I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to foreign cities with some frequency. Each time, before I go, I try to read up on the history of each place as much as I can, as well as consult the guidebooks to make sure that I have an itinerary that will prepare me to see as many of the sights as possible. The research I put into traveling is not particularly overwhelming, but it does take some time and energy. Of course, there is nothing to suggest that I should do this kind of research before traveling, but I always seem to do it. Also, I have found that some of my best trips have been when I encountered something that my research had not prepared me for. This is a good experience for those of us who like a bit of adventure and a lot less structured travel plan, such as myself.
Most of the cities I have visited have some type of literary connection for me. As I write this in Prague, sitting at the Café Slavia, which first opened its doors in 1881, I am aware that Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and Vaclav Havel have all spent considerable time here; it’s one of the reasons I chose to come here rather than some other café. The café life is one that I have always wanted.
It is just after nine in the morning and the place is nearly empty. There are two full tables behind me and a table of four in front of me. On my right the café expands into a lager room filled with early morning light. The people at table of four are all smoking, which is now a European cliché. All of us are sitting at tables that look out over the River Vltava, and except for me (obviously!) all are speaking Czech. The walls of the Café Slavia are adorned with pictures of various writers, intellectuals, artists, and politicians who have spent time here. One does not get this in the United States. Instead, we have places like the Broadway Deli in Manhattan with pictures on the wall of people like Carol Channing and Tony Danza; not exactly intellectual heavyweights.
When visiting a foreign city, or any foreign country for that matter, one should always bring one’s imagination. Too many times it is easy to bring such high expectations with one on a trip, only to be disappointed in the end because the reality of the city does not live up to those expectations. I am not suggesting that we should lower our expectations, just bring a sense of humor and patience with us when we step off the airplane or the train and out onto the street.
One’s first visit to a city can be as stressful and intimidating as it can be exciting. There are a lot of variables to take into consideration, such as currency exchange, cultural rules, eating habits, and the like. On this trip to Prague I have discovered that those foreign cities I really like warrant at least a second visit. Let me explain. The first time we visit a foreign city (or even a strange city in our own country) we are really tourists there. We stumble around trying to make our way through town, as well as communicate as best we can, hopefully without seeming like complete idiots. All of this, of course, adds to the stress of traveling. But when we find ourselves in a city we especially enjoy, a return trip to that city could be even better. Of course, our virginal trip is magical just because we are experiencing it for the first time, but by the second trip we should be a little smarter, a little more used to the culture. On second trips to foreign cities we don’t have to do all of the touristy things we did on the first trip. We can explore a little more, mix with the locals, and feel generally more at ease. On second trips to foreign cities we bring experience with us and because of that experience we are in a position to slide more smoothly into the stream of everyday life.
Of all of the cities I have visited, Prague is the moodiest, and I mean this in the most positive sense. However, I will speak more about this in a future post. Nevertheless, Prague is full of cafes like Café Slavia, and some are better than others. Sadly there are a number of Starbucks here, and each time I pass one it is quite busy. I find it difficult to understand why in a city with such a rich café life one would choose a Starbucks. It is hard to beat the view from Café Slavia. From where I am sitting I can see Prague’s majestic castle, built around 880. When I visit my local Starbucks in Manchester, New Hampshire I have a wonderful view of a parking lot and a Five Guys Burgers and Fries; it’s not exactly inspiring, which may be why our politicians lack imagination and intelligence. Nevertheless, I am not sure I would appreciate this type of café if I lived in Prague, or any foreign city with its share of cafes. We tend to desire most what we don’t or can’t have, and for me it’s this type of café life that really does not exist anymore.
In fact, my conceptions of Europe are all more than a bit out of date, and when I visit a European city it is almost always as if I am visiting a theme park; not a theme park like we find in Las Vegas or Epcot, but one of my own imagination. That is, it becomes hard to separate the romantic conception I have of these cities from the reality. After all, how can one walk around the warren-like streets of Prague without thinking of Kafka?
My coffee cup is now empty and the hotel is a good twenty minutes walk from here. My plane leaves in a few hours and my trip to this foreign city is about to end. Although I miss my family terribly, I do relish these few days of isolated exploration, both of foreign cities and myself. I always come back the richer for the experience, and the experience has not always been pleasant. Prague has been a wonderful experience, and is one of the few foreign cities I have visited that has exceeded my expectations. The people have been friendly, and at this time of year there are less tourists. I hate to leave this spot as I have had such a profoundly peaceful experience just sitting here drinking coffee and people watching. One of the best things about visiting a foreign city by yourself is that there is very little chance someone you know will come by and interrupt the magic of solitude with a desire to chat.