Eulogizing a Slovak Member of the US Congress

U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) poses for photographers before a House Inquiry Subcommittee hearing  to examine whether he violated congressional rules July 17, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Traficant was convicted in April 2002 on 10 counts of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He could become only the second member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Posted as lead photo on Politico's coverage of Traficant's passing)

U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) poses for photographers before a House Inquiry Subcommittee hearing to examine whether he violated congressional rules July 17, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Traficant was convicted in April 2002 on 10 counts of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He could become only the second member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images, Posted as lead photo on Politico’s coverage of Traficant’s death September 27, 2014.)

 

James Anthony Traficant, Jr. (May 8, 1941 – September 27, 2014)

September 30, 2014

Allan Stevo

Jim Traficant, a Slovak-American member of the US House of Representatives, passed away this weekend. Traficant was a political figure with a checkered past who was unabashedly in and out of trouble with the law. It appears that he took bribes a little more openly than most crooked politicians and was a little more open than most about who his strange bedfellows were. The saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” remains true nearly a century-and-a-half after American thinker Charles Dudley Warner committed those lines to print in My Summer in a Garden
in 1870.

This is politics we are talking about though, so I know enough not to expect the stories of a Congressman’s life to read like the curriculum vitae of a seven year old member of the Vienna Boys Choir. There are no ethics in politics. Experience has taught me that a just baseline for evaluating prominent politicians is to assume that they are all a little twisted if they are successfully pursuing high political office. Some politicians eventually disprove that; most don’t.

Being a Maverick Before it Was Cool

I knew little about Traficant until a few days ago. I think mention of him flashed across my radar screen a few times as I sought out writing that was divergent from the mainstream. One writer described him as a “proto-Tea Partier” who came before his time. His Democratic Party label might cause some tea partiers to challenge that claim, while his refusal to vote for a Democratic speaker would cause Democratic leaders to alienate him. US News and World Report called him “stubbornly anti-establishment” saying “Rep. James Traficant refused to compromise, but unlike today’s lawmakers, didn’t get mean about it.”

Many of the obituaries I’ve come across paint Traficant as colorful, as an adventurous and tacky dresser, and even as a guy from a working class town who wasn’t afraid of getting his nose broken or getting thrown in jail.

Blue Blood

Blue blooded crooked people don’t like blue collar crooked people, because the later can make crooked behavior feel so unsavory. Maybe Traficant was of the working class crooked variety and therefore drew animosity from his crooked peers. I don’t know. What I do know is that only some people who openly and notoriously break the law actually go to jail and if the laws were equally applied many more people would go to jail. That always makes me wonder what the guys who end up in jail did wrong to stand out. Who did Traficant make mad?

My favorite obituary of Traficant’s that I’ve read so far is by writer Vince Guerrieri of Youngstown, Ohio for Politico. He addresses that question of Traficant’s crookedness by saying “Jimbo was a crook, but he wasn’t their kind of a crook. He was our kind of crook – and that’s something nobody outside of the Mahoning Valley really understood.”

It sounds like Traficant was a crook just like so many others in DC, so many others in politics. He broke some of the rules that the average American follows, many politicians do that and as long as a political crook follows the unwritten rules of his profession everything will be okay for him. It sounds like Traficant didn’t even have a taste for that level of concealment though. Here’s Guerrieri:

“The people of Youngstown watched Jimmy Carter refuse to guarantee loans for an employee purchase of the Sheet and Tube mills – and then rescue Chrysler from bankruptcy. Traficant just demonstrated what everyone in the Mahoning Valley learned the hard way: There’s no point playing by the rules in a rigged game.

“There are people who believe that Traficant’s only crime was getting caught, and he was targeted for refusing to play ball. And when you watched Traficant get stripped of his committee assignments for voting for Republican Dennis Hastert for Speaker of the House, and then see Joe Lieberman welcomed into the Democratic caucus with open arms after speaking at the Republican National Convention, it’s not hard to believe.”

Traficant’s Youngstown

Traficant’s Youngstown is midway between New York and Chicago on I-80. It’s history is full of coal, steel, rail, river, and canal like many cities in the region. It also, has seemingly forever, hosted a significant immigrant population throughout history, based around whoever the latest newcomers were, and has occasionally played host to some level of nativist backlash at points (even surging to a KKK presence in the 1920s). That industrial past has given way to a city continuing to have a strong immigrant population, very low median income today, and a dilapidated manufacturing base. This is a common story for the once thriving cities and towns that the Central and Eastern European immigrants came to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The coal mines of Appalachia and steel mills of the eastern US created a stepping stone for so many immigrants three and four generations ago that have allowed successful families to spring up that are now far removed from the dangerous and dirty low man on the totem pole existence that so many newcomers to a new land have known.

Marilyn Geewax, a Youngstown native, reporting for NPR in writing about her memories of her Congressman did not defend Traficant’s actions but had an experience with the Congressman that made her recognize why he was so loved:

“Back when Traficant was still in high office, I gave a speech in Youngstown to a large group of business leaders. I told them that Youngstown would never be able to rise above its reputation for organized crime until voters there stopped electing crooks.

“A few days later, a box arrived. It had that beautiful flag [(that had flown over the U.S. Capitol)] and a note from Traficant praising me for making my hometown proud with my achievements as a journalist. No mention of my speech’s message — just hometown pride.

“And you know, I felt proud.

“When you are from a place that has been kicked down by industry, overrun by crime, abandoned by government and treated like a pariah, you feel kind of bad. And when someone says, ‘We may be down, but we stick together’ — you feel that too.

“Unlike the big corporations, Traficant never deserted his community — except, of course, for those years in prison.

“Now, whenever I hear people wonder how a guy like Marion Barry could keep getting elected time and again in Washington, D.C. — despite the crack pipe video and his long list of legal troubles — I understand. Sometimes, even a bad guy can make you feel good.”

Geewax covering the topic in this way illustrates an important point. It deals with people sorting the world around them by relationship. “Sorting by relationship” is simply a concept present throughout history about how a person may be a real bastard, but since “he is our bastard” then all can be overlooked. There are certainly better ways to evaluate a person, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is precisely how many people evaluate a person. This sentiment is worth keeping in mind the next time you ask yourself “how can anyone like Vladimir Meciar?” (“The Father of the Slovak Republic”), or even Vladimir Putin the man most associated with post Cold War Russia, or any other popular public figure that you really don’t care for. To the dismay of some observers, there are some egregiously flawed people who can be loved widely. It’s always important to keep the Hinlicky Rule in mind before blasting an opponent as an idiot for liking a person or a set of ideas. While calling every intellectual opponent an idiot is a convenient response, there’s obviously more to a person’s feelings, and as hard as it might be to recognize, attributing opinion to idiocy oftentimes leaves you in the role of being the one who is intellectually dishonest.

Farkas

Italian on his Dad’s side, Slovak on his Mom’s side, Traficant’s mother’s maiden name was Farkas, which is the Hungarian word for “wolf” and is a common Slovak surname. It exists  in neighboring Slavic speaking countries as well. Having the name Farkas can usually mean that a person had Hungarian ancestors. Another option is that maybe his family name was changed by the both forced and voluntary trend toward Magyarization among Slovaks living in present-day Slovakia in the later half of the 1800s. The wolf is a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, making Farkas a possible Hungarian translation of a Yiddish name. Farkas can come from a person’s first name, roughly equivalent to the German Wolfgang, a name that also has ecclesiastical history. Sometimes there’s no known explanation for why a person has the last name that they do, because the ways last names came about are so varied.

1943 Ford Tractor

The former Congressman, 73, died September 27, 2014 from injuries sustained in a farming accident in which his 1943 Ford tractor tipped over and pinned him several days earlier.  He was unconscious when firefighters came to rescue him.

Some people are barely mentioned when they pass. Obituary after obituary makes it obvious that for good or bad, Traficant has secured his place as a local folk hero in Youngstown and a legendary figure in DC, perhaps more likely to be ridiculed there than admired.

Traficant is remembered by at least some constituents as a man of the people and by at least some DC insiders as an embarrassment, which perhaps says very little, since popular opinion is often wrong and DC insiders are exactly the kind of people who a good man should hope to be despised by.

Instead of relying on any one person for the final say here, I’ll close by turning to the readers of these pages: I’m curious dear Reader, might you have any insight about this Slovak member of the US Congress?

Might any readers of these pages have had personal experiences with Jim Traficant that they’d like to share here? Were you a constituent? Was the guy a nut? Was he a genius before his time? Was he a crooked scoundrel? Was he simply a misunderstood nice guy making his way in the world?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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This Autumn Marks 25 Years. Will You Help Me Look for Events Commemorating the Fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe?

Velvet Revolution Demonstration in Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia, Autumn 1989.

The Autumn Ahead

September 18, 2014

Allan Stevo

Dear Readers,
In the upcoming months we will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

November 17, 1989 is considered the day that Czechoslovakia started her peaceful Velvet Revolution and shook off a history of oppressive government.

I will be participating in a number of events on a large and small scale this autumn to commemorate that date. The date is an important milestone from the later months of 1989, a period that I consider among the most important in the history of Slovakia and the history of the world.

If you will be organizing an event that commemorates the fall of the Iron Curtain, or if you know of such an event, please keep me in mind. I always leave an audience feeling both intellectually stimulated and emotionally entertained.

Best,

Allan
52WeeksInSlovakia@gmail.com

 

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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The 12 Day Serbian Challenge

Serbia shown on the map as green.

Serbian Language

September 17, 2014

Allan Stevo

 
A friend invited me a few hours ago to meet Serbian friends of his on business some days from now.  For the sake of camaraderie it’s good to know foreign languages. As many of the readers of 52 Weeks in Slovakia already know, when you speak to someone in your language you reach his mind, but when you speak to someone in his own language you speak to his heart. Additionally, it’s fun to push your limits a little. Whatever the day-to-day is like, it’s fun to shake out of that a bit, which is something that pushing limits usually accomplishes.

I’ve long contended that Slovak is the best language to know if you want to learn a variety of Slavic languages. Centrally located in the Slavic world both culturally and linguistically it provides an excellent Latin alphabet bridge into other Slavic languages and provides excellent footing with its extensive Western contact without Western inundation.

Bulgarian and Serbian have both appeared as the two most difficult Slavic languages to me from a Slovak language learner’s perspective. I am not sure why I get that feeling and realize it may be only a feeling and nothing more. Serbia is relatively far away from Slovakia.  That is not enough to explain the situation though. Russia, for example is further away. Though it is not as far away as Russia is today, Slovakia shared a border with the USSR and the prominent Russian language speaking population of Ukraine. There is a rather cohesive Slavic language land mass from Slovakia to Russia. Serbia on the other hand is separated by the Gulf of Hungary, and Bulgaria is on the other side of Romantic Romania. Another reason that Russia doesn’t feel as linguistically far away as Serbian or Bulgarian is that Russian was the Eastern bloc’s Lingua Franca for the majority of the last century. Russian words, phrases, and jokes make their way into everyday discussion in Slovakia surprisingly often.

That being said, Serbian should be infinitely easier for me to learn than let’s say Korean or “the south African click language” (Xhosa), languages with which I currently share no, or almost no, knowledge of a related language.

I’ve spent ten minutes trying to recall what I am able to say in the Serbian language. “Chvala” is thank you. Dobro conveys “good,” though I’m not sure how exactly how dobro is used or if I’m saying it right. Beograd I think is the Serbian way to say the name of the capital city we call “Belgrade” in English.  If you placed a Serbian text in front of me, like other languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, I would be able to read the words, but would likely not be able to understand them.  Of the top of my head, that feels like a pretty comprehensive list of my active Serbian knowledge, meaning that I’m starting from what feels like tabula rasa.

I have 12 days to learn Serbian. In those 12 days I can budget a maximum of one hour per day. I am naturally left with the question. Can I be conversant in Serbian 12 hours from now?

My guess is yes. Parkinson’s Law further enforces that answer. Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” A seemingly silly corollary of Parkinson’s Law is:  “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” There’s certainly some truth to that though. When you give yourself the bare minimum time to do something important to you, you often surprise yourself with how efficient that task suddenly becomes.

With two weeks, I doubt I’ll take the time to figure out answers to questions such as”In Serbian, how does the third person plural pronoun change depending on if the people mentioned are all male, all female, or of mixed gender?” Or “What is the Serbian translation for Yellow Brick Road?”  I hope that 12 days from now I will have figured out what the bare necessities of Serbian are and to have figured those out enough to be able to both understand and be understood.  That is the goal: to understand and be understood.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Mailbag – Will Ukrainian Fighting Spread into Slovakia?

Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images. Photo from CNN.com

Dear Allan,
Hello! Could you please comment on the political and cultural impact problems in Ukraine might have on Slovakia?… My son lives in Slovakia and I was curious about your viewpoint. any input would really be appreciated.  Thank you so much and I’ve enjoyed reading your online writings.

Worried in Florida


Dear Worried,

Thank you for writing. The internal affairs of the Ukraine will have close to no impact on Slovakia.

First of all, the Ukraine is relatively large (233,062 sq miles), making Eastern Ukraine far away from Slovakia. The Ukraine is a breadbasket (usually around the tenth largest grain producer in the world, producing about 1/3 to 1/2 as much grain as the much larger neighboring Russia (6.602 million sq miles)). The Ukraine is only 3.5% the size of Russia, or to put it differently, that makes Russia 28 times larger than the Ukraine. Its size makes the Ukraine about the size of a few Kansases (82,277 sq miles) or Nebraskas (77,421 sq miles) stacked next to each other, only it has a coastline. The coastline, is what, according to numerous historical arguments is what has long made the Crimean Penninsula attractive to Russia – a desire for a warm water port.

Odessa, on the Black Sea, is nearly a 1,000 mile drive from Bratislava. Even if you go to the far Eastern end of Slovakia, it is still quite a distance. From Odessa it is 660 miles from Cierna nad Tisou in Slovakia on the Slovak-Ukrainian frontier. Cierna nad Tisou is where the trains are jacked up to switch them onto tracks of different gauge between Slovakia (and the lands West of there) and the Ukraine (and the lands East of there). 1,520 mm (4 ft 11  27/32 in) is the size of Russian Gauge, whereas 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1/2 in) is the size of Standard Gauge. You’d have to travel a day and a half or maybe nearly two days by train to get to Odessa from Bratislava. That’s a long trip. And east of Odessa is still more than half of the Ukraine. To say the least, the eastern portion of the country, where there is currently some unrest is distant from the Slovak border.

During my travels through active war zones – say the West Bank (of the Jordan River) for example, 500 or 1000 feet meant the difference between blissful innocence and the middle of danger. Miles from the areas of conflict posed close to no danger. Simply being in Israel or in the West Bank also posed little danger. When a violent event takes place, it does not usually directly affect an entire country or even an entire region of people. Slovaks and the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian population are not in a life threatening situation right now. You are much more at risk of dying from violence while living in practically any dense urban area in the United States. Similarly, during the worst fighting in Iraq, the Kurdish areas of Iraq were almost entirely peaceful.

Secondly, the issues in Ukraine are ultimately of minimal importance even for many of the people of the Ukraine. This is a land that was part of the Russian sphere of influence for nearly the entire existence of the United States and spent only a few years relatively independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. As I have an appreciation for nations, and for local government over centralized government, I am happy that the Ukraine was independent. I understand there is national pride involved and issues of self-determination and definitions of what democracy means in situations of secession. Those are all complex issues. I have a hard time believing life will suddenly become so different in the Ukraine. It has, sadly for the Ukrainians, become the location of a proxy battle between the US and Russia. If either the US or Russia stopped caring about that proxy battle, nothing notable would have taken place in the Ukraine over the past year. Both country’s government’s are clearly involved in the internal affairs of the Ukraine to an extent that most Americans will probably never realize.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies term this concept Blowback – when government so sufficiently keeps its people in the dark about its actions that the populace has no ability to understand the behavior of actors in foreign policy in their proper context. Often this is the consequence of an covert action. The population of the aggressor nation, not realizing that it behaved aggressively has not method of understanding what took place. The fact that many American observers do not understand why Russia would suddenly act out and seize a piece of the Ukraine is a good example of blowback.

I have a number of reasons that I would love to vilify Putin, but denouncing him as a villain for sending Russian troops to occupy parts of the Ukraine would not be a very high complaint on my list. Simply pointing the finger at him is likely to lack context and is likely to be an oversimplification of what is in deed a complex situation.  More on that, in a bit.

Ostensibly you could say, “Well, Slovakia used to be part of the Soviet sphere of influence, what’s to stop Slovakia from being seized by Putin?” Slovakia has a much different history than the Ukraine. It was never a part of the USSR. It was never under the Imperial Crown of the Russian Tsar. Even ignoring that, there’s such a buffer of opposition right now hundreds of miles wide preventing Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine from spilling over into Slovakia. That buffer is most of the land mass of the Ukraine. The Red Army has of course occupied Slovak land in time of war and time of peace. Still, it is presumptuous to expect that the Russian government has an interest in returning there.

Slovakia, one must remember, is a NATO country. A military entity crossing its border uninvited would ostensibly trigger a military reaction from the other 27 members of NATO. The other NATO countries have committed to protecting the integrity of the borders of their fellow NATO members. If Putin comes for the rest of Ukraine, we can revisit that topic that he may also be interested in Slovakia. I doubt Putin wants anything to do with a mess like taking over Slovakia.

It would make no sense, because while Slovakia is a treasure to me, the difference between doing business and having relations with Slovakia unoccupied and Slovakia occupied is negligible. There is little to gain by occupying Slovakia. Likely, the occupation could even prove bad for business. The turn of events leading up to the entry of Crimea presented Putin with a chance to seize Russian culturally dominant areas while looking like he was protecting his people from the big bad US. That’s simply a PR loss on the part of the White House. While that PR loss has taken place,

The appealing sight of a resource-rich Ukraine and Ukraine’s sizable Russian populace are both important issues to consider from the Kremlin’s perspective. More important is that the US government is very involved in the internal relations of the Ukraine, a county on the border with Russia. Putin would be stupid to pretend that such intervention does not affect Russia’s long-term security. Russia too is very involved in the internal relations of the Ukraine. The difference is that the US is half a world away and that Russia is a neighbor to the Ukraine. The US has intelligently always shown some concern whenever belligerents have come close to American borders. To turn the table, if Russia had bases and favorable governments in all of Latin America except Mexico and was now attempting to install a favorable government in Mexico that was belligerent to the US, the US would certainly feel forced to act.

It’s possible that Putin could get more aggressive, but fretting about Putin unrest in Slovakia – a very peaceful place – is unlikely. My homeland of Chicago, for example is much more dangerous. For years, more unarmed American civilians were killed on the streets of Chicago by gun violence than the number of US soldiers killed in all of Iraq. So few soldiers are killed in Iraq now that such a statistic has lost relevance. The danger of Chicago remains. That danger in Chicago poses no danger however to a someone on the other side of the city at the moment of a shooting, or on the other side of the state, let alone to a Floridian.

Does a string of tornadoes in my homeland of Illinois pose a threat to you hundreds of miles away in Florida? Of course not, though it is in the same country. You would probably laugh at overseas relatives calling you to see if you were okay, because they heard about “all the tornadoes in the US.”

I have a hard time imagining the situation under which the uber-peaceful Slovaks would turn aggressive over a skirmish hundreds of miles away.

It’s possible that oil flows will make Slovakia slightly more important on the geopolitical front, where it was once let’s say the 65th most important country geopolitically worldwide, it is now the 62nd most important. That’s a 5% bump, which really isn’t bad.

Migrants could move West to Slovakia, leading to the spotting of more Ukrainians,  but that’s more an excuse to go West rather than a genuine need for asylum, since the overwhelming percentage of the Ukraine is seeing no fighting. Ukrainians concerned only about peace are likely to just move from a place in the Ukraine that sees clashing to a place in the Ukraine that sees no clashing.

In terms of your son’s presence there, please do write me and tell me what he is doing and where he is living – not because I’m concerned with his safety (he lives in one of the least aggressive places this world traveler has ever set foot in) – but because I’m excited to hear the stories of people who spend a part of their lives in Slovakia (whether that be days or years).

The current conflict in the Ukraine won’t hurt him. Caution him to avoid honey, berries, mushrooms, or game caught in the vicinity of Chernobyl. That might hurt him as those foods are believed to contain generous amounts of the elements (healthful and unhealthful) from the surrounding environment. Caution him not to talk trash about the Ukraine in a Ukrainian bar. That might hurt him. Avoid talking trash about Russians in a Russian bar. Caution him to avoid deep sunburn when visiting the Black Sea resort towns. That might hurt him. Living in Slovakia, 1,000 miles from a conflict zone is not going to hurt him.

If anyone else has any input for Worried in Florida, please do share in the comments section. Whether it be fear-mongering or reassuring, I bet she’d love your perspective.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Merry Christmas from Patagonia

South American Sea Lion pups in a colony in Patagonia. When they are born they are black (or dark brown) and they molt to a mid-brown colour. | Photo: Killy Ridols

South American Sea Lion pups in a colony in Patagonia. | Photo: Killy Ridols

From Patagonia

December 24, 2013

Allan Stevo

There are many Slovaks whose families once emigrated from Slovakia who are today working in matters dealing with Slovakia. One hundred years ago, someone might have looked at Slovak families leaving that land and bemoaned the brain drain. Some individuals spent time in the Americas and came back to Slovakia. Many individuals went to America and never looked back. Looking at one generation of Slovaks, a brain drain took place in the form of mass migration to North America.

Looking across multiple generations, Slovak families moved to North America for education and the opportunity for improvement. They sometimes maintained important ties across the Atlantic. They sometimes lost contact and re-established contact later. Others Slovak families in America have yet to re-establish contact. Re-establishing contact can reward one dearly. I’ve watched this process take place time and again. It provides an added layer of cultural richness related to how one views ones own place in the world.

I received a Christmas card the other day from a Slovak in America who is working in the Slovak cultural space. His name is Keith Lencho, and he has taken upon himself the work of translating into English the work of one of the great Slovak novelists – Martin Kukučín. Slovaks have a long history of going abroad for adventure – ranging from Beňovský (the Slovak king of Madascar) to Štefánik (who traveled to far off Tahiti as a representative of the French), to the many Slovaks travelling the world today. Wandering the world is part of the Slovak experience.

Kukučín, a physician and an author, traveled the world – making his way to Croatia where he found his true love and married her, and later to Patagonia where the two of them lived for many years. There Kukučín penned the travelogue Prechadzka po Patagonii / Patagonian Promenade. Below are a few Christmas memories from Kukučín in South America translated by Keith Lencho (Kitko Lenčo).

 

Merry Christmas from Patagonia. | Text: Martin Kukucin, translated by Keith Lencho

 

Kukučín here clearly demonstrates that the weather is closely linked to the feeling of Christmas. Those of us who keep at least a foot in English language culture know this from Christmas favorites like “White Christmas,” “Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” crooned by Bing Crosby-like voices and the power they have to evoke the Christmas atmosphere. In many places we speak happily about the chance for snowfall on Christmas Eve. We know the activities of Christmas. We know the tastes and smells of Christmas. How foreign a Christmas must feel to one celebrating Christmas for the first time in a place where it is 98 degrees outside.

At the same time, how intimately connected Kukučín must have felt to Christmas when he looked up in the pastures of Patagonia, far removed from the city lights, to see the vast stars. Just like the astronomer magi, and even more like the shepherds, looking up into the sky, laying out in the stars, he must have imagined what that fabled star was like that signaled the birth of Jesus. New travels, new languages, bring new perspectives to familiar experiences.

Gauchos mustering sheep in Patagonia. | Photo: Evelyn Proimos

Gauchos mustering sheep in Patagonia. | Photo: Evelyn Proimos

As D.H. Lawrence wrote in Apocalypse, Kukučín was connected to the heavens that night by spending it underneath the vast open sky and all its majestic stars.

In the five years before Patagonian Promenade came to print in 1913, Europe had found itself in a military arms race. Kukučín’s wife’s corner of the world was engaged in the First Balkan War. Kukucin’s government of Austro-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Hercegovinia. Just eight months into 1914, the people of Europe would find themselves pulled by their leaders into what would come to be known as the First World War. As the super-states grew in stature, power, and bravado, to an extent never before seen in states, they marched the world toward a war unlike any that had ever been seen before.  The century of the great states that grew into totalitarian states, without coincidence was also the century that introduced us to total wars.

In the midst of this, Kukučín the poet, the novelist, the impoverished country doctor who healed the poor without payment, half a world from his Slovak homeland in the foothills of the Tatras looked up into the stars, the same stars that the shepherds two millenia earlier had looked up at and penned in his journal “Peace to people on earth.”

No matter what rages we find ourselves on the verge of in our own lives, may we each be lucky enough on a night like tonight to find a moment to look up into the metaphorical stars, into the vast unquantifiable heavens, and to be filled with a great hope as if we have been given a gift. The winter solstice has come, and days will henceforth be longer, life has been breathed back into nature, a saviour has been sent to the world, a new year is upon us. Renewal comes at this time of year for many belief systems. What a great gift that is. What a great feeling of relief can come from that. Thank you to Martin Kukučín for sharing with me his observations of that heavens that Christmas Eve in Patagonia. Thank you to Kitko Lenčo for making those observations more accessible to me.  This is like a Merry Christmas from Kukučín from Patagonia.  As for me, who is not in Patagonia, I wish you a Merry Christmas as well.

Fitz Roy, Patagonia. | Photo: Annalisa Parisi

Fitz Roy, Patagonia. | Photo: Annalisa Parisi

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Make Slovak Sauerkraut Soup for Christmas

Ingredients for Slovak Sauerkraut (Cabbage) Soup at a Yuletide Celebration.

Ingredients for Slovak Sauerkraut (Cabbage) Soup at a Yuletide Celebration.

Slovak Sauerkraut Soup

December 23, 2013

Allan Stevo

Corned beef and cabbage evokes in me childhood memories of a limp grey, tasteless, almost mushy leaf referred to as “cabbage.” Corned beef and cabbage evokes similar memories in many people I know. Mid-March seemed to always find this almost mushy leaf in plentiful supply, either in restaurants or at dinners organized by a variety of churches and charities. If that’s how the Irish actually cook their cabbage then they’re doing something wrong and could do well to learn a lesson from their fellow Europeans in the center of the continent.

Slovaks have an large number of recipes that include cabbage, so many of them incredibly tasty. Among the tastiest is this delicacy commonly associated with yuletide celebrations in Slovakia. It’s among my favorite recipes. The school I used to teach at puts together an annual Christmas celebration with cabbage soup (kapustnica) as the centerpiece. Some families in Slovakia will kill a pig around Christmas time and smoke a variety of meats to flavor their cabbage soup, a soup so flavorful with a variety of ingredients that are loaded into the soup so densely that it is not fair to call this thick stew by the name soup.

The kapustnica made by Pani Stefka remains so popular with my friends and me that at least three of us get together each Christmas in Chicago to cook it. Slovak expats around the world do the same, as referenced by the photos that I increasingly come across in Facebook posts at this time of year.

Below is Pani Stefka’s recipe. And here is a link to a more in depth article on Pani Stefka’s recipe along with some photos.

Ingredients:

  • - 1kg (2.2 lbs) of Kapusta will feed 7 people. For every 1 kg of kapusta, use the following
  • 4 medium to large onions
  • 750g raw pork shoulder (but likely any piece of meat will be okay)
  • 2 links of sausage (this taste is key, and will be apparent throughout the soup so make sure you are using quality or at least tasty sausage)
  • Spice to taste – sweet paprika, caraway seeds, and at the end, when the cooking is done, you can add marjoram (If your cabbage does not already contain allspice and bay leaves, you can add a few of each of those/ pound of cabbage early in the process)
  • 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped (at the end also, because the heat will dull this taste)
  • Half a handful of dried plums (prunes).
  • Half a handful of dried wild mushrooms.
  • Add about a pound of smoked ham to a small pot, two pounds of smoked ham to a big pot, and four-five pounds of smoked ham to a really big pot
  • a shredded potato (used to thicken the soup, instead of flour)

Directions:
Heat lard in a heated pot. Add chopped onions. Fry til the onions are between golden and brown. Stir in caraway, and sweet paprika (the ground spice) before the onions are done cooking. Add water to cover. Add pork meat. Boil until meat is tender. Remove meat, allow to cool on side, remove bones (if you chose a cut with bones), cut up into small pieces that could manageably fit on a soup spoon when eaten later. Add sauerkraut. Stir the sauerkraut in so as to avoid the difficult to manage big clumps of sauerkraut from forming.

Put the meat back in. Add sausage (klobasa) whole. Before serving, you will need to remove the cooked sausage and cut them up into bit sized pieces. Add dried mushrooms. Add dried plums. Cook it for as long as you want to cook it for. Add potatoes with a half hour of cooking time left. Add marjoram. Add garlic. Allow to sit over night. A big pot, left on a cold stove may still be warm the next morning. Another option is to leave it on very low heat (not even simmering) all night.

Pull out sausage and smoked meat and cut into bite sized pieces that can be easily eaten with a soup spoon . Return them to the pot and stir. Slowly warm up the kapustnica the next day to prepare it for serving. Serve the next afternoon with a slice of bread and a dollop of sour cream.

Do you have a special Christmas meal that you and your family share? Do you have any favorite parts of your family’s Christmas Stew? Or might you have any suggestions on how you would improve on Pani Stefka’s Christmas Cabbage Stew?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Whoever You Are, Thank You !

A Yagua (Yahua) tribeman demonstrating the use of blowgun (blow dart), at one of the Amazonian islands near Iquito, Peru. | Wikipedia.org

A Yagua (Yahua) tribeman demonstrating the use of blowgun (blow dart), at one of the Amazonian islands near Iquito, Peru. | Wikipedia.org

Amazon Links

December 23, 2013

Allan Stevo

Amazon.com considers me “an affiliate.”  What that means is that anyone who clicks on a link from 52 Weeks in Slovakia to Amazon and buys an item there earns me 8% of whatever they buy on Amazon.

Amazon produces a report each month on what was purchased and sends me a check once a month for how much in commission was earned.

An example of such a link is this one here: to the Amazon.com homepage.  When you click on the link, you probably see a complicated code in your browser that includes the term “52weekinslov-20.” That is the code Amazon uses to identify that the purchases you make during that visit should be credited to the 52 Weeks in Slovakia account.

By the time the report gets to me, there is no personal information in the report, so while I have no idea who you are,  I would like to thank the big ticket spenders this Christmas season for clicking on Amazon links on 52 Weeks in Slovakia. It makes a big difference on how much more time I’m able to dedicate to writing in these pages.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Blekfrajdejuješ?

A shot from the filming of the movie "Czech Dream" or "Cesky Sen." | Photo: CzechFolks.com

Black Friday
November 28, 2013
Allan Stevo

I work with a Greek man who constantly reminds me that the prescriptive grammar rules of languages are put in place with the intention of controlling a society. Language, after all, is the operating system by which virtually all thought and a great deal of action is processed. The more you can control a language the more you can control the people using the language.

Language and Control
The French rejoice that a governmental organization (L’Académie française) controls their language to help keep it pure and inflexible. Grammar teachers the world over exhibit a constant lack of creativity by always looking at what is wrong with speech patterns instead of allowing for any combination of words that allows for communication.  The Greeks in response to Ottoman control came up with a form of Greek in which many words had secretive double-meanings allowing for communication that meant something entirely different to whatever it was that the Ottomans thought it meant.

Slovaks and Their Language
An aspect of Slovak culture that I love is the playfulness with which so many approach the language. There is correct and incorrect in Slovak. At the same time there are suffixes like -ič, -ik, or -ak used to shorten words and make them sound slang. A Bratislavčan (a citizen of Bratislava) can also be called a Blavak in less polite company, based on the word “Blava,” a slang term for Bratislava. Blava, as a Czech book I once read pointed out – sounds like the combination of the words for “mud” and “cows” – two words that are perhaps befitting the Pragocentric view of what Bratislava must look like. For more about my view on Pragocentrism or Blavocentrism please see these article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia.

Another aspect of Slovak culture that I love is how common diminutives are. There are the diminutive forms of words that give every Slovak noun another five or ten forms as a way to make speech sound cuter. Instead of good morning as “dobre rano” some may say good morning as “dobre ranko.”

I like how phonetic Slovak spelling is. A Slovak linguist of the past wrote “Piš ako počuješ” as a method of instruction to his fellow Slovak speakers -” Write as you read,” or write phonetically.

This is much different than the system of spelling in the English language. George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out as a way to make fun of the non-phonetic nature of the English language that “ghoti” was an alternative way to spell “fish” in English. This was done by using the GH from laugh the O from women and the TI from nation.

Slovak on the other hand has a spelling system in which an O always sounds the same, a TI always sounds the same and a G and H always sound the same. Spend an hour learning the Slovak rules of pronunciation correctly and you will forever be able to pronounce almost any word correctly. This systematic, clear, ease of spelling and pronunciation is one reason that I believe Slovak is this best method of entry into Slavic languages, especially for someone unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet.  When it’s time to learn Cyrillic, having a Slovak base makes the learning process effortless, literally lasting minutes to reach a high level of competence.  (Start at this article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia if you want to learn to read Cyrillic in under an hour.)

Some Slovaks will play with this phonetic nature of the language by pronouncing foreign words with a Slovak pronunciation – nation sounds like “Nah-tyee-ohn.” Women sounds like “Voh-men” and laugh sounds like “LA-Oo-guh-huh”

Alternately Slovaks will spell English words in Slovak for fun – blekfrajdej – could be a way that a Slovak would spell the post-Thanksgiving retailer’s holiday “Black Friday” in order to preserve the English language pronunciation.

Finally, my final bit of praise at the moment for the Slovak language – the verb ending -ovat’ is the most playful and pleasant verb ending. It allows virtually any noun to be turned into a verb. Sprechuješ?” Is the slang way to ask “Do you speak German?” It’s based on the German “Sprechen” (to speak). Spikuješ?” Is the slang way in Slovak to ask “Do you speak English?” It is based on the Slovak spelling of the English verb “speak.” In the title of this piece is a single word made using the -ovat’ verb form.

Blekfrajdejuješ?

Blekfrajdejuješ – well, that was a word invented this morning by yours truly as he wrote a friend asking what she was doing. “Getting a deal on headphones online was her answer.”

It of course occurred to me that Black Friday was the perfect day for that to happen. Other than “shopping on Black Friday” what might the connotations of Blekfrajdejuješ be?

In 1939 the American president who prolonged the Great Depression with his New Deal policies and who decided to break with tradition and set himself up to be the first ever president to serve 4 terms also decided that he would be involved in a variety of other shows of megalomania.

He decided to make the national day of giving thanks to God for the bounty he has bestowed on us (Thanksgiving) into an excuse for added consumerism in American culture. This was entirely acceptable for him. He was under the misconception, after all, that an intelligent dictator was the best form of governance, so he hired his famous brain trust who advised him on all kinds of ways to expand the power of government to make American life “better.” The question in such situations is always “better for whom?” For example when the US Government put a price floor on foodstuffs in order to keep prices high during the Great Depression, it might have been great for some producers of food. It was terrible, however, for people who needed to eat. Everyone needs to eat. Not everyone produces food. This therefore benefited fewer people than it hurt, as was the case with many New Deal policies.

That’s an important issue when looking back at the New Deal – from the perspective of many economic historians, the New Deal really worsened and prolonged hardship on the average American (who were virtually all consumers and workers) by exerting control on broad parts of the economy and making many products and service more expensive. New Deal policies, which were essentially a continuation and expansion by Roosevelt of the work started by his predecessor Hoover took a minor economic event and helped turn it into something widespread and lengthy.  (While this topic is dealt with in depth by many historians, Robert Murphy’s Politically Incorrect Guide
very blithely deals with this topic and others, addressing the fact that Hoover was not a “do nothing President,” but an anti-free market President who set the groundwork across the aisle for Roosevelt’s interventions.)

Despite what is commonly taught in American schools, the New Deal benefited some in society, just like FDR’s insistence in shifting the date of Thanksgiving benefited some in society. Here’s how writer Bill Kauffman tells the story of FDR’s moving of Thanksgiving in an attempt to satisfy well-connected retailers.

 It seems that in 1939 Thanksgiving was to fall on November 30th, a matter of consternation to the big merchants of the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA). The presidents of Gimbel Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and other unsentimental vendors petitioned President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the previous Thursday, November 23, thus creating an additional week of Christmas shopping – and to the astonishment of those Americans without dollar signs in their eyes, the president did so. (Not all merchants favored the shift. One Kokomo shopkeeper hung a sign in his window reading, “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.”)

Opinion polls revealed that more than 60 percent of Americans opposed the Rooseveltian ukase; dissent was especially vigorous in New England. The selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, informed the President, “It is a religious holiday and [you] have no right to change it for commercial reasons.” Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks to the Almighty, harrumphed Governor Leverett Salstonstall of Massachusetts, “and not for the inauguration of Christmas shopping.”

Although the states customarily followed the federal government’s lead on Thanksgiving, they retained the right to set their own date for the holiday, so 48 battles erupted. As usual, New Deal foes had all the wit, if not the votes. A New Hampshire senator urged the President to abolish winter; the Oregon attorney general versified:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one.
Until we hear from Washington.

Twenty-three states celebrated Thanksgiving 1939 on November 23, and another 23 stood fast with November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, shrugged their shoulders and celebrated both days – Texas did so to avoid having to move the Texas/Texas A&M football game. (In recent years, the Texas turkey bowl game has been transplanted to the Friday following Thanksgiving due to pressure from a power even greater than FDR: television.)

This New Deal experiment in Gimbelism lasted two more years, until finally the NRDGA admitted that there was little difference in retail sales figures between the states that celebrated Thanksgiving early and those that clung to the traditional holiday. Without fanfare, President Roosevelt returned Thanksgiving 1942 to the last Thursday in November. Mark Sullivan noted that this was the only New Deal experiment FDR ever renounced.

Just as Roosevelt’s megalomaniacal refusal to observe the two-term tradition set by George Washington necessitated the 22nd Amendment, so did his flouting of Thanksgiving precedent require corrective legislation. In a compromise of sorts, FDR signed into law a bill fixing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday – not the last Thursday – in November. Never again would Thanksgiving fall on November 29th or 30th. The states followed suit, although Texas held out until 1956.

FDR is not to blame for a societal trend.  He played a significant role in the use of Christmas and Thanksgiving as cynical tools for buying and selling that is seldom discussed.  Nor in the 2oth century – the century of the great dictators, great states, and great wars do I look at FDR’s New Deal as the greatest tragedy the world witnessed.  The US could have had much worse.   The New Deal was among the worst collection of policies to happen to the US, Roosevelt among the worst Presidents from an American perspective that a constant pursuit of greater freedom is what America has potential to be truly great at.

Over time FDR’s move to shift the day of Thanksgiving to lengthen the holiday shopping season seems to have had such an effect that a day is named for the important first day of that season, known as “Black Friday.” It can’t be said whether the move was a good decision or a bad decision.  The results of studies are conflicting, and additionally, there is a philosophical argument at hand – what would even constitute “good” or “bad” in this situation.

Some Effects of a Longer Christmas Shopping Season

For example – consumer spending takes place in larger amounts earlier which likely leads to an increase in spending with a lengthened shopping season. At the same time, worker productivity declines as more time is spent on holiday shopping. Productivity is what strengthens an economy. Shopping doesn’t. At the same time holiday family time does not increase, people simply spend less time in the office and more time shopping.

There is a term “discretionary spending.”  Discretionary time should be considered in this equation as well.  We only have a limited amount of free time.  Not only does more shopping eat away at time spent on productivity, it also eats away at “discretionary time.” Family time decreases during the holidays as people go out shopping for family instead of sitting down to have a heart-to-heart with family. Taking your father out for a $3 cup of coffee is infinitely better at building bonds and expressing love than buying him a $300 electronic device. In the former situation you will be spending time with the other person, in the later you will only be spending money on the other person.

Here we have an important crux of American culture that is being exported around the world – as people become wealthier, people want to spend more, often beyond their means, which creates more of a need to work, sometimes overwork, and a desire to spend more as a method of comforting oneself. This can form a vicious cycle.

Themes of Discussions

Sit down with many middle class Americans for a discussion or listen in on a discussion. As soon as the participants arrive at a certain amount of comfort with each other, it is very common to talk more than anything about the ways that they spend their money: how to be frugal, the new cars, what the next vacation will be, what their latest appliance purchases have been like.

I see nothing wrong with having lots of money. I see nothing wrong with working hard. I see nothing wrong with spending lots of your own money exactly the way you feel like spending it. In fact, I think those are all ideal. What I do recognize is that Americans (and probably all humans) caught in a cycle like the one I mention seem to lose an ability to communicate with each other in a way that does not heavily involve a discussion of possessions purchased and possessions to be purchased. Discussions like this are ever-present in American society and of course we turn to our peer group to have the discussions about things that we feel are most important. It’s fine to turn to our peer groups. Listening in on discussions often leaves me with the feeling that the latest purchases and the next purchases are the most important topics on the minds of many Americans I encounter, since that is the subject of so many discussions people have with their peers.

Slovaks, in my experience, tend to speak to each other differently, but that is changing. Slovaks increasingly talk about where the next fix will come from, what the next purchase is that they will make. At this moment the content of discussions I hear in Slovakia seem to impress me a bit more than the content of discussions in the US. One tends to be about purchases and possessions and another seems so adept at using communication to build bonds without obsessing with the topics of purchases and possessions.

How will you spend your Black Friday? If you read this, before your family’s Thanksgiving celebration, I’d be curious to hear your observation on this – did you and yours spend a lot of time discussing past and future purchases?  If you shifted the discussion around the dinner table off of the topic of purchases, what are topics you shifted discussion to?

Also, I’d like to say:

Dear Readers, I wish you the happiest of days today and want you to know that I am thankful for your readership, for your comments in these pages, and for your encouraging and fascinating emails.  You are the ones who make this website possible.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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