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Finding the Familiar

I was one hour into the train ride between Vienna, Austria, and the city I had decided would be my new home. I’d never been to this city, I didn’t know anyone there, and I didn’t speak the language. I was zoning out a little, holding a sweating glass of German beer in my lap, trying to let the momentum of the high-speed train lull me into something like restfulness. The train car was air conditioned, but my skin felt flushed, I hadn’t been able to get cool in the unusually warm European summer.

I was daydreaming of the fog back in San Francisco, or the nighttime mountain air in Colorado—the two places in the U.S. I’d lived—when I heard the name of the upcoming station: Břeclav. I’d been hearing and reading German for the past week, and I recognized that city name as distinctly not German. I realized we had crossed the border into the Czech Republic. I realized that I was that much closer to Prague, the city I’d decided to move to only months before, chosen by nothing more than chance and a desire to live abroad and teach English.

As the train zipped through the Czech countryside, I didn’t close my eyes or stare at my shoes. I gazed out the window and watched a whole new world go by. In the three or so hours between Břeclav and Prague, the train rushed past prairies and forests. We crossed bridges over wide, slow, meandering rivers and urgently bubbling creeks. We passed through tiny towns with nothing in them save for a church, a couple farmhouses, and some fields. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

What struck me most was how familiar it all looked. The big green fields reminded me of the farmlands I stared at as a child from the backseat of my father’s car.

At one point the train was winding through a forest of tall, tall trees. Sunlight cut through the branches and the train window and made strange, hypnotic shapes on my bare legs and arms, on the floor of the train. It made me think of the trip I took with my best friend through the redwood forests in Northern California, how you can literally see the light trying to make a pathway through the heavy tree cover.

In the distance, I saw what looked like mountains—much shorter than the Rockies I was accustomed to, but mountains nonetheless—and I felt a pang in my chest for the people I left behind in Colorado, all the laughs and love we had, always with those purple, snow-capped peaks in the background.

Before I moved to another country, I thought I would be most excited, moved, impressed by the aspects of a new place that were completely unfamiliar to me. And the new things are wonderful, of course. Watching the sun rise from the Charles Bridge, for example, or seeing the Gothic cathedral in Prague Castle, were both breathtaking. But most days, seeing something that reminds me of home is the most fulfilling moment of my day. Of course, there are aspects of the U.S. I’m happy to be free of—lack of public transport, boring architecture, excess of chain restaurants.

But when I see something in the Czech Republic that reminds me of a good memory from back home—a laugh shared with a friend, or a sunset over a skyline, or just a nice park bench to sit and people-watch—it makes me feel like I’ve made the right choice. If I was able to make those kinds of memories in my everyday life back home, there’s no doubt I’ll be able to in a place as lively and sensational as Prague. And I’m just getting started.

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