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Farewell to Slovakia

Part 12 of Leslie Turek's Journey to Slovakia

Last lunch with Katya and Juraj

Today was to be our last visit to the village of Torysky before leaving Slovakia tomorrow. When I first woke up, I saw snow falling onto my dormer window, but when I finally got outside, I saw that the snowfall had been a light one, and hadn't really stuck to the streets.

Chickens in the snowWhen Paula joined us, I showed her the folk song book I had purchased is Kezmarok and asked her to tell me if the words were in modern Slovak or in dialect. She went through it carefully, and told me it was a mixture, and then on the drive to Torysky went through it song by song, telling me for each one if it was modern Slovak or not. She also translated some of the words. Most of the songs were about love - about meeting your sweetheart under the village tree, or weeping for your young man going off to war - or about village life - picking the ripe raspberries swaying on the vines, or dancing with the Hussars in the pub. Here's one I liked:

My mother has told me
that I have to marry
My freedom I will not sell
I have cheeks red and eyes merry
I don't want to have cheeks pale and eyes sad
(Checking my dictionary, I noticed that the Slovak the word for "unmarried" (slobodny) is the same as the word for "free".)

Arriving in Torysky now felt very familiar, like coming home. At the same time, it also felt like arriving in a different world. There was a light sprinkling of snow on the ground, and we could smell woodsmoke and hear a rooster crowing in the distance.
Great-aunt Katya in her kitchenKatya's pirohy
Katya was expecting us, wearing a colorful blouse and a fancy cap with a lace browband, and bands of bright-colored embroidery in red, green, and yellow. When we arrived, she was busy working in her kitchen cooking pirohy. The potato-stuffed dumplings were all made (which was too bad, as I'd like to have watched her make them) and were laid out on the table on a linen cloth. As we watched, she cooked them in batches in a pot of boiling water on the stove, then transferred each batch to a bucket of cold water before draining them in a colander.

While she cooked, she talked of her children. "We have six children and they are all in the world. There are no jobs here. The first and last were boys, and the 4 in between were girls." And she told us about each of her children and where they were living now. One of her grandchildren, one of a set of twins, is a nun. As children, the twins were completely alike. No one knew she was going to be a nun until the mother superior came and took her away from home. Katya and Juraj were invited to the taking of vows. Many people from the village went on buses, and there was a big feast afterward. Nuns used to be cloistered, but now things are more open, they even work among people can take care of their parents.

Katya's Easter eggsKatya had set aside two cardboard egg crates, each containing a dozen kreslice (from kreslit, "to draw"), decorated Easter eggs that she had made. These were gifts for my father and me to take back to America. I was very glad to have them, because I have always been interested in these eggs. When I was a child, my grandmother told me about her mother making them, but she herself had never learned how to make them and so she couldn't teach me how to do it. When I was in college I did some research and learned how to make Ukrainian Easter eggs, which are very similar. The eggs are made by drawing on the eggshell with beeswax. When you then dye the egg, the dye does not stick to the wax-covered portions, which remain white. Then you heat the egg gently and wipe off the wax. (Amazingly enough, the eggs Katya gave us made it all the way back intact and are now sitting in a basket on my mantelpiece.)

We then moved into the main room to eat lunch, which started off with mushroom soup. Katya and Juraj told us how they used to pick the mushrooms themselves, but now they buy them from the woodcutter in the fall and store them in the root cellar. Katya apologized for the lunch by saying, "Two times I cooked a meat meal for you, but you did not come." I told her that pirohy was better for us than meat, because in the U.S. it's easy to get meat, but very hard to find pirohy. (I'm not sure she believed that, even though it was very true.)

As we ate the pirohy, which was served with melted butter flavored with chives, we talked of different kinds of food: brinza, a special sheep cheese that is used in the pirohy filling; bobaki, dough like pirohy, made long and thin with no filling, cooked in butter and onions; and pagacy, a layered bread filled with potatoes or saurkraut. Katya gave my father a jar of horseradish, and Paula explained the maple syrup now that she understood it a little better.

Katya mentioned that she also had relatives in the Bridgeport area in the United States. Her sister, Martha Pirhallova, had married a Casper and had 11 children, including two pairs of twins. I remembered that my mother had a friend by the name of Pirhalla and wondered if she was any relation.

Juraj was sad that we were leaving, and said "I won't be here the next time you come." He said he is getting old, has rheumatism, and has lost many of his teeth, so that he couldn't speak as clearly as he used to. "I have enough of life", he said sadly.

Village ladies at car windowJuraj talked about the house we were in. "Your father was born here", he said to my father. "Your grandfather and great grandfather built the house. The wood came from the other side of the stream. After they had cut all the wood, a big storm came and a flood took away the beams, so they had to start all over."

When the time came to leave, Juraj cried openly, and repeated that he would not be here the next time we came. My father tried to reassure him by pointing out that he had said the same thing on my father's last visit, and he was here now. Katya said, as we left, "God be with you all the way to the USA".

As we started to drive away the car, two village woman approached us and also asked us to look up relatives in the U.S. Their names were Anna Galida, of New York, and Maria Sivetsova. Didn't I say that everyone in Slovakia has relatives in the United States?

Mayor Carak

My father had a brought a copy of our church calendar from the United States, which he thought the priest might like to have, but when we stopped by the priest's house, there was no answer. So we went instead to visit Mayor Carak and to ask him to give it to the priest. It was good that we stopped by to see the mayor, because he had been thinking about our previous visit, and had a lot of things to tell us and to give us.

He told us that he was in the midst of preparing for the presidential election which was to be held on May 15. Each person would get 10 ballots, each ballot bearing the name of one of the candidates, and they would select one to drop in the ballot box.

Since our last visit, Mayor Carak had talked to his father and learned a little of his family history, which turned out to be rather closely entwined with our own. My grandfather, Peter Turek, went to the U.S.A. with Michael Carak. Michael had two brothers: one, Juraj, was already in the U.S., and the other, Jan, remained in Torysky. Mayor Carak is Jan's grandson, and is also named Jan. His father, Stefan, who is 80, remembers this very well and would like to learn about his uncles in the U.S.A. He showed us a photo of George Charak, the son of Juraj in the U.S., and he gave us a letter he had written for any potential relative that we might find.

[After returning, my father did succeed in finding Juraj's one living child, and descendants of 5 of his other children. He has not been able to find out what happened to Michael and his family.]

The mayor told us that this summer Torysky would be celebrating its 715th anniversary. He showed us the flag and seal of the town, which features the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. The colors are red, yellow, and white on a blue field. He also gave us a Slovak book with lots of photos called, L'ud Pom Tatraty (Under the Tatras), a videotape of Torysky's 710th anniversary celebration, and a cassette tape of village folk music.

Then Mayor Carak told us that he had visited America several years ago. He went to Pittsburgh with someone named Michal Kravcik to study reservoirs. At that time, a dam project had been proposed for the area, which would have flooded the village greatly hurt the local economy. Kravcik and others teamed up to put a stop to it.

[I recently saw a notice in an American Slovak heritage newsletter, as follows: "Michal Kravcik, chairman of Slovakia's non-governmental organization People and Water, was the only European awarded the 1999 Goldman Prize for environmental protection in San Francisco CA. Kravcik, author of an alternative idea for management of water supplies in Slovakia and an opponent to water reservoir construction, will use the prize of $125,000 to create a community foundation for protection and development projects on the upper reaches of the Torysa river. Many of our members were involved in the protest that averted the dam being built which would have inundated Torysky,Tichy Potok, and other nearby villages."]

We had to say goodbye to Mayor Carak, and we thanked him for his help and for the many interesting gifts he had given us.

Goodbye to Marta and Anna

We then had a sad visit with great-aunt Anna, who was not feeling very well on this last visit. She had not been eating very well, and was feeling cold, even though Marta had stoked up the fire and the house was quite warm. While we were there, Marta hovered over Anna solicitously, trying to get her to eat some soup, rubbing her feet, and warming her with a hot water bottle (actually a 2-gallon plastic soda bottle filled with water than had been fetched from the well and heated on the wood stove).

Marta told us that she used to work on the switchboard at the hospital in Levoca until she had recently retired. On vacation, she worked as part of crew planting trees in the forest. They had to wrap each tiny tree with some sort of repellent to keep animals from eating them.

We told her how we had visited Jan, and how we all danced the polka. Marta told us that Slavka's mother helped support them when Jan was out of work. "He loves his daughters and they love him", she said.

We talked of politics. Marta said that nobody likes the prime minister. His parents were educated people, although they were gypsies. It's not because of his race that people don't like him, but because he's not doing well for the people. There are not enough people working to pay for all the welfare programs. The country has a 23% value added tax.

Marta give me an embroidered Christmas scarf that she had made, and told me that she would make me an embroidered doily and collar. When we said goodbye, Anna was still feeling cold, and we felt bad that we had to leave on such a sad note.

On the way back to Levoca, I noticed some rustic shelters by the side of the road and asked my father to stop so I could check it out. They stood in a beautiful mountain clearing, surrounded by pine trees, with the sounds of wind in the trees and birds singing. It turned out that it was a place where several cross-country ski trails started out, and there were some nice maps showing the trails and their elevation and difficulty.

We took Paula back to Poprad one last time. The weather had cleared since yesterday, and the mountains over Poprad were quite a beautiful sight. Paula said that she was sorry to see us go, and asked us to stay in touch. And we were sorry to say goodbye to Paula. Her enthusiastic help had really made the trip a wonderful experience for both of us. But the time had come to leave.

We went back to our penzion and had a relaxing evening, packing our bags for the long drive back to Vienna in the morning.

The museum village of Vlkolinec

We had two stops planned for our trip back to Vienna. The first was the museum village of Vlkolinec, a few miles south of Ruzumberok, which is a major town about 30 miles west of Poprad (see map). The drive into Vlkolinec was a gorgeous drive up through a verdant mountain valley with sweeping views in all directions.
View near Vlkolinec

When we reached the end of the valley, the road switch-backed up to a mountain ridge, where we got our first glimpse of Vlkolinec, which was perched on top of a windy hill.
View of Vlkolinec

To the left of the village, fields and fruit trees ran in horizontal stripes across a sloping hillside. The village stream was just a tiny rivulet, which you can see on the right side of the second picture below.
Vlkolinec fieldsVlkolinec village and stream

Here's the main street of the village. One of the houses on the left side of the street was set up as a museum with an interior demonstrating the traditional living arrangements, but it unfortunately was only open for visitors during the summer. We were free, however, to stroll through the village and view the many fine examples of wooden folk architecture.
Vlkolinec main street

Although a protected historical area, Vlkolinec is inhabited, and every so often a car could be seen, although I tried to not include them in my pictures. There was also a house under construction, but the traditional building techniques were being used, including this sort of distinctive shingled roof. My father asked the workmen if he could take with him a sample shingle, and they said that was fine. The cross was often seen as a decorative element. In the second picture, there is a cross cutout on the gable, and also a cross on top of the outbuilding roof.
Vlkolinec houseVlkolinec house

Driving to Vienna

We continued our drive south from Vlkolinec, returning to Vienna via a different route than we had taken on our way out. This route involved crossing the Low Tatras, still a major mountain range. But since we were starting at a higher altitude than the lowlands to the south of the mountains, going in this direction involved more downhill driving than uphill driving. This was good, because in the other direction (which my father had taken on his last visit), you tend to get stuck behind slow-moving trucks on the uphill grades. It was a lovely drive, with many spectacular views. At the top of the mountain, we passed a cluster of ski resorts.

The main city on the south side of the mountains was Banska Bystrica, the location of our next planned stop, one of four MacDonald's in Slovakia, and the only one outside of Bratislava and environs. I know this was not a very classy thing to do, but after two weeks, we were both starved for familiar food, even if it was MacDonald's. I was also hoping for Coke that tasted more like Coke in the U.S., but I was disappointed in that, as even the MacDonald's Coke tasted terrible to me. I guess it's just formulated for the local taste. But the hamburger and french fries were fine, and we chowed down with enthusiasm. The placemat had an ad introducing Chicken McNuggets (Novinka = new), and included a pronunciation guide and a description of what it was.
McDonald's at Banska BystricaMacDonald's placemat
The drive west from Banska Bystrica was fairly flat. We started driving down a river valley with ridges of hills on each side, through a profusion of flowering trees and shrubs - pink and white cherry, quince, and forsythia were everywhere, and dandelions and other golden flowers lined the roadsides. Streams swollen with snowmelt or spring rains rushed down the hillsides. Eventually, though, the hills faded away and we emerged on the extremely flat plain of the Danube River (even though the Danube was still far away.) We crossed the Vah river, which was very wide at this point, and finally got to Bratislava.

Because the highway did not continue straight through Bratislava, we managed to make a wrong turn, and spent some time trying to get back on track, touring various parts of Bratislava, including the airport, before we found the bridge over the Danube and connected to the highway again. There was a big backup at the customs stop on the border to Austria, and it took us nearly half an hour to get through that. But finally we made it to the Vienna airport, where we gassed up and turned in the rental car.

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