Monday, May 2, 2011

Mallory Johnson - Prague, Czech Republic

Mallory Johnson is a junior studying sociology at the University of Utah. She is currently in the Czech Republic on a CEA program.

Prague has been incredible.  The city is beautiful, yet modest. I’ve now traveled through many major European cities, including Berlin, Krakow, Sicily, Athens, Rome, London, and Edinburgh, and I can honestly say that Prague is different than the rest (I could say better, but I’m biased). The Czech Republic lies in the heart of Europe, yet at the same time, it exists sui generis. It doesn’t tout its beauty or unspoiled baroque castles, cobble stone streets, and countless steepled buildings because it does not need to. 

The Prague Castle and Charles Bridge
My intentions weren’t well-defined before I left as to why I chose the Czech Republic as my place of residence for the semester. All I knew was that I saw a lot of bridges, and a lot of beautiful buildings. Now that I am here, I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way.

Coming to Prague, everyone said, “it’s okay, you don’t have to know Czech, EVERYONE speaks English. Mind you, this is not true. But with a basic understanding of the language, the use of hand gestures, pointing, and an easygoing attitude, communication is possible.

The people here exist in a modest way, often confused with “cold,” or “withstanding,” but I just call them modest. Czech tradition calls for deep personal connection, so you won’t find cheap customer service tactics or people asking, “how are you?” if they don’t really want to know. It was a bit of a culture shock at first but I’ve come to appreciate Czech’s straightforward manner.

Unlike other places that are boastful, Czech remains untamed because it has remained under the radar for so long. Only recently has Prague become a big tourist destination.

Old Town Square
The Czech Republic has its own currency; the Czech Koruna or Crown works in our favor. This is especially comforting when coming back from a week of travels using the Euro. Ah, the dreaded Euro. I heard a saying before coming to Prague that “beer is cheaper than water.” I have found this to be true; buying a beer here is just a little over one US dollar. Buying water can be in the two dollar range. It seems to me that the only things cheaper in the United States are water (because it’s free! Oh, how I will never take for granted free water again) and coffee (another thing I will never take for granted—99 cent cups of filtered coffee at my favorite coffee shops).

Prague is divided into sections like any major city is. There is Prague 1, which contains almost all of the tourist attractions and is considered the city center. Prague 2 is outside that, and just beyond that is Prague 3: Where I live. Up on the hill and twenty minutes outside of the city center, my neighborhood is called Zizkov. In the past Zizkov had been known as a place of refuge for expats, gypsies, bohemians, and traces of the mafia. It is noticeably so. Zizkov has character. It’s distinguishable by the overshadowing TV tower with the notorious babies crawling up the side. It has countless pubs, restaurants and music venues, and the most amazing park that overlooks the city, and Zizkov feels like home.

The TV tower
More of Prague's public art--same babies

Traditional Czech cuisine is beef goulash. I’ve seen it as a type of stew and also as large pieces of meat covered in the same flavored sauce. Some hardy bread dumplings accompany the beef. Czech flavors are like the country itself, modest.

You can’t mention Prague without talking beer. ( I’ve mentioned it already!) Prague is the number one beer-drinking nation on the planet, with an annual per capita consummation of some 156 litres. Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar dominate drafts, with restaurants proudly placing large signs outside their entrance stating which beer is on tap. It’s funny that for the first month that we were here, one of my roommates thought that all of the restaurants were named Pilsner Urquell because their beer sign is always much larger than the actual name of the restaurant.

There is always something to do in Prague!  Whether it’s high culture—Ballets, Operas, or Theatre—or not, they play every single night of the week and you can usually find a student ticket for under five American dollars! I have seen some absolutely beautiful musical and dance performances. There is also an abundance of festivals and markets. In March there was Masopust, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday, and it was the last day to eat meat.  The city organized a huge procession from site to site around Zizkov filled with people wearing masks, men on stilts and bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and a marching band. At each stop everyone was offered free sausages with bread, beer, and Koláčes, a traditional Czech pastry (yummm).

Recently passed was the Easter festival, where Old Town Square was transformed into shops selling traditional handpainted eggs, and pomlázkas, a braided whip with ribbons meant for men to smack women on their rumps to increase vitality and fertility. Don’t worry ladies—retribution is served after the sun goes down when we’re allowed to dump pails of water on their heads.

Some upcoming events that I look forward to are rollerblading on the Vltava (River that runs through the city), tramping (Czech mixture of hiking and camping with political connotations to oppose oppression during communism—inspired by the great American West) and spending time in the beer gardens (the weather here is beautiful, and when all of the parks and gardens open up, people come out of hibernation and take their favorite pastime outside.)

Overall, Prague has been the best experience of my life so far. The Czech Republic has such an incredible history and is considered a new country after the separation of Czechoslovakia. The effects of communism are still present. I hear that each year is different than the last. An understanding of history makes the city even more fantastic, and I would truly recommend studying here to anyone. I’m still learning everyday, practicing the bits of the language I can actually pronounce and exploring. The best way to get to know Prague is to get lost in it.

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