“La Collectionneuse”—A Case Study Beyond the Hollywood Paradigm

“La Collectionneuse” - A Great Foreign Flick

“La Collectionneuse” - A Great Foreign Flick

A great way to “get away” when not travelling is watching foreign flicks. Ever since my local library opened a great “Art” section in the DVD area, I’ve all but written off American films as a choice. Like travelling, watching foreign movies can produce new perspectives, as if physically immersed in another country’s culture and people. But more importantly—the world is full of great movies so that it doesn’t pay to waste time on another Hollywood disappointment.

Sometime ago, Hollywood replaced its talent and creativity with business automatons whose only attempt is to make the most base films that reach the widest audience to achieve the most revenue within the shortest period of time. The problem with this model: “Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking”.

Like unpleasant reoccurring dreams, about 3-4 regurgitated and tired themes have been rotating through Hollywood’s movie mill. There is the “WWII theme” that has been tirelessly pumped through the mill for the past 70 years, resulting now in completely inane scripts and the most predictable characters who just wear different faces and fight different wars. The automatons unsuccessfully try to make up for their deficiencies with all out assaults on the eyes and ears from overwhelming and mind-numbing crash-and-burn scenes, crammed with as many special effects as technically possible, and overlapped with exasperating scripted screams.

“La Collectionneuse” - Refreshingly Unusual Characters

“La Collectionneuse” - Refreshingly Unusual Characters

On the other hand, foreign films can be surprisingly refreshing in story, character and scene, essential elements for those who travel abroad. It’s just more interesting to see the world through another perspective.

This is why I like films like Eric Rohmer’s “La Collectionneuse” (“The Collector”), a great escape from the Hollywood paradigm. Filmed in and around a 17-Century villa in Saint-Tropez, located on the French Riviera, in June 1966, the film is more like a “comatoser” than a sleeper. According to the director, it was shown only in one theater, but was so popular, that the Paris theater ran it for six months. The Hollywood automatons would have a difficult time trying to make sense out of this!

“La Collectionneuse” - Introspection in a 17-Century Villa

“La Collectionneuse” - Introspection in a 17-Century Villa

In short, the plot is of a man who chases a woman but does not want to fully commit spending his summer with her in London. While temporarily renting a villa in the Riviera with two bohemians, he is tempted by another woman. In the end, he realizes he wants the first girl after becoming anxious of being alone in an empty villa with no distractions.

But there is so much more to this film than a plot. Throughout the film, the main character introspectively ponders over morality, people’s motives and whether most exercise free choice or are just simply controlled by circumstances. Interlaced with these musings are mesmerizing philosophical discussions from unusual characters in their rich colloquial that seems to only be encapsulated in time and place that seemed to be so special about the 60s, when the world’s axis seemed to momentarily shift open to infinite possibilities.

“La Collectionneuse” - Beautiful Scenery

“La Collectionneuse” - Beautiful Scenery

Surrounding these stimulating exchanges are magnificently beautiful sceneries reserved seemingly only for the unusual. Vibrant blues, greens and yellows pour out of each scene–more than any Hollywood overly dubbed and artificially colored set scene could possibly achieve. Less is more in this case. The director uses the most powerful elements of nature and creative use of cinematography.

And there are the hypnotic countryside sounds that elevate what is being portrayed beyond film. Opposite Hollywood movies that come with that incessant and obnoxious music and artificially placed sounds that fill every crevice.

“La Collectionneuse” - On the Riveria On a Shoe-String Budget

“La Collectionneuse” - On the Riveria On a Shoe-String Budget

Because the film was done on a shoe-string budget, each scene was filmed in one take. But you wouldn’t know that. The dialogue is so fresh and spontaneous. This is probably due to the fact that the actors wrote most of their own dialogue while following the essential story of the director. Rohmer wanted each actor to speak in his or her own words and what follows is some very fresh and interesting discussions as the actors muse over life and people.

“La Collectionneuse” is one of “six Moral Tales” Rohmer directed through the 60s and early 70s. I saw “Claire’s Knee” (1970), which was also very good and also filmed in an interesting and beautiful location in France. You can watch “La Collectionneuse” on youtube but is not near the quality of the newly restored high-definition digital transfer that was supervised and approved by Rohmer, which produces rich and vibrant colors.

To see more screen captures, go to La Collectionneuse Gallery.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Hiking in Slovak Paradise

When Slovakia comes to mind, one cannot help but think of mountains, wilderness and hiking. This country is a paradise for hikers, and smack dab in the middle is Slovak Paradise (Slovenský raj). Being my birthday, July 10, 2011, and half Slovak, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the day then by beginning a two-day hiking trip. I would be pleasantly surprised to find hiking was not the only thing that would be on the agenda.

Slovak Paradise captured from Tomášovský Viewpoint

Slovak Paradise is 76 square miles of mountains, canyons, gorges, ravines, forests, rivers and caves. It contains miles of trails and beautiful natural sites of interest sporadically located throughout, reached through the park’s trails. The trails also include adult playground equipment, including, ladders going straight up mountain cliffs to allow the average hiker to reach the top; and chain-holding girder steps that take hikers literally over rivers; and other innovated constructions that make access through areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Tomášovský Viewpoint

After hiking through a beautiful trail meandering back and forth along a mountain side and back into the forest, which gradually climbed to higher elevations, my first unexpected attraction was at Tomášovský Viewpoint. This is a dramatic cliff overlooking a portion of the huge park. From this perch, I could see for miles stretching out into the distance with several majestic mountains and acres and acres of forests, rivers and some hiking paths far out in the distance I would hike the next day. There I popped the cork to a nice bottle of Czech wine while basking under sun and meditating on the serene and lofty scene.

After my meditation, my next stop on the trail was being confronted by steel girders hugging the sides of a mountain, which I had to traverse. Below this interesting walkway was a river flowing beneath. It looked like a lot of fun to walk on, but was it safe? I tested one of the first few spikes that secured a chain for hikers to hold onto as they made their way to the other side. The pin came out. Not a good sign, but the girder steps seemed stable. These girder steps went on for about 50-100 yards before turning back to dirt path, which would stretch for about 25-50 yards before changing back to girders again.

Wooden walkway bypasses dense forest and makes hike more fun

Steel-girder steps

According to my map, these girders stretched for miles. After traversing them for about ½ mile, I realized I was going the wrong way. If I had paid more attention to my map, I would have noticed arrows signifying the direction in which hikers are supposed to walk on this part of the trail. But it was too late to turn back and it wasn’t a problem until I met a couple of hikers coming the other way. At first, the woman didn’t want to walk under my arms as I held the safety chain while leaning out over the river below me. But her husband coaxed her through and I was on my way again. Aside from steel girders, there were also wooden ladder-like bridges that were used in place when there was no mountain but only earth in which the walkways were embedded into. These walkways were very aesthetically pleasing as they hugged the edge of the winding river.

Hiker’s map of Slovak Paradise

Incidentally, the map I was using is part of a series of excellent 1 : 25 000 scale maps. I surmise that it is made by a company named VKU Harmanec; at least that is the only logo I could find on it. I could not find an official website but found plenty of websites that sold these maps by using the name of the logo with search engines. These maps are sold all over Slovakia and if you are staying at a hotel near a park, there is a good chance the hotel sells the map for that park. According to the back cover of a booklet that came with the map, there appears to be over 50 maps in this series that cover the entire country. I also used my iPhone maps application. With these two tools, I had no problem navigating my way through the park.

At a point on the trail, I needed to break away from the steel-girder path and follow another trail in order to make my way in somewhat of a circle back to my hotel. The hike lasted about 9 hours, which I finished with dinner at my hotel (Hotel Čingov) and a full-body massage, capping off nicely my birthday and my first day in Slovak Paradise.

Young woman climbing one of the first of many ladders

The next day (July 11, 2011) I met three Poles on a new trail. Neither of us spoke each other’s languages but one of the Poles saw I had a map and quickly used it to determine the way to a spot in the park where there were these cool ladders that went straight up a mountain. He encouraged me to follow them to get to this part of the park. The guy who used my map was able to explain that he was a fireman from Gdansk. This came in handy when we got to the first of the many ladders. He was able to determine the first ladder was unsafe, so we climbed up the mountain next to the ladder. The ladder was made of wood and not very tall, unlike most of the ladders that would follow, which were very tall and made of steel. The first one we came to caused us to pause due to its height, except for the fireman that apparently was very used to climbing ladders. It was very assuring to follow him up to say the least.

Mysterious wooden walkway through lush forest foliage making access possible

Once we reached the top of one ladder, we would walk a short distance before coming to another one. We were making our way up to the top of the mountain where the trail would pick up going through a large gorge. Nearby the ladders, water came splashing down as a small waterfall, which we would use to fill our water bottles. I would not have drunk the water if it were not for the fireman assuring me that it was safe (see warning below). It tasted great and I drank bottles of it.

At one point up the mountain, we came to a cave where my friends dipped their hands into water and then clay in order to leave impressions of their hands on the cave’s walls. The younger Pole, in his early 20s, pressed hand prints onto his chest, which was pretty funny.

The fireman climbs behind the young woman to give her confidence

The third Pole was a young woman. She wore cheap plastic sandals, but seemed to be an adept hiker. The sandals later proved to be worthy as the rest of us in running shoes needed to carefully traverse over rocks to avoid stepping into very shallow parts of water. The young woman just walked straight through the water.

On our way up the mountain, we crossed cool wooden bridges, which provided great views of the beautiful park and scary views below. There were also steel girder steps intermittently embedded into the mountain that would otherwise be very difficult to pass through.

Notice the steel girder the two are standing on. Below them is a sheer drop down the mountain.

Once we reached the top of the mountain, we hiked through a large gorge. It was surrounded by trees, which made a natural tunnel that did not allow enough light through to use my flashless camera. At the end of the gorge we gradually ascended through grassland where I learned how to find wild edible strawberries from the young woman. I eventually had to part from my friends in order to circle back to my hotel. The rest of my hike took me to an interesting damned-up natural lake followed by a very narrow trail through dense foliage that lead back to the part of the trail I walked earlier in the day that took me back to my hotel.

WARNING: Earlier, I mentioned drinking water that was cascading down the mountain I climbed up. The Pole I hiked with told me it was safe to drink and we all were drinking it. I do not know, but the next day I came down with a severe sickness that lasted for about 3-4 days and even lingered with me for some time after that. There was also another spot I drank water from which appeared to be a natural fountain for hikers. It was constructed of a decorative small wooden cabin with a PVC pipe protruding from it where the water came out of. I can’t say what caused my illness, but I do not think I will ever drink water from either similar situation again. There are purifying methods, including a filter/pump I once saw a hiker use. He told me that it would filter out the muddiest water to produce safe drinking water. This I plan on adding to my travel gear.

To see more pictures I took of my hike through Slovak Paradise, go to my gallery.

Posted in Trips | 1 Comment

Mystical Sounds of the Veena

Narada was an ancient Indian rishi who traveled among distant planets carrying a veena as his musical instrument. Unlike the sitar, the veena has a second resonator, a carved-out gourd attached to the underside of the neck. This produces a unique, mystical sound.

Rishi Narada

Rishi Narada

A trickster, Narada once convinced Lord Vishnu to apply the same delusive power of Maya he doled out on us mere mortals onto himself to better understand its power. Narada suggested Vishnu reincarnate into the body of a sow. After being unable to tear himself away from the joys of feeding a family of piglets, Narada released Vishnu by piercing the sow’s body. Which just goes to show you that even the gods of the Infinite can be overwhelmed by the “painted veil”.

The following raga is sublimely played on the veena by Punya Srinivas.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

The Central European Diet—Photo Gallery

Warsaw Dish - Old Town Square

Warsaw Dish - Old Town Square

I put together a photo gallery of the meals I ordered in Central Europe (specifically the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland). Overall, the food was delicious but seemed fattening, which often consisted of starchy potatoes and some greasy piece of meat.

This begs the question: Why are so many Central Europeans slim?

I seldomly saw someone over-weight and only once saw an obese person. I also actually lost weight while there, too. Granted, I was carrying a backpack and I usually had only one good meal during the day. However, I did eat breakfast, which was usually included in my accommodations. These European breakfasts always contained slices of meat and cheese. I usually would eat this with eggs. Similarly, Central Europeans do not eat as many courses as Americans do. I came to this conclusion from the people I talked to in my unscientific study. Like me, they eat snacks in between their main meals.

Also, walking is a way of life there. When they need to pick something up from the store, they have the infrastructure built into their countries that makes walking convenient. In America, I need to drive to a store because there are no sidewalks in my condominium complex, and few outside of it.

I think another reason for this slimness is due to the portions served in restaurants. While looking at the pictures in my gallery, pay attention to the quantity of food served. You will notice that they are not the MAMMOTH portions that are often served in the U.S. I can’t remember the last time I actually ate all the food served to me in an American restaurant. Yet, in Europe, I do not remember one time I left any food on my plate.

Contrary, the beer is about 1/3 larger than the 12-ounce beer served in America, bottle or draft. At first, you’d think this would make people gain more weight, but it was a rarity that I ever bought more than one beer with my meal. That size was perfect.

Speaking of beer, it usually only cost about $1.50, and it was always very fresh, served right out of the tap. Wine was also cheaper than in America, usually costing about $1.30 for a glass of red and about $1.10 for a glass of white. The wine was usually from the Czech Republic and very good. The beer was good, too. American Budweiser is treated as a joke in Europe. The Europeans who do come to America, steer away from the typical venues and go straight to the microbreweries. Unfortunately, dark beer is not as common in any of the three Western Slavic countries.

Central European Dishes Photo Gallery

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Train Travel—America’s Missing Infrastructure

After travelling by train for the past three months in Central Europe through roughly 20 cities and towns, one thing amazes me—why in the world do Americans NOT have the same opportunity and ease of which Europeans have in travelling by train?

Seriously … why not?

I have my suspicions. And they all lead to government lobbyists, bought-off congressmen, and greed. And, in the end, we Americans do not get to enjoy what I found was a way of life in Europe that made my unique, three-month travels possible.

This is not to say cars and planes do not also have their place. They do and they are not things I would want to stop. But train travel brings a whole new dimension to life that Americans have been deprived of.

To best describe to Americans who have not experienced this dimension, I will try to explain it this way: Imagine WALKING 1/2 – 1 mile to a train depot, no matter where you are in America, buying your train ticket within minutes, boarding a train that arrives on the minute or within 1-2 minutes of its appointed arrival time, placing your travel bags above the seat you pick out, and departing within five minutes.

Imagine that!

No driving to the train depot, no checking in your bags after waiting in a very slow-moving line, no going through laborious checkpoints, no waiting at an airport terminal for an hour, and no waiting on a plane for another 30 minutes before the plane finally takes off.

And imagine this: When your train arrives at its destination, you simply step off the train and WALK to your accommodations. I did just this in roughly 20 different cities and towns in Europe for three months and only 2-3 times hired a taxi, and never had to rent a car. Other than the few times I did hire a taxi, I WALKED to my accommodation right after stepping off the train. My accommodations were typically no more than 2-3 kilometers from the train depot. And, while walking through the heart of the city, I would often pick up a bottle of wine or some other supply that was conveniently in a store located on my way to the hotel.

After imagining this, try to imagine walking from the airport to your accommodation located in the city’s center. Ha! Just walking out of the sterile cement park is a small journey in itself. But once that is accomplished, you still have to walk to the city, not to mention the city’s center. That’s because airports are typically out in the boondocks; a wonderful scenario for taxi drivers who will charge you roughly $40 to take you to your hotel.

Now, imagine this: Some inspiring moment comes over you to travel to a particular destination. And after doing a quick check on the Web to find arrival times at the nearest train depot, you simply walk to the train depot, buy the ticket, and, within minutes, step onto the train, and you are on your way … no cars, no three-month planning, no reserving a seat.

Try to do that travelling by plane. Good luck! It’s a crap shoot and the odds are against you getting a seat on that plane that will take you to that city. And buying a plane ticket requires major premeditated planning. And then you wait … and wait … and then wait some more, usually months before boarding that plane. Wow! Talk about inspiring and spontaneous … Not!

There are other finer points of train travel. For example, no other mode of transportation relaxes me more the sound and feel of those iron wheels rolling steadfastly along iron rails stretching for miles through beautiful countryside. I also would much rather be sitting on a train than on an airplane, which is a little too claustrophobic as plane companies continuously find tighter ways to pack people like sardines in a tin can, as you look out your little peep hole called a window at monotonous sky and clouds … not the most romantic scenery to be staring at when travelling.

Of course, there are negatives to train travel but they are small in comparison to the alternative. For example, trains typically make several stops before reaching your final destination. These stops typically last no more than one minute and, if you look at the glass-half-full side, this gives you a new opportunity to spontaneously depart the train if you desire. The ticket you bought is typically good for 24 hours so you can always board another train later to continue to your original destination. Try doing that with your plane ticket. It’s not going to happen, unless you have a parachute. …

But, with all this said, if you haven’t travelled by train in Europe, you will not appreciate the advantages and convenience of train travel. It is a difficult thing to describe until you make it part of your life for a period of time. Then you see how train travel opens up so many new travel opportunities; things you would not do otherwise.

I will simply end by saying we Americans have been deprived of something that would make our lives richer in experience. There’s no reason why we cannot build such an infrastructure in America. But as with all major infrastructure building in America, it requires congress to agree, and sadly our congress doesn’t work. So, we will continue to muddle along with no train infrastructure, and no way to experience this other dimension of travel in our lives in America. What a pity.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Taking Advantage of a Raining Day in Zakopane

My last day in Zakopane, Poland, and it’s raining. You learn to take advantage of such days when traveling for an extended period in foreign countries. Everything takes twice as long and such days are perfect to just relax and accomplish one task at a time. You have all day.

My wakeup call this morning was church bells playing some tune. I’ve been hearing these different tunes from Prague to Banská Bystica to now Zakopane—but today had a twist. A dog very near my pension actually sang to this particular church chiming at 7:30. It was so charming I had to get up. It A-whoooed, A-whoooed and then raised an octave when the chiming tune went into its second movement. The dog even continued to sing for a bit after the bells stopped banging.

My Pension in Zakopane

My Pension in Zakopane

The first task of the day was finding a hotel for the next day, destination: Krakow. I sent out 27 requests while slowly eating my breakfast in the pension restaurant … coffee, cereal, bread with jam, yogurt, and ending with a little sausage, ham, peppers, cucumbers and cheese. Since my pension’s Internet access doesn’t work from my room (even though they confirmed it did), this was just another moment of me taking advantage of the typical things not quite going right … or the way you planned them to. These happen regularly, sometimes almost incessantly, but here in Europe you just find new ways of doing things. Service people here tend to be patient and alternative solutions usually are found, except for those relics of the communist period. These people just have only one answer: no.

After breakfast and responses already coming back from hotels, I then make my way through the pretty village of Zakopane to tackle my next task … buying a train ticket to Krakow and getting familiar with Zakopane’s train platforms; pretty simple: two platforms. I just need to see the train arriving at 9:24 and board it, regardless of where I’m standing. I wish they were all like this.

After my main logistic tasks are taken care of, I’m off entering different stores while making my way to the town’s main center. Stores in these Slavic countries are small and never offer a one-stop shopping environment. Even their Tesco or Kaufland, which is considered huge here, are still smaller than our Meijer. So I buy whatever I see that I may need.

Crystal-clear water rushing down from the High Tatras through Zakopane

Crystal-clear water rushing down from the High Tatras through Zakopane

For example, I see shoe polish. My Slovak-made Ecco’s have taken a severe beating hiking through the High Tatras (on both sides), Slovak Paradise and various lesser-known trails. I actually thought they were beyond recovery. They were not made for hiking, but more for cobble-street walking and the places I took them to makes me think there might be a good testimonial I could provide to the Ecco company. Slovaks make damn good shoes! After I get back to my room, I begin tearing up a t-shirt that got stained from discharge spray from my foot-deodorizer while traveling, and begin applying several coats of brown polish. I’m amazed that they look practically brand new. I only wish I took a before and after picture. I also took advantage of a disposable shoe polish pad I took from a ski lodge resort I stayed at in Slovakia.

With these tasks done, I begin going through my hotel offers from Krakow. I sort out all the ridiculously expensive offers, and pick those reasonably priced, have Internet access, a TV, followed by ones near to the city center and train/bus stations. Carrying a 55-pound backpack is not fun when you have to walk over a mile. I get a taxi seldom just because I don’t like the feeling after getting ripped off, even though what I pay is well worth it.

After all this, I forward my accepted hotel offer to my iPhone, map the destination using said device’s map application, and do screen captures of my train (or bus) departure times using Cestovné poriadky. This website is awesome and an absolutely necessity for those who travel a lot using the public transportation.

Speaking of absolute necessities, my Tote umbrella ranks near the top. Which makes me wonder why people still use those old fashion un-collapsible umbrellas when travelling? First, you carry with you a lot of things and are constantly reaching into your pockets or day backpack. Holding a long umbrella while doing this is not easy and you really can’t put it in your backpack. Tote umbrellas are awesome and ponchos, too, when hiking and it’s really pouring.

One of countless beautiful views of the High Tatras from Poland's side

One of countless beautiful views of the High Tatras from Poland's side

Speaking a little of my first day in Zakopane, I wasted no time after getting off the bus and checking into my room. I climbed right back on another bus that took me to Morskie Oko, a lake near the Slovak border. The one-road leading through the High Tatras on the Polish side was packed with cars, a real tourist trap. It took an hour to get to the lake’s entrance, but then you had to walk two hours to get to it. Considering I come from the Great Lakes, and the paved road was absolutely packed with people coming and going, I decided to walk the path less traveled, a real hiking path. Not paved!

I ascended the blue path for about three hours and got beautiful views of the High Tatras on Poland’s side. I must say, even though Slovakia has the majority of the High Tatras (about three quarters), the Polish side is so much more beautiful. It is full of evergreen trees going for miles up mountains with majestic rock peaks at the top. I ate my kielbasa and sipped my Chilean red wine while viewing this splendor and not being disturbed by mobs of people.

On the Slovak side of the High Tatras, it is pretty bare, being tree-stripped to accommodate villages and tourist spots. There are no tourist villages on the Polish side that I could see. There is only Zakopane and everyone comes from there to this huge park that stretches for miles and miles. I think this is partially the reason why Poland’s High Tatras are much more beautiful than Slovakia’s. Slovakia’s High Tatras are more harsh and stark and bare. Poland’s side is just beautiful, stunning at times.

Convenient steps ascending the mountains

Convenient steps ascending the mountains

The path had some pretty interesting wooden- and stone-made steps to help in the ascension. Most of the path was full of boulders due to the water that rushes down the mountains. The trail would often go through evergreen forests. Some areas had a beautiful green and mist color that I tried to capture digitally but failed. I walked this trail for about five hours and then took the paved road back to the area where extended-like mini buses waited for tourists to be taken back to Zakopane.

Later that night I went to the town’s center and had a good “official” first Polish meal in Poland. The waitress brought out a small bowl of some Polish cookies, which were very good, and some very salty-like cookies, which weren’t that tasty but made you want to drink more beer. After that, I walked back to my pension taking a variety of interesting side paths. Slavic cities are full of these paths. Walkers are definitely catered to here.

To see more photos of Zakopane and my hike in the High Tatras, see the following albums:

Poland’s High Tatras Photo Album

Zakopane Photo Album

Posted in General | 1 Comment

I Came, I Found, I Partied with my Distant European Family. …

Since I was a boy, I have always wondered what my long-lost family in Europe was like and if I would ever meet some of them. My ancestors several generations ago immigrated to America from Slovakia and Poland. Since then, ties with this part of the family had diminished. But names of the villages were known. And with that, I had the dream to someday visit these places and see if I could seek out these distant family members. That day came yesterday when I climbed into a taxi and was driven to a small, pretty village in Eastern Slovakia named Kamenná Poruba.

Bringing out the Hruška ... Nostrovia!

Bringing out the Hruška ... Nostrovia!

The taxi driver asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. It started to rain very hard on a hot summer afternoon. I looked around and saw no destination but a street of houses. I asked the taxi driver where the village‘s center was. He said, ‘Right here.’ The only thing that came to my mind was a bar. There I could get a drink and re-evaluate my crazy dream of just walking into a village half way around the world and bumping into family. We tried the first bar … closed. We tried the second bar … closed. The meter was running and my taxi driver’s patience was diminishing.

My taxi driver’s name was Jan. I thought this a good sign since my Great Grandfather who emigrated from Kamenná Poruba was also named Jan. My taxi driver also spoke the best English of all my past taxi drivers. So he could help and he did. We drove up next to a house with a woman standing in the yard. He asked her in Slovak if she knew of a Serafin. She did. Ha! This was just too practical. Ask someone where my family lives and go there? We did. A bit embarrassed, I walked to the door and rang the bell as my taxi driver waited. A woman came out and I asked, ‘Are you Serafin?’ Bože! (Oh, God!). What the heck am I supposed to ask? She said a few words in English and then went to speak to the taxi driver. My taxi driver told me to sit down and we were off again, to another house. At this point, things were becoming a little too surreal for me. I didn’t want to knock on another door. I felt it was a bit intrusive. I mean, who does this American think he is, just going half way around the world and knocking on doors until he finds his distant European family?

Greta and her daughter standing next to their mother and grandmother's large garden

Greta and her daughter standing next to their mother and grandmother's large garden

My taxi driver was persistent, though. He said, ‘Look friend, I don’t have a lot of time. I have to work. This is the house of Serafin. This is where you need to be dropped off.’ I kept looking at the church behind us. I wanted to go there and see if they had birth records of my family. This was less obtrusive. But my taxi driver wouldn’t listen to me. He drove past the church intentionally. To him, his plan was much more practical and he didn’t care what I wanted. He wanted to help me and that is what he was going to do.

Then a woman appeared in the yard of the house. My taxi driver asked her something and a conversation began. And then suddenly I was outside the taxi and being welcomed into the house and escorted into the kitchen. Another woman appeared and then a girl. The girl spoke English and suddenly I am sitting down in this lovely kitchen being offered water surrounded by women all talking Slovak. I sit and politely observe. And then we all suddenly realize that we are family. An older man appears. This is my Great Grandfather’s brother’s son, Andreo. Holy Cow! A picture is brought out. This is my Great Grandfather’s brother, Pavol. Holy moly! Then questions are interpreted to me by the girl, Greta, from her mother and grandmother. ‘Did you travel here by yourself?’ Ano. ‘How did you come here?’ I’ve been traveling through the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the past six weeks. ‘Are you married?’ Nie. No wife, no children. ‘Maybe you can find here a Slovak woman.’ Ha! Now I know we are family.

And from there I spent an absolutely beautiful day with my previously unknown Slovak family.

Greta's mother in her kitchen

Greta's mother in her kitchen

We broke more ice with the family’s homemade Slivovica, a 60% plum brandy, made from the orchard of plum trees from their very large back yard extending for quite a long distance. Luba, Greta’s husband, a very tall and slender Slovak soldier, tells me we will understand each other better by drinking this. He has a constant smile on his face and is a lot of fun. He, his wife Greta and their daughter also named Greta, are staying with their mother and father (my Great Grandfather’s brother’s son) in Kamenná Poruba for the holidays from Prešov, a city about 40 minutes drive north. I stayed there about a week previously. It has a beautiful historic center.

Luba starts the barbeque as I sit outside in the backyard enjoying the lovely breeze and talking to Greta and her daughter. Great speaks some English and we are able to communicate quite well. Her mother doesn’t speak any English but has a very warm and cheerful aura about her with smiling eyes like my great Aunt Ann. She makes me feel so welcomed. Greta’s daughter interprets for both of us and we communicate quite well. I sit in amazement while doing shots of Slivovica with Luba.

The grave of Pavol Serafin, brother of my great, grandfather Jan Serafin

The grave of Pavol Serafin, brother of my great, grandfather Jan Serafin

Then Greta and her daughter take me for a walk through Greta’s mother’s beautiful and much extended backyard of gardens and orchards. This is absolutely the kind of thing I like to do when I am at my parent’s house in the country of Michigan. We walk to the end where we go through a gate and onto a newly paved back road. Mountains surround us in the distance. These are named Slanské vrchy. Greta tells me all the land extending to the mountains is owned by her family. Wow! I am amazed at such wealth. A beautiful house is seen in the distance. Greta tells me that this is her sister’s house. We follow her sister into the house. It’s beautiful and so warm inside. It is difficult to describe other than all the touches are made precisely in achieving this warmth. Her sister brings out a bottle of Hruška and is pouring two shots. She gives me and her sister each a shot. ‘Nostrovia!‘ This cheer I have been doing for years with my family in Michigan. Now I am doing it with my Slovak family who actually knows properly how to pronounce it.

Now I’m really feeling good surrounded by my family, just like I would feel surrounded by my family in Michigan. We then walk to a beautiful little cemetary. ‘This is the burial of Pavol‘. Wow! I’m amazed. ‘And this is the burial of, we think, Jan Serafin.‘ I’m more amazed. This is my Great, Great Grandfather. I cannot believe it and how well perserved the tombstone is. It has a beautiful cross with a brass-like Jesus that is only slightly tarnished. I ask how this Jesus could only be slightly tarnished after all these years. They tell me that they made things better back then.

The Greek Orthodox church Greta's mother sings in and where my great grandfather married my great grandmother over 100 years ago

The Greek Orthodox church Greta's mother sings in and where my great grandfather married my great grandmother over 100 years ago

As we walk back through the cemetary, I see how many people have brought fresh and beautiful flowers to their deceased. Slovak tombstones also have a much larger horizontal tombstone that lies over the dead. This is a common in all Slovak cemeteries I have seen. This larger horizontal tombstone allows family members to lay all sorts of flowers and candles on top. I find these tombstones much more beautiful and warm than in America.

Later, Greta’s mother takes me to the church I wanted my taxi driver to take me to. Greta’s mother has a key to the church. It is beautiful inside. It is Byzantine Catholic, just like the church I went to as I grew up. I see the common icons just like St. Basil the Great in Sterling Heights, Michigan, those icons that the Roman Catholic church burned in disgust during one of the several schisms many centuries ago. Greta interprets for her grandmother. ‘This is the church your great grandfather got married in.’ Wow!

Later that evening, we all sit around the kitchen table and talk. Just like my baba (grandmother) Greta’s mother brings out the kolach (cakes). Slovaks are masters at making sweet cakes. Luba and I do some more shots of Slivovica and he is right, we do begin to understand each other much better. He is very friendly and is always smiling. I feel like I am talking to one of my second cousins from Michigan over drinks. Greta’s mother and father sit in the background contently observing and talking with us, as well. Everyone is talking in the one conversation. All are smiling, happy. I’m happy. I’m amazed. I’m sitting with my cousins in Slovakia enjoying an unexpected party during a hot summer night, drinking homemade plum brandy.

Sitting around the table talking and enjoying Slivovica

Sitting around the table talking and enjoying Slivovica

I was told before my trip by those who had gone to Slovakia, that Slovaks are very friendly. How true this is. Many times through my travels I have met friendly Slovaks that wanted to know more about this strange American coming to Slovakia. I was invited into the home of one where the wife and daughter set a beautiful table of their finest silver, china and crystal and a delicious Slovak meal that made you feel good after you ate it. I met Jaro while hiking in the mountains outside of Banská Bystrica. He was concerned I might get lost and showed me a shortcut to an observatory he worked at high up in the mountains. From there, he helped me so much in preparing for my hikes through Slovenský raj (Slovak Paradise). Those hikes were amazing, climbing up stories and stories of ladders going straight up a mountain next to a waterfall. His wife gave me gifts before I left after the delicious meal they served. Their daughter, who spoke English well, was very charming and interested in talking to me. Their house was full of very big, old and beautifully carved furniture. Two beautiful chairs were over 200 years old and were originally from Prague’s castle. We talked about the good and the bad of the changing communism regime to a democracy, the belief in God, and other interesting conversations. That was in Banská Bystrica, a beautiful city surrounded by mountains in central Slovakia.

This tombstone Greta and her sister think is my great, great grandfather Jan Serafin

This tombstone Greta and her sister think is my great, great grandfather Jan Serafin

It’s true. Slovaks are very friendly. And to meet distant relatives in Slovakia like this was beyond my imagination. This truly was a dream come true for me. Throughout this journey, I’ve been quietly complaining about being charged too much by taxi driver’s, but Jan made up for all of those experiences. His 11.5 EUR drive was well worth the cost. If it wasn’t for his persistence, I probably would not have met my extended family. I cannot count the number of times I’ve had help like this. Slovaks are like this. They want to help. Many don’t speak English but they are persistent. They will continue to talk to you and explain, for example, how to get to your destination. You will say, ‘Nerozumiem po Slovensky’ (I don’t understand Slovak) many times, but they will continue to explain in Slovak, trying to help you. Eventually a new way of sign language is formed and then you are off, on your way, going in the right direction. There is a special kind of patience that occurs in a Slovak when they see a helpless American. And then they’re smiling at you when you have figured out how to properly insert and validate your ticket in that electric train, or they’re waving at you as you are leaving on the right bus they guided you toward.

Andreo Serafin, my great grandfather's nephew

Andreo Serafin, my great grandfather's nephew

I studied Slovak for months with my Slovak friend. She helped me so much. But all that knowledge went out the window when I came to Slovakia do to the over-whelming culture shock. It wasn’t the language that I needed so much but how to do things. Everything is different here, right down to flushing a toilet or opening a window or locking a door. I’ve made so many mistakes and felt quite foolish many times. But my visit yesterday with my Serafin family made up for all of that. I truly felt at home. All those mistakes I made previously were my hurdles to that final destination.

So I say to anyone who shares in the same dream I just fulfilled, just go there. Things will just happen. Nothing like how you would expect them to happen—absolutely not! But you will find your family albeit a bit embarrassed and feeling a little foolish, but in the end, it will all be worth it.

(The following is a link to more photos of my time in Kamenná Poruba with the Serafin family: Serafin Family Photo Album)

Posted in Trips | 4 Comments

Haywired Hike in the High Tatras

Entering High Tatras at Night

Entering High Tatras at Night

My first intentionally short excursion into the High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry), the highest mountains in Slovakia, turned out to stretch into two unexpected days. When I first arrived in Tatranská Polianka (a desolate place with mostly large, old and wooden hotel buildings and an electric train depot) I needed supplies for my hike. So I walked about two miles to Starý Smokovec. There I also got a good Slavic meal next to a big stone and wooden fireplace before walking back to my hotel.

When I got back, it was about 8 p.m. But I had a strong urge to take a “short excursion” into the mountains. It was also the Fourth of July, which meant absolutely nothing to Slovaks, except this American one. (Note: Tatranská Polianka is next to the highest peak and supposedly has the best air for one’s lungs.) This is when things began to go haywire. I wanted to hike up to Sliezsky Dom. It was recommended by my hotel manager. I had no idea what it was and didn’t care. I just needed a destination to reach while hiking through the High Tatras and then I would find out what it was when I got there. It was supposed to take about two hours. …

My gear consisted of a poncho (it incessantly lightly rained and the weather ranged around the mid 50s … I cannot stress how important a good poncho is in keeping you warm and dry); next were my leather, water-resistant Ecco’s (I cannot stress how important a good pair of shoes with excellent soles are when you have to walk from one boulder to the next wet boulder for miles; a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (I cannot stress how important it is to bring spirits with you [there is a reason they call it “spirits” … incidentally, the wine you buy in Slovakia comes usually from the Czech Republic and is very good and also cheap, about $4.50 a bottle.]); a good multi-LED flashlight (absolutely necessary when you hike in the dark and all stars are covered by a thick fog); and nuts, a strange European candy bar, a tak dalej (and so on).

Entering the Woods

Entering the Woods

At first the hike was pleasantly easy. It first consisted of a paved road where cars were banned to drive, followed by a dirt path strewn with mostly small rocks. As I entered the higher elevation, I then entered a forest. This is when it started to get dark. But I wanted to see this Sliezsky Dom. So I pulled out my flashlight, took another swig from my bottle of wine, and continued. I could hear and faintly see beautiful waterfalls through the forest trees. The trail also got interesting, becoming a trek of boulder walking in the dark (flashlight absolutely necessary). It was a shame my iphone didn’t have a flash. The things I saw were absolutely beautiful, but also the night sounds. I would periodically take a rest and just listen and enjoy my vino.

After about four hours I began to wonder what this Sliezsky Dom was and if I would see it or just walk by it. Eventually I came to what I could see a beautiful hotel (Sliezsky Dom) stuck way out in no-man’s land. I walked through the automatic sliding doors and was greeted by two guard dogs in the first entrance. Tired and a bit drunk, I lied down next to my two new friends and shared some of my Macadamia nuts. They were friendly and lazing like me in the first entrance to the lobby, grateful like me to be in shelter. Again, it was incessantly lightly raining.

Nirvana After My First Leg of My Hike

Nirvana After My First Leg of My Hike

A friendly young man walked in from the lobby and greeted me with a room. It was early, early in the morning, the next day, and I was very grateful for this. A bed and not to have to walk back down to my hotel … Samozrejme (of course)! He took me through several beautiful pine-paneled corridors, surrounding glass walls and down through interesting modern but warm staircases. My room turned out to the most fantastic room I have yet to stay in Europe. Beautiful wooden paneled walls, like a sauna, complete with the most modern conveniences and a great big very inviting bed across from a TV inset in the wall.

Sliezsky Dom

Sliezsky Dom

I woke up the next morning with the TV still running. It was 8 a.m. Then I looked out my big right-angled windows and saw a beautiful mountain right in front of the hotel, and two early hikers making their way into it. I didn’t even bother to shower. I just threw on my cloths and poncho, drank several glasses of some of the sweetest and coldest tap water, and made my way down to the hotel lobby, which was a bit interesting. The manager greeted me with a sly smile (I was still holding my bottle of wine when he previously caught me petting his friendly guard dogs).

I didn’t want to walk down the same trail I came up on. I wanted to continue the trail to the next destination on my map, which was a place called Hrebienok (Hrebienok). And then apparently I could take some strange train (funicular) back down the mountain to Starý Smokevec, where I envisioned a fantastic Slavic meal next to that beautiful wood and stone fireplace I visited the day before. This leg of the trail looked about twice as long as my previous but I figured if I took the funicular down it would cut my time in half. Sometime between waking up and throwing on my clothes, I ate three Macadamia nuts left in my little bag. It wasn’t a good idea to walk on an empty stomach, but I figured I would burn off some extra fat (albeit, all I have been doing during this trip has been losing weight) but I always think these situations are good times to burn fat and serve as a good fast to cleanse the body. Mistake! When walking through strange trails through large mountains never go without a good meal.

My Second Leg of My Hike Begins

My Second Leg of My Hike Begins

As I began my hike, still a bit inebriated from the night before, I started to also realize I was still tired. That mountain vision through my hotel room window had inspired me—damn the torpedoes (sleep and food). I was in the High Tatras for Pete’s sake! It still incessantly was lightly raining, but this didn’t matter. I had my poncho (BTW, Rick Steve’s, which is better than most, looks pretty stylish, black, and covers the backpack and the legs down to the knees).

After walking a distance, I turned around and saw how beautiful my hotel was, surrounded very closely by large mountains. I think this is when I realized that this was Sliezsky Dom. Ah … my first destination, and I had the pleasure to spend the night there with the advantage of continuing my hike on my second day into the High Tatras.

Incessant Boulder-Strewn Path

Incessant Boulder-Strewn Path

My hike took me around the sides of large mountains. To my right was a very large valley. Clouds quietly rolled through it. And my poncho and Ecco shoes kept me dry (ironically, Eccos shoes are made in Slovakia, which I did not know until after I bought them).

Looking Over a Ledge Into the Valley Below

Looking Over a Ledge Into the Valley Below

The hike was slow walking from one large wet boulder to the next and slowly making my way up into higher elevations. Vegetation would occasionally get a little bit over head high. At times I had to cross small waterfalls rushing down the mountains. Some of the boulders were just high enough from being covered by rushing water. These were times were I just stopped and enjoyed the beauty.

My trail was designated Blue. Yellow is the next and highest level, I think. Who would figure “mellow yellow” being the highest. I thought this was the easiest until I hiked a yellow trail outside of Banska Bystrica. Bože!

Crossing Over a Waterfall

Crossing Over a Waterfall

The only hikers I met were coming the other way, from Starý Smokovec, probably from that weird train I planned on taking back to said mentioned town. When they approached, I always stopped to allow them to pass safely. The rocks were slippery and didn’t want to slip. I did this when two hikers were approaching me. I fell right on my tailbone on a huge boulder. I still feel it and probably will for about a week or so. The onetime my Eccos’ soles let me down. … Walking on these slippery rocks in tennis shoes is not recommended. Incidentally, I did walk in tennis shoes on following days for the comfort that they provided to my blistered feet, but it wasn’t raining and the trails were dry.

Misting Mountain Side from Rolling Clouds

Misting Mountain Side from Rolling Clouds

After about 2-3 hours, the trail started to lead down the mountain toward woods below. This is when I started to get really hungry. Those three Macadamia nuts just weren’t cutting it. And I have no survivor skills when it comes to knowing what to eat out in the wild. I saw some woman in Banska Bystrica picking berries off of bushes and eating them. At this time, I wish I had seen what they looked like. As I continued to hike, I got hungrier until my stomach started to hurt. Also, I was tired. So, I would lie down occasionally on a big boulder using my poncho as a blanket. I kept dry but I stayed tired and hungry throughout the hike.

Descending Down Mountain

Descending Down Mountain

I thought about this strange train I was to ride, but when I arrived at a sign post that showed Hrebienok was 15 minutes farther away, I decided to walk down the mountain instead. I figured once I got to this weird depot, I’d probably have to wait 30 minutes to an hour for the next departure and I was so hungry that my stomached ached badly and I just wanted to get to food as quickly as possibly.

Entering Woods Again Since the Day Before

Entering Woods Again Since the Day Before

As I made my way down to the town of Starý Smokovec, the trail became wet and muddy. At times the decline was so steep I would have to plan my steps before preceding less I take a sliding spill. Eventually I made my way down and all while never hearing that strange train, so I thought I made the right decision.

Path Begins to Turn to Mud

Path Begins to Turn to Mud

When I got down the mountain, I headed for the first place that sold food. I don’t eat beef, but when the only thing I could recognize on the menu at a small standup, fast-food place was “hamburger”, this I got and a beer. They didn’t have my dark (tamavé) Širiš, but I would have drunk American Budweiser if that is all they had. The hamburgur consisted of a very, very thin slice of beef covered on top and below by large helpings of coleslaw, lettus, vegtables and a white like-crousant bread. After a few bites and swigs, I laid down on the bench next to my table and went to sleep. When I woke up, I took another few bites and swigs and began my 1.5 hour walk back to my hotel in Transka Polianka.

Thus concluded my first hike into the High Tatras.

Posted in Trips | 4 Comments

Culture Shock in the “New” Central Europe

Absinthe in Bratislava

Absinthe in Bratislava

Things I Like

  • Buying a beer that is 1/3 larger than an American domestic beer, tastes better, and costs less than $1; wine is also about $1 a glass.
  • Flushing the toilet in two different ways: regular flush and super flush.
  • Awesome herb-based water, which tastes great and is good for you. Why do we only have boring spring water in America?
  • Colorful Euro paper money and interesting historic European pictures on coins.
  • Drinking Absinthe in a restaurant.
  • Buying a bottle of 70% Absinthe for less than $30.
  • Friendly Slovaks helping translate that the train attendant is saying you are sitting in first class but you only bought a second-class ticket.
  • Paying only a few Euros to continue to sit in first class.
  • Friendly Slovaks helping you on the bus find out what next thing you are supposed to ride to get to your destination.
  • Talking to very interesting Europeans.
  • Drinking in a bomb shelter converted into a bar deep underground.
  • Friendly Czechs in restaurants that make you feel like their extended family.
  • Watching a guy in a bar in Prague roll a joint and smoke it … and no one caring.
  • Paying about $25 for two dinners with side orders, 5 glasses of wine, coffee and a dessert.
  • Not being rushed in restaurants.
  • Inserting a 50-Euro cent into a shopping cart with all four wheels working properly and getting the coin back after using the cart.
  • Having your laundry cleaned for free in a hotel.
  • Watching TV in Czech, Slovak or Hungarian.
  • Bankomats.

Things I Don’t Like

  • Small showers with funny hand-holding shower heads.
  • One- and two-Euro coins.
  • Different sizes of paper money; each denomination gets larger to the point that you can hang the 500 Euro on your wall as a picture.
  • Train attendants who don’t speak English telling you that the train you are on is no longer going to your destination and that you will have to take a bus or another train at the next stop.
  • Missing your next train and being stuck in a large city celebrating some holiday while lugging your 55-pound backpack from one 4-star hotel to the next looking for a vacancy.
  • Paying 50 Euro to have your laundry cleaned in a 3-star hotel that charges 4-star prices.
  • Learning the hard way how to use public transportation.
  • Waiting for your waiter/waitress to bring your bill.
  • Meat-cornucopia breakfasts that come with your accommodations.
  • Hand jesturing to Slovaks who don’t speak English.
  • The guy who turns the light on in your dorm at 4 a.m. after his pub crawl so he can pack.
  • Sleeping in mixed dorms.
  • Church bell clanging … especially that one in Levice, Slovakia that clangs every morning for about 15 minutes, but never quite at 7 a.m.
  • No coffee machines in hotels.
  • Tolets in separate rooms from bathroom.
Posted in General | 5 Comments

Luggage Problem. …

Deciding what to carry when you travel can be a “luggage problem”. But this problem can be amazingly resolved, as demonstrated in one of my favorite movies, “Joe Versus the Volcano”. Incidentally, this movie was brutally rated by critics, which goes to show you that they can be just as clueless as us minions. This movie is now a cult classic.

Before showing my solution to this problem for backpacking through Central Europe for several months, see first how Joe learns his through the ultimate in luggage salesmen!

Below is my solution to the luggage problem. A suggestion … when packing, start by sectioning off all your gear in three groups; 1) what will go in your dopp kit, 2) what will go in your day/backpack, and 3) what will go in your actual large backpack.

Travel Gear

My Travel Gear

• Rick Steve’s carry on, convertible backpack/suitcase
• Dopp kit (plethora of pockets and shoulder strap)
• 3, 3-oz plastic bottles in plastic bag
• Money belt
• Poncho (converts into picnic blanket & pillow)
• Travel Cubes
• First-aid kit
• Cloths bag compressor
• 5 combination locks (for backpacks)
• Small flashlight – LED light
• Laptop and charger
• USB cable for iPhone
• Flash drive
• Converter
• Monocular
• Hostel sheet (36×83″ w/hood & mesh-panelled stuff sack)
• Laundry wash leaves
• Super-absorbent towel (20×36″ soaks up 10x its weight)
• Ultra-strong repair tape
• Foreign currency
• Collapsible umbrella
• Padlock (hostel lockers)
• Maps (iPhone maps also)
• Guidebook

Not Shown in Image

• Backpack (w/laptop compartment & multiple compartments)
• iPhone and car charger
• Moistened Wipes
• Passport
• Drivers license
• IDP (International Drivers License)
• Detailed Travel Itinerary
• Photocopies of documents
• Ecco Shoes
• Glasses / Sun glasses
• Clothesline
• Soap
• Spot remover
• Insect repellent
• Wool cap
• Emergency blanket (for extreme cold)
• Waterproof matches
• 6 function whistle (signal mirror, thermometer, magnifier, compass, LED light)

Posted in Tools | Leave a comment