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Essay

Life in unpredictable Prague is anything but boring

Email|Print| Text size + By Julie O'Shea
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2008

PRAGUE - Life here can sometimes feel a bit like stunted adolescence. Remember freshman year of college, when you realized you could have Lucky Charms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and no one would lecture you? Same concept here - minus the Lucky Charms.

Its architecture and history may be hundreds of years old, but Prague itself is a "young," transient city. Most who land here are just one or two years out of college. They come with their oversized backpacks to teach English, drink cheap beer, and escape the responsibilities waiting for them on the other side of the world. They party till dawn and sleep until noon. They live paycheck to paycheck and spend their free time at Internet cafes working on their Facebook accounts and text-messaging strangers they met the night before. I sometimes wonder whether I am not getting the most out of this overseas adventure because I'm not flipping sausages at one of the corner food stands littering the city. But then I look around at the '70s-funk-style flat I share with these two guys from the Midwest and realize I am having a slightly different - albeit just as poignant - starving-artist moment.

It's true what they say about time passing in the blink of an eye. Here, though, time has a tendency to play tricks on you. Days and weeks meld, leaving you with a bunch of vivid memories but no sense of when exactly they happened.

For instance, I forget when precisely I figured out the night tram system, but I remember it was a big deal in my little world here, and my roommates took me out for a celebratory round, relieved, I'm sure, they no longer had to draw a map for me whenever we stayed out past midnight.

There are, however, other things that are not so easy to swallow on public transit, like - oh - sex on the metro. OK, maybe I'm slightly overstating things, but the rampant - not to mention intricate (borderline acrobatic, even) - public displays of affection seen around these parts come, in my opinion, dangerously close to porn. I can't figure out if I have turned into a prude or if the former Eastern Bloc has just lost all sense of modesty.

The first time I got on a scale I nearly had a panic attack, not realizing it was in kilos, not pounds. And it's just a fact of life, I quickly learned, that someone's going to slam you with their shopping cart if you take too long picking out fruit or a box of cereal at the downtown Tesco. Trying to make small talk with the folks working the checkout counters? Also a no-no. They aren't nice people. But then there are those days when I'm walking around Old Town or surveying the city from atop Petrin Hill, and everything is just so perfect and breathtaking.

I have been roughing it here for just over a year now and have found that homesickness hits me in the most unexpected ways: I miss having a shower curtain in the bathroom. I miss my car. I sort of miss Taco Bell. (No judgment, please.)

Somehow I had gotten it into my head that moving to Europe would feel more like an extended vacation rather than a final destination. I hadn't factored in the whole "making a living" thing. The euphoria I felt the first few times I went out to dinner and realized I could get a top-of-the-line meal for the equivalent of $7 has long since faded. I am now thinking in crowns instead of dollars, and the difference is palpable, especially given the dollar's humiliating decline. The biggest adjustments, however, have been the ones I've had to make on the job, dealing with a post-communist country that still seems light-years away from truly embracing a free press. The liberties Western journalists are accustomed to do not apply here. Wit and charm will get you nowhere fast. Threats don't work either. Nor does reasoning. Or low-cut tops. (Just kidding about that last one!)

A woman I shared drinks with at a recent press mixer summed things up when she noted: "We're living in a parallel universe." She had a point.

Julie O'Shea, from California, is an editor with The Prague Post.

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