July 21-August 1, 2005

Bojnice Castle Bojnice Castle
Fields above Bojnice Castle Fields above Bojnice Castle
Interior of Bojnice Castle Interior of Bojnice Castle
Nesting stork near Bojnice Castle Nesting stork near Bojnice Castle
I feel like I need to start by offering a disclaimer. For those readers who have become accustomed to reading about the sights, sounds and cultural intricacies of the places I visit, this chapter of my travelogues will be a little different. This is about my first extended stay with my boyfriend's parents. It's the kind of story that could have happened in any of a thousand different places. But as it just so happens, this particular story takes place in the small town of Bojnice, Slovakia at the foot of one of the most beautiful, colorful castles that I've seen in all of Europe.

I briefly met Helena and Jan last summer when they came to Boston to visit Tomas, but the extent of our interaction was limited to my driving them to and from the airport. This time around, Tomas was in Slovakia to get a new passport and visa, so I arranged to stay with him and his family for 12 days.

Given that Tomas and I have now been dating for well over a year, Tomas has already had plenty of time to portray me in a positive light, so I really didn't have to do much to win his parents over. Regardless, everyone involved was trying incredibly hard to make a positive impression. Helena cooked extravagant meals every day, artfully designed to accommodate my American palate based on Tomas' review of my culinary likes and dislikes. Furthermore, Helena and Jan carefully engineered a tour of central Slovakia, including a private tour of Bojnice castle for just me and Tomas, a late birthday present arranged with Jan's assistance.

On my side, there was a lot of pressure to demonstrate my immense enjoyment of every meal and every place that we visited. Thankfully, this didn't take much effort, as the food was genuinely delicious and the places beautiful.

Thanks to Tomas' assistance, I managed to learn a number of useful Slovak phrases - "thank you," "good day," and "it is excellent!" Regardless of the situation at hand, my awkward use of Slovak always seemed to be a source of entertainment and prompt a flattering discussion about my perfect accent.

After jumping from hostel to hostel for a month, I was struck by the immaculate condition in which Helena keeps her household. As someone who tends to drink straight from the milk bottle and put my feet up on my coffee table, I felt like I had to watch my behavior carefully despite Tomas' assurances that as the guest of honor, I would be quickly forgiven for any behavioral infractions.

At night, Tomas and I stayed at his grandmother's home. In a show of overwhelming generosity, she timed her vacation to the Czech Republic to coincide with my arrival in Slovakia so that Tomas and I could have a private place to stay. Other than his parents, Tomas' grandmother is his only relative who knows he is gay. She's been supportive of him from the very beginning, which is remarkable considering the culture she's been raised in. It's unfortunate that I was unable to meet her during my visit as she sounds like a fascinating woman.

Being together with Tomas in Slovakia raised some fairly serious ideological issues regarding our relationship. For a time, Helena and Jan, who have been enormously supportive of Tomas, were still somewhat reluctant to have Tomas come out of the closet in Bojnice. While they have greatly eased their concerns over the last several years, they still fear that if he identifies as gay, Tomas may suffer discrimination or even set himself up as a victim for a hate crime. Unfortunately, some of these fears are well-founded.

The people of Slovakia are in general consensus that the country doesn't have a problem with discrimination - largely because they have never been exposed to diversity in any form. Everyone has the same color skin and speaks the same language. But this devoutly Catholic country lags decades behind western Europe on issues of tolerance. One of the most bizarre sights I observed at the Bojnice zoo was the unapologetic stare of the visitors as a small group of Muslim women passed by - an anomalous sight in this small, homogeneous town. As recently as 2000, the Slovak Minster of Health publicly condoned reparative therapy as a means for "curing" homosexuality. Helena and Jan, as reputable doctors, published letters in the local newspaper to counter his absurd assertions.

To Tomas, it is painful to be unable to publicly acknowledge our relationship. He doesn't want to live behind a facade of lies and wants to be able to distinguish his genuine friends from those who would reject him if they knew the truth. Furthermore, by hiding our relationship, Tomas recognizes that his silence only serves to perpetuate the ignorance and hatred of the status quo.

Slovakia is a terrible place to grow up gay and doesn't offer a lot of desirable employment opportunities. And while all of Tomas' family lives in Slovakia, it is highly unlikely that he will return to live there after his schooling. As Helena, Jan and I sat in front of the American Embassy in Bratislava waiting to see if Tomas would be granted a new visa, Helena confided in me in her simple English, "My feeling is I want him to get a visa - even though I know he will leave us."

As Jan and Helena grow increasingly comfortable with the idea of Tomas coming out of the closet in Slovakia, it is inevitable that he will eventually disclose his sexuality to more of his family and friends. Maybe he will finally get a chance to change a few minds about what it means to be gay and be a courageous example of honesty and integrity.

The UFO Bridge in Bratislava The UFO Bridge in Bratislava
Bratislava Alleyway Bratislava Alleyway
Passing train in Prievidza Passing train in Prievidza
Tomas Izo hiking near Bojnice Tomas hiking near Bojnice
Garden at the Izo summer cottage Garden at the Izo summer cottage
Chain and fly, reflected in a water barrel Chain and fly, reflected in a water barrel
Shasta daisies Shasta daisies
Slovak mountains Slovak mountains
Hiking nun atop Slovak mountain< Hiking nun atop Slovak mountain
Mountains reflected in Tomas Izo's glasses Mountains reflected in Tomas' glasses
Church window at the geographic center of Europe Church window at the geographic center of Europe
Same window from the inside Same window from the inside
Ladder casting a long shadow Ladder casting a long shadow

© Copyright 2005-2006 by Rob Jagnow.