Study abroad completely exceeded all expectations I had for it, and that is saying something considering all of the amazing things I had heard about study abroad, and specifically Prague, before coming here. I truly think that this experience is one of, if not the most, rewarding times of my life so far. It has given me a completely different perspective on the world, which is especially true of me specifically considering this is the first time I have had the opportunity of leaving the country. Doing so has made me appreciate other cultures and has given me the ability to step back and really analyze American culture for its pros and cons. It seems to me that in Europe people are less consumerist (unless, of course, an American corporation has infiltrated the area and made them feel it’s necessary to consume and consume in order to keep up with our culture and ideals) and they take more time to enjoy the little things in life. This might be because of the plethora of world-famous monuments, parks, architecture and other cultural artifacts around them that keeps them grounded in the past and the people and culture that came before them. When you’re in America you come to see modern marvels; maybe it’s the Freedom Tower, or the largest mall in the world. But, aside from the parts of the Northeast (mostly just Boston) we have very few cultural monuments or artifacts that serve to remind us of our past. In fact, the most salient feature of American culture seems to be constant innovation and growth. While this might be because of the situation in which our country was founded this type of mindset causes us to be constantly stressed and worried that we aren’t doing enough, making enough, or buying enough. This is especially true of New York City, where this mindset is almost exponentialized. While this makes the city an excellent place to start a career and truly motivate yourself to work harder and do more it does, undoubtedly, become stressful at times. For this reason, Prague was highly relaxing and proved to be a much-needed change of pace for a semester. However, I am definitely ready to go back to the hustle and bustle of New York City. While this semester allowed me a lot of time to take a step back, really enjoy myself, create a lot of lasting friendships and memories, and sleep in (a lot) my mind and body are ready to go back to my normal routine. Prague is actually becoming sort of boring at this point and, even though I have definitely gotten used to the constant inconvenience of not having service, I am looking forward to being able to send simple text messages and place phone calls whenever and wherever I want.
I believe that a lot of the reflections I was able to make on my semester abroad was due, in part, to this course. I ended up travelling and hanging out with a couple of other students that were also writing and thinking about these blog posts which allowed for a lot of revealing, and sometimes introspective, conversation to occur on a weekly basis. It was also my first experience in a long time writing regular blog posts, and commenting on blog posts as well. I thought this was a rewarding experience in and of itself and it has even inspired me to begin writing journals or even other blogs on topics that I’m interested in and follow in my free time anyways (I have been contemplating maybe starting my very own for basketball? or even consumer technology?). There’s no doubt in my mind that the Art of Travel course definitely improved my study abroad experience. I am very thankful that I attend a university so committed to bringing such once in a lifetime experiences to students and I am even more thankful I decided to take the plunge (both financial and psychological) and live in Prague for the last 4 months of my life. It is an experience I will consistently reflect upon for the rest of my life, I’m sure the effect it has had on me isn’t even discernible at this point but I am sure it was overwhelmingly positive. Thank you NYU, and thank you Prague, for the best semester a student could ask for.
Studying abroad in Prague for the last 3 months or so has been a truly rewarding experience and I would definitely recommend studying here to most students, depending, of course, on what you wish you get out of your study abroad semester. First and foremost, I think Prague’s most obvious value proposition is its cost effectiveness. Inside the city limits you can easily find a complete meal (beer included), of rather high quality, for between 5-8 dollars. Coming from Manhattan I thought this was simply impossible. If you don’t enjoy eating out regularly, groceries are even cheaper. For instance, a liter of whole milk is less than a dollar at most supermarkets. A night out clubbing will, most of the time, cost you around 15 dollars, with drinks and cabs included. For me, this was one of the reasons that swayed my decision to study here while mulling my options. I originally wanted to be in Madrid this semester but, judging from what my friend’s at that site have been telling me, I made the right decision financially speaking.
This cost effectiveness extends beyond the borders of Prague itself. Due to its location smack dab in the middle of Central Europe Prague allows its inhabitants to travel to many different regions of Europe for relatively cheap. A flight to anywhere within continental Europe shouldn’t be much longer than 2 hours and, when booked in advance, will be markedly cheaper than the rates students at other study abroad sites will be paying for similar flights. Also, you are in close proximity to a couple countries that are definitely worth visiting. You can take a bus into Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and even Croatia for extremely cheap if you so please. And, as a result of the cost of living within Prague itself, you can likely afford to take more weekend trips than you would have expected from the beginning.
Now that I have adequately hammered home the affordability of studying in Prague let’s delve into what else made this experience so memorable. For me, Prague served as a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of New York City, as well as the stress associated with travelling to larger, more touristy European cities. Quiet hours in Prague begin around ten and while this doesn’t hinder your ability to go out and have fun whenever you want (literally, there’s a club for each day of the week here) it does make the experience of living in Prague a bit more relaxing. When you try to go to sleep you won’t hear hoards of loud or drunk people perusing through the streets, knocking trash cans over and throwing things (this was a regular occurrence when I lived on 4th ave in the city). Furthermore, the classes here at Prague seem to be a bit more relaxed than most of the other study abroad sites. For instance, I have two 3-hour lectures a day Monday and Tuesday and then my school week is done. Yeah, you read that correctly. I have 2 days of class each week, only 12 hours of in-class time and barely any homework to boot. Most of your grade is dependent on one or two large assignments during the semester, a midterm, a final, and attendance/participation (that last part being mandatory).
This semester I chose to live in Sleszka, the smallest of the three dorm choices at NYU Prague.Having been inside the other dorms and talked to many of my friends that live there, I would definitely say Sleszka is definitely the best option. Osadni/Extol are larger and arguably more fancy, but their location is a bit inconvenient. This dorm is over the Charles river, quite a trip from campus and most of the other more desirable locations in the city, including Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square, and the clubbing scene as well. Between Machova and Sleszka, Sleszka is still smaller and less “modern.” However, because there are only 30-40 kids and two kitchens in the building there is a great sense of community within the building. Furthermore, the rooms are significantly roomier. I live in a 6-person suite (a quad and a double with a common room) and the quad is simply gigantic. Even though I originally thought it was going to be too crowded so I asked for the double I wish I would have saved some cash and went with the quad when looking back on the situation. Furthermore, we have two bathrooms, a couch, a dining room table, and even a full-sized fridge in our suite, which is something the people of Machova can’t boast.
All in all, study abroad is likely going to be an amazingly awesome mind-blowing experience no matter what site or dorm you end up choosing. However, I did find personal accounts and recommendations especially helpful when contemplating my decision so I hope the tips and tricks I outlined here come in handy for whoever may need them!
As opposed to our most recent post about a traveling mishap or misfortune, writing about a moment of pure bliss and happiness is much easier simply because the sample size is much larger. These last 3 months or so have afforded me with so many new experiences, new acquaintances, and new perspectives on life. It’s not sitting in the classroom or reading where a textbook where you find the most out about yourself and how you want to live your life moving forward. Instead, I’ve found that these things are better learned sitting around a hearty meal with your friends, or a late night campfire on the beach. When I think of the most happiest moments during this study abroad experience, it’s time like these that come to mind.
I have had the pleasure of visiting some of the most aesthetically pleasing cities in the entire world; Amsterdam, Munich, Barcelona, Ibiza, and Madrid to name a few. However, the absolute most blissful experience I have had so far had to have been in Praiano, a small village nestled in the mountainside of the Amalfi coast of Italy. We had already spent one day getting to the Amalfi coast at this point (on the most beautiful bus ride I have ever experienced in my life) and had spent a night relaxing, catching up with two friends who had met us there, and getting to know the villa. The next day, our large group of 10 split up into two smaller groups. One of the groups wanted to travel to the slightly more commercial port town of Amalfi, while the rest of us thought it best to stay behind and explore our tiny village a little better. This turned out to be an excellent decision in the end.
My friends and I decided we wanted to go to the beach. Even though it was only in the mid-60’s that day we knew it would be beautiful either way. In fact, the port of Praiano had been rumored to be one of the most naturally beautiful beaches in the entire world. So, we headed off. We made sure to stop at the local grocery store/deli that we went to the night before for some refreshments. Then, being a little disoriented we asked for directions from the store owner. He assured us all we had to do was walk down 1000 of the most beautiful steps we will have ever experienced, and oh was he right. From the moment we descended down the first staircase, maybe 15 feet from the entrance to the grocery store, I experienced complete and utter bliss.
The beauty was simply indescribable. Being able to see the rocky Italian landscape bleed over the coast and the beautiful blue-ish green waters crashing up against land was simply breathtaking. Not to mention, the path that we were sent down only added to the supremely relaxing atmosphere. At points it felt as if we were on a safari exploration, moving asides vines and other shrubbery to uncover a rustic, dilapidated stone path down to the coastline. Eventually, as we kept descending down the side of the landscape, we came to a ledge that juts out over the water and curves around the natural crevices of the mountainside. We all sort of stopped together, in unison, and looked out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Only beauty this unique and this breathtaking could cause four friends to have such a moment together. No words were exchanged, and none needed to be. The sound of the waves crashing into the shore in the distance was enough sound for me. No thoughts were rushing through my head, I didn’t experience some other-worldly revelation about the meaning or importance of life, I was just happy. Unimaginably, indescribably happy to be in this place, in this moment, with people who meant so much to me. When I hear the word bliss in the traveling context I will forever think of this moment. The rest of our trip down the mountainside and the subsequent relaxation session we had on the beach were both equally as amazing, but I can still feel my body numb with happiness during the moment I described above. I would definitely make a trip back to the Amalfi Coast sooner rather than later.
Traveling can definitely be described as a roller-coaster of an experience. There have been times this semester when I have thought about how lucky I am to be living the life I am right now. How lucky I am to be sitting at the Hofbrau House in Munich sipping a beer, how lucky I am to be sitting in a paddle-boat drifting down a canal in Amsterdam, how lucky I am to go to school in Prague’s Old Town Square. However, there have also been times when I’ve felt extremely down on my luck. Whether it be when we found we were locked out of airbnb in Munich for the night or that I had left my iPhone charger on the table of our hotel room I was reminded that not everything in life can go your way all the time.
My worst traveling experience thus far had to be this one time in Warsaw. My girlfriend, who is studying abroad in Madrid this semester, decided she would meet up with a couple of my friends and I during our trip to Warsaw and Krakow. I was very excited for the weekend ahead as it was the first time we were able to spend time together since Winter Break. The weekend lived up to it’s excitement and we all ended up having an excellent time sightseeing around Warsaw, visiting Auschwitz, and spending time in Krakow’s Old Town Square. As Saturday night drew to a close me and my girlfriend boarded a bus back to Warsaw. It just so happened that the cheapest flght possible from Poland to Madrid was flying out of an airport in Warsaw, so I decided to accompany her back and then board a bus of my own back to Prague. The bus went smoothly and we even had time to wander around Warsaw the next morning, saying our final goodbyes to the city and each other. Then, the time came for her to go the airport. I, again, accompanied her on her journey. About half-way through our journey across Warsaw on public transport we realized we might not be able to make it to the airport in time (I think it had something to do with the fact we searched for directions beforehand using Google Maps and then left a couple hours after our search directions were cultivated for). No big deal, we thought, and we climbed into a taxi. I asked the cabbie how much to the airport and he assured me “the meter will run.” A little while into the ride I began to get a funny feeling about the situation.
It seemed as if the cab driver was moving inconspicuously slow, even on the highway. And he was on the phone with another man, speaking Polish, for most of our journey. Then, about 3/4’s of the way between the airport and the train station (where our journey began) he handed me the phone and said “talk”. I grabbed the phone and was met with a loud, boisterous voice asking if I had cash on me. I was hesitant to answer, and asked why he needed to know that. The voice wavered a bit and deflected the question, playing it off as a curious gesture to make sure his driver wasn’t getting ripped off. Then, with a little prying, I learned the real reason. I was being jipped. The total was going to be so high there was no way he could be certain I would have the money. The cab driver showed me a very strategically placed sign that said “At driver’s discretion, price for ride may be 75 zloty/km” meaning I was being charged about 25 dollars for little over half a mile. Me and my girlfriend quickly exited the car, refusing to pay any of the money. In order to get him to leave us alone and stop the threat of him calling the police we gave him some 60 USD and 25 Euros, with which he was pleased. My girlfriend ended up missing her flight and it was only due to the goodwill and kind hearts of some strangers that owned a nearby banquet hall that we were even able to get back to the city center and work out a contingency plan. Those two strangers are definitely my travel angels. At the time of this trip I had only left the Czech Republic for a couple days to travel to Germany and, if this situation had gone any worse, it might have ruined my desire to travel for the rest of the semester. Thankfully my girlfriend was able to find a fast, cheap, and convenient alternative means of travel and we were both able to make it home safely. Disaster was definitely diverted in the end.
I would say that since coming to Prague strangers have played a much larger role in my life than they normally would in New York City, or even America in general. The language barrier that exists for someone who speaks nothing but English and is studying abroad in Eastern Europe is extremely debilitating. If I’m not lucky enough to find English translations posted next to signs or menu items I am stuck asking the waiter or a nearby patron to tell me where the bathroom is, what this word is in english, or something of the like. Even though a lot of my attempts might be futile I have begun to realize that I have become much more comfortable being forward and outgoing when it comes to interacting with these strangers. Earlier in the semester I would refuse to ask for directions or guidance just because I didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness that arises from asking someone a question in a foreign language. I would even force my friends who were taking Czech to speak for me and voice my questions or concerns at times. Nowadays, I realize there is no sense in being embarrassed and sometimes you’ll find someone who is willing to help you in more ways than you originally expected.
One example of this would be my neighbor, Niles. Sometime during our first weekend in Prague my friends and I decided to go out and explore the area around our dorm as it’s supposed to be one of the more quaint yet bustling parts of town. At some point on our journey, after stopping to hang out in a park for a little while and grabbing a bite to eat at a local cafe, we realized we were sort of lost. While we were arguing amongst ourselves which way Sleszka was (the street our dorm is on and is even named after) I noticed a tall bearded man standing at the street corner ahead of us looking our way and then back across the street, and repeating the process periodically. Feeling gutsy, I walked up to him and asked if he knew which was Sleszka 60 would be. He smiled slightly and, to my surprise, began talking in a British accent. He told me that he lived on Sleszka and was heading there now, and we could follow him if we liked. We all agreed and got to talking about how a man with a British accent ended up living in Prague. He explained that his job relocated him here for a little bit but that he grew attached to the culture (mostly the food and the beer from his personal account of his time here) and decided to stay indefinitely.
Then, when we arrived at his door we realized we were standing one door away from our dorm, this man was actually our neighbor. Interestingly enough the people in our suite have seen Niles around periodicially, maybe 3 or 4 times a month, since then and everytime he’s had some valuable piece of advice or information for me and my friends. Once we saw him leaving a restaurant as we were staring at the menu outside the door wondering if we should take the plunge and sit down for lunch. He assured us that it was “the best damn snitzel he’s ever had for under 10 bucks and we would be fools not to try it.” Now that restaurant has become a frequent spot for me and my suitemates. Another time he advised us to stop buying our groceries at Tesco which was a 15 minute commute away and showed us a smaller grocery store right down the street from us, tucked away in the basement of another building. Niles has definitely shaped my study abroad experience for the better in more than just a couple ways, and to think that he was a stranger at first and still is somewhat is a very interesting concept to wrap my head around. It makes me wonder at what point he won’t be a stranger to my friends and I any longer. Is it simply impossible because of the different stages in life we are currently at? That’s not something I have the answer to right now but I have sure been thinking about it.
Beyond the Chestnut Trees by Maria Bauer is an emotional and intriguing recount of her return home, to Prague, 40 years after her forced emigration during World War II. Bauer does an excellent job of contrasting the different geographical periods of her life, whether it be prewar Prague in the 1930’s, France, Spain, Portugal, her subsequent move to America and, of course, Prague again in the 1980’s.
Returning in the 1980’s, when Prague is in the midst of Communist control and looking bleak, beleaguered, and gray caused Bauer to have interesting contrasting opinions about Prague. In the 1930’s her family was wealthy and they enjoyed a large manor in the countryside, a mansion in the city, balls, operas, and more. The home she’s returning home to is nothing compared to the one she remembers. Corruption bleeds into every aspect of life, the economy is in shambles, he regime is overbearing. Yet, she still finds some sort of comfort, some sort of pleasure, in coming home. The picture that she paints of Prague is delicate, beautiful, and charming. She seems to intentionally omit the negatives that are obviously apparent (Communist rules and regulations among other things) and focus more on the unique character and historical mystery surrounding Prague.
The way that Bauer described this city was truly inspiring to read. It’s an interesting experience to read a book written in this manner about a place you’re traveling abroad is quite interesting. Especially since, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I have consistently cited this “mysterious uniqueness” within my own experiences. Therefore, the main thing that this book did for my past, current, and even future experiences in Prague is reaffirm the magical feeling I get from Prague. Even though this city may not seem like the most desirable study abroad option, especially when compared to cities like Madrid, Paris, and London, I have found my time here to be filled with too many memories to count. Whether it’s because I came here with a group of already close friends, and well thought out travel plans, or maybe because the spirit of Prague is one that promotes this type of wealth and happiness among it’s inhabitants. It’s true that Prague has a different air about it than any other city I have managed to travel to this semester. Sure everyone knows about it’s dark past, with two occupations by two oppressive and destructive regimes. Yet, I have begun to realize that Prague’s charm might be more than that. It’s almost as if Bauer gave me the ability to separate Prague’s value and atmosphere from that of it’s historical legacy. One quote from Bauer that really resonated with me and cemented this feeling was, in her publication materials, when she says, “Prague, in the era between the two world wars, had its unique character and a mysterious atmosphere that deeply affected those who grew up amidst its old stones.” Bauer has essentially inspired me to step away from the notion that Communism, Fascism, and the Prague Spring is what makes this city the unique cultural entity it is today and find what really makes it so special. I have begun this search, ever so slightly, throughout my actions this semester. However, due to my heavy travelling I have yet to spend some consistent, quality time within Prague’s boundaries.
Now, with the semester dying down, I hope to venture out to the Czech countryside, a place Bauer explains so romantically throughout her novel, and experience the natural vibe associated with these lands. In fact, my friends and I have plans to rent a house in a slightly more rural part of the Czech Republic and spend a weekend there. I plan on bringing this book and referring to the feelings Bauer so skillfully imparted to her readers.
You hear it all the time when you choose to study abroad in Prague. You hear the same things from professors, civilians, other study abroad students, even your parents. It goes like this: “Prague is such an interesting city, it’s really like no other. It’s history and it’s culture is really something to behold.” As a student who has never traveled abroad before and admittedly chose Prague due to it’s convenient geographical location as well as the price tag hearing this always brings on mixed emotions. At first, I found Prague’s abundant historical relevance enamoring and enthralling. Being a big history buff (especially World War 2) I was always interested to hear more and more about this side of Prague. However, after a while, I begin to feel a difficulty connecting to Prague in the way people had described to me before my journey.
While the Velvet Revolution and communism and the Nazi occupation are all quite recent, and have had a large say on what Prague was in the past and what it is now, learning about this didn’t help me to connect with the modern day city I was waking up in everyday. Then, something interesting happened to the way I viewed Prague when I began to think about the topic of genius loci. How did walking through this perfectly preserved yet persecuted city make me feel? Why did it make me feel this way? These were questions are difficult to answer but I think I came to some interesting conclusions I’d like to share.
For one, Prague is quiet, to a fault. Quiet hours begin here at 10 pm at which point you can actually be arrested for making too much noise. However, quiet hours seem to be on full effect here all-day long. You will never see or hear a local screaming at the top of their lungs for any reason whatsoever. On the off chance you do witness an outbreak you’ll notice everyone stop what they’re doing, turn their heads, and stare. No words will leave their mouth, they’ll just stare. The same happens if you happen to accidentally run into someone on the street. I have, plenty of times, made contact with an individual on the street and said sorry to which they respond with an emotionless stare. You’d be hard-pressed to hear a single word or even sound leave someones mouth while on the metro. This isn’t as weird and off-putting as I may have made it sound here. It’s peaceful, Prague usually gives off a very relaxing vibe when you walk through it’s streets. It does, however, make me feel as if there are secrets to Prague that a traveler has to work to uncover. Almost as if there aren’t that many check-list tourist spots but rather the real charm and uniqueness of Prague can be found in quiet, possibly dark, corners of this storied city.
Prague, and Czech society in general, is also very conformist still to this day. While you won’t find drones of people wearing exactly the same outfits you would still be hard pressed to find large amounts of locals showing individual flair when it comes to hairstyle, fashion, or even the beer they drink. I’ve found, in my travels, that most Czechs wear neutral palettes with very little flair or individuality making it’s way onto their clothing. It may be that this just simply isn’t prevalent in other parts of the world besides America, or even more specifically New York, but it’s something I’ve definitely noticed and has affected the way I view Prague. This conformity can clearly be seen in the way Czechs consume beer (something that has become a hobby of me and my friends while in the Czech Republic). Most Czechs drink either Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, or Gambrinus. For the country with the most beer consumed per capita in the entire world this is a shockingly low amount of variety. If you compare this to the United States, where the craft beer craze has begun to take over, it further emphasizes the conformity present in Czech beer culture today. Another interesting thing is that this conformity seems to be reflected in the architecture of Prague. The buildings here are beautifully sculpted and colored but they aren’t as idiosyncratic as one would think. Someone who’s walked down the streets of Prague enough will tell you that while each building is a starkly different color of paint, the design of the buildings, and even the streets and townships as a whole, are quite similar. So much so I found myself mixing up my dorm building (a pastel yellow building sitting at 60 Sleszka) with a building one single block down the road because it shared the same window design, door, and color.
The architectural congruence of this city may be something that can be directly attributed to Communism and the stranglehold it had on Prague during it’s reign but I feel as if the lingering effects of Communism still have such a strong influence on the way this city operates. Bringing the concerns I had at the beginning of this post full circle, I feel as if the fall of Communism was not as swift and painless as the history courses we take may make it seem. While Prague is attempting to rewrite it’s own indentity right now, as we speak, it seems to lack a stable one right now. Atleast to me, it’s evident that Prague is a city filled with loads of culture and historical relevance (both past and potentially future) but, right now, I feel Prague attempting to break free of it’s Communist shackles. It’s an interesting time to be immersing myself in this society, and I now feel so much more in touch with the living, breathing entity that Prague is thanks to this post.
One of the more interesting things about the current art scene in Prague is it’s relative ambiguity to people, especially tourists. Prague, of course, is a well-known tourist destination for many reasons, some of which being it’s ancient castles, palaces, and cathedrals, terrifically cheap yet bustling nightlife and picturesque cobblestone walkways, squares, and streets. However, it seems to be an agreement among tourists and other visitors that if they had to choose an area in which Prague does disappoint it would be art. This is because the contemporary art becoming famous in Prague today is spread out beyond the cobblestone and spires of Old Town square. Most times, into areas that don’t experience much tourist traffic.
In fact, according to, the co-owner of Hunt Kastner Artworks, Camille Hunt: “we’re in a neighborhood where most tourists wouldn’t normally venture. It’s a little bit hidden.” Now, even though tourists don’t go there doesn’t mean the residents of Prague, or even the international art scene, doesn’t know about the works of the artists on display. One of the new up and coming artists that have helped put Prague’s visual arts back on the map is Josef Bolf. When you visit this art gallery and to see his paintings, it can really leave a resounding image of how Prague has affected this man who lived under oppression for his entire childhood. When you realize he was exactly 18 the year that college students in the Czech Republic completed a revolution against the Communist Party in 1989 analyzing his paintings become even more telling.
Bolf seems to employ a lot of dark images in his paintings. When you examine all of his pieces together as a whole you’ll see that he almost exclusively uses dark grays and blacks coupled with different shades of pink. This has the effect of creating a scene where beauty and innocence are contrasted against corruption and darkness. More often than not the ominous presence in Bolf’s paintings seem to be overcoming the symbols he chooses to portray innocence. This beckons the question of what these themes should mean to the traveler when thinking about his birthplace, the same place he studied art for 8 years: Prague. To me, it seems as if he’s simply channeling the energy he feels in Prague still, to this day. Are these feelings residual from his childhood? No, not entirely. It’s evident to anyone that spends an extended amount of time analyzing the history and culture of Prague that there are still communist sentiments around every corner. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing for the traveler, however.
If one was to take the time to familiarize themselves with the role Prague has had to play in European history they would understand these paintings on a different level. Being able to recognize landscapes, settings, and architecture that most prominently represent the oppression in Bolf’s paintings allows you to greater visualize the gravity of the images he’s attempting to portray. It’s things like this that then allow a traveler, such as myself, who has a higher focus on recording his thoughts and experiences, to extend this connection to the things he sees in his everyday “travels”. Now, when I see advertisements for beer plastered across storefronts (something extremely prominent in modern day Prague) while a child strolls by I’ll undoubtedly think about the scenes I witnessed when exploring Bolf’s paintings.
Moreover, it also further proves the notion of authenticity we discussed last week. When you choose to experience a new city by engaging in activities tailored to tourists in particular you miss out on a well-rounded, cultural experience such as the one I described here. Being able to connect to some other individuals ideas on Prague while attempting to form your own is a truly rewarding experience. It encourages me to be more observant and critical of the growing and changing contemporary culture that exists around me in Prague.
MacCannell’s analysis of what tourism is, the motivations of tourists, and the general landscape of tourism throughout the world was definitely an interesting read. All the while that I’ve been abroad I knew, deep down inside, that the guided tours, museum walkthroughs, and many other “genuine and authentic” experiences were being faked in front of my eyes. However, it took reading this article for me to step out of denial and face the facts. To be honest, a lot of tourist traps in Prague don’t do a good job of masquerading themselves as something different, instead they often stick out like sore thumbs. My suitemates and I were out for a walk around our new neighborhood when we happened to stumble upon a large square (which we later found out was the historical and political center of Prague, Wenceslas Square). We were, of course, looking to consume some typical Czech food for lunch so you could imagine our jubilation when we looked up to see “Typical Czech Restaurant” in red, glowing letters. Being naive and hungry, a couple of my friends started exclaiming out loud about how lucky we were to find such a restaurant as they started walking towards the establishment. Luckily for us, our friend, who was born and raised in Italy looked at us all with a bit of disbelief and said, “Wow maybe American tourists are as dumb as they say… You know that’s a tourist trap, right? What self-respecting Czech restaurant would name their restaurant that.” We all looked at each other for a second, laughed it off, and moved on. I can actually remember being so hungry, especially for Czech food, in that moment that a part of me didn’t care it was a tourist trap, I just wanted the experience.
Now, looking back on this, I realize MacCannell would condemn my thoughts. He would tell me to go off away from the city center, away from the prying solicitors and fake back rooms and into the unknown. He would tell me to walk into somewhere they don’t speak English and sit down and order. And maybe he’s right, maybe that is what makes someone a traveler rather than a tourist. But, what I’ve found is travelling is difficult, while tourism is easy and pampered. When you’re a traveler and you go to a restaurant that doesn’t speak your language you point and gesture, you don’t get the meal you were looking for, you’re stared at and likely mocked. But, when you’re a tourist you’re treated like royalty. Everything comes in nicely packaged and easily consumable combinations. Want typical Czech goulash? Here’s the menu item. Want typical Czech beer? That’s right here as well. Want to meet typical Czech people? Come sit at our bar. For some reason this one metaphor keeps popping in my head when I think of the difference between touring and traveling. To me, traveling seems to be like reading the newspaper. It’s time consuming to flip through the pages, it’s intellectually intensive and maybe even exhausting but, overall, it leaves you with a very much enhanced understanding of the topics or experiences at hand. At the same time, touring takes me as a type of cultural social media. You pop on different social networks (countries for the sake of this metaphor) to do a simple list of things , then you’re off to another app which serves another purpose. So, for instance, you stop in Rome to see the Coliseum, then you go to Florence to taste the wines, the Amalfi coast is where you go to the beach. Each town, city, province, and country has their own purpose to serve on the tourers trip checklist and that’s why they gravitate towards tourist traps, because they essentially tick these checklists for you so you don’t have to take the trouble of doing so.
Milan Kundera’s “An Unbearable Lightness of Being” is set mostly in the Czech Republic during the Russian invasion and occupation of the country following the socialist reform attempts of 1968. Throughout my reading of the book, Prague seemed nothing more than a communist-run backdrop for Kundera’s philosophical tale of an intellectual womanizer to take place in. In fact, with a cursory read one would have nothing more to say about how Kundera feels about Prague other than that it is simply not the same since Fascism and Communism destroyed the cultural and artistic center that it used to be.
“An Unbearable Lightness of Being” is not a book to be read for its plot or its use of literary devices. While it is an extremely well written novel Kundera didn’t write a story. Instead, he has created a timeless piece of art, one that seeks to decipher the way we live our lives. An interesting concept that Kundera touches upon while probing the reader is kitsch. It’s introduced first through Sabina, an artist who has removed herself from the Czech Republic in order to continue her profession. Many times throughout the novel Sabina vocalizes hatred for “artistic kitsch”, which is described as tasteless, overly sentimental art that deals with nothing of substance or true meaning. While Sabina is constantly trying to overcome her fear of kitsch Kundera begins to simultaneously discuss this term in a political context. He asserts that, “Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements” and “it excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human nature” (242 – 245). He likens the boring, conformist art that Sabina so drastically hates to people who stand one by one “marching by with raised fists shouting identical syllables in unison” in support of totalitarian regimes. What Kundera seems to be most concerned with here is the celebration of individuality and beauty.
I thought this discussion of the conformity and tastelessness Kundera associates with Fascist and Communist art as well as political ideals was interestingly juxtaposed with the debate over the unbearable lightness of being. It seemed Kundera’s novel was trying to tell me something. On a more philosophical level maybe Kundera was, in fact, trying to proclaim art as more everlasting, and therefore more meaningful, than life. Maybe he is trying to say that because both art and history live longer than man, and can be compared across lifetimes, it deserves to have weight, to have meaning. The central theme of the book is that life should be lived without fear of consequence or extra “weight” put on your decisions. However, he then seems outraged at the prospect that art would suffer the same fate of being “weightless” and meaningless or that a regime would force millions of people to conform to their liking. Therefore, Kundera may have been beckoning the reader to find meaning in their life through art. Art is the only thing that carries enough weight to give our lives meaning in the face of the unbearable lightness that comes with leading a mortal life.
I intend on listening to Kundera’s plea. For the next 3 months my art is travel, and I shall completely immerse myself in this art. I will not go through the motions, I will not be a “traveling kitsch” if you will. I will let Prague be the beacon of individualism and beauty in my life. This city, whose history, architecture, and art is unmatched by any other in Central Europe, will serve as a reminder that life must be lived with meaning, no matter how weightless it may seem. And, maybe, if time permits, I will return to Prague as Tomas did, for one last hoorah.