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Slovak Heritage Festival celebrates tiny country off most tourists' radar

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By Chris Togneri

Published: Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When Nick Bocher first visited his wife's homeland of Slovakia, he was struck by locals' emphasis on detail.

“Everything you look at there is done with an eye towards making things beautiful,” he said on Sunday at the 23rd annual Slovak Heritage Festival in Oakland. “The corners of buildings, the details, the decorations inside — the care towards making their world beautiful is just palpable.”

Bocher, a member of the Slovak Heritage Association, was among hundreds of people who gathered inside the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning to celebrate the tiny central European country often mistaken for Slovenia or the old Czechoslovakia.

They feasted on traditional Slovak dishes, dressed in folk clothing and danced to Slovak music. They greeted visitors in English and Slovak (“Good day, Dobry den”) and reminisced about time spent in a country that typically does not appear on tourists' radars.

“It should be a destination, like the Alps; just as beautiful but more affordable,” said Christine Metil, administrator of Pitt's Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the director of the Slovak Heritage Festival. “It's unspoiled by Western influence. You actually feel the culture when you go there. … I don't want it to be spoiled by tourism, but it's something to see.”

Allegheny County has the largest concentration of ethnic Slovaks in the country, said Martin Votruba, director of the Slovak Studies Program at Pitt. Many Slovaks migrated pre-World War I to work in coal mines and steel mills. Votruba came in the 1980s to escape Communism.

“People who complain about the country now don't remember what it was like under communism,” he said, adding that it is a modern European country, without visa requirements or border restrictions, like neighboring countries Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Slovaks, who pride themselves for their hospitality, have a saying: A guest in the home is like God in the home. American-born ethnic Slovaks said they adhere to the saying here in Pittsburgh.

Paul and Connie Zatek have hosted four native Slovaks during summer visits arranged through their church, students who wanted to learn the language and culture here. Though they have four children and live in a cramped South Side home, they said it felt natural to welcome the students.

And it's the same when they visit Slovakia, they said:

“When I'm there, I feel embraced,” Connie Zatek said. “It's like an ancestral memory. They take me back in.”

“What they have, they give to you,” agreed Paul Zatek, 54. “They are so welcoming.”

Ben Sorenson moved to Slovakia in 2002, fell in love with a Slovak woman and married there. He traveled to the festival from North Carolina, where he lives, to perform on the fujara, a traditional Slovak flute.

“Events like this are important for people of Slovak descent to be in contact with what it means to be Slovak,” he said. “We get to come out and celebrate.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or




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