Halfway update: lessons learned abroad

Since my last post I’ve been to Italy, Poland, and back to enjoy Prague for the weekend. Getting caught up in the whirlwind of studying abroad is easy to do, so I finally took some time to reflect on my experience and catch up on some much needed sleep.

I’ve been living abroad for over a month and a half now and I am constantly amazed by how much more of the world I’ve already seen. But now I know that there’s so much more I want to explore. Every place I go, I make a mental list of all the places I need to see on the next trip.

So far, after visiting five new countries and eight cities, and attempting to understand at least four new languages, I’ve learned a couple things.

One, the places I go to with the lowest expectations are by far the best. Vienna, Austria turned out to be an amazing city with interesting culture, great food, and more amazing parks, but I only went there because my friends were planning a trip and invited me to tag along. That weekend showed me how fun it is to be spontaneous, and prepped me for the upcoming travel.

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Mozart Statue in Vienna.
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Flea market in Vienna
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Vienna, Austria.

Krakow, Poland was another surprise that I’m so thankful i got to experience. My study abroad program hosted this trip which drew me in because it was covered by the program, so it was “free.”

Krakow was such an amazing city. I don’t know what I was expecting going into the trip. I definitely did not research the city because we had the weekend planned out for us. But wow, it was a surprise. The beautiful city has remnants from the tenth century, mixed flawlessly with architecture from every era. And then the food was insane. Vegan burgers, chicken schnitzel, Polish goulash and street food. Everything I ate was so delicious.

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Main square in Krakow
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Wawel Castle, Krakow
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Street performer, Krakow
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Vistula River, Krakow

So, if Poland taught me anything, it was to remember the places off the beaten path. London, Paris and Rome are all amazing cities, but the hidden gems in smaller, less popular places are just as great and feel even more special.

I’ve also learned that it’s equally important to spend time in your host city as it is to travel. This weekend in Prague was great and I remembered how much I love this city. That seems a bit dramatic since I’ve been in Prague since August. But for four weekends straight I was spending only a few days at a time in Prague for school then leaving for the next city.

My time in Prague was mostly spent sleeping, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and going to school. So, taking time to try new coffee shops, go out with friends, see the Festival of Lights reminded me how much Prague has to offer.

I look forward to spending more weekends in Prague and immersing myself further into the culture, and the upcoming Christmas markets!!

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Appreciating the unspoken

Reflecting on the beauty of silence while exploring this history of the Czech Republic.

One of the main reasons I chose to study abroad in Prague was so that I could experience life in cities that had long, rich histories. At home, towns are at most 300 years old, and everything is new and shiny. But here so much is preserved with the cobblestone roads and rich with thousands of years of history.

Walking around castles and churches I am able to witness the most treasured and best preserved pieces of history around me, but I’ve noticed one particularly off-putting thing: the lack of respect tourists have for these sites.

Last Friday I visited a small Czech town Kutná Hora with a group of my peers from school. Our first stop was the Sedlec Ossuary, a 13th century cemetery that contains a catholic chapel decorated with the bones of 40,000-70,000 people. This morbidly interesting spot took my breath away, but not everyone around me was cast under the same spell. I heard classmates making jokes and other tourists taking pictures of themselves instead of the church around them.

This church is essentially a grave, and people were taking selfies with the skulls. I cannot understand why they would want to keep a picture like that. After leaving the Ossuary, my roommate compared the tourists to people taking selfies at places like Auschwitz. It’s just plain rude (and creepy).

All of this history has made me truly appreciative of taking a quiet moment. Walking around the Ossuary and two of the other churches in Kutná Hora, quietly taking in the beauty and history without the distraction of my phone or camera truly made the experience better.

When you are able to unplug and absorb the history around you, visiting these places becomes so much more rewarding. Yes, I took pictures to remember the experience (and to show my mom), but I also made sure to take time to enjoy the area around me from my own eyes, not a lens.

Since I arrived in Prague, I have had a stronger desire to go explore by myself and get lost in my thoughts. Often on the way home from school I’ll stop in a park or along the Vltava river and reflect on how gorgeous this city is. Reflective moments like this not only make me feel extremely deep and artsy, but help me collect my thoughts as I adjust to living in a new city/country/continent.

To quote my seat partner from my 12 hour flight to Switzerland, “Europe is so amazing. Life is so much different there. They live a fast paced life, but it’s also slow at the same time.”

This sounded crazy when he said it, but I finally understand. While during the work week everyone is bustling around the city, Czechs still remember to take time to enjoy the simple things, like meals, time with friends and the outdoors.

The Czech people are also very soft-spoken in public, so I’m taking a cue from them and their mandatory quiet hours law.

So here’s to a semester of stopping to enjoy history and taking quiet moments to detach from my customarily fast-paced and loud American life.

Na zdraví (cheers)

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Pedal boating on the Vltava River at night.

The art of blending in while being completely lost

Making my way downtown, walking fast, faces pass, and wait … am I still in New Town? Navigating a new city can be difficult, but understanding the layout of a city in a new country where there is a significant lack of street signs and everything is in Czech makes things a bit more interesting.

After a week in Prague I can finally recognize major landmarks and butcher the name of the closest tram stops to my apartment and school, but after that I am a wandering tourist lost in the streets. For the first few days I navigated the city with the help of my four roommates, but on my first day of class I was left to my own devices while returning home.

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Much to my surprise, I found walking through the city alone to be liberating. Prague is a very safe city and I was able to wander around the streets without feeling like I had to constantly watch my back. I spent the afternoon walking up and down side streets looking for new cafes and pubs to try with my roommates.

I even stumbled upon the impressive German embassy in all it’s glory and secrecy.

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While my exploring was cut short due to hunger and heat, (walking around in pants and a backpack on an 80 degree afternoon is not very comfortable) the knowledge that I could independently navigate the city excited me for the next few months of adventures.

The next obstacle to tackle is blending in, or rather not sticking out as a tourist. While I don’t wear a fanny pack or walk around with my nose in a map, I frequently worry that I look like a “stupid american tourist” to the Czech people.

Tourists are charged more, smiled at less and the target of many pickpockets. That’s not what I want. I want to become a cool european who effortlessly gets on off the tram at the correct stop and doesn’t get turned around on the way to Tesco.

While I know I cannot effortlessly assimilate into a full-blown local in the matter of days, I do hope to distinguish myself from the other Americans making their way through Prague. Possibly by not being the loudest person on the tram, never getting on a Segway and sneaking in a few Czech words when ordering my Pilsner Urquell and goulash with bread dumplings.