Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

Money Matters and the Formal Dude

So, the topics of my first couple of blog posts came to me rather easily, I basically just took the things rattling around in my head post-arrival and sorted the major things out until they were coherent enough for anyone to read. When contemplating the topics for this post, I reached out to my mom and asked what she thought would be interesting, and she mentioned that it might be a good idea to cover some of the things that had me stressed. One thing she brought up was the foreign concept of foreign currency: what does it look like, what is the exchange rate, and, finally, where does someone go to get money exchanged? There’s a whole load of things to tackle so let’s get started.

In Costa Rica, they use a currency called colones. There are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 thousand bills, as well as 5,10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 coins. The colon bills are incredibly beautiful, in my opinion, each denomination has a different color, and feature art of Costa Rica, from famous buildings to plants and animals like sloths and butterflies. The 50 thousand colon bill, which none of the IFSA students have actually seen in person, is a gorgeous purple color and showcases the Morpho butterfly, Bromelia flower, and parasol mushrooms; these bills highlighting the biggest industry of Costa Rica, ecotourism.

Now, how much is that pretty 50 thousand worth in USD? Currently, as type this post, 50,000 colones is about 88.30 USD. So yes, an American could walk around with an app like XE Currency, which updates constantly, but a good rule of them is ‘multiply the colones by two and then remove the last three digits, so 50,000 x 2 = 100,000, remove the last three digits and it’s about $100. The overage is rather evident, but in a pinch 100 colones is $0.20, 500 is $1, 1 thousand is $2, and so on from there. Finally, where to exchange, and I assure you, readers, this is easily the most important question to be answered; I can say that from experience. Having just arrived in Costa Rica, one of my first instincts was to exchange about sixty bucks… at the airport. This was my first mistake in the country, the airport exchange booth actually short changed me at a rate of 480 colones per 1 USD. This means that a 50,000 colon bill would actually trade for about 104.50 USD at that rate, abysmal, really, when compared to the actual exchange rate. So places that will give you a much better exchange rate: any Banco Nacional ATM, there will be a bit of a surcharge to pull out from a non-affiliated bank but it’s really not that much, a lot of hotels will exchange cash and you’ll probably be lucky enough to have a receptionist who speaks English; or in a pinch most business will accept USD as far as I’ve observed but there is always a bit of a holdup when they check to see if your money is real and everyone kind of rolls their eyes at the foreigner who couldn’t spend five minutes at the ATM to get some local money.

One more quick topic before I end this post, and this is for the Spanish learners back at Sydney and just generally out there: what is “usted”, and when/how is it used. As a basic definition, “usted” is a formal second person pronoun, it takes the place of “tú”, but it acts more like a third person noun. That being said usage of “usted” varies from country to country, how it is used and if it is used at all, someone going abroad will have the best luck with doing a quick search on Google, or even better, asking a local. In Costa Rica, “usted” is used for basically everyone, until you feel close enough and comfortable to “tutear”, or speak with “tú”. Now, I’m the type of person that uses dude as a gender-neutral form of address. Retraining my brain to use “usted” instead of “tú” has been a little bit of a trick that if you could fit “dude” into an area of a sentence in English and it makes sense, then that’s a spot where “usted” can go in a sentence, for example, “hey, dude” -> “hola usted” or “can you pass me that, dude?” -> “puede me lo regalo usted?”. It’s not a perfect rule, and I’m sure the entirety of Spain just felt the hairs on the back of its neck raise in indignation, but the “dude rule” has worked so far for me.

So, before I leave, a closing thought: when it comes to learning new things and acquiring skills like on the spot money-handling or using a language facet you hadn’t used before, everything comes down to what works best for you. When it comes to money the 2:1 ratio is good enough for me and in the case of “usted” I don’t think I could have possibly thought of a more personalized method of learning than the “dude method”.

With that, cheers to weird brain shortcuts and learning the best way we can, nos vemos.

While none of us have actually seen a real life 50,000 bill, I did score this really rad towel this past weekend while in Manuel Antonio, but you’ll hear all about that in my next post about my trips to Quepos and Cerro de la Muerte.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

FOOD

The very first slide of the very first orientation presentation very poignantly said of Costa Rica, “welcome to Costa Rica, where eating too much is the new normal.” Having been here for a short stint already, I can fully assure you that the program director, Rodney, was not joking.

Most morning, Iliana prepares fried eggs, some form of meat, an assortment of fruit which always includes papaya, various types of bread, and occasionally gallo pinto. This last one is a very popular dish in Costa Rica and consists of rice, beans, and various ingredients that are often left-over from dinner the previous nights. Like I said, we don’t have gallo pinto every day, but it is popular enough that several other IFSA students have it every morning, and at McDonald’s for breakfast you can order a McPinto Deluxe, which is scrambled eggs served with a sausage patty, two hot tortillas, gallo pinto, and a sour cream-based sauce called natilla. I would say that lunch is usually standard fare, like sandwiches and such, but we’ve also had omelettes with chiles rellenos and a personal favorite, so far, sopa de mondongo, which is a slow-cooked tripe stew. Personally, I’m already a big fan of tripe, so Iliana was very happy to hear I was excited for and enjoyed lunch that day. Most days dinner is really a wild card, my first day we had chicken fajitas, made with a small chicken that she had slow-cooked all day it was mouthwatering.

While I think that Iliana’s cooking is some of the best food that I have had in the country, Tico fare is very, very delicious and often very varied. My friends and I have gone to a creperie near campus twice now and I’m still not terribly sure how I feel about a chicken and mushroom stuffed crepe, served with a potato and beet salad, but it was definitely a new experience. As I type this, I can already imagine several reactions of, “but you’re in Central America, why are you going to a french eatery?” A fair question, I assure you, but surprisingly, or not as Costa Rica is a country with a strong tourism economy, the people of San Jose and Heredia are a diverse group. Just within a mile of the university’s campus a person could choose from crepes, shawarma, pizza, and Asian fusion, in addition to the numerous Tico and Caribbean food spots.

One of my favorite restaurants so far is a place on the edge of the central valley called, Sibu. Sibu is a pretty awesome place with roots in Costa Rican cuisine but kind of more high-end. Sibu’s real claim to fame is its incredible fresh fruit juices, flavored with herbs grown in their garden, and also its made-in-shop from scratch chocolate, cocoa fruit to bar. When we arrived at Sibu, we all received a small complimentary hot chocolate, and when I say it is the best hot chocolate I have ever received, I don’t exaggerate. We ate our lunches, and finished off with dessert, Iliana and her sister splitting a gorgeous tiramisu, and I, a drink called chorotega. When I ordered the drink, the waiter’s face lit up and asked if I had any idea what I was ordering, and in broken Spanish I replied, “nope it’s like fancy hot chocolate, right?” And he laughed, thankfully took pity on me, and explained the drink’s background in English, but one of the owners of Sibu is a historian, and as such wanted to serve a drink that is as historically accurate to the cocoa-based drink that the Aztecs drank. It was a rich dark chocolate drink, based in water, with almond, chipotle, and sweetened with honey. Truly, one of the most delicious things I have ever had in my entire life, I convinced some friends to make a trip with me soon just to try it again.

I seem to have caught myself with in a pattern of tying things up nicely with a closing thought, so this week, for obvious reasons, I want to talk about the late Anthony Bourdain. Until recently, I was not familiar with his work until a close friend recommended Parts Unknown to me at the beginning of the summer. Of all the things he spoke about, Bourdain’s most pertinent belief was that to grow as a person, you had to travel and eat local, wherever you went. So, while I may not be super extremely excited to try cow tongue for the first time, later this week, I’ll be chewing on this quotation from Bourdain, “you learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” Here’s to learning all I can about Costa Rica and the people I meet here through the foods that they love and choose to share with me.

I’ll write again soon, nos vemos.

 

As part of orientation, Esteban gave us an introduction to local fruits which we probably hadn’t heard of before, and it was a collection that ranged from granadillas to mamónes chinos.

 

 

 

 

 

A picture my friend April Vollmer took of the infamous chicken and mushroom crepe, served with fresh lemonade, salad, and patatas.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

LANGUAGE

For those wondering what life is like in a country where you have the conversational skills of a child, if that, I can assure you that the experience is a humbling one. Starting at the very beginning, people who may not know me that well may not know that I’m a Spanish major. In conflict with this fact, I only started formally learning Spanish in the fall semester of my freshman year of college. The past two years have been trying; between my grammar knowledge from three years of Latin and the conflicting vocabularies of English, Latin, and Spanish, I have felt like I have been running in circles: using Latin words, throwing in the wrong preposition or pronoun, leaving out words entirely.

Things changed almost immediately after arriving in Costa Rica; suddenly I had to be speaking in and listening to Spanish 90% of the day. In the US, I can always leave my Spanish when I leave the classroom or put down whatever book I’m trying to read in Spanish, but I don’t have that crutch here in Heredia. Three days after arriving, I caught myself beginning to “just think, instead of translating each sentence,” as my friend Grace described it when we talked about our experiences so far. I have very clear memories from the past few semesters at H-SC in which I am listening to fluent Hispanic speakers and all I heard was “estoy hablablablablabla,” the words zooming around me like hummingbirds; currently, as I type, my host mom Iliana is in the living room watching the nightly news and I feel as if everything has slowed down to a manageable speed. I can finally hear distinct words when a person is speaking at their normal speed. Do I know exactly what the Ticos are saying, and can I form concise responses and conversation with them every time? No, but this breakthrough is a good start I think.

When it comes down to speaking, the biggest indicator that you, as a speaker, are doing well is that there are no indicators, no furrowed brows or little interjections. While many Ticos in the central valley have some level of English, often most people have little to no experience with speaking English, and in a way, I’m thankful for this barrier. I’ve been told that I’m the kind of person who has never met a stranger in my life. To have a barrier in communication is like having to walk through a wet and muddy field barefoot, which is to say extremely not ideal for several reasons. Because of the distance between myself and the Ticos linguistically, I’ve been pushing myself hard to achieve a level of conversation where I feel comfortable walking around Heredia. Adjusting to a different language is a big challenge for sure but daily conversation has begun to help me familiarize myself with sound of Spanish conversation. But, for now, as I wait for my ears to catch up, I’ll settle on bolstering my vocabulary with a Spanish language edition of The Shape of Water.

Finally, classes start this week and I couldn’t be more excited and equally terrified. So, here’s a closing thought, the tag line for The Shape of Water is “prepare yourself for a connection that goes beyond words.” While my number one focus in Costa Rica is to become more fluent in the language, there are so many experiences that I am gaining already from my time here, outside of my language learning. In a few weeks or so, when I’m at my wit’s end with my Advanced Spanish Syntax course, I’ll come back here to remember to look back on my experience so far, as a whole, breathe, and diagram that last sentence.

I’ll be writing again soon, nos vemos!

After a long day, I enjoy a good book and a cafecito in the mall, Paseo del las Flores, near my homestay.

Classes in Costa Rica 2018

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

ARRIVAL AND ADJUSTMENT

I have been in Costa Rica now for three days, and what is there to say but I still cannot believe that I am in Costa Rica. Before this past Tuesday, I had never left the country. While I did live in Hawaii for a few years and in a way that’s a whole different country, nothing could have prepared me for the first time I stepped out of the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose. The first thing that I came to recognize about Costa Rica, or at least where I have been so far, is the fact that the country is so incredibly active. I walked out of the airport door and there’s a small army of taxi drivers waiting to give you a ride; in Heredia, where I will be taking classes, there are always cars and always pedestrians doing their best not to get run over; even around my homestay in San Pablo, which is a suburb of sorts, people are constantly around hanging outside their house or walking to their jobs.

In all seriousness, I feel as though the “Tico” culture of always being outside is very tied to the wonderful climate that Costa Rica, and specifically the central valley, has to offer. Every day the temperature is between 60 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and there’s a very good chance that every area will receive just a little bit of rain. An interesting impact of the weather here, is the absolute uselessness of the weather app; fun fact: when the weather forecast says, ‘there is a 30 percent chance of rain’ what the forecast actually means is ‘within the forecast area, 30 percent of the prediction area will receive rainfall.’ So, when at least 90% of the forecast area receives just a tiny bit of rain, the forecast probably says 90% chance of rain, as it always does in San Jose, it is a good idea to always have a rain jacket, hoodie, or hat.

I arrived, stayed for a day at a hotel, and now I’m at my homestay. My “mama tica”, as IFSA-Butler refers to our host parents, Iliana lives about two miles from the Universidad Nacional campus, and we are slowly getting accustomed to being around each other. Iliana lives with her two dogs, Gia and Coco, and she is an incredibly talented cook, but I’ll be talking all about food in a different post. But now, to finish here’s a closing thought for future-me, for any other students studying abroad, for anyone thinking about studying abroad, and for all my friends and family back home having trouble starting ‘that new thing’. Whether or not you are a fan of Bojack Horseman, one of my favorite quotations from the show is as follows, “it gets easier, every day it gets a little easier, but you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.” Over the past few days it has been easy to get frustrated over my language skills or the difference in culture, but when I learn to let it go and keep moving, then I begin to progress. Even within the time I’ve been here, I’ve gone from nodding mindlessly to responding, as best as I can in Spanish , and occasionally in English, but that is okay because it may be hard now but each day it gets easier.

For now, nos vemos!

 

Shortly after we arrived, the estudiantes estadosunidenses had to get a picture together. Yes, I am the only guy, and yes, it is a bit of a big change from good ol’ H-SC

 

 

 

 

As part of our orientation, we all took a trip up to Monte de la Cruz on the outer edge of the Central Valley. The view was incredible and impossible to fit into one picture because it was so large, but the yellow jacket squad tried its best.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

Can’t believe that it is already that time for me to come back to the states!

I went to Vienna with another friend of mine from Hampden-Sydney. Vienna was one of the greatest cities that I have been to thus far. It was amazing to see the power of the Hapsburg monarchy. It seemed that every direction that I turned, there was another fantastic building. When I arrived back from Vienna, there were only three weeks left in the semester! I had to focus and complete my finals for Charles University because the next week I was going to Barcelona. It was not the sunny beach experience I hoped it would be, but I still had a great time. I rained every day, which was a bummer. The cheapest place that we could find to stay was a boat. This was not the yacht that I was hoping for but rather a small sailing boat. It was defiantly not good for someone who is 6’4, but I still enjoyed myself. The food was great, and I liked their Old Gothic Quarter. I enjoyed using the six years of Spanish while there even though I could not understand a word they were saying. I made an effort. Coming back, I knew time was running out, so I made sure to do anything else that I had not done yet. I bought plenty of gifts for my friends and prayed they would all fit in my bag.

For my last trip, I visited my friends from Hampden-Sydney Blake, Brendan and Zach in Dublin. Dublin was pretty, and it felt like America with an accent. The highlight of my trip there was going out into the Irish countryside, which is impressive.

Coming back, I had one week left to go, and everyone in my program was feeling nostalgic. I can affirmatively say that I am ready to get back to the States. I already know that my first meal back is going to be Chipotle and I can not wait to sleep in my bed. I am going to miss plenty things about Europe such as the excellent public transportation system in Prague. I am not excited about the long plane ride back, as I will have to leave my dorm at 4:00 am, but I am excited to experience summer in Charlotte again.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

 

I fly home from St. Petersburg today! And while I have really missed America—the English language, the following of traffic laws, the common courtesy of wearing deodorant—I thought I would write about how America is unavoidable while abroad. While most Americans have never thought of traveling to Russia, many American brands have; from food to movies to clothing, American products are unavoidable in Russia.

 

American fast food dominates every food court and touristy street corner of downtown St. Petersburg.

 

 

There are plenty of Russian chains as well, but I thought it would be neat for you all to see what American logos look like in Russian; no matter how many times I see a familiar logo in Cyrillic, it always strikes me as a little odd.

Even if you have not learned the Cyrillic script, I bet you can guess which restaurant is in each picture.

 

 

 

 

One interesting fact: most fast food chains in Russia sell beer. Here you can see banner advert in a Burger King advertising a “besplatna vtopoy pivo,” a “free second beer.” At first I was taken aback whenever I, walking through a mall food court, would see people eating McDonalds with beers out on the table—something you would never see in America—but now I think I’ve grown accustomed. The Russian attitudes toward drinking, despite stereotypes, are much more accepting of casual drinking and much more critical of binge drinking than those in America.

 

But the influence of American culture on Russian culture goes further than fast food. I often stumble across English words in the strangest of places. For example, there is a thrift store near my apartment in the northwest region of St. Petersburg literally called “sekond khend,” a mere transliteration of “second-hand.” This is just down the street from a large desert-themed shopping center called “Grahnd Kanion,” a mere transliteration of “Grand Canyon.”

 

 

And then there’s movies. Around 4/5 of the movies screened in Russian theaters are from Hollywood—dubbed in Russian—and Russian teenagers are probably more obsessed with the Marvel Universe than American teenagers. Once I was walking down the street with Tanya, a Russian friend of mine, when suddenly she pulled me aside to say “I can’t wait for Deadpool II come out!” At right is a photo of the Russian advertisement she saw on the street.

 

I have had a tremendous time in Russia, and hope to return some day. In my semester I learned an unbelievable amount of language, tried all the traditional Russian foods, and made some unforgettable memories and even more unforgettable friends. If you’re thinking of studying abroad in Russia, and up for an adventure, I would really encourage you to go for it!

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Only two weeks of my Russian study-abroad experience remain, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t missing home. I miss my family, my bed, and of course the rolling hills of Central Virginia. I miss the giant oaks and the fresh air and the rural night sky. Like any city, St. Petersburg is far from nature, covered in concrete, and shrouded in smog and light pollution (plenty of regular pollution too!).

Some animals have learned to tough it out in the city. Pigeons and seagulls are ubiquitous, and every night I fall asleep to the sound of stray cats fighting outside of my window. Some brave ducks appear every time a downpour floods a shallow field in the dvor, the central courtyard of the apartment complex. Even so, these slivers of nature are mostly sad: the pigeons are fat from the low nutrient bread diet that babushkas feed them, the seagulls are much the same (only meaner), and the ducks paddle through muddy water full of plastic bags and cigarette butts. At right you can see these ducks trying to eat actual garbage. Still, in my travels I have been surprised and delighted by a couple encounters with nature in St. Petersburg and abroad.

We’ll start abroad. Two weeks ago, I travelled to Helsinki for the weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the coast of the Finnish Gulf—Finski Zaliv in Russian—while touring the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The granite boulders lying in the cold, clean water led up to patches of stubby grasses and small trees and bushes capable of braving the Finnish winter. A variety of seabirds paddled through the shallows and perched on rocks to preen themselves. I even saw a swan doing a weird neck dance that looked very silly. After months in a big city, that afternoon I felt like weeks of heaviness and mundanity had been lifted. I felt refreshed.

Then, just last week, I discovered a park not far from my apartment complex. I live northwest of the city center, in a spalnaya raiyon—which means “sleeping district”—inhabited mostly by commuters and retirees. Sleeping districts make up most of the area of St. Petersburg, and they all look about the same: rows and rows of identical, soul-crushing soviet apartment buildings interspersed with grocery stores, bakeries, and shaverma stands, of course. Don’t get me wrong—after a while the brutalist architecture and industrial wasteland becomes almost charming. Just a few days ago some friends and I noted how an abandoned electrical substation next to the institute where we study, with its massive rusted machinery and otherworldly aura, makes us feel oddly at home whenever we see it.

But despite these charms, I was overjoyed when I discovered Sosnovka Park just a few blocks south of my apartment complex. At nearly 750 acres, the park is massive, and most of those acres are covered with birch forest and meandering trails that cut between wider gravel pathways. These trails (one can be seen at right) are perfect for working up a sweat and getting a little muddy. Small ponds sans the garbage dot the eastern border of the park, and in the forest I can hear the chirping of songbirds, the rustle of small rodents and hedgehogs in the dry leaves on the ground, and the drumming of an occasional woodpecker. Make no mistake—it isn’t Eden. Still, it means a lot to find little bits of nature in the middle of the concrete jungle.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

Hello again from Praha!

It’s been almost two months now since I left the states. Everything seems to be going well, and I have finally started to travel to places that are outside the Czech Republic.

St. Patrick’s Day is not a very big holiday in Europe. From what I have seen, the partying and drinking is an American construct. That weekend I decided to visit a friend in Salzburg, Austria. First thing I noticed was how cordial the people were, and more advanced the country was verses the Czech Republic. That being said, everything was much more expensive.

Zach Wiggin, Nate Dracon and Blake Martin

The week after that, Blake Martin and Zach Wiggin came to visit me since they were studying in Dublin, Ireland. For the first time, I went to see Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. We saw the actual window where the third defenestration of Prague took place, which started the 30 Years War. I was able to show them around the city, and for a day trip, we went to Pilsen. The pride and joy of the Czech Republic is the invention of Pilsner and their award-winning beer, Pilsner Urquell. We toured the town, which like almost all European cities, has a large square with a cathedral in the middle. Pilsen is also home to the third largest synagogue in the world, Great Synagogue. We also toured the city’s massive underground, where people created pubs to avoid drinking laws in the 15th century.

This week is Easter, which is a much bigger deal in central Europe than in America. No, they do not believe in the Easter Bunny, but have much better traditions in my opinion. Prague, being a large city with western influences, does not participate in many of these traditions. Instead, the city sets up large Easter Markets for the weeks leading up to Easter. In villages, people walk around to their neighbors’ houses where the men receive shots, and the women collect chocolate Easter Eggs. Additionally, Easter Whips are created by weaving small twigs together. These whips, are used by men to tap women, to promote fertility during the whole next year.

My parents are coming this weekend, and I am excited to go to Dresden, Germany and Vienna, Austria with them.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Today was the first day I saw grass in Russia. Even though we’re halfway into March and celebrated the official start of spring two weeks ago, the daily temperatures here in St. Petersburg are in still the mid-twenties. Take it from me, everyone in Peter is eager to see when spring will actually arrive!

This spring is special because on Sunday, March 18th, The Russian Presidential Election will be held.

Election adverts are all over the place: bus stops, billboards, shop windows, the YouTube homepage, on the radio, and even text messages that the Russian government sent out to every single Russian cell phone. Just today I saw a flower stand covered with five identical posters advertising the election.

You can see some examples pictured at right. The billboard says Nasha Strana, Nash Prezident, Nash Vybor!, which means “Our Country, Our President, Our Choice!” The bus stop says Vybirayem Prezidenta—Vybirayem Budushee!, which means “We Choose the President—We Choose the Future!”

It may seem odd to Americans that the Russian government spends enormous amounts of money advertising the election, while the candidates hardly advertise at all. The reason we have the opposite arrangement is that Americans and Russians view elections in different ways. In America, everyone obsesses over presidential elections: they consume every news story, fill every personal conversation, and are unavoidably touchy subjects at Thanksgiving dinners. In Russia, things are quite different. Even though the election is just days away, no one is eagerly awaiting election results; everyone knows that Putin is going to win, and most people will not bother to vote.

It’s not the Russians are so disheartened by the Putin regime that they think voting is useless. In fact, most Russians want Putin to win, but the lack of competitive alternative candidates and the massive public support for Putin makes most people think that voting is a waste of time. One professor of mine told our class that “Why would I vote? I know Putin will win, of course, so I will stay at home.”

However, there are also many Russians who will deliberately boycott the elections on Sunday. These are supporters of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and primary opponent of Vladimir Putin, who has been banned from running for president because of felony charges against him. Navalny supporters insist that the trumped-up charges against Navalny are politically motivated, and that the election is sure to be rigged. These supporters held large protests in over a hundred Russian cities in late January to call for an election boycott; they are also likely to hold reactionary protests after the election.

I will be in Moscow for the election, and am really looking forward to the experience. After that, I will be flying to Tbilisi, Georgia—where daily highs are in the mid-sixties—for my spring break.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

dobrý den from the city of Prague, Czech Republic!

I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a month now, and the differences between here and the U.S. are striking. Getting over wasn’t a problem, even for
a 6’4 student. I would just say that I am accustomed to never having enough leg
room. We first stopped for two days in London before taking a short flight to
the Czech Republic. The first thing that made me appreciate that I was in a very
foreign place was arriving at the airport and being unable to read anything
since it was all in Czech. From there, it was straight to the dorms, and the
next day I started my Czech language class. I never realized how good I had it
learning Spanish until I took on the Czech language which doesn’t use vowels.
During that two-week, 5 hours a day language class, I was able to use my spare
time to travel the Czech Republic. The first week, I went to Czechy Krumlov and
visited an ancient castle. The second week, I took a two day trip to Monrovia. I
had a great time on this trip as our group was able to visit Brno, have a
private dinner in a wine cellar dating back hundreds of years, and visited The
Battle of Austerlitz Memorial. My study abroad group is comprised of about 40
kids from all over the U.S., and we are all getting along reasonably well.
Classes at Charles University just started so they are pretty uneventful so far,
but there is so much that I have already learned from living in Prague that I
will try to break it up into categories!

History
Being a History major, I was excited to visit a city that has been virtually
untouched for almost 600 years. In fact, my school, Charles University, was founded in the 14th century. I never realized how young America was until I learned about the statues on the Charles Bridge. I was initially disappointed to learn that they are not original since they are made out of sandstone. Therefore, they need to be replaced every 300 years, and I realized that the current
statues might be older than America itself. The fact that the bridge has
replaced its statues multiple times since the 1300s is amazing to me.

Social Interactions
It was hard to imagine how much we take for granted in America until I visited a
country that was communist until the 1980s. Communism affected, and still
effects, the lifestyle and culture of the Czech people. It seems that the Czech
people have real trust issues with one another rooted in their fear of the
communist secret police. No one talks to one another, and no smiles are
exchanged in public. Any common business transactions, such as buying food, is
done with borderline rudeness from my perspective growing up in North and South
Carolina. Same can be said for the interaction between men and women. Prague is
truly a man’s world where women need to be careful about what they say and how
they dress, especially when it is late at night. It has been difficult for many
of the girls in our group to adjust to this since America is a very
forward-thinking compared to an eastern European city when it comes to
interaction between men and women.

Living in Prague
Prague is a beautiful city, just not particularly where I live, which is in a
large dormitory. That being said, I mostly buy my food at the grocery store
except for the burrito place I frequent called Burrito Loco. I have been going
there every day since I got here since it’s close to the gym I joined. I think
that I am their only American “regular”. On Wednesday, they actually smiled at
me and gave me a free brownie, so I must be making progress! My dorm is about a
15-minute commute by metro to city center. I live in an area of the city that
was built by the communist, so it’s just what you might imagine; dark, grey, and
everything looks the same. In fact, it’s so bland that our guide told us that
after the communist left, the city had to paint each building a different color
since kids could not tell the difference between them and would get lost trying
to get home after school.

Food
A great thing about food in the Czech Republic, as compared to the U.S., is that
everything is cheap. I eat three meals a day for under $10 each. Czech
food is good, but there is little variety. It mostly consists of some stew with
meat and dumplings. It is straightforward, and I got tired of it quickly.
Thankfully Prague has excellent international food, and as long as you stay away
from the tourist areas, the food is reasonably priced.

Being in Prague has been a great experience so far, and I look forward to
sharing more in the upcoming months.