An Interview with American Teacher Benjamin Chandler

In 2011 American artist and schoolteacher Benjamin Chandler left his U.S. job and move to Martin to become a teacher of English and art at the Lutheran Academy. His unconventional view of Slovak culture, nature, and the warmth of the Slovaks, which he sees and perceives, are enticingly substituting with Benjamin´s own story in the book. His memoir The Way You Call Into the Mountain recounts his experiences in learning the way of life in his new home—and finding love along the way.

Before you left for Slovakia, you say one of your U.S. colleagues asked, „Are you going to fall in love and get married and never come back?“ You answered „No.“ You seemed pretty certain about that! And yet, while teaching at the Lutheran Academy you meet It’a. You and It’a fall in love. And now you and It’a have celebrated the one-year anniversary of your marriage.

I think most people who are in a relationship want to see their single friends in one, too. As I said in the book, people frequently tried to hook me up with young ladies they knew, but I was pretty resistant to the idea. I had my own ideas of the kind of person I was looking for, and my friends and coworkers never seemed to find people who matched that. They all had their own ideas of what I would want in a relationship. So, naturally, when people suggested I’d find a bride in Slovakia, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the idea. I think I was open to the idea when I thought it myself, but when other people brought it up, it seemed forced and corny.

Even though many people were hoping It’a and I would end up together—and I know some were more vocal about it to It’a than I—I think we both needed to realize that being a couple was what we each truly wanted. We had to listen to our own voices and not think about what other people may or may not have been pushing for.

It seems as if a couple of your Slovak friends made it their personal mission to play matchmaker! Did you mind that?

When Eva and Sisa told me they knew someone who was “perfect” for me, I was curious and wondered what kind of person they would think was my type. At the same time, I doubted they would really know what kind of girl I was looking for. Neither of them pushed me towards It’a, though. They let me discover her on my own. The most pushing that ever happened was Eva suggesting I keep an open mind about romance when I go to Slovakia.

I liked the part in your book [page 83] where you talked about the process of building a relationship with your future wife Iťa. I especially liked the part where you’re encouraged by an American colleague in Martin and by your friends. At this point it seemed as if you decided, as the saying goes, that “Fortune favors the bold.”

Well, I guess I’d gotten to the point in my life where I didn’t want to be shy anymore. I think I used to take a long time to warm up to a girl to ask her out or express my feelings. Sometimes I spoke too late. I knew I had less time in Slovakia—I’d only planned on being here 10 months—so I had to act quickly. After encouragement from Andrew and Christina, I really tried to be as charming to It’a as possible. I’d hoped that that would finally win her over. But she was very firm in her stoic-ness and kept me at arm’s length, as we say back home. But, I guess all my attempts to be charming worked, because after weeks of asking her out for dinner, she finally asked me out.

In what ways is your wife your biggest support in Slovakia?

In many, many ways I would be lost without It’a.

On perhaps the most superficial level, she has helped me navigate my Slovak life, translating things for me, explaining traditions, assisting with simple things like ordering train tickets or communicating with non-English speakers. I get dozens of emails from work every day, and It’a is always there to help me understand when Google translate turns sensible Slovak into English nonsense.

But on a deeper level, It’a has been very supportive in letting me be me. She understands when I get homesick, encourages me when I try to do creative things, is always willing to try any culinary experiment I concoct in the kitchen. She likes my art and offers to read my writing. I feel safe with her. I can be myself, in all of my non-Slovak-ness, and she still loves me.

I really liked how in your book you expressed your thoughts about the future. You wrote that falling in love during your time in Slovakia wasn’t part of the plan: “This was just supposed to be a ten-month mission for me. I was supposed to go to Slovakia, serve, feel challenged and inspired, and then return to Chicago full of energy and ideas.” It must have been a huge decision for you, choosing between a life with someone you love—in a country that still feels foreign to you—and the relatively safe existence you left in Chicago. Please tell us more about that time.

That was both a hard and easy decision. It was easy because it meant I got to be with It’a, but it was hard because I was not just making a commitment to a person, but also to a job and a country and culture that was not mine—a whole way of life. But, once again, I looked to see what doors God was opening for me. Jozef made it clear that he wanted me to stay, that he valued my work, and that he would try to figure out a way to work the finances so I could be paid. When he told me that, I knew which path I should follow, which door I should go through.

Consider supporting the work of a faculty member like Benjamin Chandler (or one of his colleagues at the Lutheran Academy or CCE’s bilingual high school) with a monthly gift. Want to learn more? Contact our Director of Development, Sisa Schudichova.
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