1 Introduction

This blog or story if you like, is going to be about a little Czech girl, who started life protesting against communism, becoming ill and disabled, becoming a refugee, moving from one country to another but in the end finding a home, only to be emotionally torn, as an adult, when the Prague spring liberated her country and she could suddenly return. Who was she then? Where did she belong?

This is a true story, both funny and sad at times. Both a story and a reflection at times. I hope you will read it and feel free to comment.

The first part are the early years, from baby to end of education.

Please note that the latest chapter is first in the list, while the first chapter is last in the list. So if you want to start at the beginning, you have to scroll down to the start. when all chapters will be published I will change the order.

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Chapter 2; Christmas and Festivals and more fun

Czech life is full of traditions that make a deep impression on many children. We celebrate both St. Nicholas on the 5th‑6th of December, and Christmas, also called infant Jesus (Ježišek) starting on the eve of the 24th and continuing until the feast of the Three Kings on the 6th of January.  But the most important of those days is the eve of the 24th of December. In our family, it was the tradition for the children, especially the youngest, not to see the Christmas tree until it was all ready.

The child was led to believe that in the evening, Infant Jesus would come and bring the tree, all decorated, and all the presents that were put under the tree. Then he would ring a little bell to indicate that everything was finished and he was gone, and we could enter. Meanwhile the children would get dressed and generally prepared for the festive evening. It was of course impossible to stay calm, and I am sure that parents and grandmothers had great difficulties in getting us washed and prettily dressed. Then the bell would ring three times, we would open the door to the room where the tree and presents were set out, this in our family was usually mine and Kateřinas room. Slowly, in awe, we would enter the room, and there in all its glory, alight with real candles and sparklers, would stand the majestic Christmas tree, with a golden star on top. The beautiful fragrance of the Christmas tree mixed with the smell of burning sparklers and candles would engulf us. The window through which the Jesus‑child came and went was still open. The colourfully wrapped presents would be prominent under the sparkling tree. Before opening the presents we would eat our festive Christmas dinner. In the Czech tradition we eat only fish on Christmas Eve as it is in fact still a fasting day. We also in general eat carp, and before Christmas all around Prague and all through Czechoslovakia, one can see vendors on the street selling fresh carp, so fresh that they are swimming in deep barrels and tubs full of water. One can go and choose the fish and then decide whether to take it home alive and kill it on the day itself or have it killed there on the spot.

The problem that usually arises when the poor carp is taken home and kept in the bath for a day or two is that the children and occasionally the adults too grow fond of the big calm fish and have great difficulties killing and later eating it. Many a true story has been told in Czechoslovakia about how the children try to smuggle the live carp away from its imminent future on the dining‑room table. I never liked carp, to eat, for it is full of bones. As a child I never liked the Christmas dinner at all as it lasted much too long and I wanted to go and open the presents. But what a good disciplinary upbringing it is to have to eat and behave oneself before the most exciting part of the evening!

After dinner we would retire to the room with the Christmas tree and have our Christmas cookies, which one starts to bake on St. Nicholas day. The record with the Czech Christmas Mass would be put on to play, and the youngest child, I , would go and sit under the Christmas tree. Then I would have to distribute, slowly, one by one the presents. I would put my hands under the tree and choose a present, read the name and give it to the rightful recipient who would, amidst the family’s aahs and oohs open the wrapping. The present would then be displayed for more delighted aahs and oohs. Another Christmas present was not allowed to be passed before the previous one was opened and admired.

Unfortunately, in my family, due to the presence of young “modern”  children this polite waiting is not practised anymore, and the presents are distributed before dinner and so fast that one doesn’t even know who got what and whether it was looked at or not. No one is allowed to savour the joy of receiving and giving. The children in our culturally and religiously mixed families do not believe in Infant Jesus and even less Father Christmas. Nor, possibly, in any deity. How extremely sad, for half of the magic of such celebrations then disappears.

After we opened all the presents it would be nearly midnight and warmly wrapped we would set out to go to the midnight mass. We would go into the crisp night air, the white snowflakes slowly finding their way to the quiet streets of Prague. The church would be all alight, and the bells would be ringing with great joy. People would greet and gather round each other, extolling about their Christmas Eve celebrations, about how good their carp was, the children talked about their presents, and the size of the Christmas tree. The mass would be a joyful one, with usually the Czech Christmas Mass by Jan Jakub Ryba being sung. Incredible as it may seem, children from all differing religions joined in these celebrations.

After the mass, tired but extremely happy and at peace with the world we all would return home and the children to bed. In some households this moment would be the beginning of further edible festivities, for the fast had now officially ended and meat was eaten. I do not remember our family ever indulging in this pastime as we were always still too full from the fish delights of earlier that evening. More to our taste was a warm cup of tea and bed.

The next day would dawn with excitement, as one had all the new toys to explore, and also it was the day to go visiting other relatives or friends, or have people coming round for lunch. There was also a good breakfast waiting from what was left over the night before. It was always a warm and friendly atmosphere round those days. Everyone tried to please everyone else, and most were very happy. Then slowly the festive mood would go, until New Year, followed by the sad day, the 6th of January when the Christmas tree would become a general burden, shedding its needles onto the carpet and, so the decorations would be taken off. The beautiful decorations, collected over many years and by many generations of the family, were carefully and lovingly packed and stored away. The tree would then be taken away and burned so that, by tradition, the ashes could go to heaven to Jesus.

Also on the 6th we had a tradition of lighting little candles in walnut half‑shells, and letting these float in the bath. The one whose candle would burn the longest, and whose walnut‑shell “boat” would float undisturbed would have a long and calm life. Mischief‑makers tried to blow rival candles out, or disturb the water under rival shell boats!

St Nicholas, celebrated on the evening of the 5th of December, was also an exciting feast, although much less important. In our tradition, St. Nicholas visits each house, accompanied by the devil and an angel. This differs much from countries like Holland where ‘Santa Klaas’ is accompanied by Black Peters, (but that for later chapters). The devil is there to punish bad children or grown‑ups. Direct punishment was a gentle beating with tree twigs. The angel is there to praise the children. When St. Nicholas visits a home he doesn’t give any presents, just advice and maybe sweets. St. Nicholas, devils and angels are usually acted out by the family’s friends and neighbours.

Just before going to bed the children hang the biggest and stretchiest sock they have on the window. This will be filled with sweets, fruit and small presents, or rotten potatoes and coal, depending on your behaviour throughout the year. I remember my much older brother once, more as a joke that punishment, getting a piece of coal among his presents in the sock. Although he knew it was my parents who put it there, and he knew it was a joke, he was still upset and offended by it.  “I wasn’t naughty” he repeated angrily. I cannot remember ever getting rotten potatoes or coal although I am sure I deserved them on many occasions. This tradition dies off as the children get older and the last Czech St. Nicholas was celebrated in our family when I was about 12. By that time we were in Holland, I was the only one living still at home, and somehow we adopted more the Dutch traditions as that was the way my friends celebrated this, the most important, feast for young Dutch.

I will however, never forget the one evening when the doorbell rang, in our flat in Czechoslovakia, and when it was opened, there on the doorstep, stood the most magnificently dressed St. Nicholas with his angel and devil. Tall, handsome, with a deep voice and glowing, glaring eyes. To my amazement and amusement I learned (much later, of course) that the man in St. Nichola’s disguise was “Comarade” Z. K., instructor of Marxism‑Leninism at the military academy in Prague, an officer in the Czechoslovak army and a long‑time member of the Communist Party! Not allowed to believe or celebrate any religious festivals.

As I mentioned before, my grandmother Natasha lived with us in the flat, in a part of the kitchen. She was extremely sweet, but quick to anger although never in a very serious way. My sister and I often took advantage of this trait and I am sorry to say often teased her in not a very nice manner. For example we would wash our hands in the kitchen and then dry them on the curtain separating the kitchen from her ‘private’ quarters. She would then shout at us as we made our escape to our room. But she was a very kindly person and when I came back from school she would make me my favourite food of that time, which consisted of toasted black bread and fried onions. I would sit on the wide window ledge that separated the double glazing, watching the street below and eat my gourmet snack. Then she would allow me to sew something on her foot‑peddled Singer sewing machine, and she even allowed me to iron some handkerchiefs. I used to love these dangerous activities; now I just wish someone would do them for me.

I had both my grandmothers around to spoil me and to play with; however, I did miss having a grandfather. Especially as I heard so many stories about both of them, and so many things in all our lives were influenced by them. But, both my grandfathers died before I was born. One direct result of this is that I do not speak Russian, for my maternal grandfather taught both my sister and brother to speak Russian, but I arrived too late. The only words I learned in Russian, were a few words I would say to grandmother Natasha, although she understood Czech perfectly. These included the sentence “Babushka podaj (or Gde) mayi botinki” which meant, “Grandmother where are (or give me) my shoes”. I must say that I would not get very far with this sentence in Russia.

Not all our days were spent in Prague. We were lucky to have a cottage outside Prague in a tiny little place near the East German and Polish borders in a corner of Northern Bohemia designated as “the meeting‑place of three countries”. The cottage was called Polesi, which means “Under the woods”, and indeed it was at the edge of a large forest. We also had with it a large estate with a well in the middle. It was an old farmhouse, and our neighbours were farmers using their and our land for farming purposes. The nearest village where one could get food was called Dolni Sedlo (“Lower Saddle”), and the nearest small town Hradek nad Nisou, complete with post‑office castle, church and several shops.

Many very happy memories come from the times we spent our holidays there. Although, always in need of repair and never enough space to accommodate all our family and friends, we had wonderful adventures in Polesi. Long walks in the forest, climbing the ‘skaly’, steep, picturesque rocks called Raven’s Rocks and picking all kinds of berries for pies and mushrooms for soups. I remember a few events very clearly from Polesi. One was my name‑day, about the time I was 4 years old. A name day in Czechoslovakia is the birthday of the saint one was named after. There were two St. Marketa’s but I was named only after one, and she was born on the 13th of July. She, however, did die a horrible death, as a martyr. In Czech lore, St. Marketa’s day is the beginning of harvest. There is even a Check proverb that says, “St. Marketa throws the sickle into the cornfield”.

Anyway, it was my name day, and the sun was shining, in the morning I was told to go outside in to the garden to open my presents. There were a number of presents but I remember getting an inflatable aeroplane from my godparents, with which we all played later in the afternoon in our two inflatable little swimming pools. And I remember getting an elephant made from ginger bread. I can still, up to this day, feel the sun on my back and the smell of this ginger‑bread elephant, with which I fell in love. Another event I remember, one which my grandmother Mařenka till recently blamed for all my medical troubles, happened once when I was in Polesi  with my mother and grandmother Mařenka.

My mother and I went for a walk in the forest; I took my new red bike along. On the way back I was biking down the forest path. Just before one reaches the garden in front of our cottage on the road from the woods, there is a very very steep descent. Although, my mother was shouting at me to stop, and not to cycle down this steep hill, I didn’t listen and continued. Suddenly I could not stop anymore. Then I did the one thing that probably saved my life, for the bike went on and ended up in the deep well I mentioned before. I jumped off my uncontrollable bike, onto the hard ground with its jutting out rocks. Of course there were many tears, I think more from shock then pain, but I was not seriously hurt. The bike must have been retrieved as well, as I remember using it much later in Prague.

These very few memories sum up the carefree life I led, in the country of my birth. These early and happy years were interrupted by a journey to America on which my mother and I accompanied my father for his one year Sabbatical at the University of Chicago. This was the start of my adventurous life, the start of a life that would enrich my knowledge of different peoples, languages and cultures. That would give me an insatiable taste for travelling and a wish to see most of the world.  However, it was also the beginning of a life in which I would yearn for a constant home in one country, stability, continuity and my extended family.

Chapter 1 Prague 1960.

Eleven o’clock 23rd of May 1960 a loud and healthy scream is heard in one of the many rooms in the Motol hospital in Prague. A yellow baby is born. Well, that’s apparently the truth I was yellow! Hairy as well, but not on my head, everywhere else though.

As I was yellow I had to have my mother’s blood sucked out of me and pumped full of some stranger’s blood. I was what is called a Rhesus monkey, no, sorry, a Rhesus‑positive baby, whereas my mother’s blood is Rhesus‑negative; that’s why I was yellow all over.

So I had to stay in hospital while my mother returned home to my much older brother Marek and sister Katerina. While I am in hospital having a blood transfusion let me introduce you to my family. We all lived in Prague in Czechoslovakia. A Central European (and not Eastern European) country bordering on Austria, Germany, Poland and unfortunately, on the Soviet Union (now Russia)  as well. A small, but beautiful country, with one of the loveliest cities as its capital. My mother was of Russian origin; both her parents emigrated from Russia during the time of the Revolution. My mother however, was born in Prague and has never even visited Russia. But she attended a Russian school and was brought up in the Russian Orthodox religion. Both my sister and brother were taught to speak Russian by my Russian grandfather. Alas, he had died before I was born, and thus I lack that particular education.

My Grandmother was, however, still alive and some of the language and Russian peculiarities were passed on to me from her; but more about that later. My father’s side was more mixed and proved to have more influence later on in my life. My father was also born in Prague and brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. Therefore, when my parents married, they underwent three marriage ceremonies. One, and the only one recognized by the state, was the civil marriage; one in a Russian Orthodox Church, and one in a Catholic church.  This dual religious descent also provided for rich and interesting celebrations of various festivities. I think my parents chose the best of the two worlds. We observed Czech Christmas and Russian Orthodox Easter.

We children learned about both religions but basically my brother was Russian Orthodox whereas we girls, my sister and I were baptized as Catholics. This arrangement was the result of a gentleman’s agreement between my father and his Russian father‑in‑law: all males would be Russian Orthodox; all females could be christened as Roman Catholics. This particular kind of religious “tolerance” was characterized also by my parents’ wedding: when my mother’s Russian orthodox family and friends (including the priest) found out about the religion of her future husband, they heaved a sigh of relief exclaiming: “Well, better a Catholic than a Jew or an atheist!” Little knowing the path their granddaughter would take – a path leading me back to my father’s roots!

In addition to this religious mixture, my father, a professor of South Indian languages and literature enriched our lives with Indian culture and religions.

My brother was eight years my senior and throughout my early age I looked up to him with great respect. He was my hero and I was prone, like so many other kids, to enter into competition about whose brother was better. My brother is bigger than yours, more clever, older, wiser, stronger and so on. I also loved many of his friends and whenever they would come round I would want to be there as well. My poor brother had, on occasions, to put up with his small sister claiming the attention of his friends. I had one particular friend, David. I liked him most because he would always take me on the back of his bike.  My sister was 7 years older than me and by then already seriously involved with her ballet dancing. She would spend much of her time practicing at home and have no time to play with me. We also had to share a room; which probably put some strain on our early relationship.

So my brother Marek was 8 and my sister, Katerina, 7, when I entered their lives, quite unexpectedly ‑ well, at least not planned. At first my sister was enchanted with her new toy, but as the toy demanded more and more attention the enchantment wore off. My sister keeps telling me that I was a very ugly baby, because I had black hair everywhere apart on my head, so that, apparently, I looked like an ape. I have not seen any evidence of this on the family photographs.

As I mentioned before, the girls were to be brought up in the Catholic tradition, so I was to be christened. Even though I do not remember much of this moment I am told that it was a very special occasion as my baptism was used as a protest against the governmental policy on religion. The priest was a friend of my father and had asked him whether he would mind if my baptism could be public, to show that the church still exists and will go on having influence regardless of state policy. This was a dangerous undertaking, it could have led to the imprisonment of either or both the priest and my father. But in the end,  I had a grand christening in one of the most important and famous Prague shrines, the Gothic church of the Holy Virgin (The Tyn Church) near the Old Town Square. The parish priest ‑ my fathers friend ‑ arranged for a solemn and beautiful ceremony, including a red carpet rolled out in front of the church. I was told that there happened to be present a group of East German tourists who watched the whole ceremony (complete with organ music, flowers and many guests of all denominations and persuasions) with great interest and even greater astonishment.

To make sure that I wouldn’t cry on this occasion my main godmother (I have three) tickled me on my bum all through the service. Yes I have three godmothers and am thus the unfortunate bearer of many names. My main first name, chosen by my siblings, is Marketa and three others which are the first names of all my godmothers. Thus I was baptized as Margaretha (Latin for Marketa) Juditha, Johana, Milena Zvelebil.  Quite a mouthful, really. Later I added another one to this already long list.

Of course I don’t remember much from these early years. Only that they were very happy. I was told that I always used to hum or sing and never cry. Especially when I would accompany my brother and sister on their way to school. Had to be my cruel sense of humour! There are a few interesting escapades that I got up to that do stick in my mind. And a number of festive occasions that made a great impression on me.

We lived in a flat in Prague, it was a two bedroom flat for a family of 6. In this flat lived my maternal grandmother, parents and we three children. My maternal grandmother, grandma Natasha, lived in a curtained-off part of the kitchen. My parents slept in the living-room/fathers study, my brother lived in the dining room, and  Katernina and I occupied another room that had no other function. We also had a fairly large hall‑way with a piano in it. My father would often play in the evening and I would slowly fall asleep to him playing pieces that varied from lullabies to Mozart’s sonatas. I adored it when he played. We also had a bathroom with a real bath in it. Naturally, in a small space like that with a fairly large family a few arguments and disagreements would break out. Many were caused by grandma Natasha’s ideals and philosophies; When my father visited the Oriental Institute in Moscow (as part of his scholarly duties), one of his colleagues presented him with a small statue made of black metal, of the devil. My father placed it upon a cupboard, not to be too offensively visible, and yet hesitating to throw it away out of respect for the donor. The little statue of the poor devil was somewhat obscene in its nudity and leering expression. In amazement and with a mixture of incredulity and superstitious awe we noticed mysterious displacement of the statuette: the devil seemed to dislike our company for every day he turned away regularly to face the wall. After intensive interrogation (especially of the children) it was discovered that the culprit was my deeply religious grandma Natasha who was offended in her sensitivities by the devil’s presence. Similarly, a series of drawings, representing female and male nudes, by Rodin (unfortunately only reproductions!), were regularly removed from the wall to the great consternation of my father.

But my grandma Natasha had the right attitude to life and that’s probably why throughout all the difficulties that came her way she lived to a ripe old age. For example, when she would be enjoying her meal, whatever happened, she would not budge, but just say ‘ya kushayu’ “I am eating”. Once when my brother Marek got home late and dangerously drunk (because of a bet with a school friend consisting of the feat of drinking a bottle of rum in one go), he rang the doorbell and collapsed on the doorstep in a dead faint. My grandmother opened the door, saw Marek, turned to my parents and in a calm and matter‑of‑fact voice announced “Mark Myortvy”; “Marek is dead”. My parents realized that, thank God, he was only very very drunk.  However, on doctor’s orders he had to be kept awake and my poor mother had to read him fairy stories all night long.

It wasn’t only Marek who got up to mischief like causing an explosion with his chemistry set and having to be rushed to hospital to save his eyesight, but I too caused some worrying moments for my parents. The earliest escapade I remember, I must have been about three, was when our house was being redecorated. The painters left some acetone in a soda bottle on the floor in Marek’s room. I remember seeing it and thinking it was soda‑water. So I opened the bottle and liking the smell, I drank… my earliest drug‑abuse! Katerina came in, fortunately, and saw me gulping the acetone down. She raised the alarm and I was rushed to hospital to have my stomach pumped. This time it was my sister who saved me; the next time I had to have that experience of stomach pumps, it was the fault of both Marek and Katerina. They very kindly were feeding me blueberries, unselfishly not eating any themselves, when my sister bit into one and saw that the blueberry was not red inside as blueberries are supposed to be. She rushed to my mother and father who in their turn rushed me to the nearest hospital where I had my already familiar treatment, stomach pump. Better safe than sorry. Those were my early experiments with poison.

The block of flats we live in had a caretaker with his family. I, to the great disapproval of my paternal grandmother Mařenka, liked to play with the caretaker’s children. One of them is now in prison. We would play in the little park, in front of our flat. Usually we would play with our much prized brightly coloured clay marbles. Great was the sorrow when one of the marbles would split into two. But how important did I become in our little community when I got as a present from my American aunt, glass marbles, and of different sizes! Another favourite game was to find and play with chestnuts. Often, however, to get nice chestnuts we had to get, somehow, usually by throwing stones, the chestnuts of the trees. This was forbidden in the park and the park keeper would chase us and I suppose on occasions must have complained to our parents.

My most prized toy, before I got my real big red bike, was a scooter. This scooter was brought over by my father from Russia, it had very thick rubber wheels and was quite large and could go very fast. It also became the means by which I caused my parents great worry and caused myself a painful bottom. In the adjoining flat lived a friend of my brother, David; one day when I was outside playing on my scooter he came and said that he would show me a good “scootering hill”,  and that it wasn’t too far away. I was intrigued to venture out from the little park that I knew so well, and without much further persuasion let myself be taken to a huge, lovely park (the Regent Park of Prague, only much bigger) called The Royal Forest (which used to be the hunting ground of the kings of Bohemia). Since I could not be found, the police were alerted, but around six o’clock in the evening I calmly returned home on my own, in spite of the endeavours of the police. That was the first time my father used his hand and applied it to my backside. However, this punishment did not prevent me from venturing to go to The Royal Forest yet again (so corporal punishment doesn’t necessarily work!). This time, I remember, there was a more adventurous ending to my escapade. I was dared, by my much older companion, to ride down a rather steep hill on my scooter. I did not reach the finishing line, fell down and injured my knee quite badly. This scared my escort enough to take me to the First Aid Post. I remember the nurse being fat, ugly and rather nasty, asking me if I was allowed to be so far away from home. Very crest‑fallen I returned home where my escort abandoned me rapidly to my impending state of another thrashing. To alleviate my punishment, I stuffed a pillow down my trousers, and thus presented myself to my father who had to laugh so much that he philosophically explained to me that I had already been punished by having hurt my knee, and thus further punishment was superfluous.