The Plague and Square One

Holy Trinity Column – Banska Stiavnica


As I stood looking up at the Holy Trinity Column , a soft breeze blew down the town square and softened the heat. This magnificent structure was built out of gratitude for the end of a plague that wiped out half of Banska Stiavnica in the early 18th century. I think that what really adds to the drama for me , is the fact that this town square is older than that. It is lined with the former houses of the burghers and mining magnates. The whole of the city center has cobblestone under foot and you walk directly into the past here. Of course , you have to use your imagination a bit , but that’s the fun of it. It was hot and sticky , like most of the world , they go from winter to summer here in a matter of a week or two. The cooling breeze settled me down as I circled the ornate Baroque statue . My eyes wandering over all seven saints crowded around the base. Patron saints of the town and of the miners. Behind me are churches from the Gothic era and above me to the left is Stary Zamok , the Old Castle.

In the cool of the late afternoon , the sun was gone now from Kammerhofska Ulica as it wound around and up ( or down , depending on your direction of travel ) Dolna Ulica and the cafes are beginning to get crowded. I stopped and had a cup of kava and mulled over some of the things that were on my mind. Was it possible that my ancestors weathered plagues and invasions , and the like because they were somwhat remote up in the mountains of Orava ? How did they do it day in and day out ? I kept these questions roiling around in my empty skull as I continued my exploration of this fascinating town. Earlier in the morning on Tuesday , I had taken a walk from my apartman down to the Mining Academy.

The 1st School of Technology in the World

In 1762 , Maria Theresa decreed the 1st technological university in the world here in Stiavnica. It was dedicated to metallurgy and mining. Banska Stiavnica , along with some of the other mining towns in the region , were considered the ” Purse of the Upper Kingdom ” , due mostly for the fact that the gold and silver would end up in their palaces in Vienna and Budapest. This rich mining region was one reason that neither ruling house of monarchs were willing to give up Slovakia easily. There is a much bigger building that would become the official university , but it all started in this house.

I know I will be back here again someday and keep turning over rocks. The richness and constant change of the history , especially in Stiavnica , is irresistible . I was very fortunate on one of my wanderings to meet Miro , a cab driver , and we worked out a ride for me today. Banska Stiavnica is one of those places that you can only reach by car. On Sunday , instead of taking a train to Zvolen and then a taxi to Stiavnica , my super-cousin Jano/Kevin drove me from Drazkovce to Stiavnica. On the way in he made a wrong turn and we ended up approaching through a National Park. This whole area sits in the remains of a vast caldera ( which would explain for the mineral wealth ) and the ride was beyond description. Miro took the same way out on our way to Zarnovica for me to catch the train to Bratislava. My Slovak hasn’t improved much because I really can’t hear when it is spoken. I can make statements , and ask simple questions , but I have to listen particularly hard to the answer and pick out words I know. It’s not easy here , because Slovak , when it’s spoken , is a bit like French – it flows and glides. It is not brusque like German or Russian. Miro and I had fun , trying to figure out what the other was saying by using words that are common to our language skills ; he with English and I with Slovak. When I told him that I was retired ( he asked what I did for work in Tshuh-tsaahhgo ( Chicago ) and hoping to live on a pension in Slovakia – unable to afford it in the US. His reply had me in tears ; ” Fuck you Trump “… we were both laughing five minutes later at vlakova stanica ( the train station ).

I have had the good fortune of meeting the best people that this country could throw my way. I have struggled with the language , but they see it , appreciate it , and work with me. Slovaks are truly one-of-a-kind ; I sat reading a New York Times at the train station and two high-school girls started talking to me about the paper. They were practicing their English and it was very nice to have the conversation. As it turned out , they were on their way to Bratislava and we grabbed an air-conditioned salon with a young man they were traveling with , and passed the time talking about our respective countries. An added bonus was that they were going to the same neighborhood I was and we got on the bus , jabbering in a mix of Slovak and English. I would only hope that our youth would be that kind toward people traveling in the US. The one thing the kids couldn’t get over was how much safer I feel in Slovensko than the US. I had to keep reminding them of how violent life is in the US. The Slovaks don’t understand ; they don’t have the same numbers in crime that we have. I quoted that we have more people in prison than any other country in the world. They couldn’t believe it and , like most young people I’ve talked to , they would like to come and see it – but not stay. Conversation always centered on what they are building here. They have plenty of hope for their future , but only if they are educated. I kept stressing that , and we agreed.

I have a sweet apartman ( that’s Slovak for : apartment-but you got that already ) , and I’m right down the street from Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts ( BISLA) ; next Monday I have kava planned with a teacher there. It’s going to be a meeting after we introduced ourselves on He had written a paper on Slovak education in English and I replied that I was highly interested in teaching the next generation about their history and the importance of remembering the past and not making the same mistakes over and over. I am not pinning anything on it. I started this odyssey here and it feels good to be back. I took a short walk after I was settled in , and love the feel of this city. It’s old , really old , but it has a new vibe and history is everywhere I look.

I know that none of my ancestors were here , but there is something in the air and I can feel it. Although I miss being up in Orava , with its perfect wooded mountains , and the guide vocal of my Grandmother , it feels comfortable to be back at square one. I came into this journey knowing that I know nothing , and that I am going to learn and accrue some knowledge of my past. I know also that I’m rooted in a small-town mythology where we all know each other and have a near familial bond. I’m honestly beginning to miss that feeling a bit. All in all , I’ve been on my own for the most part and lucky enough to have had some time with my family here , however brief. I count my blessing every morning after meditation and chant and I owe those blessings , in part to Matej Halaj. If my Great-Grandfather ( Pradedo ) hadn’t had the foresight to bring my Grandmother to the US , I might be telling a decidedly different story. Without her , there would be no me. It is nearly insuperable to decipher what my ancestors went through , as they worked and prayed , and scratched the soil together. They did it together and that is one of the lessons I have learned. The love and dedication toward one and other was , and is , a continuing inspiration. My cousins don’t have quite as much of the material world that we have in the US. I’ve learned that what they have , and share freely , is themselves. I love each and every one of them for teaching me and giving this notion back to me. In the US , my family practices the same virtue ; there are some things that oceans of time and tide will never wash away…..

One thought on “The Plague and Square One

  1. Interesting! BTW, Niel, your skull is not empty. I am your life sciences cousin urging you nicely not to put yourself down unrealistically. Languages are difficult to learn especially in adulthood. I had so much difficulty with French, the roles and flowing. I could pass the courses, but not a proficiency test, the speaking and comprehending parts. With French, the reading and writing were easier. That was one of the reasons that I transferred from St. Xavier”s to Roosevelt Univ. years ago. Niel, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.


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