Written by Geoff Fisher
With no idea what I was doing or where I was going (literally looking up info about Prague and the Czech Republic in the airport as we waited to board our flight), I got on a plane and flew the nearly 6,000 miles halfway across the globe to the life awaiting me in the former Communist bloc (learning point #1: do some research on where you’re going, its history, the people, the customs, etc.! This had not occurred to us, for some reason). I was lucky that I had one of my best friends to make the trip with me, otherwise I’m not so sure I ever would’ve pulled the trigger on such a drastic move. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to do it, but making such a decision by myself has always been difficult for me, so the ability to do it with a partner-in-crime was all I needed to push me over the edge.
Mike lived across the street from me for a year as we both attended San Diego State University and graduated around the same time, and we got to know each other quite well in that year, becoming great friends and competitors in everything from basketball to Xbox FIFA to beer pong. We shared many things in common, but the common denominator in our journey together to Prague was our desire to travel and learn about the world, especially outside of the U.S.
Mike’s travel bug grew when he did a backpacking trip across Europe for a few weeks in college, and mine when I took a family trip to Italy, both ventures happening around the time we were 21 years old. We shared many stories and experiences from those respective trips and it was clear we both had the itch, but we weren’t exactly sure how to scratch it. We tossed around the idea of taking a long train journey across the U.S. after we graduated and were excited about the prospects of a trip like that! But before we could really hash out the details or formulate a real plan of action, our mutual friend, Andrew, told us that he was moving to Prague to take an English-teaching course and then teach English to foreigners. We liked the sound of that even better than a train journey across the U.S.! This was a life-altering, possibly insane, but possibly immensely rewarding move, not just a one-off trip where we’d return to California to our regular lives of no spectacular prospects after college. After a bit of discussion, the decision was made – we’re moving to Prague in July, 2008 to do the August TEFL course. The timing was perfect for both of us to move home for a bit and save some money, as well as for Andrew to be in Prague for about six months before we arrived so he could serve as our ambassador to our new lives.
We hit the ground running in Prague, no time wasted and no messing around. The learning opportunities were everywhere from the very moment we landed and were driven to our place in the Prague 9 district, weeeeeeeell outside of the beautiful Old Town Prague that we had seen pictures of (learning point #2: check the address of where you’ll be staying and the surrounding neighborhood, for many reasons!). Nevermind that, we couldn’t have cared less where exactly we were staying, we were just ecstatic to be there.
We stopped into a bank to get some local currency out of the ATM, but learned after some “discussion” with the “bankers” that the “bank” wasn’t a bank at all, it was actually an insurance agency (learning point #3: just because an office building has pictures of families outside the entrance, that doesn’t mean that it’s a financial institution).
We went to our local Billa grocery store to get some supplies for the new Prague bachelor pad (no-bedroom apartment), and we spoke California-style Spanish to everyone that we encountered since that was the only foreign language we had any experience with, and most of them looked at us like we were aliens, and rightfully so. I attempted to buy what looked like some frozen fried fish, but when I cooked up my fried fish, our bachelor pad smelled a lot like cheese. Turns out the block of frozen “fish” was actually fried cheese (learning point #4: learn at least SOME of the local language before making your move to another country, for many reasons!).
Occurrences and learning opportunities like this were daily, hourly even, and as I sit here writing this today, I can’t even put into words the excitement and engagement I felt (and still feel to this day, eight years later) with my new life. The people we met were new and interesting, everyone with a different story and perspective. We met this cat named Mason on the first day of orientation to our TEFL course, and we immediately clicked with this dude. He immediately became the third member of our crew.
Andrew took us all to a couple of beer gardens that first week; one on a dock right on the Vltava River, and the other in the middle of a big park in one of Prague’s cool neighborhoods in the city center. At the “River Garden” we met some of Andrew’s friends/classmates from his TEFL course, and man they were cool. There was this fella named Franc (full name Francesco), an Italian-looking, British-sounding dude, and he was so chill and mature, just enjoying his life and sounding cool as hell. I was fascinated. At the “JZP Garden” we met a bunch of people from SDSU and other Americans, and we were really excited to be in the company of fellow Aztecs. We drank beer and hung out with them for hours and just marvelled at everything that was happening. The freedom and relaxed atmosphere in this city was unlike anything we’d ever experienced, and we loved it.
While amazing, the experience at the beer gardens was somewhat of a let-down for one reason, though: the beer didn’t actually grow on the trees like we were expecting, it just came out of the kegs like normal beer! I know…shocking. (Learning point #5: in Europe, they have these things called “beer gardens” in open spaces around the city, usually in parks or some natural settings, where they serve beer and food and people just sit around on benches and talk, enjoying life. It’s glorious. But the beer doesn’t actually grow on trees.)
Up to this point in my story, it’s all fun and games – we were exploring Prague, partying like rock stars, learning so much about everything, including ourselves, and it was the best time in my life…for 2 days.
After 2 days of being in Prague, Mike got a call from his family in California informing him that his step-father had very unexpectedly passed away. I’ll never forget coming home at 7am after a night of partying, ready to tell this crazy tale of how I went the wrong way on the tram and ended up in what felt like Serbia, and continued partying with random tram people (learning point #6: trams are numbered, and the same number goes in two different directions. Figure out which direction your tram needs to go before just getting on it!).
Upon returning home at 7am, I was surprised to see that Mike was already up, and excited that I could tell him my CRAZY story! But before I could get into it, I could see he was in no mood and asked him what was up. He told me what happened and as intoxicated as I was, I sobered up in about half a second. We talked and cried together for the next few hours – he told me about his step-dad, how close they were and how good of a guy that he was; how bad he felt for his mom; how he was going to have to go home to be with his family and our adventure would have to be put on hold for the time being (obviously the least of the problems, but a tough pill to swallow for both of us).
Fast-forward 8+ years and I’m writing this from ISP’s beautiful new office, over-looking Charles Square on a cold winter day in December (winter…had to learn about that concept also) as an employee of ISP for over four years. Working with ISP has provided me the opportunity to travel to dozens of countries on four different continents and accumulate invaluable experiences and thousands of life lessons, some similar to the silliness that I’ve shared here and some actually quite impactful and life-changing. And what happened between now and those first couple days in Prague in July, 2008 is probably better served for another couple of posts as we’re now at 1,400 words and I’ve only gotten two days into my new Prague life. Oops. But I hope these 1,400+ words have at least provided some things to keep in mind for anyone that’s considering moving abroad and/or getting out of their comfort zone, for whatever reason. In my opinion, whether it’s a short- or long-term move, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and I’ve never met anyone, here or anywhere else, who’s regretted making the move. Just changing your perspective and learning about other countries and cultures is invaluable, and that’s just the beginning of it…