7- Panic and Hope

Note-

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.

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As I mentioned, I am currently in Poland. I must confess, getting here was not particularly easy. I would like, therefore, to dedicate this blogoir to the many mad rushes and logistical struggles throughout my year abroad, of which my final flight from Prague is a perfect example.

I actually left Prague on the eighteenth of June, two days after my parents had returned from their second visit to Prague, this time for a full week. This visit had been really rather lovely for both them and myself, giving me a last opportunity to see some of my favourite parts of Prague, including the incredible Prague zoo, Karlstejn castle and the surrounding woodland, now, in stark contrast to when I visited in midwinter with the choir, in blazing sunshine and scorching heat, and some of the many little teahouses, cafes and other spots of interest that I had developed a fondness for over the course of the year.

At the end of the week, my parents returned to England with my bass guitar and as many of my other non-essential possessions as would keep them within the minimum weight limit when combined with their own luggage. This should, then, have made it easy for me to pack and transport the rest of my possessions. Should have.

My university career, and in particular the necessity to move out all of my stuff at the end of each year, has served to demonstrate quite how much of a talent I have for accruing stuff, seemingly largely out of nowhere. This has proven very useful when it’s been necessary to craft something, go on an unexpected adventure requiring specific random things, or to otherwise invent some manner or doodad or jigger to solve this or that problem. It has proven less useful, however, when it has come to mobility of living. I have never had a problem with packing and travelling light, but I certainly seem inclined to live really rather heavy.

Fortunately, on this occasion I was provided with the perfect solution to how difficult it would be to transport all of my stuff back to England. This was, of course, to delay the inevitable for as long as possible! I moved my stuff, as well as some stuff that Shirral had left behind, from Prague to Poland in two journeys, in the middle of which was a camping trip arranged by the local couch surfing community. Shirral, her boyfriend Matt, Gergő (another friend of hers from Prague) and I went along for the weekend and had a brilliant time, improvising music for a traditional Slavic campfire celebration of the Solstice, preparing food from our respective cultures, kayaking on the river that was at the base of our camp, and generally having a really good, chill time.

After a few more, very pleasant days thereafter spent at Shirral and Matt’s apartment in Poland, I returned to Prague to sort out the last of my paperwork and to collect the last of my possessions. This visit was timed to coincide with the arrival of Lia, the friend of Shirral’s who had come to visit at the same time as Matt had, the premise being that I could spend a few days helping her settle into Prague and pass my kitchen stuff on to her.

I did indeed have a really nice time showing Lia some places newly discovered since the last tour that I had given her, but it turned out that she would not be needing the kitchen stuff, on account of her moving into a shared apartment that was already fully stocked. Having then only a day or two before I was due to return to Poland and a lot of packing yet to do, I decided that the best thing would be to simply take all of these items with me and deal with them in Poland. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake.

In fact, when the day came for me to check out of my accommodation and catch the bus back to Poland, it became apparent that I had made a number of mistakes. One was that I had, in wanting to ensure that I was in Prague at the same time as Lia, booked my bus for two days after my accommodation contract was due to end. Another was that the receipt of my last rent payment for the year, something listed as necessary to show to the receptionist before I could check out, had been safely stored in a folder that I had put in the suitcase for my parents to take home to England. A third was that, with all the added crockery and other kitchen equipment, I was forced to carry several additional bags, and thus more than Flixbus technically allowed for my ticket type. ‘I’m sure that this’ll be fine,’ I thought to myself.

Fortunately, at least at first, things more or less were fine. My late checking out didn’t seem to be an issue at all, and though I was unable to get another copy of the final rent payment receipt, the translating efforts of some passing Czech students seemed to convince my building’s very friendly and helpful receptionist that I had nonetheless paid it. Having cleaned out and vacuumed my room, had it signed off by one of the building’s cleaners as acceptable and handed in my room keys and dormitory card, all that remained was to get my stuff to the bus station and board the bus, which should have been the easy part. Should have been.

The small issues that I had faced and it taking about half an hour to take out and sort all of my recycling notwithstanding, I left for the bus station a good hour or so before my bus was due to depart. By way of allowing myself to stop walking and put down my luggage every couple of minutes on the way to the tram stop, the wait of my collective possessions was not altogether unbearable, no pun intended. When the tram arrived, I allowed myself to relax a little, believing the worst of it to be over. I was, I’m afraid, terribly mistaken.

I had planned to meet up with Lia on my way to the coach station, her office being only a couple of minutes’ walk away. However, with the weight of the luggage and not having quite as much time as I had hoped for, I messaged to let her know that I probably wouldn’t be able to do so. I checked my ticket one last time to be sure, and for a moment my heart froze. I suddenly remembered noting when I booked the tickets that this bus would not, in fact depart from the usual bus station, a fact that I had, for whatever reason, blithely neglected to write anywhere in my plans or reminders.

‘Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine, I’ve got plenty of time,’ I thought to myself in a mental tone that I did my best to keep calm and optimistic. I checked the travel time to the new bus stop. ‘57 minutes,’ it said, just enough time for me to comfortably miss my bus’ departure.

‘This is fine,’ I thought to myself, my mental tone of voice now perhaps a little less convincing. I had tried to download the Uber app earlier that day for cases of emergency such as this, and, in the process, somehow prevented the app from being able to contact my phone. Thus, as I had when it came to sorting my accommodation many months ago, I started panic-googling the numbers of taxi companies.

I called the taxi to a tram stop that I was approaching, got off the tram and waited. At around the time that the taxi was supposed to arrive, a got a text saying that it had. Wanting to make absolutely sure, I called the number that I had been given for the taxi driver to confirm that the taxi was, indeed, invisible. Unfortunately, it turned out merely to have been directed to the wrong place. I waited for what felt like about a week for the taxi to get to where I was (on the other side of the same street, as it turned out, but separated by a tram stop), and then, upon boarding the taxi, checked Google maps. By their estimations, I would arrive at the coach station just as my bus was pulling away.

As I sat in the back of the taxi, I started to make contingency plans, if just to stop me from checking Google maps’ predictions every ten seconds. Flixbus is supposed to have a strict ‘only on at your first stop, only off at your last stop, but how strictly those kind of rules are observed tends to depend on the driver (the more Polish they are, the less, by and large, you need concern yourself with silly things like ‘regulations.’ Perhaps I could find another way of getting to Liberec, where I had a two and a half hour tranfer, in time for my second bus? A possibility, though one that I would really rather have avoided, particularly with my final Erasmus grant a yet undelivered.

Then, all of a sudden, we were there, and with five blessed minutes to spare! I paid the driver as fast as his slightly doddery Czech manner would allow, grabbed my various bags, backpack and suitcase from the back of the taxi and rushed over to the nearby coaches. The first coach that I saw was going to Liberec, but definitely seemed to be with the wrong bus company.

“Excuse me,” I addressed to the driver, having already indicated that his was not the bus that I would be taking with a deft wave of the hand and a mumbled ‘oh, this isn’t the bus I’ll be taking.’ I thought back to the details on my bus ticket. “Do you know where platform four is?”

He pointed in a direction that, to my horror, indicated a double flight of really quite steep stairs.

“It’s up, and, uh…” The hand signals that he used to give the subsequent directions were enough to convince me that I may not survive the next few minutes.

As I absolutely pegged it up those stairs with my luggage, I pondered quite how these events had come to pass. How could it be that, after all this time, and all the things that I supposedly had learned, here I was, just like at the start of the year, panic-running to my destination as the great pendulum of time swings above my head?

Spotting my bus a little ways away distracted me from these thoughts, which is just as well because I didn’t have much of an answer to them. I charged recklessly down some nearby stairs, fortunately unable to remember what I had packed in the rear bottom corner of my suitcase and thus willing in my optimism to allow it bash against the stairs on the way down. I leapt from the bottom stair and half-sprinted to my bus, immensely relieved to see it still at the station.

I practically screeched to a halt at the driver’s door, and looked up at him in hopeful expectation.
“Liberec?”

The man tutted with a little smile, paused his final pre-departure checks, and opened up the doors for me to load my possessions into the bus.

I did almost go on to get off that bus at the wrong stop, but fortunately the driver, seeing the amount of luggage I had, correctly suggested that I probably wanted Liberec bus station, rather than the town centre. When we did arrive at the bus station and I finally disembarked, he made sure to point out the correct stop for me to board my next bus from.

“Děkujeme,” I thanked him, in what I hope by now was at least half-decent Czech.

I suppose that what I can take away from this is that no matter how much you think you’ve learned, how prepared you think you are, there’s always more things that you can miss, more mistakes you can make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the lessons aren’t worth learning, far from it! But at the same time, there’s always that possibility for things to be more difficult than they need to be.

But that’s something that I’m very much okay with. You can never be completely in control of things, no matter how hard you try. Of course, the more that you prepare the more time you have to deal with problems as they arrive, and the more opportunity you have to spot them before they become problems.  Still, there’s always the potential for things to go wrong. And yet I remain very much an optimist, because despite this, I maintain that, on the other side of the equation, no matter how bad or hopeless things seem, the more you go through life with good intentions and a willingness to talk to people and make things work, the more potential there is for things to miraculously go right.

6- Getting Over It

Note-

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.

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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.

I, centre, and Shirral, hatted, enjoy our first joint cultural experience in Prague
I, centre, and Shirral, hatted, enjoy our first joint cultural experience in Prague

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.

5- Triangling With The Best Of ‘Em

Note-

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.

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My memories of the first part of my first semester are dominated by a few key things. The language course is, of course, the first, followed by my travels to Budapest and Prague, and my adventures in and around Prague with that group of friends. It was also around this time that I started to get involved with the Prague live music jam scene via my friend ‎Jaimáku, who I met by way of buying a guitar off him. Which of my instruments to take to Prague proved to be a difficult decision, I having a great many (and yet somehow never quite enough), all of which I play in different capacities. In the end, I opted to bring a bass (and ukulele) and purchase a cheap second-hand classical guitar while I was there, which is where Jaimáku, a professional guitar restorer, came in. Our plans for me to join his band never quite materialised, for the usual reasons, but I did greatly enjoy those jam sessions that I was attend throughout the city, most of which he seemed to have a hand in organising.

As the semester progressed, my music education classes started to take up more of my focus, as did my attendance of the Charles University Chorus, with assessments and concerts looming, respectively. I also started spending a lot of time with my friends from my classes, while drifting gradually away from my friends from the language course (notable exceptions being my Paraskevi, who was also a music education student, my friend Charlotte, who I started seeing on a weekly basis at open board game nights in the city, and Regina, who also attended the Chorus, along with Paraskevi and Elli, another friend from my music education course).

I must confess, until about a month before my arrival in Prague, I didn’t quite realise that I would be taking music education classes (that is, learning how to teach music). In Southampton I study BA Philosophy and Music, and I knew that I had been accepted into Charles University via a link with the Southampton University Faculty of Music, but not a lot more than that (primarily, I am certain, as a result of my own lack of thorough investigation). Fortunately, my teachers in Prague, and, as a result, my classes, were quite exceptionally good. Teaching had always been sort of on the periphery of my interest, but never something that I’d put a lot of serious thought into. Now, at the end of my year in Prague, it falls firmly within the scope of areas that I would be interested in pursuing.

Throughout my entire school and University life, I’ve been a part of a great many clubs, societies, and other extra-curricular activities. At my secondary school and sixth form I would have some kind of after school band or club or organised activity more or less every day, and a lot of the time in my first and second years at Southampton I seemed to just about spend more time running between society events and student bands than anything else…

There are, however, two extra-curricular activities that I greatly enjoyed during my secondary school years but was forced to give up (as a result of having too many other things that I wanted to do) when I went to University. The first was drama and musical theatre, something that I had been involved in for in the region of 11 years before coming to University. It is still something that I miss, but I have at least been able to get involved in a number of LARP events in the meantime, which is more or less competitive improv theatre with more fighting. The other was singing in choirs. I therefore leapt at the opportunity to join a choir in Southampton. But which one to join?

The first choir that I investigated was that of my faculty, which happened to be the largest in the University (and, as an added bonus, one that I could earn academic credits for attending). I attended an introductory first session, and it certainly seemed to be run to a high standard. However, I couldn’t help feeling that it did rather seem to be run by the Czechs for the Czechs. It is, of course, a Faculty choir in a Czech university, so this should have been hardly surprising. Nonetheless, with no discernible welcome given and not a word of English spoken by anyone involved in the running of the choir, I’m afraid that I didn’t feel particularly at ease. I sat at the back for a while, struggling to follow what was being said, but it was largely in vain. In the end, that no-one had acknowledged my presence did at least allow me to slip out of the back of the hall unnoticed after half an hour or so.

It should be said that Gustavo, one of my friends from music education did remain in this choir and did in fact report greatly enjoying the experience. Perhaps, then, it is to my discredit that I was unwilling to put in the effort to communicate with the other choir members and overcome the language barrier. Still, a choir is, for me, as much about united spirit and collective endeavour as it is about merely learning and performing songs, so as much as I wanted to integrate and get to know the Czech students and way of life, I couldn’t face joining a choir that I felt quite so isolated from right from the beginning.

This experience was one starkly contrasted with that of my first rehearsal at the Charles University Chorus. This choir is open to all undergraduates and recent graduates of the University (with an auditioning process to determine suitability for its ever-ambitious repertoire) and, being led primarily in English, is very popular with Erasmus students, who usually make up the majority (but not the entirety) of its number. These were all things that I knew about the choir before I turned up to audition. I did not, however, know quite where rehearsals were held.
This shouldn’t have been as issue- the address was, after all, clearly posted online. However, this being one of the ‘between working phones’ periods of my Erasmus year, I managed to get myself lost enough that I was, in the end, around 15-20 minutes late. Fortunately, having eventually located the correct building, all that I needed to do was follow the sound of the rest of the choir warming up. Unfortunately, this warming up was finishing just as I entered. Trying not to draw attention to myself as I snuck in among the basses and tenors, I was reassured to spot Regina already among the chorus.

When it comes to choirs, the personality of the choir’s leader is often what defines the entire character and atmosphere of the group. My first impression of our choirmaster, Haig, was thus an immense relief. His manner seemed to foster a natural and immediate kind of fellowship between himself and the chorus, with a certain implicit authority born of respect never diminished by his affability and charm. Within a few minutes of his direction, I could tell that this was the choir for me.

If, that was, I passed the audition. The majority of the rehearsal was dedicated to introducing the new member of the choir (about two thirds of us, given the high proportion of Erasmus students among the population) to the established and new repertoire, all of which, though unfamiliar to me, seemed at first impression to be pleasant and more or less singable. The last half hour or so, however, was dedicated to the auditions, organised by order or where we were sat. I had my laptop with me, as I nearly always do, so I pulled this out while I waited my turn to sing. The vast majority of the auditionees did indeed pass their audition, the only exceptions being those who struggled to stay on pitch without accompaniment. So by all rights, I should have been able to pass with no real difficulties. But did I?

As my more astute readers will have noticed, the answer to this question was heavily implied in the second paragraph. I did indeed join the choir, as did Regina, and subsequently of Elli and Paraskevi. It was a fun choir to be a part of, and we put on some excellent concerts at amazing places (including a Christmas concert within Karlštejn, a beautiful castle as if from a fairy tale that sits upon a hill a short train journey away from Prague. One particularly notable performance however, and among my first with the choir, is that at which I played the triangle.

Karlstejn as it was during our visit, photo credit to Haig Utidjian!
Karlstejn as it was during our visit, photo credit to Haig Utidjian!

My triangling career began with Haig asking whether any of us among the choir had a good ear for rhythm and could count. Seeing an opportunity to put my a level maths to good use, I volunteered, as did one of the tenors (I being a bass, my natural enemy, though this particular fellow was actually rather a pleasant chap). What I turned out to have volunteered for was a rather fancy do put on by one of the specialist universities in Prague, at which our choir’s orchestral counterpart was providing music entertainment in order to give the audience the energy to remain awake through the many subsequent speeches, or so I presume.

First, however, I had to learn how to play the triangle. I had played percussion before, many years ago in a samba band and, more recently, when not playing upright bass in my University Jazz Band. Still, the triangle is a fearsome and noble instrument, and deserves its proper respect, so I turned to the most reliable and comprehensive tutor that I could think of. When one of the professional percussionists arrived, he asked me whether I, too, was a trained percussionist or percussion student. By way of response, I showed him the WikiHow article still open on my phone.

All in all, I’m pleased to say that the concert was a roaring success! The audience seemed to greatly appreciate our music, and the chorus most definitely appreciated the open bar and buffet that were provided to us thereafter, along with further musical performances while we consumed and imbibed (including from hit(?) Czech new age band Support Lesbiens)!

My playing was, in fact, such a hit that I was asked to resume my role as trianglist at another performance, this time one with both choir and orchestra. The venue this time was the Karolinum, the oldest part of the University of Prague and thus the oldest University building in central Europe, still a functioning part of the University to this day! I was there both to sing and to perform as a percussionist, which meant, as you can see from the picture to the left of this blog (taken during that very concert, and showing approximately half of the orchestra and chorus), it was necessary for me to navigate may way up to the raised platform where the singers were stood. Fortunately, I was just about able to do so without knocking over any music stands, and the concert was, once again, greatly successful!

My friends and I did also get the chance to see Gustavo singing in the faculty choir a short while later, also in the Karolinum and another stellar performance. This was also the night that I, Gustavo and our tragically un-be-choired classmate Matthias (that son of a gun) earned the name ‘the Drunken Harmonists’ after making perhaps a little free with the post-concert open bar and, after most of the other attendees had retired for the night, performing some international Christmas hits in improvised barbershop-esque three part harmony. Personally, I thought that we sounded rather good, thought the wine may have had a hand in that.

All in all, I have always had a great appreciation for choirs, orchestras, and any other group or society that brings people together to produce something wonderful. Not only did the choir keep me in contact with and strengthen my bonds with the friends that I already had, I met a great many really wonderful people through my participation therein, from the Czech Republic and all the rest of the world. But more than that- not only did I meet these people; I shared a bond with them. When you collaborate in that way, and work together so closely on that kind of a project, you don’t just become a team- you become a family.

4- The Great Fire of Prague

Note-

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.

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My first semester can be more or less divided into two acts, which were themselves primarily defined by the characters that I spent time with. There was, of course, a lot of crossover in the characters that appeared, and, as is often the case, the acts weren’t quite even in length or in character of content. Some of the key players in the second act were among the first characters introduced in the first, and some of the key players from the first had, by the climax of the second, more or less faded away, save the odd cameo. But then, this only makes sense, I being the archetypal dashing theatrical hero.

The climax of the first of these acts would have to have been my trip to Budapest. I went with five of my friends from the language course, and we all had an absolutely brilliant time. I adored the city, the atmosphere, the food (mostly the food), all rather tailored to be Instagram-friendly, but in a way that suited my company and I just fine. I distinctly remember a place that consisted of two separate little buildings across a cobbled street, one serving drinks and one serving food, all part of the same brunch café. The dishes had traditional, slightly esoteric girl’s names, and no requests for menu alterations would be permitted, as each plate had been ‘expertly formulated for a near-perfect combination of flavours’. It was, admittedly, absolutely delicious.

But wait! I must speak of Budapest no more, for what made my trip to Budapest perfect for my friends and I was that the vast majority of our time was spent wandering the city between places where we could sit, talk, and eat delicious food. While, in my view, an ideal way to spend a short trip abroad, it does not make for particularly thrilling subject matter for a blog. And so, to save this from becoming a half-remembered travel guide that is neither helpful nor interesting, I shall instead discuss the time that this group of friends and I fought the burgeoning Great Fire of Prague.

It was a couple of weeks after my arrival in Prague, and I was settling in well. The parts of the Czech language course that didn’t make me feel as though my brain was melting were very enjoyable, I’d only lost one mobile phone on the metro, and my friends from the language course and I were just starting to truly become friends, rather than just people that we hung out with because we were on the same course. The weather was gloriously sunny (if still a tad hot for my panic-running tendencies), and I was starting to appreciate quite how navigable Prague is when one has unlimited usage of the transport system, though for the time being my lack of a working phone rendered my capitalisation thereupon rather more of an adventure than it ought to have been. Still, by way of staying with my friends at all times, or, failing that, waving my laptop around in the middle of the street hunting for wifi to steal, I managed to get by.

My friends and I decided to go straight from the language course to a spot that Caro, our perpetual source of high-quality German recommendations, had recommended. This suited me perfectly, as it meant that there would be a great deal less ambling around trying to find people. We went to a shop on the way, picked up some drinks and snacks (I went for my very first bottle of Czech wine!) and then carried straight on to our mysterious destination. Mysterious to me, that is, as I hadn’t been paying attention when Caro told us where we were going.

We rode the metro to Prague 1, the very centre of town, and walked from there due west to the Vltava, the great river that flows around and through Prague. This entire area of Prague was and is, by all accounts, quite outstandingly beautiful. The architecture, the winding streets linked by peaceful side-alleys, the breath-taking view down the river… It seems that wherever one looks there is a scene worthy of a postcard, or a landscape.

Before too long, we were almost at our destination. Given how compact the centre of Prague is, this statement is usually true when heading to and from somewhere in Prague 1. On this occasion we started out across the first bridge to the south of the famous Charles Bridge, a move that rendered the view down the Vltava even more spectacular, before stopping halfway along the bridge and taking a short elevator downwards. This time we got lucky, as the descent from the centre of this particular bridge did not leave us nearly as wet as it would have from many. Instead, we found ourselves on an island.

Known as Střelecký Ostrov, meaning Archer’s Island, this quickly became one of my favourite places in Prague. With an area of 2.5 ha, it’s easily big enough to feel spacious and open even when otherwise occupied, and yet small enough to feel somehow private and exclusive. Trees provide gentle shade, swans and paddle-boats glide gracefully and trundle soothingly along the river on both sides, and birdsong floats above the steady lapping of the river against the shore, all framed by the near-distant humming and thrumming of busy city life. There are one or two pop-up drink stalls, including a little grounded caravan that specialises in coconut iced coffee (which I recommend!), and there is a children’s play area near the bridge. Further from the bridge, however, as the island narrows, it increasingly consists of just grass, trees and shoreline. It was here that my friends and I decided to sit.

First things first, we performed the necessary rituals. That is, of course, to say that we each took pictures of ourselves and/or each other. My lack of a working phone was here made up for by my Greek friend Paraskevi, another classical guitarist and a boundless source of refreshingly playful energy, asking me to take a picture of her, which I was gratified to see shortly thereafter as her Facebook profile picture!  This necessary procedure out of the way, we alighted upon a light incline along the riverbank and opened up our textbooks. It is necessary here to add that none of us, at this point, had noticed any smoke coming from anywhere on the island.

My successful photograph, all compliments to the model!
My successful photograph, all compliments to the model!

My particular attentions were focussed on the wine that I had procured, and, in particular, on solving two quite serious problems. The first was that the wine was corked, and we as a collective had neither a corkscrew nor a knife. Being something of a scientist, I performed a few investigative experiments in leverage with the items that I had to hand. Unfortunately, or, I suppose, fortunately, as far as the preservation of the wine goes, the cork was quite firmly wedged. Thus, I resorted to brute force and ignorance, and forced the cork inside the wine with a pen.

The second problem was that, it being a warm day with a cool breeze, the wine was warm-room-temperature, whereas our surroundings were breezy-island-temperature. It being a rosé, this simply would not do. Lacking a wine cooler, as I am tragically often, I had to think outside the box, or, rather, outside the island. Throwing my friends a look that was half rebellion, half ‘observe my innovative ways, oh unprepared companions,’ I stepped carefully down to the riverside and, lowering myself into a regionally appropriate squatting position (well, not really regionally appropriate, my heels were definitely off the ground), lowered the body of the wine bottle into the waters of the Vltava. Keeping the top of the neck well covered and far from the water’s surface, I started to gently swirl the wine, such that its warmness could dissipate into the river’s murky waters. Though none of my friends immediately leapt to their feet and began to scream in amazement and congratulation, I could tell that they all wanted to.

It was around this time, in my moment of triumph, that we spotted the thin column of smoke rising out of a hole in one of the trees near us. No-one other than us appeared to be reacting to it, so at first it seemed reasonable to sort of assume that this was just something that happened here, like a much more concentrated version of the blue mists thought to derive from the oil of the eucalyptus coming into contact with dust and water vapour, or the friendliness rising from a capybara. However, it was not long before we were disabused of this notion, as upon looking inside the tree we each observed the ruddy glow of fire.

The smoke and our reactions thereto drew the attention of a man who appeared to be local, or at least a Czech speaker. He set off to find a park ranger, but all parties agreed that something needed to be done in the meantime. Lacking any better options, we each emptied our bottles of water into the tree, filled them up from the Vltava, then emptied them into the tree again, and so on.

It looked to be quite an old tree, and gnarled, but with a great many deep green, September leaves. There were quite a few holes in its large, grizzled trunk, which served us well, as it meant that whichever direction the wind blew in there’d always be at least a couple of directions from which water could be poured in without us breathing in any smoke. However, the downside was that, in combination with the steady breeze, the fire had a near-constant supply of oxygen. There was a point just as we were starting to pour when the flames rose almost fully out of the holes in the trunk, threatening to escape the tree’s heart and reach the branches. All that we could do was hasten our pouring and wait for the ranger.

A number of minutes later, the Czech man returned with a park ranger in a fluorescent jacket. The ranger observed the tree for a moment, then walked with some amount of haste back the way he had come. I offered the Czech man my water bottle (I had by this point remembered that I had my plastic lunch box with me, which was far more effective) and he joined us in our efforts.

Quite a few more minutes later, the park ranger returned with a water jug. By this point the Czech man, my friends and I had managed to more or less control the rising flames, reducing them once more to a glow within the tree. However, this glow still burned strongly, and there was more smoke and steam pouring from the tree than ever. After a few minutes of seeming to be assessing the situation, the park ranger set off once more the way that he had come, the water jug still in his hand.

I’m not sure quite how much time passed after that of us going between the river and the tree, the river and the tree, pouring more and more water into the pores and holes in its trunk. In retrospect, we could perhaps have tried to plug those hole with sand to starve the first of oxygen, but there were a lot of them, and there was a lot of heat coming out of them. In the end, the park ranger returned with a couple of firemen. As there is no access to the island by anything other than stairs or lift from the bridge, they had only two pieces of equipment with them- some kind of pump, presumably of gas or foam, and a chainsaw. The area was cordoned off, and with a “You can go now” from the park ranger, we were directed out of the area.

We decided in retrospect that the fire was probably the result of a cigarette butt thrown into the tree an hour or a few hours before- it had looked too alive to spontaneously ignite. We took it as consolation that, in cases like that, the tree is normally doomed from the moment the fire starts, so there was nothing that we could have done to save it. Still, there is a certain sadness inherent in the death of an old tree.

Nonetheless, we had probably prevented the fire’s spread and definitely reduced the damage that it caused, so we couldn’t help feeling a certain pride! As we walked back along the bridge, we eagerly discussed the medals and Keys to the City of Prague that we would receive (still lost in the post to this day, we presume!) and then, as it was late evening by then, we went our separate ways.

Something that this incident definitely illustrates to me is the value of doing things. It would have been easy for us to notice the smoking tree and just walk away, or to simply let the Czech man try to deal with it. If we had, perhaps another tree would have burned down, or a charred scar would have been left in the landscape. As it is, the only sign there now that anything happened is that one of the trees is much younger than the rest.

Sometimes, there’s nothing that you can do in a situation. Sometimes the things that you can do aren’t actually helpful. However, while doing nothing is often by far the easier option, willingness to try to help from a place of good intentions is, to my mind, a very worthwhile thing indeed.

3- Some Talking and Sorting

Note-

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. This entry is a direct follow-up to the first of my blogs- others shall skip ahead to salient moments in the year.

 

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The first day of my Czech language course went surprisingly well. It started, as you would imagine, with a meet-and-greet, where those of us in my class (around twelve of us, of the eighty or so total students enrolled on the language course and separated into classes) were introduced via a series of games using basic Czech. I had been given free access to an online Czech language course in advance of the lessons, so none of the stuff that we covered was all that challenging. So far, at least.

One thing that did prove a little challenging was that our Czech teacher did not, herself, appear to speak any English. While this sometimes made things a little difficult to get into, and rendered individual questioning nothing short of terrifying, once we got going with an exercise it was always easy enough to work out between us whether we were doing more or less the right thing. Unfortunately, when it came to myself and the other English girl on the course this tended to be less rather than more, but we would always seem to muddle our way through, even despite our dutiful representation of the typical degree of English multilinguistic prowess…

After our first lesson, we all went to the nearby metro station to receive our respective student public transport cards. This card would, as part of a system that seemed utterly miraculous to me as an Englishman, allow me to use any form of public transport in as much as I like, for one-off payments that equated to around £5 per month. The centre of Prague being quite small, and the public transport system being, as I would later learn, very efficient, this pass would allow me to traverse the city with quite extraordinary ease! All I had to do was pay a small fee for the card itself, and then work out how to actually navigate the (intuitive, but intimidating at first!) web of buses, trams and metro lines that operated throughout the city.

For the time being, I had walked to the building where the language course was held using google maps, and planned to walk back the same way. However, 80 students all wanting to get the same transport card at the same time, in addition to the general traffic concerns of the Praguian public, made for quite the queue outside the transport office, and while we were queuing my phone ran out of battery. This shouldn’t have been too much of an issue- it was only a short walk back to my accommodation, if a bit of an obscure one through back-roads and a spot of woodland. However, as my more astute readers will recall, it was this Monday that I had been charged with a vitally important quest- to go to the Accommodation Office.

As we continued to queue, and time continued to pass, it was suddenly approaching the time that the accommodation office would close. Were I to miss this time, the grave tone with which the various receptionists had commanded that I go to said office suggested that I wouldn’t technically be allowed to stay in my accommodation block. With every minute that passed, as I gazed despairingly at the turning of the hands on the clock by our queue, I could feel panic starting to rise within me. As much as I was now enjoying living in Prague as an adventure, homelessness was one particular adventure that I wanted to avoid.

The queue for the passes seeming to move slower by the minute, while the rate of passage of time appeared to accelerate, I can only assume by way of some manner of spacio-temporal anomaly. I found my panic steadily starting to grow. The other students from my class having already received their passes or decided to pick them up at a later date when there was less of a queue (as I now realised that I most definitely should have done), I approached a group of some unknown students from the language course and asked whether I could borrow one of their phones to call a taxi. One of them agreed, with a slightly nervous smile, and I commenced some panicked googling and dialling while he looked on with a hint of concern. I was able to connect to a taxi company, but, upon giving my location and the location that I wanted to get to, was informed that no taxis were available (by which I imagine they meant that they didn’t consider it worthwhile to send a taxi to the outskirts of town for a 5 minute journey). As I returned to Google for another number, the student asked for his phone back, looking a tad wary of my presumably frantic expression. I acquiesced, and tried to think about my options.

In the end, the spacio-temporal anomaly graciously allowed me to reach the end of the queue. There, by way of a slightly awkward interaction and the handing over of some money, a passport photo of me from several years ago and my passport itself as verification of my identity, I received my transport pass for the month. Immediately upon its receipt, I ran up the stairs from the metro station to the street to assess my options.

I had been hoping that, upon reaching the surface, I would become suddenly inspired as to which way I must go to return to my accommodation block. This was, after all, definitely at least very near the path that I had taken. Alas, no such inspiration struck. I ran along a road selected at random, hoping that my memory would be jogged, but this served only to convince me that this was not a road I recognised (or was it?). I looked around me for inspiration, painfully aware of how time was slipping away from me.

Suddenly, it occurred to me- I was in a bus station! One of the bus drivers would know which way I should go! I ran over to one of the bus drivers who seemed to be on a break, chatting idly in Czech with another driver. I was thus made aware of a flaw in my plan, in that our first lesson hadn’t quite got to the point of how to ask for directions. Still, some things are universal.

“Pardon, uh…”
The two drivers looked at me in silent expectation.
“Větrník?” I tried to say, before performing a series of charades to the effect of ‘please help me I am very lost and need to get to my accommodation office before it closes’- pointing in random directions, shrugging, that sort of thing.

The two drivers continued to look at me in silence.

Eventually, after repeating the same series of actions in various orders and trying out different pronunciations of Větrník (the name of my accommodation complex), one of the drivers seemed to get the idea, pointing in a vague direction and saying something to his co-worker that made them both laugh. I mumbled my thanks, and headed off in the direction that he had indicated.

About ten seconds later I found myself at a crossroads, with paths going off in various directions. Unfortunately, I continued to recognise none of them.

A man was walking down one of the roads, so I stopped him and thought I’d try out a similar series of mumbled Czech and English and exaggerated gestures on him. He actually spoke a bit of English, and, after getting me to type out ‘Větrník’ on his phone (the doing of which prompted an expression of ‘Ooh, that’s what you were trying to say’), said that he wasn’t from the area, but he thought it might be in the direction that he had just come from. This being the best intel that I had, I started out in that direction, going from a fast walk to a jog to a sprint.

I thought of many things as I ran. How I could have just picked up the transport pass tomorrow. How I could have used the transport pass to get home, had I worked out the transport routes. How I should have brought my phone charger to class with me. But most of all, I thought about how it was far too hot for this. I have done an awful lot of panicked running, in my life. To lectures, to band rehearsals, even to exams. Panic is one of my main motivators, beside spontaneous inspiration, guilt, and having something else to do that’s slightly more important than the thing that I’m motivated to do. I suppose that it is probably this that makes me feel most at home in environments where it tends to be cool enough that, if necessary, I can just get up, calmly pack my things and then absolutely peg it to wherever it is that I urgently need to be.

As I pondered these things, I started to recognise the things and places around me, until- yes, here I was! Right by the main road near my accommodation block, next to the shop with the cheap noodles and freely available cardboard boxes. Another few minutes of jogging and there I was, puffed but on time at the accommodation office!

I had a moment to catch my breath while both receptionists in the office were occupied talking to students, and then it was my turn to talk to them. Not only did the lady there speak good English, she seemed to have a pretty good understanding of the situation, and, after a bit of clicking around, was able to give me an accommodation card that would work for the rest of the year! I paid my first month’s rent, and set off to move my stuff to my new room, in the same building but one floor above.

In all, I’d say that this experience was a pretty good representation of most of the problems that I’ve had in Prague. Things are a little chaotic, my life is a little chaotic, but everyone has good intentions and things work out in the end. That’s not to say that all of my problems have magically resolved themselves at no cost to anyone, but there have always been ways to make things work. More often than not, these ways have involved actually going and talking to people, and not being afraid to ask for help. This is something that I shall do my best to remember.

That night there was a welcome party organised by the language course, which was actually a lot of fun! There was some ‘local party food’ prepared, which turned out more or less to be ‘things arranged on bread’ and ‘meats fried in a batter,’ as well as a limited supply of free beer and wine. Being pescatarian (no meat other than seafood), I felt fully justified in eating as much of the vegetarian option as I physically could.

In the course of the night I came across the student whose phone I’d borrowed, and we mutually apologised for our respectively odd and concerned behaviours. He turned out to be from the Netherlands, from a city that some of my friends who live in the Netherlands would often make fun of, largely for its silly name. I remarked as such, and he laughed politely. We went our separate ways.

It’s a funny thing how, in any such situation, there are always people that you are immediately drawn to, and some not. Often the people that you are drawn to seem to be drawn to those that you are not drawn to, and suddenly you find that you have been drawn into a bit of a messy scribble. There were people there that night that I spoke to for hours, first at the language course party and then at a club/bar that some local guys led a little group of us to. We compared our lives, found things that we had in common, and even made some exciting plans for the year. For most of those people, this was both the first and last substantial interaction that I had with them.

Still, I had a lot of fun, so what does it matter? Generally speaking, I will always value having a few good, close friendships over having lots of people that I’m just friendly with. At the same time, there is always value in meeting new people and getting an insight into how they view life, whether they stay in yours afterwards or otherwise. Just talk to people, be amiable, and things will probably work out in the end.

2- A Welcome Displaced

Note-

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. This entry is a direct follow-up to the first of my blogs- others shall skip ahead to salient moments in the year.

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I awoke on my first morning in Prague feeling much as I had felt when I went to sleep. If you read the first of my blogs, you will know that this was, for the most part, lost, uncertain, and far from home. I remained in my room for the bulk of the morning, unpacking those possessions that were immediately necessary (the stability of my living arrangements at the time being far from cemented) and musing on my situation in a manner that would probably be best described as brooding.

In the end, it was hunger that prompted me to leave my room. Lacking any real cooking equipment, I searched Google for the nearest supermarket that would sell components from which sandwiches could be made, as well as perhaps a frozen pizza, or something along those lines. I most definitely intended to dive into the local cuisine, but on this particular day I was in the mood for exploration of the gentlest possible sort. My destination saved on my phone and a Cornwall Wildlife Trust canvas bag stuffed into my pocket, I set off, locking my suitcase and ruminations in my room.

As I went to leave the accommodation block, I saw that the receptionist past whom I would need to walk was different from the one yesterday. She smiled at my approach, and for a moment a wild fancy struck me- had I perhaps now encountered a member of the accommodation staff who spoke and understood English? There was only one way to put this to the test.

“Dobber-ee den,” I said, a pronunciation of the Czech greeting ‘dobrý den’ that may almost have been just about understandable. “I was given this card, do you know where I have to go to sort out my accommodation?”

It was evident within a couple of words that little to no understanding of what I said was forthcoming. We looked at one another in silence for a long few seconds.

“Is this okay?” I tried again, showing her the accommodation card that I had been given last night. “Where should I go?”

She eyed the card with clear familiarity, but no hind of comprehension. Fortunately, it was at this point that I was rescued by a passer-by.

“What is it that you’re trying to ask?”

Taller than me and heavy-set, with short-cropped hair and broad, friendly features, he had the look of a student about him, though his expression showed not one hint of the uncertainty that I felt as a new arrival.

“Oh, erm, I was just wondering, erm, I was given this card last night and told that I should come here, but that I then have to go to the Accommodation Office on Monday, and I was just wanting to make sure that I know where that is and that it’s all okay.”

He stood for a moment, seeming to be processing what I said, before turning to address the receptionist. They briefly conversed, at the apparent conclusion of which the receptionist returned my card.

“She says that you have to go to the Accommodation Office on Monday.”

‘Outstanding,’ I thought to myself.

“Those are the hours it’s open,” he added, indicating a poster in the corner of the room. “Do you know where it is?”

I stood in non-response emulating thought long enough for the question to answer itself.

“I can show you, if you like?” he added further, with a gesture that suggested that it was no bother, and that he was headed that way anyway to do a spot of shopping. Impressed by the number of things that he was able to imply with such a simple gesture, I acquiesced, and off we set.

He was a pleasant fellow, with a friendly manner and a mode of speech that was, though not quite fluent, effortlessly easy to understand. We quickly reached the Accommodation Office, which was almost but not quite where I had guessed that it was. After a moment or two of my standing there directionless, he confirmed and reinforced his earlier gesture’s suggestion of an intention to shop, and asked whether I’d like to come along, such that I could be made aware of local areas of interest and the best way to get to them. I eagerly agreed.

It was certainly not the most beautiful suburban area that I had seen- Soviet brutalism takes its toll- but the more that we walked and talked, the more I could see that the district was not without its charm. Much like, as I would later be delighted to learn, a great deal of the City of Prague, trees and green areas and little patches of flowers and grass abounded, and there always seemed to be a little pub or two just around the corner. There was even a peaceful-looking wooded area a minute or two’s walk from my accommodation, the mere knowledge of which I found profoundly soothing. I was led on a shortcut behind some buildings, up through a side road, and then we appeared to have arrived.

“Here, this is the big shop,” my newfound companion stated, indicating the supermarket in front of us. Its bigness was matched only by how much it was a shop. He led me inside, and we each took a basket.

The name of the shop, ‘Billa,’ was one with which I was unfamiliar, but the interior was more or less as I would expect a supermarket of that size to be. With a guide to direct me, I was suddenly eager to explore. On top of the staple vegetables, my bag was quickly filled with the traditional Czech bread rolls, honey and nut cake and other little curiosities that were recommended to me. Were I there alone, this process of choosing from among the ingredients available, both familiar and otherwise, would most likely have taken a matter of hours. As it was, however, I charitably raised the pace of my shopping to the relatively breakneck speed of that of a normal human, and soon I had a bag of groceries and other foodstuffs that I was eager to explore.

We walked back via another little supermarket, valued by my companion for its cheap noodles and the fact that it kept the cardboard boxes that it no longer needed in a large container in the corner, several of which he took, as he was soon to be leaving Prague. We then made our way back to the accommodation block, discussing how Prague is one of the safest cities in Europe, our respective backgrounds (he turned out to be a masters student, originally from Ukraine but living in Prague these past ten years) and the Czech language. I’d spoken a few words in Czech over the course of our shopping, and told him that I was about to start a Czech language course.

“Oh… Good luck.” His tone wasn’t particularly reassuring.

We got back to the accommodation block, said goodbye and went our separate ways. I got the feeling that we’d probably never see one another again, but I wasn’t too worried about that. My conversation with him, his volunteering to show me around, and just our extended pleasant interaction in general had already completely changed my feelings towards my situation, and towards the year abroad in general. It had reminded me there where there are good people, things can and will always get better. Further, it had reminded me that there are good people everywhere, and all you have to do is happen across them, or, failing that, seek them out!

With this in mind, I spent the afternoon, and indeed the remainder of the weekend with a spring in my step and my usual optimism restored. The honey and nut cake was indeed as delicious as I had imagined that it would be, and I was able to construct several relatively successful crude meals out of the ingredients recommended to me. I sent an email to my coordinator about the accommodation situation, who responded almost immediately thanking me for letting her know, and made a rough checklist of things that needed doing. My initial welcome to Prague had not been absent; it was merely displaced.

Thus more or less ended my initial period of culture shock in Prague. That’s not to say that I was perfectly adapted and integrated by the end of the weekend, many things still seemed strange and uncertain. However, the key difference, now that I’d seen a friendly face and heard positive words from a peer, was that now these things were strange and uncertain in an exciting way! I was no longer lost- now I was on an adventure.

It was this mentality that carried me through into the start of the Czech language course. Again, it was a little chaotic and disorganised from the get-go, but if anything that was rather reassuring- feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing is far less concerning if no-one seems to. The first day was a blur of which room to go do, names to learn and faces to confuse the names with, but good fun nonetheless. We all seemed very much in the same boat (aside from the Slovakian girl, who was universally resented for already being able to more or less understand the language) and there was a good mix of cultures- a Fin, a Spaniard, a Catalan girl (who vehemently insisted that she was Catalan, not Spanish), several Germans, another English girl. It as a small group, and quiet, and that suited me well.

I shall give more details on the language course, the dramatic conclusion to the saga of my necessary visit to the accommodation office, and perhaps even my friends and my combatting of the Great Fire of Prague in tomorrow blogoir. However, suffice it for now to say that I did indeed settle into Prague, and make friends, and maintain the spirit of optimism and adventure that I had now gained.

It’s incredible how great an impact one experience, even one moment can have. Not only did my interaction with the Ukrainian who was my brief companion affect my mood, it also made me think; how many interactions do I have per day? How many people do I talk to, or have the option to talk to? How many of them could be feeling lost, as I was, or just uninspired? Of course one can’t be a dashing, friendly Ukrainian stranger in every interaction, and it’s near-impossible to be in the right place at the right time every time. Still, the capacity to have that much of a positive impact on a person’s life in that short a space of time is certainly power that I, in that moment, vowed to use at every possible opportunity, in my year abroad and beyond.

1- An Unexpected Visitor

Note-

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. They shall also reflect on what I learned from the experiences, and detail how they went on to shape my year abroad as a whole.

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I had never really been the nervous type, when it came to this sort of thing. My first day of primary school is a distinctly pleasant blur on the edge of my memory. My first day of secondary school involved my entire primary school class moving collectively to the same school, so there were no real concerns there. My first day of University was far more exciting than anything else, I having been looking forward to going to Uni from the day I learned what it was. Why, then, was I so nervous about my year studying abroad?

I suppose that the answer lies in the above explanations- this time there would be no-one in my classes (or indeed the country) that I knew, and, if I’m honest, studying abroad wasn’t something that I’d really put much time into mentally preparing for. That’s not to say by any means that I hadn’t been excited, or that I didn’t spend any time thinking the logistics through- my friends, family and tutors had made sure of that! Still, these things always creep up on you faster than you expect, and it was thus, after a hectic end to my second Uni year and a particularly busy summer, that I found myself on my way to Prague.

The start of my year abroad was not, in fact, the start of my studies abroad. Towards the end of the summer, immediately preceding my travel to the Czech Republic, I had taken part in a Film Composition Summer School at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, partially funded by a scholarship grant from the University of Southampton. It was an amazing couple of weeks, during which I learnt a lot and met some great people. However, though it was taught in a foreign country, my time there was certainly far from devoid of familiarity; one of my course mates there turned out to be a friend from Southampton, and, most significantly, my girlfriend of the time studied in the Netherlands at the University of a neighbouring city, meaning that I was able to stay with her and commute in each morning. Thus, while the simmer school did, I suppose, serve as a gentle introduction to the idea of studying abroad and meeting people from around the world, it was a wildly different experience to that of my first arrival in Prague.

I travelled by Flixbus from the Netherlands to Prague over the course of about ten hours, a not insubstantial proportion of my stuff left at my girlfriend’s apartment (but still laden down with luggage nonetheless- I tend to favour the Smaug method of item accruement over the Marie Kondo). At this point I was quite used to such journeys, on account primarily of an apparent penchant for long-distance relationships, though this familiarity rendered the travel time no less waring. At the time I had the cheapest phone contract that EE would provide, so my data allocation had long since expired, leaving me with only FlixBus’ slightly dodgy wifi for online communication. Still, several pre-downloaded YouTube videos and one western later (Once Upon a Time in the West, I believe), I arrived in Prague at around half past eleven at night.

A brief online investigation of the Prague public transport system before I arrived had convinced me that the best way to get to my accommodation was by taxi.  I had the app of one of the more reputable taxi companies downloaded, which, upon my using it to call a taxi to my location, conjured one up almost immediately. Being something of a wizard myself this didn’t faze me, so without further ado the cabbie and I hauled my luggage into the taxi, I climbed into one of the back seats and off we set into Prague.

The journey was uneventful, and we didn’t talk much in the course of it. I kept a casual eye on the route that we were taking on Google maps, having received dire warnings about taxi drivers in Prague taking far longer routes than necessary, but all seemed to be in order in that regard. Not knowing what to look for, my first impression of Prague by night was that it seemed attractive as a city, but I couldn’t yet identify what made it unique. Before I knew it, I was on the street that, I hoped, included my accommodation block. I disembarked, handed the taxi driver what I hoped was a sensible fare, and stumbled my way through a word that I had been reliably informed by the internet meant thank you.

“Dek-oo-joo?” I said, in what I now realise is a terrible butchering of the Czech ‘děkuju’. The taxi driver smiled in polite confusion.

“Does that mean thank you?” I asked, falteringly.

“Oh, erm, yes” he responded charitably, with the same slightly forced polite smile.
“Ah, good… I’m going to be taking a Czech language course over the next couple of weeks.”
“Oh, well… Good luck.” His tone wasn’t particularly reassuring.

On the rough cobbles of the pavement that I was dropped off at my heavy suitcase’s wheels might as well have been square, my suitcase hopping and bucking over the rough stones. Nonetheless, I managed to find the accommodation’s main reception without too much difficulty, arriving around midnight. I entered. The room was well-lit, wide but low-ceilinged, with posters and notices seemingly haphazardly strewn about the walls. At the far end of the room a man sat in an adjoining office, separated by a large glass window. He regarded me with an expression that seemed to be something like bored suspicion.

“Doh-breh den” I greeted him, another butchering. “Is this the office for accommodation for Erasmus students?”

His expression as he scratched at his short-cropped salt-and-pepper beard made it abundantly clear that he neither would nor could speak English. He spoke some phrases in Czech, I repeated myself a little slower, and this time he seemed to catch onto the word ‘Erasmus’.

“Passport,” he said gruffly.

Relieved, I handed him my passport. He opened a large book that seemed to be of names and assigned rooms, clearly searching for mine. After about a minute of searching, he looked back up at me.

“No,” he said, shaking his head and shrugging slightly. My relief drained away like red wine into a fluffy white carpet.

“No?” I asked, not really sure what else to say. I gestured at the man in a way that I hoped indicated ‘I really ought to be on your list as I have received a number of emails that strongly indicated that this would be the case.’ He seemed to get the message and looked through the list again, but his response was the same. ‘Bugger,’ I thought to myself.

Fortunately, through the miracle of Eduroam, I had an internet connection. I took out my MacBook, found the email from my Erasmus Coordinator confirming my place in the accommodation block and put it into Google translate. I showed it to the receptionist, along with a note giving context and a hopeful smile. The frown-lines in his forehead deepened.

 

As he rifled once more through his books and forms, I started to think through my options. I knew that there was at least one hostel nearby- would they accept guests this late? It was certainly far from impossible if I explained my situation, I having something of a talent for jammily getting myself out of difficult situations by coming across as friendly, charming and a little lost, but would such an explanation be possible? If the receptionist of this accommodation block designated, as far as I could tell, as being entirely for Erasmus and other foreign students spoke little to no English, how could I expect the night receptionist of a random hostel on the outskirts of Prague to speak any English whatsoever? Would I have to call another taxi to get all of my stuff there? I only had so much Czech money to burn…

My musings were interrupted by the receptionist saying some brusque words in Czech and handing me a form. I picked up the form questioningly, and he motioned in obvious frustration for me to sit at the table on the other side of the room and fill it out. Embarrassed by my lack of comprehension, I sat down with the form. It was, of course, all in Czech, but Google translate remained my faithful companion. I put in the title and asked for the translation. “Temporary Alien Accommodation,” I was reliably informed.

I returned the form about ten to fifteen minutes later, each part of it having been painstakingly translated and the required details filled out. He directed his frown at it and angrily indicated a box that I had left empty. Whatever expression of panic and lack of understanding that appeared on my face was enough to quickly convince him to snatch up my passport and complete the missing details himself. He then filled out some details on a coaster-sized rectangle of card and handed it to me through the window in the glass, along with a key.

“You show card to reception, go to accommodation office Monday,” he said, his expression and tone of voice seeming to suggest that were I to not do so, my days on Earth would be numbered. I nodded to indicate my understanding, Google translated ‘Thank you very much for the help, sorry about my Czech, I am still learning!’ and held the laptop up to the glass window (I like to think that his dismissive wave in response was a ‘no need to thank me and don’t worry about the lack of Czech,’ rather than a ‘stop bothering me and go away’), and made my way in the direction that the receptionist had indicated, looking out for the building number on the card that he had given me.

The remainder of the night was uneventful. The building was the second one down the road, the receptionist there let me in and pointed me in the direction of my room (repeating that I must go to the accommodation office on Monday in the same foreboding tone), and I was able to haul my luggage up the stairs without too much difficulty. The room itself was… more or less as I expected. All of the rooms in the block are shared between two people, and I did for a moment hold my breath as I opened the door, but the interior showed no signs of habitation. The room was approximately 3 metres by 5 metres (as I later measured) and contained two beds, two desks, two wardrobes, a little cupboard with shelves and a mini fridge-freezer. Everything the room needed, and not a thing more. With a rent of a hundred quid a month I certainly wasn’t going to complain, but I certainly didn’t feel immediately at home.

I half-dragged my stuff in through the door, pushed it to a close and collapsed on the bed. I thought back to my first day at Southampton, a little chaotic and rough around the edges, but great fun, lots of new people to meet, lots of really exciting stuff to look forward to. This was very much not the case here. I knew that I’d be starting my Czech language course in a couple of days, so there’d be plenty of people to meet there, but other than that… I felt a little lost, and not at all at home.

I remember this thought prompting a wry smile. Of course I felt lost, and not at home- I had just arrived in an unfamiliar country, knowing no-one, several countries away from anywhere I’d ever lived. It was to be expected, it was what I’d been warned about, it was what I knew full well would probably happen. Nonetheless, it still wasn’t really something that I was prepared for. I lay back in the bed that I had arbitrarily chosen and sighed, an expectedly unexpected visitor to an unknown city. Perhaps I’d feel better in the morning.