Prague


It seems like time has moved so quickly since January.  I feel like I just arrived, when in fact I’m leaving Prague in less than seven weeks.  I graduated just over a year ago.  I have friends still at Grinnell who will graduate in a few days, and it breaks my heart to think of what they’ve been through in the last few weeks.  Two instances of hate crimes that targeted women, the queer community, students of color and students with disabilities occurred; many of my friends still on campus are active and proud members of these groups.  To know that they have been targeted (and not for the first time–I’m thinking of another specific group of incidents that occurred my junior year involving the queer community and its allies) makes me furious.  These are people who go about their lives, being who they are, and even that simple fact makes some members of our community–whether on campus or off–think they have the right to harass them.  It’s a cowardly thing to do, and displays nothing but ignorance and intolerance.

The Grinnell community is also mourning the loss of a student who died in an accident at a track meet.  I did not know him personally, but again, I have several friends who did.  To add the loss of a friend on top of everything else that has gone on, as well as the stress, relief and confusion of graduation, seems even more unfair than it would be under normal circumstances.  I wish that I could be there as support or comfort, but right now I am thousands of miles away and selfishly absorbed with my own thoughts on leaving a place that I’ve made a life.  To whoever is reading this that isn’t a Grinnellian, please keep them in your thoughts.

Leaving Grinnell for Prague was much harder than leaving Prague for Chicago will be, but I am still slightly saddened by the idea.  I take a long time to settle in places–I always have.  I think it took me about six months to really be comfortable here in Prague, and now just a few months later I’m getting ready to pack up and leave.  The weather here has been rainy for the last two weeks, but before that the cherry blossoms bloomed, the weather was beautiful, and I had a hard time remembering why I had decided to leave in July rather than October or November, when the skies are perpetually grey.

Being abroad for a year has been hard–I think that anyone you asked would say the same, especially if you do it alone.  But there are advantages to that as well.  I have learned to spend more time on my own and to do the things that I want to do, regardless of whether or not I have someone to do them with.   That’s certainly not to say, though, that my favorite moments here haven’t been ones like paddleboating on the Vlatava on a late Saturday afternoon.

It seems unfair for me to be living this life right now, when so many people I know are hurting.  It’s a privileged year, and I’m well aware of that.  I may never again have this kind of unencumbered opportunity; someday there may be a person (or more likely an animal) that depends on me, there may be a job that I can’t just walk away from to travel.  I think if I were to stay in Prague any longer, my life here would be one that I couldn’t walk away from so easily.  It will be hard enough to stretch the ties I’ve made here across the ocean; my friends from home will tell you that I do not excel at long-distance communication.

But I think about my own graduation and how lost I felt for weeks after that, and I think about how, somehow, I’ve managed to stay in touch, however infrequently, with the people who matter to me.  I think that when all is said and done, both I and my friends who are graduating this week will be able to remember the parts of these places that we loved.  There were hard parts, perhaps even devastating parts, and those should be remembered too.  I hope, though, that we will be able to remember the people we cared about rather than the things that hurt us.

Lots of love to the Grinnell class of 2010 and the school in general.  I’m thinking about you.

There are a lot of ways in my life that I’m lucky, from the obvious to the mundane.  I’m lucky to have gone to a good school, to have great friends, and to have had multiple opportunities to study and travel abroad and see many of the places I’ve always dreamed of.  Most of that luck, though, stems from one thing: my parents.  I think that of everything I have in my life, I’m luckiest to have the parents that I do.  Both my mother and father have always supported me and encouraged me in every way, no matter what the decision.  You want to leave a Big Name University?  Do it.  Travel to Asia alone at the age of nineteen?  Why not?  Of course you can spend the next three years in the cornfields of Iowa!  I know that there are many, many people who can’t say the same thing.

I’m also lucky that my parents are financially secure enough to have both been able to come visit me during my year here in Prague.  Again, this is something that many people don’t have the opportunity to do, especially now.  I wrote many months ago about my trip to London with my mother, which was full of walking, food, and served to quell some of my homesickness.  My recent visit from my father had many of the same elements, but with a different setting.  We spent several days in Prague and travelled to Berlin for the weekend.  I’m going to split up our time into two posts, because while I enjoyed both, the subject matter and history of Berlin are much more serious than the less-Nazi-filled time in Prague.

My father is the first visitor I’ve really been able to show around Prague after having lived here for a significant period of time.  When Thomas visited in the summer I was just settling in and getting to know the city, and when another friend from Grinnell was in town a few weeks ago I had to work, leaving him to his own devices during the day, although I was able to make time to introduce him to good Czech food (lucky for him he’s not a vegetarian) and a frustrating round of trivia at the Prague Tiki Lounge.

Much like my trip to London, my father’s trip to Prague consisted mainly of walking.  We walked around Old Town, we walked around the castle, and we walked past my office, where he took a picture of me in front of my law firm’s nameplate.  Because I’m extremely professional like that.  We also played “how many old and famous things can you fit in one picture?”  A lot, as it turns out.

It had been a long time since I had taken my camera around Prague, and I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to use my fancy new camera at night.  Prague after dark is almost surreally beautiful, like something sketched out by a Disney animator.  Everything glows around the river, and the castle up on the hill could be right out of a fairy tale.  I think most cities are beautiful at night, but Prague seems especially suited to the dark.  Even the Charles Bridge, usually unbearable because of the number of meandering tourists, is transfixing.

Having my father here made me appreciate Prague again.  The arrival of spring and the excuse to walk across the city, cameras in hand, made his visit both welcome and therapeutic.  Though I wrote before of my love of the snow and Prague winter, I can’t say that I lament the warm weather and being able to keep my windows open again.

I wish he could have stayed for another day or two, but I think that’s always the case.  I’m sure when I move back home I’ll forget my incredible luck all to quickly as I become bogged down with day-to-day chores and the routine of seeing my family again.  Hopefully I’ll be able to remind myself.

There’s a part of me that really loves sitting in airports. Not the stress of just-at-the-weight-limit baggage, or the endless security lines (or security mob, if you’re at Fiumicino), or the person in front of you who doesn’t seem to understand that yes, that industrial-sized bottle of hair gel is, in fact, considered a liquid. What I love is the time between the security gate and my seat. Those couple of hours when you can walk around and observe, without speaking to anyone. You’re free to–even justified in–eating that giant Cinnabon and reading your book, and no one can interrupt you. (Can you tell that I do most of my traveling alone?) All around you people are rushing, talking, making connections, leaving loved ones, experiencing relief and anxiety and everything else imaginable, and for me, it’s calming. To me, the sounds of an airport are just background noise, signifying nothing.

It’s almost like Prague in the snow.

Prague is not a noisy city to begin with. There isn’t really traffic to speak of, the metro is underground, it doesn’t have an outdoor marketplace. But when it snows here, as it has been for the past week, the few sounds that you do hear are muffled. People’s footsteps, often loud on the cobblestones, are muted. Most of the cars are snowed in and untouched. And in the park at night, people walk hand-in-hand but do not speak as the snow falls heavy and silent, adding inch upon inch to the unshoveled paths.

During the day, the park is full of dogs romping through snow that comes almost up to their bellies, and children dragging old-fashioned wooden sleds up the gentle hills, waddling under layers and layers of winter clothing. People leave their houses despite the cold to take advantage of the deepest snow that Prague has seen in nearly twenty years.

Moving on toward the eventual destination of spring, which I look forward to, remembering the days when darkness fell well after nine o’clock, I’m nevertheless perfectly content to watch people stomping, plodding, running and whatever else through the snow, knowing that it’s only an interlude between other things.

There are times when it’s hard to know if things are “Czech” or not.  When people behave in a certain way, when someone reacts to me as a non-Czech, I always have to wonder if it’s a matter of nationality or personality.  I can’t tell, for instance, when the person at the restaurant I’m trying to make a reservation at sighs and says, “Well, I guess you can come at that time,” if it’s because they’re genuinely unpleasant, or if it’s because we’re speaking English, and they, perhaps rightfully so, are tired of dealing with foreigners who can’t be bothered to learn the local language.  There are certainly times when I’m sure they’re just being obstinate.  My conversation with the receptionist for my building manager, for example (written phonetically for explanation and emphasis):

Me: Ahoj, Petra Navakova, prosim?  (Hello, Petra Navacova, please?)

Her: (Czechczechczechczech) (Something clearly along the lines of, Who? I can’t possibly think of anyone who works here who has a name remotely like that.)

Me: Um…mluvite anglitsky?

Her: Ne.

Me: Ahhh…Petra Navakova, prosim?

Her: (Czechczechczechczech)

Me: Petra Navakova?

(Several seconds of angry silence.)

Her: Ah, Petra Navakova.  Dobre.

I mean, really?  I understand that proper emphasis is important, but I feel reasonably confident that if someone called and asked to talk to Lindsay Lohan instead of Lindsay Lohan, I could still figure out who they meant.   It’s the same feeling I get when I’m in a movie theater, and the Czech part of the audience and the expat part of the audience laugh at completely different parts of the film.  2012? Not so funny to the Czechs.  Paranormal Activity? Absolutely hi-larious.

There is no time that I feel quite so American, though, as when I go out to lunch with my Czech co-workers.  I never thought of myself as a particularly American person.  Not that I’m ashamed of it, I just never identified one way or the other with the word.  It is here, though, that I realize how strongly my American-ness is bred into my actions.  Because, you see, Czechs (at least the ones that work at my law firm) are not very chatty people.  I never thought I was either, until I got here.

Every day, we go to lunch.  We talk about three things: What did you do/are you going to do this weekend?  Are you busy at work today?  Why are lawyers such jerks?  These topics last for roughly ten minutes, or, the time it takes to walk to wherever we’re eating, plus the time it takes for us to order.  And then we sit.

And sit.

And I get uncomfortable.  I am an American, and we make small talk.  We do not sit in silence while contemplating our napkins and the choice of cutlery sitting before us.  And so I ask questions.  Where do you live in Prague?  Have you always lived here?  I even brought out the big guns once by asking, How did you meet your husband?  I mean, who doesn’t like to talk about their significant other for at least a few minutes.  “On a bus.”  And… “That’s pretty much the whole story.”

And so it is, it seems.  The whole story can be summed up in a sentence: in the conversational cold war between America and the Czech Republic, I am destined to lose.

I’m sorry it’s been a while since I updated.  Somehow the last few weeks have really gotten away from me, which I guess could be either a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

My birthday last week was lovely.  My coworkers brought me flowers and tiramisu, and after my book club meeting I went out with some friends for dessert at one of my favorite restaurants.  That being said, I don’t know how much I like being twenty-three–I feel like perhaps I should be doing something more important than a temporary proofreading job.  Then again, I guess this is the time for temporary jobs.

On a completely separate topic, I walk past these strange statues every day, and I’ve been meaning to take a picture of them for Kathryn, my cat-lady friend.  (In case you can’t tell, this is a cat dressed up as a sailor.)  They’re carved out of chocolate, and there is no explanation given as to why the cats all appear to be very, very drunk.

I’ve been doing a lot of food-related things lately, which are, of course, some of my favorite things to do.  Heidi and I have made apple cider doughnuts, lots of curry, and most recently, gingerbread apple upside-down cake. We also ventured out into the Prague suburbs to visit Little Hanoi, the Vietnamese neighborhood, where we had noodle soup. It was wonderful, even if the area itself was a little unnerving. I don’t think I would visit there after dark, meaning after 4 o’clock here during Prague winter…

I come home in just over three weeks, and I’m so excited to see everyone who will be in Chicago. I think having a chance to see the people that I’ve known forever will help fortify me to get through January and February, which are, by all accounts, pretty miserable here. But you know, positive thinking and whatnot. I’ll try to keep more up to date on this blog, since keeping in touch with people will also make surviving the winter easier.

I’m so, so tired. I’m two weeks behind on responding to anyone’s emails (sorry!), I’m behind on my book club book, I keep messing up the scarf I’m trying to knit, I’m just tired. But it’s not really a bad thing. Actually, the last two weeks have been pretty HPIM2260good.

1. I found peanut butter. Actually, I think what I should say is, I found Marks & Spencers. It’s so much cheaper here than it is in London. I nearly cried when I went in for the first time a couple of weekends ago. They have tea biscuits, and parmesan cheese, and smooth AND crunchy peanut butter. And I can afford all of those things.

2. I spent almost a week in London with my mom, and got to eat a lot of really good food and see this exhibit, which was great.  She also brought me 7 pounds of brown sugar, a bottle of vanilla extract, sea salt, two cans of pumpkin, and peanut butter M&Ms.

3. I found a dog!  I had her for one night, and I called her Sadie.  She was really sweet, but I knew I had to find her real owner.  I was walking her to the police station the morning after I found her, because they can scan her for a microchip, and we ran into her real owner.  He said that she had wandered away when she was in the park, and that they have two small kids, so I’m glad she’s back with her family.  But here she is curled up on my bed.HPIM2258

4. I also have a dog to dog-sit.  His name is Sparky, and we’re going to watch him when his owner has to work late nights and weekends and doesn’t want to leave him alone in the house.

5. I come home in 48 days.

A lot of things continue to amaze me about my life now. I’ve graduated from college. I’m a grown-upCIMG0609–when did that happen? Because I don’t feel like one a lot of the time. Yes, I technically have a lease contract, and I’ve learned the ins and outs of dealing with my property manager when I still don’t have curtains four months after moving in, our oven is broken, and our heat still hasn’t been turned on even though it’s been snowing. (Persistence, to the point of obnoxiousness, is the key, it seems.) I have a job, but a job where I can wear whatever I want and I spend large portions of my day reading Jezebel. Is this what real adults do?

And every once in a while, I will be walking down the street and think, “Oh my god, I live in Prague. Since when? And how? Are you sure I’m not just visiting here?” But I’ve actually made a life. I get up in the morning, I make breakfast, I go to work. I’m in a book club and I go to yoga classes. I have friends here–actual friends, not just semi-awkward acquaintances. And I still don’t know how any of it happened.

And while I may like my life here, having moved a few inches out of my not-liking-Prague phase (though perhaps not at full-blown adulation yet), I miss being in school. I look forward to my book club every two weeks just so that I can go and argue with people about agency and symbolism. I have seriously considered suggesting that we CIMG0669include supplementary theory articles with the books, but I’m certain that I would be overruled. I don’t know if I’m ready not to be a student.

The real world is a strange place where you have to work very hard to make friends, to be social, even just to keep yourself busy. I still don’t know how I feel about that. I think that graduating, leaving all of my friends, and moving to another country all in one fell swoop was a big, not entirely thought-out move on my part, even if it’s one I’m glad I made. I’ve always done that, though. Sure, I can go to Ecuador without a guidebook when I’m sixteen. I can travel around Thailand by myself. I might as well go to Egypt if I’m already in Europe. For all of my impulsive decisions (mostly involving going to other countries), I haven’t made one yet that I really regret.

I have no idea where I’m going with this at all, except that I still think that a conversation I had with Ali a really long time ago holds: you know you’re a grown-up when you stop using the word “grown-up.” I’m pretty sure.

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