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[At Home with Her Excellency, Slovakia] Colors make the space at Slovak residence

To follow up last year’s “Cooking with Her Excellency” series, in which ambassadors’ spouses introduced readers to the cuisine of their homelands, the Korea JoongAng Daily presents a new series that brings readers into the residences of envoys stationed in Seoul. During each exclusive tour, an ambassador and his or her spouse will be asked to describe the history of their residence and how they made it their own. Each article will offer a glimpse of how a family adjusts to a new country - and makes Korea its second home. -Ed.

Mar 28,2016
Slovak Ambassador to Korea Milan Lajciak, left, and his wife Elena Lajciakova pose at their residence in Yongsan District, central Seoul, during a tour with the Korea JoongAng Daily last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Working at a “small embassy” with just three diplomats and five local staffers, the Slovak ambassador to Korea, Milan Lajciak, admits he depends on his wife, Elena Lajciakova, to pull off diplomatic roles that often require delicate touches he personally lacks: cooking and decorating.

Married for 34 years, Lajciak, a down-to-earth envoy who finds joy in reading about classical East Asian values, compares his marriage to the concept of yin and yang.

“She takes on bold challenges like preparing Korean food for delegations from Slovakia,” says Lajciak. “I asked her one day how she made bulgogi [marinated beef] and learned that she Googled it on the Internet and saw different YouTube videos to imitate the process.

“Our guests very much enjoy her food.”

Q. Please describe your residence.

A. Before settling in our current location, the Slovak ambassador’s residence has for years moved around the capital, from Gangnam District, southern Seoul, to Seongbuk District and Yongsan District, central Seoul, and finally to where we are now: the Slovak Embassy building. The embassy is in the heart of Hannam-dong, Yongsan District; before here, the residence was in the same neighborhood of Hannam-dong, but in the UN Village.

The resident occupies the whole third floor of the building, while in the second and first floors lie embassy offices. For social events - cocktail parties, lunches, dinners, business presentations, etc. - we often use the grand hall, a reception room in the basement floor.

The living quarters are periodically refurbished when a new ambassador is appointed, with decorations fitted to their individual taste. In our case, we hung a variety of paintings we bought from other nations on our walls and reconstructed the ceilings so they would be higher up; living in the bustling capital, this was purposed for better ventilation. As for the grand hall, we also bought new Korean furniture to fit with our Slovak decorations.

We live directly above the main roads in Hannam-dong and south of the Hannam Bridge, so the noise and dust coming from intensive car traffic are seriously disturbing elements for work and living. Due to budget issues, we have no other choice but to exploit the premises at the given place. To partially solve that, we’re planning to reconstruct the northern part of the building to adjust the premises, so that our residential area has a separate entrance and terrace.

What we miss the most about our residence in our home country is the natural surroundings. Our home in Bratislava, the capital, is in an utterly peaceful district, with a small but beautiful garden and a large, open terrace that allows us to enjoy our mornings and evenings with nature. We miss this kind of living style dearly.

Do you have a favorite object?

I like to focus more on the ambience, rather than a specific object. I’m personally into colors, meaning I like changing the atmosphere by adding a wide spectrum of colors using flowers or paintings, which is why our walls here are filled with posters from Slovakia.

What are all these posters?

They’re posters from Slovakia that promote theatrical performances. In other words, they’re advertisements, so to speak. Graphic art in Slovakia has a long history. In fact, Andy Warhol, an American artist and leading figure in visual art, was born to Slovak immigrants.

The artistic tradition dates back to the post-World War II era, when one of the world’s oldest honors for children’s book illustrators, the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava, was founded. The awards have led to a very strong theatrical tradition across the nation, inspiring the establishment of theaters featuring permanent stages in every main city and posters that artistically usher viewers to the performances.

Here at our residence, we hang some of the 60 different posters we brought with us from Slovakia. In November, we will hold an exhibition at the Korean Foundation Gallery in Jung District, central Seoul, hopefully with the aim of showing more than 60 pieces by bringing more from our home country.

What other distinctively Slovak features within the house would you like to share?

In a corner of the reception hall, you’ll find our fine collection of crystal glassware. Everything is delicately hand-cut, and the clearness of the products is unparalleled to those manufactured in other nations.

Near the front door, there are dolls made out of corn husk, called supolienky. They usually feature Slovak ladies doing domestic chores or helping out in the fields. It’s a very traditional form of art, and when we have guests from a different nation, my wife decorates the dining table with these figures.

What Korean touches do you have within your house?

In terms of our reception hall, we’ve decorated it with modern Korean furniture, including our sofas, tables and chairs. We also purchased domestic fabrics for the curtains and tablecloths. Here and there, our visitors can spot rather traditional Korean pieces, too, like our vases. In the garden that leads to the embassy, we’ve planted pine trees, which accentuate the Oriental vibe.

What hobbies do you and your wife enjoy?

We’re both fond of listening to music and reading books. My wife’s uncle, Eugene Suchon, was in fact the first opera composer of Slovakia. Her father, Anton Hykisch, is a renowned writer of historical novels. He was persecuted during the nation’s communist era and wasn’t allowed to write about contemporary situations, which is why he paid more attention to the past.

In the evenings, we usually enjoy strolling around the city. Every week, we try exploring something new in Itaewon-dong, Myeong-dong or Insa-dong, which are some of our favorite areas. During our outings, we also sit down at a coffee shop for a sip of coffee, or drop by a small, local restaurant for a taste of Korean food. When eating out, we always make sure the waiting line is extra long outside, because that means their food is the best in the neighborhood!

For some of our readers interested in visiting Slovakia, what tourist attractions would you recommend?

As a landlocked country in the heart of Europe, I believe Korean visitors would admire our high mountains, epic sceneries and the wide variety of historical castles. I shall note that Slovakia has one of the largest numbers of spa facilities in the world and over 1,300 mineral water and healing thermal springs.

Is there anywhere in Seoul where one can experience a side of Slovakia?

There’s a confectionery shop named TRDLO near Ewha Womans University in Seodaemun District, central Seoul, founded by a Slovak man. Visitors can try a taste of the signature menu item: chimney cake, also known as trdelnik - a sweet pastry made from rolled dough and topped with layers of sugar and walnut mix.

Aside from that, I’d also like to highlight our exquisite variety of Slovak wines, especially from the renowned wine-growing area of Tokaj, shared only by Slovakia and Hungary.

Unfortunately, no Slovak wine is settled in the Korean market, hence the best way to experience the unique taste would be to physically visit Slovakia. But I must note that the embassy organized a wine seminar last year for promotion, and we were able to receive rave reviews from many importers here. Hopefully, that will lead to future business opportunities.

The production of wines of the highest quality in Tokaj is closely linked to a special technology that requires adding the exact amount of botrytised [allowing it to be affected by fungus] grapes to a set volume of wine and maturing of the wine in oak barrels in cellars for a period of several years.

A part of their wide collection of crystal glassware is displayed on a table at the couple’s house.
 

A glimpse of Slovak gastronomy includes chimney cakes, above, and Tokaj wine, below.
 

Posters advertising theatrical plays adorn the walls. Slovakia’s strong taste for graphic art was largely influenced by the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava, one of the world’s biggest awards for children’s book illustration.
 

Traditional dolls made out of corn husk, called supolienky, greet visitors near the house’s entrance. The couple’s handmade collection depicts Slovak women performing various forms of agricultural labor. The items are often used to decorate homes or offices.
 

BY LEE SUNG-EUN
[lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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