Tag Archives: Kamienka

LSS: Jiggety jig

Home again. Home again. Jiggety jig.

That’s the song I sing in my head every time I have the blessing of coming home.

For this weeklong trip to Slovakia, the words jiggety jig have a particular irony. My feet, legs and knees are ridiculously sore from hours of dancing a jiggety jig at the 16-hour wedding I attended last weekend.

This wedding that began in a tiny village in the Tatra Mountains in northeastern Slovakia was more than special. Elements of it were like something out of National Geographic, but for me, the emotional journey of returning to a land and people I knew began before the ceremony.

I was the bride’s first English teacher when she was 8 years old. Her mother, Maria, and I taught together. Her family treated me as family. I spent holidays with them and grew to know and love them, despite language barriers. Staying in touch with them during the 18 years since I left Slovakia was a gift. When the bride graduated from high school, her dream was to come to university in the States. I worked with her and several universities to find the right place for her to go to school.

Since flourishing in her undergraduate studies, she has earned scholarships and accolades from near and far including stints at the East-West Center in Honolulu, a year at Berkley, and finally Harvard — earning a law degree. That’s a lot of detail, but I’m crazy proud of her of this little girl from a village so small in the mountains of Slovakia.

I had not seen her parents since I left Slovakia until Friday night before the wedding. Friends of the couple from 14 countries and her husband-to-be’s American family came to the dinner. I was the last in line to greet her parents, my old friends. The guests all knew the story of the inflated credit the bride’s family gives me in helping to create this fairy tale. When it came my turn to greet Maria, they all stood back and watched. Her mother said, just as I knew she would, “Oh, Jan,” and we embraced and could not hold back the tears. We stood there crying and doing our best to realize just how much time had passed and how much had changed.

The next morning at 11:45 a.m., we headed through the mountains to the bride’s tiny village of Kamienka on a chartered bus. As soon as we approached the village, the bus driver laid on the horn. He went back and forth through the village four times, horn blaring, before finally stopping at the bride’s parents’ home. Traditional Slovak musicians were singing as we approached the home. After everyone gathered, the bride came downstairs and a relative said a prayer.

The couple then knelt in front of their parents and expressed their gratitude. The mother of the bride took a round loaf of bread tied up with flax. She used the bread to make the sign of the cross on the head of the bride and groom. Each of the parents followed suit. The bread represented the blessing of food and the flax, clothing.

Then we went outside and had food and drinks before the entire wedding party walked down the street to the village church. The entire village was out to watch the procession. It was like a movie. Inside the recently refurbished Orthodox church, we witnessed a beautiful ceremony and music. Then we loaded back up in the bus and went to the hotel. When the bride and groom arrived, the hotel director and another staff member offered the bride and groom each a small piece of bread — to represent plenty. Then he offered them salt — to represent the more difficult times they would face. Just as he was offering them salt on two small plates, he dropped one. It crashed to the floor and broke into hundreds of pieces. I was mortified, afraid he would lose his job.

But the bride and groom jumped into action. The groom grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the pieces of porcelain into a dustpan the bride was holding. Just as he almost had the pieces swept up, one of the family members kicked them asunder. He started sweeping again — when another family member kicked them. Finally, the couple was able to work together and sweep all the pieces up and the crowd cheered.

And it was on to the next party, including meal and drinks in the ballroom. The bride danced with her groom and dad — and each guest who was up for dancing, and the dancing for the rest of the crowd began in earnest.

Around midnight, the bride changed into traditional garb and re-entered the ballroom. That is when she officially became his wife, but the fun wasn’t over. Other women in traditional dress began to put all sorts of headgear on her while she sat on a satin pillow and held a hat where people placed money. After much wrangling, the women were satisfied with the job they had done, the bride took the money and gave the hat to a man.

Then she looked to make sure her younger sister was ready. Her sister said she was, and the bride jumped up and the sister sat down quickly on the pillow. Everyone cheered. So I did too. Then the sister stood up and threw the pillow. The girl who caught it should be the next person to get married, according to tradition.

The dancing continued into the not-so-wee hours of the morning.

Being with guests from around the world and seeing people I hadn’t seen for so long celebrate such a thing of beauty was good for the heart and soul and a confirmation of the power of tradition, dreams, hard work and love.

LSS: Back again.

I believe most of us can look back on our lives and pinpoint one decision that changed everything. Of course, there are thousands and thousands of decisions that change the course of our lives. But I believe most of us can narrow the field and pick one that really set us on the course that we’ve been traveling.

For me, that decision came back in 1992. I had moved to Washington, D.C. and couldn’t find a job. I was temping and decided I had nothing to lose by accepting an appointment to teach English in Czechoslovakia. Between the time I got my assignment and the time I got there, Czechoslovakia decided to split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in the so-called Velvet Divorce.

I arrived in Slovakia when the country was 12 days old.

It was January and it was freezing. Actually, in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains (or Tatry as they’re called in Slovakia) in a small village called Stara Lubovna where I ended up teaching, it was -27 F on the day I arrived.

I was given a one room flat in an old Communist era building and was paid Slovak wages — $133 a month. The principal at the college prep high school where I was teaching understood my motivation in being there and created a special schedule for me. I taught from noon Mondays until 3 p.m. Thursdays. I could travel every weekend if I wanted.

And I did.

I also taught a lot of private English classes, including one set of classes to an 8-year-old girl. Her name was Adrianna. She was a brilliant student. Her mother and I taught together, and her family kind of adopted me.

When Adrianna graduated from high school, I did whatever I could to help her come to university in the United States. She worked hard and was accepted to Sewanee. She continued to work hard and do well, earning numerous scholarships and fellowships around the world, culminating with finishing her law degree at Harvard this spring.

Now she’s getting married. She’s marrying an American fellow in her tiny Slovak village, and I plan to be there.

I’m flying into Krakow, Poland, where another former student and his family will meet me. I’ll visit with other friends along the way and then join the wedding party with Adrianna’s friends from her hometown and around the world.

Adriana is now the same age I was when I was living in Slovakia. She has come to visit us occasionally during her spring breaks, so I know firsthand the amazing young lady she has grown to be.

I am touched to be included in her special day. I am also emotional about it. The last time I was in Slovakia, I was young, but the culture was older than anything I had ever experienced. It was pre-Internet, pre-email, pre-cell phone — and in Slovakia, it was the birth of free expression for a new generation.

In fact, even using a landline phone was complicated. Administrative officials, who rarely smiled and spent their days behind desks in small offices, controlled and operated most of the phones. Back then, making a call home required careful navigation through a bureaucratic process akin to moving to a new state and getting a driver’s license, never mind the language barrier — it not for the faint of heart. There were a couple of televisions in the village that ran continuous loops of Slovak news or soccer. For fun, we danced, sang, played games or cards.

I lived life largely with little to no knowledge of what was happening in the world. But life, for me, was lovely. I walked most everywhere I went — or took a bus or train to get to other cities.

Mementos of Communism were everywhere when I was there. Many statues had giant tarps over them, waiting to come down. The sides of government buildings had sticky residue where huge sickles and hammers had once proclaimed their dominance. America, long kept from them, was still novel and beloved. In most cases, I was the first American female people there had met. Some would take trains in from villages to try out their burgeoning English with me.

It was a time full of promise. Everyone there expected life to get better, with few probably realizing how good it was. Life in Slovakia these days is pretty much like life here, from what I understand from friends.

My second trip to Slovakia likely won’t have the impact my first one did, but I’m looking forward to going back and seeing for myself how much the place and its people have changed.