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Pass The Potatoes, Please

May 30, 2010

Dolny Kubin countryside. Incredible. Lily Shuster's picture.

We recently arrived in the Orava Region of Slovakia just outside of the town of Dolny Kubin, in a tiny village nestled between the Orava River and train tracks that run from Slovakia to Poland.  We’re staying in the house of friends of the family, and soon after we settled, we took a stroll to see the ongoing renovations of the cottage of my cousin Fredrika and her husband, Joseph.

Fragrant lilac bushes bloom throughout Slovakia

The walk to the house that once belonged to Joseph’s great uncle and aunt, Simon and Margita was lovely. The dozen or so houses we walked by are in various stages of restoration, most neatly painted, trimmed and restored to their original glory.  Tulips and fragrant lilac bushes line the street, in white, pale lavender and in a rich, dark purple.  We walked by a building that was once the school house for Simon’s nephew, our host, and drank in the silence of the village as we walked.

A car pulled up, driven by a handsome young man who rolled down the window, handed a large, carved wood scene of the village to my cousin and drove off.  My cousin handed the plaque over to me, and it took me a moment to realize this was a gift to me, hand carved I later learned, by the teen (my cousin’s cousin) in the car. It was stunning and I was overwhelmed by the generosity and thoughtfulness.

Wood carving of Slovak village by Mathew's cousin,a gift to me.

We walked along, and as usual, our conversation turned to food, and we discussed the various ways to serve potatoes.   My Aunt Lily, Pauline’s daughter, says that when they were growing up on the farm, the family ate potatoes 101 different ways.  My relatives explained that Slovaks have over 14 different words for the humble root vegetable, some borrowed from other languages such as Serbian and Hungarian, and we challenged them to recite each word.

Dolny Kubin house, typical of this alpine village

Past the small school house, across the train tracks and around the bend, we soon arrived at our destination.  The dark wood house stood close to the road, with a small gate and then a larger wooden gate to its right.  Above the two front windows and below the eaves was a small cutout shape of a cup or chalice, called a “calix” in Slovak. Lutheran Slovak houses have the chalice, while Catholic houses have a cross.

Fredrika and Joseph's house today, once belonging to Simon and Margita.

We opened the small gate and entered the courtyard, stepping into a spacious stone patio with a modern BBQ and brick wall decorated with an old wagon wheel.  To the left of the patio was the house, and in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by the brick fence, was the flower garden.  At the back across the courtyard stood the original barn used to house the animals.  This is a typical layout for Slovak homes.

A typical gate in the Orava region

Simon and Margita lived their whole lives in this tiny village.  Simon was a farmer with 15 hectares of land, and potatoes were one of his biggest crops. The couple was the uncle and aunt of my cousin’s husband, born in 1919 and 1911 respectively.  They never had children and lived almost completely off the land, buying only two products: salt and oil.  We are all awed by this fact.

Once the whole house, now the modern bathroom

When Simon and Margita were first married, they lived in one tiny room in what is now the bathroom in the house; it could not have been more than 5x7ft.  They scrimped and saved, and over the decades added on two more rooms to the front of the house.  Only on special occasions such as Christmas did they use the other new room, when family came over. This room still has the original 1 foot wide floor boards and beam ceilings and the old wood stove, a style that was designed, built and used only in the Dolny Kubin area.  These two people lived together for over 50 years in one of the new rooms, about 8×10 feet, with 2 beds and a couch crowded into the space.  As married people, we are in awe of this fact too.

They cooked all year around in an outdoor “kitchen” by the brook that runs behind their house, and stored their potatoes and other vegetables in the cold cellar (pivnica) below their original small room.  In the barn behind the house they had chickens, pigs, cows and sheep.

The old stove, unique to the Dolny Kubin area

Simon was drafted to the Army twice during the war, but was never called to active duty.  Food was in short supply during WWII and people in the villages were lucky if they had potatoes to eat.  The couple lived quietly and simply through the 1940’s, working the fields, selling nearly everything they grew – meat, eggs, milk and cheese from their animals, and living largely on cabbage, cheese, kasha (porridge), potatoes and bread.

The log cabin construction of the cottage.

Their daily life was simple: rise before dawn, eat a hearty breakfast of halusky (potato dumplings with cheese and bacon, called svarky), then out to the fields to work.  Margita would have baked the bread outside in the simple stone oven each morning, and then filled up their Slovak “thermos”- two ceramic jars joined together with one handle – with water and potatoes. The two of them would stop only briefly during the day out in the fields to eat the potatoes, a piece of her bread smeared with pig fat and salt, and to drink some water, and then return home at dark for a final meal before bed.  At one point there was simply no food left to eat, and they were reduced to eating grass, as were many people in the villages across Slovakia.

Cellar door.Through this door, Margita hid from the Russians behind the potatoes.

Near the end of the second world war, the Russians came to the village, entered Simon’s house and demanded to know where his wife Margita was.  Simon told them she had been taken by the Germans (Auschwitz is only two hours a way), to which the Russians replied, “the bastards.”  Simon nodded his head in agreement. Margita, meanwhile, sat quietly in the cold cellar below the men, hiding behind the potatoes.

Brick fence

The original room is now a spacious, luxurious bathroom with marble counters and modern lighting, and the second room they lived in is now a kitchen.  The front room used only when guests came over is now the living room and bedroom combined, and there are plans to continue renovations to the barn behind.

Well dug 60m down under the house

There were problems with flooding, and the current owners discovered that there was an artisanal well directly below the house.  So they dug out a cellar below the newer rooms, and drilled the well 60 meters below the surface.  In the cellar of the basement now stands a splendid well, and a newly built fireplace.

Fredrika's garden

The garden has been neatly organized and planted, the wood and stone walls repaired, and the tall, original wooden gate, typical of Slovak houses in the area, is sturdy and handsome.  In the courtyard stands a modern BBQ and a freshly laid patio, perfect for enjoying a plate of halusky while dining under the stars.  I think Simon and Margita would have been thrilled to see this splendid house so loved, appreciated and enjoyed today.

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