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Notes from Abroad: Prague

Notes from Abroad: Prague

By Sam Colt

Compared to the icons of Europe (Paris, London, Rome), Prague is a second-tier tourist destination.

You might come through Prague over a long weekend on a trip to Germany or do Prague with Vienna, as I did in high school.

Baroque and Gothic churches interrupt the city’s austere beauty, but Prague does not have a Coliseum, or a glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei. Its secrets are best uncovered over time.

Prague’s current identity is shaped by communism. Czechs are new to the democracy America has known for generations but are eager to share their opinions (if you ask).

A recently held presidential election saw former Prime Minister Milo? Zeman trump Karel Schwarzenberg, a well-liked aristocrat and foreign minister. Praguers (yes, that’s what they’re called) are furious. Asking them about the election yields the same reaction you might get from telling a Democrat that George W. Bush was elected for a third term: anger and embarrassment.

But the Czech Republic isn’t known for its politicians; it’s known for its stellar beer.

Visiting a pub in Prague usually involves walking down stairs. Aboveground bars are easy to find, but the best spots are in dark stone cellars replete with Pilsner Urquell or Budvar, two of the most popular domestically brewed lagers.

Combined with a permissive culture surrounding drugs and prostitution, it’s not hard to see why Prague is increasingly being called “New Amsterdam.”

No matter what goes on at night, we all go to class in the morning. That is, Monday through Thursday. A late start date and the absence of a spring break make three-day weekends the only way to travel.

The classes are interesting but not very demanding. At Kenyon I’d heard of students going abroad and completing their homework on the way to class. While not quite so lax here, the course load definitely fits in a weekend bag.

The most interesting course I’m taking is actually an internship with Radio Free Europe, a surrogate broadcasting corporation funded by the State Department.

My supervisor, Zach, has lived in the Czech Republic for a few years and recently told me something it had taken me weeks to realize: Czechs don’t perform random acts of kindness.

Czechs and Praguers aren’t mean-spirited people. But if you see your tram pull up before you get to the platform there’s no way the driver is going to wait even a few extra seconds.

Speaking English in public attracts attention and sometimes glares, although many acknowledge the unreasonable expectation of tourists knowing Czech before their arrival. Still, one gets the sense that Czechs interact with Americans because they need to, not because they want to. They’ve been occupied twice in one century, so I’m ready to cut them some slack.

I’m still trying to understand Prague and its inhabitants. The city has a darkness that I’ve only begun to tap into. I don’t expect to figure everything out before I leave. But coming to Prague has taken me off the beaten path in ways I hoped it would.

I’ve experienced singular beauty and immersed myself in a culture I knew next to nothing about when I arrived. Going anywhere else would have been the real compromise.

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