Mam ráda cestovat! (Pt. 1: Brno a Paris)

One of the biggest study abroad brochure bullet points is the opportunity to take trips all around the countries surrounding your foreign university. I’ve quickly fallen in love with this – I’d only left the U.S. once before, so traveling around Europe isn’t just great food and sightseeing, there’s a real feeling of adventure in not knowing what’s around the next corner, or what you’ll eat today. This is especially excitnig for me, because I live in the middle of scenic American nothing. Maybe those of you from the Northeast or California have some sweet travel options one bus ride from your home, but South Carolina is limited. We got great barbecue, nice hiking trails, and at least 200 miles between you and anything much different. If you want a wildly different adventure every weekend, try another continent. This week I’ll be telling the story of my first two wildly different journeys: the cities of Brno and Paris.

WELCOME TO BRNO

My first voyage not organized by my school was to the Czech Republic’s only other really metropolitan city, Brno. Industrial, gritty, and spooky: the heart of urban darkness. I went because I wanted to take photos in a place that I’d never seen pictures of before. At first, things looked bleak: I walked down street after street of huge buildings, and didn’t see any photogenic town squares or pretty parks. Just post-socialist skyscrapers and crowds of Czechs with no time or interest in my tourist nonsense. But that turned out to be a catalyzing, super cool atmosphere! Prague is great to live in, but can feel too tourist-friendly at times. When locations are designed to be pretty, the pictures all look the same. When places are exotic and challenging, you have a more individualized experience. Here are my Brno photos, which are my new personal favorites. And now, the pretty city.

I don’t really need to tell you the broad strokes about Paris. Many of you have already been here, maybe you’re considering studying abroad here. I second that emotion, because my 36 hours in this city were some of the most frantic fun I’ve had in years! This time I had an outline of a plan, at least: see as much art as possible, and eat some crepes (check, and check). First, I spent the audacious sum of FIFTY EUROS on a two day museum pass, a figure representing most prices in that city (please consider selling some real estate or organs if you want to live here in the long term). I think it was a good investment, because I got to skip some massive lines and see three museums (main hall of the Louvre, the D’Orsay, and the Orangerie) absolutely packed to the gills with the best paintings and sculptures I’ve ever seen. It seems obvious, right? They’re famous, everybody sees the Mona Lisa when they go to Paris, everyone knows the best Western art is there. But like, really see it, if you care at all about pigment on canvas, even a tiny bit; this is like seeing your favorite band in concert versus CD. Case in point:

This is a JPEG of my favorite painting.

Seeing The Raft of the Medusa towering in all its sixteen by twenty-three feet of glory, all the rich dark colors of swirling sea, stormy sky, and twisted flesh in perfect detail was, to put it lightly, super badass. I stared at it for about ten minutes without doing anything else. And no matter what your taste in art is, you will have a favorite piece of art in there if you want to, there’s thousands of them! If you’re anywhere near as big a nerd about art as I am, please check it out.

What really shocked me in Paris was my experience in the cathedrals. As I just made painfully clear, I love some quality art, and the Gothic cathedrals are masterworks. If I can be serious for a moment, I’m not a religious person and never have been. So I was surprised to feel something beyond what I felt in the Louvre when I went to Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame. I’ve respected people’s connection to God for some years now, but never really got it on a gut level. But being in these places was a really physical experience, something I couldn’t get from talking about ideas and reading books at Wofford. These places overwhelm you, and not like a skyscraper does. Their interiors just aren’t like any other place. It’s just all beauty; not like a museum, which is beautiful art in the middle of some ordinary hallways. Glass window art, ornate columns, curved vaulted ceilings, a towering space above you that makes you feel small, and a shrine in front of you that makes you feel like there’s really a divine architect of the space, and the whole world. I don’t owe anybody this lip service, and I still don’t personally believe in God. But now I believe in faith. It takes more than artistry or practicality to build places like those, I think it takes real dedication to something beyond any person, the feeling that the whole world can be unified by upholding ideals of peace and sacrifice. That’s what I think makes religion beautiful, and I’m even more glad to have experienced that than my favorite paintings. That’s what studying abroad should be – seeing something totally outside the bubble of your studies and hobbies that lets you empathize with more people. Feel free to Google it, but I haven’t included any images because they can’t do justice to the real feeling. Thanks for letting me experience that, Wofford.

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Jídlo a Peníze

I was nervous about living in this country because I’ve never had to pay for all 3 meals a day for months at a time. But the Czech Republic is far more familiar to the American palate, and wallet, than you might expect. First of all, the extremely valuable Euro never caught on as a currency here. The Czech economy still runs on the Czech Korun (Crown) which has an awkward, but favorable, exchange rate of 1=22. I round down to 20 so it’s easier to remember; meaning 100 Crowns is $5, 200 Crowns is $10, then divide whatever prices I see on signs according to those rules. (This math gives me prices 9% higher than they really are, which is a great budgeting lifehack for impulsive millenials like me.) For example, here’s what average groceries cost.
I got 2 bags of cereal, 1 liter of milk, 500g of spaghetti, 400g of pasta sauce, 4 wraps, and a cream danish thing. This all cost 231 crowns, or $10.50, and it came from a grocery store about 3 blocks from my apartment, an expensive part of the city. I think that’s pretty comparable to South Carolina, but if you’re willing to take a 15 minute tram ride to a superstore like Tesco (think EU Walmart) then you get prices maybe 10% lower. In my experience, food here is slightly cheaper than Columbia, SC.

Groceries are pretty dependable, but once in a while you might not be able to find something you want. I couldn’t find black beans today. Cilantro apparently does not exist here, as far as my roommates can tell. And when I run into a wall like that, or I’m just feeling lazy (read: most days) then I just go to a restaurant, because restaurants are notably cheaper here than the U.S. A good meal in a sit-down place is usually $9-$12 ($20 for a steak is the most expensive entrée I’ve seen). Takeout sandwich or pizza slice places are more like $3-$6. So eating out on the regular is doable on most budgets, and you can get any kind of food. Pizza, burgers, Asian, South American, and of course, Czech. Fasten your pacemakers for this one.

This is called smažak. The crispy thing on the right is cheese. Just cheese. A solid brick of deep fried cheese. That’s a main course. Now, I’m certainly cherrypicking the fattiest example here, but it’s to prove a point: Americans are not an isolated culture. I have to go all the way to a State Fair to see something like this back home – it’s right around the corner in Prague! And there is more nuanced traditional Czech cuisine: different cuts and seasoning combinations for beef and pork, hearty soups, and an amazingly diverse beer culture that any beer fan will weep for joy when experiencing. But yeah, the bottom line about traditional Czech food is that it’s not good on… any of your organs, really. I felt like I was stereotyping the food, until my Czech language professor said that heart attacks are one of the leading causes of death here. Beware the saturated fats, people.

There is food for everyone here, you just need to explore the city and find your favorites out of the hundreds of stores lining the streets. Plus, having no cafeteria to rely on every day is great for your cooking skills! I knew how to make about five things when I came here, and now I can make around ten. Even the vegetarians in my program have been doing well for themselves. And if my vegetarian friends back home learned anything at Wofford, it’s how to survive in any food culture.

 

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Přátelé

If you choose to study abroad, you will most likely find that your school semester won’t start when you arrive. There might be one to three weeks of something entirely unlike a real school schedule, packed with tours and orientations, and lots of encouraged socializing. I have pretty bad social skills, so I wanted to get into the creative work straight away, but ultimately I’m glad it works this way. This week marked the end of my intensive language course and general how-to-not-die-in-this-strange-land-with-different-electrical-outlets period, during which I learned that being an immigrant is actually pretty hard.

 

I, and even my hard-partying big city classmates, have been falling asleep by 9 PM some nights, and this exhaustion has lasted weeks. It’s hard to quantify why. Jet lag is an obvious factor, but that only lasts a few days. The best way I can describe it is a general weirdness confronting you all the time. Culture shock is a popular term used by Wofford Study abroad, but that seems like the wrong name to me. I wasn’t SHOCKED by Prague, but everything is slightly harder on my brain and body than what I’m used to in the U.S.

The bizarre socialist architecture to my left is just two blocks from my apartment, I’ve been using it as a landmark while I learn the layout of this whole city (It has giant baby statues on it, really https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%BDi%C5%BEkov_Television_Tower). Every time I need to do anything, it takes research, planning, and an expedition (walking, walking, and more walking. Wearing cute shoes is a rare privilege.) Let’s say I need a sweater. Where is a place with prices I can afford? Will they speak English? How do I say “I want a sweater” and “Could I get that in a bag” in Czech if they don’t? Which tram goes there? How long will the trip take? Should I bring a bottle of water just in case because THERE ARE NO WATER FOUNTAINS IN THIS ENTIRE COUNTRY AND RESTAURANTS CHARGE YOU TWO DOLLARS FOR WATER, A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT? These are challenges we all face, but thankfully, I have been blessed with an amazing group of people to face these challenges with.

FAMU International Film Studies is 17 people this semester, all living in the same building. If you can do a small program, I highly recommend it. That tight bonding is the same reason I like Wofford, I don’t feel lost in a sea of people. Every day, I have someone to talk about who shares something close to my perspective. The point of studying abroad is to appreciate other cultures, which is happening, but it’s also given me a new appreciation of my own. I’m pretty cynical about American identity and politics, but being in a new place makes me really appreciate my fellow Americhankas.

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Dóbry Den

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Hello. My name is Mae, and the place I’m located in is Prague. I came here to study filmmaking at a school called FAMU, which loosely translates to “University for Film and TV Arts”. And you’re either here because you’re either interested in coming to Prague or studying film. Or you might just be interested in me personally, that would be a pleasant surprise. I’ll be attempting to write posts catered to each of these interests, usually with pictures, because I like taking those. First, a few quick introductions to where I am and what I’m doing.

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Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, which I have determined to be the hipster capital of central Europe – nobody knows anything about it! I couldn’t have pointed it out on a map before I came here. Lots of people still think it’s called Czechoslovakia, which hasn’t been true for 25 years. And without using Wikipedia, name a famous Czech. If you did, welcome to the 1%.

After you’ve found Prague on the map, it’s a great place to live. Not too expensive, wonderfully convenient public transport system, and plenty of beautiful locations not marred by Eiffel-Tower-sized tourist mobs. A number of great historical period films, like Amadeus, were shot here, because the beautiful old buildings didn’t get bombed quite as badly as some other European cities during the second World War. Speaking of Amadeus, why did I come to this particular country? The Czechs have a proud history of filmmaking, and you may already know the work of the most famous Czech filmmaker – if not his nationality. Milos Forman became world famous for directing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestHair, and Amadeus. And he went to FAMU. The school that I’m going to right now. Coincidence? Maybe.

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The film program here for international students is fantastic! This is especially nice because I was short on other options. When I asked my trusted Wofford Study Abroad advisor, Kyle, what film studies programs Wofford had connections to, he told me we had exactly one. But that’s all we need!  FAMU strives to keep my artsy bohemian ego in check by constantly challenging me. My main project is to produce one original short film, and they demand that I put exhaustive effort into every part of it. And I that’s why I highly recommend this place to the film students among you – if you want to be complimented on your work, stay home. If you want to be driven to outdo yourself every day because no one in the school has time to waste on your mediocrity – come here. All my classmates and professors are talented filmmakers working their butts off to make something worth watching, and I’m all about that. This program just happens to also be in an awesome city, too. Based on these first two weeks, I highly recommend it.

 

 

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