Homeland, Where Actually Are You?


As I return from one of my many travels to the center of my life, a rather pleasant fatigue overcomes me on the last miles approaching our little town. The familiar environment and the promise of a safe place to rest allow my mind and body to relax.

Following many unexpected and somewhat dramatic twists and turns, life allowed me to make an essential choice: to choose my place of residence. But that alone generally does not constitute a ‘home’.

And I keep learning this afresh, day by day. In respectful memory of those who have no home, or none anymore, I would like to share here a little bit about our small town.

In German, the town is called ‘Zlabings’. In Latin and Czech, we call it ‘Slavonice’ and this is how it is named on historical maps and signposts.

When crossing the border into the country, from either the northernmost point in Austria, or the southernmost point in the Czech Republic, rising from a valley, one sees a tower. Surrounding it lies the little town, elliptically shaped, its apparent form mostly unchanged since the Middle Ages.

Of course, the region was inhabited much earlier (as shown by the prehistoric Venuses of Willendorf and Dolní Věstonice), at a time when national borders were non-existent. But official history tells little of this historic period. Maybe it knows too little about it.

The ancient Salt, Amber and Silk routes ran through or close by this region. Trade, crafts and agriculture greatly shaped the lives of the residents, as did religion and wars… the constant back and forth between the conflicting interests of the ruling elites… but that apparently goes hand in hand.

There were times when the town was rich. The inhabitants of the region consisted of Catholics, Protestants (of course only after the Reformation…) Jews, Gypsies, and they must have found a way to cooperate. This is manifested in the fantastically beautiful historical buildings that until this day enchant visitors, and the residents also, I believe.

The facts of history are in books, the sentiments attached are in the air

In the years 1919, 1938 and 1945 the region, and most of Europe, suffered dramatic incisions. One Empire fell, others rose from its ashes, History tossed people around. A history which people also shape themselves and must ultimately shoulder the responsibility for. The suffering of those too young, too old, or too disabled is of little consequence.

During the times of the Iron Curtain (for those who have already forgotten, or never heard of it: the separation of Europe with electrified barbed wire, minefields, guard towers, and thousands of soldiers. An over 12,000km long insurmountable barrier from Finland to the Black Sea.) the town practically disappeared.

In 1989 it suddenly resurfaced again as part of a very different world called ‘Eastern Europe’ (which is somewhat nonsensical, but who cares?)

Today people from all over the world come to visit. They are attracted by the beauty of the place, the surrounding countryside, and some come to discover their roots, their ancestors’ history. The history of our culture.

Often, I am asked: how do people live here today?

Well, the number of residents is practically the same as it was in 1945, almost 3,000. Czech is spoken exclusively, apart from a few of the older generation and increasingly young people who have some command of the German language.

The community is poor. At least when compared to its ‘western’ neighbors. Median income is on average a third of that in Austria. That’s why many seek employment in neighboring countries, which would now be unable to cope without this cheap workforce. What the people earn and can afford to reinvest is being put into the renovation of houses. Care is taken that they are preserved and improved. Community service and neighborly help are essential – without them things would simply not function. What breaks down is repaired. There are still small shops and pubs but they are only economically viable during the short tourist season. Most people, especially pensioners, grow potatoes, cabbage, fruit and other vegetables in small gardens so that they can live off them during the winter. It is miraculous how they manage. Prices for groceries are at the same level as in the west as are the energy costs.

Yes, beer is still cheaper, and yes, a lot is being drunk. But I think not much more than in neighboring countries. Communities are close-knit, but like everywhere else split into various cliques. Footballers, musicians, …

There is still a kindergarten, a school, but for how long is hard to say. I believe that I have been seeing more children again in the streets, maybe hope is growing? But fear is substantial – a fear of the future, of what could again come across the border. Like everywhere else, one complains about politics, the economy, and forgets, like everywhere, that one is a part of the political and economic system … and could possibly participate more. How was that again with the price for freedom?

I am almost no longer a stranger here. Greetings are exchanged in the street. Still, I have to admit that I still do not sufficiently possess the most essential tool for integration – a command of the language. It is enough for the necessities of everyday life, but no more. It is difficult to learn a new language as an adult.

It seems to me that the question of ‘home’ remains a very personal one. With my loved ones, behind closed doors, but also in the woods and by the pond. Sometimes also in the pub, or by the side of the road… recently my car broke down and a neighbor drove by, stopped, and saved me from the approaching thunderstorm. That is a lot, and that I wish for everyone.

Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Nice experience

    1. You are always welcome!