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International Voices

Cernas, Cars, & Croatia: A Czech Family Vacation

When at the end of my second grade my parents told me we will go on a vacation to the sea, I knew it will be unforgettable. I had not seen salty water before and dreamt about watching the sun diving into the the endless blue surface at the end of the day. I had no clue just how unforgettable it would still be 18 years later.

It was the summer of 2002. I was eight years old, my brother was five, and my parents were still together. As a family we had not gone on any overnight vacations at that point, let alone left the country together.

Although the Czech Republic gets hot in the summer, it is landlocked so my parents chose Croatia for our vacation and invited some of my dad’s family along, including my uncle, my pregnant aunt and my same-age second cousin Kristyna.

Croatia is a popular destination for Czech people because it is cheap, just like most Czech people are. Its driving distance allows us to bring a trunk full of prepacked food to make the vacation even cheaper. Croatian language is somewhat similar to Czech, unlike others such as Italian, so although it is not the same, we can still get our point across with Croatians.

In 2002 my dad still had his darling red Ford Escort, which he was convinced would make the some-800-plus-mile (1300-kilometer) journey there and back.

One beautiful summer morning, we climbed into the car, ready for 18 hours of traveling all the way down to Croatian Dalmatia and Peljesac peninsula, where we rented an apartment from an older couple. As planned, we crossed the Austrian border, the Slovenian border, and finally the Croatian border.

Just then, our Ford Escort decided enough was enough. Smoke started to come out of our car and dad’s red darling stopped in the middle of Croatian nowhere. As a child who did not know anything about cars, I started to freak out along with my mom. My dad remained calm and started to examine the engine.

Out of all of us just standing around, my uncle was the one who took action.

My uncle is the type of a person who knows everything, has been everywhere at least once, and what he doesn’t know by experience, he for sure has heard or read about.

He looked at the engine with the eye of a professional (he is not), and although my dad told him our car just got overheated and everything would be okay, my uncle started to make some mysterious calls in what sounded like Croatian, although it could not be because we all knew he didn’t speak the language. To everyone’s surprise within an hour, a strange guy located us, dragging along rusty parts of another engine, ready to sell them to my dad for more money than the value of our red Ford.

My dad refused to buy it, threatening that he would rather push the car all the way to our destination than to pay to this guy, which was at that point, was still about five hours away.

Just like my dad predicted, the car eventually cooled down, the engine started running again, and we happily climbed back in, leaving this strange man behind.

We weren’t driving for even an hour before we hit a detour. In Croatia, a detour is not just a short reroute. A detour means you will drive an additional couple of hundred kilometers across mountains and add a few more hours to your trip. But we had little choice, and soon enough we had plunged ourselves into the Croatian hillside.

At that point we were all exhausted by the hours spent driving and waiting for our car to come back to life. My dad was pissed and cursing, using all the words my parents usually only whispered around my brother and I, adding a few new ones to my childhood vocabulary. My mom was close to crying as it seemed this vacation was obviously not meant to be.

But we made it.

The first thing I did when we arrived was take a sip of sea water because I was just so curious about it. It tasted disgusting. I’m not sure why I put myself up to it willingly because as the trip went on, I continued to gulp down more and more as I splashed around the sea.

You can probably imagine what happens when you drink a lot of sea water and tap water in a country where you are not from. Soon enough, the whole family came down with a bad case of traveler’s diarrhea!

Not having any pills with us, my dad was convinced he is going to cure the whole family with a shot of “slivovice,” a very famous plum liquor in my country, that he had brought with him. Believing in the healing power of alcohol, my dad and now resident family doctor, began to prescribe each family member with a daily dose of this 60 percent liquor. At eight years, I could barely stand the taste and was close to crying each morning when my brother and I had to split a shot. But it worked. There was no more diarrhea. Instead, there were two kids drunk by 8 a.m. each morning.

Please, don’t take us for a family of alcoholics, although our nation is first in the world in consumption of beer per capita. The purpose of our small-dose alcoholic treatment was purely to decrease the occupational time each one of the seven vacationers spent in the one bathroom we all shared.

Two calm days went by. I learned to swim while trying to keep my mouth shut in the water. My brother’s back went from crawfish red, back to pale white while peeling layers of skin.

My cousin and I soon got bored and let our childish creativity take over. We decided to create a rock-collection exhibition on the first-floor balcony right above my dad’s and uncle’s cars parked beneath.

It did not take long though, before I heard my dad scream and a noise sounding like dripping water. Not having my glasses on, I could not see the disaster happening beneath me as the rear window of our car broke into pieces when one of the stones fell from the balcony.

My dad was beyond furious, his face as red as our car (I have been told).

Luckily, my uncle, with his plethora of strange contacts, had soon made one of his mysterious calls again and another random man came to fix the window of the car. The whole conversation was coded in fake Croatian again, but somehow the situation was resolved.

M parents had to pay a lot of money for the fix and we had to cancel all our other trips. My dad did not talk to me for the rest of the vacation.

We were all relieved when the vacation was over and we were on our way back home. Despite all of our previous troubles, we made our way back to the Czech Republic as smoothly as could be.

Looking back at it now, I have to say that this was one of our better vacations–at least for its hilarious memories. For better or for worse, this experience did not stop the Cerny clan from going on more vacations.

Everyone brought home a souvenir from the vacation. My brother got a necklace with a turtle on it, a reminder of the wild creatures crawling in the backyard of our rented apartment. My mother got a temporary henna tattoo. My dad a homemade knife. And me? I got to keep the very stone that signifies the highlight of our vacation, forever.