european journalism institute

Lost (and Found) in Prague

“And on to your left we have the coffin of King Ferdinand V of Bohemia…”

Our tour guide’s voice drowned in my head as I fumbled with the controls of my borrowed camera. The room that kept King Ferdinand’s coffin was dark, and I wanted to get a good-enough photograph using the camera that I had started using only the day before that. A click here, a snap there—I turned around to ask my classmate, Eva, a question about using the camera in low light…

… And then they were gone.

All of them.

I was in the middle of St. Vitus Cathedal, in Prague’s historic Hradčany Square, with what looked like hundreds—even thousands—of Sunday tourists, and I couldn’t find our tour guide or any of my classmates.  It was my second day in a country whose language I did not speak and whose signs I could not decipher, and I was lost.

Prague Castle, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Prague Castle, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)

* * *

It was exactly a year ago when I landed in Prague, the Czech Republic to try to my hand at being a student in an international program. I was 30 years old and married for less than year, but I felt like I was 18 again—young, exuberant, and ready to take on the world.

When I found myself alone in the middle of St. Vitus Cathedral, I took it as a sign that I was meant to explore the city in my own way. After a momentary panic attack, in which I went around and circled the cathedral twice in hopes of finding a familiar face, I let go and decided to walk around Hradčany Square, the world’s largest functioning castle compound which houses the cathedrals of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslas, and Adalbert, as well as Prague Castle and the Archbishop’s Palace, among other edifices. I retraced some of the steps that our tour group had taken, spending a bit more time to take in the sights and take some photos, then I chatted with the old gentlemen who were selling their artwork by the hillside staircase and bought myself some art. I browsed the museum shop, peeked in some the cafés that lined Hradčany’s perimeter, chatted with the cute guy selling black Bohemian beads, then I made my way to the streets below. I couldn’t understand a single thing that the signs were saying, but I had a map, intuition, and my inner sense of adventure to guide me.

Lost in Prague
Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita

* * *

I seemed to have done a lot of walking while in Prague—not only because taking the metro and walking to our various destinations was the most cost-efficient way to travel, but also because I had a lot of questions about myself and where I was headed. I found that walking offered me time, space, and great stimuli for thinking. The more I got to know the city and make myself comfortable traversing streets whose names I could not pronounce, the more I felt that I belonged out in the world instead of in a little box defined by a title and a desk. The more I immersed in the seven-day program and got to meet journalists of all shapes, colors, languages, and persuasions, the more I realized that words were where I was most comfortable. While I had thought that change was best done while being in government, I also realized that truth was sometimes best pursued from the outside looking in. “The journalist’s first obligation is to the truth,” our program said, and I knew that I had to step out of my political blinders in order to see better.

And while I loved my country and was projecting myself to be “Little Miss Philippine Ambassador” while in the program, I also knew that there was a larger world outside, where race, ethnicity, and nationality mean less than being human itself.

One afternoon, after a Mexican drinking spree with some of my classmates, I was walking back with Sarah, a lovely young Egyptian who was talking about the challenges of being young and Egyptian in a society where race and religion was such a big deal, and I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if we just saw ourselves as citizens of the world?” Sarah liked that thought and, together, we reveled in the possibilities that it offered.

It feels just like the United Nations (There's me--the smallest in the group, with Sarah towering beside me)
Students from the European Journalism Institute 2010: It feels just like the United Nations (There's me--the smallest in the group, with Sarah towering beside me)

* * *

The program showed me much about a side of the world that I hadn’t yet seen, and it also revealed sides of myself that I was only getting to know. At the end of the program, when we were asked to write letters to ourselves, I wrote this letter , where I asked myself these questions:

Letter to Myself

The real question is: where are you now, REALLY? What REALLY brings your heart joy, and what are your real motivations sans the ego and the titles? Your dream board says one thing but sometimes you get caught up in the ideals of power and responsibility that you find yourself foregoing things that matter to you–and for what? In the narrative that is your life, who is your target audience? Who do you really want to speak to, and whose lives do you really want to touch?

You can’t be everything to everyone. So, who do you want to be someone to, and what do you want to do? How will you get there?

* * *

One year later and a continent away, I’m closer to finding the answers. It’s funny how we sometimes need to (literally) lose our way just to find ourselves, and how we need to be jolted out of our comfort zones in order to make it back home. I lost my tour group while looking through a borrowed lens while in Prague, but it was also these borrowed lenses of the world that helped me see more clearly and find clues that were just right under my nose.

The view from Hradčany Square (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)
The view from Hradčany Square (Photo by Niña Terol-Zialcita)