I’ve decided to convert this blog into a book! As I was writing Kořeny, I kept saying, gosh I really want a hard copy of this somehow. After a little bit of looking around, I finally found Blurb, a self publishing company, where I got to make the book I wanted. Go ahead and check out the link above to see my creation. And once again, thank you so much for your readership.
I’m currently sitting in an overpriced café at Charles De Gaulle airport waiting seven hours until my 12 hour flight to LAX. And let me just add that I’ll be sitting in the middle seat… This.is.going.to.be.miserable.
But now is the perfect time for me to do some reflecting. I’ve been meaning to do so for awhile but haven’t had the time to sit down and write anything except for final papers. This morning I wasn’t really functioning since for the second day in a row I was running on 4 or less hours of sleep. And also, I couldn’t say goodbye to Prague while I was still technically there. Or, at least, I just wanted to delay the inevitable a little bit longer.
So here it goes:
Although I usually just credit my family history for being the reason I decided to study in Prague, there was also this mystery to the city that entranced me. In my class about collective identity within the Czechoslovakian totalitarian regime, I remember reading an article where the author describes the city as a living being, a character itself. These past 4 months, I got to unravel this ambiguous spirit, see its beauty, its tragic past, its ironic/unusual humor, and its vivacity.
Of course when I came I was terrified out of my mind. This wasn’t just hopping on the plane and starting a new semester back at Amherst. No, this meant traveling halfway around the world and living in a new country with a different culture and confusing language. Then add the fact that I was going to live in an apartment in an actual city. I nearly freaked out when I found out I wasn’t in the dorm, something I wanted because I was used to it. That was supposed to be my comfort, my familiarity. But as I started to realize about a third of the way through the program, I was glad for the adversity. It wasn’t the academics that made my semester difficult (then again it’s pretty hard to compare to Amherst), but rather all the life adjustments. As scary as they were, I have to be thankful for them. Sometimes you need to be pushed outside your comfort zone. And it’s these kinds of times that you learn the most about yourself.
I am a lot more independent than I give myself credit for. My parents have pushed me to do things for myself for years now (ex. I started baking for my family at age 9 after only being shown how to make cookies once… I couldn’t even add fractions at that point…), but now it was time to really do everything on my own (buy groceries/cook for myself, maintain the apartment, deal with bureaucrats, plan/book my own travel, etc). I eventually got to the point where I was so used to everything and knew the city like the back of my hand, that I felt I was in some kind of limbo: not a tourist but not quite a local (that would require me to speak better Czech). But the deeper you get immersed, the harder it gets to remove yourself from everything. The more it hurts. It’s not like college where I know I’ll be back in a few months. In my case, I don’t know when I’ll be back. I don’t know what the next few years will bring me and when I’ll get the opportunity to return to Prague. This is what makes leaving scary and painful. I guess it’s better to feel this pain rather than relief; it tells me that I made the right decision in going to Prague.
Sometimes I’ll just go with the flow of things to avoid conflict, but while I’ve been in Prague, I’ve learned to be more assertive and do what I want. It first came when I started booking trips. I picked places that I wanted to see; I wasn’t just going to hop on random trips so I’m with people. Then it developed when I was deciding how I wanted to spend my time. When you are in a place where you can theoretically go out and party almost every night of the week, balance is obviously needed. I learned to listen to my body; if I wanted to go out, ok, then I went, if I knew I needed to sleep or not leave my flat, then I stayed in. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t need the approval of others; I had to do what would make me happy. And then, finally, it really showed when I began to speak my mind and not be afraid to disagree (I usually hate conflict and will do anything to avoid confrontation) at the debate the other day. People flat out told me that they thought I was going to lose to my opponent; after all, she’s very articulate and good at debating. I, on the other hand, will just say what I think and not directly challenge someone. I wrote out what I wanted to say the night before, but when I listened to my opponent, I actually felt like I could challenge her, and not just stick with what I had. And I did it, I played hardball. People were pretty shocked from what I could see since the debate had been pretty calm at that point. My team ended up winning unanimously, which after all this worrying on my part of going up in front of the hundred something people in my program (mind you I’ve done lots of public speaking before, so it wasn’t talking that got me nervous, but the whole arguing part that freaked me out) was a nice relief. And to make things even better, I received high praise from my two professors present at the debate (getting a political genius’s stamp of approval not just once, but twice, always makes you feel good) as well as from heads of the program. One of them commended me for actually being assertive and not being afraid to challenge my opponent.
It’s going to be weird being back in America. Things are going to be different, it’s a fact. We see home something constant, a place we don’t expect change. So when you leave this consistency and go to some place full of exciting changes and adventure, you yourself become transformed. Then, when you return home with your altered self, you experience cognitive dissonance; you face a conflict about what home was and now is because you have changed and have a different perspective on things. Local Czech customs have become ingrained in me. Most of the time in Prague people are convinced I am Czech (which is technically true…) and start talking to me in rapid Czech until I eventually start speaking to them in English (I have a good Czech accent, which helps me fool people even more. In fact, people are surprised when I switch the language up on them, but when I make some grammar mistake they realize I’m not a native.). I find myself saying little Czech phrases at times, and blend in with the rest of the people in the city. I’ve adopted a stoic expression that I wear whenever I’m walking on the streets to not be bothered, I don’t make eye contact in public, and have become more mindful of being quiet on public transportation. When I tell people about how there are definitely still traces of life in the communist regime such as the seeming coldness of the people (hence my saying the I don’t make eye contact in public and have an uninterested/indifferent expression on my face when I’m walking alone), they have a hard time believing that I, out of all people, would live in a place with apparently unfriendly inhabitants (note: this is a stereotype that I can easily dispute). But when you study and understand the history of the city/the entire Czech nation, you understand why some people are still like this. I actually find it kind of fascinating; when you notice how people still have elements of a regime that fell over 20 years ago ingrained into them, you see how much that regime affected their lives.
Of course I’m not saying I’ve completely altered my personality, but I think my experiences have given me a new perspective on various things. You really have to immerse yourself in things to understand them; just reading a textbook won’t do the trick. I kept telling people how I was so excited to be learning about Europe while studying in Europe because everything felt more pertinent. Being a history major with an interest in 20th Century European history, Prague proved to be a natural choice for me. I got to see some of the places that I had written paper about (Lidice and Prague itself of course), but I never though I’d learn so much about communism. Originally, I wondered why my family never returned to Prague after World War II ended. The war was over, why not go back? Europe was mostly in shambles after the war and Czechoslovakia, like many nations in Central and Eastern Europe, had fallen under Soviet control. The United States on the other hand, arose as a super power and could promise a better life for my family. The choice of what to do after the war seemed natural. Despite the patriotism my family had for Czechoslovakia, they knew that it would be better in the long run to go to a place of success and try to rebuild their lives. Through my collective identity class specifically, I learned the eeriness and sometimes frightening aspects of the communist regime (show trials, heavy censorship, internal fear, the state’s intervention in every aspect of life, etc). Like I mentioned earlier, the effects of communism are still remnant not only through physical places, but also through people’s habits and nostalgia. At first I thought that there could be nothing as horrifying as war, but having studied communism, I realized that the psychological fear inflicted on people and the state’s means of keeping society complacent during the regime’s reign was terrifying.
This opportunity to live in Prague provided me with the chance to live in my family’s footsteps. I visited the old houses, found my great grandfather’s old office, and even stumbled upon the bank where my great great grandfather worked. I saw things that reminded me of my grandfather all the time, such as stands selling marzipan, duck and dumplings (one of his favorite Czech dishes) being offered at pubs, a national love of beer, and of course, a lot of horrible driving. I feel like my familial relationship to the Czech Republic made my experience even more memorable. When I’d see these little things that I mentioned above, I’d get really excited; I always felt like I was unraveling some kind of mystery. I showed one of my professors the book that one of my family members put together of her trip to Prague and our family’s history and she was deeply fascinated. My visit to the summer home outside of Prague and the crazy coincidences that ensued convinced her that my life was some kind of Hollywood movie. To make things even more outlandish, my professor pointed out that one of the 2 Czechs friends who accompanied my family turned out to be no one other than the director of my program. Out of the 10 million people in the Czech Republic one of the two people happened to be someone I know. This world can be too small for its own good sometimes… I showed my director the book and the photos with her in them, and she was shocked (rightfully so). She told me stories of their travels, and then convinced me to do the one thing I still had left to do: go to the cemetery and visit my great great grandfather’s grave.
I had tried to go on All Souls Day, but I unfortunately got there once the cemetery closed. I didn’t think about going again for a while and got caught up in all the craziness that one would attribute to the end of the semester. My director grounded me again. On my second to last day, I headed to the snow-covered New Jewish Cemetery on a mission. I found the Petschek graves easily since they were of such a high stature (they were the owners of the largest bank in Czechoslovakia), and I knew my great great grandfather was across the row from them somewhere (I did have a copy of the grave marker with me). After a little bit of searching, I found it. Finally. I never met the man of course, but I felt like I still needed to say something. After all, it’s because of his existence that I’m even here today. If you want a Hollywood ending, here you go: At that moment, I felt like I was a part of some great cycle. I was standing at the grave of the last member of my family to be buried in Prague, which turned out to be right next to the hotel where I first met up with and began my program. And now I was ending my program there. Talk about a cycle of beginnings and endings. This kind of realization and the fact that I’d finally made it to a place/person that literally grounded me to the Czech Republic even choked me up a bit.
The past few days, the concept of leaving became a taboo topic. Every time someone mentioned it, I’d want to clap my hands over my ears and say “stop, stop, stoppppppp!!!!!”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely excited to see my family and friends again, but I knew that once I’d left Prague for good, my experience would be over. Short trips back won’t be the same as having lived there for a third of the year. It still feels weird to me to think that I won’t be going back there for god knows how long. I haven’t processed everything… I feel like I’m just sitting at another airport after a weekend of traveling and am about to catch a flight back to Prague. Prague became my home. I would talk about it fondly, and ya, complain about it too, while I was traveling and visiting friends. I’d look forward to arriving back into my city and plopping on the sofa in my flat after a whirlwind of new experiences. Hell, I’d look forward to hearing Czech again after being in a country with another different language. Once I leave Paris, I’m officially gone.
When my plane pulled out of the gate in Prague this morning, I didn’t have to cry, the sky did for me. Large raindrops slid down the window next to me as I looked out to get a last glimpse of the city I’d grown to love. Once the wheels left the ground, I finally had to say the thing I’d been dreading for days, weeks, and months: Na shledanou Praha.
The Old Town Christmas Market
I’m scrapping the weekly update and instead acknowledging my current state of being. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been doing that much or anything excitingly new (I did try Christmas carp though… something of which I will never be repeating.)… But this morning proved to be different.
It all started out yesterday when I was walking back to my apartment after being nearly squished to death while walking through Old Town. (Side note: I have never seen so many people here, even in the summer. The Christmas markets were a zoo (literally and figuratively since there actually is a petting zoo on the square…) and then all the winding passage ways to connect Wenceslas Square with Old Town Square were also jammed pack (Prague’s version of touristy bumper to bumper traffic). Because of all this hysteria, I set off home annoyed, cursing myself for thinking going souvenir shopping in the middle of Saturday was a smart idea. I wanted to have some more space, even some alone time in Prague, not sandwiched among hoards of people. And then it hit me: go exploring when no one in his or her right mind is out and about. Brilliant. I’ve heard the Charles Bridge at sunrise is one of the most beautiful sites in Prague and a definite must do, so yesterday afternoon, I decided, hey, I only have a few more days here, why not do it tomorrow morning?
Luckily the sun rises later than usual at this time of year, so I didn’t need to wake up at some god foresaken early hour. But let me just say, it really is true when people say it’s the coldest right before the sun rises… I set off from my flat well before sunrise in the 15 or something degree cold and headed towards Narodni Divadlo. From there, I walked up the river and then posted up on the bridge. I’m glad I got there when I did because I got to see a vast number of changes in color within a span of minutes. Also, the lights promptly shut off at 7:45 (twenty minutes after I got there), when the sun was actually supposed to rise. And I have to say, having the lanterns lit makes everything prettier and more dramatic in my opinion.
Of course nothing could be absolutely perfect. I forgot to bring my gloves with me, which proved to be a major mistake. I could only bear taking a few pictures at a time because of the stinging pain of having my bare skin exposed to the cold. After an hour of wandering around the river and bridge, I had to book it to Starbucks (got there at 8 sharp, AKA the time it opens… I actually have to say that this is a complete coincidence/blessing from God). At the moment, I am still trying to get warm (I’ve been sitting here for an hour and a half now)… my winter coat is still draped around me and I’ve already downed a venti latte. Yep, I’m still cold.
Despite my frozen state and the fact that I am about to go back to writing more research papers (Status report: I’m actually on track, unbelievable, I know), I have to say that waking up and wandering the bridge with no vendors or packs of tourists was definitely worth it. Sometimes you need to take a step back from your chaotic life and appreciate the little things, such as a sunrise on a bridge in one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
To actually prove I made it to the bridge (Why are my hands not in my pockets?!? Did the cold make me numb to simple reasoning???):
At long last, may I finally present:
Charles Bridge at sunrise
I forgot to bring my camera when I went to the Strahov Monastery a few weeks ago… Now you all might understand why I was upset I left it in my flat…
Day trip to Fussen/Neuschwanstein Castle
Weekend in Munich
Last week I started getting a little burnt out with traveling. After all, if you look at my past two months, almost every day of the weekend has been spent outside of Prague. So of course some natural exhaustion started settling in. I planned on going to Munich with a friend from Amherst back in September after we decided to not go to Oktoberfest and head to Munich some other time. Who knew that more traveling could override my traveling exhaustion? Hair of the dog, the traveling edition I guess…
So we left Prague at 7:15 AM on Friday on definitely one of the fanciest buses I’ve ever been on (so much legroom that I couldn’t really reach the foot rests, leather seats, and a whole row to myself) and arrived in Munich around noon. We checked into our hostel and then set off towards the main square where the Christmas markets had just opened. After grabbing a quick lunch of, you guessed it, sausage, we pulled out our map and then walked what felt like the length of the entire city. We made sure to head back to Marienplatz at 5:30 so we could hear Christmas carols being sung from a balcony at the Rathaus, the city hall (if you haven’t already guessed, I will be talking about Christmas quite a lot in this post). From there we went to the open air ice rink for a quick skating session. Unfortunately we got there towards the ended of the skating period, but for people who haven’t skated in a long while half an hour was just fine. And if I may say so myself, I can say that I made great improvement over those 30 minutes. I clung to the wall for dear life when I first stepped on the ice, but by the end I was speeding around as if I skated all the time.
Since we didn’t go to Oktoberfest, we made it a priority to go visit a famed Munich beer hall. And where else would you go but Haufbrauhaus? My friend and I circled the huge hall for at least 15 minutes trying to find space at one of the communal tables, walking up to complete strangers and asking if they had room only to get shut down time after time. I was starting to get ancy/desperate, but there was no way I was walking out of that place without having had at least one beer there. On round 4 of circling in the main hall, we actually got pulled over by one table because they wanted us to solve a big dispute for them: Who was better, Lady Gaga or Madonna. After joking around for a little bit we asked if we could join them, and they actually said yes and made room for us. And so began our 4 hour stay in Haufbrauhaus with our new Scottish and Irish friends. Here are the main reasons why you would visit this famed beer hall: to see men in traditional lederhausen with their drinking groups, listen to the oompapa band, and of course, to drink out of those HUGE 1 liter beer steins (and of course I had to get one as a souvenir…). Although we weren’t in some tent with tens of thousands of people, we definitely got a true Munich beer hall experience in Haufbrauhaus. It felt more like a cultural experience (and yes since the hall is so famous it can be called kind of touristy since everyone wants to go there) rather than Oktoberfest which would have been an absolute drunken, extremely touristy, expensive (liters of beer cost at least 2 euros more at Oktoberfest than usual), hot mess. Many Czechs and Germans I’ve spoken to have actually never been to Oktoberfest. There’s a great divide in people who actually attend it since those who go are either devout beer drinkers with a pair of lederhausen for every day of the week or tourists. As unique of an experience as it would have been to go to Oktoberfest, I’m really glad my friend and I went to Munich when we did. I preferred being in the smaller setting of a thousand something person beer hall over a massive fairground full of tents.
We then, I don’t know how, woke up at 6 something again to catch a train to Fussen so we could visit Neuschwanstein Castle. For those who don’t know, it is believed that Walt Disney based Sleeping Beauty’s castle off of this German gem. It took 2 hours to get to Fussen out in the gorgeous, snow covered Bavarian countryside and then a short bus ride to the base of the mountain where the castle stands. The castle and the surrounding area was as gorgeous as I had envisioned it would look. With all the newly fallen snow it really did feel like we’d been plopped into some fairytale. I had wanted to visit the place for so long that it was so surreal actual being there. Fun facts about the castle: You have to walk up a steep one mile road to get there, it was built (and never finished) by Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and the interiors are based a lot off of mythology/Robert Wagner’s operas (there is even a random cave in Ludwig’s apartment…).
We caught the 2 o’clock train back to Munich and spent the rest of our time in the city wandering around the Christmas markets, getting our last tastes of German/Bavarian food, and visiting a beloved pub. We decided that there was no way we could top our night at Haufbrauhaus (and honestly I didn’t have the energy to do so), so we went to Augustiner am Platz, which is said to have some of the best beer in Munich. And I can say that this is a very valid statement. In my opinion, the best beer I’ve had while in Europe (and maybe just in my entire life) have been either in Munich or the Czech Republic.
Overall, I have to say that I’mveryglad that I ended up traveling to Munich this weekend. I really wanted to see Southern Germany (I had an opportunity to go to Berlin again, but I thought it would be interesting to see Bavaria instead), but my exhaustion started to get the best of me and I felt myself trying to convince myself to back out and cancel the trip (this was a fleeting thought). It’s nice that I’m summing up my time here in regards to traveling on a positive note.
Here’s me in Fussen before climbing up the road to Neuschwanstein:
It’s December (Prosinec), meaning I’m unfortunately in the homestretch here in Prague. On a random note, I’m just going to say that it’s actually snowing right now as I write this. Finally.
Things I’ve Learned:
- Here’s a conundrum: the Czech Republic is considered one of the most atheist countries in the world, yet Christmas is still a huge deal. Perhaps it’s because there are so many historical celebrations that have been around for ages. After all, the Czech Republic used to be Catholic under the Habsburgs and slid away from religion mostly during the communist period. On another note, who wouldn’t want to see Old Town Square all lit up with Christmas lights???
- Mushroom picking. Apparently most of the population goes mushroom picking at least once a year. If I went I’d most likely pick the most poisonous one around knowing my luck. Only 5 or so people die of poisonous mushrooms here a year, meaning there is a small chance that of all the mushrooms you expertly pick (there are a bunch of guidebooks of course) that you’ll happen to make a fatal mistake.
Things I’ve Been Doing:
- Working on debate arguments. I’ve been selected by my professors to take part in a debate at my program’s graduation ceremony and I’ll be arguing why the division of Czechoslovakia was detrimental to the Czech Republic. I’m usually not much of an argumentative person, but I hate losing, meaning I better get used to debating again. Wish me luck.
- Attempting to write papers. I’m majorly struggling here… I’ve done some work mind you, but there is still a good amount of pages left to write.
- Christmas markets, on Christmas markets, on Christmas markets. All the Christmas markets in Prague opened this past weekend (except the one down the street from me that opened last week which was kind of unusual). So far the dent in my wallet is manageable… But I plan to do some more gift shopping at them next weekend.
- Traveled to Munich.
- Finally went to a Czech hockey game. I’ve been meaning to go for awhile but have just never got around to looking into tickets. My friend who came to Prague to travel to Munich with me really wanted to see a game, so I actually got my act together and got us seats. Of course I ended up going to a Sparta (all the sports games AKA soccer and hockey I’ve seen in Prague have all coincidentally been Sparta games, so I guess I can call Sparta my Czech club) game. It was a tight game at the end, but then one action lead to another and before we knew it that tight 2-1 score ended up turning into 4-1 in a matter of 2 minutes. It was heartbreaking.
Coming Up: My life is about to get boring for all of you readers, but very stressful for me. At the moment all I know is that I’m not traveling this weekend (first time in a long time, I know) and that I’m going to be actually writing these papers. Finals start on Wednesday for me and then continue on until next week. It is calledstudyabroad after all, meaning I have to do work at some point.