Tag Archives: Slovakia

LSS: Fixer Woman to the rescue

If I were a superhero, I would wear a flashy cape and call myself Fixer Woman (said with as much fanfare as possible, please).
I love to fix things.
From can openers to conundrums of the heart, I do my best to solve the problem and make repairs — for one and all. I do not hoard my gift of fixing.
For years, when I have noticed a problem in a relationship, I tackled that problem head on. I believed it was my duty. After all, I am here to fix things.
After 47 years on this earth, I finally have figured out something big — and it didn’t come to me in a lightning bolt. It took a while — and a degree of suffering to go along with the passing of time. To save you the agony, I will share my newly gained insight: Fixing a plumbing issue gone kaput is one thing. Having the intention to fix a predicament gone wrong with a close friend or relation is something else.
At last, I have realized that sometimes the thing to do is wait.
I don’t have to try to fix every broken heart or relationship the moment it occurs to me that there’s an issue.
Sometimes, I’m just supposed to wait.
And hope.
And pray.
Not taking action, at least for me, is far more difficult than simply being.
Before I go any further down this path, let me say that I am not advocating anyone sitting on the urge to say, “I’m sorry,” or “Woops, my bad. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
I’m a big believer in readily admitting fault and the release it offers. However, what I am saying is that once that sincere exchange has happened, I am finally aware that I don’t need to work so hard at making things right. When the time comes, I’ll know.
Until then, I just need to hold it in as much grace as I can muster.
My fix-it nature was nurtured and took flight 17 years ago when I took to heart Edmund Burke’s quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Those words fed my desire to do all I could so that evil wouldn’t triumph — and let me tell you, that’s a lot of responsibility.

As you may have guessed, even with doing all the good I could find the energy to do, it turns out that I am not a superhero and was, in fact, unable to stop evil.

The sweet spot between passivity and taking action lies in listening to our hearts. When we’re not supposed to make that call or revisit that topic, there’s generally some internal debate.
Going forward, I’m going to try to pay more attention to that debate. Likewise, when the time is right, we usually know that too.
The bottom line is that making time and space to listen to what’s going on in my heart is critical toward letting things fix themselves — as opposed to frazzling ourselves to a wither in an attempt to fix everything in our path.
Cue the music.
Fixer Woman to the rescue.
Maybe I don’t have to be Fixer Woman anymore.
Maybe the greatest good sometimes happen when I’m quiet and waiting. I have to walk that fine line because going too far in the other direction would result in too much passivity.
Balancing the need to do good and a natural tendency to take action with a call-to-wait requires a faithful and steady effort.
That means waiting on the natural path of healing and to stop forcing things along.
Recognizing that pushing things—from conversations to fraught relationships—seems rarely to make things better took a while, even when my intent is to fix whatever was that was broken.
My folly was that Burke’s quote propelled me to take too much action. Maybe it’s a part of aging that I finally had the big realization: Sometimes I just need to sit and be — and wait.
Fixer Woman to the rescue no more.

LSS: Take October Back

Long sigh.
Deep breath.
October, the month I have loved best since age 9, has barely started and it’s wearing me down already. I have been loyal to this month for too long to continue to allow it to be taken hostage by too much.
October, with its winsome leaves, falling and crunching so satisfyingly under bicycle tires on the road.
October, with its dazzling cooler air, drifting through doors flung wide.
Somehow October has become the fall’s May (or even the winter’s December)—too much packed in too tight to appreciate any of it properly.
I don’t like it.
While I know people who have come to believe that being over-scheduled is medal-worthy behavior, I am not one of them.
I suppose what May and October have in common is that everyone who lives anywhere near these parts knows that the unbearable heat is coming. We have to cram it all in before it gets too hot to do anything outside. And now, we have October on the other end of that mindset—the first time since May that it’s cool enough to want to be outside.
Oh, but being outside in October is grand.
Surely, the cooler temps make me sing. And dance. And play tennis. And run around with a ridiculous grin on my face.
The trouble is that the powers that be have scheduled so many other mandatory activities that instead of being the month that allows the majority of us to catch our breath and take it in, October is wearing us down.
As of right now, I’m starting the Take October Back campaign. Join me if you will. Let’s not schedule one more event/appointment/rehearsal/deadline/meeting/class for October—and I’m going to remember this for next year. I hope to see just how little I can schedule for next October.
As Steve Jobs reminded us, life is too short to live someone else’s dreams—or schedules for that matter.
“Your time is limited. So don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Follow your heart and intuition, they somehow know what you’re meant to become. Everything else is secondary,” he wisely said.
Another Jobs line that has been widely repeated this week is one he borrowed from a short-lived 1970s publication called Whole Earth Catalog. He said, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
And that brings me back to the trouble with October.
As things are, October leaves us no time to be foolish.
Having time and energy to be foolish—and using both to do just that—is an essential ingredient in having a great life. Those moments when we take chances in ways we never have before are the very moments that become the stuff of dreams—the moments that we look back upon and recognize as the split seconds that changed everything. Those are the moments that create memories and usually a considerable amount of joy—not to be confused with staged silliness. I’m talking about unchoreographed, spur of the moment notions that require imagination, courage and faith.
That’s what October is supposed to be about.
Heck, that’s what every day is supposed to be about.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, runs on Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: America’s place in the world is changing

My recent trip to Eastern Europe was a reminder of my American-ness. I drink real Coca-Cola — with ice. I love me some football — real football, that is. And though I adore music from around the world, for me, no music is like a good James Taylor, Lyle Lovett or Dixie Chicks song.

I am proud to be an American.

I am also proud to have lived in and spent time in a variety of other countries. Time in those places has given me a keener appreciation of what those countries and cultures have to offer and has made me understand much more about my own country and culture.

When I lived in Slovakia 18 years ago, everything there was somewhere between beige and gray.

Communism had just ended. The country was on the verge of everything.

In 18 short years, their economy has skyrocketed. For the most part, Slovakia is now as advanced as any Western European country.

To put things in another perspective, when I was there in 1993, I could change $100 and get about 3,300 crowns (their currency back then)—enough to live comfortably on for a month. Last week, I changed $100 and got 65 euros—enough to travel modestly for a day.

Everything that once was gray and dingy is now bright yellow or orange or green and dotted with flowerboxes blooming brilliant pinks and purples.

The juxtaposition of then and now and here and there messed with my head. Their economy has gained so much strength while, let’s face it, ours has weakened.

I went back to Slovakia to attend the wedding of a dear friend. The couple’s wedding guests were from around the world.

While I wasn’t visiting with Slovak friends, I spent the bulk of the weekend with a couple from Madrid, a couple from Oslo and a girl from Uzbekistan now living in Moscow.

We laughed and danced and played the weekend away—all in English, without anyone working hard for a word or phrase.

They knew subtle references to American music and culture — while I shamefully realized that I barely could find Uzbekistan on a map. I didn’t know it was a country of 28 million, while Norway has less than five million people.

When we weren’t dancing, we were talking. We bonded in that rare and magical way that happens when you’re in a foreign place with people you never met but love in the flash of a smile and open embrace. We got each other.

Through their eyes, I was able to confirm some realizations of America’s changing place in the world. From my perspective, the rest of the world has less hostility toward us now. Some see our power and prominence fading. Maybe that’s just our arrogance diminishing. After all, the genuinely strong don’t need to remind others of their strength.

Just because much of the rest of the world recognizes a changing America doesn’t mean they don’t realize what our nation has done and continues to do for the world. However, the cold truth is that many outside of our country do see this as a time of transition around the world — and part of that change is a shift away from a world so dominated by American culture.

The small irony is that the entire conversation among people from five countries about global politics and economies took place in English. My new friends agreed that the universal language of English was a real gift — and they recognized America’s role in that exchange.

Just like we are still grateful to the Greeks, Romans and other great societies of the past, for centuries to come, the world will have America to thank for so much.

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.

Finally posting my first column from visit to Slovakia last week

Socialism ended about a year before I first visited Slovakia 18 years ago. Equating Slovak life back then to life in the United States around 1900 is a fair comparison. However, even in the less than a year I was here, the country and the people changed. Seeing its future trajectory was clear.
Pre-World War II, Czechoslovakia was the sixth most industrialized country in the world. The area continues to have a literacy rate near 100 percent. The people are hard workers and incredibly handy. Almost every Slovak knows how to fix things.
My visit to Slovakia shows that their evolution toward a completely modern culture has been on warp speed.
When I was here in 1993, barely anyone had a car or a house. Everyone relied on public transportation, and most everyone lived in a small flat. I’ve visited two sets of friends thus far on my trip. One family was deeded their family home back through the process of restitution after Socialism ended. Restitution was, and continues to be for some, a massive quest for historical proof of ownership of land and buildings so that property is returned to its original owners after being State controlled throughout the Socialism era. My friends who got their old home have worked for years to restore it.
My other friends have built a huge, sparkling and beautiful home on a hill overlooking the city. It is majestic and impressive. They have three cars and a rolling landscaped lawn. It is like nothing that existed when I was here before.
Both families agree on many of the consequences of many of changes the changes that have taken place since Capitalism took its old. The most obvious is the change in wealth and the new buildings and restoration. Ancient city centers, drab and dirty when I was here before, now glisten and glitter. The difference is remarkable, and even though I expected the change, it blows my mind.
Ancient cathedrals built in the 14th century now stand beside glass and steel shopping malls that sell any and everything under the sun. When I was here before, the selection from food to fashion was limited with few, if any, choices. The real estate market has exploded with prices comparable to most cities in the USA, if not higher. When I was here, a home would have sold for about $10,000 that today sells for more than $200,000. That’s a big change.
The other big difference is the ability for Slovaks to travel now. For so long, they were not allowed to travel. Then they were so poor that they couldn’t afford to travel—or if they did travel, they couldn’t afford to eat (which many of my friends did). They would take one change of clothes and fill their bags full of food for the trip. My friend whose family has built the big new house told of his first trip out of Slovakia.
“I was there for two weeks, and the whole time I was there, I only bought one ice cream,” my friend, Dominik, said. “I ate from my bag for the rest of the trip.”
All of my friends agree that the country isn’t nearly as friendly as it used to be, especially from one Slovak to another.
“Before we all took the bus, or we all took the train. We all lived in a bloc of flats,” my friend, Zorca, said. “We knew everyone and everything about each other. Now we drive cars alone. We live in homes with neighbors not so close. It is very different.”
In a philosophical turn, my friend Roman said, “They opened the big door, but they closed the little door.”

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.