Monday, March 09, 2009

How I came to know Prague*

We tell our friends it all began with our honeymoon. We say it was Venice and the coffee, the architecture, the little grocery stores: they won our hearts. Flying home from Milan, we were ready to go back and see more, but knew it would be a long stretch until we could afford our next vacation abroad. We started talking about jobs in Europe before the plane reached Greenland.

Or maybe it was earlier, when my twin sister and I were in college and we traded a debutante dance for a trip to Europe. We traveled around Belgium with two great uncles and our great aunt, visiting every cathedral and art museum in the country, pretending to be the urban Europeans we were not but our great aunt certainly was and our great uncle would (on occasion) deign to be. This was the great uncle who left S.C. and never moved back. Who skipped out of his PhD work to defect to Europe in the 50s, marry an art historian, become a professional bird watcher and houseboat owner. He was the breaker of all family traditions, an iconoclast, the most infamous black sheep of the family. Ellen and I thought he was wonderful.

My first trip to Europe was in 1991. At the other end of the decade, in 1998, Will and I married and traveled to Italy. Then we came home to our respective jobs: I wrote for a research magazine in N.C.; Will went back to work on his dissertation in a university up north. We knew one of us needed to move but which of us and where - that was the great debate. It got easier when Will won a fellowship to finish his PhD. I decided we could live anywhere as long as we had an internet connection and started to look for jobs in San Francisco and Europe. Europe bit first, so to Prague we went.

That sounds simple, right? It helped that my sister had moved to Zurich to be a consultant the year we got married. I got my job in Prague because the person who hired me worked with Ellen. He told her he was looking for someone, just like her, who could run the design department in his new start up. She turned the job offer down, and sent him my way instead. The job paid start up wages and had a dubious future but we decided it would do for a bit. My editor offered me a year's leave of absence, we gave away our cars and arranged our wedding presents and library in Will's mother’s attic. We flew to Prague with four suitcases and a violin. Will’s suitcases were mostly full of books, but I didn’t find that out until later.

Our first week in Prague, we stayed in a pension right on the river. For ten dollars a night we were the proud renters of a drawing room in a fin-de-siecle flat. Despite its decay, I loved our room's fourteen foot ceilings and high windows looking out onto the water. The bed though, with its inch thick mattress and humid feather blankets, lost its charm quickly. As soon as we could, we moved into our own flat, empty of furniture but with our four suitcases to prop us up.

What happened then? The person who hired me quit to form another start up. I took over the office - the development arm for a tiny consulting company. In the excitement of the internet bubble, I conveniently forgot why we had moved to Europe. Instead, I worked until midnight for months on end, building that office into a medium sized business with its own income. It was thrilling. I learned a lot. I didn’t see much of Europe though.

In 2001, the bubble burst, my first company and I parted ways and I launched my own business with two partners. Around that point, we began to travel, take longer vacations and try out a more European life style (weekends, hello!?). Caroline came along in 2003, and we discovered just how much more you become a part of a country when you have a child in it. Having C turned Prague into our home, not just a place to work and explore Europe from. And so, here we are.

* Eurolush asked me the other day how we happened to move to Prague. I often wonder about other expats' arrival stories, so I thought I'd post our own too.


Barrett Bonden said...

There's a twin! So it's polymath to the power of four.

I warm to stories about people who have made a big break. Given my background that's predictable but it was like growing up a second time. Those who stay put sometimes regard it as a form of treachery, of self-indulgence even of weakness but it's my belief you never see your homeland clearly until you've lived away from it. The USA taught me to appreciate aspects of Britain I'd never recognised. And, after we returned, we mourned the easy give-and-take of suburban life in Pennsylvania. The 'burbs are America.

How on earth does one become a professional bird-watcher?

Do your children, like one of ours, have dual nationality? When our younger daughter went to the American Embassy in London to sort out her passport, the US Marine sentry snapped his heels together, saluted and said, "Welcome home, ma'am". Had we not lived in the USA we might have found that insensitive. As it was we roared with laughter (once we were away from his eagle gaze).

Jess said...

I'd been wondering, too - thanks for sharing the story!

lizardek said...

Oh, this was fun to read! Thank you for sharing it :) I love that Will's suitcase was full of books; a man after my own heart! Hee!

Tommy Williams said...

I had always wondered about this story. Thanks for sharing it.

Eleanor said...

How wonderful!! And how funny that both you and Eurolush have twin sisters. Is it you playing the violin? I have a feeling Barret Bonden is referring to your art, music and mathematical / technological it obvious that I had to look up "polymath" in the dictionary?

poppy fields said...

I love hearing people's stories. I agree that having and raising a child somewhere makes a place become a home.

Julia said...

BB - So far we're all only US citizens, but the children can apply later on to be Czech citizens. It isn't an automatic given if you're born here though.

Uncle Tunk's bird watching is probably best summed up as vocational. He's seen 25% of the bird species of the world (all of Europe). It is a bit of an obsession, involving trips to all continents and specific locations, and it is what he considered his career but without the sums to accompany it.

The violin is mine, I studied in university and it goes with me most places still. Will is musical too and we have added a mandolin, piano and innumerable guitars (3, maybe 4?) to our collection.

Lucy said...

Wonderfully written; I didn't know you were a twin!