Living in Prague is a constant adjustment that has been, and continues to be, unfamiliar. The settings on the washing machine, the purchase process of fresh vegetables at the farmer's market, and the unspoken rules of public transportation are all mundane tasks that are now met with cultural differences, a language barrier, incognizance, and the largest personal barrier: courage.
The first week of living abroad is a mental cost-benefit analysis: Will the pastry be THAT good? Will it be worth the fleeting embarrassment as I stumble to pronounce it? Do I have all the right coins to purchase it? I can either remain silent, communicate in hand gestures to avoid embarrassment, or lean into 20 seconds of courage and graciously mispronounce the item. A sympathetic smile, seriously, goes a long way! The darling movie “We Bought a Zoo” puts it simply: “Sometimes, all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you something great will come from it.” In honor of celebrating the brevity, but also the magnitude, of those 20 seconds -- here are a few of my small victories while interning in Prague, Czech Republic.
Eating & Ordering Alone
My roommate mastered the pronunciation of “Mluvíš anglicky?” (Do you speak English?) before I did -- try saying that ten times fast. As the restaurant waiter approached us, I confidently greeted him with a “Dobrý den!” (Hello), but sat like a deer in the headlights when he asked us, in Czech, what we would like for drinks. Ordering a meal on my own shortly became a daunting task. However, the local grocery store’s frozen lasagna can only sustain a girl for so long. Reminding myself of my goals and my progress reframes my perspective -- communicating entirely in Czech isn’t the goal, but communicating my needs in a polite manner is the goal. Twenty seconds of bravery.
That local vegetarian bistro down the street may get a giggle when I come in, but they see me trying and learning with each visit. The curry that I ordered only tastes better, knowing it took a little more work and came with a much larger reward. While that alone time is an opportunity to resist the urge of sticking to my “English bubble” of American friends, my alone time with my journal and pen, or ice cream and book in the park have been the most introspective and rewarding time.
Traveling like a Local
My hometown and university are both larger cities that do not primarily rely on public transportation. I’m used to navigating street names as I drive, instead of metro stops and line transfers. However, exploring the city has become one of my favorite pastimes; it gives me a glimpse into the neighborhood culture, a chance to pick up on the daily habits of the locals, and an opportunity to grow in confidence of my bearings. I’m reminding myself that my goal is to live more as a local than as a tourist. However, my goal is not to abandon all I know as familiar and hit a Czech cultural standard. Rather, I’m seeking to learn, acquire, and embrace the traditions, lifestyle, and pace of Czech people and their culture.
My 8:00 a.m. commute to my internship office is filled with working men and women off to their day jobs. I have learned more of unspoken social etiquette from daily public transportation rides than in any Lonely Planet or Rick Steves handbook. Firsthand witnessing of these societal differences brings realism and authenticity to Czech mannerisms. They are individuals like you and me, living life as an influence of their cultural upbringing. Riding public transportation without the use of Google Maps, and appropriately offering my seat to the young mother and child on their way to school, remind me that if even for a mere nine weeks, I have the opportunity to be a part of Czech life.
All it takes is 20 seconds, but what they don't tell you is that those 20 seconds become two minutes of mighty victory. After all, life is a continual series of 20 seconds of opportunity, and I’m proud of the person I am becoming along the way.
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