Like a lot of people lately, I’m spending my cooped-up quarantine days flipping through old trip photos. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an album of pictures from my first solo trip abroad (or anywhere!) in July 2014, and reflected on that trip for the first time in a while. I remembered stepping off the airplane in Prague, bleary and jet-lagged but amazed at the ancient city. I remembered those brief travel friendships that waxed then — just as quickly — waned in basement bars, free walking tours, and Chinese restaurants. Prague was my first destination on a two month trip the summer after I graduated college. It was beautiful and challenging, and I definitely made mistakes. But in the five days I spent exploring the city, I learned enough about myself and traveling to propel my love of adventure.
I was nervous for my first solo international flight, but the universe was on my side. It was an empty flight and I had the whole row to myself. Indulging in an opportunity to spread out, I watched movie after movie on my own private economy class love-seat. I was twenty-one and still thrilled every time I handed over my ID to legally buy alcohol, so imagine my pleasant surprise when I realized you could get free wine on the flight! What’s more, the flight attendants kept the free wine coming. This ended up being a pro and a con — Pro, I could rewatch 27 Dresses happily drunk off little red wine bottles! Con, by the time the flight landed, I was dehydrated and had barely slept. Not a great recipe for getting over jet lag quickly.
I planned ahead by downloading an offline map of Prague, but it was no match for the winding back alleys of the old city. After lugging my backpack up and down cobblestone hills for over an hour, I stopped to check my directions over WiFi at the only place I could find — good old Kentucky Fried Chicken. I didn’t have time to wonder why there were so many KFCs in Prague (do the KFCs in the US even have Wifi??) because another traveler stopped by. She took one look at my sweaty face and my bulging backpack and knew I was lost. But so was she! We combined our smartphone forces and eventually navigated to our respective hostels.
I climbed up the stairs to my hostel and was immediately greeted by a group of loud British male college students…who also happened to be staying in my $16 USD a night 15 person dorm room. It was here that I learned an important lesson—bring ear plugs to get a solid night’s sleep in a hostel.
The next morning I groggily wandered the streets looking for a cafe for breakfast. As I peered at menus, I struggled to interpret the spiky Slavic words but balked at the offered English menu. At a nice looking spot, I tried to calculate the cost from Czech Koruna to US Dollars, but determined it was too much (I would never spend that much on a coffee and pastry at home!) and wandered off. But after peering into a dozen identical cafes and circling the block, a waiter from the first cafe waved me in with a wry smile. Embarrassed at my crippling indecision, I chugged my hot coffee and left my money on the table.
Later, I joined a free walking tour in Old Town Square. The tour started with the famous Astrological Clock from 1410, which my tour guide sardonically explained was the second most overrated attraction in Europe (aside from the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen). Despite this dismissal, the clock and the square enchanted me. Still, I found the contrast in Prague’s architecture jarring. Our tour took us past both beautiful medieval cathedrals and hulking Soviet structures. An ominous number of TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Cafes, and restaurants offering “REAL Bohemian specialties!” lined picturesque medieval squares. Something felt off to me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was this just how travel was?, I thought. Jarring and a little disappointingly familiar?
At one point the guide paused to explain an important part of living in Prague: the city can feel cold to visitors because residents have had to contend with the spying and suspicion that comes with occupation. Until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, many Czech people feared persecution and exposure to secret police. Even now, with the increasing wave of tourists (us included), many citizens feel they are again losing hold of their city. The tour guide put into words something I had felt since arriving in Prague — the city felt beautiful but guarded. It sounds cliche, but it felt like the “Real Prague” was hidden somewhere, protected.
I spent the next few days winding through the stone streets, working to peel back a few of Prague’s layers. One afternoon, I found a small outdoor market where smoke from roasting sausage drifted through the wooden stalls and mothers and children danced to street performers. One evening I stumbled upon a free outdoor classical music concert as the sun was setting. Another night I met a Danish couple in an underground bar. It was a stone cavern with furs hanging on the walls, and I felt transported to centuries ago. It was only us and a group of rowdy, middle-aged Czech men. At one point a red-faced man stood and belted a song to lively accordion accompaniment. Over pilsners, the Danish couple tried to explain the concept of hyggelig (in 2014, before it was cool!), and that warm bar with its singers, and candles, and wood beams, was exactly that—cozy in a charming, contented sort of way.
That trip I learned that you can’t force a city to reveal itself. In the same light, you can’t force yourself to love a place simply by visiting recommended attractions. Travel is a symbiotic relationship. If you’re patient and spend time listening and observing, the pieces of a memorable trip will come together.
Our conversation turned, and the couple mused that there are summer cities and winter cities. In Copenhagen, which they asserted was a winter city, residents often create cozy indoor spaces where they can huddle for warmth and company. In Prague, on the other hand, people live out in the sunny squares listening to music over beer and sausages, perhaps still grateful to enjoy public space at all. I sipped my own beer, listening to the music and cheers, and thought about the warmth and chill of a summer city.