I’m so excited to share my favourite village in Slovakia with you. There are many other similar villages, I am sure, but this is the one that I know.
At the eastern end of the Vysoke Tatry (the High Tatra mountains) is a village, nestled between meadow covered hills, called Lendak. This is a place where many aspects of a traditional farming life are still lived, while also embracing modernity.
Farming in Slovakia is set up differently than I know. I am used to farms being spread out, surrounded by large tracts of land. The nearest neighbour is a good jaunt away and town is even farther.
In Slovakia, on the other hand, villagers live close together and the farming land surrounds the town. Each family has a part of the surrounding fields, but the land on which they live is narrow and can be quite small.
Lendak is the same. Many older pieces of land have, in the front, the original log house, usually consisting of two rooms, the kitchen and the living/bedroom. One woman told me she grew up in such a house and that she and her siblings were only ever inside on Sunday – the rest of the time was spent outside. Right behind, even attached, to the log house is a newer house, where one of the children lives with his/her family. And right behind that, some outbuilding, often a few animals and maybe a tractor.
The above section of the street shows a history of Slovakia houses – the old wooden house (the chinking is often blue in Lendak), the socialist-era grey, and colourful new renovations and buildings.
A number of individuals in Lendak still have cows, contrary to many parts of Slovakia – when socialism started, everybody was supposed to put their cows into the communal farm (and then buy the milk). Lendak, apparently, refused to do so. When I last visited two years ago, people still sent out their cow for the day with a cowherd, who roamed the hills with them in all weather. I loved that in the evening, when the cows came home, they walked through the village on their own, each going in through her own gate.
One morning I got up early, hoping to catch the cows and the cowherd heading out into the hills. Hearing cowbells, I found this man taking his cows into a field, but he shut them into an area surrounded by an electric fence. The cowherd no longer goes out with the cows; none of the young people want to do such a physically involved job and people were complaining that the cows messed up some newly paved streets.
When the farmer turned after putting his cows to pasture for the day, he passed me and said something. I have no idea what because in this part of Slovkia they have a fairly distinct dialect called Goralsky. Dialects are like gradient ombre dyes; Lendak is near the Polish border and is something like a mix of Slovak and Polish. At any rate, I didn’t understand what he said. I guessed that he said “It’s starting to rain.” and mumbled something with a smile in reply, but he might have said, “Where are you walking to?” or “Good morning.”
It’s not unusual to see a horse and wagon go by in the streets. Early one morning one teenage boy went by, slouched on a box with wheels behind a horse. One hand loosely held the reigns, the other balanced a cigarette. I felt like he belonged in my grandfather’s time, other than the jeans.
Something I enjoyed seeing was small boys riding along on wagons or tractors with their fathers/older brothers/uncles. Our society is often set up that fathers are gone 10-12 hrs a day at work, leaving children with less time to interact with male role models.
One tradition that is still alive in Lendak is ‘babickas’ (grandmothers) wearing the traditional folk dress, the kroj. Two mornings in a row I camped outside the of local Catholic church before morning Mass. I hid in the trees, feeling rather like a vulture waiting for its prey. I don’t know how these people view strange photographers taking their picture and was wishing I had a telescopic lens so I could be out of sight. It was interesting – most of the old women didn’t notice me at all. They were wrapped up in their thoughts as they made their way to the church. Most of the old men, however, did notice me and stared with suspicion.
The woman’s kroj has a pleated apron; the colour changes depending on the occasion. Blue is for ordinary days, white for weddings, black for mourning and Lent, and red for I forget (Christmas and Easter?). Many of the women wore embroidered slippers, full of colour. On their head they wear a headscarf with a flower-y ribbon and a black ribbon lined with pink. I asked an older lady what it meant, and she and her friends laughed that they wore them since they were married to signify their loss of freedom.
The inside of the church is gothic. I marvel at the detail in the wood on the high alter and at how much time and patience it took to carve. Churches in Slovakia are usually locked during the day, but I happened to come at a time when some women were inside. They were chatting away and as they merely looked at me when I came in, I took out my camera and started taking pictures. I heard something about ‘taking pictures’ and so I asked if I could take pictures. “Well,” said one of the women, “you’re not really supposed to because we don’t know who people are or how they will use the photos. But we’re talking and eating plums, and we’re not really supposed to do that either. We’re taking a break from the work of the day. Go ahead and take some photos.”
After a few moments of gabbing, one of the said, “Well, let’s pray.” And they stood up and recited some prayers and then left, taking the keys back to the parish house. They are wearing ‘dress-aprons,’ commonly worn by women working around the house so their clothes don’t get dirty.
One fascinating cultural difference, for me, is how people around the world see beauty. I am inclined towards the austere, preferring natural materials and considering anything blingy as gaudy. My husband reminded me that these people, living under the mountains, have always been poor, without the means to decorate themselves with jewels or costly ornaments. Thus, bright and shiny decorations are a way of highlighting importance and making something beautiful.
I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out a huge camera in the middle of Mass, so I surreptitiously took a photo with my phone of all the grandmothers with their headscarves.
After Mass I walked some way with the lady with a pink shirt, trying to work up my courage to ask her if I could take a picture. “Babichka,” I asked (Slovaks call elderly people ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa’), “can I take your picture?” “Me? Don’t you want somebody young?” But she was very friendly, and agreed to pose, and called over the grandma in blue who was walking by, and who gladly jumped in.
I had noticed blue grandmother before. You could tell she was a character, even without speaking to her. She had a literal spring to her step, a comment and a smile for most people as she walked by. She seemed so happy and energetic. And totally up for taking a photo, without the usual protests.
In general though, I found the people of Lendak (and the East in general) much more friendly to strangers than in the West. I had a few complete strangers smile at me as we passed, which would never happen in the West. Those from the East of Slovakia are of the ‘work hard, party hard’ variety, I think. Life can be hard, with a lower standard of living and farming lifestyle. But that also means when it’s time to let loose, they go all out. On the weekend a wedding was planned somewhere in the village; on a Thursday night, in preparation, we could hear men’s voices raised in song, accompanied by an accordion and probably powered by alcohol. They sang old folk songs, songs of sorrow and love and sex, with gusto and cheer.
Ladies leaving Mass. You can tell they have probably been neighbours for most of their lives. The grandma in black is in mourning, which they wear for a year after the death of a loved one.
There was also a museum, which was fascinating, but I unfortunately didn’t get pictures and didn’t have time to go back. Someday I’ll have to have a follow up post. Most interesting for me was that the lady who has the museum used to weave and has some beautiful duvet covers from fabric that she wove. In fact, I oohed and aahed so much over it that she gave me a small pillowcase with fabric she made. I was slightly embarrassed but couldn’t say no.
Another Slovak style wooden house.
In many of the old houses, the animal stalls and sties were under the house. Not only was it space efficient, it helped keep the house warm in the winter (not sure what the smell was like!).
One of the mosaic walls in the church.
Traditional women’s slippers
The old and the modern. The speakers on the concrete electrical pole are used for village announcements
Lendak from the other direction, facing east
Some of the parishioners kissed the cross outside before going inside
Do you know of anywhere, Slovakia or otherwise, that combines old traditions with the new?