Life in Osturňa

Thoughts and insights from an American emigrant


By Thom Kolton

Copyright © 2021 Thom Kolton

Photo courtesy of Boris Michaliček from Borievky Photogallery


About Me

About Me

I will write about myself in the future. In the meantime, you should know that I am an American living in the village of Osturňa, Slovakia. I like to write more than I like to speak.

When I Am Gone - July 26, 2022

When I Am Gone - July 26, 2022

Once settled into Muržin, I knew that I would never leave. This was to be my home forever.

church and cemetery on misty morn

Poochini, when I moved to Osturňa over a decade ago, I fell in love with everything in the village: the villagers I encountered on the road or in the krčma, the cows lazing in the fields, the spots of white wool dotting the distant landscape in ever-changing patterns and formations, the fields of potatoes, of trava and otava. I enjoyed walking down the same meandering road as my ancestors who had walked it hundreds of years earlier, climbing the same hills my ancestors had climbed, and sharing the same view of the stars at night, infinite and floating in the vast midnight blue sky above. I remember my first summer in the house as a magical time when the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary, the mundane into wildly fascinating. In the evenings alone in my candlelit room, ancestors sometimes made silent visits, evidenced by shadows that flickered fleetingly on the walls and ceiling.

It is true that life had previously taken me to many places, wonderful places like New York, a city simultaneously fantastic and terrifying, at times full of exquisite beauty and inspiration, and at others, cruel and hideous, but always filled with enormous possibilities for those smart enough, talented enough, and fast enough to exploit them; to our nation’s capital with its stunning monuments to the builders and upholders of democratic principles, monuments that brightly and proudly shine at dusk as an apt reminder that the light on democracy can just as quickly be extinguished if one does not remain diligent; to the place originally given the name “Terminus” that, but for the invention of the automobile, might have grown to become a reasonable place to live; to Baltimore, which is not so much a city as it is a dense collection of quirky little towns and villages, each with its own defining character and points of distinction; and finally to Kraków, a city of exquisite ancient architecture spanning multiple styles that reflects the storied history of this once capital city which, along with its old Polish charm, renders this city as beautiful as it is soporific. But none has pleased me more than this speck of a village called Osturňa.

Once settled into Muržin, I knew I would never leave. This was to be my home forever. In Osturňa I found a home, a real home, not like the one in which I was raised on Goddard Road, an example of that grotesque experiment in American post-WWII suburban housing that provided no more real comfort or amenities than the nine-story high-rise developments in post-WWII Soviet Union, but a real home, one with already deeply established roots where I could ground myself; one with history, with family nearby and neighbors I knew, one without an indoor toilet or shower…

Poochini, you do not remember my friend, Martin, whose lamp went dark before you were born. We fast became best friends almost as soon as I arrived, and we shared all sorts of experiences together. Although raised his entire life in Osturňa, Martin had never been to the Tatra Mountains. So, what a treat it was one day when I took him by cable car to Lomnický štít. I had to loan him my sweater that afternoon, as his short-sleeved cotton shirt was no match for the sudden fluctuations in temperature we experienced each time a cloud suddenly rolled in over the peak and then just as quickly rolled out a few minutes later. We later dined that day at Grand Hotel Kempinski in Štrbské Pleso where the food was as delicious as it was expensive.

It was an unspoken certainty that Martin and I could depend upon each other at any time of day and for any reason. Had his final alcoholic binge, commencing after the sudden and successive deaths of both parents, not masked the tumors in his brain that distorted his thoughts, perhaps – I say “perhaps” because I do not know – the doctors could have found the tumors earlier while still operable. The hole his absence left in my heart has yet to fully heal.

As Martin was younger than me, I told him of my final wishes that should be carried out following my demise. I did not want my body dumped in the village cemetery to be used as an unwilling participant in an underground smorgasbord where I would be the main course. I had loftier ideas in mind. Martin knew that on the mountain between Osturňa and Ždiar was the highest peak at 1,254 meters above sea level, one with a name I do not know. It was from that vantage point, overlooking the villages below and the mountains beyond, that I wanted my ashes sprinkled. I thought it a perfect metaphor for my life: watching without participation, adjacent to but not within, close yet remote.

But I have changed my mind, Poochini. No longer do I wish for my ashes to be sprinkled on the distant mountain overlooking the village. It is already so long ago since I felt myself a foreigner in a strange new land, baffled by a new reality. I have since made a home here. I feel part of the community in which I live. I have celebrated the births of new villagers and mourned the deaths of friends and family. In short, I have become a part of Osturňa.

Should my demise arrive sooner than yours, Poochini, I give to you the responsibility to ensure my wishes are carried out to their fullest. I ask that my ashes be placed in the ground on my property u Muržína. And be sure to save a little to sprinkle around Schodný Vody as a tribute to the beauty and tranquility it offered me over the years. I shall then be at peace. Mourn for me if you must, but not too deeply nor too long.

And you, Poochini, you shall be fine. Perhaps you will go to live with your best dog friend, Brok, and visit Schodný Vody on occasion to cool yourself in the waters and the shaded air under the weeping willow that we so often shared. And perhaps you will think of me now and then and our lovely times together. I would like that.

Bang! You're Dead - June 3, 2022

Bang! You're Dead - June 3, 2022

Robb Elementary

There’s nothing in the news today.
Young students got shot, teachers too.
“Too many guns!” “No, no! Too few!”
Meanwhile, their spirits fade away.


It's hard to write - April 7, 2022

It's hard to write - April 7, 2022

I have had trouble concentrating and have been subject to bursts of tears and sobs.

map of Ukraine I haven’t been writing. Sure, I’ve had a few things I’ve wanted to write about. In late January, for example, I restarted work on a plan for mountain recreational activity. But by early February my enthusiasm for the project had melted along with the snow. I have also been working on bringing to fruition the translation of an 18th century book of home remedies from Osturňa that were apparently written by the renowned Monk Cyprian of the Red Monastery.

But it was the threat of war followed by the start of actual war on February 24 that shocked my sensibilities. Since then, I have had trouble concentrating and have been subject to bursts of tears and sobs. I’ve forced myself to limit the amount of news I consume, as it otherwise simply drags me into a world of despair.

After feeling helpless, a friend in Poland wrote that she was awaiting Ukrainian arrivals traveling via Slovakia. I quickly offered to drive them from the border to Tychy, but the ride was ultimately unneeded. Later I read about a veterinary in Poland that was offering help to refugee pets arriving at the border. I wrote and asked how I could help. They offered me both their bank account number and a list of items they needed. After little thought, I arranged a babysitter for Poochini and, the following morning, I drove to Przemyśl with a load of donations I purchased along the way. It was an expensive and time-consuming day. I returned home tired and drained. But it was, at least, something.

Last week I read that Ukraine’s most famous living composer, Valentin Silvestrov, was now himself a refugee. Silverstrov wrote “Prayer for Ukraine,” an incredibly beautiful piece. The choral version is sung tenderly and with deep reverence. It is indeed prayerful and quite moving. The orchestral version, on the other hand, is haunting. The orchestra plays with a certain reserve, but also with a determination to convey a soulful plea from the heart. The orchestration includes two flutists using a technique I have never before experienced: acting more as percussion than woodwind, the flutists blow into their instrument without holding down any keys, causing air to flow through and out the instrument, producing only a gentle “woosh” of sound.

But what does this “woosh” represent? It could be a gentle wind blowing on a pasture where a lone person stands and offers a prayer for the safety of the village below. Or perhaps an airplane flying in the distance. Or far off artillery explosions. Or maybe it is God himself drawing up these prayers into the heavens? Perhaps it is all the above.

Each day of the war grows worse than the last, and I don’t know where it will end. It's h…

Why I Hate the New Year - January 4, 2022

Why I Hate the New Year - January 4, 2022

In my mind, the beginning of the new year should correspond with some kind of celestial event.

lunar and solar phases

I hate New Year’s Eve. I hate end-of-year celebrations with alcohol-laden acquaintances whining about the terrible year they had and how much better the next one will be. I also hate – no, loathe! – the song Auld Lang Syne, both its melody and its nearly incomprehensible lyrics. But mostly what I hate about New Year’s Eve is the importance people place upon an entirely arbitrary date as a marker of time.

Did you ever wonder why the new year starts when it does? Why is the first of the year on the date that it is? True, the calendar is aligned with the lunar schedule. But why is it not aligned with either the equinox or the solstice, the sun cycles?

The answer is that the Romans were terrible at creating a calendar.

The Gregorian calendar, the one most of the world uses, was first introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII as a replacement to the Julian calendar which, due to its deficiencies, kept pushing Easter further away from the spring equinox. It is also the standard used today by computers to communicate data between systems, defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) of dates and times: ISO 8601:2004.

The Gregorian calendar is a lunar-based calendar, with twelve months following the twelve moon cycles in a year. However, one would expect the first day of the year to be related to the solar calendar. This would give heightened meaning to the calendar and its representations. But it does not.

In my mind, the beginning of the new year should correspond to some kind of celestial event. We have four possibilities from which to choose:

Among the four choices, I personally believe it would be most poetic to begin the new year on December 21, the winter solstice. Here we would have the longest night of the year to party, while the shortest days would begin the cycle of elongating until we reached the summer solstice. It would be like the rebirth of the earth. Somehow, I think the southern hemisphere would agree and adjust to the new calendar dates. September would hold their vernal equinox, while December would note the beginning of summer.

While we’re at it, we should discuss the names of the months. Note that November and December relate to the numbers nine and ten, although they are the eleventh and twelfth month of the year. This is due to the calendar that preceded the Julian calendar. Some Slavic languages already have different names for the months. The month of April, in Polish for example, is “kwiecień”, meaning “to blossom.”; whereas “listopad”, “falling leaves” refers to November. I think we could come up with some pretty good names if we tried.

I already have an idea. So, this year, I plan to celebrate my birthday on the 23rd of Thom.

Happy St. Nicholas Day! - December 6, 2021

Happy St. Nicholas Day! - December 6, 2021

St. Nicholas Day signals the beginning of the Christmas season.

Christmas lights on a building Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. In Slovakia, it is a pre-Christmas celebration. Last night, many Slovak children shined their shoes and placed them in the window or somewhere they could be easily seen. Then, during the night while they slept, St. Nicholas (a.k.a. Mikuláš) visited each household. If the child was good throughout the year, St. Nicholas left chocolate or other treats in their shoe; if bad, coal and onions.

As for me, St. Nicholas Day signals the beginning of the Christmas season. Therefore, it was time to hang the Christmas lights.

Over the years, I have purchased many strings of lights, too many to hang all at once. Even with my new workshop (“dielňa” in Slovak) that we built this year, I still have enough lights to wrap each building several times. I'm tempted!

The wooden house was again able to receive Christmas lights this year. According to my original plan, by this time my wooden house should have been dismantled and the wood sorted and stored in the dielňa. But everything takes longer than planned. And with all the recent snow, there will be no more outside work until spring.

Christmas lights on a building The dielňa has a large windowless wall that faces the street. It doesn’t yet have any siding, enveloped in only black house wrap. As it presents as a big black canvas, I decided to do something a little interesting. Using a large piece of rebar frame left over from the workshop foundation, we fashioned a sort of Christmas tree from lights and decorations I had stored away.

It looks pretty at night, although the photos that my camera takes does not do it justice. Even the neighbors have given me compliments on it. So it will probably happen now every year.

Someone Doesn't Like Pumpkin - November 1, 2021

Someone Doesn't Like Pumpkin - November 1, 2021

I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dislike me enough to vandalize my property.

carved pumpkin Štefania had gifted me a pumpkin from her own garden. She expected I would make a delicious soup out of it, as I had so done so many times at the Penzión Európa guesthouse. Little did she know that I had other plans.

The pumpkin sat on my kitchen counter for several weeks. Each time she came, Štefania would ask when I planned to prepare it. “Soon,” I would answer.

With Halloween approaching, it was now time. After sketching a crude but haunting face on it, I cut into the pumpkin. Unlike in prior years, I found that a small steak knife offered much more control and accuracy than the large chef’s knives I had employed in the past. I delighted in scalping the victim and removing the brains and guts from inside. They would be transformed later into delicious toasted pumpkin seeds.

Since the pumpkin would be displayed in the window of my derelict wooden house that gave onto the street, all the better for passersby to notice, a candle was out of the question. Instead, I inserted a small LED lamp into the base, which made the entire face glow wonderfully.

As I stood in front of my house at dusk, I was proud of the menacing but peaceful icon I had created and which was now on display for all to see. In a country that only recently learned of the tradition of Halloween, I liked the novelty of displaying something so… American.

” Kto ti rozbil okno?” asked Štefan upon arrival to my property.

pumpkin as seen through a broken window I didn’t understand. Who broke which window where? I walked to the front of my house to investigate. There, I was both shocked and saddened to see that someone had broken the window in which sat my jack o'lantern.

As I examined the damage, the broken window did not appear to have been an accident, but a willful act of vandalism. But by which vandal? And why?

The answers to these questions remain officially unanswered. However, in a village of less than 250 souls, the perpetrator surely was not a stranger; I know most of the people who live here or, at the very least, know their faces. And since not many people walk by, I assume that it was someone who lives close by and frequently passes my house, either on bicycle or on foot.

As to the motive, the answer remains unclear. True, with my winning personality, I have managed to ruffle a few feathers in the village. But I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dislike me enough to vandalize my property. No, there had to be another reason.

Another possible reason in this village of Byzantine Rite Greek Catholics is that someone objected to what they viewed as a pagan symbol. This explanation appears more plausible than the first.

pumpkin as seen through an even more broken window In defiance of this vandalism, I decided to take no action and allow others to see what this vandal had done. Neighbors came by to comment on it, aware that what it does to one, the vandal can do to the other. Then something strange occurred: the window was again broken, this time causing the pumpkin to fall backwards into the house.

I can only surmise that the vandal was dissatisfied with their first attempt, and crestfallen that I had not removed the jack o’lantern from the window altogether. So now the face was no longer recognizable from the window. They had successfully vanquished their apparent archenemy, the pumpkin.

In defiance of this further vandalism, I again took no action. I wanted the neighbors to see what someone was capable of doing in our bucolic little village. Finally and to my surprise, the pumpkin ended up on the ground in front of my house, broken into pieces. The pumpkin was not only “dead,” but annihilated.

This act could have only be performed by a human, someone with arms capable of reaching through the broken window, grasping the pumpkin with two hands, and extracting it from the house before unceremoniously throwing it to the ground. I continued to take no action to assure my neighbors of someone evil within our midst.

Whether you live in a big city, a small town, or even a tiny village, rest assured: assholes can be found everywhere!

A Book Report - October 13, 2021

A Book Report - October 13, 2021

It felt at times as though Poochini and I were mere extensions of Jiménez’s imagination.

Photograph of Juan Ramón Jiménez and Platero Some time ago, my friend, Elizabeth, posted an old photograph of a man sitting on a chair with a small donkey. Intrigued by the tenderness of the man clutching a donkey in his lap, I asked her about it. She revealed that the photograph was that of a writer, a poet named Juan Ramón Jiménez (Mantecón). I had to learn more.

Jiménez was a Spanish poet born in 1881 and who died in 1958. His most famous quote is as follows: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." One of his works is a set of very short prose poems that evoke the author’s early life in Andalusia, Spain, entitled Platero y yo (“Platero and I”). According to Wikipedia, the eponymous donkey Platero

"remains a symbol of tenderness, purity and naiveté, and is used by the author as a means of reflection about the simple joys of life, memories, and various characters and their ways of life."
I ordered a copy of the book in English.

The book soon became an obsession. And the imagery that Jiménez conjures deserved a backdrop more fantastical than that of my kitchen. Therefore, this summer I began to travel frequently to the schodne vody, an equally fantastic location where Osturňa's own little waterfall is located, with my dog and book. On leisurely days, we would sometimes visit the waterfall twice. There, it was safe for Poochini to explore the world on his own without the need for supervision, while I could lose myself in the rich and complex prose of Jiménez’s writings.

It became an almost daily occurrence for us. Over time, we became friends with the shepherds who roamed the fields with their vast and obedient flocks, as well as with their shepherding dogs. It felt at times as though Poochini and I were mere extensions of Jiménez’s imagination.

The book is not long, and each prose poem is usually less than a page. But the words are dense and the imagery evocative, requiring several reads and significant thought.

This book is very dangerous. The scenes Jiménez paints with words can cause one to suddenly explode in a belly laugh or to slowly melt into tearful sobs. It is for this reason it is preferable to read the book when only your dog is nearby. Otherwise, it could prove quite embarrassing.

After nearly two months, I am still only half-way through the book. But there is no plot pulling me towards the next page or chapter, only the musings of a man and a donkey living in Andalusia and tugging at my heart.

Moja Pozemok - September 22, 2021

Moja Pozemok - September 22, 2021

“Toto je moja pozemok,” she insisted, “This is my land”.

My verified land border My plan for this year was to dismantle my historic wooden cottage, construct a foundation of concrete and rocks, repair or replace bad wood, and then rebuild the walls. The following year, I would tackle the roof and first floor. But before I could dismantle the building, I needed a place to both repair and store the wood. A nice workshop was in order.

I designed a structure with the dimensions totaling just under the 25 sq. meter limit that would have required additional permitting, one that mimicked the countless other small buildings typically found in the village. I submitted documents to both the Krajský pamiatkový úrad (KPÚ) in Prešov and the obecný úrad (the village municipal office).

Approval by both offices was relatively quick and work was started immediately to build the foundation. My neighbors seemed concerned that my property line was incorrect, although it was set by a professional land surveyor. The husband approached me twice with an old map showing… something. I never understood what he was trying to convince me of.

The land between me and my neighbor is jointly owned by six different owners. The next morning, an old woman – another owner – came onto the land with the neighbors to inspect the border. “Toto je moja pozemok,” she insisted, “This is my land”. The husband continued his insistence that I was building on their land. He had a map that proved it!

I explained that I had to leave, but that I would call the woman when I returned later that day. However, upon my return, I found an email from the mayor issuing a “stop work” order until the complaint against me was satisfied.

I was beside myself with anger and frustration. To end the controversy once and for all, the surveyor was requested to return. I notified the “concerned owners” that he was coming, as well as the mayor. The next morning at 8:00 AM, everyone was there – except for the mayor who refused to witness the event or to send anyone in her stead.

The surveyor confirmed the border, while the neighbor argued with the surveyor that the border was contrary to the map he waved in his hand. In short, the surveyor stated that the placed marker is the official border, regardless of what his map indicated.

My neighbors and the old woman were wrong in their claim, and I believed an apology was in order. As everyone began to disperse, I held up my hand and said, “I am waiting. I am listening…” The old woman did not understand what I meant, so I prompted her with what to say.

“Forgive me for causing these problems for you,” I said.

The old woman looked at me and responded, “Oh, it’s nothing…”

Frustrated by her stupidity and lack of morals, I responded. “Ma’am, you do not understand. This is what you must say to me: ‘Forgive me for causing these problems for you!’ “

Apparently, there is some cultural difference here, as she did not want to admit fault. She finally offered a half-hearted “sorry” before complaining that a tractor had been on her land. She could not admit fault without making another complaint.

Some gauge in my brain then clicked and I was now absolutely livid with this stupid, stupid woman. I then began yelling at her in Slovak, “What do you want, for fuck’s sake?! What do you want?!”

The wife began to chide me for speaking to an old woman in this manner. But I explained that this is how I speak when I am angry, and that I am very angry. I went home to report to my lawyer what had taken place. The husband came over a few minutes later and, without apologizing, held out his hand and asked that we remain friends.

“Yes, I want to be friends. But I am still very angry at what occurred.”

So, this is where we are. I have tried to avoid the neighbors as much as possible but smile when our eyes meet. They are not only neighbors, but the husband and I share blood. I am sad about the situation and remain mystified why the husband kept waving a map from 1997 in front of me. The old lady, who I did not previously know, will be sad once she receives a bill for both the cost of the surveyor and the lawyer fees.

Fabulous Brussels Sprout Soup - September 20, 2021

Fabulous Brussels Sprout Soup - September 20, 2021

This soup demands to be eaten in its fully chunky and flavorful glory.

Brussels sprout soup I don’t love Brussels sprouts, but I eat them because they are infinitely healthy. I usually prepare them roasted with a balsamic dressing, But I wasn’t in the mood today, as the weather was cold and damp. Instead, I decided to make soup.

After reviewing several recipes, I made up my own using the ingredients I had available in the kitchen. The finished product was absolutely delicious! What I especially loved was the play between the sweet onions and the tart yogurt, and the textures and flavors of the fresh vegetables that came through.

The quantities listed in the recipe are negotiable. It really depends on what you like. However, I counsel you to not reduce the amount of onion or dairy, as these two flavors really play off each other nicely.

I generally prefer to cream my soups using a stick blender, but not here; this soup demands to be eaten in its fully chunky and flavorful glory. So, be sure to prepare the vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces.

I cook almost everything in my Ninja Foodi pressure cooker. What I have learned is that a pressure cooker retains more of the nutrients in food because it cooks more quickly and under sealed pressure (not hotter, as many people believe). In my opinion, the results of a pressure cooker is superior to standard cooking practices. But if you don’t have one, just be sure not to overcook the vegetables.

2 tbsp. neutral oil (I use avocado)
2 large onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 stalks celery, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, cleaned (large ones cut in half)
500 ml. vegetable or chicken stock
3 tbsp. soy sauce (for umami, instead of plain salt)
150 ml. Greek style yogurt or sour cream brought to room temperature
1 handful parsley, chopped
A few turns of the pepper grinder


  1. Sauté the onions in oil just before they start to caramelize. Add garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
  2. Add the celery, carrots, potatoes, and sprouts to the pot and cook together for around 5 minutes, stirring often.
  3. Add the stock to the pot. Reduce heat, cover, and cook until vegetables are tender. In a pressure cooker, cook for 8 minutes, then allow a 15-minute slow release.
  4. Add enough soy to taste.
  5. Drizzle a small amount of stock into the yogurt or sour cream, stirring constantly. Continue to add more stock to the dairy, stirring constantly, until the stock is clearly incorporated. Slowly add the dairy to the pot and stir.
  6. Add the parsley and stir. Let the soup rest, covered, for a few minutes.
  7. Serve in bowls with a crusty bread.

Can I Finally Stop? - July 26, 2021

Can I Finally Stop? - July 26, 2021

It has now been twelve days since my last cigarette and, surprisingly, the transition from smoker to non-smoker has been much smoother than I had anticipated.

cinnamon stick and coffee cup I had decided months earlier that, on my 66th birthday and in celebration of 50 years of smoking cigarettes, I would finally stop smoking. Not cut down, not switch to another nicotine delivery system. Just stop. As the day neared, I grew nervous, wondering how I would cope with the cessation of nicotine coursing through my system.

At the pharmacy, I sheepishly announced my plan and asked for suggested products to help me in this endeavor. The clerk produced 1) chewing gum, 2) little nicotine-infused candies in a sort of Pez dispenser, and 3) nicotine patches that looked like band-aids. I declined the patches but purchased the other two products. I felt prepared.

On the morning of my birthday, I still had a pack of Marlboro Reds to smoke. The plan was to stop on my birthday, but not at a particular time on my birthday. So, I smoked with abandon until the box was empty in the early afternoon. I remember looking at the final cigarette burning in the ashtray and wondering whether my plan would really work, or whether I would fall back into my unhealthy habit.

I had tried to stop smoking at different points in my life, succeeding each time for a period only to once again stumble into my old routine. One attempt, aided by a drug prescribed by my physician to help me succeed, resulted in a trip to Sheppard Pratt, the famous Baltimore institution for the “mentally unstable”. The drug had interrupted my sleep over an extended period of time, resulting in panic attacks due to severe sleep deprivation. Fortunately, tossing the pills and getting several good night’s sleep corrected the situation.

I also have had long-term breathing problems which became acute once I moved to Kraków. For thirteen years I have taken daily inhalation drugs to open my airways, as well as an emergency inhaler for those moments when my air passages feel a bit tight. Yes, I recognize the perversion of smoking cigarettes while taking breathing medicine. This is a sign of real addiction.

There have been moments where I would automatically reach for a cigarette, only to find myself reaching for thin air. To break the habit, I purchased cinnamon sticks to act as a stand-in for cigarettes. It helped immensely back in 1990’s when I last tried to stop. It was initially helpful when my lips felt suddenly abandoned and my right hand had nothing to hold. But the urge to hold a cigarette quickly dissipated. Still, I keep a stick close at hand while working on the computer just in case.

It has now been twelve days since my last cigarette and, surprisingly, the transition from smoker to non-smoker has been much smoother than I had anticipated. Perhaps my age (and the hope for longevity despite all I did over the years to defeat it) plays a significant role in my determination to get healthier. I recognize that I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to maintain my health while I pursue the multitude of projects that I have planned.

Another factor I should not neglect to mention is that I am now collecting retirement benefits while my U.S. business remains an almost viable business entity. Living on a fixed income is a new reality for me. I recently calculated that I was spending around twenty percent (20%) of my income on cigarettes. Obviously, I can think of better things to do with that money

Will I finally succeed this time, or will I once again fall off the wagon? Only time will tell. But, admittedly, things feel different this time. Who knows? With the money I save on cigarettes, perhaps next year I’ll buy a bicycle.

Hedging One’s Bets - July 7, 2021

Hedging One’s Bets - July 7, 2021

There have been attempts to distort the history of the conversion of Slavs from pre-Christian religion to Christianity to render the story more pure and palatable to the populace.

Slavic and Christian symbols I walked past the house a half-million times and never took notice. Then, one recent afternoon, I stopped and stared at what I saw: a wooden post sharing both pre-Christian and Christian motifs. I was amused.

Visual symbols have been with us since time immemorial. Unlike emojis, the hieroglyphics of our time that convey meaning without the use of words, ancient symbols hold a special place in our subconscious to evoke a collective understanding of the world around us.

In Slavic culture are many symbols. If you read The Golden Apple, you are familiar with the sign of the Slavic god Perun, a hexagon containing three bisecting diameters. His father, Rod, the father of all things in the world, had a similar sign. His, however, was a circle with three bisecting diameters (see photo).

In around the tenth century, Vladimir the Great forewent the Slavic religion of the time to accept Christianity, expanding the Byzantine rite (also known as the Greek rite) and, in the process, strengthening the influence of Constantinople over the Slavic regions. Few relics remain of the pre-Christian religion, as Vladimir had them destroyed (mostly) and replaced by the cross.

There have been attempts to distort the history of the conversion of Slavs from pre-Christian religion to Christianity to render the story more pure and palatable to the populace. For example, although Vladimir is credited with bringing Christianity to the Slavs, the Franks had already converted the Germans in the 7th and 8th centuries and were busy converting Slavs to Christianity well before the time of Vladimir. And where some people believe Vladimir had an epiphany and saw Christianity as the one true faith, the fact is that Vladimir had an eye on the Byzantine Emperor Basil II’s sister, Anna Porphyrogenita, whose marriage to Vladimir would strengthen the Kievan Rus' political position and, thus, earning power. Finally it should be noted that, even after conversion to Christianity, Vladimir commissioned a new statue to Perun.

But there also some pretty good stories about Vladimir’s revelation. My favorite is the one by the chronicler Nestor. On the decision to select a new religion, Nestor wrote:

Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, the envoys reported there is no gladness among them, only sorrow and a great stench. He also reported that Islam was undesirable due to its taboo against alcoholic beverages and pork. Vladimir remarked on the occasion: "Drinking is the joy of all Rus'. We cannot exist without that pleasure." Ukrainian and Russian sources also describe Vladimir consulting with Jewish envoys and questioning them about their religion, but ultimately rejecting it as well, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence that they had been abandoned by God.

His emissaries also visited pre-schism Latin Rite Christian and Eastern Rite Christian missionaries. […] In the churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Constantinople, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth", they reported, describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

To summarize, the Jews were already abandoned by God; Muslims were sad and dirty, and whose religion would deprive Vladimir of pork and alcohol; and western Christianity was simply boring. But the show at the Hagia Sophia was an absolute hit that everyone needed to experience. Better than “Hamilton” the musical!

Ultimately Vladimir settled on Eastern Christianity. Or so the story goes.

example of a Slavonic cross
example of a
Slavonic cross

Back to symbols, the main photograph depicts both the symbol of Rod and the Christian cross being repeated on the post. Notice that the cross is a simple “+”, similar to the early Greek symbol, rather than the Eastern (or Slavonic ) cross with its three bars, the lowest of which is slanted and represents a footrest for Jesus because … his sandals were killing him?

It is my suspicion that the symbol for Rod was actually meant to be the symbol for Perun, but that a circle was easier to carve than a hexagon. But we'll never know for sure.

Doubtlessly, the symbols on the post are but decoration, the carver surely not understanding that he was intermingling both Christian and pre-Christian symbols in a repetitive style. But for those with knowledge behind the symbolism, it appears as though the carver was trying to hedge his bets. If not Christ, then perhaps Perun.

Amusement by the decorated post can only be shared by those who understand what is behind it. But now you do!

Friendships Are the Greatest Gift - June 18, 2021

Friendships Are the Greatest Gift - June 18, 2021

Food and drink with friends in public! This simple act of dining with friends was now a moment I cherished.

Martin & Zoe Like millions of people, I am rediscovering the joys of meeting with friends one-on-one. Yes, I have visited with a few neighbors over the last year, but not with any frequency and certainly not in a close contact situation. But I have been fully vaccinated since May and, just like everyone else, am anxiously anticipating a return to “normal.” My recent encounter was the start of this return.

I met Martin and Zoe in September of 2020 through a mutual contact. Martin is a documentarian who was exploring the possibility of a documentary on Slovak diaspora. After exchanging a few emails, we agreed to meet in person. He brought his charming Taiwanese wife, Zoe, who is an artist in her own right. While we spent only a few hours together, we established a positive connection and a friendship was born.

The couple traveled soon afterwards to Taiwan, as Zoe had a project there. But then they could not return to Slovakia due to the pandemic. For seven months, our friendship continued in the form of emails and photographs.

I was delighted to learn that they had both been vaccinated and were now planning to return home, and I anticipated a visit after such a long absence. Finally, a date was set.

To celebrate our reunion, I had planned to prepare a luncheon for them, but my automobile required servicing and I was afraid to drive it a long distance to the store. Also, since my anosmia has not yet been conquered six months later, I remain somewhat unsure of my cooking abilities. So, I made another plan.

Upon their arrival, I announced that we would be going to a restaurant. After already a nearly three-hour drive, I required them to drive another twenty minutes to Ždiar, through which they had just passed. But they didn’t complain. I left Poochini in the house and we were off.

Martin, Zoe & Me We arrived at the restaurant Ždiarsky Dom and seated ourselves on the terrace overlooking the Belianske Tatras. This was the first time I had gone to a restaurant in over a year. Food and drink with friends in public! This simple act of dining with friends was now a moment I cherished. Sometimes, it is the simple things that are the most satisfying.

The weather was lovely; the food was good; the company even better. Over a leisurely two-hour lunch, we spent time catching up on all that had happened since our last meeting. Martin and Zoe certainly had much more to share of their adventures in Taiwan than had I in my tiny village. But I had a great time just being with people I both liked and admired.

During the conversation on my novella The Golden Apple, I was surprised that Martin had fallen for my ruse about authorship. But it proved to me that the literary vehicle I invoked had performed flawlessly!

Me & Poochini We returned to my house to find Poochini outside on the terrace. But how? I had left him locked in the house. What a devious little dog I had raised!

After a brief review of the situation, I discovered what had occured. I had left my bedroom window wide open and, although I obviously didn't anticipated it, he apparently managed to jump from the bed out the window, and then began looking for me. I would later learn that he had traveled at least as far as to Štefánia’s house in search of his dad.

Poochini was excited that we returned home. He plied us kisses, thankful that we had returned.

Martin and I then discussed the direction of one of my projects, and Zoe shared with me how she had chosen Martin’s Chinese name (complicated!) and showed me how to text in Mandarin on the telephone (fascinating). The four of us then relaxed on my tiny terrace on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

All good things must come to an end, and that includes visits from friends. So we took some photographs to remember the occasion and said our goodbyes. I was sorry to see them leave, but glad for the time we had had together that day.

This, I thought, is what life is all about.

A Tribute to Jude - May 15, 2021

A Tribute to Jude - May 15, 2021

I had assumed that, despite her numerous physical complaints stemming mostly from a serious case of hypochondriasis and her refusal to accept any advice from an actual doctor, she would outlive me.

a final email I discovered last week that my friend, Jude, had passed away in February at the young age of 81. I wasn’t ready for it.

Jude came from a strong old Irish stock. Her mother lived to be 107, and still drove to greet her daughter at the airport when she was already 103. Yes, that sounds scary. But it happened.

I had assumed that, despite her numerous physical complaints stemming mostly from a serious case of hypochondriasis and her refusal to accept any advice from an actual doctor, she would outlive me. Which would have been fine. Instead, she beat me to the punch.

I would not characterize our relationship as particularly close. We met in 1980 when we worked together at Pan American World Airways. Jude and I both lived in Manhattan, she in the West Village; me in the East Village. We occasionally commuted together to work in New Jersey when one of our cars was in repair. Conversation was at first perfunctory and polite. But as time went on, we began to learn more and more about each other.

I visited her apartment only once in the many years we lived in the same borough, enthralled by her white baby grand piano. Jude came to my apartment once or twice for dinner and drinks. We also went to dinner together several times at various restaurants, although I cannot recollect which restaurants or where they were located. Surely, they were all in walking distance.

I met Judith, as she was officially named, when she was in her 40s and I around 25. She had a head of curly long red hair that just screamed “beautiful!” and a natural elegance that few women could hope to achieve. She remarked one day that she had protested the replacement of her apartment balcony flooring because the wooden slats were too far apart and might catch her high heel in the space between. “Who wears high heels in the house?” I wondered. Obviously, Jude did.

At work, she eventually met and then married her second husband, a nice man named Tom who worked for IBM. They sometimes stayed in Manhattan, and at other times in White Plains. I saw her less during this period, although I passed her office often. One day while passing by, I noticed her arm in a sling. “What happened?!” I asked. She quipped, “I fell off a bar stool,” and then giggled in that lovely laugh of hers, tossing her hair back as an added gesture. It was only much later I learned that she and Tom had had a confrontation that turned into a physical fight. As she came at him, he flipped her, accidentally breaking her arm. But at the time, she never let on that anything was amiss. Eventually, and probably thankfully, they divorced.

Jude was a singular personality with thoughts and ideas that were not entirely ballasted to reality, a woman (yes, I must admit) full of delusions and unrealistic hopes. But that is exactly what drew me towards her, this fascinating woman whose outlook on life was so different than my own – and anyone else’s. If she told an untruth, it was only to herself; I accepted her words at face value, no matter how outlandish they seemed. It was just so fun to be in her world for that moment.

Jude was constantly suing: the city, her employer, her family. Who knows who else. I’m surprised the courts did not eventually cite her for filing frivolous lawsuits, although they were usually in different jurisdictions so one court would not notice. The lawsuit became her raison d'être, the thing that got her out of bed and out of the apartment. With her multitude of self-diagnosed illnesses, the filing of lawsuits seemed to be the only temporary cure to her general malaise, an elixir of paperwork and legally worded incantations from which she could draw strength and vitality. She should have been a lawyer.

We kept in touch over the years mostly through emails. I would write long and detailed accounts of my life. She would always reply with regrets that her foggy-mindedness (due to CFS, Covid-19, brain cancer, or the like) – and her very old computer – limited her ability to reply with equal gusto. I didn’t mind; I was just happy to receive a reply and know that she was alright.

Although it was not unusual to wait a month for a reply, after a two-month delay, I telephoned Jude just after Christmas. We had lovely conversations about many things and showed enthusiasm for each other’s life, even though both had seemingly shrunk over time. The call then dropped, probably due to my spotty Internet coverage, and then I could not get through again. So I jotted out a quick email telling Jude how much I enjoyed the conversation and promising we would again be in touch.

Nearly a month later and to my amazement, I received a long, detailed email from Jude, the first – and only – of that length! Although much of it was filled with her detailing her believed afflictions, it was still an email of substance. I replied, “Wow! An actual email from you. I'm going to print it out and frame it!” That was the last email I received from her. She died in February from causes unknown.

In her final email where she detailed her myriad diseases and sought to discount the entire medical profession for their incompetence, she wrote, “I share this in hopes that should you have health issues that you not kill yourself trying to stay alive.” Was she being prophetic of her own life?

I sent a letter to her address marking it to “Estate of…” I have not yet heard back, and think that perhaps I never will. Like one would listen repeatedly to a recording of a deceased loved one’s voice, I continue to reread Jude’s email as her final words to me, and I treasure her last hurrah to a life…

Update: December 23, 2021

I was surprised and delighted to receive a card with a South Carolina return address. I also noted the writer’s maiden name, which I immediately recognized to be the same as Jude’s. It had to be one of her relatives finally responding to my May letter addressed to “the Estate of…”

Inside the envelope was a card from her sister, Sharon, dated October 28. In it, she explained:

Her friends in the city could not get in touch, so called Adult Protective Services. The police found her sitting on the floor leaning back against her bed. Autopsy showed heart disease. Natural causes. I assume heart attack from the way she was found…
So, with her myriad claims of diseases and disorders, it was the heart – the one organ she failed to address – that ultimately did her in.

Jude was attractive, with a charming personality and a gorgeous South Carolinian accent, to boot. The last time we met in New York around 2011, she still looked fantastic, despite the affects from her Trichotemnomania. I thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon together.

Rest in peace, Jude. I will always treasure our friendship.

Update: January 27, 2022

I visited Jude’s apartment last night in a lovely dream.

Although her actual apartment was in a townhouse in the crowded West Village of Manhattan, her apartment in my dream was on the top story of a low-rise two-story apartment building surrounded by trees. It seems that I understood Jude had died and that her apartment sat empty. Yet, I wanted to visit her home one last time.

I cannot clearly remember now the circumstances, but I do believe a neighbor or two may have somehow been involved in helping me gain entry. Once inside the building, I climbed the stairs leading to the second floor.

As I reached the top floor, I could see that the door to Jude’s apartment was ajar, as if purposefully left open. I pushed the door wide open and walked into the space.

It was perhaps midday in late spring. The large windows that lined the back wall allowed a bright southern sun to fill the room with warmth and light. It was a beautiful sight to experience at the perfect time of day in the perfect part of the season that was neither cold nor hot. I stood there for a few moments, taking in the sunlight and feeling gratified having seen Jude’s home once more. I then awoke.

Jude, surely your apartment in Manhattan is no longer empty. But your apartment of my dream is void, save for a bright shining light. I suppose this is all what we leave behind when we die: a void and, for those lucky few, a bright light.

I Am Not Hungry. I Had Covid - February 18, 2021

I Am Not Hungry. I Had Covid - February 18, 2021

The power of the nose is much more influential over the body and psyche than previously understood.

paperwork My stomach growls. I have not eaten since yesterday afternoon. But I am not hungry. I have anosmia.

Just before Christmas, I developed what I thought was a cold. The most annoying symptom was a dry hacking cough that would awaken me at night. At the pharmacy, I purchased cough syrup to help break up the mucous in my lungs. The packaging said it was strawberry flavored. As I took my first dose, I detected only sweetness. “This doesn’t taste like strawberries!” I commented to my dog, Poochini.

The next morning, I noticed that my coffee didn’t taste like coffee, but only slightly bitter hot water. I ate an orange that was sweet but lacked a citrus smell or taste. I then bit into a sweet but otherwise tasteless apple. It suddenly occurred to me that I was unable to smell or taste anything. My tongue sensed only sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

As I reexamined the symptoms of my “cold”, it dawned on me that I must have, in fact, contracted the Covid-19 virus. Anosmia, the loss of sense of smell, is a common resulting condition.

I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Now living alone with my dog, I cook with less frequency. But since my anosmia, I cook even less so. Not only have I lost my sense of smell, but anosmia has robbed me of my desire for food.

Before contracting the coronavirus, I had been following a 5:2 fasting regime, where I fasted for two non-consecutive days per week. With little effort, I was delighted to be losing weight. When I became sick in December, I stopped fasting because I found I was barely eating. Now I must remind myself to have a meal.

Olfaction has long been an under-appreciated faculty. The power of the nose is much more influential over the body and psyche than previously understood. It is an equal among the senses. Recent studies show that olfactory sensations are deeply interconnected with memory, language, and neurovegetative symptoms (sleep, appetite, and weight). I am reminded of Marcel Proust’s book In Search of Lost Time, where the taste of a single petite madeleine pastry evokes a flurry of emotional memories from the character’s youth.

What’s more, the tongue plays only a part in the sensation of taste. According to the MSD Manual, smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavours can be recognised and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognised without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognised.

Besides weight loss and depression, anosmia can present other serious dangers. Fortunately, in my all-electric house, I do not worry about potential gas leaks. But were there to be a fire, I would have to rely on Poochini to inform me of smoke. And unfortunately, I cannot depend upon him to detect spoiled food, as he is known to eat just about anything. Don’t ask…

As my anosmia persists, so does my disinterest in food. I do not mind losing additional weight, but I do need to maintain my health. To balance this out, I ensure that what I do consume is healthy and full of vitamins. Although I eat a little chicken, I currently find the idea of eating beef or pork revolting. I am up for fish, though, and lots of vegetables and grains.

Texture has triumphed over taste in my mouth. To wit, I recently enjoyed a peanut butter and onion sandwich with sunflower seeds on toasted bread. I continue to cook out of necessity, adding the same herbs and spices that I always have, but now only out of habit. Frankly, the bland food that I cook for Poochini (yes, I cook for my dog) would taste to me exactly like the more flavourful food I cook for myself.

I am not alarmed or upset. It is just a strange phenomenon to which I am adapting. Though already more than a month since I first developed symptoms, I am hopeful my receptors will soon repair themselves. Already I experienced extremely brief sensations of orange and cinnamon. I patiently await the return of my olfactory senses, followed by some fun in the kitchen.

In Prešov last month, my lawyer and I stopped at a Vietnamese food stall in the new mall. I ordered a dish with shrimp, before returning to the office to eat. The food looked amazing, so I asked my lawyer if he would taste my dish and tell me how it is.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s really delicious.”

Death of White Nationalism in America - January 23, 2021

Death of White Nationalism in America - January 23, 2021

White America is awakening to the fact that our perceived “equal under the law” tenet remains nothing more than an ideal that is demonstrably divorced from reality.

siege on the Capitol January 6, 2021 will be a date that will be forever embedded in the minds of Americans, the date on which a mob of mostly white pro-Trump supporters, incited by a president’s baseless claims of a fraudulent election, stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead.

Clearly, the D.C. police forces were ill-prepared to control a group of this size, although commanders had been warned that the coming gathering would require a significant police presence. There is also suspicion that some members of Congress provided reconnaissance visits to the Capitol the previous day to show would-be protesters the layout of the property. Finally, after courts dismissed over sixty claims of voting fraud, and following the aftermath of this horrendous attack on our temple of democracy, some members of Congress continued to push President Trump’s false claim that he had won the election.

Truth will out, as it eventually does in a democracy. And on January 20, 2021 Joseph Robinette Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. President Biden is calling for healing and unity. But how can Americans heal after viewing the shocking footage of the attack on the Capitol? How can we unify when even members of Congress are suspected of sedition? These are questions I cannot answer.

America, long arrogant over its perceived superior form of government, can no longer retain that rich air of smugness. It is still unconceivable that our democratic system enabled a huckster with autocratic ambitions to rise to such power. The question of how a nation like Germany allowed a demented dictator like Adolph Hitler come to power has now been answered. I am ashamed that we, the American people, somehow allowed this to happen.

We find ourselves in very dark times. Self-described militias have organized to oppose the government. America’s gun-crazy ethos fails to protect ordinary citizens while giving extremists the ability to fight the government and attempt to kill elected representatives. Our government has held together, but just barely. Dark times, indeed. Yet there is light just over the hill.

As the writer and essayist, Anand Giridharadas, pointed out on a news analysis program, the recent events do not signal the beginning of a dark period for America, but the end of one. We are witnessing the funeral of white supremacy. These painful events are a backlash by the outdated and outmoded male power that once ruled our institutions at all levels of society. White males mourn the time when they could claim to be the de facto Americans, with the rights and privileges bestowed upon them based upon their proud European ancestry. They are afraid of a browner, more inclusive society and do not wish to share their self-professed rights and privileges, once their only real power, with anyone else.

Former President Trump stoked the fears of Whites, reviving a dormant racism that had never really resolved. He banned Muslims from entering the country, made a portion of the public fearful of imaginary “caravans of migrants” approaching the homeland from the south, separated migrant families at the border, and placed migrant children in cages. City police forces were too often excused by the courts for the senseless killing of minority citizens, mostly Black. And, admittedly, a large portion of White America supported Trump and his racist views.

But America has reached a tipping point. After too many years of ignoring racial issues and accepting inequality with gross complacency, White America is awakening to the fact that our perceived “equal under the law” tenet remains nothing more than an ideal that is demonstrably divorced from reality. The Black Lives Matter movement is the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States and includes people of all races. While Blacks and others of non-European ancestry have grappled with inequality their entire lives in America, it is only recently that Whites were forced to confront racism in our society on nearly a daily basis as countless videos of minority mistreatment appeared on news programs and social media. Mass shootings at a Hindi temple, a mosque, a Black Baptist Church, and a Jewish synagogue; these only served to further outrage an already outraged citizenry.

What appears to be a hateful monster awakening is, in fact, the writhing contortions of a sick animal aware of its own impending death. It is a backlash from conservative Whites who see that America is changing and the once powerful are losing their power. Former President Obama, the first Black man to be President of the United States, was loathed by the conservatives – for being Black. Although President Biden is White, his vice president is a woman(!) of both Black and South Asian heritage, a “triple whammy” against White nationalists.

It will require a generation or more to fully accept this new modern America, but it will happen. Our nation is being reborn as a majority minority multiracial democratic superpower that reflects all nations of the world, the wonderful stew of different peoples and cultures that it truly is. We must accept and embrace this new paradigm or be lost. Those who resist the change are but the barnacles on an old ship that has long since sailed.

A Funny Thing Happened - July 18, 2018

A Funny Thing Happened - July 18, 2018

I lay my head down again and starred at the digital clock mounted inside the cab that painfully reminded of each agonizing minute I spent in the back of the ambulance.

hopital in Kežmarok Having sold virtually everything not nailed down in the guesthouse to the multitude of villagers who arrived looking for bargains (of which there were many), it was time to return to my own property and figure out the next step in my life. My own log house had since fallen into such disrepair that it was impossible to once again take up residency there. Fortunately, my neighbors also owned a renovated log house across the street, so I moved in while formulating a plan for my future.

On my property behind the log house, I had already started construction of a small building that I had intended as a storage and work area. Left unfinished, I now viewed it as a blank canvas. Since I was technically homeless, I decided that it should become a “tiny house,” not one of those adorable tiny houses that one sees exhibited on television shows, but a functional small dwelling to keep me warm and dry until my own house could be renovated. A recently retired construction worker, my neighbor Ján was 110% on board with the project. So plans were quickly drawn up and execution begun. Made made arrangements to drive to the hardware store on Saturday morning.

The morning coffee cup emptied, I got into my Škoda and waited for Ján to appear. I was feeling fine until my arms began to suddenly tremble and I was overcome with a hot flash. Ján came out and got into the car with me, but immediately asked why I was shaking so badly.

I had had similar attacks in the two previous years, both coincidentally in July. My remedy was to take aspirin and go to bed. I always felt fine the next day. But this attack was different in terms of severity.

“I don’t know,” I responded, “but it will soon pass.”

Ján was skeptical that it would “soon pass,” and suggested that I come to his house until I felt better. I agreed. Inside, his wife, Mária showed serious concern. She made me lay down on the bench.

Everything afterwards is hazy in my memory. I don’t remember Štefánia coming over. Nor do I recall the sound of the approaching ambulance, nor the healthcare workers carrying me into the back of the ambulance to cart me off to the hospital in Kežmarok. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the back of the ambulance dripping in sweat and feeling extremely thirsty. I lifted my head.

“It’s really hot in here!” I said to the attendants.

“Yes, you have a fever,“ the woman replied.

“Can I have some water?”


I lay my head down again and starred at the digital clock mounted inside the cab that painfully reminded of each agonizing minute I spent in the back of the ambulance. The trip seemed interminable. Finally, the ambulance stopped and the doors opened.

My next recollection is that of my neighbors, Ján and Mária, standing at the foot of my bed and carrying of personal items that Štefánia had prepared. They chatted for a few minutes before leaving.

Later I was taken to an examination room where the doctor was a nun in full habit. She asked me to urinate in a cup. Urinate in front of a nun? Really?! Declining, they put up a modesty screen, but the urine would not flow. The nun doctor warned me that if I did not pee into the cup, I would have to be catheterized.

During this examination period, my telephone rang. “It’s the woman from my health insurance company,” I explained.

“Páni Lachova, your timing is amazing; I’m in the hospital!”

“What happened?!” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered, “some kind of infection.”

While distracted by the telephone, I didn’t notice a male health care worker enter the room. Before I understood what was happening, he inserted a catheter into my urethra. I let out a scream, which was the final sound Páni Lachova heard before the phone was drained of its energy and went silent.

I spent a total of eight days in the hospital, which I will describe in a later post. I was glad to be home, even though home was my neighbors’ house across the street from my own. I was pleased to see that, during my absence, Ján had made progress on the tiny house. Things would be alright.

Osturňa Under Siege - April 06, 2018

Osturňa Under Siege - April 06, 2018

Why a group of people would try to loot an entire village of its charm and beauty is simply mindboggling.

paperwork With the recent upheaval in the government of my adopted country, coupled with all the craziness that is the Trump administration in my home country, it would be nice to settle in my little village and enjoy some peace and quiet. But no, turmoil has followed me here.

Osturňa is under siege.

Recent newspaper articles have appeared about a proposed project to develop Osturňa into a fantastic tourist destination to support 3,000 visitors per day, replete with hotels, cottages, underground parking, shopping malls, and sports complex. The proposal, first introduced in 2017, would surely be a cultural Chernobyl for the village and our way of life.

The group sponsoring the project, Goralská Dedina Osturňa, and who officially owns a 70 percent stake, is the Bratislava-based Zväz priemyselných podnikateľov Slovenska, a type of Slovak association (“občianske združenie“) whose membership is legally hidden from view. The remaining 30 percent of the shares belong to individuals residing in or near Osturňa, three of whom are on the five-member municipal council (Priaznivec Obce Osturňa).

At a recent raucous meeting, the three council members with a financial stake in the original project now claim that the original project is no longer on the table. Instead, they propose a scaled-back project named Turistické Centrum Obce Osturňa, which would include a hotel, enclosed thermal pools, a krčma, and a group of 15 self-catering cottages. Their relationship to the Bratislava group remains an uneasy question in the minds of the villagers.

In spite of a petition signed by half of the entire village population to stop the project, the municipal council nonetheless chose to ignore it and to move ahead on the project.

A 3-to-2 vote permitted the rezoning of privately-held land from agricultural to commercial use. This was done even without first consulting the landowners.

Ján Kaňuk, one of the members of the municipal council with financial stakes in the project, stated this new proposal was only a “štúdia”, a study. But as I pointed out, it was neither a plan nor study, only a map showing where buildings would be constructed, along with a few accompanying words. I had many questions:

These questions remain unanswered. The village remains skeptical. And angry.

For reasons I do not understand, according to Slovak legislation, conflict of interest does not apply on the village level. It should. Three of the five-member municipal council have financial interests and questionable relations with an unknown group of people in Bratislava. They are voting in support of their own interests, and ignoring the concerns and objections of the village citizenry. I feel they should either recuse themselves from any votes concerning this project or step down from the council. But there is no requirement that they do so.

I don’t believe these council members are acting out of malice. I know that Ján Kaňuk is sincerely concerned about jobs and the sustainability of the village. However, I feel they are naïve and being duped by a nebulous group of possibly nefarious individuals from the capital. I need some concrete answers – and proof.

How this will play out remains a big question. I assume that there will be another petition to put the project to a referendum. But there are no guarantees.

I am not shocked, but deeply disappointed. Slovak law is weak at best, and clearly fails to promote transparency at all levels. Council members act with impunity, in spite of protests. The situation gives me agita.

We are a poor and tiny village, but a beautiful one surrounded by fantastic nature. Why a group of people would try to loot an entire village of its charm and beauty is simply mindboggling.

I Think I’m Done Here - March 15, 2018

I Think I’m Done Here - March 15, 2018

I accepted the fact that I was operating a money pit of an enterprise, and was thankful that I had a flourishing business in the U.S. whose profits from which I could draw

Penzión Európa I took control of the only guesthouse in Osturňa in 2015 and, during an entire year, spent thousands of dollars transforming a poorly designed and constructed building into a semi-functional space. There remained a multitude of deficiencies that I, as a renter, could not justify correcting. The shared bathroom situation was off-putting for many guests, and the room layouts made for difficult furniture placement. But it was what it was, and we made the best of it that we could.

In spite of these deficiencies, we made Penzión Európa a wonderful small hotel. Super comfortable beds with expensive linens, fresh flowers in the room, a warm and welcoming salon, and extraordinary food offerings helped make the guesthouse what it was. Moreover, it was the staff that made it successful. I am forever indebted to Štefánia and Lucia for their hard work and their sense of detail that made the guests feel at home.

After the initial hectic and, at times, chaotic activities that are expected at a new business, we found a rhythm that made for a smooth workflow. Little surprises that would pop up on occasion were no longer disruptive to the flow, but were simply accommodated. In short, we had found our groove.

Still, there remained issues that could not be fixed. Chief among them was the fact that the guesthouse lost money each month. There was little jiggle room in the rates, as we were limited by what we could offer in the location we found ourselves. Our rates were already high in comparison to similar guesthouses in the region, but justifiable by our superior comfort and care. Had I been willing to dumb down the service, perhaps I could have saved a euro here and there. But that would not have increased our competitiveness. So, I accepted the fact that I was operating a money pit of an enterprise, and was thankful that I had a flourishing business in the U.S. whose profits from which I could draw.

Another issue was simply that of stress. It is difficult work to run a guesthouse, rising before everyone to prepare breakfast, and going to sleep last to ensure everything would be ready for the next day. My back began hurting significantly and my gait is painful, making it difficult to walk even short distances. In addition to the physical demands, the need to mind all aspects of the guesthouse has been very taxing.

What kept me going were the guest compliments, the ultimate reward for a job well done. I cannot express the pride I felt when a guest sincerely thanked me for a wonderful stay. I can still hear that Czech man rave about my boeuf bourguignon, and I retain countless pictures of guests who insisted on my inclusion in their family photos. This is the reason I operate the guesthouse: to make people happy.

But what I have discovered is that I am not happy. The physical and mental stress of running a business that will never see a profit has taken its toll. The only way I know to solve this problem is to stop. I have therefore made the decision to close the business after three years.

My original intent was to promote the village as a tourist destination. I indeed promoted Osturňa through my numerous blog posts on Slovak Spectator over the years. I met people who came to the village specifically due to this promotion.

But did it have a lasting effect? Besides the one family who liked the village so much that they purchased a cottage here, I would have to say “no.” One person cannot do it alone. A truly successful promotion requires coordination on many levels, the infrastructure for which is absent.

I have no regrets. This undertaking was a huge personal success, if not a financial one. I have met so many lovely people (and a few bad apples, as well), and have enough wonderful memories to last me forever. I hope the next proprietor of this place has equal success.

I’m Obsessed with Review Scores! - February 12, 2018

I’m Obsessed with Review Scores! - February 12, 2018

Online reviews play an important role in deciding where to book a room

paperwork When choosing a place to vacation, most people today go to one of the popular websites to find their perfect spot. Price, of course, is certainly a driving factor that a person uses in the selection process. But, in addition, filtering results based on desired criteria helps locate the perfect locale.

Osturňa is at a disadvantage right off the bat. Virtually no one types “Osturňa” as their destination, and why would they? We are surrounded by many popular tourist resorts with thriving tourist businesses of their own and which do well almost all year round. What does Osturňa have to offer?

In terms of organized tourism, Osturňa has nothing to offer. The village is made up of less than 300 citizens. We have one potraviny, one krčma, one church, and one penzión. Except for summer, when older adults return to relax in their parents’ now empty homes and bicyclists venture over the Magura mountain range for a thrilling view, the village is amazingly quiet and peaceful. As one often hears, Osturňa is at the end of the world.

Herein lies the paradox. Our lack of an organized tourist business is precisely our strongest selling point. This is a place to get away from the masses of people. Hike into the forest to pick mushrooms and blueberries, walk the road and examine our many historic wooden houses. Look to the sky after a brief summer shower to catch a frequent rainbow. As I’ve said before, Osturňa is a magical place.

Some people discover Osturňa only by accident, or because other “more desirable” locations were fully booked. Others base their search on reviewers’ ranking. And this is where I have become obsessed.

Online reviews play an important role in deciding where to book a room. We received five stars out of five on one website, while another keeps us teetering between 9.5 and 9.6 out of a possible 10. Still in the category of “exceptional,” I am not satisfied with a 9.5. I want a 9.8 or 9.9, and I think the penzión deserves that rating. What confuses me to no end is that guests will come, have a great time, write that “everything was wonderful, just like home,” and then give us a score of 8.5 out of 10.

We absolutely do our best to ensure our guests feel at home. But we like to believe that the penzión is better than home, unless of course you already have maid service, fresh cut flowers in your room, access to exquisite cuisine, and amazingly comfortable beds with high quality linens and towels. If our guests think of their own home as a “9,” then certainly the penzión deserves a “10.”

I keep a running tally of reviews, with averages carried out to five decimal places. When a new review comes in, I hold my breath and then click. They were very nice people, I think to myself. They seemed to have had a great time. Upon leaving, they told us how much they enjoyed their stay and promised to return in the summer. So why the 8.5?

Yes, any score between 7 and 9 is considered “good.” But this place is not just “good,” it is extraordinary in so many ways. We work very hard to make it so. And I’m going to get that 9.8 if it kills me!

Embrace 2018 with Hope and Happiness - January 9, 2018

Embrace 2018 with Hope and Happiness - January 9, 2018

The week of Sylvester festivities was filled with a dizzying array of foods and activities, while I slept in the basement.

paperwork The penzión was ready for the holidays by mid-December. Christmas lights went up both inside and out, Christmas trees decorated, and enough poinsettias purchased to fill every available horizontal surface. The kitchen was very busy as we prepared many foods in advance, then vacuum-sealed and froze them for later reheating.

Our first guests of the season arrived on Christmas day, followed by a steady stream of arrivals throughout the holiday period. A clerical error obliged me to surrender my own room for arriving guests and to sleep in the basement for two nights. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

As expected, the week of Sylvester festivities was filled with a dizzying array of foods and activities, culminating in our Sylvester party. Twice a year, we move the dining room furniture into the salon, and the salon furniture into the dining room. The salon becomes a party space with enough room for dancing and entertainment. The Osturňanka folklore group arrived promptly at 21 h. to serenade us throughout the evening and into the night.

Hot and cold foods arrived at the tables every half-hour or so. I was disappointed that people did not enjoy the guacamole with torilla chips, but surprised that everyone devoured the spicy Buffalo wings (no, buffalo do not have wings, but the city of Buffalo does!). And I proved that Central Europeans will eat shrimp without hesitation if breaded and served with a tangy cocktail sauce.

My favorite part of the evening was the moment I was finally able to sit down and converse with my guests. I met so many extraordinary people. The guests must have enjoyed themselves as well. For, within a few days, half the penzión rooms were already booked – for NEXT Sylvester!

The last of our guests departed on January 7. A visit from pán Farár that evening to bless the house brought the holidays to a ceremonious close. I suggested to the priest that the bar might require a little extra holy water, for which he obliged.

At the penzión, the holidays are filled with work, stress, and little sleep for me and my employees. Yet, when over, I am sad the holidays have ended. I think back at all the great things my staff did to make our guests happy. I remember seeing delight in my guests’ eyes, and I am moved to think I played a part in this.

The realization that I have only two years left on my lease leaves me rather ambivalent. On the one hand, I have already had a wonderful opportunity to introduce Osturňa to the public. I am certain that most readers had never even heard of Osturňa before my articles. If you’ve not visited, I bet that you’ve at least looked up Osturňa on the map. On the other hand, I realize the penzión will never be financially self-sufficient, and that it will continue to require precious resources – time and money – to remain open. How long will I be willing to place other projects on hold while I operate the penzión? I leave that answer to the future. For now, I embrace 2018 with hope and happiness.

Slovak Cuisine is Boring and Unimaginative - December 5, 2017

Slovak Cuisine is Boring and Unimaginative - December 5, 2017

There, I said it. Now, before you start sending me vitriolic emails, please finish reading this post.

paperwork Typical of Americans with “ethnic” roots, I grew up eating foods that my grandmother had brought with her from Osturňa: palacinky, holúbky, pirohy, chrústiky, makovník. These were the comfort foods that nourished and delighted me as a child. Once in Slovakia, I discovered bryndzové halušky and then, in Osturňa, knes.

Now living full-time in Slovakia, one would think that I have mastered all the classic Slovak recipes and lovingly prepare them for my guests. But I don’t. Why? Because I find Slovak cuisine boring and unimaginative.

There, I said it. Now, before you start sending me vitriolic emails, please finish reading this post.

Slovak meals are heavy on pork products and root vegetables, served aside the requisite pickled cabbage. Always plenty of meat, there are seldom green vegetables and almost never a fresh green salad. Yes, bravčový rezeň is tasty. But there are a lot of foods out there to explore.

I wonder who purchases the eggplants other than me, since no one I know had ever tried it. Squash is inexpensive and plentiful in the fall. Yet, people don’t seem to prepare it. Besides frozen fish, it appears that seafood delicacies, such as shrimp and scallops, never came to Osturňa before my arrival. And while I appreciate a good steak now and then, meatless meals can be delicious and satisfying.

I don’t flatter myself a great cook, but a competent one who can prepare a tasty four-course meal for eight in less than two hours. I never follow one single recipe, but compare several similar ones, then pick and choose the techniques and ingredients to create my own recipe. At the penzión, we endeavor to offer our guests a wide selection of foods. Those who are kosher, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan all present challenges that we readily accept with gusto.

Our meals can be best described as eclectic. While we do prepare standard American dishes, like corn chowder, Caesar salad, and eggplant parmesan, we also wow them with things like salmon Wellington, bœuf bourguignon, and almond-encrusted tuna steaks. The pork loin marinated in bourbon always gets compliments. The idea is to constantly surprise guests with simple but delicious foods never before tried.

Parenthetically, I had my own surprise last week while visiting friends in Dresden, Germany. Following a delicious vegan meal, dessert was a dairy-free chocolate mousse with whipped cream. But how? Research led me to the answer: aquafaba, the water leftover from cooking garbanzo beans. My staff and I spent an hour duplicating the mousse recipe, and it was wonderful.

Overall, I am satisfied with the quality and variety of fresh foods at Slovak supermarkets. My pantry is chock-full of ingredients that mystify my staff, who tend to organize products by shape rather than contents. Still, there are many ingredients that are difficult to obtain: cornstarch, cream of tartar, Stevia, saffron. And why is fresh asparagus in the spring as scarce as a virgin in a whorehouse?

So, if you come to Penzión Európa looking for a typical Slovak meal, you will be terribly disappointed. But if you are looking for something out of the ordinary, it is the place for you.

When Tourists Go Home - November 14, 2017

When Tourists Go Home - November 14, 2017

Lacking guests creates a period of uncertainty where I am free to do as I please, but always with the nagging thought of preparation.

paperwork The month of October is a glorious time in Osturňa. Tourists return to their quotidian routines in the cities; the village suddenly falls silent. The geraniums struggle to maintain their last blossoms in the dwindling sunlight while deciduous trees in the forest turn intense shades of red, yellow and orange, in stark contrast to the conifers. Stars in the sky appear even brighter in the crisp night air. Stoking the furnace becomes a necessity.

A surprise snow fall on Sunday left me to worry how I would manage to drive to Poprad the next day to have winter tires installed. But once across the Magura Mountain, there was little snow and the drive was a breeze.

In America, we celebrate Halloween; All Saints Day (a.k.a. All Souls Day) is not much of a holiday. Here in Slovakia, of course, All Saints Day is the important holiday, when cemeteries are aglow with candles placed in remembrance of loved ones. I enjoyed visiting the cemetery at night each year to see all the lights. I will again go this year. However, it will be a very different experience. My cousin and closest blood relation in the village died suddenly a few weeks ago. So my mind will not be on the beauty of the lights, but on the loss of my dear cousin Katerina. Apparently, tears are sometimes necessary in order to nourish the roots we plant.

Back at the penzión, I use this period to catch my breath after a busy season, to identify things to be fixed, and to plan for the winter season. The curtains have already been washed, ironed and rehung; walls and ceilings wiped clean. I would love to reorganize the pantry, but that will require at least one full day of participation. I want all new Christmas decorations this year. My “to do” list seems grows each day.

I also use this time to experiment in the kitchen, trying different recipes and techniques. My first angel food cake was a baker’s nightmare, but the third was perfect. The carrot cake was delicious but, with two layers and frosting, was 10 centimeters high! Better as a sheet cake, I think.

I’ve also been playing with my new toy: a vacuum sealer. Fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries have already been processed and frozen, awaiting the time when fresh fruit is unavailable. Can I reheat frozen cream of broccoli soup by placing the sealed bag in a pot of boiling water? We’ll see tomorrow.

With this free time, I plan next week to visit a friend in Wrocław, then another in Dresden, before finally arriving somewhere in France. I used to speak fluent French, but now my brain mixes it with Slovak. I need to spend a week there so I can regain my language skills.

Having guests forces me into a routine of shopping, cooking, and hosting. Lacking guests creates a period of uncertainty where I am free to do as I please, but always with the nagging thought of preparation. I suppose that is a part of life: always preparing.

Paper, Paper, Everywhere! - October 4, 2017

Paper, Paper, Everywhere! - October 4, 2017

It seems that Slovakia has one leg firmly planted in the 21st century, while the other maintains a toehold somewhere in the 1950s.

paperwork In an earlier blog, I described how I run my business in Slovakia. But I omitted some of the more annoying aspects concerning rules and regulations. I need to vent some frustration over the ridiculous business practices with which I – and every other businessperson in Slovakia – must contend.

It seems that Slovakia has one leg firmly planted in the 21st century, while the other maintains a toehold somewhere in the 1950s. As the country moves towards electronic information, it continues an aberrant love affair with paper. The advent of modern technology in Slovakia hasn’t reduced the use of paper; it has just duplicated the information into yet another form.

Let me start with what the manufacturer refers to as a “fiscal printer.” This is a machine that prints receipts for customers, and records this information for accounting purposes. A glorified adding machine, I was taken aback by the 250 € price tag for this thermal printer. Its serial number also had to be registered with the tax office, which the seller kindly did on my behalf.

Once programmed, by tapping “1” followed by the PLU key, the machine correctly records the sale of a large draft beer at 2,00 €. By tapping “2 * 98” plus the PLU key, the machine records 1,00 €, the city tax for two persons one night. There are ninety-nine available PLUs.

Each day we must print out the daily fiscal report that shows, among other things, the amount of cash and credit card payments we took in the previous day. These daily reports are then pasted into the kniha uzávierok, which we must legally be prepared to surrender to the tax authorities at any moment. Once a month, we must also print the monthly fiscal report, an unwieldly printout that we send to the accountant. In addition to these printed reports, the machine also stores this information on a memory card which, again, we must legally be prepared to surrender to the tax authorities at any moment.

My obvious question is this: if all this information is stored on a chip, why am I required to print out a daily report and tape it into the kniha uzávierok? It is a duplicative and time-consuming process that really needs to end.

The icing on the cake: I asked my brigáda to print a report on the amount of city tax we took in for 2016 so I could pay this to the village. After some research, I was told the machine cannot provide such a report. The information is sitting there on the chip, but it is for all practical purposes unobtainable. My only recourse was to download the data from the chip onto my computer and pay a programmer to read and format the data into a spreadsheet. What a system!

Next topic: alcohol. I buy alcohol primarily from two distributors. In addition to retaining receipts (which I also scan and upload onto our server), I am required to write down each item purchase in a separate booklet, including the state control number, product, distributor, purchase date, quantity, price, etc. Why can’t they just ask for my receipts? I would even happily give them electronic access the subfolder on the server containing the electronic copies. No, they want to torture me with tedious and duplicative tasks that serve no real purpose.

My final rant pertains to the loathed kniha ubytovaných. This is the book, registered with the obecný úrad, where I must record myriad information on each adult who stays in the penzión. This includes their first, last, and maiden names, birthdate, identification number (which imbeds their birthdate!), full address, and the dates they stayed, all which the guests must sign to prove they were actually here. I am also required to report non-EU guests to the Foreign Police Office within three days of their departure. Looking for a criminal? Sorry, they left three days ago. To me, this requirement is reminiscent of the Czechoslovakian police state I encountered in the 1980s.

There are many points of contention I have with the state regarding regulations. But the most egregious is the paper burden placed on companies. How will we ever be able to help propel Slovakia into the 21st century with such antiquated business practices?

Running a Business in Slovakia is Not For the Faint of Heart - September 05, 2017

Running a Business in Slovakia is Not For the Faint of Heart - September 05, 2017

If you are a foreigner with limited Slovak proficiency, limited knowledge of Slovak law, and want to run a business, you should consider following my lead.

paperwork Running a business in Slovakia is complicated and frustrating. A competent support team is a critical to success.

Let me get straight to the point: running a business in Slovakia has proven to be much more challenging than I had ever imagined. From legal requirements to labor laws to financial reporting requirements, it has been a dizzying and occasionally overwhelming experience, one that continues on a seemingly daily basis.

Admittedly, in spite of my obvious compulsion for detail (ask the staff!), I am much more of a “big picture” guy when it comes to business. I want to make sure work is flowing smoothly, the staff has what it needs, problems are addressed and, above all, my guests are happy. Still, it is my job to make sure business-related tasks are completed in a timely manner.

After seven years in Slovakia, my language skills are acceptable, but nowhere near to what I need to successfully run a business. So how do I do it? I hire good outside support services.

My virtual assistant

When you telephone Penzión Európa, you are actually connected with my assistant outside Zvolen. A native Slovak fluent in English, she handles reservations and special requests, as well as fielding calls from annoying salespeople. She also performs any other tasks that I throw at her, which is often. We communicate via Skype, mobile phone, and email. I would be lost without Zuzana.

My lawyer

My first lawyer spoke English and was very kind, but seemed to lack a certain enthusiasm for detail. I am now on lawyer #2 and I’m sticking to him like glue. Although 1.5 hours away by car in Prešov, he does the due diligence necessary to keep me out of trouble. Although he sometimes tells me “No”, I know he is working in my best interest. An added benefit is that, when I must travel to Prešov, I get to eat at that great little Chinese restaurant off the main square.

My accountant

My first accountant spoke no English and had little time for me. Her e-mails would have been equally helpful had they been written in hieroglyphics. I was happy to find my second accounting firm in Prešov. But alas, they provided a level of customer service that I simply could not accept. I am now on Accounting Firm #3. While they have disappointed me on occasion, they do manage to do the monthly chores without problem, so I’m staying with them for the time being.

The difficult lesson I learned is this: If you are a foreigner with limited Slovak proficiency, limited knowledge of Slovak law, and want to run a business, you should seriously consider following my lead. Like my own dedicated staff at the penzión, these supporting companies are equally important to the function of the business. Without them, the business would surely collapse.

Striving for Great Customer Service - August 04, 2017

Striving for Great Customer Service - August 04, 2017

There are no readily available tools to teach good customer service. So instead, I’ve tried to mentor my staff with real situations.

the guesthouse On my first day as hotelier, I looked around the guesthouse with a critical eye. It had been furnished in a faux rustic style typical of the region with ugly wood furniture, cheap wall hangings (including the requisite dancing kroj), and extremely uncomfortable single beds with equally unappealing bedding. I quickly made a decision: everything had to go! Fortunately, our large basement could accommodate the unusable furniture and tchotchkes.

It would take an entire year to redesign and furnish the place as I envisioned, restrained only by the existing architecture. In the end, I had created what I believed to be an atmosphere of simple elegance and luxury that any discerning traveler would appreciate.

My next job was to train the staff. Slovakia, like other former Communist countries, is not renowned for its customer service. Quite the contrary, a visiting American was outraged by the lack of courtesy at a local restaurant. But I shrugged it off. “Eric, this is Slovakia.”

In retrospect, I was wrong to be blasé about it. Customers should demand good service, or at least give an appropriate online review. As an outspoken person, I do not hesitate to voice my objections when service is inadequate.

There are no readily available tools to teach good customer service. So instead, I’ve tried to mentor my staff with real situations. For example, a guest declines our dinner offer, but then arrives famished. Our choices are to 1) deny the guest dinner and make a grumpy person even grumpier or 2) quickly throw together a fine dinner and make the guest happy. The correct answer (2) seems obvious, but it was not initially evident to my staff. The results of this mentoring style seem to have worked well for my staff.

In addition to these learned lessons, there is a set of rituals we follow to engage our guests:

We really try to do everything possible to ensure our guests feel welcomed and pampered throughout their stay. After all, we are in the hospitality industry. My staff does a great job, and I am both heartened and humbled by each positive review, knowing we have met or exceeded someone’s expectations.

Our guests’ biggest complaint: they have gained weight during their stay.

Happy Birthday to Me! - July 14, 2017

Happy Birthday to Me! - July 14, 2017

A party is a party. But I must admit, we throw pretty damn good parties.

paperwork I throw two large parties each year at the penzión, one to celebrate Saint Sylvester and the other to celebrate my birthday. The local folklore group, Osturnianka, obliges me with song and dance, while I reciprocate with food and vodka.

I prepare weeks in advance, developing a tapas menu of fabulous foods, from delicacies such as deep-fried coconut shrimp to Osturňa's own humble knes, all of which are served at various intervals throughout the evening. It is a celebration that I wish the entire village could embrace, for an Osturňa celebration is great fun!

At this particular event, my friend, Jay, visited from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I was so thankful that he came. He is the one with glasses dancing with pretty women! From the photos, his mother, Marlene, who lives in both King of Prussia and in Vienna, Austria, and is an artist, gave me a beautiful painted picture for the memory.

There is little else to write here about it; a party is a party. But I must admit, we throw pretty damn good parties. For us, the locals, it is just great fun. But for our guests, it is a spectacle that will stay with them for years to come. And I am delighted to be a part of it.

How I Became a Guesthouse Hotelier - June 30, 2017

How I Became a Guesthouse Hotelier - June 30, 2017

I first visited the most beautiful place in the world in 1980s, today I run its only hotel.

view of Osturňa I live in the most beautiful place in the world. This is not hyperbole; I truly believe it. When I first set eyes on the village in the late 1980’s, while Czechoslovakia was still under Communist rule and foreign tourists remained a novelty, I was amazed by the simple wooden structures and the picturesque scenery that I thought could only exist in a painting. But there I was, walking the very same road that my grandparents had walked nearly a century earlier.

To get a broader view, I climbed the hill behind the church as high as I could, where the hills on the other side of the valley give way to the Belianske Tatras and the High Tatras beyond. As I sat on the ground surrounded by yellow and purple spring flowers with views of the Tatra Mountains and the winding village below, I was overwhelmed. “Babka,” I wondered, “why did you never tell us how beautiful Osturňa was?”

I slowly began to understand the few stories my grandmother shared with me about the village, like climbing the hills to play with the Polish children. But in my later years, I also came to understand why my grandparents had left the village at such a young age to explore opportunities in the New World; who had time to gaze upon the mountains when the potatoes and onions needed harvesting? Life was hard, work meant food, and the village offered little opportunity.

Today, Osturňa’s most precious export remains its youth. But instead of travelling to America, the young now remain within the European Union, living mostly in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The continuing lack of good jobs in eastern Slovakia helps to maintain this cycle. But I am heartened each time I come upon a family pushing a baby carriage on the road, hoping they will grow and prosper in the village.

When I started my business, my intention was to promote tourism, with the hope of bringing needed jobs and new opportunities to the village. But having barely begun, the only guesthouse in the village suddenly closed. The man who had operated it decided it was too much work for so little remuneration. My question then became, “How can I promote tourism to a village when there are no accommodations?”

Following lengthy negotiations and against my own better judgement, I signed a five-year lease agreement with the owner of the guesthouse (who also lives and works in the United Kingdom). Suddenly, I had become a guesthouse hotelier.

Penzión Európa finally opened after a year of renovation. I now have a full-time staff of three, with additional seasonal employees during peak periods. I am aware that the steady salaries I offer help to financially strengthen a few families, and tilt the odds slightly in our favor that these families will remain part of the backbone of our village. So my effort is already reaping benefits.

My journey from visitor to resident and entrepreneur has been… interesting. The work is challenging, but chock full of rewarding moments. In the coming posts, I plan to share with you the thoughts and lessons learned from a foreigner living and running a business in Slovakia. Inspiration or deterrent? You be the judge.

In Stereo! - May 1, 2016

In Stereo! - May 1, 2016

I was never “taught” the concept of stereo.

two stereo speakers Today I was reminded that one cannot take for granted the experience and knowledge of another. This lesson arrived via the stereo system we were setting up.

Of course, stereo systems have been around seemingly forever (although I do remember my brother purchasing a high-fidelity system when I was around ten years old). Today they are ubiquitous and commonplace. However, apparently the concept behind stereo sound seems not to have been widely disseminated.

I had four speakers to hook up from this two-channel stereo, two in the bar area and two in the salon. The cables were run from the stereo to the two speakers in the bar. So far, so good. Then the handyman began installing the plastic runners used to hide the cables. He ran the first cable to the salon speaker and hooked it up. Sound: good. But then, oddly, he began to run the second speaker from the first one so that both speakers would be on the same channel.

"You can't connect those together," I said. "It's stereo! They have to be on separate channels."

Both the handyman and my helper looked at me with a certain amount of confusion. An attempt to explain the concept of stereo using a Wikipedia page and Google Translate failed miserably. Even so, the handman complied and ran another cable to the second speaker.

I was never “taught” the concept of stereo. One day I decided to play a record on the stereo system in the living room. It didn’t sound as it normally did. Something was wrong. Some of the singers sounded faint and far away. A quick check of the stereo showed that I had accidentally moved the balance all the way to one side. When I corrected the balance, the sound was once again normal. The concept of stereo had been uncovered! I remember spending a good amount of time moving the balance button back and forth, amazed how I was able to isolate some sounds from others.

Once the handyman left, I selected a disc and took my helper into the salon area to listen to it. I explained to her that we had two ears, so two speakers. As the music played, we stood in the salon as I pointed in the direction of the sound: guitar here, piano there, voice somewhere in the middle. Finally, she seemed to finally grasp the concept. And I was happy.