Saturday, January 20, 2018

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 3

At the time of writing this, we've actually been back in the States for about two weeks. I apologize profusely for being so wildly late with this third and final post, but we were coping with a nine-month old who wasn't coping so well with the jet lag, which meant for the first week after our return, we were getting about four hours of very interrupted sleep per night. The stepfather of a close friend of mine told me before Simon was born that humans are designed to endure the sleep deprivation that comes with raising babies, but I'm starting to seriously question that.

Compared to previous trips, this one was much more low key and uneventful - sometimes frustratingly so. And that's why I feel like I don't have a lot to say in this third and final blog post. As I mentioned in the last post, part of that had to do with how traveling with a very active and curious nine-month-old baby can be quite challenging. Simon actually does pretty well in most circumstances, but like all babies, he does have his limits.

Also, crappy, rainy weather on several days conspired to keep us homebound, as well as some issues with Terezia's dad's car - a small, aging Skoda hatchback with an engine that sounds like a gas-powered lawn mower, which is in dire need of a tune up and oil change, among other things (like new windshield wipers). And in some ways, this trip felt even less like a vacation since Terezia's parents' home is not baby proof, so when Simon was roaming free throughout the house, someone had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he wasn't getting into lower cupboards, smashing his fingers when opening and closing drawers, pulling down table cloths, or climbing dressers or TVs that could topple onto him. (We also had to keep him away from Terezia's parents' chihuahua, Ricky, because when they were first introduced, Simon playfully grabbed Ricky's ears and yanked them - something that Ricky really wasn't into.)

There were a few occasions when the height of our day was literally just going for a 30-40 minute walk around the village, or going into Lučenec to run some errands.

After one such trip to Lučenec, Simon fell asleep and was in dire need of a decent nap, so we just kept driving, ending up on a scenic loop that went through Tuhár, Divín, and Ružiná. I cycled this loop twice two years previously with Tony, Jano, and Christoph, but as Terezia and I were driving it, we saw that lengthy stretches of the roads were covered in loose gravel (put there because of the snow from earlier in December), which would have made it totally dangerous and basically unridable for a road bike.

Tuhár is really nothing more than a small, remote, backwater village, located a bit far off the beaten path, that has nothing of interest to anyone who doesn't live there. However, there is something about it's setting in a picturesque canyon, and its rows of old ramshackle houses, that makes it visually appealing.

Tuhár, photo taken in 2015

According to Terezia's mom, Tuhár is known for suffering water shortages. Even though a creek runs through the village (and when we drove through, there was still several inches of thick snow on the ground, whereas the snow had pretty much all melted back in Podrečany and Lučenec), Tuhár apparently goes through periods when it just runs out of water. A lot of people in the smaller villages in this region have wells and septic tanks, and many streets are not hooked up to any sort of water grid, so I suppose Tuhár's water problem shouldn't be too surprising. Still, Slovakia gets lots of rain (and snow) throughout the year, and from what I've been told, droughts are typically not a problem for most areas. It's super weird and unfortunate that the state is not able to help improve the infrastructure in some way.

On our last trip in 2015-2016, Terezia's cousin Jano said Tuhár has some kind of folk festival around New Year's that locals go to, but he added Christoph (who is German) and I shouldn't go because we'd probably get beat up by the locals simply for being foreigners. So, yeah, Tuhár: reportedly lacking in water and an open mind?

Date Night (sort of)

New Year's was pretty low key for us, but the night before New Year's Eve, we finally got Terezia's mom to agree to watch Simon for a couple of hours so we could go out for a date night. That day, Tony and his wife Silvia drove out to Podrečany, and we went out to a newish restaurant in Lučenec called Tančiareň a pivovar.

Tančiareň is trying really hard to stand apart from the typical greasy Slovak grub holes that are common in towns like Lučenec. It's a gastropub where they make their own beer and prepare things like upscale-ish hamburgers with fries served in metal cones. The place is spacious with tall, exposed-brick walls and steel beams, a couple of big beer vats by the front windows, and young waitstaff. The owners have clearly gone to great lengths to create a vibe and menu that cater to "hip" 20 or 30 somethings who are slightly more aware of the world outside the village.

While Terezia, Silvia, and Tony all focused on the trendier hamburger options, I stubbornly went in a more Slovak direction with the confit duck leg with red cabbage and loksa. Huge mistake: the duck leg was dried out and bland, while the portion of soupy red cabbage was so disproportionately massive that you could have doled all of it out over the denne menu plate of every patron during a lunchtime rush. The beer was quite good though, particularly an "American-style brown ale" that was like a darker amber ale.

So, I'd probably return for a beer, but maybe not the food.

Fortunately, for the New Year's Eve dinner, Terezia made us a roasted duck dinner, and obviously her tender, juicy, intensely flavorful duck blew away the desiccated, leathery travesty at Tančiareň.

Back to Bratislava

Tony was fighting a nasty cold/flu, so he and Silvia went right back home the very same day they drove out. Unfortunately, that left us having to find some way to get back to Bratislava a few days later, where we'd be spending the last few days of our trip. We didn't want to take the train, as that involves a four-hour ride that might have tested Simon's patience, especially since these days the drive is only about 2.5 hours.

Fortunately, Terezia's aunt hooked us up with a local cab driver she knew through someone, who offered to take us back for around 100 euros. Unfortunately, even though we were assured he'd show up in a "combi" (in English this word describes a kind of van, but in Slovak it's basically a station wagon), the driver arrived in a car that was really more of a glorified hatchback. We were barely able to cram everything, including Simon in his car seat, into the car. I was wedged in the backseat between the door and a large suitcase that was jammed between Simon and myself. 

But the driver was quite friendly, and he and Terezia chatted all the way back to Tony's house. During communism, the driver had a job that had something to do with the roads, and when we drove through his native Trnava region, he was full of amusing bits of info on the local roads. 

For example, running alongside highway 62 between Sládkovičovo and Senec is an old, narrow, rough-looking road that the locals apparently refer to (still) as "Hitler's road" because it was built by the Nazis during WWII. This road was apparently the first paved road through this particular stretch. The communists eventually built their own road, part of which runs alongside it, made out of concrete slabs (as opposed to asphalt), but it apparently aged quickly and badly next to Hitler's road from all the pointless military parades that they used it for. When it came time to replace the communist-era road, it was in hideous shape. The driver said that because the road was made out of these thick, heavy-duty concrete slabs, it was too much work to remove it, so they opted to make a new road directly on top of it instead. But because it was so torn up, pitted, and bumpy, they had to pour more than a foot's worth of asphalt over it to make it smooth and even.

This stretch of highway 62 also has what were jokingly referred to as "kissing zones," which look like dual roadside pullouts facing each other on opposite sides of the road. Despite their name, kissing zones were not lovers' lane type hangouts where teenagers would park their cars and get to third base behind fogged-up windows. When the Soviets would send political delegations into Czechoslovakia, these kissing zones were where the Czechoslovak officials would first greet the Russian delegates and do the rounds of traditional cheek kissing common among central and eastern Europeans. Why they would first meet at the side of the road outside of town is beyond me, but that's what these shoulder turnouts were for, and not for turning into if you had car trouble or wanted to let someone pass you.

The driver said that when they'd get word that a Soviet delegation was coming through, they had to make the road and the surroundings look immaculate, doing everything short of painting the grass green to make it spic and span. It didn't matter if a nearby village's roads were a complete mess - all that mattered was that things looked shiny and new wherever the Soviet delegations traveled.

Twenty-Five Years of Independence

During our trip, Slovakia was celebrating its 25th anniversary since the "Velvet Divorce," when Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully (albeit not democratically) went their separate ways. It's quite amazing to consider how far Slovakia has come since its days in the 1990s as "the black hole of Europe" under Vladimír Mečiar, who most people agree as having had a super corrupt, autocratic, media-muzzling, economy-tanking, Russian-style form of governing. And it's especially impressive how, of the four Visegrad countries (the others being Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), Slovakia is, at the time of writing, the sanest and most politically stable.

Hungary, under Viktor Orban, has become a far-right, nationalist, autocratic, illiberal democracy, and Poland over the past few years has been quickly following in Hungary's footsteps with an uber-right-wing government that's working feverishly to erode democratic institutions and norms. The Czech Republic's president of the last four years, Miloš Zeman, is a populist, nationalist, pro-Putin, euroskeptic, Islamaphobic blowhard who won with wide rural support (and is up for re-election this month), and the country's new prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is a populist billionaire oligarch with alleged ties to the communist-era secret police whose business interests are seen as a massive conflict of interest.

Of course, as a friend of mine noted, Slovakia's relative political stability/sanity could all come crashing down in a single national election that goes the wrong way. But the fact that just last year in 2017, voters in the Banska Bystrica region ousted their scary, neo-Nazi, anti-EU incumbent governor, Marian Kotleba, is quite promising.

Slovakia still has plenty of problems: its current prime minister, Robert Fico, has been making hostile, toxic comments about the media and immigrants years before Trump. But for the past four years, Slovakia's president, Andrej Kiska, has been the only voice of sanity and reason among the top elected officials of the Visegrad Four, and he's had the effect of helping Slovakia to be seen in a more positive light. I've heard that Kiska doesn't want to run for re-election, but I hope he changes his mind. Slovakia (and central Europe) needs more adults in the room like him.

One Last, Brief Excursion in Bratislava's Old Town

On our last full day in Slovakia, we took a little trip back into Bratislava. Naturally, the weather that day was crap, alternating between rain and snow throughout the afternoon (though it was quite nice the day before and the day after, of course). As soon as Silvia dropped us off near Eurovea, the rain turned into big globs of wet snow, and as it was about lunchtime, we ducked into Kolkovna, a decent restaurant at the west end of Eurovea.

I ordered their plate of goose leg with red cabbage and potato dumplings, which was profoundly superior to the dried-out leather shoe I'd had at Tančiareň in Lučenec. This goose was so awesomely tender, juicy, and flavorful that it was almost as good as Terezia's duck! I didn't remember being this impressed with Kolkovna in the past, so I wonder if they have someone new working in the kitchen. Terezia got the fried cheese, a Slovak and Czech staple that she likes to indulge in at least once when she's there, while Simon made a mess with a bread roll and some puree.

One of my goals for this trip was to find some Slovak children's books for Simon. We plan to raise Simon bilingual, with Terezia speaking to him in Slovak and me in English. But while we'd been given a slew of English books, we had none in Slovak, and I knew we'd be able to remedy that at one of Bratislava's decent bookstores. At Gorilla, a cozy bookstore/cafe near SNP square, we spent nearly 40 euros on kid's books. I was excited to find a Slovak translation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Even though Simon's too young to understand these books, he really seems to gravitate towards bold colors and playful illustrations, and he always tries to grab at the animals in Carle's books.

We did manage to piddle around the Stare Mesto a bit, but the rain really made it less than fun. On the way back toward Eurovea, as we were walking through our old neighborhood, we stopped by the building where a friend and former co-worker of Terezia, named Katka, lives and paid her a totally impromptu visit. She was happy to see us and, like a typical hospitable Slovak, she insisted we come in for coffee and cake.

Back to the Airport

On our last day, we took a cab to Vienna's Schwechat airport where we were staying on our final night at the adjacent NH hotel. This place is super convenient when you have to fly out from Vienna in the morning, since you literally just exit the hotel and make a short walk across a parking lot.

That evening, I finally got the chance to meet up with one of my friends, James, whom I worked with at the Slovak Spectator when living in Bratislava. He has since relocated to Vienna to work as an editor for a cool website, called Eurozine, which publishes political articles and essays. He kindly offered to trek out to the hotel, where we met up in the bar and discussed politics and our sometimes irrational longing for Slovakia and its myriad idiosyncrasies over a few rounds of beer.

Fun anecdote: when asking the bartender if the Budweiser listed on the menu was the original Czech beer or the fake, super bland/weak American one, the bartender gave a look of mild disdain and replied: "We don't import American water."

When I came back up the room, where Terezia and Simon were asleep, I was slightly dismayed to find that, for some reason, Simon refused to sleep in the Pack-n-Play style crib provided by the hotel and would only sleep on the bed, sideways and in between us, of course, pushing Terezia and I out to the edges. Maybe suddenly having too sleep in a new, strange place was a bit much and he wanted to be closer to us.

Final Thoughts

At any rate, that's it! I feel kind of bad that this trip was so uneventful that I really didn't have much to write about. Honestly, it probably did not justify three blog posts, and I felt I had to really dig to find anything worth writing about. And I apologize for this last post being so insanely late, but it was really a struggle to get anything coherent out what with the whole taking care of a nine-month old thing and not getting any sleep.

But the next time we go back to Slovakia, we'll be doing things a little differently. We'll definitely rent our own car, for starters. Not having to rely on family for transportation is crucial to being able to do at least some of what we'd like to do. Simon will be older, and we will feel less guilty about leaving him for a few evenings (or, gasp - even an entire day!) with his grandparents. We'll probably also go at a different time of year - maybe Spring or Fall, when the weather might be a bit more cooperative (although in Slovakia, as in much of Europe, it rains any time of year, so you could potentially get caught in a downpour no matter when you travel). And hopefully we'll have the whole traveling with a small kid thing down a bit better. It's doable, as the many families with small kids that you see at all the big international airports would probably attest, but it definitely takes practice.

This blog will return to its state of quasi-hibernation, but stay tuned: I do have a few ideas for future blog posts burbling around in my soupy, sleep-deprived brain.

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