For almost as long as I can remember I had wanted to leave Kraslice, the small Czech town where I grew up. Tucked away in a valley in the Ore Mountains, close to the German border, surrounded by steep hills and green pine forests, Kraslice is a picturesque place. But to me it was a forgotten place, a town even most Czechs would struggle to find on a map. I was afraid if I stayed there, I would end up stuck, just like Maminka. Married to a local boy, someone I had gone to school with and known my whole life. Not because I particularly wanted to marry him, but because he was the best of the limited choices available. I longed to get away, to experience city life, to go to a place where I could wander the streets anonymously and where the possibilities were endless. So when
the first opportunity presented itself, I left.
When still a child, Maminka insisted that I learn French as my second language. She took me to Marie who was the only French teacher in the whole town. Marie was blind and old. She was probably the same age as Oma but somehow looked much older. She must have remembered a lot. I was well mannered and had never dared to ask her what caused her blindness. Maminka told me she was born like that. But Oma said, that Marie became blind while she was a prisoner during the war.
‘Prisoner…what war?’ I didn’t understand.
‘This was a long time ago. Her eyes got infected and she became blind. I believe she couldn’t find her way back home and had to stay. But Lenka, my little angel, you must swear to me, you won’t ever talk to Marie about anything I’ve just told you. No war, prison or eyes! It might still hurt her feelings. Do you understand?’
‘I promise I won’t.’
With the passing time, I realised Marie was the best teacher I’d ever had. I loved everything about her. The warmth of her small apartment, the sound of her calming voice, her delicious scent of camomile surrounding her body. When I was reading aloud from my French textbooks, stumping at every second word, she was patiently listening, her thin fingers sliding down the white pages of her own books, written in braille. Once I had enough of reading or conversation about the weather I pretended I needed to go to have a pee. Her toilet was situated outside, in the hallway of the building. It always took me at least five minutes before I came back. Sometimes she offered me lemonade or freshly baked buchty, sweet strawberry jam buns, which she got for herself at the nearby bakery.
When I entered high school, I had a proper French teacher. He was young and full of energy but also a real pedant. Impressed about my reading and conversational skills he decided I had to improve my writing too. Every Friday afternoon, he loaded me with additional grammatical assignments which I had to execute.
‘You do this over the weekend and no excuses!’ he always said as if I had ever dared to protest.
He was nothing like Marie. I couldn’t lead him by the nose! I wouldn’t dare to argue about anything he asked me to do. And so, in spite of myself, my grammar improved to a great level. In my final year, he had the crazy idea I should enter the French Cultural Knowledge Contest. So I did.
On the day of the competition, the jury asked me what I knew about the French cinema. They surely expected me to talk about the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph invention. Instead, I spoke about Angélique, Marquise des Anges, a historical romance film from the sixties, I knew from the television. The jury looked amused but didn’t stop me and by a miracle, I was granted a third place. The prize came with a grant from the French government. Bingo! This was my ticket to escape the boring town of mine. I packed my stuff and moved to Paris to study French at the Sorbonne. Later, I enrolled for a degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
That had been three years ago, I was now in my final year and about to start an internship at the International Organisation for Trade and Development.
Of course, Maminka still lived in Kraslice and every holiday I dutifully returned there. Divorced and alone, I knew she looked forward to my visits. Whenever we spoke on the phone, she never missed an opportunity to remind me I had promised to come back whenever I had the chance.
This time, though, it was different. For the first time since I had left Kraslice, I actually wanted to be there. I found myself longing for the safe familiarity of the town of my childhood.
She picked me up from a bus stop. As soon as she pulled up in her old reliable Skoda Fabia it felt like I had never been away. Once I was comfortably seated in the passenger’s seat, enveloped by the familiar fragrance of the interior upholstery – slightly musty – mingled with Maminka’s perfume – floral and sweet - I felt a wave of emotion and my eyes filled with tears. I was glad she kept her eyes focused on the road and didn’t seem to notice anything.
In Paris, I had been having an on-off relationship with Samir, a Moroccan guy I had met and fallen hopelessly in love with. It was obvious to everyone but me that it was not going to work out and when I discovered I was pregnant it came to an abrupt end. There really was no chance I could have had the child. Samir didn’t want to know and I was in the middle of my studies, so I made the difficult decision to have an abortion. By this time it was obvious the relationship was over. I knew he was seeing other women but I had hoped at least that he would come with me to the clinic and he assured me he would be there. But when the day of the appointment arrived, he gave me an excuse. I had to do it on my own…
I returned to my small Paris flat with a feeling of emptiness inside me that no matter what I did I could not seem to shift.
I stared out the window as we passed rows of square concrete buildings, the cultural centre, the well-kept police station and the crumbling White Swan hotel, dating back to the era of the Habsburg monarchy. Though many things have changed in my life, Kraslice seemed the same as it has always been. If I could, I would turn back the time. I wished to feel the lightness of being a child once again, walking these streets, having nothing to worry about, except not being late for school and having good grades.
I looked at Maminka sitting next to me, behind the wheel of the Skoda Fabia. I haven’t even told her about Samir, or any other guys for that matter. She was a pragmatic woman, a doctor, and I knew her opinions about unwanted pregnancies. I remembered when a local girl, one of her patients, had become pregnant at sixteen Maminka had shown little sympathy. There was simply no excuse for it in today’s society, she said, with contraception readily available. The girl must have been careless or stupid, or both. Imagine what she would say if she knew that her own daughter had made the same mistake.
I never wanted to be like her. Growing up, my head was full of dreams and ideas. I never planned anything. If things went wrong I didn’t stress about it, what was the point, anyway. Unlike Maminka and most people in Kraslice, I didn’t judge people because they were different or did things differently. On the contrary, I have always been attracted to people and experiences that were different. My imagination and curiosity seemed totally incomprehensible to her. She would often tell me to stop fantasising. But it was partly this sense of adventure that led me to stay in Paris. I sometimes wondered if there was a tinge of envy within that incomprehension. At times like this though, I wished I could be just a little bit more like her.
Finally, we arrived home, a white three-story house with a neat garden close to the banks of the river Svatava. Once inside, sitting at the table, I gave Maminka the present I had bought for her. A cheap bottle of perfume (though highly expensive for my limited means). I wished I could have afforded something better but was touched to see real gratitude in her eyes. She sprinkled herself with its pink-coloured contents, even letting out a little ‘woooh’ as the sweet, heavy scent reached her nostrils.