Monday, December 24, 2012

REWIND HOLIDAZE EDITION 1: Slovaks and troglodytes.

I've always enjoyed keeping 'em guessing, and so a Beer Money column entitled "Long ago in Slovakia" was published in the pre-merger 'Bune on December 3, 2009. The full text hasn't appeared here until now.

There was an entertaining aftermath, in the form of comments amid a maze of Bledsottian irrelevancies at the blog still called The Voice of the People, which Shirley Baird seems no longer to actively steward (last posting in May, 2012). Back in 2009, I answered the troglodyte's critique here: My visit to PassiveAggressiveLand.

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Long ago in Slovakia.

My family traces its ethnic roots to Germany, but to this day, I’m unclear as to whether the Christian preferences of my ancestors ran toward Catholic or Protestant. Perhaps there were even unbelievers like me slipping their genes into the mix. If so, they were probably quiet about it.

It used to be that German Catholic immigrants to America celebrated December 6, St. Nicholas Day, as the day for giving gifts. Without a religious upbringing to speak of, St. Nicholas Day made no impression on me until December, 1991. I was living in the city of Kosice, Slovakia, and working as an English teacher. It was my first holiday season spent abroad, and a compelling experience.

Here’s something I wrote at the time.

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A Christmas Dispatch from Slovakia December, 1991.

There's a good chance of a White Christmas in Slovakia.

The winter's first snow has come and gone, and although we didn't get very much, it was enough to add a cheerful hazard for pedestrians in the forms of sleds, multitudes of them, some of old fashioned wood construction, others of molded plastic. More sleds than I've ever seen have appeared as if by magic from closets and storage rooms, to be pulled by their brightly outfitted young owners and steered at breakneck speed down any and all available slopes, inhabited or otherwise.

They had been charging down the wide sidewalk that leads from Festival Square and ascends the low ridge to the hospital complex where I teach, and the snow on the walkway had been firmly packed into an icy surface that defied sure footing, and the reason I know this is because I was trying to walk up the hill – and failing miserably.

You can't blame the children for failing to understand (or to care about) the consequences of their fun. After all, children don't have as far to fall.

It was a good day for a walk. The snow was fresh and powdery, and it crunched loudly beneath my boots. The white dusting on the cupolas and steeples of the old city brightened the sooty, aging facades. Even the look-alike gray rows of block housing were softened by the white.

The sunshine was bright and surface temperatures no lower than freezing, but a sharp, gusting wind from the north kicked up miniature snow squalls and blew the clothes on the ubiquitous clotheslines into frozen, horizontal positions.

The chill made me think of Russia. The Soviet Union used to be close to Kosice, but now the line on the obsolete map is the border of the infant Ukrainian republic, and who knows the procedure for crossing that border?

Probably a bottle of Scotch and a smile.

The cold flowing into Kosice from Siberia will be as close as I get to Russia this trip, yet I can still see our fur clad, vodka wielding, erstwhile enemies waiting in line for brown bread. It makes me think of the cruel toll of forty years of Cold War: Hunger, homelessness, environmental degradation, social upheaval, rampant violence, the decay of the family, impending economic catastrophe and these are America's spoils of "victory."

In the former U.S.S.R., the situation is even worse.

But Christmas is coming, and somewhere in a valley near Kosice, in the backyard of a quaint farm, a goose is getting fat. Barrels are being inspected to gauge the progress of the cured cabbage that will form the base of the traditional holiday soup. A trip to a nearby town is being planned. There will be shopping for gifts and a visit to the fish market for carp, another holiday staple or perhaps the fish will be vended from oversized plastic tubs, to be weighed and wrapped right on the street.

For an American, there's an eerie quality to the Christmas season in Slovakia. For starters, decorations didn't begin to appear until the first week of December; then again, what can you expect of such an unenlightened country where there's no contrived holiday like Halloween to mark the beginning of the shopping season?

Only a few tasteful, understated window displays are to be seen in the stores, and high ¬pressure, guilt laced sales tactics aren't in evidence at all. Slovakia obviously has much to learn about economics before its people can begin to see the wisdom of centering all hopes on wild overspending at Christmas to keep the economy afloat.

In Slovakia, Santa Claus makes his rounds on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 6). Children scrub and polish their shoes and place them on the windowsill to be filled with candy and chocolate, but only if they've been good. If not, they're supposed to receive a bundle of twigs bound together and intended for use to swat their you know what. On Christmas Eve, rumor has it that gifts are not delivered by Santa, but by Jesus himself.

In Communist times the regime attempted to persuade the populace that a chap named Grandfather Frost brought the goodies, presumably on behalf of the benevolent leadership.

There are Christmas trees and caroling in the streets by children, one of whom might carry a representation of the manger, and maybe the singers will be rewarded for their efforts with fruit and cookies.

In short, despite tight economic times and a full list of daunting problems to be solved, the holiday season in Slovakia is proceeding according to schedule and tradition. I've been given a bottle of homemade peach brandy for St. Nicholas Day; the doctor who gave it to me instructed me to make a Christmas Eve toast to peace, health and a good harvest. On a cold day, with steaming sauerkraut soup just around the comer, the toast strikes me as a true and noble thought.

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