In August of 2017, I spent a week teaching English in the Czech Republic at the Hrubá Skála Castle, north east of Prague. It was an experience I'll remember fondly and one I hope to repeat at some point in the coming year.
What is Angloville?
Angloville is an English immersion course that's run for those seeking to improve their spoken English. The courses are currently run in Central / Eastern Europe, for participants from Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania (currently). Angloville invites native speakers (note, not qualified teachers) to volunteer, taking part in one-to-one conversations and group activities, with the aim of improving the participants' spoken English.
There is no payment for the native English speakers; Angloville instead provides full-board in a hotel and a unique opportunity to get to know "real" locals as well as fellow native speakers, who are often travellers with interesting stories. In addition, Angloville provides the opportunity for a TEFL certification track, which they call scholarship, with the subsidy increasing depending on the number of programs you take part in. If you do three programs, you can get TEFL certification for £15!
There are programs for different age groups: kids (7-11), juniors (teenagers) and adults. I chose to attend the adult program.
Why did I join?
The main attraction for me was the opportunity to get to know the locals, as well as my fellow volunteers. From my recent experience in Cuba and Romania, I knew that this was what I was really after through my travels. Getting to know the country and its culture through the eyes of the locals, not through my western eyes of the UK and Hollywood (and to a lesser extent Asian eyes). Speaking to fellow travellers, especially long-term ones who I believe generally are seeking something, whatever that may be - more to come on that in future posts.
In addition, as a life coach, the one-on-one sessions I thought could provide opportunities for very interesting conversations. This was one of the reasons why I signed up for the adults program, as my coaching interest is primarily around adults. The fact that the junior program doesn't allow consumption of alcohol also swayed that decision (come on, it's the Czech Republic, after all)!
There was a bit of British pride too. I wanted to make a stand for British English, with its diligent spelling (no missing letters a la 'donut' - it's like they gave up on trying to spell 'dough') and sensible use of past perfect (I've recently learned that Americans rarely use it?!)
Having stayed in casas in Cuba and hostels in Romania, the four star accommodation and free meals was also a big draw. The week would prove very easy on the purse-strings!
Free tour of the city!
The whole operation was pretty slick. On the day before the start of the program, Angloville organises a free walking tour of the city of departure for the English speaking volunteers. This provides a great opportunity to meet the people you'll be spending the coming week with and the quality of the tour is supposed to be fantastic! Unfortunately, due to the timing of my flights (£30 with BA using 10,000 Avios points I got off my BA Amex card), I wasn't able to make the walking tour of Prague but I heard great things about it from my fellow volunteers.
After the tour, which usually lasts just over two hours, a free lunch is provided in a restaurant serving up some local cuisine.
Yes, you do get a week's worth of free meals and accommodation for what is in essence just chatting, but the work is tough. The schedule can get very tiring. The day starts with breakfast at 9am and doesn't end until the evening group activity finishes at 9:30pm. There are seven 50 minute speaking sessions, consisting of one-to-ones (a topic and a set of questions are provided to guide the conversation, but you don't have to follow it!), a group activity and an "entertainment hour" to end the day. Three one-hour slots for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at which you're asked to mingle with the local participants (it's an immersion course, after all). Thankfully there are short 10 minute breaks after each speaking slot and 90 minutes of free time after lunch for you to recuperate.
As an introvert, who a month ago was sitting in an office probably speaking for an hour total in one day (okay, I exaggerate, but my old colleagues will confirm I'm not far off), the constant interaction got a bit too much for me and I found myself very fatigued at points throughout the course. I could sense that a few other volunteers and participants were feeling the same way. At the same time, I could also see huge improvements in the participants, so clearly it was working! I also figured if I'm finding this hard speaking in my own tongue, how much harder would it be for the participants!
The evenings provided a nice opportunity to relax in a more informal setting over a drink or three. Despite being knackered after a whole day of speaking, I'd always managed to find time for a drink. On the final night of the course, one of the volunteers (cheers Andrew) bought several bottles of Czech spirits to share withe group, and we spent several hours singing songs together. The volunteers would share Western classics and the Czech and Slovakian participants sang us old folk songs and Soviet anthems. It was a truly magical and spiritual experience, under the light of the millions of stars that shone above us.
Accommodation and venue
We were housed in the lovely hotel of Hruba Skala Castle. I've never slept in a castle before and I was very much looking forward to the experience.
On arrival at the venue, the volunteers were teamed up in twos by the Angloville co-ordinators. I ended up sharing a room with a Philippino-Canadian guy who I found out was a world-traveller and fellow travel blogger, of the travel hacking variety. Noting out loud how coincidental it was that the two Asian guys were lumped together (which drew sheepish looks from the co-ordinators), my new roommate and I headed to settle into our new home for the week. Racial labelling in this case ended up in my favour. To my delight we found ourselves in a huge suite with two separate bedrooms - a massive upgrade after weeks of bunk-beds and shared bathrooms.
The castle was located in the mountains and had on its doorstep beautiful trails for hikes with breathtaking scenery. We had ample opportunities to explore the trails during our post lunch free time and I ended up persuading several of my conversation partners to turn our one-to-ones into a "walk and talk" session.
Hruba Skala Castle from a nearby viewpoint that I'd walked to with a small group
We had traditional Czech food twice a day, lunch and dinner, with a hot breakfast to kick start the day. Czech food is usually some meet with a heavy carbohydrate of potatoes, polenta or dumplings. I missed the vegetables but it was pretty nice not having to think about where I was going to eat and how much it was going to cost, for a change. It was also pretty fun to experience Eastern Europe service, which might be a shock to you if you're used to the generally very excellent service in the UK, especially in London. I didn't mind that so much - I was just happy to get fed!
The volunteers came from a wide range of backgrounds. The nations represented included Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and the UK. We had a Scotsman who the Czech participants kept thinking wasn't a native speaker, to the absolute delight of all the native speaking volunteers. The ages varied fantastically too, from the well represented late teens and early twenties to a lady in her late eighties!
Iona was the eldest volunteer and it was an absolute pleasure being able to share a dinner table with such a fascinating woman. She explained that Angloville (which she found via Workaway.info, just like me) provided her an opportunity to travel by herself, as travelling with her family would now usually follow the whims of her grandchildren. It sounded like her husband had passed away, although I didn't ask directly.
I found out that she was 9 years old when the Second World War broke out and she was one of the evacuees that I'd learned about in primary school. She was an English teacher with her husband in London after the war and later trained as a hypnotherapist. Her proud achievements include getting a free trip on the Queen Elizabeth II in return for giving a short seminar on hypnotherapy. When we played 'Two Truths One Lie' in one of our group sessions, we were shocked to find out that she'd been asked to drive a pregnant woman to a hospital in Africa and later discovered that the woman was already dead. Unfortunately I never got to ask more about the story.
Rowan is a volunteer traveller from the UK. Her blog aims to show the world that age (Rowan being "40 years young") should not be a factor holding you back from exploring the world and living life on your own terms. She's travelling the world solo, focusing on volunteering opportunities where she can find them often in exchange for accommodation and/or food. I really admired her thirst for adventure (and wine - we both like a drink!) and the fact that she didn't let societal norms hold her back.
There were so many other interesting, fun, generous people that I had the pleasure of meeting, too many to mention here. Sivan though is one other person who I'd like to speak about. She's a young Quebecois Canadian woman, just finishing off her degree back in Canada. A qualified yoga teacher since her teens, she gave us the gift of a rejuvenating group yoga session one evening. We spoke about yoga, meditation and spirituality - another kindred spirits that I've been blessed with meeting. I admired her energy, how much she's accomplished and the wisdom that was already blooming at such a young age. She also ended up acting as my Hebrew consultant (she's also Jewish!) to check an idea for a tattoo - thank you Sivan!
Getting to know some of the participants was a real highlight of the whole experience. These were talented and ambitious individuals, determined to add a string to their bow and put themselves way out of their comfort zone. Like the volunteers, the ages and backgrounds varied widely, from an 18 year old former gymnast to business owners and company workers that had grown up and worked under Soviet rule.
Most of the participants were very reserved at the beginning of their course, second guessing their English and reluctant to speak in case they made mistakes. The transformation in some of these people was mind blowing. One man who said in our first ice breaker "My English is not good enough to play this game" (which we found ironic!) ended the week by giving a 10 minute presentation on Czechoslovakian wine, which ended up being one of the best presentations!
Amongst the participants, there was one who had a profound effect on every volunteer, participant and co-ordinator. Helena was a Czech coach and trainer in non-violent communication. She'd had a successful corporate career but quit around a decade ago to start her a business on her own. This wouldn't go to plan, but the path led her to encounter a concept called non-violent communication. Non-violent communication is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg, centred around the principles of self empathy, empathy and honest self-expression.
Helena explained that often in communication we hear things that have nothing to do with what the other person is saying, as our preconceptions, our emotional state, what we ate for lunch, these things all cloud our perception in that moment. Moreover, these things also colour our speech - for example, when we snap out in anger at our friends or partner, often this is due to a fear or insecurity that we hold inside ourselves.
I specifically requested a one-to-one session with Helena and we went on a gentle hike in one of the surrounding trails. She gave me wide ranging advice, from my issues with anger to actions I could take with friends who talk too much (apparently they are either inconsiderate or just want acknowledgement that they've been heard - you have to figure out which is which)! On my first night in Prague, the day before Angloville started, I accidentally stepped into a muddy puddle. I was feeling fine, maybe a little gutted, when an English guy saw me trying to shake water out of my trainers. He asked if I'd stepped in the puddle, I said yes, and he replied that well you have no-one to blame for yourself. I figured that it's true, I have no-one to blame but myself although I thought his comment was unnecessary. Then he called me an idiot, which riled me up and I cursed at him as he walked off, with half a mind to give him a slap for being a dick.
The experience had rattled me, as I didn't want to be that kind of person. The world is full of dickheads but I didn't want to be that violent version of myself. Helena said I reminded her of a story which the Dalai Lama apparently told one of his disciples who was struggling with a somewhat related issue. If a person gives you a gift and you don't accept it, whose gift is it? Helena explained that people in the world give out negative energy. If you choose to not accept it, the negative energy remains with them. If you choose the accept it, the negative energy is now yours. It's your choice. Knowing this is different to living it out, and it's something that I'll work on during my travels (I needed it in Morocco to endure shouts of "China!") and beyond.
The amazing souls waving us goodbye, some in tears <3
Angloville has been one of the highlights of my travels so far. The unprecedented opportunity to meet friendly locals and find out about their culture, whilst being able to share my skills and culture with them. A beautiful space in which to have conversation with a wide range of travellers - one lunchtime I was sharing a table with a 87 year old, a woman in her late fifties, me and an 18 year old! That just wouldn't have happened in my old steady life back in London!
I hope to repeat the experience at some point in 2018, hopefully using it as an opportunity to revisit Bucharest and my friends at Podstel. It's a really rewarding experience, being able to help people achieve their dreams while forming a real bond with them - both huge drivers as I continue to pursue my own dreams of becoming a great life coach.
It's something that I'd recommend to anyone if they have the same desire to help others. Let me know below if you'd like to know more about the course or if you'd like me to make an introduction to the co-ordinators in the Czech Republic.