When you are traveling with friends through rural Slovakia and your rental car gets broken into, you learn how to say “do piče.” (It’s an expletive—the expletive—in Slovak, of course.)

When a horse-loving cowboy basically adopts you and allows you to stay at his ranch for the next two days, you learn how to say, “ďakujem.” (It’s pronounced ‘JAH-koo-yehm’ and means ‘thank you’).

Bobby, our cowboy, is a middle aged man whose big smile and welcoming spirit make communication easy despite his limited English. He is in our midst at the time of the robbery because we have previously spent one night at his ranch. 

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We discovered Ranch Amadeus in a last-minute Google search for lodging—a one-night stop-over point on our way to Krakow. When we told Bobby, the ranch owner and operator, that we were mildly interesting in doing some light hiking the next morning before continuing north, he insisted upon joining us and bringing along his 18-year-old son, Radoslav. At first, we were hesitant. Almost as reluctant as we were to eat the breakfast his Hungarian cook prepared for us, which was some sort of greasier, thicker, less-sweet version of french toast. However, both proved necessary, as the hike was far more rigorous than any of us had anticipated, and we could have never navigated the trail without our Slovakian guides.

The footwear I chose to bring on the trip were boots from Urban Outfitters. (The irony!) Near the summit of the mountain, I encountered Slovakian hiker-women with windbreakers and ski poles who openly laughed and pointed at my apparel. I responded by sprinting along the level mountain ridge and beating them to the summit, where, breathless, I grabbed ahold of my friends in order to stay vertical against the winds’ harsh blows.

***

After coming down the mountain slowly, noting the smashed car window and missing items (and after Rado teaches us to say “do piče,”) we humbly find ourselves asking for the help of our newfound friends. Bobby calls the police, arranges for us to obtain the proper paperwork, and sends us in to the ski lodge where we are instructed to eat noodles with cheese curd and bacon (a typical Slovakian dish) and warm our numbed toes by the fire. We mourn lost passports, iPods, and cell phones, and give ourselves all sorts of negative labels for not hiding our belongings better. Do piče. Do piče. Do piče.

When Rado spends all afternoon translating our sob-story to the Slovakian police and making sure that we have all of the documentation and paperwork we need to return the rental car and make it back to Hungary, we say “thank you.” When his limited English hinders the process, he calls his friend Maja, who happens to live in the next town over and happens to be studying to be a translator. She devotes her entire Saturday afternoon to helping us. D’akujem. D’akujem.

1013858_10201392202231706_1560279449_nWe stay at the ranch for the next two nights, not wanting to cut our weekend trip short, but not wanting to continue on to Poland with a missing passport. It is not long before we all believe that we were fortuitously robbed so that we would give Ranch Amadeus, located in the village of Valentova (population: eighteen. Yes, eighteen), the time it truly deserves. We ride horses, and even though we aren’t allowed to leave the corral because we aren’t experienced riders, we laugh and shout as we attempt to gallop, proud of ourselves for conquering the fear that most humans experience when trying something that is new and fast—attempting something that requires you to engage every muscle of your body and hold on tight. We shout compliments at each other while we take turns riding Chester. “You look like you were made to do this!” we shout to Molly, as her blonde hair blows in the wind. “I just took an AMAZING photo of you against the mountain ridge! You look like a rich, trendy equestrian!” Later, we count to three and yell, “Hello!!” over a darkening valley. Our American English voices echo off the foreign hills.

On Sunday night, we let Bobby drive our rental car, missing window and all, to an open field, where we are told to stand quietly and wait. It is dusk, and we wait for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. They do, just as our legs adjusted to walking up the mountain and our arms adjusted to gripping a horse’s saddle—just as we all adjust to a new place and a new smell and a new surrounding.

In the distance, we begin to be able to make out the silhouettes of deer. There are many—thirty or forty at least. I note that there are more horses and deer than there are people living the village of Valentova. When I was younger and would hike with my family, my father would always remind me that any animals living the woods were aware of us before we were aware of them. I remember this while looking at the deer. For the first time in a long time, no one speaks. No one moves—only the deer, who move slowly over the frozen ground and sparse grasses. All we hear is the horns of the bucks striking each other, lightly knocking. We get back in the car and drive home.

Author’s note: This blog has two titles because I couldn’t decided whether to title it after this poem by Philip Booth or “I Smell Horses in Poland” by Tomaz Salamun (an online version of this poem continues to elude me.) I chose (and recommend) both.

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