Category: slovakia

Slovak Christmas: The Wonders of the Golden Pig

I thought I had already heard all about Slovak Christmas traditions. How they watch fairy tales on television and play with a carp in their bathtub. (I am not making this up.) Then yesterday evening, my wife and I had the following conversation:

Denisa: And remember. Don’t have any food tomorrow before dinner, or you won’t see the Golden Pig. (Slovak: Zlate Prasa)

Me: (staring at her, not comprehending) Say what?

Denisa: The Golden Pig.

Me: What in the world is the Golden Pig?

Denisa: A pig made out of gold. If you don’t eat before dinner, you get to see him.

Me: Does he bring you anything?

Denisa: I don’t know. Nobody’s ever seen him before.

The conversation went on from there, but I’ll sum it up for you. Basically, Christmas in Slovakia is celebrated on the 24th in the evening. (They call it Stedry Vecer–generous evening, roughly.) There are tons of treats and goodies and food, and you eat until you pop. To keep the kids from getting into all the food too soon and too much, there’s the legend of the Golden Pig. Parents keep reminding their kids throughout the day that if they eat before dinner (usually around 2), then then won’t get to see the Golden Pig. But there are so many goodies and treats to eat, no one can resist sampling some–and so no one’s ever seen the Golden Pig.

I told TRC and DC about it this morning, but they’d already eaten breakfast. They were both very disappointed they wouldn’t get to see the Golden Pig, but they’ve decided they’ll try again next year.

When I commented to Denisa that this seemed just a tad ridiculous, she reminded me that Americans believe a magical rabbit comes to hand out eggs and presents every Easter.

Touche, Denisa. Touche.

Merry Christmas everybody. And try not to eat anything. If any of you manage to snap a picture of the Golden Pig, please share!

A Brief Travel Guide to Western Slovakia

Sorry about the late post today. I was waiting for the second half of a guest post I wrote to get published. What guest post, you ask? Well, let me tell you.

My publisher (Tu Books) asked me to write a brief travel guide to Slovakia a few weeks ago. I was more than happy to comply, although there was too much material to cover in a brief post. I mean, this is Slovakia here. A paragraph or two wasn’t going to cut it.

So it turned into a two parter, and I restricted it to just Western Slovakia. Check it out here:

And really–if you haven’t been to Slovakia, you’re totally missing out. I’ve been to France, England, Germany, Austria, Ireland, the Czech Republic–Slovakia can compete with any of them, and it’s less-well known. If you want to get in on the cool before it becomes cool, now is your chance to go. And did I mention it’s less expensive than the rest of Europe?

Multicultural vs. Fantasy–Some Observations (and a Review of 13 Assassins)

I watched 13 Assassins on my day off the other day, and can I just say, “Whoa!” (in my best Neo voice.) The movie is a samurai flick, all about a group of fighters who are tasked with killing an evil ruler who’s on his way toward positions of greater power. It’s a brutal movie, and I absolutely loved it. (Not for everyone by any stretch, though. Very violent. You’ve been warned.) But I’m a sucker for Samurai movies to begin with–this one was right up my alley.

Which got me thinking . . .

Why is it that I like multicultural movies so much? I mean, I just reviewed White Wedding, which appealed to me at first just for the insights it gave me to a different culture. Contrast that with 13 Assassins, which I really enjoyed, and the main similarity is just the multicultural aspect.

In some ways, I think really well done fantasy and really well done multicultural literature ends up accomplishing many of the same things: they present an alternate world view so well-conceived, so well-executed, so complete, that they let readers (or viewers, in the case of movies) see the world from a different angle. In 13 Assassins, for example, one of the driving motivations behind much of the action is honor. These men are honor-bound to do what they have said they would do, and they’re willing to do anything to keep that obligation. The film starts with a man committing Seppuku (ritual disembowelment). Very long scene, quite detailed. Gives you a very good idea of just how horrible an experience that would be. Why did he do it? It turns out his honor had been wronged and he wanted to publicly protest.

That’s quite a protest.

The honor motivations continue throughout the film. The evil ruler has a Samurai in charge of his security: Hanbei. He’s a man of honor, and he knows full well that the things his lord do are horrific, terrible actions. And yet he does nothing to stop the man, other than (now and then) trying to suggest the lord do something else, instead. Why? Because he’s honor-bound to protect the man. It isn’t his place to stop him. It’s his responsibility to make sure his lord lives a long life.

If the movie were poorly executed, this wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever to American audiences, because our sense of honor is wildly different than the Japanese ideals. In American cinema, a man who sat by and did nothing to stop a murderer would be branded a coward and despised. Likewise in White Wedding, some of the actions of the characters don’t make any sense from an American viewpoint.

So why, as an American, do I like these movies?

Because they’re internally consistent. Because they’re done well enough–with good enough characters and plotting and story-telling, that even as a non-member of the culture involved, I can see and understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing. I can see how important honor is to the Japanese, even if my own idea of the matter is different. (NOTE: I’m not by any means an expert in Japanese culture. It’s certainly possible that the film depicts some aspects incorrectly. That would be really disappointing, but hopefully it wouldn’t invalidate the point I’m trying to make.)

Fantasy does the same thing. Or at least it can, if it’s done correctly. One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Vodnik was that the Slovak fairy tale creatures are quite different from the fairy tale creatures most of us have already encountered. In the book, the main character (Tomas) has a conversation with his cousin (Katka) about this:

Katka sighed. “You and your movies. This is real life. Our folk tales are much less violent than your American action films—at least as far as vodníks are concerned. In the tales, they are basically friendly and mischievous.”
“Sure,” I said. “Right until they drown you.”
“But even then, vodníks are just doing what they do. In our stories, the make-believe creatures are the way they are. They do what they are made to do. It is the people—the humans—who are good or bad.

Slovaks don’t have fairy tale creatures that are evil just to be evil. They do what they do, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Vodniks are water spirits that drown people (typically children) and steal their souls. But they’re often depicted as being friendly and funny in Slovak pop culture. They’re not bad. They just drown people.

To an American, that sentence makes no sense, but I’ve had many conversations with my wife about the subject, and it makes perfect sense to her.

In both fantasy and multicultural art, one of the goals is often to recreate a different world in a way that even outsiders can understand it. Yes, there’s some fantasy that’s nothing more than bulging biceps and shooting fireballs. But in Tolkien or Jordan or Martin, you’ve got entire worlds created, where people behave in ways that might not make sense to us, but make perfect sense to them. The authors took the time and energy to think out how cultures would behave, and to depict them accurately.

Am I saying there’s no difference between an elf and a Slovak? Obviously not. But in the effort it takes to create a realistic fantasy setting and a realistic multicultural setting? Those seem to be closer to being the same thing than you’d think at first–or than I’d think, at least.

Anyway. I’m out of lunch break now, so I guess I’ll have to leave it there for now. Hopefully that made sense. Anyone have anything to add?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 18–Banska Stiavnica (More Pictures!)

(500) Days of SummerTime to return to my What I Did on My Summer Vacation series (now with yet another pic–surely you can guess what the theme is to these pictures by now, yes?). As I’ve said before, I was multi-tasking on this trip. One thing I really wanted to do was go to a place I’d never gone before, where I could potentially set another book in the Vodnik series. I was pretty specific in my “checklist” for a perfect spot: it had to be old, it had to be a place with a more significant Roma population than Trencin has, it had to be uniquely Slovak, and it had to have a lot of history and folklore for me to drawn on. Thankfully my brother-in-law Milos came to the rescue, finding the perfect spot: Banska Stiavnica.
I’m not kidding, folks. This city is a hidden gem. Hidden for good reason–it ain’t easy to get to. I wouldn’t be surprised if I went to some places that less than 100 Americans have seen. Maybe less than 50. (More on that tomorrow.) There are no real highways to get there: you have to take windy back roads that are steep enough to make you wonder how in the world anyone survives a single winter there. The area’s smack dab in a dense forest that crowds in on the city from all sides, like the place is under siege. You finally get out of the switchbacks, and all of a sudden you see this:
This little town draped over steep hills (that make walking around it a real joy, let me tell you). It has a history that goes back to 9500 BC. Legend has it, a guy was out hiking and took a nap. When he woke up, there were two salamanders sitting there, watching him. One was coated in gold dust, one in silver dust. He followed them back to their homes and discovered the jackpot of all gold and silver mines. Where there’s gold, there’s interest. Once, Banska Stiavnica was the second largest city in Slovakia. It Then the mines dried up. It was visited by kings and was even the site of the first technical university in the world: a university devoted to mining. (They have a mural in town that commemorates the legend. It’s pretty cool: here are a couple of pieces of it)
One of the hallmarks of the city is a series of reservoirs (called Tajchy) that were devised to help the miners work better. At one point there were something like 60 of them around the area. Now there are only 20 or so left. (We visited a couple. They’re more places recreation spots these days, although Denisa was overjoyed to see that skinny dippers love to take advantage of them, too. She and I were sitting there talking, and a completely naked old man started lounging around next to us. Ah, Europe . . ) Here’s a picture. (Of a tajch, not a naked old man. Sorry to get your hopes up.)
While we were there, we first went to a chateau in the neighboring town of Svaty Anton. This place as absolutely incredible, but they didn’t allow any pictures of the interior. Remember, I’d just gotten through touring Vienna, so it wasn’t like I was going to be blown away by just any old building. But where in Vienna, all the old buildings have been restored (and updated with some modern amenities), Svaty Anton felt like the rulers had just left the room a few minutes before. It felt so much more authentic. (They have a website–check out the virtual tour in particular–but it doesn’t do it justice.) It just felt more real to me, and that’s the only way I can think of to describe it. Here’s a pic of the outside:
We then headed into the town. Milos had gone to school in the city, so he knew the place pretty well. We didn’t have a whole lot of time left for the day, so we mainly toured the outside of the city. (We did take a tour of the town, which boasted all about the “7 Wonders of Banska Stiavnica”: check ’em out here online). So I’ll leave you now with a few last shots of the city, and then some random people pics.
That’s the “new castle” in the back there. The old castle is from the 1200s. The new one is from the 1500s. And we wonder why Europeans look at us Americans as being such whippersnappers.
This is a church. Interesting story, actually. They set this church up as part of a complex for pilgrims. If you walk up and down the hill, it has a series of sculptures and reliefs that are supposed to recreate the life of Christ. For more info, check here. I was particularly surprised this made it through Communism. In fact, the whole city emerged from Communism pretty much unscathed, due in large part to the fact that since no more gold was there, the city didn’t draw much attention to itself.

Here’s a pic of the Mormon branch in Trencin. That’s about every active member, plus the missionaries and my family. Not very big.

Milos is a sucker for these pics. I took one:

And so did he:

Auditioning to be the 8th dwarf.

I might be a bit big for the role:

Snow Day! (And the Revenge of the Dentist)

White Christmas (Anniversary Edition)Yes, it’s April 1. And yes, it’s a raging blizzard outside. And you know what? I love it. Especially the gift of a snow day this late in the year. Sure, TRC will have to make up the day later on in the year, but such is life. At least I won’t have to make it up. 🙂

And on more somber news, Denisa’s appointment with destiny the dentist came and went. Verdict? $3600 of tooth repair that needs to be done this year. Insurance could cover $1000 of that, but you don’t need to be a math major to figure out that’s $2600 we’d need to find somewhere to get her teeth into shape. She needs a bridge replaced and a new crown. I swear–sometimes the woman seems like she’s got her heart set on becoming royalty. Bridges? Crowns? Of course, give her a few more years, and her mouth will be worth a king’s ransom. 🙂

So . . . Slovakia is back in the cards. She’s figuring out how much the work would cost in Slovakia, and when we could go. Good thing I was looking at our finances for the start of the month and we look like we can afford it. Book deals help with things like that, as does bread baking. Although perhaps we won’t be building staircases into my garage attic this year, after all.

Such is life.

Anyway, suckers. Enjoy work while you’re there and I’m not. And Happy April Fools! I hear Gmail has a new motion interface. Check it out!

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