It’s the middle of October, and I am on a train snaking its way along the Orava River in Northern Slovakia. I am about four hours into a five-hour train ride from Bratislava to the village of Podbiel. What’s in Podbiel? Apparently, proximity to the Western Tatra mountain range and a great deal of outdoor activities, as well as beautifully preserved heritage houses. I am going, however, because my maternal grandfather was born in Podbiel in 1911. I’m going to go further into why I decided to take the trip out to this place, but I have held one of the less rational reasons for a few years now.
I didn’t know where my grandfather was born until after he had passed away. The dates and places of his and my grandmother’s births were recorded in an illustrated book of bible stories that my mother showed me in passing. I knew he was from the former Czechoslovakia, and that he had come over to Canada as a child, but that was all. This being the age of the Internet, I looked up the name of his birthplace on the Internet. Looking at the images that came up, I was immediately struck by an intense feeling that I had seen the place before, though I had never been there. But I thought to myself that if given the opportunity I wanted to go, and actually see it.
That being said, Podbiel was on the rough path I had planned between Eastern Europe and Turkey, so it was chronologically and geographically practical to visit. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the almost effortless and practical mixture of the modern and the timeless that I encountered as I traveled through the Orava region and Podbiel itself.
So many homes had family farming plots instead of decorative gardens, growing all manner of produce and keeping livestock (I am used to my food coming from industrial scale farms and slaughterhouses, so this was unusual for me). While seeing produce growing everywhere, I saw so many women carrying store-bought goods like Czech beer and off-season foods home the supermarket in large woven wicker baskets. I saw men and women of all ages and families passing each other in the street, calling out greetings to each other. Stylish youths poured on and off the train to commute to local schools every day, chattering with their peers. Beautiful modern homes stood next to the traditional wooden Slovak houses without looking at all unnatural. This place was unashamedly itself, having adapted to outside architectural and technological influences, yet making a sustained effort to maintain its own history and character.
This place was also more beautiful than I had dreamed it would be, even in mid-October. The mist was settling over the river and the surrounding hills. The leaves on the trees that coated the surrounding countryside were beginning to turn color, creating splotches of rich gold and orange among the deep lush green. The long wooden traditional Slovak houses that line the main road through the village were darkened by rain, but this only seemed to heighten their elegance and simplicity.
My family connection to this place is distant. I only know it through the stories we have of my grandfather’s emigration, and about the branches of family that have moved and begun anew in other places. But my personal connection to this place is manifest in much smaller ways. It’s shown by the witch figurine that’s been hanging in my family’s kitchen for as long as I can remember. It’s in the way that my mother would prepare praženica (a scrambled egg dish with garlic sausage) every Sunday, and in her stories of how her father would prepare the same dish for her and her siblings.
These little habits passed down from my grandfather to my mother to me connect me to the part of my family’s history that comes from Podbiel. It was these small things that made me want to visit, not an abstract desire to find my metaphorical “roots.”
This place is a distant memory; my grandfather left there almost a century ago now. It is the place where some of my ancestors came from, but the future lives and fortunes of my maternal family live elsewhere. However we carry small parts of it with us, in memories of my grandfather’s smile and family breakfasts on Sunday mornings.
Travel Slovakia page on Podbiel
Podbiel Village website