I'd often thought of visiting Eastern Europe. But I never thought that when I did I'd need a rake and scythe. In fact, if a psychic had told me I'd be spending two weeks of my summer cutting grass in Czechoslovakia, I'd have asked for my money back.

But I wanted a vacation that was different. I wanted to go somewhere I'd never been and find a way to be useful. I was tired of following the self-indulgent path of European tourism, learning little that wasn't packaged into a tour and translated into four languages. Pitching in on an international work camp in Czechoslovakia seemed like an inexpensive way to accomplish my goals. I liked the idea of exchanging work for room and board, and as an invited guest I was exempt from the country's currency exchange requirement of about $15 a day. And best of all, I thought it would be a good way to meet people.

From the directory of Volunteers for Peace, an American coordinator for international work camps, I boldly selected a nature conservation camp based on a one-sentence description: "Volunteers will clear brush from pond banks to save rare animal species." I knew absolutely nothing about nature conservation, but the work, I thought, sounded interesting.

My destination village of Lomnice lay conveniently on a railway line three hours south of Prague. Set in the heart of Bohemian castle and pond country, this westernmost region of Czechoslovakia is a rich source of both national history and carp, the local culinary delicacy. It's often said that in the thick woods of this countryside one is never out of sight of a lake or fish pond -- not all that surprising, once you learn there are 7,000 of them. Appropriately enough, our group of 18 bunked in small cottages on -- what else -- a fish pond.

It was there that I met up with my fellow brush-clearers: six Czechoslovakians, five Italians, two Belgians, two British, one Dutch and one West German. We ranged in age from 18 to 42. At 28, I was the fourth oldest of the group; most participants were students in their twenties. Like me, most seemed in search of adventure; and as five of them spoke little or no English (the camp's "official" language), I thought that it wouldn't be hard to find.

Our project was to help cultivate meadows in a state nature reserve -- a fancy way of saying we were to cut grass. A slide show by a representative of the Czech Union of Nature Conservationists illustrated how the naturally lush landscape of western Czechoslovakia had been altered over the years by the building of so many fish ponds and the overgrazing of meadows. Our assigned area had recently been put under UNESCO and state protection to bring it back to its original state. Twice a year, volunteers were organized to clear the meadows along the ponds, cutting the longer, more aggressive grasses so that the species below could flourish.

For about seven hours a day, four days a week, we slashed grass with hand-held scythes, then raked and carried it to wagons. (The ground was too wet and uneven for machinery -- which wasn't available, anyway.) The cut grass was then taken to an agricultural farm to be used for animal fodder.

I soon saw that this was no work for wimps. Those of us more accustomed to the backside of a desk agreed that it had certainly looked easier in a brochure. But we also had to admit that the novelty of working in the fresh air, with such scenic forest surroundings, side by side in our international service brigade, made it considerably more enjoyable.

Over growing mounds of grass, we discussed issues that would have made our sponsoring organizations proud: politics, education, social issues and the like. Of course, we also did more than our share of grumbling about blisters and not enough rest breaks. We compared grass-whistling techniques and taught the nonEnglish-speaking Italian among us to say things like "Will you sharpen my scythe, please?" and "Let's have a beer." Every once in a while someone would stir up some excitement by scything his way to a rare butterfly, tiny frog family or -- as happened once -- an angry wasps' nest.

In this newly created global microcosm, we found ourselves developing identities to match our passports. I was "the American," the lone spokesperson for 250 million people and a walking reference book for the English language. "Do Americans really eat hamburgers all the time?" I was asked. "Why do you call films 'movies' and trousers 'pants'?" "Do you know the names of all 50 states?" "What is President Bush like?" "What is a marshmallow?" "What is the word for {CO , flat tire, suit of armor, lizard, horseshoe}?" Gaby, the German volunteer, even scolded me once: "If you call every crawly thing a 'bug,' how will I ever learn any new English words?"

I was the only volunteer who didn't speak a second or third language, although I did manage to learn how to say "That's terrific" in Dutch and "Don't be lazy" in Italian. Never had I experienced so many other languages so intimately. Every so often I would look up at the dinner table and find myself in the midst of an English lapse zone. With Flemish on one side and Italian on the other, I felt as if I were lost in the U.N. To compensate, I'd occasionally hold forth with an unsolicited English lesson or two: "You can't say 'much more better,' " or "People are 'too fat,' not 'too thick.' "

Cultural differences, too, were readily apparent. I watched my new friends spread butter on cookies, and flavor their drinking water with mystery syrup. My fellow volunteers, in turn, thought it remarkable when I engaged in aerobic exercises or buttered my popcorn.

But whenever our linguistic or cultural differences began to seem too great, we could always return to the one thing we all had in common: Czechoslovakia. Even the Czechoslovakians in our group hadn't been to this part of their own country.

Lomnice was a typical rural Bohemian community, although its population of 2,500 made it the largest town for miles. The wide streets were lined with orderly yellow and white houses with flower boxes in the windows and Czech-made Skoda automobiles in the driveways. Upon our arrival a town loudspeaker blared the news of our presence, along with the local news highlights. The film playing at the town's solitary theater was "Beverly Hills Cop II" (dubbed in Czech, of course).

After work, we sometimes walked downtown to use the phone in the tiny post office or buy groceries at one of the three markets (we each took turns shopping and cooking for the group). Supplies were always limited: vegetables arrived only on Tuesdays, and grapefruit was the only juice in stock. Still, we liked to browse and see what we could find -- sometimes "mystery" yogurts in glass jars, other times jumbo chocolate bars.

In the evenings we sometimes stopped in at the village pub for a foaming glass of pivo (beer), which cost just over a quarter. (Interestingly, soft drinks cost twice as much as beer.) The place was normally a haunt for soldiers and groups of older men, so our presence hardly went unnoticed. One night friendly patrons pulled guitars, a flute and a harmonica from under the tables and started a sing-along medley of such internationally popular songs as "Blowing in the Wind" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" They ended their spontaneous performance with proud English renditions of two Beatles songs -- just for us.

On our days off, our two Czechoslovakian leaders -- Magda, a Prague doctor in her thirties, and Petr, a young military recruit -- took us on outings. We hiked a trail through an established and beautiful nature reserve, viewed a dozen fish ponds and hopped trains to the twisted and narrow-laned towns of Tabor and Cesky Krumlov. Trebon, a visual masterpiece still partially surrounded by 16th-century walls, and Hluboka, a mini-replica of Windsor Castle in England, were two of my favorite sights. We also visited several smaller villages, the Regent brewery and one of the country's few remaining factories producing hand-made glass. Always we managed to find time to stop for a traditional meal: usually roast or smoked pork, sauerkraut, dumplings and, of course, pivo.

Having Czechoslovakians in our group (both as leaders and participants) made everything we did easier and was tremendously helpful to the rest of us in understanding our host country. Unlike in Western Europe, it's often difficult to find an English speaker on the streets of Prague, much less in rural Bohemia. Our bilingual companions read menus and bus schedules, figured bills, bought train tickets and ordered groceries.

There's no doubt that the camp made us all too aware of the many differences between us. Yet we proved also to have much in common. We all drank a little too much of the funny green liquor in the pub; we all nodded our way through at least one conversation we didn't understand; and we all cringed in unison at the sight of uncut grass and fish ponds. In fact, the tangible goal that brought us together -- two perfectly cut meadows that would fill with flowers next spring -- became almost secondary to the intercultural understanding.

Years from now, when scythes and fish ponds have become distant memories, I won't have forgotten the bond that developed between one of our volunteers, an Italian, and a 10-year-old village boy. They spoke not a word of each other's language, but quickly became fast friends. I'll still remember how, at first, I wondered why -- and how, after two weeks, I'd figured it out.

Lynne Cascio is a reporter with the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin. WAYS AND MEANS

Volunteers for Peace, an American coordinating organization for international work camps, works with partner organizations in 36 countries to offer more than 800 camps a year. The camps, which are sanctioned by the United Nations, last two or three weeks; most take place during the summer months. Applications are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, with selection diminishing after June.

Projects range from fire protection in Rome and environmental studies on Siberia's Lake Baikal to construction in Turkey and "peace work" in Sweden. There are also camps in the United States.

All work camps include meals and accommodations, but participants must pay for and arrange their own transportation to the site. There is also an $80 to $90 registration fee.

No experience or foreign language proficiency is required for most camps, although volunteers must be age 18 or older.

For more information: Volunteers for Peace, 43 Tiffany Rd., Belmont, Vt. 05730, (802) 259-2759.

-- Lynne Cascio