5:00 am alarm. On most days, she dreads the sound, but not today. Today, she wakes up in the glorious city of Prague, or Praha, to the locals. Klara has always dreamed of the day that she would visit one of the oldest and still most beautiful cities in the world, the country where her parents grew up before having to flee to escape the suffocating control of the communists after they invaded her parents’ wonderful world.
Her flight arrived late in the night, so calling herself exhausted would be an understatement. Was 5:00 am really necessary? Klara knows without any doubt that it is. Her parents always insisted that she had to walk the Charles Bridge at sunrise. They said it was one of the most breathtaking experiences they ever had, second only to holding Klara in their arms. As a teenager, she always thought they were so cheesy, but now, wishes for nothing more than the chance to walk the bridge with them at her side.
5:30 am and Klara is already out of the door, leaving her bags in her room at Hotel Krystal and catching the red line on the metro to her stop, Mustek. From there, she will walk through the historic St. Wenceslas Square, grab herself an early morning croissant at the cafe that her mother always recommended, and cross the Charles Bridge.
As she meanders through the Square and gazes upon the statue of St. Wenceslas himself, she can’t help but wish she had more time to admire the city and architecture. The ancient cobblestone streets are worn with age but still, she can’t imagine them being any more beautiful hundreds of years ago than they are at this moment. She sees the sky begin to light up with the early morning sun, and she picks up her pace and makes her way to the bridge.
6:00 am and Klara sees the bridge and it’s like they are there with her. They were right. She can’t think of a time when she felt more awed and breathless. The golden glow of the early morning sun, the lack of other people, the serene quiet of the morning, the gentle lapping of the waves of the Vltava River beneath the bridge. She remembers her parents telling her about this, their first date. They met on this bridge. The sun setting on the horizon, light reflecting in the windows of the Prague Castle, where countless royals were raised to be rulers.
“See, Klarka? We are going to take you there one day soon, but for now you can look at this photograph, and it will be like you are there anytime you look at it.” Her mother once told her how she met her father on this bridge. Her maminka was an artist. She set up a small area for herself on the bridge, painting tourists and lovers, all the while paying her way through college. Her father saw her painting a couple one day, and mesmerized by her beauty, he decided to wait in line just for the chance to talk with her.
When he sat down, he asked her if she had ever seen the sunrise over the Charles Bridge. She had not. She had come from a small village, nearly 4 hours away from Praha, and it was still her first year at college. She had yet to have the chance. Her father was in his third year and never grew tired of watching the early morning sun peek over the bridge.
They went on their first date the very next day. A stroll along the bridge to watch the sunrise, coffee and croissants, and her mother painting the sun waking up. Her depiction of the sunrise was captivating, splashed with gold and orange that reflected in the crystal clear of the water, and it hung on their wall until the day they lost her.
6:30 am and Klara knows she spent too long daydreaming about her parents. She only has time to stop and grab a cup of coffee to keep her awake before heading back to her hotel to check out. Ahead of her lies a 4 hour train journey to her father’s village where he grew up, Velká Lhota.
Her train leaves at 9:00 am, but she remembers her maminka always telling her how confusing the metro station is, so she wants to arrive early. She walks to the bus stop, bag draped over her shoulders, fumbling with the map guiding her to the stop she is supposed to exit on for the train. She’s not paying attention when she collides into the back of a tall man pushing two toddlers in a stroller.
“Promiňte!” She apologizes to the man who collects her discarded map from the ground. He says it is fine. He helps her load her bag onto the bus and wishes her a safe journey.
On the bus she remembers her father’s laugh. He taught her everything she knows about cooking. He laughed and teased his way through teaching her how to make schnitzel and blueberry dumplings. He is the reason she went to culinary school. She hopes that whatever career she obtains, it will make him proud, even in his brain that is now jumbled with Alzheimers.
She doesn’t want to think about it. The underlying reason for coming here. Her appointment at the nursing home in Rožnov, one village over from the place he was born in, in Velká Lhota. The appointment is at 3:00 pm, and she doesn’t want to think about it. About how her own father doesn’t remember her or her maminka. But she will deal with that as the time comes.
8:30 am and she arrives at the train station, buys her ticket from the handsome clerk, and waits patiently on a bench for her train to approach. She observes the goings on around her, catching small pieces of conversations between lovers, between friends, and family. One couple discusses wedding plans and she is filled with jealousy. She desperately wants to marry, and she isn’t getting any younger. Her parents met when they were just 19 and 21, and here she is, 29 with no prospects.
9:00 am and the train draws to a stop. She boards the first compartment, sits alone. As they come by to check tickets, she realizes she is in first class, and they ask her to move. The only seat on the train left is in between a family of 5. She dreads being squished between the two young twins, but the family is not unkind, and the twins offer to share their snacks. She can’t help but feel jealous, surrounded by this family, complete with a father, mother, and three children. She wishes her family was still complete or that she had a sibling to share her burden with.
10:00 am and she drifts off to sleep. She sees her maminka, painting in her studio, teaching her that light strokes and a careful hand make the most beautiful paintings. She hears the songs that used to lull her to sleep every night and of her father’s goodnight kisses.
1:00 pm and the train comes to a halt. She gathers her bags, wishes the sweet family goodbye, and hauls herself and her bag off the train. The smell that greets her is one of fresh air that she has yet to experience until now. Green is everywhere she looks. Every tree and bush is lush and full of life. Yes, she will get along just fine here.
She carries the directions that the nursing home gave her. Directions to get her from Velka Lhota to Rožnov. The walk shouldn’t take her more than an hour. The villages are small and quaint but full of life and people who probably all know each other. She walks down the road, taking in the sights and homes she passes, waving to the cars as they drive by. She spots her uncle’s house and the church across the street, knowing that she will be back later.
2:30 pm and she arrives at the nursing before her 3 o’clock appointment. The nurses oblige and meet with her early. They discuss her father’s condition (rapidly declining) and show her the room he will stay in. She signs the papers, and they make arrangements to transport him here. She wants him to live somewhere peaceful and quiet for his last few days or months. At least he will be home.
4:00 pm and she begins her walk back to her uncle’s home in Velka Lhota. She stops when she sees an advertisement for a job as a pastry chef at a nearby cafe. The position is full-time and would be a great start for her here. She calls the number and sets up an interview for tomorrow morning.
5:15 pm and she knocks on the door. Her uncle answers.
“Hello? Uncle Petr?” She gazes at the hunched over man, who is only five years older than her father. He is weathered, and wrinkly, and she can’t help but think that she should be calling him grandpa, not uncle. The age must have come with his decision to stay during the Soviet occupation. She feels sorry for him. He made the wrong choice, but she was happy to be there, standing before her only living uncle.
“Klara! I have been expecting you. Come in. I’ll put the kettle on. Did your father ever tell you about the time that he waited in line for three hours just to buy a bike from the Communists? I have so many stories.”
Klara steps over the threshold and all she can think about is her mother and father and how good it feels to be home.