want to have. See reason #2. So I’m spending the month of January learning Czech. I’ve broken it down for myself into four tasks, which will hopefully bring me closer to the fluency (or at least conversation abilities) I desire.
My first task is to learn 1,000 new words over the month. It sounds like a lot, but the reality is that 1,000 words isn’t that many. 1,000 words represents approximately the vocabulary of a 3 year-old, and approximately 1/30 of the vocabulary of a native speaker. Plus, it means memorizing 32 words every day. Which isn’t that hard.
My second task is to memorize the 7 noun declinations. I keep putting it off, because it is plain, old, boring memorization. But not knowing the declinations is a problem when it comes to speaking, and though some of them are coming to me, the process is too slow. So memorization it will be.
My third task is to have at least one conversation entirely in Czech every day. It can be as simple as ordering coffee (as I did this morning) or talking about what I’m studying (as I did around midnight on New Year’s Eve). The goal here is to not limit my learning to reading and writing, but to practice it in real life. And, ideally, I’m able to have the shorter conversations – especially ones that happen every day – without the native speaker knowing that I am not a native Czech. Hopefully, as the month goes by, my conversations can be longer and less nerve-wracking. I’ll be using the network I’ve set up over the last four months – of family and friends here in Prague – to try to have more complex conversations as often as possible, especially in the second half of the month; this will help me start to learn new words from context instead of the dictionary and to understand and speak at a more native (aka, quicker) pace.
My fourth task is to finish reading Matylda. I have the book in Czech and English, as well as the audio book in Czech, so I’ll finish it in Czech first (I’ve got about 50 pages left) and then read it while listening to the audio book over and over again. Here, again, the goal is to get used to a native speaking speed, but also to work on my reading-out-loud fluency and my pronunciation – all with the goal of sounding more native. Because the reality is that imitation is the best way to learn.
I know that these are big goals for one month, especially since I’m planning a week-long vacation to Switzerland and orientation starts the last week of January. But when the new CIEE students show up in January, I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something when it comes to the language.
Wish me luck!
Also, seeing as today is the second of January, it seems appropriate to share what I learned worth sharing yesterday. When Czechs do fireworks, they do fireworks right.