After Berlin, a sprawling metropolis, Prague was a refreshing change transition into a more compact city. Our hostel was centrally located; the balcony offered beautiful views and entertaining people watching during the evenings. Prague is one of those places that wherever you take a picture, it’s going to be pretty. You could probably take a picture of a garbage can and still find something beautiful about it. It also helped that the weather was truly summery (around 85F one of the days); I was able to wear short sleeves an entire day for the first time in 2015. Prague is an ideal destination for traveling students with little money to spend: we ate well and were able to visit museums for a very affordable price.
Probably the most memorable part of Prague was a free walking tour Caleb and I decided to go on. I’ve been on these walking tours before– they’re offered in most large European cities– and consist of usually a young tour guide who shows you around the city, a history lesson combined with sightseeing. At the end of the tour, you’re given the option of tipping your guide based on the quality of their presentation. I always tip, whether the tour was great or not because I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to herd a group of impatient, tired and sometimes cranky tourists.
This particular tour was one of the better ones that I have been on. We were able to visit some of the most beautiful areas in the city including the New Old Synagogue (which supposedly conceals the legendary Gollum in the attic), and the Church of Our Lady of the Snow — both ancient and prized religious buildings. I’m not a religious person, but I have found that churches/synagogues/mosques, etc. are usually the most breathtaking structures. Beyond their beauty, they’re usually accompanied with interesting stories surrounding religious conflict/war/marriages and other dramas. We were also able to see the Prague clock, which was made in the 1400s and still operates in its original form today. At the turn of each hour, a skeleton rings a bell (a symbol of our inevitable mortality) while a golden rooster flaps its wings. Pretty incredible.
Post tour, we joined a few other travelers and our guide at a classic Czech restaurant. Most European food, as I’ve realized before, is very meat heavy. The Czech staple is goulash, a dense stew made with beef and dumplings, which Caleb happily ordered. For me, a potato pancake (another traditional dish) made by mashing potatoes with garlic, seasonings and cheese, and then fried. There aren’t many fresh veggies used in traditional Czech food, unfortunately. However, it was so good that I’m looking forward to recreating the potato pancake when I return home. Meals are often accompanied with a Pilsner beer, much of which is made locally in Prague.
Conversation over the meal was great and we happened to befriend our tour guide who was born and raised in Prague. The next evening, we were invited to join him and a few of his friends at a beer garden in the southern part of town. We sat in a circle on grass, enjoying drinks, the warm summer air and the music from a group of young people playing instruments. The hill offered a fantastic view of the city at sunset and we happily stayed until well after dark before returning to the hostel.
I’ve been thinking a lot about travel lately. Yes, the logistical aspect of travel: how I get from one place to another, where to stay, how much money I have left, etc. But I’ve also been thinking, during times of rest and reflection, about what it means to be able to travel in the way that I have been so privileged to be able to. Honestly, I can’t express how grateful I am to have this experience, with the full support of my family and the University that has allowed me to study abroad. At the same time, though, with this gratefulness, there comes a certain pressure to have a formational experience. I’ll think myself into a dilemma, asking theoretical, widely unanswerable questions like: what am I gaining from this experience? Or, the scarier question, what should I be gaining from this experience?
I’m almost terrified of the prospect of returning home without some precious wisdom that I have gained while seeing this part of the world. Isn’t that what all travellers hope to return home with, some sage advice or reformed world-view? If anything, my time abroad has made my thought processes even more contorted and confusing then they were before. I feel more likely than ever to answer with “I don’t know.” I’m not sure if I will be able to answer those questions until I gain some distance.
In a beautiful article I read by Chapel Hill grad student Ten Scheinman, he empathizes with some of my anxieties as a young traveller and reveals that the same complexities have been felt by countless generations before me. He delves into the history of the “Grand Tour,” a travel stint made by upper-class Renaissance men, and later describes the development of the “gap year” exercised by many European students today, the sole purpose being travel.
Scheinman quotes an unnamed friend: “A tourist has a number of sites to check off, probably immediately uploads hundreds of mediocre photos to Facebook, counts the number of countries he or she has been to… A traveller usually understands that itineraries are pretty useless, admits ignorance, and is open to whatever the road may bring. Of course, we have all had moments of being one or the other, but we can try to be travellers.”
I’ll admit to being a tourist more than a few times. I do feel a desire to check off that one sight that Google tells me I should see. I might have hurried through a museum to get to the next sensation. But, I often find myself taking a step back and asking if I’m actually experiencing or just rushing from one thing to the next. I try not to focus too much on the sensational aspects of travel. If I had just cared about seeing the Berlin Wall or Prague Castle, I would have missed out on realizing a lot more subtle things about each of those cities.
A past art teacher once told me, “Nothing is sacred.” Those words resonate with me on a number of levels beyond just doing art and sometimes I remind myself that nothing will be perfect; don’t treat something so distantly holy that it cannot be interacted with or altered. Trips which are ideally spent gazing at art and drinking wine might end up messy, confusing and uncomfortable. But I’ve learned that this doesn’t lessen their value.
I feel myself going through a transition and it seems important to document.