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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Confronting Privilege in Prague and the Numbers

CZECH REPUBLIC | Tuesday, 26 April 2016 | Views [554]

I wish I had more to say about Prague, but I just don't. After Bulgaria and the Baltics, Prague did not have very much of an Eastern European feel to it. It just felt like a big, modern, Western European capital. It was beautiful and it lived up to its reputation as "the Paris of the East," etc. For that reason, it draws hordes of tourists. And for that reason, along with the fact that we were only there about 48 hours, I wasn't drawn in. I skimmed the surface, and I can vouch that it is a beautiful place, definitely worth seeing. That's it.


The Best Part

The best part was reuniting with a friend that my husband and I had met during our university days in Germany more than 15 years ago. She spent almost a full day with us, guiding us around her city and catching up. I had wanted to do that very thing 15 years ago, but it didn't work out then, so it was invaluable to have it finally come to pass.


The Worst Part

The worst part was that I unexpectedly came face-to-face with my own privilege. My husband and I had had an early start that morning, flying from Varna to Sofia, Bulgaria, and then to Prague. After an afternoon rest, we were in good humor as we watched the performance of the Astronomical Clock among a huge crowd of tourists. When the show was over, the crowd started to disperse, but I lingered too long. I noticed a man standing in front of the clock. He looked older than his years, feeble, weak, sick. He was selling little pamphlets about the clock for €2 (about $2.25). From that huge crowd of hundreds of people, no one was noticing him. Hundreds of people, including myself, who had paid hundreds or even thousands of euros to be there, and not one of them took notice of this sad man selling pamphlets for €2. I looked too long, and it got into me. He held his head as high as he could, not in a proud or even hopeful way, but in an honest and pitiful way, attempting to be dignified, but hunched over and unable to even stand completely upright. He didn't yell or make any commotion. He just looked straight ahead and seemed so tired. I had €2. I had US dollars and euros and Norwegian kroner and Bulgarian leva and Czech koruna. I had so many currencies! And he was just trying to sell a pamphlet for €2.

I dug out the bag with all my leftover currency and found a €2 coin. As I walked toward him, he gave up and started walking away, assuming that his opportunity had passed. He had looked long enough into that unseeing crowd. I caught up to him, touched his arm, and gave him the €2. He smiled so sweetly, so relieved, so surprised, so thankful. He proudly handed me the pamphlet and said, "Thank you, thank you," so pitifully. It didn't make me happy at all. It didn't make me feel like I had done anything good. It made me want to cry, to go back home and get a job. It made my silly privileged travel world come crashing down. It made me feel so guilty and ashamed. Why could I be here with multiple world currencies in my purse when this man was just trying to make €2?

It's a tough pill to swallow, confronting your own privilege. Am I privileged? I come from a single-parent, lower-middle class family, and I'm a first-generation college graduate, so I've never considered myself privileged in the traditional sense. But I am definitely privileged to be healthy and educated. I am privileged to have been born in a stable and wealthy country where education and social mobility are possible, and where my passport allows me to freely enter most other countries. So yes, there are certainly reasons why I am privileged.

I've seen my share of beggars and the like, and I've been to very poor developing countries. I know that this could have very well been just another tourist scam. I definitely would not have paid €2 for that pamphlet in a store and I normally would not have bought such a thing at all. So, why did this man affect me so strongly? I think it was an overreaction to being in a tourist crowd for the first time in a long time. I have been visiting cities without the scale of tourism that Prague has, so I have not been in large crowds like this in a while. And even when I had been in smaller tourist crowds, I had been penny pinching so much that I had hidden my privilege even from myself. But during the time my husband was with me, we had behaved more like we were on a typical vacation than a backpacker journey. Prague was a pretty expensive couple of days for us, so that combined with suddenly feeling like "them," like one of the annoying privileged tourists, opened my eyes painfully. I didn't want to see any more sights or eat any more self-indulgent foods after that. I was in a daze, acutely aware of the luxury of money and choice that I possess. Just a few days before, I had been upset because of a lost tax payment, a new suitcase, and a cancelled credit card, but here was a man at the Astronomical Clock who was just trying to sell a pamphlet for €2.


The Numbers

Again, even though my husband was with me, I'm reporting only my expenses for consistency, so these are numbers for one person rather than two. It includes 2 full days.

  • Airfare from Sofia to Prague (one way): $131.09
  • Hotel for 2 nights with breakfast included (my half): $88.11
  • Guidebook (for Eastern Europe, expense divided among the countries I'm visiting): $3.50
  • Daily expenses (taxis, food): $94.14

Total: $316.84

Average: $158.42 per day

OK, ouch! This was even higher than my Scandinavia average of $130.16/day. But as I mentioned, it was the closest part to a "normal" vacation of the whole trip. We took a taxi to and from the airport, we stayed in a real hotel, we ate out, we didn't have a kitchen. And, it was a very short trip, so there were fewer days over which to spread the airfare and taxi expenses. It would be possible to visit Prague for less money, but it is definitely more expensive than other Eastern European destinations. 

Tags: budget, czech republic, guilt, prague, privilege, sabbatical, solo, travel


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