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Folk music

We seemed to find music everywhere we went on this trip. When we arrived at Great-Aunt Katya's house, her daughters Anna and Martha and daughter-in-law Anna were singing folk songs as they worked to prepare the pieroghy for our family dinner. It was very beautiful to listen to the three sisters singing the old songs as they worked together. When we visited the Primary School at Hladovka, the folk music ensemble there entertained us with a selection of American country and western music, like "The Yellow Rose of Texas". And toward the end of our visit, when we stopped by to see the Briscoe family in Torisky, the children sang Slovak folk songs for us, accompanied by daughter Maria on the accordion. It's nice to know that even with all the American pop music that seems to be everywhere, the children of Slovakia are still learning how to perform their traditional music.

The school at Hladovka

One of the interesting web sites my father had encountered in the U.S. was the home page of the Primary School at Hladovka. This site is funded by a project to introduce the internet to the Slovak public schools. My father had corresponded with Miroslav Jurci, who is the computer teacher at the school, and his wife who is also a teacher there. They invited my father to visit them, and he wanted to go to learn more about what is being done to introduce Slovak students to the internet.

Hladovka is in the north of Slovakia, in an area known as the Orava region, named after the Orava Hills, which are north of the western Tatras. It is very close to the Polish border. The drive was several hours from Levoča, where we were staying, but it was a very beautiful drive, going west along the Tatras to the artificial lake of Liptov Mara, then north through the mountains.

When we arrived at the school at Hladovka, the Jurči's were out in front waiting for us. They recognized my father and me from our pictures on my web page, and greeted us all warmly. Both Miroslav and his wife spoke English quite well, which was very nice. They showed us the internet lab at the school, which was a large room with many computers, and took us through some of the classrooms. At the internet lab, there were posters explaining internet terminology (including slang, like the word "newbie"), and they had also posted my father's email letters to them with translations. On one of the computers, I saw that they had my web page bookmarked, and I showed it to Paula.

Miroslav explained that many of the schools in Slovakia have video equipment that allows them to video conference in real time, but Hladovka did not yet have that capability.

    The computer lab at Hladovka;   Miroslav Jurči in his classroom with my brother and father.

Next, Miroslav took us to another building where his two daughters and two of their friends were practicing their music for an upcoming folk music competition. In addition to playing Slovak folk music, their group also specialized in American country and western music, and they performed several numbers for us. (See photo.) Some of the songs were sung in Slovak and some were sung in English, although not all of the girls could speak English and had just learned the sounds of the words. As I mentioned above, they were really good, and my brother captured their performance on his video camera.

After that, we went up to their home, which was just across the street from the school. We learned that in addition to being a computer teacher, Miroslav is an expert on Slovak folk music, and he showed us several music books he had published, which were arrangements of traditional Slovak folk songs for various instruments. (In fact, later when the Brinsko children performed Slovak folk songs for us, the music book they were using was one of Miroslav's books.) The Jurči daughters then modeled the traditional costumes (see photo) and we got to see close up all the intricate embroidery and sequin work that went into making up the designs.

It was very nice visiting the Jurči family. They were very kind, and I felt very much at home in their living room, which was filled with books and papers, just like my home. We could not stay long, though, because of the long drive back, which we wanted to do before it got too dark.

The photo of the sun setting over the Tatras was one of the lovely views we had on the drive back.

Country sights

We got to see a cow being milked (and got to drink a sample of the fresh milk still warm from the cow). We saw a village woman washing her clothes in the stream. We saw a group of men butchering a pig in their front yard, and later ate Cousin Peter's sausage that he'd made from butchering his own pig. We saw storks nesting on top of cottage chimneys in the area around Bardejov.

Making connections

Great-Aunt Katya showed us a letter she had received from her newly-discovered grand-nephew Daniel Pirhalla, who had found out about Katya by reading the story of my first trip on the internet! I was very pleased to have brought about this family connection.

Internet Cafes

I wasn't sure I would be able to find an internet cafe in the wilds of Levoča, but I was pleased to find not one, but two of them! Neither one was actually a cafe, and the connections were very slow and intermittent, but I did succeed in reading and sending e-mail, and occasionally got a look at cnn.com for outside news. One of the internet cafes was in a 500-year-old building just off the main square; it consisted of 3 computers in the front room of a motorcycle parts shop. The other was also in an ancient building, but was associated with a computer store. Cost was about $1 per half hour, but the open hours were very limited (they were both closed on evenings and weekends).

The internet cafe in Bratislava was much more modern. It was a real cafe that served a variety of teas and pastries, it was open in the evenings, and the connection was a lot faster. The price was a tiny bit higher, but still very reasonable.

My cousin, the "boss"

One Wednesday night, we had dinner with my third cousin, Peter Turek, who holds an appointive political office equivalent to being the Mayor of Levoča and the surrounding region. Peter's friend Helena Liptakova, who works at the Levoča archives also joined us and graciously served as translator.

We had an excellent dinner at the Arkada Hotel, and after dinner Peter invited us to join him for drinks at the Hotel Satel, the best hotel in town. He escorted us into a private room, and a waiter at his beck and call brought us round after round of Slivovice (very strong plum brandy) and beer (Slovak beer is really excellent). Sad to say, we all got a little drunk and some of us got a little silly. But Peter opened up to us more than he had on the previous visit and told us a lot of about the current political and economic situation in Slovakia.

He is fairly optimistic about the future prospects. One hopeful sign he mentioned is that US Steel just purchased the big steel mill the Soviets built in Košice. It's not clear, though, whether the improvements will be apparent before the next country-wide election, in time to help the current ruling party.

His office will likely be changed to an elective office in a few years, since major changes are being made to the local government structure to improve Slovakia's chances of being admitted to the European Union.

Peter also told us that in the coming days he would be hosting a delegation from Poland, and on Saturday they would be taking a special trip to the top of the Tatras, on some sort of cable car that people don't normally have access to. He said that he could arrange to bring two of us along on the trip, and invited us to go with him. This sounded great (although a little scary, as there would be no one in the party who spoke English), but we really couldn't accept because Saturday we were committed to go to Great-Aunt Katya's 80th birthday celebration. So we tried to explain this to him, but he kept asking us to come. He also had a gift for us, so we arranged that I would go by his office at 8:00 on Friday morning to pick up the gift and give him the final answer about the Tatras trip.

We said warm goodbyes and staggered back to our hotel.

On Thursday night, after spending the day sightseeing, we went back to the Arkada for dinner. As we entered the dining room, I noticed at the back a long table surrounded by men in business suits. I figured it had to be the Polish delegation. Sure enough, there was Peter in the center of the table. We waved to him, and he excused himself and came over to our table. He offered to buy us a round of drinks, and my brother, who had suffered the most from our Wednesday night excess, practiced his newly-learned Slovak by telling Peter firmly, "Jeden!", meaning "One!". Peter again repeated his invitation to the Tatras and returned to his table, explaining to the group that we were his cousins from America. They all waved to us and we waved back.

On Friday morning, I went to Peter's office at the appointed time. On entering the building, there was a guard station off to the left, so I went up the guard and used my feeble Slovak to say "I am cousin from America", and showed him Peter's business card. He seemed suitably impressed, and repeated with surprise, "You are the cousin of the mayor?" and I said yes. So he scurried out, locking up his guard booth and started escorting me up the stairs to take me to Peter's office.

As we walked, he started telling me a story that appeared to be about his mother going to America. I tried to say "I'm sorry, I don't speak Slovak", and he said that's okay, and he went on with his story, making gestures to his head that I couldn't quite understand. (His mother had a brain tumor, maybe?) When we were partway up the stairs, Peter, who had just come in, caught up to us and saved me from the guard and led me into his huge office.

Peter gave me a very nice art book with English text and excellent pictures of Master Pavol's famous 16th-century wood carvings in the Church of St. James in Levoca. I thanked him and said "For you" and gave him a Harvard University mug, which he seemed pleased to accept. He asked again about the trip to the Tatras - I recognized "Zajtra" (tomorrow) and "Tatras" - and I shook my head regretfully and tried to say that we had family obligations in Torysky by saying "rodina" (family) and Torysky. I gestured to the gray sky and made raining motions with my hands, trying to say that I hoped it didn't rain tomorrow, and he smiled and shrugged as if to say, that's the way it goes.

That pretty much exhausted our ability to hold a conversation without having a translator present, so I asked him if I could take his picture and then said goodbye and went on my way.

McDonalds and the center of Europe

We just missed going to the exact geographical center of Europe at Cremica, which is about 20 kilometers west of Banska Bysterica (the place where we stop for MacDonald's food on the long drive from Levoča back to Bratislava. Since our last visit, the number of McDonalds in Slovakia has increased to nine. They are still mostly clustered in Bratislava, but one is now as far east as Košice.

Martina the artist

I had met the artist Martina Pilcerova at a science fiction convention in the United States. One of the people helping with the art show had heard that Martina was from Slovakia and knew about my earlier trip to Sovakia, and managed to get the two of us in touch. So when I knew I was going to be in Bratislava, I send Martina an e-mail and we arranged to get together for a drink. We had a great talk about her efforts to become a succesful artist and some of the difficulties she had breaking out of the usual mold for women living in Slovakia. (Since that time, I see that Martina is doing very well, and I wish her all the best.)

Visiting the media in Bratislava

In the United States, my father keeps up with the latest news about Slovakia by reading The Slovak Spectator web page and listening to a daily 30-minute English language program produced by Slovak Radio International which is also available on the Internet. When he knew that we would be in Bratislava, he wrote to both of these organizations asking if we could visit. He was particularly looking forward to visiting Slovak Radio International, because he listened to it every day and had gotten to know the voices of many of the announcers (who are mostly women) - Oxana, Martina, Slávka, Hannah, and Katarina. (You can see their pictures by clicking on "About Us" after going to the the Slovak Radio web page and clicking on "English".) We also met Christian, a new announcer who had previously worked for the BBC in England.

Slovak Radio is in a very interesting building which looks like an upside-down pyramid balanced on its point. (You can see pictures of the building by going to the Slovak Radio web page and clicking on "QSL Gallery".) The building is unusual on the inside also. There are offices along the outer edges, a central core with elevators, and a large open area in between, with ramps connecting the elevator core to the offices.

We were greeted very warmly by the staff, who all gathered round in one of the large offices to talk to us. My father started by telling them how much he enjoyed listening to their broadcasts, and how much they helped him keep in touch with what was going on in Slovakia. They, in turn, asked us about our trip - where we had been visiting and what we had been doing. Then they took us on a tour of the basement studios, where we got to watch an actual show being taped, and my father got to meet Sound Engineer Duchan (who is credited on many of the shows).

As we came upstairs again, they decided that they would like to interview my father for a possible broadcast segment. So one of the announcers set up a portable tape recorder and taped a short inteview, which was broadcast a few days after we returned to the U.S. They described receiving his letter, and how happy they are to hear from their listeners, especially in person. They asked my father about his family history and travels in Slovakia, and also about how long he had been listening to Slovak Radio and what he enjoyed most on the show. He said he enjoyed the news and the cultural features, but he especially enjoyed listening to Slovak folk music. So they ended the interview by playing a folk song, which they dedicated to our whole family.

It's a lot more fun to listen to the show now that I have met the people that work there.

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