Trip to Czech Republic

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It seemed like a good idea to ease her into the trip, so we went to Vienna first for three days. She has always wanted to see my place there and meet my friends and I also thought it would be a good way to get her used to the time change and have her not be tired for her first meeting with the family in Brno. She enjoyed Vienna but I think she had some anxiety about the Brno part of the trip, and it was in her mind the whole time, so she didn’t get as much out of Vienna as she would have if we had gone there at the end.

She wants to go back, so next time she can stay with me again in Vienna or Paris and be more relaxed and see the sights.

We drove to Brno from Vienna after being there three days, which was a good way for her to see the countryside rather than looking out of an airplane window.

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It’s a short two hour drive, and she remarked at how little had changed in the rural areas. She knew there was no border crossing but she was still very surprised to see that we had been in the Czech Republic for a few minutes before she realized it from the signs in her native language. She seemed fine until we got to where she could see the first recognizable part of the city. Then she got very anxious, and it was a good thing we did not plan to see the family until the next day.

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I wanted to ease her into that too, introduce her to the country and city first, and then see the family the next day so she didn’t get hit all at once with so many emotions.

We checked into our hotel on N?m?st? Svobody, which is the center of old town and a lovely place to stay. I thought about getting a more western hotel from an American chain just to not expose her to too much Czech culture at once, but I realized that I was over thinking it and not giving her enough credit. We stayed in a wonderful 150 year old hotel and I told the management when I reserved our rooms that it was my mom’s first visit in 45 years, and they treated her like returning royalty. She loved it, and when we checked in it was the first conversation in Czech she had had in all that time with someone other than her sister or Gabi or me.

Czechs are such nice people and so respectful and deferential to older people, I could tell she felt at home and welcome. The manager must have told the front desk staff to let him know when we arrived because he came out right away and took over, telling my mom about the hotel, everything that was going on in the square that week, and giving her the rundown of what was available in the hotel and area. He talked about things that are different now from the 1970s and was proud to explain how things had changed since communism. She was so funny and apologized if her accent was strange from living in America all these years. He assured her that she spoke like a native and he would not have known if we hadn’t told him and complimented her on speaking like a proper Moravian and even using Brno lingo, which is very different from Prague or other regions of the Czech Republic. She beamed and was very proud of herself. He had a couple of staff grab our bags and took us up to our rooms and showed my parents everything, and told them to contact him personally if they needed anything. He was about ten years younger than my mom, but seemed very touched to have someone from her generation come back to the old country to rediscover her roots. My poor dad stood there the whole time not understanding a word, and the manager must have thought he spoke Czech too, because he didn’t say anything to us in English. My dad is a trooper and loved that my mom was in her element.

My room was across the hall and I left to get settled, but there was a knock almost immediately and my mom’s voice saying, “?ja, come, time to see the city!” My parents had met Gabi in Vienna two days before and ever since then my mom has been calling me ?ja, since that’s what Gabi calls me. She also doesn’t seem to speak English anymore. Dad just rolls with it. We left the hotel and started walking, and she had to talk to every street vendor and clerk, and tried trdeln?k from two different stands. “This one is not as good as the other one. The coals are too hot. I don’t like this chocolate either. Why do they put chocolate on it? It should not have chocolate on it. It must be for tourists. Sugar, walnuts, nothing else!” My mom is an expert on trdeln?k now apparently.

This was one of my favorite parts of the trip, because seeing my mom walking around the city and engaging with people, speaking the language, soaking in the culture, it was literally seeing her reborn. She was home. She had no fear, she was energized and excited, and was just comfortable. She was not afraid the St?tn? Bezpe?nost was hiding around the corner waiting to arrest her. She was not tentative or reserved, and she got right into it with vendors and strangers, confident in her ability to communicate and interface with the culture. She went out of her way to let everyone know she is Czech, not a turista, and was born and raised in Brno. She fell into the crazy dialect that only people from Brno use, which is a mixture of working class Hantec and formal Spisovn? that only the older people really understand since Brno is so multicultural now. I loved it. Every minute of it. I was alternately laughing and tearing up the whole time.

We stayed out for a few hours and then had dinner at a place without a name (it just had “restaurant” on a sign over the door) that a random local man we met while having k?va in a cafe told her we should go to. “It is next to my apartment. I will tell them you are coming. The best meal in Brno. You will feel like a young girl again. Mention my name when you arrive!” People were so interested in her and her story, and wanted to give her hospitality and welcome. She told him we would go there, and you knew we would, because that’s their way. They do what they say they will do, knowing that there is genuine affection behind the offer. He scurried away presumably to make sure everything was set up. We got there and didn’t even have to mention the man’s name or who we were. They knew, and had a lovely table ready in front of the window and next to the fireplace. The restaurant was on a square so small and crowded by buildings that you might not be able to find it if you came back. The table might have seated six if that many people crammed in, but there was only three of us. I assume they did that because it was such a nice table but also because they planned to bring so many dishes out they needed the extra room. We did not get menus and the owner just asked us whether we wanted wine or beer and said that dinner would be out soon. They brought out two or three dishes at a time, and dished the family style ones onto our plates so that we would all be sure to try everything. You don’t leave something untasted when someone makes it for you. The owner explained what everything was and how it was made as it was served and he took a lot of obvious pride in everything. His explanations were in English so that my dad would understand, and he addressed my mother and me mostly in Czech. She loved that he thought of her as a local.

The food was everything she grew up with. Chl?b with pomaz?nkov? m?slo, ?esne?ka, sma?en? s?r, gul??, sv??kov? na smetan?, bramborov? knedl?ky, and medovn?k and ovocn? knedl?ky for dessert. Pivo and v?no to drink. All you need to know is that it is heavy on the meat and potatoes and dumplings with wonderful subtle spices and bold sauces, and the desserts are traditional and mostly sweet from fruit or honey, not sugar. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. Because of the food of course, but also the passion and love with which it was created and presented, and how important it was to them that we enjoyed the experience. The owner gave us the names of some other places we should try while in town. My mom said we would probably come back to his place since it was so good, but he said that we should try more places and see more of the city and people. I thought that was a really nice touch and shows how they think. He wanted to give us the best experience, even if that meant we went to other restaurants rather than go back to his. We went to a bar close by after dinner and drank Becherovka by candlelight and the smell of something nice that they put in the fire, and of course by the time we left everyone in the bar knew who she was and why we were in Brno, too!

We got back to the hotel long after dark. The manager was not there but the desk staff asked her if she had a good time and wanted to hear all about her day. She relived the whole thing, letting them know about everything we did and saw and ate. She was so excited and happy. They listened and asked questions and wanted to see photos, and gave her tips on where to go the next day. We went upstairs and as I was closing the door after I said good night, the last image I had of her was of my father holding her hand and a radiant sense of contentment and peace on her face.

We had a reunion with the family planned the next day, and an event like this is something that Czechs take very seriously. Every little neighborhood has a meeting hall of some kind. I don’t think that anyone even owns them, they are like community property. Czechs are less churchy than most other Europeans, so these halls probably take the place of church basement banquet rooms. They also really like to drink so a church probably isn’t a good place for a reunion anyway! The meeting hall is an unmarked stone building and has a heavy, imposing set of old oiled wood doors set into a thick frame, which made me think that hundreds of years ago during medieval times it might have been where people would go for protection if the city was attacked. It also made me a little nervous knowing how heavy and imposing the experience we were about to face might be.

Inside it was quiet, and we walked down a short hall, and came to a stop just past the doorway to the main room, which was lit with candles on the long bench tables and low sconce lights on the walls that are probably meant to look like torches. About 200 people leaped to their feet and cheered. They clapped and whistled, stomped their feet, and mobbed her. The noise was unbelievable after the silence a moment before. Kate Middleton would not have gotten a bigger reaction if she walked into an English pub on the the day of her wedding. The weight of this outpouring of love hit my mom like a sack of mouka.

She couldn’t move, and it wrapped around her and pulled all of the guilt and sadness out of her like flour soaking up oil. I watched 45 years of crushing pain leave my mom in one moment, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She changed before my eyes, and I knew that if she died tomorrow, she would die happy. I wept like a baby and it was good that I had been smart enough to take it easy on the makeup.

Everyone was crazy to meet her and touch her and introduce themselves and explain who they were and how they were related. Gabi and Martinek were there, and Terezka, my twelve year old cousin, ran up to her and gave her a smothering hug, squealing, “M?m t? r?da teti?ka!” Mom said, “Tak? t? m?m r?da mil??ku!” They had never seen each other before in person, only facetimed, but their reaction was so powerfully genuine, and my mom calling her “sweetheart” seemed so natural, it was like they had known each other forever.

They were all wearing small corsages or boutonni?res of three miniature roses, red, white, and blue, to symbolize the national flower of the Czech Republic and of the United States, which for both countries is the rose, and the national colors, which for both countries is red white and blue. They gave them to us too, and my mom’s also had a velvety lavender rose to symbolize the revolution that changed the country since she left and which allowed her to return. Many of them weren’t even related, they were just there because it was a neighborhood thing and the neighborhoods are all part of the family. They all knew her though, every single one of them. She was a rock star.

There were storyboards like you see at graduation parties with photos from the neighborhood and family going back to the 1950s. There were pictures of her and her sister and parents and everyone else. Everyone had a story to share, and everyone wanted to hear what her life had been like. Alena and Nikola and the rest of that side of the family were there too, and people wanted to hear all about life in America and what it was like to get there and make a life there. No one asked about their escape, either the why or the how of it. It just didn’t matter, and people remembered communism well enough to not need an explanation or justification. This was so powerful for my mom. They all accepted her, not just now, but who she had been in 1973. She left, and it didn’t mean that she didn’t love the family, or that they thought she was some lesser part of it. Except for all the excitement about her return, she was just one of them, like she had only gone to the market for some milk a few hours ago, not left them all for good 45 years ago.

I don’t know how long we were there. There was food, rakija, tea, coffee, and more food and more rakija. It was long after dark when we left and I was exhausted and wobbly. You would think at her age and with all the emotions she had experienced she would have been tired too, but she wasn’t. There was an energy coming from her that fed everything around her. It was like walking down the street with a streetlamp that moves with you. We got back to the hotel and the staff asked how it went. She started telling them and they all gathered around and listened to her tell the whole story and looked at pictures. I wanted to get to bed, but I wanted to see her relive the experience even more, so I sat and loved hearing her tell the tale again.

Every night included more meeting and greeting and eating and drinking and reminiscing with the old people and getting to know the new people. We spent the next few days traveling around the city and seeing her old haunts. Where she went to school, where she kissed her first boy, where her father taught her to swim and ride a bike. We went out to the country to see the collective farm where some of the family had lived and worked and died, and where she visited as a girl sometimes in the summer. In each place, she would explain to me what happened there, or why it was significant to her or the family’s history. This isn’t something I could have gotten from anyone else, even other family members, because I didn’t come from them. Only my mother could give me this, because it was her experiences that shaped her, and she is the person who shaped me. I could feel the presence of all those ghosts, especially my grandparents who I never met, coming alive again in her memories, forgiving her for leaving, and approving of who she had become. It was powerful and fulfilling. It not only gave my mom some peace, but it gave me a sense of my roots, and showed me where I came from. Not just the physical place, but the culture and ethics and sense of family and community. I feel more complete as a person now, in a way that only an only child with almost no family growing up would understand.

I thought this would be a journey of healing and catharsis for my mom, but it I think it might have been more a journey of self discovery for me. I think she knew it too, and I think she wanted to give me that.

On the flight back home, my mom and I sat next to each other, with my dad across the aisle. She held my hand for most of the flight. She was done talking and telling every stranger she met about it and was content to just sit. She declined the wine and didn’t turn on the screen attached to her seat. A few hours into it she turned to me and put her other hand on my arm. “Thank you Jenny,” she said. “I am so proud of you and who you have become. You are the best part of me. I love you so much.” My mom and I are very close and express our love for each other all the time, but this felt so deep that I couldn’t respond except to squeeze her back and kiss her cheek. I felt like I had measured up to something, maybe to the standard she set, and that those ghosts might have approved of me, too.

I feel that practically forcing her to go back to Brno was the riskiest but best thing that I have ever done. The effect on her while we were there and the change in who she is in the month since we got back, is beautiful. She was always strong and wonderful, but there was a cloud that I didn’t see until the last few years that is gone now. She hid it well all these years, but it is especially obvious now that the sunlight has burned it away. It would not have happened without the help and encouragement of family and friends, and I feel great that it was such a group effort. To those of you who were involved, I will never be able to thank you enough, but please know that I am very grateful.

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Trip to Czech Republic. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved from

Trip to Czech Republic

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