Thursday, February 09, 2012

To Live and Write in Slovakia

In the summer of 1996, we went to live and work in the far east of Slovakia. Doesn’t that sound exciting? It was the first time I had lived in an ex-Communist country so I was prepared for anything, including some very tough times.

In fact, it was nothing like that. I only stayed for a few years but I had a wonderful time. Slovakia and its people won me over, and it is high on my list of places I’d like to retire to (except it doesn’t have coconuts, so I'm staying here in Queensland). What made it such a nice place to live in? It comes down to history, I suppose. Recently - meaning over the last 300 or 400 years, the people in eastern Slovakia have lived together in compact villages. They must have been controlled by the local aristocracy who made sure their peasants lived close together on strips of land of perhaps an acre. They built their houses near the street, and used the rest of their land to feed their families. Beyond their back fences, completely surrounding the village, lay communally farmed land, a large part of which belonged to the aristocrat.

Over the years, roads improved and the towns developed railways, but the villages stayed pretty much the same. When Communism took over, the peasants stopped working for an aristocrat and worked for the Party boss instead. You can imagine they did not notice much of a difference.

True, socialism did bring much better access to schools and medical services, and life got better for normal people. So much better, in fact, that Slovaks did not rush to tear things to pieces when Communism collapsed. Change is happening slowly, one step at a time.

We loved the villages. They are compact and everyone takes care of their front garden. They have churches - usually three - one each for Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox people. There will be one or two shops, still in their old boring Communist colours and called “Store”. There will probably be a pub or two as well. The roads are good, there are well-regulated forests all around, the regional centre of Kosice is bustling and very historic, and there are cuckoo-clock villages at the edge of the Carpathians, so beautiful they can make you cry.

Then there is the historic landscape. Slovakia lay in the debatable lands between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. Dangerous territory and there are castles everywhere. Some are just hill-top ruins, but others were preserved by the Austro-Hungarian nobility, and then by the Communist state (all those fat bureaucrats liked to have meetings and holidays in genuine castles). From more modern times, there are deserted Jewish cemeteries in odd corners, and monuments to Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses taken to the death camps.

For me, Slovakia lay near paradise. I could wander all over the place with my bicycle, over hills and valleys, in and out of the forests. In our area, all the villages had little plaques recording the date of their liberation by the Red Army in late 1944, and you could trace the front back virtually day by day to the mountain pass at Dargov and beyond. You could get good food and excellent beer almost everywhere. You could even visit vineyards that produce the King of Wines - Tokaj.

And then winter came, and for the first time in my life I could enjoy proper snow, and swish around the countryside on cross-country skis. I had my first white Christmas! I loved it. I can definitely recommend Slovakia as a holiday destination in winter, and the summer is equally good.

With all the beauty and interesting history around, I just had to use my surroundings as the setting for a novel. The professors always tell us to ‘write what you know’, so I had an advantage. At least my settings would be real, and so would the wonderful steamy cafes. If I looked more closely at the towns and villages, and asked local friends about their history, I could get some of the feeling of living in this troubled area in the mid-twentieth century.

Still I needed to know and feel more, and my idle tourism took on a purpose. More skiing in the Carpathians, more little wooden churches in isolated villages, more castles - it was a tough life, believe me.

Now we live in tropical Queensland, but we retain friends from Slovakia. They come to visit, and we visit them. The bicycle touring is just as pretty, and the beer is just as good. Perhaps I can win the lottery and have a house in both places...


The Prince and the Nun

Jacqueline George lives in Far North Queensland, on the shores of the Coral Sea. She enjoys traveling, good food and wine, and writing romantic adventures, some of which are far too naughty for her own good.

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