I stumbled upon the steel bust called the Metalmorphosis sculpture of Franz Kafka during my first few days in Prague. The statue has forty-two rotating panels that form Kafka’s face. The plates shift moment to moment transforming from an incoherent jumble of steel to a re-incarnation of the artist’s countenance. The moving exhibit made me curious about Kafka and why his story was memorialized in this unique artistic form. I did not realize it at the time but the statue was also a metaphorical representation of my 16 days of discovery in Prague.
Last summer I traveled to the Czech Republic as part of a phenomenal program offered by Virginia Commonwealth University’s business school called the International Consulting Program. A select group of students take part in an immersive program designed to teach them about business consulting during a three week preparatory experience in Richmond. From there, they travel to countries across Europe applying the skills they have developed. After learning about the program I was immediately intrigued and did my typical proactive and curious outreach to learn more.
After being extended an opportunity to participate as accompanying faculty, I immediately moved from excitement to nervousness–this was WAY outside of my comfort zone. Yes, I had been to Europe before but this experience would require me to guide students (in a foreign country) and partner with university professors and local businesses in a culture where the norms of business and peer engagement looked different. This was not just about sightseeing and roaming freely around a beautiful European city. This experience was designed to be rigorous and to stretch students way outside of their comfort zones.
What I did not anticipate was how much it would stretch me as well. There is always novelty associated with travelling internationally and experiencing different cultures. New languages, new food, new sights, new people–all of which are both breathtaking and overwhelming. Nevertheless, navigating language barriers, disorientation within the physical landscape and the absence of the creature comforts of home and family can be jarring. These experiences highlight how counter-productively comfortable we can become in our normal day-to-day routines and how necessary it is to push ourselves outside our comfort zones.
One measure of comfort for me is racial and ethnic diversity. Multiculturalism stimulates my sense of belonging and connectivity. Central Europe does not experience significant immigration so multi-racial spaces are rare. As a Black woman, I navigated curious stares which did not bother me but sometimes became a means to connect. Nevertheless, being the ‘other’ at the intersection of race and culture also made me realize how comforting it is to have a tribe that helps you reset, recharge and share experiences when navigating new situations. We are always consciously and subconsciously looking for spaces to belong. This experience required me to redefine my definition of belonging and connection.
So I started by creating connection to my environment. I set about learning the landscape–finding a favorite restaurant and favorite cafe. Good food and drink is my creature comfort. I discovered a yoga studio. Downward dog and a few warriors poses always resets me mentally and physically. I took the same walking route daily to the University and temporarily personalized my classroom/office. I designated major milestones along my walking route–from a cute sidewalk cafe to the historic Charles bridge. I found normalcy in my new environment by creating a sense of spatial belonging, connection to the environment and by developing relationships.
I met fascinating people. A young woman from New Hampshire who came to Prague as a college student and never left. A brilliant Czech college student that I connected with after learning that she wants pursuing her graduate studies in the States. A cafe owner from Ireland who made the best falafel salads and chai lattes. A native tour guide who traveled with us during our discovery of both Czecky Krumlov and the second oldest castle in the world during a weekend excursion in the southern region of CZ.
Franz Kafka story Metamorphosis vividly highlights the discomfort and difficulty inherent in transformation. No matter how unwanted change may be, it arrives to make us a more authentic reflection of who we are destined to become. These uncomfortable spaces illuminate the depth of our courage and our ability to adapt in unfamiliar situations. They allow us to tap into our creativity, seeing our environments differently. You cannot be in an immersive experience–whether in a foreign country or the quarantined confines of our own homes–and not change. How those changes manifests may not be immediately evident but when we take time for introspective reflection we can bear witness, appreciate and ultimately co-create our evolution.