Saturday, June 9, 2012

International Travel to Slovakia from Iowa

Nestled in the Slavic Ore Mountains is the small community of Tisovec, Slovakia.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting these wonderful people and to enjoy their inherent hospitality.  Because of the deep and lasting experience I have had in this historic place it is a mission of mine to extend this to all who choose to hear.  Bear with me as I try to detail not only the agenda of the visit but also my own personal feelings of the visit.  Because of this interaction I have been enriched as a person in search of something greater.
Through the Sister City Foundation I’ve been presented with the opportunity to accompany eight others to Tisovec.  As a member of the Shenandoah City Council I traveled to this remote place as an official representative of our southwest Iowa town.  Minus the travel time we were there a total of five whole days.  It was a fun visit for some, a reunion of friendships for others and for me a spiritual quest.
Looking dowtown.  Famous bakery on left.
The trip there was a little grueling.  A total airplane time was about twelve hours.  Security and the Passport check areas were quite interesting also.  Our landing in Amsterdam was my first in Europe.  It wasn’t the most fun in the world.  The passport lines left much to be desired as far as courtesy in concerned.  But when you are meshing a thousand different languages and cultures that don’t know each other into one area what can you expect?  After we landed in Budapest we were kindly greeted by our drivers from Tisovec.  From there things went very well.
Driving to Tisovec from Budapest took a few hours.  It was a pleasure to speak with Philip who is an EGT school student.  He spoke english relatively well.  Students in Slovakia are taught english early.  These people have embraced that in order to compete and survive in the modern world you must learn the international language which is english.  I found this an interesting truth among them.  I’ll explain later.

I endeavored to soak in every detail I could of the scenery and the people I could experience.  The homes and buildings are curious.  The use of colors were refreshing to see.  Some of these color combinations we in America would see as clashing with each other but is common there and I believe helps the growth and development of the young.  We even past by a distant castle that was badly damaged by World War II artillery.  The journey to Tisovec was well worth the wait.
We arrived in the evening on Wednesday and were each taken to our host family homes.  I obviously cannot speak for the others from Shenandoah but I was warmly greeted at my arrival by Mayor Peter Mináč and his wife Katy.  Upon a brief introduction I was escorted to their dinner table for some late evening food.  The soup was great and even the Tisovec-style pizza.  Peter Minac proceeded then to propose a traditional toast between us.  In America we put little emphasis on sincere toastings so it was refreshing to see this so prevalent in Slovakia.  

On Thursday we were blessed to visit EGT (Evanjelické gymnázium Tisovec) school.  We quietly sat in on a final exam for English speaking.  It was interesting to see the students explain and communicate in the english language.  By the way, these students we witnessed in the final exam did graduate with their class that Saturday morning.  Congratulations!

After the exam we were delighted to sit in on an English class instructed by Mgr. Ivana Skoncová who also became our constant interpreter for the duration of our stay in Tisovec.  As part of her instruction she paired each of us up with a student in her class.  She had nine freshmen students and there were nine of us.  It was a perfect fit!  The assignment was to interact and get to know each other along with a few questions to be answered.  Being new to these people it was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn and understand these good people.  This was a pivotal point for me and let me explain.

For anyone I meet its important for me to see them on a human level.  I want to know that they experience the same problems the rest of us do in the world.  I don’t remember the young lady’s name but I was paired up with a student in her freshman year of EGT.  She was very open and every bit as curious of Americans as we were of them.  So fluid was our conversation that she explained how she has suffered the divorce of her parents and that alcoholism has had its effect on the family.  For many of us in the United States that is reason enough to give up and accept the futile life that we feel we’ve been given.  Not so in this case.  This young lady exhibited hope and drive to learn, expand and be all that she is able to be in this life.  This experience proved to me that the young of this world are very much the same even given the various environments and cultures.  She will never know but I thank her for the education she provided me in our conversation.

After the EGT trip we were treated to tour a sheep ranch called Salas Zbojská.  They make cheese there of all different delicious flavors.  I think I enjoyed the smoked cheese the best but it was all absolutely wonderful.  We were warmly received there and in our tour silently knew the precious gem of experience this was.  It was a gem because it was simple and pure in setting and operation.  It was traditional and protected.
The sheep ranch ride!
Friday morning was rather rainy so our planned community service did not happen.  Tisovec is experiencing dry conditions as well as Shenandoah so the rain was welcomed.  In its stead we visited the museum of Vladimir Clementis and also the Tisovec museum inside the city building.  We learned a lot about the rich history of this area and the people, notable and common, who made this place what it is.  We also visited the local library and watched a Tisovec resident make dolls with corn shucks.
It's a "corny" idea but she's got talent!
Friday afternoon was the time that I’ve been nervous about for a couple weeks.  After we were all suited up we joined the Tisovec Parliament in the city building for warm welcomes and gift exchanges.  I can’t speak for the rest of the group who attended from Shenandoah but I was sweating bullets during my presentation address on behalf of the City of Shenandoah.  Prior to these narrative exchanges we were entreated to singing and musical instruments.  Also a young lady in traditional dress sang for us.  She was excellent!  She also performed again on another day.  I don’t remember her name either but her courage to sing before complete foreigners was inspiring to me.

After these proceedings we adjourned to the outside in front of a school for our Friendship Tree planting ceremony.  It was great to see the enthusiasm of Mayor Ing. Peter Mináč.  It added a deeper meaning and bonding to the whole event.  We are blessed to have his association in this partnership.  The planting of a tree represents growth and the fruits of that growth.  It is the establishment of a foundation of commitment.  Being a simple guy from rural Iowa in the middle of the United States I was humbled to be a part of this occasion.

The Friendship Tree - a beacon unto the nations.
That evening Mayor Mináč and his wife Katy took me to the town of Hnúšťa for an event.  There I met other notable people of government and business.  I felt completely out of my league but Peter always made me feel welcome.  Especially regardless of my short nature.  The event consisted of an awards ceremony of various people for different civic and outstanding achievements.  A drama group of six teenagers then presented a deeply touching play for us.  Obviously I didn’t understand the language but I knew that it had meaning and effect on the audience.  Afterwards I asked my interpreter what the play was about.  His name was Peter who was a young man from the EGT school.  The play depicted the occupation of Hungary and its effect on the Slavic people through the eyes of the young people.  It was very interesting and humbling.

On Saturday I had experienced another revelation.  We all suited up again and attended the EGT Graduation ceremony held at the Lutheran church nearby.  Graduations from what I understand are relatively new in Slovakia and was adopted from the American tradition of acknowledging those completing school and moving on to higher education.  They all had caps and gowns just like we have.  They had moving songs and eloquent speeches.  Going further they even had students weeping and crying at their own graduation just like American students.  I understand that I am alone in finding this so interesting but I marvel at how small the world is and how connected we really are on a basic human level.  They also topped off the event by tossing their caps in the air.  Sound familiar...
That afternoon we were audience for a local folk dance group.  I personally loved it!  They even had a group of men playing the spoons!  At the end of their presentation we were invited to the stage for some dance instruction.  I don’t know about anyone else but this really brought to bear my “slight” overweight problem.  Dancing takes a lot of work and I have a renewed respect for those who continue the practice.
We were all then taken to a city for a cancer benefit concert.  This for me was an unforgettable event for me.  This couple several years back lost their nineteen-year-old son suddenly to cancer.  Since then they’ve established a foundation to raise funds to help children and families affected by cancer.  It swelled my heart to hear the story as told by the parents.  They told our group directly before we entered the concert hall.  Several people with wet eyes, both American and Slavic, were obviously touched by the hand of cancer.  Though a destructive condition it is another bond that all mankind shares.  As we awaited the start of the concert I was deeply softened at heart toward a young boy in a wheelchair sitting front row center with his parents or grandparents.  I will not go into detail what took place next but I am forever grateful for Ivana, our interpreter, for her service in what needed to be done at that specific time.
On Sunday we all attended the Lutheran church for services.  The church is very old and modestly ornate.  Jokingly, we’ve been told that the area Bishop declared this building as the coldest church in Europe.  Having been there I tell you that it’s not the warmest place on earth.  Still, it holds a special place for the Tisovec faithful to that religion.  To them and others it is among the warmest places to be found.  Being Lutheran, Ivana helped us understand the liturgy and the words to the songs in Slavic.  Again, thanks to her expertise she helped us understand the people of Tisovec.
Lutheran Church in Tisovec dubbed
the coldest church in Europe.
After a traditional Slavic lunch each host family entreated their guest to an afternoon of activity.  Peter and Katy invited me to go shopping with them at a brand new mall.  Ivana accompanied us and again was most useful in interpretation.  It was great having our photo taken there.  Peter even got a bag of popped popcorn to share.  
That evening our group entreated the host families and our beloved interpreter, Ivana, to dinner at a local pizzeria.  We all got along very well and friendships visibly deepened as we knew the time has drawn near of our departure.
Monday morning was very busy.  We first visited the art and music school.  They have such talent there ranging the full spectrum of creativity.  There were a few students who presented their talents to us using the piano and also the accordion.  We then proceeded to the preschool and kindergarten classes a few blocks away.  Those children were a joy to be around!  Each class we attended prepared a song and dance presentation for us.  They did so without fear and with great care and coordination.  The teachers were very dedicated to their students as well.  

After the school we walked a short distance to their waste water treatment facility.  It was interesting.  Being a part of the European Union (EU) has provided certain funding for upgrades for projects.  Because of this their facility has updated technology with an excellent staff.  From there we proceeded to the CSM Tisovec production facility.  They produce telescoping excavating heavy machinery.  Having a fluent english speaking tour guide there gave Ivana a little break which she really needed.  The people of Tisovec are grateful for the success CSM has in their niche market.

We then convened to the school for lunch and to have a brief meeting with school officials to discuss the opportunities to further connect students from both cities.  This meeting was very productive and we all left on equal understanding and commitment to the progress of the plans discussed.  Finally, there was two or three hours of free time before we were all to meet at the Senior Center for an evening of food, friendship and sentiments of well wishes.

The evening began with warm exchanges between us.  We were overjoyed when the Mayor presented all of us with certificates of mastery for our dancing efforts.  He’s such a kidder!  During our dining efforts to feed our stomachs we were delighted to a tour of the senior center.  It’s an impressive operation.
I’ve made it a mission to learn all I could on this trip.  I believe we all have something to learn from each other.  Learning new perspectives, ideas and points of views can only lead to enlightenment and progress.  EGT just celebrated their twentieth anniversary which coincided with the fall of communism there.  Since this fall they’ve had a flood of technology and innovation cross their borders.  This has served to their benefit because they have become a modern people yet have still retained their heritage and unique culture.  This essential identity is exhibited in even the young who are full of hope and wanting to spread their wings in new opportunities.  They will remember who they are and where they came from.  I believe that many of us in the United States lack this benefit.  We grasp and depend on every little innovation that comes along.  In so doing many of us have belittled and lost our heritage and foundation of our beginnings.  I hope that if this be the case for any of us in the United States that we will strive to long for that identity again and revive those traditions in our homes and communities that have preserved a people’s identity for hundreds and thousands of years.
At the end of our trip we visited Budapest which was a wonderful place.  It was full of intricate architecture and history.  Yet, the purpose of this article is to express the profound experience the people of Tisovec had on me and hopefully the entire group.  It was worth more than all the gold in the world.  

Budapest Parliament building as seen from Danube River.
I am eternally grateful to all those who have made this journey possible especially PhDr. Helena Pašiaková, Mayor Ing. Peter Mináč, Mgr. Ivana Skoncová and many others in Tisovec.  From Shenandoah I especially thank Howard Killion for his dedicated efforts to the Sister City program.
Now that we’ve had this experience ingrained in our hearts the question is not where have we been but rather where are we going.  For the sake of our young we cannot afford to treat this partnership lightly.  So much can be learned.  Both communities are rather small and in the rural setting.  Great things can come from connecting our youth together that they may know that other like-minded people are out there on the other side of the world.  They are just like themselves.  They can talk together, gain lasting friendships, work on problems and even lean on one another for support in times of hardship.
Again, I thank these people and my God for this grand opportunity to meet our brothers and sisters on a land not so far away after all.

1 comment:

  1. I happen to know Aaron Green and the values he stands for. He has expressed them very well in his own stead and in behalf of those people he has met and learned to admire and their places of habitation and the way they live. It has been a delight to read this article and gain his personal insights to this very special trip. Seems true - we are very much alike no matter what country we live in - we need to act upon "Who we are". Thank you for this endearing report. I can only hope you can do this trip again at some point. Thank you, again.