Part 10 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
Saturday, the beginning of our second week in Slovakia, dawned cloudy and rainy. After a solid week of activity, we were starting to feel the strain, so we had a light day planned. Our only commitment was a visit to Jan Babey in the afternoon, but we planned to take the morning off.
We decided to drive to Spišska Nova Ves once again. I was interested in checking out the bookstore where I’d seen The Hobbit and to possibly do some other shopping. I also hoping to cash another traveller’s check.
But the traveller’s check idea did not work out because none of the banks seemed to be open on Saturdays. I wasn’t desperate for cash, since most of our meals were either at the homes we were visiting, or at the hotel which took credit cards, but I would have to be careful to get through until Monday. (Next time I come, I’ll have to remember to go to the bank on Friday, before they close for the weekend.)
I had a lot of fun roaming the bookstores of Spišska Nova Ves. Buying books, especially in a language you can’t read, isn’t the smartest thing to do when you’re trying to travel light, but I am a sucker for books, and these were so cheap I couldn’t resist. Besides, I am hoping to learn Slovak, so I might be able to read them someday. I got a thick Slovak/English dictionary for 349 crowns, or less than $9.00, two small books on flowers and trees (Stromy), a small book on bonsai with lots of pictures for a gift, and Slovak translations of The Little Prince and Dandelion Wine for future reading practice. But after hitting three different bookstores, I still hadn’t found the bookstore where I’d seen The Hobbit the previous week.
At the far end of the square, we noticed an outdoor market, and wandered through it to see what was for sale. It was divided into several sections – in one area there were vegetables and small plants for sale, another large area had clothing and shoes, and at the far end there were stalls with all sorts of miscellaneous stuff like watches and housewares. There was nothing very special – it was all very utilitarian stuff – but it was interesting to see.
As we headed back to the car, I decided to make one last try for The Hobbit, since we only had a little time before the stores all closed for the day at 11:30 am (!) I finally found the bookstore, which had only a very small window display, and which no longer had The Hobbit in the window. So I tried to ask the clerk about it. At first he thought I was saying that I wanted a book that was now in the window, so he started to unlock the window display. So I shook my head and slipped out with something in English, and it turned out that he understood and spoke a little English. (I hadn’t even asked, because I was getting so used to people who didn’t speak English.) So I explained that the book was no longer in the window. He said that he was just a part-time clerk, so wasn’t familiar with all the books. But just then the owner came in, who also spoke English, and when I asked about The Hobbit, he took me right to it. He explained that it was a Czech edition, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I’d gone to such effort to find it that I decided to get it anyway.
The price was marked as “209” and I asked if that was crowns. The owner asked if I was American, and when I said yes, he said “For you, it’s dollars.” He was making a joke about rich Americans, so I laughed and said I could not afford that, but I could pay 209 crowns. He told me Tolkien had been quite popular in Slovakia about 4 years ago, but the boom had waned in recent years.
I joined my father, who had waited in the car while I made this last foray, and we headed back to Levoča through really pouring rain. I got to look through the German automobile manual once again to try to figure out how to turn on the rear window wipers, which I finally found under the heading “Heckscheibenwaschanlage”, with settings for “Wischen” (wipers) or “Wischen und Waschen” (wipers and washer). I just love German.
We’d reached the point where we were starting to really miss American cooking. My father was dying for a hamburger, and was even talking fondly of MacDonald’s. I just missed the variety that I am used to. In the Boston area, I can choose between Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Middle Eastern, Italian, and a whole host of other ethnic cuisines. In Slovakia, we did see one pizza place, and I believe there’s some Chinese in the larger cities, but otherwise everything is pretty much the same. It’s not bad food, in fact much of it is quite good, but there’s just not a lot of variety. There are four MacDonalds in Slovakia. Three of them are in or near Bratislava, but one is further east in Banska Bystrica. My father had discovered that one on his previous visit, and he was looking forward to stopping there again on our way back to Vienna.
So we had our usual lunch at the hotel, planned our activities for the next few days, and then spent a few hours just relaxing in our rooms and watching TV. I looked through the tree book to see what grew in Slovakia compared to the U.S., and found a reference to sugar maple to point out to Paula. I was able to use the Latin name (Acer saccarum) to determine that sugar maple in Slovak is Javor cukrodarny. In Slovak, cukor means”sugar” and rodit means “to yield”, so the name is much the same as in the U.S.. The sugar maple is native to North America and had only had a small mention in the book, so clearly did not grow extensively here. (When looking this up in the dictionary, I also happened to notice that cukrovka means diabetes and cukrovkar means diabetic. Which kind of explains why my older relatives in the U.S. used to refer to diabetes as “the sugar”.)
Paula arrived in the early afternoon, as we had requested, bearing yet another package of gifts. This time she brought pea and bean seeds from her garden – an assortment of many different types, both short and tall, some meant to be eaten fresh and others meant to be dried.
Jan Babey lives in Levoča, in a nice house with a garden near the outskirts of town. The front garden was abloom with tulips, and at the end of the driveway a caged Rottweiler leapt into the air and barked vociferously at our arrival. I was very glad it was in a cage. We waited at the gate while Jan came out to let us in and told the dog to quiet down. (It didn’t, much.)
We went through the routine of slipping off our shoes at the door and getting ushering into a large, pleasant living room, where Jan brought us each a pair of booties to slip on to keep our feet warm. The living room contained the usual exhibit of glassware (you can see it in the background of the picture of Jan and his wife), comfy sofa and chairs, a coffee table, some large potted plants, a modern TV, and a painting of Levoca on the wall. That was another thing I noticed about many of the places we visited – that paintings on the walls, rather than being some anonymous reproduction of a famous artist’s work, almost always were original paintings of local subjects.
Jan’s wife Yolana brought us some refreshments, while Jan and my father eagerly brought out their genealogical records) and started comparing notes. I learned that Jan is my father’s second cousin – he is the son of Peter Babey, who is the son of John Babey and Maria Turekova, who was the sister of my father’s grandfather, Peter Turek.
Jan is also a first cousin to Martha Babey of Connecticut (his father and Martha’s father were brothers). Jan told us that Martha writes to him in village dialect, but he has no trouble understanding everything. My father had written to him in English, so he had to get help getting that translated. He got his doctor to read it to him when he was recently in the hospital for a stomach problem.
Jan told us that he used to be a veterinarian lab technician before he was retired. (Yet another family member who likes working with animals.)
We talked about politics a bit, and Jan’s position was much the same as some of the other people we had talked to. He doesn’t like the reform government because they haven’t done much in 6 months and because they are allied with the communists – he would prefer to see the old government back. There was a discussion of a complicated scandal involving President Michael Kovač which I’m not sure I followed. There was something about his son stealing money from Slovakia, and the President giving his son amnesty, and then someone else kidnapping the son to Austria, and then Mečiar giving amnesty to those who took him to Austria. Then the new government cancelled the amnesty for those who kidnapped him. The son is now rich and living in Slovakia, I was told.
Jan said that some people are for an independent Slovakia, and some think that Slovakia can’t stand as an independent state. I don’t recall that he said which view he supports.
After talking for a while, the Babey’s invited us to join them for supper, which was a big meal with soup, chicken, rice, and apples for dessert. During the meal, we talked some more about our work in the United States, my grandfather’s visit, and various other things.
As we got ready to leave, Jan took Paula aside and asked her for her address and phone number. I think he was planning to contact her if he needed any further translation assistance. While waiting, I admired the large collection of houseplants in their entryway, which included geraniums, begonias, and an amaryllis getting ready to bloom.
On the way to Poprad to take Paula home, I showed her the description of the sugar maple in the tree book and she read it with interest. She said she had never seen that tree in Slovakia. The topic of science fiction happened to come up, and Paula told us that her son who lives in Canada is a science fiction fan, and she has read some Russian science fiction books. Yet another interest we have in common.
It was still cloudy on Sunday morning, but at least it was not raining. Our plans for the day were to sightsee in the morning, and then join Paula in Poprad in the afternoon and to go visit Jan Petak (Marta’s son) and his family. We found that this rhythm of relaxing in the morning and visiting in the afternoon was a little easier to maintain, now that we were tired out after a week of traveling.
This morning, we planned to drive to Bardejov, which was the center of Greek Catholic Slovakia, so I read travel guides during breakfast before we got ready to set out. The region around Bardejov is noted for having many picturesque eighteenth-century wooden churches, some with Russian-style onion domes, like the one shown here. (This photograph is not one of my own, but is taken from the cover of one of my Slovak-language textbooks.)
We started out driving towards Torysky, then towards Kyjov, then continued east of Kyjov. This brought us quite a way off the beaten path, and the roads in this area were much bumpier and less well-maintained than the main roads between the larger cities. Since this was Sunday, the character of the countryside was very different. We did not see anyone working in the fields, and in some of the villages we passed large groups of villagers walking along the main road on their way to or from church.
Past Kyjov, the road followed a small river that marked the border with Poland. Across the river, we spotted our first wooden church, but we didn’t stop because it didn’t seem very easy to get to. We made our way out of mountains and continued downhill towards Bardejov as the clouds started to thin and give way to hazy sunshine. Like Presov, the center of Bardejov is closed to automobile traffic, so we had to park at the edge of the center city and walk the last few blocks. Here are some pictures of the Bardejov town square, with the restored 15th-century gothic church of St. Giles and the 16th-century renaissance Old Town Hall at the far end.
As you can see, there were many lovely buildings in Bardejov, some with interesting baroque facades, like this one on the right. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday, all the museums and shops were closed. The only thing I noticed that was open was an ice cream shop.
About halfway down the square, on the left, I found a shop selling folk art items, something I’d been looking for throughout the whole trip, but of course it was closed, also. The name of the shop was Ustredie Ľudovej Umeleckej Vyroby (UĽUV), which means Center for Folk Art Production, and on the sign they gave an address in Bratislava (Obchadna 64). On my next visit, I’ll have to try to get to one of their shops when they are open.
When we got down to the church, we could hear the music coming from inside, so we knew there was a service in progress. We were surprised to see groups of people clustered around the front and side doors of the church, listening to and following the service from the outside. Apparently, the church was so full they could not get in, so had to worship out on the street. I don’t know the significance of the large bells in the picture, since we didn’t have Paula with us to explain things. I assume they are historic bells that used to be in he church tower, perhaps prior to the 18th-century fire which necessitated the restoration.
By the time we finished strolling through Bardejov, it was getting late. We were due to meet Paula in Poprad at 1 pm, and Poprad was many miles away, so we realized we’d better get moving. Unfortunately, we hadn’t seen any further wooden churches after that first one across the river in Poland. We had thought they would be so common that we could just drive through this area and count on seeing them, but it would have been better if we had read the guidebooks more carefully and picked out a couple of specific villages to visit (the guidebooks list many of the villages where you can find wooden churches). Oh well, one more thing to do better next time.
We were not only late, but a little low on gas, so we stopped at a gas station to tank up. The price was 24 crowns/liter, which is equivalent to about $2.50 per gallon, or about twice the cost in the U.S. Unfortunately, the gas station would not take our American-issued credit card, much to our surprise, so we used up most of our remaining cash to buy the gas.
As we drove through Prešov, we noticed that they were hanging banners announcing that this year they were celebrating their 750th anniversary, which means they were founded in 1247! We drove on over the steep hills to Levoča, and on to Poprad. The weather turned worse again, and we were pelted with rain, rain, and more rain. And we had no time to eat lunch. But we did manage to get to Poprad in time to meet Paula at the appointed time.