Tag Archives: travel

Why Study Czech?

In this week’s blog post, recent graduate in Spanish & Czech from St Peter’s College, Joe Kearney, reflects on his decision to study Czech at Oxford and where the journey has taken him…

I chose to study Czech at Oxford because I wanted to try something completely different. At school I had studied French and Spanish, and I wanted to learn a language from a totally new language family.

Exploring Štramberk, Joe Kearney

The first year of Czech was certainly the challenge I’d been looking for. I sat in my first language class of the year, in front of the Czech lady (Vanda, she is lovely) who had been tasked with teaching me and my three classmates Czech from scratch, and wondering how I was ever going to learn what any of this stuff meant. The learning curve was steep, but incredibly rewarding. We started with the absolute basics: how the alphabet works, how to introduce yourself, how to order food in a restaurant. By the end of my first year I’d read my first short stories in Czech and I’d been to Prague and worked for a couple of months as a waiter in a pizza parlour! Learning a language from scratch is fantastic for anyone who fancies a bit of adventure.

We spent second year developing our speaking, listening, writing and translating skills, as well as reading more and more literature in Czech. Because Czech is a small course, with just a handful of undergraduate students every year, the course is really flexible. 20th century Czech history and literature fascinated me, and I was able to shape all of the rest of my degree around it. I learned about the interwar period in the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Czech experience under communism, and the Czech journey out of communism in the 90s and 2000s. Writers like Jiří Weil, Ludvík Vaculík and Bianca Bellová captured my imagination, and I was able to take my newfound interests with me on my year abroad, where I studied New Wave Czech film, a history of Czech photography, and modern Czech politics at the University of Ostrava.

View over the aptly named Smrk mountain, Joe Kearney
Skiing in the Slovak High Tatras, Joe Kearney

In Ostrava I got a job as a waiter in a tearoom (the best language training anyone could get!), I went climbing in the hills with my Ostravák friends, and I travelled with a great group of Erasmus students. One of the best things about the Czech Republic, we quickly found, is that it is a fantastic basecamp from which to travel all around Europe. I visited France, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland, and even Sweden that year, as well as making use of the ridiculously cheap trains to get all around the Czech Republic. Some highlights were České Švýcarsko (Czech Switzerland), Skiing in the Slovakian High Tatras, and visiting Kraków, in Poland, and Stockholm, in Sweden. 

My love for Czech grew immensely on my year abroad, and final year went by in a blast. More learning, and more opportunities to take the voyage of discovery further and further.

I would highly recommend learning a new language from scratch at Oxford. My Czech degree was a fantastic awakening to a new world of culture, travel, and wonderful people. I have never looked back!

View over the Beskydy mountains, Joe Kearney

A huge thanks to Joe for sharing his wonderful experiences of studying beginners’ Czech as well as the stunning photos taken on his year abroad in Ostrava last year (2021-22).

If you’re interested in following a similar path, you can find out more about Czech at Oxford here.

From Texas to Oxford via Oviedo

Katerina Levinson, who is currently studying for an M.St. in Spanish and English at The Queen’s College, shares an insight into the year she spent living in Spain.

The blank page of my journal stared up at me, as it sat on the plane’s tiny folding desk. I looked out my window, filled with butterflies and nervousness. I was leaving my hometown of Austin, Texas and moving to Oviedo, Asturias, a rainy, mountainous region in northern Spain.

At the Fulbright España welcome reception.

‘I am moving to a place where I know absolutely no one and where no one knows me. I have never been in front of a classroom before. Castellano is extremely different from the Venezuelan Spanish I learned to speak at home’, I began to write in my journal, as I thought of all of the obstacles that awaited me.

The cathedral in Oviedo

It was September 2017, and I had just graduated with my B.A. from Baylor University in Texas. I had received a U.S. student Fulbright grant to work as an English teaching assistant for 12-18 year-olds for one year. I had turned down a permanent teaching job offer in Texas, which would have allowed me to stay close to my family and live with my friends. Instead, I chose to move to a place where it would rain more in one week than it would in three months in my hometown; where it was impossible to find any of the Mexican cooking spices from home that I loved; and where I had to change the Venezuelan vocabulary I grew up with so that I could be understood.

‘Have I made the wrong decision?’ I went on to write.

When I arrived in Oviedo, I had found a place to live with a few girls who were around my age. The same night I moved in, they invited me to dinner with their friends. As I began to feel pangs of hunger, we finally left for dinner around 10:30 pm, the normal time when young people would eat in Spain. The group we met up with immediately adopted me as a friend, and I found that it was easier to make friends in Spain that it was at home because of how friendly the culture is. We finished dinner around 1 am, and we walked home through streets filled with people who were eating tapas and drinking cañas as if it was 1 pm.

My friend and I celebrating at an espicha. The restaurant is decorated with barrels because it pours cider for its guests directly from the barrel.

I came to love Spain because there was always an occasion for a fiesta and for socialising. My friends and I would often have long dinners at my house: even after the food was gone, we would continue sharing stories at the table for several hours (the after-dinner conversation is called the sobremesa). There were also many local Asturian holidays and frequent religious holidays that would call for celebration with wine, typical foods, and street parades. I would even walk into the teachers’ lounge at school to be regularly greeted by one of my colleagues pouring me a glass of wine before class because it was a local holiday.

While in Spain, I discovered how distinct each region’s culture is. Asturias is heavily influenced by the Celts, so its cuisine is filled with hearty stews and its cultural music features the bagpipes. The most typical alcoholic beverage of the region is Asturian sidra, cider made from locally grown apples. This drink is poured—escanciado—from as high as your arm can possibly reach. The season for tasting cider is celebrated at special festivals called espichas. Guests drink the cider poured directly from the barrel and stand at long tables filled with typical Asturian platters—cured meats, Asturian cheeses, Spanish omelettes, and more—socialising, while listening to Asturian folk music.

One of the English classes I taught.

When I was in the classroom, I found teaching to be a meaningful time of cultural exchange with my students. My students were very interested in the culture of English-speaking countries. I tried to introduce them to American popular culture by holding debates in English on controversial topics, introducing them to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ for Halloween, and giving them sorting hat quizzes from Harry Potter. I also started an English poetry club for my students outside of class. At our first poetry meeting, my students said they found poetry ‘boring’. But as we discussed how Maya Angelou or Wendell Berry related to Spanish culture and ate American baked goods cross-legged outside, I found that the numbers only multiplied with every meeting.

Nonetheless, our outdoor gatherings were not always frequent; I was not prepared how wet the Asturian climate would be. In fact, Asturias resembles typical gloomy English weather. But because of the frequent rain, it boasts beautiful green mountains and hills, giving it the nickname, El paraíso natural (the natural paradise). It is home to beautiful seaside villages on the Bay of Biscay, where green coastal walking paths undulate along its hilly coastline. When the sun is out, the glory of Asturian nature is iridescent.

After many late-night dinner outings, meaningful cultural conversations with my students, and adventures in the mountains and on the coast of Asturias, I realised I certainly had not made the wrong decision about moving to Spain. As I am now studying Spanish visual art and literature from the Golden Age at Oxford, my Spanish adventure had only just begun.

by Katerina Levinson

Image credits Katerina Levinson