I am a self avowed “ history-weasel “ . I enjoy investigating and ferreting out the real history behind events that shape humankind . I guess growing up in the US has something to do with that ; revisionist history is what they like ; so they can keep repeating it - they keep rewriting it ...
I am finally able to begin writing my paper on Slovakia; a country the world knows little about, and should. A young democracy (25+ years-old), with a great potential to contribute on the world stage. The Slovaks have a torch to carry that is not unlike most young nations in a world that becomes more complex and exacting with each year’s passing. My paper will unveil my idea of the circularity of history, the movement of people into the Carpathian Basin, their settlement, and the struggle to retain an identity as a culture, despite the forces of history and ideas working against the best interest of the burgeoning Slovak ideal. History is a circle, not a line, and it moves through time, constantly performing the same motifs in its orchestrations, some instruments playing louder than others, yet the song remains the same.
This paper will be posted to Academia.edu in the coming months. I am nearing completion of a prologue to limn out my purpose, methodology, and most importantly my influences. I am a novice historiographer and would like to excite my reader with a small slice of my passion for history, and more importantly, the manner in which Slovakia and the Slovaks have been role-players in the history of Central Europe. My bags are packed (metaphorically speaking) and I will begin yet another journey through a brief macro-history and then on to the present-day Slovaks and their destiny, to stand with the nations of the world.
With less than a year to go before retirement , and an idea to spend the rest of my life in Europe , I decided to take a ” farewell tour ” of my favorite places in the US. My buddy Jim and I had been batting around the idea of an Isle Royale ( that’s ROY-AL to the uninitiated ) trip. I was looking at my 6th or 7th trip and knew it was doable . We added his son-in-law Kent and started making plans. If you’ve never been to this gem in the middle of Lake Superior , I would strongly suggest you visit. This National Park sees less visitors in a year , than Yellowstone in a day. For wilderness solitude , a backpacker in the Midwest doesn’t have many options. Isle Royale is THE solid choice. I urgently ask that you visit early in the season , or late in the season ; far less people and no bugs.
We immediately reached out to Isle Royale Seaplane and John couldn’t have been more insightful or patient. I have taken the ferry twice , to Houghton and Copper Harbor , and I find it much quicker and easier to fly. Lake Superior can be a very long ride if a storm comes up or if it is windy. The cost of the seaplane justifies getting to the island ahead of the boats and getting on the trail early. John and his partners make it easy and their stories are fun and interesting ; a more hard-working and congenial group would be hard to find. On first impression , it’s easy to see that they love what they do and safety is paramount. I will fly every-time. [ See : isleroyaleseaplanes.com ]
We decided to go the week before Memorial Day , as the island is just opening , and I stuck to my pattern of off-season in the National Parks. All of my preceding trips were done in the last week of September and early October. This trip with Kent and Jim would be my very 1st in the Spring. This outing would also mark the last hurrah for my North Face Snow Leopard pack ; I bought it in Moose Wyoming when I lived in the Tetons in ’86. A formidable pack and I haven’t seen it’s equal , having sold outdoor gear for quite a few years. We met a few times and spent a great deal of time e-mailing , texting , and calling to make sure no stone was unturned in planning. I had learned almost all of my back-country skills from 2 sources. The 1st is trial and error , and the 2nd is from one of my best friends , Jim Rivera. I was here first with him and a few others on a group trip and although it rained the entire trip , we spent 6/7 days on a muddy conveyor belt of laughter. Jim was trained at NOLS and when we met , we couldn’t believe that a couple of knuckleheads from Chicago could be only a few miles apart , stumbling toward ecstasy in the Rockies. Jim was in the Wind River Range for his NOLS training and I was working in the Tetons. Jim became one of my very best friends and I learned how to lead from the back , fine tuned my map and compass prowess and shared a back-to-the-soul brotherhood that only backpacking provides. In the end , it all comes down to planning , a learned skill from Jim Rivera also.
Jimmy and I had been friends for almost 10 years and kept saying , ” we have to do a trip together ” forever. We were both working 50+ hours a week and had kids that were in that special 16 to 22 age group. It demands a bushel full of time and attention. Now , his kids are married and mine are in there mid-20’s and we decided to go for it. I had some initial apprehensions , as I had never even car-camped with Jimmy , or Kent for that matter and I had no way of vetting them or checking into the possibility that he could be in some way “sandbagging”. In my group of outdoor friends , sandbagging goes both ways ; you’re either hiding the fact that you don’t know shit about the wilderness and back-country behavior , OR , you are very humble and teachable. Our group landed in the latter camp. At nearly 59 years old , I am still willing to learn what I can when a challenge arises and/or someone else has an idea.
You don’t have to live in the Midwest to appreciate a wilderness like Isle Royale. It is the most unique wilderness in this part of the continental US , with all due respect to Boundary Waters . With pressure from mining and logging in Minnesota , it is only a matter of time before BWCA is tainted and spoiled. No politics here , just a scary trend.
When Jimmy , Kent and I landed on Isle Royale , we were like 3 kids in a large outdoor candy store. Each of us walking in a different direction to follow our eye. There is a lot to see in Washington Harbor , but we headed to the Store , which wasn’t quite stocked yet ; but there was enough fuel and small items that we planned on getting there ; fuel being the major item , as the seaplanes can’t/won’t fly if you have fuel in your pack – it’s an FAA thing.
Rain was light and constant as we began our walk to Island Mine , our 1st campsite , and a short 6.5 miles on a steady up toward Mt. Desor. The rain sang a soft percussive tune as the drops fell from leaf to leaf on their way to the ground. We were steady on , and stopped after the 1st hour on the trail to water and have a snack. One of my learned rules of thumb is the group can only move as fast as the slowest person. We stop every hour , on the hour , to get the packs off and replenish for about 15 minutes. I makes the whole experience easier to take for most ; heck I’ve used this method with my wife and kids in Glacier on the Bowman to Kintla hike. I never heard a peep out of them. It also affords you a chance to walk around for a few minutes and look and listen without worrying where your next step is. We reached Island Mine with little struggle and the promise of better weather , as the rain had stopped and we began to see patches of blue through the green canopy.
Having emptied my pack , I was in distress ; somehow I had forgotten to repack the fly for my Mountain Hardware Trango. I let it go and hoped that the forecast would hold and we would have clear weather for the next 3 or 4 days. We had planned our trip to be in shelters on the back half of our adventure. The next day , Sunday , we would have a relatively ” light day ‘ to Lake Desor South with a 5.5 mile walk. My plan was for us to ease into the rough up and down of the Minong leg and our trek back across to Daisy Farm on the South side of the island. We settled into camp-life early , another advantage to short hops early in the trip , and relaxed knowing we were some of the few here. Almost immediately after setting up their hammocks , Kent started talking about eating. I looked at Jimmy and said ” for cryin’ out loud , this guy’s like a termite in a lumber yard “. That stuck and he has been christened and known as ” The Termite “. A tall and sinewy young man , he has an easy-going , affable nature that belies his work ethic. He represents the best of our youth , enterprising and open to seeing opportunity in everything. Adding to his qualities , he knows outdoor gear and is curious about what works and what doesn’t.
Kent’s Father-in-law , and one of my best friends , Jimmy , is a life-long tradesman . I couldn’t find someone who enjoys being outside as much as Jim. Dedicated to his family and the straightest shooter you will ever talk to. We are both balding as we approach 60 and we have names like ” Big Fuzzy ” , ” Fur-Bag “…etc. It’s all in good fun , and Jim’s easy-going nature always made it simple to solve little problems on the trail.
Our 2nd day out was our hike to Lake Desor South campground. It was an comfortable , cool start , about 50F by the time we hit the trail. Most of the up portion of our trip was behind us , as we ascended from Windigo past Sugar Mountain ( 1,362ft ) , and we wouldn’t gain much more to Mt. Desor ( 1,394ft ). We stopped along the way for our breaks at openings in the trees and always marveled at the vastness of the lake below. The Termite eyed a grand view with his camera , and we slung our packs on for the next one hour hike.
Something that must be pointed out , for the new visitor , is that when using the Greenstone Ridge , all campgrounds are below. That means that every day starts with a hike up. This was the topic of conversation as we descended to Lake Desor. We were early , and it seemed like the whole campground was ours. The lake was calm and the low lapping of the water at the shore calmed us as we decided to set up. I had made the decision to sleep under the stars , as Big Fuzzy and the Termite secured their hammocks to the various twin Birch trees surrounding our site. We ate an early dinner and took our sleeping pads and camp chairs down to the lake to relax.
Over the course of two or three hours , we covered the whole of the earth. Topics from philosophy to history , and beyond. It was a lazy time , soaking up the golden rays of a sun direct from Eden. We gazed up , three heads turned aloft , to begin a futile effort counting stars. I broke the silence by declaring that we had a long day ahead next , and I was sure I wasn’t going to get much sleep. I knew from past experiences sleeping under the night sky , that I would be awake and asleep fitfully. It would be a battle between wanting to see the stars , possibly the northern lights , and getting much needed rest. I was right ; I fell asleep around 8:30/9 and awoke to the pitch darkness around and the grand glowing lights above. There was no sign of the aurora borealis , but the stars were as close as I’ve ever seen them. I slowly fell into REM-sleep , and came to open my eyes again at 2:15 in the morning to a sky with a dark indigo background and the tiniest of blinking whitish dots. I knew we had a long hike ahead of us in a few short hours, but I couldn’t take my eyes from the star-lit scrim above me. I heard the lake rubbing softly on the shore where we sat just a few hours ago, and I heard the shuffling of a moose in the trees around us. The wind blew very softly, as if to not awaken us from our Lake Superior slumber. Slowly my eyelids fell over the twinkling ceiling. I was roused by birds tussling in the birch trees behind me and the sky was rosy with the coming sunrise: the receding last morning-stars faded as I lay still, waiting for the Termite or Jimmy to stir. It was a “laying meditation” as I never blinked skyward, suspending myself in the soft breeze of a new day. I knew that at any time now I would move and continue to do so until later today.
I slid out of my sleeping bag, like a moth wriggling from a cocoon and felt all of the 35/40F cold. I was snug in my 20 year-old zero bag , even without a bivy bag, and every hair stood on end in the Desor breeze. My old MSR Dragonfly stove was still leaking fuel and I turned to Kent’s Jet-Boil for breakfast. I am a firm believer after this trip. We planned to have both stoves, and it was a good move. I could only appease my Dragonfly to work from time to time by sealing the split in the plastic exchanger with rubber cement. The Jet Boil had hot water in less than half the time of my traditional backpacking stove. We laughed as the Termite continued on about the dinosaurs and such. I never once had a problem with that old stove and it worked perfectly at home for 4 or 5 days in a row before we left. It’s always best to have a back-up plan, the Jet Boil supplanted the old MSR for the rest of the trip…this was a “farewell trip” anyway.
With everything packed, laces tied tight, and water replenished, we bid adieu to Lake Desor. Termite took the lead as we headed for the steep uphill climb out of the campground, and decided to not focus on the 11.5 +/- hike we had in store for us. Our legs stronger than the day before, but Jim and I were pushing each other to move up the angled trail. The Termite neither struggled nor stopped as we kept looking up for the trail marker, which would signal the top.
Having been home now for nearly 2 weeks , I have a few impressions to close out the travel form of this blog. In a few short days , after stumbling around in my jet-lag induced stupor , I have come to realize a few keys points very clearly . They came in a moment of sheer lucidity , and as follows : 1) I am a result of everything that I have thought….2) This world is not as it appears ( or we are led to perceive it ) and the goodness is where we choose to find it… 3) There is time , but not as much as we think ; all entities are fleeting…4) I don’t want to spend my time here in this country where everything has become more alien to me.
During my meditations ( I am a Buddhist after all ) in Slovensko , it became very clear and real to me for the first in a very long period of practice , that if I think of only the positive – I am purely positive. There were moments when I got into jams and didn’t get addled. I settled down and counted my assets and figured a solution. I remain in that place now here , back at home. My Samadhi ( or concentrated focus ) is to return to a physical place of comfort.
I met some of the most wonderful people ; it was a true joy to listen to some of the bits of their lives that they freely shared with me. I was hit by a golden sledge with how common and similar our struggles and frustrations were. Retired school teachers from Britain and Switzerland , and working-class Germans and Swedes ; we all had the same concerns. The Slovaks that I met , their young nation poised to make a new line in the sand of history , were optimistic and guarded at the same time. I receive e-mails daily from my new friends in Europe and we exchange news of our lives , gains and losses, ups and down , and the constant shifting of fortune. I miss our kava and beer sessions on the patio below Orava Castle. The cool manner the wind blew us together and partings that came with the same winds of constant change ; the quickness that it was begun and ended , along with the promises to stay in touch and meet again in geography and time. We always talked about the world of our parents and the lapse between their world and ours…” where did it all go so wrong ? ” I was always the devil’s advocate , pointing out that the world has never been ” right ” , and that we are condemned to a constant struggle to retain the comforts of our past amid the challenges and sacrifices of the future. They are true hearts and I hold them close , if 7000km away. I am so thankful that their goodness crossed my path and we were able to meet and share some time together , no matter how fleeting.
As I sit here finishing up and relating impressions of my trip ( and to some degree , my life ) , I’m listening to Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention sing , ” Who Knows Where The Time Goes ” ; A smile is permanently etched on my lips as I watch the short film of the trip in my mind. As it was happening , the time seemed to crawl , and in the last week it ran fast. On 11 July I had to say good-bye to my best buddy Roy , our English Mastiff. He was 7 years old , and although I knew they didn’t live as long as a smaller dog , I wasn’t prepared to part with him so quickly. 7 years ago he was a small puppy with a black mask and heavy body , and grew into a 200+ pound puppy with both a serious and goofy nature. He will be missed and I am eternally grateful for him lifting and ennobling my life. This life has a strange way of moving alternately fast and slow. It is not of our choosing when it does either and it leaves us feeling helpless sometimes. I have come to the realization that it is simply just the rhythm of the universe and not a reality that is either ” good ” or ” bad “.
Going forward , I have set out to seize the moments and do my best to live in my Samadhi , to stay focused on what is important. We are , after all , responsible for our own happiness. In the end , nothing would give me more happiness than to return to that place on this planet that gives me the most gratitude , and centers me the most. I traveled alone and it was only in a few moments here and there that I was lonely ; not alone. That too would pass , as it does here at home , surrounded by those that I love and love me. My not-so-secret Samadhi goes where I go….
Tonight I took one last walk through time. Up and down streets with names like Leiberstrasse , and Huapfelstrasse. I walked back into the 17th, 18th , and 19th centuries. I walked past pubs that were full to brimming ; on a Tuesday night ! I heard traditional Austrian music and Euro-lite rock. Here in the northwest corner of Vienna is a neighborhood that is busy and eclectic. There are faces here that capture the whole gamut of Central Europe ; faces from the Middle East , and voices from the South. I heard Serbian and Croat , mingle with German and Arabic. The tables along the sidewalks were filled with people drinking coffee and smoking Turkish cigarettes , the breeze thick and deep with the smoke from them.
The streets are still damp from the cooling rains and the sides of these massive old apartment blocks glisten with slick white marble. As I came down to the main street , Hernalser Hauptstrasse , the broad avenue opened up and I could see two long lines of what seemed like the same buildings meeting far down the street. This city is , like Bratislava , quite old. The Romans fortified this area in 15BC , and in the mid15th century , the Hapsburgs made it their seat. It is one of the best cities in the world for quality of life. I can see why ; it is very clean and very well run. I will spend more time here on my return trip , maybe in the next year or so. After spending almost 2 months in Europe , there won’t be much to keep me in the US. I have to see more of it. I need to see Germany and Scandinavia.
I wish I could bring my family here to see what life is like outside of the US. The quality of living here is greater than the quantity . I love the fact that they rarely walk around with a cup of coffee in their hands ; they sit and drink it. I am bemused a bit with seeing KFC and Burger King and the like. They didn’t seem as busy as they do in the US. I think this is all market-driven. Eventually they will weedle their way into the psyche of the Europeans.
I do miss home , and my family ; there are some things that I always need to be grounded in. My Sister and and Brother , my wife and children , and my close friends , are who I miss the most. There are connections that are constant in my life and I have necessarily looked past them for 2 months in order to have a direction. I have been secure that all I need is me , and not in an egotistical way. In a way that says , I am okay with wherever I am. I’ve learned that I can be far more resourceful than ever before. Being alone for some time in a foreign land makes one think quick and act accordingly. This will be my last blog from Europe , and maybe I will write a follow-up after I’m home for a bit. I am extremely thankful for this opportunity and feel graced to have been kept from harms way. I have one last packing session tonight and one last trip dragging my gear. I have learned one thing ; I could’ve gotten by with a lot less.
That’s all from Vienna. I thank those who followed this odyssey , and I look forward to conversations and thoughts . I humbly send my love and best regards. Niel
As I waited for my bus to Wien , I looked up at St. Martin’s and stared at the golden crown at the top of the spire. I stilled marveled that the Kings and Queens of Austro-Hungary were crowned at this solid old Catholic church. Although not clearly visible from my shitty little cell phone’s camera , it was the last thing I saw as I left Bratislava. I managed a photo out of the moving bus of Bratislavsky Hrad , from out in Austria , I decided not to use it. The only thing one can see is a small white block on the horizon. With the naked eye , I is clearly visible from 5/6 kilometers away. I bought the most simple phone in order to communicate with my cousins and to have a European SIM card , instead of going through the whole process at home with my iphone. The cost was almost $100 to convert my iphone , and the ” Slovak phone ” was 77euros , with a $10 charge to have data and calls for the entire 2 months of my stay. I’d say it was a better deal , it took 10 minutes to do the whole thing. All in all , a better move.
I was nice to be on the bus , with air-conditioning and wifi. It was almost 90 degrees in Bratislava and no breeze , just like being in Chicago , just a bit less sticky. I had meant to send this blog out last night , but I fell asleep early , watching a movie on Netflix. It was the first time on this whole trip that I’d watched tv , outside of the World Hockey Championships. I felt alien , to sit and watch a movie , as I have spent the bulk of my time , either walking around and looking at this old world , or reading writing.
I decided that when I reached Wien-Erdburg , the bus station , that since my apartman was in the northwest of Wien , I would take a cab instead of dragging my bag through the public transport system. It was hot here too ; 94 degrees and sticky , this time. My cab driver , Zorin ,is a Croat and raised in Wien from 5 years of age. His family had escaped from the former Yugoslavia in the early 60’s and came to Wien to settle. Of course , his German was flawless and he was fluent in Croat. We traded words and sentences in Slav , as Slovak and Croat are not that far removed. I was an expensive cab ride – 30euros – but well worth not dragging my duffel all over in the heat. Zorin and I talked about the cosmopolitan nature of Wien and how it has changed with the influx of the Muslims. He was rather cool about it , but was excepting because his family did so well here. His father was a retired painter for the Austrian Rail system and his Mother was still a seamstress…. at 92 ! I enjoyed the ride , in a brand new Mercedes , and he was quite affable , offering to pick me up on Wednesday to drive me to the airport for 45euros. I declined , it was too much , and I am running out of money. I’m down to my last 300euro , and was hoping to come home with a little. Not bad for starting this trip with 3,000euro for nearly 2 months. Zorin dropped me off right in front of my apartman and wished me luck , handing me his card , if I’d change my mind. I had just found a shady and cool spot to wait for my host Viorel and just as I put my bags down , he messaged me ( another advantage to having the phone ) that he was home. Super ! I picked up my bags and turned around and there was a clean-cut young man who called out my name. ” Viorel ?” , was my reply. ” Hello and welcome to Wien ” , was his.
In just the few minutes of being outside waiting for Viorel , I was sweating and my shirt was sticking to me. We entered his apartman building , which is under renovation and I felt like I stepped back into the 19th century. These buildings are hard to describe ; somwhat plain on the outside , modern finishes , and startling when you walk through the ornate hallways and up the staircases. We opened the door to my apartman , covered in plastic and it was another place entirely. Clean , sleek and high-modern , I was very surprised. It was nice and cool despite the fact that it was not air-conditioned and there was a fan. We talked for a few minutes about getting to the bank and where to shop ( dining out is not an option ) and the post office ( I must send a wedding card to Lenka and Patrik as they will marry on 6 July ). As usual , the bank is a few minutes away , and I have to turn my euros back to dollars rather than do it at the airport. I’m a bit skeptical about how much I will recieve , but I can’t come home with euros as I will need some money to get home. There will be no one to pick me up at the airport , as Romaine refuses to do it because ” it’s the night before the 4th of July “…whatever. I have made my way alone this far and I can do it to finish off my trip. How fitting for me to solve my own problems on my own soil ; I’ve been doing it for the last 7 weeks , I can certainly do it at O’hare.
It is early here , 6am ; 11pm back home , so I will most likely go out for a walk and finish this dispatch a little later. There were massive thunderstorms here last night and I awoke late in the evening to open my windows and feel the cool , fresh air rush in. Viorel pointed out that I have Netflix on my tv and I watched a National Geographic documentary about Joseph Kony. I remember how my friend Gabor described the child soldiers and how they had no innocence . If I have time I will watch Beasts Of No Nation , which deals with the same subject ; Gabor is still torn by what he saw some 5 years ago. We may talk on the phone later , he has become a good friend. A serious guitar player , we had many good discussions about music last Saturday night. I met him near my apartman and we walked to a pub with live music. The band was playing covers of popular Slovak folk and a few American and English bands. They were very well rehearsed and I really enjoyed it. As Gabor had a few beers , we talked about the Congo and music and his prospects. He even joked that he would come to the US and stay with me. We shot that idea down because he knows that I don’t want to stay in the US too long.
It’s almost 8:45 and I am going out to the bank , the post office and then to shop for lunch and dinner. I may send another dispatch later when it is a bit quieter , as the construction workers are hard at it now and will be until later this afternoon. Although it’s cooler out , it is headed to 85 and sunny. I want to get my business done early and get back before it gets hot… I will take one last walk later , after supper when it cools off. It will be hard to leave in the morning , but I knew this wasn’t permanent…nothing is.
Today is my last day in Bratislava . Tomorrow morning I leave for Vienna for a short day and a half and then my flight back to the US on Wednseday. I have been dreading this day for quite a few weeks. This country and its people , have seeped into my marrow. I had it as many fibers of my being , and now Slovakia is firmly ensconced in my chemistry. To come away from a place not of my own and then to make it so , is an astounding sense of being. Rediscovery and utter fulfillment sate this shabby old body and soul now. I came here not knowing what to look for and in turn , what I found had really sought me out to begin with. I took one last walk up castle hill today , in spite of the heat and sun. The photo above is actually from my first days here in early May . I have a small gallery full of castles and churches ; on my next trip , they will be of people who connected with me and connected me to this place.
The taxi and bus drivers , that worked with me to ferry me to where I needed to be. The countless train conductors , that patiently waited for me to respond to their instructions before letting me go. The clerks in the potravinys and predajne that helped me to decipher the numerals. Everyone was without any hint of nuisance , or agitation. I truly enjoyed my travels here and look forward to coming back to stay for awhile to teach , and more importantly , to learn. The richness of history here is palpable ; sure you can see Communist era buildings everywhere , but you also see the beauty in the various styles from the 12th/13th centuries , on down through the ages.
You can come here and meet young people who are engaged in their future , not caught up in tribalism , rigid and unbending. I cannot count the people people I met along the way and the breadth of variation in their outlook. I met retired school-teachers from the UK , Switzerland and Austria. I met a photographer and his wife , from Colorado – of all places. I have met working class people cheering on their favorite hockey team and having fun doing it. Through all of this , through the late nights walking home , or traveling by tram or bus , I have never felt unsafe. Yes , yes … there is crime everywhere , but after a few weeks of being here , I was less tense and apprehensive than I usually am in the US. I had several conversations about the violence in the US , and Slovaks , young and old , don’t understand it. The kids I have met here were very well-spoken and incredibly aware of where everything is in the world. I am ashamed at the lack of understanding from the youth in our country. The kids here see leaders like Trump or Orban ( Hungary ) as bigger threats than climate change or the migrant situation. My host Vlad has been instrumental in opening doors for me to return and contribute in some way possible. I am ever grateful for his gift.
When I got off the bus under Bratislava Castle , under the Most SNP (the bridge with the UFO tower on it ) , I had not one shred of an expectation. In retrospect , it has turned out to be more than I could have hoped for , had I made a list. Thanks to my wife Romaine , I will never stay in a hotel ever again. Airbnb has been the best way to travel ; I have met all of my hosts and just about all have become friends. We are still e-mailing , as of today ; them wanting to know how my trip is going , and me wanting to see how things are with them. My next trip back will be when my family has their holidays. It will be easier to all be in one place together with most , and we will free from time and work constraints. I am immeasurably thankful for the time I had with all of them. One family is about to have a wedding in their midst ( July 6th – YAY ! Lenka & Patrik ) , while two more are settling in with babies , fresh into this world.
My time in Orava and Drazkovce was super. In Orava , the home in my heart , I returned to my calling , tramping through the mountain and hills that my Grandmother lived in until her early teens. In Drazkovce , I was given the story of ” Uncle Andy ” , as my Dad called him. Ondrej was my Grandmother’s youngest sibling and he wasn’t more than 3 years old when she left for the US. My cousins Zelka and Zuzka were able to piece together an oral history of his life and Zelka’s son Jano/Kevin will commit it to paper for me. They all had ” life ” going on while I was in each region , but they did their best to celebrate me and our family. In Orava , I didn’t know it , but I stumbled into the whole family together for a memorial service and was unprepared for it. I have no photos , and no dialogue regarding my questions about family history. I may continue to write my book and leave a place for all of the relevant information , because it fascinates me to no end how they know it and live it.
This brings me to my favorite subject – history. I feel very fortunate to be able to have tapped in to an eternal fountain of the sweetest water. I taste that which is a heady concoction of an enduring family and my place in it. The fact that my family has for the most part , stayed so close to their roots , honored their ancestors , and celebrate each other at the drop of a hat. They sometimes get together , because..just because. It would be my most earnest hope to come back and teach in the Orava region. I love Bratislava for the cosmopolitan feel , but my heart lies in Orava. I will be happy with either place in the end , knowing that I would be taking a 3 1/2 hour train ride to Orava for holidays , but what a way to live. I have ventured down some of the lesser known backstreets here in Bratislava and have discovered gems from the 14th through the 18th century. History is all around me : what else from a city that crowned every Magyar ( Hungarian ) king from 1563 to 1830. St. Martin’s Cathedral ( the coronation site ) was actually built into the fortress walls of the old town and a portion of that wall is still up to remind us.
In my mind , I come from a place that doesn’t hold history very dear. History is rewritten to suit whomever needs it as a tool. While it is a fact that Europe has a longer and greater history than the US , they also are very active in the process of remembrance of it ; careful to not relive it. As I stated before , I am returning with some reluctance ; yes , my family and friends are there. One could even say my roots are there. I have spent nearly an entire lifetime being ” euro-centric ” and I can honestly say ( language aside ) I have never been more comfortable in a place , ever. I like the pace of living here and I really enjoy how simply they live. The race for material wealth isn’t a part of their nature , contrary to what we in the US are led to believe. They are not the same as us in that respect ; it’s ” quality , not quantity ” , that is the mantra here.
I have a few more dispatches to write yet ; my trip isn’t over. If you are reading this blog , or have read it – I would love some feedback. Outside of my Cousin/Muse , Patricia – I haven’t heard what anyone has thought of my dispatches from the Old Country. I have more to write and will not stop here.
I am thankful and rife with gratitude on so many levels it is hard to put into words …well okay , not that hard. I thank all who are following me , and I promise to continue to send my dispatches after this is done. To Bratislava and Slovensko , I say -Rozlucka Zatial ( rozluchka za-teealyh ) , or farewell , for now…..
Today was a fantastic respite from the insane heat we have been experiencing here in Bratislava. I took the photo above while I waited for my guide to come. This photo is in stark contrast to one of the first photos I took upon my arrival here in my favorite little big city. Bratislava isn’t a mega-metropolis. It doesn’t sprawl for miles on end like some of the other European capitals , or even our own cities in the US. When I got off the bus at the far end in this picture , there was a cold rain blowing sideways and the temperature was somewhere in the 10c( 50f ) range. After a day in the low-30’s ( 93 ) yesterday , today’s breeze out of the North has it in the mid-20c ( 75/77f ) and it is nice to be outside again. Many of you know that I’m not a big fan of Summer and heat in general , it made this a nice day to be out and about.
The fountain in the photo is in front of the Slovak National Opera house. This beauty was built in the 1880’s and was known as Narodny Slovensko Divadlo . The Neo-Renaissance architecture is a joy to scour with the eye. I never tire of looking at it. It is here that I was to meet my guide through Airbnb. I wanted to see how much I didn’t know and was eager ro see things that I hadn’t , either on my trip in 2017 with my cousins , or just walking around as I have and looking at things. Alexander was a great guide and filled in some of the things that I didn’t realize about this wonderful city. He is extremely bright ( an Economics major-graduated ) and very congenial. We walked through the square West and ventured into the Old Jewish Section. From what I understand from my study of Slovensko , the Jews were treated better in Bratislava than most cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I haven’t found any evidence ( yet ) that the Slovaks mistreated the Jewish population , which stretched back to the mid-13th century. During the sad time of WWII , the Bratislava Working Group ( I’ve seen a movie on this very subject and people involved in it ) worked to save the Jewry of Bratislava , to no avail.
Alexander and I stopped and talked at many intervals and I shared with him my reluctant anger with the Magyars in general , and my disposition towards Hungary as less than a mess of overly-nationalistic and un-apologetic culture. I am becoming more at ease with the past , some of my Slovak friends wonder why I could harbor such feelings , when I didn’t live through it. I don’t have a tendency toward any thinking that posits I , my country , or my culture is superior to any other. I have never felt that the US has any business promoting ” freedom or democracy ” in the world , when we don’t have any idea what it means. I wantmore than anything to be here as this country grows and to somehow get involved enough to keep the leadership from using the US as a template.
Alexander and I meandered through the hills to the West and up to Bratislavsky Hrad. He discussed how it came to be and the importance of the reign of Maria Theresa in the growth of Bratislava. We ended up going through St. Michael’s Gate , the only city gate still standing , as the Old Town was at one time truly a fortress. He led me through a long back alley that I had never traveled before and we came upon the Town Hall. Another turn and we were behind it and looking at the additions and the change in architecture.
To the East of the Town Hall was the Primate’s Palace. For the uninitiated , the Primate’s Palace did not house monkeys. Not in the real sense. A Primate was , often a Bishop that held rule over a particular region , and /or a nation. This has to be one of my favorite namesties ! We continued east as Alexander limned out what part the buildings played in history and I was completely awed to know that the treaty of Pressburg was signed here between Austria and France in 1805 after Napoleon ( and France ) defeated Austria in battle.
We wound our way through the Laurinc Gate on the Vychodna Strana ( East Side ) and Alexander pointed out the symbol hanging that served as a reminder of the Laurinc Brana , or St. Laurence Gate. We began by walking through an area on the Zapadna Strana ( West Side ) in which there was a city gate , through St. Michael’s Gate on the North ( Sever ) , and now around through the east. Alexander was very clever in the way we covered this old fortress-city. This was one of the highlights of my visit to Bratislava. I found it to be a breath of fresh air to have someone to talk to , not only about the history , but culture and life in general. It was a very good day and I will finish by sitting out in my garden to finish reading a paper on ” Social Stratification & Inequalities in Eastern & Central Europe . I’m still trying to get a grip on a very complex and mystifying past. I thank Alexander for his input and a great day , also for giving me more insight and the skinny on how Bratislava was….
It has been upwards of 33C ( 91F ) here and I have to remind myself that it is only temporary…I hope. I am now in my last apartman , a sweet little place on the northeastern side of the Old Town. Soltesovej ( Sholtes-sovay ) is a really nice corner of the Old Town. I have two parks around the corner and it is a bit more spread out than Grosslingova where I was last. I am a firm believer in Airbnb after this trip. Each stay has been as nice ( or nicer ) than the last. Most are converted apartmans from Communist era blocks and they are done up well. My last stay was the exception ; it was a building built at the turn of the 20th century and had a jumbled architectural twist. Half Art Nouveua , part Baroque , and some pre-Art Deco , it was very cool. My host , Vlad , was the best of the best. He bought it and is in the process of slowly bringing it back to it’s original setting. The inner courtyard was a mess of building material and ladder and scaffolds.
I am forever grateful to Vlad , we spent some time together , and as he had been in Chicago ( John Marshall Law School ) there was always plenty to talk about. He is responsible also , for helping me make contacts for the future. On my last day , yesterday , we made plans to dismantle an Ikea-type cabinet that was in my apartman , and then he was going to make lunch. He had already sold the cabinet , and the lady buyer was going to pick it up later in the day. He knew where I was going next , as he uses the same cleaning lady as my new hosts Sona and Jan. It is a small town here and they all know each other. We continued our talk about Slovensko’s future as we took the pressed-board behemoth apart. It would have been a big job for him alone and I didn’t even blink when he asked. We are good friends , and I was in no hurry to travel the 5/6 blocks to Soltseovej…dragging my duffel. He promised a ride after lunch.
The cabinet is on the right in the photo above , and it was a chore to get it apart. Vlad mentioned that he felt as if he should have taken it apart when he bought building , but thought it would help with his Airbnb guests. He wants something more traditional and ornate , definitely made of solid wood. He has other plans for rhe studio and we talked about me possibly renting it , if i were able to secure a teaching job. I am very fortunate to have chosen this place to stay and to have crossed his path.
We carried all of the cabinet pieces out to the hall near the doorway and Vlad went to his apartman to start cooking the Halusky ( hahlooosh-key ) and I ran around the corner to the potraviny ( grocery store ) for slanina ( bacon ). I returned and was awed when he let me in to his building , which was next door to mine. The entrance-way was like stepping back into the 18th century. Of course , they didn’t have scooter and modern baby buggies , but the style of the 1700’s was everywhere. The steps up to his apartman on the 2nd floor were polished marble , as were the banisters. The whole of the railings more florid and flamboyant than the ceilings and door jambs of the apartman doorways.
We continued to discuss the future for either of us , and for Slovensko. He explained that the halusky he was making was not the standard ; usually made with bryndza cheese from sheep’s milk. He is from Bardejov , which is in the far northeastern portion of Slovensko . His Grandmother made her halusky with cabbage. When he mentioned this , my first reaction ( and I didn’t show it ) was sort of ” uuuhm ” . I have been eating sauerkraut soup and many dishes with cabbage in it , and although it isn’t my favorite thing to eat , Vlad was making this out of the kindness of his heart. He piled it into a big tureen and I went at it. He sliced the cabbage thinly and since there were no big chunks of it , the halusky went down rather nicely. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it ; again , during this whole trip my mantra has been ” open mind , no place to be parochial or obdurate “. I bought Vlad some Erdlinger Weiss Beer the night before and he cracked open one , and said ” if you don’t mind , I will carry something , instead of driving you to Soltesovej . I am going have another pivo as these are excellent and I won’t be able to drive due to zero tolerance “. ” Ziaden problem ” was my answer , no problem. We continued on , laughing at some of the things we shared about Chicago and his surprise that I was so close to him while working in Blue Island ( modry ostrov ). Vlad stayed with a family in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago while he went to John Marshall , part of an exchange program that was the first as Slovensko was gaining its feet after the Velvet Divorce , in the early 1990’s.
The ” Velvet Divorce ” occurred in 1992 , and describes the separation from the Czech Republic. It followed the ” Velvet Revolution ” in the late 1980’s when the Communist Bloc fell apart. It was so named because Vlaclav Havel , a Czech writer ( who else? ) was a big fan of the Velvet Underground….at least that’s one of the theories. Another is that the revolution happened without bloodshed ; it was also known as the ” Gentle Revolution “. Vlad and I covered this and many other absolutes about Slovak history. At one point he said , ” wow , you really are serious about our history ” ; I kept eating and with a mouth full of the magnificent halusky , just nodded.
We finished eating , and washed the dishes – I insisted on drying , and we went next door and grabbed my bags and backpack ( I still believe I overpacked – oh well – lesson learned ) , and headed up to Soltesovej. He knew exactly where to go and as we walked through the nearby park , the one he pointed out with the farmer’s market , he greeted a few of the farmers and and introduced me as a future customer ; very funny and the farmers struggled to push their English as I struggled to push my Slovak. I was really glad to have this time and when we arrived in the apartman , Vlad was a little jealous . He looked around and said that this is what he wants to do with Grosslingova. We stepped out into the heat of the patio and quickly jumped back into the cool of the apartman, The difference was at least 20 degrees. He thanked me for all of my help and I couldn’t thank him enough for what he had done for me. He said that it was already a good friendship and we shook hands , and he was gone.
Vlad called me later in the evening to make sure everything was going alright and we promised to stay in touch. Tomorrow , Thursday 27 June , I will meet up with Alexander/Gabor and he is going to show me his inside Bratislava…some of his favorite places , away from the crowds. I am looking forward to it. I will have 3 days left after that and who knows what they will bring. I have found a treasure trove of inspiration in this city and even more in the country. In spite of the road ahead , the Slovaks are anxious , and even humorous about what they have to face. I feel like I am on another planet. Sitting on my patio as I write this , I have had enough of the heat – even in the shade my phone is showing 27c ( 80/81f ). Since there is no breeze , I am going back inside to the ” cool ” of the 22c ( 71f ) of my apartman with the fan. I will return to my patio later , with a cup of kava and ponder some more where my path has led me and where I have yet to go…..
It’s almost 22:00 ( 10 o’clock ) and I’ve just arrived home from a long day out. I’ve popped in and out until 1800 , stopping to get my notebook. I decided to go to the cafe in the park. It’s just around the block and it is a very cool place to eat , drink kava and be outside. Thankfully the cafe has broad umbrellas that cover nearly all of the 2 dozen tables ; it started to drizzle as I ordered dinner. I found a New York Times today at a newsstand in the north of the Old Town , and I brought it along as well. It is a luxury. I really haven’t seen much of the news , as I have been engulfed in reading , writing and developing my ear for Slovak.
I ordered a small mushroom pizza , yeah – comfort food , after all the sauerkraut and schnitzel. I started reading the paper as I sipped my Kofola and noticed how crowded the cafe was. I had to remind myself that it was Monday and not Friday. It seemed packed. I was sitting at one of the few tables that had open chairs. I was just enjoying the fact that Trump hasn’t let me down ; even in my absence , he’s still an idiot. The rest of the news in the paper was predictable , Turkey and Erdogan , the Papacy in Rome starting to show a rift , and the coming ( maybe ) crackdown on illegals in the US. Chuckling as I turned the page , I looked up to see a young man looking around the cafe. I really didn’t pay much mind to it , until he walked straight to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing my table. I shook my head no , apologized for not being able to answer entirely in Slovak. ” American ” ? , was his first question , in nearly perfect English . I nodded assent and said yes. He introduced himself , ” Gabor Jasenich , thank you for the seat “. I introduced myself and asked if he was Slovensko. ” Actually , I’m half Slovensko , half Magyar ” ; I though to myself that this guy was one hell of an anomaly. I asked him how it came about and he gave a little of his family history , interspersed with geography and the history of the Empire. I gave him my story and asked how he could be settled with both backgrounds owing to the treatment of the Slovaks by Hungary…for 1,ooo years. I tried to keep it light and it wasn’t his fault that half of his ancestors were Magyars.
I explained my position and we had a very interesting discussion about the two halves and the fact that he doesn’t forget who he is on either side. His father’s family came from Orava , so we had common ground and talked at length about the region’s beauty. Gabor is 32 and looking for work here in Bratislava , with a degree in accounting. I thought , wow – this kid has a pretty good head on is shoulders. His food arrived and I ate cool pizza , not wanting to eat in front of him. I bought him another beer and myself another Kofola and we kept talking as we ate. I shared my experience here , and he got a kick out of me calling it ” home”. I laid out why I want to leave the US , and he nearly jumped off his seat ; ” yes !..Orban is an idiot too “. We both laughed and mock-argued over who has the worse leader. He was very smart and well-traveled.
We began to talk about the world at large and it was here that I began to feel a pit in my stomach. I had asked what he’d been doing since university , and he described a story out of Hollywood. ” When I graduated from university , the job market in Budapest or here was still very thin. I decided to join the UN Security Force and they sent me to the Congo ” , his voice had a strange timbre to it. I let him talk and he seemed interested to share and at times not so. He shared the things he saw , how it felt , and what it still does to him. I expressed my thanks , and let him know that we could change the subject any time he liked.
We had gotten to our kava by now , it was around 20:30 ( 8:30 ) , and Gabor wanted to know what the US was like. I kept changing the subject , I wanted to hear more about his experience in Africa. “I’m trying to let all of that go away ; I saw a lot of good , but I also saw the harsher side of human beings. I saw young children so deeply affected by the warfare in the East , that I don’t think they will ever be de-programmed……” His eyes were cast down as his voice trailed off. After dinner, we talked some more as we were headed in the same direction. We took a walk through the Old Town and I invited him to come to the US , he politely declined , but hoped we could stay in touch. I said by all means, and we agreed to meet for lunch on Saturday as I am leaving for Vienna on Sunday.
I caught the tram back to Grosslingova and just couldn’t shake the images in my head , as Gabor laid out in graphic description , what is happening in mid-continental Africa. I was hearing also , the need to let it go and carve out a life here , with his girlfriend , and attempt to find some change from another angle. When we parted , we exchanged phone numbers , and as I was typing his name in he corrected me and had me put in Alexander , instead of Gabor. I asked why and he said it was his middle name and he liked it better. I promised to address him by this and I look forward to his telling of Slovak history from the other side of the fence. Our facts are nearly the same , the perspective changes a bit and that is the oddity of it all.
As we waited for our trams , his was going in the opposite direction, we made a short agenda for discussion. He was still aghast at how much an American could possibly know about his history , and I promised not to indict him or attack him with it. Hopefully we will meet before Saturday , maybe Friday night , he says there is a great pub near his place in the north of Old Town. They have a band or two on Fridays. I would like that , I haven’t been near much music since I left home in May. I am writing this now and have Gabor/Alexander’s visions of war dancing in front of me , imprinted on my irises and at this moment – sincerely hoping I can fall asleep. I’m not a big fan of human suffering. I realize that it happens , but not to 4 million people over almost 4 years in The Congo. The Native Americans , The Uighurs and Tibetans in China , The Aborigines in Australia , and the list goes on and on…. It gets me angry enough to want just go to these places on this planet and get into the people that propagate the suffering and derision and just shake the shit out of them and ask them , “who the fuck do you think you are?”
I move tomorrow for the last time. I have only to go a few blocks north and my current host is going to give me a ride. We are going to dismantle the big cabinet in my studio as he is selling it , and then we will go to Soltesovej apartman. I’ve made many connections here and I just can’t say enough about the quality of character in those that I have been fortunate to come across. Tomorrow is another new day and who knows what it will bring…..
I have to say that I am very comfortable here in Bratislava. I’ve stumbled upon the English-speaking Slovaks ( among others ) , and I am really enjoying life here. There is a bit of the old and some of the new , with a cosmopolitan and yet somewhat provincial feel to life in this city. I met my host this morning and we engaged in a conversation that was far-reaching and very common , at times. I explained to him my hope to teach here in Slovakia. As my talk progressed , Vlad ( my host ) stated that perhaps there were other avenues for me to explore. Vlad is a former lawyer for 3M here in Slovakia and trained at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Right off the bat , we found common ground and shared our stories.
I gave to him what I was familiar with , as far as Slovak history and he was impressed . He shared with me the differences between what he knew about life in the US and his life here in Slovensko. He spent a few years there as a consultant to 3M and did a tour of duty in their legal department. He served the same role here and after nearly 10 years , he decided to go in another direction. He was enthused to hear that I was hoping to retire here and we both chuckled over my limited grasp of Slovak. He did say that it wasn’t bad for someone who couldn’t form sentences. I would string a few words together and we would laugh until he figured out what I was trying to say. An hour passed quickly , and we put a bookmark on our conversation until lunch tomorrow. He texted me a short while later and said that he some good ideas for me and thought that my talents would be better served elsewhere ; I am intrigued , to say the least.
I have been taking long walks around my neighborhood and came across the ” Blue Church ” of Svaty Alzbety. This church ( kostol ) is dedicated to St. Elizabeth who was born in Bratislava. She was the Empress of Austria , and the Queen of Hungary. I didn’t get a photo of her portrait which is just inside the door of the church. In the photo she is holding flowers and the plaque under her mentioned that she gave extensively to the poor. She died in 1898. This Art Nouveau masterpiece was dedicated in 1913. Sometimes , I sit across the street and watch the sun change the pastel blue of the church as it arcs overhead. This area that I’m staying in is , a bit like Lincoln Park , but with a heavy mix of architectural styles. There are young families in the parks and kids everywhere, skateboarding, shooting hoops, or just sitting at the corner cafes having kava and looking at their phones…sound familiar ?
I will only be about a 1/2 mile North ( Sever ) at my next Airbnb ( I switch next Tuesday ) and Vlad says there will be a much different look to my surroundings. I must say that it is nice to be in one spot for a spell. My studio apartman has it all. Even a washing machine ! It is nice to be in all clean clothes , I was down to my last ; after washing clothes in sinks and showers , it’s nice to have a modicum of civility. It’s not a washing machine that I was familiar with and I waited to wash until this morning when Vlad came by . I made us a cup of kava ( what else ? ) and after we got the machine going we started talking about writing and art. I mentioned that I played the drums and his eyes lit up , ” there are dozens of bands looking for someone like you ” – he said. I downplayed it and we continued talking about music and books ( my default settings ) and he mentioned Dostoevsky and we were off and running about the impact that Raskolnikov had on our thinking and what the author was really trying to get to. I said that it was more about the ” punishment ” and not the ” crime “. Raskolnikov was such a tortured individual that he nearly succumbed to Porfiry’s antagonism to confess. We both agreed that Porfiry was content to let Raskolnikov tear himself up from the inside out.
We were all over the map , when Vlad dropped a bomb. ” I have to say , one of my favorite American authors is Dreiser ” Vlad smiled as he spoke. I jumped up and yelled , ” no way ! “. I looked at him and in mock-investigation asked if it was An American Tragedy. He smiled and we did the ” Bro handshake “. I told him that there is not one piece of writing I have ever read that was so perfectly written as that book. We talked about the reason Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy , and he was surprised that it really did happen. We talked about the themes that occurred in both books ; how Clyde Griffiths and Raskolnikov were very much alike. We talked about philosophy and morals and criss-crossed from the Old Magyars to the Tzarist Russians , the West and now the modern US. I can’t wait for lunch tomorrow , it is liable to be a real hoot.
As I’m walking through this marvelous city , through more run-down areas to those being rebuilt and renovated , I can’t help but wish my kids were here with me. I think they both would change some notions about the way we live in the US. I have not seen a lick of television since I left the US , and have only seen what our Fuhrer is doing via the Slovak Spectator , one of the major papers. It has been a great lift to be free of that aspect of my life. I know that I am not immune to what is going on , but I have discovered more by following less. My life has taken a turn in the way that I look at this world , and I have fully embraced new thinking and new ideas. I’m a bit bummed that my jam session didn’t happen , as I don’t know if I mentioned meeting a Sax player in the Old Town Wednesday night and he invited me to sit in on a jam tonight. He never called today and that’s okay. I have been reading a paper on the separation of the individual from the state in post-communist Eastern Europe ; truly enthralling work. The paper examines how market economies have to find their place here and the role of the individual is paramount to the future growth of not only our country , but the rest of Eastern Europe as well. Old world with new ideas…some for them and some for me.