The summer before I turned seventeen my father organized a six week trip to Europe for our family, my parents, sister and our two grandmothers. I expect he had no real comprehension about the size of the burden he was setting himself up for, but off we went.
My maternal grandparents spoke no English when we visited, though they could make their way through the community with enough broken English in order to get through life. I still remember a neighbor of theirs calling over the flower garden between them, “Hallo, Missus!” to my grandmother.
My father’s mother told endless stories of her girlhood in Drahovce, Slovakia, where it was her job to take a stick and chase the geese home at day’s end. Over the years I learned the names of people, but when we actually met them, they became real to me. She received numerous letters from overseas and stuffed many of them into a drawer in the china cabinet in the kitchen. I would rummage through the drawer and beg the envelopes or at least some of the exquisite stamps for my collection, which she would gladly give me as long as she had the addresses of the senders.
Our journey, which was also the first time my parents saw the homeland of their parents, began in Zurich, Switzerland where we landed and stayed overnight before flying on to France. We walked around in Paris, but were too far away to see the real tourist attractions. We boarded a train, which turned out to be the wrong train, and we did disembark before it left the station, and eventually we were on the right tracks to a town called Joinville and then on to Charmes Les Grande where one of my grandmother’s nieces settled.
Marina had an illegitimate child in Slovakia, so the family kept the child and threw Marina out of the house. Marina and her cousin Elizabeth left Slovakia and ended up in France where Marina snagged a Polish man who was on his way to Canada and they had nine more children. (She also had two more illegitimate children before she found her Polish husband.) Elizabeth married Andre Minute and they had no children. Our visit to Marina’s rustic rural peasant farmhouse with an abundance of family was memorable. The dinner table was filled with family and the champagne flowed as if they were rich.
We walked in the fields with the younger cousins and having had wine with lunch I fell asleep so soundly I only remember that my sister was bouncing the mattress, (filled with straw) with both of her hands and calling, “Rose! Rose! Rose” several times before I woke up.
I also remember some woman banging a wooden spoon on a large metal pan and yelling out the news as she hurried down the street. There were no bathrooms and going to the bathroom was squatting in the barn on the dirt floor.
From France we went to Rome, Italy and to the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peters and my father fell in love with Rome. Then at last we went to Czechoslovakia, as the whole country was then named. We started off in Prague, the darling of Europe in the year 1374 according to my art history book, capital of the Czech Republic, which begs its own story, with all of its scenic beauty, castles, thirteenth century architecture, cobble stone streets, reflections of Oscar Kokaska paintings, beer gardens and the Charles Bridge one mile long, one lane wide, open only to foot traffic, decorated with Baroque statues. We got onto a bus and toured the country all the way to Bratislava. We stopped in Brno, the capital of Bohemia, which is in about the center of the country, where we went on a tour of an underground cavern by way of a small row boat to look at stalactites and stalagmites. The cavern was so large they had installed electricity to highlight the most beautiful formations. From Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we saw the lovely Blue Danube River which was as muddy as the Ohio River and could see Budapest, Hungry on the other side.
By the time we arrived in Drahovce, my grandmother’s hometown, we were engulfed in the hospitality of the multitude of relatives, most of whom, I had no idea of the relationships and no memory of their names, but the ambiance, their kindnesses and friendliness and the music and the food became a part of the fabric of who I am. The heavy Slavic foods with lots of gravy and potatoes would have been fine for one meal, but each family we visited expected us to eat a full meal with them and were offended if you did not do so, with the consequence that we all put back on the weight we lost walking all over France.
My youngest aunt confessed to taking a zip lock bag in her purse on one visit to stash some of the food from her plate so as to end a meal with an empty plate while not distressing the hostess and not stuffing herself.
Passing a toothless and shriveled old man, my grandmother mentioned that he had been a suitor of her’s and I told her I was very glad she married our grandfather.
My father paid my Grandmother’s sister to let me have a genuine Slovak costume from her trunk and when we returned to our normal lives I joined a Slovak dancing and singing group called The General Stefanik Dramatic Society which I enjoyed participating in until I moved away from Cleveland in 1966.
Attending a Slovak Festival with my children when we returned to Cleveland in 1988 I was very disappointed to see the kinds of costumes the dancing girls wore. I am sure they did their best with what material they could find at the local fabric shops, but they bore little if any resemblance to the real thing. I took the children home, dug out my costume and helped my daughter into it. We went back to the festival and many of the elder ladies were thrilled to see the genuine article, asking me which county it was from. Nitra, I answered the name I remembered hearing from my grandmother.