My father’s hometown is nestled among the hills near the Slovakian border.
As we wound our way through the countryside, I felt like we were heading into the middle of nowhere. Even in this age of the Internet and globalization, I still felt so far away from everything else. As we inched closer to the Czech town of Brumov-Bylnice, I couldn’t help but think, “How the hell did my dad get the idea to leave this little corner of the world?” Even Prague was five hours away by train.
Escape from Czechoslovakia
My father left Czechoslovakia in 1966 when he was 19 years old. This was two years before travel restrictions would be temporarily relaxed during Prague Spring, so he had to think of another way to get out of the communist country. Though border controls were strict at the time, he managed to get on a tourist bus to neighbouring Austria with the promise he would return, of course. But when that time came, he was nowhere to be found and the others had no choice but to make the return journey without him.
Knowing the bus was long gone, he walked into the local police station and requested political asylum.
That was just the start of a journey that would take him to the Traiskirchen refugee camp, then to Vienna and finally to Canada. With the Iron Curtain still firmly shut on Eastern Europe, it would be another two decades before my father would return to Czechoslovakia. In the meantime, he met and married my mother, a Japanese woman who was also in Vancouver to satisfy an adventurous spirit.
This is where his story takes a pause and mine begins. My parents raised me to be proud of my multicultural heritage, and I was raised with a mishmash of both my parents’ traditions. I spoke Japanese with my mother, and while my Czech never really moved past the basic listening comprehension stage, I enthusiastically sang along to the my father’s old world lullabies. In the kitchen, we were doing fusion long before it was cool – eating goulash and dumplings with a side of homemade sushi rolls. As much as they could, my parents tried to cultivate our family ties, though it was much easier for us to travel to Japan than to Czechoslovakia at that time.
In the late ‘80s the political climate had thawed enough for us to comfortably travel there as a family. Even as a child, I was well aware of the differences between my home and this Eastern Bloc country still stuck in time. My parents had stocked up on gifts of items that were not yet available locally, and I got a kick out of my dad handing out Hubba Bubba gum, AC/DC cassette tapes and branded t-shirts to all the neighbourhood kids from the trunk of our rental car like some New York City hawker. I would find out years later from a family friend that my dad had also mailed them treats like a Bruce Springsteen tape and Walkman, which they had to keep under wraps from their friends at school to avoid seeming subversive.
In the years following that first visit, I travelled back with my family two more times during which communism fell and the country split into two. Then… nothing. Life happened, as it does to everyone in their twenties, and thoughts of the Czech Republic were inadvertently pushed from my mind. I was busy with university, travel to other far-flung places and then with the start of my first real job. It wasn’t until getting married that I felt the pull of my ancestral homeland once again.
A Visit After 20 Years
As we arrived in Brumov-Bylnice in the car driven by my friend (and recipient of the aforementioned tape and Walkman), I was on high alert for the only landmark I could remember: my babicka’s house. For 20 years, I had kept the memory of my father’s childhood home and surroundings alive in my mind. I was certain I could find my cousin’s home, which was built right beside it. Although the colour of the house had changed from a teracotta yellow to a matte cherry red, I was able to point it out right away. We knocked on the door and, after the initial shock of not having seen each other for two decades, were welcomed in and celebrated with round upon round of slivovice.
The rest of the day was a jet lag-induced blur of reuniting with more family members, going on a walking tour of the quaint town and seeing my grandparents’ graves at the cemetery beside the church on the hill. I was just so happy to be walking arm-in-arm with the uncle I never really got to know before. At his and my aunt’s insistence, we spent the night at their apartment, despite them not speaking any English and us not speaking any Czech. But this slight inconvenience was mitigated by body gestures, Google translate, more plum brandy and knowing that it didn’t really matter anyway. After all, we were together and I had returned home.