I keep returning to the city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic because that’s where son Joe Domke lives. He moved there 10 years ago to marry and live with his sweetie Marie.
Joe was about 5 when he first told me that he didn’t belong in the United States, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he grew up and moved off to Europe.
No, I don’t love having my youngest kid live so far away, but I have developed coping strategies. First, I constantly remind myself I’d rather Joseph be happy and in love on the other side of the world than miserable and single in Redding.
Second is God bless Skype. That’s the second way I deal with the great distance between Redding and the Czech Republic, because it allows us to catch up with each other’s lives, as well as chat a few times a week about business, since Joe’s A News Cafe.com’s webmaster.
Finally, my third – and favorite – way to handle my son living on the other side of the Atlantic is to see each other in person. Roughly every other year Joe comes home to visit, and on the off years I do my best to visit him.
Mid-November I embarked upon my forth trip to the Czech Republic, my second with sister Shelly. Because Thanksgiving in the U.S. can be complicated – for various reasons – for Shelly and me, we decided last year that we’d spend Thanksgiving 2016 in Europe with Joe and Marie. There, we Americans would travel to Florence, then return to the Czech Republic where we’d prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast for our Czech family in Metylovice, the village in which Marie’s parents live. (I’ll write about Czech food and Thanksgiving in another column.)
I’ve had some spectacularly unlucky travel experiences, such as 2012, when I was carried off a Hawaiian Airline flight on a stretcher and spent three days in a Hawaiian hospital (Queens, where, poetically, I was born) for a condition that, to this day, remains a mystery. And then, a few months later, returning home from my trip to Turino, Italy, where I was a California delegate for Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference, I missed four flights (mostly because of Hurricane Sandy) in 96 hours and was delayed three days when I was supposed to be preparing my house for the AAUW’s Home Tour. (That was the first year the organization featured at least one remodeled, modest home.)
But Shelly and I were so lucky on this trip. For one thing, the flight from the U.S. to Europe the week before Thanksgiving was relatively inexpensive – $770 round-trip. Second, going and coming the airlines allowed us to check-in on our carry-on luggage at no additional cost, which meant we didn’t have to schlep the carry-on bags around airports in San Francisco, Frankfurt and Prague. Third, the dollar was stronger than it’s been in many years in the Czech Republic, which meant our American money went further there.
But one of the most significant ways in which we were lucky had to do with last week’s Lufthansa pilots strike. Unfortunately for us, Lufthansa was our airline. Lucky for us, the strike began after we arrived in Prague, grounding thousands of flights and displacing tens of thousands of passengers.
Fortunately, the negotiations started working, so the strike ceased for two days, one of which was Monday, the day we were scheduled to return home. Fortunately for us (but not so for thousands of other passengers) when the negotiations faltered again and the pilots strike resumed , it was the day after our return home.
The more I visit the Czech Republic, the more I appreciate and love it, its culture, its food, its language and its people. I have learned a few Czech words and phrases: please, thank you, it’s nothing, good morning, good afternoon, good night, goodbye, hello, excuse me, may I help you? and Do you speak English?
Shelly and I joke that we’ve posted so many Facebook photos of Ostrava (a place my daughter-in-law insists is “nothing special” – probably because she compares it to Prague) that the Ostrava Chamber of Commerce – if there is one – should pay us.
Joe and Marie, like many of Ostrava’s 300,000 residents, don’t own a car. It’s a city in which citizens can walk to pretty much everything they need, except maybe IKEA, because even my strong Joe would have trouble carrying home boxes of un-assembled kitchen cabinets.
While in Ostrava, I couldn’t help but think of my home of Redding, and compare, and wish we had a walking-friendly city, a place where I felt safe to walk downtown at night. I wished we had a plethora of beautiful, ancient buildings, rather than photos of historical structures demolished to make room for parking lots. Twice I saw two different men drunk in public in Ostrava. But that was it. I didn’t see one homeless person the entire time we were there, or any openly sketchy people roaming in search of someone to rip off. Not one. Not once.
Our trip started in Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Two days later Shelly, I, Joe, Marie and her mother all took a short flight to Florence where we stayed at an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city. There was a fair amount of noise at night outside our windows, but for me, it was welcome trade-off to be in the city center. I’d rather be in the heart of the city and endure the noise (or use ear plugs at night) where, by day, we could walk to everything, rather than be out in the Tuscan boondocks where a car was required to go anywhere and see anything.
Joe and Marie, who’ve traveled the world over, were our trusty navigators and European hosts. I did the math and figured that with the back-and-forth train travel from their home in Ostrava to greet us in Prague, and then return for Marie’s mother, and then back to Prague, and then the train after Florence from Prague to Ostrava, and then the final journey from Ostrava to Prague two weeks later to bring us to the airport, these two spent more than 20 hours on the train on my and Shelly’s behalf during our visit.
I’m one very lucky, very grateful mother.
Other travel arrangements made by Joe and Marie included trams, taxis, shuttles, Uber lifts and our Swiss Air flight from Prague to Florence. Travel is fun, and there’s a lot to be said for spontaneity, but it takes a lot of planning and work to ensure the best experiences humanly possible.
As much as I adore travel, I’m nowhere nearly as sophisticated a traveler as Joe and Marie, who can live out of one tiny suitcase between the two of them for a week and still never lack for anything.
Though I tell myself I’ll do better every trip, I always pack too much, despite trying what I thought was my best this trip to pare down and pack light. Even so, I had a 50-pound checked-on suitcase and a 17-pound carry-on. And my purse. I’m embarrassed to even admit that. Of course, I didn’t wear many of the things I’d brought. Next time, I promise I will do better.
And although I love flying to adventures and destinations, I can’t for the life of me sleep on a plane. This time, I even took two Benadryl, as recommended by a pharmacist, and I still couldn’t sleep. Oh well.
When in Florence, Joe favored Google Maps on his phone, while Marie favored paper maps. Their system worked, because we never got lost. We walked all over Florence.
And then, at the end of the day, we walked up the 96 steps to our apartment. (There was a tiny elevator, but I considered stairs my workout opportunity to compensate for gelato, pizza and wine consumption.)
Speaking of workouts, I wish I’d brought a pedometer on this trip, because we walked everywhere, all day, every evening, every day.
This walking included lots of marble stairs, stairs that would never fly here in the states, because somebody would surely sue the city on the grounds the stairs were cruel and unusual punishment. We did call a taxi for our last day in Florence for our trip to the airport, but other than that, it was walking, walking, walking, walking. It rained some, but that didn’t stop us.
We did a lot of things right. Getting a large Airbnb apartment, for example, was a good choice. It had a kitchen, which allowed us to shop for fresh ingredients at markets and prepare many meals ourselves – especially breakfast.
This saved us money since we weren’t eating out all the time.
Another thing we did right is I went online weeks before our trip and reserved tickets for the Uffizi Museum Gallery, considered one of the world’s premier art museums.
We also got tickets for the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David statue stands, along with many, many other pieces of priceless artwork. (And yes, when we were there it was OK to take photos.)
Better still, not only did I reserve tickets, but I selected the earliest times possible after the doors opened. This meant there weren’t as many crowds, and we had room to really see the most incredible artistic masterpieces, without throngs of people. Because people tend to stay up late in Florence (hence, the nighttime street noise), they also tend to sleep in a bit later. In Florence, the early birds get the best views.
I also made one more personally relevant reservation, for dinner at Tratorria Gargani, a place I’d tried to visit – but couldn’t – first 20 years ago, on my honeymoon, and then 10 years later, on our anniversary. I saw this latest visit to Florence as perhaps my last chance. We made it. For me, it was one of the highlights of my time in Florence.
Joe and Marie’s preferred mode of travel is to go from big and exciting to small and relaxing, and that’s what we did. After Florence, Pavel, Marie’s brother, picked us up at the train station and delivered Shelly and me to our hotel, Joe and Marie to their flat, and Eva back home to Metylovice.
In Ostrava we spent the remainder of our days prepping food for Thanksgiving, then hanging out in Metylovice. After Thanksgiving we returned to Ostrava again, to be with Joe and Marie in their environment.
While in Ostrava, we walked to the town square and shopped, or hung out at their apartment, where Shelly sketched in her journal, Marie read, and Joe and I cooked. We made turkey and dumplings one day, and bagels the next. Joe and I love to cook, so this was our idea of a very good time.
An unexpected bonus occurred on this trip, and it had to do with Joe and Marie’s three rag doll cats (they’re a special, long-haired breed). I’m highly allergic to cats, and have been ever since I was pregnant with Josh, who ended up to be a kid who was even more allergic to cats than his mother. (My cracked-pot theory is Josh shared his cat allergies with me in utero.)
That’s why, when visiting Joe and Marie I know to load up on allergy medication before I arrive to their flat. But two days before we left Ostrava, I forgot to take my allergy pills. Nothing happened. No sneezing. No itchy eyes. No raspy breathing. Just like that. No cat allergies, at least around Joe and Marie’s place, with those cats.
Eventually, our two weeks was over. Shelly and I flew home Monday, and as much as I missed Ostrava and all the people I care for there, I also missed home. The north state’s not perfect – and it seems to grow more imperfect with each day – but there’s something about driving north on Interstate 5 and seeing the orchards, blue skies, surrounding snow-covered mountains, and that quirky Freeway Tree, decked out for Christmas. Then I’m reminded that we live in a nice place, too.
Nice, but different. And it’s good to be home.