Studying Abroad and Living in Prague, Czech Republic with CIEE
Land of the “Unbearable Lightness of Being”
Article and photos by Tanya Xu
Why Study in Prague?
I will be honest: many students study in Prague because the beer is world-famous and food and transportation is cheap. And yes, it’s true: their beer is good (especially the Pilsner brand), their food is cheap (groceries cost around $25 per week), and public transportation is also cheap (you can hop on a train to anywhere in the Czech Republic for less than the price of a movie ticket).
I chose to study in Prague for a slightly different reason; the Czech author Milan Kundera changed my life. And I wanted to see for myself the political, geographical, and cultural conditions that inspired Kundera’s novel—and my literary Bible—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is deeply set in this region. And after living in Prague for a semester, I can understand why this novel works, and could only work, here.
On the surface, Prague is a small, romantic, cobble-stoned, red-roofed city, organized along a river and crossed by many bridges. Underneath, Prague is growing, a little unsteady on its new democratic feet, and still coping with the hangover from Communism.
And that speaks to how many might see the Czech Republic in general. In the past, it was a culturally rich and central crossroad connecting Western and Eastern Europe, sometimes getting swept up in the intersection of much larger empires. Today, it is a modest but very lively and still culturally rich nation in Central Europe, trying and beginning to catch up with many of the European economic giants that surround it (as the 14th largest economy in the EU). Czech students were always surprised why I would want to come here (“Why would you choose to study here?” was a frequent question), but it is also for that very reason that I think it is important to experience life in a smaller, less well-known country such as the Czech Republic.
Studying in the Czech Republic allowed me to see how living in a small country can be different from living in a world superpower. And the Czech Republic’s political and geographical “smallness,” compared to the U.S., affects more aspects of human life than I would have ever thought: the culture, people’s attitude, the nation’s ambitions… it is something that helps shape a nation’s entire character.
Ultimately, understanding both sides of the power balance is invaluable for understanding international relations and different cultures, and this was one of the most valuable lessons I took away from studying and living in the Czech Republic.
Preparing for Prague
In terms of culture shock, if you have lived in a Western culture before, you probably do not need to prepare too much outside of packing. I was even a bit disappointed at how easy it was to adjust to life in Prague. They enjoy many of the same music, movies, and Western values that Americans do.
Consequently, Prague may be a good place to study abroad for the following reasons:
- You have not been out of the country before, or seek an easier cultural adjustment.
- You want to something other than the typical Western European abroad experience
- You still want to live in an English-speaking city. Many people speak English in the street, so it is not absolutely necessary to know any Czech.
On the other hand, it is also easy for students studying here to remain in a “Westernized bubble.” Important differences do exist between Czech life and American life, but you must be more pro-active in exploring and being open to the unique local culture.
Choosing a Program in Prague
There are two popular programs that are approved by most colleges: CIEE in Prague and NYU in Prague.
I chose CIEE mostly for monetary reasons (tuition, room, and board were about US$13,500 per semester when I attended). On top of this, I would set aside an additional US$1,000 for a round-trip plane ticket and US$2,000-US$3,000 for personal expenses, food, and travel.
CIEE Prague is a very thorough and well-organized program. They give you a thorough orientation, going over everything from how to stay safe to how to read tram schedules. They also give you some money back (“cultural reimbursement”) for doing cultural activities on your own. They also loan out a Czech cell phone for the semester. They have a full-time office, and the staff there is also very helpful. The classes are taught by well-qualified, teachers hired by CIEE. You take classes with the other students in the program.
The program offers three different types of housing: a dorm room, an apartment, and a homestay. I would suggest an apartment or a homestay for a greater cultural immersion experience and to get away from the “American bubble.” I lived in an apartment, because you also get to live with a Czech university student, which is extremely helpful if you want answers to your questions, and it is a good way to meet the Czech people. The apartments are all nice and in very good locations.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that both the CIEE and NYU programs basically “hold your hand” through your whole time abroad. If you are looking for a more independent experience, I would apply directly to Charles University through the CEECE (Central Eastern European Cultural Exchange) program. You will actually be “enrolled” in the University, but you can still take classes there in English alongside other international students.
Making the Most of your Budget
Even though many people do not expect it to be the case, Prague is a huge tourist destination. For many tourists, Prague is the beautiful, archetypal European city that they want to “do” in a day and then move on.
For this reason, restaurants and shops in the city center can be rather pricey. They are not usually more expensive than in the U.S., but the prices may be equivalent. One meal can cost you $10-15 in the city. Unless you find some less touristy locales for food, I would suggest cooking for yourself rather than going out to eat. There is a huge grocery chain called TESCO and also smaller, locally-owned grocery stores (potraviny) which you can find on almost every street corner, and groceries are generally very cheap. If you visit other regions in the Czech Republic, you will also find that prices are significantly lower.
Going to pubs is also a large (and important) part of Czech culture. Czechs often like to sit in pubs for hours as a social pastime, to smoke and chat with friends. Therefore, pubs are a good place to meet Czechs as well. As a general rule of thumb, while in Prague, you should not normally have to pay over 35 Czech koruna or crowns (approximately US$1.70) for a beer.
The public transportation is both frequent and efficient. The city metro trains and trams will take you anywhere you will want to go in Prague. www.dpp.cz is the website that gives you a time schedule of the intervals they arrive—a handy way to look up how to get to your destination. In particular, tram 22 goes to many important stops, and also crosses much of the city; it might be valuable hopping on it just for the scenic ride. If you buy a pass in any of the metro stations, it will be valid for any kind of public transportation. Make sure to always bring it with you though; the Czechs operate on a kind of “honor system” where anyone can hop on, but there are plainclothes men who will sometimes randomly check for your passes. At first we mistook them for beggars—often a man riding on the metro would simply extend his hand to me, without a word, uniform, or badge! I think this was pretty characteristic for the Czechs: people tend to keep formalities to a minimum while assuming you understand the implicit rules that exist.
I would not underestimate the benefit of walking, either. The advantage of Prague is that it is a small city. It is valuable to see how different regions connect and it also only takes about 90 minutes to traverse the entire city center by foot.
The cheapest way to keep in touch is to buy a used or second-hand cell phone once you get there. Then you can buy prepaid minutes at almost any gas station or convenience shop (tabak). There are also a number of Internet cafes that are reasonably priced.
The best way to access money is to withdraw it from an ATM once you get there (there is usually one in every metro stop). It is easiest to pay with cash, and nearly impossible to pay via check. You should note that the Czech koruna (also called a crown) does not use the equivalent of “cents” any more, only “bills.” If you are checking out at a cash register, the display will still show a number with decimals, but what you actually need to pay is the amount rounded to the nearest number of crowns.
Living in Prague: Cultural Immersion
Many people say that Prague feels “Americanized” and is like living in any other Western city. Like any rumor, I found this to be both true and untrue. It is probably true that you will not have a hard time getting used to life here, compared to studying abroad on another continent. But it is also untrue that there are no differences between Czech and American culture. I would just say that the differences are more subtle, and you have to look deeper to discover them. For example, these are some of things I learned:
Lasting influences of Communism: I was a little put off at first because people on the streets seemed ruder than I was used to. You will especially notice this in stores, because the customer may be always right in America, but here, the cashier is undoubtedly correct. When I tried to pay for some cakes with the approximate equivalent of a $100 bill, the shop owner became huffy, and I was quickly shooed out the door. Small shops often would rather not have your business than give you the right change. Customer service also tends to be limited. But this is actually due in large part to the many decades the Czech Republic spent under Soviet Communism; shop owners were rarely friendly because smiling at customers did not get them more money. This was ingrained in the culture, a trace of history, though it is now changing. Perhaps more damaging and lasting is the shaky political structure currently in place. Even though the Czech Republic is now a liberal democracy, the long period it spent under Communism promoted a habit of corruption (because often, corruption was the only way to get something done). As a result people have very little trust in politicians. In fact, when I was there, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that some politicians had purchased their law degrees from a private university. But when I talked to Czech people, they just laughed it off, because that is the kind of thing they expect from politics. This raises the interesting question: how to develop a liberal democratic nation when there is no trust or transparency in its democracy.
Czech Identity: Some famous Czechs have also remarked on the country’s “identity crisis.” Sometimes visitors have a hard time defining Czech culture, because the Czech Republic has been influenced by its neighbors continuously through its history, and has adopted so many German, Russian, and Austrian characteristics. Also, as a country with just 10 million people, it has fewer votes in the E.U. and a smaller voice on the world stage. In the world of literature (for example) there are just two widely read Czech authors: Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera. But between these two literary giants there is a large void. It is interesting to see how it will be filled in the future.
Overall, my experience abroad was refreshing and gave me a much broader perception, not only about the Czech Republic, but about the ways in which the U.S. (as a larger “superpower”) is different and is perceived as such by the rest of the world. Sometimes you just have to step away a little bit from the world in which you normally live to get a good look at it.