Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 1

We're back in Slovakia for the holidays, so I thought this would be a good excuse to dust off the cobwebs of this long-neglected blog and write an update. An awful lot has happened since my last blog post from way back in early 2016. Most notably, Terezia and I managed to successfully reproduce, and we've got a son, Simon, who is nine months old at the time of writing this. Terezia and Simon left for Slovakia a couple weeks before I was able to get away, and I left on the 19th and made the exhausting trans-Atlantic trip solo. Terezia's brother Tony kindly picked me up from the airport in Vienna that evening and drove me back to his and his wife's house in Bernolákovo, where Terezia and a sleeping Simon were awaiting me.

I was worried that Simon might forget who I was after being apart for a couple of weeks, since babies aren't known to make longterm memories. But when he woke up super early in the morning to find me in the bed, he gave me this massive smile and proceeded to crawl all over my head.

We spent the first full day at Tony's house being about as active as sloths. We took a stroll around his neighborhood, which is the new part of Bernolákovo, which continues to spread like a deadly virus in one of those bad Hollywood flicks about a deadly virus. But there's been one positive development from this: there is now a Billa (a big grocery store chain in Europe) a mere block and a half away - i.e., walking distance - from Tony and Silvia's place. In a previous post, I bitched and moaned about how nothing is walking distance from Tony's, and how it's very difficult to do anything in Bernolákovo without a car or a bike, and it can feel a bit isolated. This Billa was long overdue.

Bratislava's Old Town and Xmas Market

The next day, we took a trip to Bratislava's old town for the Xmas market. This was Simon's first excursion into the Stare Mesto, and it felt really cool to be pushing Simon in his stroller down those picturesque, cobblestoned streets that Terezia and I walked millions of times when we lived here.

We still maintain that between Prague and Vienna, Bratislava's Xmas market in the main square is the best. First of all, it's just the right size: big enough to feel eventful, but still comparatively small enough to feel kind of cozy and intimate; and just crowded enough to feel festive, but generally not mobbed, crazy, and impersonal like the markets in Prague and Vienna. And the food, generally, is a bit better too. We had some great spicy Slovak sausage, a sandwich with grilled pork and carmelized onions, and, of course, there was no way in hell I was leaving without getting a trdelník (discussed in this post, down the page), one of my favorite Slovak sweets. Simon loved the trdelník - a man after my own heart.

We also tried the scalding hot wine served in flimsy plastic cups. The first cup we shared was so watered down that we dumped it and got one from another stand made from black currants, which was much better.

Parents of infants often say that when you have a baby, "You've got to keep doing the things you like to do," but honestly, with a baby it's really not as easy as that sounds. You can certainly attempt to do the things you like to do, but those things are usually going to be condensed and/or compromised (sometimes significantly) - and you've always got to be super flexible and ready to change plans on a dime if your baby has had enough and decides to start being a poobutt. That said, Simon did great on our little excursion through the old town - he was quiet, content, and interested in his surroundings and all the people. But the couple of hours we spent there were enough for him. As we were leaving, he was starting to get a bit antsy and whiny, and probably wanted out of his stroller.

But it was so nice to walk through our old haunts, even if just for a couple of hours. We strolled past our old apartment building, reminisced about our old neighborhood, and looked longingly around at Bratislava's old town. I know we've often seemed ambivalent about Bratislava in some of the blog posts, but there are things we genuinely love and miss about the place.

After the old town, we went to Eurovea, one of Bratislava's dozens of glitzy, modern shopping malls (which is located along the Danube just outside the pedestrianized historical center), to meet Tony and Silvia, who were doing some last-minute Xmas shopping there. We took Simon to the restrooms to change his diaper, and Eurovea has a completely separate gender-neutral room for parents to take babies into for changing. This sleek, spotless, modern, well-lit room had a huge changing table, as well as two small leather couches and a microwave tucked away in an alcove where people can feed their babies in privacy. It also had a private toilet stall and sinks that are low to the ground for little kids to wash their hands. I've never seen anything quite like this in the US.

Off to the Sticks for Xmas with the Parents

Later that afternoon, Tony drove us to Terezia's parents' place in Podrečany, which, as some readers may recall, lies deep in the heart of central Slovakia. I actually kind of missed this particular winding 2.5-hour drive, which looked dark and foreboding as the sun was setting, with gloomy patches of fog rising from the frozen fields and forested hills. We were super elated to see that there was still several inches snow covering the ground in Podrečany and the surrounding area. It had snowed quite a bit before I got there, and the weather stayed cold enough for the snow to stick around for several days, making things feel nice and Xmas-y. Being from the Bay Area, where the climate is mild and seasonal change is barely perceptible, I love experiencing a real winter with snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures.

Terezia's parents' backyard at sunrise

I always love going to Podrečany. As I've mentioned in the past, I'd probably want to blow my brains out if I were forced to live there permanently, but it's great to visit for shorter periods of time and bask in the slow pace of life in a quiet village that feels tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

We got up super early the next morning to take a drive into Lučenec, the nearest town of any consequence (about a 10-minute drive away), to do some last-minute grocery shopping at Tesco for the holiday. Tesco is a giant British multinational grocery chain that's as big, bright, and impersonal as any in the US, but we always dug their bakery with its variety of surprisingly fresh, tasty Slovak bread rolls, and importantly, pagáče (a flaky bread roll, a bit croissant like in texture, with pork cracklings woven throughout the dough), which, when fresh and hot, are an amazing thing to snack on. While in the bakery section, we bumped into a childhood friend of Terezia's who works there, and they chatted for a bit and took turns cooing at Simon.

Driving back from Tesco

After we got back, while Simon took a morning nap, I went on my favorite walk around the village with my iPod listening to Tinderbox by Siouxsie and the Banshees - the perfect soundtrack to the gorgeous snowy scenery and freezing winter air.

Later that afternoon, Terezia and I did a similar walk with Simon in the stroller. You have to be careful on the main road that snakes through the village as there's no sidewalk and some drivers barrel through that strip like they've just pulled off a bank heist. But there's generally very little car traffic here, so you're not likely to encounter more than a few kamikaze drivers at any given time, if any.

We'd have liked to stop by the Old Pub for a beer, but again, shattering the myth that some parents perpetuate about "doing what you want to do with your baby," we obviously weren't going to take Simon into that dingy, dark, smoke-filled dive and try to keep him entertained while quickly downing our pints and avoiding eye contact with the old, toothless drunkards perched about the place. (If it were Summer, though, we could have sat out on the pub's shaded front patio with Simon.)

I was sad to see that a substantial portion of the roof of Podrečany's oldest building has collapsed. This house was originally the hunting lodge of a top general in Francis Rákóczi's army (Rákóczi was a Hungarian nobleman who led an uprising against the Habsburgs in the early 1700s), and no one seems particularly concerned about its ruinous state. I'm sure no one has the money to repair the thing. The people who own it live elsewhere in the village, and they apparently just use the surrounding yard to grow potatoes, and they're just letting the building slowly fall apart. Still, I love the dilapidated, tumbledown look of so many of Slovakia's rural villages.


I wrote in detail about Slovak Christmas traditions in this post. As mentioned before, Christmas Eve is the real holiday for Slovaks - the day on which they have the big family feast and exchange gifts. Christmas day is for lounging around, eating leftovers, and nursing hangovers.

The last time we were in Podrečany for Xmas, two years ago, I went on a lovely and scenic bike ride with Tony, Christoph, and Jano through the surrounding country, but because of the snow, that wasn't in the cards this Xmas eve. And even though the snow was melting, the roads were still a total mess with gravel and patches of ice, which is obviously not conducive to a fun cycling experience.

Christoph and Ludka had an adorable baby girl, Sasha, who was born not long after Simon. Christoph and I walked Simon and Sasha around the village and did some catching up. We were told that it's a bit unusual in Podrečany to see two men pushing strollers together around the village, but we are more than happy to shatter any prescribed gender roles.

For the Xmas meal, we had the usual traditional Slovak fare, starting off with the requisite pieces of fruit and oblatky with honey and garlic, before moving on to the yummy pea soup with little potato dumplings, pork schnitzel and fried fish with potato salad, and a dizzying array of delicious homemade cookies. Simon had a sampling of everything and he liked all of it.

Speaking of Simon and food, one thing we've noticed here in Slovakia is that seemingly all of the baby-specific food products - like those pre-made purees that come in tubes, and the various teething crackers that dissolve quickly - all come with added sugar. In the US, however, it's easy to find these things without sugar, which is better for the baby's teeth, obviously. So, we've been mostly feeding Simon regular food: bread rolls, bananas, oatmeal, pieces of apple, and bits of whatever we happen to be eating. I brought along some non-sugar teething crackers that he liked to snack on back at home.

Terezia says that when she was a baby, it was common for mothers to dip pacifiers in honey to help quiet or soothe them. Some moms apparently even lined the lips of their babies with powdered sugar. No wonder you see so much tragic, gruesome, medieval dental hygiene in this country! And today we know you're not supposed to give honey to infants until they're a year old, because honey can very occasionally contain a kind of bacteria that can cause botulism.

Hriňová and Ružiná

The day after Christmas, Terezia, Simon, and I drove to Hriňová, the town where Terezia grew up, to visit Terezia's childhood friend, Martina, who was in town for the holiday. The streets and sidewalks in Hriňová were all covered in thick sheets of slippery ice, so we didn't get a chance to walk around much, but we drove around the town as Terezia pointed out things from her youth, like the panelák she grew up in, her elementary school, the public swimming pool turned garbage dump, some places where a few of her friends grew up, etc.

The panelák Terezia grew up in
Terezia's elementary school

When we left Terezia's friend's place, the local church service seemed to be getting out, and we saw some Kubo in the center of town taking a morning beer break at the Bufet Centrum. I explained the utterly bizarre tradition of Kubo in this post, but to sum them up, Kubo are roving gangs of generally teenaged boys in smaller, more rural towns and villages, who, at Christmas, dress up in bizarre costumes and try to cajole local townsfolk into going to the Christmas mass, but their outing usually devolves into drunkenly beating people up, harassing women, and shouting at people to let them into their homes and give them more booze. Terezia immediately locked all the car doors because she said Kubo are known for sometimes trying to stop cars in the road and banging on the windows.

I know it's a crappy, blurry photo taken from a moving car, but the person in the weird, puffy outfit sitting with his back to us is someone in a Kubo costume.

Hriňová is tucked away in a valley between forested hills below the Poľana mountains, and sits about five miles or so north of the highway between Zvolen and Lučenec. Prior to communism, Hriňová was just a small, remote rural village, but in the 1960s, the communist government built a big factory there and turned it into somewhat of a booming town. They offered free housing in then-new paneláks to attract skilled workers and families from out of town. Terezia's dad worked at this sprawling factory, where they manufactured transmissions for Soviet tanks. After communism, the factory switched to making train parts. Terezia's mom worked in Hriňová as an elementary school teacher.

For Terezia it was kind of a trip to take Simon to her home town since she has so many memories from growing up there.

After we left Hriňová, we took a detour on the way back home around Lake Ružiná, a big reservoir that was an extremely popular summer resort during communism for swimming, lounging on the beach, and camping. There used to be numerous restaurants, cafes/snack bars, discotheques, as well as fields for camping, and I'm told that in the summer this place was absolutely buzzing. But since the end of communism, the buildings and infrastructure have all fallen into disrepair, and everything looks faded, worn down, and dingy. Now the nicer shores of the lake are lined with cabins owned by well-heeled Slovaks for weekends and summer get-aways.

Lake Ružiná in better weather with the Divín castle ruin in the background (photo taken around Xmas 2015)

Ružiná is still a popular swimming hole, though, and we even went swimming there one summer day back when we were living in Slovakia, though we honestly found it to be a little on the grimy side. In fact, I remember how shortly after we swam there, the lake was closed to swimming for several weeks because of something mildly toxic found in the water. Indeed, way back in 2010, we went there one winter afternoon just to piddle around, and the reservoir was completely frozen over, and you could see a few car batteries, old boots, and tires sticking through the surface of the ice.

An eerie, foggy, iced-over Ružiná back in December 2010

The Divín castle ruin, which you can see from Ružiná, and which sits atop a hill in the village of Divín, is one of numerous castle ruins scattered all over Slovakia. Divín castle was built in the thirteenth century, and was captured by the Ottomans in 1575, who occupied it until 1593. A knight named Imrich Balassa inhabited it for a time in the 1600s, and he was reportedly known to be a thief who would periodically sack the nearby towns and everybody hated him - a real stand-up guy, apparently. The castle was conquered and destroyed by Habsburg Imperial troops in the late 1600s and has been in ruins ever since.

Divín castle ruin on the hill lording it over the village of the same name

Stay tuned for more on our trip to Slovakia!

Click to see more photos of the trip so far.

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