Czech Republic: Stranger in a Strange Land

This is the first in a series of essays by globe-trotter Kevin Nguyen, who is currently studying at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Traveling through London and Munich before reaching Prague, Kevin finds that feeling like a foreigner in Europe is all part of the study abroad experience.

“We did everything wrong,” Joe says.

Joe and I are searching for a convenience store supposedly located near our hostel in Munich, Germany.

Again, with a grin on his face, he says, “We did everything wrong.”

We were given a list of safety tips by our study abroad program. It’s actually a list of don’ts, with gems like “do not advertise the fact you are American by, for example, wearing your U.S. college sweatshirt/baseball cap” and “avoid getting into ideological discussions with regards to the current international climate.”

When he says “everything,” Joe is referring to a conversation he had with a German at a beer hall the night before.

“How do you feel about Adolf Hitler?”

The German, after taking a moment to choose his words carefully, could only explain that “it was a very bad thing.”

I tell Joe that he really couldn’t have said anything worse. Joe, earnest Bostonian that he is, simply agrees and laughs it off.

“What can I say? I was drunk, and the beer was good.”

This is a fair statement.

I stick out like a sore thumb. My manner of dress blends in well with the folks on the streets of London, but the flip-flops are a dead giveaway. At a supermarket by our Holiday Inn, the cashier says she likes my American accent. She goes on to imitate it and laughs vigorously with self-amusement.

Later that night, my roommate Nathan wakes up in a hospital with an IV in his arm. Apparently he was drunk enough to get picked up by the London police. It’s our first night in the city.

The next day, we take a bus tour through London and catch a glimpse of the city’s major attractions: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, et cetera. All of the locations are impressive, particularly St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the students in the program mark the occasion by snapping a thousand photos with their digital cameras from inside the bus.

Our tour guide Stuart constantly relates the city to modern American movies. He’s under the impression that, as Americans, we wouldn’t find the Eye–London’s towering ferris wheel perched over the River Thames–interesting without knowing that it was featured in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Stuart makes a dozen film references before the tour is over.

“Oh weird, this car runs on diesel.”

A girl in our program points to a Volkswagen with the word ‘diesel’ printed on the side. I try explaining that we have diesel-fueled automobiles in the States.

“I don’t believe you.”

Arriving in Munich after an hour-and-a-half delay on a two-hour flight, we find ourselves unbearably hungry. (The meal served on our British Airways flight was an unappetizing tomato and bacon sandwich with a thumb-sized packet of milk on the side; it looked as disconcerting as it sounds.) The closest place to eat is a Subway less than a block from the hostel. We’re too hungry to be picky, and the lady behind the counter is greatly amused when I teach her the English word for pickles.

Sitting outside, we wolf down our sandwiches. Another study abroad student passes us on their way back to the hostel and remarks, “You guys came all the way to Munich to have Subway?” It’s an irritating statement, but perhaps a true one.

“What an asshole,” Frank says. “The nice thing about Subway, both in the States and abroad, is that you always know what you’re getting.”

This is a truer statement.

I’m not sure why people abhor even eating a sandwich from an American franchise in a foreign country. Many travelers think there’s some authentic experience to be had abroad. Not to say that one shouldn’t explore the country’s unique culture, but who really defines this “authentic” foreign experience? Frommer’s? Lonely Planet?

The first night in Prague, Czech Republic, our home until December, the diesel girl observes the city’s above-ground tram system.

“It’s totally neat that the subway here drives on the street alongside cars.”

Actually, Prague features an underground metro. Many cities in the U.S. have above-ground trams as well. I keep quiet though.

Our walking tour of Prague takes us from the outskirts of our dormitory to the downtown of the city. The 600-year-old architecture and cobblestone walkways are particularly majestic at dusk.

My guidebook recommends the Agharta Jazz Club for its atmosphere and quality of performers. At night, though, everything looks the same in Prague. We’re easily disoriented and get lost trying to navigate the streets of New Town.

We run into a few students from our program, who lead us to another club they passed earlier. The Ungelt Jazz and Blues Club is a dimly-lit cavern, two stairways underground. The Pilsner is cheap and the band–a Czech blues trio with an American singer–keeps us arguing about who’s the most talented.

Because of our carelessness, we ended up at a place that’s not in the guidebook. During the drummer’s John Bonham-like solo (he’s the best), I realize that getting lost is, perhaps, part of the traveling experience.

Joe was mistaken. I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong at all.

Read more from Czech Republic.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.