Just when I was afraid Prague had become too touristy. A couple of hours after checking in to a hostel in the Lesser Side district, one of the major sight-seeing destinations, I happened upon this group of revelers singing a traditional Czech song. They stepped out from the pub "At the Tomcat's" to perform "Všude bylo ticho..." "Everywhere was quiet, like in church, only music was playing merrily... the moon was witness to our love & kisses."
In autumn 1990, I was among the first Westerners - and recent college grads - to evade the real world for a couple of years by teaching English in what was then Czechoslovakia. My assignment was in Martin, a town of 50K in the mountains, which turned out to be the home of Slovak nationalism. Barriers to communication, often cultural as well as linguistic, provided tons of material for my upcoming memoir, Slovakian Rhapsody, as this excerpt illustrates.
Due to Martin’s status as cultural leader, its dialect was chosen for codifying Slovak grammar in the nineteenth century. The locals delighted in reminding me that I was privileged to be learning the purest variety of their tongue. My Slovak textbooks boasted that it was the most central of all the Slavic languages. Well, I must be living in the epicenter of Slavdom, I thought—but I suspected some bias in the claims.
One day Dagmar handed me an invitation to a genealogical society lecture at Matica slovenská, the Slovak cultural institution whose world-wide headquarters was just three blocks away, in a high-rise visible from my office window.
“I am sure you will be interested, since it is on the family of Ján Polerecký,” she said, her round face displaying a wide-eyed grin, as if expecting me to gasp in delight.
I hated to disappoint her, but all I could say was, “Who?”
“YAHN POH-le-ret-skee.” She spread her arms as if introducing a celebrity.
“Sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
“You mean to tell me,” she sputtered, intonation rising wildly, accent thickening, “you don’t know who is the heerrro of the Amerrrican Rrrevolution?”
Ján Po-WHO-sky? The hero of the American Revolution? Did she really believe that some Slovak bumpkin had singlehandedly beat the redcoats? Had the commies drummed this nonsense into their heads for the last forty years? Or had the nationalists over at Matica been spreading it in the past year?
Musical & Literary Wanderings of a Galloping Gypsy
Mark Eliot Nuckols is a travel writer from Silver Beach Virginia who is also a musician and teacher.