by Sandra Sermons
As far back as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the former Eastern Europe. I can still remember vividly President Reagan’s thunderous quote, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” So, imagine my exhilaration when I found out that I would spend the first semester of my junior year of college (fall 1993) in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). Of course, there were logistical issues: where would I stay? How about readers? And of course, where would I get my hair done (being that I am African American, and the Czech Republic is, well…).
Interestingly enough, I ended up being hosted by a family. My host sister, Pavla Valnickova, was a gold medalist in the Paralympics. However, my initial euphoria dimmed into unadulterated fear when I found myself on a flight to Prague.
The food took some getting used to. My host family and I worked out a system wherein if I liked a particular dish, I would say it was good. If I didn’t, I would say that it was “interesting,” and they wouldn’t give it to me anymore.
As time went on, it really sank in that I was there for the long haul. I mean it was me, myself and I — no family, friends or anyone who could take away my homesickness. Of course, I could have chosen to go home, particularly for the first few weeks, but I have never been a quitter, so I decided to give it my best. It was after that mind shift that I started to realize some things: First, very few people spoke English, so I had to learn Czech; after all, I was in the Czech Republic. With my mediocre language skills came my ability to get out and about. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Prague has a public transportation system to rival the one in Washington, D.C. Just like in D.C., all metro stops were announced. However, in Prague, the bus and tram stops were all announced as well. This is during the time when we were still trying to get bus drivers to announce the stops back in the States. In addition, there were audible pedestrian signals all over the city, while in the U.S. we were still arguing over the need for them.
Then there was the currency. The paper bills came in different sizes, and a little piece of plastic with raised markings made it possible for a person who is blind to determine the denomination independently. By contrast, our money identifiers were heavy and inaccurate.
Speaking of money, the Czech Republic is known for their Bohemian crystal. There were crystal shops on every corner. So, this one particular day, my friends and I visited a crystal shop that we hadn’t previously been to. My friends were describing some of the patterns and they sounded beautiful, but I wanted to touch them. Only problem was, you guessed it, the shopkeeper didn’t speak English. So, my friends and I were doing the usual gestures, and trying to think of the Czech word for blind, all to no avail. The shopkeeper just didn’t get it. Finally, I pulled out my American Express. The shopkeeper said “ohhh,” took me by the hand, and allowed me to touch every piece of crystal in the entire shop, including the stockroom. I purchased several sets of crystal. From that day on, I couldn’t even walk down that street without the shopkeeper trying to drag me into her store. And any time I wanted to purchase something, out came the credit card and more often than not, I was then allowed to touch the item if needed.
There was no shortage of things to buy, do, and see in the Czech Republic. Besides crystal, the Czech Republic is also known for its culture. The number of classical concerts happening everywhere was amazing. In fact, most of my classical CDs came from Prague. Where were the concerts held? Surprisingly enough, they were held in churches. Like most modern cities, Prague had an opera house. However, the vast majority of the concerts took place in churches. Ironically, the Czech Republic is an atheist country. Nevertheless, they have more churches than the Vatican — go figure.
What I learned on my velvet adventure was this. As an American who is blind, I was able to live in a foreign country and not just exist, but actually thrive. Were there obstacles? Sure, but I overcame them, and in doing so discovered my inner strength, resilience, and resourcefulness. Also, I learned that we in the U.S. are truly blessed. However, our way is not the only way, nor is it even the best way in some instances. The moral of the story is to always try to be open-minded and willing to learn because you never know. Your next adventure may be just around the corner.