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No Road is Long with Good Company

November 21, 2010

Adventurer and Author Helene Baine Cincebeaux

Sometimes people blow into your life in the most unexpected way and fast friendships are formed.  And so it was with the recent arrival of the magical Helene Baine Cincebeaux into my life.

I met Helene in an email when she tried to help me coordinate the arrival of singer Jozef Ivaska into DC.  She stepped in to help translate and we began to chat on line, and before I knew it, Helene, her 93 year old mother and 8 other friends and family arrived on my doorstep for a party, my first full local immersion into Slovak culture.

Dancers getting ready to enter the stage at the Pittsburgh Slovak Festival, 2010

Helene appears to be the queen of Slovakia.  This American author of Moravian heritage taught herself Slovak, has endeared herself to the Slovak people here and back in Slovakia and has collected over 6,000 pieces of Slovak textiles, many of them museum quality.

How, I wanted to know, did she do this?

One recent night well past midnight,  Helene, her mother and I piled into a Double Tree hotel room in Pittsburgh along with a lively bunch of Slovaks in town for the Slovak Festival.  In between merry rounds of slivovitz and belting out Bye Bye Miss American Pie and various Leonard Cohen songs, Helene told me her story.

One of the intricately hand embroidered Slovak

It began in 1959 when Helene Baine was barely 20. A recent college graduate, she knew exactly what the rest of her life was to be: marriage, kids, a tidy little house and the simple, blissful life of a housewife. Helene, petrified of this dull future, abruptly decided to become an exchange student in, of all places, communist occupied Poland.

In she moved with a well known Polish lawyer and his family into their two room apartment.  The lawyer had led Poland’s efforts in the Warsaw Pact of 1955, yet despite his prestigious position, the family lived a rather austere life.  Helene slept for the next year in a chair in the living room. Breakfast consisted of a stale roll and perhaps a tomato.

Helene loved it. She remembers the moment her love affair with Slovakia began: she was standing upon a hill in Poland looking down across the valley to what was then Czechoslovakia, so close yet unobtainable, the border sealed with barbed wire fences.  She longed to go there, where the mountains and trees seemed endless.

Lily's picture of the mountainous Orava Region in Slovakia

Upon Helene’s return to the United States, she immediately married and a year after that came her first child.  A decade later she managed to finally visit Czechoslovakia.  Returning again in the late ‘70’s, Helene and her mother began to make extensive forays into Slovak villages, meeting the people, learning their customs, taking pictures and forming lifelong friendships.

When the iron curtain fell in 1989, Helene began to take tour groups with her back to Slovakia to meet the people in the villages she had come to know so well.  By 2010, she had made over 100 trips taking nearly 2000 people with her and helping many of them locate long lost relatives.


The cover of Helene's new book, Treasures of Slovakia

Helene has recently published a book about her adventures, called Slovak Treasures.  Her book was unveiled at the Slovak Embassy earlier this month in Washington DC, where she was greeted by the Ambassador, feted with a lovely party and serenaded by singer Jozef Ivaska.

Ben Sorensen on the right, and the Dr play the Fujara, a Slovak shepherd’s instrument, in Pittsburgh.  Ben led us in the singing of Leonard Cohen songs.

At the moment, Helene is off in some remote village in India, indulging, she tells me, in the beauty of colorful saris dancing in the rice fields, enjoying an Ayerdevic massage oiled up like a greased pig, and navigating across treacherous roads through cows, piglets and piled up garbage.  She was the Sun Goddess at a huge 12th century temple, and promises to tell me more about this experience in her next email. I anxiously await its arrival.

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