The days before I left for Prague were a blur. I packed, met up with friends one last time, went to restaurants and shoved in as much of my favorite foods as I possibly could to stave off cravings. As I did all those things, I remember feeling such a sense of excitement. I was ready for the impending adventure.
And now, it is suddenly all over. I feel like the ends of all semesters are marked with shock but relief as well – you’re both amazed at how quickly time flew by, but when you think about all that was accomplished in between, you realize that a hell of a lot was done and that you could possibly be on the verge of getting burned out.
While I definitely am looking forward to lazy days of doing absolutely nothing once I get home, I still wish I had a few more weeks in Prague so that I could leave without a sense of “Oh, I wish I still did this” or “If only I had more time!” I don’t want my last few memories of the place to be filled with the panic and lists that accompany the end of a semester and moving. And with the summer buzz on the upswing, our departure in two short weeks becomes even more bittersweet.
I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends where someone has said, “In 10 years, when I look back at my time here in Prague, I KNOW I will remember this.” We’ve all met such crazy characters (some of them our professors), explored fascinating places, and stumbled on completely “what the hell” situations. I know a lot of what I will remember won’t be the touristy things I made myself do but rather the small moments, like the many times I was hopelessly lost around town and practically pounced on anybody with broken English for instructions on how to get back home, or when my friend and I sang along to “All By Myself” with a AAA taxi driver. I’ve become so settled here, easily navigating the metro system and becoming a familiar face to the baristas at Coffee Heaven.
I will leave Prague with nothing but great memories, and a great deal of sadness as well. Na shledanou… but I will be back!
There are times when habit is good. Familiarity, routine, some sort of pattern – there can be times when it’s nice to know exactly what’s going to happen, to not be surprised or frazzled by the unexpected because there’s really nothing that would be considered strange or unbelievable.
But while there are days when routine is desirably uncomplicated and free of drama, it can get uninteresting. If there’s no change, then like de Botton says, you become “habituated and therefore blind to” the nuances in the environment surrounding you. Things become so monotonous that even if something striking occurs, the expectation that nothing unexpected will happen destroys the possibility of noticing the change.
The first time I drastically changed my surroundings was when I moved to the United States for college. It was a huge transition. I found myself living in a culture that was unlike anything I was accustomed to, thrust into an unknown world. Things were so different, and the culture shock was severe. While I can draw up a laundry list of the pros and cons, what is certain is that it forever shaped my outlook on the world. And when I flew home for Christmas break, I went back with a newfound appreciation of my home city. I was more observant to what was around and more sensitive to the changes that have been occurring. I was looking at something so familiar with a new pair of glasses on, and that made it suddenly so different. By mixing up the scenery every few months, it all changed.
Prague adds another layer to the experience. The months here have exposed us all to a culture and history that was once upon a time so foreign, and we fly back to our homes having done and seen a brand new side of the world. I know the first week home will be strange – on the one hand, it’s like you never left. But when you think about all that has happened in the span of a few months, it becomes surreal. And although you may have ended up back where you started, it’s not the same. It may look familiar, but I don’t know… all I know is that I’ll be regarding it with a little bit of newfound distance.
I’m only 20, but I’m often made to feel far older because of my absolute refusal to twitter (or is it tweet?) and obsessively update my Facebook status every single second of the day, acts which have been embraced by most of my peers. Now, with even CNN urging everybody to get involved (okay, we get it, you’re young and hip), I’m starting to feel older than ever for refusing to get with the times when crazy congressman and even crazier celebrities are hopping on the bandwagon with such zest.
I thought blogging was even too much when it first took off. Writing about my own thoughts all the time? Oh god, how narcissistic. But it ballooned into such a phenomenon that when I heard about this course, my reaction was “why not?” It would be a nice way to dabble in the new craze, as well as document my time here and my observations of the place.
It was definitely harder than I expected. To come up with something each week, something that was meaningful and not just words, was a task that proved to be more difficult than expected. With whirlwind trips here and there and classes, to sit down, gather your thoughts, and write required intense concentration.
The weekly themes were a great help in stimulating thought. While I may not have been the most punctual when it came to my posts, I often waited because I wanted whatever it was that I was going to write about to come to me naturally. I wanted to wait until I experienced something that clicked with the topic.
And when that happened, it was great. Translating the images in your head into words is the best way to clarify your thoughts.
Prague has seemingly come alive in the last month. At first it was odd, waking up to blue skies after months of winter gloominess (which really wasn’t all that bad, just got a tad monotonous after a while). And now, with the fine weather, there seem to be more people milling around, beer gardens have sprouted up, and parks are filled with people sunbathing, tossing Frisbees, and relaxing.
Who knows when the warm weather will end, but there’s no doubt that the fall students will be able to enjoy Prague at its loveliest. As for advice, what can I say? Just try to have as much fun as possible! Take advantage of the warm weather while it lasts, and when it gets cold, fill up on the local cuisine. It will leave you satisfied and ready to brave the winter chills.
Prague has become one of my favorite cities ever, one where you can choose to have a great night out or simply stroll around, soaking in the beauty around you. It has a laid-back atmosphere, but whether you ever find yourself bored is entirely your doing – there is so much to do and see here, and you yourself ultimately shape the experience you have.
One of the reasons I feel quite close to this country is the fact that many of my classes have forced me to pay attention to national politics. It has been more interesting than I had imagined, and I feel like I understand this place a lot more. You can make things a lot more interesting by just being aware, separating yourself from the hordes of ignorant tourists that walk around, apparently mistaking, as fellow students have overheard, the statue of Jan Hus in Old Town Square for Stalin.
I know that Euro-tripping is one of the biggest draws and will undoubtedly fill up the weekends of future study abroad students. While there are so many amazing places to see, traveling can take its toll – it can be incredibly tiring and leave you so busy and drained that you don’t end up experiencing Prague at all. So yes, fly away to all those exotic destinations, but don’t have it become all you do because before you know it, your time in Prague will be up and you want to leave with pleasant memories of your temporary home.
Jana, an RA at my dorm Slezska, is simply fascinating. Currently studying at Masaryk University located two hours away in the Czech Republic’s second-largest city Brno, Jana is from Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. Although she has lived in the Czech Republic for a few years now, she is still a little like us – able to distinguish characteristics that are seemingly “Czech” and spot the differences between the locals and the rest.
But what I really admire about Jana is how courageous she is. A few years ago, she participated in an exchange program that sent her to Minnesota, where she lived with an American family and went to a typical high school. She has also studied in Sweden, and now her plan is to go to South Korea next year because she is deeply intrigued by the culture. Having already won a scholarship, she hopes that she will get through the complicated visa process and be able to skip over to that side of the globe soon.
Talk about a world traveler. Although we, too, are studying abroad like she did and still plans on doing, somehow it seems completely different. I feel like Jana departs with the intention of trying to assimilate into the local culture as much as she can, whereas New York University has conveniently laid everything out for us – amazing trips, helpful RAs, etc. Not everyone would be gutsy or independent enough to make the choices that Jana does.
Wenceslas Square, the center of Prague, has seen a great deal. Named after Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, the 750 meter boulevard was once a horse market during the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, the square was re-named. The National Museum and statue of St. Wenceslas lies at one end, with the street sloping down towards the Old Town section of Prague. Today, hotels, shops, and restaurants line the massive square, and packs of roving tourists are a permanent fixture. Capitalism has made its mark in the 20 years since communism’s fall, with McDonald’s and casino signs glittering against the succession of buildings.
But before chain restaurants and shops took over, Wenceslas Square was used by the Nazis for mass demonstrations. In 1969, the student Jan Palach, in protest to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, set himself on fire. 20 years later, protesters flooded the square in defiance of the Communist regime, bringing change with the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.
These are merely a few of the events that mark Wenceslas Square’s colorful history. It was recently the site of an anti-radar demonstration, which was actually banned by city hall but happened anyway to the insistence of the organizers, the No to Bases group. The Sunday protest came a few hours after President Obama spoke at Prague Castle. I went to check it out, and although it attracted a fair number of demonstrators, it seemed to be outweighed by the number of photographers, curious bystanders, and tourists sitting at the side, eating their ice cream. However, there was an intimidating number of police who arrived to line up across the street, blocking traffic for a little over an hour. They simply surveyed the protestors, who were blowing up balloons and holding posters that said “Yes, We Can – Say No to Radar.” At around 5 p.m., the demonstrators began on a march. Within ten minutes, the onlookers dispersed and the lines of policemen moved away to let traffic resume.
Although this protest may not be one of the more significant events that have occurred in the historic square, it is yet another indication of Wenceslas Square as a hotspot of activity. Though one can bemoan the transformation it has undergone in the last few decades, it cannot be denied that it is still an important place in a city full of treasures.
I was bopping along on my way to class this morning on a strangely sunny day, strolling towards the metro station when a small poster bearing Obama’s face caught my eye. With the international media buzz surrounding his impending visit to Prague, I peered a little closer to make out what exactly was being promoted.
The poster was advertising one of the few instances of anti-Obama sentiment I have come across, spreading the word about a demonstration that is to take place this Sunday. Slated to start at 3:00 in Wenceslas Square, it will be happening mere hours after Obama delivers a public speech at Hradčanské náměstí, which is just outside of the historic Prague Castle. According to CTK, the Czech news agency, a public rally will also take place in Palach Square when the Obamas arrive on Saturday.
The issue at the heart of these rallies is the controversial U.S. radar base, a never-ending headache of a story. Negotiations started during the Bush presidency to build a missile defense radar on Czech soil in order to protect the U.S. against long-range weapons from countries like Iran. With Obama flying over to attend an informal summit of EU heads of state and the U.S., opponents of the base will be seizing the opportunity to voice their disapproval.
English-language newspapers and magazines here have been obsessed with Obama’s visit. Speculation on whether he would make the trip began almost immediately after the inauguration. While the expatriate community and busloads of incoming Obama enthusiasts may be eagerly anticipating the visit, there are questions as to whether the Czechs will be moved enough to actually make it out to the speech. Besides members of the anti-radar movement, does anybody else really care?
We’ll see. Like many other students here, I plan on making it to the speech. I’ll see if I get to simply walk in or have to shove my way through the masses. And then there are the planned protests – will it be more than a handful of protestors? The only thing that seems certain is that Prague will be in lockdown mode this weekend. Oh, joy.
In search of my second book, I went to the bookstore on Wenceslas Square and walked the four flights up to the English section, panting by the time I arrived at the mediocre selection. There were the titles by Kundera and Kafka, but since I already chose Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for my first book, I was looking for something a little bit different. I browsed for a bit, picking up various books and thumbing through them before settling on Harald Salfellner’s Franz Kafka and Prague.
The book operates on the idea that to understand Kafka, you have to understand Prague. In attempting to rebuild Kafka’s Prague, Salfellner launches condensed history lessons that, to someone who currently lives here and does not possess an extensive knowledge of its history, are quite fascinating. He weaves together Kafka’s personal history, citing his works and letters, with that of the city, presenting the information as if it were a travel diary. One of the chapters of the book is titled “Kafka’s Prague Itinerary,” and in it, Salfellner lists all the places connected to Kafka, whether it be a place of residence, a hangout, a home of someone dear to him, or a spot making cultural waves at the time. Whatever it is, Salfellner recounts Kafka’s past through location, detailing the history, often times complex beyond belief, and its imprint on Kafka.
The vast majority of them are in the Old Town, where most of us NYU students spend a great amount of time in, walking to and from class. As I made my way through the list, I was greeted with black-and-white photographs of familiar buildings but from a completely different time, decades or a century ago. And then one jumped out at me. The building is located between the small square where NYU is located and Old Town Square, near the Astronomical Clock. The façade is covered with white paintings that jump out against the coal-colored background. It turns out that the first floor of this building, called the House “Zur Minute” in German, was home to the Kafkas for seven years. The accompanying picture, taken in 1900, is quite amazing as well, but unfortunately I cannot find it online. Now, some of the white paintings are gone and the passageways that lie below the building have undergone renovations, but the building is instantly recognizable. The House “Zur Minute” has obviously changed in the last century, but the number of features that have been kept are astounding. It really comes to show just how wonderfully preserved Prague is. And it is so strange to think that the house in which Kafka once lived is mere steps away from NYU in Prague, a bustling Starbucks, and various shops selling the best Bohemian crystal, and that the streets he once walked now faces a barrage of tourists.
The book then goes on to speculate the routes that Kafka might have taken while on his frequent promenades and the sources of inspiration different landmarks may have provided for his works. Salfellner presents an absolute wealth of information that is endlessly fascinating and drives in an underlying point – to understand Kafka, you need to understand Prague. There is no divorcing the two.
It’s about time I write about one of my biggest loves – food! Up until a few months ago, I have never had a bite of Czech food. Sure, I’ve heard of and had goulash, but isn’t that originally Hungarian? Anyway, Czech food remained a bit of a mystery to me, as most of the emphasis was placed on the spectacular and cheap beer.
On one of our first nights here, our entire dorm went to a nearby restaurant for some Czech food. I ordered a potato-chicken-cream sauce medley, and oh, was it glorious. It was hearty and heavy and delicious. And vegetables? It seems that every veggie dish comes soaked in butter or baked with a thick layer of cheese on top.
With the temperature in Prague still hovering around 0 Celsius, this type of food is exactly what you need to brave the winter chill. Every dish is comfort food, drenched in cream, topped with cheese, or paired with potatoes. Those sausage stands at Wenceslas Square offer an amazing alternative to the typical late night (or early morning) snack of pizza and chips. There’s nothing like ending the night with a warm Bavarian sausage with a generous splash of mustard on top. And for the few, lonesome vegetarians out there, there is the tasty option of having a fried cheese sandwich. A thick slice of Edam cheese, it is fried to perfection so that the center is warm and stretchy. For the topping, you can choose from mustard, ketchup, or my favorite, tartar sauce. Yum.
It is all finger-lickin’ good, but rather dangerous for the waistline, especially when beer is the drink of choice. But it sure does get you through the long winters, and with snow still falling this time of the year, I can now see why Czech food is as heavy as it is. But I must conclude this blog post now, because it is stirring up an intense craving for some of that hot, melted cheese.
Every year, the Czech Republic plays host to the One World human rights documentary film festival. With the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution fast approaching in November, the festival’s slogan reads “20 years ago, you were born into freedom. Now it is your turn.”
I first became aware of this festival through the many advertisements plastered on the metro walls, which feature, if I may say so, a slightly creepy looking older man pushing a cart of babies. On second glance, the older man turned out to be Vaclav Havel, the celebrated playwright-turned-president who suffered years of imprisonment in his fight against Communism and ultimately emerged as the first president of Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic.
I turned to Google to find out exactly what Havel was promoting with those grainy, sepia ads. It turned out that it was for this film festival, and a little more internet research revealed a list of fascinating films at only 70 crowns a viewing (roughly $3.5 dollars). I was able to catch three, each of which was absolutely amazing. One of them was the opening film of the festival, called Burma VJ. Joshua is a young Burmese reporter who, together with his collaborators at the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma station, records on film and audio the September 2007 demonstrations and the subsequent brutal government crackdown which saw monks and civilians alike slaughtered. The film combined the actual footage of the violent episode with recreated shots of all the waiting and wondering the fellow reporters had to endure as their compatriots laid their life on the line to record the protests.
After the screening, as with many of the other films, a debate was held, with members of the Czech NGO People in Need and journalists discussing the issues raised by the film. Once again, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t understand Czech. But nonetheless, the film festival was truly something. The only real pity is that I wasn’t able to catch more of the documentaries.