Fields of Sunflowers and Morning Spirits Part I

Ok, so I lied. You did have to wait longer for this one. What can I say. Well, a lot as you might imagine.

Much has happened since last I wrote. Of course. Before I get to the new (and oh is there new), I will share my travels to my ancestral homeland in July.

~

Slovakia. Ahh..I love the syllables. Four. I counted. Not the kind of country you can say quickly. You pause. Letting the sounds rest on your tongue. Like savoring a square of deep dark chocolate. Allow it to melt. Contemplate the complexity, appreciate the richness. Finished with a sigh *ahh* on the out breath.

My cousin Roman describes the difference between the Czech and Slovak languages in the way of cadence. Czech is spoken with a continual rise in intonation until the end of a sentence, like climbing to the zenith of a mountain peak, over and over. Slovak is spoken with the cadence of one strolling over the hills and valleys of the Orava region. Picture a sine graph, rising and falling like the gentle sounds of a bubbling brook. In one word, soothing.

Imagine: fields of sunflowers with upturned faces. Rugged mountain peaks. Wide river valleys. Cliff top castles. Alpine cottages. Accordion serenaded garden parties. Central/Eastern European life, post-communism. Roman Catholicism. Slovak. Beautiful family and friends.

Slovaki-wha? Don’t be ashamed if you just looked up Goggle maps to locate this gem of a country. You aren’t the only one.

Niall: “How is Slovenia today?”

Kenni: “You mean Slovakia?”

Niall: “Yeah, that’s what I said, Serbia.”

~

My journey to Slovakia is a complex one, yet fundamentally so simple. A desire to unearth a lost branch of my family.

Last summer (2010) I was conducting family research. Easier said than done when the majority of your family comes from a non-English speaking part of the world. Identity is central to my studies at university (Naropa University, www.naropa.edu). What better place to start than to unravel the multi-colored quilt of my own?

Psenak. Most if not all of you, know how to pronounce my surname. It’s unique (until I found a village of Psenaks in Slovakia, but more on that later). Growing up with an unfamilar surname was a blessing and a burden at times. (Often compounded by being a girl named Kenni. Thanks Mom and Dad. It built character, I’m sure. ) Mispronunciations are common, only to be expected. “Pisshnack?”

But on the brighter side, I can categorically say I am the only Kenni Psenak in the world. I think that’s quite nice, although I was always a little sad when doing name meanings, family crests and such in school.  My teacher would invariably come back with a sympathetic look and “sorry, we can’t find any information on your name.”

But I did.

The next bit is a bit dense. Family trees tend to be that way.

Back to last summer. I had been scouring online for information on my Dad’s family for months when I brought a packet of printed out documents to my Grandfather with information on the birthplace and immigration of his father, John (Jan) Psenak. My Grandfather had always been told that his parents were from Czechoslovakia (Mother) and Austria (Father). After wading through countless ship manifests and naturalization, census and draft records I found my Great Grandfather Psenak. According to the documents, my Great Grandfather Psenak was born in Medzibrogy, Hungary which at the time was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, later found in Czechoslovakia and finally a small village in the Orava region of northern Slovakia. I was elated.

I brought the information to my Grandfather and shared while my cousin was visiting. We began asking my Grandfather more about his elusive Mother’s family, the Pohancenys, the ultimate mystery. All that my Grandfather knew, was that his Mother (Margaret Pohanceny) immigrated to the US with her family from Czechoslovakia. As a teenager in Ohio, she returned home to an empty house and suspected that her father, stepmother, and baby half sister had returned to Czechoslovakia, leaving both her and her younger sister Josephine in Ohio.

My Grandfather also mentioned a cousin Don (son of his Mother’s sister Josephine) that my Great Grandmother briefly raised in Ohio after the death of her beloved sister (Josephine).

Fortified with this new information, my cousin began to search for my Grandfather’s cousin Don (the only one we knew of) somewhere in the US. Serendipitously she found him. Not only did she find Don Sole, she found a newsletter he had written about his search for his mother’s family (my Great Grandmother Margaret Pohanceny’s family). Lo and behold, they were alive and well in the village my Great Grandmother grew up, Medvedzie, Slovakia (once part of Czechoslovakia) a stone’s throw from the village of my Great Grandfather Jan Psenak.

My aunt contacted Don and a whole new family blossomed across the US and Slovakia. My Grandfather’s aunts (including the baby half sister that was born in the US) were recently passed, but the descendants (my Grandfather’s first cousins and children) were living in Slovakia, mostly in or near Medvedzie. Don had been in contact with the family for the past decade, including multiple trips to visit. All that had been missing from Don’s research were the whereabouts of our family, the descendants of Magaret (Margita) Pohanceny (Pohancena). Like the final piece of a jigsaw, the puzzle finally made sense.

I, of course, started to plot.

Not in the sinister evil doer sort of plot (I watched “Despicable Me” for the second time last night), more the “how do I work travelling to Slovakia to visit my family into my studies?” sort of way. As you do. I’m sure everyone has been there.

I found a way.

A year ago, my aunt put me in touch with Don’s family and from there in touch with the family in Slovakia. Specifically, the brilliant Roman. My cousin of the same generation, the sole fluent English speaker of our family in Slovakia. Not only was Roman absolutely indispensable as translator, guide, event coordinator and general wealth of information, we soon found that we had much more in common than mere blood. I could not have asked for a better resource or friend once I reached Slovakia. Thank you Roman.

I spent last fall semester drafting and implementing my master plan:

1) Take Spring 2011 semester to fulfil independent study and Honors Directed Research and Reading credits for my interdisciplinary studies

2)Complete these studies abroad while being enrolled 6 credit hours

3)Spend the semester (Jan-April 2011) studying Odissi Classical Indian and Kalbeliya Gypsy dance in India (independent study of devotional dance and folkloric dance) and Honors Directed Reading of Performance as a Means of Social Change in the Balkans

4)Leave India and follow the Roma migration from India into Eastern Europe conducting research (Honors Directed Research)

5)First stop; Turkey May 2011

6)From Turkey overland into Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and finally Slovakia June 2011

7)Visit family in Slovakia July 2011

8)Return to Boulder Aug 2011

9)Back to Naropa Fall 2011

 

As you might gather from previous posts, steps 6,8 and 9 were a bit compromised by the introduction of a certain tall, dark, handsome Irishman. As he likes to say, “the best laid plans….” (Robert Burns)

Instead of continuing to travel through Turkey and up through the Balkan Peninsula, I found myself in the Channel Islands. Soon to feel unwelcome by the immigration authorities and left with no choice but to leave and resume step 7 of the Master Plan.

Enough background. Feel free to comb through previous posts to fill in any holes. If after that there are still glaring omissions and you are like me and like to know the details……. tough luck.

So there I was, July 6th, 2011 leaving Jersey in the Channel Islands and flying into Bratislava, Slovakia. Completely unprepared. I had been resolute about learning Slovak before reaching Slovakia, yet all I managed to accomplish was the ability to count to 10, say hello and notice the similarities with Russian (which I took a year of). Not even “thank you.” It was a bit pathetic. On top of it all, this was my first venture into continental Europe. I must be in a very select club of North American people whose first taste of Europe is Slovakia.

I was a combustible mixture of terror and elation upon arrival in Slovakia. I felt honored to be the first of my Grandfather Psenak’s family to return. I also felt the weight of that responsibility. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel in down town Bratislava, it was all I could do not to break down into a sobbing basket case in the back seat. Not because I was sad to leave Niall in Jersey (which I was), not because I am scared to travel on my own (which I’m not), not because the driver was playing terrible techno club music (which unfortunately he was) but because I remembered the little girl I had once been. Dreaming of finding family on the other side of the world, about as far away from Palmer, Alaska as you could possibly get.

As I gazed up at the beautiful, rubenesque moon that night, filling the sky above Bratislava with warm lunar light, tears silently escaped the confines of my normally less sentimental tear ducts. Tears for my Great Grandmother Maragret who never knew what became of her parents. Tears for my Grandfather who has never met his family or seen the land of his parents. And tears for the little girl I once naively was. The one who dreamt of one day travelling to the land in her imagination where Psenak is easy to pronounce and family mysteries would be easily revealed. She was soon to discover that she was the one pronouncing Psenak incorrectly and family mysteries only deepen.

As cliche as it sounds, I genuinely could feel the embrace of the land of my ancestors. I knew I was home.

~

I’d like to think it was the spirit of the land and not the familiar stop signs in English. Or cars driving on the right side of the road. Or the friendly hotel clerk looking at my passport in confusion. “You are from Alaska? But you have a Slovak name.”

These were my impressions of Slovakia, night one. I still had another two weeks of exploring Bratislava (attempting to walk to Vienna, not the brightest idea), meeting beautiful family in Orava, eating meat for the first time in over three years (sausage no less), wandering the old church cemetery looking for relatives, drinking whisky at 11 am (quickly followed by being pissed by 3 pm), speaking with gestures and smiles, soaking up the mountains, and learning the essentials of Slovak (pivo, vino, klobasa, dakujem, dobry den: beer, wine, sausage, thank you, and hello respectively sans the appropriate accents. Not necessarily in order of importance).

Well, I’ve written quite a lot without actually saying much. This must mean Part I is finished. In that case, I’ll leave you with a bit of food for thought.

I had a frightening realization while residing at Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava. Although my room was on the 17th floor, I rarely took the elevator. I made a point of taking the stairs. Some would interpret this as a phobia of elevators. If only it was so easy. Unfortunately, it’s a symptom of something much more sinister. *Cue old black and white horror film close up of a woman holding her face and screaming: I am becoming my mother.

I’m beginning to think like her. Don’t take the elevator, take the stairs. It’s good for your butt, she whispers in my ear. Thanks Mom. For those of you who know my Mom, you understand my concern. Just kidding. No really.

Perhaps it was foresight. The next two weeks did consist of large amounts of sausage, beer, gulas (pronounced gulash) and kolace (pronounced kolachies, pastries). I needed all the help I could get to keep those fatty calories off said bum.

But I digress. Next instalment will be sure to cover three very important things:

1) whether Kenni could still fit in her jeans when leaving Slovakia

2) how she lost a new pair of sunglasses the same way as the previous pair in Turkey

3) how absolutely extraordinary it was to finally meet the Pohancenys and the Psenaks

Stay tuned. But don’t hold your breath. Soon, I promise part II will come soon.

Lots of love.

Dovidenia (until we see us again)

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