31 July 2009

Non-alco ambrosia

Leave it to the Germans to invent something so good.  Some of my favorite non-alcoholic beverages are Germanic in origin: Mezzo Mix, Almdudler, Elderflower water... natural, herbal fresh tastes.

Add to that the addition of physalis, something that pops up here in surprising little places, like as a sexy garnish to a cocktail or in salads...

So I just found this, and have stocked up on it:

Double You See Semiotics

This is totally not an original idea of mine, but after having read this post (and this one!), it's something I'm very aware of it and think of it often.  Look for this post to keep changing and being added to.

 Saw this in Užhorod and thought it was cute.  The male one was boring.

Poland appears to be the only country to widely use this O∇ thing, which inevitably confuses me.
It was supposed to be explained to me once, but apparently I was still to young, 
and now that I'm not young anymore, I'm still confused.

Retro Café in Prešov uses Andy and Marilyn.

A visit to Zyndranowa (Зындранова)

I've got lots of photographic treasures from this visit, which unfortunately I'm not going to post all over teh intarwebs.  But here are some:

Gocz is really into militaria, and this is a kind of cool non-killing artifact.  
It's a travelling buffet, with built-in stove underneath and chimney on top. 
In the event you were considering thatching the roof of your house, here's how you do it.

This is quite possibly the most powerful thing at the site, and a valuable piece of interpretation in a museum where there isn't much.  It's a quote from Pavlovyč (buried in Svidník), saying "...here I want to live, die, where my father and mother lived."

A little-known cause of the Cold War.  
Yes, undeniably there was a lot of political conflict, military tension, and economic competition -- 
but back when we were still friends, we shipped the USSR Chef Boyardee.

Transcarpathian Museum of Art Named After Y. Bokshay

A rather verbose name for a museum, but no matter.
And before someone comments about it, I know I'm inconsistent in my transliteration.  Transliteration, by its very nature, is imperfect. 

As if there was ever any doubt of the richness of Rusyn culture, after visiting this museum (large by any standards), there would be absolutely none.  And yet, this is a part of Rusyn culture that does not get nearly the attention that it deserves, perhaps for lack of experts in this field.

(The colors of the photos below are not quite as vibrant as they actually are, because in order to protect the property of the museum, I have reduced their size and resolution considerably from my originals.  We had a fun time dodging the gallery attendants, who in turn pretended not to notice we were taking lots of photos.)

Bokshaj's Prodigal Son, 1935.
Erdelyi's Portrait of A.S., 1931.

Bolkonskoi-Nikulinskoi's Woman, 1935.
The sculpture gallery is full of this socialist realism that I can't get enough of.
The temporary exhibit was of the very accomplished brother and sister artists Ivan and Larysa Brody.  Here's a selection:
Ivan Brody's Easter, 2007?
Quite possibly the strongest painting in the exhibit.

Larysa Brody's Springtime, 2007.
There's something a bit delightfully subversive about this.

Confidential to MP:

I absolutely have not forgotten about the Drughets, and now that you've mentioned them, they're everywhere.

The Prague Spring and Grilled Pork Products

Two of my favorite topics, actually.

A bit outside of Užhorod, in a triangulation between the center, Nevitske Castle and the Slovak border, in a valley along a stream, is a villa which official history has seemingly forgotten, if official history ever knew that it existed:
Dubček slept here.

While official history (as I link to Wikipedia, hah!) has the Warsaw Five (USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany) meeting in Dresden and the Czechoslovaks and Soviets meeting in Čierna nad Tisou to deal with the Prague Spring, both of which did happen, there was also a meeting of the Warsaw Five plus Dubček at this villa outside of Užhorod.  Despite all of the heavy business they had to deal with (the human face of socialism, for example), they also had an indoor pool, outdoor billiards tables, and stocked trout stream in an idyllic spot so that they could at least be comfortable while everyone (except our hero Dubček, of course) plotted to invade and occupy Czechoslovakia.

To the left here is the indoor swimming pool building.  It's hard to describe how the stocked trout stream worked, and I don't have any good pictures.  But basically, the stream was diverted into a series of concrete-walled pools, where the trout was stocked by the caretakers so that Brezhnev was practically guaranteed to catch a trout.

We were there with the son of the original caretaker.  Apparently the place was bought a few years ago, and renovations were begun, and then it switched hands, but now it lies mostly in decay, where it will become part of the ruins of modern history.

After visiting this amazing place, we went a bit farther down the same stream, where we had one of the most insanely delicious opekačkas I've experienced here.  Is Subcarpathia poorer than, for example, Eastern Slovakia or the US?  Yes.  But do we all have our own vineyards?  Homemade bacon? No!  So where is the quality of life a bit better? If you answered Subcarpathia, you're right.

Immediately upon us finalizing our plans to go there, I began salivating for Subcarpathian champagne.  Picture it - Subcarpathia, summer of 1997: My aunt and I were visiting Užhorod and we met some strangers who insisted on taking us on a picnic somewhere in the hills.  It was back in the day when drinking the water there was definitely not a very good idea, and all they had for us to drink was vodka and the local champagne.  What was my aunt to do, when obviously I needed to drink something on a hot summer day?  Of course, on the drive back to Užhorod I was passed out, but that was actually good because I wasn't consciously aware of sitting in a probably unsafe Lada, breathing in fumes and with all of the windows rolled up in the sweltering heat.  But the champagne had made an impression.

Putting the meat on the skewers -- yes, that guy has on a Chuck Close t-shirt, 
and that woman was Belorussian and gorgeous with such great energy.

This was the tip of the iceberg.  It grew.

Fast forward to 2009: We started to grill, and we were given two kinds of local homemade wine to sample.  Then, as we sat down to eat, the homemade champagne came out.  Ohhhhhh sooooo good.  The whole evening, which had been unplanned, was a veritable bacchanal of fresh homemade wine and amazing homemade foods.  To je život!

(Disturbing) Politicized Billboards, Or, How complicated politics can be.

While visiting Subcarpathia last month, I noticed two rather disturbing and undeniably politicized billboards.  Not sure which is (worse), so I'll just start with the Ukrainian übernationalist one:

It's not too good of a shot, because we were trying to get shots of it from a moving car. But the text is:
Христос босрес! Боскресне Украïна!
 Беселнх свят у своïн, богом данiи краïнi
 This one we saw in a few places, mostly in the countryside and not in Užhorod, mostly around Perečin and Mukačevo.  
It's commemorating the 70th anniversary of the short-lived Nazi puppet state Carpatho-Ukraine.  
That's priest-president Augustin Vološin there.
If you're curious about Vološin and Carpatho-Ukraine, the place to go is the museum in the castle in Užhorod.  They've got a great display of the local tradition of autonomy (without being very overt about it) and the last room is all about AV, to the point of it seeming a bit cult-of-personality-esque.
  Propaganda from the Carpatho-Ukraine period -- strong visual culture.

With Duchnovyč

I'm so far behind on posts I want to make, and yet the longer I take to post and the more I think about it, the more themes are showing themselves.  Here is one:

At statues commemorating Duchnovyč in Topoľa and Mukačevo.
We visited Topoľa on the way back from Kremenec, and I was still not completely dried off.  In Mukačevo, my photodirector's instructions were to "look like a humble Greek Catholic" -- not sure how well I was able to pull that off...
Most interesting thing about the Mukačevo statue?  This dedication plaque on the back of the pedestal from former bigshot Ukrainian-Rusyn politician Viktor Baloha:
(Click to enlarge, you know you want to.)

29 July 2009

Pray tell

For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write somewhat coherently about my experience of living in a convent part-time this year.  Throughout my life, I’ve been to my fair share of convents and monasteries, and even after living in one, there are still perhaps some mysteries.  The following are some initial (and maybe will be added to) thoughts as an informal, but long-term participant-observer:
To some of my skeptical friends, I’ve half-joked that I lived in a radical feminist community – which is maybe not so far from the truth, because if the word ‘radical’ is referring to the ‘root’ of something, then there’s something to it.  Not only has this tradition existed for a long, long time within the Catholic Church, it also is a basic (though not unsophisticated), self-contained functioning society.  And when we start to dig into the specifics of everyday life, it turns out that they engage in some of what to the rest of the world sees as lifestyle trends for better quality of life. 
Some immediate realities make this life choice ‘radical’ for 2009: there’s really not much choice in terms of wardrobe, what time to wake up in the morning, where to live and work, if and when to travel, what to eat and when, and there’s only €4 in one’s pocket and one free day every month.  As a result of these issues, which could be seen as limits, I would argue that they actually cause the individual personalities to be that much more clearer and to in fact shine. 
For the most part, the crew I lived with is happy and they really get along well with each other.  News flies around faster than the speed of light and sound combined, which at first was a bit intense for me, and they explained to me it was as if I was living in a house full of my aunts or in a big family in which everyone really does care about each other.  These analogies to family are not accidental, because the community becomes the family, not to the exclusion of ‘biological’ families, but for example, holidays are spent with the community and generally they spend only 2-3 weeks in the summer with family family.  And, as I said that news flies around faster than the speed of light and sound combined, that means learning diplomatically to keep your mouth shut sometimes. 

The composition of the particular community where I lived was kind of interesting because on a personnel level, everyone is able to support each other by what they do for the community.  Half to two-thirds work outside the convent, as teachers or in hospitals, and the rest are retired or work as support staff at home.  Every day, in addition to cooking lunch for around 25 sisters, they prepare lunch for 5+ priests from the local parish, and local laity who are unable to cook for themselves (think Meals on Wheels, without the wheels).  This means that there are 2 head cooks with 2+ support crew, plus the older, retired sisters also help when necessary.  As I’ve written a lot elsewhere on this blog, they eat really well! The sisters who work outside help support the community through their paychecks, and in turn they are supported in other ways by the sisters who work at home. 
When considering that for the most part, this is a crew of well-educated women who are (I hate to use the following, but can’t think of a better phrase) giving up relatively a lot, I’d always keep in mind the way it was once explained to me by one of the sisters here, who in her work has tons of responsibilities and headaches: sometimes, it’s easier to live this way, because there are a lot of decisions she doesn’t have to make and she is supported by the work others do.
One really cool thing, which to the West is some kind of hipster foodie/recession-induced fad, is the combination locavorism/food preservation activity that happens.  Since there are 25+ people to feed every day, canning prepwork is done as a team -- everyone sitting around the dining room table armed with knives.  This means that at various points this year I participated in peeling and cutting tons of apples and helping to sort and clean 32 kilos/70 pounds of strawberries to be made into compote and jam.  This week was the right time for cucumbers, so pickles were made, and I blogged earlier about making sauerkraut, in which industrial laundry carts were filled with cut (with a manual meat slicer) cabbage.  This also means canned beet (which is high in iron content and therefore good for women!), a personal favorite.  I could eat beets all the time.  Sundays there’s some kind of cake dessert, plus everyone gets some fresh fruit, chocolate or both.  There’s meat on Sunday, which is not to say there’s not some kind of meat the rest of the week, but there isn’t really.  This is economical, but it’s also sustainable – meat everyday is really unnecessary.  And in this way I have discovered the magic of creamed squash and also this dumpling sort of thing referred to as fake chicken (breadcrumbs, chopped parsley and whipped egg whites mixed together and baked on a cookie sheet).

 On the strawberry brigada a few weeks ago, 
wearing one of those vesty aprons like my grandma uses.
Of course housekeeping duties are done by assigned turns, so dishes after breakfast and lunch are usually done by the older, retired sisters who are at home, and dinner dishes are done by the sisters who work outside the convent and are home after dinner.  The place is of course immaculately clean – though this can also be partly attributed to the fact that they’re Slovak females.
It’s not all work – moderate television watching does happen, especially Saturday and Sunday evenings.  One of the sisters, who is a totally sweet and nonviolent sort of person is really into CSI, and is more than happy to give her opinion on the various spinoffs (Miami is the best, New York’s alright, Las Vegas is not that great).  There’s one computer for everyone’s use in the library, but those of internet-using age also have it at work so there’s not too much of an issue with access.  And, on appropriate occasions (or when someone goes home for the weekend and gets some domaca from their family), we’ve been known to put back a shot together.  This crew is quite of the world and very much in touch with the community in a positive way.
Which brings me finally to the idea of spirituality – which is actually inherent in everything above to begin with.  I didn’t pray with them too often in the chapel, though when I did it was very powerful.  Every day before dinner there’s a period of spiritual reading, in which they communally decide on what they want to listen to and then someone reads aloud.  While this is happening, they’re often also sewing, embroidering, doing mindless paperwork or nodding off while trying to appear to be in deep thought and concentration.  Then they read the necrology for the day and it’s time for dinner.  But really, the spirit is such a part of the fabric of the day though also noninvasive.  When someone says “Pán Boh pomáhaj” or “Pán Boh zaplať” they mean it, and I’ve heard it thousands of times. 
The environment is truly life-giving.  Do I think I could do it? With a great deal of respect, no.  It was always good to be able to go back to Prešov, and yet Sundays I pretty much ran back to Ružomberok because of how pleasant it was for me to be at the convent, but by Wednesday I was ready to go again!  But I’m most grateful that I was given this opportunity to have such a look into this world and to be let into it and supported by it in the way that I have been. 

08 July 2009

Today's Vintage Rusyn Photograph

It's been a while.

Subcarpathian Adventure

This is a blog exclusive.

Last Saturday, 4 July, we decided to go to Užhorod and Mukačevo (at least, that's what we told them at the border -- no really, that's where we went) -- disappearing and freaking out my mom (sorry again, Mom!).  We visited and stayed for 3 nights with one of my most top top favorite Rusyn activists, who is also an excellent hiker-tourist.  Part of his theory is that this is the way we can create converts to Rusyn activism: through hiking in the Carpathians -- I can't disagree!  He set a good pace with at least 45 pounds on his back and we did quite a few miles with a 600+ meter difference in altitude from start to finish, in the area I've marked on the map:

View Polonina in a larger map

I'll post more later, because in 3 days I took nearly 600 photos, but while hiking Monday afternoon, and while posing for what was to be a pleasant photo along the path, I put my hand on the ground and sliced it on a broken bottle that was hidden in the high grass thanks to some previous inconsiderate shepherd or tourist.

We took initial care to start helping the clotting by using a special type of leaf that was growing along the road, and then happened on several trucks carrying wild blueberry pickers (that was a huge treat! -- picking and eating fresh fresh fresh wild blueberries all day while hiking!) and one of the drivers had gauze bandages and some iodine.  We can thank the training that young Pioneers had for the exceptionally good basic first aid care I received thanks to my hiking companions.

Tuesday morning when we got back to Slovakia, I went to the neighborhood trauma clinic, and they took another look at it and redressed it.  I have to go back tomorrow morning, we'll see what happens/if it's infected/if I'll need stitches or something like that.  I was advised to not tell them it happened in Ukraine so as to not create insurance problems, so here is kind of what the conversation went like:
Doctor: What happened?
Self: I was hiking and cut myself on a broken bottle.
Doctor: Why didn't you come sooner?  You should have come within six hours.
Self: I was in the mountains hiking and we just got back.
Doctor: What mountains?
Self: In the hills. [gestures in general direction of some hills, which is not difficult to do in Prešov.]
I won't get into the part of the discussion about me needing to get a tetanus shot.

But this really isn't so serious, and you're curious about Subcarpathia, so to hold you over until I can post more, here's a quick album to get some flava of the trip.


I made this a few days ago but have been having weird internet issues (story of my life, but I can't complain) and so haven't been able to post it here until now. Hopefully this is the start of a series of sorts.

(If you're reading this post via e-mail, click through to the page in a web browser to see the video!)

Solisko hike

This was a relatively quick hike, considering everything.  The original plan was to go to Skok Waterfall, but that got nixed relatively quickly and we took the chairlift up to the Chata pod Sodliskom.  It was 14 June, the day before the trail officially opened for the season -- but it was already full of German-speaking tourists.

Here's a trail map -- we took the red route.

Štrbské Pleso from above -- there's a trail that goes up, we didn't need to take the chairlift necessarily, but time was of the essence.  You can also see the ski runs in the foreground.

The trail, with painted trail markers.

The train station at Štrba is rather festive.

In the list of why I came to Slovakia (beer, pork products, Rusyns...), this green Trabant combi ranks #4.

Summit height was a rather respectable 2093m/6866ft.

Svidník (non)festival and Rusyn villages

On 21 June (I'm so far behind, I know -- but I've been busy!), we tried to catch the last day of the Svidník festival.  But we got there late because we were at a Rusyn wedding the night before, and it rained all weekend anyway so that made the festival not very festivious.  But we went up to the skansen anyway, and here are 2 interesting pictures:

Apparently, el chupacabra is also a problem in Northeast Slovakia.

Look at the cow peeing! (in the skansen)

Since the festival wasn't too festivious, we had some grilled pork product (always a must) and left, because the scene was already pretty dead.  But since we were in the area, we took the time to explore some nearby Rusyn villages.  The first one we went to was Dobroslava (Rusyn: Доброслав).

Someone has some pleasant civic-minded humor. 
Confidential to Dad: Zanzibar!
Population of Dobroslava in 2001: 41.
Here's the wooden church of St. Paraskeva in Dobroslava.

Even more interesting than the church is this sign, which is at least a 10 page academic paper waiting to happen.
Finally, we stopped at the village of Vyšná Pisaná (Rusyn: Вышня Писана).  I'd take this opportunity to note how Rusyn presence can be determined in villages in Slovakia and how it doesn't take away from Slovak culture but in fact adds to it (something we already knew):
Village hall, with signs in Rusyn and Slovak, under the Slovak flag.
Full-screen -


I've got a lot of catching up to do, I know.  Even before the Kremenec hike, there was a hike in the High Tatras to Solisko, but this is more important to blog first.  I'll also need to update this post with more photos, because my camera pooped out the day before and I couldn't replace it that quickly.

So, this happened on 28 June, as a yearly tradition begun last year by the great Valerij Padiak.  Some of the first graduates of the Rusyn school system in Subcarpathia had their graduation ceremony there with all of us as witnesses, and it was a totally rather emotional thing.

First, where is Kremenec?  It is at the border of Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Stužica forest.

We did the hike in rather good time, around 2½ hours, which was the result of the death pace I set.  The last 100 or so meters is a rather steep vertical incline, which was fun, and then at the top you can get a pretty good idea of where all of the borders hit the trails.  Here's the trail elevation map, we took the red route from Pod Kýčerou, so I'd say it was about 13km/8mi one way:
Finally, here's another map I made which shows the symbolic marker at the top and also the routes that could be used to get there, again, we used the red route which begins in Nová Sedlica:

We had a great few hours at the summit, communing with other Rusyns from Slovakia and Ukraine -- you can read about it here, but there's one main thing that did not translate accurately in that "official version":  We all held hands in a circle around the symbolic monument, and sang Ja Rusyn byl -- which was very nice, but then our fearless leader, amongst the Rusyn flag and the EU flag (not a Ukrainian flag in sight, nor a Slovak one for that matter) said, "And now for the Rusyn national anthem, Červena Ruža!", which caused great laughs.  In the "official" version, we supposedly sang "kremeneckou hymnou", but trust me, that's not how it went down.

The return trip was beyond memorable, because about 20 minutes into it, after a water refill stop at a gorgeous mountain stream, it began to pour.  While the mountains and forest was even more beautiful during the rain, I ran the last 5km or so because I wanted to get into the dry clothes I had with me and I was a bit worried about the potential of hypothermia.  Of course, right when I got back to the car, it stopped raining, but I was dry and warm when the rest of the crew arrived 10-15 minutes later.

UPDATED (with photos):
Along the way, there were quite a few signs saying "POZOR! Štatná hranica" (WARNING! State border).  Apparently, it's a common area for people smuggling from the Wild East to the EU.  No worries, I've got my passport.
At the top, between Slovakia and Ukraine.

The EU flag and Rusyn flags must have made quite an obvious not-Ukraine statement to the 3 Ukrainian army guys who were with us there.  Two joined in singing with us while the other one took (surveillance?) pictures with his cellphone camera.

It was right after this water refill stop that it started to pour.

Back at the trailhead, after I'd changed into my dry clothes -- note my wet hair.  This experience has kind of discouraged me from cotton in uncertain weather conditions and I'm now going to consider some sort of higher-tech wicking quick dry tops, which would have been nice on this day.