One of the most anticipated and meaningful stops on our trip was the Czech Republic. For those who do not know my family history, my grandparents, along with their three young daughters, escaped communist Czechoslovakia and sought refuge in Alberta, Canada in October 1968. So it has always been my dream to visit the country my mom is from, as well as connect with family members I had never met. The time spent in Czech surpassed all my expectations, not only the beauty of the country but how instantly connected I felt with my family.
With 20 days in total, we spent the first half with the Sykoras, my mom’s cousin Petr, his wife Lenka and daughter Julie. The second half we stayed with the Hartigs, my mom’s other cousin Milena, her husband Pavel (Paul) and their son Michael. Arriving in Czech as strangers, I was overwhelmed with emotion saying goodbye, caught off guard at the love I felt for my new-found family.
The Escape to Canada
From the Communist coup d’état in February 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Československa, KSČ). It was during this time, August 1968, that the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia with 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks. The invasion successfully stopped Alexander Dubček’s, the first secretary of the KSČ, liberalization reforms and strengthened the authority of the authoritarian wing within the KSČ.
During the era of Communist Party rule, thousands of Czechoslovaks faced political persecution for various offenses, such as trying to emigrate across the Iron Curtain. To escape communism during this time was a risky decision, but one that took incredible bravery and courage. That was the decision my Babi and Deda made in October 1968 and they never looked back.
At the time, they had three daughters, ages 9,6, and 3. Without speaking a word of English, they packed up their suitcases and left everything they knew behind, including their families. This near-impossible decision provided a life to my Mom and her sisters that was far from possible in Czechoslovakia during this time.
Visiting my Grandfather’s Childhood Home
While we were staying with Petr, he offered to take us to the town where my grandfather grew up with his younger brother (Petr’s father). The house is in a small town called Čáslav which is about an hour’s drive from Prague. Driving into the town there were rolling hills that highlighted the quaint “downtown” in the distance. I knew from speaking to my mom earlier that week that the house had been renovated and a garage had been added on so I knew it wouldn’t look exactly like it used to. However, when I posted the photo of me standing in front of the house, both my auntie’s and my mom could recognize it right away, telling me that childhood memories came rushing back to them.
I did not realize how emotional of an experience this was going to be. It felt like my two worlds, travel and family, had come crashing together at that very moment on the street in Čáslav. I could not deny the sadness I felt for my Babi and Deda having to leave their lives and families behind. The sacrifice they took to ensure a safe and prosperous future for my mom and her sisters has given me the opportunity to be and do whatever I dreamed. This is where my passion for travel and the history of the house came together, realizing that I would never have had the chance to travel the world, to return to my roots and see where it all began without all the doors that have been opened for me, all thanks to my Babi and Deda.
The Sykora & Hartig Crew
Our first introduction to the entire crew was on our second night when we all went out for a nice dinner and way too many drinks! In total, there were 11 of us at the dinner and only about 8 spoke fluent English so we knew from that point on we would rely heavily on the English speaking “kids” to translate for the remainder of our stay. Petr Sr. was our tour guide extraordinaire during our first week and his English was excellent, we had no issues communicating even if he thought we weren’t laughing at his jokes (we always laughed at his jokes)!
At dinner, we got to meet all the rest of the second-cousins we hadn’t already met and thankfully Michael’s sister Dominika was able to join because we had no idea she was moving to Ireland the following weekend. We also met the crazy Sykora boys, Petr and Filip, that night for the first time. Boy oh boy, we did a disservice to ourselves trying to keep up with those two animals. It is important to note that in Czech (the beer drinking capital of the world) they do not really ask you if you want another beer, it is just assumed. So empty glass = another beer, every time, everywhere. So, needless to say, our nice Sunday night introductory family dinner ended up with a few drunkies!
The Sykora Days
The first night got away from us
A few of us stayed after dinner to order another two rounds of beer and a bottle of prosecco while the rest went home at a respectable time. We were worrying Petr that if we stayed out and continued to drink at that rate we would miss our 3-hour tour of Prague the next morning. With a lot of experience in the functioning hangover department, I knew we would be fine but I could see the look in his eyes when we uber’d home at 2A that he had no confidence in us. Of course, we were up, showered and ready to go ahead of schedule and absolutely loved the tour, hangover and all.
With Petr’s swift exit, Julie, Filip, Devin and I all went to the city center to one of the coolest bars I have ever been in. Since the former level of the streets of Prague was built much lower than the existing city, there are still these original bars open for business. The bar we went to was right in Old Town Square and was the first time we were seeing Prague’s city center and it blew us away! I would normally attribute our extreme reaction to the number of drinks we already consumed, but the next morning we had the same jaw-dropping reaction to the sight of Prague. The bar we went to was called Black Angel’s Bar and is designed in the 1930’s prohibition style public house with a live piano and swanky drinks.
By the end of the night, Devin was head bobbing, Julie and I were switching drinks and Filip was just being his hilarious self. It was time to Uber back, have Devin fall asleep on my shoulder and have the standard girlie heart to heart in the backseat. A truly unforgettable night that Devin and I still laugh about, a great intro to the nightlife in Prague.
Another unexpected memory we got to share with the Sykora’s was Julie’s high school graduation ceremony. I asked Julie if it would be okay if Devin and I came with the family and she replied: “of course”! Unlike in Canada and the U.S. where you have to sit through 500+ graduates receiving their diploma, Czech high schools have it figured out. They divide each graduating class into smaller groups and have a more intimate ceremony in a much nicer space. There were about 90 graduates during Julie’s ceremony and it was beautiful, no graduation gowns, no cheesy traditions just a very nice ceremony honoring the hard work of the students.
After the ceremony, we all went out to a swanky bar nearby and had drinks and dinner to commemorate Julie’s achievements! Graduating with honors and getting accepted into her top choice of schools in Paris for the fall. We were so happy we got to join the family on Julie’s special day and we will definitely be visiting her in Paris in the months to come.
Pub Night with the Boys
What seemed like a good idea at the time, may not have been our best decision. We went out with Petr and Filip to a pub called Lokal and had a few (see photo below) beers. All this would have been fine and dandy if Devin didn’t have his weekly work call at 2A that following morning. So between four of us, with Devin taking it easy because of work, we managed to rack up a tab of 24 pints of beer! This was one of those times where they do not ask if you would like another: empty glass = another beer.
So needless to say, we had a great night with the boys but not such a fun next day trying to function on almost no sleep! This night was one of the many that made it very easy for me to picture myself living in Prague and enjoying cousin pub nights like this on the regular.
The Hartig Days
A Stroll around the Neighborhood
The Hartigs live right in downtown Prague in an area with gorgeous surroundings. Before Michael had to leave for camp, he took us for a three-hour walk around the neighborhood to show us around. Devin and I were in awe of the beauty, right outside their doorstep practically is a castle on top of a hill with 360-degree views of Prague. What was funny to us is that Michael said he takes the beauty for granted. He grew up in the neighborhood and forgets how lucky he is to be surrounded by some of the most spectacular views in the country.
We then walked through the botanic gardens right in the cityand got our bearings on where the supermarket, tram stop, restaurants were so that we would survive the week on our own. Michael was such an amazing host and was so helpful translating for us!
The Hartigs & Shanahans take on Letná Park
Michael was away at a basketball camp during the week so with his only free time was on weekends we decided to all go down to the local pub for dinner and drinks. A common theme in Prague seems to be one beer, leads to four plus a cider or two and your night takes a serious turn. Milena and Paul ended up picking the three of us up after dinner and we all went to Letná Park to enjoy some more drinks and take in the views. Letna Park is a gorgeous park on the top of a hill alongside Vitava River, overlooking Prague in all its glory. At night, there are bars serving beer, cider, and wine along the walking path so there were never any empty glasses on our stroll.
After walking around the park, taking the most picturesque photos, and FaceTiming my parents we sat at a picnic table overlooking the city and drank the night away. Let’s just say my memory of the rest of the night was a little foggy but Devin and Michael did a good job at reminding me of every ridiculous thing that happened the following morning.
A Day at the Summer Cottage
The next morning, hungover yet again, we tagged along with the Hartigs to their Babi’s summer cottage. To our surprise, Filip was already out there and had prepared a huge BBQ lunch for us. With Filip preparing all the food, Michael in charge of the charcoal grill, and me sitting back “supervising” the whole operation, it turned out to be the most delicious lunch followed by Paul’s perfectly muddled mojitos.
The cottage itself has been in the family for years and Filip was telling us his dad Petr used to hate going there because he was put to work all summer. It is the cutest cottage home surrounded by a garden, grape vines, the neighbor’s sheep, and even has an upstairs patio to soak in the sun. We had a really nice day with everyone and were really happy we got to meet their Babi as well. It is so great to see how close their families are and that they go out to the cottage every weekend, spend time out of the bustling city and with their Babi.
Final Send Off
In true Czech fashion, we had a crazy last night that was meant to be “just a nice dinner”! Our flight to Rome was early the next morning and I swear it was Filip and Petr’s main goal to get us to miss it. We had an incredible dinner at a Brazilian restaurant downtown, the beer was flowing and somehow we managed to be surprised with four shots of Slivovitz. If you don’t know what that is, you are very lucky!
Until we meet again
As I said before, it was tough saying goodbye to everyone in Prague and I never imagined in twenty days I would grow so close to everyone, but we have all made plans to meet again. Julie will be studying Fashion Marketing in Paris for the next three years, so Devin and I will be sure to visit her during that time. Michael is a really good basketball player and hopefully, we can watch him play in Bulgaria next month, or in the US when he gets his full ride scholarship! We would love to meet up with Dominika in Ireland before her three months are up. Filip and Petr have already agreed to come to Canada and the US so we can show them the sights and return the favor on our turf.
I could definitely see myself living in Prague, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Couple that with the amazing family I have there and it is very tempting to book the next flight back and settle in. I cannot thank my family enough for all they did for us, showing us the local side of Prague and opening their homes and hearts to us in ways we can never repay.
Our time in the Czech Republic will be one I look back on for years to come, leaving with a full tummy and even fuller heart!