Prague + Art = Learning Bliss
(originally published in the Cultured Traveler)
With the red roofs and fabled cathedral spires of Prague spanning the skyline below them, and the Vltava River flowing softly in the foreground, a group of seven painters stand at easels propped on a ledge in Letna Park.
Tatiana, their arts teacher for the morning, is instructing them in the joys and practicalities of painting en plein air, and their subject today is the city they have come to experience in a very special way – through its arts. The members of this painting workshop hail from all points of the planet and are successful professionals in their 40s and 50s, with ‘day jobs’ in finance, politics, law, education and other fields. Only one ever did art regularly in the past, but all feel that the time has come to explore their creative potential. They are in Prague to learn, not only about this extraordinary city, but about themselves as well. And, during their week in Prague, they have been finding a thrill in erstwhile hidden talents: that they are artists at heart, and that doing art fills them with rare joy. The evening before, during an intermission of Dvorak’s opera Rusalka at Prague’s National Theater, Sharon – a former environmental engineer turned full-time homemaker – told us that it had been many years since she had taken a real break. Before she had married she had spent a decade fully dedicated to rising through the ranks of her company, and afterwards she’d taken on the even more challenging task of raising two children. A few months ago, her husband had agreed that she was due some time for herself. And after a few days of searching the internet Sharon had found just the tour package she was looking for: an arts immersion vacation in the city that was top of her list to visit. And, she added, it was turning out better, and more fun, than she’d even dreamed.
Another participant, Luiz, a business executive from Spain, shared that he had realized that he needed something more than a cruise or beach vacation to cope with the burnout he was feeling on his job. Though he had some experience with photography and had considered signing up for a photography tour in France, he had ultimately opted for Prague and an artbreak™ vacation to try something totally new. Rusalka was the first opera he had ever seen, and he was amazed by the staging and, much to his surprise, he loved the singing. This was nearly as surprising to Luiz as finding out, two mornings ago, that he has a real knack for sculpture. Luiz then added, putting down his empty champagne glass, “What makes thees vacation really wonderful for us is that we are always learning and doing new things.” I smiled, and at the sound of the intermission bell I led our contented visitors back to their 8th-row seats in one of the best opera houses in the world. We were in the typical middle of a typically spectacularly successful artbreak™ week, and the formula we had worked on perfecting for years was proving itself once again.
Learning, and immersion in the creative expression of a great world capital, are not only fun but healing. As a sociologist and professor based in Prague since 1996, I have studied and written about the unprecedented psychic challenges we all face today in coping with modern life. In truth, throughout the industrial world burnout is becoming an epidemic as work hours and tasks expand. Seven years ago, a former student of mine and I decided to design a practical antidote to burnout, and offer it in our favorite city. We knew from scientific research that burnout isn’t caused solely by stress but also by boredom. (That’s why a week at the beach, though nice, isn’t particularly helpful at changing one’s long-term outlook on life and work: 54% of Americans actually report that vacationing leaves them tired [“Harper’s Index”, October 2002]). Thus when it came to choreographing a vacation meant to inspire and reinvigorate participants, we opted for centering it around an active learning experience – hands-on morning arts workshops in a variety of media – in an urban setting that is enormously different from what most people experience day-to-day. Obviously, nowadays few professionals outside academe can afford to take a long retreat for study, travel or reinventing themselves. But, as we have seen time and time again, much can be accomplished in a well-designed 6-day learning vacation. We have created a way for our participants to explore neglected interests, to try new things and stretch boundaries. It’s proved to be a sure-fire method for recharging depleted creative batteries and resetting that overstretched personal compass. For some of our guests who are recently retired, or who will be retiring soon, it has been a steppingstone to creating a full post-career life for themselves.
As the last curtain call ended at Rusalka the night before, I noticed Aimee, a film editor from San Diego, in animated conversation with Paul, my British poet friend who was happy for the invitation to see Dvorak’s most famous composition asides from his New World symphony. They were talking about the rich and complex symbolism of the opera’s story, an old Slavic tale of a water fairy who wanted to become human so that she could love a prince. Inevitably, it is a tragic tale, and Rusalka’s plans go awry. Fantastically beautiful Prague, an architectural masterpiece brimming with culture, is the perfect place for an encounter with the arts. Yet a typical artbreak™ guest is looking for even more, another ingredient of reinvigoration: personal interaction with artists who live in Prague. This can only be done meaningfully with small numbers (artbreak™ groups are limited to ten participants) and it makes all the difference in the quality of the experience we offer. Happily, there is a growing sub-community around the world of graduate ‘artbreakers’ who originally cemented bonds at a symphony or gallery opening. I noticed Aimee and Paul exchanging e-mail addresses. The conversation about Slavic mythology is going to continue after Aimee heads back to California this coming Sunday. Luiz, now folding up his easel, is trying to mobilize an expedition back to our favorite wine bar, for an early afternoon snack of cheese fondue and another sampling of Moravian white wine in the company of his fellow artbreakers. Tomorrow morning he is going to get a chance to learn some basic water color techniques, another new experience. He is talking about doing art in his spare time after he returns to his office in Madrid, and he wants to go shopping for art supplies in downtown Prague. I am happily arranging that now – telephoning our shopping expert Katka, who will rendez-vous with Luiz tomorrow at 2:00 PM to personally take him to our favorite arts store. It is not the first time Katka has helped a guest become an artist for the rest of their lives.
In spring 2006 the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) held its international conference in Prague, and a senior ASTA official told us that what we offer “is the future of tourism” and that we are at the forefront of the movement towards meaningful travel. As educators at heart, we did not start out thinking that we’d be in the tourism field, but we were pleased to have the compliment. It’s time now to go share some fondue with Luiz, Aimee, and the rest of the group. Tonight we’re heading to the ballet.
By Douglas Pressman, Ph.D.