Sketching the Czech Republic: Constellations and connections at an observatory.
“Like clouds we travelers meet and part with members of our cohort, our fellows in the panting caravans of those who are alive while we are.”
– Annie Dillard
There’s a note waiting for my mother and me when we arrive at our hotel in Uherský Brod. Among other things, it reads:
We would like to invite you for a dinner tonight, and we would love to take you to the local observatory for stargazing.
Uherský Brod is a town of some 17,000 people in the southeastern corner of the Czech Republic. It also happens to be where my maternal great-grandparents were born at the turn of the 20th century, and where they immigrated to the US from as young children.
The author of the note, Ondřej, is my sixth cousin – although we won’t figure this out until our last night in town, just as we’ll finally figure out that Ondřej’s father, Zbyněk, is my mother’s fifth cousin.
No, all we know when meeting Zbyněk and Ondřej for dinner is that through a man named Josef Kaisler, who was born in 1782, we are related.
We are “family,” although it doesn’t yet feel natural to say so.
We learn a lot about our European side of the family that first night, feasting on roasted pork knees and zesty pickles, but what most intrigues me is that they are astronomy aficionados. Zbyněk’s father, Vladimir, helped construct the town’s observatory fifty years ago, and Zbyněk himself now leads the team of amateur astronomers who volunteer there.
After dinner, we walk twenty minutes out of town, past the glow of the last streetlight, to the observatory, and spend the next hour looking through various telescopes – at one point, even at a nebula they tell us is three million light years away. It is a surreal, magnificent sight.
When we ask Zbyněk what he loves so much about astronomy, Ondřej translates for him:
“He says it is like loving a girl. You can’t say why you love her; you just do.”
I return to the observatory on our last full day in Uherský Brod, after nearly a week of getting to know Zbyněk, Ondřej, the rest of their immediate family, and even more extended family I hadn’t expected to meet.
I want to leave them a sketch before we go, and the observatory feels like a fitting subject. It’s less magical during the day, without a spectacularly starry sky dancing above us, but still I think about the real magic that has been at play all week.
By sharing their love for astronomy with us, our new-old family gave us the perfect metaphor for our time in Uherský Brod. A telescope is defined as “an optical instrument designed to make distant objects appear nearer,” and indeed, that’s exactly what this trip was meant to be for my mother and me – we had come to lose the distance, to seek connections between this side of the family tree and our own.
Just as we were able to view a star cluster three million light years away, so will we leave the Czech Republic calling strangers family.
Yet again, what was distant has been made near.
Don’t forget I’m sending one reader a watercolor postcard after each new sketch story is posted. All you have to do is leave a comment on a post, and by the time the *next* sketch story is up, I’ll choose a random winner from those who have commented – big congrats to Michelle for winning the latest postcard!