Greenwich Meridian: Where East meets West

Memoir cover designed by graphic artist Jeanne Boss.

 I am standing in front of the mirror of one of the many hotel rooms around the world that I have stayed in throughout my life. They ranged from the posh Hotel Europa in Prague, a hotel mom dubbed as Franco’s Motel in Madrid, Stafford’s Perry in Petoskey to a roadside motel Pettis near Hawkins, Texas.

          I don’t remember them all. 

 In the hotel room mirror, I see a torn person pondering if what had just happened was finally meant to be. I left my challenging journalism job to write the story of the family immigration saga spanning two generations, that has proven to be even more challenging, because of the emotional impact of diving into the past. I attempted to write it several times after being asked by my friends and the residents of the area. 

 Most recently, at the 60th wedding anniversary for my parents, Ella and Vaclav, at Nawal’s Mediterranean Grille in Big Rapids, their neighbor Richie said, “You have a responsibility to write this.”

I thought about Richie’s statement because it reminded me of another challenge posed a long time ago by the socialist educational system in Czechoslovakia. As I was marching with the students from the prep school gymnasium down the Revolutionary Boulevard in a mandatory Mayday parade, I listened to the loudspeakers’ blast:

“We greet the socialist youth. You are the future leaders of this country. You have a responsibility to lead this country.”

I briefly glanced at the temporary tribune set up on the sidewalk for the officials from the county and the city of Gottwaldov. Long red banners and flags, both Czechoslovak and Soviet, were swaying in the wind behind them. The loudspeakers played both anthems: Czech and the Soviet one.

At the time, I thought it was just a bunch of socialist propaganda. However, as years went by, including the collapse of socialism in 1989, I realized that the stamina and the belief behind those statements, have materialized.

I was born in socialist Czechoslovakia in the student metropolis of Brno in the Moravian region. I lived history twice: during the Prague Spring of 1968 and in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I was a kid during the Prague Spring, so I left it up to my parents to describe the 1968 events that propelled our immigration saga across three continents.

During the Velvet Revolution, I was a married woman with two kids standing at the crossroads of an uncertain present and even more uncertain future.

 As I look into the hotel mirror again, I also see the vast sands of the Nubian Desert with the wind Harmattan leaving little trenches in the sand mounds. Many wadis or dry channels die out before reaching the Nile. The recent desert storm left grains of sand in our red wooden floor back in the Sudan apartment.

 When talking to mom about this memoir, she remembered the exact layout of the apartment; she even drew a sketch of it.

 Long time ago, I learned that the Greenwich Meridian or prime meridian near London at zero longitude is where East meets West. I’ve crossed it many times in both directions, sometimes not knowing if I was coming back either way. The last time I crossed it was for my Aunt Martha’s funeral on Jan. 12, 2017. 

 On the plane, I watched the various formations of clouds and the screen with a map that shows how far we have travelled and how many more miles we have to go in four world languages. I best remember the French version: distance parcourir and distance parcouru meaning the distance we have yet to travel, and the distance we have already travelled. The total distance from Detroit to Paris is around 3,929 miles. An Indian woman who sat across the aisle from us, rolled her eyes and looked at me exasperated.

 “We have five more hours to go,” she sighed desperately. “That’s what you get from moving away from home, and I have a lot more to go to India.”

The Tale of Immigration Unfolds: first years in Africa

Interview with my parents in Venice, FL, 2013

I had the privilege of interviewing my parents for the purpose of this memoir in Venice, Florida in 2013.  The interview was one of the missing pieces in the immigration puzzle spanning more than half a century.

 Our immigration saga started when I left former Czechoslovakia with my parents Ella and Vaclav Konecny for the first time in the 1960s for Africa. In the beginning, my parents only wanted to save enough money to buy a small car so they could visit their parents in Moravia and save up money for an apartment.

 However, fresh out of school with their rookie wages, that was a utopia. Dad was teaching physics at the Technical University of Brno, while taking English classes from British professor, Lorenz Winter.

 “The politics loosened up, and an opportunity came,” he said. “I was ready.”  In 1961, Sudan in Africa gained independence from the British and was opening up to the world. Vice-chancellor Daffala of University of Khartoum was recruiting experts from Europe to teach at the university.

          “He invited me for an interview, and I was hired,” dad said.

 Dad was hired in 1964 to teach applied mathematics which equals theoretical physics at the university. The university was affiliated with the University of London.

 “The university was the Harvard of Africa,” dad said. “It was the best university on the continent.”

 Dad was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia through the Department of Education, while other experts obtained governmental clearance through the Polytechnic Institute, known as Polytechna.

 Mom, my brother, Vaclav, and I joined dad in 1965 for what my parents called, “the best time in their lives.”  It was a joyful ride that lasted a few years. Among the things that shocked me first, was the fact that we had to be vaccinated against malaria. All I knew were shots against kids’ diseases, and malaria wasn’t one of them in Czechoslovakia.

 A total of 30 families made up the Czech expert community in Khartoum, located amidst the sands of the Sahara Desert. We lived in an apartment complex with a palace-like structure called Pink Palace, which housed the management.   “There were no food lines like back in Czechoslovakia,” said dad. “We had everything: meat, oranges, bananas, olives.”

 The Czech community in Khartoum was like the exotic textiles sold at the souks, which are Arab markets or at the exquisite shops on high streets in downtown. It was tightly woven together by the newly-gained freedom of the Prague Spring reformist movement that rocked the country. 

          “Unlike back home, we felt at ease with other people,” mom said.

The Czech and the Slovak community consisted of ambassadors, members of the Department of Commerce, and the teachers from the Department of Education, a diverse and an adventurous bunch. 

 “We all lived at the same location, so we got together quite often,” said mom.  The embassy was a cultural center; a formal social outlet for members of a community that also struggled to find its own identity. On the other hand, the Pink Palace apartment complex served as an informal platform for Czechs and Slovaks to reminisce about home, as well as to weave dreams about the future in a free country.  “I gained experience, a new outlook and knowledge, and I met different people,” dad said.

 My parents made many friends like with the Hruskas. Mr. Karl Hruska was tall and he had red hair, face speckled with freckles and a matching temper. Mr. Hruska would flare up arguing with the chronically slow Arab officials over a driver’s license. He slept in a bathtub filled with cold water to stay cool in the hundred-some degree temperatures.  I never quite understood how come he didn’t drown. There were no air conditioners in Africa in the sixties, just ceiling fans. His wife, Mrs. Hruska, often visited with mom holding their infant daughter in her arms.  “I told Karl, the chicken I made was nasty, so he threw it with the plate in the garbage,” she paused. “It was skinny, it hardly had any meat on it.”  Who knows how long the chicken sat in the African heat at the market.

 I had friends of my own keeping my eyes on that hunk Robin. He was older, cute with blonde hair. I think he liked me too, standing under our balcony with Edita, calling me to come out.

In Africa, I saw the first naked man in my life, and that was Edita’s dad. Due to the heat, he used to sit naked in an armchair right across from the entrance door, so it was inevitable that I would run into him while playing with my friend. He yawned lazily and pulled a towel over him. It was hot, hot, and hot, and so we each did what we could to chill down. Twice a week, a blue truck delivered crates filled with bottles of orange Fanta and Coca Cola directly to the apartment units. 

          It was in Africa that I found out that Santa Claus does not exist.

      “But the letter from the window always disappears,” I argued with my friends.

          “Sure, your parents are taking it,” said friend, Edita.

I stopped writing letters to Santa Claus and focused more on Robin and Otto. Otto had thick black eyebrows and a nice smile, but he was short and chunky. In spite of Facebook, I have not seen or heard from any of my African friends. Most families dispersed around the world like the Slovak family of the Fickers who ended up somewhere in Australia.

  Africa was as hot as a pancake. The temperature hovered around 110 degrees, with an occasional sandstorm known as harmattan that would dig little trenches in the sand.  I don’t remember if it ever rained. Years in Africa were filled with constantly exploring new things, like a child who was learning to walk. My mother Ella, home schooled my brother and me.  We started going to Arab English schools, but we were constantly sick, so mom took us out of school and taught us at home.  I remember the Czech textbooks depicting the life of people carrying umbrellas to work, or kids playing in the snow.  I looked out the window, and there were tall palm trees with dates and figs on the backdrop of the scorching sun that never seemed to sink below the horizon. The contrast between the misty life shown in Czech picture textbooks and what we were living was truly amazing. This must have inspired me forever. I attribute the origins of my writings to the sharp contrasts of Africa that I captured in grammar exercise notebooks in Czech. I was a good student and finished with A’s at the end of the school year, recognized by the Czechoslovak educational system.

 Days and nights were equally long with daylight from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. since Khartoum lies near the equator. The Pink Palace management building was open and anyone could wander in or out. Pitchers of water and lemonade were lined up on the table. The management wore jellabiyahs, white long shirts, and turbans, typical clothing for men in Africa. Arabic women wore sari, a loose long dress that wrapped around the body, made from exotic materials. The stores on high streets of Al Qasir and Al Jamhoriyah carried exotic fabrics and textiles in thousands of designs.  One day, my brother grabbed a washed jellabiyah drying in the sun and put it on a freshly painted railing by the palace. The Arabic gentleman screamed at my brother, “sayiy jiddaan” which meant very bad. Growing up in Africa, the days were filled with mischief. Together with my friends, Edita, Robin and Otto, we learned about growing up in a heat that we did not know could even exist. We organized clubs in the shrubs that were sometimes filled with scorpion nests.

 But the most overpowering was the Nubian Desert that surrounded Khartoum. The city life was defined by its sands. All roads ended at the  outskirts of Khartoum in the desert with nowhere to go. The desert unleashed its true powers in sand storms. Dust and sand were everywhere. The tiny grains of sand pricked like needles. The floors were made of red wood and particles of sand stuck in them. There was no barefoot walking in Khartoum for two big reasons: scorpions and the hot sand. The only brave ones to walk barefoot were those who didn’t have a choice. Those were poor children with large stomachs swollen up from hunger and malnutrition. The kids ate peanuts from large bowls for their breakfast, lunch and dinner.

 On Saturdays we headed out to town, mainly to souq Al Arabi or the main market near the mosque spanning several blocks. We had a blue Ford Anglia and dad taught mom how to drive so she could get a driver’s license. That was the only time when I heard him get angry with mom as he sent her to “do prdele.” Loosely translated: “Go to ass,” a typical Czech expression of frustration.

 The souqs were huge open-air markets directly in the scorching sun, often without any canopies. Everyone went to these; people were haggling over the prices, which was the norm in Khartoum. In 2000, when I visited a market in Tangier, Morocco, I did the same thing; I haggled over the price of a leather wallet on a Friday, which is a Muslim holy day. Going to the souq broke the monotony of hot days that all seemed the same because the sun was always up in the sky.

 On Saturdays we went shopping on high streets of Khartoum. My dad liked the round bread at Papa Costa’s, although you never knew what you were going to find in it. Once we found a cockroach baked inside the bread. The stores that carried exotic fabrics and wool were exquisitely attracting with their textiles. Back in Czech, my Grandma Anna was a seamstress, and she sewed dresses for all three of us from African fabrics. She made for me a dress from light blue silk with white streaks and a wide flounce. Mom had a violet dress with black polka dots and wore a hat. We bought meters of sea green fabric with silver sequins for future use. Mom avidly knitted from the exotic wools. She knitted for herself a beautiful teal dress with golden threads. She wore it to the Czech Embassy parties. Later, I believe she reknitted it into a sweater. At the time, knitting must have been her passion. She knitted and re-knitted, and of course to fill the endless time that kept ticking away days, months and years.

The paradox of knitting and re-knitting sweaters in the African heat, to this day, strikes me as odd.

“Maybe she didn’t have enough money to buy new wool or she didn’t get it the way she wanted it,” said a friend who was knitting a scarf at the Lowell Arts Council as the January freeze hit the Main Street in downtown Lowell, Michigan.

 “I don’t think that was it,” I said. “Dad would have bought her anything, and she usually gets everything right the first time.”

Mom was filling the boredom of the hot endless days with equally-endless knitting. It must have reminded her of winters in Czechoslovakia, all the time hoping to go back home.

Social life in Khartoum was constrained to the embassy and the catholic church. The embassy had a library and showed movies such as “Janosik,” a Slovak legend about a bandit who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Mom borrowed a book of Czech fairy tales that she read to us. I loved the book that was illustrated by the Czech national artist, Joseph Lada. My favorite stories were Golden Fern and Darbujan and Pandrhola. One year, she made me a ladybug costume for the masquerade party at the embassy. The next year I wore a deep blue purple costume resembling the night sky with gold stars and constellations, or maybe it was a sorceress’ costume.

          “Mom that’s beautiful,” I cried tears of happiness.

           “I know,” she said.

 I don’t remember much from the church life. But there was a Roman Catholic church in the city apart from the mosques. One year, we visited a mosque in Syria where we had to take off our shoes and wear black cloaks. My dad painted a mosque in Khartoum. Mom put together a small album titled Sudan 1964-1970 from the small square black and white pictures taken in Khartoum. This treasure trove is a delightful collection of pictures, postcards with cancelled stamps and notes to my grandparents saying not to forget my shoes size 2 and the white canister for water.  On the first page, there is a newspaper clip with the headline “Honest Extortionist.”  It is about my dad being tricked by a con artist on a bicycle. Here it is in its entirety.

 Czechoslovak math professor, Konecny, was teaching at a university in Khartoum. Once, shortly after dusk, he was driving down the Main Boulevard. When he slowed down in front of the intersection, he felt and heard a bump from the back. He stopped and walked to the back of the car to see what had happened. An Arabic cyclist was knocked down on the road. Professor Konecny stooped down to ask if the cyclist was ok. To his big surprise, the seemingly-injured cyclist jumped up and sat in the driver’s seat ready to take off. But, professor Konecny didn’t hesitate a second and jolted into the car and sat next to the cyclist, waiting for what’s going to happen. As he admittedthe next day, he wasn’t feeling heroic.

 The imposter was speeding toward the River Nile. He stopped on its bank, just a few centimeters from the precipice that led into the river waves full of crocodiles.

          He turned to professor Konecny for the first time:

 “Either you give me 5 pounds or the car is going into the Nile,” he said.  But professor Konecny started haggling. It took a while before the two settled on 3 pounds. The kidnapper wasn’t stumped by the 10-pound banknote, that the professor had on him. He reached into his pocket and handed 7 pounds back to the professor, shook his hand and left with a smile.

          How about that?

          Antonin Bezdicek, Khartoum.

The mini album also holds mom’s infamous Sudanese driver’s license issued by the town clerk of the Khartoum Municipal Council in April of 1968. Mom crossed the date several times so she could use it in Czechoslovakia.  The last scribbled date on it is 1980. It is a standard Arabic document written from right to left and it reads from back to front. Mom’s photo is on the next to the last page.

The postcards depict the life on the three Niles: River Nile, White and Blue Niles, a Mogren village with goats walking in the dirt streets, Sudanese folklore life and the Grand Hotel that my dad stayed in when he first arrived in Khartoum in 1964.

The three Niles were lifelines in the desert. The only green vegetation was directly on their banks, and the natives grew vegetables in their floodplains. But the rivers were dangerous, full of crocodiles fighting with their tails and their backs sticking out of the muddy waters, ready to attack anything in their way, including other crocodiles. 

A riverboat full of unfortunate tourists one year sank into the murky waters of the Blue Nile. The crocodiles devoured most of them. Sometimes the water was brown with crocodiles’ backs and tails navigating swiftly the dirty water. Often, they fought among themselves and opened their long jaws and flapped their tails. Years later, they would be protected, but at the time they were hunted for their beautiful hides with a yellowish-brown mountain-like ridge rising from the center of their back. The scales on crocodile skin are hard, and the tanned hides darken with years. Both mom and I have handbags made from the crocodile hides; we also purchased some hides and had pumps made from them back in Czechoslovakia, for Grandma Anna too.

 There were no seasons in Africa. Nothing changed from day to day or from year to year. If it wasn’t for different presents for Christmas, time stood still like the arid desert. For mom’s 30th birthday, dad bought her a set of pearls consisting of earrings, a ring and a necklace all in 24-karat gold. A Czech legend has it that pearls bring bad luck. My mother was convinced that they brought her bad luck since she never wanted to leave Czechoslovakia in the first place.

 African gold was sold at the souks and on the western banks of the River Nile in the Arabic Omdurman. We often drove across the bridge to buy cheap high-quality gold but without the karat mark. The gold was on display in glass cases outside in the streets in front of shops with names written in Arabic in reverse order from back to front. I was fascinated by the gold and the inscriptions trying to figure out what it said. Dad taught in English, but he knew a few words in Arabic like the greeting “As-salamu alaykum,” which means “Peace be upon you.”

 As a matter of fact, gold was everywhere. It sharply contrasted with the underlying poverty of children running barefoot in the dusty streets. Women dressed in delicate sari wore golden bracelets that covered their entire arms up to the biceps. Dad said the golden bracelets were a reserve for a woman in case the husband left her.

My parents purchased thin golden sheets. Every Christmas mom found golden bracelets on the tree. For dad’s summer breaks, my parents traveled home and brought back gifts of gold like the proverbial Three Kings. Once they purchased two big golden rings with a black onyx stone and a cedar tree carved into it for my grandfathers. My Grandfather Joseph loved the ring and wore it on Sundays to church.

 I didn’t spend all the years with my parents in Africa. I stayed with my grandparents, Anna and Joseph, in a small town of Vizovice in the Moravian part of Czechoslovakia, where I went to first grade in 1966. I always looked forward to mom and dad coming home for the summers after they had taken a vacation somewhere around the world. One year they went to Italy and rented a fiat there. We were all waiting for them in front of the small old house that is called “chalupa” in Moravia. I was sitting on a concrete crooked slab that was usually in 

front of the doorway. I couldn’t wait. When the red fiat arrived in the front yard, I was shaking with excitement. They stepped out of the car, all tanned, young and beautiful. I could hardly recognize them. That moment forever made an imprint in my memory. They pulled out of the car a box of blood red oranges from Italy, so rare in the old country where there was no citrus fruit at all.

 So, I spent my early years between Vizovice and Africa. That is when the riff started. I only had one year of Czech schooling; that was the first grade in the  old yellow brick building on the Main Square called Marianske Namesti that housed all nine grades. The square had a Marian Column in the center. Statues were sprinkled all over the country, mostly of political and historical significance, but rarely religious. The country was officially atheist under communism.  The churches in towns, villages and cities were built during feudalism in the middle ages. After 1945, under the first socialist president, Klement Gottwald, the churches became the property of the government much like other private enterprises and businesses with more than 500 employees.

 I studied with Grandma Anna from a Czech alphabet book for first graders called “slabikar.” Grandma read a simple sentence, “Emma has a mom.”

 Now, that sentence had a great significance in my life. My mother named me Emma after reading a novel where a gentleman wrote a letter to his lady friend with the greeting, “Dear Emma.”

          “I liked the name very much, so I decided to name you Emma,” mom once said.

          Mom has always hated her own name, Eliska as old-fashioned. She was glad to modify it to Ella in America.

  I found it bizarre that my name was in a book that I could hardly read. I was a good, persistent student whether studying in school or with mom as an educator in

Africa. Mom was a pharmacist, and prior to going to Africa worked in the pharmacy in Vizovice. A pharmacist back in Czechoslovakia was an important profession, and in a small town like Vizovice it was very much respected by the people. However, pharmacists accepted bribes for procuring drugs that were in shortage. My mother always wore a white coat. The pharmacy in Vizovice was located inside the Hospital of Merciful Brothers that got back its old name after the Velvet Revolution. She always came home smelling of drugs like the pharmacy itself. It was a clean penetrating smell. Mom deeply missed her job in Africa which intensified her longing for Czechoslovakia. Little did she know that wandering around the world would become her life.

 But, in the meantime I was enjoying all the luxuries of being a so called “abandoned” child. One summer, I got from my parents a beautiful doll with black hair and a tiny bronze tea set from Italy. I cherished the set for the longest time. The doll looked like a gypsy dressed in yellow and blue with black braided hair, and I called her Veronica.  I accumulated an entire collection of dolls that everybody envied me. With tears in my eyes I had to leave most of them behind in Czechoslovakia.

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