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Politics to Pizza: Moving from Slovakia to Poland

by Ben

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View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

The Slovakian Apartment

The Slovakian Apartment

Before we left our Slovakian home we spent an hour talking over coffee with our host, Peter. I think if we did not have a meeting time already set in Poland and Peter didn’t have to get rooms ready for guests coming in the afternoon we would have talked for several hours. Peter works as an independent contractor for companies that install chairlift systems. He currently does work for a French company whose fortunes seem to be falling. His wife, Veronika, is an instructor in Spanish and business at a university satellite campus in Popard. They have a young son who is six years old. Veronika always wanted to work in the hotel industry and it has been her dream to run some sort of hospitality business. As a result, Peter worked with a relative and over a four year period built a house with two apartments upstairs and three rooms with a communal kitchen downstairs. To finance the enterprise they sold their apartment in nearby Popard for 50 000 euros, just before housing prices spiked to triple their value. It was a move that was unfortunate but they seem to be taking it in stride. They live with Veronika’s parents, which makes it easier for them to manage the rental business alongside their day jobs. Working more than one job is a Slovakian necessity according to Peter, who said “it is the Slovak way of life.”

As we have heard so many times during our trip, everyone has a story of migration. Peter’s brother lives in Mexico City of all places, and Peter and Veronika lived and worked there for a year. The movement of people around the globe is amazing and often defies what I would expect in terms of migration direction. In our travels we have met a Scot who immigrated to Hungary, a Belgian who immigrated to Turkey, a Canadian who immigrated to Italy, and an Italian who immigrated to Greece. It was a reminder that migration is not always about moving from an economically poor region to an economically rich one.

I was fascinated to hear how Peter viewed his country in relation to its neighbours and how he viewed North America. It was a challenge to my preconceptions about Poland, which we have yet to visit, that amongst all his neighbours Peter admired the Poles the most. He stated that they have a real head for business and economic development. In general, he felt his fellow Slovaks had little business sense (a view a bit at odds with current economic data) and tended to see their neighbouring countries too much like enemies.

In regards to North America, Peter feels the United States gets a bad rap for intervening around the world. Why shouldn't they act if there are problems they can do something about? In terms of the economic crisis, Peter believes it is the fault of the US Democratic Party and that only more right wing free enterprise economic policy will bring prosperity to the world. He pointed to the European economic crisis as an illustration of what is wrong with government intervention and regulation. This is interesting view considering it is Slovakia’s entry into the European Union that has seems to have grown its economy and made it possible to survive its separation from the Czech Republic.

In regards to Canada, Peter sees Canada as being an exception in the world. It is economically successful even with a more left wing approach to government. He feels that we are out of step with the world trend. He says it may work for Canadians to put their trust in government to accomplish good on behalf of the people but he can’t see how it can work elsewhere, as his experience is that governments are corrupt and dysfunctional. It is difficult to see how Peter could believe otherwise having grown up under a communist regime, and then seeing corruption continue among his country’s democratically elected officials.

I told Peter about an observation shared with me while visiting a family of one of our International students in Brazil. The father, who is a wealthy and successful businessman, said he has no problem with paying taxes to see services equally available to all people. In Brazil he pays the same amount of taxes as in Canada but gets very little for it in terms of infrastructure and services, thus requiring him to spend money again to buy these services privately. He believed if people could see and experience what happens in Canada with taxes, they would be much more likely to adopt a Canadian style social policy and not aspire to the American religion of letting the market entirely decide how a country’s services and wealth are divided. He felt his fellow citizens needed to expect and demand more of their governments.

Our topic of conversation was not extraordinary, as it is something we argue in Canada at every election and we hear it argued constantly in the US electoral politics. What made it unique and new was discussing the same issues with someone from an Eastern European background and having Hannah engaging in the concepts and trying to make sense of it all for herself. A person’s political view is shaped so much by their personal experiences, so much so that it often trumps what one might reason to be best just based on wider information and considerations. The more we talked the more we all found a simplified left-right, government-no-government approach to the world fell well short of an adequate solution. It helps to dialogue with people from all walks of life and backgrounds and countries. It really tempers your views and widens your appreciation of the complexity of economic development and caring for your fellow man.

It was with great reluctance that we left our host, but we knew we were going to be in the same situation as when we left Hungary if we stayed any longer. The kids had enough of their dad driving like a maniac to make a pre-arranged meeting time for our next accommodation. As it was, we were going to arrive in Krakow with no time to spare if we left immediately.

Our arrival in Poland was quite a contrast with our arrival in Slovakia. Admittedly, we seemed to have entered Slovakia by the back door and travelled a lot of sketchy roads, perhaps through the most impoverished areas of the country. We did find the Popard area of Slovakia to be comparatively affluent and have read that the Bratislava area is even more so. Despite this, on our last stretch through Slovakia we again saw many, many people (we suspect that a good percentage may have been Roma—often called Gypsies) standing alongside the road in the middle of nowhere with just one bucket of berries to sell. I am not sure how long some would need to stand there before selling their one container of freshly picked wild berries, especially when there was a half dozen standing several meters apart each vying for the next car. Traffic was not particularly heavy. When we crossed the border into Poland we saw an immediate uptick in traffic, a disturbing abundance of billboards, and sprawling communities with many small businesses haphazardly peppered among family homes. There was definitely a sense of greater economic activity.

The Polish road system as we have experienced it thus far is plagued by an almost insane fluctuation in posted speed limits. Within a kilometer you can go from 70 km/h to 140 km/h and then down to 50 km/h with little seeming to justify the required change in speed. Since there is radar and photo radar everywhere most cars tend to comply with the fluxuations. This generates a dangerous nervous energy among drivers, of whom half are chafing to see the next rise in speed and will slam their feet down on their accelerators as soon as sign indicating a speed change appears. The other half suffer from a paranoia that they may have missed a speed reduction sign and unexpectedly brake to observe what they imagine the slower posted speed limit might be.

The road layout in Krakow proper is also a sight to behold. The tram system runs down the center of some streets with just enough room on either side of the tracks for one lane of car traffic. As a result, tram loading platforms connecting to the sidewalk are placed literally on the car traffic lane. Driving down the street you will suddenly find yourself driving on an elevated platform with a brick surface for a hundred meters and then return to a normal asphalt surface, giving the uninitiated driver the alarming feeling that they have somehow driven off the road and are driving on the sidewalk, about to mow down hundreds of people. It seems to be a very unsettling set up for both foreign drivers and first time tram passengers.

Our apartment is a mere 15 minute walk from Krakow’s magnificent central square and less than ten from the beautiful architecture of the old city. That small expanse marks an extraordinary transition in the character of the city. Our neighbourhood consists mostly of sooty gray apartment buildings, which remind one of all the bleak camera footage on North American television whenever there was coverage of the political situation in Poland during the 1980s. The streets are in pretty rough condition and cars are parked bumper to bumper along the streets. Our building is a bit of an exception having been painted a reddish brown, with a great deal of it flaking off. The hallways are very dark and worn, and look a bit like a correctional institution. The very fast moving elevator in this ten story building is a bit off putting since there is no interior door. If you are not alert the first time you use it, you could scrape off a limb by standing too close to the elevator shaft as you hurtle upwards to your chosen floor. The fact that the door to our apartment has a huge deadbolt at both the top and bottom and requires a key the size of which a medieval jailor might use seemed to confirm the idea that we may have inadvertently booked ourselves into a Soviet era prison.

Our Home in Krakow

Our Home in Krakow

The contrast that awaited us on the other side of the door was remarkable. A very neat, comfortable and well appointed apartment awaited. It has a balcony overflowing with flowering plants. The only institutional motif that persisted was the wire mesh covering the whole face of the balcony. Apparently birds are a real problem, so nearly all the balconies in the neighbourhood have gone with the caged in look. Our hostess was extremely earnest and helpful. She assured us the neighbourhood was very safe and that they also lived just two blocks away in the same neighbourhood. We all breathed a lot easier.

We walked the neighbourhood to do some banking and then grocery shopping. The currency is zloty, which are roughly three to every Canadian dollar. As always, grocery shopping is a bit of challenge the first time round in a new country. We needed to go to two supermarkets to get just the basics and visited a nearby farmer’s market for fresh produce, but were unable to get to the bakery before it closed at 4:00 pm. The two supermarkets we visited were claustrophobic affairs with too much stock, too many customers and too little aisle space. Along with low quality of produce the meat and baked goods were also poor. On the plus side there are dozens of bakeries and delicatessens around to supplement, just not on a Saturday afternoon after 4:00 pm.

Jewish Music Festival in Krakow

Jewish Music Festival in Krakow

The kids settled in for a relaxing evening in the apartment while Muriel and I walked to the Jewish quarter of Krakow to catch the last night of the Jewish music festival. The festival is the largest of its kind in the world. The closer we got to the venue the thicker the crowds became. The free open-air concerts are held in a large square where people jostle for the best position in which to stand. The band we heard came from the United States, and played music inspired by ZZ Top with lyrics sung in Yiddish. The group’s rather staid image seemed at odds with their music, which made the whole concert look like people trying to imitate something rather than expressing who they really were. The concert goers also seemed like they were not quite sure how to act or respond to the music. A few were dancing or swaying with the music but most people seemed more intent on watching what everyone else was doing, hoping to pick up some sort of clue on what they should be doing. We listened for about half an hour, then started wandering and engaging in some people watching of our own.

We stumbled across Plac Nowy, a collection of unkempt buildings surrounding a concrete square filled with chipped green market stalls and numerous pigeons. At its center is a rotunda, which served as a ritual slaughterhouse for chickens for the Jewish community until World War II. Today the square is a hugely busy marketplace with a few hundred stalls operating from early morning to early afternoon selling all and sundry. After the market winds down, the rotunda at the center is what draws locals by the hundreds. The rotunda has at least 15 hatch like openings through which Krakow’s most famous fast food is sold. Zapiekanka is a halved Polish baguette that is loaded with cheese and mushrooms and all manner of other toppings to make a pizza-like snack. The name of this snack comes from a word meaning to roast or scorch. It seems unimaginable that you can have 15 separate businesses selling the exact same kind of food from the same location. But it definitely works, as there are lines fifteen people deep waiting to place their orders. The price is right, with the most expensive form of the zapiekanka going for about 3 dollars Canadian. It is the night food of the area and a favourite pit stop for people on a pubcrawl. The size of the snack is huge, yet you see small slim well dressed young women ready for a night on the town somehow downing them with little trouble and managing to keep themselves clean in the process (napkins are not provided).

After stuffing ourselves, we meandered back to our apartment. Krakow looks like an incredible city with a lot of character and a big food culture. In addition to food, the Poles also love their alcohol. It seems like on every other block there is a 24 hour “alkohole” store. I did a little research to see if the stereotype of hard drinking Poles is true. I am glad I checked so I can put another myth to rest. Apparently Poles only consume alcohol slightly above the European average. What skews people’s perception is that 7 percent of the population drinks half of the country’s alcohol, a problem that we have witnessed in the streets and parks. I still crave a cold beer when I get home but promise to keep myself to one; they are, after all, a half litre each.

Posted by KZFamily 12:58 Archived in Poland Tagged poland slovakia krakow Comments (1)

A Day in Slovakia

By Hannah

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Spiš Castle

Spiš Castle

It's impossible to do any country justice in only one day. Well, nearly. Vatican City comes to mind as a possible exception. Still, I'm pretty sure I'll be revisiting Slovakia someday. At least it's small. Anyways, we did what we could with the time we had, and had a skvelý day.

We visited Lake Liptovska Mara and took a stroll around it, along with a number of others due to the fact that today was a holiday in Slovakia. At the end of our walk, we found a long line of kiosks selling souvenirs, stuffed animals, and various other knickknacks. Mom assured me that the sheep plushie with a circumference of five feet would not, in fact, fit into my bag.

We had deliciously sour creamy Slovakian food for lunch. Abby and I had perogies (of course), and Mom and Dad had dumplings that were reminiscent of the spaetzle we tried in Austria. After eight months without perogies, Abby and I are probably going to eat them at every chance we get in the next few weeks.

Our next stop was Spiš Castle, the ruins of which are over 700 years old. They stretch out over four hectares, and are more impressive from the air than from the ground. A number of paragliders seemed to have figured this out, and were riding the breeze above the castle.

We spent a couple hours navigating the ruins and learning a bit about medieval life. Fun fact: did you know that it used to be common practice to eat two meals a day, not three? Also, here's a list of rules you should adhere to while attending a feast in the Middle Ages.

There was a group of street performers atop one of the stone towers, garbed in medieval clothing and showing off different weapons of the age. Due to our lack of Slovak, we didn't understand the monologues, but we got the gist of things. There were also a couple sword fights, and someone from the audience nearly got beheaded.

On our way back home, we stopped at a restaurant recommended to us by our hosts. It was packed with diners, and since we were still pretty full from lunch, we decided to skip dinner and the wait and get ice cream instead. Sitting in the shade on a hot July evening in Slovakia with dessert in hand is not at all a bad way to end a day.

Posted by KZFamily 12:36 Archived in Slovakia Tagged slovakia Comments (1)

Hungary No More


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Before leaving our Hungarian flat this morning, we had a 20 minute chat with the friendly Scottish expat manager. Among other tidbits of Hungarian life, he willingly espoused on Hungarian corruption and said it was rampant at all levels. He indicated it is not uncommon for police officers and city officials to stop people indiscriminately and fine them for a concocted indiscretion, pocketing the money themselves. He also lamented the state of the public hospitals and said that doctors would ask for additional funds before assessing you. We suspect his musings were more than just hyperbole. We noted that many of the public spaces and the sights in Budapest had either received or are undergoing amazing renovations; the manager said all the money for these upgrades is coming from the EU. We had wondered how Hungary could afford such good upkeep; I hope most of the exorbitant funds they are charging in admission prices are also going towards the bill.

Slovakia countryside

Slovakia countryside

While we had been fortunate to avoid Budapest traffic problems earlier this week, upon leaving, we immediately got snagged in a long, slow-moving line of vehicles. When this occurs in Budapest, it appears they have a unique, if not effective, way of dealing with intersection traffic. As in most traffic jams, the cars are lined up on the other side of the intersection so that there is no more room for another car to advance, but when the yellow light comes on, the next in line immediately enters the intersection in the hope that the line in front will advance enough to let them proceed all the way through the intersection. Of course, this rarely occurs, so when a few seconds later the red light comes on, they are now blocking traffic from the cross street. The cross street drivers, now plenty ticked off that they have finally got to the intersection, have a green light and yet still can’t advance, start honking violently and still drive up as far as they can into the intersection so that they are close to t-boning the offending cars. This results in even more gridlock. When the first red light turns green, the initial cars into the intersection can now proceed; however, due to the ones that have moved in from the cross street, there are now lanes that are blocked. This jockeying for position continues and renders the experience a very long and noisy affair. If we knew we were in for this, we would not have lingered over the earlier chat!
Eventually, we exited the mayhem and got on the road towards Slovakia. Because of the near miss we had for a fine for not having a Slovenia highway toll sticker, we were paranoid about making sure we had the required sticker for Slovakia before we entered the country. Consequently, we stopped a couple of times at gas stations trying to determine what was needed. Our language attempts did not serve us well enough to ascertain what we had to do so we kept trying to keep our eyes peeled for road signs. We saw some signs indicating a sticker might need to be bought but it was only later we understood that it is only required for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes. I have now pledged to research the toll charges on the rest of Europe before we travel further.

Slovakia accommodations

Slovakia accommodations

Lunch was a quick stop in a parking lot outside a Slovakian grocery store, where Ben and I stood near the hatchback wolfing down our food (the kids used their sophisticated tray tables). We were slated to meet up with our next host at a specified hour and we still had to go through the windy mountain roads to get to Spisske Bystre. We were aware we had lost a lot of precious minutes due to the stops and delays and I told Ben he had to try to make up some time. Ben’s response was to rely on everything he learned while driving in Italy, Malta and Germany, combining speed with cutting corners close and weaving through slower traffic. Hannah and Abby got quieter and quieter as the back end of the car fishtailed through the tight corners and flew over the hills. At one point, Hannah said she just tried to go to sleep to deal with the nausea and the fear that was simmering. There was only one passing manoeuver that I considered dubious; I’m confident the rest of his moves were well within the rules of the Sicilian safe driving manual.
As we flew through the countryside, there were many stretches where we came upon towns grouped together no more than a kilometer or two apart. We must have navigated more than two dozen small communities. Many looked to be fairly poor, without a lot of extras. As we got closer to the mountains, we encountered quite a few residents selling pails of berries along the road. The retinue included whole families and people of all ages. Most of the roadwork had potholes so it was quite different from what we had experienced in other countries. We were on the back roads for sure. Ben said, ‘Where ARE we? What kind of a place did you book us into, Muriel?’ I could tell he was getting nervous. I let him know that the road we were looking for was so new it wasn’t in the GPS yet (something he always likes to hear). When we found the road, it looked like it had just been plowed fairly recently so there was no pavement either. However, the place itself turned out to be great, very modern, inexpensive and only a year old. It also has a washer but as it is the same model as the one recently encountered in Slovenia, needless to say, we’re going to leave our laundry till Poland. The hosts are an exceptionally likable couple in their forties. He follows NHL hockey and cheers for Boston but knew enough to look a bit shamefaced when admitting it to us Canucks. They gave us a lot of tips about the area and told us we had to try ‘halušky’ and ‘pierogi.’ Our eyes lit up when we heard the word ‘perogy!’ The kids have gone eight months without perogies, the longest span in their lives since growing teeth. That night, we located the tasty potato and cheese dumplings in the grocery store; the only thing left was to ensure we found sour cream. Buying milk products in these foreign lands can be quite difficult as there is always such a variety and it’s hard to know whether you really bought the item you wanted until you get home and try it. However, Ben was so determined that he overcame any natural reticence and, with bag of frozen perogies in one hand and a couple of cream products in the other, had a hand gesture-based conversation with a clerk to zero in on the all-important right sour cream.
Because of the food, this may yet become our favourite stop of the trip!

Posted by KZFamily 14:07 Archived in Slovakia Tagged traffic slovakia slovenia spisske_bystre Comments (2)

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