I have a treat for you today! Our fourth installment is a guest post from my friend Carrie Brown! She has been a great help to me both while I studied and traveled abroad in the Czech Republic and home in Nebraska. She has a huge wealth of knowledge in all things Czech and is a blast to hang out and talk with! I hope you enjoy a glimpse into her incredible life and experiences!
When I sat down to write this I realized it’s been OVER AN ENTIRE DECADE since I first got involved in the Czech-Slovak pageants! That’s unbelievable! And let me tell you, a lot has happened since then. Some people say they’re chocoholics because of their love of chocolate, but I guess I could be considered a Czechoholic. Read on and you’ll clearly see why.
Similarly to the other guest writers, I grew up with knedlíky, polka, koledy, koláče, vánočky, and family pride in our Czech heritage. At the recommendation of my grandparents Jack and Rose Marie Vankat, I represented the Omaha Czech Cultural Club as Queen in 2005, 2007, and 2008, and the third time really is a charm because I was finally crowned Miss Czech-Slovak Nebraska that 08-09 year. The following year I competed in the Miss Czech-Slovak US pageant and won 2nd Runner Up! What an honor it was to represent my family and further develop my own personal connection to the Czech heritage through those organizations, pageants, and events! But for this post, I’d like to focus less on my time as Queen, and more on my time spent in the Czech Republic.
“It is good and beautiful to celebrate the Czech heritage and culture our ancestors brought with them so long ago, but culture evolves. It is not frozen in time. Appreciation of the past is magnified when you see and experience the present in real life.”
My first trip to the Czech Republic was in 2008, the summer before I was due to compete in my third state pageant. My mother, aunt, and I joined the Czech heritage tour group from Doane College led by Janet Jeffries Beauvais (highly recommended!) and simply adored exploring the villages, meeting ancestors, dancing in the wine cellars and breweries, finding kroj pieces in antique shops, playing the dudy (Bohemian bagpipes) with a local legend, seeing old friends, getting lost in the winding streets of Old Town prague, and more. I could go on and on about how wonderful it was to finally be in the place I’d heard so much about. I just couldn’t get enough!
Fast forward two years to the summer of 2010 when I (with the help of a friend) arranged to live with a family in one of the villages I’d visited on that first tour. I knew I had ancestors in the Chodsko region and that they were active musicians in the areas, so we all saw it as a perfect opportunity to share our cultures, languages, and musical interests. We had never met before, and my limited Czech and their limited English made communication interesting to say the least, but they’ve become “my Czech family” and I their “Američanka”. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world! That summer I also received a full scholarship through the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to study in an intensive, month-long Czech for Compatriots language course in Dobruška, Czech Republic (again, highly recommended!) with people from all over the world. We had class for several hours a day, seven days a week, along with excursions and presentations. And that was ALL in Czech! That summer I felt the difference between visiting a place and actually living there. I needed lots of coaxing to get in the train that would take me to the airport to fly back to Nebraska after that summer because again, I just couldn’t get enough.
The whole journey back to Nebraska and for several months after that, I knew I wanted to get back to the Czech Republic as soon as possible. Long story short, after waking up at all hours of the night and looking presentable for different interviews over Skype, I ended up getting a teaching job in Prague!! I moved there in August of 2011 after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. So many people told me they wished they would have taken the chance to live abroad while they were young. I didn’t want to always wonder what it would be like, I wanted to live it. I had to seize the amazing opportunity and go for it! I told myself and others that I wanted to try it for at least one year, but ended up making Prague my home for four unforgettable years.
Like I said before, the difference between visiting and living there is vast. It’s impossible to make a list of everything I experienced in my four years there like one could for a trip. The longer I lived there, worked there, struggled and thrived there, the more I learned about myself and about modern Czech culture in general. I never quite know how to respond when people say, “So how was it?” How can I accurately convey how it felt to regularly lead a multinational congregation in song in 700+ year old St. Thomas church that was established by a king? Or to successfully set up automatic bill pay for gas and electricity entirely in Czech? (My grandma would be so proud!) Or to go to a post office daily for a week to pick up a birthday package, only to be told it got sent back? Or to be the only American playing the dudy at a festival in the square in which my ancestors surely walked hundreds of years ago? Or to be shuffled between three different foreign police offices before finding out that the papers I acquired didn’t count because they were signed in the wrong color of ink? Or sitting in the grass at my favorite park with a view of the castle with a beer in hand while my friend played the guitar? Or participating in holiday traditions with “my Czech family” such as weaving pomlázky for Easter or cleaning kapr to eat at Christmas? I could clearly go on and on! I’ve been back in Nebraska for about ten months now, but it’s still difficult to talk about all these experiences in the Czech Republic without getting emotional. I miss it every. single. day. At the same time, I know I have to be grateful for each of these memories that will last a lifetime, for the irreplaceable friendships I made, and for each of the stepping stones that made me who I am today.
The only advice I can give is this: GO. Whether it’s a trip or a move, please go. It is good and beautiful to celebrate the Czech heritage and culture our ancestors brought with them so long ago, but culture evolves. It is not frozen in time. Appreciation of the past is magnified when you see and experience the present in real life. Participating in Czech clubs, events, and the pageants in Nebraska further sparked my interest in all things Czech that my family had established long ago. My first trip to Czech Republic, living there for a summer, and ultimately moving there were a culmination of the passion I’ve had for over a decade. If you are able, I urge you to go experience it for yourself. Don’t let years pass by full of wonder and miss your chance to visit the fairytale Czech Republic. It’s as lovely as the national anthem so poetically describes. For me, one thing is certain. I’ll never sing Kde domov můj? (Where is my home?) the same way again.
If you missed the last three guest posts you can find them here:
- From Iowa to the Czech Republic and Beyond
- Choosing your Kroje and Success at Nationals
- Don’t Blink! It will be Over Soon!
Let me know what you think of Carrie’s post below or on Facebook! And have a safe Memorial Day weekend!