Studying Abroad in Prague, Czech Republic: This is a guest post by Samuel Greenberg of New York University.
Franz Kafka is often quoted as saying: “Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws”. All unsettling imagery aside; this statement, one that came to mind more often than I would have liked during my final days in that Bohemian city, made little sense to me the first time it reached my ears.
Indeed, the situation in which it was repeated to me was an innocuous one. I, along with my hundred – plus fellow NYU in Prague students, sat in a beautiful, albeit overly large lecture hall at Charles University listening to a quite boring man swaddled in a baggy suit (although no snob of fashion, one faux pas I cannot abide is the custom, inexplicably popular among American politicians, of wearing suits and ties nearly three sizes too large; to add insult to injury, an American flag pin is often pinned obnoxiously to the offender’s lapel) drone endlessly about the safety precautions one must take while living in Prague. The man, whose voice happened to be so monotone that I’ve still, to this day, not decided whether was a joke or not, happened to be (unsurprisingly) an employee from the United States Embassy.
I suppose that fact, the nature of the man’s employment, is what stuck Kafka’s quote in my mind; indeed, everything about the man – his clothes, his voice, his mannerisms, but most importantly his job, reeked of bureaucracy, a lack of creativity. In essence, he was the absolute last person I would ever have expected to receive a gem of literary wisdom from, regardless of its author, and especially in the midst of such a “practical” presentation about safety in the Czech Republic. What could have possibly been practical about Kafka’s neurotic musings on the nature of his home? However, four months later, this quote would not only become all too relevant to my life, but in a large way come to represent Prague for the latter part of my residency in the city as well.
For many, the name Kafka is undeniably intertwined with his city of residence; indeed, I’ve heard it said that to understand Kafka is to understand Prague. And as most anyone who’s read Kafka will agree (and here, it must be said that if you’re in university and haven’t yet read Kafka, you’ve been living under a rock, and you probably shouldn’t bother finishing this essay), the man’s works make a most unsettling read. Built around a seemingly placeless, faceless bureaucratic fear, his stories, especially those that involve Prague – or, to be more specific, Kafka’s neurotic and claustrophobic version of the Prague – turn the city from a Disneyland-esque wonderland into a spider web of fear and paranoia worthy of the most neurotic Jewish mother.
But I digress; the purpose of this Kafka-centric tangent is not to educate, but rather to highlight the dichotomy between the idealistic view of Prague, so championed by study abroad pamphlets and those for whom the saying “beer is cheaper than water” translates roughly to “Christmas, Hannukah, my birthday, and sex all rolled into one” (I would be a liar if I said this thought never crossed my mind), and Kafka’s aforementioned view of Prague. Needless to say, I was part of the former category when I decided to study in the “City of 100 Spires”; it wouldn’t be long, however, until the differences began to blur.
I grew up in the city of Berkeley, California. For those who haven’t had the privilege of experiencing Berkeley firsthand (or at least its residents), I would describe the city as such: Berkeley is a small, adorable, university town that boasts (in my humble opinion) a phenomenal rate of bakeries, intellectuals, and self-congratulating, middle class ex-hippies who are too busy getting high and being self righteous to realize that their “socialist utopia” is quickly descending into a (often literally, depending on the part of town) feces-strewn cesspool of drugs and crime.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point of this anecdote was not (contrary to what it may seem), to vent my still-palpable disgust with my hometown. Rather, it was to explain why, like so many others who were raised in the aforementioned environment, I grew up with the notion that communism was all but synonymous with utopia. Although education, travel, and experience have since taught me otherwise, I never gained the abject disgust with which many of my fellow Americans (especially those whose childhoods were products of the Cold War years) view Communism. Thus, my first brush with the remnants of Czech communism came with both a shock and an extreme sense of nightmarish, Kafka-esque fear.
The cause of this brush, of course, was my student visa (or lack thereof); because I had studied in Spain the semester before coming to Prague, I was unable to apply for a student visa until I had already entered the Czech Republic as a tourist. I was assured, of course, that it would be no problem; after all, a country whose economy is based, in a large part, around tourism and foreign students surely wouldn’t jeopardize its relationship with a major foreign university over something so trivial. Right? I’ll abstain from even answering that rhetorical question.
As it so happened, myself and five fellow students found ourselves residing illegally in the Czech Republic with a month still to go before the conclusion of our program. Although the fine for overstaying an EU visa is not outrageous, the other consequences are not so light. If discovered, I could be banned from the EU for a period of up to five years. For me, this would be unacceptable; suffice to say that I feel just barely warmer towards the rest of the United States than I do towards the City of Berkeley. Although I would go so far as to say that I’m not generally afraid of the police (a casual dislike of authority figures, especially police, is another well-known symptom of a Berkeley childhood), I’ll admit that I began to be quite nervous. I found myself getting easily spooked when alone in public, deliberately not making eye contact with police, and ceasing to partake in the nightlife for which Prague is so famous, among other things.
However, it was my visit to the Foreign Police station, in the company of my fellow visa-less students and an overly anxious R.A., which gave me a true taste of communism. Although we arrived at the station just as the doors opened for the day (an uncomfortably bright and chilly 8 a.m.), the line already stretched halfway down the block. In the end, it took us nearly four hours to even get a chance to speak with a representative. That time was passed in a waiting room seemingly transported from 1978 Czechoslovakia. The faux-wood paneled walls were collaged with the ripped, taped remnants of some decade’s worth of notices and edicts. The discolored linoleum tile floor was broken in places; the uncomfortable metal chairs (painted a horrible shade of creamy-pink) were mismatched. I made the mistake of using the bathroom, which revealed its self to be no more than a seat-less toilet on a short brick platform; a half roll of toilet paper sat on the ground nearby. The sink, of the metal kitchen variety, was accompanied only by a small, well-used bar of soap.
But it was not the amenities (or lack thereof) that made my visit to the foreign police so terrifying; it was the people. No one spoke. No one’s eyes moved from their shoes. Nearly everyone carried a folder full of documents, many compulsively checking and re-checking their order. Everyone looked, acted, felt guilty. And although I was of the opinion that I had done nothing wrong, I began to feel guilty, scared, and uncomfortable as well.
Could my visa debacle and subsequent visit to the Foreign Police have happened in any Eastern Bloc country? Absolutely. But something about the atmosphere, about the palpable nervousness it caused, I believe is unique to Prague. Because Prague isn’t like any other Eastern Bloc city; it’s tiny, it’s old, it’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and it’s overrun with tourists; in short, it’s nothing one would associate with a Soviet city. And because of those qualities, I felt trapped by it, that its crowds were stifling, that its beauty was nothing more than a mask over a malicious, faceless government, that within Prague’s tiny borders I had lost the advantage of anonymity; in essence, I felt that my life was quickly taking a turn for the unsettlingly surreal.
And so, I return to Kafka. Is Kafka’s horrified view of Prague the accurate one? Like everything else in this world, the answer is neither yes nor is it no. Rather, his view evokes something more than a visible, tangible environment; it evokes a surreal, uncomfortable, occasionally nightmarish, and somehow terrifying spirit lying quietly under the city’s beautiful façade. It’s for that reason that Kafka’s works, and maybe even the man himself, could not have existed in the same fashion anywhere but Prague. And in a reversal of the formula, for me, understanding Prague meant understanding Kafka. And truly understanding Kafka is something that I hope never to have to do again.
Photo courtesy of Nigel Swales via Flickr (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0).[line]
About the Author: Samuel Greenberg is in his fourth year at New York University. He has taken full advantage of NYU’s vast study abroad opportunities, having lived in Madrid, Spain, and Prague, Czech Republic, for the past year, as well as traveling to London, England, the summer after his freshman year.
Check out the video below all about visiting the Czech Republic!