Slovakia – April 2015
It’s an odd place for a village – the steep, exposed slope of a high mountain. I wonder if the twenty or so souls who still inhabit Vlkolínec move about with their toes curled under, instinctively gripping the Earth. I pause and sweep my eyes over the landscape. Villages were built with a purpose. Lush green hills below. Bald patches in the forest above. This was once the home of farmers, shepherds, and lumberjacks.
Rough-hewn wood statues greet visitors at the entrance. There is a rustic sweetness to their features. A group of beaming nuns passes by. The soft glow of a gentle spring sun. Stillness permeates the air. Even the trickle from the tiny rivulet which runs down the center of the village is audible. Is anyone home?
I walk to the end of the main street and turn back. I stand a respectful distance away from the homes before taking photos. My self-conscious efforts are most likely unnecessary. The parking places are empty. An elderly woman shuffles down the road. An empty bucket swings over her arm. All water must be fetched from a communal well.
She nods at me. “Dobrý deň.”
I return the greeting. The muffled chop of a small axe on soft wood emerges from a shed. Another statue in progress, possibly. There are no costumed performances of authentic tasks. Folk art is created in solitude. If there’s a souvenir shop or a cafe, I haven’t come across it. The defiance of modernity has earned Vlkolínec a coveted place on the UNESCO list. It is said to be the best-preserved village in the entire Central European Carpathians.
I meander the tiny cemetery at the edge of the village. Votives and plastic flowers adorn the graves. No one is forgotten. I step out of the iron gate, swing it closed, and set off on the trail down the mountain to Ružomberok.
Two days later. Čičmany under an ashen sky. Sunday afternoon somnolence. A cluster of bikers putters by, then I am alone again. Aren’t Sundays supposed to be busy in these parts?
The driveways are devoid of cars. The lace curtains are drawn. They do not undulate. The only face that peers back is that of the Blessed Mother.
Čičmany was the first example of folk village conservation in the world. The white lime paint is meant to protect the timber houses from sun rays. Over time, practicality became art. In spite of the dreary day, the whimsical hieroglyphs blaze. Gingerbread daydream. I want to lean over and take a bite.
The remaining residents are fiercely protective of their traditions. Cultural festivals featuring traditional music and dance take place every year. They are said to be rowdy, vibrant celebrations. I wish I could have seen one.
Languages disappear. Traditions vanish. Cultures die out. Not an abrupt demise, but a subtle dissolution. Teardrops on a watercolor painting. The uniqueness is blurred into obsolescence. Those who come after look back with curiosity rather than nostalgia. If they look back at all.
I am grateful to live in a time when cultural individuality still exists. For one day it will vanish completely. Will there even be a need for tradition if everyone is the same?
The door to the cafe/folk art shop is open. I step inside. A small selection of the renowned embroidery is on display. The shopkeeper acknowledges me with a deep sigh. I pluck two painted eggs from a bowl and hand them to him. A sarcastic lift of the eyebrows is his reply. Big spender.
If it were another place, I would probably turn and walk out. Despondency seeps out of his bitterness. He wraps the eggs in a carton. Careful, lethargic motions. There is no one waiting behind me.
He hands the package to me with a nod. The slightest flicker of gratitude in his tired eyes.
“Dovidenia.” I say as I walk out the door. Goodbye.