Departure Lounge of the Restless Mind

Notices have been given. The unnecessary has been donated or tossed. The essential has been separated for efficient packing. Airline reservations have been made. Most goodbyes have been said. All that’s left to do is wait. I know this departure lounge of the mind so very well. The floor is worn into grooves by my endless ambulation. I pass the time in atonement for the sins of my transient soul. Turning back now would involve a hassle, and, anyway, I don’t want to. Once a decision is made, I just want to get on with it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have transited through this purgatory. All the little moves around America and Central/Eastern Europe. Then the major moves. The amputations: leaving America for New Caledonia in 1999. Fleeing New Caledonia for Eastern Europe exactly ten years ago. The road ahead is even more obscured than it was a decade ago. I have the same concerns, but even more intense. Ten years ago, I knew where I wanted to go. This time I have no idea, and I will be going it alone. However, my mind is much more serene this time around. Despite the turbulence, the journey has always managed to smooth out.

As I reflect back on my time in this part of Europe, a wistful gratitude arises. In spite of the inherent frustrations of such a lifestyle, I have woken up every day so very happy to have had the opportunity to experience, in depth, so many different cultures. Because – even though Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic are in the same part of Europe – they each have distinct cultural quirks. They have become treasures in the vault of my memory.

Ten years ago, in June 2007, I arrived in Poznan, Poland. Alone. Stomach twisted with worry. Could I pull this off? Was the school that hired me to teach at English summer camps legit? Would my husband leave his home, a tropical island paradise, for a gray and grouchy country? I had no choice but to leave that island, which was killing me physically and mentally. The denial was gone. I had accepted the consequences. There was no turning back.

Poznan. It was there that I regained my confidence. An English teacher’s salary is pathetic, but for the first time in many years, I was able to support myself. My apartment was on the sixteenth floor of a Soviet block building. A tiny little hole with dubious renovation and toxic mold in the ceiling. I got in touch with my cousins in the south of Poland. I adopted a rabbit from a shelter to keep me company at home. It was a hard, cold, grim place. Lots of lessons learned. Lots of laughs. Lots of vodka. Wolfing down zapiekanka in the Stary Rynek at three a.m. after a night in the pubs. Jumping up and down to keep warm. My husband joined me almost a year later. He adapted to the culture shock remarkably well. I knew so many people there. Most of their faces and names have faded. I think that, probably, they have forgotten me, too.

Budapest. Ruin pubs and thermal baths. Long walks through the canyons of neglected buildings. Ghost signs and bullet holes. Both of our apartments were huge, beautifully decorated palaces. The highest ceilings I’ve ever seen. This is why we stayed in Budapest longer than any other city. My stint as an English teacher came to an end. Hungarians are the least respectful students I’ve ever encountered. The pay was abysmal. I am not a masochist. I went back to helping my husband with his work. The few expats that we met were parasitic. We retreated into our own little world, socializing only with the friends and family who came to visit.

It is during this reclusive time that I began my blog. It was my connection to the outside world, especially during those long winter months when my husband was in New Caledonia and it was just me and Flower the rabbit. I can now state that I am able to withstand long periods with no social contact. One winter was so frigid that I went weeks without saying more than jó napot/viszlát to the cashiers who worked in the supermarket on the ground floor of our building. When I did finally venture out, other humans became weird entities. The sounds that came out of my mouth sounded unintelligible. They scared me. This warped view of the outside world stayed with me until we left a few months later.

Popradske Pleso – Tatra National Park

Bratislava. But more than that: Slovakia. Those mountains. The unsettling gauze of reclusion dissipated. My students were a delight. I found a hiking buddy. Nearly every weekend, from late February to early December, we went out. We explored just about every trail in the Little Carpathians, sometimes even crossing over the narrow range in a single day. We ventured further out, to the Vel’ka Fatra and High Tatras. Eerie castle ruins and glacial lakes. I was in heaven.

Our apartments, however. Rabbits are considered livestock in Slovakia. The few places that would rent to us were barely a step above hovels. Toxic water, battered furniture. Hot water unavailable from midnight until eight in the morning. After Budapest, it was a difficult adjustment. Despite my love for the mountains and my Slovak friends, we moved on after two years. We recently returned, for a brief visit, to lay our Flower to rest on a hill overlooking a river.

Prague. I have finally learned that the places I have an initial aversion to often end up being fabulous. My visit as a tourist a few years prior had turned me off. Too many tourists. But the other options – Bulgaria and Croatia – entailed a lot more effort. It didn’t hurt to try Prague. If it was horrible, we could easily move on. As we had so many times before. The move and integration was so easy. The petty daily struggles that we had endured over the previous years were nonexistent. Decent and friendly customer service! Good quality products and so much variety! All of it is relative, of course. It’s amazing what you can get used to, if you tolerate it long enough.

It didn’t take long to be seduced by the shadow side of Prague. My one regret is that I didn’t see as much of the Czech countryside as I would have liked. For two years, I have explored this magical city, falling more in love with it each time. So many hidden corners continue to reveal themselves. It is here, in this enchanted realm, that I will while away the remaining days until I am transported into the next phase of this astonishing journey.

A Subtle Dissolution

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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A Little Big Christmas

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Nothing puts me in a festive mood more than a Christmas market. And I needed it this year. I don’t know if it’s the unusually warm weather, current events, the profound shift my psyche is going through, or a combination of all three. Until just a couple of days ago, I was a veritable Scrooge.

Over the last eight years, I have visited many Christmas markets. Enough to notice a pattern: the more touristy a city, the less atmospheric the market. My beloved Bratislava remains my favorite. Every market has its unique personality, however.

Warsaw: Tiny wooden huts against a restored backdrop of Hollywood soundstage perfection. Food. Bigos, kielbasa, smalec, poppy seed cake. Huge hunks of bread and cheese. Peasant food. The vicious wind whipped tears from my eyes and then hardened them to ice. It was so cold, even the Poles stayed away. My husband and I shoveled the steaming food into our mouths, forks shaking, and then retreated to a warm pub.

Vienna: The blazing lights gave off a palpable heat. The stream of humans quickly became a torrent from which there was no escape. Somewhere in the middle of the flow, my husband and I slipped into an eddy and emerged at a vendor’s stall. Time enough to grasp a nutcracker, note the Made in China sticker on the foot, and set it back down. We were then sucked back into the current, which had become clogged. A maelstrom of bodies pressed against bodies. Mosh pit merriment. Plump rosy cheeks, blonde curls. Maws stretched wide, releasing cackles of maniacal glee. I had stepped into the Toulouse-Lautrec painting from hell. Finally, we were spewed out. Disoriented, we stumbled toward the metro station. The chemical aftertaste from the artificially-flavored mulled wine lingered for hours.

Budapest: Outstanding shopping. And I loathe shopping. Especially Christmas shopping. Hungarians excel at crafts. An indifferent atmosphere reigned, however. I never felt comfortable enough to linger.

Prague: My husband and I finally got up the nerve to venture down there Thursday afternoon. We had calculated correctly: there was room to breathe. Minimal selfie sticks and Segways. The healthiest asses I’ve ever seen. In the stable/petting zoo, I mean. In any other city, the market itself would have been nothing exceptional, but the backdrop of Prague makes everything a magical experience. This year, the exact time of the official tree lighting ceremony was kept a secret, because of terrorism fears. The Czech people I know have told me that they avoid the main market. More than one has told me that they prefer Bratislava’s market. Yes, little Bratislava. And I have to agree.

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Folkloric groups come down from the mountains to perform. Their feisty enthusiasm makes up for the lack of flashy costumes and choreographic precision. Even when the two little squares are full, it never seems crowded. Even if you know no one, you don’t feel like a stranger. There is space for individual personalities to emerge. The middle-aged couple who drifted from table to table, seeking any alcohol left untouched. Senegalese men peddling their wares. This gentleman and his companions caused quite a commotion when they strolled into the fray one misty Saturday afternoon.

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This market is not one that you visit only once a season. It permeates the routine. You stop by for a quick lunch one day, and then on another day you pick up a strudel for the walk or ride home after shopping.

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Over the four weeks of Advent, you meet up with friends to have a mug or three of medovina – fermented honey wine – or, if you’re brave enough, the wicked turbo punch. Cold fingers around a hot mug. Light-hearted conversation with my Slovak buddies. The twinkling lights blurred into each other. Impressionistic. I learned, the hard way, that drinking more than two mugs of medovina will result in an entire day spent on the couch, cradling the skull and whimpering. And yet, like the locals, the following weekend I went back for more.

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