A few months ago I was asked to write an article about my experiences studying abroad in Prague, and it would be quite the understatement to say that since then I’ve had a difficult time attempting to derive something novel or important to say.
Growing up, I was not particularly well-traveled, and, until this semester, had never spent more than two weeks at a time outside of my home state of California. As a result, much of the knowledge I’ve gained, epiphanies had, lessons learned throughout the semester would likely not bestow even the moderately well-traveled with new or surprising information.
So, having eliminated from my prospects an article extolling “the benefits of travel,” or perhaps, “different cultures are great!” the next natural option seemed to be to write about Prague itself—the red-roofed, gothic splendor of a city both tainted and enriched by its recent past—the hushed severity typical of Czech natives, and the way it dissolves into the sincerest warmth, in hidden pubs and cafes and private moments—the way the river shimmers, in sunlight, and by night.
But this, too, felt wrong. Wrong, not because the information present would be contrived or redundant, but wrong because I am certain that no printed word on paper—and surely no word of mine—could ever do proper justice to the experience itself, to seeing and feeling and knowing the city, to touching it with your hands.
Which leads me to my point: I have learned that there are things in life that must be felt, and not just presumed or read about. In my previous lack of exposure to other cultures and places—to unfamiliar experiences—I was sure that being well-read would be an adequate substitute for being well-traveled. Why visit South America when Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, have already brought it to me, captured and printed and bound in leather—a whole continent for only $12? Why, even, drive down to California’s central valley, now plundered and left barren by mini-malls, housing complexes, the grayness of wide roads and long highways, when my bookcase holds Steinbeck’s California, a region as-yet-untarnished, preserved indefinitely in the grace of his words? And why travel to Prague when the culture and nuances of the city have already been so eloquently expressed in the works of Milan Kundera, Jan Neruda? This was my rationale: books in lieu of experience.
However, soon after arriving in Prague, this reasoning began to crumble, eventually collapsing under the weight of whole, unfiltered, unscripted reality. I found that there are things waiting for you outside of your routine that can floor you, terrify you, catch your breath in your throat—and they’re more than just words on a page, they’re real and they’re near. We can grasp them, if we are bold enough to try.
I think we all have these little things—these small, comfortable acts that allow us to slip into routine, oftentimes functioning as a wall against our subconscious aversion to (and occasional fear of) the new, the unfamiliar. For me it was reading. How easily we squander opportunities in this way, potential lost on the hesitant, the stubborn, or the scared. We do ourselves no favors by dwelling in safety, seeking refuge in the familiar. In fact, it is only in making ourselves vulnerable, in deviation from comfort and routine, that we are the strongest we have ever been, the best versions of ourselves. So, for a little while, I closed my books, made my own stories.
In no way am I attempting to undermine the value of reading—I find myself constantly and unquestionably bettered through the act of reading, as a child, as an adolescent, as a young adult. Literacy is a gift and a privilege and one of the greatest promoters of ideas, knowledge, and (though often-overlooked) empathy. What it is not, however, is a great creator of firsthand experience.
While I would never dream of chastising those with their heads in clouds and noses in books, I’ve found my experiences abroad invaluable in their persistently similar quality of being firsthand, and not just someone else’s thoughts in someone else’s book. Though my own stories may have been substantially less eloquent in their expression (being my own, and not graced with the privilege of a renowned author’s manipulation), I have found them nonetheless valuable, nonetheless poetic, in their own authentic way.
Every day abroad it seems I was overwhelmed, awed, and unceasingly, unendingly humbled in the wake of Prague’s beauty—most of all its ability to embrace its dilapidation along with its splendor—the crumbling soviet developments, the dark pubs and greying streets, the dirty hands and red, wind-stung faces of its masses—and imbibe them all with its own radiance. This wasn’t Kundera’s Prague; it was my own, bound not by print on page but the extent of my boldness, the capacity of my soul.