BOSTON – NOVEMBER 1989
‘Are you OK? Shall I call an ambulance?’
Ana had no idea why the woman; a stranger, was asking her these questions, until she realised she was sitting on the pavement. She got up, embarrassed and dizzy.
What the hell happened?
‘I’m fine. No need to call for an ambulance,’ she reassured the woman, ‘I’m a doctor.’
Ana walked away towards the bus station. Once there, she sat down and tried to recall what had just taken place.
The last thing Ana remembered was stepping out of the store. A huge group of people had been standing in front of the electrical appliance shop. She remembered thinking how strange it was, and felt compelled to see what they were watching. In the window display, the latest models of televisions were lined up next to one another. All were tuned into CNN showing events taking place somewhere in the world. Ana rarely had any interest in politics or news. She was about to turn and walk to the bus station when her eye caught the images.
Her beloved Prague.
Don’t look back! Ana could hear her mother’s voice calling after her. But she couldn’t stop staring at the scenes unfolding on the screens. Thousands of people marched with signs, calling out for freedom. They were faced with lines of policemen; some on horses and some with guns or batons. She couldn’t believe she was watching it on a screen and not immersed in her own memories. Memories she had worked hard to forget for the past two decades.
That’s when her knees collapsed and she’d blacked out.
How did I end up here?
It was Ana’s day off. On any normal day she would allow herself to sleep in and take her time, but today she had errands to do. She never liked leaving the holiday shopping to the last moment, so had decided to get it over with.
By the time she woke up, Dan had done the groceries and prepared a great brunch for her. She always felt pampered by him when he made such gestures. In their first few years of marriage she’d felt spoiled, or worse, like she was taking advantage of Dan’s good nature. When she’d asked him about it, his first response sounded as if he was joking.
‘Can’t a man cook for his wife without being considered a “sissy”?’ Ana had smiled, but wasn’t reassured by it. When she kept asking him about it, he finally told her his motives.
‘I grew up in a family where food was the way to show affection. Food was more than just nutrition: it was a way to celebrate, share and show how much you care for and love your family. Why is it so wrong if I’m the one who does it and not you?’
Ana had finally relaxed, recognising it was Dan’s way of telling her he still loved her after all those years together. In time, she’d started to look forward to it, and appreciated her good fortune of finding such a man.
But today, Ana didn’t have time to linger. She checked the bus timetable and, seeing she would be just in time to catch it, she set off downtown.
The streets were already decorated for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It feels like they start the celebrations earlier and earlier each year.
Today Ana wanted to get Yael, her daughter, something for Chanukah, the festival of light. This year it took place at the same time as Christmas. Both she and Dan had made a point of celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas, so Yael would not feel different from her friends.
Ana recalled seeing a unique artistic Chanukah in a special shop during the summer months. It was made from clay and each candle holder was shaped like a different fairy, while the backdrop had a colourful Tree of Life symbol. She knew Yael would appreciate it, given her artistic talents. Ana hoped it would still be there.
When she reached the shop, Ana was relieved to discover the Chanukah was still on display. Ana stood outside, taking a second look. Was it as beautiful as she had remembered it in her mind? Yes, it was even more unique and impressive. Ana was happy to discover it was on sale. She paid and asked the shop owner to gift wrap it. She would never have time to do it herself and, even if she did, it would never look as good as they do it in the store. Ana had learned long ago that it was best to leave certain things to the professionals. She was happy that it didn’t take too long.
Stepping outside, she saw the crowd.
Serves you right for following a crowd, her inner critic mocked her on the bus back home. You should know better by now!
Arriving back home, Ana realised how late it was. She could hear Yael was home, filling the space with her constant chattering. Her daughter was always talking about people, places and events Ana couldn’t keep track of. She was grateful Dan was his usual attentive self as their only child told yet another involved and long-winded story.
Once dinner was over, Yael went up to her room under the pretence she was doing homework. Both Dan and Ana knew she was more likely chatting with her friends on the phone, but they let it go. They both joked that kids needed to believe they were fooling their parents. Most kids would discover how their parents knew all about their supposed transgressions, once they became parents themselves. It was one of those well-kept secrets parents had; you only discover it when you enter the club.
Dan switched on the TV. He was zapping between the endless channels when he landed on CNN. It was a Breaking News segment that caught Ana’s attention.
‘It’s Prague again,’ she muttered and stopped Dan from turning over. ‘What’s going on? I saw clips of it today on the street. People were glued to the TV shop’s window as if there was a revolution taking place.’
Dan raised the volume. The same images came up: protesters filling the streets of Prague; the notorious riot police trying to beat back the demonstrators, hoping to tamp down the demand for freedom. But it looked like the people seemed to have grown immune to the brutality of the regime. The show of force only motivated them to resist even more. Students were joined by citizens of all ages. The reporters said that more than half a million people were filling Prague’s streets and taking over Wenceslas Square.
Ana watched the scenes with a stoic look; she still couldn’t believe her eyes. She sensed it was real, but couldn’t bring herself to accept it. She was startled as one of the reporters said, ‘Change is in the air.’ She was about to get up from the sofa when Yael strolled into the room.
‘They’re calling it the Velvet Revolution,’ she announced, without taking her eyes off the screen.
‘Yes, they are,’ Dan said. ‘Where did you hear about it?’
‘They’ve been showing us these images for the last two weeks at school, ever since the Berlin Wall collapsed. They’re saying it’s history in the making.’
‘Why do they call it the Velvet Revolution?’ Ana felt out of touch with the conversation taking place between her husband and her daughter.
‘Don’t you know?’ Yael asked her with an astonished tone.
‘You know me; I don’t have time for news or TV.’
Yael stared at her mother as if seeing her for the first time.
‘You’re not interested in news or politics? But it defines our lives and dictates how we live.’
‘No, it doesn’t. You are the only person that defines your destiny. You are the only one that would create or destroy your life, nothing else. And don’t let anyone tell you anything different.’ Ana cringed as she heard a stronger tone in her voice than she’d intended. I sound like my mum.
‘Why are you so against it?’ Yael asked.
Dan was about to answer, but Ana silenced him with a look.
‘Nothing new. They think “change is in the air,” but they have no clue. I’ve been in that movie, and it didn’t end well.’
‘You never talk about your home country. Why is that?’
‘I believe there is no point in looking back.’
‘But I want to know about your past,’ Yael pleaded, ‘I want to know you.’
Ana looked at Dan. He shrugged his shoulders, then nodded.
‘Maybe it’s time?’ he said. ‘You don’t want her to be as clueless about you as you were about your mother… Would you?’ Dan couldn’t have said a more powerful sentence to convince Ana.
‘Well, I guess,’ Ana sighed, looking at her eager daughter, ‘it’s time you heard how I arrived in the United States. But first, you need to understand who I was.’
PRAGUE – JUNE 1966
Ana was standing on the stairs of her high school with her classmates for the traditional graduation photo. Their school was a typical old, grey building; ugly but functional. The party wouldn’t spend much money on buildings with the sole function of educating young people. Everyone and everything was supposed to be uniform; a conformity factory. There was no room for individuality. People were supposed to follow the party’s doctrine no matter what.
The school faced one of the oldest churches in Prague. It was a constant reminder of what old Prague used to be: the centre of culture, art, and beauty. For six years Ana would take her breaks on those steps and take in the splendour of that building. The church had since been shut down when the Communist Party took control over the country. Even so, nothing could ruin the magnificence of that church. The sun would play on its stunning stained glass; the ornamental baroque sculptures decorating the spiral of the tower. Ana loved running her fingers on the wooden doors of the church just to feel the carving of the old stories in them. It used to give her strength when she was doubting herself, or when things looked bleak. The sight of the church was the one point of beauty in her day.
Standing on the first row of the stairs, Ana could see Pavel and Helen, her parents, in the crowd. Pavel towered over everyone else and was easy to spot. But Ana could just see her tiny doll-like mother standing next to him. As usual, Pavel was holding Helen’s hand as if making sure he would not lose her in the crowd. Ana couldn’t remember a time when her parents were not lovingly touching each other. There were times she believed they came into the world united by an invisible link. Now, when she looked at them, they were both shining with pride. She’d graduated with honours and her speech at the ceremony was already hailed as one of the best and original speeches the school had heard for many years.
Ana knew her future was promising. Unlike many other youngsters, she knew what she wanted to do and had it all planned out. Her final interview at Charles University would take place the following week. Thinking about that interview made Ana nervous. She was a problem-solver: exams and tests were easy for her. In contrast, she found interviews more daunting. She had no idea what they’d ask her or what they expected to hear. What answers should she give that would guarantee her a place in the prestigious medical school she had her heart set on? She didn’t know anyone who had ever managed such a feat. Most people she knew didn’t go to university, as it was considered too intellectual for the party. If they did go, they studied subjects the party called ‘useful’, such as engineering. Those degrees would guarantee them a job when they graduated. Medicine took at least six years to study and then another three as an intern without any promise of a secured job. But that wouldn’t hold Ana back.
If only I knew what to say to convince them to accept me. Her thoughts were cut off by a nudge from her friend Ludmila.
‘Smile! They’re going to take our photo. You should look happy!’
‘What’s the big deal?’ Ana replied. It’s not as if I finished anything important.’
‘What do you mean not important? At last, we’re adults. Hell, no more studying for me. I’m out of here.’
‘I love studying and can’t think of anything better than spending my time learning,’ Ana whispered back, trying to hold a smile on her face for the camera.
Later, when Ana walked to collect her books from her locker, she bumped into Ludmila again. Her friend was, as usual, surrounded by boys trying to impress her, but Ludmila had eyes only for Ana.
‘Gregor here invited me to a party to celebrate the end of our miserable life as students. Want to join us?’
‘I can’t. I have to prepare for my entrance interview to Charles University.’
‘Come on, the best thing about graduation is we’re free to do whatever we want! Why would you want to put yourself into another institution that dictates your life for you?’
Ana rolled her eyes. She was tired of apologising for her love of learning. Ludmila had been her friend for a long time and should know this by now. She flashed Ludmila a grin, in the hope her friend would take a good-natured ribbing.
‘Get real, you’re not free. You’ll have to find work and do what your boss tells you to… while he does what the party tells him to… then all of them follow what Moscow tells them to do. No one experiences complete freedom, if you ask me!’ Ana realised that, even with good intentions, it came out in a condescending way.
‘Suit yourself,’ Ludmila said, turning her back on Ana and walking away.
It wasn’t the way Ana wanted to end the day, but there was no way of taking back her words.
That night, Helen made a special dinner. It wasn’t lavish; food was scarce. The Svebodas could never afford the black market’s vouchers for Tuzek shops. Pavel’s salary as a factory worker was not enough for anything more than staples. Helen insisted that bringing home products that were not on the ration list would attract too much attention and were not worth risking everything for.
‘Walls have ears and doors have eyes’ was her motto. Helen was constantly under the impression that someone was following or watching them. Ana had grown tired of her mother’s overly cautious nature. But even Ana had to admit her mother was a genius at making their meagre resources stretch. No matter how lacklustre the ingredients, Helen’s ingenuity and resourcefulness stretched the most basic of foods into something festive. She had an eye and a talent for making something out of nothing.
Tonight was no different. The table was set in a stunning way that highlighted the beauty of the dinner plates and the silverware. Helen had picked flowers from their back garden. She had made napkin hooks from old branches and collected pebbles from the river to decorate the table. Though she’d never had the experience, Ana felt as if they were dining at an expensive restaurant. She’d seen such places in movies or read about them in books. Helen had made the effort of making a three course meal starting with potato soup, then grilled fish with some cabbage, and her signature dessert – bublanina – a light sponge cake with cherries, apricots and pears. While Helen was busy organising the food on the plates, Ana glared at the blue tattoo number on her left wrist. No matter how many times she’d seen that number, she still wondered what it really meant. And what does it mean for me? she’d wonder.
Ana never could understand or connect to her mum. Her dad, on the other hand, was her hero. Looking at Pavel across the table, he reminded her of Paul Newman with his blue eyes and big smile. For her, Pavel was like a Nordic God. He wasn’t a man of many words, but when he talked, every word sounded like old wisdom being revealed.
Pavel watched Helen serving the food with admiration in his eyes that never ceased to surprise Ana. None of her friends’ parents ever showed as much affection to each other as her parents did. There were times when she was embarrassed by it, but these days she found it adorable. She hoped, one day, someone would look at her with as much love as her father had for her mother.
‘Are you nervous for your interview next week?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know if I am nervous, but I feel unprepared.’
‘What do you need to prepare for? They only want to get to know you. You don’t have to have a dress rehearsal for being yourself.’
‘That’s just it, I don’t know what type of person they want or are looking for. What if what I say comes across as foolish? What if I appear unfit to attend the University?’
‘Never doubt yourself as a person. You can doubt what you think or believe, but never doubt the person you are. At the end of the day, you are an amazing young woman. If you show them who you are, they will recognise how fortunate they would be to have you as their student.’
Ana felt overwhelmed by her father’s strong conviction. She wished she could feel as confident as he did about her chances of getting into medical school.
‘I hope you’re right and that all they’re looking for is to get to know me as a person and not what I know or don’t know.’ Ana could see her father had more to say, but she appreciated that he gave her the space to come to her own conclusions. ‘I guess all I can do is be as authentic as I can.’
‘That’s the best way to go. That way you can relax and maybe even enjoy the interview.’
‘That’s taking it a bit too far,’ Ana countered with a smile.
Ana cleared the table, washed the dishes, and cleaned the kitchen. Helen protested, saying it was her night and she should not be doing it. But Ana liked doing chores. The simple act of washing, drying, and clearing the kitchen was her meditation, allowing her to get out of her own head.
Coming back to the living room, Ana saw her mum sitting in her usual armchair with a book. Her dad was sitting at the cleared dining table reading his daily ‘Rude Pravo’.
‘Mum, why don’t you play something for us? You haven’t played for a long time, and I miss it. Let’s have some music to celebrate the end of this wonderful evening.’
‘It’s too late, the neighbours will complain,’ Helen replied.
‘Not if you play something they will enjoy too,’ Pavel said in an encouraging tone. ‘Just choose a piece everyone in the building would love to hear.’
Helen hesitated, but stood up and opened the piano lid. Within the first few notes, she transformed the room into the best concert hall in the world.
Bach sonatas were never more moving as when Helen played them.
The following week, Ana walked into the main entrance of Charles University. She tried focusing on her breathing to stop her thoughts going at ninety miles an hour and spinning out of control.
Remembering how she used to relax before important exams at school by touching the doors of the church, she now repeated the ritual by touching the walls of the ancient Charles University. She told herself it was a building that had seen many great minds entering it since the 14th century. The ancient stones gave her strength. She sent silent prayers to all the famous people who had studied there at one time or another; that they’d support her in the interview so she could join them.
Sitting outside the interview room, Ana kept repeating in her mind what her dad had said: Just be authentic and you’ll be fine.
When the door finally opened, she went into a room that emanated centuries of learning and knowledge. Painted glass windows decorated the room with the richness of past centuries. In contrast, the furniture was proof of Czechoslovakia being under the Communist regime. Nothing fancy or artistic was allowed.
Ana sat down on a simple chair facing a dais from which four men looked down at her. In her mind, Ana kept repeating her newfound mantra: I deserve to be here. They’ll be lucky to have me.
The first few questions were easy and allowed her to loosen up; she even enjoyed the conversation. She could express her ideas and thoughts, which she had plenty of. Just as Ana thought it was over and was feeling as if she’d nailed it, came the question she feared the most.
‘Why medicine? Why do you want to become a doctor?’
A sinking feeling overcame Ana. She never could articulate her reasons for wanting to become a doctor. How could she express that it was what she’d always known she was supposed to do with her life? How could she explain it without sounding naive, or worse, spiritual and strange? Ana paused for a minute, then decided to do what Pavel had recommended.
‘I can’t think of a better way to live my life than by easing the pain of others and helping them to regain their health to live a happier life,’ she said. ‘I think it’s the reason for me to be alive. I know this might not sound scientific or rational, but for me it’s my purpose in life to be of aid to people, to support them… And if needed, to save them from harm.’
There was silence.
After a while, when she had the courage to raise her head, Ana saw that all the men were smiling and nodding.
Thank God. Ana could finally allow herself to release a breath of relief.
She was in.
PRAGUE – 1968
The wind was blowing straight into Ana’s face. Her eyes were watering from the pitch cold wind, and any time she opened her mouth to breathe it felt as if her brain was freezing.
It was January and the winter was colder than any they had had in many years; at least, that’s what the papers were saying. Ana didn’t need anyone to tell her how cold it was.
Walking to the hospital, someone pushed a flyer into her hand. She carelessly skimmed through it, but it was all about some political rally that would take place the next day. Ana didn’t have any interest in getting political.
Between studying, work and helping at home, I don’t have time for anything else.
She was looking for a trash can to throw the flyer into when she noticed a crowd gathering at the entrance of one of the buildings of the university. It irritated her. It was her shortcut to the hospital, and they were in her way! Worse, she was freezing cold.
Damn, now I will either freeze going the long way or get crushed going through that crowd… I hate crowds! Ana braced herself and started to move through the throng of people when she heard someone call her name.
‘Ana, didn’t expect to see you here in this demonstration!’ She turned around and found herself looking at Pjoter, or rather at his chest. He was so tall she nearly had to crane her neck to look into his eyes.
‘I’m not. I’m only passing through. I have a shift in the hospital, which I’ll probably be late for now. What is it all about anyway?’
‘Dubček. He’s talking about his new ideas for change. He is challenging the status quo! You should stay for a while and listen to him.’
Ana glanced at her watch and realised she could spare five minutes. She also could do with the warmth of the bodies surrounding her before heading back into the cold. ‘Fine, but only for a few minutes. I don’t want to be late.’
‘You won’t be able to hear him from down there. I’ll take you on my shoulders so you can see and hear better.’ Without warning, Pjoter grabbed Ana. In one swift movement, he raised her onto his shoulders. She was now sitting high like a child on a parent’s shoulders.
In any other circumstances she would feel embarrassed, but she could see other girls sitting on top of their friends’ shoulders. The place seemed more like a music festival than a political rally. After her initial surprise, Ana paid attention to what Dubček was talking about. No doubt he was a passionate speaker, but Ana had never been interested in politics.
After a while, she became bored. She was more concerned she might be late for her shift in the hospital. She leaned down and whispered to Pjoter.
‘It’s getting late. I must get to the hospital for my shift. Could you put me down?’
‘No problem!’ Pjoter hauled her down from his shoulders. ‘I hope it inspired you. Look at this crowd, we just might have some hope!’
Ana didn’t want to offend him by saying that she saw no real change coming. Instead, she smiled and gave him a little wave.
‘See you tomorrow at class.’
Turning away, she ploughed through the crowd to the other side. She was so busy moving through people she wasn’t aware that someone was watching her with keen eyes after Pjoter had raised her on his shoulders.
A few days later, Ana was heading home trying to enjoy her beloved city. She had always been in awe of the beauty of Prague, even on days as cold as these.
The cobbled streets, the euphonic chiming bells of Prague churches. There was a reason Prague was named the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’. Usually, she couldn’t stop smiling when she walked through her city of dreams, looking up frequently to drink in the stunning architecture. Most of all, she loved walking across Charles Bridge, her heart overflowing with happiness at the sight of the castle complex on the hill above Mala Strana and at the far end of the bridge, and the archway between the two towers that would lead her home. But the narrow streets of Prague seemed to be doing everything they could to slow her down that day.
Ana was contemplating dodging the cold by slipping into the Lion’s Head pub around the corner. She needed to get warm enough so she could feel her face and fingers again before continuing her journey back home.
As she got closer, she noticed it was full of students, all cheering and talking loudly. She knew she would be bound to bump into one of her classmates and get stuck there longer than she wanted. She took a deep breath, rubbing her hands together as fast as she could. After a few moments she could feel the tips of her fingers again, so she dipped her head against the bitter, cold wind and continued walking as fast as the slippery street would allow her to back home.
Once in the protected courtyard, Ana could breathe easier without having to risk brain freeze.
Entering her home was like stepping into a sauna. Ana was able to feel her body thaw almost as soon as she crossed the threshold. Her parents were in the living room sitting close to the radio.
That was an unfamiliar sight.
Most evenings, her father would prefer reading the paper, while her mum would keep herself busy either mending clothes, hemming, or knitting during winter. On rare occasions, she would play the piano to her father’s delight.
‘What’s going on?’ Ana asked while taking off some of her many layers of clothes. ‘Anything left to eat? I’m starving.’
‘Sit down,’ her mum replied, getting up from the sofa and walking towards the kitchen. ‘Take a break from your studies. Honestly, between your studies and work, you’ll drive yourself into exhaustion. I have your dinner warm in the oven. I’ll get it for you.’
Ana did as she was told and sat down. ‘What is going on?’
Her dad was still glued to the radio. ‘It seems as if the whole city is on fire,’ Ana continued. ‘Everywhere I went people were huddled around radios, listening and cheering as if something big was taking place.’
‘You really don’t know?’ her father responded with a surprised look on his face. ‘Where have you been living the last few months?’
‘You know me; my focus is only on my studies. I try to avoid anything else like the plague.’
Pavel observed his daughter, shaking his head. ‘The world just passes you by?’
‘No. I need to stay focused on what is important for me.’ Ana felt annoyed by the implications of what her father was suggesting.
‘But you’re a part of this world. You can’t close yourself off to what is taking place around you. It’s not healthy and not right.’
‘So, what would you like me to do, get involved in politics? Waste my time discussing things I have no control over?’ Ana never liked arguing with her father, who she admired so much.
‘I didn’t ask you to get involved. I only meant that you should pay attention. Listen to the people around you, watch for signs of what is taking place. If you don’t, you’ll end up missing the important things in life!’
‘Well, for me, graduating is the most important thing in life right now.’ Ana was not willing to admit that her dad might have a point. But she had no clue how she could combine her busy study life with anything else. She couldn’t afford to end up lagging behind on her revision and coursework. ‘So, what is going on?’
‘Why don’t we both listen to the news?’ he suggested. ‘Dubček is going to make an announcement on the radio in a few minutes. There has been a lot of speculation on what he is going to say.’
‘Whatever he says, it will not change anything,’ Helen said as she entered the room with Ana’s dinner. ‘People can talk as much as they want. But in the end, Moscow gets what Moscow wants. Don’t you forget that.’
Despite herself, Ana didn’t like the sound of what her mum was saying at all. It sounded as if Helen was trying to keep the status quo even when there was a chance for change. Ana used to call her mum – at least in her mind – a defeated soul and a pessimist. She didn’t like to discover that she and Helen shared common beliefs.
‘I heard Dubček talk at a rally outside the university the other day. I have to say I wasn’t impressed. However, I did notice how the other students were inspired by him. Maybe I wasn’t impressed because I didn’t know enough about what he was talking about?’ she mused.
‘Better stay clear from any political actions. It will not end well, trust me,’ Helen responded before she could continue.
Ana wished she could have contradicted her mother, but the station ident was playing on the radio signalling that the news was about to start.
‘It’s an historic day,’ the reporter began. ‘Today Dubček announced his plans to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations. He is committed to creating socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties. His plan includes increasing freedom of press, freedom of speech and freedom of movement.’
Ana could hear cheers and shouts coming from the other apartments on her floor.
‘It’s about time,’ her father muttered.
The only person who seemed cautious was her mother. ‘Moscow’s not gonna be happy with this,’ she said.
But even that did not spoil her dad’s mood. ‘We’re Czech, we’ve always been free.’
Helen laughed a short, cynical laugh. ‘I don’t think Brezhnev will agree with you.’
Pride burst through Ana as her dad stood up.
‘I didn’t fight the Nazis to live under the fear of another dictator,’ he said. ‘We’re born free. We should have the right to live that way.’
‘Freedom is an elusive idea; staying alive is far more important.’
‘You don’t get it,’ he said, ‘there is change in the air, I can feel it. We can’t miss this opportunity by being on the defensive from the start.’ It seemed to Ana that her mother had more to say, but chose not to. Helen picked up her knitting and ignored both of them.
Typical of her, she thought to herself, but before she could say anything there were rapid, strong knocks on the door.
Helen’s knitting needles stopped clacking and she exchanged fearful looks with Pavel, who was standing up to walk to the door.
‘I told you walls have ears,’ Helen whispered, partly to herself and partly to Pavel.