Beth Wofford

Elizabeth Wofford (Dzeno): Between 2009 and 2011 Beth studied at the University of Maryland – she graduated with with a Bachelor of Arts in Socio-Cultural Anthropology. In 2010, Beth studied in Prague, where where she first encountered discrimination against the Roma community. She spent the spring semester of 2011 interning at the Global Terrorism Database (a research project of the US Department of Homeland Security). Beth was also a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and the Sigma Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Fraternity. After her fellowship Beth wrote: “I am absolutely more confident. I know that I can work through tough issues and be able to make a product happen. I have more faith in myself and in other people to get things done that need to get done.”

The Disney World of Central Europe

13 Jun

I did it! After a scare about a Mechanic Strike at Reykjavik airport, a couple stops at security (do I really look that suspicious?) and a layover, I am in Prague!

It is even more beautiful than I remember.

Pražský Hrad

A beautiful view of the castle complex from across the river.

However, I have never been here for tourist season when it is full swing. It is like being in an entirely different city. Walking through Staré Mĕsto (Old Town) I kept getting the feeling of déjà vu…not in the location, but in the atmosphere. Everyone was laughing, taking pictures, and posing in front of such landmarks as Staromĕtské Námĕsti (Old Town Square) and the Astronomical Clock. There were tour groups, and I heard at least five different languages in about two minutes. Vendors were everywhere, selling “traditional” Czech cuisine. There were shops selling “I love the Czech Republic” and “Prague Drinking Team” t-shirts. There was the smell of almost too many people, sticky sweet snacks being sold from street vendors, and cigarette smoke wafting above the crowd.

There I stood, immersed in this atmosphere that I know I have been in before. And then it hit me…it was Disney World. It felt like I was in an amusement park, but not just any amusement park, it was the idolized Disney World.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Disney World (I visited for the first time as a thirteen year old…and I cried like a three year old when we have to leave. Ask my parents. It happened.) But there was this feeling of almost contrived fun. People gawking at the figures bopping in and out of the Astronomical Clock. Children screaming for toys and candy. People hawking as many products they could get tourists to buy. Lawns are preened and perfect and the castle stood like a monolith above the fairy tale city.

Tourist Season

Tourists wait in line for "traditional" Czech delicacies


A "tower guard" at Charles Bridge. The Disney metaphor is quite fitting here, yes?

But there is something lurking below the frivolity that is tourist season in Prague. In Disney, you never know who the people in the costumes really are. You just see what you want to see. That’s how it is here: you see only the costume of Prague. You don’t actually get to run into Minnie’s arms. But knowing that the  mistreatment of Roma still occurs while people are hawking bags with “Prague” scrawled all over them  to rich tourists is like seeing Minnie Mouse taking a swig out of a flask. It makes the rest of Disney World seem a little off.


The beautiful (and hope giving) quiet of Vyshrad.

But maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. The further away from the city center I get, the more I feel less like I’m being smothered by the crowds and tour buses and merchandise. As I walk along the Vltava it gets quieter. I can hear birds over tour guides shouting. It starts to smell like roses. And soon, its just me. And it is beautiful. This is the world you only see in the movies, where the sun is just right and you can see why people fall in love with this place. The vision of a flask sipping Minnie has vanished, replaced with the feeling of happiness and awe that only little kids seem to get while watching Minnie prancing on screen. Maybe hope isn’t lost. Maybe I just will have to go a little father, walk along the river a bit more, and find out what I’m really doing here.

I have an outline, of course. A vague notion of how I want to approach this fellowship has been lurking in my brain for some time now, with the idea that I could always worry about the details when the time comes for me to start. And now the time to start is here.

Remember those ideas I was talking about? That outline of a plan? Well, it seems pretty solid if you don’t look at it directly. Quite simple, actually. We are going to make a quilt. We will involve Roma women. We will work with a community based group to create social change. How hard could it be? It’s just a quilt right?

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself in my head. But the more I look directly at this outline, the more cracks and holes I start to see in it. How can I make sure that these women want to do this project? How can I help them define the vague notion of culture so it can be understood in an equally vague way by the general public? How can I get the help I need in a city which turns its head whenever the word “Roma” is uttered? How is it possible to reconcile the idea of helping a culture while some people see the help as an appropriation of something that does not belong to you?

Well, tomorrow I meet with the Director of Dženo. It’s time to start asking some of these questions. And maybe, just maybe, work on some answers. Wish me luck!

I recently started a Cause on Facebook about ethnic discrimination in the Czech Republic, support it to show what a difference social media can make!

Posted By Beth Wofford

Posted Jun 13th, 2011

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