How often is it in life that we truly feel at home in a place other than our own home? What are the ingredients that allow us to feel comfortable in our own skin, undefended, and at ease?
I seem to have stumbled upon many of these intangibles as I return for the seventh time in five years to the Czech Republic. Ostensibly I come here for work – collaborating with the Klicek Foundation to grow hospital play work in their country. We travel to various cities and venues, giving lectures to students and professionals of medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, and play work about the philosophy and logistics of providing humane, family-centered care to children and families facing medical treatment. I join them in the summertime to volunteer in their hospice summer camp. But what happens here is so much more than work.
With each visit comes an immersion in the Czech culture, and more specifically, the culture of the family who sponsor my visits. In between travel and lectures, we gather at their hospice and home in the tiny village of Malejovice, about 40 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Bohemian countryside. Here in a century old schoolhouse on a small farm (replete with donkey, sheep, chickens, many cats and a dog), the Kralovitzes welcome children and families who seek respite and comfort from lives affected by illness, disability, and loss. It is not a hospice in the way most of us would imagine. It is neither a medical facility nor a place where children go to die. Rather, it is a retreat where individual children or the whole family can relax in a natural environment, receiving nurturing in the form of companionship, a warm and caring listening ear, opportunities for play and exploration of the surrounding fields, forrests, orchards and gardens, and astoundingly good and healthy food. One falls asleep to the quiet darkness of the countryside and awakens to the bray of the donkey. It is, quite simply, magic.
Daily outings to local farmers and vendors, for cabbage, potatoes, apples, bread, butter and other essentials are interspersed with visits to hospitalized children and home visits to grieving families in neighboring towns and cities. No trip seems too far if someone can be served. This past weekend, my hosts drove a six hour round trip journey so that a teen could enjoy a visit to the hospice following a hospital discharge post heart- transplant.
Over the past five years, I have joined the family in celebration of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, decorated Christmas gingerbread cookies, accompanied them to church, fetched water with them from a natural spring, traveled with a theater troop visiting holy places throughout the country, played with Roma children in their neighborhood, and viewed many monuments such as the sculpture memorializing the children of Lidice, murdered during World War II, and the sculpture honoring Jan Palach, the young man who set himself on fire in martyrdom in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. We have traveled to the far corners of the Republic, and visited neighboring Poland and Austria. With each visit, Marketa draws up a map and schedule to help orient me.
We have explored curriculum, translated documents, done voiceovers for video, co-presented at global conferences, met with political leaders, and have appeared on local Czech TV. We have driven countless hours in cars, vans and their iconic 1950’s bus, stopping for never-ending errands and house calls. We have shared life stories, played music, laughed and cried (Well — I’VE cried!) and sat talking by the fireplace late into the night.
And so perhaps this is the secret ingredient, the simple yet rare experience of being included in everyday family life while pursuing a shared vision, that ill children and families everywhere might feel witnessed and safe. What we wish for them is what I end up experiencing in a profound way.