Featured Image: My friends and I spotted this toy store on a shopping street in Amsterdam’s city center and our inner children couldn’t resist taking a peek.
The smell of wet dog flooded the room as Miloslav entered, his brambly gray beard trembling above his plaid-clad potbelly. He parked his huge rolling suitcase in the corner and painstakingly tied the leash to a table leg. Immediately, the hound began leaping up on his lap, its enthusiasm belying the fact that it only had three legs. My two groupmates and I exchanged incredulous looks with our production manager before our prospective actor began chattering in Czech.
Once Miloslav was long gone, puppy in tow, our production manager shared that he had a reputation as “the richest hobo in Prague.” In the end, we chose not to cast our hairy friend. The other actor we saw that morning offered a far more realistic portrayal of Ondrej, the slovenly, gum-smacking husband-turned-murderer in the absurd comedy that we will shoot on 16-millimeter film stock at the beginning of December. Yet I won’t be forgetting Miloslav anytime soon, and neither will our production manager, who was so shaken up by his audition that she had to step outside for a smoke.
Since October break ended, my life has been consumed with preparations for the seven-minute film that will be the culmination of my semester. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t enjoy Netflixing in bed without imagining what the storyboards looked like for each episode of House of Cards, and can’t make my morning coffee without thinking about how best to render the final scene of our story, in which cunning Draha mixes up a cup of poisoned tea for her victim. Currently, having finalized our script and locked down our location—an Airbnb in Hostavice, a neighborhood in Prague’s outlying 14th district—we are in the seemingly endless process of casting. Since our three characters are all in their Medicare years, it’s no surprise that most of our potential actors speak no English, but the language barrier does make things a bit trickier. Apart from Miloslav, one of the highlights of casting for me was our session with Otakar, a fellow as jovial as he was spherical, whose headshot depicted him in a knight getup, delightedly brandishing a sword.
Given all the work yet to be done on our project, it’s a good thing that I’m now finished with independent travel for the semester. Last weekend, as a few friends and I waited for the bus to take us from the Amsterdam airport to the city center, we got to discussing which European city has stolen our heart and why. I was caught off guard by how clearly the answer stuck out to me. I’ve loved each of the seven new countries I’ve seen this semester in a different way: Budapest for its ubiquitous fairy lights strung across streets and twinkling outside restaurants, Copenhagen for its quirky basement cafés and the otherworldly hippie commune we visited, Stockholm for the Nordic coziness that conquers even October snow flurries and mid-afternoon sunsets. Yet every time I return to Prague, the feeling of homecoming is more intense, the relief greater when I hop on the tram and the chatter enveloping me once again follows the familiar cadence of Czech.
Nevertheless, as homecoming inches closer, I can’t help thinking about all the silly little things I miss about the States. Here are a few:
- Speaking the same language as my hairdresser. Originally, I was planning to find an affordable salon to fix up my dye job, but I got as far as Googling salons in Prague before I became intimidated and gave up. No one but my parents is allowed to see me immediately after I get home, because my brunette roots will have grown into full-on trees.
- Living in a country that knows the glory of Apple stores. My iPhone 5s is already so antiquated that one of my classmates asked me if I was okay upon seeing it. Worse still, when the screen made contact with a sidewalk in Copenhagen, it evidently decided that the time was ripe to finally shatter after being dropped on literally hundreds of other occasions. A week later, I realized that I should have heeded the warning I read on BuzzFeed about those trendy liquid glitter cases leaking toxic fluids onto their owners. Now my phone is not only shattered, but also as vulnerable and naked as a newborn babe.
- Say it with me, fellow JYA-ers: not dealing with a time difference! While I’m not as badly off as those studying in St. Petersburg or Sri Lanka, that six-hour gap between Prague and New York is rough stuff. It’s not safe to start messaging anyone at home until around 3 p.m., meaning that mornings are even more horrible than they are in the States. Worse still, I’m now accustomed to waking up to a barrage of missed notifications, meaning that I’m pretty much obliged to lie in bed looking through all my Snapchat stories for at least an extra 10 minutes after I wake up, thus making me perennially late to class.
- Free water. Hydration is key, and paying for bottled water at restaurants when I forget my own really cramps my style. I’m an American, damn it, and I want my liquids served to me on a (free) silver platter.
To be fair, the pluses of living in the heart of Central Europe outweigh its drawbacks. Here are a few things I’ll doubtless be pining for next semester:
- The ubiquity of actually good coffee vending machines. I can’t fathom how America doesn’t have these on every corner yet. Years from now, I will think of the Nescafé machine on the second floor of my film school and smile wistfully when I remember how I could feed it 10 crowns (less than 50 cents) and it would spit out an adorable little latte in 30 seconds flat. Some may say that I’m unreasonably obsessed with coffee. After all, before I discovered the grocery section of Marks and Spencer, I regularly trekked across the river to Karlín to buy ground beans for my French press; the unfamiliarity of the hipster-y neighborhood and the fact that I tended to go alone right before the coffee shop closed at 10 p.m. made me feel like I was making a clandestine trip to my dealer. Sketchy caffeine pick-ups aside, I sincerely hope to someday live in an America where espresso is only a touch of a button away.
- Cheap accommodations. Last weekend in Amsterdam, I shelled out an exorbitant sum to enjoy the “party hostel” known as the Flying Pig Uptown, and I must say I was not impressed. Aside from the fact that I did not once “party” within the confines of the Pig, they also managed to triple-book my bed, so I twice arrived back to the room to find that someone else had already claimed it. However, disregarding the Airbnb I was kicked out of in Copenhagen and the fact that my flat in Budapest had a little boy in blackface painted on the bathroom sink, everywhere else I’ve stayed on my travels has been lovely and affordable.
- The bathrooms. When I first visited Europe on my senior trip to Italy, the first thing I noticed was the fact that bathroom doors actually provided privacy, unlike the sorry excuses for doors in the States with gigantic gaps on the top and bottom. Yet even such pristine public facilities pale in comparison to the intriguing centerpiece of the bathroom in my Prague flat. Never mind the fact that there’s no shower curtain, no bathmat, and no place to hang up the shower head. The real star of this bathroom is the bidet, which I am far too terrified to use, but which I often eye with fear and admiration. Perhaps I’ll work up the courage to try it before I fly home, but I’m not counting on it.
As I write this, I’m snuggled in bed, or as snuggled as I can be given that my sheets and pillowcases are drying on the other side of the room. (Dryers are another thing I miss from the U.S., especially since all my jeans are now permanently stretched out.) Tomorrow I’ll dip a toe into holiday gift shopping, which will commence in earnest once Prague’s famous Christmas markets begin to dot the streets. Soon, Old Town Square will be filled with the spicy scent of svařené víno (mulled wine) and the plaintive bleating of donkeys, who will evidently be present along with a Bethlehem scene and a gigantic tree plucked from the woods of Central Bohemia. For now, it’s time for this weary traveler to sleep, with visions of Miloslav and his mongrel dancing in my head till morning.