Family n Fun in Slovakia
Suggestion : Print this out in draft form, on scrap paper, and use it for some bedtime, bathroom or weekend reading. Our journals are more like a chapter of a book and this is 7 pages. So relax and enjoy!
Exciting Photos: Just click the link below. Big thanks to Panasonic for the cameras:
Just a few hours fresh into the Czech Republic I’m still bubbling with the positive energy and unforgettable experiences of Slovakia! I had not idea that this small country would pack in so many memories! I smile now thinking about the perfect sized capital Bratislava, my adopted family Michal and Zuzana Zahhumansky, the weekend visit from Hungarian guest rider Krisztina, the all day search for my family with Gabo, meeting and truly connecting with my several generations of cousins in Plavecky Stvtok and the bonding tandem rides that kept the heart pumping and body feeling groovy! Settle in, this will be an adventure!
I rode into Bratislava after a 100km solo ride into a strong headwind feeling totally exhausted but so excited about the adventures ahead. I hit a gas station for some electrolyte drinks and a red bull as I was cramping while I rode past the old block buildings built in the communist era. As I let the drinks go to work I got an SMS confirmation from a Hungarian friend Krisztina who said she would be arriving on the 11:30PM train from Budapest to come riding the following day around the capital. I was super excited to bring a Hungarian with me into Slovakia as the relations are not good between the two countries and I like this Peace Pedalers tradition I’ve started.
I rode off towards the capital and the cramps went away just as I left the ugly communist architecture beyond, crossed a funky UFO style bridge. I rode into the old town as the sun was setting on the breathtaking historic buildings with the locals out in high spirits on a Friday evening! Yes, my timing is impeccable! I’m heading into Prague, Czech Republic as I write on yet another lively Friday night!
After a quick ride around town I found myself a new SIM card for my mobile phone and plugged into communication with my host Michal for some final logistical issues of how to find his place in the suburbs called Raca (prounced Rah-cha). I had never met Michal but I knew from our email communication that we would like each other a lot. I was introduced to Michal by a woman names Jana who I contacted on Couchsurf.com looking for a place to stay and cool locals to meet. She was out traveling so forwarded my info to Michal and we had simply exchanged a few emails and SMS messages until now.
The last 8km out of town felt like 30 as I was totally spent physically. But before I knew it I saw a smiling bald guy in a car pull besides me and there he was, Michal himself, giving me a final escort to his house! I felt so special to have a hazard light escort during rush hour on a busy road with folks passing by at full speed. It was a pretty classic maneuver, something I would do if I was in Michael’s shoes actually.
From the second I entered Michal’s house I felt right at home, like family. My bike fit right in some space in his hallway like it belonged there and he had no gripes with it taking up so much space. I showered up, dumped my gear in my own room, and we were off to meet some of his friends and his mom while I helped him run some errands. His mom was a smiling, beautiful woman who made an amazing borshch soup—a Russian specialty and popular food in Slovakia made with cabbage, pork and beets—sounds funny, but it’s delicious!
11:30PM came fast and we drove over to pick up our Hungarian guest Krisztina at the station. The wild thing about this adventure is that I had only met Krisztina for about 10 minutes when she approached me and asked me about my ride and adventures as I was departing Budapest. I had no idea what to expect so I decided not to expect anything but rather just celebrate the fact that she was so inspired by the project and courageous enough to trek up to Slovakia solo with to ride a tandem bike with a total stranger.
We were all pretty pooped out so it was not a long night on the town as expected but rather relaxing hours chatting and drinking some wine at Michal’s place. The next morning we were up and packed up the bike for our ride around Bratislava. Krisztina was so excited, like a little girl getting ready to go on an amusement park ride the first time. We had a glorious day of exploring the sights, shopping, eating, drinking, catching live music and watching all the entertaining people and activities going on in town on a summer Saturday in Bratislava.
I really liked Bratislava. It is just the right size that you can get to know it in one day or so. And the diversity is amazing. On one side of the river you see these blocks of communist housing one after the other that were built to attract people into the city in that era to work at the factories. But within a few kilometers there are stunning historic sights like the fortress built in the 15th century to fend off the Turk invasions and medieval churches and buildings. The restaurants were great too with stunning seating locations on the street and delicious local favorites like sheep chesse Bryndza and their own version of Goulas soup (no way was it was good as Bettina and Laszlo’s in Hungary).
We went out to dinner with Michal on Saturday night and enjoyed some more yummy local food halušky, which are cheese laden potato dumplings with fried bacon on top that are just divine. Michal is now a vegetarian for four months, on his spiritual path without meat, eggs, alcohol or, uhumm, sex. But just four months ago he was just like me—eating meat and sipping beers. He held strong but I could tell he really wanted to join us for some sinful delights that evening. We had some great conversations, some of them very light and fun and others a bit more deep and even mildly heated.
The general history of the conflict between Slovakians and Hungarians is mostly political and based on borders and land. The old Austria-Hungarian Empire occupied much of what is now Slovakia. After Hungary lost in WWI they lost a massive portion of land and many feel they got the short end of the stick. The Slovakians have always wanted their independence, even before this empire and through the communist years with Czechoslovakia. Many Hungarians want the right to keep their language and culture even through they are officially in Slovakia after the border change. Meanwhile, Slovakian nationalists want only Slovakian language to be taught in all schools.
There are other tensions, but most of them childish and very ego driven, in my opinion. But that’s all the time we have for politics this newsletter and luckily neither Michal from Slovakia or Krisztina from Hungary wanted to let it ruin our fun loving energy we had created together so the tension and heavy discussions died out quickly that evening. We got to up pretty early and the next morning Michal had to leave town for some business so I was given the name of Gabo, short for Gabriel., who wanted to spend some time with us on his day off.
I cooked up a huge “Jamie Special Breakfast” of potatoes, onions, eggs and other yummy treats with strong coffee and we were off and running to meet up with Gabo. I needed a rest day 100% off the bike so we opted for Gabo’s car and the mission for the day was to search out some leads of my distant relatives. My mom, Carol Fabian, had grandparents born about 30km from Bratislava and I was on a mission to find some blood! I struck out in Lucca, Tuscany, Italy thanks to my apathetic Aunt so I was determined not to strike out again. Fortunately, our host for the day Gabo shared my passion and we were indeed on a mission!
Like Michal, I liked Gabo the first moment I saw him drive up in his modest car. Gabo is a psychotherapist by profession, part time wine maker, and hell-of-a-nice guy. Our first stop was the small town of Pernek where my great grandmother Mary Zaicek was born. We pulled into the one bar in town to start our search there and, to our surprise, the bar was named after a Zaicek called “Hostinec u Zaicka”. We were indeed in the right place and the locals told us there were tons of Zaicek families in the village. But we’re talking about a woman born in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s so we had our work cut out for us, no doubt!
We made some rounds for well over an hour to three different households and encountered many extra helpful and friendly folks in the village. But none of them could get back in time quite that far and kept mentioning one person who just died recently who would have known her. Although we struck out in Pernek we did get a lead to a Fabian who owned yet another bar in the town of Malacky near where my great grandfather Stephan Fabian was from in Plavecky Stvtok so we opted to go on a mission there.
The next adventure I’ll never forget. We get word from the bar workers that the owner Mr. Fabian was home sleeping and we could try to find him at his house if we wanted to. We drove up and found several fancy cars in the driveway and a shiny red Ferrari in the back. Of course, I was hoping this guy was my relative so I could take his car for a spin! His wife let him know we were in but she came back saying he was still in bed. Just as we were leaving out pops this huge fat man with a hairy chese, Mr. Fabian, wearing nothing but a thin pair of underwear! He invited us in, proceeded to make several calls in this current almost naked state while smoking half dozen Marlboro Reds. It was pretty classic but we finally realized that he was not the Fabian we were after so we opted to head directly to Plavecky Stvtok where Stephan was really from.
On the way we ended up getting lost but stumbling upon an amazing organic farm serving up the most delicious food, especially the famous cheeses and soups of Slovakia. We got the energy we needed while enjoying the perfect weather and outdoor setting to continue our quest. I was amazed by both Gabo and Krisztina’s shared excitement and passion to find my relatives. It was quite an adventure and we were all having so much fun!
We managed to find adorable town of Plavecky Stvtok and asked if there were any Fabians in town. The bar owner only knew one so we headed on over to one Jozef Fabian. We rang the bell and waited, but there was no answer. We rang it again, just in case. Still no answer. At this point we were just about ready to give up and admit defeat, but knew that we gave it our best effort. But just as we were ready to walk away we heard someone opening the door. It was a kind and gentle woman named Marta and she called over her husband Jozef who invited us in to do some digging.
After several questions and a nice glass of wine we were all very excited that indeed it looked like we found our relatives! There were a few small questions but for the most part it was confirmed that my great grandfather Stephan Fabian is the brother of Jozef’s grandfather Vendelin! And we got confirmation soon after from Stephan’s only living daughter Veronica that indeed Vendelin was Stephan’s brother so we were set!
Jozef gave a call to his daughter Stanislava and she and her daughter happened to be just around the corner. Before I knew it I had met my 3rd cousin and her lovely 22-year old daughter Michaela who spoke great English and had lived in Red Bluff, California recently AND lived 300 meters from where I was staying in Raca neighborhood with Michal! Small world! We were all very excited and I decided to put Plavecky Stvtok on my riding route and come back in a few days to ride with Jozef and maybe Michaela.
After some family photos we hit the road feeling very excited and proud of ourselves. And mother nature agreed with our feeling as we caught an amazing sunset from heaven in the middle of a wildflower field. We were then off to watch the final match of the Euro 2008 soccer match with Gabo’s family, girlfriend and Michal with home cooked food and some of Gabo’s amazing wine. It was a good day to be alive indeed!
The next morning Krisztina had to take an early train back to work in Budapest and I got to work planning my adventure, offloading video footage, writing journals like this and getting geared up. That evening I wanted to get together with my new cousin and let her know I wanted to ride with her so I invited her out for a beer. Michal’s sister Zuzana joined us and it was amazing to sit outside and share an evening with two lovely Slovakia women. Zuzana and Micheala got along like sisters and I’m sure they will end up keeping in touch.
Michal had a free day on Wednesday so I was set with my first rider to Plavecky Stvtok. I spent Tuesday getting caught up with work and getting to know Michal and Zuzana more, swimming, playing and enjoying life. Michal and I decided to get up at 4:15AM on Wednesday and ride into the capital to do some early light filming and traffic free riding and we had a blast. It was awesome having a local guide and friend to show me his city, even if he admittedly was not a history guru.
Later that day we got word from the Markiza television station that they wanted to cover our ride and adventure to Plavecky Stvtok on the 7PM evening news. We hit the road at about one and were off pedaling proud and happy on an 82km journey over the hill. We met the reporter and camera guy in Pezinok just before the long climb over the hills to Pernek. We started our climb at about 3PM and Michal had no idea what we in store for his poor legs—but I did. I knew we had about a 500M climb to tackle, about 1600 feet, and Michal already had tired legs before we even got really going.
But one pedal stroke at a time we made our way up the mountain and, like always, we finally hit the top and stopped for a cool drink and some food. We decided to do another found of a rolling interview as I knew that Michal had some things to share with the world. We coasted on down the long curvy decent while philosophizing away about all sorts of great topics and finally captured all we wanted to say to the world through a sunrise and a sunset filming session that day. It was time to put the cameras away and pedal onwards to meet my family once again.
Jozef and Marta knew we were coming on Wednesday night and Michaela was going to meet us there for a full on reunion. Michal and I arrived totally exhausted and hot so Jozef’s pool was just what the doctor ordered as the sun was setting. Add to this the ice cold Czech beers and some yummy food and you had the ingredients for a happy Jamie! We eventually gave my grandfather’s sister Veronica a call and she was able to use some of her Slovakian language and talk to her relatives and confirm that we were indeed chilling out with our family. It was a good day to be alive!
After dinner and drinks Michal and I were invited to stay the night at Michaela and her family’s house just down the road. I gave my cousin Michaela, or Zaya for short, a ride on the tandem and scared the crap out of her on they way down a hill when I asked her “you have the brakes right?”. I felt her frantically looking for the brakes as the bike rolled on faster and faster. It’s a nasty trick I play on people sometimes, and I really got her this evening but we did get a great laugh from it after her heart rate slowed down!
Michal and I slept like babies in a huge bed upstairs of Zaya’s place and it felt so nice to be staying with family. We felt right at home. The next morning we had a lovely breakfast with Zaya’s dad Pavel and mom Stanislava outside their awesome house with a huge backyard and garden. Everyone loved Michal and his easygoing character and big smile was going to be missed shortly as I knew he had to be moving on after breakfast.
We took some photos, enjoyed some of Zaya’s amazing piano playing and finally bid farewell to Michal after 5 days of great times with him. I can honestly say I have a brother in Slovakia and both of us were nearly in tears as we bid farewell. But I’m happy to say we are still in touch and no doubt we will meet again. To think that we met as simply strangers referred by another stranger and we left as brothers is testimony to what is possible in our world if we simply choose to be open, trusting and willing to connect with our fellow humans on earth.
The plan for the rest of the day was for me to ride the morning locally with Zaya and Jozef and then meet up with Gabo for an evening ride towards the border of Czech Republic in the later afternoon. Zaya was not really excited at first about the ride and seemed a bit timid, but I knew that once we hit the road and got the pedals moving she would not want to get off—and I was right.
We stopped off first as Jozef and Marta’s place to give the promised ride to Jozef. I don’t think he thought I was serious but he was plenty excited. Jozef is 78 years young and was proud to show me his many bike still in working order in his garage. He hopped right on and we were off pedaling around the village. He speaks almost no English but did know “very good!” and was not afraid to use it over and over. A picture is worth a thousand words, and you can’t describe the connection and gratitude we both shared to have met each other. I’ll never forget him and will be back!
Zaya and I did about a 35km loop on small country roads ranging from farmlands, to lush forests to mildly busy highways and finally back into the village. We did a cool rolling interview where she had the chance to share some great nuggets with the world. The main things I got from Zaya was that she was a woman of action and when she wanted something she made it happen versus making excuses why it can’t be done. We shared this character trait and energy from the beginning. I also like what she shared to the people of Slovakia about too much drinking and domestic violence—something that we both unfortunately experienced when on a rest stop in Malacky.
Just as we were finishing our ride together on a small road to a cute lake she played at as a kid the wind was really howling. It was clear that some weather system was moving in and rain was not far off. Just then I got a call from Gabo with the bad news that he was not going to be able to make our evening ride due to the impending storm since he had to prepare his vineyards for it. Yes, I was sad not to see Gabo in person, ride with him and say goodbye. But at the same time it was jut before the phone rang that Zaya told me that her mom, my 3rd cousin Stanislava, said to her that she wanted me to stay around for much longer, so she must have worked something out with the Gods above!
And Stanislava was not going to be the only one happy. Zaya was excited and I was jumping for joy as this meant I could stay longer with my family and maybe go for a ride with Stanislava even! It’s all good!!! We had an amazing swim in the small kiddies pool Zaya used to play in as a kid and her dad joined us for some good laughs as we cooled down our sun drenched skins. We followed this up with some awesome food and a live performance by Pavel and Zaya that truly blew me away. Pavel is a big band composer and professional musician who has played with the likes of Ray Charles and Liza Minnelli and boy could he rip the piano and trombone! And the musician blood certainly is running deep in his two children as Zaya rocks and her sister is a music teacher in Austria.
My last day in Slovakia was a super windy Friday and I was able to get a morning ride in with Stanislava after saying goodbye to Zaya and Pavel. I did not really say goodbye as much as “see you next time”, as I know there will be a next time, no doubt in my mind! Stanislava rides her staionary bike every morning so her legs were strong and she was excited as ever to ride. I did not want to scare her by pulling out all the cameras but invited her to say a few words in the helmet camera. I’m not sure what she said as it was all in Slovakian but I think it was juicy and will be fun to hear one day when we finally go to editing all this!
I had to hop on the road soon after our ride and as I waved goodbye to Stanislava and made my last few pedal strokes in Plavecky Stvtok I was filled with so much gratitude and pride from where my ancestors come from. It’s a simple town with humble, easy going people as far as I could experience. And I was happy to know there was another place on earth I could go to connect with family! I think I’m going to do the same in both Italy and Switzerland where the Bianchini and Schneider families are from!
As I rode north the headwinds became downright brutal. I was pumping the pedals harder than ever and was making really slow progress of about 10km/hour. Clearly Mother Nature wanted me to stay in Slovakia and was not allowing me to make it to the border. I pedaled hard for about 40km and finally found myself a train to hop on to take me to Prague for a weekend of good fun with more great people.
So as I sit here now after an unforgettable weekend here in the buzzing city of Prague I still look back on Slovakia with a huge smile. I want to thank Jana for the referral to Michal, Zuzana and Michal for allowing me to meld into your family, Michal’s mom, Gabo for being such an awesome host that special Sunday, Krisztina for making the trip to Slovakia, Zaya, Jozef, Marta, Pavel, Stanislava and all those who made me feel so at home in Slovakia!
Over n out from Prague! I’m actually at almost the half way point in my Europe expedition and have decided to reward myself by bugging out of Prague and off to a 4 day music festival called Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia. I’ll be back to ride Czech and up to Germany but will be just touching Poland this trip. Off on holiday from my working holiday! Love it!
Live Big. Give Big.
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