It’s funny how I always tell myself that I am going to write another reflection “within a few days,” and then another week passes by without one! Spring has definitely arrived since the last time I made an entry. In fact, there was snow on the ground even three days ago, but now, the temperature has jumped dramatically (into the 50’s), and the fresh spring air, the damp fog, and the rain have arrived. For the past two days, it has been foggy in the morning, and the birds have actively joined together in choruses of morning chirping, singing, and general noise. The air is fresh, and morning sunrises are amazing! The cloudy, foggy, humid air colors the sunrays orange and yellow, and fills the city wit golden splendor. In the early afternoons, the temperature rises, and the general tension in the air is relieved when the big drops of warm water begin to fall, for a few hours. The cold, gray, bitter winter is being quickly transformed into the green and fresh spring, full of the new life that we await eagerly as the end of Lent approaches!
Though it is spring now, it certainly wasn’t last Wednesday, when I went to Slovakia! Following a very impromptu decision, I went to Slovakia with two friends in order to pick up Fr. Maciej Zięba, OP, from his vacation spot. My friend asked me, “hey, do you want to go to Slovakia tomorrow?” Caught off guard, I first hesitated, knowing that I would miss one of my classes, but then I thought to myself, “How often to I get a chance to go to the Slovakian Tatra Mountains, get to see another country, and go swimming at some natural hot springs?” So I went, and it was amazing. The purpose of the trip was to pick up Fr. Zieba from his vacation. He is a very well known priest, a close friend of Karol Wojtyla’s, and the former two-term provincial of the Krakow/Polish Dominican Order. He is also the founder of the Tertio Millennio Institute, and is responsible for bringing thinkers such as George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak here for the Institute’s summer programs.
Our destination was Liptovsky Mikulas, a small city in the north of Slovakia, located in a picturesque valley, nestled between the “Tall Tatras” and the “Low Tatras.” (Tatry Wysokie and Tatry Niskie). Once again, I was able to experience the Polish road system (or lack thereof)! One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, is that the Polish government did not build an adequate road system after the fall of communism. (This problem dates back to the communists, who also did not focus on the road system). Unlike in places such as former East Germany, where the West Germans connected and built all of the freeways (autobahns) all the way to their borders, the Polish governments did not focus on the road and transportation infrastructure. Perhaps this negligence has to do with problems with the healthcare system, and economic problems in general, which forced the government to focus on what was more pressing at the time. Now, though, there is a situation in which the amount of cars on the road has doubled (at least—probably even tripled in the last twenty years), yet most of the roads are two to three lane highways. Admittedly, there are a few freeways in Poland, mostly toll roads, and these serve well, but they are only located on minimal stretches. For example, there is no freeway that joins Krakow to Warsaw, but only a three lane road, on which one can often find four lanes of traffic—the people drive much too fast for the conditions of the roads, given the cars that they have, causing a lot of accidents.
We found ourselves on E66, the international highway from Gdansk in the north of Poland, to at least Budapest, Hungary, in the south. The road was basically an old, winding, country road that had been paved, and some parts of it had horse-drawn buggies driving on it, surely local farmers. About thirty miles outside of Krakow, the road turned to this, and remained like this until the Slovakian border.
Once on the border, we were able to exchange our currency to the Slovak Korona (crown), which is about 1/10 of the value of each Zloty, so we all ended up with about 500 koronas, making us feel rich. Of course, this is a lot of money in Slovakia, because the country is very poor. Upon crossing the border, I immediately sensed that we were in a different country. First of all, the road improved. One thing that the communists did in Czechoslovakia was to build an infrastructure of transportation, in the early years after World War II. The most striking thing, though, was the change in scenery.
In southern Poland (podhale), the “gorale,” the local shepherds and “mountain men,” were very patriotic, and the communists were never really able to convince them about Marxist and socialist philosophy. Known for its hardiness and independence, neither was the region was affected so much by the farm collectives, nor by the focus on hard industry. On the whole, the local architecture remained, and the local way of life was preserved. This was obviously NOT true in Slovakia.
The deeper we drove into the mountains, the more beautiful it became. The road entered into the valley of the Orava River, a large mountain river fed by snow runoff and small streams. Above us rose the mountain peaks, some rocky, some wooded. The tallest ones were covered in a blanket of white snow. Looking around, one would think he is in a fairy tale. Every few kilometers, a Slovak village accompanied this picturesque view, with wooden huts (still occupied) that lined the streets, with barns filled with cows, horses, and chickens in the background. At one point in the valley, a sheer cliff jutted out from above the river, crowned with a 12th century intact castle. Apparently, this castle was unconquerable, the reason for its perfectly preserved state. The castle was gigantic—an entire village of towers rose above its walls, which were crowned with a huge battle fortress-like tower at the top of the cliff. The only way to access the castle, now a museum, is to climb a trail that must be at least at a thirty-degree angle.
Now for the TRUE beauty, though. Thanks to the communist focus on heavy industry in Slovakia, not one of these villages was without a factory. Imagine a fairy-tale setting, with a nice big cement factory right in the middle of the valley. The rule I noticed was, basically, if the village had a church tower, then it also had a smokestack. Upon crossing the border and entering into these beautiful valleys, the most striking thing was the change in architecture. The wooden, A-frame Polish mountain homes turned into social-realist cement block homes, each perfectly identical with the next, save maybe the colors, which would have been changed in the last fifteen years. In the middle of these valleys, it was not uncommon to see (and impossible to miss!) the nice fifteen to twenty story cement apartment building. The typical view was a beautiful steep, forested mountain, with a huge clear cut of trees down the middle, with a nice power plant in the front, next to the workers’ cement apartment buildings. Anybody who claims that communism is a good thing should be sent to this area of Slovakia—to see how beautiful the lasting effects of communism are. These villages and towns, the scenery, has been changed forever by these paper factories, power plants, cement factories, and minor factories, as well as the apartment buildings, more akin to those found in Warsaw or Gdansk, than in a scene from Lord of the Rings. What was visible more than anything was the degree of the communist system here in the former Czechoslovakia—a degree that the Polish model was never able to reach.
Another striking thing to see, like a scene straight from Orwell’s “1984,” were the megaphones located in each little village (I am informed that before 1989, they were topped with nice red stars, as a reminder of the true authority). The megaphones would play a riveting Soviet march in the morning, to wake people up, and then the speaker would announce the day’s work schedule. “Street A, today you will be working in field 6.” For me, as an American, but even as a Pole, familiar with the totalitarianism of Polish communism, it was still shocking to see the reality and extent of the aftermath in Slovakia. One can read about the system, perhaps sometimes even with a little bit of cynicism, but until one sees the reality, he does not understand the true human tragedy of epic proportions. The local traditions, the local culture, the local age-old customs were destroyed by fifty years of repression and indoctrination. What quite possibly could have been a flourishing area, similar to Bavaria or Switzerland, if it had been free to develop after World War II, is now left with the decrepit old factories, which will fall apart sooner, rather than later. It is left with a society and culture of people who have been destroyed—ethically, morally, and psychologically. The youth often despair, and don’t understand the reason for the “backwardness” of their regions, or countries; the generations that lived under the iron fist do not want to remember it. The shocking thing, though, is that some look back with nostalgia, since the current economic situation and daily life is very demanding and unstable. The region is now undergoing a transformation. Tourism is developing, for people like us three who went, and ski resorts, as well as other attractions are beginning to open. However, many of the old factory buildings sit empty, decaying away at an astonishing pace, a silent and eerie tribute to an era that one cannot forget, yet does not want to remember. Those factories deemed worthy to keep open have mostly been bought out by foreign companies (such as an Italian paper mill), and are operating on a limited scale. (Some of the factories were only half-functional, with one half operating and renovated, while the other half was empty and abandoned). However, the overall impression that I had was a very uneasy and depressed feeling. I could not help to wonder what will happen within the next twenty years, when many of these cement apartment buildings begin to fall apart, and there will be a mass shortage of housing (which is also a problem that will have to be dealt with in all of the communist-built buildings, such as Nowa Huta in Krakow).
Arriving at Tatralandia, the hot springs, I was greeted by an American flag, as well as a western fort, or “movie town.” It turned out that Tatralandia was an all-year resort, complete with room for 700 people to spend the night, in apartments, cabins, and rooms. Some of the attractions include thermal hot pools, saunas, water slides, a lazy river, the western town, and various shows and productions. It was clearly built within the last ten years, and is a very good example of a modern revival of the region. I was very impressed by the high standards of cleanliness and service, and the fact that everything is written in Polish, Slovakian, and English shows that they must have many tourists from both Poland and Western Europe. After picking up Fr. Zieba and taking a dive in the hot pools, we decided to drive back the same way that we came, and ended up seeing the beautiful remnants of the past era yet again…oh joy.
Back in Poland (after a short shopping stop for Slovakian beer, which happens to be very good, and costs about 60 cents per liter!), we stopped at an amazing Polish restaurant, called “Siwy Dym,” or “white smoke.” It was similar to the one we had gone to a few weeks ago after skiing. The interior was decorated with the traditional mountain wood and stone, with large, long, wooden tables and benches to sit on. We each ordered one dinner plate, but were shocked when we saw the size. I had pierogies (of course), which were very filling. My friend Lukasz had a plate of meats, with potatoes and three types of cabbage salad. We all gasped when we saw the size of his meal—which he did not finish, even after we helped him. I love to go to restaurants such as this one, because they highlight the traditional mountain culture, and also preserve it for the future, as well as share it in a very real way with westerners. I found it funny that, during the meal, the CEO of Polish National Television called Fr. Zieba to ask his advice on when to air Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” on TV. It was quite fun to think that we were having dinner with a Dominican who is known all over Poland. It was a very real way of showing me the humility of the man—here we were, a group of college students, eating at some mountain restaurant in southern Poland, with a man who wines and dines with the Pope, Weigel, and many other famous and well-known Catholics, both in and outside of Poland. He shared with us many stories from his life; only in his fifties, it is amazing to hear what Fr. Zieba has lived through. He told us about the dossier that he now has, but was formerly kept by the Polish UB, who kept detailed records of his activities during communist times. (Recently, a new book was published, which reveals the government agents in the Metropolitan Curia who spied on Bishop Wojtyła when he was here.)
There is so much more to say, and to write, such as my “insider’s view” of the 13th century Franciscan monastery, as well as my visit to Wawel Castle and my interesting meeting there with a priest I randomly ran into. But, those stories will have to wait. I’m off to lead a discussion, in English, for some of my Polish friends who want to practice their English skills. We will be discussing the role of the Church in the Polish government. Then, Tuesday night pizza….