Title: Alice to Prague
Author: Tanya Heaslip
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 6th May 2019
Synopsis:What happens when a young independent Northern Territory country girl decides to follow her dreams and go off in search of adventures abroad? An honest, often funny, bittersweet memoir of love, loss and belonging; of the hard-won understanding around where home lies.
‘I loved it! I laughed and cried and it was very hard to put down.’ Fleur McDonald, bestselling author of Where the River Runs
‘A story of love for country, for home.’ Toni Tapp Coutts, author of A Sunburnt Childhood
In 1994, with a battered copy of Let’s Go Europe stuffed in her backpack, Tanya Heaslip left her safe life as a lawyer in outback Australia and travelled to the post-communist Czech Republic.
Dismissing concerns from family and friends that her safety and career were at risk, she arrived with no teaching experience whatsoever, to work at a high school in a town she’d never heard of, where the winters are frigid and plunge to sub-zero temperatures.
During her childhood on an isolated cattle station in Central Australia, Tanya had always dreamed of adventure and romance in Europe but the Czech Republic was not the stuff of her dreams. On arrival, however, she falls headlong into misadventures that change her life forever.
This land of castles, history and culture opened up to her and she to it. In love with Prague and her people, particularly with the charismatic Karel, who takes her into his home, his family and as far as he can into his heart, Tanya learns about lives very different to hers.
Alice to Prague is a bittersweet story of a search for identity, belonging and love, set in a time, a place and with a man that fill Tanya’s life with contradictions.
In 1994, Tanya Heaslip, who had grown up in the Australian outback on a farm, and attended boarding school in the city, heads off to live in Prague, in the Czech Republic for year – only three years after the collapse of Communism, and five years after she saw the Berlin Wall come down. Heading there to teach English, she enters a world that is unfamiliar, and in some ways, is still clinging onto the Communist past, yet at the same time, trying to embrace the new way of life and venture into a new world. Unable to speak Czech, Tanya had to rely on the generosity of the Czechs who spoke some English, and the keen students at her school like Pavel and Kamila who loved learning from her. She found ways to connect with her students through Australian songs like Waltzing Matilda, and met Karel, a man who would help her find her way in Prague, who she would fall in love with. Yet their cultural differences and understandings of love and relationships did not always see eye to eye.
The Prague that Tanya visited and lived in is very much the Prague I visited in 2007- where remnants of Communism still cling on, and where the first MacDonald’s built in Prague is opposite the Museum of Communism – which goes through the history of Communism in the Czech Republic from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution.
What we know of Communist era Prague and Eastern Europe from the Western tradition, and what the people Tanya became friends with told her have a stark difference for understanding and interpretation. Where the West – and Tanya – believed it was oppressive, people like Karel said they found it safe – they knew where they lived, where they worked and how their lives would turn out. The fall of Communism had made that uncertain for some people yet given hope to others.
Visiting in 2007, there are still elements of Communism amongst the new capitalist areas, and the old, medieval icons such as the Astronomical Clock. Each of these elements combines to create a unique city that has seen many changes, war, revolution and everything in between. Its identity is clear in Tanya’s memoir as one that has been cobbled together of all these elements, and one that continues to grow in Europe. Tanya’s story is amazing and intriguing – and the way she adapted to life in Prague illustrated how anyone might have to adapt to any environment starkly different from the one they are familiar with.
Where Tanya had the freedom to head back to Australia, and younger students expressed a desire to leave Prague and head to what they saw as freer nations, people like Karel expressed that they could not leave their lives for uncertain futures or places. In this meeting of East and West, Tanya discovered through discussions with her students at the school, legal institutions and a ministry, that both sides had been fed a narrative that suited their respective governments. That everyone had a valid viewpoint but some things simply did not translate or crossover – and only Tanya could make the decisions she needed to make about her life and her future – which she touches on at the end, and where she ends up in Australia, a decade after her journey to Prague.
This book gave an interesting insight into travelling to and around a former Communist country in the years just after the changes came forward, and the difficulties in transitioning from one to the other, and the conflicts of those who want change, those who don’t, and those who have come from an entirely different place where definitions of freedom and security are very different. It is eye opening and engaging – and I could picture Prague as she wrote about it – the River Vltava, Charles Bridge and all the ancient architecture peppered with newer, Communist bloc buildings. An interesting read for all into history and Prague, and for those who have visited or want to visit.