Part 6 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
After leaving the archives in Prešov, we drove south to the major city of Košice, where we were going to visit two of our cousins, the children of Uncle Juraj, and their families. Košice is the second-largest city in Slovakia, largely due to the presence of a large-scale steelworks built by the Communists in the 1950’s. The road to Košice was an excellent 4-lane divided highway busy with traffic. Paula worried, however, that we needed a special sticker to be permitted to travel on this road, and I did remember seeing something in my guidebook about needing such a sticker on certain roads. We didn’t have a sticker, but we didn’t know how to get one quickly and we didn’t know any other way to get where we were going, so we just carried on.
It was still dark and gloomy as we arrived at the outskirts of the city. Off to our left, there was a prominent hill with rows of apartment blocks along the crest, and my father thought that was where we should go. But it wasn’t clear how to get up there, so we stopped at a gas station and asked for directions. That sent us back a little ways to a turnoff, where we climbed the hill and drove down a broad avenue behind the rows of apartments. The one we were looking for was about a mile along, still up on the hill with a great view of the city. We pulled into the very crowded parking area, glad we had a compact car, because the parking was very haphazard and cars were crammed in everywhere.
When we got out of the car we knew we had the right building because Cousin Martha was waving at us from a balcony on the 8th floor. These apartment blocks were a bit nicer than the ones we had seen in Levoča – they still had crumbling concrete, but at least they had a little bit of landscaping with some grass and trees. We entered via small lobby with no decor and industrial-style electric switch boxes, and took a tiny elevator up to the 8th floor, where Martha greeted us enthusiastically and led us into her apartment to meet her family – husband Peter Budzinak, daughters Katka and Janka, and Katya’s new husband, Luboir Baralyar. I was starting to get the hang of kissing people on both cheeks, and it was particularly nice that Katka and Janka both greeted us in English, with Janka giving the English version of her name (“Jane”). Shortly after our arrival, Juraj’s son Peter dropped in with his wife Anna. (They also have two children that we didn’t meet on this visit.)
The apartment was small, but quite attractive. As you entered, there was a sort of open area with a dining table to the right and the bathroom facilities to the left. The bathroom was divided into two rooms, with the toilet in one, and the sink and shower in another. Both rooms were tiny spaces divided from the main room by more of a partition than a wall. It was almost like the type of toilet you find on an airplane. Branching out from this main area, there was a modern kitchen was to the left with the living room beyond it, and bedrooms off to the right. One wall of the living room was lined with shelves and cabinets displaying attractive glassware and china, a TV, and an Easter display consisting of decorated eggs hanging on ribbons from a cluster of willow branches.
Martha, a cheerful-looking woman who was much slimmer than most of the women I had met in the village, brought us what I was beginning to realize was the standard array of food for when you have guests in Slovakia – bread and meat (ham), accompanied by cole slaw, and with a cream cordial and bottled water to drink.
This was our first chance to talk to younger Slovak people living in a city setting, so we asked a lot of questions and kept Paula pretty busy translating. Everyone seemed happy to answer my questions and not at all reticent to tell us about their lives.
Katka and Luboir, still obviously newlyweds, had been married in February, and had invited my father (whom they met on his last visit) to attend their wedding. He couldn’t make it, which turned out to be a good thing, because the day before the wedding there was a record snowfall. Katka brought out newspapers they had saved with pictures of the snowstorm, and also a set of wedding pictures that we all passed around. Katka is studying economics at the university, and we talked a little bit in English about the European Economic Union and whether Slovakia might be able to join it at some point in the future. Luboir told us that he is currently working as a security guard and is studying theology. He enjoys biking and body building in his leisure time.
My father gave the young couple a wedding card with a generous cash gift, and you could see their eyes light up with pleasure. They explained that the average salary was about 10,000 crowns ($250) per month, and even at 60-70 crowns ($1.50), they considered movies too expensive to go to on a regular basis. Most of their leisure activities were things that didn’t cost money, such as hiking or biking with groups of friends.
Martha’s husband, Peter, shown here with younger daughter Janka, was a big, beefy guy who worked in the local steel plant. He was very outspoken and was happy to share his views with us. He said that he thought that the common people had been better off under communism (a view I would later hear others express) because under communism everyone had to work, and now people like the gypsies don’t have to work but still get money from the government. Also, under communism, there was money for development, but now the country can’t even afford to finish buildings and highways that were previously started.
On his earlier visit, Peter had asked my father to look into assisting him in getting a green card so he could work in the United States. He was under the impression that if he could work in the U.S. for a few years, he would come back “a millionaire”. My father told him about the green card lottery, and promised to send him the application forms.
Of Yugoslavia he said, “I don’t want to speak about Yugoslavia. We get opposite messages from the different sides, and everyone has their own truth.” So turning the conversation away from politics, he addressed me directly, via Paula, telling me that if he came to the U.S., I should procure a pig, and he would slaughter it for me. Every year, apparently, he gets together with his pals to slaughter a pig, and he was expert at turning every part of the pig into something edible or useful. He went into great detail, describing some delicacy that he could make from the pig’s stomach and other less desirable parts. (I must have looked a bit confused during this recital, because Paula had to keep insisting, “That’s what he says!”) I must admit, that’s the first time anyone offered to slaughter a pig for me! I told him, though, that it might be difficult to obtain a pig in Boston.
By contrast with Martha’s husband, Peter, our cousin Peter (shown here on the right with Peter and Martha and cousin Peter’s wife Anna) was much quieter and more restrained, and I didn’t get as much of a chance to talk with him directly. Cousin Peter did ask me to talk about my work, so I described my job and explained that I was taking some time off. Paula threw in that I had gone to Harvard, and cousin Peter said that I must be smarter than Madelyn Albright (which I wasn’t sure I should take as much of a compliment, given the situation in Yugoslavia). We also showed around photos of our family in America, and some of my grandfather’s old photographs. Martha asked us to please send her copies of the pictures of my grandfather’s parents (which were her grandparents), because she didn’t have any pictures of them herself. Sometime during the evening, we asked about the highway to Prešov and whether a sticker was required. We were told, yes, there is a sticker, which costs about 400 crowns ($10), and which could be obtained at post offices. Every so often the police have a big crackdown, and fine hundreds of people. The fine was something like 1000 crowns ($25). I got a big laugh when I pulled out my phrase book and showed them the useful phrases, “I’m sorry, I apologize”, “I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong”, “I didn’t do it”, and the capper, “I wish to contact my embassy”. (Little did I know of what was to come…)
Martha was ready to serve dinner, and led us to the dining area. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit around the table, so it was just the visitors: myself, my father, Paula, cousin Peter and Anna. I guess the family ate after we left. As we were eating, Martha’s Peter and Luboir hung out in the living room, watching the conclusion of an important hockey match for the national championship between Košice and Bratislava (Košice won, 3-2, much to their enjoyment.) We asked about availability of English-language TV, and was told that if you had the right equipment, you could get MTV and CNN in English. (We’d seen a number of satellite dishes on the old buildings in Levoča, so they appeared to be pretty common.)
The dinner served was excellent, and much more healthful than the village meals. It consisted of a chicken soup with noodles and vegetables like my grandmother used to make, followed by stewed chicken, boiled potatoes, and canned cherries for dessert. My father really enjoyed the thick coffee that was so strong that I could smell from across the table. (Did I mention that I am not a coffee drinker?)
When we were ready to leave, Janka took us down on the elevator, since the hallway lights were turned off, and it was necessary to know how to turn them on by flipping switches in the big junction boxes. As we exited the apartment, I noticed an array of shoes next to the door, and asked if it was the custom to take off your shoes indoors, and apologized for making a mistake. Janka just laughed and said it didn’t matter. While waiting for the elevator, she mentioned that she wants to be a veterinarian. I told her that she should meet my niece, Lisa, who also once wanted to be a vet (but found that she was too tender-hearted to work with animals who were in pain).
[A letter received after our return, in August, gave us an update on this family. Janka has passed an exam and has been admitted to a school that will train her to be a teacher of biology and physics. During her vacation she is working in a confectionery, selling ice cream. The newlyweds, Katka and Lubo, are looking forward to having a baby in November, and the whole family is looking forward to it, too.]
[And a further update. Several years later, Jana came to spend the summer with my father in Stratford. And in 2006, my father, brother, and I returned to Slovakia for Jana’s wedding. She now has two sons and we are connected on Facebook.]
It was late, and the night was dark and rainy, and we had totally forgotten about the sticker discussion, so we simply followed the signs to Prešov and found ourselves on the forbidden highway. And this must have been a night when the police were on the prowl, because we hadn’t gone two miles when blinking lights appeared behind us and my father was forced to pull over. While waiting for the police to come over to our car, my father told Paula not to jump in right away – he would first try being a confused tourist and would see what happened. So when the police came over, he did his best to talk to them in Slovak, and there was much confusion and waving of hands. But my father got nowhere, and so finally Paula did her best to straighten things out. I could tell she was telling a sad tale of how this American tourist was just visiting his cousin in Košice and didn’t know any better, but it didn’t fly.
Finally, we determined that the police were demanding that we pay an on-the-spot fine of 1000 crowns ($25) for not having a $10 sticker that we would happily have purchased if we had been known that we would be needing it and where to purchase it. It was pretty annoying, but luckily I happened to have 1000 crowns in cash, left over from my earlier exchange of traveller’s checks at the bank. So we forked it over and got a receipt (actually a whole set of little tiny slips of paper) that, we were told, would make us immune to getting stopped for the rest of the day (all 2 hours of it).
So we spent the next few miles grumbling about governments that prey on innocent tourists instead of trying to make things easier for them, and how that doesn’t go a long way to increasing tourism in the country. We also saved a few choice words for travel agents and car rental desk clerks that don’t bother to mention important little details like these to the hapless traveller. It was really lucky that we had Paula with us, and that I had the available cash to pay the fine – I have no idea what they would have done to us if we didn’t.
It was a long drive in the dark back through Prešov, over the winding mountain passes, through Levoča, to take Paula back to Poprad, and then ourselves back to Levoča. We talked of the recent elections, politics, communism, the recent impeachment of President Clinton, etc. I asked Paula if she had been a teacher (since she enjoyed teaching us about Slovakia so much), but she told us that she had been an office worker, working for a company that ran many stores, but was forced to retire due to downsizing.
By the time we got back to the penzion, the gate to the parking lot was closed, and I couldn’t figure out how to unlatch it in the dark, so we found what looked to be a safe place on the street and staggered back into the penzion close to midnight. I was really beat, and sorry that I couldn’t take a hot soaking bath. Also a little abashed that at the age of 76, my father has enough energy to run me into the ground most days.