A month-long working vacation for a Tigard couple turned into a 2 ½-month extended stay when the coronavirus swept around the world and prevented them from flying home.
Every spring Helena and Mark Greathouse spend a month at their apartment in Prague, Czech Republic, as well as at a spa in Trencianske Teplice, Slovakia. Helena was born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia and met Oregon-born Mark on a tour bus in Germany in 1968 when they were both students at the University of Hamburg and signed up for a one-day trip to see 2,000-year-old mummified bogmen. “That bus ride would change the course of my life,” Mark said.
They married in 1970 and eventually settled in Oregon, where both worked for many years at the Bonneville Power Administration before starting a second career performing. Mark plays the accordion, and Helena, a former rhythmic gymnast, sings and dances, and she also has appeared in local theater productions.
Their travel plans went awry on Mar. 12, according to Mark.
“Helena and I planned to go on our annual trip to the spa by train from Prague on Sunday, March 15th, but received an email on Thursday, March 12th, that Slovakia from then on would allow only those people with permanent residence in Slovakia to cross the border and enter the country,” he said.
Helena added, “On Thursday or Friday, Trump announced the banning of all Europeans except those from Great Britain and Ireland from entering the U.S. It quickly became clear that it would be exceedingly difficult to return to the U.S. My brother-in-law Petr encouraged us to start packing as fast as possible in order to leave Prague immediately for the family farm in Milovy to be isolated from getting the coronavirus.”
Helena’s sister Lenka and her husband Petr live most of the time on the farm, which was established in 1795 in a beautiful area of the Czech-Moravian Highlands in central Czech Republic. Their daughter Helenka and her husband Ondra, plus their two children, Betka, 5 years old, and Tonicek, 2 ½ years old, visit them quite often.
At the farm the Greathouses’ days fell into a routine: In the morning they exercised, and Helena’s niece Helenka gave Mark a Czech-language lesson before breakfast, plus he did occasional farm work before lunch.
“Shortly before noon each day the electronic bells toll over the valley from the nearby cemetery indicating it is time to go inside for lunch,” Mark said. “The entire family sat at the table, and we first ate our soup together. Then we enjoyed the main meal, which was always a well-prepared surprise dish. There were so many different main course dishes for this mid-day meal that it was like being in a restaurant. The excellent dishes were prepared either by Lenka or Helenka. Helena prepared the salad each day.”
In the afternoon, the couple practiced their music before taking a two- or three-hour walk in the countryside; dinner was followed by Helena and Mark working on her family history and watching news on TV.
Their daily walks provided an opportunity for Helena to revisit places where she spent her childhood and also to see the effects of the Czech Republic’s worst drought in 500 years.
“Here is where as a child she and her girlfriend Vlasta put on theater performances at the edge of the small family forest,” Mark said. “Here is where Helena’s parents, Jarka and Vlastimil, sat and watched from a vantage point above a valley the Germans and Russians fighting each other in 1945. Helena tells me that it was dangerous for them to do that.”
The couple also passed an old abandoned factory that produced glass from 1835 to 1886 and supported the 400 to 450 residents in the town, which today has a permanent population of 15.
But because lots of wood was required to fuel the glass furnaces, “the surrounding hills were left completely bare of trees,” Helena said.
Other points of interest along the way were the first house built in Milovy with an address of “1;” an abandoned mill, now converted into a residence, where grain was ground into flour; and a campsite used by the Young Pioneers, a youth organization similar to the Scouts during the days of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
Occasionally Petr drove Mark and Helena to the neighboring town of Svratka, where everyone was wearing masks, to use the ATM and to purchase Chinese respirator masks that turned out to be N95 masks for the return trip to the U.S. “Unfortunately, Helena broke three of them on our way home, since the ear bands were not sewn tightly enough,” Mark said.
Finally, with a confirmed reservation to fly home after several prior cancellations, Petr drove the Greathouses back to Prague where they boarded a plane to Amsterdam on May 21.
“The flight to Amsterdam went fine,” Helena said. “Perhaps the plane was one-quarter full. The flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta was uneventful with an estimated half-full plane.
“Upon landing at the Atlanta airport, we were told that we should all remain in our seats until the Centers for Disease Control people had completed taking all passengers’ temperatures and received from everyone a filled-out form which had been handed out earlier.” Mark added, “The CDC people worked quickly, one passenger after the next, aiming a hand-held device at each passenger’s forehead to determine that person’s body temperature. After this exercise had been completed, everyone was allowed to disembark.”
Regarding their trip home, Mark said, “The Prague airport was eerily quiet and empty as were the airports in Amsterdam and Atlanta. At all airports we saw rows of planes sitting idle – Czech Airlines in Prague, KLM in Amsterdam and Delta in Atlanta – all hubs for these airlines. Most people in the airports were wearing masks. However, our plane to Portland was practically full, except for the middle seats. When we landed at Portland airport, it was nearly empty everywhere, except for a few cleaning personnel.”
Helena added, “It’s so good to be back home. We wanted this for a long time.” The Greathouses plan to return to performing once large gatherings are allowed again.
One of their shows, which has been performed at local libraries and other venues, is “You Do Speak English, Don’t You?” It features Mark’s own original songs and well-known popular songs as well as Czech folk songs plus dancing, colorful costumes and props to retell the story of how the couple originally met and Helena’s humorous experiences learning the English language.
Another of their shows is “Memories of a Czech Christmas” that has delighted audiences with Helena recounting traditional Czech holiday traditions through story-telling, singing and dancing.
To learn more about the Greathouses and their unique blend of Czech, Slovak and other European folk songs, visit GreathouseOfMusic.com.