Warning: Contains puns.
Ahoj! AKA Hello! Yes, that’s “Ahoj” as in “Ahoy matey” except minus the pirate or the parrot.
This lovely Sunday night marks my sixth day in Prague, the city where I’m studying a-Prague (get it? abroad…) for the next four months.
So let’s get down to the real business here!
The past week has been an abundantly exciting, exhausting, jaw-droppingly beautiful, magical, overwhelming, informative, fun-fun-fun, and jam-packed one.
I’ll begin with a story…
Saturday morning (yesterday) my suitemate Elizabeth and I decide to go get out into the city, and more importantly, out into some fresh air. It’s that sort of city that just pulls you in with its towering spires and terracotta roofs, its aroma of fresh baked pastries and coffee, its glassy pulsing river. It also has a funny way of making you very aware that without you, it would go on. It’s a city with roots, with strength, with an unmistakable character.
Our dorm, Marsaryokov Kolej, is located just a couple metro stops or a handful of tram stops away from the heart of the city. Though the metro is faster (side note—I love this metro system, and I never thought I would say that about a metro system. Ever.) we take the tram, #20. Prague is situated essentially in a big valley or basin, with the Vltava River cutting through it to create a nice directional landmark for those of us who struggle in the “directions department”. The tram takes us south to the “Little Quarter” where we hop off in a square just a few minute trek from the Charles Bridge. Though tempted by the smell of coffee, we commit to our original plan—breakfast. So it’s off across the Charles Bridge, which already at 10 am is starting to fill with tourists.
Five days into our stay, I’ve crossed the bridge close to fifteen times, and yet every time I see it, it somehow manages to surprise me. We weave through the tourists basking in the sun and posing beneath the towering statues buttressing the rail every twenty feet. We smile at the now familiar artisan stands selling watercolors and wooden mustaches and stone whistles. I create a mental checklist of homeless men and women, all whom either sit on a blanket accompanied by a dog or assume a prostrate position, knees and forehead and an open hat outstretched on the ancient cobblestone. At seven am, a crew of city workers were out with a waxing machine polishing those same stones that tourists, foreigners, and Czechs, now walk upon. There’s a certain discomfort in these disparate pieces. It’s just another moment Prague reminds me that she’s not easily understood.
Across the bridge and into New Town, Liz leads the way to Narodni Kavarna, a restaurant stretching back from the beautiful façade of another one of those beautiful Prague buildings. That’s the thing about Prague. “Building” just seems like an inadequate word to describe the structures that contain so much of the Czech life. Zdenek, a delightful, knowledgeable grandfatherly man who is in charge of our group’s cultural activities says that the buildings talk to you. So what do these buildings say? They say, Hey, I’ve been here since the Medieval Times and See these bullet holes? Those are from the Prague Uprising. People were massacred before my eyes and Why do I look so taciturn and bland? Well that’s because I’m one of those Communist Era buildings and Did you know I was the headquarters of the SS during World War II. They say Mozart played here and Kafka wrote here and mostly they say, I’ve got more stories than you could ever imagine. The most shocking part of the Czech architecture in Prague is not in single buildings—it is in the collective contiguity of it. As you walk through city center, there’s no “ugly building”, or evening an ordinary one. A fellow student and I joked that it’s difficult to know which are the “important buildings” because they all look so gosh darn majestic.
One of the pleasures of the intensive Czech Language and Culture Classes that started on Thursday and will continue for the next two weeks, is that I’m starting to develop a comfort with the language and hence some confidence in using my limited Czech vocabulary. When we enter the restaurant, Liz and I both offer cheerful “Dobry dens” (Good day!) to which the host replies “Dobry den” and then, after a moment, says “Hello”. Our Americanism is still recognizable from a mile away, although on multiple encounters my “Dobry den” has been met with a rapid string of Czech that I cannot for the life of me understand, prompting an apologetic “Mluvite anglicky?” (Do you speak English).
Liz and I enjoy tea and sweet pancakes with plum chutney and yoghurt as the sun lights up the chandelier that somehow seems not at all ostentatious or posh in this beautiful room. It was one of those “Is this real life?” moments, those magical ones that people talk about when they talk about Prague. But the magnificence of it, that “Prague-ness” can also make you feel very apart, isolated, and overwhelmed.
I for one am very thankful that the Czechs are still running on their local currency, the Czech crown. Actually I have no idea if the currency has anything to do with it, but Prague is a wonderfully affordable city given some intelligent spending (i.e. avoiding the tourist heavy spots for meals, stocking up on clementines and yogurt and whatever else is on sale at Billa, and conveniently living in a less expensive part of the city). Don’t worry ma and pa, I’m certainly not eating five-star meals every day. It’s just that I suppose I feel quite lucky to be in a place where the culture isn’t made inaccessible by the cost. Zdenek has also lovingly offered to teach us how to cook cheap Czech food right in our dorm. Luckily I’ve landed in a suite with girls who are not only lovely human beings, but who also have a great knack for making things homey and who are all-aboard the “let’s do some cooking” train. We enjoyed our first dorm cooked meal today—crepes!—which was interesting to make sans bowl. Keep that one on the shopping list…
Back on the streets, Liz and I walked from New Town to Old Town, home to the infamous square with the astronomical clock. The energy in the square is contagious—the four piece band playing Czech tunes, that one guy dressed as a statue lighting up for a smoke, the carts with mulled wine and pastries—but we’re craving a little bit of an adventure, and a little more breathing room. Back across the Bridge we go, past our tram stop, and the crowds begin to thin as we climb in search of the Strahov Monastery. Here’s the thing about visual cues—when you look from the Charles Bridge across the river to the whole Castle Quarter, everything looks about a ten minute walk away. In reality, what looks like a quick walk up a slight incline is actually a quite steep climb. Luckily, the route we take is more indirect and offers multiple shops, courtyards, and other welcome distractions to break up the trek. We emerge at the top of this long cobblestone path to a feast for the eyes—below us lies the city soaking in the afternoon sun. A nearby bench offers much appreciated respite for our aching legs and feet, and we gaze down on the city. It made me feel small, it made me keep looking because I was somewhat convinced it wasn’t entirely real.
To be honest, I could go on and on and on with the detailing of our day—we did find the monastery and its library. Both were breathtaking. But the moment that sticks with me is just sitting on that bench.
That’s the story.
But I haven’t really told you the half of what’s going on around here! So a few things…
My roommate and suitemates are amazing. We had some quality bonding over country music, getting wifi to our room, flooding the bathroom (not as bad as it sounds, it’s the shower’s fault actually) figuring out if that yogurt sale was really a “good deal”, and wondering how we’re going to dry our clothes since Europeans don’t do the whole dryer thing. I could go on and on but suffice it to say they are awesome and I love them even more whenever I sit in our kitchen next to the basil and mint plants and our communal chocolate stash.
The people in my program (AIFS) are a wonderful group—they warmly welcomed me after they had all spent a crazy two day tour of London. In states of exhaustion and of shock at the overwhelming experience of settling into a foreign country, this group has been a comfort and a warm, jovial, and lively pleasure to be with.
School—what? What’s that? Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the whole “study” thing. Currently, we are attending intensive language and culture classes for four hours a day. I lucked out and landed in a small class with ten students, two from my AIFS group, taught by Zdena. Zdena is super cool—she brought us coconut treats on the first day, and took us to a chocolate café on the second day. She is incredibly patient with us and infuses humor into our conversations and lessons. I apologize to her that this paragraph conveys her coolness in proportion to access to food.
Some memorable moments include going to a five-story dance club at 9 pm, only to find it completely empty (so of course we tore up that empty retro dance floor); seeing the ballet Cinderella at the National Theatre; taking a walk guided by Zdinek through the local neighborhood and meeting what seemed like every dog in Prague District 6; and hearing “Morning Has Broken” as the opening hymn today at the English mass at St. Thomas’s.
If you’ve got the impression that the past week was rosy as all get-out, and that I handled everything like a cool, calm, and collected trauma surgeon then I’ve unfortunately painted a quite inaccurate picture. That’s not to say that I retract anything I’ve written above. But I guess maybe it’s just to say that my time here, just like all real life, is bumpy and messy. My expectation that it would be anything less is entirely ridiculous…For those of you who know me well, you know that one thing I struggle most with is the letting go, the surrender, the acceptance that it is utterly pointless to try to “get it just right”. For all my great plans and expectations, there is an infinitely more beautiful, humbling, unforeseen gift unfolding before my eyes. It’s called the present moment.
‘Til next time…