My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.
We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.
Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.
A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.
He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.
Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.
Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.
Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.
Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.
Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.
We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.
It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.
Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.
Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.
We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.
We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.
Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.
But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.
Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.
As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.
It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.