Praha. The City of One Hundred Spires. Home to inventor of the contact lens and stomping grounds of Franz Kafka. A city rich with history.
Last summer I was accepted to a study abroad program, courtesy of Florida State University, and the anticipation was killing me. Prague is quite literally the city of my dreams.
Weeks before I would travel to the Czech Republic, I had dreams I was already there: visions of gothic architecture and pastel-colored avenues. Soon enough they would come to manifest. For six weeks I would live on Zborovska 14 in a pink, baroque apartment building, and spend my weekends crossing borders into neighboring countries.
June 31, 2017. The flight was long. I dressed for the occasion with leggings and Adidas and got comfortable next to my summer classmate, Fania. We first linked up when a roster of students for the program was posted.
We met at Miami International and had 10 hours and a layover in Berlin to get to know each other. 13 hours later we’d arrive in a foreign country with a familiar face. Just before landing we ordered celebratory drinks to kick off the summer. Before long we had arrived.
It was my first time in Europe, or “this side of the pond,” as my British Aunt would say. I was armed to the teeth with Google translate and a smile. No one could stop me.
I was lucky enough not to fall victim to dreaded jet lag, but I could see why some of my classmates did. The Czech sun was unrelenting, casting its rays at maximum intensity for nearly 16 hours. This meant waking up earlier and going to bed later, which was perfectly fine by me (once I rolled out of bed.) My room was in perfect view of the morning sun so it was never long after sunrise that I was reluctantly awake and, after some breakfast, ready to start the day.
When the sun wasn’t waking us, birds were. Our building had the air conditioning turned off, which was a culture shock to many. Thankfully, I had been to Colombia and Canada where locals also enjoy basking in the summer heat… but because our windows took up nearly an entire wall, my roommate Andrea and I kept our windows open to prevent the room from becoming a greenhouse. On more than one occasion, we tried to keep Czech pigeons from bombarding our room using only our room’s mirror as a makeshift pigeon barrier. I found the entire ordeal hilarious.
After an amusing morning we would be off. A pit stop at the Tesco corner store or Paul’s Bakery was usually in order first. We had class on odd days, and walking tours in between, with most weekends to do as we pleased. As I became more comfortable venturing Prague, I realized just how easy it was to navigate. The streets were safe. I found locals were often too polite to stare, let alone harass foreigners (which made 4 a.m. Burrito Loco runs after dancing at Karlovy Lázně that much better.) Public transport was reliable and efficient, and I frequented the Anděl metro, which I never had to use my pass for since the subways run on the honor system.
What the class tour guide told us proved to be true: Americans are definitely “loud” in contrast to rather reserved Czech locals. One sunny morning I went for a jog and it was the most peaceful I’d had in a long time. I started at Diezenhoferovy sady, the small park by my building, passed a dockside Jazz and Blues bar, and headed towards Legion’s bridge. The bridge overlooked the Vltava River, the longest in the country, and several green spaces with benches and shady trees which dotted the entire city. This was Prague. Old and new, natural and metropolitan, side by side. Structures like Dancing House and crowded crosswalks beside century-old universities and cathedrals were a testament to Prague’s multifaceted appeal. There was something for everyone here. I passed couples on the lawn, locals indulging in a book, photographers, and tourists. I made it all the way to Cafe Louvre, one of Albert Einstein’s favorites, which I would brunch at a few days later. Such were my days off in Prague. Tranquil, warm, and familiar. It was no South Florida, but there was something about the city and its people that made me feel welcome.
One of my favorite things about the trip is that I was always on the move. July 6-9 Fania and I headed to Paris. We rented an Airbnb in the city and christened the long weekend with dinner at a small cafe and a few glasses du vin, bien sûr! Out of all my weekend getaways I had most looked forward to this one. With a few years of French under my belt it was finally time to put it to good use. The next day we spent an incredible 7 hours and 13.2 miles exploring, almost entirely foot. We walked from the 14ème arrondissement to Montmartre. We stumbled upon the lush hill by chance and climbed our way to the top for a magnificent view. Outside of the Sacré Cœur a violinist played a melancholy tune. Around the corner an A cappella group sang for passersby. A painter approached me selling portraits. Everywhere I looked there was art. It was truly beautiful. Later we toured the Salvador Dali Museum, thrift stores and boutiques, a farmer’s market where I bought an enormous wedge of cheese, and last but not least, The Louvre. The galleries had awe-inspiring statues and paintings at every turn, but my favorite part of the museum by far was Le Jardin. The garden was stunning. Glass pyramids shone in the glittery sun which led to a field of vast green and flowers in every color. There were fountains and lawn chairs and other tourists just as struck by the scene as I was. In that moment I felt pure joy. We did some more walking along La Seine and stopped by a Caribbean food truck for lunch. As the sun set I ate macaroons under the Eiffel Tower.
After a short week of lectures in Prague we were back on the road. Destination: Poland. This would be one of the most sobering of our trips. We were here to see the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I had prepared for this moment all summer. As part of our assignments I read Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, which recounted surviving Auschwitz after being separated from his family and watching his father die from dysentery. Walking the very grounds as Wiesel had decades earlier allowed me to connect to the history of Auschwitz. As we walked the fields, I couldn’t help but notice the blue skies and green grass. The grass, our guide told us, was once barren dirt. With nothing to eat for days on end, it filled the bellies of prisoners who were on the brink of starvation. I strolled the memorial leisurely, and as I did, I caught glimpse of a butterfly. I remembered a quote I had heard a few days before, “Butterflies don’t live in the ghettos.” I was once again reminded of my blessings as I contemplated my freedom in what was once the prison of so many.
Just an hour away from the Auschwitz camp, the city of Krakow bustles with life. It was a stark contrast to the central Europe of WWI and WWII we had been studying. The thriving Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, medieval Main Square and flowering courtyards at the Wawel Royal Castle were all reminders that life blooms once more. I admire the ability of the locals, of all of the countries I visited, to simultaneously pay their respects to their history and make the most of the present. Krakow, a bohemian paradise, was no exception. At every step I stopped to admire murals and rustic street art of Kazimierz. Locals enchanted me with myths of dragons and I found town legend, Smok the dragon, replicated in many souvenirs near our hotel. As the sun went down the temperature dipped to the low sixties, which as a native Floridian called for boots and my favorite denim jacket. The cool weather stirred me and made the night feel magical as I cruised the town with my friend Elena. We sipped beers and people-watched on the patio of a local bar. Later we wandered into an outdoor concert. We stayed for a few songs and before heading back I killed my craving for a burger, my guilty pleasure and one of two times I ate “American” food on the trip. It would have been a crime to return to Prague without trying pierogis, so the next day I helped myself to a small restaurant’s hearty serving. It was the warmest, most comforting food I ate during my entire stay.
One of the places that took me most by surprise was Nuremberg. We were in town to visit the Palace of Justice, the very same in which Nazis were tried for their crimes against humanity. The following day I had a train to catch, but in the short time I was in Nuremberg I fell in love. After our tour at the Palace, many of us headed to a small restaurant to enjoy bratwurst and ale. It was the perfect summer day. The combination of sauerkraut sausages went down easy with my ice cold beer. Afterwards we walked around the city and, by chance, I had one of the most memorable experiences. I walked into a cathedral and sat in the pews in awe. A man played the organ while churchgoers said their prayers and quietly shuffled in and out. I sat mesmerized. There is something so pure and indescribable about a cathedral, with its tall ceilings and ornate windows, that made me feel at peace. Later we scaled the steep hill of the Nuremberg castle and I realized nature is one of the most magnificent things about Germany. Even on the stone exterior of the castle, the walls were decorated with green vines. The top balcony rewarded our hike with a fantastic view and a cool breeze. The next time I visit Nuremberg, it will be for more than one night.
The next morning I took a train ride to Oberderdingen, Germany. My uncle Erik, aunt Angie, and cousin Lotta were waiting for me. I hadn’t seen them in three years and I couldn’t wait for them to introduce me to Lotta’s oma, Erika, and show me their home. I was received with hugs and smiles and an entire car ride’s worth of story-swapping. Lotta, who was only two years old the last time she saw me, was shy at first. It didn’t take long for her to get used to her new three-day housemate, and we made the most of our short time together. Oberderdingen is a small countryside city of 10,000 residents that enjoys the best of both worlds. My family lives an hour from Stuttgart, and 5 minutes away from a plethora of neighborhoods, bars, and restaurants. Go the opposite direction and you’ll find yourself in the Schwarzwald Woods which inspired the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm. Thankfully, I got to do it all. I trekked the forest, enjoyed a glass of local wine at the top of a mountainside vineyard, dined at an Italian bistro, and swam in the Stausee Ehmetsklinge lake. The best part of Oberderdingen, however, wasn’t the incredible landscape or the delicious food. It was family. It was sitting in the back porch talking all night, “Prost!”-ing a meal together, and a crayon masterpiece from my cousin. The best part of traveling abroad is the people who made me feel at home.
Then there was Česky. Česky Krumlov was the farewell trip of the summer and I couldn’t have picked a better destination if I had tried. Česky is a cozy, charming town nestled among quaint coffee houses and gift shops, in perfect view of the Vltava River. You could almost hear the collective sigh of my classmates as we submitted our final assignments and settled into our home for the next four days. In the back of a small riverside restaurant, just beyond the outdoor seating, and up a few steps to the right of the fire pit, was the door to my covetable hostel room. On our last night we brought a bottle of red wine and some blankets outside and sat around the fire talking until morning. The next day our class of over 30 students, 2 professors and a tour guide, spent hours rafting the Vltava river. It was another hot and sunny day and the cool water was more than refreshing. The scenery became greener and greener as we left Česky behind. Mountains and trees engulfed us as we paddled. We were on a popular route, which was strewn with picnic-style seating and barbecue joints in between stretches of wilderness. We even stopped for cocktails at a pop-up bar in the middle of a patch of rocks. When we reached the end of our excursion, our bus was waiting to take us back to Prague.
The memories I made last summer are some I will never forget. I learned that traveling should be more than checking into hotels and taking pictures. It’s challenging yourself to learn the customs of a foreign culture. It is trying new foods, staying out late and waking up early, making friends with strangers and daring to step outside your comfort zone. I can’t wait to see what my next journey has to offer.
Student Contributor: Gabriela Adarve
Check out the original post on Gabriela’s blog: https://therulesasigo.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/prague-dreams-and-euro-scenes/