I’m delighted to be on blog duty today and have a chance to share my thoughts about our visit to this picturesque village. Podbiel was the home of my paternal grandparents, and though they left this village behind over 80 years ago, our family always maintained a sliver of connection to the community. Cam and some of the students tease me that I would have been one of the middle-aged women dancing and singing on the stage of the folk festival today – if my grandparents had never migrated to Canada. Not so, because I’m not very good at carrying a tune. But then again, I could probably master that yelping cry that they occasionally belt out during the performance.
This is my 4th visit to Podbiel. I spent 2 weeks here in the 1980s, accompanied by my Aunt Adela from Vancouver, who left Czechoslovakia when she was 3 years old. Adela was an important link between the ‘Old Country’ and Canada, as she spoke Slovak and made sure to keep in touch with her cousins. At that time, it was inconceivable that in three years the Soviet regime would crumble. The communist grip was strong; loudspeakers throughout the village directed people to their daily task in the agricultural collective and poured out political messages and patriotic music. People took care about what they said, and who they spoke to. Consumer goods were scarce, and anything from the West assumed great value (like jeans and Pink Floyd records.)
I didn’t return to the village until 2007, when I was able to witness the dramatic changes post-communism. One of the most visible differences was colour: like in Bratislava, the drab gray of Pobiel’s built landscape was being transformed by fresh paint. New houses had been built in the side streets of the village, with money earned in the fledgling capitalist economy. By 2011, my 3rd visit, funding from the European Union contributed to developing the local road infrastructure, and to update (ie insulate) decrepit Soviet-era buildings.
Today, things haven’t changed much since I was last here. There’s still really only one place in town to grab a snack or lunch — a comfortable place with indoor and outdoor seating that offers traditional meals, pizza, beer and ice cream (something for everyone!) The two brothers who are master wood-carvers still pepper the village with amazing folk art. The single church at the centre of Podbiel continues to be packed on Sundays, and its bells peel out every morning at 6:00. We were fortunate to arrive in town on the national holiday weekend commemorating the Slovak patron saints of Cyril and Methodius, which was being celebrated with a day-long folk festival. Clearly the old ways still echo here, with families enjoying the chance to watch cultural performances and indulge at various stalls of food & drink. The live music reminded me of the records my grandparents used to play and the fun ‘Slovak picnics’ I attended when I was a kid, in farmers’ fields in Pitt Meadows or Surrey. I was happy to climb up Chervena Scala (the ‘Red Rock’) with a few of the students to take in the incredible view it offers of the village. Festival music wafted up to us from below, as one of the ancient two-car trains wound its way along the river bends.
It was a bittersweet moment, filled with strong emotions for me. My beloved Aunt Adela passed away just before this trip, and her spirit is close by me throughout this segment of our journey. This may very well be the last time I visit Podbiel, as almost everyone she connected me with so long ago is either dead now, or moved away. But if I never return, I couldn’t ask for a better send off, sharing my personal connection with this place with our great group of students.
submitted by Jeanne Mikita