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Report 855: Eastern Europe and meeting family

By t-mac from Ky, Spring 2005

Trip Description: April 2005 trip to search out my husband's Slovakian roots.

Destinations: Countries - Austria, Other Countries

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Day Tours; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 5: “These are your cousins. You will probably be spending the night with them.”

photo by Dana McMahan

Baby pictures in Slovakia

“These are your cousins. You will probably be spending the night with them.” These words came from our Slovakian translator as we stood outside a small yellow house in the village of Bytca - home of Brian’s grandfather. I should start from the beginning…

When Brian and I looked at where to go for our next European adventure, we knew we wanted to go to Eastern Europe. The dollar is so crushingly low against the Euro we needed to go somewhere we could afford on a tight budget. We had talked for a while about trying to look up his Slovakian roots, and decided this was the time.

We built the trip around a drive through Slovakia, and coerced Delta into actually letting us redeem our frequent flyer miles. We were at their mercy as to where to fly in and out of, though I strongly insisted on Budapest. Thus we planned a 9 day trip beginning in Hungary, and concluding in Vienna Austria. With the reality of our poor currency, we looked for even more ways to stretch our budget. We typically stay in small 1 star hotels or pensiones (private homes with rooms rented out) but even these were not at the kind of price we like. As we were planning the trip, we kept seeing headlines like “Slovakian Koruna reaches record high against US dollar”. So we turned to an alternative means… after reading a little online, we decided to try Priceline for Budapest. We bid the amount we’d pay for a small private room with a bath down the hall a 20 minute walk from the city center, and won a room at the Marriot on the Danube! This was encouraging. Plus it was prepaid in US dollars, so we were protected from further declines.

We checked Expedia for Krakow Poland, and found (drumroll please….) an actual palace! Outside the city, but we planned to have a car anyway, and it was a real, honest-to-goodness palace. We booked a basic room in their “granary” and hoped for an upgrade. Vienna was the most challenging… anything we could afford was listed in our guidebook as being in a “seedy area” over a sex shop, for example. They are on the euro, and as a major capital, prices are high. It occurred to us at one point that Brian had an awful lot of Hilton points from the last couple years of stays at Hamptons when he travels for work. We called Hilton, and couldn’t believe our luck when we learned he had enough points to book 3 free nights at the Hilton Vienna Danube - a value of 280 euros a night (though we could never dream of actually paying that much). So we were settled except for the overnight in Slovakia, but we decided for once to play it by ear and decide when we got there.

With several months before our April 28 departure, we began to try to track down someone in Brian’s grandfather’s family. Born in a country village in Slovakia as Edmund Zental, out of wedlock, he was raised by his grandmother Maria Zental when his mother went to America as a mail order bride to a Hungarian man in Michigan. He grew up in poverty, frequently given food by his best friend Ivan Haranta, son in a wealthy family. As a teenager he left his grandmother and Slovakia behind and sailed alone to America, where he changed his name to Edmund Horvath, after his stepfather. He struggled in an America school where they placed him with small children because he didn’t speak English. He succeeded, however, in making a place for himself in the American dream, with a long career at the GM plant in Flint which allowed him to provide a modest, but sufficient income for his wife and four children - one of them Emily, Brian’s mother.

In the summer of 1972, shortly before Brian was born, Edmund traveled back to Slovakia with his wife Mentie. It was a long arduous ordeal to reach Bytca, but once there he visited his cousins and his long-time friend Ivan. The family was struggling under the communist regime, and by their standards, his factory job in America made him comparatively wealthy. He and his wife stayed with family for 2 weeks before returning home on a Cunard ship… becoming a grandfather to Brian before he even reached American shores. Edmund died when Brian was only ten, so when we began to look for his family, we turned to his grandmother, now 86. She has kept all the letters from over the years Edmund received from his friend Ivan, and we took the address from the last one and sent a letter to it, explaining our story. We had it translated after running an ad in the Slovak Spectator, asking for a volunteer for this purpose.

Two months went by, when a letter written in Slovak arrived. We were on pins and needles until the translation was complete. It was from Elena, daughter of Ivan Haranta, Edmund’s best friend. “I am an old woman at 73,” it said. She went on to warmly welcome us to Slovakia, and tell us how pleased she would be to meet us. Our excitement for the trip immediately doubled. Continuing to use a translator, we replied and told her the date we would visit, and received a letter in response again advising us to bring a translator. Finding a translator to accompany us to a small town in the middle of Slovakia was a bit of a challenge, but we finally accomplished it after I wrote emails to professors at nearby University of Zilinia, and a professor offered his daughter’s services. We arranged with her to meet in Bytca for our visit with Elena. Brian’s grandmother gave us a letter and box of chocolate to take to Elena. In the letter she named several relatives.

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Trip Report Pages

“These are your cousins. You will probably be spending the night with them.”

Budapest - Baths and Pubs

Finding Grandfather's Family

Fish Ice and on to Poland

Finale in Vienna


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