[I go for a walk...]
Brief introduction here. First off, sorry for the last post. I appreciate the kind comments (Dad, you can email me at AOL, I just have to respond from my Gmail account), but I'm not too happy with it-- I didn't even read it through before I posted it since I was so incredibly tired and hungry. Ah well. Also, sorry for the long delay in posting! I was gone for a while, and then when I got back yesterday Ruth didn't have internet. I didn't miss having a computer, but I dreaded coming back to one and having to spend so many hours writing the inevitable post! So here's what I'm going to do: it's out of chronological order, but this post will be about what happened after my "rafting" trip, and the next one will be about the trip itself. Okay? Pod'me!
The night I got back from rafting, it was maybe eleven o'clock at night and I was exhausted in every way. Tibor was off to Bosnia and Herzegovina the next day for an eight day "rafting" trip-- apparently, the river there is the second toughest in the world (after the Colorado). Tibor told me, laughing, that last year he spent sixty days in tents. Which made it quite clear to me that I will never have the capacity to be such a person. :)
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ruth told me we were leaving at ten the next morning for her grandmother's cottage in the country. The only thing that worried me was if I would have enough clothes--I so desperately needed to do laundry, since all my shorts and t-shirts, etc. were wet and filthy from the trip. But she said city clothes would be fine, so that was good. We were going for two nights. Light packing is a specialty of mine, so I fit everything I needed into my small sidebag. Vel'mi dobre!
The next morning, Ruth's grandma was waiting in her car for us outside. It was utter pandemonium inside the car! We were bringing Kora (the lab), Phoebe, and Roxy (latter = Yorkies) with us... which might have been okay, except babicky had two dogs of her own, Molly and Lilly! (Luckily, also Yorkies. Phoebe is mother to all of them, and more.) The advantage to Yorkies is that they're small. The disadvantage is, what they lack in size they make up for in energy. They were uncontainable, running over us and using us as springboards and climbing everywhere. A good thing about this and the journey home was that it made me so much more comfortable with Phoebe and Roxy. We're very close now. My only rule is no sitting on laps. Sorry!
It was an hour and a half drive through the beautiful countryside. Babicky's "cottage" (a house, really) was in the village of Sklene (sounds Danish), about 10 km. outside Kremnica. Ruth's aunt, uncle (Tibor's brother), and three cousins, who also live in downtown Nitra, were also staying in the cottage while we were there. Such warm, welcoming people! Really wonderful. I've met the greatest people here. We arrived around lunchtime, and Gabika (aunt) brought out big bowls of sauerkraut with bread for us. So delicious! An interesting custom: just before everyone digs in, it's traditional to say "dobru chut!", which has no real translation, but basically means wishing everyone that the food will taste good (thanks, Ruth, for the explanation). It was so pleasant to eat in the backyard-- just the right temperature with a little wind, everything green and flourishing, lots of apple trees, a cozy hammock and swing, a horse farm next door and sheep-studded hills in the distance. The perfect pastoral setting.
The subtleties that made up the bulk of the days don't translate here (haha, pun), so I'll mention that the food was excellent and then skip ahead to the tangible events. On the second day, around lunchtime, it started raining. My first rain in Slovakia! And how nice, to sit inside and watch it make everything green... Someone decided around then that it would be fun to go to nearby Harmenec Jazkyna (jazkyna = cave). I was very excited, because who doesn't like a good cave? And caves are something Slovakia's known for. The only problem was my clothes: I had skirts, blouses, a cardigan, and sandals. In my light-packing fervor I hadn't brought any "just in case" sturdier stuff. Luckily, Gabriel had a warm old coat he let me use, which was so big it came down to my knees, so I didn't see a need for pants instead of my skirt. And Ruth kindly let me use her (white) tennis shoes, and Gabika produced some socks... so I was ready to go.
Gabriel, Anka, Lenka, and I went (latter two = cousins, aged 14 and 11, respectively). It was a forty-five minute hike from where we parked to the cave entrance, all uphill, but the switchbacks were mild, the rain was lovely, and the forest we were in was absolutely exquisite, with lots of exposed rock and roots. Plus, I was happy to be getting some exercise. That coat became an oven very quickly! The view at the top was incredible: we were looking down on this forested valley shrouded in fog... and the sun was just breaking through, the rain having just stopped.
Harmanec cave itself was wonderful. After visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota last summer, I had newfound appreciation for the European approach to caves. No signs or pamphlets carefully advising one about the possible "strenuousness" of the cave walk. You just went for it! Of the 2300 meters of Harmanec that had been discovered, only 720 were open to the public (that's how all caves are, understandably). The formations were stunning. (Sorry, Wind Cave, it's got you beat on everything but boxwork.) I especially appreciated the part in the "Labyrinth Chamber" when the tour guide, without warning (well, maybe it was in Slovak, so I missed it), cut the lights. The Chamber was so-named because the first two explorers of it got lost in there when their lamps went out... I shudder at the thought. (Don't worry, they got out somehow.) I also enjoyed the fact that apparently ten different species of bats have been discovered in the cave so far. The English information packet they printed specially for me said that the bats are found in groups of 1200, which I really didn't understand... Most numerous are the Greater Mouse-Eared bat and the Lesser Mouse-Eared bat. No bats at this time of the year, though; they live in the cave in the winter, seeking a stable temperature and ideal humidity underground. It cost 7 Euro if you wanted to be able to take pictures. Of course I wasn't willing to pay that, but Gabriel got me a pamphlet which has several very nice pictures, so I'm glad for that.
That afternoon we went in to Kremnica. The weather was warm and dry, no hint of the earlier showers. Kremnica was really a gem. It didn't feel like a tourist trap, but it was beautiful enough to be one. All of the buildings were very old and well preserved. It was everything you want in an old European town: the cobblestone streets, the ancient churches, the castles... The latter, unfortunately, was closed the day we went, but we had a nice walk up to it, featuring an ornate plague column along the way (not exclusively dedicated to plague victims, I was told, but in memory of other epidemics, such as typhus). Gabriel surprised me with a nice gift, a special edition 2 Euro coin from 2009 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia's ousting of Communism. The backside has an etching of keys in a bell: during the revolution, especially in Prague, people would "ring" their keys from the balconies. Dakujem!
Later we went for ice cream (no, not gelato). I had "green apple" flavor-- so incredibly delicious, I couldn't help wondering how on earth I'd never seen it in America. Hmm. Happy hour, which is commonly observed, was spent in a kircma (kerch-muh)--pubs, I guess you'd call them, though they open at 8 AM. I always order Kofola. It may very well be my favorite drink ever. I'm trying to limit myself to a small glass a day, but it's hard. There are tons of Kofola knock-offs as well, but as with most knock-offs, you can't beat the real thing. (Slovaks shake their heads with disdain when they see the word printed on the glass is "Hejkola" or "Cola Loca." But even the cheaper imitations are known as "Kofola.")
Another scene, which I can't remember where it fit in chronologically, but it happened: Babicky took Ruth and me to the old (1588) church outside of Kremnica. Though most Slovak churches have the characteristic Eastern-Orthodox, shaped bronze roofs, I recognized this one instantly from my Dorling-Kindersley book on Slovakia I'd read months before. It is famous not only for its age, but because right next to it there is a rock which is supposedly at the center of Europe (though DK notes points in Poland and other countries in Central Europe make the same claim). Cool, nonetheless. Take that, all you people who insist on calling it "Eastern Europe"!
So, now Ruth and I are home at the flat. Being away ("rafting", and then the cottage) really made the flat feel like home-- I had had lots of fun, but I was so glad to be back. Mila Ruthka kindly did all my laundry (and folded it beautifully... an iron could do no better). I made peanut butter cookies. They taste just the way they should, but they're not my prettiest. Ah well-- between the two, taste is definitely the more important! I read a bit, and knitted a lot. And I walked...
...Which brings us finally to the title of this post. I had told Ruth at an earlier date how awful I was with directions and how getting lost was pretty inevitable with me. So when I decided to go walking--baby steps here, the first time only to the mall--Ruth thoughtfully had me take her cell phone, just in case. But I decided I was only going to walk in a straight line. Very easy. That first time, yesterday, was my first exploration of Nitra by myself.
The mall was actually a really pathetic target, I instantly realized, as it was practically just across the street. (It's a brand new shopping center. Ruth told me that in a very short space of time they built four new shopping centers. I like the mall, in that it has nice shopping and it's an excellent landmark--which I'll get to later-- but I share in Ruth's lament that they had to build it right in the heart of the old town, tearing down old buildings to make room for it. Unconscionable.) I walked the mall a few times and then went home. The next day (that would be today), I set off for the river. I was amazed to find I remembered exactly where I had turned with Ruth over a week ago. I crossed the bridge, into the park, and walked along the river for a half-hour or so (I gave myself an hour overall). It was exciting to be in a foreign city, all alone, feeling things out, seeing things for the first time. For a city of 85,000, Nitra feels much larger. At least to me. I'm glad that many of the crosswalks are controlled--that is, they have the light which tells you when you can walk--but I'm careful to time my street crossings with other people's, just in case. A highlight to my river walk was when the nearby church bells started going at noon. They went on for several minutes, though, and I couldn't make sense of the number of rings: 8, 6, 14, 4, 4, 30... etc. After the river, I amazed myself again by finding the two universities and the other shopping center I'd passed with Ruth last Wednesday. Most people, I'm sure, would think it's really pathetic I'm considering these victories, but I'll take my successes where I can find them when it comes to finding my way!
In the late afternoon, I decided to take another walk, this time to the church. From my bedroom, and really from any photo of Nitra, three things dominate the skyline: the church, the castle, and Zobor (the mountain/hill). When you're walking the streets, and certainly from my window, it appears that the church and castle are side by side exactly. Which always sort of amazed me, that two of the three would be right next to each other. So, today, I aimed for the church, but "knew" I would be getting to both. The optical illusion still has me scratching my head. Not only are the church and castle not neighbors, they're actually several kilometers from each other. Hmm.
Getting to the church, however, was important for me in many ways. First, along the way I managed to find the one-door entrance to the large open-air bazaar (closed in on all sides, so invisible from the outside) I'd been to with Ruth earlier, when she needed to get her dad's phone fixed at the Nokia shop. That time, the car had stopped (to me, seemingly at some random place in Nitra), we'd gone in, we'd come out, and driven away again. So to be walking along and suddenly see a door and recognize it as the one... that was awesome. The bazaar itself was awesome. Sort of a farmer's market + Chinatown. What I mean by the latter is lots of booths of knock-off clothing for incredibly cheap prices. I'm totally a knock-off girl. The shoes in the mall are 60 Euro minimum... the ones at the bazaar are 8 Euro max, and they start at .40 Euro! Who cares how poorly crafted they are; for those prices, it doesn't matter if they wear out seven times and I have to replace them each time. So, I was overjoyed to find this oasis of thrift in my proverbial backyard. The mall will never get business from me.
Another important part of my church walk: Somewhere along the way, I realized what I'm sure would have been instantly obvious to anyone else, but which for me was a breakthrough: the idea of multiple landmarks. As in, I'm using the shopping center to find my way to the church, and as I walk past the church, it will be my landmark, and so on. Obvious, I know, but it was so freeing for me. Especially because, as I've said, you can see this church practically anywhere in the city. It doesn't matter where I go, as long as I'm capable of seeing the church. If I can see it, I can get to it, and from there I can get home. Wonderful.
A third matter of importance: I've now visited one of my big three! And wow, is that church big. Standing before it, looking straight up, craning my neck to see the highest spire, was awing. I was tentative about going inside, because I wasn't sure about the rules, but the door was open and I watched some man go in, so I figured it was alright. I was dressed very modestly, at least-- there were signs showing silhouettes of women inappropriately-clad with x's through them. Clear message! I didn't feel comfortable entering the main sanctuary, however, so I just stood in the doorway. Unfortunately, the front altar was entirely covered in scaffolding (not visible from the outside), but I certainly got a sense of the size, with that immense roof. My favorite thing about the church, actually, was the smell. Standing in that doorway, there was somehow a strong draft, and it carried on it this special, musty fragrance of age. There was a nun in one of the back pews (nearest the door), which furthered my sense of intrusion, so I went back outside and continued onwards.
I had hoped to get to the hrad (castle), but it was obviously several kilometers away and I didn't want to take too long and make Ruth worry. But tomorrow, it's my mission! Even though now I've already been there... *segue into next story*
Tonight, I went out with Ruth and two of her friends, Ondrej and Teresa, to a tea house. What a neat place! I need to get back there sometime, once I know the city much better (it was a long walk, which included back alleys... no hopes of retracing my steps). It was designed to be something out of the Arabian Nights: arched ceilings painted midnight blue with stars and mirror fragments reflecting the moody lighting; walls painted with what looked like scenes from Aladdin; piles of embroidered poufs and pillows clumped in discreet alcoves around low tables; ambiance Arabic music playing in the background . We had to take our shoes off at the entrance. What can you have at a tea house? Tea and/or tobacco from a hookah. (Now that I think about it, they probably had coffee too; I just never looked at a menu.) Naturally, we skipped on the "and" part of that, and just had hot apple tea-- very nice. The perfect place for hanging out with friends.
After many hours, we finally left, and we went up to the hrad, which was nearby. I agreed with Ondrej; the castle is most impressive at night, when it's all lit up (along with the church, the only two buildings that get to be fully illuminated). There was a splendid view of Nitra where we stopped, shy of the castle wall (the castle is closed at night, so we didn't actually go up to it). The notable exception to the view was the church, which was on the other side of where we were. There isn't much light pollution in Nitra, so we could see the stars and make out some constellations. It was very quiet, save the white-noise of cicadas in the pine trees. The temperature was perfect (this is at 10:30 at night), comfortable t-shirt weather with no sweating. A great night.
So, now I've updated up to the present, except, of course, the whole rafting trip, which will have to wait until later today since it's 2 AM and I've already spent way too long on this. But a few disconnected, but important, bits of information:
We're waiting on making my bank account until I start school on September 2nd (all schools start then), because making an account is free if I'm a student, but not if I'm not. I haven't spent a single dime yet. And speaking of schools, I'm not going to the school I thought I was after all, Parovske, which is very close to the flat (and right across from Ruth's school-- she goes to a private Catholic school). I have been told the other school's name probably ten times and forgotten every time; I just know it's on the hill called Kolkocina in Nitra. It's far enough away it means I need to take a bus to school, but I'm glad to be going there, since apparently Parovske was not the best to exchange students, and thus the reason for the change. This is good to know for those who have my guarantee form out there, since it is now incorrect (it's stamped with Parovske's seal). Further information: I was actually supposed to be rafting the Hron river tomorrow with my Rotary counselor and my fellow two Nitra exchange students, but my counselor called today to cancel since the forecast was rain all weekend. So I'm glad he canceled it! It would have been very fun, so that's a bummer, but camping in the rain for three days would be miserable. There will be other opportunities to meet my counselor and the exchange students. Until then, I'm going to enjoy the unforeseen opportunity three days affords me for seeing the city on foot.
My birthday is in two days! Osemnact-- it's hard to believe. Eighteen's an even more important birthday for Slovaks than Americans, in that everything happens to you. You're an adult, you can drink, you can smoke, you can drive. I plan to be doing none of the last three, but being an adult might be nice.