— Could you please describe your remotest memory?
— When I was between one and two years old - I grew up in the United States – my mother was running around after me and acting as if she was a rhinoceros. We were playing. It was my mother, I trusted her, but as much as I liked animals and was enthralled by the idea that there was a rhinoceros in my house, there was some element of emerging fear or terror until she stopped. Then the rhinoceros hugged me and the threat was all away. And maybe an even more remote memory I have is of my mother saying, "don't you remember what you did to the cheesecake?", and that was a different story.
— What were toys like in your childhood?
— I wasn't brought up with an abundance of toys. I think that the material culture has developed a lot since my childhood. I loved being outdoors, even today I do, so the toys that I remember best were the toys that accompanied me in my sandbox. I remember spending endless hours there. There was my bucket, my little shovel, I had a rake and a sieve. It's funny, but in addition to being a teacher, I'm an archeologist. I guess these were some of the roots of my fascination of sifting through the past – through the sand. Anytime I found an ant or anything in the sand, I'd be excited. And then, 20 years later, I was leading archeological excavations in exotic places like Guatemala and Peru. There was also a car race set that I had and my basketball - I used to love to play basketball.
— What were your family celebrations and events like?
— There were many. Some of them are universal, like birthdays, but I also followed many of the United States' celebrations. July 4th, for example. My parents were home from work. We'd invariably organize a picnic or a barbecue. There would be some kind of a game, usually baseball, sometimes football; and there were fireworks. Thanksgiving was also a thing.
Although I was growing up in the States, there were also celebrations that were unique to my Slovak heritage. One of them is Nikolaj. Today we'd be celebrating it as Saint Nicholas Day on December 5th. About three weeks before Christmas, Nikolaj in Slovak mythology would come to visit your house. The next day, there was one of three possibilities. Every once in a while, Nicolaj didn't visit your house, but that was never my case, so either your shoes would be full of treats, little toys, Ball and Jack, maybe some chocolates which was an indication that you had behaved well during the year, and you should be confident that you were going to be gifted many-many precious things for Christmas; or you would wake up the next morning and find onions and garlic in your shoes which was a warning that you'd better clean up your act or you're gonna be disappointed in Christmas.
I remember that there's some stage where your peers become more important for celebrating than your family. It doesn't mean, I stopped loving my family, but celebrations with my friends involved activities that were very different from what I did under the family's roof.
I think that there were a lot of causes for celebrations when I was growing up. I grew up in a time period in the 1960s when, at times, there was the opposite – there were times for mourning. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy like it was yesterday or disclosures about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
— Did your family have any customs or traditions?
— Thanks to the cultural heritage of my parents, there were customs and traditions. There was Nicolaj. There was a spring festival in Slovakia that at the outset of spring, the husband of the family was allowed to wake you up with a bucket of, originally, mountain spring water, but I grew up in the suburbs, so it was cold tap water. We'd always, especially my sisters, be a little bit anxious about it, because my father would sometimes be a trickster and change the exact date, but we knew the week that it would happen.
Another tradition that was unique to my family was going on the road every summer for a month at least. We'd rent a trailer, a camper and go to rural areas. I grew up in the upper New York state. There's a mountain range called the Adirondack. So we'd head up there, rent a cottage, and go trout fishing and squirrel or rabbit hunting. And if it was a good cottage, we'd always go back in the middle of winter for at least a week of skiing as well. A lot of my comments are gravitated around spending time in the outdoors, and I've just realized, how much of it came from parental influences.
— What was doing household chores like?
— When I was growing up, household chores were a duty that you had to comply with, and there were sanctions. At a certain age you could get an allowance, which wasn't a lot of money, but you're at a stage you're not earning any money. Not doing chores properly was a way to lose that allowance. I guess, my family was a little bit sexist. I had myself, my brother, and my two sisters. The boys' chores were normally things like mowing the grass, trimming the shrubs, breaking leaves in the autumn, shoveling snow in the winter. And then my father was kind of a handyman. He was a business manager in a big American corporation, but in the States, in his and my generations at least, you normally work from nine to five. So he'd be home around five. And my dad would do whatever there was to be done around the house. He was not prone to hiring a plumber or a carpenter. A lot of the chores were also shingling the roof or installing a new faucet in the bathroom.
My daughters were growing up in Latin America, in Peru, and Latin America is a very different culture. Doing chores yourself is actually considered to be a sign of low status in Latin American society. And I'm not talking about the upper class – I'm not upper class. I was once raking the leaves in Peru, when my neighbor came running to my wife, saying, 'Christina, there's something wrong. Weren't you embarrassed?'. 'Embarrassed about what?'. 'But Peter's ranking the leaves.' 'So?' 'But we hire a gardener to do that. You don't do that as a house owner.' My battle was trying to convince my daughters of the benefits of doing chores, and they were rather rebellious, cause they'd say, 'Daaad, stop insisting. None of my friends at school wash their socks. None of them wash the dishes.' So there are those different cultural differences.
— How did you do in school? What subjects did you enjoy the most? What were your school years like? Did you have any school traditions or customs?
— I went to a public day school. I generally enjoyed the sciences, cause I liked not sitting and listening to a lecture and taking notes, but I like getting my hands on things and setting up an experiment. I liked earth science a lot, cause we did the field trips. I felt good learning outside. Frankly, one of my favorite courses in school was chemistry, partly because of my teacher. I was a teenager and I guess, I had a crush on her. She was attractive, and that was one of the things that attracted me to the course. The course that I struggled with a lot was mathematics. I have kind of a trauma about it. When I got to algebra and trigonometry, I had a teacher that, to my mind, was kind of a teacher equivalent of a fascist dictator, and I was terrified of him. I ended up, unfortunately, failing math and then little by little minimizing the amount of math in my curriculum. And I'm not embarrassed to say it today. I guess, we all have strengths and weaknesses.
The other course that I struggled with was not part of the school curriculum. Both of my parents were Roman Catholics, so we were brought up as Roman Catholics and I had to attend a Sunday school of Catechism. I don't know why but I had serious problems with the rote learning of Catholicism in my generation. I was a bit repelled by this concept of blind faith. I failed Sunday school, which very few children did. It was kind of the beginning of my rebellion against authority. My father was insisting that I go to Sunday school and for me, at that stage of my life, the church and Catholicism were authorities that demanded blind faith, and I was unwilling to give it to them.
We didn't have quite as many traditions, as in the schools that I work at today, partly because it was a public school. One of those traditions was Valentine's day. When I was growing up, it was a big thing. This was right at an age, when my friends and I discovered the coolness of being interested in girls, cause for me at one stage girls were repulsive. If you got touched by a girl, one of your best friend had to give you a cootie shot, which would get the contamination off your hand. But then the puberty moves on and you're interested in girls. The different phases of life. On Valentine's day, the tradition was to give valentines to your sweethearts to be, and they'd be anonymous, so you'd be giggling and laughing. "Did Eve Green figure out this? Did she figure it out from my handwriting?"
Halloween was one of the biggest celebrations in the year for me. Halloween in my adolescent years was fantastic, because dressing up and trick or treating were going around. And in my generation at least, people were very generous. After an hour of trick or treating, I'd come back with a massive amount of candy. Then my friends and I would go back home, have some dinner, take our costume off and then put our second costumes on and come to the very same houses, knock on the doors, and because we were in disguises, people didn't recognize those were the same persons. We had so much candies, we couldn't eat them all, so at the end, we'd give it away to friends or family members. And then there would be some kind of a Halloween party at school as well.
And another big tradition was softball. As Americans, we love baseball, so there'd be stickball in the streets, and softball, and then hardball in the school.
— What was your childhood dream job?
— When I was three years old, three days a week I would get up early and I'd run to the sofa, and wait to see the men that represented to me the maximum thing that you could aspire to. And about seven o'clock in the morning, I'd hear from a distance the garbage truck. In my days, you'd put your rubbish out on the curb three days a week, and the garbage truck would come. I was a little kid and I loved it. So my dream was to become a garbage man. Three years later, I had taken the first visit to the museum of natural history. I was six or seven, and my dream job was to become what I saw in the museum – a dinosaur. And my first job getting outta university was working in the museum of national history. Of course, I wasn't a dinosaur, I was an archeologist, but there is some kind of a linkage.
— How were you obtaining spending money?
— In the States, we were looking for opportunities to advance in life. Growing up, my first opportunity was getting allowances for doing chores. In my generation, you could freely go about your neighborhood without having to worry that something could happen. I ranked leaves, shoveled snow and washed cars for the neighbors and got money. I got myself a paper route. I had fifty subscribers and had to circle around and deliver the papers. And then once a week you collect the bill and hope you're gonna get a good tip. Another thing that I also did is selling things. Just making some lemonade on a hot summer say, going out on the curb and getting a nice table, so people would go, 'Oh, look at that cute little kid! let's stop and get some lemonade!' Maybe it was horrible lemonade, but people felt, I'm contributing. Later on, I did tune-ups for cars and some babysitting.
— What state did you live in?
— I grew up in New York state, but not in the city. New York state is actually quite big and a lot of it is rural. In the Southeast corner, just east and just off the coast of New York City, there's the Long Island. And that's the part of New York state that I was from.
— What was choosing your university and major like? What did you feel like while making this vital step? What were your parents' responses and reactions to your choice?
— For economic reasons I decided to apply to the state universities in New York state because there was funding. I started looking for a school where I wouldn't have to go home and ended up deciding on Albany. I started out in the pre-med program. My parents were very happy with that because of that status of a doctor and some good income. But deep down in my soul, I wasn't very stimulated by what I was doing. What really struck my fancy was the humanities. I had this passion for history, but especially ancient history.
At the end of my freshman year, I switched from pre-med to anthropology. That was a huge crisis in my family. Neither of my parents supported it. My mother had a liberal heart and she understood that it was important that her son learns to choose his passion. My dad was a hard-working immigrant, a part of the corporate life. For my dad, your worthiness was based on the kind of job and the income that you had. "Business is the future, Peter! Accounting is the future! Banking and finance!". And I came home and said, "Ah, dad, I wanna study anthropology." So we had many-many arguments about that, and it actually got to the extreme point, where he took back his offer of financing my university education and said, "Fine, if you want to do that, then you assume the responsibility." I started to work to supplement my income and finance my education. I was a waiter most of the time and it was good money. In a way, I thank my dad, because he forced me to stand up for my preferences. I finished university, moved out to Wyoming, and got a pretty decent paid job in archeology. And my dad was like, 'They're paying you that much to dig up old garbage?' And then I got a job in the museum of natural history, which was of high status. At the end, it kind of worked out.
— What universities did you apply for? What university did you study at?
— I applied to the State Universities. They're all called State Universities of New York: the State University of New York at Albany, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which was on Long Island, the State University of New York at Fredonia, and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. But graduate school was different. For graduate school, I went to an Ivy League university. I did my master's at Columbia University.
— What were your university years like? Where did you live?
— During my first year, I lived on campus and it was nice. I was doing pre-med and studying, but also there was a lot of partying at university. My friends and I had a pretty rowdy part of the dorming. And at the end of the year, we were diplomatically asked in the letters to our parents to consider moving off campus because the university thought we were less than a positive influence on those around us. Then we rented houses in the suburbs of Albany. The first house that we rented was at Irving Place. Most of my neighbors were working families. A lot of them were hunters and fishermen. And that was a big influence on my life when I was growing up. I got to learn how to hunt and got to go fishing. And then I moved into downtown Albany, because I was a waiter. I was earning the income for the school. It was a good experience for me because I got to learn all the routines of life that makes you a responsible adult. I remember the first year living off-campus. We would only wash the dishes or the pots when there wasn't a single clean dish, cup, or plate.
— What was your graduation like? What was the next step of your life that you made after that?
— I remember going to graduation. I kinda grew up in the hippie generation. Long hair and so on. My closest friends and I decided to go to graduation barefoot, just as kind of a sign of the alternate lifestyle.
My next step was finding a job. I needed to show myself that I could depend on myself for an income and prove to my dad that my decisions were actually sustainable. It wasn't immediate - I had to move back home. There was no emailing, so I sent tons of letters to museums. And there was something called contract archeology – a part of the environmental protection act. When you build on a piece of land, that's controlled by the government, you have to file an environmental impact statement. So contracts archeology firms grew up. My first job in the New York state where I grew up, was in Wyoming. I worked for two years for archeological services. The first thing that they did was – they gave each of us our own field vehicle, cause we were doing a field survey. They gave me a brand new Toyota Hilux and said, "You know how to drive this, right?" And of course, I'm not gonna say "no", although I only knew how to drive automatics and this was a stick shift. My parents were very supportive, although deep down, I knew my dad was probably thinking, "Well, if he had studied accounting, this would've never happened."
— Could you please describe what your path to becoming a teacher was like?
— Besides the little part-time things, my first career job was an archeologist. I worked for this contract archeology firm. When winter came, I migrated south to Texas, and I worked for Southern Methodist University. I was doing the same thing, contract archeology. Then, after three years of that, both of my parents fell ill. Terminal diseases. And I moved back to New York to accompany them.
My second job was at the American museum of national history. First, volunteering, and then, eventually, it turned out to be a paid job. I was a curatorial assistant. If you ever go to New York, please remember, go to Museum of Natural History. In the hall of South American people, there is my name. During the summers, we would conduct excavations in Peru. And that was my first opportunity to visit Peru. So my second job continued to be an archeologist, but also a museologist. Part of my job was working with the museum's educational team. Working with them was fascinating and it got me thinking that it's nice to be a specialist in archeology, but it's rather stimulating to be able to enlighten other people about what I know so much about. I think that was the start of my tendency towards being the teacher that I am today.
In the course of this, I got married. My wife is Peruvian. We decided to move to Peru because it was a romantic image for me. I found it fascinating, cause it was the total opposite of the American lifestyle at that stage. Some people call it a chaotic, disorganized culture, but I find it vibrant and not full of the taboos that many developed countries have. There I was working at the national museums and also working in the field. As an archeologist, I was leading expeditions in different parts of the Andes for colleagues of mine. Although it was great, I was moving my family around a lot because I was working where the projects were.
My first daughter was getting old and I realized that the gypsy lifestyle was not beneficial to her education, so I realized that I needed to settle down. And I had gotten an invitation to teach in Northern Peru. There were lectures on archeology, but since I was an American they convinced me to teach English as well. I was still working in archeology, but at the same time I was lecturing, and then education started pulling me more and more. I'm excited to be a teacher, and there was also a practical aspect – a stable job. I could finally put my daughters into one stable school, and it helped my wife develop her career as well. So there are times in your life, when you have to relinquish your own personal passion a little bit to meet collective demands. And then, teaching history took over my life.
— How did you end up teaching history at Letovo school?
— I ended up teaching in Peru at, arguably, the best private high school in the country, called Markham college, and I really enjoyed it. But in addition to being a teacher, I was also in charge of international programs, and was a member of an organization called "Round Square" which was setting up an exchange program. I developed a lot of community service projects, and I invited students from different parts of the world to come and help us with our projects. It was a good-paying job, I've been there long and I've had friends, but, after 18 years of teaching, I wanted to work in different parts of the world, cause of my wanderlust.
My first job since then was teaching at a school in the Galapagos Islands. I set up a project-based learning program. The money wasn't very good, though, so I had to keep on looking. From there, I went to lead expeditions in the Costa Rican jungle for half a year for a company that believed in experiential education.
Then my first really big intercontinental jump was joining with a school in India called Woodstock. I worked for two years to help set up the IB history program. It was a wonderful place to live and a really good school. Unfortunately, the Indian government had taken certain decisions to slowly erode the salaries of foreigners. I recognized what was going on and realized, it was not sustainable, so I started looking again.
There are different databases that international teachers use, and I applied to Letovo. I've taught Russian history for a good part of my career, yet, I've never been to Eastern Europe. I also love the stereotype of Russian winter. So it all nicely converged together. There was Letovo, a great school new to IB. It's also close to Europe where I still have some relatives. During my whole first year, I was teaching on zoom, and there were moments when it looked like I'm never gonna be there physically. I was already considering other offers and jobs, but I was patient, and it worked out.
— You've brought a very interesting object with you. Could you please exlain what it is, and why you chose it? Why is it so dear to you?
— This is a traditional chullo from the Highlands of Peru. It's a headgear. The traditional ones are made of not sheep wool, but camel wool. I was doing community service projects in for the school that I was in. I had a challenge when communicating with the locals, because they would reject my offer proudly and say, "We're fine, gringo, you don't understand, we're different from you." Gringo comes back from "Green Go Home", in reference to the American soldiers in the war with Mexico. Today it could be an insult, it could be not. The first community called Cancha Cancha accepted my help, and this chullo was a gift from its alkalde – a Spanish for mayor – and a recognition of getting him to look at the world in different ways.
This chullo is something functional, I still use it. I like wearing it, because it's unique. It also reminds me of something that's a little bit frustrating for me. There are big portions of human history that we choose to ignore for different reasons. The reality of poor, rural community dwellers is not in history books and it is easy to forget because they're not the dominant socioeconomic pattern.
— What events of your life have had the most significant influence on the formation of your individuality?
— I think, the context in which I was brought up in - I'm a child of the sixties. That's a period of time when we, Americans, awoke to the fact that we had to learn to question the status quo. We lived through the assassinations of people like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, we lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, but also we celebrated things like the Woodstock concert; the explosion of rock music; better opportunities for different gender groups; the liberty to wear your hair long and wear sandals instead of maintaining stereotypes of American society. By and large, that was a very creative period of time in the culture of the United States, and I fully embraced it. I experienced all kinds of different things. Although I don't consider myself a hippie anymore and a lot of things that hippies are associated with, I retained one of my life's slogans - "Carpe Diem".
— Could you please tell something about the period of your life that you consider to be the most memorable for you?
— One of them was my first trip outside the United States. This was to Guatemala. I was in my third year of university and it was the first time I got to go to Latin America and work. We were excavating classic Mayan site in the Highlands of Guatemala. It was memorable because those were university years, and I met with classmates and friends. We got to explore the local culture and the people; went to visit a hippie community at the lake Atitlan. I think, it was memorable because I realized that the world isn't like the United States. As I said, this was my first time traveling overseas.
And another one was meeting my wife, getting married, and having my children. Incredible and memorable moments. I've fallen in love plenty of times before meeting my wife, but then I came to that realization – "Here's a person, I could see spending the rest of my life with." When my daughters were born, I was terrified. I mean, I'm gonna be a father? I have to guide somebody else in their life? There were times I felt, I couldn't guide my own life. At that stage, both of my parents had passed away. We were living in the United States and my wife's family were in Peru. So we did it on our own. But it was brilliant. I love my family.
— Could you please tell something about your first love?
— My first crush, as we, Americans, would say, was in my seventh grade. Her name was Eve Green. She didn't know it, but she was my first love for a long time. She sat in front of me in the math class. That was probably another reason, I didn't do so well at math – I was focusing on staring at Eve's long wavy hair and trying to help her at every opportunity I had. It was kind of an awkward love. In the United States, we call this "puppy love" – you are just fumbling around. I was in love with her to the point that during the couple of times when she did turn around and wanna have a conversation with me, I was stunned and didn't know what to say.
And then, my first love-like relationship was in my second year in university. Carrie was her name. She was a sincerely good person. During my first year in university, there was a lot of partying, and Carrie taught me to slow down and enjoy the simple things of life, like a relationship. And after then, for Americans, at least for me, dating was pretty common. I had a lot of relationships.
— What was dating like when you were young? Imagine, you want to take a girl on a date. What would you do? Where would you take her and how would you act?
— It hasn't changed that much. Take her someplace where you can leave a good first impression so to do something pleasurable. One of the things I remember that kind of lost importance now is drive-in movie theaters which were big when I was growing up. You're sitting in the car, they put speakers inside it, and you watch the movie from a huge screen in front of you. And you can order things from the snack bar without physically going. And then, there was a certain amount of privacy that you had because you're not in the movie theater which lent itself to certain activities.
One of the things I liked to do with many dates was to take them to a swamp. It helps you attune yourself with what's around you. You slow down and notice what is happening around you. There was one of my odd kind of first dates for several girlfriends that I had. At first, they looked at me like, 'Where are you from? Are you from the moon? What do you mean, taking me to a swamp?' But in the end, they'd enjoy it because it's something unique. They had never had a guy that for the first date would take them to do something like that. They were all fascinated by it.
I remember once we went on a date through the pine barrens in New York. Most of the pines aren't taller than myself, and walking wasn't dangerous. There was a light rain. If you're out in the countryside and it rains, you can smell the earth. So that was nice with this girl that I was dating. But then there were two beagles that caught the scent of our track. Beagles don't bark, cause they're hand dogs – they howl. They trailed us for an hour and a half.
In addition to that, dating was also about going out to restaurants and taking out dancing.
— What is your favourite genre of music?
— I enjoy bluegrass from Appalachian in the United States, jazz, reggae music. I wasn't a huge fan of classical music, but that's one of my wife's favorite genres in music, so I've definitely learned a lot about that. But the closest thing to my heart is rock and roll. Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Allman Brothers, and The Rolling Stones.
— What were the most prominent songs, genres, and bands in your teenage years and adolescence?
— One of the biggest was The Rolling Stones. There were so many songs that I identified with: "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "Sympathy For The Devil", "Let It Bleed". There were Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship bands. What I liked about the Stones though, was that they were performers. You really enjoyed Mick Jagger and all his antics on the stage, and Keith Richards was cool. When I was growing up, we classified people. The Stones and the Beatles were the two biggest grips. 'Are you a Beatles person?', or 'Are you into rolling stones?'. And another group that was huge was Bob Marley and the Wailers. I really like the style of guitar playing. But that wasn't huge in the United States. There was reggae and there were many other groups besides Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff, for example.
— What was the beginning of the new millennia like for you?
— It was tremendous. What I most remember is getting into the school where I had worked for eighteen years. It was the first time that I was working at a school similar to the quality of Letovo. It was an international school, so there were people from all over the world. The financial rewards were considerable. It was not materialistic, but I could spend more on family, longer vacations, and some of the material things. So the beginning of the millennium was a tremendous opportunity that I embraced and continue to embrace.
— For many people, especially in the USA, the millennia started with a tragedy. What influence did 9/11 have on you?
— I remember 9/11. I was in the staff room at Markham college in Peru, and it was broadcasted on television. I was watching it, but there was some disbelief in me. I was expecting this to end and then an explanation that this was an upcoming Rambo movie or this was an excerpt from something. I liked to investigate and research. And the more you dug... 'Well, hold it. Maybe part of this was because of the US foreign policy?', so it continued to make me a person willing to challenge authorities, or demand answers from authorities and not just accept things blindly. Also, my brother-in-law was passing close when it happened, but he wasn't affected.
— Do you have a role model or a hero?
— One of my role models is Wade Davis who is an ethnobotanist trained in Yale. He's done research in some really remote parts of the world. Most of them - in tropical rainforests, and he is interested in botany and in how people have adapted to living with plants and the knowledge they get from them. He's also lived in Haiti and learned about the voodoo culture and he's lived in the Taiga. I like that because he's a professional, he's well published, he's a good lecture era, but he also has an alternative lifestyle.
— Do you have a dream?
— I have many dreams. "To live a life without dreams is like a bird with broken wings." I think that dreams keep us going. One of my dreams is for my students to be successful – not only in exams but in their lives. At this stage in my life, one of my biggest dreams is that all the people that are dear to me end up with a lifestyle that's sustainable for them. The closest in my life is family. Beyond that, my dream is that we all embrace the concept of sustainability, incorporated into our lifestyle. And I'm a dreamer. I'm convinced, it is gonna happen sooner or later. It takes a lot of effort and sometimes the results aren't always immediate, but you have to stick to your dreams.
— Thank you very much for joining our project!