The first meal I ate in Prague was a beetroot and feta salad with a dry martini. I ordered it without cheese, not oblivious to the waiter’s comical, but repulsed expression.
He smacked down a plate of shredded red, then a flared glass filled with sloshing silver topped with a sad, buoyant olive. I relished the strange meal — it tasted like independence.
After all, I was studying abroad in the medieval city and it was my first trip out of the States, so everything had a tint of whimsy to it.
Over the previous three years, I’d attended college in a harsh city neighborhood. The dull roar of the streets and the jarring pops of backfiring cars had encouraged me to put up my guard — my eyes would glass over protectively, my mind drifting a thousand miles away.
But Prague was different. Enthralled by my escape and drunk on optimism, I opened myself readily to the city, and — as if I had tripped, fallen, and earned a facefull of cobblestone, the city rushed in at me.
Everything seemed rosy.
Take my apartment building. Its exterior was a Pepto-Bismol pink color, but its innards were cavernous and cold — the halls were unheated and the creaky elevator was located in an outdoor shaft. The stairwells were often littered with gnawed chicken bones from KFC — remnants of the other study abroad students’ nights out. Whenever adults came to visit, their eyes expressed alarm, but I thought it was perfect.
We were required to take a Czech language class and, though I knew I’d never master the unfamiliar sounds and patterns in the span of a few months, I enjoyed it. The words were odd and slippery in my mouth — like marbles with unexpected sharp edges. I had to constantly remind myself to roll the R’s, that the J’s actually sounded like Y’s.
The only phrases I knew included: dobrý den (good day), nascladano (mercifully shortened to nascla — cheers), dekuji (thank you), and “příští zastávka, Zborovska,” the announcement of the tram stop outside my apartment, trilled cheerfully in a robotic voice. My classmates and I would mimic this line in particular, and it later echoed through my dreams. I’d jolt forward as if to alight, but would find myself sitting up awake and confused in my bed in New York City instead.
I’d never particularly loved elements like soot before coming to Prague, but while there, I was enchanted by how it had embedded itself in the pastel facades, giving the city a welcome layer of grit, an underbelly, a history. This appreciation for the everyday — the mundane, even — only grew.
Life in New York had conditioned me to expect immediacy. In Prague, I couldn’t. I could get all that I needed, but not necessarily all that I wanted. One night I dreamt of hot, doughy New York bagels and woke up with my mouth watering. I spent that sleepy Sunday in bed, scrolling through pictures of the round mounds on Google, anticipating my homecoming feast.
I grew to accept day-to-day trades: bagels for Czech rolls, my agitated New York quick-step for a leisurely stroll, scrappy street pigeons for the Vltava’s imperious swans, a routine of conditioned pessimism for one of daily wonder.
In the end, I returned home from my semester abroad with nothing more than a suitcase full of clothes that smelled like Prague’s omnipresent cigarette smoke and a single vintage postcard to mark my time in the city.
While this thin piece of cardstock may seem an insignificant memento, it’s an ever-present reminder for myself — to keep an eye out for the beauty that lies in the ordinary.