In “On Habit,” de Botton discusses our mindset when we travel and when we are at home in a familiar place. These familiar places become habitual to us. It is a reflex for us to look at such places without taking the time to notice or appreciate the beauty that may lie within a place we consider home. However, if we take on the observant mindset that we use when traveling, then when we go back home we can embrace things and places that we may have previously taken for granted or seen a dozen times before. In a new city or country we are, “Receptive, we approach new places with humility […] We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.” This openness is a way we can look at every place, even if it is not new. Instead of overlooking a place that has just as much history or beauty, we should take the time to soak it in.
De Botton also wrote, “We have become habituated and therefore blind to it,” about home. But, I do not feel blinded. I know that it is important to notice things that we see on a daily basis. Whether I am walking by the Empire State building on Fifth Avenue or appreciating the mountain range that my family’s house in Arizona overlooks, I have always known and believed that taking the time to notice the beauty in our habitual lives is important. I realize that I am able to do this now. In New York City, I find I am fascinated by new places, or exploring parts of the city that I have never been or that I do not know well. I also realize that I am exposed to such different places between New York City and Arizona that it allows me to reflect on the different terrains and forms of beauty that each place offers.
The other night in Prague my friend said to me, “I am definitely going to miss this moment when I am home,” and I asked him what he meant. He responded, “Being able to look out this very window at nighttime, overlooking the skyline of Prague, I’m going to miss it.” I realized then how true it was. Some things that I love about Prague, I might never be able to see again. Thus, I am happy that the recent beautiful weather has allowed me to enjoy Prague outdoors and experience new parks and places here. The sunny days have shed light on the beautiful city that I feel like I have seen to an even greater extent than I had previously.
My relationship with Prague changed dramatically upon my return after spring break. The city, despite the fact I had been living there for nearly 3 months, continuously felt like a “foreign” place. However, after a week of traveling to a different place everyday, when my flight landed in Prague’s airport, a part of me felt as if I had come “home”. And, for me, it was the realization that Prague has become my home that has allowed me to appreciate the city in a new and amused way.
Just as de Botton writes that when we travel, we are “receptive [as] we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.’ (242), I think, in my mind, the reverse statement is almost truer. For when I am home I am not constantly evaluating everything around me and I am less easily disappointed or amazed by my surrounding. Instead, I understand my place in the context of my own actions.
Whether this is a more sincere connection with one’s location is debatable. As de Botton warns, when a person is at “home”, he or she easily “ fall[s] into the habit of considering their universe to be boring—and their universe had duly fallen into line with their expectations’ (243). Yet, for me, the state of something “boring” and perhaps even, “imperfect’ is what allows me to appreciate at it at a greater level. I know longer feel myself striving to see something “authentic” or “perfect’.
Before spring break, I found myself getting annoyed and cynical about some of Prague’s flaws. However, after bus-ing around Andalusia and Portugal and seeing something ‘new’ everyday, Prague’s inherent flaws, allowed me to appreciate it on a much more sophisticated level than any of my spring break destinations. For perhaps, as de Bottom writes, travel allows “to notice what we have already seen’ (249). And it is through this new lens that we are able to understand a place more.
Since studying at Prague, I’ve been exposed to a wide range of art- from gothic cathedrals to cubist buildings. However, my favorite artist and most appealing art to me is by Alphonse Mucha. His work is characterized by colorful palettes, beautiful women, and long long hair. As an amateur painter myself, I’ve always been attracted to really bold and colorful paintings. My favorite artist being Henri Matisse. Similar to Matisse, Mucha elongates and purposely disproportions his subjects.
I’ve yet to go to the Mucha Museum, but already I am in love with his art-nouveau style. Its interesting to see Mucha’s influence across the world: from Paris, the US, to Prague. His life is a success story, where once a struggling artist he became famous overnight by doing posters for a Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt. Traveling across to world, he finally settled back in his home town to paint more about his hometown. Last week I went to the St. Vitus cathedral where one of the stained glass windows was done by Mucha. It was easy to pick him out by his use of various colors. He used bright greens and oranges, in comparison to more subtle and limited colors done by other artists.
When I first saw his work, I would have never guessed that it was by a Czech artist. It was, in my opinion, untimely of his era to create such light-hearted and relaxed portrayals of women.
Today, when walking around Prague, I am overwhelmed by the wide range of styles present. I am struck by gothic architecture everywhere, yet artists like Mucha appear as accents around the city. I remember first arriving in Prague, seeing only the more stiff and dark side of Prague. But today, I see a completely different side of Prague I would have never imagined.
My Life at Prague:
Lets just begin with me waking up...
So i get ready and have my morning cup of english breakfast. Sugar and milk please. I catch up with some emails- usually from my parents. Also, which is usually me replying back to appease their worries.
I get out of my dorm and walk to the tram stop about 40 minutes early. I get on the tram, usually not talking, cross the bridge and stop by a coffee shop and get another cup of coffee. Dont worry, the size of the latte is small. Finally, I make my way to class.
Classes are...surprisingly hard. Hard in the sense that there are only five to six kids. Class participation is not wanted, but NEEDED. Also, all my classes being politics and history courses, I seem to be having trouble grasping Czech Republic's history. Considering that I had no previous knowledge before this semester. Either way, challenging but definitely intriguing.
After my two classes, I go home and make lunch. I'm trying to budget my money by making lunch instead of dining out. Our kitchen, which by the way is enormous and clean. Which makes me want to talk about my dorm. Our dorm is perfect. High ceilings, wooden floors, and though everything from the cups to linens are from Ikea, I dont mind. Grocery shopping is close and cheap. I go grocery shopping maybe once a week and I must remember to take a bag with me for the groceries. They dont give out plastic bags for free. Which is a good recycling effort. At the grocery stores, either Bila or Albert, the New York equivalent to D'Agostino's. Anyways, at Bila and Albert, there is a massive aisle for just sausages and meat. A lot of pork. A lot of bread, cheese, and spreads. Czech cuisine, by the way, is not my favorite. In my opinion, its too bland and heavy. Other than Czech food though, there are a lot of Italian restaurants and american fast food chains. Such as the ominous McDonalds and KFC. I have never been to a Czech KFC yet, but maybe one day I will stop by for some Mashed potatoes. I Go to mcdonalds often, only because it seems to be the only 24 hour restaurant. For me, the night starts pretty late. We go to a bar and drink a beer or two. We usually also take the cab home because theyre so affordable. Maybe 4-5 dollars. Thus taking a cab is a phone call and five minutes way. We could take the night tram, but during the weekends and such, they seem to run less often. The other sources of transportation is by cars. The Czech Republic seems to have a lot of car owners, and not many bike owners. Whereas in other european countries, I observed that there are many many bike riders. Maybe its the cobblestones?
I confess, my day is not very adventurous...
But anyways, days seem to wiz by so quickly. Classes seem longer than usual. Its one hour and fifteen minutes. But it feels like hours. Especially these days where the sun is tempting and teasing me while im in class. Especially also when our NYU center is right next to the Old Town Square where tourists swarm and all kinds of sounds can be heard. Instead of walking outside exploring, Im in class listening about Communism and the EU.
Walking around Prague, in comparison to at NYC is a bit different. Walking is a little more dangerous and tiresome. In New York, I can jay walk all I want without worrying that a car might hit me. Whereas here, I look both ways so I wont die! Also the cobblestones are definitely not feet-friendly. As pretty as it looks in pictures and all, it can make you trip, ruin your heels, and callus your feet! Also sidewalk traffic is very much different here than in New York. I seem to be saying "excuse me" way too often and squeezing myself in between slow-walkers. Its a maze nowadays with tourists stopping in front of you constantly.
But all in all, I am content and always marvel at Prague's beautiful architecture.
As weeks go by, I am stunned at how safe and comfortable I feel at Prague.
I definitely feel that weather has something to do with it.
As soon as the sun started to come out, everything seemed safer and happier.
One day, riding the tram to school, I started chatting with some guy. He asked me where I was from, what I was studying and if I liked Prague. Honestly, I was taken aback because usually the tram ride to and back to school is usually just me looking out the window in silence. It was refreshing to talk to someone and express my affection for Prague.
Nonetheless, the tram ride to school got me thinking. How do Czech people view Americans? Is the answer really that obvious? I’d like to think otherwise.
The few Czech people I’ve encountered all expressed desire to one day visit New York. However, on the other hand, many Czech people find Americans to be…superfluous? I just mention that because I talked to a girl who said that Americans are obsessed with celebrities and Britney Spears. True. But I think that’s only a small sphere of interest. So then, what can Americans do to change this perception to Europeans? Honestly, I don’t know and really don’t care. I find Europeans to be different and superfluous in their own realm of interest. So I don’t think its fair to judge Americans to be more materialistic than other countries. I love Europe, but I’m ready to go back to New York. In my opinion, New York embraces all cultures, and thrives on diversity. Whereas, Europe definitely lacks diversity. I may be wrong. But that is only my opinion.
"Life is a bitch, and then you die." We've all heard this phrase before, and to some extent, I once despised it. Yet, as I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser, I've come to learn that it's actually rather accurate, for most of the global population. However, after walking around today in the town of Karlovy Vary, or Carlsbad, listening to a group of upper-middle class tourists whining and complaining that they couldn't go to all of their planned attractions in one day thanks to limited hours of operation because of the Easter holiday, complaining about how it was "just not fair", I was strangely annoyed. What sense of entitlement, we western-civilized inhabitants have. I blame this pre-conceived notion that we all deserve to get what we want and the notion that we will receive happy endings on Disney. Yes, that's right. You heard me correctly. I blame the House of Mouse. Disney led us all to believe that we all deserve happy endings that end with us living happily ever after with our one true love. Reality check: The economy is in the crapper, people are losing their homes, cars, jobs and more, the national divorce rate is at an all time high, and our country is trillions of dollars in debt, resulting in woes for everyone. How is this relevant you ask? Because if life was in fact, fair, the already rich oil giants wouldn't be getting richer while the rest of us pay the price (though a nice silver lining of the economic crisis, is the sharp decline in oil prices, thanks to no one being able to pay!). The reason I'm even writing this is because I'm tired of hearing everyone and their mom (including my own, thanks very much) complain about how life isn't fair. You're completely right! IT'S NOT FAIR.GET OVER IT. There's always going to be someone with more money than you, someone a hell of a lot better looking than you, someone more successful than you in their endeavors, and complete jerks that have everything going their way. But FAIR doesn't drive the world, does it? Is it fair that children starve in African countries while we live a life of excess and travel? Oh, because HEAVEN FORBID you can't get your back massage on a national holiday because the spa is closed. Or is it fair that good people die from incurable diseases? No, it's not, but would you like to know something? No one ever said it was. We were just taught since childhood that good always triumphs over evil, and that everyone always gets what they deserve. We were lied to, plain and simple. However, that shouldn't stop us from bettering ourselves, now should it? If anything, it should push us to strive for the best, for what we think we do deserve: To live better and make the world a better place than it was before we left it. Our narcissistic minds can take comfort in knowing that no matter how unfair that we think our current predicaments may be, there is always someone out there who has it far worse than we do. So, in closing, remember to treasure what you DO have, and stop complaining and start living. This is life; It's not perfect, but that's what makes it all the more exciting.
From the time Monika Ngo entered high school, she knew she would one day live in Prague.
Growing up in Haiphong, the third largest city in Vietnam, her Aunt Quyen used to brag to Monkia’s mother about the new trendy clothes, steady stream of money and pictures her husband would mail back to her of his life, house, and new nail salon in Prague.
“You can earn more in a day there, then you can in a life here”, Monika remembers her Mother’s other sister telling her mother in an effort to persuade Monika’s own father to move to the Czech Republic. But, 5 years ago, when Monika was 16 and her father decided not to leave and join his brothers, Monika knew it would be her who would someday make it to this “Better city”.
Monika is just one of many Vietnamese who emigrated to Prague before the global economic crisis, in hopes of making more money and a better life in the Central European cultural and political capital. Monika, in particular, came to study economics.“Prague has opportunities for economists and business Vietnam doesn’t” She says.
“I want to work in business or work as an economist. Europe is much better for economists than Vietnam and the Czech Republic is welcoming to us” She adds.Monika’s experience as a Vietnamese in Prague has its advantages and disadvantages. Since she is able to live with her extended family and other Vietnamese, she says she “rarely gets homesick”. Also, while on trams and metros she says she “is always seen as Vietnamese”, she has never felt that her race has made her vulnerable.
However, one time when Monkia was shopping in a Prague’s Tesco department store, she says that a man came up to her and asked her, in Czech, why she didn’t shop at a Vietnamese store instead.
“Sometimes I think people want to stay apart from each other. But Czechs shop in our stores, and we shop in theirs.” She says/.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Vietnamese immigrant population in Prague has blossomed to a sizeable community of just over 60,000. The Vietnamese have also since seized a firm grasp on the corner grocery and nail salon markets as well as a representative seat in the city's National Minority Council.
However, with the economic downturn, racial differences, and the realities of earning money for both herself and her family back home, Monika, like many others in this economy, is struggling with the daily reality of living in a perhaps falsely promised land.Wearing black pants, and a white T-shirt, with her dark hair cut just above her shoulders, and while fidgeting with the leather band and thin gold buckle of small wristwatch, Monika’s waits behind a glittering cosmetic counter in her uncle’s salon. Her understanding of Vietnamese, Czech and English make her an asset to the Salon and its customers.
“I studied so I could move.” She recalls regarding her acceptance to Hanoi’s University of Agriculture and her subsequent acceptance into the school’s abroad program at the Czech University of Agriculture in Prague two years later.
“Some students at my school asked me why lots of Vietnamese come to the Czech Republic. When I tell them to make money. They laugh at me because in their mind Asia is where you make money. But then they come to our nail salons and our grocers anyway. And I tell them that’s how we are able to make money” She states with a grin.
“The Vietnamese are skilled and smart. We work hard.” Monkia says.
“I want to go home to visit, but after I get a degree and more money” Says Monika. Yet she seems “unsure” of whether she would like that visit to be a permanent return, or just a temporary visit to Vietnam.
When asked about her specific future plans as an economist and businesswomen, she says “I don’t think that much about exact plans about later. I have work and school now.”
Looking at her watch and taping her pencil rhythmically on a calculator behind a cosmetic counter, she adds “I don’t have time to.”
Recently I sat down with Lenka Srsnova-Colombo, the mother of the girl that I tutor in English, to interview her for my radio news journalism class. After the past two months of speaking with her, I realized that she has traveled to many places all over the world and has a fascinating life.
When she was younger she studied in Austria and learned German. Then she visited the United States without knowing a single word of English. She told me about the night when she got off the plane from the Czech Republic and she first tried to find the campus where she was living in Boston for four months and how difficult it was for her to get there. She said she got lucky enough to find a police officer who spoke a little bit of German. Aside from her journeys abroad, Lenka also lived in the Czech Republic for thirty-eight years. She has seen Prague before and after the Velvet Revolution. Now she resides in a flat in Prague with her Italian husband and daughter Veronika. She told me how little freedom her and her family had when the Communist’s were in power. And she also said that she thinks Prague right now is becoming too touristy; the city is losing its mystique nature.
Lenka expressed her opinions of many of the places she has visited when we sat down to talk about her experiences abroad. I found it surprising that one of her favorite places in the world is Asia. She loves their food and just their culture in general. I did not expect her to say that. She also loves Italy as her husband is from there, and enjoys visiting the United States. One thing I find especially interesting is when Lenka compares the United States to Prague and how differently the laws are enforced in America. This is something I happened to notice myself. Another thing I noticed after speaking with Lenka on many occasions is the number of stories she has to tell me. I love to listen to them because they are new and interesting to me. Traveling brings us these stories I think. Seeing new places and meeting new people are the most interesting stories to hear. In this way, I do not think Lenka is just an average Czech person because I think she is more worldly and open to new experiences. Even her mother does not speak a word of English, while Lenka is fluent. However, one symbol of Czech culture that she embodies is her love for Czech beer. She told me that it is the only type of beer or alcohol she will drink, and when she is traveling she is often disappointed. That along with her humble nature brings out the Czech in her.
Marie Homerova is probably the smartest person I know. While I’m not a student in her class at NYU in Prague, I’ve taken a few field trips with her and her unbelievable knowledge on absolutely everything blows me away. Marie is the professor for Czech Architecture, and with that title apparently comes with the knowledge of every piece of architecture in several cities. On my second day in Prague, her hour long tour of Old Town opened my eyes to the wealth of art and architecture visible—and often hidden—on almost every surface in Prague. While I knew that Prague was a rich center of many different styles of architecture, the sheer breadth of it, and her knowledge on it, made Prague even more complex and layered than I could have ever imagined while flipping through my Lonely Plant Guide on the plane ride over.
When I say that Marie knows everything, I don’t think I am that far from exaggeration. On a trip to Olomouc one weekend early in the semester, she pointed out every fountain and church; she knew every detail of the histories and made them interesting. Her beautiful accent and quiet sense of humor made me interested in the crumbling alabaster facades. Her charming affirmations of her facts with an “Is it so?” made my friends and I smile and we’d find ourselves trying to imitate the genius of this wonderful woman.
Her genius was solidified in my mind when, after a trip to a silver mine in Kutna Hora, Marie interrupted the guide at the mine to interject more history and interesting facts. The woman at the mine makes her living on knowing everything about it, and yet Marie knew just a little more. Her quip after the tour of "That woman didn't really know what she was talking about," made all the students present aware that Marie was brilliant, and perhaps looking to show up the mine tour guide!
While I know that I will never be able to cultivate the knowledge that she has stored in her mind, it’s nice to have a small peek into the rich history of the Czech Republic. She is inspiring to me because she has allowed us to look at Prague with an artist and historian’s eye, and I feel fortunate to have such an insider’s view of the city I’m living in.
Milena Kelly glances at the clock on the wall behind her and simultaneously reaches into a beige frayed purse on her lap.
“Here,” she says, leaning across the table, “take this…” I remove the business card from her palm as she interrupts herself to say, “forgive me, I must go to—” and slips a thin arm into a puffy coat. Her short hair, the color of stale wheat bread, continually falls in her face as she gathers her belongings from the floor of the small café in Prague 2 where we have been speaking for nearly two hours. She stands abruptly erect and looks at the clock again. “You must come for dinner,” she beckons as she glides toward the exit and slips outside, her careful movements allowing the wooden door to shut softly behind her.
The continual shuffling and clinking of mugs seems louder now that Ms. Kelly is no longer speaking soft and perfect English. I run my fingertips over the bold “PhDr.” that precedes her name on the thick rectangle of paper in silence.
“Wow. Her life is…” my friend, Ali, who had been sitting to my left, pauses to search for a word, “it’s just so incredible. So impressive.” I nod and continue to swiftly write half-legible words in a notebook on my lap. Ali’s father had met Milena in Boston in the 1980’s; the two were Czech citizens who had left their native country “for political reasons,” as Milena put it. Her description of moments of significance, tradition, and transition throughout her life are cramped within the margins of nine pages, interspersed with her reflective quotations and bits of advice.
“Your roots are important.” Her face was bland as she explained to Ali and I certain lessons she wants to teach her daughter. “You can only trust yourself and your family,” she says, after mentioning ex-husbands and ex-employees, all who left for “better and newer” things.
Milena has also departed, but wanted desperately to return. She grew up in an apartment less than five minutes from the café. An only child and the daughter of a publisher, her early life was filled with education. She was fluent in four languages by the time she was enrolled at Charles University. The ‘political reasons’ that caused her to depart Prague and her education at Charles University included a mention of Jan Palak, the student who burned himself while protesting the Soviet invasion. Her interest in languages, politics, history, and education brought her to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study at Harvard, a seemingly “better and newer” life.
Classes, work, and peers allowed Milena a comfortable, yet sad and stressful, existence in the United States. Milena met a successful attorney while working on-call as a translator in a Cambridge court. They soon married, but her life with him was weighed down by her desire to return to Prague. “I visited there when I could, but I was totally oppressed living in Cambridge,” the word escapes her diminutive lips as if a curse. “I became a housewife, cooking these big dinners for guests…” She quickly alters any trace of negativity with the elevation of her thinning eyebrows, “but I made the best of it.”
Torn between abandoning her roots and living a rich life brought Milena much solitude, despite meeting Czech friends in the Boston area. A job in the technology sector in Boston brought her comfort and allowed her to commute to the city and escape her fear of a house in the suburbs.
What she remembers as mere days after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Milena decided to move back to Prague. It was there that she began to utilize her past, and her new American last name, to start her own business.
“It was about being in the right place at the right time,” she shrugs. I nod slowly and she looks directly into my eyes. “You know what they say. The ‘windows of opportunity’… they open, and they close.”
“I had a tremendous head start.” She often stared at the wooden table as she spoke about her past, and ignored the sounds of admiration that escaped Ali’s open mouth. The business school classes and experience as a teaching assistant for language classes at Harvard contributed to her desire to “only do something private enterprise”. She used the multitude of experiences and materials to begin to organize courses and hire teachers to teach English to Czech citizens.
While deeply involving herself in her work and reuniting with friends and family, Milena’s American husband visited. “He didn’t like it, though. He said it was dirty.” Her friends back in the States scorned her for “abandoning this ‘dream’ husband,” she rolls her eyes for a moment and pauses. “But I was finally happy again here. It is what I wanted.” Her and the attorney divorced, but the surname ‘Kelly’ remained with her for what she explains as a distaste for court procedures and business reasons.
“Someone said to me, ‘who wants to learn English from a woman with a last name like yours? If you keep ‘Kelly’, you’ll sell faster.”
“There was a tremendous demand,” she explains, “and anyone who had any ambition went abroad,” after the Iron Curtain lifted. She calls her success good luck and smart timing. She had handled language-translation software while working in Boston, and used the textbooks she had taught with at Harvard to develop her own methods and write course materials.
At the beginning of our conversation she proudly explained her solitude as a woman, and further elaborates in the many who abandoned her business to start their own. She soon switched her field to publishing.
“I knew my father was living comfortably, and I had the resources around the world.” She compares the ease with which she found advice about involving herself in a new profession during a trip back to the States with the suspicion and secrecy of the Czech Republic.
“People are very protective of information here,” she says, glancing at the table next to us. She was scoffed at when naming a price of 1000 crowns for the collection of tape cassettes and textbooks that were part of a package she was selling. In addition to advice from friends in the States, Milena inherited her father’s library and contacted his friends as well in order to supplement the financial and social capital that allowed her to start her own private publishing enterprise.
There have been good and bad times as a one-woman business, but Milena shows a shy pride in her work. “I chose these fields specifically,” she explains near the end of the description of the events in her life until present. “The education sector… it’s honest, and female.”
She often mentions her 18 year old daughter, who she tries “to always involve and instruct” in her work and life. Before Milena leaves she mentions her mother who passed away 5 years ago.
“I used to take her and my daughter with me everywhere,” she smiles broadly, a rare moment during the interview. “I know what hard times are like, I had them here, when I had cancer and my mother was sick. My business was in danger of bankruptcy,” she lists a number of obstacles that she has overcome on her long, thin fingers.
Milena is making her own path while involving traditions and lessons that she has learned from others and from her own life experiences. She did leave her home, but insists, “I always wanted to live here, to come back.”