The sun rose over the horizon as the bus started to navigate the city streets. I entered Prague fatigued by the overnight ride from Brussels but yet full of energy and excited to learn more about my heritage. The splendid city famed for adoring architecture, romantic boulevards, and pilsner beer also contained the roots of the Zabransky family tree.
My grandfather emigrated from Czechoslovakia (present day Czech Republic) in the mid-1930s leaving behind both family and friends in search for a better life. And now as a man in my 30s and similar age to my grandfather when he departed, I arrived in search of the family and friends he left behind. Our family posted a letter earlier in the year to the only address we had for our Prague relative – Ms. Holesovsky, indicating when we would be in Prague and shared our email addresses. To our elation, we received return correspondence and set a date for a family reunion.
Now with my bus pulling into the station in Prague, curiosity, wonder, and anxiety dominated my thoughts. Who was Ms. Holesovsky? How did she know my Grandfather? How big was my family in the Czech Republic? And what stories might unfold on this adventure?
I met up with my parents (traveling on a tour) at the Marriott hotel and then later, three people arrived to meet us: Ms Holesovsky, her daughter Milla, and a friend of the family to serve as our translator.
I opened with “Halo, Jak se Mate,” (hello, how are you in Czech or close to it) but my Czech ended there and we quickly became very thankful for the translator. After pleasant introductions we learned that Ms. Holesovsky, a woman in her 80s, was my father’s distant cousin and her daughter Milla, was then a distant cousin too. Relatives.
Nerves calmed and we began to relax in the lounge. We ordered cappuccinos and shared stories about my Grandfather. My “new” Czech family reminisced about his return trips to Prague and even surprised us by sharing numerous photographs: my dad in military uniform, my aunt from her wedding, and my grandfather smiling on the streets of Prague. Pictures neither my mother nor I had ever seen before.
We also had many plans for the remaining days of our trip. We met more cousins from the extended family over dinner -Milla’s daughter Monika and her husband Ebzen with their two young children. We visited Prague Castle, walked the Charles Bridge, shared pints, and even went to the Opera. All cherished events, yet the highlight was the trip to the countryside. We decided to attempt to locate the childhood home of my Grandfather, a place even my relatives never visited.
One morning Milla arrived with a friend (translator) to pick us up at the hotel. Comfortably crammed in a compact car for nearly two hours, the five of us rode across the countryside until we arrived in Volyne. This town was the very town where my grandfather walked (10 miles uphill both ways in the snow) to attend school. We stood in the town center essentially unchanged by time and shared a Kodak moment.
Our directions ended there, the quest did not. We hoped the remaining names of Starov and Milodraz might be enough. As we drove on, paved highways became country dirt and the recent summertime showers didn’t help the traction in our compact car. At points of indecision, we stopped to ask for directions. Even our local guides needed help navigating the countryside and towns they never been to before.
My parents and I just watched from the back seat, not understanding much of the conversation except the occasional mention of the ‘Zabransky’ name. We knew our search was for a named family home, not numbers or streets. After a few stops, we finally had a positive lead and reversed our direction. Another turn and we continued down a one-way road to the end where we exited the car. Had we found my grandfather’s homestead?
We walked up for a closer look. We noticed the group of homes was similar to the painting my Grandfather had kept in his room, but not until we knocked on the door and explained our story could we be at ease. The current owner’s explained that yes, the Zabransky’s had owned the homes until they were sold in 1982.
We had found what we were looking for. Wow.
Out came the camera and the family portraits began. There we stood, smiled, and rejoiced on the very soil my Grandfather played once as a child. I walked among the rooms where my grandfather had also walked one hundred years earlier.
At the time, I had been reading The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, to help engage my creative energy. A project in the book was to collect stones to represent reminders for my creativity (a chapter 6 assignment). I chose stones to represent specific moments from my RTW travels, moments of my life I wanted to keep with me at all times. My entire journey was a creation. A stone from the Black Sea represented Change, one picked up from the Roman Coliseum represented History, and now a stone picked up that day on the visit to my Grandfather’s home represented Family.
On the way back to Prague, stopping off at a medieval castle, still elated from our walk through family history, I explained my creative collection to my Mom and Dad. I sensed my father’s appreciation for the concept and wish for a stone for himself.
So, several months later, that very Christmas, with nearly all the presents unwrapped and the last sip poured from the Bailey’s Irish cream, I handed my father a wrapped jewelry box. He shook the box and asked “what is it?”
I mentioned, “Something from our travels.” Immediately he knew and the first tear formed in his eye. He unwrapped the gift and pulled out the small stone.
The gift did not cost a fortune, but it meant a fortune. A simple rock plucked from the dirt one August day became representative not just of my Grandfather’s childhood home, or a connection back to our European family tree, but also representative of our family journey to Prague and a connection with my Parents.