The Calm Before the Storm

A year ago, if you asked me if I would study abroad I would have told you that it’s impossible. Last summer I thought, why not just try and then its quickly became a reality that I couldn’t fathom to be real. Coming from lower middle class, studying in another countries university was merely a dream. I remember the day I was accepted it felt as if the moving day was too far, but that day is quickly approaching now. It is a little stressful; I have never left the United States before. Actually I’ve hardly traveled outside of New York. I have never been so far from my family before either; all of this is on my mind. I can’t help but want to focus on the positive, the incredible fact that I am about to move and study in Prague.

It’s a little daunting yes, but I can’t begin to imagine how amazing it is going to be. I know my family and friends will still be home when I get back. When I think about how it’s going to be living in Prague, I get giddy inside. In Prague I’ll be considered an adult; I’ll have to be mostly completely independent. I’ll have to learn the Czech, learn their culture and  assimilate myself. All I know is life in New York City, but I am so ready to go through this change. I feel that this trip is going to change me a lot as a person. I hope to come back more mature and grounded and I don’t think staying somewhere where I am comfortable will help me with growing. SO here’s to the big leap across the world 🙂

Beginnings

I have been in Prague for almost two weeks now, and these are my observations thus far:
This place is old, I mean REALLY old. I went on a tour of Prague Castle (literally down the street from my dorm) and it was built in the 9th century. Our tour guide told us stories about the things that have happened there over the years that I cant even remember half of them.

However one need not visit castles to feel the ancientness. Just walking down the streets in any part of the city will show you how old it really is here. The randomly twisting streets and terracotta roofs make the United States look like a new born baby just learning how to walk.

From what ive experienced, most Czech people embrace the old and reject the new. Buildings like the one in the picture i posted are looked down upon and considered ugly (this radio tower was voted the 3rd ugliest building in the world, and now has crawling baby sculptures all over it). Other skyscrapers and modern looking buildings left over from the communist regime are often left unused and sit in the outskirts of the city. It is a refreshing break from the modernity I have grown up with. Its like im living in the 12th century while still being able to ride the tram to class.

I have also come to realize that the United States is more often than not the exception rather than the rule. I have also studied abroad in Limerick, Ireland and many things here in Prague are much closer to Ireland than the United States. For example: water is never free. Every restaurant I go to here charges something like 10 czk (roughly 40 cents US) for a glass of tap water. Some places dont even offer water from the tap and force you to pay for a glass bottle of filtered water. At convenience stores and grocery stores it is not uncommon to find beer CHEAPER than water. Everyone here is drinking beer constantly. While I normally wouldn’t complain, it has been so hot this past week and all I want is a nice tall glass of ice water free of charge and that is impossible to get.

The upside is that everything here is insanely cheap. A large beer at most pubs comes out to roughly 1.25 USD on average, and a meal is usually not more than 150 czk (about 6 USD). However, you have to pay for EVERYTHING. Bathrooms, plastic bags at grocery stores, and tap water are just some that I have noticed in my first weeks here.

It is too early to draw any real conclusions, but as I get more comfortable with this city and the rest of Europe I will be sure to update this blog with observations, pictures, and interesting stories.

Hidden Treasures of the World

This probably sounds really stupid but if you asked me where Prague is two years ago I would not have been able to tell you. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where quite a few places I visited were. Maybe I am just ignorant, or maybe they were too busy teaching us how to take standardized tests in school to teach us any geography.

Whatever the case may be I am happy I am now getting to see Central Europe. When else in your life will you go see these places? To see the beauty in Vienna and realize it is a truly magnificent city and no wonder Billy Joel wrote a song about it. And what is there is to do in Hungary, nothing right? Wrong. I could have spent days, weeks, maybe all my life in Budapest browsing the markets and relaxing in the thermal baths.

And let’s not forget the food. I never thought I liked perogies until I went to Krakow and ate proper, fresh ones filled with bacon, spinach, mushrooms, anything tasty—way better than those frozen ones from the supermarket that my dad and brother eat constantly for some reason. And you have not had a good dessert until you have tried a trdelnik, how amazed I was with the concept of a hollow pastry coated with sugar and nuts and filled with ice cream (Why have I been deprived with only Friendly’s ice cream my entire life?)

Everywhere you look here there is beauty, and it is breathtaking every time. America cannot compare to the old and incredible architecture that exists here. Literally, it feels like a story world and we are all the characters living out a fantasy.

To be entirely honest I was not sure where I was going with this blog post when I started it, but writing it made me realize that I am learning so much here. I am experiencing so much about the world that I did not even know existed a short time ago. And it just makes you wonder how much more is out there, what else you have been missing.

And I hope I don’t miss any of it.IMG_1667 IMG_2125

Where has the time gone?

I cannot believe I have been here for 2 months already! I do not feel like it has been that long, but my family and friends say it feels like I have been gone much longer.

I have been keeping busy with small day and weekend trips. Midterms are finally over, and it was probably the most stressful week I have had since I have been here. Now I get to enjoy a 2 week spring break. I can’t complain much about that!

Over the last few weeks, I have visited Montepulciano, Pienza and Prague. I got to go to Montepulciano and Pienza through a field learning trip. They are both providences in Siena and absolutely magnificent. They each overlook miles of beautiful landscapes and vineyards. While I was there I got to do a food and wine paring in Montepulciano and a pecorino cheese tasting in Pienza. All the food in Italy is so fresh, which makes it taste 30000x better. Something I learned while in Montepulciano was parts of Twlight: New Moon were filmed there. It was cool getting to be there.

My next big trip was to Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague is a huge city, and is slowly becoming a big tourist spot in Europe. More and more people are starting to realize how beautiful the city is and appreciate all the amazing artictecturhe. I can attest that it is beautiful, and everyone should at some point in their life go there. Probably my favorite part about the trip was the food. The food in Europe in general is hands down awesome, but the food in Prague is a whole other level. When traveling to different places constantly I try and eat as many traditional foods as possible, because when am I ever going to get the chance to try them again. As it would happen there was an Easter festival going on while we were there. There were all these carts with handmade crafts, and lots of different food. We basically tired a new traditional food for each meal. We had huge sausages with cabbage mustard and ketchup in a hot dog bun, fired cheese on bread, fired dough with ketchup garlic and cheese, goulash soup in a bread bowl, goulash dumplings and turtle necks. Turtle necks are those cylinder shaped pastries usually filled with ice cream and strawberries you have probably seen on twitter or instagram. Yes, they are as good as they look. They can get a little messy , but it is worth it.

Prague was a whole new type of atmosphere much difference than Switzerland and Italy, and I am happy I got the chance to experience it.

Finding a Second Home

Forget what you’ve heard before: Prague is most definitely the most magical place on Earth. We just passed the one-month point of being in this city and besides the lack of decent peanut butter and sushi; I could not be more content. I’ve been doing a lot of exploring with my new friends, and there is so much to see and so much to do here: it is impossible to get bored of the same old thing or have nothing to do.

And after doing some traveling I’ve come to the conclusion that, in my completely unbiased opinion, that there is no better place in the world. How many other places on Earth can you get a delicious sit down dinner for the equivalent of five (5!) American dollars? In the states I can get on a bus for four hours and still be in the same state, but in the Czech Republic I can fall asleep on a bus for four hours and wake up in Vienna. There are a million art galleries I’ve been checking out so I can pretend I’m cultured, and if I’m really feeling it, I can pay four (4!) American dollars to see the magnificent philharmonic. There are farmers markets with wonderful food I’ve never seen before– apple chips, banana peanut butter balls, mulled wine. And every time I wander, I stumble upon a vast array of talented street performers. Everyday when I’m walking across the bridge to school I can’t help but smile and feel so blessed to be here, I can’t help but to think how happy I am I chose to study here. And as I sit stuck on this bus at the border between Austria and the Czech Republic because one guy doesn’t have his passport, I can’t help but to feel excited to return to the place I can now call home.IMG_1537

 

IMG_1537

Map on My Wall

I’ve had a map on the wall of my room for as long as I could remember. As I glance at it now, I can’t help but trace my finger from where I am in New York to where I’ll be spending the next four months of my life in Prague. But the map is just a picture, a depiction of the world, a vast planet I have yet to explore. It’s just a flat, dull surface painted with fading colors. I look at all the lines, all the serrated shapes. I look at the distance, only a representation of what actually might be.

As I think about actually traveling and being in a bizarre, new, and exciting place, it feels overwhelming but essential. Ultimately, I’m in denial about this journey though and it doesn’t feel real. I’m going to be living in EUROPE!? WHAT!? It’s a dream. I can’t imagine my body actually being moved across the earth as simply as my finger glides across surface of my bedroom wall. As life is going on as normal at home, it really does hit me sometimes though, only in brief little bursts. (These flashes of feelings are mirrored in the random piles of stuff that are invading my floor that won’t fit my suitcase anyways; they are sudden and all over the place.) Reality is getting stronger as the days straggle on. I only have two days until lift off but somehow it feels like the day won’t ever come.

But I am in search of adventure. I crave it. I’ve lived the entirety of my life in Upstate New York and I feel like I’ve been in a droplet of protection, sheltered from the unknown, and unable to make fast, hard decisions for myself. I’ve never really traveled anywhere by myself before, so going across the map is going to fill my hunger and longing for independence. It will definitely be challenging, but definitely fulfilling!

As I think about leaving, the hardest part is saying goodbye. My friends and family keep looking at me like they’ll never see me again. In the back of my mind, I keep wondering if this is the right time to go and to leave everything to do something tremendously different. However, I know that if I don’t go now then I’ll just keep pushing it off or never do it and always think of what would have been. I’m glad I made the choice and committed to a life changing journey. Right now, it feels like perfect timing although it is hard letting go and saying goodbye to the people who mean the most to me. However, I’m hopeful that I’ll meet extraordinary people who will make me feel like I’m home away from home.

In an attempt to get prepared, I’ve been busy during winter break. I’ve been collecting all the important necessities like documentation and making copies. Many, many copies. Additionally, packing is something I’ve been working on but haven’t had the chance to conquer. It looks like my room exploded but I’m almost there. I just need to remember that I can’t bring my whole closet.

But in addition, there have been appealing aspects. I’m excited to learn the Czech language, so I downloaded an app to help with my Czech language. So far, I certainly know ‘grandfather’ (dědeček) and ‘pub’ (hospoda), so if anyone needs help with either, I’d at least be able to recognize what they’re talking about. But I don’t think that’s going to help me survive, so I’m going to be taking a 2-week introductory course and then I’ll continue on to take an intensive course with my other classes. I can’t wait to dive right in and start learning a new language!

In just two days, I’ll be waiting in the airport, trying to hold myself together while my heart is pounding crazy. As I get closer and closer to the beginning my journey, and as I get on the plane and take off, I feel like the map will become more and more vivid. Then, I might actually see myself floating across the ocean and finding land on the other side to the beginning of my electrifying and memorable journey.

Hands on Learning

My courses at Charles University were my favorite part of the trip… says nobody. But really, they honestly were! I took two classes: Czech and European Art & Architecture and Literature of Central European Cafe’s. What I enjoyed most and had not realized prior to starting the program was that we took field trips almost everyday. Throughout the four weeks I went to a plethora of galleries, churches, cathedrals, cafes, multiple visits to the Prague castle… It was so amazing.

IMG_2602 IMG_2477

                                Cole at The Jerusalem Synagogue       Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle

For a creative, artistic person like myself, it was so inspiring for me to be in such an environment. I learned about a certain art form, or read a piece of literature and then went to an area in Prague where that style existed or was created. I cannot express how tremendous my feelings were in those classes… they were like no other, really.

IMG_2575 IMG_2450

                          Fellow classmate admiring / becoming art        Stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral

Similar to Cardiff University, there are not many things riding toward your final grade though. Granted we only had four weeks, but the bulk of the grade consists of a midterm and a final test/paper. This proved a challenge for me just as it had in Cardiff because I place sooo much pressure on myself because I know how important it is, which caused me to ask for extensions on my papers. But, I completed them, and that’s what matters.

Even if I don’t come home with the A’s I had hoped/planned for, I have come back with so much knowledge of Czech history, culture, and even a bit of the language. I  enjoyed the courses so much that I am considering doing my Master’s at Charles University.

A New Voicelessness

“Who am I? A mere shadow on the wall? A dark invisibility? Do you see my face? Can you hear my voice? Can you understand my language? I don’t think you can… I don’t think I do. But I will project myself until I am seen, heard. I am done living in silence.”

Jay Higgs

 

Exactly 2 weeks after arriving in the Czech Republic, I was ready to leave. I had already done all the touristy things there was to do in Prague, I had the Czech food and beer, but what I hadn’t done was understand nor fit into Czech Culture. Perhaps it was egotistical of me to assume that I should be welcomed and accepted in a culture I had been immersed in for a mere 14 days, but it really hurt to feel like such an “other.”

“Feeling ‘other’ is something that I feel often in the United States, so shouldn’t I be used to it?” I shut that idea down quick, because to say I should be used to it is to affirm the hatred and discrimination that exists not only in the States, but in the world. To say that is to perpetuate self-guilt and insecurities that I experience all too often. But, the feeling I had in Prague was still very different than it was in the US.

The first two weeks I walked around Prague with a smile on my face and awe in my eyes; it was unbelievably IMG_2643beautiful. When my gaze was not taking in the serenity around me, it was searching for connection with the locals. There was none… no connection. It seemed the harder I smiled, the bigger the scowl I received.

At first my natural reaction was to internalize the negativity as something to do with me personally (again with the egotism). “Could they tell I was foreign? Was it because I was Black? Did they see me as a mere tourist?”

The answers to those questions were in fact “yes,” BUT there was way more depth to it than that. Just like there is way more to me than my appearance, the history of the Czech Lands is the main cause of the Czech peoples reserved attitude in public. To make a long story short, back when the Czech Republic was still a part of Czechoslovakia they were taken over by communism in 1948. The effects of being overtaken by communism: secret police, paranoia, lack of trust, and ultimately the stripping of identity, caused Czech people to be a reserved, distant, and in my opinion, bitter people (and rightfully so). Communism fell there in 1989, four years before I was born, thus it began to make sense why the mentality I was experiencing still existed. Most of the people who were alive at that time are still alive, especially the children and teenagers whose childhoods were effected by such a reality.

I realized I am more similar to Czech people than I had originally thought. Granted I may not walk around scowling or judging harshly, but I too was rendered voiceless by a society and by myself. That voicelessness was heightened though in a non English speaking country. I felt trapped within myself screaming “even if I could talk, they wouldn’t understand… even if they did talk, I couldn’t understand.” It was exhausting and it made me realize that a privilege was taken away: my privilege to speak and be understood. It made me aware of the power I have when I am in an English speaking country. I had not realized, but speaking is a beautiful privilege and I have it when I am in the States, and it frustrates me that things like sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. almost made me believe that I was unworthy of such a privilege.

A big part of traveling is learning and being immersed into different cultures. Whether negative or positive, it is a profound experience because one learns about others, oneself, and learns to navigate the differences that exist amongst both. For the mindset of healthy living and positivity that I was creating for myself, Czech locals were not the best people to be surrounded by, but the serenity that surrounded us all was perfect. I plan to take my new knowledge, my voice and raise awareness of the realities which hide in shadows.

 

 

Current Events

While I am here in Prague, Czech Republic, things in the United States have not stopped… and it would be ignorant to think that they would simply because I was here, not matter how badly I want them to.

My heart is swollen in confusion on how to feel:

  1. June 17, 2015: Charleston Church Shooting, 9 dead
  2. June 26, 2015: Gay Marriage Legal in all 50 States
  3. June 17- June 28: Over 6 Black Churches by Arsonists in the South
  4. June 30: I am made aware of threats of my brother’s life.
    • Black on black crime
  5. July 2: My Aunt/ Godmother Kathy passed away.

The one positive amongst this list is a really significant one for the course that my life will take now having the privilege to marry whomever I chose. The legalization of same-sex marriage makes me feel: bubbly, hopeful, thankful, all of these positive things, but at the same time, I am conflicted.

I am a pansexual, Black woman, meaning I am in many ways an “other,” usually offered and sometimes treated as “less than.” In all the ways I can be targeted and discriminated against, my race proves to be the most common of my three major identities. Thus, same-sex marriage is great, but a large part of my identity is suffering.

Not only are Black Americans being killed, their churches burned, and their faiths tested, I am not in the States able to fully mourn the reality. The helplessness I often feel when I am home and a racist act of hate occurs is tripled by me being here, thousands of miles away having the experience of a lifetime. This reality causes a huge pit of guilt to sit in my stomach, loss of appetite and words.

I really wish I had more to say, but I am rendered numb, mute, immobile. My tears say enough now, and may my words that are soon to come effect change tomorrow… (is what Blacks said 50-100 years ago). All I can do is hope and try to learn something while away these next weeks that will aid me in promoting positive change to someone or something… eventually.

 

Hopefully.

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

An included part of the program was a day trip to Kutná Hora: a city situated in the Central Bohemian Region of Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. Whilst there we toured the famous Bone Church, St. Barbara’s Cathedral, and crawled through the Silver Mines.

IMG_2178

Coat of Arms of the Schwarzenberg family that is made of bones

The story behind the Bone Church, more correctly called the Sedlec Ossuary, is that, in the 13th century, Jindřich, the abbot of Sedlec monastery, returned from a visit to Palestine with a pocketful of soil and sprinkled it on the cemetery surrounding the Chapel of All Saints. Seeing that Israel is seen as the holy land, this direct association with the soil of the holy land led to the graveyard becoming a sought after burial site among the aristocracy of Central Europe. At the time of the thirty years’ war in the 17th century, the number of burials outgrew the space available, the older remains began to be exhumed and stored in the chapel, and it’s estimated that the chapel now contains the bones of up to 40,000 people. Although this church was very eerie, I thought it was wonderfully dark and cool. Definitely the best part of the day for me.

Next was the cathedral. St. Barbara’s is known as the most spectacular gothic cathedral in the Czech Republic, a land IMG_2237noted for its Gothic cathedrals. In the late 1300s St. Barbara’s was founded by the rich mine owners of Kutná Hora. St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners, and many of the interior adornments reflect mining life. Stained-glass windows and frescoes depict winches, ore-trading, and medieval minting techniques, and the ceiling murals include depictions of the miners’ guild coat of arms. It was very awe-inspiring and a nice introduction to the mining history that we’d soon be immersed in.

Let me first start by saying I am claustrophobic… I do not like tight clothes, spaces, let alone narrow, dark tunnels 35 meters (114 feet) under ground. Fear was crawling all over my skin just thinking of touring the Silver Mines. The tour begins in the courtyard of Hradek, with a small display of mining equipment and then progresses to the massive horse-powered winch that was used to lift a ton of silver ore at a time to the surface. We then got dressed in white cloaks and helmets with torches on the top.

IMG_2283

Our tour guide giving his first tour in English and doing a great job.

The first part of the tour is a climb down a modern steel staircase of 160 steps, approximately equivalent to a six-story building. The tunnel grew smaller and smaller the further we went and the lowest point was around 120cm/4 feet. I liked my helmet more and more every time I scraped my head along the top of the shaft. The tunnel opens out into another small cavern where the guide stops and asks everybody to turn off their torches, and then almost covers his, to show what poor light the miners worked in, and why their coats were white. He then turns his torch off completely to demonstrate complete darkness, which is unsettling no matter how much the logical part of your mind tells you it’s OK. We were in complete darkness in this chill cave for like 5 minutes which felt like 50 minutes. I spent this time practicing breathing exercises and avoiding thinking logistically about the predicament I was in.

I am actually practicing my breathing exercises as I write this, but I am so pleased because I really faced a huge fear and that is always a reason to be proud of myself. Making it through that tour, one which is so unique and important in the history of the city, really set the tone for why I came here—to the Czech Republic for this month: to get out of my comfort zone and really live, be alive. This trip has already changed my life and it’s only been four days! I hope I can handle all the rest that’s in store.