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16 Slovakia   (available 8/22/03)

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Fortifying against the Turks with sand baskets, not sand bags.

Eastern Hungary

  Our sampling of eastern Hungary didn’t have quite as upbeat a tone as western Hungary with the exception of Eger. Eger is a regional tourist Mecca with thermal springs and a historic, Turk-deflecting fortress.  Its old town is lush and charming and we dove head first into Eger’s produce market—the nicest one we visited in Hungary (“Ah, the peaches…the melons….”).

   But aside from Eger, we found eastern Hungary to be a little drearier than western Hungary. It seemed like the low-end of socio-economic scale was lower in the east and that there was a tension in more of the people that was getting closer to despair than I had recognized in the western regions. For the first time in Hungary we both had instances in the markets where we found ourselves clutching our wallets as we didn’t feel as trusting of some of the people around us.

   One of the many agendas in carving up Europe after WWI was making more ethnically pure countries in hopes of reducing the squabbling and Hungary was one of the easier countries in which to draw those lines. As a result, there was a high level of homogeneity in the people we saw on the streets until we were in eastern Hungary. Suddenly there was an infusion of much darker skinned people who were also quite small-framed. I couldn’t help but wonder if the small stature was a result of chronic malnutrition in these families as most of every generation were quite thin. These were not the happy, more at ease looking people we had seen in the villages and on the periphery of the towns in western Hungary. They had the look of people being left behind in the new Hungary. We are guessing that they represent the modern version of the migrations from the less prosperous eastern parts of Europe to the west, perhaps trickling in from (or through) Hungary’s struggling neighbors like the Ukraine or Romania (Hungary shares borders with a total of 7 countries.)

   And it was in eastern Hungary that for the first time I worried about my safety when pushing our bikes on a barely-through roadway that deteriorated to a rutted, overgrown footpath. Nothing bad happened, but we heard voices above us and our vulnerability loomed large in my head. The riverside terrain was so rough that we wouldn’t be able to quickly exit anywhere and help from others would have been a long way off. Again, the drama was all in my head but I was also aware that never before on the many equally slow-going and isolated paths that we have walked with our bikes did I worry about our safety. I suspect those fears had been fed by the higher percentage of relatively more desperate looking people we had been seeing in the previous couple of days.

Farewell to Hungary

   Hungary falls in the category of countries labeled “Glad to have visited but won’t be rushing back.” The varied terrain and scenery made it an enjoyable place to ride and the occasion hills with 10-13% grades kept us in better shape than we expected. The ambiance is pleasant and it is easy enough to get around without speaking the difficult language. But Hungary lacks the “wow” factor of countries that keep us coming back for more. There are things to see in Hungary but not many are of “destination quality” or provide a reason for making a special trip. Of the former eastern block countries that we have visited, so far the Czech Republic is the only one with that “Let’s go there again” quality.

   The most satisfying aspects of our visit to Hungary were correcting our horribly inaccurate misconceptions about its position on the European prosperity scale and the history lessons we learned. We visited a Paleolithic site where a skull bone from a 300,000-500,000 year old man was found as well as evidence of 4 different waves of prehistoric settlement at the same thermal spring’s area. Not that there is much to see at a site like that but I enjoy anchoring another piece of unimaginably old history (and chuckled at the thought of our smaller-brained ancestors basking in the thermal springs on a cold winter night).

   Being in Hungary also put a face on the peoples of the Great Migration--the waves of tribes swarming from the east that were often either escaping hunger or other invading tribes. The collapse of the Roman Empire for which we see so much evidence in Europe was in part due to the early pressures of barbarian invasions and Hungary’s heralded Arpad the Conqueror was at the end of that hundred’s of year’s migration process. And being in Hungary helped us better understand how the migrations were in some ways like the children’s game of musical chairs: when emerging political powers in central Europe prevented the migrations from continuing westward, the tribes stopped moving and settled where ever they happened to be. For the Magyars who came from the north and east, the ‘music stopped’ when they were in Hungary and so this became their new homeland.

   Being in Hungary triggered the clarity that Bill added about the difference between colonization and migration.  Colonization has the backing of a stable empire behind it whereas migration is an empire (or something less) on the move. The lack of food spurred the Greeks to be persistent colonists and the leaders would periodically dictate that masses of people head-out and establish a new colony. And of course, the Romans and Venetians were both active colonists as means of protecting their empires and trade routes. But the Magyars, the Huns, the Avars and others didn’t have the backing of a powerful capitol but were instead a force on the run, sometimes leaving a trail of settlements and destruction in their wake.

Tightly wound, giant steps up the Eger minaret.

   And of course, the Ottomans and their empire building have been underscored by visiting Hungary. The city walls, the bells that still ring to mark their departure and the frequent reference to the Turks in city history museums all reinforced how far reaching their empire was. To further punctuate their presence, we visited the sites of 2 former mosques in Hungary, one that is now only a tomb, the other that is only remembered by its minaret.  Had it not been so hot, a visit to one of the still-active Turkish baths in Budapest would have been a treat.

  The next time we pass through Hungary we’ll spend more time in the Great Plains. We only touched the northern fringe of them this time as the heat wave made traversing great wide open spaces very unappealing. Apparently there are 3 distinct regions to the Plains and though I imagine it could be pretty boring biking, it would be interesting to sample it once.

Slovakia 8/8/03

 -First Impressions-

Typical rural Slovak scenery. 

   We looked hard but didn’t see any significant differences as we crossed the border from Hungary into Slovakia. Slovakia is the poorer, more rural, and more conservative half of the former Czechoslovakia and part of the reason for the break was that the Slovaks wanted to modernize at a slower pace than the Czechs. We saw nothing that suggested that Slovakia is the more backward of the duo. Slovakia even looked a little perkier to us than Hungary. Perhaps that was because the housing is more varied and looks like it wasn’t all built during a single boom time.

-A Home-Stay-   

   We unexpectedly stayed in a private room for our first 2 nights in Slovakia, which is a situation we usually try to avoid. The upside of private rooms is that they are very inexpensive and give us close contact with a local family. The downside is that it means sharing everything but our sleeping area with the family: taking turns using the bathroom (where we also do our laundry), greater rationing of the hot water, negotiating to use their kitchen and this time, getting the host’s help to get permission from the dog to enter and exit the grounds. But we already feel like we are living in a fishbowl when out on our bikes all day and by evening we are ready for some private space and privacy. And this particular time a private room also meant getting “locked out” the second day when we returned to the house before the family did.

  This Slovak home was reminiscent of other interiors we’ve seen in the former eastern block countries. I assume in reaction to the too prevalent brown decorating color, especially on exteriors, they had gone for some overboard color splashes on the interior. The bathroom floor and the walls from floor to ceiling are covered with a potent turquoise tile with matching fixtures. Our bed, like most in eastern Europe, was a fully upholstered piece of furniture upon which sheets are laid. Our bed and headboard, the tiny matching nightstands, the miniature dressing table and stool were all 100% covered in a scarlet, sculpted, plush upholstery. Most of the cabinets in our room were filled with personal items of the hosts which were taped shut to keep us out.

   We screwed up our courage and invaded their kitchen (which was advertised as available to us) to cook our dinner and like others we have seen in this part of Europe, it was tiny. A bench was squeezed into the room so only 1 person could stand in front of the efficiency stove at a time and it was definitely challenging to coordinate our standard team-cooking. There is no counter space, just a cook top, sink and drain board for the dishes. A table about half the size of a card table is the only working, eating or setting-things-down space in the room. At least our immersion heater cookery in tight quarters had our cooking skills up to the challenge.

   We found our selves turning sideways to move through the kitchen and around in our room as the passageways between furnishing were reduced to less than a comfortable body’s-width. The strip of access floor to the toilet room was also unusually narrow and lacked a railing to keep one from miss-stepping down the stairs in the dark. Even though I am usually fearless about stumbling around in the night to locate our current toilet I was quick to place my tiny flashlight on the nightstand.

  Like in Hungary and Croatia, our hosts were very busy with life-style supplementing activities. We sipped the plum wine they were in the process of making, negotiated around the blanched cauliflower on the tiny kitchen table as it awaited its pickling solution and admired the colorful canned plums. Onions were drying on a big sheet of cardboard in the backyard. A few fruit trees were in the front yard and an out-of-service pig sty was in the back. A huge garden area was only partially cultivated.

   We were in 1 of only 2 rooms they rent out, with the other bigger room being reserved for a visiting adult child the weekend we were there. They were eager and enthusiastic hosts whose English vocabulary was limited to “Thank you” though they could muster a dozen words in German. But that didn’t stop them from chattering at us and we successfully decoded some of the communication like “Do you want the chair removed from your room—we’ll move it when your husband returns.” We wrung out a few useful words from our guide book to successfully ask for towels and if we could use the kitchen.  It made their day that we were from America on bicycles—clearly beyond their imagination. Dad commented many times about our bikes being very special and was wide-eyed at the new-to-him technology that they and our many attached gadgets represent.

Barb's broken gear tooth & 2 cleaned-up, adjacent teeth.

Missing Teeth

   We had returned from our day ride and were dreaming of diving into our latest watermelon as we sat on the front steps of our private-room host’s house, wondering when they would return to let us in. In trying to make good use of the unknown amount of “locked-out” time, I asked Bill to fine-tune the shifting mechanism on my bike as it had become a little rough in the last week. Unfortunately he reported that adjusting wouldn’t solve the problem because 2 gear teeth had snapped off my middle chain ring. We have 3 chain rings, which are the gears between the pedals, and the middle one gives me access to 9 of my 27 gears.

   I was stunned as it is the smallest chain ring that we abuse with the loaded climbing we do in the mountains and yet it is in the best shape of the trio. But Bill knew why—he had twisted the Portland bike shop clerk’s arm to special order steel chain rings for our smallest, knowing that they would take a beating. The middle and large chain ring are the original aluminum gears and are getting thin on both of our bikes and are just beginning to snap-off on mine. And here I’d taken great comfort in thinking that Bill’s bike would always be the ‘canary in the mine,’ that his would always be the first to fail.

    Bill doesn’t think it is an immediate crisis but that it instead represents a hard decision to be made--a major decision point on part replacement. Though the chain ring can be replaced, the entire drive train is probably quite worn. Its failure poses a bigger question that is more like deciding whether to do a valve-job on a car engine or buy a new car. (I have a feeling that a new bike just got a little more likely as these Clydesdales probably have 30,000 miles on them.) We’ll start the frustrating process of trying to buy a new chain ring as we move through the larger cities and hope that the bigger decisions will wait until we are back in Portland in the winter.

Biking in Slovakia

  Aside from my little problem with missing teeth on my chain ring, biking in Slovakia is downright civilized, though the few posted bike routes have been more suitable for mountain bikers, which we are not. Bike maps of suggested routes were easier to stumble across than almost anywhere we have been and bikes are definitely a part of the scene. We have yet to find a “No Bikes” sign when we arrive at a road (as happened in Hungary) and can’t remember if we have even seen a “No Bikes” sign anywhere. We have needed to ride on busier roads than we normally traverse but it has felt safe most of the time. The through, highway-like roads almost always have shoulders wide enough for us and there are usually just enough other bikes on the roadway to know the drivers will be expecting to see us. We of course always prefer the back roads but they don’t always land us near lodging at the end of the day.

   The Slovaks seem to be into bikes and not just those decades-old beater bikes either. We see new mountain bikes whizzing around under riders of all ages everywhere we go. I’m sure some of these steeds are almost “throw-away” quality of bikes as we have seen some new ones with front and rear suspension sold for $80, but they certainly are allowing many people to enjoy the thrill of new bikes and all those nifty gears.

Kosice (Ko-sheetz-ah, we think)

   Oh man, I thought those hot-box mansard roof-B&B’s were just a Hungarian thing but here we are in Slovakia treating ourselves to a nicer business class hotel and they tried to stick us up under the eves again. We had imagined that Hungarians don’t feel like they are on vacation unless they are in a sloped ceiling room as almost all of our accommodations were in places with mansard roofs. It doesn’t matter if they have 4 rooms or 20+, most of the rooms to rent in Hungary are on the second floor with a sloped ceiling and a window that starts at my eye level or just above. Being able to look out the window borders on being an obsession for me, so these rooms feel very confining. Plus, on these 90-100˚F days an attic with minimal ventilation is the last place to get a good night’s sleep. (And it would be challenging at best to use one of these windows as an exit in a fire situation.)

   Our Kosice hotel underscored the Slovak’s commitment to mansard roof rooms by managing to tuck all 3 floors of rooms under the sloped roof with high, slit-like windows. Our young hostess was very kind in letting us look at several rooms and finally explained that all of the rooms had those windows. But then she hesitated and told us about one room that was available on the same level as reception, though she was concerned it would be too noisy. We snapped it up even though its 2 vertical windows only looked across the sliver of an outdoor space to the reception area’s windows. Ah, to have 4 walls all the same height, to be able to walk around without bonking our heads and to casually look out a window for a change in focal distance all felt like heaven.  I bet they rarely rent out this room but our hostess is astute enough that I suspect she’ll offer it more quickly to the next farther-westerners that have a pinched look on their faces when looking at their otherwise lovely rooms.

   We had to laugh at the other decidedly former-eastern block country characteristic in our room and that was our bath mat. This hotel is clearly catering to western European business people with their fresh and very pleasing décor and room amenities, including large, thick towels. But the poor bathmat—someone had cut the plush thing in half. I could only be grateful that they got the scissors out of that old-guard person’s hands before she got to the bath towels, as skimpy towels seems to be the “right” way to do things in this part of Europe. Something that looks more like a dish towel that is see-through thin and occasionally as absorbent as having been Teflon coated is the norm for bath towels and we have been issued more than one that was only a 20-25% crosswise strip of the original towel.  I could imagine that once the scissors had been taken away from the bathmat snipper’s hands that a long discussion ensued using the old images: “This hotel isn’t for the workers but for the bosses and the bosses can have the entire mat.”

   We found Kosice’s old town to be a gem. At a quarter million people, it’s the second largest city in Slovakia and the historic district is charming. The car-less, long main street has a small but lush sitting park in the middle that is heavily used; the restoration of the 1700’s facades is well underway; and the broad pedestrian areas, bike paths, and horse-drawn tram bring a lot of activity into the old town core every day of the week. It is one of those upbeat, visually interesting places that invites you to linger—which we did by staying a day longer than planned. Though Kosice is an industrial center and US Steel has a strong presence on the approach into town, they have retained the elegance of their historic center.

  And Kosice continues to echo our first impressions of Slovakia: pleasant and upbeat. Bill commented on how comforting it was to again see the marketing of now familiar, more northern European companies, like Tesco, Orange, and Kaufland. Those are names we didn’t see in Hungary, or even Italy for that matter. But the presence of some familiar businesses, the increase in the amount of English on the billboards, and the much greater diversity in countries of origin on products on the grocer’s shelves suggests that Slovakia is merging with western Europe more quickly or in a different way than Hungary. At the tourist-retail level, Slovakia looks like it is doing well and based on only a few days, it seems like more of the people are doing better in Slovakia than in Hungary or the Czech Republic. 

   You just never know what you’ll run into in these city museums and in Kosice the technical museum had a display of about 150 typewriters arranged by inventor or manufacturer, with most being from around the turn of the 20th century and most were from the US. Some of their earliest models were from the 1820’s and 1830’s and looked like they required a 2-handed maneuver to create each letter. But some of the early innovations looked surprisingly familiar, such as the letters being on a ball as used in modern electric models. And I am far from being an old coin buff but the 25 pounds of gold, mostly in the form of coins, which were stashed in a Kosice house foundation from 1682 until 1935 were quite a sight to see. And a Kosice street corner monument listing the names of each year’s winners educated us that they host the second oldest marathon event in the world, dating back to 1924.

  And Kosice is significant to us for another reason:  Map Man has informed me that it is our farthest east location for us this cycling season.

A Little Slovak History

   Yes, when talking Slovak history, the emphasis is on the “little”.  I was shocked to read the entire entry in our encyclopedia for Slovakia in the time that it would take me to read a portion about just one historical era for a country like Austria or Hungary. But for Slovakia all of the entries, including: culture, religion, geography, people, and history were a quick read.

  Like Hungary, Slovakia too was repopulated during the Great Migrations and Arpad the Conqueror’s reach (about 900 ce) extended into this region. Slovakia’s history since that initial Magyar domination is a subset of the history of Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic rather than truly being their own. The blurred lines of their history was underscored by realizing that a Hungarian history hero from yet another war for independence the early 1700’s whose name shows up on a street sign in seemingly every Hungarian town is actually a Slovak, and yet the Hungarians claim him as one of their own (as they would still like to claim Slovakia.) Only since its split with the Czech’s in 1993 has Slovakia stood on its own. The Slovak’s have maintained their own language through all that domination, though its difference from Czech looks to us like the difference between dialects.

   And its centuries as an agricultural backwater have made Slovakia a country to be from, rather than a country to reside in. About 4.5 million of its current 5.4 million population are Slovak, which is startling when compared with the almost 2 million of Slovak origin that are living in the US. The gypsies, or Roma, are officially reported as 1.6% of their population, but other estimates range from 5 to 15%. Our Polish friends said that transferring the Roma’s from the Czech half of the country to the Slovak half was part of the deal struck when splitting the 2 countries up.

Minority Encounters

   Back in the saddle again we came across an odd grouping of brand new apartment buildings with a couple more in the works, perhaps a hundred units or more in total, out in the middle of nowhere but on the through road. The area was swarming with people but there were no businesses or municipal buildings to make the community look complete.

   Moments later we spotted a horrible little shanty town above us on the road, like nothing we’ve seen in Europe. These were small, log cabin-type structures with mud or other light-colored filler in the gaps between the squared timbers. Small, odds and ends of rusty sheet metal covered about 80% of each pitched roof area. The pitched roofs had no end closures and there was a huge gap between the walls and the roof.  The structures would be tolerable in the summer heat but would only provide the scantest protection in winter weather. And like the gleaming new apartments, this cluster of buildings was crawling with people. They stared at us with mouths agape and we pedaled by as quickly as we could, barely being able to comprehend what we were seeing. Had we been invisible, we would have lingered but we were feeling far too visible to feel safe in even pausing.

   Shortly we came across another similar shanty town scene, though it was much larger and lacked the promising new apartments across the road. The idleness of the people was again amazingly intimidating. A small group of reasonably dressed 20-something men were leaning against the guardrail across the road from us and 20’ down the road a group of 10 year old boys were practicing the same stance. Nobody made the slightest gesture towards us that was threatening and yet we felt the same sensation as with the last cluster—that we had fallen into a strange and frightening world that we didn’t understand and had no business being in.

   Minutes later, we were back to the more familiar look of Slovakia, without the slightest hint as to what we had passed through. These darker skinned people looked like they could be kin of the desperate looking folks we saw on the fringes of communities in eastern Hungary and I wondered if Bill was right, if these were Roma (gypsies).

   The Roma are much hated and somewhat feared throughout Europe and I finally understand why, if indeed these folks are Roma. There is something very intimidating in how quickly all of their attention shifted to us as we passed by.  My wild imagination conjured the image of one person giving the signal and then suddenly there would be a swarm of grabbing hands around us, stripping off everything that wasn’t welded on to our bikes.

   We get stared at a lot, and sometimes it’s long and hard. Occasionally I am amused by imagining how we must spice-up the day’s conversation as we roll by a cluster of people and other times I tire of particularly prolonged staring, but I never find it threatening. But in these 2 instances I found the too-intense attention very intimidating.

   These people weren’t busy gathering firewood, picking berries, playing with the kids or doing other industrious things to improve their plight. Nor were they particularly engaged with their companions or with a beverage as we often see with men who look like they spend the day watching the world go by. Instead, they looked like they were waiting for an opportunity to pass by and that they were intensely assessing if we were such an opportunity.

   The lack of their own activities and the scrutinizing of us certainly set-off the alarm bells on my almost-subconscious personal safety surveillance system. No doubt my safety assessment system is over reacting and will need recalibrating with these folks as it often does in new cities or countries. But the fact that their cultural affect triggered such a strong negative response in me makes it clear why they are ostracized even if they never do anything overt—such a reflexive defensive reaction is hard to over-ride.

   It was stunning how these brief ‘mostly in our minds’ encounters changed our perspective. As we rolled into the next town the metal fences around homes no longer looked so paranoid and I could imagine that the townspeople took everything in for the night that wasn’t nailed down. And it certainly made us think twice about leaving our bikes unattended while we ducked into a church or 2 in the area.

    My heart sank the next day as we passed through yet another presumed Roma cluster. This time it was on the edge of a poorer looking town than most we have traversed. (The look of the town convinced us that the main road through it was dirt even though we knew there was a narrow, paved strip.)  We both cringed as we looked up the gauntlet we would pass through on this last uphill stretch out of town, as it looked like the poverty level got worse and worse. Going uphill puts us in our most vulnerable state as we travel at walking speed, plus our loaded bikes make us pretty tippy at the ultra slow speeds.

   The little boy who said “Hello” in Slovak decided to turn and chase us up the hill, which is a familiar experience with little boys. But of course, in this situation it was more concerning. Bill’s look back at him was enough to deflect the boy as he reached out for his bike and fortunately the people milling about paid us less attention than in the other Roma clusters.

   Unlike the previous ones, this enclave was of intact houses, at least some of which had electrical wires going into them. But otherwise the overall look was the same as at the other sites: every shred of vegetation was worn off the ground leaving the entire housing area surrounded by bare dirt; a seemingly very high birth rate (many European countries are below zero population growth); and an unusually large number of working-age men and women just hanging out. We heaved a sigh of relief when we made it to the top of the hill and had left the little sub-community behind but the tension in our bodies lingered for miles.

   The situation with the Roma in Europe and Slovakia in particular is a very difficult one. They have suffered discrimination in Slovakia to the point of deaths and maiming’s in recent years—enough so that Bill Clinton called for radical change when he was president. And several Slovak politicians have been extremely racist in their public stances about the Roma. The EU acceptance committee has apparently put pressure on Slovakia to clean up their treatment of Roma as a condition of membership. And yet I can’t sympathize with our guide books lament at the loss of the Roma’s nomadic lifestyle that has occurred with past campaigns of giving them housing and jobs. A loss of a culture is regrettable and yet in these modern times there just aren’t the available wide-open spaces for millions of people in Europe to live a nomadic lifestyle without infringing on the property and rights of others. And their bias towards remaining in their closed society rather than integrate with the larger community makes solutions to their problems even more difficult.

   Our young Polish friends had warned us about unpleasant encounters with the Roma in Slovakia and we had taken their tested advice to heart, which was not to stop, but to just keep moving along even if hassled (which we weren’t). We also saw the other minority in Slovakia that they had warned us about, which were the Polish tourists. Apparently Slovakia, especially the Tatra Mountain region which we were approaching, is a favorite destination for Poles.

   Fortunately the Polish tourist minority was much easier to deal with. They too were in swarms and hoards on both sides of the road but with big smiles on their faces and an air of lively anticipation as they tromped along in their hiking boots with knapsacks or heavy backpacks.  And our only conflict with them was indirect, as we found ourselves competing for scarce accommodations on what turned out to be a banking holiday (3-day weekend) for the Poles. (Darn it anyway, we checked the guidebook for Slovak holidays but it never occurred to us to check for holidays in the adjacent country.)

Tatra Mountains

  The Tatra Mountains are an especially admired region of the Carpathian Mountains, as the Dolomites of Italy and Austria are in the Alps. Like the Dolomites, they aren’t extraordinarily high but nonetheless dramatic with jagged peaks 8,600’ high. The stunning views of the Tatra’s aren’t as plentiful though, with the visual experience of biking in the Tatra’s being more like looking at a few postcards, whereas biking in the Dolomites is like watching a long video. But $70 in a popular tourist town in the Tatra’s buys you a fine room in peak season at the aptly named Grand Hotel and in a comparably popular Dolomite town you are lucky to find a room with a bath for that price.

8,600' Limnicky stit (peak) that we visited by cable car.

  Our jumping-off point for the Tatra’s was cheery and picturesque village of Stary Smokevec. It and its neighboring villages exist solely for the wildly popular recreational features of the area--hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Our young Polish friends, Kuba and Kasia, who met us there were put-off by the mobs of Polish tourists in the area for the Polish 3 day weekend, but we basked in the lively energy of the vacationers. These aren’t dazed, jet-lagged tourists of the big-name tourist sites, but one’s that are primed for a long-awaited outdoor adventure and we enjoyed their excitement.

   Both Kuba and Kasia are nursing chronic knee ailments and so weren’t here for cycling or rambunctious hiking. Instead, we enjoyed our 2 days together by taking a funicular, a couple of cable cars, and a chair lift up to higher elevations for strolling and experimenting with their new camera lenses.

   We reveled in the lively conversations, mainly about linguistic topics, as they both speak English wonderfully. Kuba has an inexhaustible curiosity about English words so Bill and I compared our working definitions about more obscure words like hullabaloo, hubbub, and brouhaha for him. Kuba was less interested in the dictionary definitions of words but preferred instead to get a gut feel for them by listening to our usage and the subtle distinctions that we each made as native speakers. Bill picked up some tips about learning German from seeing how Kuba refined his usage of vocabulary by using this feeling approach.

   Polish, Czech and Slovak are all Slavic languages and as Poles Kuba and Kasia can use Polish with the Slovak speakers and carry on a reasonable exchange. But they laughed frequently at the slightly different usage of words, as the Slovak equivalent of “Bon Appetit” sounded to them like “Have Good Sexual Desires.”  They also laughed at a railroad track warning sign that when read as Polish was also more of a disjointed sexual comment. Along with learning what’s amusing to them in Slovakia as Poles, we swapped opinions and questions about cultural taboos, gestures, etiquette and what is customary in our respective cultures. Our exchange with them was finished off with them coaching us on a half dozen Polish words to help us when we pedaled into Poland a day or two later.

Spissky hrad (castle) on the way to Levoca.

Leaving Slovakia

   Our 10 day visit to Slovakia was brief, but hey, it’s a small country. Lingering in the Tatra Mountains and the old town of Kosice were the high points of our visit, but we also admired a few castles from afar and visited several old churches, including one in the town of Levoca with the world’s tallest wooden Gothic alter piece at 61’ in height.

   The fleeting encounters with the Roma and the long conversations with our Polish friends Kuba and Kasia filled our heads with experiences and realizations that will ripple in our beings for years. Our beliefs were challenged and new information implanted in us from those contacts that add to the broader understanding of the world that we are developing from our travels, so both are treasured in their own way.

   Like Slovenia, we will leave without having visited Slovakia’s capitol city. But Bratislava is barely within Slovakia’s border with Austria and Map Man assures me we will take it in the next time we visit Vienna.

Where We Are Now:  8/22/03

   We are now staying just outside of Krakow, Poland having left Slovakia by way of the Tatra’s on 8/19.  We’ll begin working our way west to pick-up part of last year’s itinerary that was washed away in the historic floods of just a year ago. Yes, just last summer it was floods and this year it’s a heat wave. Fortunately, we had a nice break from the heat while in Slovakia due to both a change in the weather systems and our time at higher elevation in the mountains.


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