“Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.” -Pico Iyer
I love New York. I miss it very much, for the most part: the dynamic energy, the diversity of people, the characters of different neighborhoods. I miss my favorite foods, for sure, and some of the opportunities I left behind in order to come to Prague.
But there is so much to gain here, and certainly some things that I do not miss about New York. There are, so far, two profoundly different and wonderful discoveries I have made in Prague: a sense of peace and safety on the street, and a transformation of frustration into acceptance of the fact that I cannot learn everything I want to learn as quickly as I want to do it.
Regarding peace: New York is a violent place for women on the street. I lived in the Greenwich dorm last semester, and on my way to campus I had to pass three construction sites. The second two were usually fine, but the first one was really just disgusting. At different and often the same times, I would be photographed without my consent as almost every worker turned to whistle and tell me to smile, among other things. This was a block away from the place I called home, and I encountered similar and worse groups and individuals throughout the city. This is a narrative not unfamiliar to women and non-binary folks in the city, and is almost always worse for WOC. It really works to make one feel unsafe. Even an unwelcome gaze turns into a threat within the context of this city-wide hunting ground.
Communist totalitarianism really destroyed communities here in Prague, and significantly delayed their development. This has been articulated in more than one of my classes, but the most poignant articulation of it to me is in the way that ironically, I feel more safe in a place where the locals feel the opposite. People here spent decades avoiding making eye contact with their neighbors, avoiding approaching strangers, avoiding detection of any kind. My friends and I were looking for a bar in our quiet Holesovice and accidentally walked into a smoke-filled bar full of old men. In New York, I would have felt extremely uncomfortable because we would have been ogled. Here, if it were not for the smoke, we may have stayed.
Regarding acceptance: the other discovery I have made so far in Prague was one born out of frustration. Some new friends and I were trying to plan our semester’s travels when I realized I just do not have time to do even a little bit of what I want to do. From my studies in New York, I have come to accept that I cannot truly become familiar with a community without becoming truly immersed in it, which I know takes time. To take this lesson abroad has been really frustrating, because I obviously want to learn as much as I can while I am here; I am not, as Iyer phrases it, interested in the mere “abstraction and ideology” of destinations. I want to learn and appreciate complex histories (plural, as there is no one cohesive history of anything, is there?); I want to intimately get to know communities and their struggles, and compare them; I want to familiarize myself with fine art, performance, cinema, architecture, and other narrative forms of different cultures. How can I experience even just Prague in one semester, let alone some of Central and Eastern Europe, as was my intention?
I have come to accept the fact that I will not be able to “check off” Europe this semester, nor will I really be able to “check off” the Czech Republic, or even Prague. I think so far, I have really just been inspired to come back and devote the appropriate and necessary amounts of time to my travels. I am working hard to put myself through school, and am reasonably confident that I will have time and resources over the course of my life to come back. Take a deep breath, Tash.
I am eager to learn more about Prague this semester, and to somewhat situate what I learn in a larger context through exploration. I am eager to enjoy and hopefully expand my sense of peace here. I’m also hoping to write much more, and learn as much as I can about resistance to totalitarianism; these topics are integral to my concentration of narrative and resistance, and will hopefully better illuminate just what I’ll be doing when I come back to Central Europe.