Veronika Heblikova-Balingit was born in Havlíčkův Brod in southeastern Bohemia in 1973. She lived with her mother, Milena, a secretary; her stepfather who worked in construction; and her younger sister. She regularly visited her father who lived in Prague and worked as a sound engineer for public broadcaster Czechoslovak Television. Veronika spent many weekends and vacations at her family’s cottage in Slavníč. She was interested in art and participated in after school art programs. At the age of 14, Veronika moved to Prague to attend an art school where she studied furniture design. She was 16 in November 1989 at the onset of the Velvet Revolution and, although she was not in Prague during the major student demonstration on November 17, Veronika says that she had participated in earlier protests and continued to gather in the city with other students in the following weeks. In the summer of 1990, Veronika took advantage of the newly-opened borders and traveled throughout Europe. Upon graduating, she took a job as a sales assistant in a clothing store and also did freelance work creating posters and flyers. Later, she worked for a new architecture firm designing office layouts. Her father helped her to secure an apartment in the Černý Most area of the city, and she was able to rent out several rooms. Veronika also took private English lessons.
In 1994, at the suggestion of an American friend who was renting one of her rooms, Veronika and a friend traveled to the United States. She arrived in Chicago and quickly became involved in the Czech community there. Her first job was working at a carpet store, but she soon began waitressing and found a job at Klas, a Czech restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Veronika married and decided to stay in the United States. She took English classes to improve her language skills and also received a certificate in computer graphics from the International Academy of Merchandising and Design. She was offered a job building web sites at Apartments.com. After the company changed hands several times, Veronika took a job at Bank of America editing the firm’s internal web site. She has been with the company for over 12 years and has had various job titles and responsibilities.
Veronika says that she tries to visit the Czech Republic once a year and loves that her teenage daughter is aware of her heritage and history. She hopes to send her daughter to school abroad and to spend more time in the Czech Republic as a result. Veronika is active in the Czech community in Chicago and volunteers her time and talents to the Chicago-Prague Sisters Cities organization.
“We spent basically every free time there. Every weekend, all the summers, except for little vacations when we’d go somewhere else, that’s where we would be. Always doing something. There wasn’t any weekend where there wouldn’t be any project going on or a little gardening.”
What sort of projects did you do?
“Where do I start? There’s been several. From the big ones – building a garage – to a little smaller one – building a sauna behind a garage, complete with a pool that you would jump in. Yeah, that was a big project. To smaller ones, just a smaller place where you’d store food for the winter. Going to get the wood. Gardening. Just everything around. Plus, in a chalupa, you usually don’t have running water, so you spend a lot of time going for water. Drinking water, not-drinking water, washing the dishes, warming up the water and all that stuff. We did have a toilet inside, I have to say.”
“Of course I knew America existed. I’d seen some movies. I was lucky enough from the environment where I was and within the art community to be able to get music, and more than probably normal people would, so I was exposed to that. I had this idea of a dreamy place where everything is just so nice and everything works and everybody has everything they need. I think everybody had that [idea], and then you come here and it’s a different story. That didn’t necessarily pad desire to live here at that time, but I was fascinated by that. It was at that time where it was cool to be into it, especially music. I think that was a big influence.
“Some of these schools you get [into] through knowing people or famous people’s kids go there; that’s how it used to work. There were some of those around who had access to more Western things than any of us normal people, and so you’re exposed through them. That would be one way. In Havlíčkův Brod, I got to be friends with some of the bands that used to play at the time which was underground, and some of these people were involved. In Havlíčkův Brod all the underground was very active at the time, so I’d been getting samizdat, some of the books that were not available, through these people. I’d be seeing them, so we’d be talking about music or art or whatever was going on in the Western world, not being normally accessible.”
“I was involved before. There were demonstrations before the big one started. There were places I’d been where I shouldn’t have been. It was actually not very safe to be going to these places because you could be expelled from school and there were usually posted names on a board who got caught or who got expelled because they were caught. I’d been to some of these and was always able to run fast enough to hide. And we lived in the center of Prague, so everything was really happening right there. Plus, living in the center of Prague was also a cool thing because you know all the little streets and all the houses where you can run in and hide, so that’s what we used to do.
“Then, after I returned, when the big revolution actually started, everybody got into the streets and the students were demonstrating and schools were starting to close and kids were participating. Being in a school as cool as mine, it meant being involved on a daily basis at that time. I believe they stopped regular classes. We basically stayed in school 24/7; I believe we stayed for a week and brought our sleeping bags. We’d form little committees or we were printing pictures or posters and we had people coming in and bringing us food. It was very interesting. We had even concerts; Marta Kubišová came and played in the school on the stairs, in a hallway. It was a very interesting experience, of course, in between going out and actually participating in the demonstrations. It was very cool to live through that.”
“It was pretty clear that’s what it was. That’s what it was about. Yes, it was like ‘We’re done with this. It’s time to change it.’ We had enough of being censored, not being able to talk, not being able to gather. And all these things were just the big things, not to mention not being able to do what you wanted to do. Traveling was a huge thing for me especially because I would have loved to travel, but didn’t have the opportunity to go anywhere but the Eastern Bloc. So that was one big thing for – the borders being opened. But again, it came with the whole thing that you just don’t know what’s going to happen because you have the police involved, you have the army involved and you never know which way it’s going to be. But at that time it felt right to do that and you don’t think about the consequences. You just go at because everybody’s doing it. It’s cool. There is a reason why we are doing this. You want this.”
Scene in the Streets
“For me, walking either to Wenceslas Square or Old City Square was the same distance. You would be able to cover both within a 15-minute walk. So either one, wherever there was more people and, at that time, you probably knew what was going on. It was already covered by media. There was what at the time was Hlas Ameriky [Voice of America]. There were some radios where you could get information, or other people did, and you just talked about it. The gatherings just started happening and, honestly, it was everywhere at that time. There was not necessarily one place where you would go. People just started going at it and the whole center would be covered with people. Most of it happened at Wencelsas Square, but then posters started being posted everywhere with this demonstration or that one, that time, and then it started with politicians and then the different parties started posting. I do remember the whole statue of Jan Hus at Old City Square was covered with posters. It almost was like ‘This really shouldn’t be happening. That’s a shame, because it’s kind of a cool thing. But then, it’s also really cool to have that.’ There were posters – really, literally, I couldn’t believe it – on the streets. Everybody was carrying something. Everybody had little stickers on or something indicating ‘Yeah, we’re with you kids.’ It was the students, mostly, who did that, so it was cool being part of that. But, again, I was in high school at the time and more of that decision-making happened at the college level with the students there. So being involved totally in the center, but being around at that time.”
“There were all these new stores popping up. Everybody opening up their little own businesses. It would just be one or two people running a new business. There were a lot of construction companies that would start or architectural or – what I’d known – little furniture stores. There was a huge demand for these things, so yes; there was a huge boom in that, definitely. Not necessarily in other areas; I think that took longer. I’m thinking clothing or other supplies that didn’t necessarily take off right away. I’m sure people tried to open these stores too. There were tons of them opening and closing. Kind of what’s going on here these days!”
“I think I was used to being very cultural. To doing things all the time and not necessarily even thinking what I was doing. It was the exposure to all these different things, living in the center – not necessarily even living in the center anymore when I started working. It probably comes with age as well. When you’re more around people who are not necessarily settled and doing things. It was just so much fun and there was a lot going on, and after I came here, all that just stopped. And not only because you don’t know anybody here; you’re still able to look around and find some people, or go to the Czech neighborhood and hang out with people there, but there was not that much culture going. It seemed that you need money to be doing things here. Which was something foreign to me. I didn’t have any money in Czech Republic and I was still doing all these things and now, suddenly, I’m supposed to be spending money on all these things to do cool things? So it was big. Not having my friends around, not having my family, not necessarily even being able to find a decent job, but not having all these cultural things or things to do after work.”