USF Study Abroad Program: Prague, Czech Republic
July 11 – August 2nd, 2010
The Prague Blog
Written by Kate Emminger
Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
"May I suggest the purchase of a fan?"
We arrived to Prague safely, and spent the first few days getting settled and recovering from the tourist frenzy of last week's travels. Prague is beautiful but HOT. Everyone says it's a heat wave, but since Sunday it's been two temperatures: hot and hotter. What's worse than the heat is the intense humidity – we sweat just sitting in class. Professor Talbot recommended the purchase of a fan, and we whole heartedly agree, but every store we visited was sold out. We finally found some this afternoon, and mine's been buzzing in my room ever since.
My first few classes here in Prague have been enjoyable. Every morning from 9am to 1pm I take two classes at the Charles University Faculty of Law. This session it's "International Law and Legal Ethics" with USF's Professor Tuft and "International Law in US Courts" with USF's Professor Brown. I'm looking forward to both as they are seemingly practical applications of International law. In Dublin I confirmed a suspected interest in international law; hopefully these classes will keep sending me down that path.
I'm having a hard time making sense of my first impressions of the Czech Republic; I feel as if I'm struggling to interpret local culture. Granted, I've only been here a few days – but it's infinitely different than Dublin and the States. I do know Prague seems to be a city that enjoys art for art's sake. When walking down the road, the buildings are ornate to the point of distraction. Statues, flowers, shapes, paintings and sculpture decorate the buildings that line the cobblestoned streets. The buildings are vividly colorful and well maintained. At times I feel I'm walking through a movie set. Rumor has it Walt Disney modeled Disneyland after Prague and, though unverified, it wouldn't surprise me.
This evening we went to Letna Gardens, which is atop the hill on the opposite side of the river. We climbed to the top and stood beneath another example of Prague's love of art - a giant metronome sculpture. The metronome stands where the biggest European statue of Joseph Stalin once stood. It was 90 feet tall and looked directly over the city, apparently as if "Uncle Joe was always watching over you to see whether or not you were a good communist". To some, the metronome represents the heartbeat of the city, but others say the metronome represents time ticking by – a symbol of the time lost to communism. There's certainly a macabre air here, though I'm having a hard time putting my finger on all the places I'm picking up that feeling. We wandered a bit through the park – the area around the metronome is now a skateboard park – and ended the night at a beergarden. Here, we learned our first (and perhaps most important) Czech word – pivo (beer).
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010
A Many Layered Celebration
Tonight we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the study abroad collaboration of USF and Charles University. We all dressed up in semi-formal attire and were escorted to the Carolinum, which was the very first building of the University, founded in 1347. (Charles University was the first University in Central Europe and is the 15th oldest University in all of Europe). We'd been given little notice about this anniversary and weren't really sure what the ceremony was all about. When it began, I was surprised by the solemn tone. We were seated in the auditorium and an organ played as five men processed in – two Charles University deans, the faculty coordinator of International Programs at Charles University, the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic and USF's Dean, Jeffrey Brand. There was a surprising formality to the entire ceremony as the organ played both the Czech national anthem ("Where is my Country?") and the Star Spangled Banner. As I listened to the speeches of each diplomat, my quick-thinking skills deduced this program started the summer of 1990 – only one year after the fall of communism here. Suddenly I understood the formality of the ceremony and why the collaboration of USF and Charles University was so important. Charles University had literally just been liberated from communism, so I would imagine how eager, delighted and perhaps even honored it had been to host USF students. I can barely imagine life under communism - having my culture and choices dictated to me for 40 years. Similarly, I can't imagine the elation these people must have felt when they could finally claim back their own unique culture and reach out to the rest of the world to share. The ceremony ended and I thought to myself Bravo to the Czechs at Charles University for swiftly putting these cultural exchange programs in place and bravo to USF for seizing the opportunity.
Sunday, July 18th, 2010
Le Tour de Czech
I had been told of the fantastic biking conditions of the Czech Republic, but I wasn't sure if I'd have the time or resources to take advantage of them. Luckily one of my classmates, Ruben, is as avid a cyclist as I am. So this weekend we rented bikes, packed our bags and headed to the countryside for an overnight bike trip. We left Friday afternoon and cycled 40km to the little town of Chocerady. We spent the night there and on Saturday we got back on our bikes for the final 40 km to Kutna Hora. Besides the fact that our rented bikes were far from ideal, the entire experience was amazing. You get an unparalleled intimacy with the countryside when traveling by bicycle. Had I done this journey by car, I wouldn't have appreciated the cultural details of the Czech Republic outside of Prague. Just little things – like the signs posted at the entrance of every town – no matter how small – and the exact same sign crossed with three diagonal red lines indicating the town had ended. There were public water pumps in some towns so we would stop to pump them and drench ourselves, welcoming the cooling water. We rode up and down rolling hills, through fields of grain and corn, alongside rivers and into the sunset.
While riding in the dusk on Friday night, I had one of those moments that sears itself to the inside of your brain. It had been a long, hot ride on a difficult bike and we were about 2/3 of the way to Chocerady. We had been climbing a gradual yet painful incline when finally the road began to even out. An eventual descent began and we rode through the most beautiful country scene. To my right, there was tall graceful grass lining a field of wheat. The field was a gently rolling hill so that just beyond it, the sun appeared to fall off the edge of the world. The lighting from the sunset was soft and pink, with a few strands of cloud setting off purple and blue tones. To the left side of the field was a quaint farmhouse and I pictured a family inside enjoying the watercolored scene. To the left of the road were more rolling hills, patchworked and alternating lush green grass, amber waves of grain and furry bursts of trees. I glided down the hill, drank in the cool night air and felt thankful for the experience, my health and my travels.
We arrived in Chocerady around 11pm - a smidge later than planned. We had booked a hotel room but had a hard time finding it in the dark. Upon arrival, we had passed "Pension Jaro" ("Hotel Jaro"), which had a terrace bar where some locals were clearly having a good time. We abandoned our original reservation and stumbled into the closed lobby (they clearly didn't get many late night walk ins) to see if we could get a room for the night. A woman saw us and walked in from the terrace. She spoke only Czech but after a series of pantomines and iPhone translations our room was booked. She gave us a quick tour and luckily Ruben communicated with her well. I followed them both like a lost puppy. Several times she would show us something, Ruben would pantomime an English word in return and the lady would say "nonononononono". They would both smile and move on to the next location, leaving me utterly confused. It turns out the word for yes in Czech is "ano" – so she was saying "yesyesyesyesyes", but it sounded quite the opposite. We paid 700 crowns (about $35) for an enormous apartment room, dropped our stuff, locked our bikes and showered before joining the locals on the terrace for dancing and live music under the stars. After a few 10 crown beers (50 cents!) we went to bed.
The next afternoon we arrived in Kutna Hora and checked out beautiful St. Barbara's Cathedral. Before hopping the train back to Prague, we toured the Bone Church. This is a church decorated with over 40,000 human bones – femurs, skulls, hips, fingers, knees… you get it. It's quite the place - one part indicative of the underlying morbidity of the Czech culture and one part just weird (our local Czech friends agreed). The story goes that back in the day there was a graveyard surrounding the church. A dude traveled to Jerusalem and brought back a handful of soil from Jesus' crucifixion site and sprinkled it in the graveyard. Word got around about it and soon everyone wanted to be buried in this graveyard. Some years later, a plague broke out and the graveyard was so overwhelmed that they began piling the bodies outside the church. One 'creative gentleman' eventually used the piles of bones as decoration in the church and the rest is history. Literally every surface of the church is covered with either human bone sculptures or human bone garlands. The vibe in the church is dank and disturbing (surprising, I know) but fascinating nonetheless.
Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
"Hello fans of fun and adventure!"
Today our Czech hosts took us to the "the first and the only one bob-sleigh track in Prague". We took the subway out to Prosek and spent the afternoon at a beergarden and bobsled course. This was classically Czech to us for a few reasons. First, there was the ever presence of cheap pivo. In the states, a place that encouraged people to slide down steep metal tracks on plastic sleds at speeds of up to 58 mph would likely not be given a liquor license. In the Czech Republic? Of course there's beer! ... which leads me to the second reason it was a quintessential Czech experience. Here was this steep metal track wrought with danger – rumor had it a young girl had actually died on the track – yet there was not a single warning sign or release. Our Czech guide even told us they keep the ride open in winter when the track is icy. This lack of caution is typical of the Czech Republic. When we picnicked last week at Vysherod, the best view was just beyond the guardrail, so everyone hopped the guardrail and picnicked on that side. Similarly, we tried to attend an outdoor music festival but it was so jam packed with people on the sidewalk, you literally couldn't move. There were a few security guards, but otherwise no crowd control. We're not sure if this attitude comes from a culture where personal injury litigation has no weight, or if it's a remnant of the lack of customer service post communism. Either way it's such a strong cultural difference that it makes me wonder of Czechs impression of us when they visit the States. We must seem crazy fearful of danger and risk – which perhaps we are.
Friday July 23rd, 2010
"Don't ask why"
I'm finding myself constantly amazed by Czech art. From the architecture and sculpture to the glasswork and posters – such care and passion is taken in its creation. This afternoon we went to the Alfons Mucha museum, and last week we went to a Mucha exhibit at the Municipal House. Mucha was the father of art nouveau. His work is ornate and beautiful, and his goal was to connect with people through beauty. His fame began when he made posters for Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. He was instantly a sensation and went on to create many more posters but also champagne bottle labels, cracker tins, dishes, newspaper prints, paintings, stain glass windows and even the money for the first Czechoslovakia. Looking at his work, I was once again struck by the idea that this culture reveres art and beauty for its own sake but also for its political purpose. Mucha's last great work was the The Slavic Epic, a gigantic 20 piece installation painting depicting the history of the Slavs. He made it as a gift to his homeland. The 150th anniversary of Mucha's birth is this year. To celebrate, the current stamps are a reproduction of Mucha's work. Even this small piece of modern culture conveys a greater love of art – the postcard stamp is about 2 inches long so that it covers almost half the postcard address space. Beautiful? Yes. Practical? No.
Last week we also visited the Jan Saudek gallery near Old Town Square. Saudek is a Czech photographer and his work is incredibly beautiful, but very provocative. He often explores themes of sexuality, gender, body image, the passage of time, and age. While not overtly political, his work is raw and stimulating. When we first arrived in Prague, we were taught that the Czech Republic is made up of two sections – Bohemia and Moravia. To be completely honest, I never knew that Bohemia was an actual region of the world. I've associated the word "bohemian" with art, music, love and peacefulness – a la Moulin Rouge. Upon learning Bohemia is an actual place, I wondered how the cultural connection between the actual location and my American impression of the word came to be. The cultural reverence of art provided some evidence, but I recently read a section in my guidebook that confirmed it. It said that when you compare the Czech Republic with other Eastern European countries, the Czechs choose art as the method of communication and unification. The epitome of this was the fall of communism. In Poland, shipworkers rammed into communist ships and violently won their freedom. But the Czechs had a revolution so smooth and peaceful it's called the "Velvet Revolution". This name is descriptive in and of itself (and artfully beautiful), but the Czechs have unabashedly admitted it was inspired by the band the Velvet Revolver. So, while other countries resorted to violence, Bohemia (and Moravia) embraced peaceful means with art and music the preferred political expression. Another great example of this is the Lennon graffiti wall in the Mala Strana neighborhood of Prague. Here, some locals painted a wall with a large mural of John Lennon, whom they revered for his message of peace and love. Seeing it as a rebellion (and hating Lennon), the communists painted over it. But every time they painted over it, someone else would repaint Lennon's picture. Eventually the communists gave up and the graffiti wall dedicated to Lennon is still there today. There is also a TV tower in Prague that was built by the communists as a symbol of their power. It is the ugliest building for miles. But instead of knocking it down when the regime went out of power, the Czechs commissioned an artist to "claim it as their own". The artist decorated the tower with huge black crawling babies that look like ants when seen from far away. However, viewed close, you'll see the babies don't have faces. Instead the heads are smooshed into what looks like a vertical USB drive. I think the tower is my favorite example of modern Czech culture – the struggle of communism conquered by the love of art and an acknowledgment of its rebellious, political possibilities all the while draped with a the slightly morbid, creepy undertone.
Monday July 26th, 2010
Germans vs. Czechs (not like that…)
Another lovely weekend a la Praha. Saturday we had a relaxed day exploring Mala Strana and Prague Castle. We wandered by another fantastic example of Czech art – the "Piss Sculpture". The Piss Sculpture features two robotic sculptured men who are pissing into a pool in the shape of the Czech Republic. They spell out literary quotes with their pee, and you can text a message for them to spell out. Again – dark, humorous, political art.
On Sunday three of us hopped on the train and went to Dresden, Germany. It was exciting to add another country to this trip's list (7 and counting!), but it was also fascinating to compare German culture to Czech culture. The starkest contrast was that we found the Germans to be much friendlier than the Czechs are. Our experience with Czechs is that they are kind and caring, but very standoffish. For example, we spent an evening at a relatively empty bar last week. The bartender answered our chatty questions and made sure we had water before leaving but otherwise he left us alone. In Germany, a woman sold us our tickets for a bus tour and then asked us a multitude of questions about where we were from, what we were doing in Prague and how long we were going to be in Germany. The privacy of the Czechs isn't surprising – in the world of communism, if you said the wrong thing to the wrong person it could cost you dearly. This, logically, resulted in a stark division of personal and public life. The culture of communism also seems to have affected customer service in the Czech Republic. For example, when we visited the Saudek gallery, we overheard a conversation at the door of the exhibit that went like this:
Czech lady who worked at the gallery: I'm sorry we are closed.
American tourist: But it says you close at 7:00pm and its only 6:35pm.
Cz: It's a very big exhibit and I must close.
Am: please, I'll be quick.
Cz: no, it's a very big exhibit – come tomorrow.
Am: But I leave tomorrow morning, this is my last chance.
Cz: No, I sit here all afternoon and no one comes by. Then, I'm about to close and everyone want to come in. (She's referring to us – we came in at 6:15pm) Goodbye. (She then turns to us, as we are walking around the shop). I close now. I must catch my train. (We leave.)
There was not a drop of apology in this women's voice. At first I wasn't sure if it was an isolated experience, but a lack of customer service repeated itself over and over and over. We stopped at the Municipal House Theater one day to ask about purchasing tickets to "Carmen". I went to the box office to inquire. Upon doing so, the gentleman said to me was "Not Carmen here." but he looked at me with a mix of disgust and disdain as if to say "You imbecile, don't you know you are in the wrong place?". Turns out the ad was for the theater across the street. We also experienced this in restaurants. One time the waitress came over with her usual accordion cash wallet to have us pay the bill. We handed her the money and she said, "10 crown please". We look at her in confusion because we had given her plenty of money to pay the bill. The bill had amounted to 201 crowns, so we hand her a 1 crown coin, thinking she didn't want to make change and the language barrier was keeping us from understanding. "Is this ok?" we said as we handed it over. "No, it is not ok because I do not get tip. 10 crowns please." Granted, she was only asking for a 50 cent tip, but the brusque attitude was quite an affront to our ideals of customer service. We've spent a lot of time discussing why this is probably so and decided that, once again, it's probably a remnant from communism. Under communist rule, there is no possibility that if you work harder or do a better job, you get more. So everyone is sort of "on their own". Further, the shopkeepers actually had the power in the communist regime. Everyone had a ration but shopkeepers could really give you whatever they wanted. I'm sure they've come leaps and bounds since this time, but it's an attitude that still exists and results in quite a bit of culture shock for us Americans.
Anyways, Dresden was lovely. It's a town that was completely decimated after World War I and has mostly been built back up to its original splendor. We took a bus tour and learned the history of the city, sat in a beergarden eating pretzels overlooking the river and hopped the train back home in the evening. On the train back, we went to the café car to buy water and snacks. The total came to 45 crowns and I handed the man behind the counter a 50 crown bill. He looked at me straight, pointed to my hands, and said "No. 45 crowns". He wanted my coins so as to avoid giving me change. I gave in, and as we walked away I turned to my friend and said "Well, we must be back in the Czech Republic."
Sunday August 1st, 2010
My time here in Prague has finished and I can't believe this adventure is ending. I'm sad to see it end, but looking forward to the comforts of home. My last few days in Prague were filled with studying, finals and last minute sightseeing. It amazes me how much there is to do in this country and in this city. I can walk down the same street ten times and on the eleventh time I will see something I had never noticed before. And I've mainly been in Zone 1 – Prague has over 14 Zones.
On Thursday night we all went out for a traditional Czech dinner. I ordered smazeny syr (a traditional fried cheese dish), one friend had goulash with bread dumplings and another had pork knee served to him skewered on a stick. I've gotten used to Czech cuisine, but as a semi-vegetarian, I've eaten so much cheese here I think it's become part of my DNA. Dinner was lovely and we spent some time laughing about the many cultural mishaps we've had here. My favorite stories have to do with Czech language confusion. Initially, one friend had the impression that the Czechs were very big on manners. She explained that every time a waiter brought something to her they would say Prosim. Prosim means "You're welcome" so she assumed the server was being sassy, insinuating she should have said thank you. It turns out Prosim is sort of a multi-purpose word. It can mean "you're welcome" or "please" or "if you please" or "excuse me". So the waiters weren't being sassy about her lack of manners, but rather were showing their own manners by saying "if you please" when they served her. We all laughed about our ethnocentrism… Another friend kept seeing the word "Herna" in neon lights at bars. He translated it and found out that the word means literally "a drowned man" and was the name of a sausage dish. We assumed the dish was so popular bars advertised it everywhere. We later found out it really meant "gambling", which makes a lot more sense.
I'm sad to leave Prague, but I have to say I never felt entirely at home here. Don't get me wrong, I loved my time here and Czech culture fascinates me ... but it didn't sit with my soul as much as other places have. Perhaps it's the language barrier preventing me from feeling at home. Or perhaps it's the underlying morbid tone that I don't jive with. (More examples: the other day we ate at an executioner themed restaurant and every hour the astronomical clock goes off as the figure of "death" rings the bell reminding us all of its omnipresence.) Perhaps it's that my humor – which is how I usually relate to people - doesn't really translate. Or perhaps it's that the private nature of the people made me feel I was always bothering someone. I'm sure I would feel differently if I had stayed for a longer time and truly assimilated – there's actually a large expat community here - but I can't say I immediately felt at ease.
These past 7 weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, but it amazes me of how many things translate from country to country. In every new place I've been, I've drank coffee, bicycled, flirted, celebrated beer, got lost in translation. Each new location brings a new culture but the same humanity and the same basic desires – to have some liberties, to make a living, to learn, to grow, to feel safe.
I listened to a "Radiolab" podcast the other day that surveyed people asking if war would ever end. 9 out of 10 said we would always fight each other like animals and war would never end. I've always been sentimentally optimistic, so I can't say I ever would have been part of that 9. But being here, I keep thinking of the massive strides the global community has made in the past 50 years recognizing and codifying human rights. So if human rights really are universal and intrinsic to our human dignity, then every culture will continue to struggle for the same basic rights. And as that happens and as our world continues to shrink, I can't help but think that the global community will be able to join together to enforce these basic human rights, no matter where a violation occurs.
I know that sounds hugely Polly Anna of me. But I don't think it's far fetched. And, I do think there are people in every culture who would agree with me. Because while the idea of a "Polly Anna" doesn't necessarily translate - the feeling of hope certainly does.