First Summer in Prague, or How to Survive at CERGE-EI

It’s amazing to realize all the changes that I went through over the last six years at CERGE-EI. Orange color is no longer dominant in my wardrobe, even though I still have the short orange skirt I was wearing in the preparatory semester of summer 2005. But this series is not about such changes. Its main purpose is to share the practical information about life at CERGE-EI and in Prague that I have accumulated over these years.

My first post is about the preparatory semester.

For the first time in my life, I crossed the Russian border on a train going from Moscow to Prague. Yes, the train on this rout operates. The trip takes 33 hours, but its positive side is a lower price and more comfort relative to plane. I used this train to travel home in the first two years of my studies in Prague and stopped doing so mainly because time became more scarce. I had a card of the Czech railways that made me eligible for many discounts, including trips within the Czech Republic. These days the system of discounts is more advanced and you may consider getting such card on the page of the Czech railways.

The page is mostly in Czech, but you can always use this online dictionary or translate the entire page with Google Translate. If you are a happy iPhone owner, it might be a good idea to install the free Lonely Planet application and to buy a Czech phrase book for 5 EUR once the application is installed.

The train arrived to the main Prague train station (Hlavní Nádraží) around 7am. CERGE-EI was within 10 minutes walk, but the Students’ Affair Office was still closed at that early hour. So, I decided to go to dormitory instead. It was not as straightforward as one would expect to buy a public transportation ticket from the yellow machine for the first time. Of course, I got the wrong one. It allowed traveling without a change for only 20 min by bus/tram or 30 min by subway, while I definitely needed to change from subway to bus in order to get to the dormitory. If I had been inspected on the way, my first day in Prague would have been associated with a large fine. They are surprisingly high in the Czech Republic. Current fines and fares can be checked online. On the same site you can find any public transport connections you may ever need in Prague. With the “confirmation of studies” issued by SAO, you will be able to buy a discounted monthly or quarterly pass. But before doing that, you will need to issue a special identity card. If you are out of the card for any reason, with the Czech mobile phone number, you can buy an SMS-ticket valid for 90 min.

You would also need the Czech mobile phone number to stay connected with your new friends from school. You can spend time finding the best deal from the Czech mobile phone operators (O2, T-mobile, Vodafone), but my recommendation is to get a prepaid Vodafone wild card from the first Vodafone office that you see.

Back to my first day in Prague, I traveled for about 20 min by subway and other 5 min by bus to get to the dormitory. The dormitory was in a very quiet area almost out of the city. But the transportation system in Prague is so good that it was never a problem to reach it. There was even a night bus running every half an hour and making it possible to stay at school until all home assignments were solved and submitted. Yes, it often happened during the preparatory semester that I stayed at school until 2-3am. We usually had deadlines for all three M-subjects (Micro, Macro and Math) on Thursdays, worked in big groups and stayed at school till late. Thursday nights were tough but Friday nights were even tougher. Next door to the dormitory was a club with cheap beer and good music. It very soon became a great prep tradition to spend Friday nights there. In none of other places I stayed in later, the social aspect of life was so fantastic.

On my first day in the preparatory semester, it was impossible to imagine that it would be so much fun, that I would fall in love with Prague and stay here for years. It makes me smile to think how impressive every small thing was back then, including the first conversation with a foreigner, the first lecture in English, the first bite of famous Czech knedlik (dumpling), and the first sip of even more famous Czech beer. Very soon all those things became normal. Well, with the exception of knedliks!

Talking about food, almost every dormitory has its own canteen (menza) with the subsidized prices of 35 – 40 CZK per lunch. The closest two menzas from CERGE-EI are Jednota and Arnošta z Pardubic (you can check their addresses here and find them on map, but the best is to ask 1st- or 2nd-year students to take you there). Of course, you can have lunch in a restaurant given that most of restaurants in Prague have lunch menus. There are at least dozen of them within five minutes walk from CERGE-EI, but expect to pay 100-150 CZK per meal. You can find more information about places where to eat, including their menus and prices, here.

The biggest impression of my first day in Prague was a walk around the city. After classes, I went along the river, crossed the Charles bridge and climbed the Petrin tower. The latter is still my favorite spot in Prague and the place where I take my friends who visit me in Prague. I will never stop admiring the view that you get from there. The view is definitely worth the entrance fee (50 CZK for students and 100 CZK for adults).

Talking about attractions, there are so many of them in Prague and surroundings! I would not be surprised to learn about something new that I have never heard of during my six years here. Nevertheless, the main sights can be seen within several hours. You can start with the Wenceslas Square, walk to Old Town Square, watch the performance at the Astronomical Clock that happens every hour until 10pm, get lost in the Jewish Quarter, find your way to the Vltava riverbank, cross the river by the Charles Bridge, make a short stop on the Kampa Island, continue through the Lesser Town to the Prague Castle and enjoy the sunset from there. If you need a guide, join these guys. I’ve never done it in Prague, but my experience with them in Berlin and Amsterdam was pretty good. Basic tours are for free, but you would feel like leaving a tip at the end (which you are anyways expected to do). Later on, you will definitely find your favorite walking routes in the heart of Prague that will help you get rid of stress of deadlines and exams.

During the preparatory semester of summer 2005, the arrangement of having all deadlines for home assignments on Thursdays was pretty efficient. In addition to regular social events on Fridays, we had a chance to discover something new almost every weekend, with the exception of the two weekends before midterm and final exams. From what I remember, these were trips to the Prague Zoo (repeated only once afterwards), Troja park, Vysehrad, Pruhonice, Kutna Hora, Konopiste. As it was 2005, when the Czech Republic was not yet in the Schengen zone, it was too hard to travel to other countries. But even if it was easy to get further away, I would not recommend doing so. Those small trips around Prague that I made were affordable only because I had covered almost everything taught in the prep semester during my previous studies. If this is not your case, you should devote as much time as you can to studies so that you can catch up with your classmates who have a stronger background. This investment will certainly pay off later on.

I’ve just mentioned three important aspects of the prep semester at CERGE-EI: studying, socializing (or partying, if you wish) and sightseeing. These are the three S(es). The forth one is sports. My favorite sport during that summer was swimming. I had a monthly unlimited pass to Podoli. It was taking some time to get there, but two outdoor and one indoor swimming pools, a big lawn for sunbathing, sauna, and even a toboggan were worth it. It was a good idea to stay there for the whole day, with textbooks when there was a need to study. Besides swimming, we organized regular volleyball practices at the playground right next to the dormitory.

It was very sad to leave Prague when the preparatory semester was over. I didn’t know whether I would come back. My boyfriend was in Russia, and I probably could feel back then that it would be the beginning of the end (which happened three years after) if I chose to do PhD at CERGE-EI. But I also knew that I would regret for the rest of my life if I chose to stay in Russia, get my MA there, and find a well-paid job in consultancy or elsewhere… Already at that time I knew that academic career with all its freedom and never-ending discoveries would be the right choice for me. You know what my decision was 🙂

Natalia Shestakova, 6th year CERGE-EI student


3 thoughts on “First Summer in Prague, or How to Survive at CERGE-EI”

  1. Dear Natalia,
    hi and my greetings to you. I am Vivek from eastern India and i am soon to join the CERGE-EI for its inaugural MAE this september. Infact, my online prep. sem. will begin on 4th of july ( isn’t it US’s independence day ) and i am agog with joy !
    It was very enlightening and entertaining to learn about your experiences. CERGE-EI is indeed doing a phenomenally remarkable job of investing in human capital, particularly for those from the hitherto deprived transition and developing nations.
    Natalia, i have received my offer-letter and i will apply for the Visa next week. Natalia, i will reach you on your email. Do you have any advise for me ? for, i too am preparing for a career in academia. good bye. take care.
    kindest regards,

    PS — Your namesake from the CERGE-EI , Dr. Natalia Kovrijnykh at the Arizona State university is publishing in US’s top journals.

  2. Hi Natasha,

    This is such a great blog post ! The way it moves back and forth from your personal experiences in prep, to your observations on it six years later, to useful information so that prep students don’t have to spend precious time reinventing the wheel captures so well so much of the CERGE-EI experience. It’s this kind of generosity of spirit, the sharing of information that allows each of us to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and makes everyone better off. It’s the essence of our motto, Economists Shaping the Future. I hope it will inspire others at CERGE-EI to post a prep semester anecdote here. Could really be fun!

  3. Hi Vivek,

    Good luck with you visa application and your prep semester studies. None of these activites is without “ups,” and occasionally, serious “downs.” Also, the CERGE-EI programs are quite demanding. Be prepared to work your butt off, but know that it’s totally worth it and you are the one who will reap the rewards.

    I look forward to meeting you in the fall.

    Best regards

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