Thursday, May 26, 2011

Encounters with Czech Culture

The European war was a regular part of my life as a young child. I heard about the battles on the radio, newsreels showed images of the war's progress, and I heard adults speaking in hushed tones about the results of the war. Since my father's family came from Czechoslovakia there was often discussion about what might have happened to those who had not immigrated. From them we received no word. Year by year in family gatherings we have wondered about them and wondered if there might be some way to make contact.

Karlstein station - Early view of the Czech countryside

Perhaps it is the destiny of first generation Americans to be interested both in the culture they are born into and to be curious about the culture of the foreign born parent. (I grew up with a view of family that tended to emphasize the paternalistic).

Back while Czechoslovakia was still behind the iron curtain, Judy and I explored the possibility of travel there. We talked to a young professor in the Central Valley of California who had gone on a bicycle tour of Bohemia. He encouraged us to visit – as we walked out to the car he said, “ Oh! I can suggest someone you can contact there.”

Gathering around the family table - Such hospitality! - first visit

We wrote to a university student, Vladimir B., inquiring about a possible visit and received back an invitation to stay at his family home. We answered saying “ Oh no, we don’t want to impose on your family…” He answered “ But if you don’t stay with a family you will not really see Czechoslovakia. I really would like to invite you to come. "

And so we planned our first trip – we entered by train from Austria – through the "iron curtain" - there were wooden towers and serious looking guards with machine guns, and police dogs… it was necessary to pass through non smiling security checks… there were secret police cars in evidence on the streets - and watchful eyes observing us.

Our first view of a Czech town from the window of our train - "Before the change"

But once we were in Vladimir’s home – everything changed – people were warm and hospitable and anxious to speak to “Americans”… The visit was a wonderful experience! We had many memorable meals and conversations with family and friends in that home. Incredibly he took us in his Lada car on a long personal tour of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia (the three states of then Czechoslovakia) - mostly staying with friends and every day - every night having fine experiences ... everything from castles to garden parties with roast pork and slivovitz to seeing first hand a Soviet military base... Since then there have been other visits with Vladimir – once just before the Prague Spring, and the third time shortly after the Velvet Revolution. (He was slightly injured in a street demonstration). I was so proud of the Czech people for their peaceful revolution - for the change they brought about.

President Vaslav Havel - before his inauguration at Hradčany ... I passed him on the street!

When I walked into the plaza of Hradčany (the castle grounds of Czech government ) – there was a statue of T. G. Masaryk – I couldn’t stop tears from coming to my eyes – This was just after the repressive years of communist rule - and to see the founding father of the Czech nation (someone my father had greatly respected )- touched me deeply. The Czech people had been through such a time of trial - and now there was now hope and new life possible.

T.G. Masaryk Memorial - Grounds of Hradčanské Square, Hradčany

Over an amazingly short period of years we have seen the birth of the Czech Republic, the development of a capitalist economy, and the resultant change in life style of values of the Czech people. It has been a monumental time. Since our first contact with Vladimir, we have returned to visit his home again, he and several friends came to California and stayed with us, he is now Herr Docktor B. – a noted genetic researcher living in Heidelberg, and the head of a medical genetics laboratory. We have much to thank Vladimir, his wife, and family for - they have given to us generously over the years.

Visiting in the B. family home the first time


When Andrew was in his last years of high school we talked about having an exchange student in our home – and we were able to have one of the very first Czech students to do an exchange, come into our home for a year – this was Michael G.

Michael is in center playing clarinet, Vojta playing saxaphone

It was a rare learning experience to be with Michael for the year – a positive time for us all. Because of that visit, Michael has been back, his parents have visited us, and we have been the guests of Michael’s parents, and in Michael own comfortable apartment.

Visiting in Vojta's home during our last visit

Michael's mother is a multi talented woman! She is a marvelous cook, and we have had many memorable meals and conversations at their family table. Michael's father has been the technical director of the two Prague Opera houses – and when we visit we have also seen marvelous productions. Michael is now married with a wonderful wife and two small children – he has established a graphic arts business that is doing well and they have recently purchased a small farm property to use as a second home.

Prague roof tops

In our most recent visit – we travelled to Michael's sisters farm outside of Prague. Martin and Marqueta are two bright professional people who have a large family and have chosen to raise their children out of the city on a small farm. Martin in a specialist physician and must travel daily into Prague, Marqueta is a teacher and "manager" of the family. During our visit we discussed the possibility of them sending their son Vojta to live with us for a year in California –and so we have reexperienced the joys and tribulations of having a 16 year old in our home once more. This was two years ago, but Vojta keeps in touch and it is a pleasure to watch him mature and grow. Just now he is back for a visit...reconnecting with friends at the time of their graduation.

The Zlatnik family in the train depot in Praha ( Prague )

I'm not sure I believe in the idea that you can characterise a whole "people" with common characteristics - But I have come to some conclusions about Czechs in general. It is a miracle that despite long occupation by other nations - the Czechs have survived with a unique culture and language, a propensity for humor (a little dark at times), a reputation for inventiveness and design innovations, a tendency toward cynical-realism, a love of music, and a stubborn endurance. Our son Andrew says that every language is really a different way of encountering the world. The Czech language is indeed a rich language.

The past three decades have seen such rapid cultural changes in the Czech people - It is fascinating, that in microcosm, the story of the emergence of the Czech nation can be seen and told in the values, similarities, and differences of the three young men - Vladimir, Michael, and Vojta - each of them representative of the cultures of their times.

Tyn Cathedral towers

So now in the year 2011 – we still have not found our missing family - I have recently taken an interest in genealogy - but only as a means of locating living connections. My research has led me to a woman in Prague that appears to have relatives in common with us – and we are now waiting for more information... Stay tuned...