Piano for the rain

Drops of rain falling on its surface at night…
I mean the Sea in the middle of the Sea
No visible horizons to scoop up the drops
No valleys to cradle the buckets of water
No rivers to channel it inland
No fields to soak it up
just a piano for the rain.

I mean the Sea becoming an Ocean
A body within a body of water
Tossing against another
Deep, salty, grey, misty, humid and cold, even in thunderstorm
At mercy of Sun and Moon
whipped into motion sickness over and over again…

Who is there to see it?
Who can tell it’s pointless?

(From a landlocked country to an island – can’t get my head around the idea of Oceans and Seas surrounding me before my sleep)

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Piešťany – Muslims love it and Slovaks don’t mind!

Following the hysteria concerning refugee quotas that has possessed Central Europe recently it is no surprise that I have approached my trip to Piešťany (a spa town in Western Slovakia loved by Arab tourists) with trepidation. It was not my first time in the town, count in an extended weekend with my parents aged 9 and numerous day trips since.  But this time I came with my own kids who are used to roaming streets of Birmingham, UK and a husband whose olive skin and accent immediately place him into a category of a foreigner.

Located on both banks of River Váh and surrounded by hills of Považský Inovec you could forget the fact that Piešťany springs provide a constant flow of natural mineral waters, muds and sulphur soaks to treat all kinds of musculoskeletal diseases. You could ignore its rehabilitation centres run by top physiotherapists.  You could just spend the day walking the promenade, fishing in the shade or sipping coffee in one of many Austro-Hungarian style confectioneries.

 

And whilst I did enjoy all that and got my modest dose of massage, cinnamon wraps and jacuzzi…walking the town Centre every evening, my mind was drifting to potentially one of the most interesting intersections of cultures in the heart of Central Europe.

First of all, it is very obvious, from the moment you step into this town in summer, that Arab speaking visitors feel ‘at home’ here. Many come not only for a short-term spa retreat but own their own apartment in the town or rent a villa that allow them to bring extended families. The amount of children and teenagers driving around on bikes and scooters or just enjoying the water sprinklers near the restaurant quarter is staggering. Add Russian speaking, Turkish, Israeli and German tourists into the mix, mingled with rather cash poor Slovak pensioners and you have an interesting model of a 21st century rehab/spa town.

There are not many studies that cover the subject though I have managed to find one (bottom of the page) that tells a history of two Arab travel companies bringing people into the town since 1970s. These companies sprung up when links between the socialist block and Middle East were particularly strong. Since 1990s, wealthier clients from Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia got interested too and helped to prop up luxurious hotels on the Spa Island.

But there are other interesting phenomena too. ‘Gangs’ of Muslim girls and women who, despite obvious stereotypes, feel free to enjoy picnics on the park green or lavish birthday parties in one of many high end restaurants without chaperones of their husbands or fathers.

My impressions, however lighthearted, are not without understanding deeply entrenched stereotypes (some might say grievances) that Slovaks often feel towards Muslim faith. After all, this is the only country in EU that does not have an official mosque. In the 17th century, considerable parts of Central and Southern Slovakia became vassal provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Long before that, during the period referred to as Dark Ages in Europe, Arab scholars and explorers visited the region and even wrote about ‘cultural habits’ of Western Slavs. It was a well known fact in those days that many Slavs were captured and sold as slaves to Muslims in North Africa as well as Middle East. Hence the origin of the word ‘slave’ – Slav.

The sense of injustice is documented in folklore and many legends concerning beautiful women who had to leave their ‘sweethearts’ behind and became victims of slave trade. On the other hand, unfulfilled love between a Muslim and non-Muslim were also part of the repertoire. My friend later mentioned that there was a trouble in the town recently, two teenage non-White boys wanted to get attention of some Slovak girls in the bar and when turned down, splashed them with a bottle of water. The incident got ‘frenzied’ attention of social media, to the extent that Slovak Militia (a self-appointed defence force), felt it necessary to do their own appearance in the town. To be fair to the Militia, after their own investigation, they published a statement in which they admitted that the incident was grossly misinterpreted by press. In the end it looked like a rival bar fuelled the rumours of ‘major race relations trouble’ in order to undermine the owner of the bar in which the incident took place.

And so, filled with mixed feelings, on the last day of my holiday, I happen to be walking past an outdoor stage – the one that hosts a myriad of performers every summer. A 1930s vintage brass orchestra was preparing for their first song. Many Muslim men, women and families took seats in the front. Some Slovaks were already seated. I joined the crowd. And guess what…A cheerful love song was played about Zuzka, little Zuzka and after that – another one, about Ottoman invasion, slavery and longing for freedom. The Muslim visitors were oblivious to the words, they seemed to like the tunes and we were all united in our determination to enjoy that fleeting moment of free entertainment.

And so I say: “Long live Piešťany and long live the tourists who spend their money in your town!”

http://www.internaciones.cucsh.udg.mx/sites/default/files/arab_clients_in_the_spa_town.pdf

http://www.slovenski-branci.sk/jednotky-sb-v-uliciach-piestan-preco-to-bolo-potrebne-a-k-comu-to-viedlo/

Six degrees of separation

Not a migrant

We are six or fewer steps away, by a way of introduction, from any other person in the world. In 1929, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called Chains (Lanczsemek) suggesting this concept. 70 years later the idea has grown into a popular theory called Six Degrees of Separation devoted to studies of social networks and social media.

All my childhood I lived in a traditional multigenerational ‘winemaker estate’ separated from the world by more than just Six Degrees of separation. The description of the estate, its history and purpose do not translate well into English. There simply is no easy equivalent to this peculiar assembly of utility buildings with elaborated facade and grand heavy gate. The key feature of the estate is a deep seated cellar suitable for making and preserving wine. Most importantly, the winemaker’s craft, relying on labour of the close family, is completely hidden away from the main street…

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Six degrees of separation

We are six or fewer steps away, by a way of introduction, from any other person in the world. In 1929, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called Chains (Lanczsemek) suggesting this concept. 70 years later the idea has grown into a popular theory called Six Degrees of Separation devoted to studies of social networks and social media.

All my childhood I lived in a traditional multigenerational ‘winemaker estate’ separated from the world by more than just Six Degrees of separation. The description of the estate, its history and purpose do not translate well into English. There simply is no easy equivalent to this peculiar assembly of utility buildings with elaborated facade and grand heavy gate. The key feature of the estate is a deep seated cellar suitable for making and preserving wine. Most importantly, the winemaker’s craft, relying on labour of the close family, is completely hidden away from the main street as is seen on the featured image.

20160902_112500

For a long time, my life pretty much evolved around the central yard exploring nothing more than my cousins’ new bikes or skipping ropes. There was, however, one mysterious element to this enclosed existence. Right behind the estate, separated by a small creek, stood a large dilapidated house that my grandfather always referred to casually as the Temple.

 

I thought the word ‘Temple’ sounded exotic but living in the socialist Czechoslovakia there was little room for exploring religions, let alone those from far away lands. It was in my late teens I understood there used to be a strong presence of Jewish faith in our town before the Second World War. Most importantly, the house we lived in once belonged to a Jewish family overlooking the Temple. The purchase took place long before the forced resettlement of Jewish residents and subsequent Holocaust. Nevertheless, the complete absence of Jews in the town, which I only became aware of in the 1980s, stirred something. I felt urged to write a school essay about a Jewish friend I have never known, a friend that has never been born but whom I would have most likely sang Madonna’s songs with if it wasn’t for the war.

I did not get a particularly good marks for the essay and my obsession with history fluctuated up and down as I settled down to a job and family.  A moment of revelation came when I recently visited my home town’s Museum exhibition devoted to Svaty Jur – a Multicultural town. It offered a short history of the Jews and other minorities in the town. It documented  the Jewish disapora from the late middle ages and explained its connection with the renowned religious school of Chatam Sofer. I saw photos of Jewish families from before WW2 and was particularly taken by the photo of Erzika and Imrich Sarkany (on the sledges) whose father Mr Sarkany, a known veterinary doctor in his days, sold the house to our great grandfather.

I was moved greatly when I read a book by Viola Kovacova – The Time of Barches who documented snippets of lives of Svaty Jur Jewish families from before the war. The book was based on oral histories told by Viola’s mother and other contemporaries. I realised that Imrich Sarkany, once a classmate of my grand-father, survived the war after moving to Britain.  After a short return to Czechoslovakia, following the end of the war and realising his family died in Holocaust, Imrich returned to Britain as a refugee.

At the time of my first visit to UK in 1990s Imrich would have been at the peak of his career as a top dermatologist – with his own practice at Harley Street. I would have spent all those years working with refugees like Imrich only from more contemporary wars and conflicts. It striked me that for 10 years until his death in 2005, we both lived in the same country watching the same BBC news. Or perhaps we took the same tube train or passed each other on a Cambridge boat or a trip to Stonehenge. And if not him, then his sons or his daughter might have done.

When I visit my home town I no longer look at its streets as a resident. I search for the bus stop that’s no longer there, for a sledging slope that’s become a wealthy residence. I search for the child I once was, for the young woman with plans. And now that I read Viola Kovacova’s book I often ponder what Imrich thought when he visited his home town after more than 60 years. He came on the occasion of unveiling the Holocaust Memorial – a poignant, sad occasion one might think. I only hope that amongst the painful memories of the family he once lost to genocide there were many moments of laughter and kindness with his friends including my grandfather. I haven’t had a chance to ask neither of them – my grandfather had died before Imrich revisited.

So there’s me, Imrich and my grandfather all from the same piece of land overlooking the Jewish Temple and there is the theory of 6 Degrees of Separation. Only I still search the imaginary friend from my school essay – or perhaps he or she is already in my life? As David Mitchell famously wrote in his Cloud Atlas: ‘Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future‘.