Monthly Archives: January 2012

How Was…Studying Abroad in Prague?

Okay.  I know.  Right now you’re not thinking about studying abroad; you probably aren’t even thinking about studying period.  You just want to figure out where you’re going to be next year, right?  Bear with me.  You might not realize it now, but by the time your junior year of college rolls around, you might get a hankering to take classes somewhere a bit warmer, like Peru, or perhaps somewhere colder, like Russia, or even somewhere with toilets that flush counter-clockwise, like Australia.  (Just kidding, that myth ain’t true.)  Studying abroad may seem absurdly hypothetical at the moment, but who knows — you might already be hankering to take classes somewhere a bit exotic.

I studied in Prague last spring (soon it will be a year since my plane took off for the Czech Republic) and, to use a very hackneyed expression, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  Skidmore offers direct programs in six cities (Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Madrid, London and Alcalá) as well as 128 approved programs through other schools and institutions.  You can study in the fall, the spring or the summer; Skidmore also offers travel seminars (there’s a cool-looking textiles course this summer in Kyoto) and domestic university exchanges, as well as the London First Year Experience.  Does this sound like a lot?  It is.  Ideally there’s some sort of study abroad experience for everyone.  After all, almost 60% of the class of ’11 studied abroad.

I still don’t know why I chose to study in Prague.  I’m a French minor and Paris seemed like the obvious choice, but something about Prague was calling to me, sort of the same way Skidmore was calling to me when I was choosing a college.  I met with one of the associate directors at the Off-Campus Study & Exchanges office and told her what I was looking for in a program: independence, the opportunity to learn a new language, cultural immersion, and some sort of creative writing component.  She suggested SIT (School for International Training), which has a program in Prague called Arts and Social Change, all about how the political and social climate of the Czech Republic has intersected with the arts over the past century.

I had no idea what to expect when I got to Prague, which as it turns out was the best possible mental state for entering a new country.  Over the course of four months, SIT provided me with a zillion opportunities to consume (often literally) Czech culture.  I drank a lot of beer (“pivo,” in Czech) — the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world.  I read Kafka novels and Vaclav Havel plays (RIP, Vaclav) and discussed them with the other fourteen students in my program.  I lived with a host family in the suburb of Roztoky and took the bus every day into Prague.  I ate smažený sýr (fried cheese) on a bun with curry ketchup after a night on the town; just about everything I digested was fried or covered in gravy or served with a side of pickles.

Café culture is very strong in Prague.  I spent a lot of time with a book and a steady stream of espresso and cake in various kavarnas, and no one ever shooed me away for staying too long.  I went on bike rides with my host father (who is a carpenter and adores Batman), and my host sister took me to a fashion show in a giant warehouse.  In early March there was Masopust; Masopust is a pre-Lent celebrations that involves costumes, puppet shows, drum circles, and parading several miles to a village where everyone drinks mulled wine and dances.

All gussied up at Roztoky Castle before the festivities began.

The SIT experience also involved mini-excursions to different cities across the Czech Republic.  I went with two other students to a post-industrial city called Ustí nad Labem, and we later visited a farm-turned-art-studio in the tiiiiiny town of Litoměřice.

In Ustí we became amateur experts on Communist architecture (hint: concrete blocks painted crazy colors).

In Litoměřice I said hello to a pony hanging out by the wayside. Miss u, pony.

Our group became very close, especially on the extended trips that were a part of the SIT program.  We explored in Poland, museum-hopped in Vienna and spent a very weird night singing and dancing with a folk band in Slovakia.  The last month of the program was spent researching, creating and presenting independent projects (ISPs) that reflected what we had learned.  Having taken a writing workshop with Petra Hůlová, a Czech novelist, I decided to interview people about their favorite places in Prague and write short stories set in those places.  The ISP was a lovely end point to my study abroad experience.

Writing this, I actually find it impossible to put everything into words — it isn’t easy to summarize four months of living in a foreign country.  Studying in Prague was the perfect mix of discomfort (weird showers, too much sheep’s cheese) exhilaration (chatting with Czech writers and artists, going to a circus show and a punk concert) and cultural dissonance (explaining the concept of a PB&J sandwich to my host mom).  If you have any questions about studying abroad (or anything else), please ask!