If You Are Not Drinking With Us, You Are Drinking Against Us
My cousin Josef says this old Communist saying to me one evening in Dolny Kubin, Slovakia as we sit around the table enjoying a fine bottle of Bordeaux and a 20 year old bottle of prized brandy, and I am declining the next round of drinks. We all laugh, and for the sake of family solidarity I accept, and we continue talking in English and Slovak, usually about food, and with the occasional stray French or Spanish word accidentally thrown in.
Over the past 72 years since my grandparents fled their Slovak village in anticipation of the arrival of Hitler, we have maintained close connections with family left behind, even across oceans, over language barriers, through generations and despite Communism.
During World War II, communication was maintained through letters. In re-reading them, I am struck by how similar my great grandparents lives were to mine: in one letter, my great grandmother Marisa is writing to her son, my grandfather, Jerry, who is then living in Canada, saying that she has torn the house apart searching for a particular cookbook that he has requested she send him, by Sandtnerka, which was the book on Czech and Slovak cooking back in the 1920’s. She writes on about butter rolls and other recipes. Even then, we seemed to communicate mainly about food. She must have found the book, because we have discovered the letter tucked inside the pages of my grandmother’s well used copy of it.
By the 1960’s, travel back to Europe had resumed. Jerry was the first to return. A great uncle who now lives in Vienna, Branko, tells me that he remembers that Jerry had business in Belgrade, and that he came to dinner at his aunt Karolina’s house in Stara Pazova in 1961, and that they feasted on roast goose. Again, we remember the food.
Jerry felt it was important for his 5 kids to see where they had come from, and so one or two at a time, they began to go to Europe over the next decade. The first to make the trip were the two youngest, Lily and Ruth, in 1966. Ruth was still in high school, and Lily had just finished her first year of university. They flew to England, met up with their sister in law, Paddy, and a friend, rented a car, and then the four of them drove to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Lily, Ruth and their three siblings grew up speaking Slovak at home, so language was not a barrier for them. However, Jerry did give one piece of advice to Lily: keep your mouth shut (if you know Lily, you know why).
Lily remembers crossing the border from Austria into Czechoslovakia with armed guards, high barbed wire fences, watch towers and machine guns pointing at them. The road to Dolny Kubin was largely unpaved, and during the rough drive they managed to puncture the gas tank. The girls chewed their gum furiously and used it to plug the hole until the arrived at their destination.
When they got to Dolny Kubin, they stayed with Teta (Aunt) Gita, Marisa’s sister, and her husband Strýko (Uncle) Daniel, who assisted with the car repairs. At the time, most people maintained their own cars, if they even had one. Daniel was one of the more powerful men in town, even in the era of “we are all equal” Communism. Late one night he and Lily drove the car to a state-run repair shop down a dark road with the lights turned off; Lily was thrilled at the excitement of this illegal rendezvous. The gas tank hole was welded together with something a little stronger than chewing gum, and Lily paid the repair bill with a carton of Canadian cigarettes and a jar of Nescafe coffee.
The four girls traveled next to Pivnice in Yugoslavia, where they stayed in our great uncle Stefan Shuster’s house, with no running water. Each night, they would crowd around the well in the middle of the courtyard and brush their teeth with the well water. Following great Uncle Stefan’s lead, they would then take a shot of slibowitz. At first Lily says it was like drinking fire water, but by the end of the trip they were slinging it back like native Slovaks.
Next to visit was Milan, who happened to be there in 1968 when the revolution occurred while staying with Uncle Andy in Bratislava. As the Russian tanks rolled, Andy managed to smuggle Milan across the bridge to Austria in the middle of the night, to safety and freedom.
My parents, Jerry and Joy, visited in 1969. They stayed with Uncle Andy too, who lived in one of the infamous Communist-built austere, grey cement block buildings, as most of my relatives did in Czechoslovakia during the 50 years under the Communist regime. It was a five story walk up, and the hot water wasn’t working, as was the case in every visit thereafter. On Saturday morning during their visit, a loud horn blew and then a crackling speaker blared out over the city, ordering all citizens to do their “volunteer duty”, called “Saturdayings.” Robotically, everyone in the apartment complex would walk down the flight of stairs, along the side of the road and across the street to the fields where rotting potatoes lay. Their volunteer job for the day was to pick the potatoes that the state workers during the week had not managed to pick while still edible.
More visits ensued over the 1970’s, and in 1986 my brothers went with my dad and grandmother. For some dumb reason, I did not go; a silly job held me back, I think. By this time, Gita and Daniel had died, and another generation was marrying and having children. My brothers Tyler and Tory remember going from house to house visiting, and each time a huge spread of freshly made food was laid out for them. They were obliged to eat and eat, to show their respect to the family they say. My brothers and I have not learned to speak Slovak (yet), although we have heard it spoken at home amongst my father’s family, and we know several words and key phrases. Having my father as translator made the trip easy.
When communism ended in 1989, the trips began overseas in the reverse, despite the difficulty and time consuming effort to get travel visas. Young cousins George, Michelle, Martina and Michael began to visit my father and other relatives in Canada, sightseeing in Toronto and Niagara Falls and being fed bountiful meals that included the homemade sausage of my dad’s, a Slovak recipe he has perfected over the decades. The seeds of capitalism were laid.
I haven’t made the trip to Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia myself until now, and of course capitalism has reigned supreme for the past 20 years. The family ties are still as strong; close bonds between second, third and fourth cousins are formed instantly among people I have never met, and who until now have only known one another through pictures. We have fun trying to figure out the family tree and how exactly we are related. I barely speak Slovak, and I have my Aunt Lily with me to help translate. And by now, many of my relatives speak English, especially the teenagers.
Even several generations from our great grandparents, we still talk mainly about food (and drink), although the topics of capitalism and communism are now freely discussed as well, and the younger generations have moved out of the grey buildings and into beautiful new homes they have bought with their hard earned cash.
I finally get to try the Slovak cheese I have heard so much about, bryndza, and we dive into platefuls of decadent palacinky and tasty bowls of soup, sample the delectable smoked and braided sheep cheeses, drink cup after cup of Turkish coffee, and revel in the endless bounty of potato and pork dishes. I’ll drink to that.