28 June 2007

Don't Assume, Can't Assume

Estonia became a member of:

According to the EBRD, Estonia is one of the most open and competitive economies in the world (with its households average monthly disposable income at $300). Time magazine called Estonia one of the most technologically advanced places on the planet, because you can use your mobile phone to buy bus tickets, check your child's grades at school, and pay for parking for your car. A Korean news agency recognized Estonia as a model for developing countries because of its excellent Internet infrastructure and its people's liberal and open mindset. So...

  • Why does the Estonian postal service use stamps in denominations no greater than 20EEK to put 392EEK worth of postage on my packages to the United States? Yes, that's a minimum of 15 stamps stuck in the upper right-hand corner of the box and across the top and down the side.
  • Why does Edelaraudtee, Estonia's national passenger rail service, bounce me up and down on wooden benches for the 90-minute ride to and from Tallinn?
  • Why do Estonian municipalities make sidewalks with rocks, stones, pebbles, gravel, sand, and dirt? Why don't they automatically use concrete or asphalt?
  • Why can't I buy a four-pack of beer in every grocery store in Estonia? Why do I have to buy four individual bottles and listen to them clanking around in my plastic bag as I walk home?
  • When will Estonians learn how to stand in a queue as well as understand that the queue grows longer from the end, not wider from the middle, as more and more people join it?

You just can't assume - I'm really saying Don't assume! - that because Estonia has reached point J, for example, that it has got points A through I under its belt. While a mother can check her child's grades any time she wants as long as she is in front of a computer with Internet access, I must, on the other hand, stand at the counter at the post office while the unbelievably patient service clerk looks for 15, 20EEK stamps (plus 9, 10EEK stamps, and 2, 1EEK stamps), rings each denomination up separately on the register, and then puts the stamps (and, in fact, must still moisten the back of some) on the package!

While Estonia is spending 1,200,000,000EEK (more than a million dollars) to build a new concourse at the airport in Tallinn, I must, on the other hand, take a stock car on pentagonal wheels to Tapa. And, yes, I can get a free WiFi connection in a park in Tapa, but, after a good rain, the pebble paths in the park are flooded with a series of puddles, because they are paved with cement or asphalt or decorative brick, god forbid.

My friend Oleg (above), whom I worked with at MTÜ Arenduskoda when I was in the U.S. Peace Corps here from 1998 to 2000 and who is knowledgeable in all things with electronic chips, hit me on the head one day at Ülemiste Mall with this revelation. If I had read the Time magazine article about Estonia's technological innovations in Chicago, I would have assumed that Estonian society had evolved as a whole to the point that made it not only possible but simple to purchase bus tickets with mobile phones - that almost everyone had mobile phones, that public transportation was fast and efficient, and that most Estonians used it in commuting to and from home, as I said, that by getting to point J, points A through I had been mastered.

In truth, I believe, the advancements of which the world takes note are not the sign of a winning team but merely anecdotes about a couple of victories in an otherwise frustrating season - that while Estonia may be at point J, it may have skipped point B, ignored point E, and still be working on points G and H. How can parents check their children's progress at school on the Internet when the children themselves do not have a computer to do their homework?

27 June 2007

Czech Republic - Odd Things along the Way

1) Wooden dueling figures at a reststop in Lithuania. 2) A KFC in Poland that serves beer. 3) The Czech boot. 4) Poppies, which were in Polish fields and on Czech pretzels.

12 June 2007

Czech Republic - Prague, the South Side

After the silent rocks and pristine forest of Prachovske and the fairy tale facades of Karlovy Vary, the expressway traffic and unrestrained graffiti of the southside of Prague was quite welcomed. Our hostel matched the height of nearby apartment buildings and overlooked the bustling Opatov station of the Prague metro system. (The rooms were just a half-star, but the breakfast was three-stars!) A modern office complex and shopping mall were within "walking" distance of the hostel, provided you were hungry for a pre-packaged deli sandwich from a full-service, 24-hour gas station.

Czech Republic - Karlstejn

Karlštejn is the most remarkable Czech castle as well as one of the symbols of the Czech kingdom. Charles IV, the Czech king and the Roman Emperor, founded the castle in 1348 on three levels. On the lowest floor there were situated secular residential rooms housed by the emperor, his wife and his company. On the second floor, the Church of Our Lady was built and together with it the private chapel of Charles IV connected with the church by a narrow corridor. The chapel was devoted to St. Kateřina, his patroness. The highest level was the prismatic tower with the biggest sacral space of the castle – the Chapel of the Holy Rood, symbolizing “Heavenly Jerusalem”.

In the period of Charles's reign, the castle was predominately a representative seat. From the castle, it took one day to reach Prague by horse, where the European political elite met. From Tapa, it takes about 36 hours by bus.

Czech Republic - Karlovy Vary

The fame of Karlovy Vary has spread throughout the whole world thanks to its mineral springs. There are 12 healing springs in the spa (four or five in the pavillion pictured above, one with all of the students around it). Their basic compositions are similar, but they differ in temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide, which is why their effects are different as well. (Yet, they all attract tourists.) The colder springs usually have a slightly purgative effect, while the warmer ones make the production of bile and stomach juices slower. The springs cure mainly metabolic disorders; they are also used for inhalations and baths. The strongest is the Vřídlo spring, rising, like a geyser, from the depth of 2,000-3,000 metres. Its temperature reaches 73 degrees Celsius.

Czech Republic - Old Fashioned Ingenuity?

Unquestionably, by Western sensibilities, there's a liability issue here!

Czech Republic - Prachovske skay

Prachov Rocks in the "Bohemian Paradise" of the Czech Republic is a place created by the erosion of the "originally compact table of rectangular-shaped sandstones of the latest chalk period." In addition to the natural places of interest, there are also rich prehistorical findings dating from 10th to 7th century BC, including signs of the very first bus trip of Estonian high school students to the area.

10 June 2007

2006-07 Teacher of the Year!

The teachers of Tapa Gümnaasium awarded me the school's Valguse Roosi Medal, or White Rose Medal, and the students named me Aasta meesõpetaja, or Male Teacher of the Year.

Both awards were big surprises to me (especially after I caved in to a restless bunch of 9th grade students at the end of May and showed Jackass Number Two in one of our classes). Someone asked me what I had done to earn such recognition from both the teachers and the students. Mentally, I painfully replayed the scenes in which I didn't get a gossiping quartet of 8th grade girls to pay attention one Monday morning, couldn't get a dozen, numb 9th graders interested in discussing jobs and careers, couldn't explain a grammar rule to my 11th grade class, and failed to fully explain to 12th graders how to use some fairly technical vocabulary words. Then, aloud, I answered "Nothing" (in more ways than one) but remembered one student telling me that I had jibed with the students, that is, I had gotten just as tired of writing letters to pen friends and "filling in the gaps" as they did.

Well, according to the May 26 issue of the Tapa Sõnumed (page 7), I was voted Male Teacher of the Year, because I am good with young people and have a good sense of humor (yes, I really do think the reoccuring bit in Jackass Two with Spike Jonze as an old woman with sagging breasts is funny). The Female Teacher of the Year was Ursula Palts, the chemistry teacher, who, according to the Sõnumed, is also good with young people, has a good sense of humor, and is a good conversationalist. Ursula is a statuesque person who whips around the school like a dry leaf on a blustery day.

I received the White Rose, beautifully etched in glass by Rakvere artist Riho Hütt (above, left), from the school director at a teachers meeting on May 29. I shared this year's award with the effervescent and enterprising Sirje Sell, an Estonian language teacher, the incredibly kindhearted Tiina Piip, the dean of students for children in the first four grades, and Eevi Koppelmann, the dreaded maths teacher who melts after a couple of belts of cognac.

The flower is a symbol of youth and blooming (forgive my rough transation). In Western tradition, among flowers, the rose embodies the ideal. It is a symbol that is at the center of the heart, the spirit of the world, and the cosmic wheel. White is a metaphor for praise or adoration, and it symbolizes inner light. White is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, pure existence, revelation, wisdom, judiciousness, joy, happiness, and life (all unquestionably sub-plots running through Jackass Two). Therefore, Tapa Gümnaasium's White Rose medal is given at the end of each school year to three or four teachers and to one or two students in recognition of their exceptional service to the school.

Because the meeting May 29 was the last one of the school year, I had prepared a short thank you for all of the teachers. After reading it, I gave each female teacher a small carnation and each male teacher a chocolate bar, per Estonian customs. Below is the speech I read, completed in Estonian a few hours before the meeting with the help of Kristen, Lii, Jaanika, Katrin, and Kätlin in my 11A class.

For a glimpse into just how the Estonian language works, compared to English, and how difficult translation from one language to another can be, in general, I provide you with a literal translation of my speech in English as well. Note the lack of a prescribed word order (subject, verb, direct object) in the Estonian sentences.

Ma olen aasta meesõpetaja.
I am the year's male teacher.

Kui päris aus olla, siis ma olen aasta kõige õnnelikum õpilane.
But if honest to be, then I am the year's luckiest student.

Kuna te kõik olete mind õpetanud.
All of you everything have me taught.

Kui ma olen tõepoolest aasta õpetaja, siis tänu sellele, mida teie olete mulle õpetanud.
If I am truly the year's teacher, then thanks for this, what you have to me taught.

Ma saan aru poolest jutust, mida te räägite.
I understand not all, what you speak.

On asju, mida ma ei mõista, aga ma näen kui palju te mulle ja õpilastele oma lahkuse, mõistlikkuse ja kannatlikkusega andnud olete.
Are things, what I do not understand, but I see how much you with me and students helpful, understanding, and patience given have.

Ma olen teile väga tänulik.
I am to you very thankful.

Ma tänan Elmut võimaluse eest siia kooli õpetama tulla. Samuti tänan Külvit, Tiinat ja Sirlit, kuna alati on tore kuulda oma emakeelt.
I thank Elmu [the school director] opportunity for here school to teach to come. Likewise, I thank Külvi, Tiina, and Sirli [the other English teachers], because always it is nice to hear your own mother tongue.

Ma olen õpetamise, noorte inimeste ja isegi inglise keele kohta palju uut teada saanud.
I have teaching, young people and even the English language about many new learned.

Ootan juba huviga järgmist kooliaastat. Vähemalt ma arvan nii.
I wait already for an interesting next school year. At least I think so.