Where Do I Find Myself

In The Art of Travel, 3. Getting oriented, Prague by Alice

Everyone who has visited Prague probably remembers their first sight of the city. Whether it is the red rooftops, the pastel colors, or the lovely architecture, it is a city to be admired and enjoyed. For me, foreign to the European city-scape in general, the picture-perfect quality of streets were extraordinary. It was like everything had been planned and coordinated to maximize its charm. However, the city quickly put a twist on my joy as I realized these gorgeous streets all looked the same.

As soon as I arrived, I was restless to explore. I left the dorm—walking immediately down what turned out to be the opposite direction of anywhere I would ever need to go. Without the data necessary to use Google maps (and it would have taken me a while to figure out the address of our dorm anyways), I had to rely purely on my sense of direction and hope that the streets ran straight. I didn’t dare roam far, and thankfully, my navigation skills proved reliable, though there were definitely a few moments of doubt.

The next few days of orientation were a blur of going places and paying almost blind attention to the route there so we could find our way back. Survival instincts took over basic curiosity, and old routes were thrown out as soon as we traveled somewhere new. There simply wasn’t enough room or basic structure to build up a mental map. It was one place-dorm, and then another place-dorm. The only two markers I preserved were a church, constructed in a very different style than the other buildings and located at the center of a square and right next to the metro station straight down the main street, and the electrical lock outside our dorm, so that I knew which door to open. It was only because I had to relay to my roommate important places the RAs pointed out that I managed to reinforce my memory of more landmarks and set up the foundations of my internal atlas.

Finding my way around campus was even more of a challenge. Located just around the corner from Old Town Square, it’s an area not only flocked by tourists, but also consisting of many small, crisscrossing roads and passageways that do not at all lend to easy navigation. The first school building we went to is located in the middle of one of these passageways, and because it was the first, it became for me the central point around which everything else was situated. It took me a few days just to figure out the simple fact that the two exits of this passageway each led to one of the two metro stops closest to campus. It then took me another two weeks to connect this information to the points of interest I marked out during our tour on the first day, so that I could get from campus to these places and back. And it took another week to map out the spatial relationship between the places themselves and figure out alternative routes to these frequented locations. It didn’t help that two of the most eye-catching stores that I’d noted had twin doubles just five minutes away from each other. Learning the names of streets and metro/tram stops were even more of a pain until I finally became accustomed to the Czech language and its rhythms and spelling. Now, I can at least recognize if a street or stop is the one I’m looking for, even if I can’t pronounce it or spell it out.

With memorable landmarks hidden away and tucked around corners, streets that wind and twist into each other, the same shops repeating and confusing memorized sequences, nodes of the same shape and style, and no distinct boundaries in sight because my activity has mostly been in the same district of space, Prague has been a chaotic mess in my mind. But I am slowly learning the structure of this city, things to ignore and details to pay attention to, familiar locales I’ve visited, and paths that are familiar enough now to analyze their directions and speculate how they intersect with each other. It can be a frustrating process, but I find it more enjoyable than anything. As this map manifests in my mind, I am not only building up my own personal Prague, but I am also carving out a life for myself in this city of a million.

As more and more places find belonging inside my head, I also find myself belonging more and more in this city. I finally have a place. I can finally find myself.

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  • Streets of Prague: Alice