At the tender age of 22 (just barely 22 at that) I moved to Prague. This move, this change, didn't faze me in the slightest. It was an adventure! Did I speak Czech? No. Had I spent much time in Prague? No. Did I know people in Prague? No as the one girl I knew was moving to LA. Did I have any idea what I was doing, where I would be living, or how to teach English? Once again, the answer was no. I did know (yes, I knew something) that I wanted to be there. I knew that this was my time to get out and explore and thrive and live!
And so, I went to Prague. I spoke English only in the classrooms, lived in a Czech neighborhood, and I spent a lot of time being very quiet and learning about... me.
There are times when I refer to my year in Prague as my dark days of the soul. In retrospect, I am not sure that the days were really that dark. I mean, they were dark in the sense that I - the Arizona kid that I am, quickly realized that I suffer from SAD as do many of us raised in very sunny environments, but, my soul wasn't dark.
My year in Prague was an experience I have never regretted. To date, I have no idea why I did it. I wonder now if I could do it again. I also have the upmost respect for my parents who didn't bat an eye while all this was happening; rather, they were supportive and helpful throughout the entire process. I only hope that I can replicate their attitude with the Diva as I so want her to have such experiences.
One of the most important lessons I took from the experience was simply that I could do it!! I could travel to this foreign city and live – not only could I live but I could love the experience.
There is that point, when nearly everything familiar is removed, that we have to fish or cut bait. We have to figure out how to trust ourselves, rely upon ourselves, and learn to adapt. The ideal is to not only learn to adapt, but to thrive in the new environment.
I went into my Prague experience with an open mind. I have to admit that having a love for travel and foreign cultures helped as I had no expectations as to what would happen or how my life would look while there. And I learned. Through an open mind and an open heart, I learned.
I found students eager to learn but who did not openly question. I found people who would use a small shopping cart to buy a single loaf of bread – and look at me as if I were crazy when I refused to do likewise (my act of cultural rebellion). There were women who desired a return to communism and young girls who embraced the new found westernization. And there were American and Germans who attempted to take over the historic parts of the city while the Czech business people bent over backwards to assist in the process. This saddened me greatly as the desire was to become more like the Western countries over building the individuality of the Czech city.
I bubbled with the desire to show my students all that the world had to offer and cried when I realized that there are some things that we can’t teach. There are some things that people have to learn on their own. I soon learned that my students had as much to teach me as I did them; that despite not having all that many Americans enjoy they were happy!!
While others proclaimed the beauty of Prague, I wondered how much of Prague they actually saw. Did they travel outside the center city where the buildings were covered in decades of dust and coal smoke? Did they travel into the newer areas to see the new apartment complexes – the apartments that made little cities of gray? The little cities that lacked green spaces, trees, parks, or even the color of the commercial areas? A student told me that these “new” apartments were “rabbit hutches” meaning that they were very small and stacked high into the air while surrounded on all sides by more of the same. On gray days (which were plentiful) the buildings blended into the sky creating an atmosphere of gloom and depression. It is these buildings that colored Prague and are Prague in my memory. These buildings with their lack of personality and character; these buildings that were straight out of the guide to communist architecture.
Did these people ride the public transit? Did they note the silences? The stares that saw everything and yet openly noted nothing? Did they see the lack of color in the clothes and the styles?
Did these people realize that Prague’s beauty lies superficially in its Old Town streets and buildings but primarily in its people and their spirit that remained strong despite the challenges of history?
In Prague I learned to sense and adapt. I learned to keep my mouth shut and open my eyes, ears, and heart to all that surrounded me. Throughout Czech history, there are examples of the people learning to read the environment and adapt accordingly. They learned to use their language and its intricacies to communicate and maintain a sense of humor during WW II and the Soviet era. While I was there, they were learning to note the change in the air and adapt to the advancement of the times – westernization had arrived.
I have not returned to Prague since leaving in 1993 – wow, 15 years ago. I want to return, but I know that it will be vastly different. In so many ways, it will not be the Prague I left. Once again, I will open my eyes, ears, and heart to embrace the Prague that has evolved. I will see Prague as it is now – and through my daughter’s eyes.
And I will remember the gifts that this city, these people, and the entire experience gave so many years ago. I carry what I learned with me always.