Part 11 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
We had spent the morning of our second Sunday in Slovakia visiting Bardejov, and then arrived in Poprad at 1:00 to meet Paula. We were due at the home of Jan Petak and his family at 2:00, but we’d allowed an extra hour because Paula wanted to give us a short tour of her home town.
I’ve mentioned before that Poprad is right at the foot of the High Tatras, and normally has a wonderful view of the mountains looming high to the north. But today, unfortunately, it was cloudy and raining, and we could not see the mountains at all.
Paula directed us through the main part of Poprad, which is actually rather spread out, with lots of trees and open spaces between the major buildings. She explained that Poprad originally consisted of 5 separate villages, which is why it doesn’t have a big city center. We passed some apartment blocks, stores, a hospital, two hotels, and a couple of modern glass buildings that housed banks. “We have no money, but we have many, many banks”, Paula commented. She said that the bankers make the most money. Near the edge of the city, we saw the Winter Stadium, which was a center for hocky, football (soccer), and tennis. Beyond that were acres and acres of communal gardens which seemed large enough to accommodate everyone who lived in Poprad.
Paula mentioned that Poprad has the highest airport in the middle of Europe. Many people fly to Poprad and then take the trains to the various High Tatras mountain resorts.
We then entered the preservation area of Spišske Sobota, one of the five medieval towns making up Poprad. This area resembled a small village in the middle of the larger town, with a small, quiet center square surrounded by houses with architecture very similar to that of Levoča. We noticed a nice-looking penzion called the Penzion Dagmar.
Next we drove on to an industrial area at the outskirts of the city, passing a big factory called Tatramat where Paula’s son works. We saw another patch of intensively-cultivated communal gardens, and went on to a residential area with modern single-family houses. Paula explained that there had been very little house construction since the end of the communist era, because no one could afford it.
We finally got the answer to one question that had been bothering us since we first got to Slovakia. We had noticed that in all the larger towns and cities, all of the houses had two separate numbers displayed on the front. We asked Paula about this, and she explained that the red number was the street number, as we use in the United States, and the black number was a unique number of the house within the town. In Poprad, that number was into 4 digits.
The next thing we saw was a big Billa store, a new enterprise run by an Austrian parent company. This was a big WalMart-style grocery store, set in the middle of an extensive parking lot, and painted in bright orange and yellow stripes. Paula didn’t like it because it was so ugly, but it was doing a booming business. For one thing, it was open on a Sunday, which was pretty unusual in this area. We decided to stop by and check it out.
What we found was an American-style supermarket – brightly lit with wide aisles and a big selection of stuff. They had an interesting system for keeping their grocery carts from wandering off. At the place where you picked up your cart, each cart connected to the one in front by a small chain that terminated in a coin box. You had to put a 5 or 10 crown coin in the box to release the chain. Later, when you were done shopping and put your cart back in the row, you could hook up the chain, and your coin deposit would be released. Paula had to explain the system to another shopper who had never used it before.
We picked up a few snack items, then had to move on to meet Jan Petak.
You may remember we that we first met Jan Petak and his family at Anna’s house on our first visit to Torysky, when he had invited us to visit him. Jan is the son of Marta and the grandson of Anna, which makes him my second cousin. We’d arranged the visit, with Paula’s help, on the day before, and when we called him to let him know we were in Poprad, Jan immediately drove down to the center of town to meet us and to lead us back to his apartment.
The Petak’s apartment complex was similar to many we had seen. The outside was a little barren, with no landscaping and a muddy parking lot, but the inside was very modern and comfortable. Jan proudly showed us their computer – the first computer we’d seen in a private home – which was running a Slovak version of Windows. The computer sat on a desk in front of a window that would have had a breathtaking view of the mountains if they hadn’t been shrouded in fog. Jan told us that the computer cost 30,000 crowns ($750), but he had not been able to afford a modem, which would cost an additional 10,000 crowns. My father said that it would be good if he could get a modem so that he could communicate with us via e-mail.
One of Jan’s daughters dropped a disc into the CD-ROM drive and showed us how the computer would play music. She put in a rock and roll disc, but my father requested some traditional Slovak music. So then she put in a polka disc, and before we knew it we were all taking turns dancing the polka with each other in the small room. My father danced with Jan’s wife, Slavka, and I danced with Jan, and then Jan whirled around with Paula, who demonstrated some fancy steps, and then almost collapsed from the exertion. It was fun.
After the polka, we all sat down in the living room and talked with a bit more decorum, as Slavka brought us a big array of food – plates of meat, eggs, bread, coffee, tea, soda, chips, cake, and pickles. We were surprised that there was no liquor served. (So far, liquor had been served at every house we visited except the priest’s house.) Jan explained that his father had a drinking problem, and so with that example in front of him, he had decided that he would not drink. My father said that he admired him for that resolution.
As we talked, a tennis competition was on the television, and we watched as Karina Habsudova of Bratislava managed such a powerful serve that she broke the tie-down strap on the net, and had to wait for it to be replaced. Jan mentioned that Martina Hingas (whom he called Hingasova) had a Slovak father and a Czech mother, and was born in Košice. I was envious of the way their TV station covered the tennis match. There were fewer breaks for commercials, which left more time for replays and analysis, including closeup views of fine points like footwork.
Jan and Slavka told us that they did not speak any English, but their daughters are learning English in school. This was demonstrated by the younger daughter, Mischka, who counted from one to ten in English. (You can see her in the family picture below.) I was then called upon to count in Slovak. I almost got stuck at four, but finally got it, and managed to get all the way up to ten. (“Jeden, dva, tri, štyri, pat, šest, sedem, osem, devat, desat”.) Paula was very pleased.
They told us about some recent trips they’d taken – to Venice, and rafting on the Danube – and passed around their vacation pictures for us to look at. (Here’s my Dad looking at pictures with Jan.) I said that the rafting looked like fun, and Jan said that they would take me with them the next time I came to Slovakia.
We talked about the difficulty of traveling to the United States. Jan said it costs $50 just to apply for a visa, and the cost is not refundable if you are rejected. He said there were 200 people on the waiting list. In order to get a visitor’s visa, you must have property or family in Slovakia. This is because many people intend to stay illegally in the United States. It is thought that if you can work in the U.S. for 1 1/2 years, you can earn enough to live on for the rest of your life. He said that he would like to send his oldest daughter Mirka for a visit when she gets a little older. My father said he would be happy to take care of her when she came.
Slavka (shown here with her daughter Mirka) works in an electronics assembly plant. We learned that we were connected to Slavka in another way – Slavka’s grandmother, Maria Kasper, was the sister of my Dad’s Aunt Katya (married to his Uncle Juraj).
Jan was trained as an engineer, and used to work on highway construction and water filtration plants. But since the communists left, no highways are being built, so now he supervises housing construction. However, only 40 houses have been built in the last 3 years in Poprad. No one has any money – only prominent citizens can afford houses in a section they refer to as “Beverly Hills”. A new house costs 36 million crowns (nearly 1 million dollars).
Jan explained that he was for Mečiar because Schuster made big promises but didn’t live up to them, and because Schuster is a communist (even though they now call themselves democrats). He said that the government officials took property for themselves. He himself had not been paid for 3 months. They stopped building highways due to lack of money and 30,000 people lost their jobs on the highways. Yet they still had to pay laid-off workers 5 months salary, which was wasteful, and now they are being paid unemployment. He said that they Czech Republic has been bought up by German investors, and the new government will allow the same to happen with Slovakia.
After this intense political discussion, Slavka brought us a lovely dinner, a nice rich stew served over rice. I found out later that the stew was made from pork liver (which surprised me, because I usually don’t like liver, but this tasted very good), cooked with mushrooms, leeks, and almonds. I was also surprised to hear that Jan had cooked the stew, although Slavka had made the pastries we were served earlier.
We talked a little about climate, which was difficult because of the need to convert temperatures from fahrenheit to centigrade and vice versa. (Luckily, I remembered the formula, so was able to work it out.) Jan said that the temperature in Poprad in the summer averaged from 22 to 28 degrees centigrade, which I calculated was only 72 to 82 fahrenheit. I told him that our part of the United States went up to 32 centigrade (90 fahrenheit) in the summer. The winter temperature in Slovakia, however, goes down to -27 (-17 fahrenheit), and sometimes as low as -38 (-36 fahrenheit)! We told them about the time we lived in Duluth, Minnesota, where it gets that cold.
Jan told us a little more about his life. He said that we went to a school for surveyors in Košice and finished in 1983. He wanted to be a journalist, but didn’t have enough money to pay the required bribes to get into the right school. So instead he went into the army. Then he passed the exam for studying architecture, but was unable to follow up on that because he had to marry.
My father also talked about his early career – how he started out working in a factory, but was able to attend college on the G.I. Bill, and then went into government service in the Customs Service.
It was getting late, so Paula took one last picture of both families together, and then we regretfully set off back to Levoča.
On Monday, we planned once again to do some sight-seeing on our own. This was our last chance to visit the High Tatras, and even though the day dawned cloudy, we decided to go ahead with our plan.
We had our usual breakfast at the Hotel Barbakan, where the elegant dining room had a habit of playing American popular music. (Which my father deplored, and I usually found intrusive.) This morning, though, it was “YMCA”, a song my sister-in-law just loves dancing to, so I found myself picturing her wild gyrations and almost singing along with the music. It got my day off to a bouncy start.
Now that it was Monday, we could finally stop by the bank to exchange traveler’s checks again. I was shocked to find that the exchange rate had dropped in our favor, even during the week we were in Slovakia. In October, my father had gotten 32 crowns for a dollar; last week I’d gotten 40.93 crowns per dollar; and today it was up to 41.53 crowns.
We started out driving northwest, to the town of Kežmarok. Kežmarok is another traditional Spiss town, whose name comes from the German “Kasmark”, or “cheese market”. We enjoyed walking around Kežmarok; it seemed to have the feel of a college town, with lots of young people in evidence, even though we were told that there was no university there. We did notice a sign for an English-language club that met weekly; I thought it would have been fun to attend if we had been there on the right day, and give people a chance to practice their English on us.
We also found a computer store, with some young people who spoke English. My father enquired about Slovak-language fonts, but it appeared that the only way he could get them was to buy a complete operating system disk, which was a bit too much. He also picked up a flyer about Web access, which was available in Poprad. Later we got Paula to help us translate it (which was difficult because of all the technical terms), but it did appear that the cost was about the same as it is in the U.S. Of course if the absolute cost is the same, the relative cost is much higher because the average salaries in Slovakia are so much lower than ours.
We looked inside the main hotel, called the Hotel Club, which looked very comfortable, and which offered various activities, including horseback riding trips, which appealed to me.We also browsed in a craft store and a very nice book store, where I finally found the beautiful coffee-table book the Torysky priest had shown us, plus a Slovak edition of The Hobbit. I asked about songbooks and was directed next door to a music store, which had a nice selection of books of Slovak folk songs, and I picked out one to buy.
For lunch, we went to a restaurant which was on the second floor overlooking the main square and the town hall, shown above. The waiter spoke English and was wearing a tie featuring Disney cartoon characters. I had garlic soup and some sort of turkey thing. This restaurant actually had “Lite Coke” (Diet Coke) on the menu, so I thought I was in for a treat, but it turned out they were out of stock.
After lunch, we drove west directly toward the High Tatras. We would have had a spectacular view if the weather had been nicer; as it was, we only got a glimpse of the peaks through the clouds and fog every now and then. The road directly up the mountain until we were just below treeline, where it intersected the main road that ran along the flank of the mountains, linking all of the main resort areas. The resort areas were very nice, with modern accommodations, restaurants and gift shops, and even a little bit of landscaping, which was not something I saw very much of in Slovakia. The rain we had been having in the lowlands had turned to snow up here in the mountains, so there was a light accumulation of snow on the ground, but the roads were clear.
We stopped in one of the resort areas – I think it was Stary Smokevec – to browse through the shops. We found one very nice glassware shop, where I picked up a set of small cut-crystal glasses for a souvenir. It was pretty cold up here, so we didn’t stay outdoors for very long.
As we drove west toward Strbske Pleso, which was the highest of the resort areas, the snow on the ground got deeper, and it actually started snowing a little bit. Strbske Pleso is located near a group of glacial lakes, called “plesos”. It is the oldest of the resorts, and it’s a little bit tackier than the others. But it’s in a great location, and we got some lovely views of the valley below.
After leaving Strbske Pleso, we drove south, down the mountain, to the main highway, then back through Poprad to Levoča. We had dinner, then watched a sad romantic movie on TV, which ended with a beautiful woman walking slowly into a lake until the water closed over her head because her former lover had rejected her. (At least, I think that’s what was going on. Not understanding Slovak, it was hard to tell for sure.)