Thursday, September 30, 2010

Len zivot.... vies.

[Just life... you know.]

So, nothing particularly "eventful" has happened since the opera, as in no running off to Hungary or Russia or anything. But of course, that doesn't mean nothing's happened. So hopefully you'll find the everyday ins and outs of my current life as interesting as I do. Ha.

Last night Ruth's grandmother (that would be stara mama, aka babicka) came over to make dinner for the two of us (Tibor was in the Czech Republic on business). This was a first time thing, according to Ruth, who was a little mystified. I was really curious, because I've never seen or eaten fried cauliflower before. Ruth was curious about what she so euphemistically called "powder potatoes" (that would be instant mashed potatoes), which stara mama was also going to make. Which left me wondering what you call the opposite of a euphemism, as in, the worst way you could describe something.

For those who'd like to know, you steam the cauliflower first, and then you coat it in flour and bread crumbs, and then pan-fry it in oil. There's also a certain cultural thing here about saving the oil and using it for some later pan-frying venture, but Ruth rejects this practice as disgusting, preferring to flush the used oil down the toilet. Which I tend to agree with, except nearly twenty-four hours later the bathroom still smells like cauliflower oil. Hmm.

And what does pan-fried cauliflower taste like? Exactly as you'd expect it to. No other way to describe it!

Stara mama cooked but did not stay for dinner. She had brought her two Yorkies, Molly and Lilly (more children of Phoebe), over in the meantime, and it's always pretty chaotic when you've got four of those dogs together. Of the four, Roxy is by far the smallest, a very tiny little thing; but Lilly must have some mutant gene, because she's huge. She's at least twice the size of her mother, and three times Roxy. I was a little horrified when I was innocently sitting at the kitchen table, and suddenly I look down and this giant ball of hair is hurtling its mass straight up into my lap! It was actually kind of amazing, because my thighs were three or four feet off the ground (it's a high chair)! And Roxy always tells me she's incapable of making the jump, but really, she's got a lot less weight to move around than her sister. Stara mama left with the dogs, and then Ruth told me next week we're going to have all four while stara mama's on vacation or something. Wow! Neither of us is sure what we're going to do, as far as taking them on walks, and at night whose room they'll sleep in, but we'll work something out.

Yesterday I came home from a good day at school to a nice surprise! Ruth handed me a little pink paper bag with a 3-D dragonfly sticker on it and my name. "It's from Sister Mary Nicole," she said. I excitedly ripped open the tape, and found four (!) Reese's peanut butter cups and a pack of Extra gum, along with a note: "Hello Rhiannon, I just thought you might want a little taste of home! Sincerely, Sr. Mary Nicole. P.S. We need to work out when you're coming over!" Aww... it was so sweet of her! The nicest person ever. When I met her, at the special Holy Mary mass (see my post "Ave Maria!" if you don't remember), she'd asked me, "So, what's your favorite American candy?" It took me a long time to think about it, because all that was coming up in my mind was Milka! But I finally remembered, and I told her Reese's. "I think I have a few of those under my bed," she said.

Two unrelated, but funny things concerning Slovaks and America: One, yesterday waiting for the bus after school, I was talking to a few classmates, including Matus. Randomly, he said to me, "Is it true you eat turkey on... on... you know, that day...?" "Thanksgiving? Yes, it's true..." And all I could think is, wow, I can't believe non-Americans know America that well! I mean, yes, they get all our media and a fair amount of the young people romanticize the country, but turkey? I think that's kind of obscure.

Two, today in Slovak Language class, they read a selection about the Statue of Liberty. The teacher came up to me and asked me in Slovak what was the significance of July 4, 1776. (Now that's something I can't explain in Slovak!) Then she asked, "And how many states were there?" (Colonies, but whatever, I'm not going to try to explain that.) "And who was the president then? Roosevelt?" WHAT? "Um... George Washington."

In History class we've been studying Napoleon. Which is very cool for me, since between World History, U.S. History, and Washington State History, which are the only types of history taught in American school, no one has ever taught me about Napoleon. (World History was a very flawed class which didn't even cover the Roman Empire.) The closest we got to him was touching on the French Revolution Freshman year when we read A Tale of Two Cities. It's pretty amazing to me, because I knew these isolated things about Napoleon--his army shot off the Sphinx's nose when they were in Egypt! he fought the British! he went to Russia! he rested on the island of Elba!--it's pretty mindblowing when you put them all together. Wait... he did all of those things and many, many more! I find him incredibly fascinating, not to mention (insert expletive of choice here) impressive.

I got back my second Past Perfect English test today... This time, a perfect score. Okay, that's how I should have done the first time. I was very careful the second time, working slowly, repeating the rules for British Past Perfect usage again and again in my mind. I'm glad it paid off. Today we started "direct speech vs. reported speech," which I'm surprised to find is a unit. Is this something especially hard in English or something? We never had a unit on it in Spanish class; it was just a given. (What this is, is Robert says "I will go to the store." Jenny tells Suzy, "Robert said he would go to the store.") The only hard thing for me is thinking of this in terms of past events; if I imagine I'm telling a friend what another friend has said, sometimes it's in present tense, which is wrong for the unit. Like, you're apparently not allowed to say "Robert said he'll come tomorrow" when Robert says "I will come tomorrow." You have to say "Robert said he would come the following day."

Math is probably my favorite class. We're doing Algebra 2 stuff, and wow, do I have this down. Anyone who knows how many times I've taken Algebra 2/Precalculus can snicker right about now. (I think this counts for my fifth time? Unless you count both SPSCC classes as one.) I haven't missed a single problem yet... And while of course I should be doing this well, I'm a little amazed I haven't made a single dumb mistake so far. I'm really excited for the test on Monday.

I have mixed feelings about P.E. I mean, it's one class I can wholeheartedly participate in, and it's definitely good for me, but I've always hated having to change clothes and all that. I thought that yesterday P.E. was going to have another strike against it for me when we went down to the little, wood-floored gym and started playing volleyball. Volleyball has always been my most hated sport. In any of its various incarnations in American P.E. I was terrible at it and nearly broke my wrists trying not to suck so badly. But lo! For the first time in my life, volleyball is really fun for me. No one is very good and everyone has fun. And I'm considered merely average! It's good that I'm liking it, because volleyball is a huge sport here. It's both genders' game of choice when hanging out with friends.

And now an observation about school in general. I've said that kids basically stay in the same classroom all day. Well, that classroom includes a sink and has nothing on the walls but the Slovak flag (a brand new one-- it's part of the new law which is trying to amp up national pride). The sink is necessary since it's a chalkboard... you always need to wash your hands, and you've got to wash the sponge somewhere (a much better alternative to chalkboard erasers, I think). The chalkboard is very cleverly designed for maximum use; it has a main section, and then two "wings" which are chalkboards on both sides, and can fold in to take up less space, or fold out-- you can also go longer without having to erase. The chalkboard can also slide up or down, so you don't have to reach in either direction. Interesting to me, is that since the kids belong to the classrooms, rather than the teachers, the classroom's upkeep falls to them. They are responsible for cleaning off the chalkboard (the teacher will never erase it), getting new chalk, getting the gradebook for the teacher, getting the big wall map when it's time for Geography, getting the keys to the locked room where everyone keeps their stuff when it's time to put shoes on again, and procuring atlases and other necessary textbooks at the proper times. A lot of time is spent in the classroom without any teacher.

I'll end on a linguistic note. Yesterday evening, I was thumbing idly through my learn-Slovak book, and found a section on diminutives. I'd had a few discussions with Ruth before about these based on names, because here, everyone's name is made "cuter" somehow, though not necessarily shorter. You can add a "ka" to girls' names or a "ko" to boys' names, and there are other nicknames. Krystina often goes to Kika, there are Dadas and Dodos. Silvia commonly becomes Sisa. And what's hard for me to grasp is that these are not just names between friends; teachers and other adults who you are not on personal terms with will call Juraj "Jurko," or whatever.

But it doesn't stop there. So, I was reading this section in my language book, and was surprised to discover that the word "trosku" was a diminutive form of "trochu"--both mean "a little," and I'd assumed, since my dictionary had of course not informed me otherwise, they were just different words, same meaning. I also discovered "rozok" (the bread I eat for breakfast) means "little horn." That's understandable. But wait! There's more. There is in fact a whole sublanguage of these diminutives in Slovak! It's hard for me to imagine. It's the language adults use when talking to children-- you can and often do make every single noun "cuter." (Warning: it's not always as simple as adding a suffix; some words, like pes vs. psik, are completely different!) But adults use this language to each other, too, to imbibe something with cuter or nicer qualities. And as I've said, this can apply to anything. So, there are words that are "vinecko" and "pivecko," which are diminutives of "vino" (wine) and "pivo" (beer) respectively. So, to describe the beer as very nice, you could call it pivecko. (Though, I asked Ruth if that's a common thing to say, and she said no, you'd probably only say that if you were very drunk.)

It's been somewhat problematic for me not to know about this sublanguage (which the actual language is heavily saturated with). In the bathroom on the wall next to the mirror, there is a little plastic hourglass to help you time how long you brush your teeth; it came free with a certain toothpaste. I know the latter fact because the cardboard backing for the hourglass has the toothpaste brand's logo on it. It also has a picture of a mouse holding a toothbrush, and a little word bubble, which says "Ja, Elinka, si cistim zubky vzdy na 2 minutky. A ty?" Since I stare at this every morning and night, I memorized it early on, and later worked out the meaning, which is "I, Elinka, always brush my teeth for 2 minutes. And you?" I was happy I was picking up vocab around the house, and found that the word for teeth, and of course the word for minutes, came in handy a lot. But I noticed other people did not say "minutky," but "minut." I figured it had something to do with the number of minutes, and resolved to ask Ruth later. Well, "later" only came last night during our diminutives discussion! Turns out, no wonder no one else says "minutky"; it's the diminutive form! (And so is "zubky." Quote Ruth: "I didn't want to correct you because it just sounded so cute!" Uggh.) But I was right about the word for minutes corresponding to the number of minutes; there's a word you use with "one minute," a word for minutes 2-4, and a word for minutes 5+. Yes, all of Slovak is this complicated. I'm not a fan of diminutives. I don't want to make things sound cuter or nicer. I guess I'll get past this later, but for right now, I refuse to use them!

Much love!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Opera v Bratislave

[The opera in Bratislava]

Yesterday's Rotary meeting (always a highlight of my week) was a big one. Anna was elected president and Stefan, vice president. Mario, the treasurer, went over the financial tables and the budget was approved. But unfortunately, before I could describe my wonderful weekend in Slovak, I had to leave--we were going to the opera! (I also forgot at home the thank-you note I'd spent hours writing for Mario... that made me very unhappy.)

I got to wear my nicest clothes (I love dressing up). We picked up Gabo, stara mama, and Erika (she was also going, which makes sense, since every time I've been to her house she's played opera). I think it's only sixty-some kilometers from Nitra to Bratislava, but the drive took over an hour. It felt short, though; certainly after my Saturday!

This was my first time really seeing Bratislava-- the only other time I'd been was flying into Slovakia! And we went right to the Centrum (center), which is also the stare mesto, as it tends to be in most cities here.

Maybe the orange wash from the sunset helped, but I liked what I saw of Bratislava from the road. The river (Danube) was beautiful, as was the "New Bridge" across it (really, it's thirty years old, but that's what people call it). I was surprised the river looked nice--again, it might have just been the lighting-- because in my learn-Slovak book, one of the very first dialogues, which supposedly takes place in Bratislava, includes this:
Pan: Ale preco nie je modra rieka? (But why isn't the river blue?)
Pani: Voda je spinava. Bohuzial'. (The water's dirty. Unfortunately.)

And I was honestly also surprised to like what I saw of Bratislava. Slovakia's youth, at least the ones I've talked to, are not warmed to the city. As one girl delicately put it, "It is the ugliest city in the world!" But compared to other cities I've seen, I thought it had a lot going for it. And then again, I only walked around the stare mesto, which is of course the city's showcase. Tibor and Gabo were joking about it.
Tibor: Len tento ulica, a to...! ("This street, and that street... And that's it!")
Me: Ale, nepotrebujem vidiet' skaredu Bratislavu, nie? ("But, do I really need to see the ugly parts of Bratislava?")
Tibor: Mhmm, pravda. ("Yeah, that's true.")

The Centrum included several embassies (it seemed kind of random: Greece, Poland, Russia, all next to each other), and everyone made sure to point out the American embassy to me. It was a nice-looking building. The star of the square, however, was the opera house, built in the mid- eighteen hundreds in Classical style. Every little bit was very ornate with molding or chubby cherubs all in white and gold.

Of course I forgot my camera, again, so no pictures of any of this. Oh well. I'll definitely get to Bratislava again later.

I'm not sure when the opera started, but after some coffee (Kofola for me) we went inside. The interior was even more intricately worked! I really liked what I'll call the main "chandelier," for want of a better word. It was a giant ball of light bulbs. Which sounds modern, I know, but somehow it blended with everything else perfectly. It worked.

One thing that always sort of disturbs me about opera houses are all the mirrors everywhere. Why is that always the case? Oh, it's pretty unrelated, but if I'm going to mention mirrors I'll have to put in this wonderful quote, from Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges: "We discovered (such a discovery is inevitable in the late hours of the night) that mirrors have something monstrous about them.... One of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men." Not my favorite story in Labyrinths, but the first paragraph is incredible.

We had seats in the middle of the second floor (if you're not counting the ground floor). There were actually only two floors in all; it felt small. And a very small turnout last night. Most of the seats were empty. Sort of sad...

Tibor had bought me a program (he refused to let me pay, and I felt bad because the Deutsch/English program was three times the cost of the 1 Euro Slovak program), so I was able to read the whole plot quickly before it started. Which was helpful, because while the opera was in three different languages, English was not one of them (French, German, Slovak). It was kind of confusing! There were French soldiers in the Tyrol (during the Napoleonic wars), and I couldn't tell sometimes if they were speaking French or Slovak... they went back and forth, and the Slovak was with French accents, though they sang in French... The Tyrolians spoke Slovak with German accents, but sometimes they really spoke German, and they also sang in French. And there was a giant mouse who squeaked in Slovak, and a comic-relief character who would come up on stage and say "What are you saying?? I'm only a poor Slovak and I can't understand!" and then one of the French or Tyrolians would translate into Slovak as well, supposedly for his benefit... So yes, the languages were confusing. Or, maybe not so much, since I don't speak any of them. Sometimes I would understand the German, and sometimes the French, and sometimes the Slovak; and sometimes I wouldn't understand any of the words, but the actions always speak for themselves.

The opera was called La Fille du Regiment (Die Regimentstochter, Dcera na Pluk, The Daughter of the Regiment) and dated from 1815. The composer was Italian but had lived his adult life in Paris and composed in French. Go figure. It was about a French regiment under Napoleon who has raised a foundling child as their own (that's where the title comes in). The regiment is camping in the Tyrol, much to the hatred of the locals, and there the "daughter of the regiment" falls in love with a Tyrolian shepherd boy. Their love is (of course) not to be, since she is obligated to marry someone in the army. Meanwhile, the Tyrolian Marchioness realizes Marie is actually her illegitimate child, and takes her away for proper schooling to be a lady of society. Tonio the shepherd joins the army so he can marry Marie. The Marchioness prepares Marie to marry some odious Duke. But, ah ha, Tonio bursts in and proclaims his love, and the Marchioness realizes this is the way to her daughter's happiness, so she permits the match. And everyone ends up happy, except the Duke and his mother. Classic opera...

I don't know about the plotlines, but I like opera for the singing. I've never heard an opera singer who didn't have an amazing voice! And this opera had great costumes. Plus, the singers were actually good-looking and trim, which defies one of those opera stereotypes.

There was a bit of a catastrophe halfway through! A very large, plaster bird prop on stage somehow fell off the stage and into the orchestra pit, where it shattered! Very mysterious how this happened, since there was only the lead singer on stage at the time, and she was fifteen feet away. The bird was solid plaster! Is there a phantom of the Bratislava opera? It's so lucky none of the musicians was hurt... There was a loud clatter of music stands and things--amazingly, the lead singer held her note and didn't even blink--and then a louder clamor as everyone in the theater craned to see or actually got up for a closer look, "whispering" loudly. We saw the shattered bird at intermission; it had been put on the conductor's podium. It was actually in pretty good shape--the tail was broken off, but you could still tell it was a bird.

The opera was very long, but (thankfully) not as long as Parcival, the Wagner opera I saw with Dad and Deirdre when the Seattle Opera House first opened after its remodeling. Parcival was five hours long! This was "only" three and a half, I think. As we left the theater, my head whipped around. I had heard an American accent! I investigated. Sure enough, two women, definitely Americans. This was exciting for me, because believe it or not, this was the first time since being here that I'd met native English speakers (Rotary kids don't count). I ran up to them. "Excuse me, are you American?" "Yes, yes we are!" It would have been more fun for me if I'd met them in Nitra, though. In showcase-Bratislava across from the American embassy... you expect it more. Later, talking to Tibor:
Tibor: Nove priatel'ia? (New friends?)
Me: Mhmm... ano... (Um, yeah...)
Tibor: Od Austry? (From Austria?)
Me: Nie, Amerika! (No, America!)
Tibor: AH! Amerikan! Gabo, pocuvaj...! (Whoa, Gabo, listen to this!)

I was devastatingly tired coming back in the car. Not really sure why, since it was only ten, but that's how it was. Not to mention devastatingly hungry! I hadn't eaten since lunch, since I'd gone to Rotary right after school, and gone straight from there to Bratislava. So back at home in the flat, my eyes almost closed at a quarter past eleven, I quickly ate a yogurt and some banana bread (the easiest food around) before running off to bed. I was still ridiculously tired today at school. I'm still tired now. Hopefully I can go to bed early tonight!

Good news at school today was that I finally got what they call my "IC kartu," which equals International Student Identification Card. I've been waiting on that since school started, which has been tough, because it means all the time I had to go to the office to get special lunch tickets (everyone else just swipes) and, especially, I've had to have change for the bus every day. Bus drivers get angry even accepting 1 Euro pieces (as too much money), but they won't take small change (1 and 2 cent pieces). So all the time I've had to go out and buy something small so I can break some bill and hopefully get enough change of the right size... I'm so happy to have a card now so I can go to the bus center and load money on it-- instead of paying up front with the bus driver, I can get on in the middle and just swipe the card. That will be nice.

While I'm on the subject of buses, I'll mention the payment system. Okay, so 95% of people get on the bus through the side door, where they're supposed to swipe their cards (adults have bus cards, not ISIC cards) on the sensors. The other 5% get on through the front door, where they hand the bus driver their money, and he prints them a receipt. You can't lose that receipt! Ruth told me the first time we took the bus, "Oh, and don't lose your receipt, just for the ride." I didn't ask why, I just made sure I kept it. Well, I found out one day, during the second week of school!

It was very sinister. Two stops before Golianova, a normal-looking woman got on the bus at the front, where I was standing. She and the bus driver exchanged some words; the doors closed; and suddenly the atmosphere got very tense. She yelled out in Slovak, "Receipts!" She pulled out a radar gun thing from her purse. She went along with her gun scanning people's receipts to make sure they were valid, and then tearing them. It seemed really ineffective to me, though, since while she was really intimidating and scary, she only checked about five people who were in the very front (including me)... the bus was jam-packed, a double-long, and then it stopped at Golianova and everyone got off. It would have been so easy, if you didn't have a receipt, to slip to the middle of the bus and then get off at the next stop.

Well, if you get on at the front of the bus, you're going to have a receipt, and there's really no way you can get on without paying, since the bus driver's right there. But what about everyone else, who gets on at the middle? I think it would be really easy not to pay. You just don't swipe your card. The bus driver certainly isn't paying attention, and no one else is going to care. Since I've ridden the bus every day twice a day and I've only seen the crackdown happen once, I wonder how many people out there are running the risk? ("Fare dodging," I learned the official term is, from the English textbook at school.) I would expect tons, but oddly I've never seen anyone not swipe their card (it makes a little sound when you do). Ruth says it's a really big fine if you get caught, but like I said, I think unless you're standing exactly where the fare person decides to get on, you can survive the raids as well.

Not that I'm planning on this.

Much love!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Jeden dlho den, a Kosice

[title works better in English, since it nearly rhymes: One long day, and Kosice]

Whew, there is a lot to talk about! But I jotted down ideas last night before bed, so hopefully I can pack it all in.

Well, Mario lives literally across the street from me, so at 8 on Saturday morning I walked over to his apartment, and found him waiting by his car. As we were driving to Zobor to pick up Larissa, he told me that Ramiro had not wanted to go after all (por que?), so it would be just the three of us.

We had a long drive ahead of us (Kosice's at the far Eastern end of the country, so a good five hours away), but also two free hours to spend somewhere, not including lunch, since Mario only had to be there by 4 for sound check. There are two main routes across the country, a Northern and a Southern one, and Mario planned to take the Northern one going there, and the Southern one coming back (though actually we did the same both ways, since I think it's faster, and it was dark anyway, so we wouldn't have been able to see anything).

I knew well the first hour and a half to Banska Bystrica, having been that way on the drive to Strecno, Poland, and stara mama's cottage near Kremnica. Mario and I got talking about which were the most beautiful cities in Slovakia, and he said a lot of people say Nitra ("No, it's not just me saying this because I grew up there!"). "But, you know, maybe people from Banska Bystrica will say Banska Bystrica..." Mario's brother lives there, and we were talking about its pretty stare mesto (which I'd seen from the freeway going to Poland and Strecno), and then Mario said, "You know what, why don't we stop there and we can walk around a bit." Yay!

We sat in a nice little cafe while Mario had a coffee, and then we walked around the main square in the stare mesto, which was much prettier in person than merely seen from the road above. From the gate where we entered there was one view where you could see five churches (four main ones, and the spire of a fifth) at once. They were all right next to each other! There were two large fountains and lots of old, beautiful building surrounding the square. I was so happy to finally be in the city I'd wanted to see for a long time. I thought it would have been cool if we'd happened to somehow run into Pedro and Eleanor, the kids staying in Banska Bystrica that we'd met at the Rotary weekend, but of course that didn't happen. ;)

It was still morning, and the sky was a somewhat depressing shade of gray, heavy with clouds; but the square was filled with people (and where there are people, pigeons). There was a "magician" doing a performance with puppets for small children, and performers on stilts. We passed by one old church, and Mario said that the first time his a capella group, called Close Harmony Friends, had performed there, there had only been an audience of maybe two hundred. Because they weren't well known. The second time.... there'd been over three thousand. They must have been spilling out the doors and filling the square beyond!

The more stories I began to hear about Mario's group of eight (plus one soundmaster = nine), the more curious and excited I became. They got gigs all over the world--Europe, Australia, South America, Asia. They had performed with Bobby McFaren in Bratislava (!). (Interesting thing I learned from Mario: both of Bobby McFaren's parents are opera singers in the Metropolitan Opera. So I guess it's genetics.) Once, they got called from Oslo by the Slovakian ambassador's wife-- she wanted them to come perform with the King's Philharmonic! So they did, and while in Norway, chanced to meet one of the top gospel choirs in the world, performing in a smoky pub for eighty people. (Later, we listened to the Norwegians' CD. It was incredible, and the haunting yet glorious melodies, which to me felt somehow pulled from wilderness, fit the rising, forested hills around us perfectly.)

And Mario himself is a world-class singer. He lives in Vienna (though he grew up in Nitra) and is a professional opera singer there-- or is it operetta? There's a difference. In his youth he won several national singing competitions, and was recruited for the World Youth Choir in his early twenties (it's a three week program in the summer which takes the top singers ages 20-23 from all over the world), with whom he recorded a track with Bobby Anderson of ABBA fame. He studied at the musical conservatory in Bratislava for the second half of Gymnazium (once his voice had matured) and university. So very very impressive.

Four interesting, unrelated things Mario told me: One, I was remarking how much I love the red tile roofs. He said he'd read that if they were all painted white, the country's global warming problems would be solved for ten years (or was it fifty??)! Two: Slovakia's wealth is in water. I'd found in my research prior to coming that Slovakia has some of the purest water in the world, but I hadn't considered it as such an important resource. He's definitely got a point-- everyone's scrambling for oil now, but soon enough we'll be running out of water. Slovakia's got much more water than it needs for its population, so it can afford to export, which will make it much wealthier in the future. Three: We passed by some tiny villages in the hills (okay, that's pretty much the whole Slovakian countryside), and he described the people living there like (I thought) Amish or something: they live like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, in the same houses without modern conveniences. And since they're such a small, tight community, they have lots of problems with inbreeding! Four: Mario remarked that it was a pity he wasn't older when Communism fell in Slovakia (1989), because if he had been, he would have been able to think more carefully, and then could have probably gotten rich! He said it was a time of incredible opportunity. You could call up Volvo and offer to be their dealer for Slovakia... they'd say yes, because hey, no one else was doing it! You could get so far just by being a good leader or organizer. It's interesting to think about, these moments in history when anyone can turn the wheel of fortune.

So, we continued onwards from Banska Bystrica after a time, and I enjoyed just watching the scenery out my window and talking to Mario. Mario was taking us to Vysoke Tatry (the High Tatras), so we began to climb up into the hills. He said the road reminded him of his childhood, when his family would go camping in the Tatras in the summers, since his father was a professor, and could use a university-owned house there. "We would drive this road, and I would know I was going to the Tatras!"

Five years ago there was what seems to me an act of God. It's very strange. Up in the High Tatras, a sudden wind came up, and in one hour it blew down these huge expanses of dense forest. But the houses and the people within them were unhurt, which is hard for me to understand. Mario said he knew a woman who was in church at the time, and everyone was hunkering down as they heard these ghastly noises outside. They emerged, and what had been a church in the middle of the forest was now the only upright thing around! When we were there, all the fallen timber had been of course long towed away, so it just looked like these gaping scars on the land. Everyone says it's a tragedy, and I do think it's sad so much forest is now gone and will need a hundred years to return, but it's hard for me to say "that's awful," because, like I said, it's an act of God. I mean, if someone had somehow logged all that away, it would be devastating. But how can you get angry and where do you point blame if it was just a mysterious, natural force?

It was a cloudy day, so I still have yet to see the High Tatras' peaks, but I had a wonderful time nonetheless. We drove up to "the highest town in Slovakia." I found it funny that Mario said the run-down parking garage we parked in was the same one his father had used to park in all those years ago-- and completely unchanged!

The mountain air was incredible. It was cool and so perfectly pure and refreshing. I felt I was breathing in life itself! We went to lunch before walking around. (Probably one of the most expensive tourist spots in the country, and a big lunch for three with drinks and tip = 25 Euro. I had vyprazane syr, one of my favorite things here, which is a slab the size of a piece of toast of breaded and fried cheese. Delicious.) There were lots of people there, even though it wasn't the nicest day.

It's hard to convey just how significant the High Tatras are to Slovakia and its people. They are the national heritage and treasure. They are the symbol. Everyone points to them, takes pride in them. They are represented on the flag, and are in the title of the national anthem ("Nad Tatrou sa Blyska"). And it makes sense to me. Slovakia is a small country, but what it really has in spades are mountains. Looking at a topographical map of Slovakia is surprising! And the Tatras are the crown jewels. Picture-perfect, capped in snow (some get over 10,000 feet), unspoiled. It's very cultural to go hiking in the Tatras in the summer (and skiing in the winter, but maybe not there, exactly, since there are lots of resorts to choose from).

We obviously didn't have time to hike around, but we had a nice leisurely walk around the mountain lake there. The water was perfectly still, making the reflections pristine and exquisite. Fall comes earlier in the East, and a few trees were already blushing bright red. (Not so in Nitra, with green trees and only a few shriveled brown leaves on the ground.) One red boat was being paddled on the far shore. The few hotels around the lake were beautiful as well. And on the mountain overlooking the lake there was a giant ski jump! It all combined for a perfect snapshot.

So, a wonderful few hours, and then we drove down the mountain again. I was desperately taking pictures through the car window, so at one point Mario kindly pulled over so we could get out and I could get an unobstructed shot of the valley so far below. The mountains in the distance were sketched outlines layered upon each other in subtle blues and greens. In the foreground at our feet were blooming thistle and other mountain flowers, framed by a few conifers. I love mountains.

And I love Eastern Slovakia. It has a sort of wild feeling to it, with the hills and ancient villages and haystacks in golden fields. The next highlight along the way was Levoca. The entire town was from some lost time. The main church, considered to be the most beautiful in all of Slovakia, was where kings had used to be crowned. It was lovely, but what I liked even more was the church on a hill overlooking the other. It was white and all alone, and the strange lighting made it look haloed. It was hard to find the king's church so holy when this other one was glowing with heavenly light! Also in Levoca were the original medieval walls that had always surrounded the town. They were darkly colored from time, but still intact. They had never been called on to protect.

Nearby was Spisska Nova Ves! (Remember, coming back from Poland, how I went through Spisska Stara Ves?) Famous because it sits at the base of Spis Hrad, the largest castle ruins in all of Europe. We had no time to make the long hike up to it, but you could see it well from the road. It was so large and eroded, that seen from afar it looked to me like a natural rock fortress rather than something man-made. It's very striking on this steep, bright green grass hill. Google search it. It's also interesting how in all the pictures I've ever seen of it, it looks like it's alone in the wilderness or something. Really, Spisska Nova Ves is very close by. But it showed up that way on my camera, too, and I wasn't even trying, like I'm sure the photographers are.

Still moving East, we came to Poprad, a pretty large city. Not much to say about it, except that there was a thick, intricate system of electric cables above all the roads for the electric buses. That was something to see. To be fair, we only passed through a small part of it, so I'm sure some parts of it are nice. And, as Mario said when I asked him if Presov was nice, "I don't really know. To me, Presov is nice because I have many friends there. I think about places in terms of the people." So, maybe if Poprad has lovely people, the city is lovely.

And finally we came to Kosice. It was 3:40, so we had to go straight to the festival. It was called Adonai Fest (I especially remember because I got a 1 Euro t-shirt, bright orange), and was a Christian music and dance festival whose proceeds were donated to the church. As you might imagine, there were quite a few nuns there. But it wasn't just for little children or anything; there were lots of teens and adults enjoying themselves. There was a large stage and many rows of benches around it. The stage was in the shadow of one of the stranger buildings I've ever seen. It was this brick and concrete abstract structure which had sharp edges like points on a crown and twisted parts and monolithic projections and a few short inner staircases leading to a one-foot wide rim ten feet off the ground that you wouldn't want to walk on... I thought it was a really cool building, though I'm not sure what it was used for-- the only actual usable space it formed was a circular courtyard, which had a few school desks and chairs in it (?). But still. Cool.

When we arrived, there were 11-13 year-olds performing traditional Slovakian dances, backed by a few musicians. They were wearing the traditional clothes as well: boys with tucked in, embroidered shirts which puffed out, white trousers, and black riding boots; girls with bright dresses whose skirts were designed to twirl, stockings, and high lace-up boots. The dancing was in pairs, and sometimes they would form two concentric circles to switch partners. We applauded, they bowed; and then the older, teenage boys came on stage for their turn. They had black fedora hats with long white feathers on the side. Their dance (and almost dress, though they were missing the lederhosen) reminded me of German slap-dancing.While Close Harmony Friends, the main attraction of the afternoon, was doing sound checks, another a capella group performed.

There was an interlude, during which Larissa and I walked around inside the strange building talking. A little girl, her face literally a mask of face paint (painted in the design of a masquerade mask, you see) ran up to us suddenly. "You speak English," she said breathlessly. And? "You must come. There is girl who is English. If you want." We weren't doing anything, and I was curious, so we followed her back to her friends. One girl who looked a little older than the rest of them, maybe twelve or thirteen, stood out. She had deep ocean eyes. "You're English?" I asked. "No, I just speak English," she said, and then turned to her friend and said in Slovak, "What did you tell them??" Our little guide just giggled. The thing was, the girl's English was perfect. She was obviously fluent, and she had almost no accent. She sounded American. "Wow, your English is perfect," I said. "How? Are your parents native speakers?" "No. It's a long story." Whenever someone says "it's a long story" (or maybe it's just me who does this?) what it really means is they don't care to tell you. So I asked no further, and took a picture of her and her friends before moving on.

Later, Larissa and I were talking on the other side of the festival. Suddenly, a little boy with white-blond hair (very unusual here, where the blondest anyone gets is a dark, dirty-blond) turned around from where he stood a few feet away and said "Yeah, whatever." (He had an attitude!) Way to jump into the conversation there... "You speak English?" I asked him. "Yeah," he said. He had practically no accent and sounded American. But the real clue was in the eyes. Strange ocean eyes. "How do you speak so well?" I asked. "I learned it." (No duh!) "Did you learn at home?" asked Larissa. "Yeah." "Are your parents native speakers?" "No." Way to be evasive! "Do you have a sister?" I asked. "Yeah." "Is she here?" "Yeah." "I think we've met her." I'm still very curious about the source of their fluency. I wish I'd gotten it out of the girl (the boy was completely unhelpful).

And then finally what everyone--especially me--had been waiting for! Close Harmony Friends. They'd changed clothes, so they were matching, and the audience had magically doubled. As you've probably assumed from their resume, they were awesome. Every single person had a great voice, and they blended perfectly. "Oh, Happy Day" was my favorite, but the two numbers I thought were most impressive were both different ideas of singing. One, Dad would would have particularly appreciated, was a Bach fugue-- I know it well but I can't remember the exact name. They sang the notes like you would play them on the piano, of course without words. Done this way, it was easy to pick out the three overlapping inventions. Which was so cool! And then, somewhat similarly, there was a piece where they used their voices to form an orchestra. They really sounded like violins and cellos and flutes! It was amazing.

Mario et al loaded everything up in the cars again, and then we went with Mario's friend Janka (also in the group), who lives in Presov, to meet up with their other musical friends in a small restaurant in Presov (30 km past Kosice) for dinner/dessert. I hadn't done anything to burn off the calories from lunch, so I was still pretty full and just had a slice of cake.

It was 8 by the time we got on the road. Which was actually earlier than Mario had planned, since he hadn't known how late the concert might go. I felt bad that Mario had to do this long drive back in the dark by himself, but of course neither Larissa nor I could switch off with him.

Darkness falls very fast here, and it was pitch black before long. I was awake and alert for a long time, still talking to Mario and listening to CD's, but it was a long way back! I suddenly got very tired, and slept a little, and then spent a while sitting in a zombie state (even Danny Boy, which usually reduces me to sniffles, did nothing for me), and then finally woke up again. It seemed like the way to Banska Bystrica was much shorter than before, but then it felt like it took forever from Banska Bystrica back to Nitra, which for some reason I always imagine as half the distance that it actually is.

This summer visiting Grandma in California, she told me that when she sees Mt. Diablo she feels like she's home. Well, when I see Zobor, I know I've arrived. Not to mention the hrad all lit up.

We dropped Larissa off on Zobor, and then Mario dropped me off at the door to the apartment, so I wouldn't have to walk in the rain-- it was pouring hard. I had such a wonderful day with him; he's such an incredibly nice, interesting person. I hope to see him again soon! (I also should mention his English, though hopefully this aside doesn't detract from the previous, much more important statements. He spoke so perfectly, never a single error, he knew the most obscure words, and his accent was wonderful, somewhere between an American and British accent, I thought, but definitely not Slovak (probably his musician's ear helps for that). When I later asked him how he spoke so well, I was astounded when he told me, "Well, I took it for two years in Gymnazium, and then I taught myself everything else...mainly from watching movies!" What?! He's obviously also fluent in German (he lives in Vienna), and I heard him speak it on the phone once and he had a great German accent too. Very impressive.)

I got in at 12:30. This was much earlier than Mario had been betting on, which was 1:30 or 2! So I was glad for that. And also that the next day was Sunday, which means I could sleep in...

...Or not, since I woke up before 8, after falling asleep at 1:30 or something. I hate that I can never sleep in when I want to and need to. Oh well.

Sunday morning Ruth made banana bread which turned out perfectly--it's taking so much willpower not to go the kitchen right now. Tibor came home after leaving Friday, laden with hundreds of mushrooms in a dozen different varieties. I hope he has ideas for what to do with them! Last night at the kitchen table he was splitting them open to see if they were white inside-- if they were yellow or brown he threw them away. Neat to watch.

Yesterday afternoon Gabo et al came over for a few hours just to visit. It's traditional in Slovakia to visit relatives, often for lunch, on Sunday. (I forgot to mention last Sunday that before going to church in Chrenova, Ruth and I went to visit her godmother, who is also her mother's cousin, at her new flat there in Chrenova.) Little Miska, age two, is beyond adorable. When I first met her in Kremnica she was in her "no!" phase, except of course it was "nie!". "Miska, do you want some ice cream?" (smiling widely) "Nie!"

At six Ruth and I left for Sunday mass at the church at the base of the hrad. The priests alternate who will give mass, but yesterday I was delighted to see it was the excellent priest from my very first Slovakian church service. And there was a special treat in that they had some professional baritone singer up in the balcony.

When we walked home in the dark it was pouring heavily. I don't mind drizzle, but I don't like the hard rain. Especially since the streets are lumpy, which means they're practically designed to pool water, and it's hard to avoid stepping in at least one puddle! Ah well.

Today, Monday, I'm home sick from school. What a strange sickness! I felt almost perfect the whole weekend. Then, last night, I kept having dreams people were offering me food, and I didn't want it, and the people gradually got uglier and uglier, and I kept feeling more and more sick, and then I woke up and realized I really was sick! I had terrible nausea and just lay awake for two hours, worried if I moved at all I was going to throw up... So, yeah, too sick for school. But of course I woke up at six anyway (though thankfully fell back asleep). I feel a lot better now, but who knows...

Tibor came home for lunch at 1:30 (typical lunchtime). He and I had mashed potatoes with some breaded and fried mushrooms, which were delicious. And because I'm sick, he made me some special tea (either left over from his great-great-grandmother or the same recipe, I'm not sure) with honey. Which was very sweet.

I had better be fine, because tonight Tibor, Gabo, stara mama and I are going to the opera in Bratislava! Amazing, I know. (Also amazing: tickets were only 10 Euro, except one of them was randomly 5 Euro. This is compared to the hundreds you pay at the Seattle opera house.)

Other good news: My fingerprints from the FBI finally got to Slovakia! Which means I can now work on getting my visa-equivalent. That's great. :)

Wow, I think this may be my longest post ever, or maybe that Poland one was... What do you think?

Much love!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pod'me do diska!

[Let's go to the disco]

"Disko"... yes, that deserves quotation marks, I think.

So, yesterday afternoon I again had no plans, and Ruth was in her room tutoring her cousin Anka in English, so I figured it was finally time to do what I'd been dreading, namely putting all my new pins on my Rotary blazer.

I think I only got pins from half the people there (everyone traded really haphazardly: whenever there was a two-minute break there'd be a lot of movement, the dust would clear, and people would be left holding a few pins), but even so my jacket's already quite covered. The front, anyway; I'm saving the back for something special, but I'm waiting to see what that will be. It has to feel right. I clipped the outline of the statue of Corgon from a Nitra tourism magazine, and he might go there, along with other things... We'll see. (Corgon = "Atlas" of a sorts; there's an awesome building at the base of the hrad that has a statue of Corgon built into it; it looks like he's holding up the building. There's also a Slovakian legend that he defended them from the Turks at one time. The Nitra legend is rubbing the nail on his big toe will bring you luck. I've done it many times.) So, yes, I emerged from the Rotary weekend with a big bag of pins, and I waited to put them on my jacket until I didn't have anything else to do. I think yesterday was the right time to do it, since it took over two hours...

Anka left and Ruth and I took the dogs for a walk, and then we left (on foot) for Ruth's school--it was 7:30 already, but the "disko" had apparently started at 6. Ruth wasn't sure if I would even be allowed to get in, since I'm not a student, so I was ready to walk back home empty-handed, in a sense. But it ended up fine, no one asking for student ID cards. Unfortunately I didn't know my ticket was also good for the raffle, and I left it in my bag in the cloakroom. I think a lot of people did the same thing-- for each prize, they had to call at least three numbers before anyone would jump up to claim. Oh, but I'm getting ahead of myself...

So, I expected a dance floor, but we went into the gymnasium, it was instead a sort of pep rally. Classes of kids were around the perimeter of the room (not very large) sitting on mats, and then the youngest class at the gymnazium (we'd call them freshmen) were chugging water and slurping pudding in some competition. (Not nearly as gross as at my alma mater, where we once had a class competition where girls and boys were paired up, and they had to lick peanut butter off of different sides of a clear window. Not only is peanut butter disgusting in any public setting, you can imagine what the situation looked like. Eww.) Everyone applauded, and then there was the raffle, which went on for a very long time-- they had lots of little prizes, like a single cup of pudding or a candy bar or even a carrot. Silvia, Ruth's friend, was there, and she told me they had been doing the competitions, etc. for the whole hour and a half previously! "I expected dancing, and I found this instead..." So definitely okay that Ruth and I got there late.

But then, finally, the pudding-slurpers and prize-winners cleared away, the lights were cut, and everyone flooded the gymnasium floor for what we'd come for. They had colored lights moving around on the dark walls, giant speakers, and a DJ. Suddenly, the lights came back on. There was a universal moan of protest. Everyone abruptly stopped moving. This lasted for maybe five minutes; some people started dancing again, but most people just stood around awkwardly (people theorized they wanted the lights on so that they could see if anyone fainted). But then just as suddenly the lights went out again--and stayed out--and everyone cheered.

And I had such a good time. I really love dancing. BIG cultural difference here, though: There was actually nothing sexual in the dancing. So hard to believe! But no, people weren't shimmying onto each other; no grinding; people actually dancing in circles, instead of front-to-back. For those who don't know about American high school dances, you don't want to know. Practically sex on the dance floor-- I've even heard of couples at a few schools who actually did the deed! Girls hiking their dresses (another difference: everyone wore regular clothes) up to their waists and riding on their boyfriends' laps, people down on all fours, "sandwiching," groping inside clothes... you name it, it happens. A lot of it. I still have no idea why-- I guess to discourage sex? But it's just weird-- my American high school had a rule about "no front-to-front dancing." What? That's how you're supposed to dance! Front-to-back is just strange.

Actually, at one point there was the song called "Sex on the Beach," (the songs were still dirty, even if the dancing wasn't) and everyone started chanting "Sex-- sex-- sex on the beach! Sex-- sex-- sex on the beach!" along with the music. Ruth and her friends were scandalized. She told me afterwards it's proof that these kids haven't been at the school long. Ruth and her classmates have been at their school for eight years--high school plus "elementary school" as well. I think most (all?) gymnaziums have two tracks: the regular four-year one and a special eight-year one. So, Ruth et al have been at their school now going on eight years, and she says they could never imagine doing that, since the strict discipline has been so deeply ingrained in them. Not like the young 'uns. I asked her if she ever went to a dance at her American high school. "YES!" she said, mouth open wide. "It was a very traumatic experience for me! I'd never seen that before!"

So yes, this was just plain dancing. The way it's supposed to be. Soooo much fun. There were the American dance songs I expected ("Tonight's Going to be a Good Night" by the Black-Eyed Peas-- I actually hate that song), but as the night wore on, they played a lot more Slovak pop songs as well. A little harder for me to dance to, as I didn't know where the musical cues were and it took more time to get into the beat. And they had a few random songs that were like Slovak polka! I danced one with Silvia, and whew, that was such a workout! Twisting in circles with linked arms, tango-dipping, and all the other moves, at a very fast pace... and the song just went on and on! I think it must have been seven minutes at least. I was exhausted. (But not enough to stop dancing.)

And slow songs... Not the time when everyone pairs off with the opposite sex awkwardly and sort of sways in place, or else just stops altogether and sticks their tongues down each others' throats. People just linked arms in their circles of friends and sort of swayed together peacefully.

A very nice night. It ended at ten, as planned. Everyone helped drag the mats that had been around the perimeter of the gym out into another room, the lights came back on, and we collected up our things. Including our shoes. You're not allowed to wear shoes at Slovak schools, you wear slippers instead, and apparently the rule applies to school functions as well. So I danced the whole night in slippers. My feet still ache. (More on this: At Ruth's school, she says this is strictly enforced, and teachers will make you go shoeless if you don't have slippers. At my public school, about 3/4 of the kids wear normal shoes, and the other quarter wear slippers. None of the teachers care (they wear shoes as well, and I don't think they're supposed to); apparently you only run the risk of being in trouble with the principal, who I've only seen once, on the first day. But I'm a good girl and I wear my slippers. Even if I have no idea why. I think the espoused reason is school cleanliness, but the slippers' bottoms are filthy too, and after your second-to-last class you're allowed to wear regular shoes again, so yeah, I really don't see the point.)

I was so hot afterwards, so it felt really great to be out in the cool night walking home. It's maybe a ten minute walk from the heart of the stare mesto, where Ruth's school is, back to the flat, and it's through the pedestrian zone. We got home, and I told Ruth she could have the first shower while I tidied up my room after the pin extravaganza. And then something very strange happened. So, I'd been sick, but that whole day I'd felt I was getting better, and then dancing, I had felt incredible; certainly no sniffles! But suddenly, within thirty seconds of getting home, I got very, very sick. I couldn't even move, I felt so incredibly awful. I had chills and a headache and I was thirsty and I could barely breathe from congestion... so I just lay on my bed, wanting it all to end!

It got a little better in the shower, though I still had the chills even on the hottest setting, and I went to bed very miserable (though not desperate, as I had been before the shower). If I felt like that in the morning, there's no way I would have gone to school! Actually, I did feel pretty bad this morning, too, but I figured I could make it, since Friday has only five classes and they're fun ones (Math, English, no P.E.).

I didn't have the best day, just because I was down from being sick, but I had a fun thing in math. The teacher wrote x^2 = 25 on the board and asked what was the answer. Everyone--except me-- shouted back, "pat'!" (five). I shook my head, and she asked, "Why?" "Plus or minus five," I said (I knew how to say this in Slovak, since only the pronunciation of "plus minus" is different from English). I think this gave my teacher confidence in my abilities, because she called me up to the board for the next problem. Yay! It was x^2+13=0. I simplified this to x^2= -13, and now, as every math student knows, the answer "does not exist." (You would simplify this by taking the square root of both sides, and you can't take the square root of a negative number.) It seems that every math teacher I've had has told me to express this impossible answer in a different way. So, unsure what would be required here in Slovakia, I wrote in my neatest cursive, "neexistuje." Everyone laughed and clapped at what I'd written, and the teacher smiled. Good going, Rhiannon. (Sure enough, in this math class in Slovakia there's yet another way they want "does not exist" to be expressed than what my previous math teachers have each told me. It's k= { }. Just like that. Hmm...)

Also, English class: This last week, instead of the class being divided into three separate groups based on ability (two-thirds of the class leaving for other rooms), with three separate teachers, we only had two groups. One small group still left for elsewhere, but the teacher of the highest level group (mine) has been gone this week, so we've been in the normal classroom with the other group. The other English teacher has not been happy about having twice as many students, but I've liked it. The teacher has a sort of unconventional style, and he has a lot of interesting ways of teaching that I think are helpful-- I'm kind of taking mental notes, thinking that on the off chance I'm ever a language teacher someday, I'll have some ideas for creative teaching.

Today he (the teacher) put in a CD and told us to listen to the song and see if we could understand the meaning. The song was called "Have a Good Day" by a group I've never heard before, and unfortunately as soon as the song started playing, I realized my sickness was affecting my hearing, and I couldn't understand anything! So, the song ended, and he asked us what it was about. He called on a girl. "Having a good day?" she asked. Nope. Me? I thought that maybe the singer's girlfriend had left him, and now he was being sarcastic, wishing her a good life? That was all I could guess from the tiny snippets I'd caught. Nope. So, he played the song again, I didn't catch any more than I had before, and he asked us again. No? No one? Finally, he had a girl read the lyrics, which he had printed out. Oh, now I get it... The song was actually about freeing yourself from society and the race race and just enjoying life. Wow, was I off. I think I have an appropriate excuse, though.

Uggh. Still sick. But, going to Kosice tomorrow morning-- we leave at eight! And Mario lives right across the street from me, so I can just walk over to his house. This will be great.

Much love!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Zacam slovensku literaturu

[I take up Slovak literature]

Okay, the title's definitely tongue-in-cheek... As we shall see.

I'll start with all the stuff I meant to include in the last post but forgot:
In the District, the Inbounds are mostly American, and then Mexican, and then Brazilian (Ruth says it's the same distribution every year). There are three Canadians, three Taiwanese girls, and one Thai after that. Guess who was the wildest and craziest? The Brazilians and Mexicans, of course! And when we had the dance party, guess who put everyone to shame? But of course. I've always wondered if that's cultural or somehow just hereditary...

I had a fun experience in that I got to talk to a Mexican boy for about twenty minutes. He started off in English, which was hard for him, and I told him it was fine if he just spoke in Spanish. So he did, and that was a lot nicer for both of us... I've found, in learning Slovak, I've lost so much of my ability to speak Spanish. Before coming here, it would be so natural to just talk to myself in Spanish. The words rolled off the tongue so easily. But now, if I force myself to think in Spanish, it's awful. It comes out at least half in Slovak! And I search for the Spanish word, words I know so well, and all I come up with is Slovak. (I even have grasped for "tener," thinking "mat' " instead. Oh God.) I guess this is a good thing, in that it means I'm really getting into my new language, but I find it very painful.

So, the cool thing in talking to this Mexican boy, was when he started speaking Spanish, I realized it was still there for me. It was such an incredible feeling. He was speaking normally, and I understood every single word in the fluent sense, in that I wasn't directly translating, but was just letting the meaning wash over me. It felt so second nature; I couldn't imagine even trying to try. Interestingly, it felt much easier than even when I was in America at the peak of my Spanish. So I'm definitely still good on that front. As far as speaking back to him, that was harder. When I didn't think about it, I spoke very quickly and it just popped out. Like, when I turned off my brain and just refused to think in English, I said everything perfectly and at a very fast speed, faster than even I'm used to. But when I actually considered what I was going to say, it would start off in my mind in English, and then automatically get translated to Slovak, and then I'd have to figure out how to translate it into Spanish... yuck. It was slow and very unpleasant, and half the time I'd end up saying something in Slovak without meaning to... I don't know what I'm going to have to do when I come back to America and need to take placement tests in college. Not looking forward to that...

Okay, switching gears, yesterday was free bus day in Nitra. Once a year, buses all day throughout the city are completely free. Since no one was aware of this, I think they keep it a secret and make it a random day, so people won't plan trips or something. But it was a nice surprise for me to get on the bus and instead of being verbally harassed by the bus driver, as is often the case, he refused my money and waved me on.

After school I decided to buy some flowers for Erika to thank her for the wonderful cookie lessons. School ended early anyway, so I took the bus a little further to the marketplace, and I started price shopping, when I realized I only had 2 Euro on me. Okay, that sucked. So I bought some ice cream (super cheap-- .30 Euro a cone), since it was a lovely, warm day, and decided to take a nice walk in the stare mesto, since I was out anyway. La la la... I went back home, and realized it was only 2 o'clock. I guess school had gotten out really early. I had tons of time. So I grabbed a 20 Euro bill and headed back out to complete my mission.

I found a beautiful, miniature rose plant in a pot, and decided it was the right thing (Erika would like it more than cut flowers, since she has a huge garden and loves to grow things). I bought it, and then I got talking to the two young women running the stand... Sometimes, someone says something and I don't understand it at all. Sometimes I understand half. Sometimes I understand enough to get the meaning. And sometimes--I understand everything. When that happens, it's magical. And so it was with the flower vendors! We had a long conversation entirely in Slovak (they didn't speak English), and I felt so good about it. I especially love when this kind of thing happens, and then they invariably ask, "so, how long have you been here, then?" It's fun to see the reactions when I say "jeden mesiac..." (one month).

So, rose plant in tow, I walked onwards to Erika's. I rang the doorbell, and then when she came out and I gave her the gift, she was so incredibly delighted. After gushing over the beauty of the roses, she sat me down and had me wait while she made up a huge bag of produce for me! Apples and pears from her own garden, and then the sweetest green grapes I've ever had-- not from Nitra, from somewhere 30 km. away, but she'd clipped them herself, if I understood correctly. And then there were also the last batch of cookies I'd made, finally dry! She is such a kind, wonderful person... I can't believe how good she is to me!

I got home, and it was only 3 o'clock. I had a long afternoon ahead of me with no plans to fill it. Since I'm still sick, I decided to take a nap. Hmmm...

Well, I woke up and it was 9 o'clock. Seriously. I fell asleep around 4, so that makes, what, five hours?? I certainly felt good (though still sick). I took the dogs on their last evening walk and ate a little dinner, and then I went back to bed. I didn't fall asleep until 12:45, but I wasn't tired in the morning!

At school today, I had three fun experiences. One, English class: I got a B on my test! I found that pretty hilarious, though I of course should be getting an A... The test was on the Past Perfect, which is so much different in British English than American English. On all of the test questions, I would never have used the Past Perfect! So, even though I knew the rules for British English Past Perfect usage, I second-guessed myself and ended up using it too often. Stupid mistake. But funny... Actually, I still ended up with the second-highest score in the class; everyone got C's and D's, except one boy, who got an A. Yep. But now we've moved on to articles, and I can definitely do that! (Just have to remember the Brits say "my grandmother is in hospital"--no article.)

Second, Math class: I can actually understand it now! Before, we were doing some place value thing that I didn't get at all-- lots of tables and decimals and I think significant figures, but who knows. But today, we started algebra. We're talking quadratic equations and factoring. Oh, I can definitely do this. I made sure after class to tell my math teacher (in Slovak), "Um, I know how to do this. So, you can call on me and whatever." She said, "What?? You do?" Me: "YES." (politely.) Ahh, the beauty of math, that it transcends language. Interestingly, they don't label different levels of math here, at least at the Gymnazium level. It's all called "math," and everyone takes the same class. So, I was trying to ask my classmate if they call this algebra, or what, and she said, "No, it's all math. All of it. Only one name." Call it what you will, I know how to do it. This is exciting.

Three: The title of this post. In Slovak Language class (i.e., "English" class, except it's Slovak) the teacher passed out a paper with a few short (single paragraph) selections on it. I started reading, and realized I could translate the first sentence, which was "It was winter, and though it was cold, and a sharp wind blew, behind the doors in the house it was warm and good." (Yes, I do remember that verbatim.) I got very, very excited. Unfortunately, the rest faded into words I didn't know at all, enclosed by a few basic words I did know ("and", "so", "then"). It came time for the teacher to collect the pages back. I went up to her. (In Slovak) "Please, can I keep it? I want to read it." She was extremely delighted and said of course. So, I spent the day wearing my thumb raw from thumbing through my pocket dictionary, which I always keep in my bag. And I got the page translated! Save a few words that I'll have to look up in my bigger dictionary later. I was so proud of myself. And written work is so much more helpful than if someone says a word and expects me to memorize it on the spot from hearing it once. Plus I can see how things are declining where. Not that I'm understanding a fourth of the declining rules, but everything helps and is progress. So, not exactly Slovak literature. But it's something!

Okay, one last frame: In P.E. today (abbreviated in Slovak TSV, though I have no idea what that stands for), the big thing of the year... Running for 6 minutes. Not even running; everyone walked after two minutes, and then when the time was finally out, collapsed in heaps on the ground, clutching their chests and coughing or lying as if dead. It was very dramatic. Yes, some things are different here...

Tonight Ruth and I might be going to a disko party at her school. We'll see!

Much love!

P.S. The Fudge Quickies turned out perfectly, and were a big hit. There's only three left... scratch that, two. ;)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rotary Inbound Wikend-- Strecno!

Sorry for the longer delay than was promised; I haven't had time to get on the computer long enough to write this post.

So, Friday afternoon at 4 Tony--a friend of Larissa's host family-- came to pick me up. He took Larissa, Ramiro, and me (first two = the other Rotary exchange students in Nitra) to Strecno for the Rotary Inbound Conference (RIC). (Vocabulary: Inbound = Rotary term for a student currently in another country.) The drive to Strecno was supposed to take three hours, but I'm sure it was much less, since Tony was going 150 km/hr the whole way. Vyborne!

Strecno is a small town just outside Zilina in Central Slovakia. Zilina is tied with Nitra in terms of population as the third largest city in the country, at 80,000 people. Since Zilina is such a significant city, I've always wanted to go, and I did get to see a fair amount of it driving through both ways. The hills enveloping it were wonderful. And I liked Zilina itself. The afternoon was cold, gray, and foggy, and I think that made me like Zilina even more, since red roofs contrast so nicely in the gloom.

Also along the way was scenic Trencin, known for being one of the most beautiful Slovak cities, with its imposing (it's hard to say "beautiful," since it looked like more of a dungeon-castle, but certainly impressive) hrad on a cliff overlooking the city. Similarly, there was Beckov, though Beckov castle is only skeletal ruins now. Pictures I'd seen of Beckov always made me think I was missing something, some trick of the camera maybe, because it's built on such an incredibly high, steep cliff of solid rock, you wonder how they ever got up there to make it. But no, seeing it in person that was clearly what it was. Though I still don't know how they did it...

Interlude: I'll mention randomly that I found out at the RIC that Slovakia has 177 castles. I think that's the number they said. That's pretty incredible for such a small country. It means just about every town and city gets a few!

We had really nice lodgings in Strecno in a hotel there. Most people were about three to a room. One of my roommates was from Canada and the other was from Thailand, and both were in the Czech Republic-- this weekend was for all the inbounds in District 2240, which equals all of Czech Republic and Slovakia. There were about thirty-five of us total, and it seemed like there were a lot more kids in Slovakia than the Czech Republic, but really I think it was 21:15 or something. Which is a little strange to me in that there are almost two times' the number of Rotary clubs in the Czech Republic than in Slovakia; I guess the majority of them just can't host. It was interesting that a lot of kids in the Czech Republic were the only ones in their cities, while in Slovakia (almost?) everyone's doubled up at least.

The RIC was mainly run by a dozen or so Rotex members. (Vocabulary: Rotex = people who went on exchange a few years ago and now are helping out with the Rotary program.) However, there were also the important Rotary Youth Exchange officers, and a few other higher-ups, including actually the District Governor, who visited for a day all the way from the Czech Republic. We had an opening ceremony in the very nice conference room, with the playing of the Slovak and Czech national anthems, taking pictures, exchanging pins (!), and playing a few games. Then dinner and bed, at 11.

The posted schedule said that we were going to have a language test late that night. So everyone brought their language books down to the conference room the next morning, trying to get in some last-minute studying then and at breakfast; but we were in for a surprise when they announced we were having the test right then and there! Which was a bit of a shock at the time, but afterwards we were all glad that it was done with and we hadn't had to dread it the whole day. They seated us alternating Slovak-Czech and handed out pens. I know well every mistake I made, which I don't like to think about ("bird" and "train" are "vtak" and "vlak," and I chose the wrong one, for example...), but the end part was "write as many sentences as you can in Slovak," and I had that one down! I wrote two pages and could have written a lot more, but they called time. So at least that went well...

Then we had a few hours of presentations headed by Rotex, which were very helpful. There was basic information about our countries--included cultural information, which is good to know-- and tips on culture shock. Not looking forward to that...

And then after lunch we hiked up to castle Strecno! I had seen it on the hill over the town on our drive in. I was excited to go up and see it!

Walking through the town of Strecno was very pleasant. They'd emailed us prior to the RIC to tell us to bring our raingear, as the forecast was showers, but amazingly it was flawless blue skies and bright sun, the perfect weather. The houses were very pretty, with neat little gardens and lots of animals--every family had a dog, a cat, and several chickens--and there was a nice river cutting through town. People were huffing and puffing their way up the hill, but I thought it was really short and not strenuous. Just the right length.

I was in the first group, and so we had a half-hour or so to roam around the perimeter of the castle while we waited for the second group. There was an amazing view of the valley, all the hundreds of little red roofs and the hills surrounding them. We could also see a white war memorial from there, which was built to honor French soldiers who had aided Slovakia in freeing itself from Communism (I think? Now that I think about that, it doesn't make sense since it was a "Velvet Revolution," but I thought that's what I heard). Forty-six French soldiers are buried there.

And then we got a tour of the inside of the castle. It was a very extensive tour; it felt like two hours! We had a great tour guide, so that made it even better. Castle Strecno was renovated from 1976 to 1990 (it dates back to the 1300's). Most Slovak castles haven't been renovated, so it was a nice treat. They had scale models of the castle before--something like Beckov's ruins--and after--what looked like a functioning castle-- so they must have done so much work on it! And skillfully, too, since I would never had guessed a lot of the stones weren't original. It wasn't even until the tour guide pointed out the reddish stones, which he said were the originals, that I realized just how much had been redone!

At the very top, we got up to 370-some meters off the ground and we were 500-something meters above sea level. A few things that stood out for me: One, the "toilet" was just a very large window at one of the highest points. Okay, that's not unusual, but guess what they used for toilet paper. It's not what you're thinking, unless you were thinking LIVING CATS. What?! And guess what else? They're reusable, apparently...

Two: We came to the chapel, which featured two paintings of the most famous owners of the castle, a husband and wife. Though the man was second to the king, his wife was the more famous of the pair. She was known for being a saint of sorts with her immense kindness: though very wealthy, she would bake bread herself and then give it to the poor people in the villages below her home. She died of tuberculosis and was buried in the crypt in the chapel. When later soldiers came (why? don't remember) to loot and destroy the castle, they broke open the crypt, looking for jewels. What they found was her corpse. She was so perfectly preserved they thought she was only sleeping-- but she had been dead forty-six years! (And no mummification or embalming, etc. had occurred.) Okay, I'll believe she was a saint. In the chapel in present day, you could see the stairs going down the crypt (roped off), and there inside was a coffin with a dressed dummy, eerie in dim green lighting. Hmm. There was also a man and a woman in the chapel, musicians, who gave a performance, her singing and him on the keyboard. I'm not sure what the connection is there (as in why they were in the chapel), but it was very nice.

Three: The well was outside and was I think 1300 ft. deep? That was what I calculated it out to be? That seems reasonable, because it was at that level of deep where it was almost unfathomable. There was 1.5 meters of water at the bottom, which was apparently still drinkable. But the well was part of the renovation process. The invading soldiers who had wanted to destroy the castle had settled on not knocking down the walls, but filling in the well and cistern, making it impossible for anyone to ever live there again. Okay, mission accomplished. So, they only rediscovered the well a few decades ago. We saw the cistern as well, also rediscovered and dug out.

So, a very nice visit to Castle Strecno. We went back to the hotel and had some dinner, and then we had some more presentations which I really enjoyed. One was the one we'd all been waiting for: information on the trips we'll be going on this year! Well, OMG. There are lots of Rotary functions planned, and two big events: Ski Week in Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia in March (6 days, $290) and Barcelona/Italy by bus in May (13 days, $700). Awesome, not to mention much cheaper than I'd imagined! And there's also the fact that after February 1st we'll be allowed to travel by ourselves within the district, provided we secure the appropriate permissions... So I can just take a bus to Prague or something?? A long one, it's true, but that's really cool...

Saturday night we had a dance party in the conference room for two hours or something, until 11:30. It was so much fun. Really, the whole weekend was-- I'm leaving out all the hanging out that went on, that was so much of it. I still haven't put my pins on my blazer yet. They fill a large bag, and so that's going to be a time-intensive project. Unfortunately my pins, stamps which Mom and Deirdre so carefully glued to clasps, are all falling apart! It's so sad. And mysterious! I have no idea how it happened, but suddenly there were only five or so intact ones left. Awful.

We all left first thing after breakfast in the morning, at eight-thirty or so. Ramiro's host father took us home from Strecno. The morning was cool and gray, but very beautiful with the fog nesting in the hills. I came home to cleaning day. We vacuumed all the floors and mopped them, and Ruth did other cleaning projects. And she changed my bed while I was away, which was very nice. It's Kora's shedding season, so you find little puffs of fur in the most random places around the flat, and it was nice to take care of those.

Ruth and I went to Sunday mass at the Chrenova church again, since we were going to the youth group afterwards. While Ruth sat in the pews below, I sat up in the balcony so I could watch Tereska and the other performers sing and play guitar. By now, I've learned a lot of the songs, so I can actually sing along. I was amazed to find that Janka, who's probably sixteen or so, is the organ player! She would hear the cue, walk over to the organ, play a few chords like it was nothing, and then go back to the microphone for singing. And afterwards Ondrej (different from another Ondrej I mentioned before) played a duet with her... so several teens can play the organ! That blows my mind.

Nice youth group meeting-- a few more people than came to the trial run last week-- and then the priest kindly drove Ruth and me home, since we'd missed the bus.

Monday was school, of course, but afterwards was a Rotary meeting! They're definitely highlights of my week. Such nice people. And Anna brought cake left over from her daughter's wedding. The big thing from the meeting, though, was that Mario, a Rotarian who apparently sings in a Christian a capella group, is going to have a concert at a festival in Kosice on Saturday night... and he's taking Larissa, Ramiro, and me along for the ride! Kosice's been at the top of my places I want to go in Slovakia, so I'm so excited for this. We don't know yet if we'll be staying til Sunday morning or going back that night. For those who don't know, Kosice is in the far Eastern part of the country and is the second largest city. It's supposed to be very pretty--I asked Ruth what she thought were the prettiest cities, and she said Kosice... and maybe Martin? That or Trencin. And of course Nitra!

Today I'm going to make "fudge quickies" (no-bake cookies). Which will be fun! Though I'm sick, which of course isn't fun. But nothing too bad. I knew it was inevitable, since I'm living in a city in close quarters with a lot of people, all of those people are sick, and I have absolutely zero Vitamin C in my diet to fortify my immune system (can I get scurvy?). But even though I knew it was coming, I'm not happy it's here. Thanks for the cough drops, Ruth!

Much love!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mad'arska ( aj sa vola Magyar)!

[Hungary (also called Hungary)]

Wednesday was no school. It was one of the Virgin Mary's holy days, and Ruth says Slovakia's national "slogan" (?) has to do with the Virgin Mary, so that's her theory on the national holiday. Sounds likely. At any rate, everyone loves a vacation in the middle of the school week!

And especially me, since Tibor, Aneta (Tibor's girlfriend), Patrik (Aneta's son), Lenka (Ruth's cousin, age 11) and I went to Hungary for the day! My first time there, though hopefully not last. Obviously the Hungarian countryside I saw looked just like the Slovak countryside I'd left, since we went to a town right on the border, and Nitra's only an hour or so from Hungary. Corn fields on one side, sunflower fields on the other, poplars and other deciduous trees marking the margins, willows on the riverbanks. Very pleasant. It was interesting to see all the sunflowers that had been bursting at their peak a month ago when I first arrived (I remember seeing them driving from the airport) now were dark brown and shriveled, left to dry out.

Okay, Slovak's no walk in the park (more cases than Russian and a lot less study materials out there), but Hungarian... wow, I'm glad I'm not sweating over that. It seemed almost absurd how long every word on every sign was, not to mention the seemingly random jumble of consonants and diacritic marks. I discovered not only does Hungarian have the regular accents and umlauts, they also have slanted umlauts: they're like two very stubby lines which come down right-to-left. I have no idea what sound they usually make... So, Gyor, the town we went to, had the slanted umlaut over the "o" in its name. It's pronounced something like Yurr, I think.

Sad to say, Gyor was not a pretty place. I don't think Communism was very kind to it. Interestingly, this Hungarian town was pretty similar to a Slovak one (though the buildings in the old town were much more Venetian architecturally), while the Polish town we went to weeks ago was so radically different. I didn't mind that Gyor wasn't the easiest on the eyes; we weren't there to sight-see, but to go to the aquapark!

The aquapark was much different from Galandia last weekend. It didn't have the aura of sanitation that Galandia did (quite the opposite), but I didn't care. The water was very green, and, as I found out from Tibor later, partially salinated (did I just make that word up?). The water itself had a certain texture to it, like seaweed. Interesting. And it was very warm, in the nicest way.

There was an outdoor portion, with a sort of wraparound pool and one of those whirlpool-circles Galandia had. There were all sorts of alcoves and tunnels and places to sit. The inside portion was much larger, and was two large pools (including a swim-up bar, whirlpool-circle, and twenty-foot waterfall), two water slides, various saunas, locker rooms, and facilities, and two restaurants.

Cultural difference here: at Wild Waves, the regional waterpark back at home, the majority of people are young, teens or immature twenty-somethings. Here, the clientele was overwhelmingly the elderly. Many of whom I was surprised to see swimming, because they had a hard time just walking to the pools... I guess warm water is good for arthritis?

Lucky for me, I was there with Lenka. I mean, it would have been fun regardless, but relentlessly exuberant, enthusiastic Lenka made things more exciting. I don't know how many times we went on the water slides. (Too bad I didn't know how to tell her in Slovak about my adventure last summer when I went on a water slide over 70 consecutive times.) I also got told in Hungarian by the life guard. Oops. I guess watersliding together was a no-no...

This lasted many hours, but I'm not sure how to correspond the time to paragraphs, since really, it was just a series of going around in the whirlpools and going down the slides, with a lunch break in between...

We had left the house at 10, but we didn't get back home (after dropping off Aneta and Patrik on Klokocina, and Lenka in Chrenova, and picking up Kora from Erika's) until 6:45. The shower felt very nice, especially getting all the salt water off me, which irritated my cuts (and I mysteriously got sores on my feet).

On the way coming home, the sky was incredible. Not very colorful, just beautifully lit and textured. I have this one image of a large murder of crows darkening the sky over a fallow field.

And so passed my brief holiday...

Today, I had another occasion. Wednesday, when we'd picked up Kora from Erika's house, Erika had asked when I was going to come back to finish frosting the cookies. We agreed on Thursday at 3:30 after school. I get home before 3 every day, so I thought that would be fine.

Well, it started off that the bus was late. I got home at 3:05 and remembered Thursday is one of the days Ruth gets home late, so I need to walk the dogs. And for some unknown reason, I realized I couldn't remember where Erika lived. Which was very strange, because I'd been there several times and taken special note of the place, and knew it well. But then, today, it was just blank in my mind. I had no idea. All I could remember was a tiny church was visible from her house. But I definitely didn't know where the church was...

So, at 3:15 I set out walking very briskly, into the heart of the stare mesto, hoping I'd stumble upon something to jog my memory. I walked behind the divadlo (theater)... nothing. And then suddenly, to my unbelievable luck, from behind the synagogue (an imposing and very architecturally-interesting building), I glimpsed the church. I'd never seen it from there before; I'd only ever seen it from Erika's house. Since it's so small, it's dwarfed by everything around it. So I took off, down some alley I hadn't been through before (don't worry, this wasn't a mugging alley or anything). I emerged on a street, saw in the distance the "homeopatea" sign next to Erika's house... and only five minutes late! It was a miracle. Well, it was a strange hole in my memory to begin with (no, Dad, not my usual inadequacy), and then a lucky resolution.

I was surprised, when I came in through the garden, to see stara mama and Lenka were eating on the terrace with Erika. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised, since Erika is foremost stara mama's friend... Lots of dogs about. There was Molly and Lilly (stara mama's Yorkies, daughters of Phoebe), Kora and Aika (Erika's dog-- a wild thing that reminds me both physically and personality-wise of a vilossa raptor, but I like her a lot), all running free (though to be fair, Kora never runs, just sits or lies down). Lenka had a traumatic wasp stinging, I ate a corn on the cob, and then stara mama and Lenka left.

Erika had boxed up the cookies from last time, long dry, and had already made up a tube of yellow and a tube of pink frosting for me for the rest of the cookies. I'm not sure how it happened, but my technique was instantly perfect! I'd struggled before, but now I was writing in flawless cursive--this is frosting--and doing the most minute details. Aika was lying on the couch beside me, momentarily subdued as she tried to crack open nuts; Kora was snoring loudly at my feet; Erika was busying around the kitchen; Slovak opera was playing in the background, including later Simon and Garfunkel's exact arrangement of Scarborough Fair/Canticle, sung in Slovak... it was very peaceful.

I glanced at the clock and saw it was 5:30; I shrugged, because obviously Erika's clock was a few hours fast for some reason. Tibor came over and got Kora, and a half hour and three glasses of tonic water later I finally finished. I enjoyed myself so much, thinking up and then executing unique designs for the probably hundreds of cookies. And I could tell Erika really enjoyed that someone else was enjoying the art. She invited me to come over at Christmastime to make the large, many-layered seasonal cookies. I'd really love to.

I said my goodbyes and then walked home with the stuffed box of cookies. Back at the flat, the microwave's clock said 6:40. What?! So Erika's clock had been right after all... It was just very shocking to me that I'd spent over three hours there, when it'd felt like an hour at the most. Well, me getting absorbed in something and then losing touch with reality is nothing new, I guess.

Tomorrow evening I'm riding along with Larissa and Ramiro to Strecno, a town 10 km from Zilina, for the Rotary Inbound Conference! It's going to be all weekend long and I'm very excited. So Sunday or Monday you'll hear all about that... assuming the wi-fi stays intact. :)

Much love!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Moj wikend

/My weekend/

...Was awesome! And packed. So here goes...

(I wrote this post on Sunday, as promised, but the wi-fi cut out, the end part wouldn't save, and I was forced to stop there. So, here it finally is.)

On Saturday afternoon at 2, Tibor and I went to Klokocina to pick up Aneta, Tibor´s girlfriend, and her son, Patrik (age=12 ish?). We were going to an "aquapark" in Galanta.

Galanta was about an hour away, a small, pretty town. It had been raining and gray skies all day, so I, envisioning something like Wild Waves, wondered how this was going to work. Surprise! Of course it was different from how I´d imagined...

We arrived at "Galandia," a large building seemingly in the middle of a cornfield. We went inside, and it was the temperature of a tropical paradise! Too hot for me in my sweatshirt and jeans... We got numbered plastic bracelets that had electronics inside. When we went to change into our swimsuits in the locker rooms (obviously I went with Aneta), the numbers on our bracelets matched lockers, and we scanned our bracelets to lock and unlock them. Very clever, I thought.

The main room--sanctuary, I´ll call it-- was a huge series of "thermal" pools, centered around a spiral staircase under a very high ceiling. The staircase didn´t actually go anywhere... I checked. The main pool was huge and wrapped around in pleasant curves. Everything was immaculately clean. The floor of the pool (I´m guessing 5 ft. deep) was stainless steel and completely studded with little bumps for good traction. There were various shelves for sitting on around the perimeter, and one place was actually shaped for lying down, right against intense (I actually got bruises!), massaging jet streams. So comfortable... There was a waterfall, too, which also gave a good pounding. And the water was very warm.

In the center of this main pool were two concentric circles of water around the spiral staircase to nowhere. You could only get to the inner, smaller circle by climbing over the railing that partitioned it from the other one. But the outer circle had a place to enter. Every fifteen minutes or so for about five minutes furious jet streams would turn on, and the outer circle became a whirlpool! You jumped in and you could just sit there without moving and it would take you around at a very fast pace. So much fun! I loved that. It would be so sad when the jet streams turned off again...

There were two other pools inside, the kiddie pool and a large pool that was significantly warmer than the main pool but not boiling like a hot tub. There was a continuous shelf around the whole perimeter for sitting, and jet streams to massage. I could have fallen asleep so easily.

Outside, there was another pool, kept pretty cool (22 degrees Celsius, the sign said), which I really loved. I´m not really a hot water kind of person. You got there by swimming through a little grotto thing. It was too cold for most people, so I enjoyed being out there alone for a while. There was a submerged island in the middle I lay on. Later, I discovered what was up with the 7-foot high stainless steel walls in the shape of a circle in the pool. Tibor, Aneta, Patrik and I got in there along with a couple, and by having half of us standing on each side and alternating jumping up and down, we made an intense wave pool! I was close to getting over the side. Awesome.

And then, amid all this, there were also waterslides. Three of them were open-air, and assumedly because it was a cold day, they unfortunately weren´t operating. The fourth, the highest up, was covered and finished into an indoor pool. I enjoyed my first slide on it, but even though I was lying down with my arms across my chest, for some reason I went really slowly. Which made my second and third times really unpleasant... FIVE people smashed into me! It was really painful and scary to hear them coming up behind me, and then wham! After the second time this happened, I was really in no mood to do the slide again.

We stayed there three hours. As it started getting later, they turned on the lights. The underwater ones were a lovely aquamarine color (and for some reason, the water was perfectly clear, so the color really came through), and then there were two red lights side by side on the ceiling. The way the red lights were positioned, they made a vermillion trail on the water that looked like a tropical sunset. It was so beautiful.

Well, I had a wonderful time and got completely tired out! Not to mention relaxed. We rinsed off in the lockers and then headed home. It was 7 by that time. Tibor and I dropped off Aneta and Patrik (really nice people) at their flat at around 8. I had a little pasta for dinner back at home and had a real shower, and then went to bed. I definitely slept well.

Today, Sunday, we got dressed up and went out at 12:30 to Chrenova (if you imagine a map of Nitra with the stare mesto at the center, Zobor is North, Klokocina is East, and Chrenova is West). Tibor´s 70 year-old uncle eloped last week, so this was the actual wedding celebration at a nice restaurant. We found out it´s actually the same place the other Rotary club in Nitra meets. Behind it is a large, old amphitheater which faces a towering concrete wall which they must project movies onto. Ruth and I walked around there a bit while they waited for people to arrive. And we idly looked for four-leaf clovers (stvorlistok, is the word)... Ruth found her first ever! We saw it at the same time, or maybe she got there a little first. Good for her. And then I found three others. It´s nice to be back in the groove, since I haven´t found any real ones since the rafting trip (2). I guess I´m just not in the right part of Nitra...

The dining room was set up very nicely with placecards. Mine said "Friend Rhiannon" and pinned to my napkin was a lapel pin of the American and Slovak flags together. Which was so nice! Of course it´s going on my blazer.

Who was there? Let´s see... Obviously the bride and groom, the latter of which looked just like an older version of Gabriel ("Gabo"); Tibor, Ruth, myself; Gabo, Gabika, Anka, Lenka and Miska; Tibor´s two cousins, women in their thirties (I thought they were in their twenties); one of the bride´s daughters (the other lives in Amsterdam) and her husband and children; Ruth´s stara mama, who is the sister of the groom, and Ruth´s grandfather; the brother of the bride and his wife; and a few other people who were either friends or relatives.

The bride, groom, and stara mama made toasts. We ate the first two courses, which were pasta salad and soup. It was fun for me to see the bride´s daughter who was there talking to her daughters exclusively in English, while their father spoke to them in Slovak-- they´re obviously trying to raise the children bilingual. And it was working! I watched the younger, who was probably two or three, have a temper tantrum, shouting "No! I won´t! I don´t want to!"

I had a nice long conversation with Mary, one of Tibor´s cousins (daughter of the groom), who is a journalist. (The older sister is a translator who dubs things into Slovak.) Her boyfriend Roman was there and was also very nice. She invited me to come over to her flat sometime, so I hope that happens. They live actually right on the main square! That´s so unbelievable. That would be incredible.

Then in the lobby the newlyweds received all their gifts and handshakes and cheek kisses from everyone. I was surprised to see that stara mama´s gift was a huge exotic plant. I asked Ruth, was it traditional to give plants for wedding gifts? She laughed-- as in America, usual wedding gifts are useful things to help get a young couple started with their new life together. But what do you get 70 year-olds whose lives are definitely established? So stara mama had decided on a plant. It was more like a tree, actually...

Afterwards, Anka, Lenka, Mary, Miska and stara mama lined up and also received gifts, handshakes, and kisses. Why? All of them had had either birthdays or name-days or both recently. Name-days are great. You get two birthdays a year! All Slovak calendars include whose name-day it is for every day. Obviously I don´t have one, so Tibor sat down with the calendar, randomly flipping through the days, and then decided on November 6th. Why? That´s Renata´s day, and he thought the names were sort of similar, so...

When this was finally through, we went back to the dining room to order entrees. It took forever for them to come! Over an hour at least. And mine came last of all, which was too bad because Ruth and I were going to leave early to go to Sunday mass. Because my entree came so late, we missed the mass at the church Ruth had planned on, the one that´s connected to her school. But she decided we could go to the 5:30 one at a different church instead, so we stuck around for coffee and dessert (I didn´t have either).

The two of us left soon afterwards (though the celebration is still going on, at a quarter to ten!). We walked further into Chrenova, to a church I hadn´t been to before. It was where Ruth had her first communion. The exterior reminded me a lot of old Spanish missions in California. Only the palm trees were missing...

It was a nice mass, made nicer in that Ruth´s friend and classmate who I´ve met several times before, Teresa, was performing in the balcony along with a few other girls. Teresa has a great voice and she plays the guitar. I found out afterwards we were lucky in this respect; today was the first time they´d had musical performers! I was also amazed to see Teresa there, since there are at least a dozen churches in Nitra, and for some reason she had been at this one, which is off the beaten path.

After mass, Ruth went up to the balcony to talk to the girls, and I stayed below. Most of the people had left. The priest came up to me and said something in Slovak; I apolegetically explained in Slovak that I was American. And then, ironic to what I´d professed, we had a quality conversation entirely in Slovak-- he didn´t speak any English. He was blown away when I told him I´d only been here a month! I really feel like in the last two days or so a switch has been flipped in my mind. Not the big switch, a smaller one, but a switch nonetheless. Somehow I´m just understanding so much more. And I was understanding a lot before! It´s such a wonderful feeling.

Ruth came back downstairs and said we´d been invited to a youth group meeting. Another interesting coincidence: this was the first trial meeting on the priest´s part, trying to start a youth group. There were six of us, including me. People brainstormed ideas and wrote down their email addresses. One disadvantage to appearing knowledgeable in Slovak was that later the priest spoke very quickly to me, and I couldn´t catch it all! He was a really great guy. I´m excited I´ll get to see him again, since Ruth and I promised to come to the next meeting next Sunday. He said he wants me to come speak to the children at the elementary school where he teaches religion, and I´d really like to do that!

There were no buses to get back home, so we had a nice twilight walk. And I know I had more written here, but it apparently got deleted, and I don't remember what it was. Too bad.

Updates: Had a very nice Rotary meeting yesterday. I really enjoy them! Today marks four whole weeks in Slovakia. Yay! And tomorrow, I am going with Tibor, Aneta, and Patrik (maybe? I don't know) to HUNGARY. Really! Not Budapest; but I don' t know how to spell the name of the town. We're going to the thermal baths there that Hungary is so famous for. Needless to say, that's going to be awesome. And I won't be missing school, because tomorrow is a national holiday-- I'm not actually sure what of (people have just told me, "uh... it's an anniversary").

Much love!