I’ve always felt like bookshelves say something about their owners. The various English teachers for whom I’ve babysat always had bookshelves filled with classics; friends who are “closeted history buffs” almost always have a shelf or two devoted to historical fiction and historical non-fiction; many of my scienc-y friends have (no longer) surprising quantities of fantasy on their shelves.
I distinctly remember visiting a family friend about a week after they’d moved. Very little was unpacked – a few boxes of clothes, about half the kitchen, a box labeled “bathroom” half empty in the hall. The bookshelves were empty save three books – one she was clearly reading, one that was obviously his, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Now it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure that one out, but they were nonetheless surprised when they told me a few months later and I said “I know.” Even an almost-empty bookshelf says something about its owner.
But I’ve felt for the past few years that my bookshelf didn’t say much about me. I fly across the country and essentially displace myself and my life four or more times every year, and I have for the last four years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my choice to live on the East coast, but it does make having a personal library a bit more difficult. All through college, I’ve felt like my bookshelf was nothing more than evidence of that semester’s (or that year’s) courses. More than half of my shelf was usually textbook, or books required for classes. Sure, there have always been a few books that were there for fun, but they never meant much – they were there for convenience, or because I happened to be reading one the last time I got on a plane.
Today, my book collection is, naturally, limited since I’ll be in this location for exactly six weeks and one day. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t help but think it does say something about me.
I’ve got two nuclear textbooks. (One chemistry, one physics) I’ve got a lab notebook and a chart of the nuclides handbook and the June edition of National Geographic. I’ve got a math book (Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem) and two policy books – Arguments that Count (about missile defense systems) and The Politics of Nuclear Energy (I think you can figure that one out…) To round it out, there are two books for fun – the beautiful and thought-invoking Invisible Cities and the somewhat horrifying House of Leaves.
I glanced at my bookshelf this morning, looking for my notebook, and something hit me. It was as if I was looking at someone else’s bookshelf. I read the person to whom it belonged as easily as I read the pregnant-but-not-sharing-yet-couple’s bookshelf years ago. This person was obviously passionate about nuclear science and nuclear energy, with a bit of time – but maybe not as much as they’d like – to read something else as well.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I realized who I am. Until this morning, I thought of nuclear energy as maybe just another phase. Like all my other passions, I’ve spent the last six months or so expecting to grow out of it. But the reality is that the more I learn and the more I study, the more questions I have and the more desperately I want their answers. The more I hear about where the reality of nuclear energy is, the more I want to fix the problems, and the more I worry that I’m a naive twenty-two year old with impractical hopes, the more I realize that my hopes aren’t that far off from the experts’.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I think I’ve found my future.
I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors last night, who described some of her academic colleagues in a half-joking manner as “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y’.” The implication here, of course, is that some academics take a position early on in their careers and stick to it throughout. Interestingly, this is a conclusion I came to early in my Political Science education; while studying for my very first test, I realized that I didn’t actually need to know what a specific author said on each issue – if I knew how he approached any issue, I could work out for myself his probable stance on whatever issue(s) came up during the test. (This has served me well, both in grades and in sleep…) For some academics, the position they take is a new and unique one that eventually gets accepted by the wider community, and they become the famous academics we read in our introductory courses. The vast majority, however, don’t. They pick tangential positions that are neither new enough or bold enough to be interesting, which means they are both safe from significant push back and unlikely to be ground-breaking.
Of course, the politically cynical among us see the “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y'” idea as particularly prominent in political discourse. The particularly interesting thing about this is that academics and the most highly educated members of society not only engage in the same cognitive patterns that cause them to ignore countervailing information or narratives, but they actually engage in these patterns to a greater extent than the average American; highly educated people (like those that both teach the next generation and rule over it) are actually more likely to actively avoid information they don’t like – and thus remain ignorant of opposing arguments – than the public.
I asked my professor, “If you are ‘X,’ what is your ‘Y’?” She said she doesn’t have one, that she splits her time among many subjects and that she is actively seeking counter-narratives. In spite of the obvious self-serving nature of this comment, (She literally said “I’m the exception that proves the rule,” and though she said it with a smile, she wasn’t joking.) I’m inclined to believe her. Her research is fundamentally around the reality that factual information is biased, that history is just that – a story, and that literally every piece of information we collect in our lives is biased, either in the way it is presented or in the way it is interpreted. Considering that, I think it is likely she questions everything she reads, hears, and believes. Probably every day, all day.
I want to do that. I want to be the exception that proves the rule. I want to constantly question the information given to me, and I want to do that in an intelligent and non-threatening manner. If I go into academia, I don’t want to have a “Y.” If I work for the government, or even in the private sector, I want to be the person who is constantly questioning assumptions and constantly pushing back, because even if that means I don’t fall nicely into a undergrad’s summary box, it means I’m likely to be making intelligent, accurate, and well-informed decisions.
I just read an interesting article about the use of “dumbphones” in my generation. A generation so intent on advanced technology and constantly being connected and the internet and … oh my god. Sometimes, I get tired of it.
I made the decision, seven months ago when I came to Prague, to leave my iPhone at home. Part of my decision was that I assumed my parents would give it to my brother (it is technically their phone, after all…) Part of my decision was because my phone wasn’t unlocked, didn’t have an externally accessible SIM card, and I’m not about to pay the roaming fees. Part of my decision, if I’m being honest, was because I wanted to know if I could survive without a smartphone.
I’m always that person that looks stuff up. I LOVE googling stuff. Literally any time a conversation back in the States included a question, I’d whip out my phone and look it up. I like facts, I like statistics, I like having all the information to influence my opinions and conversations. Even here, when I’m on or near my computer, I google stuff. Just today, in the ten minutes before my class started, I looked up the budget of Radio Free Europe (approx. 90 million USD), Radio Free Asia, the history of NPR’s finances (in the 70’s, it was entirely government funded, by the 80’s it was being weaned off, today it is fully funded by local stations and their listeners), and the horrendous acronyms we use in our daily life (think the USA PATRIOT act…). But when I’m out and about in the city, I can’t look stuff up.
I can’t search the history of a particular church I’m walking by or the hours of my favorite cafe. In a lot of ways, I miss that. I miss being able to pull out my phone and search for a fact, or look up directions, or double check that my friends aren’t running late.
But in just as many ways, I am glad that I’ve done it. Since I don’t have my phone to save me when I’m lost, I wander. I find new spots in the city that I never would have found if I hadn’t been completely turned around. The first month or so of the year, I carried my map around with me. If I got lost, I whipped it out, found a street name, figured out where I was, where I was going, and how to get there. And then, once I felt confident enough in my ability to understand directions in Czech (or at least, the first one!), I started leaving the map at home and asking for directions if I needed them. I still carried my tram map around for months, but now I don’t even need that. Since I don’t have my phone to tell me where I need to go, I figure it out for myself. I use the old-fashioned paper map, or the even more old-fashioned technique of talking to people. Unlike my friends, I can tell you which trams stop in Wenceslas Square, how to walk from JZP to Namesti Miru to IP Pavlova, and how to walk from point A to point B without staring at a little electronic screen.
If I’m running late, I feel bad and I apologize profusely when I arrive. If I am on time and my friend is late, I spend my time people watching. Or reading. (I’ve taken to bringing a book with me wherever I go, and I’ve read a lot of books this semester.) Or just staring into space. Or listening to people’s conversations and practicing my Czech. When I’m running late, I can’t get out of the consequences by sending a quick facebook message on my way and calling it an excuse. (I also can’t send a text message, since most of my friends are so dependent on their wi-fi messaging services – facebook, viber, whatever-it-is – that they don’t have phone credit and can’t read a text message even if I was to send it.) When someone else is running late, somehow the time passes faster when I’ve got nothing to do. I occupy myself with the world around me as I wait for them, and it seems like less than the five or ten minutes. If I was scrolling through my facebook wall for five to ten minutes, I would be so bored and so over it and that short amount of time would seem honestly insurmountable.
If there is something I really want to know – like, really want to know – I write it down to look it up later. Or I ask a teacher, a friend, a stranger. I go into that bookstore across the street and see if they have a book about it. Or I duck into the library and check it out (I know a lot of libraries in this city by now.)
I love the fact that there is nothing to distract me when I’m at dinner with my friends. Even if there is wifi in the restaurant, I don’t have a device to pull out of my pocket. I don’t have a device to use as a barrier between me and the people around me. I went to dinner a few weeks ago with four other people. Within five minutes of sitting down at the table, they all had their phones out, they were all on facebook or texting or merely searching instragram. I brought it up. I asked them about it, about why they were on their phones with some friends when they’re also sitting at the table with different friends. One said, “I don’t want to stop interacting with my friends, just because I’m not with them.” I bit my tongue, and didn’t make the retort I wanted to make: that he was choosing virtual interaction with friends kilometers away, instead of real interaction with friends sitting by his side.
I’ve enjoyed my seven months without my smartphone, but I also miss it. I miss being able to look up the quickest of the possible routes I know – and knowing how long it will actually take. I miss the fact that I can’t access my email on the go – not because I want to instantaneously respond to my emails, but because I often want to reference an email and I can’t get to it. It makes me sad that I’m missing out on the pervasive snapchat culture in the students in Prague.
A few times, I’ve wondered if I even want my smartphone back when I get back to the States. As much as I love looking stuff up, I could survive without that. But I can’t survive without being able to access my friends on the go and, more importantly, for my friends to access me. Yeah, okay. They could just call me. But sometimes emails or facebook messages are really the better, more effective, and more fun way to contact each other. And I can’t escape the reality of being a Silicon Valley girl. People joke that San Francisco natives have the most apps on their phones, and that might be true. My iPhone has apps for transportation, restaurants, random games I’ve been asked to beta test, and pretty much everything under the sun.
So, once I’m home, I’ll have my trusty iPhone again, with the multitude of apps I learned to love and miss dearly. But it will be a bit less pervasive in my daily life. I think my phone is going to live in my bag, not in my pocket. I’ll still use google to look up the answer to whatever question might be burning a hole in my head, but when I’m at dinner, it will definitely not be in my hand, or even on the table.
Today’s the day.
The day, that is, that I’d be arriving if I was only here for the Spring Semester. The day that the friends I will be making over the next four months are arriving in this wonderful city I’m currently calling home.
But today’s also the day that I wandered around (once again) and found another new spot.
On my way from my internship at Amnesty International to the library, where I am supposed to be studying for my math final on Wednesday, I decided to walk instead of taking the tram two stops. And, instead of walking down the main streets, I turned right onto a side street. And then into one of the many passages filled with cafes and stores that can be found all over old Prague. And then, when that passage pretty much dead-ended, I followed the people in front of me into a beautiful, snow-covered park consisting of benches and trees and a maze of waist-high bushes. Which I’ve never seen before, but cannot wait to see in the spring. And then I aimlessly wandered through alleyway after alleyway, passing dozens of intriguing-looking cafes on my way to my destination.
It both amazes and excites me that I can still explore and discover this city just as much as I could when I first showed up here five months ago. It doesn’t surprise me, though, because I’ve known that I’ll be finding as many new and amazing spots with my new and amazing friends this semester as I did last semester.
I just went back and re-read the very first post I wrote after I arrived in Prague, where I learned my colors in Czech, courtesy of Emma. I wrote that post because it was the only thing I could really process. I was in a completely new country, where everyone speaks a completely new language, and was about to try to conquer a completely new way of life.
Now, I could write another anecdote. Another story, about me and Emma on that same bed. I could write about how I cuddled with her and read her a book. About how she still laughs at me when I pronounce something wrong, but how I can make her laugh when I read her the fairytales (pohádky) that she and her brother love so much.
I could write another anecdote, but I’m not going to. Because the next four months will be so full of them. Full of colors with Emma and fairytales with Jachym, full of adventures and explorations all over Prague, the Czech Republic, and Europe in general. And hopefully, full of more pictures…sorry!
The Onion once ran this great article about “studying” abroad. I personally don’t adhere to that impression of studying abroad, but let’s face it: a lot of people see their study abroad semester as a semester long vacation financed by their parents. For those people, as well as people who see studying abroad as taking classes in a new environment so that they can experience a completely different culture while still moving their education forward, the classes you enroll in are really important. A good schedule makes for a good semester; a couple of bad classes can make your semester really suck. So I asked around, and here is a collection of the best and worst classes at CIEE:
If they aren’t full already…
Anything having to do with Czech culture or Czech identity, specifically Contemporary Czech Culture and Alternative Czech Culture as well as Czech Concepts of National Identity and Collective Identity in a Totalitarian Regime. These both come highly recommended. They aren’t a lot of work, but are very interesting and can be easily related to the real world and the city you’re living in. Also, in Alternative Czech Culture, you get to write poetry as the final. How sweet is that?
Karel Čapek class at CU. Apparently this is the best lit class to take if you want to take a lit class, though I’ve also heard good things about the Vaclav Havel and the Franz Kafka classes. It seems like any lit class is going to be a good lit class, as long as you’re willing to do the readings. (Like, actually, do the readings. No faking that in a lit class, people.)
Nation, Power, and Propaganda. If three hour classes are your thing, this is the class for you. But in all seriousness, this is a class that deals with different topics in the Czech media each week, and is apparently particularly fascinating. Be warned, though, this class also ended up on my list of worst classes, so it seems like it is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. (Apparently the teacher is really liberal, and he lets you know…)
Last but not least, a very strange but strangely wonderful class. Literally everyone I know in Pepi Lustig’s Holocaust through the Film and Literature of Arnost Lustig class loved it. They didn’t love the crazy number of essays that came with it, or the fact that they had class three consecutive weekends, but they all said it was absolutely and undeniably worth it.
Sometimes I like reading a book about a city before I go there. Sometimes I like reading it while I’m there. And sometimes I like reading about a city after I’ve left. I know some people who are really into movies, especially since Prague’s FAMU brings a lot of film students to the city. So here are some suggestions of movies to watch and books to read. You can watch/read them before you come, after you leave, or so you can continue to live vicariously.
We’ve all heard of at least one famous Czech author: Franz Kafka. If you haven’t, go to the library, check out Metamorphosis, and we’ll see you in a few months. But there are a lot of Czech authors definitely worth reading beyond Kafka, like Havel, for example. And there are some books about Prague worth reading even though their authors aren’t quintessentially “Czech.” Here are some books I’d recommend for your trip:
Prague Winter – Madeline Albright. A beautiful memoir that blends history and her story seamlessly. Note that it does have a significant pro-Czech/pro-US/anti-Germany slant.
I Served the King of England – Bohumil Hrabal. Narrated by a teenage boy as he comes of age while serving as a waiter and maître’d in various restaurants around the Czech lands, this book both entranced me and left me hanging. I could easily say that I didn’t like it, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down, and at the end of the book, I kept trying to turn to the next – nonexistent – page.
Too Loud a Solitude – Bohumil Hrabal. About censorship in the Czech Republic. I haven’t read it myself, but apparently it is very good, and now it is on my list too!
Burning Bush. A lot of students recommended this. I have no idea what it is about or when it was made or by whom or really anything about it. But multiple people in different types of classes and from different schools and majors all recommended it, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you should watch it.
Pelíšky. A movie shown every holiday season, I’ve yet to see it, but I sure I will see it very shortly. It seems to be a bit like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving in that everyone has heard of it, seen it, and can quote half of it.
Samotáři. This is described by one of the Czech buddies as “a cult film extremely popular amongst the generation of people who are now in their 20s or early 30s.” I don’t think I could say that any better.
There are few things in life better than a good meal. Warm soup on a cold day, tasty ice cream when the sun is hot. Understandably, therefore, every culture has a few things it is famous for, and the Czechs are no different. The most traditional Czech meals are meat and dumplings (knedliky), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options. Some people have said that Czech food is pretty bland – which is probably true, especially if you’re used to spicy spices on your meat.
Here follows food suggestions – some are things everyone should try, and some are suggestions for only the most adventurous:
A staple of Czech street food, trdelnik is basically heaven wrapped around a metal rod, baked, and dipped in cinnamon sugar. As long as you don’t have a gluten allergy, they’re totally worth the 50 crowns. I personally like the traditional flavor – plain and simple cinnamon – the best, but there are some people who are partial to the nut coatings or the nutella. Tredlnik stands can be found pretty much anywhere tourists frequent – permanent stores exist on Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, and on both sides of the Charles Bridge, among other places. The key to the best trdelnik, though, is that is must be fresh! Find a spot that is selling them as fast as they can make them – you’re sure to get a fresh one that is crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside and downright wonderful all the way through.
Svářak & Horká Čokoláda
In English, these are mulled wine and hot chocolate, but the Czechs somehow do these better than any American I’ve ever met. I discovered that a lot of American college student have never even had mulled wine. If that’s the case, then get your butt to any of these stalls ASAP (again, they’re easily found where the tourists frequent.) Even if you’ve had mulled wine, or you think your grandma has the best mulled wine recipe ever, check the Czech version out. It is pretty spectacular.
The Czech hot chocolate is literally unlike any hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life. Where our hot chocolate is heated milk (sometimes water) with chocolate in it, Czech hot chocolate is literally. hot. chocolate. As in melted chocolaty goodness. The best cup of hot chocolate can be found at Café Louvre.
And, if you’re liking the hot Czech drinks, try a cup of medovina, or hot honey mead/honey wine (depends on who you’re asking). I think it is probably something not unlike the butterbeer of another universe.
The late-night classic: fried cheese. Definitely likely to clog up your arteries, but definitely worth it. I mean, if you don’t live life, is life worth living? Vegetarians be warned – you’ll probably be eating a lot of this, since vegetarian offerings at restaurants can often be pretty limited.
Not just good for vegetarians and vegans – but the food is actually good and you pay by the weight. There’s a Loving Hut just around the corner from the study center, so it makes for a great budget (and quick!) lunch.
It sounds weird, but this Czech classic is absolutely fantastic. If a restaurant is offering it, you can be pretty sure that they know how to do it right, and its worth ordering at least once. I’ve had it multiple times over the last few months, and it has yet to disappoint.
The Czech version of potato salad is nothing like American potato salad. They don’t slice their potatoes, or quarter them, or do whatever your family does when making potato salad. Nope. Czech potato salad requires diced potatoes mixed with diced apples, pickles, onions, carrots, and pretty much anything else you want. Add some mayonnaise to hold it all together and you’ve got possibly the best version of potato salad ever invented. But don’t ask me, I’m biased.
The key to enjoying Czech food is to keep trying it. The best suggestion I heard was “try a lot of things. Even if you don’t know what it is, try it. Don’t give up – keep trying.” I’ve found that some of the best meals I’ve had are pretty bizarre – wild boar goulaš or rabbit’s meat in rice, anyone? That said, if you’re a vegetarian, be really careful. I’ve had friends that ordered a salad that came with prosciutto on it even though the waiter said it was “only vegetables.”