My decision to study abroad in Prague during the fall semester of my junior year of college remains one of the most important and life-changing choices I’ve ever made. I shared an apartment with three amazing roommates in the Zizkov neighborhood of Prague.
Zizkov is only a handful of metro stops outside the main city center, lined with intricately-decorated building facades, with some of the best restaurants and bars in the city. Living in that area of Prague gave us a close connection with the Czech population, because we were among few Americans living there, and could glimpse into the daily life of the average Czech. Our apartment was around the corner from the Prague TV tower, the highest vantage point for jaw-dropping Facebook cover photos.
Before the snow began to fall in the winter, and before the sun started to retire in the early afternoon, I would run from my apartment to Prague’s largest cemetery, Olšanské hÅ™bitovy. It only took a 30-minute run to retrace Prague’s deeply complicated history, from the old empires of Eastern Europe to the occupation of both Nazi and Soviet regimes. The presence of a complex and intriguing past was a feeling one could never escape, nor want to, when living and studying abroad in Prague.
The 65,000-grave cemetery had an enormous tangle of small footpaths between each row of ancient tombstones and mausoleums. There were endless possibilities of routes I could take through Prague’s hundreds of years of history (illustrated by the engravings on the stones: some well-kept, others decayed to nothing). The only other figures in the cemetery were visitors tidying up the plots of loved ones, and the 20-foot-tall angel statues intertwined with the old trees that loomed over the paths.
My school was located across the Charles Bridge from Prague’s old town, and I could relive the uniquely wonderful experience of crossing the bridge anytime I wanted. On the eastern side of the river, the bridge opened into the spectacular cluster of narrow alleys and lively shops built under the windows of apartments that I will always dream of owning. The sound of footsteps and wheels on cobblestone streets were always in tune with the orchestra of amazement playing in my head when I crossed the bridge.
The old town is a spectacular part of the city. I am sure there is a famous Czech poet somewhere who can accurately describe the light that appears to radiate off the buildings in the old town, whether during the day or at night, and the surrounding atmosphere of Prague that suggests the possibility that magic is real. On the western banks of the river, the bridge not only transported me to class, but provided an astounding gateway to the castle district. There, you could easily spend days exploring the odd art speckled around the cobbled lanes, or gazing out at Prague’s skyline from a seat under the castle walls. This is simultaneously the home of the John Lennon Wall, of several impressive cathedrals, and of my all-time favorite doner kebab shop in Europe.
Besides thoroughly enjoying the stunning scenery that surrounded me wherever I went in Prague, I found a deeper connection to learning that had been missing from my previous scholastic career. I took three political science classes while in Prague: a South Asian Politics class taught by an extremely knowledgeable Indian professor; a Sub-Saharan African Politics class taught by a South African diplomat who loved to teach in his spare time; and an Eastern European Politics class taught by a well-spoken Czech teacher who described his personal story of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. The combination of interesting subjects and enthusiastic teachers, all wrapped inside an awe-inspiring and entertaining city, ignited a spark inside me.
While I was known to skip a class or two in the States, I was never late in Prague, and I always tackled any assignment with great anticipation and interest. The semester in Prague was my first straight-A semester in college, and every proceeding semester was far better than my first two years on campus. The boost of confidence and passion for learning that Prague gave me continues to this day.
Now that I have graduated, I still feel the passion to learn something new about the world, and obviously if it is even remotely connected to Czech history, the craving increases tenfold. I miss my time there, and am always eager to return and relive those days, but I know that studying abroad in Prague is an experience that can never be replicated. One of the greatest feelings was simply walking through the streets of Prague with a backpack and an objective. Not only could I stay for a long period of time in one place, but I could study and learn there.
I really felt like I belonged in Prague, and even found myself annoyed at the throngs of tourists blocking my way to class on the Charles Bridge. Prague was my first experience living outside the United States, and it has played the most significant role in my decision to travel, work, and live elsewhere in the world.
I have always known I wanted to travel, but studying abroad in Prague confirmed that I can feel comfortable sinking deep into a place and a culture, and truly get a feel for life in another land. I know now what an important period of my life college was, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to mix in the experience of studying in Prague. That stage of my life was cradled and guided by my experiences in Prague, and I could never dream of a better use of my time. Each time I look through old photos of Prague, or when an old buddy from study abroad sends me a message, I can’t help but crave that feeling of pure joy and wonder that came with each step through Prague.