Cross-country skiing

The trials of learning a new skill

My last experience with cross-country skiing was over 10 years ago. Most of the experience has been wiped from my mind, save for a lingering memory of a biting cold afternoon and a mild sense of frustration. The Czechs make cross-country skiing look effortless. I’ve admired them sliding along the frozen lake at Lipno and across the flat, rural landscape on our drives toward the mountains. It’s a beloved winter sport in this country, and the Czechs are pretty good at it, both on the international cross-country scene and locally in the Jizerské Mountains, where the Jizerská 50 (a 50 km cross-country race) is one of the country’s most famous. When there’s good snow conditions, the Jizerská magistrála with its 170 km of groomed cross-country trails can be as crowded as a highway leading out of Prague on a Friday afternoon.

Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country has the benefit of being both inexpensive and able to be done without waiting in long lines. Czech tourism’s website paints a tantalizing picture of cross-country skiing in the Jizerské Mountains: “Do you know that feeling when a white trail stretches off into the distance before you and your cross-country skis slide contentedly along step by step?”

When our neighbors invited us for an adults-only Valentine’s weekend of cross-country skiing in the Jizerské Mountains, Radek and I agreed to join them. Radek grew up skiing in the Jizerské Mountains, and although he hadn’t been cross-country skiing in several years, he’d spent his childhood exploring the very trails that we wanted to try. His first skis had been his mother’s. When his mother told me that she used to enjoy cross-country skiing, I figured if she could do it, then so could I. Although I’d seen the recent World Championship coverage on TV, which showed cross-country skiing at its tough, competitive height, I was looking for light, non-strenuous exercise in peaceful, natural wintertime surroundings. I wanted to experience the picture described in the tourism brochure.

Although Radek considered buying cross-country boots and only renting the skis and poles, (perhaps he figured like him I’d like the sport so much that we’d want to go often), in the end, we rented everything from our local Happy Sport. For 600 CZK we were able to rent two sets of boots, skis and poles for the weekend. I overhead some discussion between Radek and the salesclerk about whether we needed skis with šupiny (scales) or klasik, but since I didn’t know the difference, I didn’t worry. When we loaded the skis into Radek’s car, they were so long that we had to wedge them from the trunk through the crack in the middle seats between Samuel and Anna Lee. On the way to babička’s to drop off the kids, Samuel rode with his hands cupping the ends of the skis. They seemed suspiciously long and narrow, but I assumed skiing on them couldn’t be that much trickier than downhill skiing.

I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that like most sports, in cross-country skiing a certain technique is required in order to be any good. When I clipped my boots into my skis, memories of my one previous experience with Radek in the Jizerské Mountains some 10 years ago came back. I remember why I hadn’t instantly fallen in love with the sport. Just standing still on cross-country skis on an icy, slightly uphill path was a challenge. I dug my poles into the slick ground and waited for instruction. Radek and one of our neighbors glided off up the hill, using a striding motion that looked easy enough to replicate, but proved harder in reality. I watched the other two women in our group start off ahead of me and tried to copy their motions. Soon I was shuffling along at the rate of one slide-forward, one slide-backward, one slide-forward again. I was making slow progress, but my arms were getting tired from digging into the hard snow and my legs seemed to be using up a lot more energy than was evident by my slower-than-walking pace. At some point, most of the others switched from sliding to skating, which unfortunately proved even harder for me than sliding.

Determined not to give up, I trudged along on our mostly uphill path until we reached the elusive magistrala. True to its description, the magistral was easier to ski on mainly because it was flatter, but also because the snow on the path wasn’t as icy. My troubles, however, began once we started our descent. Despite the downhill being ever so slight, I could not get my longer skis to cooperate. Even though I tried to wedge them into a snowplow (the recommended method for slowing down), I couldn’t get enough pressure into the ice to stop sliding.

Over the downhill section of our trip I fell repeatedly. Hard. On the ice. I hit my knee, my tailbone and my upper right thigh. I bruised parts of me that I didn’t even know could bruise. By the time we’d reached our 10 km halfway point, I’d fallen three times, each time harder than I’d ever fallen while downhill skiing. I wondered why I wasn’t wearing a helmet; however, it was only the bottom half of my torso that was taking the beating.

During a particularly hard fall, I almost caused another neighbor to go down after me because I fell sprawled across the track and my poles clipped her skis when she slid past me. When I got to the bottom of the hill where our group was waiting another neighbor glided over to check my status. He gave me a hug, and I promptly burst into tears. Oblivious to my emotional distress, or perhaps trying to keep out of the line of fire, Radek chatted with another neighbor until I managed to get a hold of myself. Although he encouraged me to put my skis back on and try the snow plow again, I refused until we got to level ground.

I trotted down a one kilometer long hill, feeling a bit foolish, but with each sure-footed, ski-less step gaining a little more of my previous equilibrium. I grinned gamely to the Czechs who were gliding up the hill, and tried to affect the air that I was walking just to take a break, rather than walking down defeated. My surroundings were breathtaking – trees coated with a thick, white layer of ice; evergreens standing vivid against the white backdrop. I saw a lot more of the scenery on foot than I did on skis. While I was gliding, I had been concentrating so hard on my technique that I hadn’t had a chance to look around and enjoy myself.

By the time we reached our cottage, we’d covered 20 kilometers. I’d fallen six times in total, and I was totally and completely undone. The evening was saved by listening to the stories from the rest of our group. Each person (besides myself) had fallen only once, but listening to the complaints about aching muscles and bruised tailbones made me feel a bit better. We went to the sauna, drank wine and chatted around a fire in the cottage restaurant.

The next morning, Radek was game to go again. Although I protested, in the end, I acquiesced, with the caveat that we try a different trail. No one else wanted to join us, so we drove 4 km to Severák where a flattish trail across the fields was frequented by small children and older adults. The average age for a beginning cross-country skier must be about eight years old, and on this day I saw much tinier skiers skiing alone and being pulled by their parents through the field. My experience was a 180-degree about face from the day before. We skied 8 km without me falling once, and because the snow was slushier and wetter, I was able to snowplow to a stop without getting out of control.

However, my delight at finally getting up enough speed to pass one skier on the last stretch soon vanished when I saw her elderly face in the parking lot. Bracing herself on her ski poles, she tiptoed through the icy patches in the parking lot, muttering in Czech to her grandson, “I must go slowly now, or they’ll have to carry me off to hospital.” Walking in the wintery conditions seemed more difficult for her than skiing had. I admired her resolve, and I wondered what I’d look like cross-country skiing when I was 75.

Perhaps, Radek was right. Maybe it was all about learning the technique.

There had been a few moments during the weekend when, as the website had promised, my skis slid contentedly along step by step. There weren’t many times, but on the flat stretches, particularly the second day, I seemed to get the hang of it. I even managed to skate a bit. After watching me ski the second day, when I thought I’d notably improved, Radek said he’d put the idea of buying our own equipment out of his head. It’d take us 10 years of skiing at least twice a winter to make up the cost of buying our own. I agreed that it sounded like nonsense especially when the equipment had been so cheap to rent. Secretly, I thought I might save my money and buy a pair to practice on the sly.

Although we haven’t made plans yet to go again this winter, my birthday is coming up, and babička has agreed to babysit. If the downhill trails don’t get much more snow, there’s a good chance you’ll find me trying my skills on the cross-country trails. There’s nothing like the challenge of a skill yet unmastered.

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Skiing on the Jizerská magistrála

Making connections

Teaching English and learning to listen

I come from a family of talkers. Making polite chitchat and navigating a conversation is a skill I learned in my early years, mostly by listening to the women in my family as they talked their way through church potluck dinners, monthly bridge group meetings, recreational league basketball games and Friday night high school football. Among Americans, women from the US’s southern states are particularly known for their conversational skills. Although my Virginia hometown wasn’t exactly southern, it was rural. When you are living in a small town, people-watching and rehashing the minutia of daily life rise to the forefront of viable diversions. We didn’t have a movie-theater or a shopping mall.

For most of my childhood, however, I was shy. My fourth-grade teacher told my mother that she had to make the other children quiet in order to hear me answer a question. At church on Sundays as a preteen, I kept my eyes averted when someone from the congregation asked me a question. If my mother happened to be within earshot, she gently but firmly reminded me that I needed to straighten up, look the questioner in his eyes and give my best answer. Much of the time, she was able to adjust my attitude without actually saying anything. I knew what was expected of me, but most of my life it seemed that I was surrounded by people who talked better, faster and more confidently than I ever would.

Then, I moved to the Czech Republic. Czechs are not particularly prone to chitchat. Whether more reserved by nature, or as a result of years under Communist rule. It seems to me that Czech people do not engage as happily or freely in idle banter as Americans do. When I first met Radek, I thought there was something wrong when, on long car rides, he fell silent. Now I’ve come to enjoy the freedom of riding beside him in comfortable silence. On the other hand, my mother turns on her Southern charm to engage Radek in conversation during their car rides together and, for the most part, he willingly obliges.

In more intimate settings, Czechs tend to open up, speaking about their jobs, personal lives, children and hobbies. Still, my Czech friends don’t seem overly curious to ask questions of me (or anyone else they’re speaking to). They might offer glimpses of their own lives, but rarely do they delve into their acquaintances’ personal details. In this more subdued conversational culture, my years of conversation-training became a skill I wanted to put to use. As soon as I was able to string together enough words to make a semi-coherent sentence in Czech (grammatical correctness aside), I began asking questions.

At my first few gatherings with my husband’s family, I realized that his cousins (women about my age) were never going to approach me to start a conversation. In truth, no one, except Radek’s grandmother, ever used to speak directly to me beyond a polite greeting. Drawing forth on false brazenness I must have inherited from my mother, I began initiating conversations. I asked Radek’s cousins questions about their children’s interests and habits. When his cousins finished talking, I then offered them unsolicited updates on mine. I asked Radek’s grandmother how to make apple strudel and his grandfather about the best times and places to pick mushrooms. I asked Radek’s aunt about her garden, and Radek’s mother about traditional Czech recipes.

In this way, I’ve navigated more than ten years of conversational banter in the Czech Republic. I’ve learned a lot about the Czechs I’ve chatted with, and I’m willing to bet that they’ve learned more than they thought they would about me.

Now, for better or worse, I’m trying to parlay my “talking” skills into my conversational lessons with Czech elementary school children.

It seems to be working. In the beginning of the year, the second graders looked at me suspiciously, perhaps wondering what their parents had gotten them into by signing up for English Conversation Club. These days, they arrive a few minutes early to class. They seem to thoroughly enjoy our routine of playing games, listening to songs and having fun. They are full of things to say, but since their English is at a rudimentary level, there isn’t too much free chatting going on. Still, we do the best we can.

I ask questions, mostly the same ones, over and over. Hello, how are you? Whats your name? How old are you? When’s your birthday? What’s the weather like today? What month is it? What day is it today? What day was yesterday? What day will tomorrow be? Do you like football? Do you like bananas? Can you jump up and down? Where’s the pencil? Who’s that? Are you hungry? What’s your favorite color? I follow up on my questions by asking more questions, and I get the children who are able to ask questions too.

I can see progress. When Lucka, a shy, gentle student in an otherwise all-boy class came to her first lesson, she got tears in her eyes as soon as I asked her name and age. Worried that I’d unintentionally embarrassed her, I let her be for a few weeks. By the time I gave out first-semester rewards, she was the first student to earn 10 stickers for class participation. Better yet, she smiled and said “hello” every time she saw me out of class in the hall.

As time has passed, I’ve realized that for most of the Czech parents whose children I’m teaching, my primary credential for teaching their children is the fact that I’m a native English speaker. The egocentric part of me would like to remind them that all not native speakers make good teachers, and that I have a TEFL teaching certificate and a university degree in English. But it isn’t really important why they want me to teach their children, and more important that their children are learning. For my part, I’m flattered to have the job.

When I spoke to another second-grade student’s mom, she told me that although her son Tomas wasn’t keen on having another English lesson, she had signed him up for the second semester. “He needs to hear you speak,” she told me. Tomas’s mom had no illusions about her son’s English ability. It’s going to take a long time, she told me, but it has to start somewhere. She knows because she’s teaching herself English from a book, and then practicing it with an English-speaking friend. She told me it’s difficult for her to understand her friend’s speech. She wants her son to start his English language journey while he’s still young, so he doesn’t face the same obstacles she has.

I can empathize with my shy students. I, too, know how hard it is to muster up the courage to answer a question, particularly in a second language. Which is why, on occasion, I’ve broken the rules and let the children hear me speak Czech. Although some ESL teaching theories say that in the classroom English should be spoken exclusively, I’ve had success using Czech in limited doses to help clarify instructions, keep classroom order and occasionally to let the children share things about their lives that they might not be able to express in English.

In this manner, my students have told me about English-speaking relatives who give English books as Christmas presents, an older brother who listens to English songs at home, a half-sister who’s married to an American with children who speak only English, computer games they like to play in English, and so on. As I listen, I try to elicit words that my students do know in English, and to get them to repeat back at least one sentence of their story in its English translation. It is hard work and progress is slow.

Last week, as I packed up my English bag after our lesson, three of my second-grade students hung around to help. While they stacked the notebooks, organized the stickers and put the books back in order, I thanked them. “You’ll be reading books like these next year,” I told them. “English is going to get easier.” They wrinkled their noses in confusion. I tried again. “Next year, will be better. You’ll see.” Finally, I translated my praise into Czech. Their faces lit up. As we walked down the hall together, they began to tell me everything they knew in English. The listed the names and types of pets they do have and pets that they would like to have. They didn’t stop talking until we reached the after school care room where we said our goodbyes.

I have 52 new friends between the ages of 4 and 12. I’m teaching them to speak in English, and they’re teaching me to listen. My childhood lessons have finally paid off.