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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)