Written by Talya Phelps, (Vassar College) Student Correspondent CET Film in Prague, Fall 2017
Who would have guessed that the most challenging aspect of my first weeks in the Czech Republic would be tracking down the perfect cup of coffee? To clarify, cafés abound in Prague, offering sweets, darling little sandwiches, and deliciously aromatic espresso drinks—but the price of lattés adds up quickly, and I’m saving my money for travel, so I was determined to go the more economical home-brewed route. I almost made things easy for myself by stowing a bag of freshly ground coffee beans in my carry-on, but decided to conserve space for an extra pair of shoes. Upon my first visit to our local Czech grocery store, however, I immediately regretted this decision. Endless shelves of unfamiliar foods loomed up at me, with the only words I understood in the store being the lyrics of the American pop songs piping out of the speakers.
I gazed fearfully up at the coffee section (probably appearing to other patrons like a child who had lost track of my mother), but I could not spot a single bag of ground beans; everything was either pods for an espresso machine or granules of instant coffee. Had I not been raised in a family of coffee snobs, I would have been satisfied with the instant, but I have grown accustomed to starting my morning with a steaming cup of French press, and I was not about to give up my mission. After a rather embarrassing experience at the checkout counter, in which I couldn’t figure out how to get a bag for my food and had to gesture frantically until a kind patron donated hers to me, I trotted back to my flat with chleba, sýr, and vejce (bread, cheese, and eggs) in tow—but no coffee.
The next several days were a whirlwind: my fellow students and I goggled at the gorgeous landmarks of Old Town Square during a guided tour, introduced ourselves to traditional Czech cuisine (fried cheese is a staple), and took our first classes at FAMU, one of the world’s oldest film schools. Little by little, as I enjoyed my first midnight burrito at our local 24-hour Mexican spot, strolled through leafy Letná Park brainstorming ideas for my short film, and admired the countless red roofs of my city from the Petřín Lookout Tower, I began to feel at home. Yet something was still still missing.
Late one evening, I set out (Google Maps in hand) for a part of the city I’d never been to, in hot pursuit of a coffee shop known as Můj šálek kávy. The streets of the Karlín neighborhood, located in Prague 8 across the meandering Vltava river from my flat, were quiet as the hour inched toward 10:00 p.m. (or 21:00, as I’m getting used to saying), and I was nervous for the outcome of my mission. As soon as I stepped inside the warmly lit coffee shop and the friendly barista began pulling down different roasts from the shelves and pointing out his favorites, I felt calmed. Five minutes later, I was the proud owner of a bag of ground coffee for my French press, which I took out at least three times on the tram home to enjoy its heavenly aroma.
For me, coffee is one of the biggest signifiers of home and all the comforts that come with it. I am already in love with Prague, and I feel incredibly lucky to be studying in the The City of a Thousand Spires, but change is tricky even for an adventure-seeker like me. When the 4,000 miles between me and many of the people I love are weighing on me, I seek out some of those little comforts, and remind myself to make the most of every opportunity. I am ready to take on my semester abroad—one day, one film screening, one tram ride, and one cup of coffee at a time.