I rarely think much of my birthday…. I remember even as a young child telling my Mom that I’m “not big on personal celebrations,” and I think that hasn’t changed much as I’ve grown up. This year however, I found myself reflecting on what I would love to share about my travels to my family, especially those who have passed on. Whenever I’m asked why I have the passion I have today for travel I instantly reflect to days after school spent at my Babci and Dziadzi’s house. I can recall like it’s yesterday hearing my Babci tell me how I should be an Ambassador, but ultimately stressing just how important she saw it that I saw the world. Whenever they could, my Babci and Dziadzi would take me to Travelogues with their senior traveling friends at local movie theaters where exciting moments from recent trips were shared with all who cared to listen. It was certainly subconscious at the time, but looking back I’m certain that this planted the initial seed and desire in my mind to expand my horizons.
We don’t appreciate those around us enough when they are alive, this must be a universal truism that we can all relate to. Considering this, I have several moments and thoughts I would love to share with those who have gone before me. Those who have in some way inspired the journeys that I take today. I know that I’ll never get the chance to share some of these in person, so instead I think that sharing them here is at least a way to reminisce on what I would have said if you were here today.
Grandpa Uher…. As a child some of the most exciting days spent at your and Grandma’s house as a child were those when you showed me your pictures and mementos from your time spent in WW2 in the Pacific Theater. There was a beauty in your stories, they were never war stories…never about the glorification of battle… somehow instead the limited stories we heard painted a bit of a picture of a land very foreign to your own that you were sent to as an almost mystical place. The pictures backed it up…seeing you in strange outfits in the Philippines, reading the story of your honeymoon with Grandma in the paper when you travelled overland to Mexico in the late 40’s.
Grandpa, I’d love to show you pictures of Tokyo today. One of my favorite cities in the world, a dynamic metropolis filled with some of the best food on the planet, and one of the most fascinating societies in the world. After you passed we read the letters that your friends in Otsu Town wrote to you, speaking of the time you spent with them during the occupation. We learned what you never told us, that you shared a great deal of friendship with them, and almost saw them again in America after the war. I’d love to tell you that those days you spent fighting a war that must have felt so foreign, those days you spent helping to rebuild a shattered society in Japan lead to something truly beautiful. I know you lived long enough to at least know that Japan is seen as a success story in American post war rebuilding, but I would have loved to show you that in person. Your personal sacrifices were certainly worth it and each time I’ve walked the streets of Tokyo strangely I’ve thought of you.
Dziadzi, if you could only see your beloved Poland today. Sandomierz, your hometown, is a burgeoning tourist destination with one of the most beautiful squares of a small town in Poland. Your country is thriving… the initial European fears of all Poles leaving to seek a better life elsewhere have proven to be unfounded as many now have returned from Britain and are starting unique businesses all over. Even Warsaw, left so devastated by the war and rebuilt by the architectural geniuses of the Soviet Union has discovered its “cool.” Europeans come for weekend breaks to Poland now, Dziadzi…. You truly were ahead of your time when you talked about wanting to summer there in the 80’s and 90’s. When we were in Warsaw with Mom and Dad, Poland played Germany in a FIFA qualifying match and they won. I have to imagine you smirked up in heaven at that one….seeing all the drunken Poles practically dancing in the streets as they did the impossible.
Grandma Uher…. Somehow for being born in Chicago (100% Slovak), the traditions that you shared with me growing up certainly shaped some of my major interests and passions in travel today. I remember like it was yesterday having Czechoslovak Knedliky dumplings at your house….tasting your Strudel and hoping you would make it for each visit. The Czech and Slovak republics of today would be such a surprise to you…. We lived in Prague down the block from a shop that sold only Strudel, every morning, and is featured on the top of TripAdvisor and other travel sites. Tourists come from the world over to try Knedliky dumplings and Gulas. I remember you telling us how on your first trip to Prague they served you hot-dogs for breakfast. I can assure you….things have come full circle and if you had that breakfast today it would be better than anything you would ever have in Chicago. And Slovakia? The mountains are absolutely gorgeous! All my jokes to you about “Surly Slovaks” wouldn’t even make sense anymore…. Customer service in Slovakia couldn’t be more friendly today and welcoming. Your country even has a slogan… “Little Big Country.” Couldn’t be more true.
Babci……I think the love you had for a European lifestyle was passed along to me. Everything you told me… from the way people eat “whole foods,” to the appreciation for life and culture somehow makes so much sense to me now. I wish you could see Poland today. Your healthy eating habits would even be accommodated! Juice bars all over Warsaw…fresh Veg…. delicious Polish apples! It goes without saying that I would love nothing more than to tell you the story of meeting your long-lost family in Winnica. Thank you for that day at Rosary Hill when you told me the three towns… Winnica, Pultusk, and Nasielk. Telling us that gave Mom and me Polish citizenship, but so much more important than that, you gave my Mom the family she never had by uttering those three towns names.
Babci, the depth of what you did and sacrificed by being a member of the Armija Krajowa will never be known to us. Perhaps this is why you hid your family from us and from the world after dedicating yourself to the cause of the Warsaw Uprising. Walking down the streets of any Polish city today, you can’t go too long without seeing the symbol of the AK. Each time I think of you. Of the almost impossible sacrifices you made, putting country and culture before that of anything else to protect your people. You rarely shared a single story of this time, but the countless museums, books and movies today have told your story. I bought a AK shirt in Wroclaw and am only hesitant to wear it more as I know I did nothing to deserve the respect that it commands like you did, but I will wear it in your memory.
Finally… Mom and Dad. I remember after the summer in Prague in ’99 I declared I would return to Europe the next summer (come hell or high water). As all good parents should, you made it clear if I did that, it was on my own this time, as you had already given me an amazing experience the summer before. Thank you for this. You pushed me to find such a unique program, working in Slovenija in 2000, a country few had ever heard of. I made friends that last till today and stories to last a lifetime. You didn’t flinch all the years later when I came up with unusual travel destination after another. More than anything you’ve always trusted my choices…whether it meant going to parts of the Former Yugoslavia while a war was still raging in other parts, or Russia when the west was acting like it was the biggest threat in the world. You reacted amazingly calmly when I said I was going to Iran (….I was terrified to tell you). I could go on….. Ultimately it comes down to trust. I’m so thankful to have parents who know me well enough to trust in my decisions and support me based on them. Im thankful that you have shared in some of my travels as well, meeting us along the way, and I hope for more to come.
I’ll end on this….. Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, being Polish, Czech or Slovak was never really “cool.” As absurd as it might sound today, somehow bullying even centered around it at times, and being a “Polack” wasn’t something you wanted to own up to. After spending 2 months in Prague, and having visited Poland 3 times in the past 18 months, my how the tides have turned…. There a pride that I feel only other Slavs can understand to see our nations somehow emerge as EU integration success stories and top travel destinations for all of Europe. Czech, Slovakia & Poland today have come up with governmental policies much more logical than those of America and help to set a rational course of events on events as global as the Greek crisis. I can’t imagine the pride my Dziadzi would have to see Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland as the head of the EU.
I am fully aware that this hasn’t been much of a travel blog post, but frankly these past two months have been filled more with appreciation of life in Prague than that of world travel. As cliché as it might sound…somehow travelling over so much of the globe, somehow spending time settled in Prague feels so much more home than it ever logically should. This is the beauty of culture, of family, and of tradition.
A month spent living in the Golden City of Praha….
Travels across Czech & Slovakia