Prague is one of those places that makes your heart ache the first time you meet it… you’re instantly drawn in, captivated, and the heart immediately grieves for a distant day when you’ll have say goodbye. While filing some old papers, I recently found a poem written by someone in our community who left Prague many years ago. She expresses it well.

Time to Say Goodbye
Oh Prague, must I say it now?
Your spectacular images harmonize
times elsewhere muted in ruin
A grand piece of art
like a million Michael Angelos
to be admired in a gaze
once forever charmed
Beauty so penetrable to my soul!
To goodbye, I limply acquiesce and bow
Oh Prague, must I say it now?
Movements of music so sublime
breathe from the lungs of darkened buildings
Strings, oboes and flutes float
upon the rhymes of your soft night
Ah, to my senses such rare delight!
Oh Prague, yes, I must say it now
And thus strongly depart
For you shall ever be
a precious painting
stroked upon the canvas
of my heart.

        Joanie Herwig, summer 1997

It was about this time of year, an autumn 14 years ago when I moved to Prague with my man – sight unseen. My new husband had been here, and was invited to come and pastor the church as a single man. The problem was when he traveled to Prague in February of ’96 to be formally invited and ultimately accept his new station in life, there was a new factor in his life… me. We had just recently started dating and he felt just as sure about marrying me as he did about serving in Prague. But would I?

Without going into all the details of the story, which my husband always leaves out anyway, let’s just say that at the end of the day we both felt equally called by God to move and minister in this totally foreign, eastern-European, post-Communist country. I had known since I was 16 that I would live abroad and be a missionary of some kind (don’t ask me how I knew, it was something like a nagging knowing and that one must finally surrender to in order to find peace within oneself, and with God). But I had never considered Europe in the least.

It was 1996 – the most pivotal year of my life. We had started dating in January. We were engaged in April. We were married in July (well, that bit is complicated, and I’ll have to elaborate in another blog entry). We moved to Prague at the end of October. I was 30 and John was 33.

I’ll never forget the day we flew to Prague as newlyweds for the first time. Of course it was a huge affair for both of our families with lots of emotion, tension and stress. It was basically the culmination of everything I had always wanted… what I had been praying for, preparing for, and especially what I had waited for. After weeks of selling, shipping, packing, storing, and giving away all our earthly possessions, we were ready to board that plane.

It was a warm, stormy Texas day. We learned upon leaving for the airport that tornadoes and funnel clouds were spotted surrounding the airport. John’s sisters quickly offered, “well, guess you can’t leave. You’ll have to stay a little longer!” But we were determined. The weather was frightful, but the situation inside the airport was worse. Total chaos. Canceled flights, long lines, confusion and flaring tempers. I stood there totally overwhelmed and exhausted. My clever and assertive husband, however, went into action. He quickly disappeared while I stood there in a daze. About 10 minutes later he reappeared magically, accompanied by what appeared to be an airline manager wearing a suit. How he did that, I’ll never know. But lickedy-split we were at the front of the line and being rushed to a gate for take-off before the flight was canceled.

Wait a minute. Do I really want to risk flying in an airplane surrounded by tornadoes?

In my daze, I went along. I was not feeling well suddenly. My excitement was quickly disappearing into a smear of fatigue, stress (I hate goodbyes) and now worry. Without even time to shed a tear, we were on that plane. My muscles were sore.

I was relieved shortly after take-off when we cleared Dallas airspace and rose above the storms, up into the sunny elevation above. Then the tension in my body eased, but my sore muscles quickly turned into chills. And so, for entire trip I increasingly manifested intense miserable flu symptoms. In our layover in Frankfurt, John watched our stuff, and me, as I feverishly slept on an airport bench… thinking I would literally die. I was too young to die. I had not waited and prayed this long to die in an airport only 2 hours from Prague!

We arrived in Prague in the evening and it was dark. Back then the Praha airport was one big room and one baggage area. I tried to hide my illness and appear chipper when were enthusiastically greeted by Sandy, who helped us load our luggage and get us to our new home, a flat on Nerudova street.

I thought I’d collapse in the car but I managed to stay alert. I was not prepared for what had been awaiting me. Our new home was on a famous, ancient street named after a famous Czech writer Jan Neruda, just below the castle. It was being immediately transported into a fairytale.

This is what I saw as we traveled up the street to our new home (minus all the new cars, back then they were mostly old Skodas).

And so I arrived in Prague alive, my new home – our honeymoon nest, as we would later call it. And my heart did ache (along with the rest of my body) and I knew I would never be the same. This place would paint itself on the canvas of my heart too… sometimes in graceful stokes and sometimes in ugly blobs of hard colors.

… to be continued!