by Kathleen Davis
“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times.”
This popular sentence from Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities perfectly describes my first study abroad experience in Prague, Czech Republic.
Upon arrival, indeed it was the best of times. New country, new city, new people, new language, and new experiences. Everything was exciting. I personally enjoyed the challenge of navigating a new city. In Prague, I found it easy to travel from one location to another. I simply boarded a Tram or metro (sometimes both) and arrived at my desired location between 10-30 minutes. The maps are also very easy to read making the ride very relaxing. The city, itself, is wonderful and vibrant. The institute is located near Old Town Square providing a look into the history of Prague. The student house is located in Prague 10, a more developing area of the city. Where graffiti has certain connotations in America, in Prague it is almost unnatural to see a building without some graffiti on it. The Czech people were great! Although they are more reserved and formal, they are very patient and respectful people. In addition, attempting to learn basic Czech phrases was very beneficial to a student staying in Prague. Saying, “Dobry Den” (good day) to someone at a market or restaurant is the first step in ensuring a polite response from the Czechs. As long as you make an effort, they will not be as annoyed when you ask if they speak english. However, when culture shock died down and I found myself enjoying life, I began to discover the other half of that Dickens quote.
Studying abroad is also the worst of times. I was away from my family, my good friends from school, southern American cuisine, and the English language. At times, I became very anxious while living in Prague. I could not call my parents when I needed guidance on different traveling decisions. I have never enjoyed hugging, but sometimes I strongly desired a hug from my mother or youngest brother. I could not call my brothers or my best friend and explain in intricate detail how and why my day was amazing, because who wants to listen to a person ramble for 2 hours? Maybe my mother, but I doubt my brothers and best friend would want to. Food is a different story. While buying groceries in Prague is extremely cheap, having to take time out of a design work schedule to make dinner can be difficult. Prague also has a diverse selection of restaurants to eat out at. I did not understand the country’s obsession with KFC and Burger King, until I ate at both places and realized Czech KFC and BK are higher quality than the American versions. Due to the fact that I was born and raised in the south, southern American cuisine was the most difficult to delete from my diet. Working in studio, I craved a CookOut Tray and a huge sweet tea, but I could not do that. I found myself constantly craving good fried chicken, biscuits, seasoned fries, and again, sweet tea. Sad things is, there is no Bojangles in Prague. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON CHIPOTLE. Let’s just say that my cravings were so severe, I dreamt of burrito bowls and guacamole. Even though I survived without certain American food chains, the hardest adjustment was the Czech language. While learning basic Czech phrases helped, most of the time, people spoke little to no English. I would ask a person “Do you speak English” in Czech and would panic when they responded with “Ney” (no). [Side note: No is short for Ano in Czech, which means yes. So, No, means yes and Ney means no.] Not knowing what was being said for most of the day became very stressful. When I went on a weekend trip to London, my friend Emily and I teared up when we heard and read English everywhere. Tearing up when hearing one’s native language is a clear example of how drastic the effect of a language barrier is to non native speakers.
My favorite moments in Prague were during the collision of good and bad experiences. Before I left for Prague, I felt that I took my family for granted. As they were holding me closer, I pushed them away because I knew I was about to spend 3 months without them by my side. Arriving in Prague and feeling the weight of not having them with me, upset me. For the longest time I wanted to leave home and see the world, yet for most of my study abroad experience, the moments I enjoyed the most were the moments that felt like home. I first realized this when I ate at a popular Burger joint called, The Tavern. I ordered the Pulled Pork BBQ sandwich and boy did it meet all of my expectations as a North Carolinian BBQ consumer. The bun, meat, and coleslaw truly rivaled the BBQ North Carolina has to offer. I was more than pleased, I was in heaven. Not only did finding a favorite restaurant put my homesickness at ease but also finding a routine. I am all for the excitement that comes with spontaneity but sometimes, finding a routine in a foreign land is the most beneficial stress reliever. Small aspects of my day became a routine, such as taking a tram to and from class. One of my favorite activities at home was putting my headphones in and listening to music while riding or walking to class. If I was in the car, I would stare at the lines on the side of the rode or at the sky and feel like I was physically moving with time itself. The moments on the tram were my favorite because I could enter a world that was entirely my own and for 25 minutes, feel like I was at home…until I would hear “pristi zastavka: vaclasvska namesti” (the tram stop for the institute.) I would then exit the train smiling to myself, realizing how joyful it was to trick my brain into feeling it was at home for a small amount of time.
The Dickens quote perfectly describes my first study abroad experience because it is a consolidation of both the good and bad experiences. To me, it would not be a true abroad experience without both aspects. It was during the moments of balance between the good and bad experiences that made my time spent in Prague forever memorable. I realized I could not focus on just the good moments or just the bad moments. I had to look at the bigger picture in order to find meaning. I discovered, yes, I am away from home, but I am becoming more independent. I can handle stressful situations with more composure in the future. I am more knowledgable and respectful of people because I know there are more cultures besides my own. Most importantly, I realized that I found myself. I found myself in the stress of navigating Prague for the first time, through sighs when I constantly mispronounced Czech words, from the way I stared at the cobblestone streets after a rainstorm and realized each cobblestone was a fingerprint that uniquely reflected the street lights, in the frowns I received for smiling at people’s kids or cute dogs, during the evening hours when I would wake up in a panic only to realize it was someone’s dog barking (again), in the relief I felt any time the sun would occasionally breach through the clouds and illuminate the city, from the blurring of the street lines as I rode the tram, in the sorrows as I constantly uttered, “I wish my best friend was here to experience this with me,” in the confusion that plagued my mind because I did not understand why a mere mortal like me would deserve such a life-altering experience, and from the laughter that constantly echoed between old friends and new across the entire span of the three months abroad. I still cannot comprehend how and why studying abroad has such an effect on my soul.
Towards the end of October 2014, I had the privilege of attending the concert of the my favorite band, The 1975 at a local venue in Prague. I recall smiling during the opening number as Matty Healy, the lead singer, sang, “If you want to find love then you know where the city is.” For it was in that instant I realized that I did not think he was referring to finding a human being that lives in the city to love, but rather the city itself. What will you find to love in Prague? See for yourself.