Olivia Stransky: Halušky?
Olivia Stransky is a new instructor at the Department of English and American Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University, Bratislava. Having finished her bachelor studies, she came to Slovakia through the Fulbright English Teaching Program to teach English for nine months.
Olivia comes from the small town of Mountain Will in the US state of New Jersey, where her parents have a home in the woods. She’s now living in another sort of forest – in Bratislava’s concrete jungle, Petržalka. She doesn’t complain, though. “There are trees close to where I live, so it’s OK,” she explains.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get to know this pleasant and easy-going young woman and ask her a few questions.
Is this your first time in Slovakia, your first time in Europe?
· My first time in Slovakia, but not my first time in Europe, because my grandfather moved to France, so I’ve visited him there.
Olivia chose to come to Slovakia to teach English because her grandfather was a Czech immigrant who left for the USA at the age of seven during World War II. She had always wanted to go to the Czech Republic and as there was the opportunity to come to Slovakia with the Fulbright Program, she used it.
Are there things in Slovakia which you find strange or different from the United States?
· Maybe how many classes you guys take in here – in school. The college is so different, because in the US you take five or six classes, that means, a couple of times a week instead of taking twelve or thirteen and I am so impressed that you can stay on top of that many subjects … I would have been so stressed if I’d had to take so many classes [laughs].
This says a student who left high school two years earlier than most students in the US usually do, because it wasn’t challenging enough for her. “It was very easy work that was just supposed to keep me busy; I wasn’t learning anything.” So she found a college, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which is the only college in the United States that allows students to start without a high school diploma. The college was very work-intensive and Olivia sometimes needed to read and analyse three novels a week plus write about fifteen pages of essays. However, she enjoyed it because it was something she loved.
Are there any other differences you see between American and Slovak universities?
· It’s hard to say, because my university that I went to is very different from most universities in the US, because it’s extremely small. But I think the big difference is that everyone already knows what they are gonna do here and in the US, it’s so different, because when you get your bachelor’s, it’s a very general thing and then you don’t get your master’s until you know specifically what you want to go into in your field. Whereas here it seems that you know you are going to do teaching or translation and that you go simultaneously into your master’s. This is very different because in the US students usually don’t get the master’s from the same place as their bachelor’s most of the time, and our bachelor’s is not usually quite the same thing as your bachelor’s. So that’s different.
Is there anything you miss about the USA?
· Mostly just my family, my friends, just people. I like it here, I like Bratislava. If my family were here, it would be perfect.
When you compare Slovak students and teachers – your colleagues – to American ones, do you see any differences? For example, are the students here shyer?
Hmmm, I don’t think so. I’ve sort of found the students to be the same, some are shy; some just want to talk a lot. The teachers have all been very nice. That’s been really similar.
In fact, it was Olivia’s professors who encouraged her to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship. “The Fulbright is such a thing that you don’t believe you can actually get. But my professors wanted me to apply and I thought, well, it’s a couple of weeks of my time, and then I don’t have to worry about it. If I don’t get it, it doesn’t matter.” She is not sure what she expects from it, but it has to be said: once a person gets the prestigious scholarship, it can make a lot of things easier for them. For example, it can help you to get into graduate school or get a job more easily. “I hope it will do this for me,” says Olivia.
Do you like Slovak food? Have you already tasted our national food?
· Halušky? I love halušky! I like it actually very much! I’ve been trying to learn how to make it, so that when I go back to the US, I can make it for people. I love halušky a lot [smiles and laughs]. And I like the food here – I like meat a lot and Slovakia seems to like meat a lot.
Olivia doesn’t fit the stereotypical picture of Americans that most Slovaks have – she doesn’t go to fast food places very often. She loves to cook and every night her little reward for getting through the day is cooking.
Could you imagine living here for the rest of your life or do you intend to return back to your country?
· Right now I am so homesick that I just want to go home. It’s hard to say, because I don’t really know what I want to do yet, because I studied literature, but I don’t want to teach, but I also studied film and I really want to get into film and it’s like I know I have people to work with back in the US, so right now it’s like knowing what I would do at home and I don’t know what I would do here, but as a city to live in, I really like Bratislava, it’s very pretty and calm…
When she gets back to the USA, Olivia doesn’t plan to start master studies. ”I wanna work in film and honestly going to graduate school isn’t useful for film, so I might just never go back to school [laughs.]” She can imagine working in film centres like New York, Austin (Texas) or Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), but not Hollywood. “That’s where all the bad films come from.”
What’s your favourite film?
· Hmm, that’s a hard question. [pause] Nights of Cabiria which is an Italian film by Fellini. It’s very good, very sad. It was made, I think, in the fifties.
However, Olivia doesn’t reject American films either. She says that unfortunately most of the really good American films don’t have high enough ticket sales in America to be sent overseas. If she could recommend at least one good film she has seen in the last few years, it would be Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, depicting the relationship of a secretary with her boss.
My last question was about compulsory English from the third grade at Slovak primary schools, the proposed law discussed so vehemently in Slovakia recently. ”I think that it’s just weird to say that learning English is important, because it’s my language. But I do think that learning ‘a’ language is really important and I think it’s easier the earlier you start.”