Czech Republic: a recap of my three weeks

Well, now that I’m actually somewhat caught up on sleep and enjoying air conditioning, I’m now in shape to recap my three amazing weeks in the Czech Republic. Given that I was blogging about my solo trip around Plzen, Brno, and Olomouc, I’ll try not to talk about them as much and be redundant. So, without further ado, here’s the recap:

  • I’m just going to get this out of the way-beer literally is cheaper than water in the Czech Republic. As in, the most I paid for a single beer was $2 (very rarely), and the average price was just over $1. And not only is it cheap, but it’s very, very, very high quality of beer. I also cannot deny that I spent a fair sum on beer; hey, why not right? As you may recall (https://wanderingbarbarian.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/plzen-day-one-and-a-half/), I went to the Pilsner Urquell brewery, and that was probably the pinnacle of the trip in terms of beer. That brewery right there was the single embodiment of the Czech drinking culture, and it actually was fascinating to read about the history of it. Finally, I don’t think that I can consciously look at American beer the same way after this summer. I mean, we pay about $4-5 for mediocre beers, whereas in the Czech Republic you get high quality beers for dirt cheap.
  • The reason why I was even in the Czech Republic in the first place was because of the fantastic program sponsored by EUROPEUM, the Czech think tank, was the European Summer School. Combining a program concerning the European Union (“federalization as a response to the EU crisis?”), cultural awareness, as well as the diversity of the participants, it was an absolutely, positively phenomenal time! Every single person in the program, without fail, made this course as great as it was. I learned a lot, not just from the lecturers and the workshops, but from my fellow participants; it really broadened my knowledge of the European Union, which I’m eternally thankful for. It may be cheesey, but I hope that the friendships that I made there will last for a very long time, if not for the rest of my life! At the top level, the people in charge of the program and the assistants made everything flow smoothly, and that translated into great excursions and events-we could count dragonboating, clubbing, excursions to Czech parliament and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Terezin/Litomerice, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (my personal favorite excursion), etc. Without them, it’s questionable whether or not the program would have been nearly as fun and exciting as it was. Moving on, the city of Prague is absolutely gorgeous! It’s a blend of old and new, with the consequence that one cannot help but fall in love with it. (Seriously, when I was in Plzen, I was homesick for Prague. It left that much of a mark on me, and in just under two weeks too.) I can report without hyperbole that Prague and it’s lovely streets became a home away from home, and something just felt wrong leaving them behind.
  • Our excursions to the Czech Parliament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were amazing! As an International Affairs major, all three of these were legitimate causes to geek out. You pretty much cannot beat being able to interview the now former Czech representative to the European Union in Brussels or a young current parliamentarian! Now, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was my favorite excursion between these three, simply because they focus on my specialty (the former Soviet Union/Central Asia), so it was like the proverbial holy grail for me. While the excursion lasted just over an hour, due to one of America’s Supreme Court justices visiting (or so we were told), I picked up a wealth of knowledge, and I may have found my dream job! Security was tighter than most places, even airports, because of the potential for the places, i.e. non-free states, that RFE/RL broadcasts to to take violent action. To illustrate the security, we had to show them our passports at the front gate, proceed inside in groups of five, and then cross into a courtyard with another security gate. However, once we were inside, we were treated to a very modern building with enthusiastic employees, and we got to interview a few high ranking ones to boot. It was a great day!
  • When you have 20 something year olds together for two weeks, there’s bound to be shenanigans, and indeed this was the case. From having dinners in the common room of our hotel to in-jokes (I’ll never look at poppy seeds the same way) to hanging out with beers by the Vltava River banks to going out on the town, we had a rip roaring time; by the end, we became one tight family, and that was the beauty of the program. Maybe it’s just me, maybe not, but when I was sitting in my hostel in Plzen, it hit me how much these interactions/time spent together meant: a lot. Saying those last goodbyes felt like a piece of my heart died, and I still don’t feel quite right being away from Hotel Bohemians.
  • Transport. Nothing reinforces America’s status as a country with a third world transportation system like going to other countries. Bold statement here, you say? Let me explain. In the Czech Republic, the trams arrive on time, every 5 minutes or so (during the day; at night they arrive about 20 minutes apart the whole night), and they’re super reliable as well as being manned by relatively competent employees. Whereas in the US you sometimes wonder if transportation (looking directly at you, DC Metro) will ever arrive, in Prague and other cities I never had to question that. Case in point: I had to get up at 4:30 A.M. in Olomouc to catch a tram to get to the train station to get to Prague to fly out. While I’m generally paranoid about transportation (thanks to living in the Washington, D.C. area), I knew that I could expect a tram that early in the morning, and it was there. (Side note: I was surprised at how many people were up at that point in the morning.) Even the trains in the country were reliable-their departure/arrival times were almost always spot on, and at worst they were a few minutes late; 95% of the time I arrived at my destinations early, the other 5% was on time. Speaking of the trains, they were clean, and the newest ones were far more comfortable than I had expected. As a mini-break from this, it was cool to see how some of the small towns and villages had train stations. Looking out the windows I saw nothing but fields, until you saw a station. It made you wonder how these fairly isolated stations are maintained, given the long treks from the nearest town of size. I guess that’s the magic of the Czech Republic-things happen.
  • On that note, communicating with the good people at the train stations regarding where you wanted to go to and when the train for said destination would leave, was a challenge. You haven’t lived dangerously until you’ve survived hand gestures, broken English, and a lot of praying that you were going the right way. Thankfully, I survived without any major incident, much to my relief.
  • The countryside. One perk of taking the trains to get to the different cities in the Czech Republic was how you got to see the amazing countryside. In Bohemia (the western part of the country), there generally was nothing but beautiful, rolling countryside. In Moravia (the eastern part), it was a contrast of trees and hills. Thus, I can happily report that the Czech Republic is a fantastically gorgeous country!
  • The food was great, as I’ve been asked about that quite a bit now that I’m home. Be warned though, if you’re a vegetarian, culinary options are limited-the country, like central Europe, is reliably a meat-heavy one. For a fair portion of meals, the ever popular kielbasa (klobasy in Czech) was the option of choice. That’s not to say that one can’t get a nice sit down meal, but a lot of cheaper, quicker options will inevitably involve sausage. A bunch of people from ESS ended up going to the cheap grocery stores in the neighborhoods by our hotel and lecture building (which was at Prague College) and stocked up on sandwiches, drinks, and the odd cookie or two; this proved to be a great alternative, as well as a way to stock up on fruit and vegetables. Continuing with this, we picnicked a few times, and each time was a fun time to pass the hours. As was mentioned before, we picnicked on the banks of the Vltava River as well as parks that offered amazing views of town.
  • Maybe it’s me being an American and used to the same types of cars, but I saw more Skoda (the de facto national car of the Czech Republic), Opel, Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen cars than any other point in my life. Okay, that’s a low threshold, since I really only had seen them in movies and not actually in the States, but still. Interestingly enough, the most common North American car was Ford, and I only saw maybe two or three Nissan cars in the entire three weeks. KIA was also somewhat popular as import cars, but BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Volkswagon were the most prevalent imported cars.
  • There were some small cultural differences, namely having to pay to use public bathrooms. I still can’t get over that, plus the fact that people are employed to make sure that patrons pay to relieve themselves. Water isn’t free in restaurants as well, but I deftly got around this by just buying a beer or not buying a beverage at all. Also in restaurants, the principle of seating yourself was a great change from America, where you have to be led to your seat. However, the tradeoff to this was that you had to flag down your waiter to get the bill, instead of them coming over to you almost automatically. The last, and biggest, difference was the very obvious lack of air conditioning. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but given how it was pushing into the 80’s and 90’s to almost 100, air conditioning would have been greatly appreciated-nothing like waking up in one’s own sweat in the morning. Mercifully, the two weeks that I was in Prague, the weather was at worst, in the 80’s. However, once I embarked on my solo trip, the weather decided to spike. To highlight how bad it was, in my hostel in Plzen it was already in the 80’s…at 8 AM. Yikes. In the end, though, the weather cooled down for my last few days, providing a welcome respite from the burning hot weather. Just being back home, I will never, ever take A/C for granted again!
  • Something that drove me nuts was the fact that the Czech locks, for the most part, have to be turned to the left to unlock; the US turns the keys to the right. It wasn’t a big problem, but I know for sure that I looked like an idiot struggling to open the doors to my hostel.
  • Hostels: cheap, but you encounter some characters for sure. Don’t get me wrong, you really can’t beat paying about $20 for a solid quality stay in great cities, but man your roommates can either be great or obnoxious. And on this trip, I generally ran into the latter instead of the former. For instance, in Plzen on my last day there, I had 5 smelly, boozy, and somewhat dodgy, overweight Germans stay with me. They were drinking beer…at 8 AM. Needless to say, I was very, very, very happy to have had to spend a mere night with them, and even then I can’t believe that I was able to put up with them. In Brno, it wasn’t as bad, but I had some Croats (and maybe some Serbs; to this day, I’m not quite sure where they were from, exactly) buy a fair amount of beer and who were in and out at all points of the night. The “highlight”, if you can call it that, was them “whispering” at 4 AM. And by “whisper”, I mean outright shouting across the room at each other. Again, it was the last night they were there, much to my immediate relief. Fortunately, the people in my hostel in Olomouc were amazing, and it made for a great last few days in the country-it was what I absolutely love about hosteling, the coziness and friendliness. I know that I’m probably not giving the right impression of hosteling, but it can be hit or miss regarding your fellow travelers. Thankfully, more often than not the people there are very much like you and they are decent people.
  • When one thinks of the Czech Republic, you don’t think about Asians there. However, one of the more interesting facts about the country is that the name “Nguyen” is the 6th most common last name. Yes, that’s right- a Vietnamese surname. However, this can be easily explained: during communist times, the Vietnamese were invited to the Czech Republic as part of the Communist learning experience in another country. Consequently, I saw quite a few Vietnamese people not just on the streets of Prague, but Brno, Plzen, and Olomouc. This serves as a segue to my next thought, and that’s the Vietnamese market in Prague. It’s interesting to note how the Vietnamese community of Prague have their own market place, and I was excited to have the chance to possibly have pho (it didn’t happen-oh well) in the Czech Republic, of all places. Being from Northern Virginia and having a huge Asian community, this market place reminded me of home, and the scents of the food wafting about made my mouth water; alas, the group of friends from ESS wanted to get lunch elsewhere in town, much to my chagrin. Regarding the products available for sale, it was generic, low quality stuff that one glance you wouldn’t expect to last a while; my guidebooks warned me ahead of time about these cheap Vietnamese-made products, not that I was ever planning to buy their stuff. After walking around for a while in this market area, you saw the same few things (i.e. knockoff jeans, shirts, toys) over and over, which made me wonder about the feasibility of this place ever being able to be financially sustainable.
  • Being able to do my laundry at my hotel and hostel was a godsend. For being on the road for an extended period of time, the opportunity to pay someone to do a good job of washing and drying your clothes is a blessed moment. Not only did it save me the trouble of having to hand wash my clothes, but it meant that my fears of not having enough clothes to last the three weeks were alleviated; I had only packed enough for about 15 days. Without a doubt, it was a lifesaver!
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2 thoughts on “Czech Republic: a recap of my three weeks

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the stay in my homeland this much! It’s always nice to see foreigners like it, I love it over everything and it makes me happy when other people like it too πŸ™‚
    As for the drunk Germans – I used to work in a fastfood chain for some time and German tourists seem to have this pattern of comming to Czechia during Friday and drink literally until Sunday morning and then go back home. It wasn’t unusual for me to see the same people come in on Friday night buying beer and being in a good mood, pretty much the same on Saturday night and then seeing them again on Sunday morning all worn out and buying only water πŸ˜€ How they get to work on Monday goes past me…
    Oh btw I used the one-word name for my country – Czechia. In case you haven’t heard it, it’s the official one, but for some reason several people are opposed to using it and use Czech Republic or even Czech instead. There’s a movement trying to bring this name (Česko/Czechia) under the people and to foreigners as well and I’m trying to give my best on that matter as well, so I would really apreaciate if you could maybe use this name every once in a while, though at first you’ll propably have to explain what it’s about, haha πŸ˜€ There’s a cute/funny little side regarding this, if you wanna read more: http://www.iknowczechia.com/
    Anyway once more glad you enjoyed my country, I sure enjoyed reading your article and hope that maybe you can come visit one day again πŸ™‚

    • Cool, thanks for the response! For sure, the country is gorgeous and the people were great to me during my stay. Also, thanks for that heads up-I didn’t know about it; you learn something new everyday! I hope I can visit again, as there are many other places I missed out on/want to go to (Karlovy Vary, Ceske Budejovice, Ostrava, etc.)!

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