GateHouse — Ladies and gentlemen, if you are not on it already, it is time to join me on the Slovak Train to Olympic Glory, good seats still available, departing twice daily, choo choo.
There is always room, we are a welcoming if hirsute people and what we offer in warm greetings, a genial nature and gypsy-folk music will easily make up for the smell of much of what we are cooking. (Sorry about that, but you try to prepare dishes containing this volume of sauerkraut and not smell like the sweat-soaked inside of a snowboarders’ boot. Also, my cousin Kevin is going to try to get you to drink something called slivovica, do this only if you wish to spend the rest of your week powering your car with your breath.)
Indeed, I am flush with homeland pride this week because right now, for the first time in recorded Slovak history, which is almost eight years, we are melting faces at the Winter Olympics.
One would think a burgeoning nation like Slovakia would be good at the winter sports anyway because, as even the most novice geography student knows, it’s not like Slovakia is known for its lush beach scene. Not true. For Slovakia is a cold land, a flinty land, a land that my great-grandfather Andras (Slovak for “gruff callous-handed butcher who came to America from Hamburg in steerage on a future World War I battleship so yeah why don’t you make fun, smart guy”), left to come work in the steel mills in pre-Depression America because he realized that such a life would basically be Margaritaville by comparison (and not just because of the mills’ famous sponge cake). Our particular parcel of this hard country is called Cierne Pole, which translates roughly into “black field,” which, I hardly need tell you, is not a place thick with elves and chipmunks. It is gray and foreboding and occasionally characters from “The Road” meander through, according to a combination of facts from Wikipedia and some that I just made up just now, sitting here in a bookstore, drinking a mocha that has whipped cream all over it.
Still, you may be asking, what is it that Slovakia is so good at anyway, and why haven’t I heard Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth rhapsodizing at great length about Slovakia’s status as the world’s newest athletic superpower?
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First, Anastazia Kuzmina, ranked just 28th on the World Cup circuit, gave Slovakia its first-ever gold with her win in the women’s 7.5-kilometer biathlon sprint, an inexplicable combination of skiing and violence. How, you might ask, did Kuzmina celebrate such a feat of such national significance? “Now,” Kuzmina said to some other newspaper, because I don’t speak Slovak, “the expectation in Slovakia is that I will get another medal.” YEAH. Because who has time for slivovica when there’s more gold to claim? (Turns out Kuzmina took silver in the 10-km biathlon pursuit last week as well behind Germany’s Magdalena Neuner; shortly after, Slovakia’s Pavol Hurajt took bronze in Sunday’s mens’ biathlon.)
Meanwhile, and this is the crazy part, the Slovaks are killing it in near-shocking fashion in hockey (“SLOVAKIA GOES FROM DARK HORSE TO MEDAL THREAT,” screams a typically lively headline, which I have reprinted in all caps for extra awesomeness). Last week Slovakia throttled Russia, which has many citizens and is known to be decent at hockey, and they followed that up with a 6-0 humiliation of Latvia, about which I know almost nothing except that their beach scene probably sucks, too.
(UPDATE: I wrote this Latvia joke without bothering to fire up the Google Earth, and have been excellently corrected via email by Christina Manetti, Ph. D. at the University of Washington, who reports,”They have a beautiful coast on the Baltic. I’ve been to the beach just on the order, in Lithuania. Pines, clean sand dunes, wonderful air.” Thanks to Dr. Maretti for fact-checking this piece, because it means one of us actually did. She also, while we’re at it, fixed up an incorrect translation of Cierne Pole.)
“I think we are getting more confident and now we are starting to get good,” Slovakia’s Zigmund Palffy told Reuters (I’d use my own quotes, but these guys don’t return my calls, despite my repeatedly claiming to be Mike Vrabel). “We are playing a simple game and our game is getting better. Everything is working.”
See, that is how we do it in Slovakia: no flash, no pomp, no frizzy-haired redheads blasting themselves off the half-pipe, no soul-patched speed-skaters practicing when they’re not rigging up endorsement deals, just hard, gritty, pure performance and a workmanlike approach to occasional victory, the kind that you absorb when you hone your life skills in the Black Field, and the kind that, one day, we will apply to our approach to cooking, we promise.