Posted by: viewfromtheriva | December 15, 2016

Back to school in Otok, Croatia

I’ve always enjoyed teaching, whether it’s volunteering or designing an entire course. The most fun is being a volunteer  in a foreign country and coming to a local school to talk about America or teach an English class.  Today, Jelena Vrancic, an energetic born in Croatia English teacher and licensed professional guide here in Split, invited me to come to her rural elementary school outside the town of Sinj in the small village of Otok.


I was impressed.  The school was in great shape, clearly well-loved by kids and staff alike. The headmaster is a real go-getter because the place is brimming with high tech computers and even has a complete “smart room” with a zillion tablets and inter-active screen to make learning science and math a lot more exciting and intuitive than it was in my day!


For such a tiny village, the school was imposing–staff and students number more than 500! Jelena walked me through some of the classrooms (wow, no graffiti on the desks or the walls!), meeting teachers and showing me a lot very beautiful and creative arts and crafts done by the kids with their teachers–a Christmas tree just inside the main door was festooned with hand made angel and other ornaments using dried corn leaves.


Jelena wanted me to teach two classes, her 8th grade group and then younger 6th graders. For the older group, I had prepared two different poems to illustrate the wonders of the English language….the All the World’s a Stage speech from Shakespeare’s As you Like It, written around 1599 and e.e. cummings classic poem In Just Spring, written in 1920.

The whole idea was to show how truly inventive and flexible English is and how little it depends on correct endings and word order, as do many other languages.  To further illustrate this idea,  I decided to tell the story of when I was in Puerto Rico many years ago and some Americans in a cab stopped me and asked if I spoke Spanish.

Amazingly, their taxi driver, a Puerto Rican, somehow couldn’t understand they wanted to go to Morro Castle–which is like telling a cabbie in NYC, “take me to the Statue of Liberty”, or a Croatian driver, “take me to the Palace”.

Somehow, despite the fact that Morro Castle in Old San Juan is THE most visited tourist site in the city, and is a very Spanish word, and SOUNDS like “Morro castle” when anyone says it, he shook his head, “no se nada”, which in Spanish pretty much means , “I don’t understand.”

Like an idiot, I figured maybe if I said it really slow and much louder, he would get it. Didn’t work and clearly he was getting pissed.

Luckily, my high school Spanish suddenly came back to me–oh yeah, in Spanish it’s not “Morro Castle” it’s the Castle of Morro!  You need to put in the article and a preposition!

So I lean into the window and in my best accent, I say, “El castillo de Morro”, literally the castle of Morro.  And of course, he bursts into a wide grin and says “SI!, SI!, SI!”and roars off like a madman.

Compare this torture with being on Pluto and say something like “me hungry” in English and you will probably get fed.

Here’s the way cool Jelena, in her guide get up–rest assured, it’s all long skirts and blouses in Otok, the very model of a sophisticated English teacher!


To my surprise, the kids did not get e.e.cummings at all…..just thought it was boring! Despite such juicy, inventive words like “puddlewonderful” and “mudluscious” and his bizarre punctuation.


Uh oh, and Shakespeare was still to come!


Because the All the World’s a Stage speech is Shakespeare’s take on how we “act” during various phases of life, I had different kids read different lines….stopping at the end of each phase of life to review and get their feedback as to whether or not he got it right about going to school, being in love, a soldier, etc. etc. and whoaa..they got it!  And liked it!

So of course, when it was all over, I got my just rewards:  a giant chocolate bar with rice (Croatians were the first to put rice in chocolate bars in case you didn’t know–in addition to inventing the mag lite, the world’s fastest electric car, etc. etc.)…plus a necklace of whole walnuts, a traditional “friendship” gift in olden times; some hand made soap and other goodies that the kids make and sell in the village square during Christmas to show their talent and earn a few kuna.



A wonderful day with bright, eager kids, teachers who love them and teaching and wait just a minute, that lady janitor doing the stairs looks REALLY familiar?  No, it couldn’t be…..


It’s Neda! the fabulous peka bread maker who sets up her tiny table every Saturday and Sunday in Split’s green market and sells home made sausage, eggs and other goodies along with her stupendous bread. Get there by 10AM or those loaves are history!

We hugged and kissed–what a great, happy surprise!

So a perfect ending to a perfect day–in the hinterland of Split having a blast with my mother tongue.

Ugh, but now comes payback.  All those e mails from my Croatian friends, “yeah yeah, but when are you going to learn CROATIAN!!!!!?????


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