26 February 2009

Kamienka, 1982

From a design perspective, there's little more that can turn me on more than socialist-era commemorative books. I've got a small but significant collection of old guide books, commemorative books, and otherwise ephemera from this period -- they've all got the incredible farm yield statistics, rad letterpress printing, paper that has a sweet, addictive acid smell, and obviously posed photos with saturated color that remind me of our earliest family pictures from here that were taken with Polaroid cameras and cross-processed slide film (Yeah, that's right. My grandma was a hipster photographer before you were born). Now, I often use digital measures to effectively cross-process my photos from here, because it's the aesthetic I remember so vividly from my childhood.

I picked these photos from a book called Камйонка:35 років соцілістичного будивнцтва. First, before the Ukrainian language police come knocking at the blog, this was produced back in 1982, when officially Rusyns were Ukrainians in Slovakia, even though there was nothing Ukrainian about them. But even to the present, people in Kamienka keep teaching their kids some form of Rusyn/Ukrainian/Russian, because they know how important it is that Rusyn is written in the cyrillic alphabet.

But there's nothing Ukrainian about these people, except the language this book is written in. These are Rusyns, and quite active at it. Now, they've got a very effective local organization, and frankly, have done a great job exporting their music to the Rusyn world. At this point, I'm not sure what songs I know are Rusyn songs or Kamienka songs first -- I listened to the new Barvinok ensemble album and was happy to sing along. Also, my favorite American Rusyn rock, Vox Ethnika (the artists formerly known as S Harmony) are Rusyns from Kamienka as well!

Above, the Barvinok ensemble and the amphitheater in Kamienka.

So obviously, Rusyns know how to throw the best parties. Always.
Regardless of politics. And definitely in spite of them.
This pic is from 1966.

Rusyn pioneers learning first aid!
This makes me giggle a little because the kids at my school have Malá Anča (Little Anne!),
the source of some great jokes and laughs in the zborovňa.

I totally get teased for my love of the ruins of collective farms while driving along the roads here. In fact, I've got some amazing photos that I haven't yet posted here, but they were taken near where the cat and mouse video was taken.

But I find there's something poignant in the ruins of these farms, with the title of Jednotné roľnícke družstvá -- they're modern ruins, decaying symbols of a failed ideology, and most of them are still sitting where they once stood. I love modern decay, in Western cities especially, because it shows that all of this progress is still imperfect, and we can't control everything. These farms in the countryside still represent the honesty and honor of work, but now that is back in the control of individuals, and together they can make decisions that still grow community.

So these above three photos show the hope in progress for something that now probably looks a lot like this:

Two nice little things.

First, Coldrex powder is a miracle drug. Too bad you can only buy it in Central and Eastern Europe and New Zealand.

Secondly, normally there are only pigeons on my balcony, being loud and annoying, but just now I saw a goldfinch! These little things, and the fact that it stays light out until about 5:45pm, are greatly contributing to my happiness and productivity.

25 February 2009

Last weekend

So, a quick photo essay about last weekend, when my aunt and uncle visited Slovakia for the first time!

Thursday, I we went all around Prešov, sampling food and drink at some of the best spots. Friday, we visited our relatives in Svidník, and then went to Ladomirová, Bardejov and Krynica (passing two wooden churches along the way, one in Tylicz).
Ice sculpture in Krynica. It's one of those places I feel comfortable and happy being a tourist.

Statue of Nikifor in Krynica.

So we kind of started to freeze in Krynica, because it was really cold there, and so we went to a restaurant where I'd eaten before to get some tea, vodka and soup. This created one of the most notable miscommunications/lost in translations I've ever been party to. They were out of borscht (a cardinal sin in Poland, imho), so I ordered one cabbage and potato soup, and then the proprietress suggested another soup, saying "It's good, have it." This turned out to be tripe soup. Tripe is something I've learned to love since being here, but none of us expected it Friday evening.

Saturday afternoon at Drienica.

Saturday afternoon we went to the spa village of Vyšné Ružachy, where there was a karneval going on that included some dog sled races -- the dogs were beautiful. Below, the burbling travertine pool of mineral water, some 30m deep:

And finally, on Sunday, the greatest treat of all -- a visit to Skalnaté Pleso and this clear view of Lomnický štít. Breathtaking.

Recent teaching

It’s been a whirlwind the last few weeks at school, but I’ll start with the best and move on from there.

About two weeks ago during the kružok, one of my students asked me straight out if I “actively propagated anarchism.” I was rather floored on the spot, because I am super careful about what I say about politics. Mostly because I’ve had some teachers who were not, and I ended up being briefly brainwashed into libertarianism and mild fascism, which was not so pleasant in retrospect. So, being the Socraticesque teacher that I aspire to be, I said, “well, what does anarchism mean to you?” To which all five of them who were there said that it meant that you could do whatever it was that you wanted. I asked them if that meant they may also hurt other people, and that provided enough food for thought for that hour.

Then last week, we were talking about music, and I asked them if they wanted to hear some American folk music – they said sure. So I carefully planned a playlist (not intending to use them all, but with enough flexibility for it to be a good, improvisationable teaching tool) and gave a short lecture with the intention that they leave realizing that all of the rock and roll and techno and Lady Gaga and whatever else they listen to ultimately has roots in the African-American musical tradition (meaning, Elvis should not be given too much credit for inventing rock n' roll):
Michael Row The Boat Ashore - Pete Seeger
Ha ha this a way - Leadbelly
Skip to My Lou - Pete Seeger
Pick a bale of cotton - Leadbelly
Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand - The Williamson Brothers
This Train (Bound for Glory) - Big Bill Broonzy
Keep Your Hand On the Plow - Mahalia Jackson
Sinner Man - The Weavers
Rock Island Line - Leadbelly
Rock Island Line - The Weavers
Goodnight Irene - The Weavers
This Land Is Your Land - Pete Seeger
We Shall Overcome - The SNCC Freedom Singers
Where Have All The Flowers Gone? - Pete Seeger
Chimes of Freedom - The Byrds
A Change Is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke
Rock And Roll Music - Chuck Berry
Travelin' Band - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Summertime Blues - Eddie Cochran
Sixteen Tons - This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb

So most of this is lost on the first group I did this with, but I know that they had never heard the likes of Leadbelly before. I did prepare them that we would end up with some punk, to show them the progression, and towards the end there’s some good classic rock n’ roll. But this was all mostly lost on them.

Then today, with one of my favorite groups (favorite because they’re mostly well-disciplined without me having to say anything), there were like three kids absent and I gave them a choice (remembering the best advice on teaching I’ve gotten so far, which is to never give the kids a choice): to watch a video of Top Gear about free running (which I had done with another of my groups this week), or listen to some American folk music. Delighting me, they chose the latter.
Right now, this group is learning American geography, but not any American history, yet (which is fine, because how much Slovak history did I ever learn in school? If the Munich Agreement/Betrayal can be counted, that would be it, and that’s Czechoslovak history.) So we talked in very simple terms about how there was slavery in America and then people organized themselves in the civil rights movement so that everyone would be equal. And then I asked them if everyone in Slovakia is equal. One kid said, yes, except for the Roma (their Roma classmate was one of the three absent today, and I wonder how this would have gone if she had been there). I asked him why, and he said because they were a different color and because they spoke a different language. So I asked him if we could agree that color didn’t matter, and they agreed, so I asked about the Hungarians that live in Slovakia, because some of them don’t speak Slovak and they are still equal in Slovakia, right? Ahhhh, touché!

So then, I put on the SNCC Freedom Singers singing “We Shall Overcome” and we translated the title together. They listened to it for a bit, and then another kid asks me if that was the American national anthem. If only, kid. If only. So, again, I was pleasantly floored by these kids, even if they don't always realize what they're saying.

Last Wednesday was the Carneval at school. I went as Ratatouille. This was a big hit. Some of my other colleagues dressed, two in Slovak kroj, one in a sari, and there was an elephant and cat. The group of teachers that teaches the first level (1-5 grades) was a basketball team together, and another of the teachers was a baby. She needed someone to push her around in the stroller (obviously, the Carneval behavior is what in America usually happens for Halloween, but I like this infinitely better) so she asked one of her fellow sisters (who does not teach in the school but who is an awesome actress and incredibly lovely outgoing person) to dress as her mother. So she put on a fringy knit vest, round John Lennon sunglasses, and a long blonde curly wig. Her hair is a graying brown, which was showing a bit from under the wig (though is normally not seen since she still wears the old style veil), so she had this supercute hangover hippy look like Dharma’s mom Abby on Dharma and Greg. There was no one to be the moderator of the second level’s (6-9 grades) Carneval, so she did it and did an awesome job.

I never believed in the power of the full moon before, but now I totally do. Once a month, there is a time when even the best groups act up, and are absolutely uncontrollable, and I can’t figure out why until I look at the calendar and see the full moon looming up at me. It’s ridiculous that such a thing (the full moon) is even an issue, but I swear it is.

Also, I am really sick of past tense irregular verbs.

Today I got the chance to miss my fifth hour (excellent since they’re slightly behind on some grammar and it was going to do them good to be together, plus there was the small detail of the aforementioned lunar phenomenon) and go across the street to the gymnasium to observe a language class in their new language lab.

Omgz amazing.

First off, this was the first time I’d actually observed someone else teaching here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this school looked more like an American school – or even more American than an American school. There were flat screen monitors on every floor with announcements and the Slovak equivalent of CNN, and all kinds of other multimedia, plus the walls were covered in posters and stimulating things – which to a lesser extent exists at our school, too. Then, and this was truly amazing, they had rows of computer kiosks with high-volume printers on every floor.

The class was awesome, not even because of the technology, which was impressive (laptops, headsets for dialogues and communicating with the teacher that caused the room to be so quiet, etc) but because of one thing that was there: a rubric! I've been thinking about rubrics for a while now, and then I saw one here and realized I could do this. Especially because the first thing on the rubric had to do with creativity in language. If there's one thing I am constantly telling the kids, it's that language is a creative act, regardless of what language they're speaking.

There was more, but this was highly inspirational, and I'm kind of looking forward to preparing some new things to do with them. My few hours at the high school every week are also a joy -- I have a good time with them.

16 February 2009

Social Culture Building

I had the kind of weekend that rather highlighted why I came to live here. What I’m about to write can not ever adequately describe the depth of feeling I experienced this weekend.
Thursday was the first seminar in Rusyn language and history at Prešov University. But while that was happening, I saw for the first time since I’ve been here a friend who I totally look forward to working with more on things Rusyn, and for the first time, we don’t have as much of a language barrier, which is stellar. Also during that, I had a lovely shot and a beer at the Cukrareň Victoria, one of my favorite places on the Hlavná ulica, for it’s typical 19th century nearly-Viennese style. After that, we had some confusion but then an excellent meeting at the Museum of Rusyn Culture in Prešov. And after that, some more meetings – well enough into the night.

Friday morning the World Council of Rusyns met in Prešov, in which an American delegation gave a presentation to the panel. Unfortunately, from what I could hear, its obvious that, as many American Rusyns are completely ignorant of what happens and goes on in Europe, many European Rusyns have no clue what we do in America. Sorry, but from either side, this wierd isolationism is not acceptable, especially in light of the events I’m about to describe.

Friday night was the First International Rusyn Ball at the Hotel Dukla in Prešov. We danced until almost 5am! – this was only an hour before the last people left. The food was good, the entertainment was excellent, the company even more so, and at midnight, they brought out a buffet of pirohi, halupki, and mačanka. The entertainment was done by Mária Mačošková (who, rightly so, is being called a living legend, and of the three stars, I maintain she has aged the best of all), Anna Poračová, and Anna Servická. Then, a group from Užhorod came, and the story behind them coming was excellent – visas are hard to come by for Ukrainians trying to go to Slovakia, and let’s just say the cover of the latest issue of Rusyn Magazine came in handy! Finally, Roland from Čirč played the dancing music – if you want to hear them, just listen to about any episode of the Rusyn Radio program, because they’re quite possibly the most-played group on that show ever. The evening was excellent because when I’m in the right mood, I love to dance, and I had two lovely dance partners.

Saturday morning 9am (NB: I got only 2 hours of sleep – while we were there I totally walked into a door at one point, which was sore for nearly a week), we were back at the Museum, and then we went off to Poland. This is when the weekend truly started and was it great. Now, because Slovakia and Poland are parties to the Schengen treaty, you can zoom through the border at Čirč-Leluchow, but we ended up getting spot-checked between Leluchow and Muszyna, which delayed us just a few minutes. Good thing we weren’t Ukrainian cigarette smugglers.

We got to Krynica and went straight to the Trochanowski domicile. Suffice it to say, the road was gorgeous, and Krynica is truly a year-round wonderland – this is the first time I’d been there in the winter, and it’s one of the places in the world where I have only the happiest memories. We had tea and a whole spread there, which was perfect and included some really great local vodka – smooth, cold and still tasty. I got the latest Serencza album and also another project, Club deMoll. Not latest per se, because they’re both nearly two years old, but latest to me – and they provided some great car ride music along with the also new-ish Mačošková and Poračová album. As we were leaving the Trochanowski’s, I slipped on some ice (NB: not at all the result of the vodka) and my cell phone fell out of my pocket, which we didn’t realize until we got back to Prešov that night. But the problem was solved, because he had it the whole time anyway. So it’s recovered, and I had a lovely four-day break from my mobile, which I can really not complain about – it felt great though of course I was too happy to get it back!

This is the worse-than-mediocre pic that caused me to fall and drop my phone.

But as if the lovely energy of Trochanowski and his wife’s lovely calmness and their exceptional hospitality was not enough, we took off for Gorlice. Unfortunately Petro couldn’t come with us, because it was Saturday and Sunday was some holy day and he had to go sing vespers. We had some great laughs teasing him to come with us anyway, but he couldn’t.

On the way there and back, we passed at least four wooden churches, which are lit up at night as the result of a grant from the Polish government and EU. So as we drove with the snow gently falling, these masterpieces were rising up from a blanket of snow. But lest I get too romantic about the whole thing, I will also note that thank God we were in a 4-wheel drive vehicle and not in a Trabant. But you know, you’re driving along and there’s these churches and it’s obvious that the government and people care about them, and then you think about how you’re related to all of this and it gets kind of incredible.

So finally, after this crazy drive through the mountains, we get to the other side and we get to Gorlice. And in a car full of 5 Rusyns, we like magically know how to get right there, to the Ruska Bursa in Gorlice. This building is so important to Rusyns, especially these days when, for the first time in more than 60 years, we’re finally making great strides again in Rusyn schools. The Ruska Bursa was a boarding school for people who became the Lemko Rusyn elite for a few generations until WWII. Now, it’s being renovated into a cultural center, and on Saturday night, it was an exceptional center of culture.

Ruska Bursa, 1937. There is only one female in the picture.
Evidently having literate female Rusyns was not a high priority.
Fast forward 60 years, and we're the ones leading the Rusyn movement all over the world,
and especially in Poland. Progress!

We walked in, and everyone was already sitting around singing, and there were tons of fresh baked goods and pork products. As I remembered from Sighet in 2007, the way things happen is that the Lemkos sing, and eat, and keep passing around the vodka (in a very ritualistic way that is quite rich in social etiquette), which is fine, because you’re also eating and drinking hot tea and singing. This was a boon. Unfortunately I don’t know as many songs they sing as I do of my Šariš folks, but I swear the atmosphere was so excellent that the Lemko quarter of my soul was aroused as it never has been before. Not only that, talking with some of the young people there was so incredibly energizing and I’ll not forget it. The greatest of all, similar to the midnight buffet at the ball, was that they brought out these amazing fresh little stuffed rolls and cups of borscht, which we drank like tea. If there is one thing on this earth I will never, ever refuse, it is borscht. I absolutely hated to leave. Leaving Gorlice on Saturday night was horrible.

On Sunday, I wanted so badly to get up and go to liturgy in Jakubany, but I was rather exhausted since I’d been getting little sleep since Wednesday and I also needed to prepare things for Ružomberok, because I was thinking I’d be going there Sunday afternoon. Instead I met some friends in Prešov around 11am, and we ended up bringing a VIP guest with us, which was an extremely lovely surprise.

We got to Jakubany, and on the way there, in many villages you still can pass traditional wooden homes, which are long and narrow, going back from the road. In Jakubany, we got to our friends’ house, and began with the hruškovica, which is one of my preferred spirits – it’s like a pear that’s been distilled and is intensely mild compared to some of its alternatives. I might add here that I really don’t like eating pears, but any time pears are combined with alcohol, I can’t resist – for example, pears poached in white wine is a favorite savoury desert of mine. Happily, the hruškovica was but an apertif to the perfect chicken soup, and a main course of rezeň (schnitzel), mashed potatoes, salad, and then the world’s best pirohi, with another shot of hruškovica in between. We had an appointment in Kamjunka (Slovak: Kamienka), so we had a shot at the gate and left – but we would be coming back to Jakubany.

Kamjunka is the home village of the Rusyn museum director, and it’s also where quite possibly the most famous living Rusyn priest is currently pastor. He is a delightful, and spiritual man who rather skillfully, patiently and not-always-quietly agitates for Rusyn language in Greek Catholic churches in Rusyn villages in Slovakia. We were in two cars the whole day, and so our car up and went straight to visit him – though he wasn’t home at the time. So we went over to the town hall and had an incredibly productive meeting with the mayor and local Rusyn representatives – their local leader can’t be older than I am, which is excellent news for all of us who are used to the relative oldness of thought and action that can be demonstrated by some of their other people. After that, we went back to our GK Fárar, and had a great visit with him and his wife.

C-RS President John Righetti being interviewed by Martin Karaš.

But we couldn’t stay in Kamjunka all evening, because we had to get back to Jakubany for a fašiengy! The local folk group, Kečera, was christening a new album and also anticipating the fast. Besides homemade white wine and hruškovica, there were plates piled with home-smoked bacon and sausages. Of course I couldn’t refuse the bacon! Similar to Gorlice, everyone sat around and ate and drank while they sang their hearts out – not a lot of room to dance up in the hills! At this point, I was getting a little nudgy because I of course didn’t have my phone and I couldn’t call to let Ružomberok know what was going on. The only number I had was my principal’s cell phone, but she didn’t recognize the number but finally picked up. At that point, I had decided to just go to Ružomberok early on Monday morning, which meant I’d have another night of not enough sleep, but the day was so excellent being with such excellent people made the exhaustion highly worth it. When I got back to Ružomberok, I found out that one of the sisters had tried calling me to find out where I was, if I was coming, etc. And what did she tell me? Evidently some "Polish-Ukrainian-I-couldn't-understand-a-thing" person answered my phone to let her know I wasn't there!

Proof that I finally visited Jakubany with the world's most famous Jakubany-ian.

On the other hand, I was a bit relieved to get back to Ružomberok because I couldn’t keep up that pace much longer! Lack of sleep, stamperlíks of vodka and hruškovica, running around, making phone calls, helping to translate and expediting strategics – maybe I’m getting older or something, but I couldn’t keep up this pace all of the time!

On the other hand (I’m having as many hands as some Hindu deity), this weekend was the mid-winter shot of energy that I needed to inspire me to get my thesis done so that I can get on with even more culture-building work. Because, even with all of the meetings with other cultural activists and mayors and whoever all weekend, being with the people on Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear why we’re doing everything else we do on a more political level – in order to preserve and at the same time advance and evolve our beautiful cultural expressions. We got soul. Further, when Americans experience this sort of thing, and Europeans experience how we roll in America, we push each other along, and energize each other and that is the best thing ever.

15 February 2009


The last few weeks have been too busy, and the next few weeks will be busy as well.

But here's a little flava of what is to come, because time is full of adventure:
I think this is Florynka, but it could also be Polany, which are both between Krynica and Grybów.

Lemkovyna with snow, a room full of singing Lemkos and a lot of vodka and fresh baked goods and omgz borscht in one of the most historic buildings Rusyns have ever inhabited (the Ruska Bursa in Gorlice) -- why did we ever have to leave, why did it ever have to end? Last night the Lemko quarter of my soul was reawakened to perfection.

01 February 2009

My debut

That's me, on skis! ^_^