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In Prague, A 35th Birthday Celebrated

I was never one for the pomp and circumstance of birthday celebrations. It was always just another day. But over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate the one day a year people I know — and many I don’t — wish me well. If that sounds a bit onanistic, sorry. It’s the times we live in, I guess. Consider this a written selfie.

A big part of my metamorphosis stems from my wife; she’s taught me I’m allowed to enjoy my birthday, to not be so serious. I say it’s pragmatism; she says I’m an asshole. She’s not wrong.

Another source of my change of thinking is Facebook. Weird, I know. I secretly — well, not so secret anymore — enjoy the endorphin rush I get when “friends” real or otherwise wish me a happy birthday. It’s nice.

This year, however, birthday fun day was truly something. Previous great birthdays include a Phish show in Maryland (my 20th); drunken wasteland for my 21st; my 30th. This year I turned 35 somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. We landed in Prague on my birthday.

My father’s family is from the Czech Republic, a town called Munkacs or Mukachevo. My grandfather lived in Prague for a bit. My grandfather’s brother studied architecture at Czech University School of Architecture. Prague is a familial home. To visit was special; to visit on my birthday was a bit surreal.

After checking in at our hotel, The Questenberk, we headed down the road to Prague Castle.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 11.30.55 AM

Prague Castle was built around 880 CE and Guinness Book of Records puts the castle as the largest castle in the world. Impressive. But this is not the reason I wanted to go.

The name Sternberg, or Sternbersky, means Star Mountain. In fact, there’s a village in Czech Republic called Cesky Sternbersky with its own castle (which we didn’t get to visit). In Prague, however, inside the largest castle in the world is a palace called Sternberg Palace.

My wife and I walked down the little outdoor corridor to the entrance of the palace, which now houses second and third-rate art between the 14th and 19th centuries.

I reached the ticket window and told the middle-aged ticket lady that I am a Sternberg. She was confused.

I showed her my ID and told her it was my birthday. She smiled and laughed. She showed her colleague. Her colleague laughed and smiled. The ticket lady turned back to me and said, “It’s still not free.” We both laughed.

We took the requisite pictures of us in front of the sign (like the one at the top of the post). As we got back into the main square of Prague Castle, I imagined my parents, who were here recently, doing the same thing.

Then I imagined the ticket lady thinking to herself, “How many fucking Sternbergs are there and why do they always have to do the same thing?”

I thought of my grandfather, and that whole side of the family and his parents and brothers and sisters who died during the Shoah. To be able to celebrate my birthday, which is the direct result of odd happenstances of strangers who came together to make babies, made me appreciate the day and the location all the more.

This post originally ran on Medium on August 17, 2013. 

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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