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Katarzyna Kordas: Finding “Our” Brno

Katarzyna (Kasia) Kordas is 
an environmental epidemiologist. In the Fall 2023, she spent four months at Masaryk University in Brno as a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar, supporting teaching, mentoring and curricular development in the environmental epidemiology program. Originally from the State University of New York at Buffalo, she chose the Research Center on Toxicology (RECETOX) as her host institution. RECETOX is an independent department of Masaryk University's Faculty of Science, and it strives for excellence in environmental health. It is the only program of its kind in the Czech Republic. Born and raised in Southwest Poland, Kasia experienced air pollution and saw environmental damage growing up. This personal experience sparked her interest in epidemiology, specifically the harms to health caused by environmental pollutants. During her career, she spent three years in the UK and one year in Mexico. The recent four months in the Czech Republic were an exciting opportunity to return to Central Europe, this time with her husband and their two sons.

From the first forays into the city center in the middle of a September heatwave, to the last look at the familiar buildings as the bus took us to Prague and our States-bound flight in January, Brno was our chosen and beloved home. While we visited other places in Czechia, went to Vienna and spent Christmas in Poland, Brno and its environs were the focal point of our explorations. From the start, we decided to deeply know this one place and to make it “ours”. We left many corners unexplored – more reason to return – but I knew we were no casual tourists when around November my younger son said with an air of an expert about a passing tram “Ugh, the eight is packed, as always.”

Photo: Kasia Kordas with her husband Greg and their boys on a Brno Reservoir trail with Veveří Castle in the background, November 2023. 

Brno has so much to offer (a spectacular music and theater scene; cultural events and festivals in the squares; museums; restaurants and cafés) and we did it all. But at our core, we are a family of walkers and it's said that the best way to know a place is on foot! Brno sustained and grew our habit of daily walks. My husband Greg and boys Adam and Alek took advantage of the flexibility of homeschooling and crossed the city far and wide. We loved walking in the historic center as well as the different neighborhoods and housing estates, old and new parks, long stretches of the Svitava, the zoo. Greg, a photographer, captured the striking beauty of these places at twilight (see the results on his website). We also ventured to the city outskirts and wandered for miles. It was as easy as riding to the end of a bus or tram line and picking up a well-marked trail. Returning many times over, we noted the passing time in the seasonal changes and made discoveries (eateries in the woods, the Stations of the Cross up a steep trail, picturesque cottages by a pond), and deepened our connection to these places.

Photo: A frozen pond in the woods, Horákov outside of Brno, December 2023. 

There are too many places to mention, but one area our family loved was the Brno Reservoir. We explored it on foot and via ferry boats. A favorite trail (we rate our favorite things below), skirted the right bank of the reservoir from Bystrc to Veveři Castle, climbing up paths and boardwalks and crossing two bridges, one spanning the reservoir and framing the castle as in a painting and the other, a covered bridge across a stream. From late summer to winter, we watched the leaves change color, then fall, then the reservoir’s water be drained to become a slow-flowing stream in a muddy lakebed. During one lunch conversation with a Masaryk University colleague, I learned that is one of the efforts to reduce algal blooms – for me, a perfect connection between the nature we witnessed on our walks and the science I was in Brno to study. On a warm day in early fall, our family watched people hang out at a fun restaurant in the woods near Veveří Castle, set up, we learned, in an old laundry building. In late fall, we finally satisfied our curiosity, walked in to ask for a table, and were greeted by a cozy atmosphere and delicious food. But the clearest memory will always be getting lost in the reservoir woods because we were engrossed in conversation and missed our trail. As we doubled back, covering a total of 9 miles (~14 km), we were still walking in the dark. It was woodsy-quiet, but never felt unsafe, and we finally reached the shore lights of Bystrc with aching legs and the satisfaction of having achieved something big.

Photo: Mariánské Údolí, one of the family's favorite free time destinations, an easy bus ride from their Brno apartment, October 2023. 

A second place we visited often was Mariánské Údolí, an easy bus ride from our apartment. It is a wooded valley on the eastern side of Brno with picturesque ponds and a popular recreation spot for walkers and cyclists. It held many surprises, including connections to the country’s socialist era history. On our first walk, we saw concrete steps that stretched into long colorfully painted “walls” on the side of the hill. Adam and I (ever the scientist!) entertained a theory that this was to stop erosion of the hilly terrain. Greg was skeptical and weeks later, after a cycling trip with his buddies, informed us these were risers used to seat thousands of participants in socialist party rallies. We found a website and historic pictures that showed the full extent of these facilities, now being reclaimed by nature. Later, we also discovered a former military base, which now operates as a recreational area. Erie when empty, it was practically jovial when full of families. Kids getting rides in a military tank as part of a family event made for an interesting sight, and we would have missed it if we only came once.

Photo: Painted stairs, formerly a seating area for political rallies, Mariánské Údolí, December 2023. 

On our last day together, my Masaryk University officemates gave me a magnet that says “Brno, city of my heart”. We could not agree more and hope for many returns.

Passing on our heartfelt thanks: Many people helped us settle in Brno or welcomed us into their homes. Professor Jana Klánová and her family shared the tradition of hody to celebrate the harvest in September. Czech Fulbrighters were just amazing! Dr. Eva Chodějovská showed us the Milan Kundera library and some of the map collection she oversees at the Moravian Library; she and her husband also introduced us to Kofola and talked about Špilberk Castle history at a family get-together. I met Dr. Michal Bittner at Náměstí Svobody in November to commemorate the student-led events that resulted in modern-day Czechia; he also accompanied us on a mid-December visit to the Macocha Abyss. We had a delicious dinner (and board games) with Dr. Jan Eliáš and his wonderful family. Further afield, Dr. Jakub Trojan showed me around Zlín and arranged a tour of Tomaš Bata University. And our best introduction to the Czech hospitality, halušky, burčák, and pet snake included, came from Dr. Hana Kolesová and her family, who hosted us during the Fulbright Orientation in September. The US Fulbrighters whom we had the privilege to know also contributed to many special memories. The Fulbright Commission staff made the program truly remarkable.


City spot
Alek -  City center
Adam - City center
Kasia -  Lužánky Park
Greg - Christmas market, Zelený trh
Alek - Mariánské údolí 
Adam - Obora Holedná animal park & woods
Kasia - Trail from Bystrc to Veveří Castle
Greg - Trail from Bystrc to Veveří Castle

Alek - Vida Museum of Science
Adam - Georg Mendel Museum
Kasia - Georg Mendel's room
Greg - Vila Tugendhat

Cultural event
Alek - Christmas markets
Adam - Christmas markets
Kasia - The musical Matilda at the Brno City Theater
Greg - The musical Matilda at the Brno City Theater

Further afield
Alek - Prague's Museum of technology
Adam - Walking around Prague
Kasia - The Moravian Karst

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