Slovak Heaven | Overcoming Fear

Welcome to Real Life. This Father's Day post is in honor of my almost 93-year-old father. 

For years, I dreamt of a trip to Slovakia. And for years my husband secretly squirreled away money to make that dream come true. I found his gift under the tree one Christmas morning. It came with a stipulation. He didn’t want to travel with me, “Your mom will go, won’t she?” 

Mom was thrilled to go. Both my parents were born in Slovakia. But, we were all surprised when my father decided to join us. Though once a world traveler, he was now afraid to fly. He was also afraid to return to Slovakia. As a soldier, he left the country illegally at the close of WWII to escape the incoming communist regime. He feared that if he returned, they might just lock him up and throw away the key. 

What motivated my father to overcome these monumental fears? He had two sisters still alive in Slovakia. He wanted to see them. 

It was a beautiful August day when we arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. My cousin Ivan was there to greet us. From the airport, he gave us a driving tour of the city. While my cousin was busy pointing out places of interest, he missed the drama unfolding in the backseat. My father’s fears of being apprehended were overtaking him. He was frantically whispering to mom, “I shouldn’t have come. I can take the next train to Vienna.” I was on the verge of panic myself, worried that he might force Ivan to drive him to the train station.

Remarkably we arrived at the hotel without mishap. Though Dad remained on edge all day, even as we headed to his sister’s flat for supper. However the moment Františka opened the door, his face lit up like a sunrise. Fear vanished. My father laughed and feasted and toasted with Becherovka.[1] And from then on, he kept exclaiming, “Tu je ako v nebi!” (Being here is like being in heaven!) 

When he saw Frantiska, his face lit up like a sunrise.
Returning to the land of his youth (or maybe it was the Becherovka) revived dad’s strength and vitality. He seemed sixty-four instead of eighty-four. He stood tall, held boundless energy, and was full of his old wit and charm. 

According to my father, Slovakia is the world’s best kept secret. So while there, he kept devising schemes to market the country’s treasures. He decided a re-enactment of the coronation of Maria Theresa would be the perfect attraction. Maria Theresa, queen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was crowned at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. Dad obsessed over this idea. He enumerated its benefits to Ivan ad nauseum. Luckily, my cousin was happy to entertain his obsession. 

Sister Ludmila and brother Cyril
From Bratislava, we traveled north to my father’s hometown of Lučky to see his sister Ludmila. He was thrilled to see her. When they were together, he would randomly reach out to hug or kiss her as if to be sure she was not an apparition. All about town, he drew a crowd. Relatives gathered to listen to their American uncle tell animated tales of growing up in Lučky. From there we traveled to other towns, visiting relatives and places of interest. 

We returned to Bratislava before flying home. Ivan had one final surprise. He took us to an elaborate folk festival in the historic district. The festival highlight was a ... re-enactment of the coronation of Maria Theresa in St. Martin’s Cathedral!  My father's obsession had come to fruition.  He truly was in Slovak Heaven. 

Re-enactment of the coronation of Maria Theresa

Mom, Ivan and dad in Bratislava

Dad and mom at the folk festival
Fear almost robbed my dad of this trip of a lifetime. At eighty-four, he conquered fear and entered Slovak Heaven. It makes me wonder, “What might fear be robbing from me?”

This post contains excerpts of my article that originally appeared in Slovakia Magazine, Spring 2011 edition.
[1] A popular Czech liquor.

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