“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” — Nelson Mandela
In life, you don’t always get second chances.
This weekend was an exception to that rule when I went to Prague in the Czech Republic for the second time in my life.
Prague was the first city I traveled to outside of the U.S. I went as a 17-year-old high school student more concerned with memorizing all the terms for her upcoming APUSH exam than knowing basic Czech phrases like dobry den (hello) and dekuji (thank you). I was part of an exchange program with 10 or 11 other of my classmates who had hosted Czech students a few months before in Chicago. Then in April 2011 it was our turn to come stay with them and explore their country.
Now, almost four years later to the date, as I descended the plane onto the tarmac at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague, I got that same giddy feeling I had the first time around. Logistically, things would be similar to last time: I would stay with my exchange student, Jana, and revisit popular sites like Prague Castle. But so much had happened in four years. I wasn’t the same Jordyn who had arrived to Prague with her group of loud English-speaking friends. No, this time I was traveling alone and the sounds of quick speaking Czech natives overwhelmed me.
I would be lying if I said I fully appreciated traveling to Prague four years ago as a teenager. Because up until recently — let’s say maybe, uh, four months ago — my memory of my trip was shaded by my Americanism. So I can’t lie about that.
When I went as an exchange student, I found it difficult to adjust to the time zone, I enjoy the large bag of Rice Krispie treats my mom had packed for over the Czech food, and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t rely on my English to communicate well with my host mom who only spoke Czech. Admittedly, I’m an only child who despite my passport really loves staying at home and near my family. The cultural differences between the U.S. and the Czech Republic weighed heavily on me for that time we were there. During that week I developed a long Facebook message thread with my best friend back home in Chicago to lament my homesickness.
But I would also be lying if I said I didn’t learn anything from the experience.
Prague holds a special place in my heart. It was my first taste into European lifestyle. In many ways it brought the History Channel to life. Our exchange students were extremely hospitable and took us to every major Prague site — and trust me, there are a lot.
The Charles Bridge (where Kanye shot this music video), the Dancing House, Karlštejn, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague Castle.
Prague Castle is one of the oldest and largest castle complexes in the world. It was one of the first sites I saw with the rest of my exchange group. I remember snapping a few photos then getting tired and hungry and ready to leave. This weekend I realized how petty that was of me. Now that my passport has been a little more worn down by all the traveling and after three months of living in London, I have a better understanding of European culture.
So as I toured Prague Castle, or as they would say Pražský hrad, a second time I went through it slower, stopping every once in a while to ask my friend how to pronounce a word in Czech, inquiring about the history of certain monuments and reminding myself how amazing it was to be under the warm spring sun in one of the world’s oldest cities.
At each stop along the way, I not only took a picture but I took a mental note. Thousands of people had been here before — even me — but this time I would recognize the significance of it all.
Thursday, which was the day I flew into Prague for a second time, was my grandmother’s 80th birthday. After hanging up the phone from wishing her a “happy birthday,” I did some reflecting. My grandmother has never left the United States. She’s lived her entire life in Illinois. And here I was, recently turned 21, and revisiting a country that had previously been closed off to the Western world due to the Cold War.
I was living the trips unimagined to many in my family. How did I get to be so lucky?
So at each site I revisited in Prague — the National Theatre, Pařížská Street, Old Town Square — I paused and just stood there. I wanted to remember this time, fully and completely. Who knew when I would return?
Life doesn’t always give you second chances. But I’m so blessed that it gave me one to go back to Prague.
Because this time around I surely didn’t take it for granted.