In the summer of 1980 my father took me and my sisters on a 3 week trip to Czechoslovakia. I had just finished my sophomore year in high school, and had only been on a commercial plane once before when my friend John and his family took me on a vacation to Jamaica. That’s a blog post in itself…
We were excited to embark on this adventure. My father was going to show us the town he was born in as well as the sights of his homeland. Plus we were going to be introduced to members of our family that we had never met before. And the fact that we were traveling behind the iron curtain added a sense of danger and intrigue.
There was lots of prep work to be done…passports, visas, converters for electricity…oh, and mixed tapes. Lots and lots of mixed tapes. We didn’t know what we would find on the radio over there – we envisioned pop music polkas or accordion themed disco flooding the Slovak airwaves. We had a small boombox to take along, and agreed to take turns listening to music.
Our night time flight on OK! Airlines was uneventful as far as flights go, but my father was fun to watch. He was excited…no, damn near giddy to be heading back to his homeland. When the stewardess brought us our morning meal, he leaned over to us and said in a sing-song voice, “Look, girls! A continental brrrrrreakfast!”
My dad actually rolled his r. We were landing in Prague soon and he was in a glorious mood. It was a side of him I rarely saw, but immediately decided I liked. That mood? It dissipated quickly when we went through customs.
Customs in a block country is no picnic. The guards checking our suitcases went through everything. Our underwear was rifled through, our boxes of maxi pads were opened and inspected (much to my embarrassment and horror) and my father, a health nut, had a much ‘splainin’ to do about the throngs of vitamins he had packed. With nervous sweat soaking through the back of his sport coat, he was frantically yelling “VEETAMINY! VEETAMINY!!!!! as the guards angrily shook the bottles in his face.
Once through customs we were met by a man with a van who had made the long trip to Prague to pick us up and bring us to Gajary, my dad’s home town. We could not make the trip in one day, and we stopped to spend the night in some small town along the way. I remember the quaint cobblestone streets, and getting dinner in an upstairs restaurant. We spoke or read no Slovak, so my dad ordered for us. I remember eating a wedge salad dressed with a simple lemon dressing and thinking that it was the most wonderful salad I’d ever had. The main course was some form of meat and potatoes – simple fare that was marvelously good. My sister, after finishing her meal stated, “I could go for another plate of that!”
That would be a sentiment we echoed often on our three week adventure. The food we sampled on our trip was simply wonderful, and not just the food we ate at restaurants. The food served to us at our cousin’s homes, and at the homes of the dozens of other relatives we met, was all homey, comforting, and very satisfying.
Lunch with Stello in Bratislava
I recall one day that we devoted to visiting friends and relatives who lived in the area. Each home we entered had a full spread of meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, salads and pastries. Not realizing we’d be offered this fare at every single house, my sisters and I loaded up at house #1. By house #6 we were stuffed, yet still forced to sample something so as not to offend our distant relative who had gone to the trouble of laying out meats, cheeses, salads and pastries.
My cousin Gitka made a kick ass potato salad that I simply could not get enough of. Cousin Anna kept us well stocked with cookies, and we drank pitcher after pitcher of my cousin Stello’s home made wine. But we were not without some American favorites – my dad and Stello were able to procure us bottles of Coke and Snicker’s bars.
We didn’t just hang out and eat the whole trip. We took a couple of days and travelled to the Tatra Mountains. We rode a gondola to the top of the Tatras which I would have enjoyed more if I weren’t so cold. I was not prepared for how cold it was at the top of the mountains, and all I had on was a thin terry cloth shirt. I went to get a cup of hot tea at the little restaurant they had, but the water was only luke warm at best, so it did little to ward off the stages of hypothermia I was soon going to succumb to.
We also visited a cave that wound up getting my cousin Stello very sick. You had to climb up a series of fairly steep hills to get to the cave. Once at the top you were pretty much a sweaty mess, then you entered the cool, dark cave for the tour. Do the math. I’m surprised we didn’t all get sick.
After the cave expedition we had lunch at a restaurant at the bottom of the hill. My sister thought it would be fun to steal a beer mug from the restaurant. So while dad & Stello were paying the bill, we jammed the mug into her handbag. A waiter must have witnessed us doing this dastardly deed, because our walk to our car turned into a run for our lives as we were chased down by the angry waiter. Dad and Stello didn’t ask questions – they just hauled ass and got us out of there.
We giggled over this caper for years.
We also visited a spa town where one of Stello’s daughters was spending a part of her summer vacation. The only part of this excursion I remember was being assaulted by some drunk Slovak on the street. While we were walking along the sidewalk he lumbered up to me, said something in Slovak to me and grabbed my boob. Hard.
I was mortified, (my sisters were hysterical) and Stello came close to beating him to a pulp. I spent the next hour brooding in the back seat of the car beside smirking sisters with a throbbing titty.
THE BOOM BOX
I can’t talk about the travel without talking about the boom box. We passed the long hours in the car listening to the mixed tapes we brought along. The deal was to take turns, but man, when one of my sisters picked a tape that I didn’t care for, it was 90 minutes of hell.
My sister Judy had a Joanie Mitchell tape. While I can take a song of hers here and there, an hour of listening to her folksy, too-high voice while crammed in the back seat of Stello’s small blue car was close to maddening. I was thankful when the tape broke halfway through our trip. My sister insisted it was sabotage…
I can’t remember one song that I brought along. Isn’t that funny? Not one. But I do remember hearing “Psycho Killer” and “Sultans of Swing,” courtesy of my sister’s tapes, over and over again. I can’t hear “Sultans of Swing” without thinking of that trip and Stello’s car.
Even is there was no music playing (dad would demand radio silence during intervals so he and Stello could talk), it was wonderful to watch the scenery. Each little town we’d drive through held my interest – the buildings and the people; who were they? What did they do for a living? Sometimes we’d spot a small castle nestled into a picturesque mountain side. Other times, we’d drive through a small cluster of homes – not even a town – and I’d wonder what life inside those walls was like.
JOE, JOSHKO, STUK & THE HOTEL MALACKY
When we weren’t combing the Slovak countryside, we were getting to know our cousins. They were fairly far removed – 3rd or 4th cousins – I’m not even sure what the genealogical connection is. My sisters and I were introduced to my cousin Gitka’s children, Joe, Lubka & Peter. While Peter was a bit young, Joe and Lubka were around our same ages.
Joe was urged by our parents to take us American girls out on the town. This was somewhat of a difficulty for him; we spoke no Slovak – he, no English. What was a fellow to do with three girls he could barely communicate with? So, he rounded up a few of the local fellows to act as escorts for us, and to give him someone to talk to.
Joe was mine…we sort of hit it off right off the bat. My sister Judy got paired up with Joshko (pronounced Yoshkoh) who was tall and fairly attractive. Wendy got stuck with Stuk (pronounced Shtook) who was short and not so attractive. We headed out of town to party down at the disco in the basement of the Hotel Malacky.
My first warning bell was the fact that they locked you in. Yes – once the quota for the night was reached…maximum capacity…they locked the doors and forced you to dance the night away to stale disco intermingled with the occasional polka. And the drinks? Red wine mixed with Pepsi. I think you could order other stuff, but that’s what most people drank.
It was an interesting experience to be sure. We were Americans in a block country – we may as well have been celebrities. People stared at us and came up to our table to ask the fellas who we were. I remember I wore a white ribbon around my neck during that trip – for no good reason – and girls would ask if that was the American fashion.
But I felt bad for my sisters that night. While my Joe was a perfect gentleman, Joshko and Stuk got pretty drunk and kept making the moves on my sisters. They tried to coax them with wine and loaves of bread they got from the kitchen – it made me wonder what it took to get one of the local girls. While they were fending them off, I was starting a little Slovakian romance.
Ah Joe. We never did anything but kiss…I was only a sophomore in high school at the time, but it made what could have been a boring trip very romantic and fun. We would spend the days drinking wine huddled over a Slovak/English dictionary trying our best to communicate with one another. Back in the states I wasn’t known for my luck with the fellas – I never got asked to school dances, and never got asked out on dates. Me? I had to come to a block country to find love…typical.
Joe and I wrote to each other over the years; I still have a stack of his letters in a box somewhere. I’ll tell you, Google translate would’ve come in handy back then! We saw each other again during the summer of 1984 when I studied in Vienna for a semester. Then, a few years later, I got news that he had gotten married and I have to admit it made me a tiny bit sad – he was my first real romance. We are Facebook friends now, and exchange greetings a few times a year.
When our 3 weeks came to an end, I was sad to go. I’d grown to love my new found Czechoslovakian family. We had to drive back to Prague, and cousin Stello decided to bring his two sons along. It was a thrilling trip for them to make, and we were glad for a few more days spent with our cousins.
Walking in Prague
Is this the only shirt I brought with me?
After a day or two in Prague we flew home. A funny thing happened when we landed at JFK – our high school guidance counselor was working as a customs agent over the summer and just happened to be assigned to our flight. He brought us to the front of the line and waved us through without opening a single bag. And you know what? He was there when I got back from Vienna four years later. Isn’t that bizarre?
I’ll always have fond memories of that trip to Czechoslovakia. Not only was it fun to bond with my sisters in a strange new land, but I saw a side of my father that was so entirely different than how he was at home. Come to think of it, he was almost always that guy when he was on vacation. I totally get that.