“You came all the way from the U.S. to be here?”

“Here” was a documentary film festival in a Czech Republic village, about 85 miles southeast of Prague.

Documentary film festivals are a passion currently running just behind scuba diving (Raja Ampat, Indonesia, in February!). My favorite director, Helena Treštíková, is Czech; Selin Murat, who runs the Montreal docfest, recommended Jihlava as a “smallish, taste-making” festival in “a really interesting place”; and I love schnitzel and strudel. So here I was.

The Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival was founded in 1997 by high school students and, like the Camden International Film Festival, gets more popular every year. Jihlava has fewer hotel rooms than Camden though, and the number of people checking in at the festival office with sleeping bags under their arms made me really glad that my press pass had garnered me a room of my own.

A cobblestone piazza dominated by McDonald’s and the Radnicni restaurant with outside terrace, eggs and potatoes in a dill sauce as a daily special, and their own beer, led to narrow streets festooned with overhead festival banners. “I go to Cannes for the movies but it is tiring,” a woman with a colorful “Industry” festival badge told me. “When you try to talk to someone they first look at your badge. Everyone here is approachable.”

I had read that almost all the movies at the Jihlava festival are translated or subtitled in English. Not so, unfortunately, with “Frontier Guards,” part of a program celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Footage of strapping border guards training German shepherds dissolved into footage of them fully armed with shields while young people put flowers at their feet, then to them bludgeoning protesters, and now gray-haired and paunchy, one recognizable from his long mustache, talking matter-of-factly, but of what? Since they spoke in Czech, I could only imagine.

Feminism was the theme of a day-long Inspiration Forum (climate change was another, with an appearance by America’s Bill McKibben).

Panelist Fawzia Koofi, who heads Afghanistan’s Women’s Affairs Commission, told the audience she introduced a bill to end polygamy after seeing her mother suffer over her father’s seven wives.

But she said it is “the mindset of man’s dominance,” and not religion, that is at the root of women’s mistreatment in the Middle East, “and it takes a long time to change that mindset.” Of the famous recent photo of the young Afghani woman whose nose was cut off by her husband, she said, “Now at least, people are talking [about domestic violence]. When it was taboo, it was her problem.”

Magda Vasaryova was an actress in Slovenia until she realized that at 40 in the film world, her value as a woman would end. It was then that she entered politics. “Women are the worst offenders” when it comes to undermining women’s rights, she said, noting a recent law in Russia, introduced by a woman, that basically gives men a pass to beat up their wives once a year. “Women have got to start looking out for each other.”

Back to the movies, a woman in line for the chilling

“Little Germans” about the indoctrination of children into far-right ideology, told me she started coming to the festival from Prague when there were no lines to get into the films: “Every time, there is one beautiful movie, I find.”

For me, it was “Kings of Sumava.” This Irish/Czech collaboration is about Josef Hasil, a Czech border guard turned cross-border agent during the Communist era, who saved uncounted lives of strangers but in the process damaged his own family. A woman tells, in her elegant living room, about her own harrowing escape with Hasil through the Sumava forest as a young girl, then travels with the filmmakers to reunite with him in Chicago, where he is now living.

When the lights turned on I was sobbing, and so was the young woman sitting next to me who whispered translations to me of audience questions for the filmmakers.

And then there was “In My Skin,” the rare film about domestic violence, with three victims — Hallelujah! — upending the stereotype by being strong and educated.

From the opening visual of subtitles expressing concern about speaking out because of the shame through to the insidious control and entrapment by men who seemed like dream lovers, it was like the song “Killing Me Softly,” the filmmakers “strumming my pain with their fingers, singing my life with their words.”

Anna Sophia Richard, 27, and Astrid Schafer, 31, both from Germany, made this film — astonishingly, because of how sophisticated it is — in film school. I am excited about bringing it, and hopefully them, to Maine in 2020 as part of Phase Two of my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse project.

Waiting for my last cappuccino in Jihlava, I got a thrill from recognizing the woman at the table in front of me as my idol Helena Treštíková, with a younger woman who must have been her daughter Hana because she had a movie premiering at the festival that afternoon.

My next stop was Brno. The driver, telling me, “I am the only taxi driver in Jihlava who speaks even a little bit of English,” cut 500 Czech crowns off the fare because he had to drive slower on the highway than 50 miles per hour so the wheels on the car would not shake.

A few days later, I am luxuriating in a 108-degree Turkish bath in Budapest (the Rudas Thermal Baths from the 1500s, after I backed away from the Art Nouveau Hotel Gellert baths because of the hordes of tourists). Old and young, fat and thin, bedecked in bathing suits or aprons, or naked — women step in and lie back and worries seem to melt from their faces.

Then Riga, Latvia, for the Art Nouveau architecture, and Genoa for the stone mourning ladies in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno.

In Genoa I needed directions and approached an older woman, steeling myself for a rude brush-off because that is what I got in Riga (in the two Sala kiosk bakeries at the edge of parks with the most divine meringues imaginable).

But this Genoan stopped, and smiled, and with arm gesticulations helped as best she could.

I thought back to my last few hours in Riga. Wandering without a map the way I like to take in a new city, I was admiring the rounded stone balconies of a massive building when I saw a sign on the corner, “History of KGB operations in Latvia.” Turns out the Cheka, or KGB, had their headquarters in this very spot. There was a mail drop for informers, for information on neighbors, friends and family members.

That made me understand why the older women in the bakeries, who lived through those years when you could not trust a soul, might be unfriendly to strangers.

And all of this — my whole European trip, actually, which started with my seatmate from Portland, Maine, a confident and happy and beautiful woman from Rwanda, confiding in me about her abusive first marriage — brought me back to an exchange I had with New York Times reporter Ellen Barry when she was interviewing me for an article on my project.

I told her that, since I lived in a mansion high up on a hill, people in Camden probably thought I had the perfect life. “No one has a perfect life,” said this former Moscow, Delhi and now New England bureau chief.

And back to the Slovakian film actress-turned-politician at the Jihlava Film Festival: “Women have our secrets that stem from our lives. Sharing them makes us realize there is no difference between us.”