Slovakia, New Jersey, in summertime

During the 18-hour flight back from Cape Town, pretty much the only thing I could think about was how anticlimactic going home to Jersey would be. I braced myself for this phenomenon known as “boredom,” but I couldn’t really wrap my brain around it, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never been bored before, even in potentially “boring” situations. We only children have this superpower of always finding something that amuses.

When I got to Baba’s garden, I did just that! Pinwheels and bright colors, accompanied by spiking 99 degree temps after those “winter” months in rainy Cape Town amounted to endless entertainment. My Slovak “Baba,” known to you peons as “grandmother,” lives in Union County, NJ. She has lived in this little hotter than hell in a brick oven house since 1962, tending this festive flower-and-pinwheel garden just as long.

Also for just as long, she has insisted that the Mexican lawn ornaments along the back fence in the yard are Slovak relics brought over on the boat from the “old country.” I can only begin to imagine Baba with the farming boy under one arm and the burro under the other trying to get through customs, but I don’t waste too much time on this mental tangent, because I don’t believe it ever actually happened.

Baba has also tended the separate tomato and cucumber garden during the course of my entire lifetime. It takes her an entire commercial break to elevate herself out of her recliner lounge chair in the “parlor,” but dammit she’s going to plant that garden every year. On particularly bad days, when rainstorms are on their way in and Baba can feel it in her bones, she’ll bark orders at Dzedu from the back porch, leaning on her stylish 4-footed cane. For effect, she’ll lift the cane and poke the air with it, indicating for my bewildered grandfather the general area in which the target fruit or vegetable is to be picked up. The garden is not Dzedu’s passion, but the 90-year-old has the knees of a teenager, and Baba does not, so he has to go out there. Moreover, a Slovak man knows not to resist the gardening protocol of his Slovak “old country” wife; that is, the kind of Slovak wife who insists on referring to Slovakia as “Europe.”

Come to think of it, Baba has many special names for things that aren’t their real names, as much as she will never admit that about “Europe.” She refers to her recliner chair in the TV room as the “re-climber” in the “parlor.” She makes special emphasis on the “b” when referring to her chair. Not even 50 years of living in “the new country” could Americanize her pronunciation. “Orangina” soft drink is casually referred to as “Neutrogena,” as in: “Mah-reesa, I bought you that Neutrogena drink you like.” Also in Baba’s presence, one must acquiesce, theatrically throw up one’s hands and agree that “Gatorade” is indeed pronounced “Gargolader.” And it’s like the UN over there if any Americans come over to visit. When Shane first met Baba, I had to serve as interpreter, because he swore he didn’t hear one word of English during the entire visit. When Shane got up to go to the bathroom, all eyes accusingly darted over to Baba, who swore she didn’t speak any Slovak to him. “He hears with the wrong accent,” she insists.

Shane was so bold as to ask why there are two kitchens in any given Slovak house– one fancy pristine one on the main floor and one in the basement that looks (euphemistically-speaking) pretty “well-used.” Duh! *Slaps forehead with hand.* One is for cooking, while the other is “for show.” He nearly shat his pants in disbelief, or maybe amazement, a few weeks later when we went to a Slovak cousin around the corner, and it was the same kitchen setup.

And it’s not just our Slovak family. It’s the entire neighborhood cluster just 8 miles south of Newark airport. It’s never a shocker for me, because I’m “in” with the Slovak club, what with being 50% Slovak. Sure, it only makes up half of my gene pool, but Slovak-ness is the sort of thing where you either are or you aren’t. I know “I am,” because I ruin chocolate by putting it in the fridge in the summertime and hate myself for it afterwards, AND I love watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune every evening back to back. I was inconsolable when I moved to a different geographic region of the country, and for whatever reason, those bastards put Wheel of Fortune on before Jeopardy and how am I supposed to up and adjust to that? I called up my godmother Merka to tell her about this, she’s Slovak by the way, and she just wouldn’t believe me. To this day she thinks it was just a mean-spirited phone call on my part, pulling her chain like that.

Despite being attuned to a Slovak TV schedule, I won’t pretend I’m a fully functioning member of the culture, I mean, I can’t speak the language. I stick out like a sore thumb at Pulaski’s meat market on Wood Ave when I can’t order the garlic kielbasi properly, or even worse yet, I’m made to feel like such a fool once a year when I get dragged along to the Slovak church services on a freezing cold Sunday morning for whatever reason. I don’t know how they know I’m coming to church that day, but it’s always freezing when I go to Slovak church. Sure I know the Apostles’ creed in English- thank- you- very- much- fifteen- years- of- Sunday- school, but could anyone in my family have been bothered for even a moment to teach it to me in Slovak in order to spare me the embarrassment of being the only gringo in the room who couldn’t recite the profession of faith in Slovak?! Oh no, everyone was too busy feeding the chickens under the deck! (A story for another time I assure you. Chickens in an urban backyard deserve their own essay.) The Slovak services are always marked on the signs on the church lawns usually one hour before the services in English, which always puzzled me as a small child. Why is the Slovak service so early before the American service? As I got older it dawned on me that Slovaks like the earlier church service, because they have been up since 5am already worrying about things totally beyond their control (mostly about the fate of grandchildren backpacking around in Africa, where the hell is that?), and they will need to get a head start for the rest of the entire afternoon harvesting those tomatoes and cucumbers.

Is coming home from Africa and re-immersing myself in my Slovakness anti-climactic after shark cage diving? Sure. Low-key compared to living across the street from a busy train station in Cape Town during the World Cup? Of course.

But was I at any point bored coming home to New Jersey, paying photographic homage to my grandmother’s precious garden and reminiscing over a lifetime’s worth of Slovakness? Definitely not.

I still don’t know what the word “bored” means, and I hope I never will.

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2 Comments on “Slovakia, New Jersey, in summertime”

  1. Alice Varga May 2, 2013 at 09:55 #

    I came across your post when ‘googling’ for “dzedu,” which was what my children called my father. Technically this is no big deal, but I am also from NJ, and I did teach chemistry at Menlo many years ago. If you are still at Menlo and would like to meet for coffee one day, I’d love to meet you. I can be reached at avarga@oxigene.com.

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  1. New Jersey is better than northern Virginia | SavvyCitiZen - March 29, 2013

    […] 4. My Slovak grandmother lives in New Jersey. […]

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