Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ten velky obraz

(That big painting)

This story is old, and this post is short. Oh well!

It´s a story long overdue. It actually starts, in fact, all the way back in October. That was when there was a Karol Felix exhibit in the Nitra gallery, and I started taking an art class there. My teacher always has us do works copied from or based off of whatever´s in the gallery at the time, and so after I´d made three sketches copying some of Felix´s paintings, she got out these large pieces of stiff paper-cardboard and told me it was time for an abstract painting.

The painting took probably about four or five hours total, spread over several different lessons (it was a back-burner priority, what my teacher would lay out for me to continue work on every now and then). The painting was finally finished, and then it disappeared to wherever all the things I draw and paint at my art classes disappear to. I basically forgot about it.

Then, in February, my art teacher announced she was going to dig up everything she had in the back rooms from the last two years of young people drawing and painting in the gallery, and put the best works on display in one of the halls as a competition. It was cool to see that two of my pencil sketches, as well as "the big painting" as I´ve come to call it (though it´s not enormous or anything--maybe 4 ft. high and 3 ft. wide), had made it to the hall, though I didn´t even dream of one of them winning.

For the next three weeks all of the visitors to the gallery voted on the works. My art teacher told me that I was one of the finalists and asked me to come to the awards ceremony at the gallery at 9 AM on a Tuesday.

So I went to the ceremony, and was happy to see some of my friends from the art class there as well--all of us girls go to different gymnaziums, but we´re all around the same age. There were a lot of small children--lots of schools take field trips to the gallery now and then.

After a rather long, very modern and abstract, but extremely skilled performance of a kind of Sleeping Beauty tale by a group of maybe eleven year-olds (I guess they were there for the little kids, but it was kind of strange), my art teacher, who was running things, got up to announce the winners. I had literally just thought to myself "I´m sure I won nothing" when she announced my name as being the winner of the visitors´competition. What?! I got a fat box of 72 top-quality oil pastels, several handshakes, and lots of congratulations. And then she moved into the second category, of the curators´picks. And... I won first prize! (And another box of oil pastels.) I was so stunned and amazed.

After the ceremony I had six interviews with six different news groups... of course, I did perfectly fine on the ones where I was just speaking into a tape recorder, and I totally botched the two on camera. So embarrassing. In one of them, the lady asked me to describe the whole process of making the painting (which was really detailed and in-depth)... okay, maybe a fair question, but I have no idea how to describe what I did in Slovak. So I said it in English and felt like a failure. In the other, I just had a really bad interviewer, I think--every time I answered a question, she would say nothing and give me a blank look, and then gesture for me to keep going. Uggh. Interviews were definitely the worst part about winning--but the only bad part! I was really happy.

Not only was the painting much too big for a suitcase (it would have had to been cut up to fit inside), I never felt a sense of belonging or ownership for it, as I do with most of my drawings or paintings. For these reasons, and especially because it´s definitely the most "professional" -looking thing I´ve ever done, something I actually feel looks technically skilled and good enough to be hung on a wall, I always had the intention of giving it away to someone here in Slovakia. So last week I gave it to Sandy and her family as a token of my gratitude for being such a wonderful host family. I should get a photo of it, though, before I leave...

Much love!


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Orava, Oslava; Rodiny, Punk!

(Orava, Celebration, Families, Punk)

Stretching back quite a while here... Let´s think back to February, shall we? Even though tomorrow is the first of April...

So, in February we had a week off school (Midwinter break, which Washington schoolteachers no longer get to enjoy--thanks, funding cuts and bad bargaining). It went faster than I could imagine possible, with the weekend suddenly turned to Wednesday and time for me to pack my bags.

Marco had planned to go with Sasha on a mini holiday with some of his colleagues, and he was nice enough to invite me along too! (Which required a lot of finagling on his part with the hotel and everything because there was only a double room booked, etc. Way to go, Marco!) It all ended up working out and Wednesday at around 10 we left for Orava.

Orava is a region of Slovakia to the north, right up against the Polish border. I´m not sure what the exact boundaries are, but where we were specifically was near Liptovský Mikuláš, which I´ve passed through several times on my way to elsewhere, and finally got to actually stop and stay in last week (later story).

It was a four and a half hour drive, which was pretty unbelievable to me--it really only felt like an hour and a half! The scenery was breathtaking. The region had this wonderful rustic feeling--old log cabins in the design I associate with Poland (as in, steeply-slanted wood roofs, as opposed to near-flat red-tile roofs I think of as Slovak), little villages nested in yellow-grass valleys, white mountains all around... There was one castle along the way--which I believe was called Oravý hrad?--which really captured the spirit of the area for me. It was so beautiful.

The skies were blue but it was a cold winter day in the mountains. A bitter wind was blowing every now and then (stripping right through all my layers) and there was some packed snow on the ground from two days before. (As we unpacked our things from the car icy flurries started.) We were staying at a koliba called Penzión Josu-- the three of us found the name pretty funny given that just a few days before we´d all sat around watching Jožen z Basen (which amazingly Sandy had never heard of). The names are similar, you know, and the song is actually set in Orava...

I forget the name of the village we were in--I don´t think I even knew it at the time. The point is, we were in a quiet little village where Penzión Josu was the biggest thing out of the thirty or so buildings, most of which were lodgings for tourists. Fifteen minutes´drive away was a skiing place and, sharing the parking lot, a waterpark. It seems like those two go together a lot of the time in Slovakia, but I´m not sure why--unless the combination of hot and cold is just super fun? Like hot tubs in the snow?

We got in in early afternoon, so we hit the waterpark that day. There were lots of Polish tourists inside and all of the signs were bilingual, Slovak and Polish. Slovak waterparks have slides, but most people stay in the "thermal" pools, which are warm and usually include a few small massaging waterfalls and lots of bubbly areas, as well as built-in benches for people to sit or lie down on.

All the slides were closed at this waterpark, since they emptied outside, but the pools continued outdoors at near-hot tub-temperatures. It was snowing outside most of the time as we went out and in through the plastic sheets that covered the entrances (you swam through). The three of us played a lot of tag games. The water felt so nice and as soon as you submerged yourself in it you forgot the world was still locked in Winter´s icy clutches.

We stayed maybe an hour and a half and then went back to the hotel. But while we were waiting in the parking lot for a while, I forget why, my hair froze! It had been soaked from the pools, and it became these solid sheets which I could break (not as in break off chunks of hair, but break the inner ice). It was very cool.

After showers and dry clothes we went to dinner at the koliba´s restaurant, which was somewhat attached (giant signs reassured us that it was only fifty meters from the hotel). I was really in the mood for some bryndzové halušky, which I now love and have been craving a lot recently, but--big shock!--they didn´t have it! I couldn´t believe it wasn´t even on the menu. I asked the waiter if they had it and he looked rather embarrassed as he told me "well, it´s a small kitchen..." It doesn´t matter; it was just so surprising to me that a Slovak restaurant could not have it. I got my backup choice instead, good old vypražaný syr (fried cheese). Mňam, chutny!

That night we went bowling there in the hotel with Marco´s friends and their kids, all from Bratislava. It was a lot of fun. My high score for the night was 70 and I felt extremely pleased with myself, given that that´s probably my highest score ever. Haha.

The next morning we hung out at the hotel--Saška and I with Monika and Natalya, aged 13 and 11, respectively--and in the early afternoon Saška got suited up for skiing! We went to the ski area next to the waterpark for her first time on the slopes. There was a little bunny slope there, and five year-old Elinka, who´d been skiing since was two, was carving through the little slaloms. Meanwhile her father, Jozef, and Marco coached Saška on learning how to ski. Afterwards we all got punč (hot punch)--I hadn´t seen it since Christmastime! Yay!--and the weather had turned cold, so we went back to the hotel.

After dinner at the restaurant (where I wasn´t hungry, so just ordered four slices of rye bread) we went bowling again! Yay! I managed to somehow bowl a 40. Wow, did I suck!

The next day after lunch we went to a different ski slope. Saška got a much fuller two-hour lesson, which ended for her on a very good note, and I... well, I couldn´t take it anymore, just watching all the skiers up above me, and I decided I wanted to go skiing with Monika and Natalya. Never mind the fact that I was wearing jeans and I hadn´t skied in five years-- I was hoping that miraculously I wouldn´t fall, because if I did even once I would be soaked through and that would be it. At least I had my ski jacket and a hat.

Riding up on the ski lift together, Monika and Natalya told me how they´d been skiing for ten and seven years, respectively. Hmm... Me, I had lessons when I was eleven and twelve, and we went to Whistler when I was thirteen and there were maybe two days of skiing at Crystal after that. People were telling me "oh, it´s like a bicycle", but I thought it would be a miracle if I could go down the bunny slope without toppling over. Also part of the reason I wanted to ski was because Rotary Ski Week was coming up in a month and I wanted to have some gauge on my ability before then.

And....all those people were right! I had watched during Saška´s lesson as Jozef coached her "lean to the left to turn right, lean to the right to turn left" and I´d thought to myself, "What?? I can´t imagine what that feels like--oh no, I don´t even remember how to turn!" But standing in ski boots my body knew it all for me. I didn´t have to think about anything. It was wonderful! I got tired quickly, partly because I´m out of shape, partly because Monika and Natalya were parallel-skiing straight down the sheets of ice and I was going as fast as I could to keep up, and partly because I hadn´t moved in that way in, well, five years. But it was exhilarating and the best kind of fatigue and aching.

Also amazingly, I didn´t really fall (though I came so close several times!). I had one moment where my skis got caught in a pile of sludge and I sort of sat down on the hill, but I was still moving and recovered instantly. So, so lucky! First and last time I ever ski in jeans, for lack of anything else.

The next morning we went home. It was Saturday-- my break was already over! But well spent, most definitely.

And now for something entirely different! (thanks, Monty Python.) A different weekend, maybe three or four weeks later, in mid-March: Saška´s party for her nineth birthday.

The night before we had spent a few hours getting ready. The table was set with an alternating pirate (Saška´s favorite movie is Pirates of the Caribbean) and Hannah Montana theme; we blew up about a dozen balloons (I lost a few million brain cells before Marco got home with the pump); rainbow streamers hung from the ceiling, and the pantry was stocked enough for a siege like Leningrad.

The morning of the actual day, the cake arrived. I need to note that birthday cakes here are made with a thin casing of marzipan for frosting, not buttercream. Saška´s cake was amazing. It was the head of a pirate (but 2-D): he had an eye patch, missing teeth, a red-with-white-polka-dots bandana, and a real earring in his ear. (Two lucky and rather morbid children were served just the ears on their plates, much to their delight. Hey, I wanted one of the ears too.) It was a work of artistry in marzipan. And it was seven-layered deliciousness, too. Mhmm. Oh, there was so much food at the party! Pizza and kiddie champagne and candy and chips and cake... Delicious at the time, sick to my stomach soon afterwards. My fault.

The party went on for seven hours or so, with a few "football" matches outside, rides on the I-Quad (four-wheel ORV; Saška´s Christmas present), X-box competitions, and movies. Two of Saška´s friends ended up spending the night. While they were getting ready for bed, Sandy, Marco, and I played a few games of Burracco, an Italian card game we like. Trying to avoid looking too closely at the "katastrofa" while it was happening, I was amazed that within a half-hour of the last guests leaving, the house was spotlessly clean once more. A miraculous mystery to me. Also that night I watched a Cuban movie in Spanish on HBO. My understanding of Spanish is the same as it was before... that´s nice to know. I have a plan laid out for how I´m going to get the language back this summer. (But when will I ever be able to maintain my Slovak? Sad reality. I think the best I can hope for is to later take Russian and put my Slovak skills to use that way. Oh! I was reading The New York Times the other day, and an article mentioned a Russian newspaper called Krasnaya zvezda. I knew what that meant--sounds like Krásna hviezda--Beautiful star--to me! Moments like that are really fun.)

Four months went so quickly. Probably in part because it was winter, which I´d spent all of fall mentally prepping myself for, and while it was going on I just tried to close my eyes and speed through it as fast as possible (not just winter in Slovakia; winter anywhere is always depressing and unpleasant for me). And then suddenly, it was. And it was time to move host families.

That was Sunday. Rewind a little to Saturday first.

Saturday I got home from the Rotary Ski Week (hello, next post) at 6 PM; Sandy and Saška were waiting for me at the bus station. We drove home, I changed my clothes, and because I was starving after being on the bus the whole day, Sandy fried me up four eggs with bread and tomatoes, which I wolfed down. Saška went to her babka´s house to sleep there for the night, and Sandy and I were out the door, off to a punk concert!

We first drove to Sandy´s friend Tina´s house, and then all of us together drove to a smoky pub in Chrenova. The smoke was intense, but the room we were in, where the bands play, was amazing. Every last inch of wall was painted in beautiful, incredibly skilled, rockband-themed designs. The sideroom we sat in before the music started featured a Last Supper takeoff, with some music legends as Jesus´--Ozzie Osborne´s (ew)--disciples. Out of the twelve I got five. Whoo! I had so much fun staring at the paintings all night. The walls´ base color was a calm peach-orange, and the figures themselves were done with just red, blue, and black (with a tiny bit of white for the eyeballs) on top of the orange. The blue shadowing was so beautiful. Mhmm, I wish I´d had my camera...

After a big tankard of Kofola and a lot of pizza-dough strips, we went into the other room for the concert. Tina´s husband and his three friends have been a band, called Diturvit, for twenty years. I´ve always seen the guitars at Tina´s house when I´ve been over, but I didn´t know he did punk! It drew an interesting crowd, definitely, the light reflecting off so many various metal piercings and nails in black leather jackets. The performers themselves were just wearing black band shirts and Converse.

Alica (Tina´s daughter, my friend) and I were standing front and center, right next to the speakers, and we definitely got hearing damage (my ears were buzzing for a longgg time), but it was great! I think electric guitar is definitely one of the best instruments ever. It blows my mind. (Watching videos of Jimi Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner...) So that was fun. They played some of their own songs and some classics, both Slovak and American (that Ramones song Ay Oh--or however you spell it--Let´s Go!).

It was a lot of fun, and when it finished at 11:30 the night was still young, so we were going to go elsewhere and keep going... But the fun place in question turned out to be closed, and some adults (not me, I just had Kofola) were too drunk... So at 12:30 we went home. Which maybe was better for me... Ski Week, with intense skiing days and staying up late, completely drained me and I spent a lot of the punk concert in and out of consciousness, including while the music was blasting. If we´d gone to the next pub we would have stayed out until 4 and that really would have killed me...

Regardless of getting in "early", I woke up at 11:30 the next day--and was exhausted. But the day was slipping away faster than I even knew; a few hours later I found out it was Spring Forward (whatever it´s called here) and we´d lost an hour. I got dressed, and then we immediately left for lunch with a grandparents at a traditional Slovak restaurant they´ve taken me to before called Sypka ("granary"), in the village of Velke Zaluzie, not far from Lehota.

The last (my first) time we went to Sypka, Sandy had spent the whole car ride there gushing about the amazing parene buchty, but we didn´t actually end up getting them because none of us were in the mood for sweets for lunch. But this time, seeing as it was probably my last (second) time at Sypka, I decided to go for it. I´m no stranger to parene buchty; the school cafeteria makes them all the time for Friday lunch, which is always something sweet (hard to get used to at first). What they are are basically humbao--that same kind of white dough, same size balls--stuffed with hot fruit and coated on the outside with oil and cocoa. As much as I like them, I was more than a little intimidated at the platter of six I got for my meal (and I´d already had soup!). Three of them I´d ordered with cocoa, which is what I´d always had them with before, and the other three with poppyseed. Along with a giant tankard of Kofola, of course.

Well, I got through five and then decided I didn´t need dinner. They were great, though. I think the poppyseed on top was the best. Parene buchty are delicious!

On Saturday night, Alica (Tina´s daughter), Saska, and I had talked about seeing a movie on Sunday, but when we got home from lunch that day it was already three and I started panicking because I was moving host families at 5:30 or so, and the last time I´d switched families I´d taken the whole day off school, and that had been the amount of time I´d needed. I worked really quickly and efficiently, though, and while I was stressed, I got it all done in an hour and a half. Then Sandy, Saska, and I just sat around on the couches for a while (Marco was on business in Poland). How sad! It really was.

Finally it was time, and we loaded up the car (Saska screamed a few times when the car would make a tight turn and she would get smothered in the heaping piles of junk) and went up Zobor. This time changing families was different from the first time around, because I´ve known this family since August. I unpacked my things in my beautiful new room, and that was it. Here I am.

It´s been over a week now and I´m not sad anymore over moving, just glad to be here. It´s a beautiful house in the prettiest part of the city, with a perfect view of the hrad from anywhere on the property. They´re such wonderful, helpful people. And they have one of the sweetest dogs ever!

Can you imagine what a luxurious life I lead? On Sunday morning the sun was intense, and my host mother Lydia moved the big lounge-swing into the sun for me so I could read outside. Wearing a tanktop and shorts (it got that hot!) I sat on the swing overlooking the terraced gardens and listening to the humming insects. Yes, that´s my life. (And as a result of that day, I finally finished The Decameron, which has taken me a whole month of a little on and a lot of off reading.)

I take the bus to school again, like in my first host family, now that I´m back in the city. It´s a long ride--exactly half an hour. But it´s nice, and I don´t have to get up very early. I love the five-minute walk to and from the bus stop. Zobor is such a wonderful place to be, and best of all for walking in. All of the houses have character; each has its own huge, overgrown garden; and everyone owns a dog or two, and as you walk down the street, every single one of those dogs sticks his nose through the fence at you curiously, or barks. It´s a fun place to be, right in the shadow of the mountain. I´m also right across the street practically from the huge park, though I have yet to have walked there since moving here (in my first host family, I went there several times).

And my morning walks to the bus stop are made that much nicer by the fact that in just about the last week Spring has officially arrived. All the trees and bushes have burst into bloom, the grass has come back (as opposed to winter´s bare mud), and everything has that sweet smell of rain and flowers and bees. Walking home from the bus stop, a longer walk since the bus doesn´t go as far, I got a perfect little Spring shower. There was a thick smell of rain and I saw little birds fluffing themselves in some newly-formed puddles. The clouds were the most beautiful shade of light gray-blue. Yes, what a wonderful world and how good to be alive!

One last anecdote. Yesterday I was walking down the hill to the hotel where Rotary meetings are held, and I reflected to myself rather sadly that I hadn´t found a single four-leaf clover since November. Was the gift gone? Had I forgotten how to use my magic? But just as I thought this, I got the tingle. Really. A little further down the hill, I stopped at a patch of clovers and told myself I would find three four-leaf clovers there. Within about three minutes, I had. (Though in the course of finding the third, one of the first two slipped out of my hand, and I couldn´t find where it had dropped.) My mojo is back!

AND--my parents are currently in PRAGUE! I may seem calm and laidback, but inside I´m beside myself with excitement. I can´t believe they´re just four and a half hours away from me by car. I´m counting the minutes.

Much love! (and I´ll be seeing some of you VERY SOON!)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rotary vikend v Banskej Bystrici

(Rotary weekend in Banska Bystrica)

Two weekends ago I was in the lovely city of Banska Bystrica for a Rotary weekend with all the Inbounds. Here goes!

Nitra is in the western third of Slovakia, and Banska Bystrica is in the middle third. (You know, all places are divided up somehow, Northern/Southern, Eastern/Western, etc.; Slovakia is divided into three main sections of Western, Central, and Eastern. There´s also Northern and Southern (Nitra is in the South-Western part of the country), but Western/Eastern is what matters culturally; you talk about North and South when discussing which highway to take and what the climate´s like.) It´s two hours from Nitra to Banska, and we had to be at our lodgings by 6, so we three Nitra kids just took a bus after school... luckier than the Kosice kids, who were on trains for six hours.

It´s always kind of hard for me to believe that in just two hours I´m in a different zone of the country, and the accents are different (hello, ľ ! veľmi ľubím ľad´! haha). Passing through Ziar nad Hronom, which is a very long name for a city (it means "Ziar, above the Hron" and Hron is a river), we came to our destination. It was the kind of cold that you just stand there swearing in for a while until you figure out it´s not going away. It was foggy and the sun was setting. We followed a map, very straightforward, to the dormitories, and had a short, nice walk; thickly-packed snow on the sidewalks, slippery ice on the crosswalks. Amazingly, I´ve only fallen down because of ice once this whole winter, and it was actually coming home from this weekend I´m writing about. (I might as well just tell it now: I was walking out of the Nitra bus station, and there were these unbelieveably slippery stairs. I slipped near the bottom, thankfully, but it was a big wipeout. At least it didn´t hurt.)

We checked in, got our room assignments, and then waited in a room while everyone got there. I don´t really remember what happened then... dinner, probably. We stayed in a dormitory for university students and the cafeteria was on the ground floor. Halfway through dinner a new inbound arrived, to much excitement: an Australian! I understand that Australians come in wintertime because they´re Southern Hemisphere, but what about the Brazilians? They all came in summertime. Hmm.

After dinner, we bundled up and took a walk to a sort of community performance space... it looked like a small church, and there was an organ, but no religious iconography. There was a concert, Spanish-Argentinian themed: tango and so on, with a pianist, bassist, violinist, and accordion-player, all of whom were gymnazium-aged. It was great; I especially liked the violinist. That was a nice thing to get to do.

Back at the dormitories, we reassembled in the sort of conference room. The Rotarians gave opening remarks (everything was in Slovak, so I felt bad for the Australian boy), and then we were divided into teams for a little competition. There were four categories of difficulty, and were worth, accordingly, 1-4 points for each correct answer. One by one each team chose which level of a question they wanted to answer, then were asked the question, and then responded. (Everyone got full points.) In the beginning all the teams went for 2-point questions, which were things like "name a Slovak story" (Popolushka! =Cinderella). No one went for the 4 points, because that meant singing a Slovak song. Surprisingly, I wouldn´t have minded singing in front of everyone, but I just don´t know all the words to any Slovak song! I can get through about a fourth of Horehronie, but that´s it... Well, I know all the words to the Orange Mobile commercial (ja som mala Vianocka, ruzove mam licka!), and I know all the words to this one kind of weird Czech song which I learned back in December last year, but neither of those work... So anyway. By the second round, one team decided to go for the 3-point level, which was where one group member had to talk for two minutes in Slovak on some specified topic. All the other groups had to meet this challenge. I went the first time around for my group; I got "discuss your hobbies" as my prompt and it was a very fast two minutes.

After three rounds of this, there was a lightning round: Rotexes asked questions about Slovakia and whoever answered first got the points (though there was a threat of point subtraction for incorrect answers). In the end our team came in third, and we got a big box of Lentilky, which are M&M-equivalents. Nice.

Then bedtime. It was late, and the lights were on until much later with everyone waiting in line for the shower.

Breakfast the next morning in the cafeteria, and then we had a long walk in the bright, crisp winter morning to the town center. The last time I was in the main square there was in September and I was so glad to be back. We went to the town hall (radnica-Rathaus in German), which had a beautiful pair of bronze doors on the outside. It was painfully hot in the entrance hall after the wintery outdoors, and everyone was glad when we were shown the cloakroom.

Our tour guide, who spoke English, told us that the building is three hundred years old and was actually just remodeled last year. It was a lovely place, with bright crystal chandeliers, pleasantly-arched ceilings, and a granite staircase. Our guide also gave us some history on the city: it had its origins as a German mining town ("Banska" is an adjective relating to mining, and is seen in other place names as well, such as the town of Banska Stiavnica). The rich Germans formed a sort of ruling class, and controlled the government. An interesting thing: apparently voting "back then" (restricted, of course, to landowners or whatnot) consisted of whispering one´s choice in the voting official´s ear. All voting took place very early in the morning, so that the outcomes could be announced at morning mass, at seven o´clock.

We were led to the second floor of the building, whose ceiling was beautifully painted. One of the rooms was where civil marriages are still held. A very nice place to get married! Another room was almost entirely empty except for a small door at one end. The door was intricately-designed wood, with many different types of wood inlaid, and dated from, I believe, the late 1400´s? I think what was the case was was that the actual building was three hundred years old, but that the town hall had been in that spot since the late 1400´s (hey, when was America discovered?) and they had preserved one of the original doors. Besides the beauty of it, the interesting thing about the door was how short it was, only maybe 5´7" or something. I´m 5´7.5" and I think I would have had to stoop a bit.

The third floor of the building was much colder than anywhere else. Our guide explained that they only heated it when it was in use, because of something about the wood floors and moisture... She wasn´t exactly sure and so neither am I. The roof was slanted and entirely glass skylights. We got to go out on the balcony from there. There wasn´t much of a view but it was still nice.

The tour ended when we were back downstairs, and eventually we stepped outside again into the main square. Our guide had told us that one of the main towers was slanted ("like the leaning tower of Pisa!") 60 cm., but I could only guess at which tower it was; they all looked pretty straight. (As to how it got that way, there had been an old building near the base of this tower, and eventually it was demolished. Only afterwards did they discover the building had been propping the tower up. The tower was resupported, but it still leans a bit.)

Then we were divided into two groups to go on a walking tour of the old town center. We went past one of the churches, the castle, a statue of Saints Cyril a Methodus (I always wonder about the history here, that these two saints went through the Slovak region and converted everyone, but for some reason their Cyrillic alphabet isn´t used in Czech, Slovak, etc.), and the old town wall.

We made a loop back to the town hall and went to lunch at a place called the Bamboo Bar, which had really good food. It was a nice lunch. A former professional hockey player on the Banska team owned the restaurant, and he gave us all signed stickers and keychains/miniature hockey jerseys.

Afterwards, we went to the Europa shopping mall, which I´ve seen so many times from the freeway but never been inside. We had a long period of freetime and didn´t have much to do with ourselves, so we had fun looking at the animals in the pet store (though kind of the same feeling I get at zoos...) and window shopping galore. I bought a sweater that was on super winter clearance sale, and that was it.

Back at the dormitories once more, we had dinner, and then it was time for the ping pong tournament. Boys and girls were divided into separate sections and these really professional tournament grids were posted, as to who was playing whom. I got through two rounds but lost on the third round, which was to be in the final three. The whole thing took a really long time, two solid hours! But I like ping pong. It was pretty intense.

And after that, it was ten o´clock and there was a dance party with a disco ball and a DJ. It started off really well and I had a good time overall... sad to say, after about an hour and a half the music was just bad and no one wanted to dance to it, so everyone ended up sitting in the chairs up against the walls... I never leave a dance party early, and I was optimistic it would get better... Well, there were a few good songs later, so that was good, but I was ready to go to bed, which we finally did at 1:30.

The next morning we had breakfast and then walked to the museum of the Slovak National Uprising. It was a very dramatic building we´d seen several times before, these giant, concrete sort of wings, cleaved in half with a huge, rather disturbing statue: four or so people, distraught expressions on their faces, standing on a mound of people who were apparently dead, all in black.

The Slovak National Uprising was when the Slovak people rebelled against Nazi Fascism during WWII. It was a very impressive museum. Our tour started with a black-and-white kind of horror film: pieced-together footage first of a baby being born, growing up, going to school...and eventually becoming a Nazi youth... Most of the film was waves upon waves of people of all different ages and backgrounds doing hail-Hitlers. The film was unnarrated.

The museum was organized chronologically and we had a tour guide. I liked how visual it all was: most of the exhibits were the different uniforms of all the different parties concerned. (It was surprising how small all of the uniforms seemed!) There was one typewriter, that I was interested to note, had the "y" and the "z" reversed from where they are on American computers; this is how it is on modern Slovak keyboards, but I didn´t know it went that far back, and I still don´t know the reason for it... QWERTZ, as it were. The museum really dealt with all of WWII, and there was a rather shocking number in there: the Slovak government paid 300 francs for every Jew they deported to the concentration camps.

After the museum we went back to the dorms, got our things together, and then it was time to go home. Most of us went to the bus station. I got back in Nitra around 1:30 that Sunday. I walked to Mlyny from the bus station and waited for my host uncle and aunt in the entrance hall there; there was a neat fashion show going on, displaying this beautiful bronze jewelry, and I watched that for a while.

What´s happened since? Well, this last Wednesday both Sasha and I had five lessons, so we were both out by 12:45, with lunch. Sandy decided to take us to Bratislava for the afternoon for shopping. Yay!

It was a beautiful day, a gorgeous blue sky and Spring in the air, and I felt wonderful. It´s amazing how good nice weather makes me feel. It was a forty-five minute drive to the city, and first we went to Avion shopping center, which I hadn´t been to before. It was a mall with really high ceilings and windows up high, letting in all that sun.

We went to a few shops and then got desserts at a little cafe. Then we went clothes shopping. I didn´t buy anything, but it was the greatest thing for me to see all the Spring collections in all the shops. It was a promise: Spring is really coming! Short sleeves, thin fabrics... Bright colors! I am utterly done with black leather, gray wool, and everything warm and bland in between. I don´t mind layers but I hate that they go hand-in-hand with static-y hair. But the colors are just the most depressing thing for me; I really don´t like dark colors all the time. It was so great so see all the intense, light colors again, the part of the spectrum I´ve been missing. Ahh.

And then, after Avion, we went across the street to IKEA. Which might just be my favorite store in the entire world... it´s a toss-up with the Seattle REI. It was only my second time in an IKEA, after my grandma took me when I visited her in Arizona a while ago, but it was even greater than I remembered. I just wanted to curl up forever in each of the full-room displays. What I love about IKEA is that, even when it´s too out-there or ugly, it still aims for this sort of dreamworld effect. It´s always aiming for the ideal of the whole. And at unbelieveable prices! Simply fantastic.

It was dinnertime after half an hour there, so we went to the restaurant there in the store. More seemingly unreal prices--delicious dinner for three for five Euros! I had Swedish meatballs and lingonberries and it was so good. Plus, it was like a mini-vacation to Sweden! Which sounds really pathetic, I know, but, well, everything was in Swedish and it was all calming Scan-design everywhere... I liked it. IKEA´s a great place.

Much love!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Co si robila?

(What have you been doing?)

Well, ouch...My blog tells me my last post date was December 30th. And here I am in the first week of February, and I only posted twice in December anyway... Explanation time. So, what happened? I don´t know. I had so much to tell in December, and no time in which to tell it; and then, after coming home from Italy in January, no desire to sit down and type it all up. I have at least five posts waiting in the wings, prodding me to just write them already, but each post takes on average 2-3 hours. And I just don´t feel like being on the computer that long.

But, blogging is important to me as both a way to keep everyone informed, and also because as easy as it is not to blog now, I know later I´ll regret all the memories left unlogged and then soon lost forever as a result. I´ve got to find the middle ground between my absurd writing fecundity of earlier months and ignoring the computer entirely. I´ll figure it out. For now, the first post in over a month! Yay!

So, some filler details of my last month. (Mostly the more recent things that come to mind.) What have I been doing?

Well, after Italy life slowed down several gears. December was such a busy month; there were celebrations--things to do, places to go, people to see--and I don´t know what else happening all the time. And Christmas night we left for Italy, so it all just kept going... Of course vacation in Italy was none too strenuous, but we certainly kept active. And it all felt exciting, as if I were on a brand-new exchange in another country. Language! Sights! Food! People! Culture! Even when I was sitting on the couch reading in the afternoon or something I think my blood pressure was raised at the excitement of just being somewhere new. Not that Slovakia had gotten boring for me. I had never been happier through all of December (and in the presentations they tell you December will be oohhh so saddd, rock bottom depression...) and was sad to have to stop speaking Slovak for two weeks. (Never fear! My Spanish magically returned with a vengeance and saw me through Italian like the good old friend it is.) But it´s all very familiar to me now, to the point where I sometimes will be walking down some very known street, and with a wave of nostalgia try to recapture the eyes with which I first looked at this street.

Coming home after Italy, I worried I was going to find all my Slovak gone, and, what´s worse, I would be unhappy to leave the cyprus-covered hills and pasta, instead buried under snow and waiting for the Great Spring Thaw... I was so pleasantly surprised to find myself wrong on both counts! Not only did I pick up my Slovak where I´d left off (though exchanging "dakujem" for "grazie" and "dobre" for "brava" were hard transitions again in reverse), I was so happy to be back in "my" country. I´d loved Italy, but two weeks was the right amount of time to be there. Two weeks is still short enough that it´s a vacation; longer, and you start really feeling the pressure to adapt. Not that adaption´s such a bad thing, but you hopefully get what I mean... As it was, immediately when we arrived I felt a need to fit in and not stick out like the foreigner tourist I am. Hmm, maybe part of what I was thinking of in the earlier statement is that, too, after a certain amount of time everyone else as well starts expecting you to adapt, to have adapted. Hmm.

What did surprise me, however, when I came back from Italy, was how much everything had come to a halt. Maybe it´s the cold and the darkness... You just get that primal urge to slip into inactivity. The bad ice and the 4 o´clock darkness meant no walking or other outdoor activities. No one plans anything big for January--as far as the world´s concerned, the month sort of stops after New Year´s.

So how did I fill all this empty time? I read. I had a hunger for anything written in English (hey, I put in the effort of reading in Slovak sometimes, but I deserve my pleasures too, right?), and hopefully something really substantial. This really kicked off in Italy, when I found myself with so much downtime I hadn´t had in December. It´s great for me that Ruth loves (prefers, actually) to read in English, so I can borrow all her books (unfortunately, most of the ones she owns are on her digital Kindle, which I do not borrow). The best thing I´ve borrowed from her was Gone With the Wind. Holding the 1000-page monster, with its very bland cover, and admitting to myself that I had no interest in the Civil War, I didn´t think I was going to do anything with it. But it was free. So I read it. And it was awesome. Thank God for classics, especially the big fat ones. It got me through six days, it was wonderful (though truly the most painful book I´ve ever read), and I get to add it to my list of classics. Nice.

As a natural counterpoint to all this reading, I´ve been writing a lot as well, at least a few pages in my notebook every day. No fictions; just musings and a few poems (not really up my alley) and of course I can´t resist throwing in drawings ever couple of pages. It feels good. I finally have time for this stuff.

And, what else do I finally have time for? Afternoon showers--and even baths! My whole life I´ve taken showers in the morning, because if my hair is even the slightest bit damp before going to bed it´s an unsalvagable wreck in the morning. And now my only time concern in the afternoons is dinnertime. I love my afternoon showers (and the two baths I had); I treasure every one. They feel wonderful and mornings are so luxurious.

And now for some unconnected events and trends.

One: I´ve become much better at the Slovak keyboard now than the American one! I know where everything is unconsciously (my pinkie reaches for the "y", knowing that the "z" and "y" are reversed) and type at my normal speed. I only realized I´d made the transition, though, on a school computer the other day. The school computer, for some unknown reason, was locked on the American keyboard, even though all the actual keys have the Slovak placement. It was torture--I just had to randomly hit every key and see which one came up with the question mark and so on. I couldn´t remember by feel! The reason why I hadn´t made the transition much earlier, though, is because in my first host family I used Ruth´s laptop, and it´s an HP she bought in America, so it´s an American keyboard. Um-hm.

And here´s something which feels strangely connected to my keyboard conversion: now, often when I type in English, I want to put commas where they would go in Slovak. Which is kind of ridiculous since I don´t begin to know Slovak comma rules (my book certainly doesn´t explain that!). Just basic rules I know from reading. But I´ve got the itch now. Like, whenever I say "did you know that..." I feel an essential need to make it "did you know, that", or if I´m saying "I was talking to the neighbor who lives down the street" I want it to be "I was talking to the neighbor, who lives down the street." It doesn´t really matter but I find it kind of interesting.

A wonderful January gift: I sleep so well at night! The whole month of December (maybe because it was a new-ish bed to me?) I was messed up, waking up with a start at least five times a night and feeling awful in the morning as a result. But January I finally got back on track. Ah, I sleep wonderfully--it´s such a warm and comfortable bed--and often dream. Plus, you know, not having any homework or late-night obligations means I can go to bed as early as I want, and getting up at 6:30 is so deliciously late for me... I guess I´m finally making up for all those years of four-hour nights. (Schoolnight schedule: go to bed at 10, get up at 2 to do homework!)

And Fridays I have a routine. Every Friday, unless I´m gone for some reason, I take the bus home from school to Ruth´s. I get there at 1, and she gets home at 3, so it means I have two hours alone to take the dogs for a walk and play with them. Then we just hang out and talk and go on errands if we need to, and she makes a glorious dinner for us (the same every time, because it´s my absolute favorite: breaded chicken, "buttered noodles," and this cheesy brocolli dish she makes). Then we watch a movie and stay up until 2 or something. We get up at 10:30 on Saturday, have my favorite breakfast, and do whatever we want until early afternoon, when I go back home. It´s so nice. We can´t get together any other day of the week since she´s so busy with school-- the big end-of-school exams, Maturita, are coming up in a very few short months and it´s crackdown time. But Fridays are free.

Two more little things...

One: Two weeks ago I experienced my first ever indoor snowball fight! And at school, no less. This would be pretty impossible at my school in America for several reasons: 1)it only snows a handful of days in the year, and when they coincide with school it often means a snow day; 2) there would be no way to get the snow from outside to inside without running back and forth every few seconds; and 3)you couldn´t have a fight for any decent length of time without some adult interceding. Well, here at my school in Slovakia, there is more than enough snow; it collects within easy reach of the students in the classroom, right there on the windowsill; and for a large part of the day the students are completely unsupervised (remember: kids belong to classrooms, not teachers). And so there was a wild indoor snowball fight! (The floors are linoleum, not carpeting, so it´s okay as far as that´s concerned.) To the point of pinning people down and rubbing snow into their hair and faces! But it was all in good fun and everyone was happy about it. It was fun for me to witness, though I was ducking out of the crossfire (there was a lot) rather than running to the windowsill myself...

Two: This Monday there was no school because it was "the end of a grading period," i.e., between semesters. (For the record, I received no grades. Which actually faintly disappointed me, because I had actually earned my 1´s--A-equivalents--in English, Math, P.E., and Art/Culture...) So I got up when I felt like it, and then after breakfast found that Marco and Sasha had rigged up some microphones in the living room. Sasha and I set up the laptop on the living room table, made microphone stands out of taped-together mops (thanks, Marco), and sang along to dozens of our favorite songs. It was great. I really love singing. Waka Waka by Shakira is probably Sasha´s favorite song ever, and so we practiced it and later Marco made a video of us on his iPhone which he says he´s going to put on YouTube... It´s all just for fun, and it makes me happy. It was a really fun day.

As to why I have time tonight to write my blog, it´s because Sandy and Marco are at a big Rotary fundraising ball which Sandy herself organized. (My God, I can´t imagine organizing something for four hundred people! She´s amazing.) And Sasha´s at her grandparents´ (who, incidentally, live right next door). So I sang for fun for three hours, had dinner with Sasha and her grandmother, and then decided to update my blog. It´s all good! :)

Much love!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Som v Taliansku!

/I'm in Italy! or Italia, that is./

And yes, I know I've been here in Italia for nearly a week now. With no posts. (All of December, just about nich. Fun fact: nic, pronounced nich, is actually the word for "nothing" in Slovak.) I don't know how much I want to backtrack and log right now, but I'll make a stab at describing just how fairytale life here in Italy is.

To start, everything I ever remembered about how wonderful and beautiful and dolce vita Italy is does not even come close to the reality. It is so, so much better than that. (The one exception is the weather. Why is it negative degrees Celsius and oppressively overcast? Where is the heat of that famous Italian sun?)

My host family has a house in a little town of 11,000 just a few kilometers from Verona... I always forget the name of this town, but it's basically part of Verona. I think it's included in population counts, probably (Verona = 300,000).

Small-town life is good. Less crime, quieter streets, and you can actually own a house, instead of just a really expensive apartment, which is all you will ever have if you want to live in actual Verona. A block from the house is a very pretty church; sometime soon I'll have to go out walking and explore a little.

Verona itself is ideally positioned. In the far distance are beautiful, snowy mountains (for some reason they often look pink-toned to me, sort of rosy)--pre-Alps, Marco told me, which get up to 2,000 meters, if I remember correctly. Want to go skiing? It's an hour's drive. Also in close proximity, just 30 kilometers away (or else a half-hour drive? I forget) is the largest lake in Italy. No, it's not Como. It's called Garda. Once the weather clears up (hopefully soon! it's been nothing but gray and clammy) we're going to go see it. I'm so excited. And let's see, what else is close to Verona? Well, if you want the Mediterranean, it's an hour away. Venice--one hour. There's also a Disneyland-equivalent that's close by, called Gardenland or something...

I'll get to more descriptions of the actual town of Verona, which is utterly charming, later. For now, I want to talk about glorious yesterday.

In the morning, Marco had to go to an office nearby for some papers, and was going there via motorcycle. Motorcycles absolutely scare me, but Sandy assured me Marco was safe and responsible and went slowly. So I said a few prayers, buckled my helmet, and got on behind Marco. My very first time on a motorcycle. Also my last, hopefully--not because I was freaked out or didn't enjoy myself, but just because I still think it's too dangerous. Oh well.

So, anyway, we were out on the open road and it felt amazing. I couldn't shake the thought that just one little slip of the wheel and I would be hurled out into the road, probably to get immediately run over... But thankfully all went right. True to his word, Marco went slowly and we were out in the fields, not downtown Verona or anything (now that would have really scared me).

We turned off onto a little dirt road and Marco took me past a darling little pony, surrounded by chickens and geese. A little further and we came to a river, where there was a natural spring, Marco said. He takes Sasha and Giulia, his niece, there fishing sometimes, but right now there wasn't enough water. We turned back to the road and went onwards.

Our destination, it turned out, was not any old office building... It was a castle. Castel D'atezza, it might have been called? Something like that. It was beautiful, glowing gold in the sunlight (which, for the record, was abundant, but had no heat in it). It is currently in the process of rennovation and is full of offices. While he went to take care of his business, Marco left me to explore.

I spent a long time in a covered area between archways, staring out at the back of the castle--where the river and fields were. It was very cold, and the river below with the natural spring (I could actually see in one place the bubbling up, like a little fountain!) was actually steaming. Right at river's edge, on the opposite side from the castle (obviously the owners used the river as a fence for them) were several animals--I think I counted three donkeys and five sheep, including little lambs pressed to their mothers.

It was such a perfect pastoral scene. The fields stretched as far as the eye could see; there was one white stork hopping around one of them. The donkeys scratched their heads on branches, eyes closed in content; the sheeps' bells tinkled as they shook their head. At one point, all the sheep got worked up in distress when they realized one of their fellows was fenced away from them (I could see her as well, next to the geese and hen enclosure). Baaing back and forth ensued until, abruptly, everyone just let it be. Amid the fields were little rustic villas, so perfectly Italian, and further still was a line of greenhouses, shining brightly with reflected sunlight. All so idyllic... except eventually I really had to turn away because I was so cold there in the shadows.

It wasn't warm anywhere, but standing in front of the castle in the full sun helped. So I stood there for a long time, looking. The castle was not very internally wide; it was just large in its U shape. It was about four storeys high, all stone. The front facade with all the designs and faces in stone had been sorely worn by the ages. All the windows were closed over with wood shutters. The castle was painted a warm tan color. Just under the windows, I suddenly noticed something interesting: on both sides of each window were little brass men, not very detailed, but a detail in their very existence. I didn't know what their purpose was. When later Marco came to pick me up, I asked him, and he explained they're what you use to hold the shutters back. Ah ha!

We went back home on motorcycle. But oh, it was cold! I just sat inside shivering afterwards. A little later, though, I pulled my coat on again because we were off, Sandy, Marco, and I, to see "the best panoramic view of all of Verona!" We drove up to the top of one of the hills that surrounds Verona. All of the hills are completely covered with cyprus trees. I love seeing these signature plants--olive trees, juniper bushes, pines, palms, and greatest of all, cypruses--and just being taken with the beauty of Italy and that fact that I'm actually here.

At the top was a castle apparently built by Austrians (sorry, I don't remember that particular story) and below was all of Verona. It was a very hazy day, and looking out and seeing all these towers and spires (churches) rising out of and cutting through the bright mist, I was somehow reminded of looking out over Istanbul, or maybe Cairo, and seeing the mosques do the same.

Besides all the manifold towers and churches, notable sights were the rivers and the bridges. (And of course all the other buildings as well...Still have yet to see an ugly Italy building.) From where I stood, I could see at least four bridges traversing the Adige, the river, which is the second-largest in Italy (the Tiber, in Rome, comes in at number four). The coolest of these bridges, as far as I could see, was a beautiful one which still had some of the original white Roman stones. Unfortunately, all of Verona's bridges were bombed by the Germans at the end of WWII, so only a small portion of the white stones could be salvaged (the rest is brick).

When we'd had our fill, we walked down the steps leading off of this castle complex, until we came to the Roman theater. Looking over the stair rails to the ruins far below, I felt like some deep sea diver, exploring Atlantis or other underwater city. The stones were corroded and you could not longer see the purpose behind the design, how these massive arches and walls had ever formed something complete. (There is another part of the Roman theater that really is a theater, which is still used every summer for a--what else?--Shakespeare festival, but these stones fascinated me more.)

I'll finish later, I have to go now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rotary Vianocny vikend v Bratislave

(Rotary Christmas weekend in Bratislava)

Such a lot to tell... It´s been, what, three weeks? Well, that´s awful, but I honestly had no time in which to write it all down. So I´ll finally start now--slowly-- and try to get through three whole weeks... I think there are at least four blog posts which are overdue!

Last Friday Larissa, Ramiro, and I got out of school because we had to go to Bratislava for "Rotary Inbounds Christmas weekend." I was so excited!

The three of us, plus host parents, met at the bus station in Nitra (which happens to be one alleyway over from the apartment building of my first host family). Buses leave for Bratislava from Nitra at least every hour. Very nice.

We had been told in emails that soon after arrival in Bratislava we would be meeting the prime minister of Slovakia (Pani Radicova) and taking pictures with her, so we had to have our Rotary blazers on hand. Mine is so fragile from the several pounds´worth of pins hanging off of it that I didn´t want to stuff it into my duffel bag. So instead I stuffed away my peacoat and was wearing my blazer. It was a cold morning waiting for that bus! Sandy and I stayed inside the car with the toasty heated seats until we saw the others.

We waved goodbye to our host parents (the three of us were traveling unchaperoned because Rotary said we could do so to and from this weekend) and got on the bus (2.60 Euro one way--much faster, nicer, and cheaper than a bus from Olympia to Seattle). It was mainly empty and the three of us got the five seats in the back to ourselves. We were right on the heater.

It was such a languid, relaxing ride. We were warm, we were talking; villages and countryside and gently rolling hills flashed by us. The snow had been done with Nitra, but as we got into Trnava, a large city halfway between Nitra and Bratislava, we went into flurries. It was pretty and exciting--it´s always fun to watch snow when you´re safely bundled up inside!

There were delays on the road due to the snow, and the normally one-hour drive took nearly two. We arrived in the Bratislava bus station at 10:30 and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking around at where we should go. No panicking, though; we spotted the Rotex guy waiting for us. We were very late, but the two kids traveling by bus from Banska Bystrica had yet to arrive as well.

The Rotex guy, Richard, took us to the van and let us stow away our luggage. We were going to wait in the van for the Banska kids, but just as we sat down, Ramiro realized he´d lost his wallet. Oh no! He looked everywhere in the van for it, but finally had to accept he´d left it on the bus. So Larissa stayed in the van with the stuff, and Ramiro, Richard, and I went back to the station to look for the wallet. While Ramiro and Richard went to find where our bus had ended up, I stayed on the sidewalk to wait in case the Banska kids showed up.

It was lucky I stayed, because five minutes later the Banska kids´bus did get in, and I saw them and pulled them over to wait. All good news: ten minutes later Ramiro and Richard came back having successfully located Ramiro´s wallet. The five of us went back to Larissa in the van and Richard drove us to the train station where everyone else was meeting. (I.e., where everyone else had been waiting half an hour for us.)

Horror at the train station: twenty-some kids all with luggage, and all that luggage had to be squished into the van´s trunk, which, while sizeable, was after all only so big. It worked, I guess. From there we walked for maybe half an hour (maybe it was a little shorter? Hard to say--it felt long) to the Parliament building. In some respects it was a miserable walk, since it was freezing, lightly snowing, there was a sharp wind, and all the streets were covered in sludge (plus, I was wearing just my blazer for warmth and I´d left my hat in my duffel bag, assuming I could get it sometime before we went out into the elements). However, I had a good time seeing everyone and reconnecting.

At the Parliament building we had a long time in the lobby getting our passports checked (yes, mine does have that shiny visa-equivalent sticker!) and getting through the metal detectors. When everyone was cleared, we got a nice tour of the important rooms. It was a really good tour in that it was interesting, informative, and just the right length. We saw the room where all the deliberations take place, the press conference room, and several others. We did not see Pani Radicova. I guess she was busy, you know, running a country and all. That´s okay.

Another sizeable walk followed our hour or more in Parliament. Before we set off, however, we got to change out of our Rotary blazers and into our real jackets. I still didn´t have my hat, but I felt equipped. We walked to what I´m guessing is downtown Bratislava, somewhat near the stare mesto. We were going to lunch (it was after 1:30 by then) at a huge pub/restaurant. Everyone was so happy to be inside and warm.

One of the longer lunches ever! It was literally two hours. We had a few menu options to choose from, and I felt bad for the people who´d gone for the dumplings (me: goulash), because their meal didn´t come until the end of those two hours! But I was having fun. It was great to be seeing and talking to everyone for the first time since Strecno--actually, for the second time ever, but of course it didn´t feel like that.

Off for another walk! Not too far this time to the stare mesto. I´ve only been to Bratislava´s stare mesto once before, when I was at the old opera house with Tibor et al. (Actually, the new opera house is right there, too, but I didn´t know that at the time since it´s a pretty self-contained complex. Also since I suck at knowing just where exactly on the planet I am.) I had thought that the one square with the old opera house and the embassies surrounding it was the whole stare mesto ("That´s it?"). False! There was much more. My respect for Bratislava has skyrocketed since that weekend. I have yet to understand why everyone in Nitra I´ve talked to about their capital city has expressed such hatred. You know, I really quite like it.

So, we arrived in the stare mesto with our tour guide, a native of Bratislava herself. She took us on a really enjoyable tour through the (actually good-sized) stare mesto and I learned lots of interesting things, including one little tidbit that helped me later in History class at school. (They were discussing something about Presburg, and I understood since I remembered that was the German name for Bratislava.)

One of the most interesting things I learned on the tour was about the witch burning. Apparently witch burning was a pretty commonplace thing? It didn´t sound like it was anything unusual or exceptional. Rich, pretty girls would be accused of witchcraft by persons who had something to gain by getting them out of the picture--their land or their money. Sounds like a much easier way to collect than in modern days when you have to wait for someone to die a natural death or else hire an assasin. Kind of freaked me out: we were on the oldest bridge in Bratislava, at the end of which were two very short tunnels opening onto shopping squares and so on. In the days of the witch burnings, our guide told us, the large opening (car-sized) was used by everyone, but the small opening (only wide enough for two people abreast) was used for people being taken to be executed and witches being taken to be burned. No one else! Okay, that´s macabre to begin with, but what chilled me was that Nitra has two short tunnels of the exact same size and design on the way up to the hrad (as the bridge in Bratislava was). Of course I always walk through the smaller entrance, since the large one is for cars and it would be dangerous to walk there. But now I wonder. Nitriansky hrad is extremely old. And it is a "hrad," after all--hrad= defensive castle, as opposed to zamok, which equals pleasure castle (basically palace).

I got points with myself later in the tour when we reached a statue of a man killing a dragon. We had earlier passed another statue of a man killing a dragon, and our guide had identified the slayer as Saint Stephen. So, she asked, did anyone know who this second dragon slayer was? I took a guess-- "Saint George?" Bingo.

We ended in Bratislava's large Vianocne trhy (Christmas market). From there, we were given an hour of free time to explore (in groups of four or more) the stare mesto and trhy and all that. In our group of five we dutifully walked the Christmas market, though none of us bought anything (for me, it was a simple matter in that the Bratislava market, while much bigger, had exactly the same trinkets and food as the Nitra market, and of course it's expensive in the capital city).

So, we didn't spend long in the market, but then we went on to explore the specialty food shops in the surrounding area. Rachel and Larissa got delicious specialty hot chocolate at the first chocolate shop, while I held out; later, at a place called Bon-Bon that I think was so saturated in sweet you gained calories by breathing in the air, I had the hot chocolate along with them after trying a bit of Rachel's. It was so thick the spoon just sat on the surface. Rachel's dark chocolate tasted perfect, so I thought the milk chocolate would be better, since I'm not a dark chocolate person. Bad move--it was almost inedibly sweet (I shudder at the thought of the white chocolate!). I drank it anyway, because it was incredible despite the sweetness, but very slowly and with a lot of water in between.

We also stopped in a special marzipan shop, just to look at the marzipan sculptures. Aside from the marzipan man in the shop window, they disappointed. The fruit-shaped marzipan was really amateurly formed. But no matter. It was entertaining, anyway, and it got us out of the bitter cold!

After all of us met up as a group again, we walked to nearby Eurovea. Eurovea is the trendiest shopping center in Bratislava, I believe (certainly the prettiest)--it's the awesome one I went to when I went to the new opera house in Bratislava with Tibor et al. before. You know, the one that actually goes under the fountain in the square? Yeah, that one.

I can't remember what the time was when we got there, but it was something like 5:30. We had to be back at the front of the place by 8. It was fun to shop in the warmth. I was still sick, you know, so I had no appetite that whole weekend, and for dinner I just had a tiny fruit salad. Meh. For the record, I have finally made a full recovery in the last two days. That was maybe the longest illness of my life! Whew. Good to be healthy again.

After Eurovea, we had to walk to our hotel. It was a really long walk and it was so terribly cold. We were all so completely relieved when we finally got to the toasty lobby!

All our stuff was waiting for us, and we got room assignments and got to unpack everything. A surprise for me: alone of everyone else, I had a single room. So, you would open a door to a room, and there would be three doors within there. Two of the doors opened onto two and three- person rooms; one was a single room. I guess in the other people's rooms the single room was unoccupied. But yeah, luck of the draw meant in this room it was mine. It was kind of lonely, but I hung out in the other rooms with everyone else, and I guess I probably got more sleep...

Saturday breakfast started at 7 (after we'd gone to bed at 11 the night before!). I think at 9 or so we were finally ready to get on the bus. We were off to Vienna for the day! We had been warned about the terrible weather that awaited us, and I dressed accordingly. I was decked out: long underwear top and bottom, thermal shirt, sweatshirt, coat, jeans, thick socks, boots, gloves, hat, scarf. It turned out that the heater on our bus there was broken, but none of us were cold. Fun fact I learned: Bratislava and Vienna are the closest (geographically) country capitals in Europe. That's an important relationship.

As we arrived in the center/old town of Vienna, we got a tour from one of our Rotary chaperones from the Bratislava Rotary club, who actually lives in Vienna--he directed our attention to things over the bus intercom. He was extremely knowledgeable and it was very nice (especially since we weren't actually outside walking around!). The weather was awful indeed. Flurries, negative ten Celsius, horrid winds, icy slush everywhere. I had dressed as best I could, but I was still dying of the cold. I guess the best that can be said is had I not dressed as such, I can't imagine what would have become of me.

After our audio tour of the downtown, we drove to Schonbrunn, the huge palace in Vienna. I had been there with Ruth and Silvia during our weekend in Vienna, but only briefly, and I was glad to be going back. Still, the initial moment of getting off the bus felt unreal--like, am I actually doing this? I'm actually throwing myself into this weather which no one should be in? Guess I am...

There was a Vianocne trhy there in the square in Schonbrunn, and we walked it twice. There was one pretzel (brezel--we joked that all our hard work in Slovak meant nothing now that we were across the border--at least we didn't have to change the money) stand that was amazing. That party brezel was a party in my mouth. And I remembered just in time to say "bitte" and "danke" like the little poser I was. (I also remembered that Silvia, who spent a month in Vienna last summer studying German, told me you have to say "bitte" back to every "danke.") Of course, despite my efforts, the Austrians behind the counters said "thank you" back to me.

After the trhy, we walked around the side of the main palace to see the gardens. I was surpised that all the deciduous trees still had leaves on them, a very beautiful shade of dusty maroon. They were cut severely in their rows, like hedges. The gardens themselves were covered with a thick layer of snow, and the statues around them were more literally covered--by thick white tarps. There were some beautiful, long passages covered by trellises whose vines were bare for winter. In the distance on a hill I saw a cluster of Roman-style columns. I wanted to go and see them, but it was across this incredibly wide, incredibly flat square, the kind of place that is so large and monotonous that perspective is utterly distorted. There were people standing at the opposite end by what was a fountain in summer... It looked like a five minute's walk to them, except for their miniscule size, mere dots in the sea of white. We didn't have enough time at that point; we had fifteen minutes to get back to the meeting place (five Euros' fine for every five minutes late) and we didn't want to take any risks on time in the vast palace complex.

On our way back, we stopped quickly in a marionette shop there (admission free, so why not?). It was fun to look at the marionettes on display. Every part of them was hand-crafted: painted wooden bodies with specialty clothing and accessories. Each took three weeks to make, I learned. Most sold for over 1,000 Euros. The shop also held daily performances, which was its main attraction, and according to the informational posters, set designing for marionettes is a very tricky process. I had never realized that the person who designs these kinds of sets has all sorts of special considerations, such as the marionette's strings.

We all met up and then the bus took us back downtown for free time. Long free time! I think four hours or something? We were all horribly cold, and started off at Starbucks. I caved and got an eggnog latte. God, it was delicious. We spent a long time there enjoying the warmth and talking and each others' company. And then... we walked, we shopped. Aside from the millions of stores we went into...

We went to Stephens Dom, the super cathedral there. With Ruth and Silvia, I actually went to Sunday mass there. This time, we just walked through briefly. But it's a great place.

Oh, and how was Vienna decorated for Christmas? According to one girl there, there are forty-six Christmas markets in the city this year. The most famous, nicest one, is the one outside the Rat Haus (radnica, in Slovak), the town hall. The Rat Haus is further away and we didn't get there (I got to see it with Ruth and Silvia, though). The streets were strung out with beautiful lights (my favorite were the sorts of chandeliers) and giant balls of red lights like barn-sized Christmas ornaments hanging above us. At night, the bridges were lit up with different colors.

Another highlight was a total surprise which came twenty minutes before we were due back at the bus. There was this giant skyscraper, a beautiful building of glass with a swirled, artsy design on the outside. I assumed it was an art gallery or something. We were curious and had nowhere else to go, so we decided to take a peek inside. Whoa! It turns out, the whole building was dedicated to furniture shops. Amazing furniture-- the kind that costs way too much but looks awesome. More importantly, the building was an architectural miracle. Everything was lights and mirrors, like some glorious funhouse that was splitting space and time. It was incredible. It blew my mind. Maybe the best part of my day.

We finally were all back on the bus, ready to head back to Bratislava. It was only 5 PM, which at the time, and especially now, thinking back, is hard to believe based on how dark it was and how tired I was. And then, to everyone's shock, right then we had a medical emergency. I don't want to go into details, and we still don't know how things ended up, but needless to say things felt very different afterwards.

Back in Bratislava, we went to Aupark, a huge, very trendy mall I'd never been to. We shopped around and I had another small fruit salad for dinner. Afterwards, we waited across the street for the bus. There were so many of us, half of us had to wait to take a second bus. I was surprised to find that the way Bratislava's bus system works, you buy a ticket good for fifteen minutes' ride (almost twice as expensive as a Nitra bus ticket which has no time limits). As I sat, I wondered about the fairness of this system, especially in winter when there are invariably snow and ice delays, and thanked Nitra's bus system for operating differently.

We had a walk from where the bus dropped us off to the hotel, but then we were there and inside and it was all good. It was a mixed day for me. I had so much fun shopping with friends-- and the weather was so opressively awful. But there it was.

We hung out all night, and while I thought I went to bed late at 12:30, and couldn't fall asleep until 2:30 from all the noises, I knew people who didn't get to sleep until 4, so I guess I was lucky...

I woke up to Sunday and couldn't believe how quickly the weekend had passed. Breakfast was a very somber affair as what we had anticipated all weekend long had suddenly arrived: the language test. Right after breakfast we were shown to the testing room and seated.

So, the test had three parts. The first part was listening: the Rotex members would read a passage twice (two different people, once each) and then we would answer a multiple choice question about that passage. The second part was reading: we had a page to read and multiple choice questions (in Slovak) to answer about the text. The third part was by far my favorite: it was fill-in and things like writing questions to answers and answers to questions and conjugating irregular verbs and even a little declining. I was so surprised and disappointed there was no speaking and, especially, writing portion. I had wanted to write so badly-- I mean, I don't count writing questions/answers, etc. as "writing." What I mean is free writing. But oh well. I did my best and I'm still waiting on the results, so we'll see.

And then it was over, and we couldn't really believe the object of our anticipation had been removed, and everyone sat around smiling as Rotex passed around chocolates. We were all so grateful to Rotex (and the Rotary club of Bratislava) for their hard, hard work that weekend. They're all volunteers and they were so great to us.

It was sad that after finishing the test it was time to say goodbye to everyone. The kids going by train all left for the station, and then it was just us Nitra kids and Bratislava kids headed for the Bratislava bus station. We took a bus there together and then Larissa, Ramiro, and I got on the bus for Nitra. A great weekend in Bratislava and Vienna, and I was sad to leave!

The bus ride back to Nitra was peaceful, warm, and nice. I said goodbye to Larissa and Ramiro back at the Nitra bus station and walked to my former home, the flat on Stefanikova street, so close to the station you can actually see it from there.

It was a glorious morning (well, it was 12:30 by then) in Nitra. The sun was shining, the air felt clean and fresh, the birds were singing, and everything was dusted prettily with snow. When I got up to the flat, Ruth told me we were just a little too late to go to lunch at her cousins' flat in Chrenova (Gabo et al.). They're great people, but the flat was so clean and warm and freshly decorated for Christmas, and the dogs had just been bathed so were at their cleanest and cutest....I was happy to stay where I was.

Ruth and I had a wonderful afternoon and evening together. We lounged for several hours over lunch, and then we went out shopping to get ingredients for special Christmas cookies she wanted us to make together. We got back from shopping at 4:15 and were shocked to find it was pitch black outside by then. We spent three hours making the cookies-- a very warm, relaxing three hours in the kitchen. It was so nice. Oh, I think I forgot to mention why I was with Ruth, besides that was fun: my current host family had gone to Italy for the weekend (I couldn't go because of Bratislava) and wouldn't be back until Monday. Tak to.

Then Ruth made dinner! Oh, draha, she knows me so well: fried chicken and buttered noodles with Kofola. My favorite things she makes. It was so wonderfully delicious and the perfect end to a perfect day. Tibor came home and said hi before going to bed. I had been so tired the whole day from only getting three hours of sleep that night, but I went to bed at 11 since Ruth and I had been talking and hanging out. I was so excited to be sleeping in what I still think of as "my room."

I slept so well, and just prior to waking, I had a dream in which Ruth and I were talking. I said to her, "I wish I would just wake up and be fluent in Slovak." She said, "Now you are." And then I woke up. And was convinced it had actually happened. The day was magical. It was what overnight fluency is supposed to be. I understood actually 100% (no 95% here) of everything I heard, including whispered conversations, side conversations, cell phone conversations-- all the background noise I usually can't catch. I spoke quickly, correctly, without having to think about it-- the words popped out faster than I could think them, much faster than I could mentally translate. Translating had nothing to do with that day; it all flowed fluidly in waves of understanding.

But somehow that day I could also sense it was temporary. One day fluency? Is that possible? Well, the next day I was certainly better than I had been on, say, Friday, but not fluent, I don't think. It's been increasingly good since, but no, not fluent. Ah well. These progresses, at least, keep my momentum up and keep me from getting bogged down. I was especially pleased because I had felt it coming. The whole weekend, even though I only spoke and heard English (exchange students together), I had felt like I was teetering on the edge of something else, some new breakthrough. Things were clearing up. I guess they haven't cleared entirely, but yes, things are going well. As far as understanding is concerned, I could be very close to fluency, I think. As far as speaking... well, I can get my points across, and more and more I can say exactly what I want, but speaking perfectly? No way. I don't know where to draw the line for what is "fluency." For many people, where I am now would definitely be "fluent." But I don't consider myself the converted. So... I'll keep waiting, and I assume when it finally happens, I'll know.

Huge news: well, Christmas in Slovakia is December 24th. Christmas in Italy is December 25th. So, Saturday night at 11 PM the four of us (my host family and me) are flying via Ryan Air (super cheap! 17 Euros) to Italy. It's only about an hour-long flight. This means that after two Slovak Christmases (I'm spending Wednesday with the Baneszes for a Christmas celebration) I then get an Italian Christmas. But not just that... We're not leaving Italy until January 9th! OMG. So, two weeks in Italy. Marco's family lives in Verona, but Sandy also wants to visit Venice for a special celebration they have there as well. Anything in Italy is much more than fine by me!

Much love!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hore na hori (Vysoke Tatry)

(High up in the mountains--the High Tatras) --Yes, interestingly enough, the word for "high/up/upstairs/upwards" is the same as the one for "hill/mountain"--if you´re up, it´s got something to do with "hore."

Big news straight off: SNOW!!! Finally, finally, finally! We woke up on Friday morning to a winter wonderland. Okay, not that much, but everything was white. It´s amazing what a difference it made. Everything just looked so much prettier and festive. The sky was blue and the sun was bright and everything was so fresh and alive. Winter! It was so beautiful.

Now that that´s out of the way, I think I´ll "talk" about today, Tuesday. It was my first day back in school in a long time, since I was sick Monday and Tuesday; I had to stay home and pack Thursday; Friday I had to stay home to get ready for the Tatras; Monday we were still in the Tatras... This morning I got up at 6:15 (no need to get up that early; tomorrow it´ll be 6:45 for me) and really felt completely terrible in just about every way. Sick sick sick! But I got ready for school and at 7:30 we left, Sandy driving Sasha and me.

Sasha´s school is near mine. Sandy dropped her off and then me. I went upstairs to the classroom at 7:45 and got the same sinking feeling I´d had when I hadn´t known about the school trip to Zobor. The room was empty, all the chairs were still overturned on the desks... What had I missed this time? I didn´t feel as hopeless as before, though, because I´d seen some girls from my class downstairs. I went back downstairs and met some friends on the way. Apparently we were all off on a field trip to see an electricity substation! Yay!

We found my class teacher, who is a very nice woman, and she asked if I had my passport with me. No way am I carrying that around school! She called the director of the electricity substation, who said no passport, no can do. So I called Sandy and she kindly came back and picked me up, soon after the bus with all my classmates on it had left, and she took me home. That actually worked out fairly well, since I´m feeling so awful it would have been a really bad day at school.

So, let´s see, what did I do this weekend... Well, I spent three days in the High Tatras, Slovakia´s crown jewels! Off we go...

We left at 10:00 on Saturday morning. It had snowed more that night and was still snowing lightly as we got into the cars. It also happened to be election day in Slovakia. I´m happy it´s over with--I´m so sick of the campaign junk everywhere! Posters in the bus, on the billboards, on telephone poles; pamphlets turning up in every office, as litter on every street... I remember it started back in September, when these big billboards started turning up which had a big picture of Jozef Dvonč´s head and the caption "Jozef Dvonč: Naš primátor" ("our mayor"--interesting to note that captions and book titles and things like that generally capitalize the first letter of the first word and nothing else, as I´ve done in my post titles). Then everything started saying things like "Pod Doc. Mgr. Jozefa Dvončom naš primátor mesta Nitry"--very formal ("Under *insert long list of abbreviated titles here* Jozef Dvonč our mayor of the city of Nitra")...I still don´t understand that, and it alway sort of irked me: Everything having to do with the arts was apparently "under" him--all those concerts I went to with Erika, various theatrical productions, the art gallery exhibits... even a concert for a metal band called Nazareth whose tagline was "vitajte na konči sveta" ("welcome to the end of the world"). Hmm.

Something I´ve neglected to mention: Sandy grew up in Lehota, and the house she grew up in, where her parents still live, is maybe two feet from this one; the two share a driveway. The grandparents are always around. Sasha sleeps at their house at least once a week! So, we went to the Tatras with the grandparents and Sandy´s brother, his wife, and three year-old daughter (they live in Trnava, which is a city about halfway between Nitra and Bratislava).

It was a beautiful drive. I´ve been on this northern highway route many, many times now (only a few times, and not very far, on the southern route), but I was seeing it with fresh eyes as it was all under snow. There´s a place somewhere, maybe near Zvolen, where once you pass it the climate suddenly is somehow very different from Nitra´s (though they´re only an hour or so apart)--much more snow! We stopped for lunch in Zvolen, which I´ve never seen before. I´ve always seen the signs, but you have to get off the highway to actually see the city. It didn´t look like it would be pretty when the snow thawed, but with all the white it looked quite nice... Everything looked nice! Factories belching out smoke--lovely. Auto dealerships and factories in Ružomberok--lovely.

I´m always, each and every time, amazed by how long it is from Nitra to Banská Bystrica. I calculate the mileage in my head (I´m quite good at the kilometers to miles conversion) and I think, okay, here we go, this should be an hour or so... And it always turns out to be what feels like three hours! I don´t know how long it is actually, but it´s much more than just 60 minutes. One of my problems is that I calculate times based on a 60 mph average, which is fair by American freeway standards. That doesn´t cut it on the two-laned Slovak highway. I don´t know how fast we go but it´s not 100 km/h.

I´m sure I´ve mentioned this before, but I really like Banská Bystrica. It always makes me so pleased when we finally get there on the way to getting somewhere else. It really makes me feel like yes, we´re underway and we´re making progress. Before we get there all I can think about is getting there...

Banská Bystrica is surrounded by some beautiful, high, forested hills. The forests looked just incredible with the snow. So, so beautiful! We were listening to Sasha´s Shakira CD. Good going.

Through Donovaly, moving higher into the mountains... Up in Liptovský Mikuláš I was really feeling the mountains. It was snowing, the forests were white and drooping with the weight of the snow, the lakes were frozen... It felt like Vianoce was already here.

Whoo! We finally made it (after a very enjoyable drive) to the Grand Hotel Permon. (Almost all hotels list after their names the amount of stars they have. Permon: ****). An amazing thing about this hotel which I didn´t discover until later: It has the most ideal view of Krívaň. Krívaň is not the highest of the Vysoke Tatry, but it is certainly the most important. It´s a breathtakingly-beautiful mountain with a very characteristic crooked peak. It is the ultimate symbol for Slovakia and its people. (It´s on the coins, too!) The reason why I completely missed that it was there is because it was fully hidden in the hmla--fog/mist.

We checked in. We had rooms all next to each other. Sasha and I shared a room, but she slept with her parents during the night because she wanted to. First thing after getting in, we got our swimsuits on and headed downstairs to the pool!

We swam for a while and did the water slide many, many times...Perhaps others might have tired of doing it again and again, but hey, I´m the girl who beat the Mile Slide Challenge in Silvertown, Minnesota. This was not the longest slide I´ve ever been on but it was certainly the coolest decorations-wise. It had what sounded like African drum music pumping through it and the whole inside was colored black; there were all sorts of designs in wild colors popping out of the black, like flames, lightning, sea creatures, stripes, griffins... My favorites were the manatee, porpoises, octopus, and manta ray. I certainly got to know them well!

After a very long time of all this, we had to change out of our swimsuits and instead wrap these sheets around ourselves like togas in order to go to the spa. As we were getting ready, guess who I saw coming out of the spa? Tibor!!! He wasn´t staying at the same hotel; he´d just come for the spa. I was so surprised and happy to see him, though we just said hi.

The hotel boasted ten different kinds of spas! I was so excited. It was my first time in any spa. I was sure it would be good for me, too, since I got sick again on Friday.

The spa center was very calm, mellow, and soothing. Ethereal music floated around. There was a little well with a bucket in it. The stone floor was heated (no shoes allowed). There was soft lighting and a vague citrus fragrance. The entrance to the spas had a bowl filled with snow, and next to it a path you could walk which was first through warm water, which then turned to ice-cold water. (The unpleasant thing about it was that while you were in the warm section you triggered a motion-activated shower to come on which sprayed you with ice water.)

We started off in a salt inhalation room. I had no idea what to expect. We went into this dimly-lit, very hot room that was so thickly-filled with vapor it was hard to see anything except the colored pinprick lights, like stars, on the ceiling. We sat down on hot, heated stone. Everything was wet. I couldn´t breathe; Sasha and I coughed for the first few minutes. It didn´t feel like salt, exactly, but it felt like something my lungs didn´t want to take in. (The next day we went back and it felt good and natural; I didn´t cough at all.) In the center was a little fountain filled with cold water that you could splash on yourself if you got too hot; there were also shower heads all around. What I really wanted was to drink some water! But not an option. Regardless, it felt good and cleansing.

I think that was the most interesting of the spas we went to that day... We continued onwards, passing a deep, but small, pool filled with ice water... There was a ladder for whoever wanted to take a dip. I might have been tempted if I were alone. We went outside, to the other part of the spa complex. It was night already and it was the most perfect winter scene: a frozen lake/pond with snow-capped stones in it; a little wood hut next to it; snowy forest all around. There was a giant hot tub next to the lake boiling away. It looked great. I was so hot from the salt room that I was walking on barefeet on the snow and it wasn´t cold.

We went to a traditional sauna next: Cedar walls and coals and the smell of it and the silent people huddled on benches together. The little room had two windows looking out on the lake; the lighting made it look like there were candles in the windowsills, just that little bit of warm orange glow. It was very peaceful.

We finished off the evening in what I think of as the "citrus room." It turned out to be Sasha´s favorite. It had this very nice, light citrus fragrance. The lighting looked like candles. We lay down on warm, white-tiled benches in the dim light. Music that sounded straight from the Apollo movie soundtrack by Brian Eno drifted around and I felt like I was floating through space.

We finally went back upstairs and dipped into the pool again--brrr! There was an unofficial water-aerobics/dance class taking place (as in, anyone could swim up and join) and we joined in. Finally we went back to the room and took showers before heading to dinner.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant and was buffet-style. Afterwards we went into the nearby game room and played many rounds of fusball (spelling?), which I really like. I played enough this weekend that my skills have certainly improved!

Mickey Mouse and staff had gone around at dinner advertising a disco for little kids that night in the night bar (yes, great place for it--the entrance had a kids´drawing of a pirate ship and right next to it a large poster advertising vodka). Mároš and his wife Nadja were interested for their daughter Greta; Sashka was not keen on it, but her parents were! So after dinner we went up there (major problem with the hotel design: twelve floors and only one elevator! We spent so much time just waiting for it to come).

The night bar had a dance floor set up and disco lights going everywhere. A clown came out and asked for all the young kids to come up. (I´m eighteen, thank you very much. I think I´m finally too old to be pushed into such things.) There were only five, I think, including Sasha and Greta. The clown had them dance things like Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (a British version which I did not recognize). I noted that the clown was a very good dancer; you could tell she had that dancer´s grace and fluidity. It went on for a while and then they finally opened the dance floor for anyone; Sasha, her grandma, and I danced to Wakka Wakka by Shakira--good song!

Sasha and I went back upstairs; I don´t remember why. We didn´t know where anyone was so we went back to the night bar, where they all still were. Surprise! The night bar had turned into a real night bar, with a lot of thirty-somethings out to get smashed on a Saturday night. It was a cast of recurring characters that whole time at the hotel: The guy who had gone around in orange Crocs and a bright orange shirt identifying him as a children´s events coordinator, roping up people for the children´s disco, was now quite smoothly dressed in jeans and a nice shirt; he was really a great guy and remembered everyone´s name and where they were from--also preferred language, as he was fluent in English and there were a fair amount of Hungarians and Poles and Germans--after seeing them just once. The girl who had been the clown--she was maybe in her mid- to late-twenties--had the personality of someone who should work at Disneyland and had actually also been the person in the Mickey Mouse suit, and later was one of the swim-aerobics instructors, and was also my salsa instructor the next night, though I´ll get to that later. There was one other girl around the same age as this girl and the guy; she was also part time children´s event staff, part time aerobics instructor, part time dancer, and all three of them went together doing their various jobs, changing outfits quite a lot. It was funny how often they kept cropping up.

So, this real night bar was having a competition called "James Bond" there on what had been the kiddies´dance floor. The guy was running it. How it worked was there was a chair in the middle of the floor. A little bit of music would play; if you knew what musical/movie it was from, you ran up and sat in the chair first. Then the guy would ask some questions in both Slovak and in English, and if you answered correctly you got a glass of champagne (must be 18 years or older to participate) and two straws. In the end, whoever had the most straws was the victor and won two nights´free stay in the hotel. High stakes!

I had a premonition that the "Love Theme" from Titanic would come on and the question would be the names of the two lead actors. Oh, it happened. I was meant for that question. I ran; I beat a guy to it. Poor youthfully-visaged me: Of course, the actual first question the guy running it asked was, "So, before we start, I have to check: How old are you?" Then came the questions I had foreseen: Name of the movie? "Titanic." Names of the two leading actors? "Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet." Very good. And now... He gave a winking smile and asked something in Slovak I didn´t understand. The crowd roared, and I heard Sandy say, "No, don´t ask her that, that´s not fair!" He repeated it in English. How many people survived the Titanic? Oh dear. "Um...215?" He kept making the downward motion with his hand that means "less" in America, so I said, "113? 25? 6?" "Do you really think just six people survived!" "Um, 625? 1000?" Obviously I had no idea whatsoever. I didn´t hear what the correct answer was either, but it didn´t matter. It was just a fun question that didn´t matter in terms of the actual competition. I won my straws and champagne--the latter of which my host grandmother drank. In the end our table had two straws, from me. There were two tables who had eight straws each; they dueled it out and someone won. A fun night.

To bed! We got up at eight the next morning (Sunday) to find it had snowed a lot more that night. We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then got all bundled up for a walk in the snow. Excellent! This is what I´d been dying to do since we´d arrived. It was all of us except for Mároš´family. Oh, the weather was perfect, and I was just the right temperature all over...

We walked for at least two hours all over on the roads through the forest. We didn´t range very far, but we saw a lot and we breathed in deeply that clean, fresh mountain air. There was one mountain krčma (kircma, that is--I´ve been spelling it wrong)--closed, unfortunately--which had dozens of CATS inside (we could see through the windows) and outside...There were so many dainty cat tracks through the snow. I wonder how they liked the cold weather. They didn´t seem to mind, just sitting on posts licking themselves nonchalantly like they always do, or, like one black cat we saw, running through the snow on light feet.

We also saw a memorial to "partazán"s--they described to me what partazány are, and I´m pretty sure they´re guerillas. (Surprisingly, the word in Italian is something very close to "partazán" as well, not "guerilla" like it is in Spanish.) Apparently partazány had hid out in the forests there. The memorial was a few large, inscribed stones. I think this was during the Slovak National Uprising during WWII? One of the heroes recognized was a Russian; the Slovaks and Russians were allied then. Also recognized was General M.R. štefánik, whose name you see everywhere; I hadn´t known he was part of the "partazánská brigada." It´s him whose giant statue I saw across from the opera house in Bratislava; štefániková street, which I used to live on, is also named after him.

We passed by the hotel Krívaň, where Tibor had said he was staying. I didn´t see him again, but I mentally waved "ahoj!"

Heading back to the hotel, we saw some genuine Slovak hunters. They were dressed in forest- green wool, with hunting caps and breeches, hounds (noses pressed to the ground), and old-fashioned shotguns slung over their shoulders. They looked entirely no-nonsense. (At dinner the night before, deer had been a meal option. Maybe they had shot it.)

Back in the toasty hotel, we sat in the lobby (which is on the eighth floor) drinking warm hot chocolate. There were two caged parrots in the lobby. Marco went up to one and calmly offered his finger to the bird. The bird bowed his head, and allowed Marco to rub his head and neck (he closed his eyes in pleasure) for as long as Marco was willing. All Marco had to do was put his finger there. The bird was obviously very friendly, I thought, so I put my finger near him as Marco had done. The parrot lunged forward to bite me! Whoops, lesson learned. (When we left, the bird called frantically after Marco, "Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!", whistling.)

Time for lunch. This was when the hmla finally cleared and I realized we had the ideal view of Krívaň from the hotel windows. The shape of it makes me feel like I´m up in the Himalayas. How beautiful.

After lunch we rested for a little while. Sandy, Mároš and I went to the fitness center and worked out for twenty-five minutes or so. Then we all got together again for more swimming. A long time swimming and even more watersliding than before.

Then time to go spa-ing. We started in the "citrus room," lying in the semi-darkness. Then on to an inhaling room...I don´t remember what it was we were inhaling, but it wasn´t my favorite. Then on to the eucalyptus inhaling room! That was great. It felt so good and purifying. We went back to the salt inhalation room, which did not make me cough at all, second time around.

It was dark by then when we went outside. We were freezing in the snow and ducked inside a sauna. It was a warm, dark little room heated by a roaring fireplace. Just that: the cedar walls, a little window, coals, and a warm fire to sit by and look into. It got painfully hot quickly, but it was very beautiful in there.

We went outside again and walked up a ramp to a separate wood hut... The strangest spa of all. We entered a man-made salt cave, walls and ceiling dripping with salt stalagtites, everything centered around a yellow salt pillar. Molded into the salt formations were different colored lights; the floor was all white "sand" (some kind of salt). There were blanket-covered beach chairs to lie on and a recording of ocean waves and gulls was playing. Like home! The room was warm, too, of course. I think that was my favorite of the spas. Certainly the most interesting.

Marco and Sasha went back upstairs to go swimming again; Sandy and I went to another sauna, indoors, just plain cedar and coals. I was ready to go up swimming again, too, though, when a guy came in and dumped four full glasses of water on the coals (this was a tiny room) and got things boiling.

Swimming was frigid after the toasty spas, but I got over it and we swam for a while before going back to the room, showering, and going down to dinner.

After dinner we went bowling as a family of four. The hotel had two bowling lanes down on the first floor. This bowling was different from the regular kind (which I was assured Slovakia also had). The pins were smaller, and had strings attached to their heads for the machine´s easy rearrangement. They were arranged in a diamond, rather than triangle formation. The balls were smaller, heavier (they were solid), and had no holes to put your fingers in. Leading up to the actual lane was a stripe of red linoleum on the floor; rules decreed the ball must touch the red linoleum line first, before touching the blue-colored lane.

It was hard going! The pins were much harder to knock down than the ones I´m used to. I don´t think they really knocked each other down. No one ever got more than seven pins down out of nine, even when they threw a hard, dead-center ball that looked like it should be an instant strike. It was fun, though.

Sasha and I went to play darts, which I´ve actually never played before. The electronic dart board was very cool. Once Sasha actually got dead center--it was not possible to be more center than she!

Afterwards we went upstairs to the night bar. The same familiar faces were there, this time dressed with Hawai´ian leis and hula skirts. The dance floor was out and the disco lights were going. It was learn Spanish dancing night.

Sasha and I agreed to go together; the ubiquitous three were desperately rounding people up (no one was there; ours was the only table, and then there were some scattered drinkers at the bar). The girl who had been Mickey Mouse/the clown/the aerobics instructor was now dressed like her normal self (with a lei and flowered jacket) and was going to be the dance instructor. It was great! I learned how to dance salsa, meringue, and bachata to music. Just the basic steps, of course, but much more than I´ve ever known before. I really enjoyed myself, and got excited when Sandy told me that Zumba, the fitness thing she´d already said she wanted to take me to in January, was just like this.

I slept so well that night I didn´t even wake up to my alarm! (No wonder, the hotel´s alarm clock was just whispering the beep noise.) No worries, though, I got all ready on time. It was snowing heavily outside. Beautiful! We headed down to breakfast, and then went for a last swim in the pool. We found out only once we were there that the waterslide and all the spas were closed. Too bad. Instead of an hour, we only stayed twenty-five minutes.

We took showers, and then afterwards loaded all our stuff into the cars, which were packed in some places in ten inches of snow. (I randomly saw the guy from the James Bond competition again--he was clearing snow off his car.) Waiting for Marco to come back with the car, I saw a brown-black squirrel with the biggest tail I´ve ever seen on a squirrel leaping between branches in the distance. Isn´t he supposed to be hibernating?

We drank some more hot chocolate in the hotel lobby (white chocolate with hazelnuts for me, yum--I hear Dad gagging somewhere out there) and then got underway. A beautiful drive back, as well! We had lunch in Banská Bystrica, at a McDonald´s. It´s so sad how Banská Bystrica was absolutely covered in snow, and then we passed some dividing line near Nitra and all the snow disappeared. There is still a good covering here in Lehota, but the actual city is not so endowed. It´s cold enough for it--it was minus 1.5 degrees in the morning and it really felt icy. Black ice abounds, so I have to tread carefully in my leather boots!

Much love!