After a semester abroad in the Czech Republic, life takes on a different view

Senior Jesse Abruzzi looks out of the landscape of Bohemia in the Czech Republic during one of his excursions while spending a semester abroad.

Senior Jesse Abruzzi looks out of the landscape of Bohemia in the Czech Republic during one of his trips while spending a semester abroad.

Studying abroad is an expansive experience that is talked about in thin and narrow ways. When asked about it in conversation, typically trite and banal phrases are mustered: It was “life-changing” or “mind-broadening” are usual suspects. To be fair, these words are absolutely correct, but so much is packed into each pair of words. It can be difficult to speak about a period in life that can be so sensory overloading. Even for me, it is an experience that I continue to unpack from my mind months later. Still, it’s a disservice to one’s actual experience not to try to provide more substance.

I spent the fall semester in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic — a country self-described as the heart of Europe, situated between Austria, Germany, Slovakia and Poland. The excellent program Cultural Experiences Abroad (CEA) was my middleman provider. They settled all document and visa work, lessening all my burdens save the required financial payments. The program was even kind enough to enroll me in Anglo-American University, the school CEA partners with. It was a fascinatingly diverse university, a hodgepodge of Czechs, Germans, Americans, Kazakhs, Palestinians, Syrians, Norwegians, Dutch, Russians, English, Vietnamese, etc, etc. It placed the tired adage of America as a “melting-pot” of cultures to shame. My trip was a veritable trek back to the old world, a reverse Columbus. Unlike Columbus, my interactions with the natives were amicable and ended significantly less bloody.

The Czech Republic is unique. Unlike the rest of Europe, or even the world, 85 percent of the country is atheist or agnostic. According to my tour guide around Cesky Krumlov – a historic Czech castle town – 85 percent practice complete religiously detached atheism, not the strain of irreligion you might find in the U.S. of people who don’t believe in a God but retain a “spiritual” side. No, the Czechs are materialists — some might even say hedonists.

Forty years of Communist rule morphed Czechoslovakia (now split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia) into a society that no longer found use in God, but also one that fragmented individuals, causing suspicion of anyone who wasn’t a part of one’s inner circle. The remnants can still be seen a quarter century after the fall of Soviet domination. Generally speaking, Czechs remain outwardly indifferent to stranger-to-stranger interaction. Don’t expect eye contact or even acknowledgment in a busy city like Prague. That was one of the difficulties returning to Norwich, everyone’s incessant need to blindly stare at one another.

Despite the cold war personalities, Czechs have been refashioning their social sphere. Prague, as a Norwegian friend described it to me, has remade itself into an adult Disney World. It’s undoubtedly a reaction to the Soviet one: Years of social repression finally crumbled. It’s like an entire society grew old enough to collectively move out and cast off the restraints of a strict Catholic household – from repression to expression.

Beer is cheaper than water; liquors and wine aren’t much more expensive. Alcohol can be consumed openly on the streets. Brothels, which are illegal, front themselves as strip clubs, and from what I was told by locals some of the best customers are officials tasked with making, and keeping, them illegal. Smoking is still legal indoors and if you look carefully, you can find bars so foggy you’ll have smoked three packs without even touching a cigarette. And don’t be surprised to walk into bars where the bartenders are openly smoking a joint without a hint of caution. In many cases the police won’t care, only asking the bartender to put it out if they see it. Prague has established a “live and let live” type attitude, so long as a person’s actions are not endangering others. It is an individualist’s paradise.

Even so, people do not lack the ability to collectivize or identify with a group. What is striking about the Czech Republic is how Czech it is. Prague, for all of its tourists, backpacking pilgrims, and expats, remains a solidly Czech city, which is a plus because immersion becomes that much deeper. Foreign nationals are not trekking to the country to establish a new life – the opportunities simply aren’t there like they are in a Paris, Berlin, or London. Prague remains a regional capital rather than a European one. The only other significant nationality within the country is a large Vietnamese population who sought refuge in the country during the height of the Vietnam War – they’ve even built their own “little Vietnam,” which could confuse one into thinking they had accidentally stumbled into Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, there is an ugly side to the Czechness of the country. I found it a partially racist and xenophobic society – not all of course, but a noticeable portion. The country is blindingly white. Discrimination, particularly towards the Romani population, is widespread. Romani neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city have been walled off by officials to separate them from the rest of society and to hide the squalor in which the inhabitants live. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose, is the thinking.

If the wall were not enough, Czech white supremacists hold protests yearly against the Romani peoples, in favor of deporting them. The refugee crisis inflamed new rage that manifested itself in anti-Islam marches during the November 17 Struggle for Freedom and Democracy, a day commemorating students and intellectuals that were beaten or killed on separate occasions by Nazis in the 1930s and Soviets in the 1980s while marching for free expression and democratic institutions.

I’m proud to say that I marched in rank with the pro-refugee rally on arguably the most celebrated holiday in the country. It’s equivalent to July 4 in the U.S. While the group may have been a tad too crunchy for my tastes and overly anarchic for my politics, we came together to celebrate the rights of all peoples to determine their own futures. Like the vanguard of European protests of old, we marched through the city being blocked and re-routed by riot police attempting to separate us from the anti-Islam march. Only a mere 20 meters apart, sharp-tongued words were exchanged, some I understood, others unintelligible to my ears. Finally, with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” blasting over loudspeakers and anti-fascist chants permeating the frigid city streets, we poured into Wenceslas square. This was the protest center of the city where the 1968 Prague Spring reached its height when Soviet tanks rolled into the city, and where Vaclav Havel – essentially the founding father of the modern country – led to the Velvet Revolution for the nation’s eventual right to self-determination. In the best of ways, it was a bone-chilling, nerve-numbing experience – one that left me feeling as if I lived in all of history at once, that time was non-linear, like I was there in ‘68 and ‘89. But I was there in 2015.

Prague rightly deserves the title of “Paris of the East,” along with a dozen or so others like Budapest, Bucharest, Hanoi, Manila, the list continues, but you can see the esteemed company the city is apart of. And as amazing as my time in the city was, if you get the opportunity to study abroad don’t limit yourself to just one city. However, if that’s what your finances dictate then don’t worry, you’ve already made it farther than most people at Norwich will.

Jesse Abruzzi in Paris.
While I enjoyed Prague, it is hard to choose it as my favorite city. It was through journeying to other cities and countries that I developed the sense of what I like and what I don’t like. I began to understand more about the world and myself by continually expanding my reach into other cities.

In Berlin, I learned how flattering it is to be hit on by a guy when you’re not gay. There’s something about knowing your attraction potentially expands farther than half the world’s population. It’s flattering to be considered attractive to the same sex. In Istanbul, I witnessed and spoke to Syrian refugees firsthand living homeless on the city streets. Some had to resort to sending their children throughout different parts of the city to beg, but never with their shoes, a calculated decision that earns the kids more money from charitable pedestrians. In Sofia, I witnessed the smattering of old crumbling Viennese architecture, old crumbling Soviet-bloc architecture, and new glimmering glass facades all in one city. You may have preconceived notions of what Bulgaria might be, but the city was charming and the people even more so. A great bonus is flying on their national airline, which fills the cabin with traditional Bulgarian folk music during the boarding process. It was difficult to not become entranced by the infectious rhythm and fall into dancing.

One of the fluffed, meaningless phrases that’s oft quoted is “you find yourself through travel.” It’s a vapid cliché renegading as deep philosophical insight. My qualm with the quote is that I don’t think there’s any such concept as finding yourself. There’s no special person you’re meant to be. Finding yourself entails a passive role; you don’t want that, you’re not molding anything. Yourself is the person you actively create, even though it may not appear that way. Honestly, you don’t even need to travel to create yourself since other methods exist. However, traveling provides the ingredients to create a vastly more interesting person.

In the moment, I didn’t realize what was happening to me abroad. There were so many stimuli that it became impossible to parse through each memory and make sense of the experience as a whole. I wasn’t able to do that until I was back in the U.S., had time to decompress and then began to piece together what I did with myself and who I created in the process.

I am a different person than when I left. I became more responsible because I had to live a life where budgeting and scheduling were priorities when moving from city to city – budgeting is also how I lost 10 pounds, chose the banana over the slice of pizza, or a liter of beer over a meal – that an extra couple Euros, Bulgarian Lev, Turkish Lira, Polish Zloty, Hungarian Forints, English Pounds or Czech Korunas might be useful later. My mind’s focus did become broad. The most unfortunate trait I notice in people at Norwich now that I am back is their insularity. Life is here, between these mountains, and a significant amount of conversation tends towards the problems and drama here, between these mountains, on this small rural campus.

Being broad-minded means expanding what you think and converse about outside the bounds of your temporal life. It allows you to look beyond your current situation and know there’s more than just Norwich. Studying abroad provides that and it’s made my time on campus much happier.

I hope you will consider stepping outside the bounds of what you know and into a world of uncertainty. Life is more varied, colorful, and at times risky – but it’s through risk that we create remarkable, interesting people.

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