Exploring Poprad

A few days ago, I decided that I would explore my city after school, go places I had never been and look at things from new angles. All with camera in hand, of course.

It was time well spent. I was able to savor hours which otherwise would’ve sped on by. It also affords me the opportunity to show you parts of the city that don’t fit in with most expectations of a European city. Classical architecture and scenic views are but a small bit of Europe. They are spectacular and worth attention, but I don’t believe that your average city blocks and worn down buildings are without their own beauty.

The Historic Avenues of Vienna

The bustle of Viennese streets persistently threatened to tear apart the meticulously ordered, two-by-two line of exchange students that marched through. Though perhaps not so much as the slack-jawed photographers within who had to stop every few paces and marvel (such as myself) or the mobile Latino dance party that took up the rear, their music carrying endlessly through the urban canyons of centuries-old masonry. I could only chuckle as the echoing music drew my attention to the contrast our modern world—with its pop music, commercialism, and chaotic rush of tourism—renders against the of the neatly-ordered, nearly-grayscale world which presided over these streets less than a century ago.


This change is evident everywhere. Modern facades containing internet cafes, bookstores, and McDonald’s grow out of baroque buildings like greenery in the cracks of pavement. The elderly, elegant, yet stone cold face of Vienna’s old city has been reborn with the advent of modernization. Large windows and well-lit interiors invite passersby into once fortress-like structures, now made more inviting and accessible. The aesthetic of this contrasting combination is beyond charming. Normally, I am ardently for the preservation of historic buildings and against the superficial endeavors done solely in the name commercialism. However, the modifications to these buildings seem to have been done with such respect—they really display the virtues of both architectural styles without distracting from the beauty of either.

Our march ended in a square before St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where protesters chanted for Tibetan freedom. Rotary released us for an hour to see the church’s interior, wander the side streets, and eat lunch.


Famished, Alex, a student from California, and I set out to find a suitable meal. Preferably cheap street food which would reflect Vienna more than McDonald’s. First we stumbled into an empty Mediterranean restaurant just off the main avenue, only to discover it was a sit-down place for which we didn’t have time. We continued window browsing for a nice cafe or otherwise simple meal when we spotted several very cheap and well-made sandwiches sitting behind a foggy pane of glass and decided to step inside. Within, a impenetrable haze of smoke hung over a room that seemed no larger than the interior of a minivan. Three people slouched atop bar stools and sipped on acrid drinks served by an equally sour looking bartender. Their eyes trained on us immediately, seeming (at least to my flustered imagination) to demand we leave. I muttered some incoherent apology and backed through the door.


The side streets Alex and I unintentionally ended up exploring had rapidly fallen silent, even while a couple hundred feet away the main thoroughfare overflowed with pedestrian traffic. Here, modernization had touched lightly, manifesting only occasionally in a sign or parked vehicle. This quiet, scenic detour had proved worthwhile, but we still hadn’t eaten a thing. An Italian cafe provided momentary hope, only to be dashed as we gawked at the menu. 15€ for the cheapest items! Fortunately, the street we had stepped down to inspect the cafe led to a small Christmas market snuggled up to the cathedral. (Yes, ultimately we just made a big circle…) Here we found a stand selling appetizingly warm goulash bread bowls, which seemed irresistible in the stiff winter wind.

Alas, by the time we were warm and satiated, we had to rendezvous with the rest of the exchange students. This meant no tour of the cathedral’s interior—a loss I sorely lament. The structure was several times larger than any cathedral I’ve seen thus far!

The dance party resumed and we started towards our next destination. A semi circle drive, packed with horses drawn buggies and glass stalls selling expensive items, led to an impressive building: the Hofburg Imperial Palace and Austrian President’s residence. On the ground floor of the palace, a tunnel, through which carriages and cars alike passed, led us into a grand courtyard. Here, we took photos beneath a statue of Emperor Franz I.

An opposite tunnel opened this courtyard to an even larger space. Heldenplatz or Heroes’ Square we could see the National History Museum, National Natural History Museum, National Art Museum, National Library, and the City Hall of Vienna, as well as the Hofburg Palace from whence we had just come. The grand architecture and vast space evoked a truly imperial air. I was an awe inspiring place to be in. I was by no means the first to think so. In 1938, upon the Nazi annexation of Austria, Adolf Hitler gave a speech her to masses of fervent followers.

Here we were released once more, to explore Vienna’s legendary Christmas markets. But that is a story all its own.

Signed,

Andrew

Winter’s Grip on the Tatras

Today, I had my first real winter hike! Never have I journeyed though wilderness in such low temperatures or surrounded by so much snow! Winter has always been a backyard season for me, so getting to explore the spectacular Tatras on the first occasion was a wonderful treat!

I went with the other three exchange students who live in Poprad, as well as a former exchange who was in Canada last year and her two friends from Germany who are in the middle of a long tour of Europe, lasting from September to next May!

Signed,

Andrew

Juraj Jánošík

An adventurous teenager by the name of  Juraj Jánošík began his all too short life as a chivalrous scoundrel when he joined the Kuruc rebellion. Hungarians and Slavs rose in a peasant revolt against the opposing Habsburg empire and were soundly defeated at the Battle of Trenčín. The Austro-Hungarian army then proceeded to recruit from what remained of the force it had decimated and assigned the young Jánošík to be a prison guard in Bytča—a town in modern-day northwestern Slovakia. In the year 1710, at the age of twenty-two, Juraj proved that rebellious blood still flowed through his veins, (that, or he was young, naive and easily influenced) when he came to make friends with one the captives, Tomáš Uhorčík. The prisoner persuaded Jánošík to help him escape and

eventually both fled the iron and stone confines of the prison, to the lawless expanse of Slovakia. Empowered by this freedom, they formed a small gang of bandits and quickly grew infamous. Tomáš departed shortly thereafter to take a new name and settle down, leaving the 23 year-old Juraj in charge.

Image result for juraj jánošíkJuraj Jánošík’s vision for his bandits was oddly heroic, almost as if he’d heard tales of England’s legendary Robin Hood. Not only did his men target the rich and share their loot with the poor, but they never killed a single soul! Their concern even stretched to the injured and they are reputed to have cared extensively for an accidentally wounded priest.

Everything up to this point has been true. Juraj did exist and he was a bandit with a soft spot. That is more than can be said for Robin Hood! It is Juraj’s capture and death where the uncertainty of folklore begins eclipse reality.

Image result for juraj jánošíkStories say that while taking shelter in his old friend Tomáš Uhorčík’s Tavern, Juraj was beset by his enemies and captured when he slipped upon spilled peas tossed his way by a wicked old woman. The defeated hero went to trial on March 16th and 17th, 1713, and likely died immediately thereafter. Leaders of robber bands were reserved a special form of execution. A hook would be thrust into their left flank and they’d be left to die, hanging pathetically from the gallows. Legend says that Juraj was offered amnesty in exchange for his return to the military, where his skills could be put to good work. His response: “If you have baked me, so you should also eat me!” and he jumped on the hook himself.


(DISCLAIMER: Were you to rank the following passage on a scale of 1-5 in historical accuracy it would be a solid 1. This is merely a bit of spontaneous fun based loosely on the information I happened upon in researching Jánošík.)

The carriage rumbled over the sporadically exposed stone of the dusty road. It had been hours since its passengers had first departed and the sun was beginning to sink. The route, winding through the vast countryside, had proven desolate aside from the few sections around the villages that invariably held them up with herds of lethargic livestock.

Inside the plain carriage, a priest finished murmuring the Latin of his prayers and leaned against the wall, hoping the rumbling ride would rock his body into slumber. Across from him, his single bodyguard whittled down fingernails with a knife and periodically nursed a canteen. The soldier reeked more than the lowliest shepherd, but at least the priest felt confident he would do his job if it came to it. Terrible bands of highwaymen had plagued the land recently, and it was said they’d stoop so low as to rob a man of God. The heathens…

A wail arose from outside the carriage and the horses noisily protested as they violently slid to a halt. Both men inside jumped and tried to peer out the window. It looked as if there was a woman kneeling on the side of the road. A knock from the driver was persuasion enough to send the bodyguard out the door and his charge right behind.

“Her child!” cried the driver, pointing.

Sure enough, the woman, wrapped in a large shawl, cradled a bundle of bloody cloth that must have contained the remains of her child.

The driver continued, “I saw her stumble out of the woods and then collapse on the side of the road! I had to stop!”

Pity welled in the priest. However it happened, this woman had lost her child. She would need God right now. It was fortunate he could be here. He sped to her side.

The guard called behind him, “No! No, wait for me! Damnit…”

But the priest had already reached for the woman’s shoulder. Shawl and empty cloth fluttered into the air, cast by a wiry man whose dagger already pointed at the priest’s throat.

“Good impression, huh?” Muttered a raspy voice though the stupidest of grins.

The commotion that followed resists all attempts to be described. At its resolution, several more bandits were rolling in the dirt and attempting to restrain the guard and the driver, all while the priest screamed, his own bodyguard’s sword protruding from his shoulder. When the guard and driver had been bound together, three bandits rushed hurriedly towards the wounded man.

“Father, Father!” The leader of the troop apologized. He was a bearded man, much taller and more elegant than the one who had dressed as a woman. “I’m so sorry this happened. We do our best to avoid such things! I cannot express how surprising a situation this is! It’s a shame you had to get involved, because, otherwise, I think you would approve of what we are doing here. You see, for the past year or so my men and I have been robbing the wealthy and giving to the poor. It all began…” Juraj Jánošík babbled on as two of his men worked to remove the blade. One steadied the priest’s back as the other clutched the blade as if it were the legendary Sword in the Stone and heaved.

The priest moaned, but Juraj only shushed him and grinned, “Come now, wouldn’t you agree it’s better out than in? Now, might I ask what’s in that carriage and where are you were taking—Wash that!”

The first bandit stripped away the priest’s bloodied vestment and begin to carry it away, while the second tore the priests undershirt, exposing the wound, and commenced tending to it.

“Nevermind, you needn’t worry about those details right now. Ooo, I see you are a man of fine taste in jewelry. Ruby?! Delightful!”

Juraj began to remove each ring from the man’s fingers and pocket them. Seeing this, the bandit supplying first aid paused to remove the golden holy pendant from around his neck.

“No! Leave it!” Juraj snapped.

“What? Why can we take his rings but not his necklace?”

“The rings belong to a rich man, the pendant to a holy one.”

The bandit considered the statement, then nodded and returned to bandaging.

“Now, father, I feel awful about this, so what do you say to spending the next few days with us while you heal? After that we will get you to where you were going. All will be even then,” the scoundrel offered with a kind, roguish smile.


Image Credit-

  1. http://pinakoteka.zascianek.pl/Skoczylas/Index.htm
  2. http://clovekonline.cz/juraj-janosik/
  3. http://historyweb.dennikn.sk/clanky/detail/z-hory-na-hak-zivot-a-smrt-juraja-janosika#.WiHIkzdry00

Strangers

Living here these past few months, I have realized that I never really known a stranger. Not in the United States. The numerous people I viewed as so far removed from my world, in reality, were nearer to me than I ever could have imagined—a fact only unveiled by staying abroad for a lengthy period of time.

Take any American around my age, more than likely our childhoods feature many of the same experiences; the things we learned in school, the games we played, and the television shows we watched to list just a few. Furthermore, US compatriots, even if our perspectives differ, share the same general political and cultural outlook. Our politics make sense to us (I mean, most of the time), our morals, though always in flux, are virtually universal as are the stereotypes which, for better or worse, color our views of the world. I’ve discovered this with the other American exchange students here in Slovakia. We are simply predisposed to have the same thought processes on our new environment and often will laugh or gawk at the very same novelties this exchange presents us with.

Even more fundamental, though, is language. You’ve never truly known alienation until it occurs that you are unable to communicate with the very people you walk beside. It is such a simple thing and one we take for granted, especially in the US where we are mostly removed from the intricate quilt of cultures and languages that covers most of the globe.

Don’t think I am suffering because of this observation. I truly enjoy Slovakia and I feel connected to the culture and the people. By the end of my exchange, I imagine that I’ll be as integrated her as I was in the US. It has made me realize, however, that the remoteness with which I often viewed other Americans was unjustified. All people of the US are in some way familiar to me and, while perhaps friend isn’t the right term, there is at least a fellowship between us all that is worth something.

Interestingly enough, before this exchange I was very anti-patriotic. Not that I didn’t appreciate my country, its history, or—especially—the men and women who defend it, but I felt removed from any national identity. We should be citizens of the Earth before any country, I thought, and I still believe that in some senses that is true. However, nationality does have a large hand in creating who you are. This experience makes that undeniable.

I am not now some hyper-nationalist, nor even a particularly strong patriot, but I am an American and that means more to me than a simple statement of fact.

Signed,

Andrew

A Stroll Through Kežmarok

Today, beneath light flakes of drifting snow, I explored the historic streets of Kežmarok. A small city, not far from Poprad, Kežmarok contains a number of very unique churches and an impressive castle! Unfortunately, as it is Sunday, none of these sites were open for tourists, but I am excited to return some other day! My interest in the city and its architecture has certainly been peaked.

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I also got a little more creative with some of the images like I had mentioned.

Signed,
Andrew

School Initiation and a Small Update

This past Thursday I had the opportunity to officially photograph for my school’s initiation of the first year students. I had so much fun watching and documenting the various silly trials and engaging in the ensuing dance party! Now, after hours of slaving over the images, editing them as near to perfection as I can manage, I have received a gratifyingly positive reception from my peers and am proud to present a select few here!

In the process of editing, I began to think of a new project I may begin to pursue. You see, my adventures have slowed slightly since arriving and, accordingly, so have my posts. I’ve entered into a—comparatively, at least—mundane routine, which has always been inevitable. Yet, I still wish to produce more frequent content and practice my photography. This leads me to the aforementioned “new project”. I would like create more abstract and heavily edited artistic photos, such as these:

I believe creating art in this way will prove to be a interesting new past time and I look forward to sharing all of my work here.

Signed,

Andrew

Auschwitz

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the looming clouds and the sprinkling rain were ever present above the dreary rust-colored buildings, the very Earth trying to block out the place and wash clean its sins. Great and horrible monuments alike survive amid Mankind’s tumbling and wanton sense of progress. We, as humans, naturally feel the necessity to preserve what we are proud of as well as that which demonstrates our ever-present and unforgettable evils.

The buildings which housed the Nazi’s captives. In the basements, smaller groups of people were killed by gassing and their bodies burned in furnaces. The same furnaces which heated their fellow residents above.

If walls could talk, I doubt these would dare speak. Between them, malnourished men and women daily rose from flea-infested straw beds on cold cement floors and trudged out to work. Each hour their bodies subsiding less on the moldy scraps of bread and watery soup they’d been fed, than on the last healthy flesh and fat to cover their bones. In ill-fitting wooden shoes the bony figures marched to their daily tasks, or perhaps to the showers. They pass a gate that leads to a courtyard where men who couldn’t be kept for the gas chambers were executed, their wives across the camp praying that the echoing shots were not piercing their husbands.

These canisters once held the pesticide that was used to gas the Nazi’s victims. Hitler’s ever frugal regime calculated that it took precisely twelve cans to kill 1000 people, each can worth approximately 50 cents. In the trials after the war, it was pointed out that the Nazi’s would rather kill a couple thousand people than eat a few warm meals.

The horrors of Auschwitz moved me deeply, and at moments filled me with despair, but generally my empathy felt rather dull. I tear up at a sad love song or sentimental movie, but at a place of genocide my eyes remained dry. I felt a certain amount of guilt at this. Was I being insensitive? No, I know myself better than that. To me Auschwitz’s history was basely appalling. So much so, that my heart must’ve ducked into a shell and refused to feel a thing. For if it didn’t it would have crumble at the horrors that surrounded me.

Of the dark things I saw, the worst sat among the material evidence of the Nazis crimes. I recall long ago hearing about the display, but I had forgotten it existed even as I walked into the room. Within the dim chamber, behind glass panels, literal tons of human hair were piled, entangled in knotted mounds. Most of it is likely the last physical remains of the bodies’ to which it had once belonged. As if this wasn’t crime enough, plaques told that as the war drew to a close and the Nazis ran low on supplies they began to use the hair of their deceased captives to make textiles for their war effort. One such coarse roll sat on display. How many people had used the fabric? Did any of them know? What cruelty, of course in the murder, but also making innocent and ignorant people a part of the horror.

The ashes of some Auschwitz’s final victims.

The German citizens had little idea of the full extent of the Nazi’s actions. They were aware that their Jewish neighbors were being taken to work camps and many of them, under the influence of Hitler’s charisma, supported this deportation. However, the genocide and abuse which took place would have horrified the German people then as it does us now. Therefore, the Nazi’s had to maintain the illusion that the Jewish folk and other captives were working in factories and producing goods for German use. In this was their most clever and resourceful lie. The men, women and children who were gassed or worked at Auschwitz had their possessions seized and then sold back to German citizens as the goods which the Jews were producing for them

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit such a significant place. In a world still plagued by the same senseless hate that instigated this tragedy, it is important for all to be made painfully aware of the mistakes Mankind has made. The EU agrees with this sentiment, encouraging schools across Europe to take their students to visit the monument. The atrocities committed at Auschwitz can never be atoned for, but perhaps through education its memory can be preserved and used to guide our futures away from the twisted values that plagued the past.

Signed,

Andrew

Chronicles: Morena and the Slavs

In that dead hour of the morning, the last before the horizon begins to blush with the dawning sun, when the cold and the shadows are deepest, a spindly figure crawls over the crest of a northern hill to gaze upon the villages below. Her hair is darker than the surrounding moonless night and gnarled in unworkable, wiry mats. It tumbles around a malnourished figure, seemingly forced onto her hands beneath her own meager weight. She is unshapely and clothed in black rags. The maiden’s arms, though bony and feeble, end not in dainty hands but with the large paw of a wolf. Her face is pale and sallow, the skin gauntly stretching over what would be elegant bones. She seems at once both an ill youth and a haggard crone.

The monster’s canine claws dig hungrily into the earth, as she surveys each farmer’s domain, conspiring how to worm into the homes of hapless peasants and sew exquisite destruction. But it is not yet time.

She flicks a tongue over her fangs and waits, her power growing with every moment. Inhuman eyes—cat-like pupils amid a pool of glowing yellow—flick to a bed of plants below. There, stands a sole bloom; one single, persistent flower. The creature watches patiently, ravenously as frost begins to crystallize on its innocent, violet petals. The bloom bends and then crinkles. Its color fades and it sinks to the ground.

Morena, goddess of death, night and winter, then beams with a wicked smile. She rises and with force unimaginable from such a pathetic body springs forward, bounding into the valley. For now, it is her domain.


A while ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the ancient rituals surrounding the Slavic goddess Morena. With song and skit, performing students depicted the pagan traditions that their ancestors had practiced. These peoples’ hatred for the witch of winter ran so deep that every spring they would hold a festival to purge the land of her evil.

(Photo credit: Meet the Slavs – https://www.meettheslavs.com/slavic-goddesses-vesna-morana/)

During these celebrations, Slavic villagers would leap over large fires, allowing the licking flames to cleanse their souls. A cloth and straw doll, often put together by the village children, would be dressed to look like a young girl. This was meant to represent Morena. The Slavs would then parade the effigy to the nearest lake or river, set her ablaze and/or tear her clothing, then symbolically drown her in the water. This released them from the grasp of winter and allowed spring to return. (A responsibility we Americans have since delegated to a groundhog.)

To them, the exile of Morena was also an invitation to Vesna, the goddess of spring and fertility. The two powers—life and death, winter and spring—could exist in the same place at the same time. Therefore, as Morena fled the villagers’ march, Vesna would waltz back into the land, bringing prosperity in her wake.


Flames climb the straw and cloth body of the doll, crackling and sputtering behind as it moves through the forest. Adorned in the garb of a young girl and held aloft by a man with a tree branch, the effigy leads a singing and dancing, jovial parade of people. It has been a hard winter, but their village escaped without many losses. They had won against nature and celebrate the coming abundance. For spring is nearing.

Up the path, on all fours, Morena flees from the villagers, stumbling over paws which have suddenly become useless and heavy. She struggles to carry herself forward, but fear of the pain pursuing her pushes the witch on. Even so, she cannot escape the passion in the songs resounding behind her. She each word as a spear through her heart.

Morena skids across the sandy-soil of the river bank, halting just short of the swift water. She climbs a boulder, gasping for air, but, out of desperation, coils up and tries to jump the water anyway. The villagers, now in sight of the river as well, give a cheer! Their cry sends the goddess tumbling into the rapids, where she fails helplessly against the current. As the villagers reach the bank, they grow louder and happier, then dunk the flaming doll into the water, banishing winter in that moment. Down the violent flow, Morena’s head bobs out one last time, with a wretched gasp, then does not again break the surface.

Away from the celebrations, a blushing face looks onward. She hides behind a tree whose bark seems to mold with the lush hazel hair that cascades over her shoulders to her waist below. She giggles, bringing a soft hand to her lips. The laugh reaches expressive eyes the color of sunlight through the leaves. Her full figure stands nude below—as if born from—the spring’s first budding tree.