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.