Now that I have reached the end of my year abroad, these blogs shall be written in the form of ‘memoirs,’ giving an account of my experiences as well as reflections on such things as what I learned from the experiences, and how they went on to shape my year abroad as a whole.
The period just after Christmas was a bit of an odd time. Well, first things first, I can’t just skip to that point without at least a short acknowledgement of quite how outstandingly beautiful Prague is around Christmastime. Certainly, the Christmas markets in the centre of town are far from subtle in the extent to which they are aimed at tourists, and the Czech winds cut through even the thickest winter coats like a hot, windy knife through a thick winter coat made of butter. But it would take a heart even colder than those winds not to be taken in by the sheer magic and wonder of the city around the festive season, particularly when dusted with snow.
For Christmas day itself, as well as for the new year and a good few weeks on either side, I was back in England to visit my family. My parents had come to visit for four days in early December, but I otherwise hadn’t seen my family since the start of August, so I was very happy to be able to spend a good amount of time with them. It was a lovely holiday, and I had a great time catching up with friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time as well as family. Still, by the end of it, I was raring to get back to Prague and spend a last few weeks with my friends from my first semester.
The structure of the year was much like at Southampton, in that there is a gap over Christmas, and then a couple of weeks of classes before the exam season. Or, at least, this is how it was for most of my friends. I, myself, had no classes after Christmas, meaning that I could stay in England until shortly before the day of my first exam. While this allowed me to stay with family and friends for longer than I otherwise would have, it also meant that I was rather out of synch with several of my friends, who, being from countries where, as seems to be the case in the majority of mainland Europe, the tendency seems to be to study abroad for only one semester, were already making their preparations to return to their respective home universities by the time I arrived.
Still, there was a bit of time to meet up before they all went their separate ways, and we made good use of it, trying to fit in as much as we could before my friends had to leave. It was an odd thing, there being this atmosphere floating in the air of this being the end of something, a conclusion, despite my having another semester just on the horizon. Still, I tried to use this juxtaposition to see the coming semester not as a continuation but as a new start, much like the first but without the uncertainty that I had had then, and with new people to get to know and spend time with.
This was, however, not quite how things turned out. Throughout the first semester, my closest friends had been my Erasmus course-mates, either from the Czech language course or from the Music Education classes. For most of the second, however, all of these people (save the only two full-time students on the English-language Music Education course, Kyriaki and Andry from Cyprus) had returned to their home Universities, and they were replaced by only two incoming Erasmus students, Sophia from Greece and Aneta from Poland.
I met Sophia a little in advance of the semester, as Paraskevi and she knew one another from both studying Music at the University of Athens so we all met up as a group a few times before my friends had to leave. The two of us got on extremely well, and had a lot in common, though we had both been expecting (and indeed rather hoping, for the sake of meeting new people) that there would be more people in our classes. Still, we went to some cool places, and had a lot of fun, particularly in those first few weeks.
The way it worked out, I shared some of my classes with Sophia, and some of them with Aneta, but none with both. Unfortunately, I never really had much opportunity to see Aneta outside of the classes, though she did then join the choir, meaning that I had more opportunities to bump into her. Sophia also joined the choir at first, but ended up drifting away from it, as in fact, she drifted away from the Primary Education classes that, right at the start of the semester, she had convinced me to join. Still, I remained in both, and ended up quite enjoying the Primary Education classes that I wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of.
It was rather poor timing that, a couple of weeks into the second semester, my girlfriend of a year and a half and I broke up. It was an exceptionally amicable breakup, but sudden, and absolute. We both decided that it would have been too painful and confusing to stay in contact after that long as a long-distance couple, so we cut off all contact. Where I had had something, suddenly now there was nothing, and I had had no idea that it was coming.
I don’t mean to dwell on such things, but it definitely did have an impact on my experience of the semester. While it prompted me to re-establish contact with some good friends in England who I hadn’t messaged for a long time, I fear that my drive to go out and meet new people was somewhat diminished. I instead rather retreated inside myself, focussing on artistic endeavours. While this did, among other things, produce a couple of songs for my band, Mokono, that I was actually very happy with, it did leave me a little socially isolated.
Still, all things pass, and all wounds heal with time. I represented the UK (and Cornwall specifically) in a sort of ‘International Bakeoff’ competition, entering with a cheese, onion and bean pasty and flapjacks. I came second (narrowly losing out to Sophia and a couple of her Greek friends), which earned me an actually really rather tasty spa wafer, but the most significant outcome of the event was that I got talking to a couple of the other attendees and thus added to a WhatsApp group of Internationals in Prague. This group was full of near-daily invitations to all sorts of events, and thus an excellent, low commitment means for me to get to know new people and do fun things, always with the option of just not attending if I wasn’t feeling up to it! It was thus perfect for my situation.
Another means of socialisation was through board games. I was part of a Facebook page, ‘Geeks of Prague,’ where people would ask whether anyone was interested in playing this or that game at this or that time. I had been to one or two of these in the first semester and greatly enjoyed them, so they seemed a perfect way to get back into the social spirit of things! It was just over a month after the breakup, at one of these board game events, where I was introduced to a pink-haired, bowler-hatted girl named Agata.
There were four of us there; Monika, our host (and a regular organiser of these sort of events, owing to her impressive board game collection), a fellow whose name might or may not have been Adam (I’m very sorry, possibly Adam, it’s a shame that we didn’t meet again), Agata and I. We played a couple of very different games, having a great time in the process, and then went our separate ways, which turned out to not be terribly separate in the case of the Agata, the other chap and I, as we were all headed in vaguely the same direction.
In the course of our chatting on the way back to our respective homes, I learned that I was, as is so often the case when meeting people to play board games, talking to people involved with all that techy sort of stuff, Agata being, at the time, on an internship with a gaming company in Prague as a graphic designer, and the other fellow being a programmer. Even so, I did continue to talk to them both, the conversation being, as I remember, rather pleasant. The other chap got off the tram and Agata and I continued the conversation, now mostly discussing what we’d been doing in Prague and how we’d both been looking for people to do fun stuff with, her having only relatively recently arrived in Prague. In the end we reached her stop (I having gone one stop too far in the name of continuing the conversation), talked a little more after getting off the tram, hugged, and went our separate ways.
This could easily have been how the encounter ended, at least until we happened upon one another again at another board game event, had I not mentioned that I’d played at several jam sessions in the city in the course of my stay in Prague, and promised that I would send her a link to the Facebook group from which these jams were organised, which I was a part of. I did so, and it was from there that we started talking about music. We discussed the kind of music that we liked listening to, the kind of music that we played, the musical projects that I had planned for the final year of my degree and the music projects that she was planning out with her boyfriend in Poland (upon hearing about which I messaged a good friend in England to discuss the relative merits and drawbacks of my dropping everything to move to their city in Poland and write conceptual Celtic techno-folk with them).
It was at this point that we started taking turns sending one another links to music that we thought that the other might like, which is where things got dangerous; these sorts of conversations (and we had many) could easily stretch until three to five in the morning without us even noticing, which was fine by me, if not especially compatible with Agata’s (or, as I learned that her friends call her, Shirral’s) early starts in her internship. We started going to events in around the city together, concerts, jam sessions, hiking, cooking and watching films at her dormitory (which was about 5-10 minutes’ walk from mine). When her boyfriend and one of her course-mates came to visit her, I gave them a tour of the city while she was working at the office where she was an intern, we all became quickly became fast friends and, well… I’m currently writing this blog entry from her and her boyfriend’s apartment in Poland, ready to go with them to no less than three Polish festivals in July and the start of August, hopefully before we all go to meet up with that son of a gun Matthias in Germany.
When I was a teenager, I used to walk to and from school each day up and down some hills overlooking some absolutely gorgeous Cornish countryside. I’d nearly always walk to school with friends, meaning that I’d be often too busy joking around to notice the view, but committed as I was to my extracurricular activities after school, I would often walk home alone in the late afternoon or early evening. It was on these occasions that the view would strike me with an impact like that of a wrecking ball upon a brick wall, except that instead of a pop star known for her zany acts of rebellion, this impact instead bore with it an almost overwhelming appreciation for the sheer beauty and wonder of the natural world.
I distinctly remember one such occasion that I have burned into my memory, hopefully forever. I was stood there, gazing out at that patchwork of emerald greens and flaxen golds, gently rolling hills giving way to rugged moorland all lit up by the golden light of the setting sun, and I just burst out laughing. It was all so breathtakingly, outstandingly beautiful, I simply didn’t know quite what else to do. In that moment I made a conscious, concerted effort to remember quite how happy I was, exactly what that moment felt like. As I did so, I also did my best to ingrain in my memory the thought that no matter how hard life gets, no matter how bad things seem, it is possible to feel that happy. There is always the potential to feel the same joy and wonder that I felt in that moment. And life, therefore, simply must be worth living.