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Local college student falls in love with Prague during foreign studies

With 4,167 miles between them, Prague and Buffalo are unlikely twins.

On Feb. 1, I made the transcontinental move to Prague to study for four months. It was an exciting but nerve-wracking time. I don’t live at home during the school year, but a 90-minute drive is a bit different than 10-hour flight, not counting layovers.

Armed with playlists I asked friends to make for me to listen to when I missed them, I took on Europe for the second time – although this time I didn’t have high school friends and teachers to tell me where to go and what to do.

I left “The City of Good Neighbors” not knowing what to expect in the Czech Republic. When my classmate initially asked if I was interested in joining her on study abroad, I had to Google Prague’s location.I was anxious thinking of navigating my way to class through a foreign city rather than walking across the small St. Bonaventure University campus. It was going to be a whole new world – or so I thought.

The first few weeks weren’t what I imagined. I was homesick, tired of getting lost, and I couldn’t find food to accommodate my dietary restrictions; I have intolerances to gluten, lactose, fish, mushrooms and eggs. Typical Czech dishes consist of bread dumplings with meat and gravy and fried cheese; beer is its own food group. There wasn’t a salad in sight.

There wasn’t one defining moment where I suddenly fell in love with Prague, or Praha as I came to call it like a true Czech, but one day I realized I had begun to call it home. When we visited Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Scotland, I would say “When we go home …” speaking about Praha. I began to use the little Czech I knew to communicate at the grocery store and hung out at cafes alone reading. I had favorite spots in the city, like a small park near the center that was hidden from tourists. The park, which was more of a very large courtyard, was home to peacocks that freely roamed about.

I explored a city centuries older than America and attended Charles University, founded in 1348, which is the first university in central, northern and eastern Europe. The cobblestone streets claimed my favorite boots, and Praha claimed my heart.

So what does a city where people speak Czech, has a castle and was controlled by communism for about 40 years have in common with Buffalo?

For starters, Praha is in a bit of a renaissance, too. Still recovering from the communist era, Praha is building up its economy and reinventing itself in a wonderful way. It has a beautiful waterfront on the Vtlava River that offers paddleboats, boat tours and a nice place to hang out on a sunny day. Czechs love their hockey and were pretty mad after losing, 3-0 to the U.S. in the Ice Hockey World Championship this year. The eclectic shops reminded me of Elmwood Avenue, and there always is a festival going on or a cool market to check out. While I was there I attended a small art festival, which was like a very scaled-down Allentown, the huge Easter market, which spreads itself across three squares in the city, and the Saturday flea market a couple of times.

I didn’t get a chance to attend the two film festivals that happened, but I did go to a witch-burning festival on May Day (May 1). Children dress up like witches and attend the outdoor festival to do activities, have their faces painted and eat a lot of delicious food. There was a band, a DJ and more beer tents than I could count. At the end of the evening, a huge bonfire is lit in the center of the festival and locals bring their guitars and play Czech campfire songs.

While the Czechs tend to be shy – but still nice – around outsiders, like Buffalonians, they are good neighbors to each other. It’s rare to get someone who is outwardly rude and if you encounter one, it’s usually a tourist. But you can’t smile and randomly say hello to everyone on the street like you do in Buffalo: In the Czech Republic, a smile means genuine attraction unless you’re familiar with the person, and you’d be sending a very odd message in the middle of the street.

Like the Queen City, Praha is loaded with gorgeous architecture and an abundancy of Catholic churches and cathedrals. But unlike Buffalo, it is arguably the most atheist nation in Europe. The architecture holds history in its walls, sometimes literally. The Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Praha is now a memorial with bullet holes in the wall that were shot by Nazi officers in an attempt to kill the special operations unit that tried to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. The men that weren’t killed by Nazis in the initial shootout in the chapel took their own lives in the crypt, which is now a memorial with busts of each of the men.

Buffalo might not have intense shootout stories that affected world history, but we have the second most Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in America and we’re the city of light – the first American city to have widespread electric lighting.

With a rich history and a walkable city, Praha reminded me of the uniqueness of Buffalo, but it didn’t make coming home any easier. I said na sheldanou, the Czech word for goodbye, literally meaning “until we meet again,” to Praha on May 23 to begin my journey home. They say when you fall in love with a place, a piece of your heart stays there, so I suppose I have to return to pick it back up. It was a sad flight home, but there’s no better cure for a long face than a big plate of wings.

email: hgordon@buffnews.com