The Place Called Home
By Jonathan Sturak
By Jonathan Sturak
It was a long journey into the unknown. The floors rocked. The smell of salt lingered. Food disappeared. Some wouldn’t make it, yet everyone was willing to try. This is not the plot to some fictional suspense story, but rather the real life voyage my great-grandparents made from the former Czechoslovakia to America in the 1910s. Many Americans can cite a similar story of their ancestors’ trip to the New World greeted by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. My great-grandparents continued a little farther, finally stopping in the beautiful Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Northeast Pennsylvania has an eclectic mix of Eastern Europeans who had settled only 90 miles west of New York City.
Growing up, I can remember my grandmother fixing pierogies, haluski, and babalki dishes for family get-togethers on holidays. This was my life in Hazleton, Pennsylvania as I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Life seemed straightforward, with familiar faces around every corner in this old coal-mining town populated by about 20,000 people from countries that were a part of the former Soviet Union.
But things quickly changed as I moved away after graduating from Penn State. I witnessed a world vastly different from everyday life in Northeast PA. Eastern Europeans were the minority in most every other city I lived in. Gone were the Byzantine Catholic churches, mailboxes with names ending in a hard sound, and of course, the many meals made with starch.
Other cities in America have their share of diversity with small sub-communities making up their population. New York's "Little Italy" and San Francisco’s "Chinatown" are just two examples of these slices of culture, but towns and even cities in Northeast PA are communities of complete cultures. A neighboring town just five miles away from Hazleton is Beaver Meadows. About 1,000 residents put Beaver Meadows on their return address, and about 20% are my relatives! The Catholic Church, recreational hall where my grandmother took me to play Bingo with her, and even the elected officials all have the same roots. It's as if a small Slovakian town was removed from Eastern Europe and placed in the Northeast PA mountains. And to a certain extent, it was—100 years ago. The main difference is that English is the spoken language, but Slovak can still be heard echoing off the stained glass windows in the Byzantine Catholic church.
In Hazleton, there is an annual September festival called "Funfest" where the city shuts down its downtown street for one weekend. Gone are the cars and engine sounds, replaced by the community's residents and their laughs. Church groups band together to sell authentic food, a classic car show revitalizes memories, and homemakers who were busy during the year making crafts have a chance to sell them. And you might even catch a glimpse of a celebrity. No, “Funfest” hasn’t seen Tom Hanks or Nicole Kidman, but a local newscaster or weather reporter provides the same rubbernecking from the area residents. The festival culminates with a parade filled with high school sports teams, fire engines, and of course, the mayor. This celebration has been going on since before I was born and continues year after year.
Tradition is something that Northeast PA is known for. I was one of the few in my family to actually leave. I didn't move down the street as several cousins have. Rather, I moved to other states in the US. I spent one year living in Florida. In just twelve months on the calendar, I saw the street where I lived change in demographic, and therefore, culture. One of the biggest changes I noticed when I first moved away from Northeast PA was breakfast. Growing up, local farms such as Pecora’s and Farmer’s Dairy lined the grocery stores with fresh milk from homegrown Pennsylvania cows. The milk from these cows tastes cleaner and fresher than any other milk that I’ve tasted. Since I’ve left, my breakfast cereal has never tasted the same!
Another area of tradition is higher education. While farming corn and raising milk cows have been family businesses for decades, many four-year colleges are within commuting distance. Wilkes, Kings, and Penn State branch campuses are all within 30 miles. I started my four-year degree in my backyard at Penn State, Hazleton. This just proves how much Northeast PA provides its residents with everything needed to stay for generations.
I currently live in Las Vegas, one of the most transient cities in America, where I have embraced the culture and diversity. But there still exists something inside me that yearns for the gem nestled in the cold, snowy Pocono Mountains, something that craves the simple seclusion the mountains provide. I visit home every now and then and nothing changes, which I welcome in an ever-changing world. While Hazleton is less than 2 hours away from America’s oldest and most populated cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City, it might as well be 200 hours away with its concealed culture, distinctive dishes, and gracious grins of Eastern Europe’s children.
If you do make the trip to the Pocono Mountains for some skiing, relaxation, or just a break from the bustle, make sure to stop and talk to the locals. You might be surprised who you meet and the journey their ancestors had made. And don’t forget to have a glass of milk!