How could I forget about Prague?

Vltava

“She went outside and set off in the direction of the embankment. She wanted to see the Vltava. She wanted to stand on its banks and look long and hard into its waters, because the sight of the flow was soothing and healing. The river flowed from century to century, and human affairs play themselves out on its banks. Play themselves out to be forgotten the next day, while the river flows on.”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In early May, I continued my holiday from Istanbul to Prague.  It wasn’t easy to get to Prague from Tbilisi, at least without paying an arm and a leg.  People there asked me why I was visiting, and why I suffered three flights each way to get there.  The answer was not for the night life, or the pilsner, or even the beauty of the city.  It was for the culture.

My favorite author is Milan Kundera.  His Unbearable Lightness of Being is my favorite novel.  There are pages of my diary devoted to his quotes.  I geek out over Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Charter 77.  I can recite the names of most of the leaders of the Czech Republic (and Czechoslovakia) for the last century.  I get teary-eyed when watching footage of the Velvet Revolution, Prague Spring, or hearing the story of Jan Palach’s self-immolation.  The Czech language, which I consider the most endearing of the Slavic tongues, gives me butterflies.  And my favorite class at Harvard was “Czech Culture Under Communism,” taught by Jonathan Bolton.

Needless to say, this trip to Prague was long overdue.

To my surprise, I didn’t spend my time in Prague staring contemplatively at the Vltava River.  Instead, I enjoyed a good amount of beer, dancing, and great conversation in restaurants, bars, and clubs with an eclectic crowd of travelers and locals.  I stayed at the warmest and most uplifting hostel I’ve ever encountered, Hostel One Home, where I practiced my Spanish with the marvelously latino manager and employees.  I spent far too much money on Soviet chotchkies at the Museum of Communism.  I’m still pondering a relocation.

One particularly interesting conversation took place while I was waiting for a friend (who never showed) at a quirky dive bar called Duende.  After drinking a beer by myself, I decided to strike up a conversation with some young Czechs, who I assumed (correctly) spoke English.  After exchanging the basics (name, hometown, college major, occupation) and a bit of bantering with a handsome blue-eyed man, he told me “You are SO typically American.”  I was surprised and, admittedly, offended, because of both his tone and the fact that I have never been called “typically American” in my life.  He proceeded to explain why Americans are less educated and “clever” than Europeans, based on an video on YouTube showcasing Americans’ embarrassing ignorance of geography and world affairs.  I wanted to scream “I’m not like them!  Quiz me on Czech history, I dare you!”, but instead, I probed with more questions about his opinions of my countrymen and tried my best to explain their inaccuracy.  After an hour or so, I managed to dispel a few of his (mis)conceptions, but not all, perhaps deservedly.

This wasn’t the first time I’d discovered a distaste for Americans, and it won’t be the last. Naturally, it pains me to hear it.  But it doesn’t make me want to hide my citizenship or swap my passport.  Instead, it encourages me to share my story and my mixed relationship with my homeland with more people, in hopes of building friendships and changing negative perceptions.

For those who are interested in learning more about Czech culture and history, I recommend these gems:

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P1110837 P1110840 P1110846 P1110850 P1110852 P1110855 P1110870 P1110872 P1110876 P1110896 P1110902

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glorifyFor those of you who are equally interested in this corner of the world, what are your favorite aspects of Czech culture, history, art, literature, architecture, people, or your own special memories there?

79 comments

  1. Recently visited Prague, awesome place! People were friendly, plenty to see and everywhere is within reasonable walking distance. Cheap too! Liking the pictures too.

  2. vias4o

    A really magnificent city, I was there in the autumn of 2012 on my way to Paris. As I like to say, that’s the kind of a city I would spend a couple of years living in…

  3. Meg,
    Nicely put blog. Short, crisp and to the point.
    I loved Prague through your eyes and would definitely visit it soon to experience it. Also, your suggestions on its culture would surely be on great help.
    Lovely.

  4. I love Prague, though I have never been there 🙂 But I don’t think Americans are stupid and fat. Nowadays the most economically developed country in the world could not be built by “uncultured, uneducated, shallow” people. The other words who Americans are. They are migrants from all over the world from various historical periods. But sadness comes out of the fact that USA’s foreign policy is very often and periodically based on military power against other countries or, what is the worst, on instigation one against other, e.i. when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in August 8, 2008. Now Georgia is totally under US’s interests. Don’t conceal yourself! Czeсhs (and other nations) do not like Americans for that, as well as they don’t like Russians for August of 1968.

    Personally, I understand these are politicians and military types who are guilty of all kind of collapses and disasters, not.

    But it is a matter of trust (http://bcove.me/l0whc4mb) how we all treat one another.

    Ragards,
    Ivan

  5. katewhaley

    Your blog is beautiful! Being a musician, Prague is at the very top of my list of places to visit. I teach music history and one of my favorite topics is the beautiful Musical Nationalism of the Czech composers. Just amazing.

  6. Ooh, I have Prague on my list of cities I want to teach in .. And, yes, I’m a huge fan of the Unbearable Lightness of Being too! So sorry about the anti-American guy. Unfortunately the US became the target of a lot of jokes and bad press while Bush was in the whitehouse and it still hasn’t stopped much. Us Europeans do have a very shady view of the States which I don’t think a lot of Americans realise – I even came across some American travellers who’d sewn Canadian flags onto their backpacks to avoid political conversations with Europeans! That’s so sad. I love Americans now. 🙂 Much more warm and open and friendly than Europeans typically are.

    • Hearing about Americans putting Canadian flags on their backpacks makes me cringe. I am American and was told to do the same when I went to Syria in 2002 (after Bush called it part of the Axis of Evil). I didn’t and the Syrians were quite good to me, even at the border when I needed to purchase another entry. Some European travelers, however, failed to realized that the American attitude that they hated so much wasn’t going to found in an American backpacker in the Middle East. So, I got used to being guilty by association and just did my best to let them know that not all Americans were in love with George W Bush. I appreciate the fact that you don’t see all Americans through the lens of our foreign policy! 🙂

      • I don’t actively promote the fact that I’m American when I’m abroad, but I certainly don’t feel ashamed of it. I’m just cautious in areas where it might be dangerous. But in Prague, it became a matter of pride! He was so convinced that Americans are morons, I simply had to pull out the Harvard card.

        • I’m glad that you stood up for the more globally experienced of us! Believe me. I never advertise being American, but if asked, I tell. I will admit that I leave all of the clothing and footwear that would make me an American giveaway at home (not that I own much in the first place). 🙂

  7. I absolutely love your photos and text! I am really interested in travel blogging as well. Your blog is extremely unique, and I am very impressed by the professionalism of the content and the images. My blog focuses on travel based on literary locations, but I find your perspective on traveling around the world very refreshing. I look forward to upcoming posts!

  8. Love your blog!! I am enjoying myself so much looking at your beautiful photos and reading your through interesting journey! I loved loved loved Prague so much I cannot even begin to tell you how much I agree! Wonderful experience! Thanks for taking me back to some great memories….

  9. Pingback: Prague. | sassanista

  10. I love The Unbearable Lightness of Being! So much culture, beauty of language, and honest evaluations of humanity wrapped in one book! Glad to know there are other fans out there as well! 🙂

  11. Su

    Beautiful pictures Meghan, timely really as we have just booked a long weekend in Prague for my birthday in December!!! Its only ignorance that limits peoples perception of a country and culture. My experience of Americans and America has only ever one of complete acceptance and tolerance. Haven’t started my research on what to do or see yet, so would welcome any offerings. HOpe your well!

  12. Wow, beautiful photos!

    Oh, the reason that Americans may not be as friendly (commenting on comment above) is probably because they are often complaining they cannot find a Starbucks (I thinks someone should tell some of them that they left the USA some days back).

    I am an American, and there is nothing more frustrating than hearing Americans complain when abroad.

  13. Marvelous photos, as always! But I’m surprised you haven’t encountered anti-Americanism previously in all your travels. Perhaps it’s because you’re so charming! in general. I’ve experienced it many times in comments by individuals of several nationalities, often followed by something like, “But you’re not a typical American.”
    I also love Milan Kundera, although Tolstoy and Nabokov are higher on my list of favorites. A difference in our ages, perhaps.

  14. I’m half Czech and it’s great to see that Czech Republic, being such a small country (and often people look at me blankly when I say I’m half Czech!), has made such an impression. I definitely need to brush up on my Czech history, even if I do inherit some of the traditions and culture!

  15. You’ve just reminded me that I need to read that book! (Unbearable lightness of being.) Thanks! Plus, pictures are gorgeous – what a beautiful city.

  16. I spent the New Year’s in Prague and absolutely loved the vibe of the city. I had come from Germany so maybe that had something to do with it, but the warmth of the people, despite the language barrier, was really a great experience. As for debunking a distaste for Americans abroad…it’s tough, but that’s great that instead of wishing things were different you’re sharing your experiences. We get a bad rap thanks to the terrible media, but one-to-one dialogue is what can lead to a bigger change, so kudos!

  17. Loved your photos, it brought me back to my college days and backpacking adventures. I was there for a week in the winter. I stayed at a family home for what would have been $30 USD for the week. Private room, shared bath, but the family cooked breakfast and did the washing every day. An old Santa-like man was the patriarch of the family and solicited his room and board to travelers arriving at the train terminal with photos and mime like gestures. He would also provide a free car ride locally every day – what a great family!

  18. Beautiful pictures of Prague. I had no idea that there was so much art there. We went during winter though, during the Christmas markets. Do you think Prague is nicer in summer than winter?

    • Thank you Christine! I think it depends on your preferences. I’m more of a summer girl in general, but I’ve been told that Prague in winter is like something from a fairy tale. I’ll just have to return and compare for myself!

  19. Loved this post–I used to live in the Czech Republic–in a small town and then in Prague and it was wonderful to see all these pictures. I’ve read a good deal of what’s on your list, but didn’t know Dubcek’s address was online, I’ll have to have a listen (and see how my Czech is holding up–I tried to learn as much as I could when I was there but it’s hard to find opportunity to practice now). You might like the book “The Coasts of Bohemia” which is a history but with a cultural emphasis. I too love Kundera and have been meaning to re-read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for some time now–it’s funny as he doesn’t seem as well known within the CR as without. I was just thinking of “The Joke” as I recently read Children of the Arbat which starts out with a similar premise (in part) but in Russia.

    • How interesting, Sara! I would really like to revisit the Czech Republic and spend some time in smaller towns. I hadn’t heard of “The Coasts of Bohemia” or “Children of the Arbat”, but I will eagerly read them if I can track them down. Thank you for sharing!

  20. I have been in love with Prague since my first visit in the mid ’90s. I’ve been back a couple more times since then, and I always discover something new with each visit. At one time, I contemplated moving there to work on a book. Did you go to the Mucha museum?

  21. I also love Milan Kundera and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is one of my favorite novels. Loved looking through your pictures of Prague. I’ve visited Prague only once in the wintertime and would like to visit again in the warmer months.

  22. I do a lot of American myth-debunking in Turkey. The saddest one is that Americans aren’t friendly compared to the warmth of the average Turk, I think they might be right.

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