Last Spring, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a study abroad program in Prague (with CIEE- Council on International Educational Exchange). Upon applying I had no idea that I would be the only non-American student attending this program. Acknowledging this simple detail, It got me a tad bit nervous. Okay I’m not going to lie I got really nervous. It was already enough of a big deal for me that I was staying in Prague for a full month, in a country I have never been to, amongst a culture I had no clue about, I was also going to spend it with 70 other American students. The fear that I would be left out as an outsider since I was mainly from a small middle eastern country called Lebanon and the fact that some people already thought that the middle east was a war zone desert, was all a bit too overwhelming.
Luckily, I met a girl over Facebook from our program’s page who was half American – half Egyptian. By that time, I had felt a sense of relief that at least one person was partially Arab and could speak my language. Although to be honest our dialects were very different and we would laugh at how hard it was to understand each other sometimes. Anyways, upon arriving to the Václav Havel Airport I had already felt home sick, I wanted to grab the next flight back because I felt so out of place. But all that soon changed. Everyone was very welcoming whether it was the program staff or the other students. Surprisingly they found it “cool” when they learned I was Lebanese; they had all sorts of questions to ask, they were intrigued and eager to know more about my culture which was quite unexpected. They had no former judgments or bias, or at least that’s what they showed, and they always expressed interest in understanding other cultures whether it was my own or the Czechs’. Mainly they were impressed that I could speak four languages and they were even more fascinated by the sounds that my language exclusively produced.
They primarily found it weird that Lebanese people mix Arabic, English and occasionally French words in the same sentence. After a week I would discover more and more differences and similarities within all three cultures. It’s interesting how one thing could be so mundane to one culture yet so otherworldly to another. One thing they found really weird is that I asked for disposable gloves to eat my chicken wings with, they had never heard of that before and I had never eaten chicken wings with my bare hands. Despite the differences we enjoyed that meal particularly because we immersed ourselves in each other’s habits. Food wasn’t the only field our cultures varied. For instance they always wondered about my restless lifestyle. My day would consist of going to class at 8 am, then sightseeing for a few hours followed by partying till the AM. That was my everyday schedule for a month.
Staying in a country for more than a month meant I needed to save money and not spend recklessly. I found it difficult at first, but hey what’s a little practice? I did however try to cook by myself and eat at home to save money, but that never worked. I always ended up eating out or making myself some unimpressive easynoodles.
My 5 roommates, and yes we were 6 girls in one apartment, always tried cooking in our flat. They would sometimes succeed and other times ruin appliances and set things on fire. This lead to the next difference I observed between my fellow American colleagues and I. I liked spending extravagantly whereas they really valued their money (whether they earned themselves or not). I noticed that that was one of the major differences between the world and its Arab division. In America and most European countries students would take part time jobs to save up some allowance or to pay their university tuition fee, whereas in the Arab world, most, if not all was given to us. We only worked unpaid internships related to our field of study and would get our allowance from our parents and everything was provided for us, cars, gifts etc.. until we graduated. Despite this fact, there was something quite reckless about the way my American colleagues were. One of them lost his phone, while the other got mugged. Funnily enough, one friend fell asleep on the tram and missed his stop. But they were so nonchalant about all of this, it was very refreshing.
Of the many European cities I’ve visited, Prague truly captured a part of me. I would definitely consider it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, whether it was its architecture, historical landscape, organized civilian life, its exquisite scenery or its amusing nightlife. The city was beyond charming.
One thing that caught my attention was their love for beer. They would even have beer for breakfast more often than not replacing water. Some places even served beer that was cheaper than water. With regard to water, I was fascinated that they drank tap water which is not possible back at home because due to contamination and unhealthy conditions. At the same time Americans were surprised that they had to pay for water occasionally. An additional perspective that astonished me was the tipping etiquette, it was not necessary and most of the time neglected or they were given little, I was told that the same was in America. Back in Lebanon it was not mandatory but by etiquette we always paid around 15-20% or we would be looked down upon. But the customer service at home was astounding, most places have great services and they cared about the customer’s satisfaction but that was mainly because of the large competition between local venues. In Prague, that was not the case, since the competition was little. They did not care much for customer service. I actually got yelled at for asking for ketchup. Sometimes the service would be slow and if we were to complain about an issue, they would ignore the situation instead of apologizing and presenting an offering of some sort (dessert is the most used form of apology in Lebanon).
Pertaining to the fact that I thought the locals were a bit stingy at first. At times I would say DobryDen to the locals, which is the formal way of saying hello in Czech and I would not get an answer. Some would smile and look down while others would converse with their company and ignore me completely. I initially took things personally but later on realized, after asking several locals, that this was not intentional and that is how they were. Some people attributed it to living in a post-communist state but it turned out to be that everyone was just keen on minding their own business. Unlike Lebanon, people would not stare at you.
Knowing that I had still a long summer vacation ahead of me, I took advantage of my presence in Europe and treated myself to a mini euro trip. I visited golden Vienna, the lively berlin, the diverse Amsterdam, the bella Italia and the calm Switzerland. My stays ranged from 1 day to 11. One day being Switzerland and the eleven being Italy but I’ll leave my euro trip adventure for another time… I also visited some local Czech cities, including Kutná Hora where the renowned bone church Sedlec Ossuary was located. The interior of the church was entirely made of human bones. As well, I toured Sigmund Freud’s birth house in Příbor, and finally wine tasted some Moravian grapes in Olomouc. But these local tours were part of the program’s trips to help us indulge in the Czech culture. But somehow the Lebanese culture always caught up with me somehow, I once stumbled upon a woman that was asking me for directions in English, upon noticing her 3 Cartier bracelets, I assumed she was Lebanese and replied to her in Arabic. She was surprised that I knew where she was from. Whether it was the Cartier bracelets that gave the woman off or not, I always had a sort of radar for Lebanese people. The thing is that Lebanese people’s appearances are not that similar to Arabs, they have diverse extremes, ranging from blondes to brunettes. But it was just one of those unexplainable situations where us Lebanese people would immediately recognize each other. I would stumble upon them frequently but would just have small talk and leave, it was my way of avoiding my recurrent homesickness. After a while my 2 best friends stopped by to visit and they really hit it off with my new American friends, they also expressed a keen liking to the city.
No matter how severely I missed home, the beautiful horn-free streets of Prague were there to comfort me. Noise-pollution free. Something a Lebanese resident needed time to get used to. Another thing I was alien to was all the animal friendly zones, which did not play out so well for me since I have Cynophobia (fear of dogs), and boy, did they have dogs.
Beyond that, what I loved the most was the easy transportation mode in trams and metros that linked the city, which surprisingly the Americans somehow found complicated. The walking was also very beneficial and exuberant but not particularly the day I decided to go to the opera in my Louboutins, unaware that some of the streets were riddled with cobble stones.
All in all, the experience was truly enlightening. Not only did I gain so much insight into different cultures, but I also learned to appreciate the differences rather than dismiss them. Prague is quite the captivating city and I already can’t wait to be there again.
Copyright © 2016 Paula Naoufal