My old friend Prague
I arrived in Prague for the first time a few days after New Year’s ten winters ago, and it was with some nostalgia that I celebrated the ushering in of my second-decade in the Czech Republic this January. On New Year’s Eve, I stood with Radek and several of our neighbors atop a knoll on the cliff side from which our street gets its name. As we watched fireworks explode with bangs and bursts of color, the night sky was filled with spectacular, fleeting beauty. In between the bangs, a few paper lampions drifted through the sky, and their languorous motion was a different form of beauty. I spent a few moments thinking back on my first days living abroad, and how the process had been filled with bursts of growth followed periods of slow and steady incremental progress.
After living in the Czech Republic for a longer period of time, the cultural differences that seemed so outstanding, and even alarming, in my initial days have become a natural part of my daily life. The cashier who grunts, “Dobrý den,” at the corner market and tosses my change on the tray no longer seems like a personal affront. Eating a soup starter followed by a main course with dumplings has become second-nature in the cold winter months, particularly when dining with my Czech in-laws. I’ve learned to navigate Prague’s public transportation with ease, and even bureaucratic processes, while still time-consuming and annoying, no longer create the rush of sweat and unease that they once did.
Czech culture has slowly infiltrated my life, and on most days, I don’t think much about the alternatives. Then a friend or my family comes for a visit, and I suddenly find myself seeing my adopted country, as if for the first time, through the eyes of a foreigner. On my parent’s regular visits to the Czech Republic, my barometer of change becomes a measure of my responses to their instinctive reactions. At dinner my parents are surprised not to be given extra napkins or an extra set of cutlery when they order an entrée or a dessert to split. My father notes the lack of free refills on iced tea, soda or water, beverages, which he’s used to being served from a fountain machine, not in glass bottles. In response, he starts ordering beer at lunch instead of the tiny bottles of iced tea my mother orders. At least he can expect quick refills.
When we visit Anna’s school, my parents are immediately dumbstruck by the key Anna’s wearing around her neck. They batter her with questions: “what’s it for; shouldn’t she take it off and give it to her teacher; won’t she lose it?” My mother sees older children hanging out around the school during their lunch break, and she wonders what they are doing; why they are allowed outside the school grounds without a teacher. She takes pictures outside Anna Lee’s classroom of the poster series of the evolutionary theory and upon meeting Anna’s teacher tells her straightaway that the pictures would generate quite a bit of talk in the US, where certain states have outlawed teaching evolution in public schools. She’s surprised to discover the emphasize on handwriting and physical education, two subjects that have fallen out of vogue in many public schools in the US. Overall, my parents are impressed with their quick glimpse of Anna’s school, particularly the independence and responsibility the children are expected to handle from the first grade.
I learn as much about Czech culture from my parents’ observations and their spontaneous reactions, as I do from my children’s reactions to the different culture and environment they find themselves in during our routine visits back to the US. At times, their perspective of Czech culture seems to validate many of my own initial reactions and reminds me that although I’ve become more comfortable in my adopted culture, I’ll always have questions about how to best-navigate the cultural balance.
In the early days, I learned about city life and experienced Czech culture on my daily walks through the city, on breaks between teaching classes and on weekends, when I was free to explore as long as my feet held out. When I’m out and about in the city these days, Prague feels like an old friend. Although my visits to the city center are much less frequent that they once were, I still find myself instinctively turning in the right direction to traverse the winding, cobblestone streets at the heart of Prague’s Old Town. I have always loved walking through the maze of cobblestone and architectural beauty, getting a bit lost only to discover new shops or to revisit old haunts from my early years. Taking my parents through the city during their visits is a highlight of our time together. Over the years, I’ve learned where they like to shop and where they enjoy stopping for coffee or lunch. They, too, have noticed the changes the city has undergone in recent years with increased shopping options and Starbucks coffee shops virtually on every corner in the downtown area. Restaurants have become more child-friendly in the years since our children first become Prague restaurant-goers, and any café with a kids’ corner is a welcome respite after an afternoon of walking.
Over the years, options for international food like Thai, Indian or sushi have also become more common than in my earlier days in Prague. One night during my parents’ visit, my mother offered to babysit, and Radek and I jumped at the chance to go out for Indian and catch a movie. We had a lovely meal, talking about the experiences we’d had over the holidays. Radek noticed that the majority of the people in the restaurant weren’t speaking Czech, although my ears had immediately caught the one table of Czech speakers to our right. After dinner, we headed downtown for the movie. Realizing we had a few minutes to spare, we stopped at an old haunt “Le Chapeau” (known over the years to expats and locals under the various names: Chateau l’Enfer, Chateau Rouge, Chapeau Rouge) for a beer. As I listened, I heard a smattering of English, French and German with Czech intermixed. The crowd didn’t look that different than it had in years past although the pub wasn’t as crowded as I’d seen it when popular deejays were playing. I picked out some travelers, international students, young Czechs, older expats and a few couples probably in similar situations to our own.
As I listened to the deejay, sipped on my beer and took in the surroundings, I thought about a similar night, ten years ago when I’d met Radek and a group of friends at Le Chapeau for one of our first dates. The mood had been romantic and the night had ended with a kiss lingering with prospect. If someone had told me then, I’d become somewhat of an expert on navigating life in Prague as a non-Czech, I’d have laughed. Now, I can only wonder what the next ten years will bring.