Written by Sam Bender (Brandeis University)
CET Film Production in Prague, Fall 2012
I’ve discovered the tradeoff for all the great things about Prague: There are no bagels in this city. Well, thats not entirely true, I have found exactly one bagel place, but it’s a sit down restaurant that will charge five bucks for one bagel. Five dollars for a bagel! And coffeeshops are still a few dozen years behind the rest of the world; no one will give it to you to go, they will often just put regular grounds in hot water, and it tastes terrible. They know it too, I was in a coffeeshop the other day and had this exchange:
Me: Drip coffee, please
Barista: It will kill you.
Whatever, I’ll live. And when I end up back in the States I will appreciate our breakfast (and lunch, and dinner, and 1am snack) treats like never before.
When I was backpacking through Europe I usually followed a pattern when approaching and staying in new places. Go to the hostel and check in, drop off off my stuff and see some touristy destinations, go back to the hostel and see if I could meet anyone that was going out, and repeat the next day. Now that I have a permanent address I am able to branch out further than I could have possibly done before. I had the most bizarre feeling going back to places I recognized from my brief stay in Prague, like the train station, Charles bridge, and the neighborhood I stayed in, because now I see them from a completely different perspective. I remember the rush of confusion walking from the station to my hostel, the Czech that read like complete nonsense, the streets were winding and non-intuitive, and I was massively disoriented from the long train ride. Now I can see each place as a part of the greater whole of the city.
On Sunday we went on scavenger hunts in groups composed of members of each different CET Prague program (Film, Central European Studies, and Jewish Studies), designed to get us more comfortable exploring the city on our own, to get us to visit some touristy yet necessary attractions, and maybe sneak in a little background knowledge if we weren’t already versed in Czech history. Normally when I hear “scavenger hunt” I feel as repulsed as when I hear “name games,” but our group had a great time navigating the landscape and breaking out of what was already becoming a routine. Best of all it wasn’t timed, since we were meeting up for dinner to tally points six hours after we started the hunt. We were able to strategize in coffee houses, ride the tram out to the suburbs, and traverse whole neighborhoods without it feeling like busywork. Eventually, we met with all the other groups and had a group dinner in a monastery near Prague Castle. Our group didn’t win, which was a huge bummer, but now I have a much better sense of the scale and layout of Prague.
We had our intensive Czech last week, which was a mixed experience. On one hand, it is great to be able to learn a language in the country it is spoken, our teacher is great and our classes are small enough and have enough time to properly learn a language. On the other hand, I absolutely cannot make the Ř sound. It is described as a rolling rzh. I can roll my r’s, and I can make a zh sound, but the two together is some sort of devilish trick that I’m not entirely sure anyone can actually pronounce.
A film festival called the Fresh Film Fest started on Thursday, and so far I’ve seen four films in it. It’s been great fun going with a group of students and watching movie after movie. The best part has been the person doing all the interviews with filmmakers who looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week, stares straight at the ground while asking questions, rambles on for 5ish minutes at a time, and told the DP of Martha Marcy May Marlene that he downloaded his movie from a leak that didn’t even include post work. And since its all in Czech and has to be translated, the interpreter has to shyly translate the strange things he mumbles. It’s almost as much fun watching his interviews as the movies that come afterwords. There are tons of theaters here, one is about a block away from our flat, there are a few downtown, and there are plenty more that we havent been to yet. I dont quite understand how all of them can still be in business.
Today is my tenth day in Beijing, and so far, it is the easiest. It’s a Saturday, so of course I slept in, though in the context of my life as a college student, “sleeping in” is hardly the word for what I did, which was wake up at 9:30. For Luke Wander, the history major with a tendency towards spasmodic fits of what some people call ‘acting,’ waking up at 9:30 means that either he has a malady of the gastrointestinal persuasion, or he just needs to go back so sleep. But I don’t know that guy with the bourgeois sleep schedule and the coffee grounds running through his veins. For me, 王宏志, the American student studying Mandarin at the CET Intensive Language Institute in Beijing, bedtime is before midnight and wake-up time is whenever the sun rises. I’ve been told that’s just the jetlag flexing its muscles, but I’m determined to use the semispherical shift in time zones as a tool to realign the way my body rests. That said, the fact that class here starts at 8:25 a.m. every morning, along with the harsh reality that being late to class in China is akin to saying “f*** you” to the teacher helps a little too. Of course, there have been some exceptions, like on night three, when I went with ten or so people up the subway tracks to Helen’s, a bar filled with 外国人 (waiguoren; foreigners) and danced to Ke$ha & Co. until past two. That night aside, the cultural shock has been substantial. Especially difficult for me is the transition from rural to urban, from Sugar Hollow View Drive, where cows cause two-car traffic jams and deer visit daily, and from Knolls Street, where grass grows and neighbors ask for ibuprofen, to Wenxing Street, where hundreds of cars beep and vendors sell and schoolchildren have shouting contests, and that’s just at six in the morning. It’s not that I despise the city for having so much going on, I just would like to have a break every once in a while. Luckily, the dormitories here are incredibly well-suited to that need. Whodathunk my dorm here in Beijing, with its high ceilings and wood floor, would feel more luxurious than my humble digs at 804A Hinton James?
The good thing about culture shock is that it’s what I’m here for, it’s what makes Beijing such a good place to study Mandarin. On Monday, our first day of class, we talked about different types of Chinese food for three hours. A couple of hours later, we were ordering food at a restaurant so authentic that its menus were sans-foto, and we at least had some vague idea of what we were doing. On Tuesday, we talked about the hectic state of Beijing traffic and how to avoid dangerous situations. During a ten-minute break I went across the street to buy a bottle of water and immediately put that knowledge to use. Because we didn’t have afternoon classes during our first week, on Monday I went with about a dozen CETers to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Someone with us asked me what the phrase written in giant characters next to the portrait of Mao meant, and I had no idea. Fast forward to Wednesday morning classes, where we talked about the use of phraseology in Chinese culture and of course we learned the meaning of the phrase from two days prior: 中华人民共和国万岁；世界人民大团结万岁！(Long live the People’s Republic of China; Workers of the world, unite!). Mmmmmmm， communism. But those are the just the big things, the obvious ways in which culture
will come at me in the coming months, but I tend to appreciate more the smaller things, like how it’s not rude to spit in the street as long as it is into a grate, how every dog wears a jacket, how my roommate casually wakes up one morning and declares, “宏志，你比我高，还有比我胖！” “Hongzhi, you are taller than I am, also you are fatter!” how even when only one person knows my phone number I still received four text message advertisements in a few hours, how air pollution can make an entire day smell like a fart, how the CET chef can call you out for taking too much of a specialty item, how a giant plate of steaming food costs little more than a dollar, and how people only stare at you if you’re rolling at least six foreigners deep. If it’s a dozen, they don’t just stare. They gawk. But it doesn’t matter much, because after everything, they’re foreigners just like us.
My grandma always tells me to “look up” whenever I get to a new place that I am not familiar with. My arrival in Prague was one of those times when I was so thankful for her advice. The minute we stepped off the bus that took us from the airport to our apartments, I was fascinated by the pure beauty of this city. Every building has an interesting facade, ornate moldings, beautiful beveled-glass windows. At home in New York, of course, there are pretty streets, like the brownstones down Saint Marks Place, or the view from a Central Park West avenue. But here, my breath is continually lost.
I am so looking forward to everything CET has planned for me and my fellow students this upcoming semester. We have already done so many fun things that I have never experienced before, like being let loose on the city for a six hour scavenger hunt. Forget the cold, or how easy it can be to trip on the cobblestones, I absolutely loved every minute with my giant map spread out on my lap or a cafe table, searching with my new team for the entrance to the Charles Bridge.
I am especially happy that I chose the Jewish Studies program, because even a quick flip through my textbooks shows me that I am going to leave Prague (reluctantly, I already know) with a totally different background on Jewish history. My Judaic Studies Minor at the George Washington University has afforded me a great western outlook on Jewish Culture, but, especially as I walk around the Jewish Quarter, I get the distinct feeling that so much of that culture was formed here, where I am now. At GWU we have a saying: “Something happens here.” I can already sense a distinct feeling that something happened here, and I can’t wait to learn about all of the history and culture. And, most importantly, I know that something is happening here in Prague. Prague is at a definite turning point, especially in Jewish history, culture, and life, and I can’t wait to participate in the present, and marvel at the future, of all that Prague has to offer me. And hopefully, I to it.
I’m actually here! I’m currently sitting on my low-to-the-ground, blue floral print bed and typing up the first post I will officially make in Prague, hardly awake from my first of many naps to come. To sum it up in a few words: Prague is amazing. It’s beautiful with the cobble stone walkways, the statue in Wenceslas Square surrounded by red candles and flowers to honor the memory of recently deceased Vaclav Havel (the first president of the Czech Republic and quite an amazing man), the bold and vibrant graffiti lined tunnels, etc. This is so clearly a hub of culture and expression, a fact that only makes me more excited to begin my classes about its history and evolution. Those classes, however, start in a week and a half. For now, I will focus on the here and the now.
Tonight we attended a dinner party for everyone in the CET program from Central European/Jewish Studies to the Film/Art Studies. Though the food was not necessarily “typical Czech” as one of our Czech buddies says, it was delicious. And to top if off, it was free—a concept that all students can agree is ideal. People shoveled down the buffet-style dinner and the dessert nut cake alike, most likely because nobody had braved the Czech grocery stores yet—something about packaged goods and a lack of English making for a tough combination. My roommate was smart enough to pack an emergency box of good, old-fashioned Pop Tarts. I definitely wish I’d packed some kind of snack. Luckily, living in Flora, my apartment is incredibly close to a mall. I can only imagine that somewhere in there granola bars sit on a shelf, waiting for me to arrive. Until then, however, I will be mooching off my amazingly sweet roommate. Can’t wait to see what’s to come!