A Spy In The House Of Love , With A Cup Of Turkish Coffee

330 year old wooden church in Lestiny , Lutheran Evangelical…Grandmother ‘s Church


On Sunday my cousin Janko/Kevin ( more on ” Kevin ” later ) drove up and picked me up from Lestiny. We drove from Orava to Martin in between the Velka Fatra and Mala Fatra National Parks . Martin ( Mar-teen ) lies Southwest of the Orava region. Its inhabitants are named after the river that flows through the area , Turiec ( turry-ets ). Martin is also known as the center of resistance to Hungary in the mid-19th century until WWI. This is the period in Slovak history that I am choosing for most of my book. I am very excited to finally have the time to visit the National Muzeum , and many other buildings that were major institutions of a remarkable period in Slovak history. Today will be a day off as the muzeums are closed. I am going to take a slow walk through this village of Drazkovce ( Drahhzsh-kov-ceh ) . The village is just outside of Martin , and it is where my Great-Uncle Ondrej settled . Ondrej ( or Uncle Andy , as my Dad would call him ) was the youngest of my Grandmother’s siblings. Ondrejko was not born until 1913 , so it is possible my Grandmother may have seen him before she left for the US. It is a neat fact that my Tetka ( Aunt ) Irene was born only 4 years later and thus was that much younger than her Stryko ( streeko ) , her uncle. I have yet to do some family history of the Halajci living in Drazkovce , another purpose for my visit here. I would like to find out why Ondrejko left Orava for this region and married Otilia to have his children and grandchildren in this village , which was first mentioned by historical record in 1260 .In this village are my cousins Zelmira and Zuzana. They are the grand-daughters of Ondrej and they are like my girl cousins at home. The built-in sweetness of the Halajci is evident always. We do not let the language gap get in the way of simply being together. Zuzka was the one that started this whole ball rolling with me and my desire to see the home of my ancestors , who know how to make a great cup of kava. The espresso is impressive , but the Turkish kava is out of this world. My first refreshment upon seeing Zelka ( shzelka ) , and she makes a mean cup !

When my Father passed away , a little more than 7 years ago , my Sister Suzka put me in charge of his effects. I was astonished to find many letters to Slovakia. Although my Dad and I spoke about our heritage , he did not see it as a link that was alive , as I had ; and even though he and my Mother made a trip here in 1985/86 , he was unimpressed. Among the many letters back and forth , I found the most recent , and sent a letter to the address that Stryko Ondrej was living. My cousin Zuzka sent back a nice letter and invited me to join her on facebook. I have long since scuttled facebook , for many reasons , but at the time it was a great leap forward in my quest to connect with long lost family. I should do an aside here ; for many years I spent a lot of my time looking East and wondering what had become of my family in Slovensko. On both sides of my heritage ; paternal grandparents each. As most of my kind readers would know , I have been obsessed with knowing my Grandparents that had passed on before I was born. The stories of my Grandfather’s ” hardness ” were legendary , as were the stories of the great kindness and love of Grandmother. After many attempts to find any Hlavatovich connection in Slovensko , and failure ; I decided to go with the strengths and am now reaping the benefit of their love and kindness.

So here I am , on essentially the last stop of my ” get-to-know-your-family history ” tour. After this I will head South and begin a path to Bratislava and then Vienna to return , nearly against my will , to the US. I am living in a dream everyday , and now have the added fortune of getting to see a new life come into our family. My cousin Etelka gave birth to a boy about a month ago. His name is Ondrej , what else? The people in this culture pay a great deal of honor and homage to their past. They don’t rewrite it , they simply live with it , both the good and the bad. It is quite refreshing , in all honesty , to be in a place just the opposite from where I have been for the last 59 ears. The love and devotion that my family has for each here is astonishing. In Orava they are no different. I feel very gifted and grateful for a chance to experience this constant inter-meshing and obvious outpouring of their love for one and other. I am looking forward to seeing the whole family after work today and catching up some , getting a chance to peek in to this family over an absolutely mean cup of Turkish Coffee…

Easy To Arrive , Difficult To Depart

Namestie Dolny Kubin


On Thursday , 6 June , Jano and I had a plan to meet in Namestie Dolny Kubin to get a look at Stano Lajda’s Last Supper . Lajda ( Lie-da ) is an artist from Orava who reconstructed da Vinci’s Last Supper on a smaller scale. I had seen it twice , but for an admission cost of 2euro , it was a no-brainer. Any reason to spend time with Jano was a good thing. There were days when I wanted to get out of Oravsky Podzamok : I had visited the castle three times and had wrung it dry of its history and secrets , and I decided to strike out and spend some time in the namestie. On those days , I paid my 64cents , rode the train into Dolny Kubin and went to the namestie. Namestie translates into ” town square ” , literally. It is a large open mall surrounded by shops and churches and has schools on either end behind it. Some of the buildings are among the oldest in town , like the Church of St. Katherine , situated at the North end of the square. It was built on the remnants of the first church in Dolny during the 14th century. St. Katherines is a Gothic church in the Catholic tradition. Down at the South end is The Church of the Augsburg Confession , a Protestant church. It is right next to the Orava Gallery. Across the square is the house of the great Slovak poet , dramatist , translator and political parlimentarian P.O. Hviezdoslav.

I have taken to translating Hviezdoslav’s work , if not for the language practice , but also to get a real sense of how he thinks. Hviezdoslav ( h-vee-ejz-do-slawv ) was a trained lawyer and a banker ; he gave it up to write. His work took place during a time in Slovak history when the Magyars were working hard at limiting the Slovaks in all aspects of their lives. Their language , culture , and every vestige of their nationality was being slowly erased , as the Hungarians pushed ” Magyarization ” on them. This policy was a forced assimilation of culture. We have seen it with the Native Americans in the US. Whereby their children are shipped off to schools ( in both cases ) and made to be some manner of ” better versions ” of their birth cultures. It estimated that nearly a quarter of a million Slovak children were ” relocated and assimilated ” in the efforts of the Hungarians to wipe the Slovaks off the map. Sound familiar ? It was during this period hat the small Slovak intelligentsia really came into their own. Hviezdoslav was one of many.

The breadth and scope of the artistic wealth of Slovakia is jaw-dropping. Slovak writers , painters , sculptors, and musicians are on a par with all other artists. They are innovative and highly creative. Stano Lajda is a perfect example ; Jano and I were off to see his rendering of The Last Supper by da Vinci.

Stano Lajdo – Self Portrait

Lajda has an idea , after much research , to recreate The Last Supper on a much smaller scale. The original painted by da Vinci and finished in 1498. The original was painted on an end wall in a monastery and was 15′ by nearly 30′ ; Lajda scaled it down to roughly 3.5′ by more than 6′. It is lustrous and vivid. Lajda is masterful and a realist that can transform into neo-surrealism in an instant , as the above portrait proves. I have stated in an earlier blog that I think to know a culture , any culture , look at the art that comes from it . Written , spoken , painted , musical or sculpted ; it doesn’t make any difference. The pulse of a culture is in its art. In the Orava Gallery is a vast array of Orava’s art , from it’s earliest iconography ( 12/13th century ) , right to the modern day. Two years ago we stumbled on Warhol , you never know what you will find.

I left Oravsky Podzamok yesterday and met my young cousin Jakub in the namestie near his high school. He was kind enough to bring me to the apartment that his parents Vlado and Alena have made into a mini-penzion. I am in the village that forms part of my ” Golden Triangle ” for Marija Halaj – my Grandmother. Here in this village is the 330 year old wooden church of the Evangelicals. This entire region was at one time Protestant , hence the wooden church. In my next blog , I will include some pictures of this beauty , that doesn’t have a nail in it. I love this region and Lestiny ( Lesh-tin-ee ) is a village built into the hills of valley. Lestiny lies about 2 miles SSW of Pokryvac and due West from Osadka ( which lies directly South , over a mountain from Pokryvac )….ergo the triangle. It will be my last stay in Orava as I will be heading Southwest tomorrow to stay near family on the edge of the Velka Fatra. It will be hard to say farewell , for now , to a place that has occupied my heart for quite a long time….

Fly Fishing & This Life As I Know It

Nymphs and cool water / courtesy of Andrej Policic


We finally had enough dry weather and sunshine for the rivers to calm down enough to go fishing . My guide Andrejko called on Monday night and it would be Tuesday morning early that he would pick me up at the Penzion . Andrej ( Andrejko is the endearment ) is an affable young man in his late 20’s and highly intelligent . Over the course of our 10 hour day we had dialogues about everything from Aristotle to Ichthyology and the Salmonids . We traveled the same route that Jano and I traveled on Saturday , winding through the West Tatra landscape , in and out of the shadows of the mountains , and over passes into the bright sunrise. We snaked down into a valley lush with pine and birch and brightened with fields of rapeseed. The high yellow of the rapeseed fields contrasted with the high peaks streaked white with snow on their South-facing portions , and below the dark pine forests interspersed with deciduous bursts of green and yellow.

Our river for the day reminded me of any that I have fished in Montana. We hiked from the car for about 3km , on a trail above the moving water , never far from the sound of it rushing over its freestone bottom , or lapping against itself as it bounced and rushed away from the mountains toward the Vah River. Our voices loud and direct as we were in Brown Bear country , there was scat all along the trail they shared with Wolves and Red Stag . All of them having left remnants of their diet , perfectly right in our path. Andrejko and I discussed the vibrant wildlife and wild scenery . As he was rigging my line , the faint song of Wood Thrushes echoed through the river canyon . Robins and Flycatchers shot about as if in a natural ballet. At this time of day the hatch revealed Sedges and Stoneflys , we turned over some rocks in the streams and decided that nymphing , or wet flies , would be the order of the day. This is fly fishing that is not a strong suit of mine , to be honest , and he explained it really isn’t his either , but I will have plenty of practice today . Typical Slovak realism , coupled with a hint of optimism. My biggest challenge would not be the nymphing in itself , but striking the hook. I was being given a lesson in fly fishing by the grayling and trout themselves. It would take me all day me all day to get the speed of the strike right ; it wasn’t until the last two hours that I was able to strike quick enough to set the hook.

At 11 o’clock we decided to have a small snack and sat on the bank , feet in the water and talked as we ate. Andrej was surprised that I answered correctly as to why the Slovaks had lasted for 1,000 years under the Magyar yoke. ” The Catholic Church ” was my reply. Andrejko is studying law in Vienna , and was a theology and philosophy major at university. We covered a great deal of ground ; from the Reformation to the notion of Aristotles ” self knowing” . He was surprised that I was able to tie in fly fishing with Aristotle and the other greats , frankly , I was too. As I ate my lunch of bryndza cheese ( what else ) , smoked kolbasa and baguette , we conversed about the importance of looking back for answers to the future. Both of us were well aware of the dangers of forgetting the past – mistakes and successes . We finished off with kava ( coffee ) and Croatian Oranges . I arose to begin casting and a grayling hit my nymph as it dragged in the water. We laughed at my quickness , summoned from a full belly no doubt. We had 8km of the sinuous river to fish . I waded into full boiling pools and for ten minutes was completely foiled by the speed of the strike from the grayling and trout. Even with a ” strike indicator ” ( essential for nymphing ) , the fish got the best of me. Andrejko marveled at my casts ; I admit that humbly , I still don’t think I am that skilled. We were in some tight spots and I somehow managed to stay out of the trees and still get the casts into the proper places. I was very happy that the dust came off quickly , as I hadn’t fly fished since last June and July in Wyoming.

All day long we discussed history , philosophy , and fish. Late in the day , the clouds gathered over us and we switched tactics. Fish on ! Andrejko knew that my strength was dry fly fishing , but it wasn’t possible for most of the day because of the sun , the heat , and the hatch. Now with the cloud cover overhead , we knew the fish were soon to rise and start working the cooler surface water. After another short water and snack break , he tied a large terrestrial on and I felt more comfortable. For the uninitiated , a terrestrial is a dry fly that looks like an adult bug , they most often have antenna , and legs , and perhaps some fuzz here and there. The idea is to mimic the natural. The come up for the easy-to-see meal and after a few failed hits , I finally was able to land quite a few in a row. It just added icing to the cake , and the cake was standing in this wild mountain stream in the home buried deep in my heart now.

” Throw back the little ones and pan-fry the big ones ”

The wind became a stiff breeze , it had been blowing most of the day , it heralded the coming storm. Bang ! Another strike ! Fish on !… they were really coming now. I think they may have been showing me some pity. Graylings , Brown and Rainbow Trout took my fly. I felt a raindrop on my head and kept putting the fly right at the end of a fast moving rapid. Another few raindrops on the smooth water in front of me ; ” keep casting Neko , you’ve got them ! ” … Andrejko egged me on . I moved and cast a perfect put and I saw a sizable Brown come out of the depths to hit and snapped the rod just in time. We landed it and Andrej took a photo as the rain seemed to have moved down the river. My whole body was electric , I was shaking. Andrejko looked at me with wide eyes and asked if I was okay . ” Perfecto ” was my quick reply. I felt like there was no better place to be than in a 1/2 meter ( 2 feet ) of water on a stunningly beautiful Slovak fly stream. I carried on in this fashion for about 45 minutes and felt myself begin to flag.

It was getting late , with a half-hour hike back and an hour drive ; I looked at Andrejko and nodded. ” I think we should save the rest for our next visit ” ; I had reached a point where I was getting a stiff back and I was starting to feel a bit tired as the adrenaline began to wane. we climbed the bank , bush-whacking up , until we reached the trail. As I stepped up onto the flat trail Andrejko gave me a fist grasping high-five and congratulated me on a job well done. ” I have taken clients out and after 2 or 3 hours of getting nothing , they were ready to quit … it is very obvious to me that you are a good fly fisherman ” ; very high praise from a fellow fly-man. I calmly replied , ” I spent many Septembers, year-in and year-out, in Montana and came away empty-handed … I knew that I was learning to have the patience for the river ” He smiled , ” dobre ” , was all he could say. Fly fishing is not for the impatient or the easily frustrated. It takes years to get a good feel for where the fish are and what they are looking for , as far as food. I never stopped trying , and mostly because of the scenery and the gift of nature ; the beauty of the surroundings were often more than enough for me. To stand in the middle of the most gorgeous streams that our creator crafted and be part of the silence , is a gift and I was lucky enough to embrace that consolation prize. The fish were secondary.

Room with a view

Andrejko and I walked down the trail toward his car and as we neared a bend and opening , the magnificent Tatras appeared. Though tired , I was still buzzing from the experience that I’d waited more than half a lifetime for. For me , there is something near-religious in fly fishing. The movie ” A River Runs Through It ” captures the sense of things for me. ” Eventually , all things merge into one , and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words , and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters ” { Norman Maclean }

In my mind , there is no more powerful prose that Norman Maclean weaving fly fishing through this journey of mine. During all of my travels to the mountains of the american west , even as I had dwelled there for some time after graduation in 1986 , it was the combination of the rivers moving and the stoic mountains that fascinated me the most. The steady stillness of the walls of rock , a rampart to weather and water , and then that cool flowing liquid. The wild and unfettered mountain streams and rivers had elicited an unchained sense of self. A sense that I never had growing up , and I came of age in those mountains and in those waters. Always familiar , but never the same. The feeling of fishing for something wilder under the surface , yet seeing an eagle or hawk on the wing above ; elk or moose crossing the river within earshot every bit of it served to awaken a sense of self inside of me. Little did I know that it would be quelled by an addiction that would last 14 years.

Today I spent my time taking walks and applying for study/research grants. I am still in a quandary as they all require an invitation from a teacher or professor at the institution , in which I would be in residence. It will be revealed in due time ; I am hoping to meet with a professor at the Slovak Academy of Science and also BISLA (Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts ) . I am engaging in a dialogue with a professor there and will meet him as well on my return to Bratislava ; I will be there for 3 days before I move on to Vienna to fly back to the states. It has been a beautiful day here in Oravsky Podzamok , only a few more before I head out to further adventures.

A Saturday Extravaganza

Jano’s Meadow looking at Choc / courtesy of Jan Kysel


The meadow we are sitting in is Jano’s favorite place in the whole world . I feel , well , honored . We are surrounded by these verdant mountains , Choc ( ts-hoch ) as the centerpiece on one end of the valley , and to our left , a sweeping upslope into the trees to a mountainside splotched with pine , beech and maple trees . This setting reminded me of so many places I have seen in the Western US . The peace was striking , only the mixed bird songs and the breeze through the trees . I am nearly breathless from the smell of the surrounding trees , the grass in the meadow , and bright cacophony of the avian lilt .

Today Jano says that he has surprises in store , and would not elaborate as to where we were going other than to mention Liptov . We traveled East from the Orava region where the Tatras take a swing from their East/West axis and curve to the Southwest . Our path is serpentine , following the valley floors around rising hills and mountains . We made a quick stop at Lucky ( looch-key ) to see the waterfall .

Lucky Waterfall / courtesy of Jan Kysel

The travertine waterfall is fed by a few gypsum and earthy springs , it flows all year around . There is a spa in Lucky , evidence that geothermal activity is alive and well in Slovensko . We went onto the east and began to enter the valley in which the Liptov region is centered , and the Vah river begins its flowage . The Vah is the longest and mightiest of the Slovak rivers , eventually meeting the Dunaj ( Danube ) at the far southern tip of Slovakia in Komarno .

Our first stop is Liptovsky Hradok . A castle that breaks the ” castle mold ” in that it doesn’t sit on a high commanding site and seems quite more like a fortified storehouse than a defensible castle . It was begun in the 14th century , and as Jano and I walked the grounds of the castle , a better picture emerged of what the idea might have been regarding its location . Castle-diving is always too much fun with Jano , we take delight in pointing things out and discussing various aspects of the architecture ; the shared joy of discovery I think it would be . He and relaxed for a bit and had a drink on the patio of what is a she-she hotel in and around the castle .

We returned to the road in short order and headed North to Pribylina . This time our trail would have us swinging to the Northeast and straight at Krivan ( kree-vahn ) . At turns in the road and from open farmland , the pointed peak summoned us to it . Krivan is like the Grand Teton for the Slovaks . Krivan is a national symbol , and a geographic point of pride . There are higher peaks in the High Tatra , but Krivan has a dramatic presence .


Early-Gothic Church of the VirginMary / Pribylina

In the village of Pribylina , which is wider and more open than Zuberec , there is the Early-Gothic Church of the Virgin Mary . It is just stunning to me that from the foundation in the 12th century and numerous add-ons this church is still standing . What an incredible feeling to go inside and see the wall paintings from that era . Pribylina was a different sort of settlement than we saw last week in Zuberec . Here they are open and exposed to attack and had only the thick walls of their church and manor house to protect them . Where Zuberec was a typical mountain village with subsistence farming and linen-dying as an economic basis , Pribylina was an administrative center , more urban – if you will – and much busier . Wow ! What was Jano going to follow this up with . He kept saying that there was more … there is .

Tomorrow , 4 June 2019 I am going to realize a long-held dream . I am going to fly fish the rivers of Slovakia . This blog will be finished , because there is more to Saturday . I will also be able to illuminate ( I hope ) on the joys of standing in the trout waters of my dreams …….

For The Sake Of A Coin-OP


For the past 2 days the weather has been less than agreeable . Yesterday I set off , dirty clothes in a bag and took a train to Dolny Kubin ( 64euro ) and then a bus to the outskirts of town to got my clothes cleaned . No dice ; it was a dry cleaner . The lady said the best she could do was have it back by Monday. ” Buduci Pondelok ! ” , I said . Wow . I explained that I was looking for a coin-operated laundro-mat . She just shook her head. I did what anyone would do in this day and age ; I went back on the internet and looked again with an assortment of different names . She pointed out that there might be one in Dolny near the square. I thanked her, gathered up my ” dirties ” from the counter and stuffed them back into my day pack . After 2 days of looking , I decided to wash my clothes in the sink and in the shower… yeah , kill 2 birds with one stone . I have a habit of taking my shower at night so as to be clean for my bed . Today , I showered at 4 in the afternoon and felt , well – alive.

Here at the Penzion , they have a heated towel rack . Can you guess where everything is drying? It took less time than I thought and now I will be washing all my stuff this way , until I can get to a facility that has a washer and dryer . My apartment in Banska Stiavnica will have one , but that isn’t for 3 weeks . No problem . This life is all about solving little snags that come up day-to-day.

I am still in the process of applying for a Fulbright ” At Large ” grant to study here in Slovensko. I’m going to make damn sure there is a laundry room on sight , or I’m close to a coin-op. In my wanderings about Dolny , I ended up in the square and decided to stop and see my friend Milan , the curator of the Orava Gallery. I had a nice conversation with Milan about getting the world in the know about Slovensko . He mentioned that the kids here are disassociated from it . I smiled and said that it’s the same back in the US . We called up youtube and I proved it to him with some videos of people on the street not being able to recall even the biggest concepts of US history … some were supposedly college grads. He said it is the same here . This makes me want to either teach at home or come back here and weasel my way in and teach these kids a thing or two .

We talked for quite some time , since the gallery was experiencing a ” slow day “. As with most people I talk to , Milan really liked the US on his visit , but didn’t want to live there. Milan and I got in to the fracturing of culture , and it can be just as bad here as in the US. Here though, they are less tribal. The lines separating people politically are thinner and grayer. I am continuing to write and research for a book , and I want the world to know what the Slovaks have here. Unfortunately , the next generation is as disaffected as most in a democratic society. I think it would be easier for me to get the kids fired up about their history here in Slovensko , than back in the US. Slovak history doesn’t have the revisionism that US history does . With the exception of their performance during WWII with the Jews , the Slovaks have a long history of being on the shittiest end of the stick. Their subjugation and oppression by the Hungarians is nothing less than epic and they endured somehow to come out of the Soviet era ( very short by comparison ) , verily in tact. The last 25 years have seen them searching for a national identity ( a work in progress ) , and a solid footing economically in the EU framework. I happen to think they are doing it right , albeit putting too much emphasis on making cars , but they are building slowly and with optimism . They have a great deal to be proud of , but I wouldn’t put them on the world stage just yet . It will take a few more years and at least a coin-operated laundromat in every region , if not district…now that’s a qualifier!!

Day Tripper



Sundays are , for Slovaks , a day of worship and family . They are an active culture , where being outside is an integral part of any family activity – weather permitting . The biggest part of this activity is food . Jano , his Mother Elena , and Father Jan drove down from Pokryvac to pick me up and then we swung up toward the very top of Slovakia to Orava Reservoir . They were going to spend the day with their daughter Elena and her husband Gero . Jano would meet them later as Jano and I planned on Saturday to go to Zuberec ( zoo-burr-ets ) , a village from ( mostly ) the 15th century .

Zuberec is in the foothills of the Western Tatras and among many things has this entire village to walk through and remember what life was like in the past . Of course on our drive up we were side-tracked as road crews were paving a bridge . It’s a major reworking of a bridge of the Orava River on the major road from Poland into Slovakia . With the usual ingenuity , they called ahead and Jano drove around the construction far enough for his parents to side-step the construction while Gero drove down and picked them up on the other side . If we had to backtrack , it would’ve taken at least an hour and a half out of our time . Brilliant problem solving !

The village is like walking through any outdoor museum in the US ; think Williamsburg in Virginia , or Salem near Springfield in Illinois . You can feel the history , and get a real sense of how our ancestors lived on a day to day basis . It was not any life , I think most of us know this , with absolutely none of our modern conveniences . Everything was done by hand . I have a greater appreciation for what my Grandparents did growing up and also , what they gave up to come to the US . The amount of space they lived in was dictated by their wealth and status with-in the village and then , of course the larger world outside . Since my maternal ancestors were millers ( by and large ) , they were just a step up from the serfs or somebody bound to the land . Without lashing the reader too often with my historiography , the Magyars ( Hungarians ) were unforgiving and relentless in their mission to either subjugate the Slovaks , or wipe them out entirely . It was only during the reign of Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II , roughly 50 years – from 1740 to 1790 . They were among the first of the ” enlightened royalty ” and they lifted , if only for a short period , the heavy-handedness of the Magyar rule over the Slovaks .

Here in the Upper Kingdom , I can still get a glimpse of that near-freedom they were granted . The churches from that period are gorgeous and florid in their architecture . I’ve read the writers that came to the fore with the training that afforded them to express themselves with the written word , Dakujem Pane Bernolak ! Standing in Zuberec , I looked up at the moutains , framed by passing clouds and wondered what it would be like to live in this village and on Sunday , sit in the grass and picnic with the entire village . It was how they did it in those days . I guess finding happiness in the small joys was the only reality that might help them to survive .

Smeltery in Nizna
Smeltery window

We left Zuberec chatting on like high school boys after winning the big game . Zuberec was on our radar from my last trip . On our way to the village we had passed this former smeltery outside of Nizna ( neezsh-nuh ) and made a plan to stop and see it on our way to Ustie ( Elena and Gero’s house ) . We walked across what is now a cow-field and stood in front of this shell of a building from the early/mid-19th century . Ore was smelted and made into iron products for the region . One of just a handful of industrial sites from that period . Slovaks in the Upper Kingdom were relegated to agriculture-related , or mining jobs . This building represents one type of manufacturing that the people of this region were allowed , mostly because it was cheaper to do it here , than to send the raw materials to another place – capitalism in its purest sense . Jano and then headed for Ustie to finish our incredible day with family , in quite typical Slovak style . We ate finger food and then ate a soup , meat and cheeses with bread . Elena ordered pizzas as she was busy . Perfect ! We watched the finals of the World Hockey Championships and carried on our visit with …what else ? Music and drinks . Gero is a big fan of Collegium Musicum , as I am , having been turned on to them by him in 2017 . Politics , and economics ; whatever came across the board . It was very enjoyable , and I reflected on the day as I went to sleep with a smile from more than complete day trippin’….

All Over The Map

Pokryvac and The Tatras / Courtesy of Jan Kysel


Today was a killer day ! I visited Oravsky Hrad ( in the sunlight this time ) with my cousin and partner-in-crime Jano Kysel ; and we covered some major territory afterward . We ended up on the top of the mountain separating Pokryvac from Osadka . Behind me , over my bald head are some of the fields that Grandma and her family worked in . At the top of the photo are the Tatras , to my East are those gorgeous mountains .

Jano and I drove into Dolny Kubin and had lunch at one of his fave restaurants , and we then traveled to nearby Zaskalie to look over renovation of the farmhouse his maternal grandmother was born in . The farmhouse dates from the 18th century . While in the village , we stopped by to see our cousin Alena . Of course we have kava and cheesecake ! Her husband Dusan ( Doo-shahhn ) put his work on hold for a few minutes and joined us . Alena is one of my many sweet cousins . We carry on , undaunted by the fact that we can’t speak each others language and then laugh like crazy when Google translate gets our message wrong . Jano and I had a great visit and had fun with Dusan giving me a my ” Slovak lesson ” for the day . Jano then took me to a Manor House that was restored to a spa and hotel – kind of chic , but Martin was very gracious and led us on an hour-long tour of the Manor house . The former stable was restored from the ground up and re-purposed as the hotel/spa . The gentleman that owns it now , a local builder , has gone to great lengths to restore it to the original – wherever possible . The farm and Manor House date from sometime in the 17th century . The Farm/Estate itself was first mentioned in the early 14th century !!

Pokryvac & Mala Fatra / Jan Kysel Photographica Internationale

I revel in the fact that I am wrapped in this history . Jano and I finished up on our most favored ground ; the mountain/hills above Pokryvac . Directly over my fuzzy bean are the Mala Fatras . The Mala Fatras are a range of mountains that are stunning in and unto themselves . Our ancestors gave us a love for the mountains , infused in our combined DNAs . Just off of my right shoulder is Pokryvac , the center of the universe in my soul now . There was a time when it was the vast , broad-shouldered Rockies of Montana ; I’ve down-sized and these verdant mountains fill every fiber of my being . The air is fresh and clean . I’m also bolstered and lifted up by the fact that today was the first day of sunshine since I’ve been in Slovensko …almost 2 weeks !! .

Jano is truly more than a cousin . Our conversation is filled with not only Slovakia , the Magyars , and current events . Our discussions run the gamut ; from reading and music , to food and other histories , and politics of shared interest . He awakens a better sense of self in me and in turn , pushes me to think other-than I normally would . We are , to coin a phrase …” all over the map ” . Just the way I like it ….

I am beginning to feel more grounded here ; more so than in the US . Although I have been researching and note-taking for a book ( I am not sure where it’s going ) , Jano and I are still discussing where my focus should be . I haven’t found it yet . I have many more days left here and many more family members to see . Maybe it will come to me then . Hopefully I will be able to see people in Bratislava , who are far better informed than I , and it will narrow focus . I am sure of one thing – that it will appear without forcing it . In that manner I will be more comfortable with it . I don’t like things to be contrived ; I like it when notions come to me naturally and without me pushing an agenda in my head … Tomorrow ? It looks like another day of sunshine and a visit to Ustie ( ooo-stee-eh ) to where it all began 2 years ago . With my cousin/sister Elena and Gero , along with their young daughters …I love the ” Pinkies ” . Who knows what that may reveal …more high jinks with my partner-in-crime , and more discovery .

An English Holiday

Woodcarving c.mid-19th Century


I began a tour of Orava Castle this morning , the 3euro version , and was surprised to see a wave of humanity come up the cobblestone path while standing at the front gate of the castle. It was raining pretty steady ( big surprise ) and I thought that might deter some folks from coming to visit . I also chose the earliest tour , figuring the tour buses wouldn’t disgorge the Czech , Polish , and German tourists until after noon . I was wrong on all accounts . ” Okay ” , I thought to myself , ” this is just part of the experience – you’re a tourist too ” . I have to keep my trip in perspective ; I am a tourist , but in my mind , I’m a pilgrim again . The places that I have visited , and have yet to visit , are reserved in my heart and mind as somewhat sacred . I don’t view them so much as historical places , as much as sites and events on a timeline , connected and influencing each other . My view here is that I am very aware of the ” truth ” behind much of the history of the Slovaks , and the larger world in general ; I understand how certain cultures have exaggerated their importance above those they subjugate and repress . Our own history in the US is fraught with it . Year after year , decade in , decade out .

In further study of Slovak history , and Central Europe – in the larger context , I can see why the Slovaks are suspicious of politicians and people from the outside . As I dig deeper for my book ( I still , as of yet , have not narrowed my focus ) , I see common themes that occur in our histories ; the US and Slovakia . There have been promises made and promises gone unmet . The majority of Slovaks I have met and spoken to , hope that their country can continue to develop in spite of the politicians . They are very thankful that large corporations don’t have a say in their government .

The rain stopped about an hour after I returned to my room and I decided , after walking out on the tour , to go for a nice long walk and get some fresh air . I have been seeing the woodcarving ( above ) and made a point to circle around and sit in the square and look it over . The church bell rang 3 times and the echo on the mountains around me was a neat effect while staring at the statue . He reminded me of a sentry from an age long past . He was carved as a Oravan in typical dress of the region . Again , I am reminded of the power of naive art . Perhaps this statue is of someone in particular . I will have to ask my cousin Janko as he always has the inside scoop on things of this nature .

I had kava this afternoon with a pair of ladies from England . They were lovely Grandmums exploring a place they had only read about in the news . They were fascinated by the Slovak past as we shared history and politics . They were friends since grade school and retired together to travel . Both had lost their husbands , in nearly the same breadth of time , a few years ago and decided to strike out and see Europe the way they wanted to . They rented a car in France and drove to Slovakia from Austria . It was very neat talking to them and getting their slant on the world , i.e. , ” what were the Americans thinking with Trump ” , and ” hopefully May can get away before Brexit becomes a reality “…things of that nature . They are staying at my Penzion and perhaps we will have supper together . Speaking English might make my Slovak lazy , but it was charming to talk to them . They were astounded to know that this village was founded in the middle of the 13th century ; mostly because of the castle , but also because it lies between the Orava River and the main road ( at that time ) to Poland . They didn’t know about the history of the area known for 1,000 years as the Upper Kingdom by everyone but the Slovaks . In a way , I think that is what irks me , the rest of the world knows nothing about this country . Some people I’ve spoken too said they couldn’t believe it was ” this nice behind the Iron Curtain ” . When I tell , them that the ” curtain ” came down with the Berlin Wall , they give me a befuddled smile . I’m not joking , a great many people I spoke to at O’hare Airport were still 20 years behind . I’m going to wash up and head down to the dining room and see if the ” Grandmums ” are around and see how they are doing . Maybe another post later …I’ve got to get away from this screen for awhile….

I walked into the dining room to fanfare . Ellen and Anne were at a table with a young couple I recognized from the start of the castle tour . The Grandmums introduced me to Heller and Godwin , a young Swiss couple on a Spring trip . Ellen bade me to recount more Slovak history to the couple , but they wanted to know about what was going on in the US with our president and the rest of the americans . We were still at it after coffee and dessert , so we reconvened to the patio ; they had beer and wine , and I had a Kofola draft . Godwin and I started talking about the right of center politics in Europe and I told him that there is always a mention of it in my Foreign Policy ” Morning Brief ” . I subscribe , so it’s an added bonus . We had a good laugh when Anne doubled down and asked that we declare our political leanings , no judgement … just put it out there . It actually made it easier , we knew where each other stood and we were surprised at how close everyone was . They all gave a collective ” whoooaa ” , when I declared ” Anarcho-syndicalist ” , then laughed when I explained that I’m a dreamer . It was a very memorable time spent . The over-arching theme was how much stronger the sense of nationalism has become and the way that it equates to the politics of our respective countries . Earlier this Spring the Slovaks elected their first-ever woman President . A move many are saying is the nation’s answer to the populism of Fico who was forced to step down . The Swiss couple and the Grandmums were in agreement that there is a tide of skeptics regarding the EU . My Slovak friends , and my family are happy , up to now , as to where Slovensko is going . They were a nice group to meet , and I’m better for it . I may see Heller and Godwin a bit more this weekend , as they don’t leave until Monday ( Pondelok ) . The Grandmums are heading down to Croatia and then Macedonia . We cautioned them about the Hungarians , they along with Poland were part of our discussion on the far right . Ellen cooed and hoped she could meet Orban , the Hungarian head-man ….A man in the Trump mold . We were still laughing and carrying on as we said goodnight from our doorways . Maybe one more time at Breakfast , but I have plans with Janko tomorrow…who knows ? I’m glad I was able to share just a bit of an English holiday …and Swiss too !

Light Enough To Travel

My Ride Is Here !

Part X

The rain hasn’t stopped ; The Orava River was flowing like a green-brown magic carpet in all of its roiling turbulence . I decided to take the train North to Tvrdosin ( let’s all try that at home ! Tvrrrdohsheen … very good ) . With only about 12km ( 7mi ) of open country separating me from Poland , I may not get any further North in Slovakia , unless I go and visit Elena , Gero and their girls . They are Northwest of me , on Orava Lake , a reservoir that the Orava River flows from . Their house is is a short bike ride from the Polish border . The countryside rolls and opens into small meadows with each turn of the track . We make stops in the tiniest towns , and then roll on into the foothills of the West Tatras . The fog clings to the trees in wisps , like a cotton-ball sticking to Velcro , giving the landscape an even greater mystical look .

I walked out of the station in a steady down-pour and kept a good stride as I knew I only had to go a few blocks to the All Saints Church ( I’ll spare the name in Slovak …you’re probably still trying to wrap your tongue around Tvrdosin ) . All Saints Church is stunning , not only in its architecture , but in the fact that it was built in the late 15th century and rebuilt in the current Renaissance style in the 17th century . There has been a church on this site since the middle/late 1400’s !

All Saints Roman Catholic Church ( back )

All Saints Roman CatholicChurch ( front )

The draw for me is that many of the articular churches were built without nails . Our church in Lestiny , which you will see in a later blog , was built the same way and because it is Evangelical Lutheran , it lacks the glitz of the Catholic Churches . One aspect of Slovak history and culture is the role that religion played in the day-to-day routine of the people . The Catholics , Protestants ( their many forms ) , Eastern Orthodox , and Judaism are just a few of the 18 registered religions here .

I thought about the simple but elegant beauty of that church as I walked back to the train station in the driving rain ; I let the rain fall on my face and looked over my glasses for navigation as the rain obscured , smeared and piled up on my glasses . My wool cap was entirely soaked , but I was happy . I decided that I wasn’t going to spend another day in my hotel room , or in the dining room forcing Martina to make me espresso after espresso . Martina is my main hostess/waitress ; a very bright and perceptive young lady that is smart enough to discuss the history of her country with me , and yet will defer when she doubts herself . The whole staff is super at the Penzion , but that doesn’t ease cabin-fever . I was thinking of the Be Good Tanyas song : Light Enough To Travel ( thanks Kinger ! ) , and how I’ve managed my time and travel . I got stuck in a few spots but didn’t flip and figured it out . My language skills are getting only marginally better ; I still haven’t developed the ear to pick words out , yet . My cousins assure me it will come to me . Tomorrow will be the 2 week mark since my arrival in Central Europe . It has been 14 days of inner and outer discovery . I’ve finally gotten accustomed to the Euro-light pop that Martina will blast , at times , and the food has become ” comfort food ” for my body and for my soul .

Tomorrow will be dry ( finally ! ) and I will take my first tour of the castle that I’ve been poring over from below . I’m sure it won’t be the last , as a few of my cousins want to see it with me . Being the history-weasel that I am , I will jump at any excuse to see it . I will post the best photos that I can , but it won’t be easy to satisfy you all . The damn thing is so picturesque and I’m beginning to see the beauty in it from down here . In the meantime-in-between-time , I’m walking by the souvenir stands as I have made a decision to ” keep it light enough to travel…don’t let it all unravel…nooo ” , Peace .

Robin Hood and Ma’le Muddy

Janosik and Muddyslovak – Orava Gallery

Part IX

One of the places that I knew I had to get back to was Orava Gallery in Hviezdoslav Square ( Hviezdoslavovo namestie ) . The gallery is housed in the former County House from the 17th century when Dolny Kubin was made the County seat . It was renovated to its current state and is the perfect setting for the art of this region . At the North end of the square sits St. Katherine’s Church built on the remnants of the first Roman Catholic church in the 14th century . That’s almost 700 years old folks . To the left of the gallery building is the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession ; for all of my Lutheran friends out there . Inside the gallery , I was met by Milan . He smiled broadly as I reminded him of our meeting 2 years ago .

Romaine , my cousin Jan Kysel ( key-zil ) , his sister Elena and her husband Gero were walking through the square during a festival ; Jan and I were discussing the architecture and history of the square ( mostly him schooling me ) and we walked to the building that houses the gallery . We stood looking at the Evangelical Church , as he was telling me the history of it , I turned around to face him and saw a huge banner hanging from the side of the gallery . There , floating in the slight breeze was Andy Warhol . I had to look twice . I yelled to Romaine and Elena to look at the banner and they had a look of surprise too ! 8700 miles from home and I was going to see Warhol in a museum NOT called MOMA or Art Intstitute of Chicago…fantastic ! We looked at our watches and saw that the gallery was closing soon but decided to take a shot and see if we could get in . Hurrying in through the curved Gothic doors we were met by Milan and he was very gracious . Gero played the ” family from America ” card and Milan kindly allowed us access …. to the whole gallery . I’m sure Gero over-paid or greased the tip jar , he was very generous in that respect . Andy Warhol was the son of immigrants from the Carpatho-Ruthene region of Eastern Slovakia . He was born in Pittsburgh Pensylvania . The Carpatho-Ruthenes ( or Rusyn ) are a distinct ethnic group living in the borderlands with Ukraine . The Eastern Carpathian range extends toward the South here and it is considered a separate region in Slovensko . For a Slavophile they are a very interesting group to study . In the end , we were able to see Warhol’s vast work , on loan from his museum in Medzilaborce near his ancestral town of Mikova . It was a wonderful experience to share it with my wife and cousins . I believe to truly know a culture , you have to examine it’s art . Art can represent not only the artist , but also the prevailing mood of the place in which the art was produced . Art captures everyday life , it captures old and new notions of the artists society , and it broadcasts those notions outward . Art can be trained into the artist , but I think the best art is naive art ; art that isn’t contrived .

Orava Gallery – Front

After roaming and wandering through the gallery for 2 1/2 hours ( it is on 3 floors ) , I chatted with Milan , he agreed to lunch , and I thanked him again . This was a very special portion of my excursion through the Upper Kingdom ; it left many more questions than answers . I sat on a bench in the square and jotted down notes for further research . I thought about the iconography that filled an entire wing , and how the church kept the Slovaks grounded and gave them , not only solace , but a place to gather and visit – exchange news and ideas . Most of the icons were carved and painted by local artists , lost to eternity , they were gifted – and naive . Their compassion and piety drove them to craft wonderful wooden and stone statues and statuettes . There were also carvings of myths and legends . In the top photo , I am standing next to Juraj Janosik , known locally as a Slovak Robin Hood . ( Yer-eye Yanoh-shik ) Janosik has a story as sweeping as any of the Slovak historical great . Unlike Svatopluk’s reign ( we saw him in the photo of Bratislava Castle from an earlier blog – you know , the dude on a horse in front of the big white building ) , Janosik didn’t really conquer anything but seemed bent on upsetting the status quo in late 17th and early 18th century Upper Kingdom . Janosik was known for being especially chivalrous and his territory is thought to extend into Poland and as far west as Bohemia and Moravia in present-day Czech Republic . I have been to his hometown of Terchova ,and wandered through the Mala Fatra mountains in his home territory . Janosik became a popular legend as a symbol against oppression . I can’t help but think about my Grandmother handing down the legend and story in Slovak culture . The statue of Janosik was carved by Stephan Sivan ( Shtephahn Sivahhnyuh) a wood-carver from Babin ( Bahbeen ) , directly North of Pokryvac , a man devoted in piety and gifted in woodcarving . His statues of everything from Madonna and Child to Beehives ( nearly life-sized women , with a slit for a mouth and a door on the back to access the honeycombs ) reflected his essence of being in Orava . I saw the display on the last last trip and I was able this trip to spend more time poring over each statute , statuette , and figurine to get the feeling he was trying to convey . I love naive art in all forms ; it is the result of a person’s emotional and physical state , without the interference of a formal training to get in the way … straight from the heart and soul . In the end , it is the essence of my trip here in Orava….just me and Robin Hood , trying to bring peace and comfort to those around us , and for me further meaning….