Part 3 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
- Driving to Torysky with Paula
- Visiting Great-aunt Anna
- Great-uncle Juraj and Great-aunt Katya
- The Babey family
My father had located a translator via a tour operator that he’d gotten in touch with. Although he had managed without a translator on his first visit, his Slovak was based on his childhood memories and was very limited. So he thought it might be better for me if we had someone along who could help us in talking to our relatives, none of whom spoke English.
Paula Kieferova had been contacted via her son, who had access to e-mail at his place of work. She had answered every inquiry promptly and completely, so my father had gained a good impression of her. We weren’t sure how much of her time we would need, but we arranged for her to meet us at our penzion at 9:00 on Saturday morning, and we would take it from there.
Due to jet lag, I awoke dreadfully early, around 5 am, so hung around reading my guidebooks and practicing Slovak phrases until my Dad was ready to go to breakfast at around 7:45. Tibor came up with a note from Paula (who was coming in from Poprad, several miles to the west), saying that she would take the first bus and would we please wait if she was late.
For breakfast, we went to the Barbakan hotel next door, where my father had previously stayed and where he knew some of the help. They had a buffet setup that appeared to be for hotel guests only, so we ordered omelets and toast from the menu. The dining room was very pretty, decorated with forsythia and pussy willow for spring, and with a sunroom at the back with a view of the church on the hill.
Back at the penzion, Paula showed up pretty much on time. She was an enthusiastic and energetic woman in her 60’s, who looked like she was really looking forward to showing us around. When she heard that I was from Boston, she told me that she enjoyed reading the John Jakes series of novels that start out during the American revolution in Boston. She felt that reading novels about generations of families was a great way to learn history, which I agreed with.
We all piled into the tiny little Opal we had rented and drove up into the hills, filling Paula in on the family history and what we hoped to accomplish on the visit. She seemed really happy about the prospect of helping us locate family and promised that she would help us find “many, many” relatives. When she learned that I was Slovak on my mother’s side as well as my father’s, she was thrilled and pronounced me to be 100% Slovak with great satisfaction.
As we drove through Torysky, she was very enthusiastic about the village, commenting on the “many, many” old log houses, and how romantic it was to live near a rushing mountain stream. Part way through the village we left the paved road and crossed a bridge to get onto the dirt road going along the other side of the stream. The bridge gave a nice view of the lovely cream-colored village church.
Driving up the far side of the stream, my father was able to pick out the house of his Uncle Juraj (George) and Aunt Katya, a substantial log house with a light blue painted foundation. But there was no answer when we knocked at the door. So we drove on up the road toward Dad’s Aunt Anna’s house.
Just before the church, where we had to cross back over the stream, we saw two stout old ladies in boots, babushkas, and village costume coming down the road carrying shopping bags. My father exclaimed, “There’s Aunt Katya!”, and pulled over to greet her. So we all piled out and there were hugs and introductions, with Katya kissing me twice, once on each cheek. (That’s Katya on the left, in the bright purple sweater.)
Katya’s lady friend greeted us with “Christos voskrese” (“Christ is risen”) and my father correctly replied “Voistinu voskrese” (“Indeed, he is risen”). My father then got into a lively discussion of why they changed the church calendar and the date of Easter observance and got the explanation that they found it easier to get holiday time off if they observed Easter on the same date as everyone else. My father pointed out that we were still true to the old traditions in America. (Paula, of course, was translating all of this.)
We explained that we were going to Anna’s but would return for a visit after that. Katya also told us that Anna had been sick (she had had a stroke) and had just recently returned from a stay in the hospital.
We then drove past the lovely small village church to Anna’s house, which was just a few houses beyond the church, on the same side of the stream. This was another log house very similar in design to Juraj and Katya’s house. We knocked and got no answer for a while, but then we saw Anna’s face at the window motioning us to come in. So we figured out how to open the unfamiliar door latches and entered via an unheated dirt-floored outer porch into the small room that served as Anna’s combination kitchen/living/bedroom.
Anna was a small, frail woman with bright alert eyes in a very wrinkled face. She was lying in bed, but clearly recognized my father and was able to converse with us. She seemed to enjoy looking at pictures of our family in America that my father had brought to show her. (The picture below shows Anna at our second visit, when she was feeling well enough to sit in her favorite place, near the window that gave her a view of the village street.)
My father gave her some envelopes with money gifts from himself and some other family in America, and Paula wrote on each envelope for her who it was from and what the Slovak equivalent in crowns would be. Anna told us that her pension is 4000 crowns per month (the equivalent of $100 U.S.), so the gifts were obviously quite welcome. I told her a little about my grandfather, her older brother, who had gone to America before she was born, and whom she had met only once on his 1972 visit.
The room we were in was about 10 feet by 15 feet, with the door from the unheated entryway in the middle of the short wall, and with two twin beds with their headboards against the opposite short wall. A table between the beds held some food and a vase with pussywillows, probably brought home from church on Palm Sunday. On one side of main door there was a woodstove and a small woodpile, and on the other side a dry sink and a wooden cupboard. There was also a bench and some straight-backed chairs.
A door in the center of the long wall led to the larger main room of the house, which was apparently not being heated and only used for storage. The room was brightly decorated with red-painted doors and woodwork, colorful patterned wallpaper, rag rugs on the floor and lace curtains on the windows. Religious icons and embroideries adorned the walls. The house had electricity but no indoor plumbing – we learned that the drinking water came from a well, clothes were washed in the stream, and there was an outhouse in the yard.
Soon after we arrived, Anna’s daughter Marta bounded in to check up on her (or maybe she heard through the village grapevine that we were there). Marta was a whirlwind of energy, bustling about, tidying up, attending to her mother, and bringing out food (a plate of salami) to offer us, and showing off a child’s village costume that she had made.
My father asked if they had any knowledge of whether there was anyone from his mother’s family left in the village. Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother, Mary Tabak, had gone to the U.S. with her entire family, including mother and father and brothers and sisters, so any family left would be more distant. The answer was that there was a Tabak in the village, but they didn’t think he was closely connected to my grandmother. There was also discussion of the Klotz family (my grandmother’s mother), with no conclusions I could follow. Marta mentioned a man in a nearby town, by the name of Mačanka, who might know something more, and offered to take us to see him.
The next arrival was Jan Petak, Marta’s son, his wife Slavka, and their children (Anna’s great grandchildren). Jan lived in Poprad (Paula’s town), and he was stopping by to briefly check on Anna also. He wore a cell phone on his hip, which seemed oddly incongruous in a log cabin without running water. He urged us to visit him in Poprad, and gave us his address and phone number.
My father brought out some family pictures that my grandfather had left and asked for help identifying the people in them. So all the pictures got passed around, with Marta and Anna peering at them intently and often pronouncing names and family connections that my father would write on the backs. Paula got right into it, and in a very short time we felt that she knew our family better than we did. Translating was difficult with a room full of people, all talking at once. I imagine that some of the offhand remarks were missed, but Paula did a great job of getting the essentials through to everyone.
Anna said that my father was very smart to bring a translator so that they would be able to talk to him. Anna also pointed out that there were many empty houses in the village, both wood and brick, so it would be easy for my father to move in. He could buy one for 300,000 – 500,000 crowns ($7500 – $12,500). He just laughed.
My father mentioned an idea he had to try to set up a family reunion in Torysky next year, bringing over a number of the family from the U.S. Right away, Marta started planning it. She said that my father should just pick the date and get the people here and she would take care of everything else – food drink and entertainment. (I sometimes thought that if I had grown up in the village, I might have ended up being someone like Marta. And if she had lived in the U.S., I suspect she would have been a good convention organizer or software manager.)
By the time we left the village, everyone had heard about the planned party and treated it as if it were a promise engraved in stone!
At this point, we decided that we should leave and give Anna a chance to rest, and we promised her that we would be back in a few days. As we left, Marta invited us to her house after church tomorrow. She asked what she should cook, and when she mentioned pirohy, she saw my face light up, so she smiled broadly and promised me pirohy.
We dropped off Marta at her home near the start of the village, and then went back to Juraj and Katya’s. Getting out of the car, I got a good look at the back of the house. The yard rose up in a fairly steep slope, but there was room for a woodshed, a root cellar dug into the hillside, and the inevitable outhouse. A small flock of chickens ran loose, and laundry hung out on a line to dry. Katya had obviously been waiting impatiently for us to finish our visit with Anna and come to her house.
Katya’s house had the same basic plan as Anna’s. You enter through an unheated entryway, then go through a narrow kitchen with a wood stove into a large square main room. The main room was dominated by a large high bed in the center of one wall, but there were other beds in the corners, along with a large dining table and chairs, and some more modern amenities, such as a TV and a semi-automatic washing machine. Even though they had no bathroom, they did have cold water piped into a sink in the kitchen.
Meeting Great-uncle Juraj was quite a shock because he so closely resembled my grandfather that I felt like I was close to my grandfather once again. I can only imagine what emotions my father must have felt. Juraj was a bit frail and hard of hearing, but he was overjoyed to see us and greeted us warmly.
Juraj told us that we should have been there for Easter, which was his birthday, which got us into another discussion of the Easter fiasco. (“We meant to be here on Easter…”) Juraj was born in 1912, the year my grandfather went to America. He is now 87 and, he proudly announced, is now the oldest person living in Torysky.
Katya emerged from the kitchen with a plate of boiled frankfurter-like sausages for each of us, along with mustard and horseradish, a plate of bread, a pitcher of thin fruit drink, and bottles of various types of liquors. I really didn’t want to eat the sausages because they were quite fatty, but I did eat one just to be polite.
I tried to explain a little about the diabetes prevention experiment I’m participating in, which requires a low-fat diet, but even Paula didn’t completely understand it, so I’m sure she had trouble translating. Diabetes is fairly common here (not surprising given the overweight population), but they associate it with sugar in the diet. They don’t realize that being overweight can bring it on sooner than otherwise. And after hundreds of years of deprivation, meat is now considered the best possible food, and what you always offer to your guests. So not eating meat is looked on as something of a strange aberration.
Katya asked us if we were afraid to come there, which was the first reference to Yugoslavia we’d heard since we arrived. My father said the fighting was far away, but Katya was worried that the Russians might get involved.
They mentioned the visits they’d gotten from my father’s brother, Joseph, and asked about him and his wife since they hadn’t heard from him recently. My father told them that Joe’s wife had died about 3 years ago, but he had since remarried. He was unlikely to visit again because his new wife didn’t like to travel. Katya was saddened but not surprised to hear about Joe’s first wife’s death. “We knew she was sick because she didn’t eat much when she was here”, she said. (Oops, I thought, now I must be on the sick list, too.)
I learned that my last name in Slovakia would actually be “Tureková”, since all women, married and unmarried, get an “ová” ending to their names. (Later, in a bookstore, I noticed a book by “Jane Austenová”.) I also would need to pick an affectionate first name for my friends and family to use, and I selected “Leslinka” because I remember my grandmother calling me that. So henceforth, I would be known as Leslinka Tureková.
I asked Juraj what work he did – was he a farmer? He said that he had been a carpenter, and that he did everything relating to wood, from cutting trees in the forest to building houses and making shingles. He brought in a a couple of shingles to show us how they were made, and how they fit together. Instead of running horizontally on the roof, the long pieces of wood are placed in a vertical orientation. They still overlap vertically to shed water, and on the horizontal axis they are shaped into long arrow-like points, with the point of one piece fitting into a depression in the base of the next piece. I think this design must have been modeled after thatched roofs. Here’s a picture of a roof made in this style.
At this point Marta popped in, ready to take us to our next visit, so we arranged with Katya to meet her before church tomorrow and went off with Marta. My father had mentioned Martha Babey’s gift, so Marta was taking us to see the Babey family, who lived near her at the start of the village. On the way, however, she took us on a short detour to show us the village hall, which she said would be the place where we would hold our family reunion next year. (I told you she was taking this pretty seriously!)
The Babey family lived in a more modern house, across the stream from the road. Their driveway went down a steep slope from the road and directly through the steam. We were more cautious and left our car on the near side, crossing via a footbridge and being greeted by a very friendly and enthusiastic dog who let the family know they were having visitors.
We were invited into the kitchen, where we all sat around the kitchen table and met the various members of the family, three generations all living in the house. Dad gave them Martha’s letter, and then pulled out his photos and genealogical charts, and we had another session of people putting their heads together and filling in little bits of information. They also brought out all sorts of refreshments: bottles of Coke, a meat plate with pickles, and little glasses of something alcoholic. I learned the word “Nazdravie!”, which is equivalent to “Cheers!”. I also quickly learned the very useful word “Dost”, which means “Enough!”.
As soon as I snapped the first picture, the old woman in the photograph wagged her finger at me, smiling, indicating that I had tricked her. Then she disappeared for a few minutes and came back in an entirely new outfit. Obviously, she was bothered that I’d taken a picture of her in her “at home” clothes, and had to change into her “guest” clothes. I thought they were both very nice, but what do I know? So to please her I took another picture.
As we left, it had started to rain a bit, and we had a tough time getting the car back up the driveway to the road. We had to send someone up to tell us when the road was clear (not that there was all that much traffic in those parts), and then take a couple of running starts before we could make it all the way up.
Driving back to Levoča, we learned a little bit of Paula’s family history. It appears that her mother, also, had gone to the United States, stayed there a while, and eventually returned. Paula herself is named after a friend, Paula, that her mother had met in the U.S. Paula greatly regrets that she didn’t talk to her mother more about her family history, “…and now it’s too late”. So that partly explained why she was so enthusiastic about helping us on our quest.
I learned later that there are about 6 million people in Slovakia, and about 2 million people of Slovakian descent in the United States. That helps explain why nearly everyone we met had a relative in the U.S.
We got to the bus station in Levoča, which was just a shelter by the side of the road, after dark. After some discussion, with Paula insisting that the buses ran quite often, and my father making her tell him exactly when the next bus would come, my father decided that he couldn’t just leave her sitting there for an hour in the dark, and that we would drive her back to Poprad. We had a nice drive, talking about various things, including computers and how it is that she has access to e-mail, and dropped her off at her insistence in the center of Poprad, where she would take yet another local bus to her final destination.
On the way back to Levoča, we were talking non-stop, when I finally noticed that things didn’t look too familiar. Consulting the map, I realized that we had taken a wrong fork about half way back, and were actually on our way to a town south of Levoča called Spišska Nova Ves. Since we were almost there, at that point, the only sensible thing to do was to continue on and then take the road north from Spišska Nova Ves, which we did with no further trouble. We agreed that we would not mention this to Paula so she wouldn’t feel bad about having us drive her home.
It was good to get back to our penzion with our modern bathroom facilities. It had been a long, exciting, day, and I crashed soon after getting into bed.