by Brenna Cox (CIEE Study Abroad, Prague, Czech Republic, Fall 2015)
I have traveled internationally before, but I have never felt such a strong connection to any land, nationality, or people, as I did when I stepped foot in Prague.
When I first told my Czech grandmother that I would be traveling to Prague for my study abroad experience, she was so excited. My grandma shared memories of her mom’s kolaches and homemade sausages made in the Czech tradition. I have traveled internationally before, but I have never felt such a strong connection to any land, nationality, or people, as I did when I stepped foot in Prague.
My Czech buddy, Zuzana (“Zuzi” for short), kindly helped me with my luggage when I arrived at our CIEE apartment. I was traveling one-week post-gallbladder surgery and could not lift more than 15 pounds, so I was very nervous about how I would manage both my heavy luggage and my post-surgery dietary restrictions in a foreign country. Zuzi, via email, had reassured me prior to my departure that she would help me find food and activities suitable to my situation.
Despite her reassurances and our fun email exchanges, I was tentative about sharing a room with Zuzana rather than with one of the other two English-speaking Americans assigned to our apartment. I thought the cultural barrier might be awkward and I was already nervous about making friends within my program. Little did I know, Zuzana and I would become lifelong friends.
While the other two roommates and I were all from the United States, I immediately felt closer to Zuzana. We were both reserved, studious, and we shared a passion for cooking and keeping things tidy. We both took our shoes off at the door, something cultural for Czechs as well as for my family. Even though we were similar, we still had a great deal to learn from each other. I teased her about the shoe hook she used to take off her shoes and she questioned me constantly about guns and politics in America. She was used to staying home in the apartment and cooking herself traditional Slovakian meals, as she was actually from Košice, not the Czech Republic. However, I encouraged her to venture out of the apartment and we explored Prague together.
Between the vegetarian restaurants I insisted she try, and the cultural events we attended thanks to CIEE, we accomplished a lot in one semester. We also frequented the best gelato shop, Angelato, which reminded Zuzi of her own study abroad experience in Italy. I learned about her experience as a student at Charles University and we commiserated over our economics majors.
It was surreal to experience the deep connection that families can have across the world.
When my parents visited, we went grocery shopping with Zuzi and later we helped her peel the potatoes we needed for her to cook us a traditional Slovakian meal, halšky, which had more bacon fat in it then my dietitian mother had ever eaten in her life - and probably more than I should have eaten with my missing gallbladder! In exchange, we took Zuzi to a Mexican restaurant to share our family tradition of “Tequila and Taco Thursdays.”
Zuzi checked my final Czech (no pun intended) presentation for grammar and in return I edited her economic capstone paper for English grammar. Zuzana and I had so many adventures and quiet conversations during my study abroad journey and our friendship remains strong.
Additionally, I met another Czech family through CIEE’s tandem program. I connected with a high school girl named Dafni. Dafni showed me all the sites of Prague including a twisty climb up the Petřín Tower. I attended her choir concert and her family took me on a weekend trip to Charles Castle.
During my parents’ visit, we went to dinner and, through broken English and a spattering of Czech, our parents exchanged stories about growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s. Dafni’s parents trying tale of the Czech Republic prior to the Velvet Revolution when Soviet tanks rolled through their town surprised and humbled my parents. The suffering and uncertainty in their lives made them grateful for small joys. It was quite clear that all they yearned for was a safe and secure future for Dafni, their only child. They shared several Czech stories with our family and my mom laughed as she recalled how she used to call her own grandma Babička, the Czech word for grandma. It was surreal to experience the deep connection that families can have across the world.
In fact, my parents were so taken by the Czech people and their culture that upon their return to the U.S., my mom wrote a children’s book based on the Czech legend of Princess Libuše. My mom researched Prague’s history and the legend of Princess Libuše, chronicled the stories shared by Zuzana and Dafni, and added her own creative inspiration to write “Princess Libuše of Prague and her Praguematic Insight,” which was published by Mascot Publishing in May 2017.
Through sharing my mom’s book and my personal stories of my experiences with Czech people and their culture, I hope to continue to inspire others to travel and make connections with people from various countries. Last fall, I started a master’s program in library and information science, and I am certain I will have the chance to share my Czech experience throughout my career as a librarian.