2013? Good riddance!

According to the stream of Facebook posts I’m seeing today, everyone I know sees 2013 as having been a “great year”, an “awesome year”, or a “fantastic year”.

I’m very happy for all of them, of course, but also quite envious – as years go, it fell pretty far from “great” as far as I’m concerned! It started with my first ever Eastenders-style dramatic NYE party. One of the loneliest nights of my life, it saw me beginning the year pleading for forgiveness for something I hadn’t done, and then walking home alone, tearful, and shivering in a blizzard after failing to get a taxi. Really, it wasn’t a great omen for the year ahead!

I suppose, to put a more positive spin on it, it was a year of making changes.

Practically all my friends had left Korea, and I decided to follow suit, as my whole life had become nothing more than sitting in a bar. Much as I loved that bar, it wasn’t exactly in line with my goals of exploring the world and making a difference! I packed up my life and went home to NI… where I suffered ridiculous homesickness for Korea and the afore-mentioned bar. Good grief.

By July, I was in Prague, enjoying the stressful but rewarding challenges of the CELTA course, throwing myself into hard work, and receiving the grade I wanted. I’m holding on to that as my one worthwhile achievement of the year. Staying in Prague after the course, however… that was my biggest error. I won’t start on it again (I’m meant to be getting the f**k over it, remember?! ;)), but by the end of the year I simply hated life.

The saving grace? Hope in the final few weeks of the year. Handed in my notice despite not having a solid job offer. Discovered I could give confident interviews that would result in offers. Learned from my mistake of panicking and accepting a low-paid, unsuitable job instead of taking my time, asking for what I want, and looking into every opportunity.

I am admittedly dreading January, as I have to go back to Prague and work for a few more weeks, and sort out all my belongings. But I’m going to try and make the most of it in the knowledge that it’s only for a few more weeks, and not until the summer after all. I’m out of there, although I’m not going to sign any contracts until I’m happy with what they say. The uncertainty about where I’m going to be living a few weeks from now is scary, but exciting. Who knows how it’ll pan out? I could love it… I could hate it. It could be a fantastic move… it could be another mistake.

But you know, I have learned one really important thing this year. Home is always here. Maybe this year was just a blip, and by the time the next one’s through I’ll be full of my old enthusiasm and excitement about living abroad. Or maybe I’ve had enough of the expat life, and am ready to put down roots and stop moving around in search of adventure. I really don’t know, and only time will tell. But no matter what happens… home is always here.

This year, I’ve learned that NI, despite its problems, is not a bad wee country after all. It’s small, it’s friendly, it’s laid-back, it’s full of cheerful, obliging folk, it’s beautiful, and it’s fun. As I said to a friend the other day: it’s strange that perhaps the biggest discovery I’ve made, after travelling to and living in countries dotted all across the globe, is that I’m actually pretty fond of the one I started out from!

And that’s not a bad thing to come out of an unpleasant year. I know where my home is. Who would’ve thought it?!

Happy new year to all my readers, and here’s hoping that 2014 is full of smiles, adventure, happiness, and friendship for all of us. Here’s to never knowing what’s around the corner – and to the possibility that it will, indeed, be a “great year”.

Under the heading of “life’s too short”…

Well, kids: I’m out of here.

Prague has not been a good chapter of my life, so I’m skipping to the end and turning to the next chapter several months earlier than I’m supposed to.

Really, I should have thrown in the towel sooner. You know how you just get a gut feeling, sometimes? When I arrived in Korea in 2009, alone and mildly terrified, I instantly felt right about it. Everything clicked. Even though I spent the first few months practically on my own, I was happy from the start. I loved my new life, new job, and new surroundings. I knew I’d made the right move.

Here, it’s been like a mirror image opposite of that experience. I dislike my new job, and my surroundings make me miserable and desperate to escape. And you know, I kind of resigned myself to sticking it out until the end of my contract in June, simply because I’m not one to rock the boat. Last week, however, it hit me: I was spending 50% of my time excitedly and longingly counting down the days and hours until my flight home for Christmas… and the other 50% in utter misery at the thought of coming back again. I haven’t even gone home yet and I’m dreading coming back? That’s not good!

So I threw it open to chance and applied for about 10 random jobs in various other European countries, just to see what to expect. I arranged 3 interviews, one of which I stopped halfway through and politely withdrew my interest, as it sounded like a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. The other 2 led to job offers, and another possibility may have cropped up today through a friend. It was all I needed – proof that I wouldn’t be mad to quit without a job lined up. I can find something else, and that whole CELTA thing was worth it, apparently. ;)

Yes, it’s a risk. I could, after all, end up hating wherever I go as much as I hate this! But I know in my heart that even if it’s not any better, it can’t be much worse. It’s a risk worth taking, because I honestly feel that I have nothing to lose. Most ‘new year start’ jobs are contracted from January till June, and I would have been leaving here in June anyway. If I stay, I’ll be living in a continuous countdown until then. If I go somewhere else, I might find myself either doing the same thing, or having a much better experience. Once I saw it like that, my decision was made. Even if it’s another bad move, I won’t have lost anything.

I haven’t yet decided where I’m going, but I will over the holidays. And tomorrow, I fly home to my family. I’ll come back and tie up all the loose ends next month… but for now, I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief and looking forward to a hard-earned break. I’m on my way out of here, and I’m going to see my loved ones in a matter of hours! And it’s Christmas! And I just drank a bottle of Czech wine I was taking home as a Christmas gift! (oops – but nerves were shot to pieces, to be fair, and I famously loathe packing)

To admitting defeat and getting out. Cheers. :)

Public transport: what are your pet peeves?

Ah, public transport.

I’ve never been a fan of it, to be honest, and was fortunate enough not to have to use it much over the past few years. I lived in a relatively small city, a short walk from work, and a half hour stroll from the centre of town. Hailing a taxi was easy, fast, and cheap, so I did so several times a week without even thinking about it. And before I lived in Korea, I had a car. It was very rare that I found myself waiting for a bus.

Nowadays, I half live on the Prague public transport system – which is excellent, thankfully. Well connected, regular, easy to follow, and with a handy website that tells you the fastest way from A to B using your current location and your destination – right down to the bus/metro/tram times, required transfers, and alternative routes. And having the Opencard means that I don’t have to bother with all the hassle of buying/stamping tickets – I can just hop on and off any bus, train, or tram I want. All good!

Spending so much time on public transport does, however, make you develop a set of pet peeves. Depending on my mood, these make me sigh and roll my eyes, or fume inwardly as I silently plot revenge on all other commuters. And so, may I present: my top 5 public transport gripes.

5. The Noisy Talkers.

I’m not quite as extreme as the Koreans, who seemed to think we deserved to be imprisoned for daring to have a whispered conversation on the train. I’ve never been good with lots of simultaneous noises, though (like if the TV’s on, and people are talking, and I can hear music coming from another room… it makes me feel crazy), and it’s the same on trains or buses. A low murmur of voices, and I don’t really notice it. But a group of giggling teenage girls, or two half-deaf old men having a shouted conversation, or regular coughing/sneezing/snorting noises, and I feel trapped in the same way as I do when near a screaming baby on a plane. Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop! I actually got off the bus one day last week because a group of loud girls at the back were nudging me into the abyss of insanity with their shouts and roars.

4. The Slow Movers.

This applies to all public spaces, but is even worse in crowded metro stations in rush hour, when you know people are hurrying to make connections in order to get to work on time. Really, I feel that the general public would benefit from learning a few common sense-inspired rules. Don’t dawdle along, staring at your phone, while in a huge crowd of people who are trying to get from one platform to the next! Don’t stroll casually out of the train carriage towards the stairs when people are clearly running to try and fling themselves into the train before the doors close! Don’t plonk yourself on the left on the escalator to stand and chat to your friend, thus blocking absolutely everyone behind you from passing! Get out of the bloody way, move briskly, and if you are physically incapable of moving briskly, then stand politely aside to let the crowd pass. It’s not that difficult. These people deserve to be bitch-slapped quite severely, they really do.

3. The Seat Hoggers.

Sitting there with their luggage or shopping strewn all over the seat(s) next to them, or legs outstretched so that no one else can sit down. Usually with their eyes closed and wearing earphones so they can act like they aren’t aware someone else might appreciate being allowed to sit down. Grrrrrrrr.

2. The Compulsive Standers.

On a half-empty bus, tram, or metro carriage, it makes not one hair of difference to me whether you choose to stand despite the presence of vacant seats, or to sit with your possessions sprawled over several. But even worse than the above-mentioned Seat Hoggers are the Compulsive Standers, who will refuse to sit down in an empty seat, but instead be crushed into the centre of the carriage despite the seat that they are actually leaning over in order to have a pole to grab for balance.

For a start, it makes no sense to me that you wouldn’t prefer to sit than to deal with the crush. If I could make it to that seat, I would gladly flop down into it – but it’s so crowded that you are the only person who can use it. But personal preferences aside, you are inconveniencing everyone else by standing there, blocking a seat. It’s no good claiming you don’t need it and will leave it free for an elderly person. At this stage, when people are still crowding and pushing into every possible space, there’s no way an elderly person is going to make it to that seat – all you are doing, in fact, is effectively taking space for two people, thus worsening the crush. Sit the feck down on the fecking seat and let people move along, why don’t you?! If someone looks like they need the seat, you can get up and offer it to them. No one’s going to crawl and wriggle past you to get into it while you’re standing there. Stop. Being. A dick.

1. The Excuse Me Crew.

I hate this, hate it, hate it beyond all reason. So, I’m standing there holding on to a pole for dear life. I can’t balance in moving vehicles, so I need to hold on tightly. Now, even when my stop is the next one, and we’re slowing down, I still refuse to let go of the pole – and if I’m lucky enough to have a seat, I will remain sitting – until we have come to a complete stop. There’s that moment, just before the doors open, when the whole vehicle jolts and stops, and people stagger around in surprise. I fail to understand it. It happens every single time, at every single stop. There’s always someone who has let go of their pole or attempted to stand up, and been sent stumbling across the aisle. Why don’t you wait until the jolt happens and everything is still and safe?! Why?!! It’s annoying enough in itself, but then you’ve got the Excuse Me Crew in the middle of it all. Usually just before the jolt happens, they start to make their way towards the doors. Maybe they find it easier than I do to keep their balance, I dunno, but they’re all “Excuse me! Excuse me!”, pushing and shoving their way to the exit of the still-moving vehicle.

I have two choices. I can (a) let go of my pole to let them past, and promptly fall over when the jolt occurs. Or, I can (b) glare fiercely at them and refuse to stop clinging to the pole. I must confess, these days it’s (b) all the way. I mean, half the time this happens on the approach to a major station or stop, where you know that everyone will be getting out – so why on earth should I let go of my pole, fall over, and get shoved to the back somewhere, just to let you out before me?! It makes no sense to me, and I don’t understand how the Excuse Me Crew think this is socially acceptable behaviour. IT IS NOT. If I were in an English-speaking country, I might just reply firmly “It’s OK, I’m getting out here, too.” and refuse to budge. As it is, I try to pretend not to notice them with their I’m-more-important-than-you shoving and Excuse Mes. No, I will not excuse you!! Wait till the fecking thing has stopped, and then I’ll let go of the fecking pole!!!

Public transport. It’s a zoo out there.

 

I don’t heart Prague

“Get the f**k over it.”

The comments and messages I got in response to my super-depressive post about my current state of existence were all supportive, caring, thoughtful, and encouraging. Apart from that one. The anonymous (aren’t they always?) commenter left a comment telling me I sounded like a 12-year-old and should just “get the f**k over it”.

Having spent the previous night drinking myself into a stupor alone in my room and drunkenly researching desperate “I’ve messed up my life, help, what can I do?” solutions on the internet, the fact that this comment was the first thing I saw when I woke up and went online was like a kick in the teeth. I didn’t approve it to show up on the post (because I don’t let anonymous dickheads comment, that is – had it had a name and/or contact details attached as all other comments do, I would have let it go through, insult or no insult, as I have done in the past), but it stuck with me all day, and actually did me a favour. If an anonymous coward with so little of a life that (s)he thinks trying to make a depressed, lonely stranger feel worse is fun thought I was pathetic… chances were, I was pretty pathetic.

So, thanks to the brutal reality check from my dear unsympathetic reader, I took his/her advice and decided to get over it.

Things gradually got better.

The Demon Child either sensed the change or gave up on trying to do… well, whatever she was trying to do with her crazed screaming, and suddenly transformed into a sweet little girl. I’m not exaggerating – one minute she was screaming bloody murder in the cloakroom, trying to escape, and the next she was pulling up a chair next to me and chatting away cheerfully. It was as if a switch was flicked, and I still don’t understand what happened. She is a lovely wee thing now, all smiles and innocent childishness instead of pure terror in human form. Yesterday she even hugged me when I came in. HUGGED me. You can’t understand the enormity of this. Yes, little ESL kids often hug their teachers, and I get plenty of affectionate cuddles throughout the week. But this one… hugging me… I looked at the head teacher in utter astonishment over the child’s head, and she gaped back at me like a bewildered goldfish. I actually danced a little victory dance on the way home that night. My time at the pre-school is no longer my twice-weekly torture, for which I have to brace myself by taking deep, steadying breaths outside the door upon my arrival. The relief is unbelievable. I’m genuinely becoming fond of her and looking forward to seeing her – seriously, I would not have believed that to be possible. You have no idea how horrific it was!

Work in general got better, too. I learned something about myself – that too much free time is bad for me. Unlike at my previous jobs, I don’t have to be present for the entire working day, and so I had taken to going home after my morning pre-schools. Most of the time, permanently exhausted from my pre-sunrise starts, I’d gratefully crawl straight back into bed, and then have to drag myself dismally out again to go teach at another school in the afternoon. I interacted with no one, and had no energy or enthusiasm for my work. Now, though, I make myself go to the staffroom and thoroughly prepare my lessons in my free hours, or at least chat to colleagues. I don’t go home until I’ve done a full day’s work, and I feel no more or less exhausted, but much more useful and worthwhile.

My social life got better. The aforementioned chatting to colleagues developed into better working relationships, more human interaction, less isolation, and a few actual friends to spend my leisure time with.

All good, right?

But in spite of all this…

I stil hate this place.

I can’t explain it. I can’t even understand it. This is supposed to be a beautiful, much-loved city, and yet I’m not just indifferent to it – I hate it. I don’t see the historic beauty everyone raves about; I don’t understand why it’s so popular; I can’t fathom why many of my fellow teachers, unhappy in their jobs, justify staying because “It’s all about living in Prague, for me”…. “My weeks are long, but my weekends are amazing”… “Prague is an incredible city”.

I disagree – and strongly.

It’s grey, tired, and depressing. Nowhere to be seen are my beloved winding alleyways and red turrets of Estonia, or my cobblestoned courtyards of France, or my beautiful natural surroundings of Switzerland. That’s the Europe I craved to be back in. That’s the Europe I was coming back for. Instead, I find myself in an unfriendly, graffiti-slathered, grey, dismal, plain, unenchanting city.

Don’t get me wrong – I know that I am very near to alone in this opinion. And it’s not like me, either! I was always the cheerleader of any new place I visited, refusing to let the negativity of others affect my enthusiasm. Even here, I started off with my usual eager curiosity and excitement. I created a Facebook album called “I love Prague!”, full of photos I took on my first day of exploring.

I do not love Prague. I feel as if the photos in that album show the only attractive things I’ve seen in my time here. One day. I saw all the nice things in one day? That’s not for me. My whole love of living abroad comes from seeing new things every day – exploring previously unseen areas, stumbling across some hidden beauty spot or historic place, admiring my unfamiliar surroundings almost constantly. Even towards the end of my time in Korea, when I was growing weary of the same old sights year after year, I still felt that elated traveller’s buzz just from walking down the street to my apartment and passing a little old woman selling vegetables on the kerb, or sitting alone in a Korean diner eating mandu and kimchi. Here, I just feel… disappointed. Look, I know the city doesn’t owe me anything, OK?! I probably seem arrogant, with an unwarranted sense of entitlement or something. But I can’t think of any other way to express the constant feeling of “meh” that I have here. I did a lot of driving and wandering around Northern Ireland with my mum last time I was home, and quite honestly, my humble wee country beats this place hands down. And if you know me, and how characteristically unaffectionate I’ve generally been towards my home country, you’ll know that that’s saying a lot. I find myself longing for the quiet little villages with their old churches and stone-walled fields lined with weeping willows, and the cities of Belfast and Dublin with their fascinating histories, friendly locals, and vibrant social scenes.

I’m frustrated by Prague as much as I’m resentful of it. I know I’m very much in the minority, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what everyone else is seeing that I’m not. In my frustration, I showed a colleague a picture of Tallinn. I think that’s what I was expecting, I told him ruefully. He wrinkled his brow and looked at me without comprehension. But that’s what Prague is like! he insisted, looking mystified. We agreed to disagree.

It’s very pretty at night, certainly, when the darkness hides the ugly graffiti, and the lights illuminate the gothic buildings and cobbled streets. The Christmas markets are beautiful, too – but everywhere looks pretty at Christmas, if you ask me.

For the first time since I’ve been travelling, I’m living in a city I cannot stand, and pretty much counting the days until I can escape.

No longer depressed and self-pitying, lest my dear, considerate, anonymous reader be inclined to comment again.

Making the most of it, and doing my best to see more and do more and hopefully finally see what it is about this city that enchants so many people.

But counting down, all the while.

I can’t wait to leave.

We Wish You A Scary Christmas

Blimey.

So, today was the much-anticipated day of Mikuláš, although I’d forgotten all about it as I walked through the big school to my first class, the 4th grade, at 7.50am. I poked my head around the door of my oldest class as I passed, to say good morning, and discovered to my alarm that they had all morphed into angels and demons. The latter growled ferociously at me as I stood momentarily frozen in the doorway, and I couldn’t help bolting down the corridor. Honestly, Čert is as terrifying as he is difficult to pronounce.

The teens

The young teen versions, however, were nothing to the “real” one, who arrived in the school while I was in the middle of circle time in a first grade classroom. The children mostly seemed to be looking forward to the trio’s visit, some of them wearing angel wings and halos, and about two thirds of the entire school having covered their faces in black and red face paint. Their eager anticipation vanished, however, when they heard the ominous sound of clinking chains in the corridor.

Čert!! they shrieked, looking suddenly terrified. A few of them were play-acting being afraid, but most of them were genuinely scared – and the same went for the pupils of a few of my colleagues, as I was informed when I mentioned it in the safety of our staffroom later on. My entire first grade class ran screaming from the formerly quiet circle on the rug, where we’d been having a pleasant discussion about favourite toys, and proceeded to hide under their desks. You would’ve thought a natural disaster was approaching, if you’d witnessed the scene. It’s OK… I think he’s gone on past, I said uncertainly. A loud clanging and a demonic roar immediately proved me wrong, and pandemonium descended upon the classroom.

One of my adorable wee 1st grade angels, coming down the stairs after our class and promptly freaking out when she saw a mob of demons. She fled down the stairs, her little angel wings flying behind her...

One of my adorable wee 1st grade angels, coming down the stairs after our class and promptly freaking out when she saw a mob of demons. She fled down the stairs, her little angel wings flying behind her…

Umm… Martina?! I said helplessly to my co-teacher, trying to extract myself from underneath three 6-year-olds who were clinging to various parts of my body as the others trembled and screamed under the desks. Honestly, 3+ years of weirdness in Korea never saw such chaos in my classroom. My co-teacher went out to tell the devil to mooch on up the corridor so that we could regain control of the room. See, it’s OK! I said desperately, my limbs going dead under the weight of all the youngsters as I tried to discreetly prise them off. Martina’s making him go away. 

Martina spoiled the calming effect of this somewhat by suddenly screaming outside the door, amidst scuffling sounds. The children became semi-hysterical, and I got an accidental headbutt on the nose. My co-teacher reappeared, entering hastily and slamming the door behind her, muttering something in Czech. The children squealed again, for she had apparently been attacked by Čert and had red and black streaks on her previously immaculate face. Have you got a mirror? she asked in exasperation. I hadn’t, so she had to reluctantly retain her new look for the rest of the morning’s lessons, which I found rather amusing.

One of the less scary demons I encountered, who did not run at me, and only growled a little bit when I asked him to pose for a photo with a passing angel-boy.

One of the less scary demons I encountered, who did not run at me, and only growled a little bit when I asked him to pose for a photo with a passing angel-boy.

By the time I left the school, there were dozens of Čerts running riot all over the place, growling and clinking their chains. It was like some sort of demon apocolypse. One of the feckers chased me down the stairs, possibly trying to strangle me with his chains or bundle me off to hell in his sack. I don’t know – I took off like a shot towards the bus stop.

Apparently Mikuláš and his infamous sidekicks also pay home visits to children whose parents particularly wish to scare the crap out of them, but although I knew this, I was quite unprepared for the unholy racket that disturbed my dinner about half an hour ago. It’s dark outside, and quite a blustery, stormy night, with the wind howling around and causing unfamiliar creaking and crashing noises at my window. Enter the Terrible Three by the main door downstairs.

It flew open with a loud bang, and I jumped.

STOMP! STOMP! STOMP! The thudding footsteps echoed through the hallway and up the staircases. I jumped again.

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! Čert’s chains jingled and echoed like a less friendly, more threatening version of Santa’s sleigh, as he continued to stomp up the stairs. By the noise he made, I’d have guessed that he was a 10-foot ogre with an obesity problem.

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! came the finishing touch, and I couldn’t help letting out a yelp and jumping so hard that I spilled my soup. Look, I knew the whole thing was pretend, OK, but he sounded bloody terrifying. The roaring and grunting, the clinking and clanging, the ferocious stomping… I gazed nervously and breathlessly at my door, half-expecting him to come crashing through it. He continued steadily up the stairs, however, and moments later I heard (and felt) an almighty thumping at an unfortunate child’s door, followed by an excited parent’s cooing voice (oh look, darling, here’s the FREAKING DEVIL I ORDERED at the door for you!), and almost immediately afterwards by the shrieking of some petrified children who will doubtless be in therapy before they hit their teens.

Honestly, this is a really weird place…

Here's one I made earlier... a cardboard tube tribute to the trio, which I helped my school's kindergarten teacher to make earlier in the week. (No, I didn't touch the cotton wool.)

Here’s one I made earlier… a cardboard tube tribute to the trio, which I helped my school’s kindergarten teacher to make earlier in the week. (No, I didn’t touch the cotton wool.)