Walking around as a tourist is one thing…doing spins around people, jumping over puddles, and wearing American athletic clothing as a tourist is another. While abroad, I chose to experience and expand my new surroundings the best way I knew how, by lacing up my tennis shoes and running down the uneven cobblestone streets and dusty countryside paths. I battled with my identity as a visitor in the Czech Republic, flip-flopping between thinking I was just a tourist and believing I was something more, something in between, yet temporary. I found myself in places tourists are not supposed to go, and soon running transformed from an exercise into a mobile vessel of thought and search for stability, familiarity, and identity. These selected entries serve as timeline of speed mixed with stagnation, agilities mixed with apologies, and dreams mixed with dead ends. Run with me.
September 26, 2019
I select the “shuffle” feature on the curated music playlist before heading out on my first run in my new city of Prague. Sure, calling it “Life Begins” is rather cheesy, but this was a new adventure for me. I leave my front door, wind down the spiral staircase, and out into Jungmannova Square. It is so weird that I get to live here. I will never get over the feeling of walking out the main door and being right in the action. SWEET SMELLS. I immediately pick up on the scent of the cinnamon trdelniks (Czech dessert) and decide to run in that direction. Life must truly begin with one’s first trdelnik, right? I feel as though the first 20 years of my life was a free trial of a video game and only now is my real life starting; my first push of independence in a new city with new people, new food, new classes, and new places to run in. Fast forward only about two minutes and I look like a lost puppy. I am no more than a tourist who walks a wee bit faster. The sidewalks are full of people like me in Old Town. I stop to take photos of the sun illuminating the gothic buildings, just as everyone else is. I stop to read plaques on the walls, just as everyone else is. My face presents an expression of wonder and discovery, just as everyone else is. The buildings glow as if they were painted by the sun itself, how could I not react? Would a local still acknowledge the beauty and then continue? The sidewalks are full of TJs. How many of them are listening to their version of “Life Begins”? How many of them feel overwhelmed? Afraid they are not going to take full advantage of the time they have in this new city? I carry on, phone in the right hand, keys in the left.I only ran 2 miles today.
October 9, 2019
I only had two hours of class today…our guest speaker postponed so we were finished at 1 pm instead of 3 pm, I won’t complain. Class hasn’t been too difficult yet, in fact, I feel like I’m still on summer vacation. I already hear the questions coming from my family after I return.“DiD yOu EvEn gO to ClaSs?”“Saw your pictures, didn’t see much schoolwork.” In place of class today, I decided I’ll continue my little running log and go for another run today. Last time I could hardly get out of Old Town, and even then I could hardly get any speed because of all the people. I was warned that inner-Prague was a crowded city, but holy shit I can’t get up to even an 8-minute pace. I start “Life Begins,” and off I go. Once again I am in a mass of people right outside my apartment, and it isn’t long before I find myself already in trouble. I start quicker than I should and brush against an older Czech man coming out of the metro station. He muttered something sharp, yet inaudible to my English ears. It kind of sounded like a snarl, something profane and obviously directed to me. He spits on the ground afterward. I feel like he said something along the lines of “damn tourists.” That fits, let’s go with that. He didn’t care my new life was beginning or that I was going to be occupying the same metro trains as him for the next 3 months. I don’t know if I was offended because of his reaction after my pleading, or if I was processing being lumped in as another foreigner. I felt bad. I ran 3.5 miles today.
October 21, 2019
I’ve never seen water so smooth, and the trees that enclose the pond are motionless as if they are from a photograph. The Czech countryside smells like my own hometown – cedar, but a modified cedar that is mixed with a chemical scent from the industry sector nearby – definitely my hometown. Special Cedar. I took the metro 7 stops to get here today. I was fed up with running through the boundaries of Old Town.
Stop 1. Tourists. Stop 2. Tourists. Stop 3. Slightly fewer Tourists.
My people dwindle around me.
Stop 4. Silence. Stop 5. Czech newspapers. Stop 6. Authenticity.
Stop 7. Háje. My stop.
The brightest October colors greet me when as I exit the metro station. I start my run and for the first time feel unleashed. The tourists are gone, including me. I enter a wooded area and stumble upon a pond. I sit down, sacrificing the efficacy of my run. I think it is worth it. I end up running 4 miles.
“Up and down and up and down”
November 7, 2019
I think Klaiten is a bit faster than I. My roommate and I decided to go on a run together this afternoon, to a natural park only three metro stops away. We are only one mile in and I am already winded from the hilly terrain that makes up the park. Up, up, up. Down, down, down. Mud flies from the bottom of my shoes to the back of my calves, and also from Klaiten in front of me. I dodge the flying mud pellets the best I can. Why did we decide to do this right after it rained???
We’ve been climbing uphill for a while now, and have gone through a couple of clearings. Our faces change from expressionless vessels of expiration to wonder. We stumbled upon some natural rock formations overlooking a valley full of greens, oranges, reds, yellows, and browns. We stop to take it all in and sit on the rocks.
“Did you know this was here?” I ask, taking a winded breath halfway through.
“No idea…we aren’t even out of the city.”
Klaiten picks up a small rock and puts it in his pocket. I do the same. Who would have thought that all the muddy hills would lead to something like this? We kept our rocks as tokens of the 6 miles we ran. I still have mine, it’s sitting on my shelf.
November 15, 2019
Living in Old Town is a blessing and a curse. I make a beeline down Narodni street, the gateway out of the city. Darting, dashing, leaping, sidestepping. I get stuck behind two girls coming out of the phone store. Jotting, jumping, bolting, STOP. Pedestrians feel me coming from behind and always end up stepping in the exact direction I am trying to go around. I hit their shopping bag and make a pleading face as I spin around as an apologetic gesture. I just have to make it past the National Theatre and over the bridge. I leap onto the cobblestone road hoping for a clearer path but only end up twisting my ankle as I land between two different stones. BEEP BEEP. Taxis come from behind as I stumble to regain mobility. There is no room for taxis and me on European streets. I bounce back onto the sidewalk, the theatre in sight. Puddles, people, shopping bags, it feels like everything is trying to slow me down. Clearly many people are just here in the city for the high-end shops it provides. I caught myself thinking “damn tourists,” and then realize what I looked like. I clearly was out of place in my short-sleeve Adidas shirt and running shorts. Do I think I am better than them? I feel quite different than I had a few months ago. I have seen the city, met the people, spoken the language, even been invited into homes. But that will not change the fact that my time here has an expiration, December 3. Am I a tourist if I have a preordained time to leave? I sure do not feel like one.
STOP. I arrive at the intersection at the end of Narodni street; this one is always the longest because of the four tram lines that run through it. The signal across the street gives me the sign that it’s time to start again. For a few seconds, I travel once again with the masses, but my struggling to gain speed in the crowd shows that I once again do not blend in. It’s as if I just entered a Czech restaurant and spoke English. Once through, I take off down the bridge out of Old Town and towards Letna Park. Now the run begins. I ran 8 miles today.
“The Home Stretch“
November 21, 2019
Call me crazy, but after regularly running 8-10 miles, I wanted more of a challenge. Running has been so good to me on this trip, and there was still so much that I wanted to see. I descended down the absurdly long escalator into the Mustek metro station, conveniently located directly below my apartment. Forceful winds carrying a metallic scent blew my overgrown hair all over the place. This was going to be a long day. It is currently 1:30 pm, and I am heading to Zličín, a town outside of Prague, and also the very last stop on the Metro A-line. My plan is to run all the way back to my apartment, hopefully before it gets dark (which is early considering it is nearly December).
I exit the metro station. Farmland. The special cedar scent from the earlier runs has disappeared, instead, it is replaced with the smell of cows and grain. I feel way over my head. None of my classmates would do something like this, why am I? Even my professor said there is a special aspect of independence to me, but I would argue it is simply wanting to see more. When you are a tourist you only see the important things; the grand avenues, the museums, the fashion stores. You do not smell the cows. You do not smell the grain. Large apartment builds dot the landscape as remnants of Soviet control. Kids are outside playing and notice me. Do they think I am one of them? I can’t imagine they are thinking someone is visiting their small town of Zličín. I wave. I know the general direction I have to go, and I check my phone every once in a while to make sure I am still on track.
Mile 6. Mile 7. Mile 8.
The sky lights up in brilliant colors. I am inside the city now, but still within the outskirts where people don’t go. The stores are all in Czech, not English. The advertised prices are much lower over here. This is a different city and not the “Disneyland” that Old Town tries to be. I am getting extremely tired. My wireless headphones ran out of battery, ending the “Life Begins” playlist. Maybe that is a good thing. That playlist felt over-romanticized and forced. Maybe that is my tired and dehydrated brain thinking. I don’t feel much different as a person, but I also do not feel like the same. I want to stay here much longer than 90 days. When I go home, will “Life Begins” become “The Life that Once Was”?
Mile 11. Mile 12. Mile 13.
I reach Letna park and the half-marathon mark. I have never run this far in my life. It’s dark now, but the city is still alive. I’ve ran out of water to sweat, so salt is depositing on my skin as if I am unseasoned fish. The home stretch. I cross the bridge, run through the intersection with the four tram lines, and head down Narodni Street. People are everywhere and I look like a mess.
My reflexes aren’t good enough to dash around the shoppers. I hit bags, I step on the back of peoples’ shoes, I don’t twist around light poles like before. I may look out of place, but I do not care anymore. I know I am not just a tourist after today. I just want to get home.
“Jesus, what happened to you?” My roommate says.
I collapse dramatically onto the floor. This is my home.
TJ is studying Global Health and CHID at the University of Washington. He recently studied and explored Prague in the fall of 2019 and has also helped with underserved communities in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. TJ believes that studying global health requires a global mindset and there is no better way to achieve that than truly getting to know new people wherever you go.