Czech This Out: Doni’s Travel Luck is Back

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.

Doni in Ostrava, a place she loves.

Doni in Ostrava, a place she has grown to love.

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.)

metylovice

Joe Domke’s in-laws live in the Czech village of Metylovice.

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.

Photo by Shelly Shively.

Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.

An Ostrava street. Photo by Shelly Shively.

An Ostrava street. Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.

The main square in Ostrava. (Can you spot Doni?) Photo by Shelly Shively.

This is the main square in Ostrava near Joe and Marie’s home. (Can you spot Doni?) It’s no big deal for people to walk to shops at night. Photo by Shelly Shively.

Our trip started in Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

cold-day-in-prague

From left: Joe Domke, Shelly Shively, Marie Domke and Doni Chamberlain, all in chilly Prague.

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.

Joe Domke in Florence.

Joe Domke in Florence.

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.

In Europe it's easy and relatively inexpensive to fly from one country to another. Here, Shelly, Doni and Joe are flying Swiss Air.

In Europe it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to take short flights from one country to another. Here, Shelly, Doni and Joe are flying Swiss Air from Prague to Munich to Florence. (Not pictured, Marie and her mom across the aisle.)

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.Joe and his ladies: Doni, Shelly, Marie and Eva, in 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.)

Navigators Joe and Marie consult their mapping devices in the Florence rain.

Navigators Joe and Marie Domke consult their respective mapping devices in the Florence rain.

Speaking of workouts, I wish I’d brought a pedometer on this trip, because we walked everywhere, all day, every evening, every day.

florence-steps

Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.

florence-rain

Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.

florence-food

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.

Birth of Venus. Photo by Shelly Shively.

The Uffizi holds thousands of pieces of art, such as the famous “Birth of Venus,” painted by Sandro Botticelli in the mid- 1480s.  Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.)

The David, one of the world's most famous and beloved statues.

The David, one of the world’s most famous and beloved statues, is in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

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.

Fewer people are on Florence's streets early in the day. Photo by Shively.

Fewer people are on Florence’s streets early in the day. Photo by Shelly Shively.

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.

After trying for 20 years, Doni finally made it to Trattoria Gargani in Florence.

After trying for 20 years, Doni finally made it to the Trattoria Gargani 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.

Look, Ma, no seat belts.

Look, Ma, no seat belts.

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.

The Freeway Tree. Photo by Shelly Shively.

The Freeway Tree. Photo by Shelly Shively.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Loved traveling with you vicariously.  Looks like all that walking – yeah, where was your pedometer?! – kept you in Twisted Lister shape.  One day, you or Joe will have to tell the story of how he and Marie met.

    • You’re right about all that walking keeping me in shape. And in Prague and Ostrava, people walk really fast. They book it as if someone’s after them, or they’ll be late for a train. Tomorrow I’ll share how my body faired on this trip. I worked out yesterday and today, and Matthew weighed me this a.m. I was really dreading it.

      And I would love if Joe could tell you the story of how he and Marie met, but he’s a behind-the-scenes private kind of guy, but maybe he’ll surprise us one day. There isn’t a day that passes that I’m not grateful that those two found each other.

  2. Avatar Shelly Shively says:

    You described our trip well.  Thanksgiving season was the perfect time to travel to Europe, and the season of gratitude reminds me how good life can be.  Thanks for sharing our journey, to perhaps encourage others to explore other places: well worth the planning and saving.  Thanks for being such a great twin travel buddy!

    • Oh, Shells, you were a great travel twin, too. And you’re better at documenting our trip that I was. I hope you’ll share some highlights from your sketch journal.

      Life is good! Lord knows we’ve had enough contrast with dark days to recognize and celebrate the good times.

      And I agree with your advice about travel. I think that what some people spend on Starbucks coffee each week they could put that money aside and travel.

      I’m going to start my next travel fund today. 🙂

  3. Sounds like a dream trip — so happy for you! Last year at this time, I had a kid on the Mediterranean Sea, a kid in Germany and a kid in Israel. Today, although one kid is dancing on the Arabian Sea, the other two (and three grandchildren!) are back in Shasta County. There’s no place like home.

    • I’m betting you have a map on your wall that shows where your kids are. I follow you on Facebook, so I’ve followed your kids’ travels, too, and my heart often went out to you and Craig when one of your chicks flew the coop for some far-flung place.

      Congrats on having two kids and three grandchildren back in Shasta County. Enjoy it while it lasts!

  4. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    Yup . . . . the best part of my son’s sojourn overseas for almost twenty years was the opportunity to visit him “en locale”.  . . . especially the three years he was stationed in Napoli!! And we do love Prague. The very best mushroom soup with blue cheese I’ve ever tasted. Went back to that restaurant three times for the soup. . . . and they had a really good jazz trio at night.

    • LOL, well, maybe when our kids are young we should start whispering in their ears our dream destinations.

      The soup sounds delicious. I’m kind of glad I didn’t find that restaurant … 😉

  5. Avatar Carrie says:

    Love your happy story! Glad to have both of you back, safe and sound.  🙂

  6. Avatar Karen C says:

    Great story Doni!  About the absence of cat allergy this time…I suspect  it is because of your weight loss/muscle gain and better eating habits.  Years ago, I lost a good amount  of weight and have never had an oak pollen allergy since.  I was miserable in the spring, had to have a shot and was basically miserable for about three weeks.  It all went away with the healthier way of life.

    Loved the pictures too, what a fun time you all had.

    • You know, Joe and Shelly were theorizing the same thing; that perhaps the weight loss and new health had something to do with the absence of allergies. I’d be curious to try it with some other cats here in the U.S. and see if I have the same non-reaction.

      Glad you liked the story, and Shelly’s photos. 🙂

  7. Avatar Grammy says:

    Bet you buy travel insurance!

    • Oh my gosh! You are so right! After the Hawaiian trip, I am now the ambassador for travel insurance! When I went to Hawaii, it was with a friend who’d booked the trip and had bought travel insurance. At the time I lacked health insurance, and I was literally begging to not go to the hospital, because I couldn’t afford it. The doctor on the plane said I had a choice: go to the hospital, or bleed out in my hotel room.

      My friend had forgotten about the insurance, which basically was part of the travel package, until reading the paperwork.  EVERYTHING was covered: The ambulance to the hospital, the three days (great hospital, with fantastic Aloha spirit, btw), a bunch of scans and tests … everything. It was something like $11,000, all paid by the travel insurance. So, yeah, I believe in travel insurance. You should, too. 🙂

  8. Deb Deb says:

    Your happy smile says it all 🙂  I’m so glad you all had a great time together!  Btw in some of those photos you look like a teenager, no lie.  Happiness does wonderful things to a person!

  9. Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

    I’m so thrilled you had a safe and fun trip!  Travel is exciting and exhausting and stressful and relaxing and there’s nothing else like it.  I can’t wait to hear more details, especially about San Miniato in Florence.

    Welcome home!

    • You are right about travel. You and I are kindred travel spirits. And thank you for the recommendation to visit San Miniato. Well, we kind of had a different experience than the one you described for us, but it’s memorable, for sure. (I think Shelly will cover that in her journal/post.)

      btw, Joe just texted me and Pavel sent a pix to illustrate that there’s snow on the ground in Ostrava. On the one hand, snow would have been magical, but on the other hand, it may have messed with our return trip home.

  10. Avatar Tom says:

    The trip sounds wonderful.  I am glad that you do this as often as you do but it is sure nice to have you back.

  11. Avatar Joyce Cannon says:

    I am so glad you shared about your wonderful trip! I always like to have one in the planning mode. Keep making those great memories girls! And keep sharing them as only you can. Love you both!

  12. R.V. Scheide Jr. R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

    Welcome back! Nice pictures! You remarked that there were few transients on the streets, so I looked up crime and punishment over there. Just like California, their prisons are overcrowded (not as bad), but they haven’t passed anything like AB 109, yet. They’ve dramatically changed their approach to drugs the past 20 years. Otherwise, they don’t seem to be doing anything dramatically different than us.

    • I really know nothing about the criminal system in the Czech Republic, but I do know that overall, the country is pretty lax about pot, but on the other hand there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving.

  13. Avatar Jorgi says:

    What a wonderful trip with a bucket full of great experiences. The museums alone would be worth the trip to me. In the pictures, everyone seemed to be beaming – so happy. To travel with your sister, Shelly, was so special. Glad you’re back safe and sound and I’m looking forward to hearing/seeing more about the trip.

  14. Avatar Becky Brabrook, Mt. Shasta says:

    Thanks for the travelogue, Doni.  Enjoyed it very much.  Have been up and down I 5 for many years but have never spotted the Freeway Tree!  I always enjoy the Cow and her Calf south of Yreka and the Dragon north of that same town.  Now I will keep an eye peeled for The Freeway Tree.  Can you give me a hint of where to look?

     

  15. Avatar Terry says:

    What a wonderful travelogue, Doni!  It was fantastic to have such good travel luck.  Hurray!

    I’m delighted you got to go the the Trattori Gargani now – it will always be a great memory of the trip with your great travel twin, and being with her and Joe and his lovely wife.  That worked out nicely, actually.

    I’m looking forward to reading more details from you and Shelly.:-)

     

  16. Avatar Becky Brabrook, Mt. Shasta says:

    Thanks, Doni.  I passed the article on to my kids who live in Durham and Davis.  They were happy to see the story behind the tree.  We have a rock along I5 here in Mt. Shasta that has been painted by the senior high school classes for over 60 or 70 years, maybe longer.   One researcher a few years back found out there were 5 1/2″ of paint on that rock!   Also the train overcrossing on North old stage and Abrams lake.  Fascinating to find these little pieces of history here and there still around if you know where to look!