As daydreams of spending the summer overseas played in my head, the pilot’s voice brought me back to reality announcing the plane’s descent into Prague. Instantly, the voice in my head screamed out “What have you done” and I felt my stomach and lower intestine tighten and re-coil in fear.
My sister and I were supposed to spend the summer chasing new adventures, learning about a completely different culture, and attending a writing seminar that would inspire us to pen the great American Novel. After all, Prague was likened to ‘Paris in the 20’s’, and many ex-pat writers, musicians and artists (or Gen X-ers trying to drop out for awhile) were said to line the inspiration-filled streets.
So when my sister got cold feet a few weeks before we were to leave, I was happy that I only skipped a (heart)beat or two, before continuing on with my travel plans.
It was the summer of 1999, and I was twenty-eight years old—old in some ways, and young in others.
Though I was no stranger to traveling alone, this trip was a complete jolt out of every comfort zone I had ever known.
If being removed from all that I knew did not force me to rediscover my true self, perhaps it would at least cure my writer’s block. And, if the trip was a complete disaster, I could return home at any time with some new writing material or create my own fiction-filled tale of my time away, who would know the difference?
After the initial shock wore off from the pilot’s words, the stewardess pried my hands from the back of the seat in front of me (ok, that is the fiction part I was talking about, but it sounds good), and I jumped on the Metro in search of my flat. (Thankfully I had few expectations, because the only worldly possessions included in the rental were a small cot-like bed, one blanket, and one pot on the stove.)
Yes, fresh air was needed before a panic attack ensued.
My feet carried me safely to the Charles’ Bridge (Karluv Most), the most traveled tourist destination in Prague, though not normally my bag, I wanted to hear the energy and languages of people from all over the world, to take in the jewelry, paintings, and other artists works that line the pedestrian-only cobblestoned bridge, and rub the St. John of Nepomuk statue that is supposed to bring good luck. I knew that once I felt the breeze from the Vlatna River, heard the sounds and smelled the smells of the city, my reason for coming would be confirmed.
And it was, almost instantly.
Visiting John Lennon’s Wall; the graffiti and artistic renderings of peace and freedom that the younger generation in Prague bravely painted on the wall each anniversary of Lennon’s death even when the city was still under Communist Rule, felt apropos, and for the first time in my life, I felt free.
No one knew me, so no one could judge me. No one had yet put me ‘in a box’ so I could liberate myself from the box I had put myself in. My friends and family weren’t there to mirror who they thought I was back to me, which allowed me to reinvent the roles I had played with them over the years.
I was a clean canvas. I could wake up whenever I wished and allow my instincts and impulses to lead me through the day. I could sit and watch the man who paints devil’s ears in all of his paintings for hours, or take photographs of the street performers who all seem to know something the rest of us don’t. I could get lost in the curvy backstreets looking for the oldest pub in the city where they claim to have invented beer, or watch a Czech movie and somehow understand it.
I had only myself to answer for; I had nowhere to be, no one to meet, and no plan.
Depending on my mood, that was either liberating or terrifying.
On the days that it was the later, I developed a few mantras;
Get up and get dressed. Take one step at a time, girl. Begin a new journey each day. Email friends when a little lonely. Write. Breathe.
In the six weeks of my magical ride, I visited every place that called out to me, walked through the Prague Castle with its Golden Lane where I could swear I saw Kafka, and climbed Petrin Hill enjoying its magnificent panoramic view of Prague. I glided through the Royal Gardens pretending to be a princess, and marveled at the amazingly intricate Astrological Clock in Old Town built in 1410, gasping after hearing stories that the artist, Hanus, was blinded soon after he completed his masterpiece so he could not create anything so beautiful again.
I spent many afternoons writing in the park near my flat, making friends at the numerous charming cafes all over town, discovering the museum of my new favorite painter, Mucha, and I even decided to pierce my belly, (though thankfully my body rejected it and literally pushed it out a few weeks after I arrived back home.)
I survived my first trip to the market, though I will admit that I did run home right after praying that the kure I bought was not rabbit, and was thrilled to find in my English to Czech dictionary, that it was in fact chicken. I was lucky enough to meet up with one of my girlfriends who was traveling that summer, and meet an ex-pat who is the brainchild and author of a great guidebook series, and I have to admit that as the owner of the restaurant we dined at fawned all over us, (even if it was for a good review) I thought to myself, this guy is brilliant, what a great gig.
If Vaclav Havel, who was President at that time, had come to his esteemed position after serving four years in prison for his writings on human rights, anything was possible for anyone, any time.
That summer changed me, even though I did not realize just how much until recently.
Without the experience, I know that I would not have followed the varied paths that had allowed me to see the world differently. I would have stayed the person I and others thought me to be, and not adapted into who I wanted to become instead. I would have lived my life with fears that I was not even aware that I had, and continued to unintentionally lie to myself about why I was refusing to walk down certain paths.
I was blessed to observe the good, the bad and the ugly that I carried inside, and how that affected my every day choices. I looked at every situation as a learning experience with a lesson and reason that it was presented to me, and questioned what I could learn from each. And because I chose to live that way, I grew up, let things from my past go that had continually held me back, discovered how to live a more authentic life and be more comfortable in my own skin, and sat back to see the magic of living that way. So, for those of you still sitting thinking about a solo trip to that place that has been calling you for years, do it. It challenges all that you believe to be true about yourself, other people and the world around you, and leaves you a better person for simply asking different questions.
And if in the process of planning the trip, the little voice in your head tells you “What are you thinking?” or your insides retort, push through it, you will never regret it.
In fact, now that I think about it, I have to go now to book a trip to Spain. I will figure out how to tell my husband and two-year-old son about it later.
Mama needs a reminder of that magic again.