Q/A With Our New Resident Director Jana Žalská

IMG 0289 shrunkJana Žalská recently joined the IFSA-Butler team to head our new Summer in Prague and Reimagining Europe programs in the Czech Republic.  She has ten years of education management experience, as well as 15+ years of teaching in classrooms in Chicago, Madrid, England and Prague. This wealth of intercultural experience makes her the perfect resource for IFSA-Butler students.

Where are you from?

I am from the Czech Republic, but as anyone who travels knows, it is a tricky question. I noticed, for example, that when I was living in Chicago, people tended to expect to hear “Ohio”, “Indiana”, or – sometimes as far as “Canada”. The Czech Republic seemed to take them by surprise, and a prompt elaboration would be needed to clarify. On trips to New York, or Sonoma Valley, I was likely to get away with “Europe”, or the Czech Republic. (Of course, the same was not always true: until maybe just recently “the Czech Republic” would sometimes get blank looks, a muffled question about somewhere in Russia or, in the best of cases, the booming corrective “ah, Czechoslovakia”.)

When I am asked here, in the captial city of Prague, which has been my home for the past seven years, I tend to say “from Moravia”. When I am speaking to a Czech, I’ll reference my hometown (Havířov) which to most Czechs will sound exotically North East and industrial (think Pittsburgh: black coal mines and ice-hockey). I was born a citizen of Czechoslovakia, and have become a proud citizen of the European Union. I am more and more aware how important and difficult at times it is to be a global citizen.

By the way, if you have heard that the Czech Republic is called Czechia now, let me make a slight correction. The name Czechia may be used instead of the Czech Republic, but I have yet to hear any of my English-speaking friends and colleagues adopt this shorthand. Time will tell how popular this name will become.

What is your favorite neighborhood in Prague? What your favorite place to visit in Prague and why?

Vinohrady, just up a hill from the downtown, is a lovely neighborhood whose wide streets and buildings with famously high ceilings date to the last decades of the 19th century. The streets are named after countries, regions and cities, and you hear as much Czech on the streets as English, Russian, and French, mixed with Serbian, German. I get to meet the world without leaving the area.

Prague has many neighborhoods to discover, my latest favorite is Vršovice, adjacent to Vinohrady. The café, art and small business areas keep the international flavor while scaling down on luster and price; further away, the neighborhood spreads out as if an independent small town with parks, villa quarters, schools, churches and squares.

There are also many spots to visit and contemplate Prague from – my favorite is the hill of Vyšehrad. Leaning over brick ramparts of the fort, Prague is really on the palm of your hand: overlooking the bends of the river, the Castle, the old town quarters, the hundreds of the city’s towers, the adjacent neighborhood roofs, as well as the skyline of hills with high-rises from the communist era.

What’s your favorite Czech dish? Favorite food overall?

Almost any soup – the Bohemian Kulajda (dill, mushroom, potato, cream soup) or the Moravian cabbage soup. Lately, I have become a poppy seed cake addict. Otherwise, I am a big fan of seafood in almost any form – a bit unfortunate favorite in the landlocked country. I love to eat fresh seafood on my travels. Every now and then I splurge and treat myself to some here in Prague: a pot of mussels at a Belgian restaurant, fish from an Italian restaurant, or just a fillet of swordfish from the local Saturday market.

Where is your favorite place to travel in Europe?

I have not seen all of Europe by all means. I loved travelling around Spain and discovering the countryside when I was living there. I am a fan of wine-country, and keep returning to South Moravia, Italy, Croatia and Portugal. Seeing the Scandinavian countries and a hiking trip in Ireland and Scotland are high on my to-do list these days.

Do you have any hobbies or special skills?

I think you could consider my mathematics education research work a hobby. I love observing and analyzing things (and people) and finding out why they work the way they do. I love live music of almost any kind, and my favorite kind of an evening would be spent singing my heart out with friends and a guitar or two. I have been discovering the benefits of yoga, and I run regularly (not training for marathons) and enjoy it very much. I also seem to have a knack for finding four-leaf clovers.

How many languages do you speak?

I’m fluent in Czech, English and Spanish. My Russian, German and French need brushing up. One thing I do before getting up in the morning is a practice session on my Duolingo app – Level 1 in Irish.

What is the most interesting place you’ve lived and why?

If you live somewhere new, it is always interesting – if you allow your curiosity to make it so. However, coming back to the places where you once lived and seeing how they changed will naturally fill you with nostalgia. You should also appreciate how the places you have lived meanwhile have changed you. For example, Prague became much more cosmopolitan and welcoming to non-residents between the 2000’s, when I lived here for the first time, and today. I spent ten years in international communities of other cities, and am so much more aware of such a change. Prague is the most interesting place to live for the time being. As was St. Petersburg, Russia, when I was a student there in the fall of 1997.

Can you describe a time when you had culture shock?

When I lived in Madrid, I would take a bus into the city center to teach my first 8 a.m. class. The buses were supposed to run every five to eight minutes at the time. There were many days when I came to the bus stop at the regular time, and stood there for 15, even 20 minutes tapping my foot, sighing and getting worked up with the stress of a long wait and eventually being late for work. The group of people waiting for the same bus would naturally grow bigger and bigger. Yet, as I noticed one day, I was the only one distressed by the situation. When the bus finally arrived, everyone would get on and greet the driver in as friendly a manner as any other day, while I was fuming and rehearsing an indignant speech in Spanish (that I never delivered). It got better over the years, but I could not get rid of the stress – perfectly aware of the uselessness of it, and of the fact that even when I arrived late, my students would always show up later still. I could not rationalize myself out of feeling irritated. I am not sure if this qualifies as culture shock – what was shocking to me was the deeply rooted lack of punctuality.

What are your tips for ways to acclimate to a new city or country?

Have something to work towards – a course, a job, a project – that will help you both stay busy in times of doubt or frustration, and provide enough opportunities to interact with the local environment. Don’t lock yourself up in your room! Especially if you are feeling homesick, even a small errand like a trip to the supermarket is better than Skyping with your friends or family back home. Find locally situated missions that will occupy your mind. Get out – find a local café, club, museum or afterschool group. Observe how others behave.

Additionally, make friends. In my experience, other foreigners, non-locals and newcomers are much more welcoming and sympathetic. They are usually a great resource for you and, more likely than not, have been in your shoes too. Ask questions, and ask for assistance! People do like to help. If the common language is the local vernacular – so much the better. Be proud of your background, but don’t think it is somehow better than the one you are in. Be patient and empathetic, be ready to give the benefit of a doubt. Learn the local language. Stay safe, to minimize unnecessary unpleasant experiences, and learn to quickly calculate the exchange rate to budget locally.

What Czech phrase should students studying in Prague absolutely know?

The word “prosím” has got a good money value, as it means all of these:

  • please (as in “Jedno pivo, prosím”),
  • excuse me (as in “Prosím vás, kde je ulice Americká?”)
  • here you go (as when you hand money to the cashier)
  • you are welcome (after someone has thanked you).

And of course, the magic word: “Děkuji”.

Why do you feel it’s important for students to study abroad?

Czechs have a saying – The many languages you know, the many times you are a human. I believe that includes learning about cultures and communities. It is easier to learn about all this if you have a project, are part of a community or institution that is embedded within the local culture, such as a course program, as opposed to simply travelling without any local connection. The course content is important, of course, but what enriches you as a person is the practice of everyday problem solving and making sense of new things. The personal and professional connections you make – local or not – will be available to you. Last but not least, living abroad always gives you an opportunity to understand yourself (and your many selves and identities) better through comparison.

What’s the biggest difference between living in the United States and living in Europe?

Apart from the obvious language differences, I am always fascinated to be reminded how space is appreciated and used in the two continents. Both on the physical, social and personal level. From queuing up to traveling distances, to sharing a café table or sharing personal information with strangers at a bar, the attitude towards space is different. To me, in the United States, people can afford to take space for almost for granted, while in Europe it seems to be economized and more closely guarded.

What do you think is the most rewarding aspect about living/studying in a foreign country?

Expanding our experience affects us on so many levels. You may start appreciating art and art museums when living in Madrid, the Prado or Reina Sofia that are just too famous to avoid. You will discover a passion you would not have discovered at home: be it eating seafood, driving a car, cross-country skiing, story-telling, learning a foreign language, going to the opera or wine-tasting. Finally, becoming a member of the international community will open so many doors for further experiences. You will never be the same. You will certainly empathize more with foreigners, as well as learn to spot a fellow world traveler from across the room.