Six Things I Learned in the Czech Republic

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Adventure lies outside of your comfort zone.

How many times have you been told that getting out of your comfort zone will benefit you? Your kindergarten teacher, your mother, your annoying friend who studied abroad and returned thinking they’re some enlightened philosopher, etc. All these people have tried to convince you that even though the thought of a foreign and completely new experience makes your palms sweat and heart pound through your chest, you will ‘absolutely LOVE it’. And the annoying thing is, they’re right. Was I uncomfortable traveling to a new country by myself? Definitely. Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat. How else would I be able to say that I went paragliding in the Swiss Alps while visiting Interlaken during its first snowfall of the season?!

Language barriers aren’t as scary as you would think.

Not being able to understand the people you are surrounded with on a daily basis are may seem terrifying, but it can also have its perks. If you are extraverted like me, it can also be a very frustrating transition. Without the language you are no longer able to make random jokes to ease the awkward tension as you are breathing down the old man’s neck that is currently crammed next to you on the metro. Instead you are able to observe the local crowd that ebbs and flows around. My roommates and I quickly learned the fastest way through our station this way, enough to be mistaken as locals ourselves a time or two. Once you accept this new silence in your daily commute, you realize how beneficial some self-reflection can be in your life.

Anyone can be a tourist.

After a few weeks in my respected country I would sit in my local afternoon café and easily identify who was a tourist and who was not. There isn’t anything wrong with being a tourist, but I will guarantee that if you try to blend in with the local scene you will reap much more than your friend who just posted a picture of themselves standing in front of an iconic building eating a fresh baguette (though I’m sure that picture will turn out amazing). In all seriousness the best part of being immersed in a foreign place was all of the hole in the wall pubs and hidden trails to scenic over views you would stumble upon from simply allowing yourself to ‘get lost’ in your new surroundings.

You are what you eat.

If your idea of cultural exploration includes sitting down in a local restaurant and ordering the daily special and eating whatever they set in front of you, no questions asked, then you and I would be wonderful travel companions. One of my biggest suggestions to those who decide to travel abroad is to not make the mistake of missing out on the country’s local cuisine. I cannot begin to explain how many blocks of cheese, dumplings, or pastry treats I consumed. Food is a huge culture factor that everyone is willing to share, so why deny yourself the chance to try something new that’s unique to that region? If you are worried, once again, about that language barrier there is no better way to become acquaintances with someone without saying a word than with the mutual respect that there is no such thing as too many cheese platters. As American chef and television personality Julia Child put it, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Sounds like a great start to a beautiful friendship to me.

You will meet the most incredible people in such a short period of time.

It is quite amazing to sit back and think of the amount of people you encounter in your life. Of course there are going to be individuals with whom you never cross paths again, but luckily for us we are submerged deep into the age of social media. Everyone does not have a cellular data plan or even a phone at all while they are studying abroad, so a giant part of staying connected to all of these eccentric new friends is some form of social media. There is always that chance that you may never talk to these people again outside of an occasional ‘like’ on a Facebook page, but then again you might find yourself in their home country in a year or two. Although I was was unable to meet up with my international friends during my time abroad, they were more than happy to give me suggestions for places to visit when I was in their hometowns all thanks to the 21st Century’s technology advancements and social networking. (Here’s to you, Zuckerberg.)

Technology dependency is a real thing.

Even though I just got done preaching on my soapbox about the wonderful opportunities technology has allowed us to have it also has drawbacks. During my time abroad I was blissfully unaware of my phone while I was exploring the city until dinnertime when we discovered the pub’s WiFi password. It was at this point when all of our great conversations screeched to a halt and our noses became buried in our phones. Meanwhile, we’re sitting in a beautiful city thousands of miles away from home, surrounded by new people who are waiting to have many interesting conversations with you about what you discovered that day, but our generation would rather zone into our electrical devices. I close with this because it is one of the most valuable things that studying abroad taught me. We are engrossed too often in our electronic lives to appreciate the beauty of where we are actually present. Being able to say you were fortunate enough to travel to multiple countries is great, but you should demand more: dig into the culture that’s surrounding you and truly be able to say you experienced each of those countries to the utmost.

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My two roomates, Danielle Demmel, Savannah Murtha, and Me. Photo provided by Danielle.

Courtney Henning is a senior at the University of Kentucky majoring in International Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies. She studied in the Czech Republic in the Fall of 2013 though an International Studies Abroad (ISA) program.