When choosing to study abroad or travel in general, one usually ticks off the most popular places to visit. Italy, London, Paris, Spain. Places that when someone asks "where are you going?" and you respond with one of these popular places they go, "oh yeah, that's a great place to go," even if they have never been. Now, when it came to my destination, I did not do any of the usual ticking off of the most popular places to visit, I did not even pay much attention to my destination. As I like to say, I chose the program not the place.
Well, my choice of the program and not the place is how I found myself going to Brno, Czech Republic. I like that when I told people where I was going they had no idea where I was going. To say the least I spent the months leading up to my departure giving lots of geography lessons. But I was excited about traveling to this new foreign place that I only knew as much as I could google about it.
When it came to the next four months of my life, I was not afraid like so many people asked, despite the fact that I had never been to Europe a day in my life. I am Kaleah Mcilwain, from Philadelphia, USA and I will be writing bi-weekly blogs (a diary if you will) on my experience as an exchange student in Brno at Masaryk University.
So here is my experience as a foreigner in Brno.
My arrival in Brno was not the best. I flew into Vienna and caught the train here, sounds easy enough. However, my phone died while I was in Vienna's central train station, nothing was in English, and I had no way to contact my buddy to be picked up once I arrived in Brno. At one point I gave up and got me some Burger King. But I made it to the right train and I got to Brno where a nice lady who worked at the station charged my phone for me and my buddy was able to come pick me up. Still, I had landed in Vienna at 1pm and did not make it to my dorm until 9pm. I was cold, hungry, I knew no one, I did not understand anything, and the dorm was something else altogether.
I hated Europe and I had been here for less than 24 hours. But the prospects for Brno were still pretty high, after all I had 98 more days to learn to like it. Two weeks later here is what I think of Brno:
How much more American can I get?
What was the first meal I had when I arrived in Brno? Well I was in the city center and the only place that I recognized and even trusted to goto was ... Mcdonalds. Yes, I gravitated towards the most American place I could find. Funny enough, I hate McDonalds in the States, I eat there like twice a year (even then I only eat fries). But in Brno, when in doubt visit Micky D's. I've been there more times than I'm willing to admit since I've been here.
But since then I have branched out and have been pleasantly surprised by what I have found.
My favorite part about Brno has to be the food. I think an Italian girl I met said it best when she said that there are always good places to eat, but in Brno you can go just about anywhere to eat and it will be good. This has definitely been my experience here and I go out to eat a lot. I love how Brno has a lot of different places to eat all within the city center. You can find Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican, Czech, and even American food. And I can not forget to mention the sweets. You can find ice cream on every street, if there is a festival going on in the center you can bet they are serving up some palacinkas, and plenty of bakeries and cafes for any sugar addict's needs (like me).
I have not worked my way to trying much Czech food though I plan to do so in the near future (meaning some time before I leave here). It's not that I think it will not be good, it's just different than what I'm used to eating. People I know and have come across have very enthusiastically tried Czech food and say it is very good. I will keep that in mind.
I've never seen this before
Brno is a beautiful city and they were not kidding when they said it is a student city (at least when it comes to there actually being students). There are students, however, the city does not really qualify as a student city, at least not by my standards. The city is dead by 10pm unless it is a Wednesday which for some reason qualifies as a good "going out" day. As if it is not the middle of the week and classes do not exist the next day. But as I like to say, it just takes some getting used to.
Something I do not find myself getting used to anytime soon will be beer. Brno is known for their bars and pubs and their long lists of beers that they offer. Well, I'm not now nor do I ever see myself becoming a beer fan. However, there is more to offer than just beer which suits me just fine.
The city is small but I like that because it makes it easier to learn how to get around. The transport here is amazing and surprising. Amazing because it is so reliable, much more reliable than any transport system you would find in Philadelphia or New York. Surprisingly, it is very lenient here.
I say this because you can get on the tram and no one will check if you have a ticket or pass like 90% of the time! That literally blew my mind when I first rode a tram, I was thinking I would have to give my ticket to the driver but nope just punch it or if you have a pass just get on. And every once in a blue moon there will be someone on the tram (dressed "undercover") coming in to ask if you have a ticket or pass. That's a scam waiting to happen.
Adding some flavor to the atmosphere
Now dear Czech folk, where to begin.
I was told during my first week here that Czech people are not the nicest, but only when you first meet them. Older, more traditional Czechs are more so because they are less used to seeing foreigners. We were told that once they get to know you they become more comfortable and are more welcoming. All you have to do is make it past their hard exterior.
What they did not tell me in that first week was that Czech people do not want you to get past that hard exterior they talked about. My total experience with local Czechs has been either in a university or work setting, so they have to be nice or traveling through the city where they only stare at me for long periods of time that make me uncomfortable.
Outside of this I just know what I see, which is that they have very serious facial expressions, always. The funniest is when I see older people on the trams and they have the meanest expressions ever, it's a little scary. I've also learned that smiling at people is not a good thing to do, it's very American apparently, it does not translate well here.
My intercultural communication professor told me that this is because while smiling is a gesture of politeness in America, it just confuses people here and they are unsure of your intentions. So I just have been confusing every Czech I encountered since I've been here, great; no wonder I have no Czech friends yet.
So this has been my experience with Czechs so far. I'll quit the smiling and let you know how it goes.
Takes some getting used to
Culture shock. I like to joke that I do not have culture shock but I'm sure they do (meaning Czechs when they see me).
But in some ways yes I do. For example, customer service when eating at a restaurant here is different. In the states the service here would be considered rude and horrible. But here it is considered to be normal behavior. If your waiter does not introduce themselves, just ask what you want (one minute after you sit down) no one bats an eye.
When they bring your food and never come back, it is completely normal. Once they clear the table and you sit there for another hour thinking they are bringing the bill, it's no one's fault but your own. Customer service here is really different and as I like to say, it takes some getting used to it. If I have not learned anything else, I've learned to be faster.
Is it 2017 here?
One thing that stands out (because I really can not believe this) is the music. Club music in Brno is an experience if I say so myself. First time I went, I was expecting to hear some Drake, Rihanna, Beyonce maybe, but no no no. The only music I can remember them playing that I could identify was the song from that movie Madagascar "I love to move it" and that song from 2014, "I'm in love with the coco." I find they play better music while I'm shopping than they do when I go out.
Speaking of shopping, I absolutely love shopping in Brno. They have everything you need right in the city. And they have a mall (they do not call it a mall but that's what it is) and it speaks to the city girl (and shopping addict) in me. Not to mention that lovely USD to Czech crown conversion, I am having a ball.
But I'll end my tales of Brno here for now. You will have to come back to read more about how to make a Czech friend, using the Czech language, and more.