Echoes: An Annabel in Prague

By Annabel Lau
Blogger

Dobrý den (hello)!

Annabel here. I’m a junior international studies major studying abroad in Prague since the beginning of February. When I first told people I’d be studying in the Czech Republic, I was met with a lot of confused looks, followed by something to the effect of, “Cool, you’ll be in Europe!”

Annabel's school, a renovated palace from the 1300's. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)
Annabel’s school, a renovated palace from the 1300’s. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)

That’s exactly why I ended up choosing Prague. It’s a hidden gem. As I contemplated which destination to choose, I was curious about which countries attracted the most American exchange students. I looked on a list of most-visited countries compiled by CBS News and was shocked by the results: The United Kingdom — a region that shares much of its culture with the United States — topped the list, while the Czech Republic was much further down, with only 1.2 percent of American students studying abroad there.

As an international studies major, I felt it was important to open my mind to other cultures I’m not familiar with and venture outside of my comfort zone. Although all of Europe is extraordinary in its own way, I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Central Europe, a region I’ve never been to before and honestly knew very little about. When I found out that TCNJ had its own program in Prague, it was decided.

Not knowing a single word of the language, the first two weeks or so were definitely tough. While most young people are able to speak English, much of the older generations cannot. Even in the city center, most shopkeepers choose to speak first in Czech, resorting to English only if absolutely necessary. My first trip to the supermarket was a struggle, but the more I learned in my basic Czech class, it easier it became. Just by knowing the Czech words for some foods, I can now understand about 70 percent of most menus. And let me tell you, the first time I completed a transaction with a cashier completely in Czech (admittedly, with some awkward hand gestures), ‘twas a very exhilarating moment in my life.

The Old Town where Kafka was born. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)
The Old Town where Kafka was born. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)

Since I arrived, it’s been a whirlwind of an experience, but I’ve seen and learned so much. I go to school in a magnificent renovated palace from the 14th century. I’m taking a class on the Holocaust in one of the cities where it took place. Prague’s Jewish Quarter, just a few minutes from my school, is alive with the tales of Czechs who lived and lost their lives in the Holocaust. I never thought I’d be studying Franz Kafka, now one of my favorite writers, a mere 10-minute walk from Old Town Square, where he was born. I walk past the building where he worked on my way to school every morning.

The view from Annabel’s first "Prague as a Living History" class trip. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)
The view from Annabel’s first “Prague as a Living History” class trip. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)

But education doesn’t end in the classroom. In my walking-tour class, “Prague as a Living History,” lessons take place off campus every week. Instead of just reading about the city in a textbook, we get to see and experience it for ourselves. Every class, we visit different castles, churches, landmarks and other amazing sights, and we get to see for ourselves how Prague’s rich history shaped its art, architecture and culture. Really, where else does going to class involve visiting museums for free and taking educational hikes up historic hills where battles took place (with incredible bird’s eye views of the city, might I add)?

Prague is a world in itself. There really is something for everyone. There’s a farmer’s market with fresh produce, breads and cheeses minutes from my apartment. The Prague Zoo was ranked the seventh best zoo in the world by Forbes magazine. There are ballets, operas and plays to attend, films to see and works of art to be marveled at. This past Sunday, I attended an Easter performance of the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” for 230 Czech crowns — approximately $12.

(Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)
Annabel’s first time trying goulash with bread dumplings. (Photo courtesy of Annabel Lau)

So first, I encourage you to study abroad. It will change the way you see the world, the way you see your own city and the way you see yourself. Second, challenge yourself and go somewhere you haven’t been before. Once you’re there, learn the culture and the language. Try new things. Try new foods, even if the name scares you. I hesitantly tried guláš s houskovým knedlíkem (goulash with bread dumplings) the first week I was here, and it’s now my go-to Czech dish. If your concern is money, rest assured — I’m saving more studying abroad here than if I had spent the semester at TCNJ. For Americans, the cost of living in the Czech Republic and much of Central and Eastern Europe is significantly lower than in the United States. Finally, if that’s not enough to convince you, maybe this will: cheap beer. Like 75 cents-cheap, if you know where to look.

Na zdraví (cheers) to that.

Till next time,
Annabel

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