Before I even start the content of this update, I must apologize for how late this is! It always seems like I have so much to write about and so little time to do it! So forgive me, but here is the long-awaited update.
I know that the title I used usually refers to winter and holidays…but for me the most wonderful time of the year is fall! And fall is a great time to be in Prague. Last weekend was the unofficial kickoff of fall here, and so many things are going on in the city! There are a lot of fall festivals in Prague, which center around celebrating the harvest, celebrating alternative ways of living in Prague, and celebrating friends and family with music, food, and drink. One thing to keep in mind, is that you can never be sure of what will happen next at a festival in Prague!
Some of the more significant fall festivals celebrate the harvest season, which means the season of burčák. Burčák (pronounced bur-chaak) is also known as “young wine.” To make burčák, the fermentation process is halted prematurely, so technically it is not yet a wine but more of a fermented juice or cider. Most burčák is brewed in Moravia, but comes to Prague right at the end of August through October. Just like apple cider or pumpkin flavored anything signifies fall in the States, burčák is the ideal fall drink. So in the spirit of fall and burčák, my host parents and I went to two burčák and wine festivals last weekend. The first one was actually at a winery nearby. The festival had live music, stands selling local crafts and food, and of course burčák and wine. It really reminded me of summer festivals in my hometown in Ohio – there was just an air of comfort and nostalgia at that place.
After we spent some time exploring that festival, we moved on to another one at Náměstí Miru, a square not far from the city center. This festival was a little more centrally located, and thus more lively and crowded. I ran in to a few friends from the program who had spent all day at this festival. They boasted of the good food and the wine, and the live music. Music is a key theme to socializing and festivals in Prague. Thus we went to this festival to meet a couple of my host father’s friends to listen to a Czech rock band that has been popular for over 20 years. The band is more of a parody group – they call themselves a “punk” band but are do not actually play punk music or identify with that group. I suppose their performances are supposed to be ironic, but of course I can’t even understand any of their songs! Although I didn’t know any of the words, it was exhilarating to see the crowd – and my host family – sing along, to see a group of strangers be united by a common affiliation to this band.
Music continued to fuel the celebration as we ended the evening by going to a small “basement” club. In the city a lot of restaurants or pubs are underground – in the basement below the ground floor. This club was dark, small, and intimate, with eclectic art lining the stone clad walls. And the jazz artist performing that night was equally as eccentric and quixotic – a French Canadian jazz singer/musician who performed in English, French, and Spanish (and I’m sure he spoke Czech as well!). It was just so unreal sitting in this club listening to an international musician sing in 3 different languages. And what is interesting is that I loved it most when he sang in Spanish – a foreign language I can actually understand!! I am getting starry-eyed just thinking about it; it was such a perfect venue and artist to cap off the evening! This show really highlighted how much music is an international language that can bond people from different nations and cultures.
Another theme of Prague festivals is celebrating ways to live a little differently, and the next Saturday there was a citywide festival called Zažít město jinak, which literally means “Experience the city differently.” The festival is an annual celebration of alternatives modes of living, mainly promoting using bikes instead of cars to navigate the city. Thus, in 23 locations around the city, streets were blocked off for pedestrian and bike traffic only, and these streets are where all the celebrating happened. So on Saturday I actually ended up going to two of the festival locations. The first one was on Americká street, near Náměstí Miru (where the wine festival was the previous weekend). This part of the festival was pretty much what I expected, though I was not anticipating the promotion of alternative culture, green movements, and organic friendly food. Just imagine Fourth Street Festival in Bloomington (for those of you at IU) with a Czech/Mexican flare. Yes, I said Mexican. While most of the vendors were Czech, Mexican goods, food, drinks, and music dominated one end of the street. It was a really cool mix of different cultures, all which focused on buying local, buying organic, and supporting earth-friendly organizations. My favorite part of this festival was a local t-shirt artist. This artist had screens with lots of crazy designs on them. A lot of them were really random – like kitchen cabinets, paintbrushes, Queen Victoria – but I’m pretty sure that local street artists inspired some of them too. I had to get a shirt for myself, so I chose the most outrageous print available: a creepy bunny holding up the peace sign. I found out later that the bunny is a design from a local street artist, so then I felt more cultured about my purchase!
This same festival extended into different parts of Prague, but each part (or street) had its own unique flavor. Thus the next part of the festival that we went to completely different vibe than the first: way less tourist-friendly and way more alternative and “chill.” It almost seemed as if we went back in time, specifically to the 1970s. Colored flags flying above a green space, a vintage avocado green Mercedes van, and graffiti decorated walls all meshed together to create a retro, hipster hang out. All the people were just hanging out, talking, catching up, and drinking beer. It was intimate and foreign all at the same time, but it was all so interesting and intriguing. I met a lot of Lenka’s family and friends, so that made me feel more included. We hung out in the lawn and street for a while until it started to get dark. And then there was an announcement that in 5 minutes there was going to be a fashion show. At first I was confused and didn’t really believe it. But sure enough, people start clearing off the street and a couple of cars at the end of the street turn on their headlights to illuminate the cobblestone “runway.” Once again the Mexican influenced entered the scene, as the fashion show was going to highlight young Czech and Mexican models. I have no idea who the designer or models were, but it was really cool to see them model up and down the cobblestone street. The whole crowd was so into it too, cheering and taking pictures like this was Fashion Week or something. It was so makeshift, but I think that added to its authenticity and sincerity. It still blows my mind that there was a fashion show in the middle of the street!
Throughout the rest of the night, unexpected things just continued to happen. For example, as I was just exploring the festival with from friends from my program, a lady starts fire dancing in the middle of the street. Everyone stops what they’re doing to watch and clap and cheer as she dazzles us all with flame throwing. Her act goes on for a few minutes, and then right when she is done, a Czech guy gets up on a ladder, and holding his MacBook and a speaker on his shoulder, begins DJ-ing. Now this guy is not your typical DJ type: he is wearing suspenders, a fedora, and kind of looks like he could be Amish. Nonetheless, for about the next hour we all dance, sing, and jam to the hottest slew of 80s hits (for some odd reason, Czechs LOVE the 80s). Using a term coined by my high school, I would have to say that what happened was a Ran-Dan, a Random Dance Extravaganza. Everyone, regardless of language and culture, was united while dancing; there was such a great feeling of camaraderie in that street. Once again, music is a unifying factor among complete strangers – both Czechs and foreigners – both celebrating life and the fall season!
Though a lot of really surprising and fun things happened throughout these festivals, one thing really stuck out to me that seemed to capture the spirit of festivals in Prague as a whole. As I was waiting in line at one of the food stands to buy a palačinky – it is basically a crepe – a man comes out of an empty storefront with a ladder and can of red paint. Apparently he is going to paint a new slogan on the sign above the door, which is currently painted white. He starts with the letters d r u, and then stops. But soon he continues and completes the word “družina”, a Czech word meaning “entourage” or “following.” The verb form of “družina” means “to mingle” or “to join.” Looking back at the festivals, I think this is the perfect word to describe what happened at all of the events: people, regardless of who they were, got together to mingle. All of us joined around a certain theme – whether it be music, drink, or an alternate lifestyle – to celebrate life in Prague!
These last couple of festivals really made me excited to see what other fall fun I will stumble upon around Prague. Both of the festivals made me feel more connected to the people and the city itself: getting to know the locals, traditions, and culture of the city is really important. In addition, the festivals, especially the Zažít město jinak festival, reminded me that expectations should not shape your experience. I had very few expectations for that festival, and then so many awesome and unexpected things happened that made it the best experience I’ve had so far here in Prague! Thus, letting down your wall of expectations is crucial to having a positive study abroad experience. To be extremely cliché, you must ALWAYS expect the unexpected!
P.S. School has started in the meanwhile, but I will write about that eventually. But coming next week, a look into some major cultural differences between America and the Czech Republic.