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!


/It means both hello and goodbye/

Thanksgiving was a full day--the day I changed host families.

I spent the day at home packing and writing thank-you notes. I didn´t slack off at all, and it took me the whole day to get everything done!

At 2:30 Ruth came home from school, and we watched her favorite show, Criminal Minds, on TV. We lounged. We talked.

At 5:30 Tibor came home with some surprising news (and my favorite Mila* bars!): I was going to be living in a little village outside Nitra called Lehota. (Wikipedia tells me the population is approximately 1804 people...that´s much bigger than I would have thought. It feels like 300 or something. More fun facts: It was first mentioned in historical records in 1308; it has a soccer field ("football pitch") and public library, apparently...Also a church I can see from the driveway; I plan on going out exploring today.) This was surprising because for some reason (someone had told me this, but I don´t remember who) I had thought I was going to be living on Klokocina. I also didn´t know it was possible to live in a village outside the host city. Apparently a lot of exchange students actually live in villages.

*distinguish: I love both Mila bars and Milka bars. Milka is the Austrian chocolate company; their mascot is a purple cow. Mila bars are wafers with yogurt and chocolate layers in between.

Then, Tibor and Ruth made a huge Thanksgiving/sendoff meal for me. Ruth made my favorite "buttered noodles" (pasta with brown butter--Ruth discovered it in America); Tibor cooked several giant cuts of turkey (baked in a terracotta pan); there were two kinds of salads; rice; Kofola; and there was going to be knedľa as well (it was offered), but I was way too full. Stara mama came over for dinner too, so it was the four of us, plus the dogs, who were extremely excited about all the food (plus they adore stara mama to no end).

A bittersweet meal, as you can imagine. Before stara mama had came, I´d given Tibor and Ruth some little gifts and the thank-you cards I´d written; then, after dinner, Tibor presented me with one of the larger boxes of chocolate I´ve ever seen (it must be seriously three feet long) and a CD... Miro žbirka! (Remember, I went to his concert with Tibor.) It was a "best of" compilation consisting of two CDs. It made me so happy, especially since I´d been planning on buying the CD later anyway (though I hadn´t told anyone this).

We hung around, and then finally it was time to leave, at 7:30. All four of us piled in the car with all of my stuff (two suitcases, a pin-laden Rotary blazer, a very full shoebox, a very full backpack, a very full purse, a bag of shoes, and the giant box of chocolate) and drove out to Lehota. I was relieved at how short the drive turned out to be; Lehota is only 6 km from Nitra on the western side of Klokocina. (Ruth told me that last year exchange students were living in a village 30 km from Nitra--that´s a long way away!) Interestingly, I discovered there are two villages inside the Nitra city limits, and which signs designate as part of Nitra, but which residents distinguish as separate villages. I don´t remember these villages´names. Beside these, Lehota is the closest village, I think.

We pulled up to a very nice house (Mercedes van, BMW SUV, covered pool and jacuzzi), and three people were waiting there to take all my assorted junk. We went inside (stara mama stayed in the car) and my new host mother gave us a tour of the house and went over all the details.

So, my new host family: Sandy--mother; Marco--father; Sasha--host sister. Some information: Sandy and Marco both work for an Italy-based shoe company (they met each other through their work). Marco is actually Italian, from Verona; the family goes to Italy often (two whole months in the summer) and has a house in Verona; they speak Italian together, except Sandy and Sasha speak Slovak together as well. Sandy originally learned Italian as a requisite for her job. (Apparently she has to use it every day at her work.) Sasha is eight years old, an only child; she was raised bilingual and has a talent for languages--she understands a lot of English and her pronunciation is excellent, probably the Italian helps (she says the "th" correctly and she doesn´t mix up her "w"s and her "v"s, like most Slovaks do; I really don´t understand why it happens, that it ends up being "you vould wery much like to wote"). Since I´m sure Granddad is probably curious: Can I understand the Italian? Yes, some; not a ton, though; not most of it. Andiamo! I need to figure out (ask) what "mangiarre" means; it crops up a lot. It can get a little confusing that "no" is actually allowed to mean a negative response; "no" in Slovak means yes, but here all the Slovak and Italian is getting mixed around, and I have to keep track of it... (It´s not like you can just listen to the tone of voice. When Slovaks say "no", the tone of voice is such that is sounds like they actually mean the English no.)

The house is large and very pretty. I am staying in Sasha´s room; Sasha is sharing a bed with her mother; Marco has his own bed downstairs. BIG benefits to having an Italian host father: OMG, the food! I almost cried, the first dinner (Friday night), at how incredible it was. It was simply buttered pasta from Italy (all the food is genuinely Italian; Marco goes to Italy on business fairly frequently, I think)... How did a culture achieve such culinary perfection, and, more importantly, why hasn´t anyone else gotten in on this? Last night we had the same pasta with butter and shrimp and zuccinni, yum... Also had a pre-dinner snack from Marco consisting of Italian breadsticks, salami, and mozzarella. Incredible.

While I´m on the subject of Italy, bad news for me: I have to miss out on the three-day trip the second weekend in December. Why? Turns out, it´s the exact same weekend as the Rotary Christmas weekend in Bratislava/Vienna (Prague for the Czech kids). Completely mandatory... that will also be when I get tested on my Slovak--yikes!

I mean, of course I´m not nervous about actually passing; I´m nervous because I want to do really, really well. I´m putting in some hardcore studying and really going deeper into declining. I really understand the concept of it now... There´s still the small matter of memorizing literally hundreds of different declensions-- there are twelve different declension forms a noun can fit into (six cases for each--there´s another special case, but it´s only for human male nouns). Plural forms have their own separate declensions for the six cases which are totally different! Okay, and that´s just the nouns. Let´s consider as well the adjectives that might modify these nouns... They decline according to the preposition which is declining the noun a certain way, and then they have to decline by gender as well (three genders)...Oh yeah, and if they´re modifying a plural noun, there´s a completely different set of rules. Let´s consider also pronouns. Guess what? They decline as much as adjectives do, but with an entirely separate set of declensions. Possessive pronouns are completely different from--um, oh dear, I forget their name-- the pronouns you use with things like "behind me" and "beside him". Reflexive pronouns do not decline but they are entirely different and still elude my understanding, as for some reason they´re different between "I gave it to him" and "I said it to him." It´s a mystery which my book does not explain.

So, declining is a real nuisance to have to memorize, and I´m nowhere near having it all down (I don´t even know which prepositions to use half the time), but I´m still proud of myself. Hey, I had to figure out the concept and practice of declining all by myself with no prior knowledge. Spanish certainly didn´t prepare me for that one (all the kids in high school who don´t get Spanish or think it´s hard--guess what? Spanish is the easiest break you get in the world of language), but it´s certainly helped me grasp a lot of concepts. Also, I realized I put most Slovak sentences in Spanish word order. It´s nowhere near the crazy flexibility of Slovak sentence order ("I gave it to her" and "She gave it to me" can be the same word order but you understand perfectly who´s doing what--that concept of declining was initially hard for me to get), but I think it´s a little better than using English word order...

Well, that was a huge sidetrack. To return to a much earlier point: no Italy for me, this time around; however, the family is going again in January--or maybe as early as Christmastime?--so I get to head off then. Fun things lined up for sometime in the future: Massage (yum), Zumba (a kind of fitness which is basically just dancing), and...(hears Mom gasp with horror thousands of miles away) Skydiving from 12,000 meters up. That last one´s in March. I don´t know about it. Yes, I´ve always wanted to skydive, but in a situation where I can be 100% assured (well, as 100% as exists in jumping out of a plane) as to the safety... I´m not sure this is really the time or the place...As to how the skydiving came up, I was talking with Sandy and her brother, Mároš (sometimes called Mickey), and he said he liked to skydive and would take me. Yep.

On Friday morning (didn´t go to school because we had to prepare for the weekend´s trip) I woke up to the sound of a rooster crowing. I´m in the country! (Forgot to mention they have a dog, Benny, who lives in a fenced enclosure on their property; there is a large, pretty gazebo with a bridge which crosses a little fish-filled pond; and they have two giant, really ridiculously huge dogs which live at Sandy´s work.) Let´s see, what did we do Friday...

Sandy took Sasha and me to Mlyny for lunch. We ate at a restaurant up on the third floor with a great view of Zobor and the stare mesto. It felt so strange to be back in Mlyny so soon, but as a visitor... Of course I´ve always been a "visitor" at Mlyny, but I always had this sense of entitlemnent as well, of being on home turf. Most teenagers go hang out at Mlyny after school...and then they have to go catch a bus home. I could walk there whenever I felt like it and walk home again. Oh, Mlyny. I really am so attached to it. It feels like an old friend.

Afterwards we went to Sandy´s work, which is a shoe store on Klokocina (specifically čermán, where my school is--I can put in the diacritical marks on this keyboard, but I don´t know how to capitalize them). She asked if I had any snow boots for our upcoming trip to the Tatras... Nope, my leather boots did not count. So she asked my size and had me try on a pair of the nicest hiking boots/snow boots I´ve ever owned! They were great. She also got down a pair of zip-up snow boots that were more fashionable... Oh, the big dilemma. But I made the mature choice and went with the more rugged pair, which are still quite nice looking as well. And they certainly perform well! I´ll get a lot of use out of them this winter and for quite some time.

That afternoon Sasha and I spent some hours drawing together and then watching Pirates of the Caribbean (Czech subtitles. I get nothing out of them, unfortunately). Then Marco took Sasha and me into Nitra (ten minute drive) for Sasha´s tennis lesson. She goes to tennis three times a week. It was her and three other kids her age. The teacher was middle-aged (though still in excellent shape) and Czech; Marco told me her daughter was something like number 215 as far as best tennis players in the world. I just sat and watched, but I wasn´t at all bored. It was fun to watch them practice.

Much love!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Whoo!!! I love this city...

So, Monday evening I "went to bed" at five, assuming I'd wake up again later for dinner or something... Well, I woke up and it was 9:47; I lay in bed comfortably for exactly two hours and then fell asleep again and woke up at 7:30... I think all that sleep must have done me good, because while I wasn't 100%, I felt much better, and I had a lot of energy at school today.

So, last Wednesday was the national holiday of Students' Day, which commemorates the Velvet Revolution. (See Prague post: Wenceslas Square for more info.) It means no school, so Tibor took me to the circus in Budapest!

Lenka, Ruth's cousin, was also coming, so she had stayed over the night before... We had to get up early and left the house at seven exactly. We picked up stara mama, who was also coming, and then we were on the road to Hungary.

When we arrived in Budapest at 9:30 or so in the morning, it was a clear, crisp, beautiful day-- all blue skies. Tibor dropped off the three of us at the castle complex, and then left to do errands and so on.

The castle complex is on the Buda side of the city. It's on a giant hill overlooking everything. It includes the castle, the coronation church, and many other buildings I don't know the history of. We didn't go inside the castle, but I certainly saw it: a large building (not particularly old-looking) with a dome on top, and a memorable statue of an eagle out front.

We saw much more of the church, site of Hungarian kings' coronations. It wasn't very large, but it was intricately painted on the inside, every last square inch covered with designs, mainly in dark reddish-brown or green hues. The stained glass work was very nice. Also of note on the church was its roofs: one was decorated with different colored tiles in a kind of mosaic; the other was very high, spindly, and pretty; all white.

Near the church was my favorite part about the complex: A series of maybe four or five spire-capped, white towers, a series of archways running between them, a wall overlaid on the arches. So, from the ground, you looked through these archways that were on the edge of a cliff, and you saw all of Pest laid out across the river from you; you climbed up to the wall for a better view.

I could have spent all day leaning over the side of that wall; Budapest was before me! And what a city it is. I just love it. You know, sometimes certain cities and places just grab you, and you don't know why them in particular, you just know you really, really like them and want to return again. For a lot of people, I know, Prague is such a place (except, of course, the reason why is obvious: it's incredibly beautiful); I don't know why I wasn't that taken with Prague, but I am with Budapest. Just the way things go.

So I drank in the view. Immediately across the Danube, wide and flat, was Parliament, a very pretty building. Far below you could also see the many bridges which transverse the river; this is one thing I particularly like about the city, that its sort of center is the river, that it's spread out across two sides of the Danube. Also visible in the river was the large, forested island. From the viewpoint I could see so many uncountable domes and spires of distant churches in a sea of red roofs, all under the perfect blue sky. What a day!

We stayed up there for quite some time, and then finally we began our descent down the steep hill, most of the way on stairs. At the bottom we walked along the sidewalk (still thickly covered in dry, brown Fall leaves, while Nitra has been swept clean), on level with the Danube. It looks even wider and flatter up close. It's kind of strange, actually, the flatness, and that Parliament, on the other bank, seems to be built on the exact same plane, so that it looks like it's maybe built on the river itself... It looks like there are no banks at all.

We walked to the very old, very famous bridge; I don't remember its name, but I was strongly reminded of the Brooklyn Bridge. The entrance was flanked by stone lions. Stara mama told Lenka and me that one of the lions on the bridge (I think there were five?) supposedly had no tongue. Lenka and I looked hard for the one, but we never were sure which one it was, because the lions were high up and all the tongues were hard to see.

So, we walked the bridge slowly, looking all around all the time. There were many flags along the sides; they alternated Hungary's and Budapest's. It was fun to look back at Buda and see where we'd been; it seemed so high up now that we were down. I saw on the other end of Buda a high, forested hill was topped by a statue--it was hard to see in the haze; it looked like a dancer to me, though I doubt that's what it was.

Stara mama told me as we went that this bridge had been bombed during WWII; all of Budapest had been bombed; she remembered hearing about the bombings on the radio as a young girl. I had not known this. "What?" she said. "You didn't know? But the Americans were the ones doing it!"

Now in Pest, we walked towards Parliament. It was lunchtime and we were all hungry, so we went to a narrow little food shop and got hot dogs and fries. We went up a very narrow, steep staircase to the upstairs, a very cramped space, to eat. You really felt the lack of space in a city there. But this was in ironic contrast to outside, on the streets of Budapest, which feel incredibly spacious. The streets are all very wide (wouldn't want to risk jaywalking there); everything feels broad and easy. The streets in Pest are flat, too; like a continuation of the river.

After lunch we continued on to Parliament, and saw it from a pretty close distance. Across the street we bought metro tickets, and then went down to the second-oldest Underground in the world (first is London's Tube). We took many different trains all over, and finally we emerged in a park with a signpost in front of us that pointed to "Grand Circus" (it was in English).

There we met Tibor. Next to the circus (that's cirkusz in Hungarian, cirkus in Slovak) was a zoo; from across the street I thought the zoo was a mosque (it looked just like one! Big dome and what looks exactly like a minaret), and I was quite surprised. We bought tickets for the circus (thank you, Tibor's perfect Hungarian), and then had an hour or so to go.

Lenka and I quickly went across the street to what was apparently an old, famous bathhouse (Hungary's known for them, you know). We took a peek inside; it was a luxurious spa, and we could smell the water (not sure how to describe that) and everything sounded like waterfalls.

Back in front of the circus, Tibor took Lenka and me on a little walk to Heroes Square, a famous place in Budapest. We went across a green-bronze bridge; there was no water beneath it, just cement, but Tibor says when it gets colder it will all be used for ice-skating.

And then we were in the square! What an awesome place. Like the rest of the city, it was huge, and broad, and flat. It was all black and white cobblestones arranged in a kind of mosaic to look like tiles. Directly in front of us was an incredibly high pillar, Roman-style, with an angel on top, wings set alight. Flanking the angel were aqueduct-like pillared walls, bowed in a kind of semicircle. Standing in proud lines between the pillars were great green-bronze statues of former kings of Hungary. There were more at the base of the angel's pillar. It was quite an impressive sight.

Flanking the square was a dark brick castle; also, two art galleries facing one another, all beautiful works of architecture. One of the art galleries in particular had gorgeous gold mosaics on the facade.

So, Tibor took pictures of Lenka and me at the kings' feet below the angel, and then we walked across the huge, empty expanse... A lot of Budapest is like this; you have the giant streets, and then giant, imposing things--buildings, or statues, or whatever--around them, and it's all large and sort of feels too big for the people walking between it all, but it's wonderful, too.

We walked back to the park next to the circus and Tibor got Lenka and me "langos"es, which are these big pieces of fried dough with cheese on top. The park was still in the last stages of Fall; there were some leaves left in the branches, but most of them, all dried out, were thick on the ground. There were lots of vendors selling cheap things in the park; if I'd had some Forints I might have eyed one of the inexpensive Hungarian flags; they were pretty cool.

We finished the food and it was time to take our seats for the circus. The circus dates from 1889. (Hey, that's when Washington became a state!) On the inside it looked like a carnival, which is what you expect from a circus: The popcorn and hot dog and cotton candy vendors; win a stuffed animal if you can knock the pins know.

The seating was through a set of heavy, red-velvet curtains. We were on the second floor--or was it the third? I'm not sure. All the hundreds of small children, maybe kindergarten-age, that we'd seen out front with their hassled schoolteachers and chaperons, now filled the arena, which was circular-- a giant cylinder. Everyone was talking and laughing and screaming and happy to be there.

The lights were interesting; the four of us were right under one of them, and while it wasn't bright at all to look into, it washed everything in a thick orange-red that was somehow calming. The center, which was flat (the "stage"), was colored blue. Above the "stage," on a high platform, were musicians; and above them, a screen which was flashing words in Hungarian.

There were two clowns walking around. (The word for "clown" in Slovak is "saso"--pronounced "shah-show".) They had makeup, but no creepy red noses. They were dressed like tourists, with Hawai'ian shirts, khaki pants, Panama hats, and big cameras around their necks. I definitely prefer this kind of dress to typical clown-wear. They were going through the crowd, snapping pictures with and of people.

I forgot to mention! The circus currently there was called "Circolombia" and was a group of Colombian circus performers, about forty altogether, I think. (So yeah, the clowns were Colombian.) Before this, I hadn't known that some circuses cycle through groups, or that there are traveling, touring circus groups. I always just assumed it was the same people in one place. I guess not!

So...I don't really want to write out every last second that happened, but I'll try to summarize. Some of the coolest tricks were the stacking ones, when the guys would stack themselves and continue to flip over each other and keep stacking one on top of another... Lots of cool springboard tricks in there--a few incredible ones were flying at least twenty feet in the air and doing all sorts of flips and twists in mid-air. It was amazing.

There were several trapeze artists and a "tissue" acrobat (that's the term for a very long, thick cloth that hangs down from the ceiling; people who know how to sort of wrap themselves in it and do all sorts of things). There were the double bars that people swung between. There was acrobatic flipping over jump ropes; a woman who balanced and did tricks within a thin metal hoop that was supported by a thin metal rod on a man's head; the same woman also balanced on a narrow metal swing and did tricks on it while wearing high heels.

There were also animals: There were seals--incredibly beautiful, their skin was unreal--which whistled, balanced and caught balls on their noses, clapped, and made noises; and parrots, which pushed little carts, played dead, and one of which flew all the way around the ceiling beautifully and then landed on his trainer's arm. Sad to say, I couldn't fully enjoy the animals... They're so wonderful to look at, but I can't get past the fact that they're in captivity. I'm not the biggest fan of zoos, either.

There was lots of music and dancing and the energy was really high; I really enjoyed it! It was a lot of fun. Much better than my only other circus experience: When I was eight or something, I begged Mom to take me to the circus, because I'd gotten a free ticket at school. I ended up sobbing almost immediately when I saw one of the trainers cracking his whip at a tiger, and we left... So yes, much better second time around.

The circus lasted three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30 (though we were in the car at 6). It had been bright daylight when we went in, and when we came out it was dark night. Lenka and I were sleepy and curled up in the backseat; there wasn't much to see of Budapest at night (or maybe I was too tired to be looking).

But we didn't head straight home; first we went to visit Tibor's aunt (on his father's side) and her daughter in their apartment. Tibor's father was originally Hungarian--thus Tibor's linguistic fluency--though he lived in Slovakia; Tibor's aunt and cousin also lived in Roznava, Slovakia, while Tibor was growing up, but apparently they moved back to Hungary eventually.

When we were getting out of the car, it was too dark to see anything, and I put my foot down on what I assumed was going to be pavement... Surprise! It was a giant, deep pothole (it went up past my ankle), and it was entirely filled with some none-too-clean water. I was wearing my boots, but water got inside them anyway... Yeah, I wasn't happy about it.

Up at the apartment, they laid out juice and coffee (none for me, thanks), and the adults talked for a while. They offered us dinner, but Lenka and I weren't hungry. When we finally left, after forty-five minutes or so, they gave the family two large fur coats, which they apparently had no use for... Later, in the back seat, those fur coats made an excellent pillow for Lenka and me!

Back home in Slovensko, Tibor dropped off stara mama and Lenka, and then we went back to the flat for bed. It was only 9:30 or so, but I was so tired... I slept well that night!

Much love!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vietor na vrche

[A wind on the hill]

Little updates...

So, this Thursday I am changing host families (Happy Thanksgiving!). Obviously I have a mix of emotions about this--sad to leave, excited for something new. I'm going to miss my stare mesto. Of course I can take a bus downtown whenever I want, so it's not really goodbye, but things are never the same twice. It's different to take a bus to Mlyny rather than cross the street.

Thursday afternoon I had my art class again. I worked hard, I produced some nice things...You know. At 5, the teacher took me (I was the only one there) to another building in the Gallery complex for something special: the opening of a new exhibit. There was bread and wine arranged nicely, there were reporters and cameramen from local newspapers, there were assorted interested citizens.

It turns out the artist is twenty-seven and British; cooler was the fact that she was actually there, along with the curator, also foreign. Neither of them spoke Slovak, so there was a translator. Only the curator, who looked pretty young, spoke to introduce the exhibit; she spoke British English well, but with a strong accent, and I wondered where she was from.

Everyone applauded, and then we went to "see" what it was all about. Interestingly, the main exhibit was completely aural; we were standing at the base of this immense staircase, and at each of the staircase's landings along the way were speakers at various volumes playing monologues in British English. Apparently the artist, Helen Brown, had invited various people (meant to be a cross-section of society) to an art exhibit and then recorded them describing the pieces and their reactions to them. (The pieces were not included here.) This is obviously fine for me, but for everyone else, they had little devices which played the recordings translated into Slovak. I listened to one of the devices for a little while as a linguistic exercise.

The sideshow was one room with computer-printed graphics that were overlaid text--I later realized the text was excerpted from the monologues. The piece that was different from the others was a small black circle of paper, lying flat on a display shelf, which had a picture of a cat like Tom from Tom and Jerry as the background, and some "artsy" no-sense phrase, complete with the f-word (oh, how deep) around the border.

Here comes my reaction to the exhibit: I despise modern art. I found the speakers more interesting than I found 90% of the Walker Exhibit of Modern Art in Minneapolis, because I did kind of get the artist's idea of showing how subjective descriptions reflect on the descriptors themselves; and I thought the space, of this giant staircase, was cool and perfect, with all the strange echoes. But the visual component in the one room just made me angry, as modern art tends to do: Really? Are you kidding me? This took no talent, it's not deep like you think it is, and it's not interesting to look at. That basically sums it up...

At one point, I was leaning in to one of the speakers and simultaneously listening to the translated Slovak version on one of the devices. I glanced over and saw the artist herself, walking around with the curator, was taking a picture of me. She surprised me and I guess that messed up my facial expression, because she pantomimed me bending in to listen again so she could get the picture. I did so and I can't remember how it happened, but I told her I was American, and the three of us--along with the curator--talked for a little while. Very nice people.

Okay, something really hilarious. Afterwards, the teacher and I went back to the art room. I should mention my teacher doesn't speak any English. So, I ask her in Slovak, "Do you know where the curator is from?" Her: "England." Me: "Yes, but do you know originally? She had an accent, you see." The teacher spoke slowly, explaining a big point to me: "Americans and British people have different accents." I don't know how I kept from bursting out laughing. Really? I didn't know that! I didn't know how to explain in Slovak that she had a thick foreign accent, so instead I said, "Yes, but she made a lot of mistakes in her English. She didn't speak perfectly." Her: (laugh) "I don't speak Slovak perfectly!" Again, how did I not die laughing? And then I was treated to a long explanation of different Slovak dialects, and told that Slovaks don't understand their own language, and everyone speaks differently... Oh dear. I just let it be. (Earlier, at the exhibit, she'd also asked me if I could understand the British English.) She's a very nice woman, though, and I really enjoy the art class.

Friday evening Ruth and I went out for pizza with her friends. There were ten of us and we ate at Pizza Napoli, a really good, inexpensive place in the pedestrian zone I've been to before. That lasted two hours, and then we went to Billa in Mlyny because they were having a huge sale on Milka bars. Milka = the best chocolate ever. They're an Austrian company but they're owned by Kraft. This makes me angry. Why can Kraft produce exceedingly good chocolate in Europe, but all they give America is cheap macaroni and American cheese? Right now Milka has special edition flavors. I'm so sad they're "limitovane edice," because I like them much more than all the standard flavors. Oh well...

After Billa we took the elevator up to the parking lot on the roof of the building. It was misty and foggy (the word for mist/fog is a hard one to pronounce, but it's fun: hmla), and there was smoke billowing out from some factory that mostly hid the hrad, but it was still a fun view of the city at night. And it was so quiet; there was no one else there. (Don't worry about safety; there were like seven of us.)

Back at the apartment, Ruth and I watched the fourth Harry Potter movie (also good practice for Ruth, since she finds British English harder to understand, and Maturita exams are in British English). We actually wanted to go see the newest Harry Potter movie (they're dividing the seventh book into two movies, obviously just so they can get more money), which just came out, on Friday; however, looking online we saw all of the seats were booked up--actually, for the whole weekend! We're hoping to go next week instead.

Saturday was a lounging day. Ruth and I got up at eleven and watched some TV; surprise, it was already the afternoon when we glanced at the clock again! Ruth cooked a delicious lunch: "Kura Ako Hus," which means "Chicken Like Goose," but there's really no goose involved. What it is is chicken baked on a bed of sauerkraut. Yum! The chicken was huge and it was so beautiful; the meat was so perfectly white and smooth inside. We ate it with the sauerkraut on the side and knedl'a (and Kofola, of course!).

At 3:30 Ruth's friend Elena came over for The two of them are planning on going to medical school next year to become doctors (here, there's no undergraduate school--you go to medical school for six years straight after Gymnasium). There is a law which forbids dissection in schools below the university level. But Ruth and Elena think it is oh so fascinating. So, Tibor bought various organs for himself for eating, and let the two of them dissect them first. I was planning on staying out of the kitchen, but they needed me to take pictures. The smell wasn't the greatest, but it was actually enjoyable to take pictures of all the different structures from different sides. They got through a liver, kidney, lungs, heart, brain, and something which none of us had any idea as to what it was--it looked like an eel (these were all from a pig). I'd never seen a liver, kidney, lungs, or brain before, so that was cool. I especially enjoyed the kidney and lungs. Afterwards my fears of cross-contamination had me washing my hands so many times and sitting in the living room trying desperately not to think about all the places that had probably gotten splashed in the kitchen with interstitial fluid. How nice.

Sunday at noon Tibor and I went to visit Gabo's family in Chrenova. (Ruth couldn't come because she had so much schoolwork.) We only stayed about an hour. The two of us had a traditional big Sunday lunch: First course, soup (some vegetables, like carrots, and thin, short noodles come on one plate; you take as much as you want and then ladle the actual soup, which is mainly broth, into your bowl); second course knedl'a, pork, and purple cabbage; third course, dessert, these little chocolate things--but I actually was so stuffed I skipped them. (What! Impossible!)

Yesterday evening, trying to make the most of my last days in the stare mesto, I decided to go up on Kalvaria again. That's definitely going to be harder to come back to later. (Sure, I can always take bus number 7, which goes there, but it'll have to be all planned out, not just a random visit.) I still have to go up sometime at night; I haven't done that yet because Ruth says it's dangerous to go there alone at night, and I haven't found anyone willing to go with me. Sigh.

Yesterday afternoon was about as late as was safe to go. I left at 3:30. It was already getting dark, since it'd been such an oppressively gray day. It took fifteen minutes to get to the church, up an incline, you know. I'm not that out of shape, but for whatever reason I was burning up, and though I knew it was freezing, I took off my sweater and coat and scaled the last hill up to the chapel in just my thin linen shirt (I was still uncomfortably hot in my jeans and boots!).

Up at the summit, there was a couple making out (apparently it's quite the romantic spot), a family with young children, and a young man flying a kite. It was one of those two-stringed trick kites, and he knew how to work it. It made a cracking sound when he would whip it around quickly. Fun to watch, and what a great place for kite flying; the wind is always intense up there.

I decided to spend a half-hour at the top taking in the view and looking around more. It was overcast, and the top of Zobor, where "the Pyramid" (viewing structure) is, was shrouded in fog. The red roofs of the stare mesto were a very interesting, beautiful color in the gloom; for some reason, they looked rosier, more pink-toned.

After about ten minutes the couple and the family left; five more minutes, and the guy packed up his kite and started loping down the hill. Finally alone! It was getting darker--the cars below had turned their lights on--but there was still a safe amount of light. I still had plenty of time left in my half-hour, so I walked the perimeter of the chapel (noticed there was a swastika graffiti on one side of the building), and got to examine what I'd thought before was an ancient stone wheel laid on its side. The truth was far less romantic: a giant garbage bin. But oh well--Kalvaria is still my favorite place in Nitra.

I explored the edges of the hill. It was gray vertical rock cliffs on all sides except the way I came up. The cliffs were sort of terraced, though, and if I'd had better shoes I could have pretty easily climbed down. Below was a sort of small grass valley, colored dusty maroon. There were pine forests on two of the sides; those were my favorite. At one edge of the small valley was a shanty town of maybe five tin-roofed structures.

I sat on one of the gray stones at the cliff's edge, and fingered a small piece of rock on the ground. I had an idea. I struck it against another stone; sure enough, it was chalk! All of the stones, the whole hill, was made of chalk. That was fun.

The wind was blowing fiercely and I was sort of cold, but I loved it. It was that kind of delicious chill that makes me feel so totally alive. Also, I like to believe in the whole "pain into purity" sort of thing, so I felt the arctic winds on my cheeks were the best things for me.

At 4, my "hour of reverie" ended, I headed back down. When I was back on the street which runs past the hospital, it started getting darker; I think the sun must have gone down.

I got home and I was suddenly extremely, terribly cold; I put on warm clothing and huddled in blankets but it was no use. A little later I realized I was sick. Yes, I'd had a bad sore throat the whole day, but I'd thought that was from talking with Ruth non-stop until 2:30 in the morning. (And then after going to bed at 3:30 we'd gotten up at eight because our favorite TV show was going to be on.)

Well, things devolved and I got sicker and sicker. I had just knedl'a for dinner, and then at 5:30 I said goodnight to Ruth. I couldn't sleep, though, and even though I felt awful and still horribly cold (my head was hot--I must have had a fever, and probably had a fever earlier when I'd gotten so hot up on Kalvaria), I decided to get up and go to Sunday mass with Ruth, because it would be our last one together. So I got up at 7, and we watched Ninja Factor (this extreme Japanese competition show which demands ridiculous feats of strength and agility from its competitors) until a quarter to 8, when we left. I bundled up in my warmest coat, hat, and scarf--but I was still freezing!

We went to the chapel inside the hospital and got seats in the second row. Miraculously, I stopped being cold. But I felt sicker. I was sure I was going to faint or throw up the entire time during the mass. It just went on and on. Finally, at the Eucharist, I had to cut out, and I waited for Ruth in the lobby.

So, no going to school today. I woke up and felt absolutne strasne--absolutely horrible. But I had to get up at normal time because I was going with my YEO to the police station to work on visas. So, guess what?? I HAVE A VISA! It is done. My passport has a large, official-looking visa sticker in it and the police station has an enormous bundle of paperwork in its files dedicated to me. I'm so happy and grateful to Mr. Miretinsky (my YEO) and Tibor for getting all of it done for me. And Ruth as well, for taking me to the medical exam. So all the important things are now taken care of. (There's just one last thing I'd like to do, and hopefully it can be done this week: I want a bus card. Not only is it easier, I found out you pay 10 cents less if you have it! Whoa, not fair! So I want that.) No school tomorrow either if I still feel this awful.

Much love!