During my 2004 ride across the Czech Republic I had one particularly challenging day. It was a Sunday in May that began cool and cloudy but soon turned to persistent rain. I started in Litomysl, a medieval town that is the birthplace of revered Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. My intended destination was Brno, the Moravian capital 50 miles south through rolling hills.
Seven hours into the ride and with darkness looming I was still 17 miles short of Brno. I realized there was no way I could reach the city that evening. Soaked from rain that now came down in sheets, I was desperate.
my route, in blue
South of Cerna Hora (black mountain) I reached a country pub that was still open. I stumbled inside, prompting rough-hewn men to look up. Conversations stopped. Patrons must have wondered what was this helmeted apparition before them, dripping water on the bar room floor? No one spoke English or German. At last I managed to ask in Czech where I could find accommodation. This evoked blank stares. Giving up and halfway out the door, the barman followed and said I might find something five miles east, not south, the direction I was traveling. Clinging to this sketchy intelligence, I departed the highway and steered onto a totally dark side road.
Soon there was what for me was a miracle. Two people ahead were walking beneath a large umbrella. Amazingly, they spoke English! They were graduate students at Brno’s university, their names Tereza and Robert. To my eternal gratitude, Tereza Bartos and her friend immediately offered assistance. “Come with us,” said Tereza, “our home is just ahead. We’ll give you hot tea.” Those were the sweetest words I could imagine.
We arrived at the substantial row house that was the Bartos family home. My bike with soaked luggage parked outside, I followed the young couple through the front door. Tereza’s mother Helena was in the kitchen making desert pancakes (palacinky). The father Karel, in a cardigan, sat reading a newspaper. It was if I had entered a scene from my childhood, a relaxed, quiet, almost idyllic Sunday evening at home. The family seemed delighted to receive an unexpected, disheveled visitor from America. They said they welcomed the chance for English language conversation, especially since Helena was an English teacher.
We were 18 kilometers or 11 miles from Brno, they said. While I dried off in the spare bedroom, I heard Tereza on the phone inquiring about accommodation. Soon we were seated at the dining room table enjoying palacinky and discussing the state of the world.
Thirty-minutes later Karel, Robert and I loaded the bike and gear into the family’s Peugeot wagon. We said our farewells and the men drove me to the city and the hotel that had been booked.
Settling into the room I spread my soaked belongings out to dry. They occupied every inch of floor space.
It had been a horrid day with a happy ending.
I’ve often thought that without that fateful rescue my 2,500-mile ride from Estonia to Albania might have ended right there in the eastern Czech Republic. Would I have given up if I failed to find shelter?
Ever since I’ve wanted to properly express my gratitude to the Bartos family but I couldn’t find them. I had their names but not their address, phone number or email. I wasn’t even sure of the name of their village.
In June of this year an online search revealed a Bartos family living in Lelekovice, a village north of Brno. I sent a letter but received no reply. On November 2, after speaking engagements in Prague, I traveled to Brno and set out at once for Lelekovice. It was nearly dark when I encountered three people walking a dog. Nothing looked familiar. I asked the dog walkers about a Bartos family on Koretina Street. We walked there. It was now dark. A woman shouted down from the top story and then came out. Yes, she knew who I was as she had received my letter. Her husband’s mother, she said, was Helena Bartos but she is not a teacher and her husband is not Karel. She said I was in the wrong village.
It appeared my search had ended in failure. I got the train back to Brno but that evening went through notes from my 2004 ride. Could the village be farther north? Then I found the name Lipuvka. Was that a village whose name I had initially misspelled? I consulted an online map. Indeed, Lipuvka is a village five miles north of Lelekovice
In the morning I traveled by bus to Lipuvka. At the municipal office a young woman said Helena Bartos had been her teacher. She pointed to the Bartos house on a map. She said Karel had died a year ago. Yes, there was a daughter Tereza in Brno. I walked to the house but there was no reply. But I recognized the house. This was it.
The Bartos house in Lipuvka
Discouraged, I walked back to get the Brno bus that came only once each hour. Waiting and thinking that in small towns people often know each other, I chanced to ask a woman who was also waiting if she knew Helena Bartos. She replied in English, “I’m Helena Bartos.”
Helena Baros at the bus stop in Lipuvka
Both of us were astonished. Helena remembered me and said she was headed to Brno to celebrate Tereza’s 40th birthday. Would I like to come?
We had 40 minutes to talk on the bus. Helena said Tereza had broken up with Robert after they discovered while working in Ireland that they were incompatible. Tereza found another man, got pregnant, broke up with him, and has 9-year-old son Marek.
Tereza, Marek, Helena
Busy working mother Tereza also remembered the rainy night 13 years earlier. She is an English language translator and interpreter with an educational institute and works from home, a fourth-floor apartment in southern Brno. Karel, Helena informed me, died of a heart ailment at 72 after a satisfying career with a government agency. Helena is retired but teaches English in the evenings and is actively engaged in learning Spanish. She hopes to return for a second year to the Basque country where she studied what must be her fourth language. She said she prefers living alone in Lipuvka rather than moving in with Tereza or a second daughter and her husband who live not far from Prague. Helena’s complaint is that young people are now so tied to their phones and mobile devices that their attention spans are dramatically truncated. She disputed my assertion that this may be the best time ever to be young and educated.
I departed my Czech friends utterly delighted, first of all, that I had found them, and beyond that with heightened awareness that people everywhere basically have the same concerns. We’re all linked, getting through day to day activities, doing what needs to be done, making the best of our current situations.
I came away from Brno deeply impressed that the wonderful Bartos family rescued me but asked nothing in return. They extended exceptional kindness to a traveling, desperate American cyclist, a gift I’ll never forget.