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Scythes and Slivovica: A Tale of Heritage and Hospitality in Slovakia

Updated: May 9

Over a year ago, I became serious about finding my Slovak roots. Officially I am now a “Slovak Living Abroad” which is a certificate from the Slovak government recognizing my heritage to Slovakia via my great grandparents. Over a hundred years ago, my great grandparents left a small village in central Slovakia called Pohorelá and headed for Pennsylvania like many Slovak immigrants in that time.

In June 2023, I went to visit this village.

The problem was, I didn’t know anyone there. So, I emailed the editor of the village newsletter and explained my intentions. He suggested contacting a friend of his and just like that, I was invited to stay with my new friend’s family for four days. I was soon to experience the overwhelming hospitality for which Slovaks are famous.

My hosts picked me up in Poprad after a five-hour train ride from Bratislava. We had a brief lunch at a local pub consisting of a well-stacked hamburger and beer as I think my host was testing my preference for alcohol for the next few days. I pulled a classic American move by trying to eat the giant sandwich with my hands before admitting defeat and switching to a fork and knife – not the best first impression. After lunch, we had an hour drive winding through the low Tatra mountains, and then we finally arrived at Pohorelá.

Only my host spoke English, not the rest of the family, and at the time my Slovak language skills were basic. Despite this, I was able, with much help, to communicate with my host’s family and friends and learn much about Pohorelá and life in rural Slovakia around the 1900s. For example, my great grandparents most likely walked the 200 km over the mountains to Krakow with not much beside their Kroj, the traditional Slovak folk outfit. The catholic church they attended is still there, even the same baptismal stand, which still has people streaming through it each day. I sat on a bench, most likely where my great grandfather sat, wondering if he had ever thought of his great grandkids.

While I was there, I learned to cut grass with a scythe. Pohorelá is home to the World Scything championship, so I learned expert tips like how to keep the scythe close to ground when returning from a cut. The grass must be half a meter tall or so to cut, but the scythe can make quick work of the grass. I was told that the competition entails cutting a fixed size of grass in the quickest time. Points are removed for blades of grass over a certain height.

I also had an enthusiastic tour of a small museum which contained wooden models of Slovak life in Pohorelá. The owner of this miniature museum, who was featured on the famous “Na Chalupe” (at the cottage), called me a “pioneer” for making this trip but I feel like my great grandparents were more deserving of that title. But maybe then, immigrating to the U.S. was the trend. We ended the night in the village bar with more beer and slivovica, which is a surprisingly strong and clean plum brandy. I tried a few and I would recommend the pear flavored variety.

The next morning the village loudspeaker system announced, after playing a brief folk tune, that an entrepreneur would be selling vegetables in the town. His truck seemed popular as we passed him on the way to Dobšinská Ice Cave, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since the cave was thought to be the entrance to hell by those who first discovered, we enjoyed some slivovica, “for a safe return.” The cave itself is incredible, large enough that an Olympic Slovak ice skater practiced in the cave in 1960. My host prepared me, so I wore enough layers to endure the tour.

My generous hosts enthusiasm for Slovak culture, tradition and history is already paying dividends. Inspired by my trip, my daughter proudly shared the Pohorelá coat of arms with her elementary class one day. As I continue the journey of learning the Slovak language and await the outcome of my application for Slovak citizenship, I still think back upon my trip to Pohorelá. I wonder what my great grandparents would think of it now. While the world changes in three generations, family-tree wise, it’s not that long. Will my great grandchildren trek to Colorado to get a glimpse of the life “in the old times?”

Will they visit a friendly Coloradoan, who will let them stay with them and show them what their ancestors did in the 2020s? If they did perhaps, they will discover that despite the technological, political, and environmental changes, the importance of family, culture, tradition, and knowing when to leave these in pursuit of a better life remain.

Author: Josh Datko

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