Amy McMahon relives the life-changing experiences of teaching abroad in Prague in her twenties.
I lived in Prague for just one year before moving on to other teaching opportunities further east. Fundamentally, one year does not seem very long, but time is funny that way. Some years can seem so momentous, and they feel much longer than just one: my 13th year (everyone knows 13 is the worst age), my daughter’s first year of life, my six months studying abroad in Peru (not even a full year that felt like at least two), and my single year in Prague.
I moved to Prague in search of adventure, freedom, and the ability to travel easily throughout Europe. I moved after grad school, after my yearlong internship in the mental health field convinced me that I’d made a terrible mistake. I was certain I was not a good therapist, and I didn’t particularly want to be a good one, either.
So, like many other white, middle-class, twenty-somethings of my generation facing a quarter-life crisis, I fled overseas to teach English. I had always wanted to live in Europe, and Prague seemed like a good blend. Prague wasn’t so expensive that it would be impossible to live there on a teacher’s salary, a city that still hired American-English teachers, and, best of all, it was saturated in history and beauty.
The one thing I wasn’t searching for was a home. This wasn’t because I was overly attached to the idea of my home in the United States; rather, I wanted to be a nomad, a true adventurer and traveler without any roots.
Still, I was pickier when flat-hunting than I thought I would have been. There’s something of a deadline when searching for a flat in Prague, at least while you’re applying for a freelance visa — you need an address for the visa to go through so you can, you know, work. None of the flats I looked at, however, were places I wanted to live in for a year — too smelly, too dark, weird locations, creepy landlords, too expensive, and on the list goes.
Then, I found a place that was a little too expensive, had a Russian landlord I immediately disliked, and was furnished in the smallest sense of the word.
“It’s perfect,” I told Pavel, my landlord, as I beamed out of the windows.
Pavel immediately had me sign my life over — who knows because he had copies of the agreement in Czech and Russian (two languages I most certainly do not speak) — but I couldn’t make myself care.
The flat had a view over a beautiful square and a balcony over the courtyard. A tram stop was mere steps away and a metro a few blocks further. A small Tesco store was on the corner, and downstairs was an honest-to-goodness neighborhood pub. The floors were parquet, the kitchen was IKEA, and there were dome windows and a bathtub. The Vltava River was two blocks away, and the tram line could take me to the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and more in a matter of minutes. An orchestra practiced several times a week across the courtyard, and an opera singer lived upstairs. The outside was a beautiful example of early 20th-century architecture, and the building itself was built in 1902.
It was perfect — a perfection I hadn’t even known I’d needed. Every time I walked inside, I was hit with a giddy realization: I live in Prague. I live in Europe!
Of course, everything has a shine that wears off eventually. When I moved out of the flat just under a year later, I was ready. I still miss it, but I wouldn’t move back.
The landlord ended up raising the rent, revealing hidden fees, and generally gouging me out of money at every opportunity. The glorious, curved windows hoarded spiders in the summer — and in the summer heat, the flat was the hottest place in town. I exhausted myself trying to make it in Prague with three or more jobs, and I traveled constantly around the continent and beyond. The opera singer moved away to be replaced by a vacation rental that specialized in hosting drunken 21-year-olds. Someone tagged the front of my beautiful building with giant letters that looked disturbingly like Hitler.
The last week before I moved out, I laid on my bed, with every window and door open (except the front for obvious reasons), to tempt a little bit of breeze into the flat, so I could sleep. I watched a dark stain on the ceiling, which seemed to expand before my eyes — or maybe just the number of insects that were inexplicably attracted to this spot kept growing. I was ready to say goodbye.
The flat continued to embody my dream for that entire year — first in its shiny perfection, and finally, in its unmistakeable reality, filled with flaws.
The flat reminded me I was living in Europe, in Prague, in all of its glory — from the beauty to the grit. It gave me so much: a career I loved, connections with people from all over the world, and the experience of living my dreams. If I could go back, I’d appreciate it for all of its realness and not just as the Europe of my imagination. It wasn’t a fairytale with a happy ending, but a fairytale with dark edges.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect to me.