Czech Republic: Simplicity

This is the seventh installment in a series of essays by globe-trotter Kevin Nguyen, who is currently studying at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Although Prague is generally considered a cheap vacation destination, Kevin finds he needs to take a page from Thoreau to keep his checking account happy.

I try to work out my personal budget on paper during economics class. It’s more productive than paying attention, since the most intellectual stimulation comes from the five minutes we spend deciphering what our professor means by the “Big Jump.” (We finally discover that “Big Jump” is a cute mistranslation of the Great Leap Forward.)

Though it was introduced in the European Union in 2004, it won’t be until at least 2012 that the Czech Republic adopts the euro. This makes Prague an attractive location to study abroad for the penniless college student, but I’m finding that while the cost of living is relatively low, it’s not quite low enough, especially with the U.S. dollar at an all-time low. My personal finances, scrawled where I should be taking notes, is a heap of unfavorable math.

I’m doodling “fuck the exchange rate” in the margins of my notebook.

My Czech literature class isn’t much better. The only thing that keeps me going for those three hours is the thought of goulash, my reward for enduring the country’s driest professor. He’s clearly an intelligent person, but hearing him read off a Powerpoint presentation all afternoon is excruciatingly tedious. I pass the time by reading a book or filling out Sudoku puzzles I’ve printed from the internet. Sometimes I’ll doodle pictures of goulash.

Czech cuisine is usually very simple, and though goulash isn’t an exclusively Czech dish (it was invented in Hungary), you can find it at just about every restaurant. It’s basically a beef stew served with a batch of bread dumplings. Occasionally they’ll spice it up by throwing slices of onion in there. Goulash may not sound all that complicated, but the dish’s strength is in its simplicity. I’ve had goulash at a number of restaurants, and it has consistently proven to be an excellent yet inexpensive meal.

There are a number of other staple dishes, but they rarely veer far from meat served with some form of dumpling.

As with any metropolis, Prague has a good variety of cuisine. It’s just that some of that variety isn’t very good. If you get too far away from places that serve Czech cuisine or basic Italian, things get ugly quickly.

There are a few expenses that have not hurt my budget as much as I had expected.

In Europe, buying a cell phone is cheap and easy. Simply purchase any model of phone and pick a SIM card from your preferred provider, no two-year contracts or billing required. Rather than being given a certain number of minutes per month, you just pay by the call. When you need more minutes, just buy a recharge card. To top it off, all incoming calls are free.

The public transportation system–including a network of subways, trams, and buses–works on the honor system, making it easy to get a free ride. Unfortunately, if you run into one of the randomly placed ticket checkers, you’ll be forced to pay a fine upwards of 500 Kc ($25). The city may get cheated out of a lot of fares, but the absence of turnstiles for tokens and cards makes the system simple and efficient.

On the other hand, there are quite a few things that are unreasonably expensive. These are, of course, mostly businesses that pander to study abroad students. A trip to the laundromat is an exorbitant expenditure, costing 200 Kc ($10) for use of a washer and dryer. I’ve never had to choose between clean underwear and spending money before.

There’s an abundance of friendly English bookstores, but prices have been marked up. The amount of free reading time I have (also known as class) urges me to frequent the Anagram Bookshop often, but 400 Kc ($20) for a paperback is disagrees with my wallet.

The kitchen area of my dorm room is equipped only with a hot plate, which limits the kind of food you can prepare. I’ve found that, as with goulash, keeping it simple yields the best results. I’m not much of a cook, so my dinner usually consists of pasta and stir-fried vegetables.

Grocery shopping is pretty straightforward and astonishingly cheap. There’s an Albert Supermarket conveniently located at the Mustek metro stop, and I prefer it to Tesco, a British-owned Wal-Mart knock-off. Aside from carrying higher quality produce, Albert is a more basic, smaller establishment, making it easy to get in and out without hassle. It’s hard to read my shopping list with “fuck the exchange rate” and doodles of goulash across the page.

When I return to the dorm, I immediately set a pot of water on the hot plate. (It takes a very long time to get water boiling.) A couple friends ask me if I want to go out for dinner. I tell them I’d rather stay in and just prepare myself some pasta and vegetables.

I’m struggling to stay afloat financially, but as a result, I’m living simply. Honestly, I like it. It’s a fitting lifestyle, and one that feels authentically Czech.

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.