“Yeah, Yeah, you are a foolish American!”
Stará Ľubovňa (A Town That Can Save Us), Part I
This quote came from a reader recently. She had read one of my blogs and thought that I was not being fair to Slovakia because I am seeing only the beautiful things. What about the ugly things? That was her point.
It is true, I do see beauty everywhere, but this is a choice; it is the ugly realities of life that are easy to see anywhere in the world. For instance, as I am interviewing people all over Slovakia for upcoming blogs, of course I am hearing stories that aren’t beautiful at in the least! These are stories about drugs on the street, the mafia squeezing people in small towns, stories of unemployment, outrage, prostitution, angst, corruption, and television soap operas, (a blight in any culture). Worse than all of this perhaps, there are groups, organizations, and even strange religions pouring into Slovakia to prey on her people.
Seeing beauty everywhere is not easy to do because it is often hidden, and to discover it, I have found you need at least two things: The Courage to Look for Beauty in Unexpected Places, and An Exceptional Guide to lead you to it.
So imagine my surprise when, quite by accident, my path lead me to, Stará L’ubovňa, a "beautiful" village in the north of Slovakia, 12km from Poland and 21km from the High Tatras. Here is a village where everything does seem to be beautiful. While my critical reader will say I see beauty everywhere, in Stará L’ubovňa, that might actually be the truth!
To be honest, my high opinion of Stará L’ubovňa has more to do with the assistance of my remarkable tour guide, Monika. Monika is a high school student (Stredná škola), and a lifelong native of Stará L’ubovňa. With great trust and interest, she allowed me to ask her many question about her town and helped me find the gritty and truthful beauty I would never have found on my own. If Monika is representative of her generation, then let us all share in the wonderful optimism for Slovakia’s future.
Welcome to Stará L’ubovňa!
You may know where Stará L’ubovňa is located. Maybe you have even been there. It’s a hidden enclave of rest and relaxation, a charming stop on your way to Poland, a quaint stopover for your hiking trek to the High Tatras. If you want to take a vacation and be surrounded by unspoilt nature, come to Stará L’ubovňa, where the city boasts of mountain water so pure, (99% pure), that you can literally dip your canteen into the water and drink from the rivers as if from the dew of heaven.
If you want to pay tribute to one of the world’s greatest living sports legends, then come to Stará L’ubovňa and thank the city for her most famous son, Chicago Blackhawk’s (NHL) Right Winger, Marian Hossa.
These are great attractions that Stará L’ubovňa has to offer any who visit, great tourist attractions to be sure, and if you go to Stará L’ubovňa for a nice vacation, you will not be disappointed. Yet, if you go to Stará L’ubovňa to seek it’s heart, (when you come seeking Slavy Dcera), this is when the doors and windows—figuratively speaking—open into a different world, one full of hope and optimism.
So Monika, (my docent, guide, and friend during this trip), begins to show me Stará L’ubovňa through her eyes.
First, she says, we must begin our conversation at the Pizzeria Palma. Every story in Stará L’ubovňa should begin at the Pizzeria Palma! This is a delicious pizzeria in the area, on Za Vodou Ulica, surrounded by Communist era tenament houses. Here, beside the Jakubianka Canal, people are living a good life. It’s nothing fancy, but you can tell this little pizzeria is like home for all of them.
The Church in the Town Square
So, on the way to Pizzeria Palma, in the middle of Námestie Svätého Mikuláša, I noticed a church exterior being remodeled. I asked Monika about the church and these renovations. I ask if they are converting it into a hotel or penzion? If I could have seen her eyes, she would have looked at me like I am crazy.
“No, no!” Monika said. “The church is church! It is not a hotel. In Slovakia, nobody would ever make a hotel from a church.”
I feel a little embarrassed because this is a question only an American would ask. Here, in the USA, property tax is charged to every church and they must pay. In some areas of town, any town, there are so many churches—big or small—that we say “there is a church on every corner,” and it is true sometimes. Sadly, what this means is that churches in America can become competitive, like businesses. When you have so many choices, that’s the logical thing to do for modern people. When choosing a church, people will often decide on which church to attend based on nothing more than which one has the newest building? Which has the best website, the best landscaping, or the coolest kids activities in the summer? So it is competitive.
If a church cannot keep enough members to pay its bills, the bank forecloses on the property and the church dissolves or the faithful go elsewhere, and they are forced to leave their building behind. Supply and demand. So not only have I seen church buildings sold and turned into hotels, they are remodeled to become coffee shops, cellular stores, art studios, private residences and, gasp, even lawyers’ offices!
Okay, so in Slovakia, no one makes a hotel from a church. I like that. But something else has been bugging me. Do people actually go to church in Slovakia?
Now, this may sound like another question only an American would ask, but not so. In my travels in Slovakia so far, I have found the Roman Catholic churches to be . . . a bit on the empty side.
When I do meet people who attend church and ask them to share with me why they go to church, there is nothing about it that seems to interest them—they do it because they can or feel they should. A friend of mine, Dan, who lives in Košice, made an interesting observation. He said, (and I am paraphrasing), “Picture a youth texting at a coffee shop on Sunday morning, an atheist; and then, at the same time, picture his elderly grandmother attending service at her Roman Catholic Church. Spiritually speaking, there is not a lot of difference.”
To be fair, I already knew this was not Monika’s story. Monika and her family attend the Greek Catholic Church in Stará L’ubovňa, and it is an active community of faith, full of worshippers each Sunday! So I shared my observation with Monika and asked if she could help me solve the puzzle of the empty churches.
“I´ll help you to solve this puzzle very quickly, Jeff.”
“Okay,” I said, “help me understand.”
“Slovakia is, in general, a Christian country. We are about 80% Christian, of which 73% are Roman or Greek Catholic, but of course not everybody goes to church and practices a religious life. Some parts of Slovakia are more “Catholic” and some less. I would say that especially in the east, and maybe in the middle-part of Slovakia, we are considered “religious” and most people in these areas practice religious life. I can say that Stará L’ubovňa is a town where people go to church, at least on Sunday. The churches here are full, both Roman and Greek Catholic churches, especially at feasts like Easter or Christmas. In fact, at Easter, it is our tradition to bring baskets of food to church and have it blessed by the priest.”
I have seen some of Monika’s pictures and I can honestly tell you that her church is full and many activities are happening. As I interviewed her, I couldn’t help but notice that her faith in God is real, and not only this, it is an active part of her life and the life of her family.
This is more than a side note. Out of all the towns I have visited so far in Slovakia, Stará L’ubovňa seems different in this way. There are almost no private walls, there is much less graffiti, and there is—what is the word I am looking for?—optimism. I think the odd feeling I am getting in Stará L’ubovňa is that, yes, everything is beautiful in this town! Could this noticeable difference have something to do with Stará L’ubovňa being a faith-based town? Here is a town that is family-focused, holds to Christian values, and centers it’s civic life around loving churches and caring community.
Do you know what this would mean? It would mean we have stumbled upon the answer that many people in Slovakia have on their lips: where do we go from here? If Stará L’ubovňa really is a town of such beauty and promise, then it may very well be the the most radical town in all of Slovakia! That Stará L’ubovňa is unique is without question; why it is unique, I’m not really sure, but whatever it is I am gladly observing, it is part of the reason why my brilliant tour guide, (in her teens I might add), is also in her own Gospel music band.
Monika’s Band “the weather”
As it turns out, Monika is not only my “cultural interpreter” as we travel through Stará L’ubovňa, she is also a gifted musician—a prodigy from what I can tell—and with some other school friends, have started “the weather” a Christian Gospel band. This is so exciting because it is totally unexpected and a tremendous surprise to me. I asked Monika to tell me more about her band, and where they came up with the name.
“Our band started just accidently,” Monika explained. “I would say, we were just few people who liked music, and we were playing together quite a long time and just decided to choose a name. It´s a long story about why we called ourselves “the weather,” but as we play Gospel, the main meaning is that we want to play even in our “storms” in life—when we have bad time, or for the “sunny days” we have—when we are happy. Just as in every kind of “weather” we play and sing to God.”
I asked her how I can hear her band’s music. “If somebody wants to contact us,” we have our facebook fan page, and there they can find more contact information by clicking HERE."
Conclusion of Stará L’ubovňa, PART I
Monika and I are just starting on our journey, (just finishing the pizza so to speak), and now the next part of our journey begins. We have already established that there is something unique about Stará L’ubovňa that I have not, yet, met in any other city in Slovakia.
To be honest, I came to Stará L’ubovňa as a tourist, and would have remained only a tourist had I not met Monika, a tour guide revealing to us the heart of Stará L’ubovňa. We are seeing this heart already in her people, how they look at the world, and how they live they their life through strong community. But we are just beginning! So I will close my notebook here, and prepare the next blog.
Next Blog: Stará L’ubovňa, PART II (the Communism talk)
In the next blog, as Monika takes me along the roads and sights of Stará L’ubovňa, we will journey down a more difficult path. I think you will be even more amazed that this young lady, (slečna Monika), who has not lived through Communism, will talk with some authority and conviction on the topic, as well as several other ideas as we continue to explore the heart of Stará L’ubovňa.