Traveling abroad is a terrific way to expand your horizons, test your assumptions and develop a new appreciation for diversity. I recently went to Prague for the first time and had some discoveries. I have been to Europe before, but this was the first time I had been to a country that had been part of the Soviet Union. Prague is rich with history and strewn with ancient cathedrals, towers and spires. It’s amazing to walk the cobblestone streets and see buildings built in 880, including a university founded in 1347. To think that it was under communist rule for a mere 41 years and occupied by Germany for 6 years, seems so fleeting compared to being the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s always humbling to be an American traveling in such historic sites.
Traveling with an open mind and curiosity is helpful. There are always quirky and unusual things that seem to crop up and, on this trip, I found several.
Some of my discoveries in Prague:
My pet peeve while traveling abroad is money exchange. I dislike paying a fee to exchange money and there’s always the strange loose change clanging in my purse for years after. In the Czech Republic, I assumed I could use my leftover Euros from a trip to Paris three years earlier. Unfortunately, everything is priced in Czech Crown (CZ), even though they are part of the EU. In addition, prices appear to be astronomical to my American brain so a cup of coffee and croissant is 200 CZ and a dinner of salad, a plate of pasta and sparkling water sans ice is 880 CZ. Divide those prices by 20 and you get the actual cost in dollars, but there’s still that initial shock. Fortunately, I always asked if a place took credit cards so I didn’t have to keep exchanging money and I was able to use up my Euros as tip money. I am hoping to fly back without any Czech Crowns in my pocket.
I drink coffee every day; mugs of hot fresh brewed coffee filled to the rim. My first surprise for my insatiable coffee habit was waking from my red eye flight an hour out from arriving in Prague and requesting a cup of black coffee from the flight attendant. I received what amounted to a half-filled Dixie cup of coffee. Perhaps two gulps of coffee. In several restaurants, I received small cups (certainly not a mug) half to three quarters filled with coffee. In my hotel room, I found tiny packs of instant coffee and an electric pot to boil water. Interesting and sufficient, but I am so looking forward to a full hot mug of fresh brewed coffee.
When I took a taxi from the airport, the driver turned the radio to an English music channel. Cher singing “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and Kansas playing “Dust in the Wind” are a few of the selections that sort of struck me. What an unusual music selection. Familiar music in unfamiliar surroundings. On a boat cruise on the Vltava, an accordion player (yes, a one-man band consisting of an accordion) played Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, which received a round of applause from the mostly German tourists on board followed by “New York, New York”, which received silence. What an eclectic mix of American music from 50 years ago in a foreign land. Interesting and odd.
4. Ice and straws
I believe I remember this from France, but ice is a luxury. I usually order sparkling water at every restaurant and it was never served with ice. I never saw a straw or plastic utensil. Practically everything at the conference I attended was served on paper plates, with wooden or metal utensils and glassware. I have to say that outside of cigarette butts, I didn’t see a lot of trash on the street.
The most remarkable thing I saw at least five times as I walked in Old Town Prague was the sight of people kneeling face down on the ground with a cup or hat in front of them. It was a profound sight the first time I saw it. There were both women and men begging in this fashion. My stomach dropped as I could not imagine kneeling for hours as people walked by without making eye contact. It was so human, yet so inhuman not to try and connect. As if to give up all to fate and the grace and generosity of others. Profound.
- Traveling while American
Every American I spoke to shared being embarrassed due to the current political situation in the States. But it was worth remembering that Prague had been occupied by Germany and was once under Communist rule. Our guide mentioned that even as recent as ten years ago, they found out that the Communist party was tracking people’s conversations and who they associated with. You can sense that subtle paranoia that keeps people in check and untrusting of truly sharing their opinions. I sensed that guardedness, especially with people over 40. There were interesting other encounters with waitstaff and service personnel that involved laughter and even once being yelled at when we couldn’t find the vegetarian option on the buffet line at the Conference. I was very cognizant of the difference between traveling in an ex-Communist country compared to my travels elsewhere in Europe.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” said Mark Twain. As with any travel abroad as an American, I am always humbled by how open and accepting Europeans are to different languages and customs. Travel to experience new perspectives and to change yours.