One of the best things about studying abroad in Europe – and no doubt one of the reasons why it’s such a popular destination for students – is being able to hop on a train (my preferred method of travel) for a brief journey and stepping off the platform into a different country and a different world. I studied in Paris, but I was lucky enough to visit many other cities, each one distinct in its history and culture. However, beautiful architecture and fascinating museums aside, I always enjoyed a city much more if I was lucky enough to find a local who would show me around. Better than any guidebook (sorry, Rick Steves!), a local friend can point out the hidden treasures of a city, advise you on what to order in restaurants, and help you navigate the city streets as well as the language barrier.
When I first thought of going to Prague, I had no idea that I would end up with Ms. Lenka Andrysova, member of the Czech Parliament, as my guide – and all thanks to the National Council for International Visitors. The story of how Lenka and I became acquainted is a story of citizen diplomacy come full-circle. My parents have been involved with our local CIV, the North Texas Council for International Visitors, for as long as I can remember, and two summers ago I even served as an intern there. Just a few months before my trip to Prague, Lenka had visited my hometown of Dallas, Texas on an NCIV program, and my dad, one of the hosts for the group that she traveled with, formed a friendship with Lenka. Knowing my plans to travel as much as possible during my stay in Europe, he mentioned me to Lenka and suggested that we get in touch.
While making my travel arrangements for a trip to Prague, I thought of my dad’s recommendation and sent Lenka an email introducing myself, letting her know when I was planning to visit Prague, and asking if she wouldn’t mind meeting with me and showing me around if she had time.
Quite graciously, Lenka replied that not only would she be happy to show me around, but even offered that I could stay with her unless I had already made other arrangements! I wasn’t expecting such generous hospitality from someone I’d never even met, but I was more than happy to accept.
When I got off the train from Berlin to Prague on a Sunday morning, Lenka was waiting at the platform for me with a warm smile. The weather that day was beautiful, so we walked over the Charles Bridge, saw the Old Town Square with its famous astronomical clock, and stopped for lunch at a restaurant that Lenka assured me served authentic Czech cuisine. Later that same day, Lenka took me to a famous café that Vaclav Havel used to frequent, the historic Wenceslaw Square where the peaceful demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution were held, and the colorful and jubilant graffiti of the Lennon Wall. I had picked up a map at the tourist office, but I hardly needed it – Lenka knew her way perfectly around the side streets and bridges of Prague.
My glimpse of Prague, however, was not limited to the tourist sites. Lenka gave me a personal tour of the Czech Parliament and spoke very candidly with me about Czech politics and current topics in the government. We had dinner with friends of hers, a married couple with an American husband and Czech wife, and discussed the differences between our two countries in terms of everything from culture to climate.
Throughout my four-day stay in Prague, I tried to find a sufficient way to thank her for her extraordinary hospitality. She brushed away my effusive gratitude, recalling my dad’s warm and generous treatment of her and the rest of the international visitors in Dallas. “Showing you Prague is the least I can do in return,” Lenka told me. In exchange for my father’s offering of Tex-Mex and barbeque, Lenka introduced me to delicious knedliky (dumplings), trdelnik (sugary pastries), and special “spa wafers” produced in Czech spa towns (a personal favorite). Instead of the rodeo, she took me to the open-air markets and Kafka Museum.
I spent my time in Prague not just museum-hopping and sight-seeing, but also gaining valuable insight into Czech history and society. Whenever we stopped at a historical site or monument, Lenka would explain its significance and add a personal touch with her own perspectives and experiences. Sometimes she would even point out the differences between Czechs and Americans, leading to interesting discussions about cultural comparisons. I couldn’t thank Lenka enough for all of her hospitality and kindness, but she saw it as simply returning the favor that my father and the NTCIV had done her when she visited Dallas. Lenka’s insights and friendship enriched and enlightened my experience of Prague and Czech culture, illustrating the value of citizen diplomacy and cultural exchange.