Expectations

There is a familiar and unhappy gap between our expectations and reality, and that gap is called disappointment. Sometimes disappointment is created by circumstances beyond our control, but more often than is comfortable to admit, it is of our own making. 

Here is a case in point.

x5dufb40Q0O%uCgBp4D5YAAbout a month ago I was in Chicago with a close friend to celebrate my birthday. My mother, daughter of Czech immigrants, was born and raised in the city and, if possible, I wanted to find some connection to, or some “taste” of Czech ethnicity that might still linger there. Our first night we discovered Bohemian House, at 11 West Illinois Street, a restaurant that features authentic Czech cuisine and beer in an Old World atmosphere. All was excellent and did not disappoint.

Buoyed by our success at the restaurant, the next day we set out to find Vesecky’s, a IMG_1185traditional Czech bakery in Berwyn, the once ethnically Czech neighborhood where my grandparents had lived. The recent reviews on Yelp were promising; “one of the best bakeries in Chicago,” said one writer. “great old school bakery,” “my Grandma loved it,” wrote another. Riding the “L” and then taking a bus for the hour long trek to Vesecky’s, my mouth began to water with anticipation of the goodies we would find within.

By the time we arrived I could already taste the apricot kolache and hoska bread I remembered eating as a kid. Predetermined to love it, I noticed, but failed to consider certain clues that cautioned a different reality. Anxiously I bought a box of treats and dived into them right then and there. With one bite, that reality became apparent, the only thing Czech about Vesecky’s was its name.

OIwIUf9jT0uPnTdbsaPDpgAs I stood there sorely disappointed I attempted to reconcile fact with fantasy. Upon entering the bakery, there was no delicious aroma permeating the air characteristic of  baking bread. On the contrary, there was a cold and sterile feel about the place. At first glance of the cookies and pastry behind the glass, my eye sent to my brain an image that did not match what I knew to be authentic, artisanal bakery. I realized that in my rush to conform reality to match my preconceived expectations I had set myself up to be disappointed.

Okay, so no real harm was done me. I wasted a mere $13.00 and I’ve enjoyed a laugh at my own expense in hindsight. What brings this story to mind is twofold. I cannot imagine a better time of year than the Christmas Season to talk about unrealistic expectations and their inevitable consequences. The happiness hype, the love and good cheer can ring hollow about now. And of course, some disappointments are much more devastating than eating bad pastry. I have lived that reality too.

But disappointment can also be our teacher and guide if we let it. So, by way of redemption and a happy ending, over the Holidays I taught myself how to make Vánočka, Czech Christmas Bread. (It is named after Vánoce which means Christmas in Czech.)  I kept my expectations within reason for a first effort and I’m pleased to report that it turned out great and was enjoyed by many.  I’m sure I could give Vesecky’s a run for their money!eJE4a9h3RUmNDgLDClp68w

Dear Readers, you can find the recipe I followed for Vánočka, and more great Czech recipes at www.czechcookbook.com 

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ILLUMINATION

It is the season of illumination. Photo by Lena Orwig on UnsplashIn every town, large and small, on land and on sea, on foot or by car, through historic houses, gardens and even battlefields, you can experience a candlelight or electric light tour sure to get you in the Christmas Spirit. If the tour is by purchased ticket, they sell out weeks in advance. If it is open to the public, like our town’s Holiday Flotilla along the inland waterway, you must set out hours in advance in order to navigate traffic, parking and jostling crowds to claim a vantage point. As one advertisement for the Flotilla read, “80,000 people can’t be wrong!”

What feeling, or emotion is everyone seeking to experience through these hugely popular events? I believe the answer lies back in time and in our communal humanity. Photo by Davidson Luna on UnsplashThe appeal of light in darkness is as great with modern Peoples as it was with our Neolithic ancestors who celebrated the Winter Solstice. With the onset of winter, with it’s shorter days and longer nights, we are drawn to the light.

Ancient Peoples may not have understood the science behind the Solstice but they understood that all life depended upon the light of the sun. Taking nothing for granted and assuming nothing as certain, they paid homage to the sun and beseeched its return with rituals and celebrations. Naturally, those rituals revolved around the light of the fire rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnapwhich symbolized the sun and its life-giving energy. Eventually, Christianity superimposed their Christmas celebrations onto those familiar ones of the Winter Solstice incorporating many pagan rituals of illumination which we still recognize today.

In essence, nothing has really changed except for the multitudinous number of ways we humans can now create light. But the appeal and the sense of well-being light brings us, as we draw near to it, contemplate it, or surround ourselves with it, remains the same. As Moderns we may understand the astrological science behind the Solstice and we may not fear a never-ending winter, but we still feel winter’s cold, especially in a hostile and angry world such as the one in which we now live. Now more than ever we need the warmth and good cheer of colored lights, candles gleaming, and a roaring fire on many a dark night.candle-light

Dear Readers, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day be sure to raise your glass and say a word of good cheer for the return of the sun!

The Best $7 I spent in New York

Because Thanksgiving is traditionally a time to reunite and celebrate with family, I’d like to share with you a thrilling discovery I made about my family last November while visiting Ellis Island. Did you know that 100 million Americans alive today can trace an ancestor back to Ellis Island?

Visitors to the National Park (E.I. is a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument) IMG_2338can tour the beautifully restored great entrance hall where 12 million immigrants passed through between 1892 and 1954.

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Me and Joy in The Great Entrance Hall

Downstairs you can research your own ancestor’s arrival in the American Family Immigration History Center. Your $7 buys you an hour to search their computer data base that contains ship passenger manifests for arrivals during that historic immigration period. Over 7 million manifest pages! The data base also includes information on some 6500 ships that brought these immigrants to America, primarily from Europe.

I was thrilled to find my Czech grandfather, Karel Kamis, on the passenger manifest of the SS Kalserin Auguste Victoria that sailed from Cuxhaven, Germany, on April 17, 1913, arriving in New York on April 26th.

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Third Class manifest of the SS K.A. Victoria 4/17/1919

The detailed manifest notes on these 3rd class “steerage” passengers are incredible, all hand written I might add! Personal information documented for each passenger as they embarked included: age, occupation, ethnicity,village, relatives, literacy, how much money they had in their pocket, and whether or not they were anarchists.

I also discovered a second immigration by my grandfatherHe sailed on the SS Niagara from Bordeaux, France on Sept. 20, 1919 and arrived in NYC on October 1st. The cool thing was that upon his first arrival in 1913, his nationality was listed as Austrian and his ethnicity Bohemian because before WWI there was no Czechoslovakia, the old Kingdom of Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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My grandfather, Karel Kamis

Upon his second arrival in 1919, after the War, his country of origin was listed as Czechoslovakia, because that was when those lands became an independent country. History documented before my very eyes!

Interested in doing your own Ellis Island ancestry search but no plans on the horizon to visit NYC? No problem! You can search online at LibertyEllisFoundation.org. This Thanksgiving, if your family relations are less than stellar and it’s difficult to find dinner conversation that everyone can agree on….try generating some enthusiasm for making a family history discovery. You might just start a new tradition.

Dear readers, do you have some family history and/or heritage you would like to share? We would love to hear about it! Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

My Nazi Legacy Trailer | Video | Independent Lens | PBS

On Monday night I watched a video on my local PBS station that was both fascinating and depressing. You know the kind. The images replay through your mind as you drift off to sleep and linger the next morning like a kind of cloudy malaise.  I don’t mean to suggest that the film is full of gruesome death camp photos, but that the subject matter’s stark and disturbing reality weighs heavily on the human psyche.

For me, there is even a personal connection. Although my family is not even a little bit Jewish, my paternal grandfather’s brother died in Dachau concentration camp. He was a Czech border guard who refused a Nazi officer’s command to shoot people escaping across the border. He was sent to Dachau as punishment and he never came out.

From the PBS Website: “My Nazi Legacy explores the relationship between two men, each the sons of high-ranking Nazi officials, and internationally renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose family perished in the Holocaust. Sands met Niklas Frank and Horst van Wachter while researching his book East West Street, and as the three travel together on an emotional journey through Europe and the past, the film explores how each of them cope with their own devastating family history.”

www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/my-nazi-legacy/

 

How It All Started

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One day while rummaging through a box of my mother’s old photographs and documents I found her parent’s Certificate of Marriage. My maternal grandparents were Czech immigrants to America in the early 1900’s. Both were from small villages in the region of Bohemia. They met in Chicago and were married there on September 15, 1923. Stamped on the bottom corner of the certificate was the seal of the “CoIMG_2244ngregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.” Curious about who this congregation was and what they believed, I began a search to learn about them and in so doing to learn clues about the stock from which I had sprung.

I never knew either of my grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and is buried in Chicago. My grandmother remarried and moved to California but she died when I was only a year old. My mother told me little about her parents except that they owned and operated a “cigar and candy store” along with my great aunt. It was located on the south side of Chicago, a part of the city with a high concentration of ethnic Czech neighborhoods. They liveIMG_2535 (1)d behind the store as was common in those days.

My mother rarely referred to her family or herself as Czech. Instead, they were “Bohemians” and they spoke “Bohemian.” Like many Europeans who had officially been citizens of large empires through the centuries, my ancestors had always identified themselves by their ethnicity and language.

When she did speak of her father, it was with pride in his active involvement within the Czech community. She remembered him organizing all sorts of musical programs and parade marches in which she participated. He helped to found a Czech school which my mother and her sister attended. Grandfather believed that it was important for Bohemian children to learn Czech history, culture and language. I now know that his efforts were in orchestration with the efforts of a larger community institution, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.

Founded in 1870 in Chicago, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers was formed by the large number of Czech immigrants in the city who abandoned the organized church when they reached America. As an alternative, they formed a secular institution that functioned in many ways like a church. The Bohemian Freethinkers built an extensive social network of schools, benevolent socieIMG_2245ties, and fraternal groups that provided a sense of community, belonging, and support.

Besides creating educational and cultural programs, they also provided public forums for political debates and avenues for social action. Freethinkers stayed connected through the publishing of Svornost, their own Czech language newspaper. The Congregation performed civil wedding ceremonies, as in the case of my grandparents, and secular baptisms for their children. They even founded the Bohemian National Cemetery in 1877 as no church would allow Freethinkers to be buried on church grounds.

At some point in their history together, my grandmother found her way to a Protestant church but my grandfather did not follow her. And sometime after that they divorced, though my mother never spoke of it. Perhaps this explained, at least in part, why she told me so little about her parents.

Learning the history of the Bohemian Freethinkers has indeed brought me a greater understanding of my grandparents. But it is my grandfather to whom I feel most connected. He was a poet who promoted the aIMG_2532rts. He was proud of his heritage and loved its history and culture. He was open-minded and brave enough to be independent in thought. I am a writer and a musician. I am dedicated to life-long learning and cultural enrichment. The older I get, the more individuated I become and the more willing I am to embrace change. The more of a Freethinker I become.

I regret that I never knew my grandfather. But even the little bit that I do know explains some of who I am, how I think, and what I love. We are much alike he and I and it is comforting to think that a little bit of him lives on in me. So it is to him that I dedicate this blog’s journey.