|The High Tatras in Slovakia|
One of the perks of being raised in an immigrant household was that we got to go to Europe every summer. Each summer while my classmates spoke about going to Six Flags or Disney World I would boast that I saw the Roman coliseum or the High Tatras mountains in Slovakia.
It was there in Slovakia where I learned to become a true boy.
You see, growing up in an urban area in central Jersey we were pretty sheltered from the outdoors. We were confined in that little patch of land we called our backyard. Even though we made the most it, nothing could compare to the freedom that I my brothers and I felt in Slovakia.
My grandma in Slovakia owned a sizable farm. She had pigs, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Each time we went there we were told to obey just this one rule: Don't get hurt. If we were successful at that, we could basically do anything that we wanted.
One of our favorite things to do was to go to the barn which contained hay about two stories high. My brothers and I would jump to our heart's delight. We didn't mind feeling itchy afterwards or having bugs crawl around our bodies. All that mattered was the euphoria of the moment; being free to jump, to roam as kings of the barn.
Another Slovakian memory is of me shooting my first gun. As a naturally curious child, I asked my uncle if I could try shooting his rifle. He shockingly said "Sure but remember THE rule". I shot that rifle and loved it. Yes - I practically fell backwards, but that clacking sound, that feeling, seeing the smoke emanate from the barrel excited me so much. Up to that point I had only seen guns on T.V. But in Slovakia there was no T.V. everything that I saw and felt was real.
I remember the first time that I set eyes on the majestic High Tatras. It was October of 1987 and there was already several feet of snow. I remember the feeling of seeing those mountains. It was awe inspiring. I remember seeing the rough, jagged, snow covered mountain tops. It looked so foreboding, I imagined that Zeus reigned there. It felt like a fantasy. The only mountains that I had seen before were in story books. I remember tumbling down a hill with my uncle and brother. We were all so wet from the snow, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm. This too was very real.
Chasing grandma's chickens: now there's a fun boyish pass time. Ah the thrill of tormenting those chickens. We would tie their legs, throw them up in the air, and dare them to fly. We would kick soccer balls at them, and other raucous activities . One day we went too far; we chased a chicken into a latrine. The chicken was so scared that it actually jumped into the smelly latrine! For days we denied doing it until the stench was so unbearable that we had to tell the truth to our grandma. She hit us with her cane and voila - no more chicken chasing.
There are so many more memories of visiting Slovakia, they could only fit in a Mark Twain size novel. Kayaking, first girlfriend, the scent of the outdoors, all pungently memorable, But the most salient thing about these summers in Slovakia was the freedom. I was a truly free in Slovakia, I could live out any adventure, play any role, be the hero or the villain. My brothers and I were safe. There were no curfews, no crowded streets, and no crime. I could be what I craved most; a free child. I felt like Tom Sawyer. The world was my canvas and as long as I followed "THE" rule and didn't get too hurt I could do anything. This was a stark contrast to the sheltered and sterile upbringing that I experienced in Elizabeth NJ, where there were curfews, fences, and our tiny yard. In Elizabeth I was a frustrated boy with little freedom, in Slovakia I was a king, (well... a junior king) ruling my entire universe. In Slovakia I was emancipated. Which is ironic because I lived in America, the freest country in the world. I am grateful for my trips to Slovakia, they helped shape me as a man.