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On Failing: A move to Prague as a naive recent college grad

It’s 2009. My final months of college, and everyone is asking “What’s next?”

Me at my Smith College Graduation Tyler House

My opinion on the so-called “Real World” – shout out to my Tyler House peeps

A move to Prague is not even on my mind. After a year studying abroad at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, the plan is to head back there for six months on the former BUNAC working holiday visa. Keyword “former”. About halfway through my senior year of college, they replace BUNAC with the Youth Mobility Scheme, in which Americans are not included. Shit.

I let Google decide my fate

Without the BUNAC visa, my only options to move to the U.K. are to go to grad school or marry a British person. Grad school is out, I need a break after my BA. I promised myself I only would get an MA if I knew exactly what I wanted to do and was certain not having the degree would prevent me from it. While some of my British friends jokingly offered to marry me so I could come, that seemed a bit too permanent.

So, I did the next best thing. I google “How can I not live in America?” and follow Google’s advice to move to Prague and do a month-long intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course at TEFL Worldwide Prague. After that, I can become an ESL teacher. A few short application essays and I am accepted, deposit paid.

Most of my friends are getting ready to apply to regular jobs and go to grad school at this point.

I feel very different. This path is not attractive to me in the slightest. Even though I cannot put words it into words, I unconsciously know I don’t want a normal job yet, and I don’t want to  sit home in an (albeit mostly content) relationship where I worked and then came home and watched TV every night. I wanted more. Like any mature adult, I decide to flee the country instead.

I studied Psychology without once thinking what kind of jobs I could do with it, and I wasn’t interested in any of my career options. Teaching English is as good of a plan as any, right? I decide to work my intensive summer camp job again before leaving to save up money. In August I fly out, with a brief stop over in England to see my friends and what might have been.

I didn’t really know much about Prague

View of the Charles Bridge in Prague

Charles Bridge, Prague

I decide to move to Prague right before my final semester’s course registration, so I quickly enroll myself in a Czech language class as part of my university’s rare language program at a local college. By the end I can order a coffee, ask how someone is doing and count in Czech.

I google Prague’s vegan and gay-friendliness. At least a few vegan restaurants mean I wouldn’t starve. Prague did not seem like the lesbian capital of Europe, but I felt certain I wouldn’t get beat up for being gay. After connecting with my future classmates on Facebook, I feel ready.

My move to Prague is pretty much everything you would expect from a naive, sheltered college student working abroad for the first time.

I pass my TEFL course. Having gone into the course thinking, “How hard could it be, I’m a native English speaker! I just need to talk to people, right?”, I receive a bit of a shock. That first day, our teacher gives us an English grammar test. We all fail, most of us not even able to finish. Very much humbled, we tackle the course with fresh eyes. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done, so different than reading books and writing essays, but I enjoy the change of pace.

Graduating Class August 2009 TEFL Worldwide Prague

My graduating class from TEFL Worldwide, my ESL teaching course.

I get two jobs after graduating. I hate my main job, and they withhold 30% of my earnings because I don’t have a work visa, while refusing to sponsor one. The night before my first day of work, I wake in the middle of the night ready to puke from anxiety. I spend hours and hours on each lesson plan, and I still don’t even break even.

I get a beautiful apartment partially overlooking a vineyard with a fellow American vegan. It is way too expensive for me, but it is pretty and I like my roommate. When converting the monthly rent to dollars (10,000 Czech crowns, about $500), I think, “Hey, that’s a good price! Way cheaper that NYC rents!”, the only city I had spent a lot of time in. Quickly I realize that I only earn 10,000 crowns per month. My savings rapidly dwindle.

View from living room window in Vršovice, Prague

View from my living room window in Vršovice, the vineyard is the green way in the back.

Living room in fancy Prague flat

Still the nicest kitchen I’ve had to this day. You know it’s fancy when there’s a wine rack.

I packed two of the biggest suitcases allowed, overweight charges on each, I am going to move there for good! Little did I know I’d be lugging all that stuff around Europe for most of the winter, on and off trains and down rough gravel paths.

So, what’s Prague like?!

Prague is an amazing city. It’s small compared to the likes of New York, Berlin, etc. but big enough to have a variety of activities and weird shit going on. The nightlife is crazy. I spend one weekend partying in a former WWII Bunker deep underground, and the next in a maze of a club made of car parts and computer motherboards. Beer is cheap if you’re spending dollars, and warm weather is spent in a massive beer garden in the park Riegrovy Sady, with lines and lines of benches filled with people sipping giant mugs of beer,  watching football or the karaoke on stage.

In Mid-August the Burčák season begins, and this is one of my favorite times. Burčák is young wine, or as I like to call it, “surprise wine”. You buy it in bars or from market stands in unlabeled white plastic bottles. Since it’s homemade you never really know how much alcohol is in it. Sometimes it’s more like juice, sometimes it knocks you on your ass.

I find more interesting bars than I ever experiences in the US. In one called U Sudu, you entered to find a relatively tame, boring looking bar, only to notice a bath around the back leading to the basement. There you’re greeted by room after cavernous room, and no complaining neighbors to be found. Another bar I frequented, you needed to be buzzed in speakeasy style, and after midnight patrons in the know could buy weed behind the counter.

Meeting friends is easy, although assimilating into society outside of the expat scene I find quite hard. I make my first friends in my TEFL course, and through pub crawls they organize with course alumni. Eventually all the expats seem to know each other through English teaching jobs or personal connections. I always show up everywhere with a posse, and I’m probably one of those obnoxious groups of foreigners everyone complains about. Almost all my friends are American, British, or Australian. There are a few places expats hang out at the time, a bar called Red Room, a bookstore/cafe called The Globe, which does an English-language pub quiz, and a bar called Bukowski’s, where they have free sangria on Tuesdays for women, and 6p beers for everyone on Sundays. My female friends and I take to going to sangria night at Bukowski’s every Tuesday, naming it “Existential Crisis Tuesday”.

All my friends have gorgeous flats in nice locations because we all made the same mistake of spending too much. The following year, those who stay all move out a bit further to simpler living spaces.

That teaching thing…

I find myself relatively well-prepared for lesson-planning and applying to jobs after my TEFL course, but starting out is terrifying for me. As a 22-year-old, my setting boundary and negotiating skills are not really up to par, and I get pushed around a lot by shitty jobs. There are a lot of English teachers in Prague, and a lot with a similar lack of work experience, like me. Competition is fierce, and because of this most schools find me quite disposable. If you rock the boat, you’re out. There are 10 other young, naive recent college grads to replace you.

I’m a good teacher, but not a great teacher, and I’m still too self-conscious to set good boundaries and systems in my classroom. I plan my lessons perfectly according to what I learned pedagogically, but forget to account for the human aspect, and it takes awhile to learn how to adjust to my students’ moods. I mostly teach individual English lessons to employees from the major Czech energy in their office, as well as private lessons to kids as homework help. Many of my friends who like kids teach in kindergartens. Most of us travel to each individual lesson, sometimes to the outskirts of the city. It’s frequently tiring, and we’re often not paid for traveling time.

Some friends luck out with jobs and students they love, a lot of us younger ones without much work experience crack under the pressure. My older friends mostly fare a bit better, as they have a better idea of what they want and why they’re doing it. Some friends eventually get jobs besides teaching, but mostly without Czech, we’re limited to English teaching jobs.

For all but a few of my friends, Prague is a transitory place. After a few years only a handful of people I know still live there. Many go on to teach in Asia, the Middle East, or elsewhere in Europe. Some even land jobs at ESL centers back in the US. After leaving Prague, I end up leveraging my TEFL certificate years later to land my first job and visa in Berlin, Germany. By then I know how to negotiate, and improve in setting boundaries in my classes.

Reality kicks in

I make a few lesbian friends in Prague, but mostly the  scene is lackluster and depressing after my four years at an all women’s university (i.e. Utopia). As I just came out of a relationship, I’m not especially looking to date, but it does get a bit lonely. I decide I will be straight that year, rather unsuccessfully.

I meet many amazing friends in Prague I still keep in touch with to this day. However, large groups of my friends keep leaving every month. Every weekend is another goodbye party, and it starts to wear on me.

My move to Prague is after a serious two-year relationship with some serious ups and downs. To deal with it, I party. Hard. For six months. Around that time I start feeling the need for some more meaning in my life. I am getting frustrated that when I invite friends over for drinks at 8pm, they show up at midnight (party time), and when I’m not feeling like I’m in the party mood, suddenly my friends are (mostly) gone.

Me climbing on a weird dinosaur statue in Prague

Typical night for me in Prague in 2009. Oh, to be 22…

Visa troubles

Possibly my biggest mistake is not quite understanding visas. I know I need one, and my TEFL course made this fact clear to us. However, at that time in 2009 in Prague there is a transition happening. For years people worked illegally with no one really giving a shit. Now the government is cracking down. Employers mostly refuse to help with visas because it was normal to work illegally for so long, they don’t realize that the government is not cool with that anymore.

I ask around for immigration lawyer recommendations and take the first I find. I bring her my documents. After telling her how long I’ve been in the Schengen zone, I consider it sorted and forget about it. The day before my three-month Schengen visa I supposed to run out I call the lawyer’s office to ask about my visa. She is on vacation and she hasn’t completed or submit my application yet. The office seems unconcerned.

At that point, the end was neigh.

I could have fought harder, but at that moment I wanted an excuse to leave. The problem is, I already have two jobs, a lease and no other plan. I can’t leave tomorrow. What do I do now?!

Ultimately I end up having to sort out the tourist visa stuff through some dubious methods, which makes me super anxious. I get put in touch with some other expats who had been in a similar situation, and they coach me through it. I manage to get three more months in the Schengen zone so I can tie up loose ends.

Prague Riegrovy Sady park

Summers in Prague are spent in this park, Riegrovy Sady.

Again I find myself asking, what’s next?

I discover Couchsurfing, and through that I learn about WWOOFing and HelpX. Luckily, I have a lot of friends studying or living abroad I can stay with. Running the numbers, I realize my last few thousand dollars will last longer traveling than continuing to work and pay my expensive rent. So in January I am off, at least until I run out of money, but that’s for another post.

On failing to move to Prague, and what I learned:

I took away several things from my six months in Prague that led to a much more successful second attempt at moving abroad.

1. Learn the language and laws enough so that it’s not easy to pull one over on you.

My experiences with landlords, lawyers, potential employers and visas would have been way better if I knew wtf I was doing. As an only English-only speaker, people just saw me as a money-making opportunity. It’s hard to find the cheapest, most efficient way to do things when you can only hire or work for those who speak English. If you look up the laws just enough to get an idea, you can also call BS when employers try to pull out a sketchy illegal working situation on you. You don’t need to be perfect, but it makes you more legit.

2. Understand the local cost of living (!!!)

You’d think it’s only a mistake a naive early 20 something just out of college would make, but I consistently see new expats in Berlin from more expensive places like New York, San Francisco or London overpay for everything. If I wasn’t paying out my entire salary for my fancy apartment in Prague, my money would have gone further.

3. Sometimes failing is for the best. Pay attention to your gut feeling, rather than trying to force yourself to stick to the plan you told everyone.

Night time view of the Memorial to Victims of Communism

View from behind of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism

I don’t know how to tell what I really want when I am 22. I grew up in a pretty passive aggressive, hinting instead of saying culture back home. It makes it hard to see the signals coming from my own brain. If I feel unhappy a lot, I just tell myself “Oh, there is something wrong with me, I’m depressed.” I don’t relate it to my lifestyle, or the fact that my current life doesn’t fit who I am. Saying no to what is expected of me and terrified of confrontation, I deny my unhappiness until it’s unavoidable. I am unwilling to admit it is time to cut my loses and go. We’ve all been there, right? I have a 5 year plan to stick to, goddamnit!

I need the excuse of the visa not working out to leave. Not following up with the lawyer earlier is an unconscious, but purposeful decision. Somewhere I want it to fail. I later learn that it’s much better to make active decisions in your life, but at this point I’m not there yet. Staying stuck in an unhappy situation and waiting for life to handle it for you takes much longer. Take the control yourself instead of leaving it to others and you’ll feel better in the end.

4. Another door will always open, even if you don’t see it yet.

I consistently struggle with letting go of what I know is not working for me. If I don’t already have a super solid and detailed next plan lined up, it’s hard to jump. As I get older, however, I learn more and more that I’m less likely to find the “next thing” if I stay stuck in a situation that’s not a good fit.

Why is that? Think of it like this. Say I decide to go to unicorn school and end up unhappy. I don’t enjoy unicorns, I don’t fit in with the people there, I’m tired of rainbows, but I don’t have another plan and I already invested a lot in it. So I stay. While there I’m only surrounded by unicorn things. It seems like that’s all there is. I tell myself “this is it, there are no other options” because in my unicorn bubble, it’s impossible to see them.

Eventually I leave and meet all different types of people. I learn about different subjects I didn’t know about before. There are so many options I never considered, and they feel more real after I meet people doing things besides unicorn stuff.

Okay, you get the point about unicorns.

It’s that saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The most important thing I learned from my failed move to Prague is that when I feel stuck and miserable it’s my brain’s signal to change something. Risks are scary, but ultimately not as scary as doing something you’re unhappy with the rest of your life. YO-fucking-LO, man. Sometimes you just have to save up money, come up with a vague plan, and jump. Trust you’ll figure out the next step once you’re there. These days it can be as little as going to a new meetup that changes my world. All it takes is one new person or thing to send you down a new inspiration spiral.

Off to bigger and better things

With these lessons learned, I found a city that was a better fit for me. My later move over to Berlin stuck, albeit with some major ups and downs. I’ll delve into how that happened in another post. In the meantime, I took my own advice and figured out the German visa regulations for you, so you don’t make the same mistakes as me.

Luckily, I’m a lot better at following my gut now. Practice makes perfect, I guess.

 

Do you have a failing story? I’d love to turn this into a series and feature your post! Online it sometimes seems like everyone gets it right the first time. We worry why our lives aren’t like that. We don’t always see all the stress and mistakes that came first. I’d love to change that. Get in touch with me here.

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