Sunday, December 01, 2002

December 2002- Christmas Celebrations

December celebrations?? In a strange & faraway land?? Is it possible?

How about if you set up a computer which prints out decorations, greetings, menus? You may also input local customs to download ways to make these traditions comfortable to you and your family plus a list of locations for buying items. You have this computer, indeed you do. It's you!

You know the basis of your celebration whether it's Hannukah, Id al fitr, or Christmas. From your security in this base you build your particular celebration. I'm addressing myself to Christmas, since that is what I celebrate.

In a mid-eastern country we bought the three & six year olds spun aluminum pots & a tea kettle - not very pretty but the "adult reality" children love, and the pots lasted in the sandpile for years. Trees there were pruned in December. A large banyan tree branch decorated with my Mexican tin ornaments made a fine Christmas tree.

Here in the Czech Republic take notice of some of these things. Christmas markets, especially in Old Town Square often have some handmade items. Concerts and caroling fests take place in every locale. Glass vases, candlesticks, & bowls you have been collecting may be displayed with some red & green ribbons, some of the plethora of Czech manufactured Christmas ornaments, bits of evergreen branches. Every neighborhood grocery store & paper store has holiday items for sale. You might not have to brave crowds at huge department stores except perhaps for some special gifts.

If you get an expensive creche set for a keepsake for goodness sakes get a paper set children can touch & you can toss out if it's terribly tattered.Will you have stockings on Christmas morning, as usual, or on St. Nicholas [Mikolas] Day. Or both? You choose & explain it to the children. Those explanations are themselves part of celebration.

Will you open gifts on Christmas Eve as Czechs do, or on Christmas morning, or split as our family does for the sake of children's staying power? Choose for a reasonable reason, not a nostalgic one: "Let's open tonight. The guests will still be having jet lag in the morning", or, "I think we better do presents in the morning. If the baby isn't in bed by 6:30, he'll be miserable all day." If you have no reason for either, take a family poll.

Christmas is a moveable feast, certainly not on the calendar, but on the globe. It's celebrated from country to country. Your celebration happens becaue you bring it, make it, let it happen. You could be surprised. No one in my family will ever forget the Czech Christmas Eve afternoon eleven years ago when we had costumed folk musicians singing & playing Christmas carols, "reviving," they explained, "the old customs". Followed by a snowstorm, a blizzard, a torrent of snow, finished in a quarter hour, leaving an inch - or a couple centimeters - of enveloping powdery flakes.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

October 2002 - Dozinky, the Harvest Festival

Now, I'm adding a few things that are not in the article - little David Adam was born at the end of March, the 85 year old lady is Rina Homolka. The people speaking French are French Canadians. The plum cake was made by Eva Zimova. Seyfrieds are Jane & David with Christopher, 4, (and Adelle, who was in the baby pram at the wedding. Korakov is the name of their estate, 7 km from Tyn, but by itself, not in a village. Dave Seyfried's parents, Pat & Jan, were here again from Canada.

Dozinky, the Harvest Festival

Autumn brings turning leaves, ripe apples lining highways, and thanksgiving days. Canadians celebrate in October, Americans celebrate in November, but Czechs have festivals farm by farm after each finishes harvesting. The name of this Czech celebration is DOZINKY.

Our family attended a dozinky near Tyn nad Vltava on a September Saturday.

The day was gorgeous. The setting was sunny, warm, but not hot, with blue skies and puffy clouds. Cattle grazed peacefully on nearby pastures, coming for drinks of water to a trough under huge old trees. The celebration was within the large square yard formed by houses, some of the barns, garages, and the grainery. We parked our cars on the side of the square.

The guests were a wonderful mix. The youngest was our five month old grandson, and the oldest was an 85 year old lady. Friends, acquaintances, new acquaintances greeted us. People spoke English, Czech, French, some conversations switching from one to the other. The baby got passed around, rewarding everyone with his lovely smile, the universal language. One little girl, about nine years old, asked me why there was a band ­ she didn’t realize she was at a dozinky, or what it was. And it took me awhile to figure out in what language she wanted me to answer her!! My mother-in-law heard about the lives of some people she had known in refugee camp. I offered several people free kittens.

A canopy shaded a sitting area. You strolled to the grainery for drinks. Two young men greatly enjoyed dispensing beer from a keg, or you helped yourself to coffee and other drinks. Bread, rolls, fresh leafy salads, pickles, mustard awaited the roast pig on a spit. Two men tending the pig, basting it with a marvelous sauce, slicing off succulent slices, greeted me, glad I’d come again to the dozinky. I was pleased, although surprised they had recognized me.

A four piece band played and sang, mainly folk songs, and fulfilled requests by guests. A little dog stole a big piece of pork from a plate prepared for a guest, laying it near his owner’s chair for protection! This was after he had eaten a tiny frog from a mud puddle! Little boys aged four to seven or so played with toy trucks at the stone doorstep of one of the houses, but their favorite activity was catching frogs in the puddles. They did this with their hands, getting quite muddy.

Many people took advantage of horses and coach and farm cart. "Rides leaving the yard every few minutes!" This was a favorite of Kristyna, our granddaughter. But she wanted to stand up, and I wanted to grip her firmly around the waist, leading one of the nine year olds to ask if I were the grandmother.

Another favorite activity was visiting piglets, sows, and cows in various barns. I had done this at another dozinky, so remained with conversing guests this time.

The eating part of the dozinky finished with a plum cake and bought cookies ­ all freely and individually chosen by each guest, so we left satisfied, but not overstuffed. It had been a pleasant, relaxed afternoon.


Sunday, September 01, 2002

September 2002 - Rina Homolka

Would you like to meet the first commercial air passenger from Vienna to Prague? I can introduce you to Rina Homolka, my mother-in-law at an IWAP meeting.

For their wedding trip, Rina and Jiri Homolka rode by train to Vienna, but returned by air. Cargo had already been transported for some time, but they were the first paying passengers.

Rina was from Koterov-Plzen where her family had a flour mill and bakery. Katherine, her mother had died several years before, so Rina and her father, Josef Hucl, head of Bank Slavia, lived in Prague and spent most weekends near Plzen. Jiri Homolka was from Brezina, the estate his father, Antonin, had purchased in 1908 upon Jiri's birth. Jiri attended and graduated from the agricultural university in Prague and was helping his father run the the farm.

Jiri and Rina had met as children while on family visits to Karlovy Vary. Later aquaintance, as young adults was at parties and with relatives in Plzen.

They were married on March 30, 1937. The wedding was at the Srobeck Hotel (later Hotel Europa) on Vaclav Namaste. Mr Hucl had booked a suite where the bride and bridesmaids dressed before proceeding to St. Gotthard Church in Bubenec for the wedding ceremony. (I can also introduce you to two of those bridesmaids, also IWAP members, but that's another story.)

After the church ceremony, the wedding party and guests returned to the Srobeck Hotel for an elegant dinner. Wine poured was Ludmila, from Lobkowitz vineyards at Menik. Naturally when our daughters had their weddings here, Alice in August 97 and Caroline in July 2001, we also served Ludmila.

Originally Jiri and Rina planned to ski in the Slovakian High Tatras for their honeymoon, but decided there was not enough snow and decided to go to Vienna. A train compartment and hotel room were reserved and travel was pleasant.

The next day the weather in Vienna was absolutely lovely. Jiri and Rina enjoyed seeing the refined, luxurious city. The weather quickly turned and day after day, it rained. They visited an art gallery or two, emerging into gray and chilly downpours. Finally one morning while Rina went to get her hair done, Jiri went to buy tickets for home. Rina returned from the hairdresser to fined her new husband waving tickets. "Would you like to fly to Prague? The plane leaves soon." He was doubtful that she would be willing to go on an airplane, but Rina surprised him with her eagerness. She kept her eyes shut for much of the trip.

When the plane landed in Prague, a crowd stood around with notepads, pencils and cameras. Jiri and Rina didn't pay much attention as they were busily chatting and planning a surprise. They checked into a hotel and planned to meet Rina's father at dinnertime at his club.

Later, when they arrived at the club, Josef Hucl sat at his usual table with a big stack of newspapers. "Where have you been, for goodness sake?" he asked. "I''ve been expecting you all afternoon!" Each of the newspapers in the stack had a story and photo of Rina and Jiri Homolka, returning honeymooners on the first commercial passenger flight from Vienna to Prague!

Monday, July 01, 2002

July 2002 - Hana Huclova


Hana Huclova is one of the longest-standing members of the IWAP, and perhaps, at 91, our oldest member.

Many a time walking along Prague streets with her I've heard interesting stories. Her family had the same house in Pankrac for 3 generations, until it was confiscated by the Communist Party in 1948.

The history she knows would fill volumes. "Here is where Kepler lived when he was continuing Tycho Brahe's work for King Rudolf."

The most interesting aspect is her stories' immediancy, often bringing over 100 years into one's awareness.

"When my father was a young man, he watched the building of the National Museum."

"When my father was young, the tunnel through the rock below theVysehrad had not yet been made, and they would ask the fishermen of Podoli to transport them towards the center."

"Ema Destinova had such a voice! Our family stood on the river bank below the Vysehrad listening to her singing so clearly & beautifully. Of course it was before microphones."

At an International Women's Group meeting, in the hotel behind the Powder Tower,

"I went to my first New Year's Eve party here with my sister & parents. I was 15 years old.

There is the niche where our table was. The hotel owners were my parents' friends."

"Our governess used to take us to visit the children in this home, because my father's factory had given them the kitchen equipment. Afterwards, I had a penpal here." (The home is now reopened.)

Hana has also shown me all around Kaiserstejn Palace, where IWAP has often met, telling me about the paintings and their artists.

An amazing thing Hana did was to wheel a disabled friend all over Prague, up hill & down. I heard this early on; not until later did I realize that disabled people were neither to be heard or seen in the Golden City during communism.

Three children were born to Hana & her husband, Josef Hucl. Igor, an engineer, & Hanicka, a Charles Univeristy language professor, live in

Prague with their families. Her daughter-in-law, Mirka, lives in Munich and has two children, Daniella, & Martina. Their father, Hana's oldest child, Josef, an architect, had gone to Munich to work on the Olympic

housing in 1976 & stayed behind. Josef died in 1981. Hanicka has two children, Josef & Hanka. Igor's children are Katerina & Marketa. Granddaughter Marketa is married with three little boys, Matous, Prokop, & Mikolas, Hana's greatgrandchildren.

As many of us, Hana had been a stay-at-home mother. With the advent of communism she began to teach school because the salary of her husband,

a lawyer, was automatically lowered. At Christmastime some of the children begged her to let them sing the well-known carol, "Nesem vam

Noviny", which she allowed. Soon afterwards the principal told her some parents complained of the religious, not marxist, topic and Hana was dismissed.

The only available post for the political opposition was a manual one.

So Hana shoveled coal into a large central furnace of one of Prague' factories.

Later Hana began working for Prague Information Service. Her specialties, with her sister, Mimi, were Bethlehem Chapel & St. Nicholas Church on Mala Strana. She guided at one of these almost every day. She still worked part-time until about 8 years ago! If there was a

group of French scholars, for instance, Hana would show them around St.Nicholas. Once when we were in Prague, before moving here, she told the office, "NO! 11 o'clock, not 9! I've got American relatives staying with me!".

A frequent visitor to tour sites was Vaclav Havel, because his mother was Hana's co-worker. He was always extremely friendly to everyone.

Once he brought invitations to his new play, "The Garden Party". Hana and all of her family attended its premiere.

Hana took all the courses at Charles University for a degree in Art History. For political and economic reasons she could do it only as Distance Studies. She chuckled, appreciating her colleagues, "They liked to call me 'Professor'. Sadly, she had no time any more for achieving her B.A.thesis......

Hana & Josef Hucl liked to travel. In the thirties they had visited France & Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany.

During communism, they spent time with the family in Munich and visited many places in the former Soviet Union. Josef died in January 1990, happy that their dissident daughter's activities had been rewarded.

Now, after the Velvet Revolution the whole world was open to Hana's travels! She has been to France & Austria; Crete; Malta; Majorca with her cousin, Milada Cernokova, also an IWAP member; Africa to stay with her sister-in-law Rina & go on safari; Israel with PIS; Transcarpathian Ukraine of Eastern Slovakia with her grandson, Josef; America with Mirka, visiting our daughters in Philadelphia; on a French art & architecture jaunt with Marketa; Turkey with a friend.

The German nanny of their son came here & miraculously found her & Hana later visited her. Tourists she & her sister had helped out in Prague became friends & she & family members have visited them in Germany & England. Of course, every year she visits our zamek in the village of Brezina in the Czech-Moravian Highlands.

Several years ago Hana & I were on a tram, heading for the School for the Blind, to leave a Christmas tree from our forests. The driver made a warning announcement about the area we were in; Hana asked me how to say "thief of the pocket" in English. We might all hope to be learning new words, doing
new things, making new friends when we are also in our 80's and early 90's!!!

(editor's note - Hana Huclova passed away in 2006)

Sunday, February 03, 2002

Return to a Bohemian Past

Many of us who live in the Czech Republic have myriads of guests – the invited, the uninvited, friends, business people, family, seasoned travelers, the curious, the innocent. From time to time I will tell you about some of my guests and experiences I’ve had with them.

Edith is in her 80’s. I’ve known her most of my life, but had not spent many hours with her since she was my Brownie Scout leader. I found her as I’d always thought of her: urbane, direct, kind, perceptive, warm. I learned, while she renewed some of the roots of her childhood.

Old country practices enchanted her. She hastened to snap photos of what I’d also recently considered storybook life. She snapped my helpers, Helenka and Jana and I holding up braided onions and strings of sausages. Edith was again excited when the women grated cabbage and began stomping it into a crock for sauerkraut. Helenka felt Edith was concerned with sanitation. “Tell her Jana’s got plastic bags on her feet! Tell her she’s not barefooted.” But Edith only wanted photos of the ancient process.

Edith’s parents were Czech Jews from Ceske Budejovice and Pisek who had moved to Vejprty in the border regions. Edith grew up speaking German and continued in this language when she met Dr. Hans, her future husband. But when we visited some dear neighbors here, the Czech she’d heard as a tiny child began coming back to her.

She told about the small glove factory her father had with the first telephone in town. Our neighbors told us that all those small knitting industries in Vejprty had been consolidated and moved to our town in Southern Bohemia.

The next day was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We ate breakfast and afterwards went to a nearby town to visit a large empty synagogue and a cemetery. It was a day of mental and physical exploring and of spiritual focusing. During the morning Edith said her Day of Atonement activity would be to write a letter of her experiences to a rabbi friend.

An older woman living beside the synagogue thought it should be torn down before it fell on their houses. A younger one, on crutches, hoped someone would repair it as it would be a pity and a loss if it were torn down. They both pointed out the “Jewish Pastor’s” house on the corner. After the war, another Jew lived there, but then he moved to the USA… or was it Argentina? Edith asked about looking into the synagogue. They said the mayor had the key.

The mayor welcomed us to his office, but said he did not have the key. The owner in another town had it and was about to sell the synagogue to a German who was going to make it into a library and a study center. (editor’s note – 2007- this never came to pass)

He showed us this German’s visiting card and Edith wrote down the particulars. I asked about the Town Chronicle. “Well, I don’t really have all the good Chronicle,” but he found a section which had a page on the “Jewish church” history and made us some copies. It is about 150 years old and on the site of an earlier synagogue. Every third house here had a Jewish family, he said.

We asked about the cemetery. “The Prague Jewish Community owns it and Mrs Omackova on Reka St. has the key.”

Edith and I thanked his Honor and left. “Did you know him?” she asked. “Not before this morning!” I replied.

On the gate to the cemetery was Mrs. Omackova’s house number, but we’d had enough of building relationships with strangers for the morning, and went around to the back, climbed up the bank and over the wall! Then we began exploring. The names on the stones brought memories close to Edith, of this aunt, of that uncle, of her parents. Many stones were standing. A few, the oldest, had aged and sunk. A number had been vandalized, pushed over, long ago. Inscriptions were in Czech, German, Hebrew or a combination. Edith talked about her family and relations.

We emerged from the long ago loves and sufferings we’d shared with each other and those not physically present to return home. It is a life of anomalies. We drove in a Ford Escort to a modernized ancient kitchen where we ate a typical Czech lunch.

In the afternoon before Edith caught her bus back to Prague, we visited another cemetery but it was only a footnote to the intensity of that morning.

“Dumov moi”, (My house) she wrote in our guest book. A hostess can have no greater compliment.

Her grandson has horse chestnuts she gathered under our trees. Helenka, Jana and I have photos of ourselves with onions, sausages and sauerkraut. Back in America, all over my hometown, Edith is talking to other friends and showing the slides of her experiences here.