The Best Small-Town Experience in Slovakia
Mária's son looked old enough to be her husband, but turned out to be willing to drive us up to the next town, instead of us having to catch the bus (which on Sundays ran twice a day, took twice as long—an hour for all of five miles or so—and cost twice as much).
I'm not sure what the deal is with rain and our travel days of late, but as soon as we were dumped on the side of the road near the village school, it started to pour. Tatiana thinks wearing my my shoes brings back luck for weather.
Since we'd left Dlhá Lúka on time, but didn't take the bus, there was now an hour and a half gap between our pre-scheduled rendezvous with the magistrate and our arrival. While I unloaded the bags from the car, Tatiana asked someone she saw behind the school for directions to the magistrate's home (as we had no address for our intended destination).
She returned with vague directions given to her in Slovak—left, left, right.
With the clouds already beginning to empty, I pulled out my umbrella and told her I was going to scout out the picturesque village for something that looked like our home, and for someplace to buy food supplies.
We'd returned from Bardejovské Kúpele too late to purchase anything in town the evening prior, and having consumed the few morsels of our remaining food for a haphazard dinner, we were left with nothing to eat this morning. Thankfully, Mária surprised us with some pastries that she'd made the night before, which became our breakfast.
This, however, did not solve our food problems for the rest of the day. And if Chmeľová's little market store was to be anything like Dlhá Lúka's, then I doubted if we'd even find it open for the entire weekend.
I did a fast-paced lap around the town, gray with rainfall. My shoes sloshed again, filled with rainwater.
I sauntered up to the beautifully constructed, early 19th-century church and found the entire town packed inside. All those latecomers who were standing at the entrance did a 180° to watch me walking towards them. An odd, unexpected sight for a Sunday morning I suppose.
I didn't really know what I was doing there, other than to take a peek at what the service looked like, and to see how many people were attending. I left about as quickly as I'd arrived, and returned to Tatiana to see how she was doing, noting the closed corner market and pub on my way back.
As I approached, I noticed a car had just pulled up alongside the covered bus stop. It was the fellow from behind the school, offering us a ride to the magistrates. He looked similar enough to Michael Vartan to be the actor's brother.
I loaded everything into the small hatchback, and let him drive us down the street I'd just walked in the rain.
He took us to the magistrate's house, but as I suspected, he wasn't home. He was probably at church. I unloaded Tatiana, the baby and the bags and drove off with the helpful Vartan clone.
Mass (and much of the rainfall) was over, and people were already strolling away from the structure. The clone pulled up and pointed to a man standing at the church entrance—"Black", he identified the color of the magistrate's suit in English. I recognized the stone-faced man from our happenchance meeting at the tourist information office in Bardejov several days earlier.
Walking up to him wet from rain, in a black tank top, cargo shorts, and soggy shoes, I looked like I'd just come off a hiking trip gone awry. He was dressed quite nicely—looking every bit the banker or mayor—greeting and shaking the hands of many of the attendees as they left the service.
Rather surprised to see me (as we'd prearranged our arrival time via bus), he walked me down the street and to a structure in the center of town, next to the lovely stream that flows between Chmeľová, as it does in Dlhá Lúka.
We went upstairs, and I waited while he rummaged in his modern office for a moment for a pair of keys. Then he walked me down the short hall and started showing me rooms. It didn't click at first because I really wasn't expecting it—the building was where we were going to be staying!
A call on his cell phone brought a fellow in his late-twenties into the mix. His English was quite good—almost with a full-blown Irish accent, from his time in that country. He would be our translator for the afternoon, as the magistrate, Mr. Ján Železný, didn't speak a word of English.
It was explained to me that our rented room was the tiny one with a foldout couch, but that we could use the larger four-bed room while it wasn't occupied (reserved for only a single night by a Polish man arriving on the 9th). Other than that reservation, the place would be ours, and includes such amenities as an equipped kitchen; washing machine; bathroom with plenty of hot water on demand; loads of natural light; and broadband Internet access.
The building is a recently gentrified firehouse that has been turned into two city office spaces (one for the Ján the magistrate/major), guesthouse, and community educational/Internet center (with a desktop computer, television, and DVD player downstairs). I was told that kids and teenagers often pop in and out of the computer room during the day, but when the building closes in the evening, I was free to hookup my laptop to the wired Ethernet.
One of the things that Tatiana has to do in order to completely feel comfortable is unpack her backpack. This is a bit strange for me, as I feel very uncomfortable unpacked—I hate having my things in a drawer, or out of my pack. I love being able to pack up in less than 10 minutes and vanish. And though that capability is severely limited with others in tow, I still can't break that habit.
Besides, I believe that unpacked items get lost easier. A place for everything, and everything in its place. If I unpack stuff, I keep it organized and consistently return it to its spot when I'm done. Keeping clothing in your backpack with the zipper or drawstring closed keeps your socks together and keeps nasty insects and other critters from getting into them.
Lunch, Dinner, and Small-Town Hospitality
While I was getting this tour, the magistrate's wife had returned home and let Tatiana and Aidric into their home. I didn't know this at the time, and fearing that they were left outside to chill, hurried us along.
Back at his home, Ján invited us all of us to a fantastic lunch (soup and entrée courses), prepared by his wife from foodstuffs grown in their garden (save for the meat). Our conversation ranged through many topics, thanks to our translator. I'm always interested in asking any Slovakian English speaker what they think of the retirement of their national currency by the euro this upcoming January, but perhaps think too much of it for a country that has only had their current currency for 15 years. Most seem to be optimistic, but feel a loss of identity.
Ján used his car to drive us the 400 yards or so back to our new home. I'd told him about our lack of food earlier in the afternoon, and he really surprised us when he returned during our unpacking process—he'd actually fetched the woman who owns the corner market so that she could open the store up for us.
I think our jaws literally hit the ground.
We were also invited to the village's sport day, delayed slightly by the rain, where everyone in town was gathering to play soccer, volleyball, socialize, eat, and drink.
We took our time getting out there, but when we did, we were given free goulash, beers, candy, and plenty of warmhearted conversation (some of it in mutually poor German). We were certainly the odd curiosity of the event, and it turned out to be a great way to get introduced to the townsfolk.
Dining on some very tasty goulash, Ján came over and asked (through our translator, whose name sadly eludes me at the moment) how long we were going to stay. I looked at Tatiana, then around at the now sunny, gorgeous countryside and said, "I'm not sure—a week, maybe more."
The two looked confused and laughed—no one had ever stayed that long.
"Don't you want someplace with a casino and bars? Some entertainment?" the translator questioned for the two of them.
This small town, with a population of 405 and no tourism or tourists (but us), is one of the most enjoyable places I've been. My spirit swells here, flooded by nature, comfort, hospitality, and peace.
"No," I replied, "I think Chmeľová is exactly what we've been looking for."