When Tanya Heaslip left her comfortable life as a lawyer in outback Australia and embarked on her dream adventure it completely changed her life.
Twenty six years later she says in her book Alice to Prague the life change led her into a new culture, land, people, history, architecture, music, food, landscape and nature.
“Everything about the Czech Republic turned my thinking and knowledge and understanding of life completely upside down, it was so different, so ancient,” she says from her home in Alice Springs.
Tanya and husband Steve lived in Margaret River and various parts of Perth for more than 20 years, working in the mining and wine industries which, she says, was a wonderful time. But the family returned home to Alice Springs three and a half years ago because her father was dying.
“It felt like the right time to return home, back to my roots in Central Australia. I absolutely love this country, because apart from anything else, it is my home,” she said.
“My family were all there and I was able to help my mother transition through this time. It has been very tough but it gave me the opportunity to finalise Alice to Prague (written over a 15-year period in WA) and publish it and also write An Alice Girl, about growing up on our cattle station in the 60s and 70s.
“My usual day is split between (still) working in commercial law, writing, dealing with family matters, and escaping whenever I can with my husband out into the magnificent Central Australian outback. I’m as busy as I ever was, as is my husband, who no longer works in wine but tourism.
Talking about the country she fell in love with, Tanya says Prague was born through a vision that came to Princess Libuse in the 11th century, who proclaimed, “behold, I see a city of stars.”
It was a place where men quoted poetry and played guitar to girls and live classical music spilt out of every available building and fairy tales were the stuff of daily stories.
“It turned my thinking upside down, made me bolder and more grateful, taught me awe and surprise and thankfulness.”Tanya Heaslip
“It was a culture steeped in dreadful and traumatic history (centuries of suffering, ending with the Nazis and the communists), yet the people remained resilient and relied on their culture and humour to get through. The hilarious, outrageous book The Good Soldier Svjek (about a buffoon who constantly outwits the authorities) epitomises this.
“It was also a place where men and women in many ways lived and worked more equally, and where old people were revered and cared for. In the country, people still lived in old farm houses where they slept in the kitchen on a platform above the wood stove to keep warm. They had traditions for every season, involving music and dance and literature and special sayings, which were handed down through the generations.”
Tanya’s early life growing up on a cattle station in Central Australia could not have been more different to her Prague experience. She loved her new country, its people and the charismatic Karel who stole her heart.
“I met people who had struggled beyond anything I could imagine but they remained strong and feisty and determined to do their bit to improve their country, to bring human rights back to their world. I found people who embraced me even though they knew nothing about me, and many had never even heard of Australia. Their generosity and acceptance was something I have never experienced before.”
Tanya says her Prague experience completely reshaped her life.
“It turned my thinking upside down, made me bolder and more grateful, taught me awe and surprise and thankfulness.
“My outlook on life had broadened, widened, become more accepting, and I was enriched in so many ways, at a heart level and a life level.”
Looking back she believes she was far more adventurous than she realised.
“At the time I was desperate to escape law and a broken heart, and the only thing I wanted to do was get away. My dreams and daily life were dominated by escaping into the adventure of travel. I wanted to go so much that it never occurred to me that it was brave or foolish or adventurous, when in retrospect it was actually all of those things.
“I went to a country I knew nothing about, with no language skills to rely on, no teaching skills, no skills actually, except a hunger to learn. That is what saved me, along with a love of music which I quickly learnt to share with the Czechs.”
Tanya says she still remains in touch with many of the people she befriended in Prague.
“Just last weekend I had a wonderful two-hour WhatsApp conversation with my beautiful student Kamila who still lives in Sedlcany. I keep in social media contact with many of the teachers and students from Sedlcany.
“The amazing friends in Prague are still dear friends and whenever I go back I see them. Sadly, the charismatic Karel is no longer with us but I also keep in Facebook contact with his beautiful daughter Radka.”
Tanya said she knew almost nothing about the Czech Republic when she went there. She believes Australians are more informed now because of social media. She has returned to the country many times and will do so again as soon as she can.
Alice to Prague by Tanya Heaslip (Allen and Unwin), RRP $29.99 is available from all good book shops.