Jana Kepplova, a teacher and translator in Bratislava, Slovakia, describes how, each summer, her family moves from their apartment in a city high-rise to their rural dacha within walking distance of Brezova pod Bradlom, a village in the foothills of the western Carpathian Mountains. She explains that they occasionally make the trip for an ordinary weekend but it is the spring visit that "stirs up the most excitement."
But first I will set up a backdrop for her story. In the bitter cold of January 1993, my wife and I arrived in Bratislava where I began teaching at the Slovak Technical University as a Fulbright recipient. We left in the stifling heat of the following July. Between our arrival and departure, we experienced the joy of an explosive spring. And throughout the 6 months we stayed there, I kept a daily journal from which I have selected a few entries to help explain why so many Slovaks keep a summer cottage.
We arrived when Slovakia, as a separate country, was only 1 month old. For a thousand years the people had been ruled by a series of outside forces, including the Hungarians, Turks, Aus-trians, Germans, and, finally, the Soviets. When the Soviets pulled out in 1990, there followed a period of adjustment in which Czechoslovakia, as a fabrication of World War I, began to unravel.
There are now two countries: the Czech Republic with its capital in Prague and Slovakia with its capital in Bratislava on the Danube River just 35 miles (56.3 km) downstream from Vienna.
Slovakia is more eastward looking than the Czech Republic. First, it is more agrarian, rural, and even rustic, centering on village life. And second, it is nearly surrounded by three formerly Eastern-bloc countries: Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine. Thus it was more heavily impacted by the 40-year Soviet occupation with its forced industrialization, collectivization of family farms, and mass-housing policies. The consequence is a split landscape of antagonistic parts and qualities.
The climate of Slovakia is continental. There are no maritime influences to moderate thermal extremes. Cold winter winds catch one's coat like a sail on an icy sidewalk. Hot summer afternoons leave people gasping for a breath of air near an open window. But the stunning beauty of spring renews the soul depleted by seasonal excesses.
In the 6 months we lived there, we learned about Bratislava both in parts and in layers of time. Prievoz, an old village now woven into the city's fabric, has a rich ceremonial life. By comparison, Petrzalka, the most recent product of architecture and urban planning, is indifferent to nature and nearly devoid of ritual. There are other important parts of the city corresponding to different eras of construction. But in my daily journal, I compared only these two places. Their contrasting rhythms and rituals provide a vivid picture of the reasons for a special summer place.
We are renting a modern apartment overlooking an older settlement. Our own street is lined with other apartment blocks, office buildings, and commercial structures. But in the older place, people live mostly in bungalows with clay tile roofs and stuccoed walls close to the sidewalk. The houses have gardens, now cov
ered by snow. Nearly all families seem to keep chickens, ducks, and dogs. We hear them, especially the early cocks crowing, through our windows.
I walked through the snow for an hour today in the old place that we have dubbed "the village." Bare trees line nearly all the streets that are now cramped pathways through the snow shared by cars and people alike. Where I passed in front of one house, a young couple was building a snowman and decorating it with a hat and scarf. Children are everywhere pulling each other on sleds, throwing snowballs, and sliding in the icy streets.
We now know the name of the village. It is called Prievoz, "ferry" or "ferry boat." The name is left over from a time when the Danube, or a tributary, meandered further to the north than it now does and Prievoz really was an isolated settlement along its banks. Now, surrounded by the growing city, Prievoz retains a village atmosphere. A convent, now seen isolated in the snow behind wrought-iron fences, centers the village. Attached to the convent is a hospital to serve the community and a church whose bells we hear from our apartment every Sunday. We walk to Prievoz daily to shop and take refuge in its tree-lined streets and ancient cemetery.
Today I walked through the oldest part of Bratislava, up to the Hrad (fortress palace), and looked southward and across the Danube to Petrzalka. This newest part of the city is approached only by a modern suspension bridge. One end slices through the fabric of the old city, separating the Hrad from the cathedral, St. Martins. The other end connects to a continuous and uniformly high landscape of pale gray buildings that reach to the horizon. I have not yet visited this place but have been told that all the buildings axe multiple housing. People who live there must commute daily across the bridge to work because there is no commerce or industry in Petrzalka.
This morning we took the trolley and two different busses to Petrzalka for a close-up look. The place is designed on the Soviet models of architecture and planning. Thirteen-story buildings are of uniform height and aspect made of precast concrete panels. Ground floors are covered with graffiti suggesting personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty. Randomly oriented to sun and wind, the buildings stand like featureless monoliths floating in a vast and unattended landscape. We saw people picking their way across spaces without structure or boundaries. There are no gardens. Where spaces are occupied at all, it is with cars that are required for the daily commute.
We have found much peace in the cemetery of Prievoz. The outside world is barely visible through its trees. Sounds are muted. There is a central path, crooked and uprooted, lined by old trees on either side. Many of the trees are splitting open with age but are constantly repaired with cement. Through their dark branches and decaying trunks can be glimpsed the graves, many with small lanterns to protect candles that are regularly replaced, lighted, and left to flicker in the twilight like fireflies. Tiny gardens, regularly tended by the villagers, surround each carefully polished headstone. The gardens are now being prepared for spring planting of flowers.
The wind has been blowing hard from the south all week and Prievoz has been transformed. Cherry trees that line nearly every street are now heavy with blossoms. Individual gardens are all sprouting new crops of sweet peas, tulips, and little blue flowers.
The favorite color of the tulips is bright red. The red, white, and blue landscape looks quite gay. The cemetery is also filled with new color. It has all happened quite suddenly within the past week of warm breezes.
Whole families are out in the evenings and on weekends climbing cherry trees to pick the bright red harvest. Some of the fruit is consumed fresh. More, we are told, is preserved for cooking and baking throughout the year. This week, friends and neighbors brought us great bowls of fresh cherries five or six times. We have had cherry compote nearly every night for dessert.
We passed the convent on our walk this evening and in the garden saw a crowd. They were celebrating first communion with all the little girls in white and the nuns in black kneeling behind the crowd. The streets bordering the convent garden were strewn with rose petals where people, lining the route, had showered an earlier parade.
The linden trees are in bloom and have been for 2 or 3 weeks. Their flowers give off a fresh, sweet scent that fills the village streets and attracts the buzzing bees, especially in the cemetery where we hear them in the quiet evenings. The linden blossoms are used here to make a soothing, medicinal tea.
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