This year our oldest daughter, Katerina, left for college. She applied to many colleges and was accepted to most of them. She took her time and made the effort to choose the right one for her. Her dream is to study architecture. When she announced the final verdict her pick was the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. We were happy for her because the school seemed to have everything that Katerina was looking for. We all started to get ready for the big move to Chicago - physically and psychically as well! It would not be Katerina’s first trip to Chicago. The first one happened much earlier but she did not remember it at all. I did.
It was the beginning of January in 1997. Bruce and I were just married. Bruce was back in Colorado and Katerina and I were getting ready for our move from the Czech Republic to America. Our first flight was on British Airways from Prague to London. The morning of our flight the weather was especially cold and London was wrapped in a thick layer of fog. Not a big surprise J. We were waiting for more then 5 hours at the Prague airport to get clearance for take off. Finally we took off only to find ourselves on the plane for another 5 hours. One hour of waiting on the ground, plus two hours to get to London, and another two hours circling above London. The space for landing was limited and everybody had to wait their turn. It was a mess and Katerina was just four years old, but she did not mind it at all. She was actually the one who kept me going. She had one book from Disney about princesses and that kept her entertained. Our next flight was from London to Chicago, another nine hours in the air. But we were happy that considering all the weather problems, we did not miss the flight.
It was evening when we landed in Chicago. I think our plane was the only one that landed at that moment. Passengers started to walk to the exit. They walked slowly and clumsily – just like everyone who just gets off of a long flight after not stretching their legs for a while. Behind the window it was a dark night and heavy snow was falling. We had to go through immigration first. We were not the only Czechs on the flight. About ten other countrymen were flying with us – a big change from 1990 when I visited America the first time and was the only Czech everywhere I went. Now traveling from the Czech Republic to America was common. Many people were going to work or study, and there was no lack of just plain adventurers either. We approached the immigration officer and handed him our passports and two large, stuffed envelopes that had our special visa to allow us to live in the USA. It also included our x-rays and full medical reports that we are healthy and smart J. The medical report had to be done by an American doctor who worked for the American Embassy in Prague because they trusted only their doctors. All this is required when you move to the USA legally.
The officer told me to wait a moment for a different officer, so we waited. Next to me another passenger from our flight approached the immigration office desk. I recognized her. Coincidentally she sat next to us on the plane and was also from the Czech Republic. Her name was Dagmar. She was younger than me and told me a few stories about herself. She also showed her passport to the officer. He examined it carefully and announced: “Unwanted person, send her back on the first flight to Europe!” Before too long, Dagmar walked back to the gate for the first flight to Poland. Katerina and I were walking too, but a different direction. We obediently followed a young, dark skinned officer with a very pleasant smile on his face to another office. He sat us on a bench and told us to wait. It was a very warm, cozy room with dim lights over our heads. Katerina did not ask any questions, she just sat and watched everything that was going on around her. Finally on the ground, in the warm room, after such long flights and not sleeping for many hours, I started to feel very ill. My body was hot, it felt like I was getting a cold. We were waiting for about ten minutes but it felt like an entire night. The pleasant officer came back. He kept our large, fat envelopes and gave us little, thin, green, cards instead. He also took my fingerprints and explained a few things. Then he straightened his body like a soldier, almost saluted and hollered: “Welcome to America and say hi to Bruce.”
We walked out into the dark, freezing Chicago night. The snow was still falling lightly but steadily. It was very quiet. We could hear only our footsteps, making marks in the freshly snow covered sidewalk. We caught the first available taxi and the Polish driver took us to the other side of the city to another airport, to catch a flight to Colorado the next day. Bruce was waiting in Denver.
Between the snow and the dark we did not see Chicago that night at all. But when I opened our passports they had big, wet stamp in them that said: Immigration Office CHICAGO. And that is how Chicago got deeply and unforgettably into my heart.
The memory of our arrival in Chicago faded and became blurry under the avalanche of time and new memories, but it all came back when Katerina announced her final decision to attend IIT. At that moment I knew that Chicago already had a special place in our lives.
I hope that you too have special places with special people in your hearts. We never know which one it will be or which one it will not be. We only know it when time passes and we can look back and really think about it. So walk and live every day like it is the most important day in the most important place ever. Love all the places you have ever been, because you never know how important it actually is and where it will lead you next.
KD J (2010)