Finding One’s Way in a Multicultural Environment
I came to Prague as a great adventure, ready to start the next grand chapter of my life. My family and friends were astounded at my decision and I think also waiting for the obsession to blow over. Some thought my wanderlust would take me to a new US city instead. I was amazed how simple, though not necessarily easy, it was to make the transition. Once I set my sights on Prague, doors opened readily (after of course me taking the steps to get to those doors).
So I landed in my new country like a giddy bride (speculating here as I’ve yet to be a bride), in the pink cloud first stage of culture shock. It was a land of possibilities, possibly looking at it in the same way as early immigrants coming to Ellis Island and the ‘land of opportunity.’ Prague in her ancient and ageless beauty was – and continues to be when I remember to shake the shades of cynicism from my eyes these days – an enticing exciting wonder. It was an opportunity to recreate myself. No one knew me here.
And thus I set out to explore and create my community. My American expat friend D travels internationally most of the year. He deposited me in the city, got me a map and metro pass and said he’d check back in a few months when he returned to Czech Republic. He wanted me to discover my own Prague. And I have.
My first step was to reach out to the English speaking expat community. I had a few contacts through expats.cz where I had found my flat and job opportunities online while still in the US. Once here I visited chat rooms and followed conversation threads trying to make new friends. But as I mentioned in a previous post, the community here – even the expats – were reticent to open up to newbies it seemed. I tried to join conversations but only got brief not-too-welcoming replies. I followed posts where they said they’d be gathering at a particular pub, but once I went there the people didn’t seem open to someone they didn’t know. Which prompted me to think I was in the wrong place, then go skulking home.
Next I sought out English-speaking pubs on my own. A striking difference, and something I had to explain to my concerned mother, is the Euro pub culture as opposed to the American bar scene. Pubs here are social meeting places. In some of the smaller villages, it may be the only big television in town for watching sports or special events with friends and neighbors. Less the nighttime cruising scene of the US, pubs here are likely open in the daytime serving lunches and dinners into the evening. My local pub has a weekly poker game where I’ve not only honed my love of Texas Hold’Em, but also enjoy friendly repartee with locals and newcomers. I’ve gotten jobs from people I met in pubs and started creative projects with friends over beers.
I also got my first somewhat painful lesson in acclimating as an American in Europe: Tone it down! Americans are notorious in Europe as being loud and obnoxious. Yes, it’s a common stereotype, but as with all stereotypes it’s grounded in truth. My American socialization coupled with my natural enthusiasm tends to make me talk a lot. And comparatively Americans do speak generally louder then your average European. I guess our native accent sounds nasal as well. Sitting in my beloved Banditos, the first English speaking expat pub/restaurant I found and frequented, I tried to strike up a conversation with a slightly jaded American woman who had lived here a number of years. She heard my just-landed American dialect and literally rolled her eyes. She responded with what I deemed to be an affected pseudo-European accent of her own. I perceived her with distain of my own, much as we did years ago when Madonna moved to England and began to adopt a British accent. But by now I have softened my own speech. People who meet me often can’t quite discern where I’m from. It now grates on my ears a bit when I hear a freshly arrived American loudly overriding all conversations in a pub, park, tram, or metro.
I am proud of my American heritage, especially my Cherokee heritage. But I also want to blend into my new cultural surroundings, not only with the Czechs but also with the international community of expats. One of the things I love about living here is that I almost daily have the opportunity to learn from other cultures, traditions, and observances. It’s not taking away from my American upbringing. Rather it adds to the colorful tapestry of who I’m continually becoming.