The Czech Republic was never my home. It was where both of my parents were born and where they grew up; where they developed their rigid value systems; where they internalized an unwavering belief that all good things are inevitably followed by bad things; and where they learned through hardship and misfortune that life is neither fair nor kind.
When I landed in Prague, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had been there over 20 years ago, but I was just a teenager then and Prague had not yet been touched by Western influence. This time, I would be with family who were generously sponsoring my trip which meant the agenda would be all theirs. I thought I’d admire the beautifully-coloured buildings, revel in narrow streets of cobblestone, and drink beer — lots of beer. (How else would I get through a family trip, after all?)
The first few days didn’t disappoint. I quickly discovered that it’s cheaper to drink beer than water (!), that the food is absolutely as delicious as my mom’s home cooking, and that beautiful buildings are found everywhere, despite the tremendous amount of irreverent graffiti. And I discovered traces of my family’s history around every corner.
In the company of my father, I found myself on the little street in Malá Strana where, in the 1960s, my mother was almost crushed by a Russian tank as it rolled up the hill towards Prague castle. She had been waiting in the car for my father who was in the Italian embassy trying to get visas for the two of them so they could escape.
In a tram, we passed by Staropramen brewery where long ago my father had worked for a month.
“What did you do there, Dad?”
“Oh, I just carried things back and forth between places. They were happy with me because I didn’t drink too much beer while I was working.”
The Vltava river was a popular canoeing route for both of my parents. My father once played daredevil with his friends as they attempted to ride the mini-rapids in the river, visible from the Charles Bridge. His friends made it but he capsized, his overturned canoe hitting him on the head as he was pulled underwater. Luckily, a stranger on the shore saw what had happened, jumped into his boat, rowed up and rescued him. “If it weren’t for the stranger, I’m sure I would have died that day and you wouldn’t be on this earth.” My dad is a pretty melodramatic guy but, on that one, I believe him.
And then there is the small, charming town of Kutná Hora where my father married his first wife at the town hall, not knowing that marriage would last just a few short years, only to be followed by a much longer, much unhappier marriage to my mother.
As we walked our way through the city, I realized the fabric of my family’s quilt was woven with the threads of this country’s red roofs, winding rivers and dark, wooden taverns.
I started to feel as though I belonged here. I became braver and dusted off my broken Czech with its limited vocabulary. To my delight, everybody I spoke with understood me and before long I was having full conversations with locals. All those years of torturous “Mluv česky!” (“Speak Czech!”) commands hurled at me throughout my childhood had finally paid off!
Slowly, unexpectedly, this beautiful country and especially Prague started to feel like home, but a different kind of home than I was used to. A home that included more than just my immediate family, and spanned so much further than just the years I had been alive on this planet. A home that welcomed me without judgement and understood me without explanation.
As I sit now in my everyday home, I can’t help but feel that I have a new home in Prague, maybe even a new life, awaiting my return someday in the future. Na shledanou, Prague. See you again.