How All these Starts
Last spring, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a study abroad program in Prague (with the Council on International Educational Exchange).
Upon applying, I had no idea that I would be the only non-American student attending the program.
Acknowledging this simple detail, I became a tad bit nervous. Okay, I’m not going to lie – I was really nervous.
It was already a big deal for me that I was staying in Prague for a full month in a country I had never been to, amongst a culture I had no clue about.
But I was also going to spend it with 70 American students. The fear that I would be treated as an outsider since I was from the small middle eastern country of Lebanon.
The fact that some people thought that the Middle East was a war zone desert was a bit overwhelming.
Meeting A Friend On Facebook
Luckily, I met a girl over Facebook from our program’s page who was half American, half Egyptian. I felt a sense of relief that at least one person was partially Arab and could speak my language.
(To be honest, our dialects were very different and we would later laugh at how hard it was to understand each other sometimes.)
Study Abroad in Prague
Upon arriving to the Václav Havel Airport, I already felt homesick. I wanted to grab the next flight back because I felt so out of place. But all that soon changed.
Everyone was very welcoming, from the program staff to the other students. Surprisingly they found it “cool” when they learned I was Lebanese.
They had all sorts of questions to ask, and 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 Czech culture.
Mainly, they were impressed that I could speak four languages. And they were even more fascinated by the sounds that my language exclusively produced.
Many of my friends found it weird that Lebanese people mix Arabic, English and occasionally French words in the same sentence.
Discovering the 3 Cultures
After a week in Prague, I discovered 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 my friends found really weird is that I asked for disposable gloves to eat my chicken wings. 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 place that our cultures varied. For instance, the other students wondered about my restless lifestyle.
My Life in the First Month
My day would consist of going to class at 8 a.m., then sightseeing for a few hours followed by partying till the morning. 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 easy-noodles.
My five roommates, and yes, there were six of us in our apartment, always tried cooking in our flat. The others would sometimes succeed and other times ruin appliances and set things on fire.
This led to the next difference I observed between my fellow American colleagues and me. I liked spending extravagantly, whereas they really valued their money (whether they earned it themselves or not).
I noticed that that was one of the major differences between the American 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. Everything was provided for us – cars, gifts, etc.—until we graduated.
Despite this fact, there was something quite reckless about my American colleagues. One of them lost his phone, while another 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 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. I found the Prague charming.
Love for Beer
One thing that caught my attention was the Czech love for beer. The locals would even have beer for breakfast instead of water. Some places even served beer that was cheaper than water.
With regard to water, I was fascinated that the Czech and the Americans drank tap water, which is not possible back at home due to contamination and unhealthy conditions.
At the same time, my American friends were surprised that they had to pay for water occasionally.
An additional perspective that astonished me was the tipping etiquette in the Czech Republic. Tipping was not necessary and most of the time neglected.
Other times, staff received very little tips. Back in Lebanon, tipping was not mandatory but by etiquette we always paid around 15-20% or we would be looked down upon.
Then again, the customer service at home is astounding. Most places have great service and they care about the customer’s satisfaction, though that was mainly because of the large competition between local venues.
My Experience with Customer Service
In Prague, that was not the case since there was little competition. I found that many places 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 common form of apology in Lebanon).
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, I 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 in Lebanon, people would not stare at you.
Mini Euro Trip
Knowing that I still had 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 calm Switzerland. My stays ranged from one day to 11.
Day one was Switzerland and day 11 was 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 is located. The interior of the church is entirely made of human bones.
I also toured Sigmund Freud’s birth house in Příbor, and finally tasted some Moravian wine grapes in Olomouc.
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 who was asking me for directions in English.
Upon noticing her three 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 away 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. The Lebanese have diverse extremes, ranging from blondes to brunettes.
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 two 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, actually, something a Lebanese resident needed time to get used to.
Another thing in Prague that was alien to me were 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 about Prague was the easy transportation mode in trams and metros that linked the city, which surprisingly the Americans found complicated.
The walking was also very beneficial and exuberant, except for 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, my experience in Prague was truly enlightening.
Not only did I gain insight into different cultures, but I also learned to appreciate the differences rather than dismiss them. Prague is quite the captivating city and I can’t wait to go back again.[mappress mapid=”957″]