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The Blind Man and the Valley of the Concave Heads

June 1, 2010

Grave of Simon and Margita

When my cousin Joseph’s uncle and aunt, Simon and Margita, died, they were buried side by side in a cemetery directly across from their house,  up on top of a hill.   It’s a serene place filled with trees and gardens that looks out over the tiny village, and up at the mountains in the distance.  A bell tower sits at the bottom of the cemetery, and it is rung each time someone is buried.

Cemetery Bell Tower

Birds chirp away, but otherwise, there is silence on the morning we visit.  In front of many graves I have noticed various colored glass bottles, into which candles are placed and lit. I would love to see the cemetery at night, lit up by the candles in the blue, red, orange, pink and green candle holders.

Glass candle holder on a grave

I notice something a bit odd about the graves.  I am told that each time there was a burial, the gravedigger was led to where the grave was to be dug, and a  shovel of dirt was dug for him, so that he knew where exactly he was to dig the hole.  He was a dependable worker, a good grave digger and was gainfully employed by the townspeople in this capacity for decades.  There was only one problem: he was blind. And because he couldn’t see, the graves were not dug neatly in alignment with one another.  Somehow he managed to dig to the same depth, but the tops of the graves were uneven, resulting in row after row of zig zagging graves.  But the townspeople couldn’t bring themselves to replace him, and after a while they got used to the haphazard pattern, and so on he stayed, and continued to dig holes until he retired.

Not so even row of graves

Do you see what I mean?

After the visit to the cemetery, we begin to make our way to a castle a few kilometers a way, driving through the bucolic countryside dotted with small red roofed houses.  I’ve been relegated to the backseat of the car and have been told by my cousin Joseph and my Aunt Lily that we are on a tight schedule, and that under no circumstances can we stop and take pictures along the way (I love my new camera, and I am driving everyone crazy with excessive picture taking; no one seems to understand my commitment to this blog).

Orava Region countryside

Immediately after leaving the cemetery and rounding the first bend on the road I spot a field of cows, and ask that we stop so that I can take a picture.  I am surprised and I smile, secretly pleased with myself when they acquiesce to my request without a word.  They are like Pavlov’s dogs; I have conditioned Joseph and Aunt Lily so well, they have already forgotten their edict to me.

Joseph then explains that the cows belong to his brother.  I snap away.  Around the next corner is a fast running brook, and Joseph tells us that when the cows are walked home at the end of the day and are near the brook, they make a run for it when they hear the gushing water, because it is so tasty.

Grazing cows in Orava

We drive through a little village called Pocou, and Joseph tells us that the town is very poor, and that the famous local Slovak writer, Martin Kukucin (whose birthplace we had visited the day before), wrote a little poem about the town.  In it, he describes the food that they eat in the town and says it tastes like “shit”, which in Slovak rhymes with the town name, Pocou.  Not surprisingly, the townsfolk were not happy with Martin when this poem came out over 100 years ago.

The house of Martin Kukucin. Notice the chalice cutout in the eves, traditional in Lutheran Slovak houses.

Drawing from one of Martin Kukucin's books, depicting a typical Slovak scene from the 1800's

Through the next village, Joseph comments that this place, too, is very poor, and that once in 1920, a man who lived there really wanted a bicycle, but he could not afford it.  But he had lots of free time and, being located near the forest, he had access to a lot of wood. So he built a working bicycle for himself entirely out of wood.  The bicycle is in a transportation museum today in Bratislava, Slovakia.  Reminds me of the wooden bicycle designed by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Wooden Bicycle on display in Bratislava's Transportation Museum

I am enjoying my ride in the back seat now, not even minding that I am not allowed to ask to stop for pictures, because these stories are so interesting and they just keep coming.  I am trying to write them down as fast as I can in my little book as we bump along the road quickly.

We enter the next town, and although the land looks as lush and fertile as the villages we have just passed through, apparently the land is not good for planting much as it is too low and is often flooded. It is only good for planting carrots, according to Joseph, and this is exactly what was planted here for many years.  The Slovak word for carrot is “mrkva” which is very similar to the town name and so the people of the village became known as “mrkvasy”, or “carrot-people.”  They hated this moniker, but over the years they became accustomed to it, and now they wear it proudly.  Someone in the village has boldly painted their roof bright orange, but alas I am not able to take a picture of it. For. Some. Reason.

Orava Castle

I retell this story later to my cousin Michal, and he tells me that there is a town nearby called “Komatvia”, and that the people are known as “UDV”, which in Slovak stands for the words that mean “valley of the concave heads.”  I am not making this stuff up.

We continue along our car ride for several more minutes and even more stories are told, which I will share with you another time.  I can say that by the time we arrive at the castle, I am sufficiently sufficed with stories, and that the tour of the castle is simply icing on the cake.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:13 pm

    What a wonderful story about the blind gravedigger and I personally think the graves look much better in the crooked lines.
    AND how did they ever build that castle at Orava. Another story.

    • June 2, 2010 4:12 pm

      Yes, the graveyard looked a bit unruly, but was very interesting to browse through. It was a little hard to move between the rows, and I was afraid I was going to fall on a gravestone and it would topple over. Some tombstones were quite old and leaning, and the ground was very soft and muddy because it has been raining here all month.

  2. June 2, 2010 10:30 am

    I love how they let you stop sometimes then not other times although perhaps the carrot roof house owner is a little sensitive. I love that the town kept the blind grave digger on staff. Night time must look amazing in the graveyard with all of the candles. Keep these wonderful stories coming !

    • June 2, 2010 4:09 pm

      Thank you! I am finding my Slovak relatives are full of stories like this, and they are great story tellers. We have had a very entertaining time here.

      No, they wouldn’t stop at the carrot roof house because we had an appointment to keep at the castle, and I had used up all the spare time. Oh well, I will get a picture next time I visit!

  3. Nicholas Harmon permalink
    June 2, 2010 11:33 am

    I love reading your stories. They are getting better by the day!

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