A Spirit of Resistance

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 4. The Spirit of Place, Prague by Maria Alejandra3 Comments

I have only been in Prague for a little over a month. I do not think that is nearly enough time to accurately describe the spirit of Prague. Even attempting to articulate it now scares me for fear that I will not do Prague justice; for fear of misinterpreting its spirit, or making a broad generalization based on few interactions, or expressing its spirit in a reductionist way. I am wary of being another Westerner who imposes her view or claims to know a place simply because she did some research and tried some local food. However, I can attempt to discern the spirit of Prague, and do so in the most respectful way possible because certainly, to a large degree, I traveled to Prague in order to understand its spirit, even if just minimally.

It is quite interesting that Durrell writes that “travel wouldn’t have been necessary in the time […] when there really was a world religion which made full allowance for the different dialects of the different races practicing it: and which realized that the factor of variation is always inevitable the landscape and not the people” (160). Often I wonder: what would our world be today if there was one massive nation-state with one language, one ‘race,’ and one religion? Surely, life would be easier for everyone, and marginalization would not exist. But I recognize that that is purely idealistic. Civil wars would break out. And life would just be plain boring, and there would be limited knowledge to gain. I would not feel the need to travel and learn, which would mean I would never have ventured into Prague, a land quite foreign to me. The factor of variation definitely is the landscape but I would argue that to an extent, so is the people; especially when both elements are exposed to drastic, sometimes terrible, historical processes. Such is the case with Prague.

When I first arrived, I was shocked by the lack of a customer service culture; by the lack of at least, a small, awkward smile exchanged on the street between strangers; with the constant staring on public transportation. Quite frankly, I wondered if I was the recipient of curtness at a restaurant and excessively longs stare because I do not quite fit into the still homogenous Czech population. (I am tanned skin, have curly dark brown hair and brown eyes, whereas a majority of the locals are pale-skinned with light colored eyes and blonde hair.) Nevertheless, I spoke to some locals about this—in a way that I hope sounded curious as opposed to judgmental because we have to welcome culture shocks—and was given excellent explanations for my observations.

I was told that Praguers are still a bit untrusting of others, and this stems from the forty years of Communist rule. Prague suffered and survived an Austro-Hungarian empire, the Nazi occupation and the Soviet Union’s regime. Its landscape has certainly changed a lot but it still maintains its essence—its spirit. I would dare say that its spirit is resistance because although people are not quick to trust others, you can feel an almost tangible, visceral desire to escape the clenches of the past.

I am sitting in a cafe as I write this. The server’s customer service was not exceptional towards me or the customers at the next table, but I watch the way in which she interacts with her coworker, with the frequent customers who walk into the cafe, and the air transform into joviality and lightness. On the metro over here, I noticed that the stares towards the unknown quickly turned into smiles when someone was recognizable, or when someone let their guard down and smiled first. Though it seems difficult, I do get a sense that Prague’s spirit is a willingness to resist the suspicion of others instilled in the populace by the past, and develop human connections; and its own identity, untainted by external (or historical) factors.


  1. Hi Maria!

    I think it’s really great and important that you took Prague’s political history into account when trying to at least somewhat pin down its spirit. I know when I was in Prague, I learned so much about its history of oppression that I had never really thought about before and that definitely impacted how I understood the culture, especially surrounding strangers on the street.

    The customer service in Shanghai isn’t exactly what I’ve gotten used to in America either. I tried to go to a hot pot restaurant where the waiters didn’t speak English and at one point, all the waiters congregated around my table, pointed at my friends and I, and just laughed. That would be wild in America, but here it’s just a normal part of the day and just something to get used to.

    I hope that you continue to unlock Prague’s past and how it is reflected in Czech culture today!!

  2. Hi Maria! It’s so interesting because I feel as though you are echoing my initial thoughts of Prague. I studied there last semester and everything you mentioned, from the lack of diversity to the customer service was spot on. Sometimes it can feel incredibly alienating but I feel as though by the end of the semester you will be so much more comfortable around the locals and maybe even make a Czech friend or two. I happen to be in another city where people act a bit more reserved as well, Shanghai. Even though I was able to get used to the quiet, somewhat judgmental attitude of the Prague locals, I feel as though I have to do it all over again in Shanghai. I’m excited to keep following your posts and hearing about how your interactions with local people continue!

  3. Hi Maria!

    As someone who is also studying abroad in Prague, I understand completely how you feel! I like how you incorporated what we had learned about Prague’s history in your post as well! I think that much of Prague’s attitude, whether to tourists, people who don’t speak the language, or even just people they don’t know can be attributed to its tumultuous history. I think this is pretty interesting, especially since much of them were either born in the Velvet Revolution or have experienced it, which was an extremely liberating time as well. But then again, it takes time to heal from historical traumas, so I do agree completely that they have the “willingness to resist the suspicion of others instilled in the populace by the past”.

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