Sunday, May 19, 2013

Life in a rural Slovak village

A pot-bellied man with a bright green track suit and dark grey teeth eyes you suspiciously as he passes by on his rickety, rust-specked 3-speed cruiser. A very large woman wearing nothing but a bikini examines her vegetable patch, while her next-door neighbor's chickens strut back and forth across the street like they own the place. Two leathery-skinned men with six-day stubble sit at a table nursing beer out in front of a grey, oppressively nondescript communist-era pub. They joke good-naturedly in loud, smoke-stained voices with another man with a pronounced limp who's making a beer run to the adjacent potraviny. An older woman walks in from the nearby field carrying a big bundle of herbs she's just picked. A well-tanned speed-freakishly slender 20-something wearing nothing but cut-offs heads home with a cluster of freshly caught carp. A threadbare mutt with no owner in sight trots aimlessly up and down the street. A sharply dressed elderly couple who you've never met before stop on their way home from the cemetery to talk to you about the old, abandoned tumbledown farm house made of mud bricks that you're gawking at, and they ask, so you're the American? The insistent call of a rooster echoes in the distance.

The Slovak countryside is littered with small, rural villages, which are defined more than anything else by a pace of life that moves with the speed of a snail. If you really want to get to the heart of Slovak culture, spending some time in one of these villages is crucial. Not that tourists have any business setting foot in any of these places - there's really nothing to see or do that would be of any interest to most people, and I'm sure the locals would respond with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion if random busloads of foreign tourists were suddenly deposited in the center of their villages. Nevertheless, this particular kind of quaint rural village life has pretty much died out in California, where I'm from, so it's quite a novel thing for me, and I suspect it would be for a lot of other Americans as well. The inhabitants of these villages seem contentedly oblivious to any concerns outside their immediate sphere of existence. They simply go about their daily business, and keep generations-old traditions - like vegetable gardens, zabijačkas (pig slaughterings), homemade booze, and afternoons spent in the pub - alive.

I thought I'd focus on Podrečany (pronounced Poe-drech-a-nee), the village where Terezia's parents live, which lies in the forested, rolling hills of the historical Novohrad region in the south-central part of the country, along the border with Hungary. It has all the hallmarks of a typical Slovak village. The nearest town is Lučenec, which is about a 10-15 minute drive southeast. Although Lučenec is the closest area of civilization to Podrečany, to say that it has anything akin to a pulse would be a gross exaggeration. Lučenec is about as riveting as Turlock, California, and has less than half the population, at just under 30,000. Podrečany is roughly equidistant from Bratislava and Košice (a 2.5 hour drive or a 4 hour train ride in either direction). As the crow flies, it's actually closer to Budapest, and it's about 30 or so miles from Zvolen, the nearest town of any real consequence (although hardly more exciting than Lučenec). So, while Podrečany is not totally remote or isolated, you still feel like you're cut off from civilization when you're there.

When driving along the highway between Zvolen and LučenecPodrečany would be extremely easy to miss if you didn't know it was there, since it is set back quite a ways from the road, and is barely visible when driving past it.

According to a plaque posted on one of the older homes along the main drag, Podrečany was first established in the late 1300s. Assuming this is accurate, there is clearly nothing in the village today that survives from that time. The oldest buildings can't be older than a few hundred years, and there are only a handful of those. Apparently, excavations indicate that settlement in this area goes back to the Bronze Age.

Podrečany's official population is 583, but when you factor in the number of people who have registered their permanent residence in the village but who don't actually live there, you could easily subtract that figure by 100, and possibly more. Much of the population appears to be middle aged and elderly. While you do see some younger people, and the odd 20-something married couple with kids, a good portion of the younger generation appears to have moved away, most likely to bigger cities in search of better job opportunities. A lot of the people in Podrečany who have jobs work in nearby towns like Lučenec. Needless to say, meaningful work options here seem to be few and far between.

An old, abandoned school house on the main drag

There is basically one street in Podrečany that could be construed as the main drag. The is the road you'll find yourself on if you enter the village from the main highway. None of the streets in the village are named. The main drag is where you'll find some of the village's oldest surviving buildings, as well as a 19th-century protestant church, a pub that locals refer to as the "new pub", and a bus stop. Right at the point where this road makes a hard left, you've got a second pub - a dimly lit, smoke-stained communist-era hole-in-the-wall that locals call the "old pub" (even though it's in a building that's newer than the "new pub") - and a tiny potraviny (food store) called CBA, which is a chain of small food stores that you tend to see in less urban areas of the country. (Another tiny potraviny just opened up in the back of the "new pub", so the village's grocery shopping options must now seem limitless).

The main drag

You can find pubs like Podrečany's old pub in just about every Slovak town or village. Housed in a small communist-era concrete box, its worn tables and chairs look like they haven't been replaced since the 1970s. Cigarette smoke hangs permanently in the air, and time for its clientele - mostly grizzled and greasy middle-aged and elderly men cradling pints of pivo with shots of borovička - appears to have stood still long before 1989 happened. Some people insist that the chairs inside the pub smell faintly of urine from years of being occupied by countless drunks who were too snockered to get up to relieve themselves. The patio out front, under the shade of a large tree, is a nice place for a beer when the weather is decent.

The communist-era "old" pub

The new pub is, at least on the surface, a bit nicer. It's in an older building that used to be someone's house, and it looks a bit more rustic inside with its exposed beams and vaulted ceiling. But on closer inspection, it's a bit worn and smoke stained as well. The cushions on the wooden benches certainly look like they could use a good washing (although I've never dared to smell them). The new pub has a nice back patio with a view onto the village soccer field. Slovaks, like all Europeans, are pretty serious about their soccer - even the sort of very minor league matches that take place in these little villages. Terezia's dad, who used to be quite the player himself, usually likes to go check out the games whenever there's one happening.

The "new" pub

Both pubs are where most of the action in the village takes place. In these small rural villages, the pub is where you go not just to meet with friends or neighbors, but it's where you take care of business. Let's say you need someone to repair your fence, replace a window, or rototill your garden, or maybe you'd like to procure a duck or a wild boar, or a pig for a zabijačka. All you need to do is go down to the pub, and if the man you want to see isn't there at that time, someone in the pub will spread the word and you can meet with him later to hash out the details.

And word of anything that goes on in the pub travels fast. When Terezia and I took her father to the new pub one dreary and snowy Saturday afternoon, Terezia's aunt (who also lives in the village) told us later that day that she knew that we each had two pints of beer and two shots of borovička, she recited the untranslatable joke Terezia's dad told to the bar tender, and she knew all about Terezia's spat with her dad over how much to leave for the tip (he was deeply perturbed at the prospect of leaving a whole 50 cent piece).

Having some beer on the front patio of the "old" pub

The CBA is handy, of course, for when you need to get some basics and don't have the time or means to get over to Lučenec, where large grocery stores like Tesco, Hypernova, Lidl, etc., abound. They actually manage to cram quite a bit of stuff in the CBA, which, it should be noted, is only about half the size of the adjacent old pub. Whenever I've ventured into the cramped confines of the CBA, a pungent odor of BO always seems to smack me in the nose, and you can usually identify at least two different sources.

The CBA, to the right of the "old" pub, is closed Sundays, but the pub is open for the Sunday morning church crowd.

Given the potpourri of odors one may encounter in small village pubs or CBAs, bathing and hygiene do not seem to be part of the daily routine of some village inhabitants. And I suppose they really don't need to be. In fact, it's easy to walk through Podrečany wearing only a t-shirt and jeans and still feel way overdressed. Most people that you see along through the main drag, whether on a rickety pre-Prague Spring bicycle or on foot, seem to be wearing old sweat suits, or when it's hot, nothing other than shorts. People only seem to don their nice duds on Sunday morning when they're going to church, and that's really only the older folks. You also have to get used to the fact that many of the people you see are walking proof that dentistry in Slovakia got stuck somewhere in the middle ages. I always have to remind myself not to stare at people's teeth when they open their mouths.

Keep heading down the main drag and you'll cross a creek, just beyond which is the single track railway, and on the other side of that is the train station, which you'll notice doubles as someone's house, what with the piles of toys and lines of laundry in the backyard. Just after the train station, the road forks and you've got the village's other bus stop, and atop a small hill just behind it lies the kultúrny dom, or cultural center, which is where village events are organized (just about every town or village has one). In the kultúrny dom you've also got a small post office, as well as a few offices for the village's mayor and his small staff, plus the broadcast desk from which announcements are made throughout the village over the miestny rozhlas.

The village train station/somebody's house
The architectural mecca that is the kulturny dom, partially obscured by pine trees

The kultúrny dom can be rented for events, and it also hosts special events of its own, like a New Year's party, for which they set up a bar and rent the services of a DJ, who, when I was there, was forced to compete with a chorus of soused men passionately belting out traditional Slovak folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Terezia's dad loves going to Podrečany's yearly New Year's shindig, at which they also put on a fireworks show that is sometimes at risk of being overshadowed by the arsenal of fireworks of some of the village residents. The kultúrny dom used to be in a much older building on the other side of the village, but it was unceremoniously demolished during communism.

Up the road from the train station and perched on one of the higher sections of the village is a beautiful old manor house, dating back to the late 1800s. Down the hill, a little ways from the house on the edge of the village, there used to a be a mine (for magnesium), which was owned and operated by the house's original occupants, and then later taken over by the state during communism. At some point in the 1950s the mine was shut down and it sat dormant for years. In the 1990s the government of Vladimír Mečiar - which was widely criticized for its autocratic nature - sold it to someone during an era of mass privatization, which many have described as a wild orgy of asset stripping or tunneling. After extracting all of the steel left from the mining cart tracks and selling it for scrap, the owner let it fill up with water from an adjacent aquifer, forming a rather scenic, small lake that became kind of an unofficial park, lined with lush trees and hiking paths. Someone else subsequently bought the mine and chopped down a good number of the trees around it. (This kind of thing has occurred with alarming regularity in Slovakia over the last couple of decades).

The old manor house, with its resident bocian (stork) atop the chimney

At any rate, the manor house has apparently been purchased by Russians (who've been buying up old castles and historical sites in Slovakia like there's no tomorrow) who have been gradually renovating the place. The surrounding land, currently horribly overgrown, used to consist of a nicely landscaped garden containing a lot of exotic trees and vegetation.

Judging by most of the homes in the village, Podrečany's socio-economic demographic seems to be fairly mixed. Some houses are quite big (some have been enlarged) with kind of posh (for Slovakia) exteriors, while others are much more modest and plain, and still others are more run down and a bit crumbly. The village definitely has its quirks, but it at least doesn't appear to be the kind of totally run-down, impoverished, hard-scrabble town that you can encounter around the country. Not a totally scientific way to assess relative wealth or a lack thereof, but people with money usually find ways to show it off.

On the other side of the village lies the cemetery, which, as in most Slovak towns and villages, is divided between the catholics and the protestants. I was told that because the catholic half was filling up, the catholics wanted to buy some of the vacant space on the protestant half. People in Slovakia are obsessed with making sure the flowers on the graves of their dead family members or spouses are fresh and abundant.

Just up the road from the cemetery is the catholic church, which really looks more like a chapel, given it's small size. It actually dates back to the 18th century, so it is one of the older buildings in the village.

Back to the main drag, if you go up some of the narrow side streets, you can see some beautiful tumbledown barns and dwellings, which are probably too far gone to reconstruct, but which look awesomely picturesque in that rustic, romantic European sort of way.

One morning an older man who was out for a stroll saw us looking at what he told us was the oldest surviving building in the village. He claimed that it was the residence of a big shot general with the army of famous Hungarian national hero and aristocrat Francis Rákóczi. The village website confirms this, and adds that Francis himself used to come to Podrečany to hunt. The elderly man pointed to a narrow, partially underground tunnel that leads from the street to the cellar beneath the house, claiming that this was an escape hatch, which the owner designed in the event that his house fell under siege. Seems a bit weird that he would dig out an escape tunnel that deposits you right into the open on the village's one main street, but it's a colorful story. (My guess was that at one time something was being produced in the cellar and the tunnel was dug so that the product could be hauled directly out onto the street for sale or pick up. Or perhaps it could've been used for livestock).

The former home of one of Francis Rákóczi's generals
The rear view of Rákóczi's general's home

The house has been vacant and crumbling away for some time, but it's apparently owned by someone who lives elsewhere in the village. The patch of land in the front is currently being used to grow potatoes.

Speaking of which, nearly everyone in the village has their own vegetable garden. Those whose yards aren't big enough for a garden have patches of land on the edge of the village. Terezia's parents plant a wider variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruit than most people in the village. Pretty much everyone plants potatoes (a Slovak staple), cabbage (for making sauerkraut, another staple), carrots, beets, and lettuce. However, whereas Terezia's parents plant a few varieties of lettuce greens for making salads, many people just grow this rough, leafy stuff that they feed to their chickens. In fact, during one of our visits, Terezia wanted to make a salad, and when her mom went to a neighbor to buy some lettuce, the neighbor asked, "So, is this to feed your mother's chickens?" (Terezia's grandmother, who lives in Tomášovce, the next village over, has several chickens).

Pear and plum trees are also seen in most yards (important for making hruškovice or slivovice, which is often strong enough to double as paint stripper and smells a lot like window washer fluid), as are apple trees, walnut trees, grape vines (for making gut rot wine) and several types of berries. It's commendable how many people, particularly the older folks, are so active in their gardens. And they're pretty serious about it because they actually subsist on the food they grow, to some extent. A lot of stuff ends up being pickled and canned and stored in the cellar for the winter.

Terezia's parents' garden

I'm consistently impressed with some of the locals' extensive knowledge of herbs that are found all over the village and its outskirts. Terezia's mom often walks through the nearby field and collects all manner of herbs for use in making a variety of teas or for cooking.

It's pretty common to encounter packs of chickens roaming the streets. So many people in the village have chickens that there is absolutely no need to ever buy eggs from the store. Terezia's mom typically buys eggs from a neighbor two doors down. Their neighbors on the other side have several sheep. They sometimes let them out of the yard into an adjacent open field to graze, and when they want the sheep to come back into the yard, the son blasts hip hop from a parked car, which makes them all dart back into the yard. A few people raise pigs as well, which I imagine they sell to other people for zabijačkas, or save for their own.

I did a post on zabijačkas back in 2011, and you can occasionally stumble on one in the earlier winter months, which is when they are traditionally done. It has been said that zabijačkas are kind of a dying tradition, but at least in the villages the custom thankfully seems to be relatively alive and well.

This all speaks to how resourceful and self-reliant rural Slovak people are. As my friend Jeff Sryop said when I was talking to him about zabijačkas, "in a horrible economic crisis, these Slovak people could survive, while Americans would just curl up and die."

Speaking of livestock, Podrečany, like just about every Slovak village or town, has its own long-abandoned agricultural center, or central farm. During communism, as part of the program of forced collectivization, anyone with more livestock than what they needed for their own basic subsistence (for example, more than one cow) had to fork it over to the state. In every town, these central farms were built to house the livestock to provide food and milk for the state. In reality, the people who were hired to take care of the livestock often didn't know what they were doing and the facilities were not adequately funded, so the animals were, by all accounts, often sick and living in miserable conditions. Clearly, everyone deeply resented having to surrender their livestock to the state. After communism, the collectivization program was stopped and today, on the outskirts of every village and town, you can see these long, rectangular central farm buildings in various states of ruin and abandonment. (See cartoonist Marek Bennett's brilliant explanation of communist-era central farms here).

The old central farm

The village, like seemingly all villages and towns in Slovakia, is separated from neighboring villages by acres of agriculture. This year the crop of the day appears to be rapeseed (for making canola oil), so you've got these intensely bright yellow fields stretching on all around the village. What's strange about this is that - and I'm not exaggerating - at the time of writing, in early May 2013, every single crop along the 2.5 hour drive between Bratislava and Podrečany consisted of rapeseed. Every single one. That is a lot of canola oil, and it reminds me of how in the American midwest many farmers now grow nothing but corn to make fructose corn syrup or ethanol. But last year in Slovakia, every field that is currently an explosion of yellow rapeseed was bursting at the seams with sunflowers. So, it seems like each year a major manufacturer of cooking oils contracts with just about every farmer in the country to produce a different oil. Odd, but I guess that's where the money is these days.

I'm more accustomed to the rich variety found in California's central valley crops, where you'll find myriad almond and fruit orchards and all kinds of vegetables, and in some parts of the state, vast expanses of vineyards.

Fields of rapeseed (for making canola oil) just outside the village

To the south lie some densely forested hills, which, when conditions are right, are sometimes good for mushroom hunting, although I'm not at liberty to divulge the good spots.

But what I can divulge is the "secret" path that Terezia's dad showed us that leads from his backyard to the old pub, which he takes when he wants to discreetly slip off for a beer. Along this path we discovered an old, abandoned and pretty thoroughly destroyed house, which, sadly, now appears to be used for storing hay.

Corrugated steel fences were ubiquitous during communism.

Also, much like most other Slovak towns and villages, Podrečany has on its outskirts a small and semi-isolated cluster of houses where its Roma residents live. Sadly, racial segregation is alive and well in Slovakia. In many towns, the Roma live in housing given to them by the state, always located on the edge of the town. In some towns there is a great deal of tension between the Roma and caucasian populations for reasons I'll save for another post, but in Podrečany, the Roma nevertheless seem to live a bit more harmoniously with the rest of the village, even if they do still live on the edge of town.

Terezia's dad held a job here for a while that translates into English as something like "coordinator of unemployed community service workers", which locals insensitively call "Gypsy coordinator", where he was paid to go around with unemployed people in the village who were of working age, which were in this case all Roma, and basically work on village improvement and maintenance projects, like trimming plants and trees along the road, picking up trash and debris, clearing storm drains, repairing wells, that kind of thing. As a result, Terezia's dad is on a first-name basis with several of the village's Roma, and he has fond memories of the job. He loves to talk about his grand visions for the village, which he wasn't able to fully execute before his term in the job ended.

I would've felt awkward standing in front of the homes of the Roma and snapping photos, so I didn't. While their buildings are smaller and considerably more dilapidated than just about anyone else's, mainly because they don't have the money for serious upkeep and repairs, the surroundings generally look pretty tidy, which is interesting because Roma are quite often characterized by many Slovaks as "dirty", and many do, in fact, live in squalid state-funded structures that would make conditions in some developing countries seem like paradise. But again, the reasons for this are complicated and best left for another post. What's interesting, of course, is that the little Roma section is the first thing you see when you enter the village from the main highway. Other towns seem to hide their Roma populations. In Hriňová, the town where Terezia grew up, the cluster of Roma dwellings is tucked away in a back corner, accessible only via a narrow back road, which I think is a more common arrangement.

Finally, Terezia's grandmother, or starka, lives in the next village down, Tomášovce. Tomášovce is a few kilometers southeast, and even though it's a little bigger than Podrečany, it's bursting with about the same level of excitement. The village is home to a chicken factory, where Terezia's starka worked all of her life. There is a scenic path that leads straight from Podrečany to Tomášovce, which is basically a dirt road used by farming tractors. Much of the path is lined by crops (usually corn) on one side, and on the other the above-mentioned creek. It's a picturesque path, and the family likes to take their rickety old bikes down it when visiting starka.

The path to Tomášovce in December

Just before you get to Tomášovce, on the right, is rybnik, a small man-made lake which, back during communism, was an extremely popular recreational spot where locals would flock in droves to swim and camp during the summer. These days it's looking pretty sad and murky, although on hot summer days you can still see people swimming in it. In the winter, when the water is drained, you can see a few old tires, empty beer cans, a car battery or two, and other bits of detritus at the bottom. I only hope that people who swim there take a shower afterwards.

The village in winter

So, there you have it. If I had to live full time in a village like Podrečany I would probably blow my brains out, but it's really nice to be able to escape the city now and then and spend a few days in the quaint, bucolic, yet idiosyncratic tranquility of the Slovak countryside.

Click here to see a full set of Podrečany photos!


  1. This is a really cool post. My great grandparents came from a small town in western Slovakia. Unfortunately, up until a few years ago I knew nothing about it. As an American in Pennsylvania I had no clue about Slovakia until I started genealogical research. Last year I was even able to connect with 3rd cousins who still live where my great grandparents came from. Our families had actually lost touch in the 1950s but I was able to reestablish our familial ties after all those years.

    I've found your blog very enlightening. I haven't been able to travel to Slovakia yet, but I've been enjoying it vicariously through your blog posts and pictures. I especially like your insight into cultural quirks.

    1. Hi Lyon,

      Thanks so much for your interest in the blog and for all of your encouraging comments.

      That's really cool that you've got family here.

      I've encountered a few people back in the US with distant relatives in Slovakia. A friend of mine married a woman with family in Slovakia, which her immediate family had lost contact with after the 1950s. Her brother got in contact with them and even visited some of them, and they treated him like royalty.

      A lot of people managed to flee Czechoslovakia after the communists took power in the late 40s, and a good number of them ended up in the US.

  2. My ancestors had emigrated in 1913. After my great grandfather died in the 1950s our families lost touch. I always wondered if we had stayed in touch how difficult it might have been under communism...
    I'm excited about making the trip to Slovakia some year soon. The family there sure does make it seem like I'll get a very warm welcome. I have to tell you that your blog has been a lot of help to me! You really provided a wealth of information on stuff that isn't usually written in a travel guide. I think thanks to your blog I'll have an easier time navigating the country and it's customs.

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