Tales From Abroad: Prague

Last fall, when I would tell people that I was spending the following semester studying abroad in the Czech Republic, I invariably received two questions: “Do you even know Czech?” and “Do you at least know someone else studying abroad there too?” When I cheerily replied, “Nope!” to both those questions, it was followed (usually a bit incredulously) by, “Then, why would you pick the Czech Republic, of all places?”

I wanted a city where I could take classes in English; a city that was in Europe but wasn’t the usual Western European or Mediterannean locale to which so many American students tend to flock; and, to put it bluntly, a city that was cheap. Prague fit all of those criteria perfectly. Plus, as someone with a minor in history, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit a city that was a thousand years old — and that had been part of the Soviet bloc, a fact that piqued my geeky interest.

Now that I’m back from Prague, people often ask me how my semester abroad was. I’m not quite as quick to answer this question, as it’s difficult to summarize my experiences in and feelings about Prague in a few brief sentences.

Prague is a gorgeous city; the Vltava River winds through its heart, dividing neighborhoods packed with cobblestone streets, elaborately designed churches, and beautiful old buildings. Unlike most European cities, Prague wasn’t bombed during either of the World Wars, meaning that many of its historic buildings and sites are still standing. From the 1,000-year-old Prague Castle complex and the Charles Bridge — which dates back to the 14th century — to the ordinary restaurants and apartment buildings that are hundreds of years old, the history was practically palpable on every street I walked down. I still remember how mind-blowing it was on my first day of classes to realize that my university building predated the formation of the United States.

It wasn’t just the ancient history of Prague that fascinated me, though. Between the Nazi occupation and the communist regime, the 20th century was not kind to the Czech Republic; and, despite the city’s best efforts, not every scar of the communist regime has been eradicated from Prague. Every monument to Soviet leaders may have been pulled down, but you can still occasionally find relief sculptures celebrating the working class tattooed on the side of an apartment building.

Occasional Soviet architectural ghosts aside, Prague truly is beautiful. Many of my favorite days in the city were spent merely wandering the streets, my shoes wearing thin from the cobblestones as I walked down every side street to see what I could discover. I wanted to explore every park, every red-shingled apartment building, every massive Gothic church that I could find. By the end of my semester there, I knew the city well enough to get around nearly anywhere, and I had stared at the skyline so often I could picture it with my eyes closed.

When I wasn’t learning as much as I could about the physical layout of Prague, I was trying to discover everything I could about the Czech culture — and there was certainly plenty to explore. Prague is practically overflowing with the arts: Art galleries, book stores, and jazz clubs can be found on every street, and there are plenty of theater performances — including many in English — to choose from every night. Best of all, everything was relatively inexpensive, meaning that I could go to museums, concerts, and galleries and still have enough Czech crowns left to go out with my friends in the evening.

Perhaps the greatest thing about living in Prague was the people. Czechs are incredibly reserved in public — they are suspicious of strangers when they try to strike up conversation, and even making accidental eye contact on the tram is embarrassing for them — but they’re incredibly warm and friendly once you get to know them.

I also got to know many members of the English-speaking expatriate community; there are thousands of native English speakers living in Prague because they love the city, and many of them are interesting people dedicated to enjoying their life abroad. It made for a much slower lifestyle than here at Carnegie Mellon, which took some getting used to, but I learned to relax and appreciate the moment more, rather than just rush off to the next class or extracurricular activity.

This doesn’t even begin to cover all the incredible memories I have of Prague and all of the anecdotes I have about the city’s history, and yet it still doesn’t succinctly answer the question “How was your semester abroad?” The best answer that I have to settle for, then, is that it was a semester in a mind-bogglingly beautiful place; a semester in which I did more and learned more than I ever would have expected.