At age nine I once crawled into my mother’s bed crying because I didn’t know what I was the best at. Everyone else had their thing, I said. My brothers made movies. My cousins made music. She told me that I was a dancer; I told her that the other kids were better. She told me I was an artist; I disagreed. Eventually she told me that my thing, the thing I was best at, was that I could put feelings into words. This moment of childhood insecurity has come to have profound significance in my adult life. A knack for “putting feelings into words” spurred me through student fellowdom and the declaration of an English major. Now traveling abroad for the first time, and in possession of more adventure stories than I’ve ever had before, I’m numb to the emotional cliches that are supposed to be enveloping me. Am I at a loss for feelings or a loss for words?
Walking down the streets in the Czech village of Úterý it can seem time has stopped. Moss swallows buildings that don’t resemble the Epcot that Prague can often feel like. No tourists swarm the cobbled streets that once held Nazis, reminding you how much time has passed. I arrive in Úterý, which is also the Czech word for Tuesday, on a Friday afternoon with two other women from my program, Maura and Grace, all of us with backpacks full of clothes we soon learn will be inadequate, and preconceived notions about village life that we soon see twisted. The other six students on our program are divided between two other villages also in the Czech Sudetenland. We’ll all reunite in the UNESCO world heritage site of Cesky Krumlov in Southern Czech Republic after six days in these villages for a two-day debrief before we return to Prague.
Studying so far from home it can seem like we’ve stopped, too. In my creative writing class I’ve had the worst writer’s block of my life. I should be overrun with inspiration in a city famed for being the most romantic in the world, but all of my writing has been empty. My professor, a bestselling and award-winning Czech novelist, journalist and playwright, sees through the pretty nonsense that I’ve been passing off as works of fiction. Every critique she gives cuts to the heart of a piece’s failure, expressing its shortcomings in a way that’s both poetic and shrewd. In one meeting she tells me and the two other students in the class to “edit out the little bullshits,” giving me new words to live by. My classmates and I eat soup after one session and talk about how numb we’ve been. I adore my program; the students, homestay, and phenomenal professors, and Prague might be the most magical place I’ve ever been, but sometimes I feel like I’m watching myself make these amazing connections and live these adventures. Aren’t I supposed to have registered where I am by now?
Midway through my stay in Úterý I regain feeling. My program-mates and I collectively realize that all the people and places we love back home are existing and changing without us, that the emotional baggage that we had hoped couldn’t fit in our planes’ overhead compartments followed us anyway. Grace, Maura and I traverse an emotional rollercoaster together. Midway through our stay Grace and I accidentally eat cat food for breakfast. Fishy residue on our teeth we embark on adventures in the village; visiting schools and a Roma community center, making art and exploring cobbled streets older than the oldest pebble in the US. We learn about the vibrant contemporary life here and meet the artists and activists making it happen.
That evening, back in the house where we’re staying, I remember the cat food. I buckle over in giggles for a small eternity. Grace and I have to hold each other up we’re so breathless from manic laughter. Minutes later, we see the Milky Way for the first time. Maura, Grace and I stand in the garden, mouths agape. We can see the galaxy from Úterý. In a town with a population of 442, we have access to an entire star system. There’s something poetic about that. Maybe you can tell me what it is. Sitting under these stars we talk about our lives: our pasts, our families, our feelings, and our hopes for the future. We are every cliche about star-gazing for self-discovery. We all get teary-eyed unpacking the feelings we have tried to ignore. Úterý isn’t frozen and neither are we.
My abroad motto has become “experience it now, think about it later.” I can already feel myself changing here, and for my creative writing teacher I miss the girl back home who is so good at putting feelings into words. I want to write a story for class that explains how delicious Prague rain is and how much more I feel like I belong here in the cold rain of fall rather than the warm sunshine of late summer. I want to explain that when I walk down the street here I wish I was wearing purple lipstick so that I could leave a tangible mark of my adoration on every stone gargoyle, and that the incredible access my program has to revolutionaries, artists and academics who have profoundly mattered to Prague makes me terrified of how quickly the semester is unfolding. I want to explain how it feels to form inside jokes with my host brothers and to make up stories every night with my host sister—how it feels to cultivate a new family here. I encounter overt racism and public masturbators in the Czech Republic and still I don’t want to leave. I hear “Fools Rush In” as a backdrop to my day-to-day life and I’m silly and cliche and trying so hard to edit out all the little bullshits. Is there a word for that?