“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:
- The Joke (1967), a novel by Milan Kundera
- Rock ‘n’ Roll: A New Play (premiered 2006), a play by Tom Stoppard
- Closely Watched Trains (1966), a film directed by Jirí Menzel
- A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966), a film directed by Jan Nemec
- Kolya (1996), a film directed by Jan Sverák
- Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture Under Communism, by Jonathan Bolton
- Alexander Dubček’s chilling radio address to the nation (and breakdown) on August 27, 1968, following the collapse of Prague Spring
- The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe (1978), or any other works by the playwright, dissident, and politician, Vaclav Havel
For 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?