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.

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