I´ve had a couple of really good days here, so I thought I´d share...And § is going to count as a semicolon, because I don´t know how to make those on this computer.
Yesterday, Ruth and I went over to Erika´s house to make cookies. I´d met Erika before§ she´s the elderly friend of the family who takes care of Kora (the dog) during the day. She´s one of these baker types who knows how to make everything, sans cookbook, and does. Erika´s specialties are these exquisite cookies with very fine, detailed, delicate designs in every color of frosting you could want. The last time I´d visited I gotten to see her pinboard covered with all her showcase creations. Most were very old, she told me, and she needed to make new ones. A fleecy lamb with the sweetest smile§ rabbits and eggs for many years´worth of Easters§ even a cookie specially for Ruth´s exchange, in the shape of two interlocking hearts with the American and Slovak flags on them (and the American flag looked like it actually had fifty stars on it!). I didn´t know it initially, but Erika was going to teach me the art.
Erika pinned dishtowels around Ruth´s and my waist for aprons, and then we washed our hands. Erika had pre-made a large bowl of dough, and she had me roll it out flat. Interestingly (to me), the important thing was in not getting the dough too thick. Thin wasn´t a problem. Ruth and I cut out two packed baking sheets´worth of cookies in the shape of moons, hearts, cats, roosters, pigs, rabbits, and lambs-- you can guess who chose the cookie cutters from Erika´s several dozen. Then Erika separated out the yolk from two eggs (the whites were used for frosting later), gave me what looked like a homemade brush, and had me brush the cookie tops with the whisked yolks for baking.
The cookies seemed to only bake for a minute or so§ at any rate, Erika took the baking sheet out with her bare hands, so it couldn´t have been too hot... The cookies hadn´t expanded really at all, just puffed up a little, but the tops were a nice golden brown. Frosting time!
It took a long time just to make the frosting. I was reminded of making supersaturate solutions in chemistry as I watched Erika add tablespoons of powdered sugar to the egg whites again and again and again... it must have been several cups´worth, but her intensive whisking with a blunt knife condensed it all into the little cup.
When she´d finally judged the frosting thick enough, Erika gave me a short lesson in how it was done. I knew as I watched that she was making it look so easy and that really it was going to be a hard process. She gave the little lamb a white wooly coat so deftly, keeping within the edges perfectly. My turn! Definitely something that takes practice... I got better, certainly, especially after she gave me another lesson when she saw I was struggling, but it was still a very slow process for me.
We frosted the one sheet all in white, and then Erika made up some special bags of colored frosting, bright red and yellow-orange, clamped off with clothespins. She showed me how to hold the bags and use only my wrists. I got a better feel for the flow of the frosting, but you can´t imagine my newfound awe and appreciation of her skill! I can´t believe those perfectly even lines...let alone how many separate bags of frosting she would have had to have made for each cookie´s many colors!
This took us several hours, and then I had to leave because Ruth and I were going to church, Sunday mass. The cookies had to dry before we could put on more layers of frosting, so Erika invited me back for whenever I could to continue the process. Maybe tomorrow I can go...
Ruth and I went again to the church at the base of the hrad. It´s Ruth´s favorite, decorations-wise. I like how traditionalist it is. A highlight was the music. Last time we´d been, it´d only been the elderly congregation singing (no songbooks, remember, and Ruth says they´re old songs even she doesn´t know the words to). This time, in the balcony above us, out of sight, there was a special choir. And I found out that what I´d assumed last time was a counter telling how large the congregation was--a digital screen up front-- was actually telling what song number they were on. Ah. But I´ve never seen any books in which there would be numbered songs...
Today was my first try at the bus solo. Wow, did I build up so much worry and anxiety over nothing! Ruth had kindly figured out the bus schedule for me, so I knew I had to be out at the stop (which is conveniently right outside the apartment) at 7:31. I knew I was in the right place at the right time, but I felt much better when I actually saw my classmate waiting at the same stop. This particular route is designed for Golianove kids--it goes straight to the school, and no further than the school--so I was sure I was going to get there, but I was amazed at how tightly packed the double-long bus got! Not only are there no school buses, kids from all over go to Golianove: Zobor, on the opposite side of town§ even several kids in my class from towns 30 km away going to the better school.
A good second real day of school, though not much to do. English class was of course my highlight, though it felt strange to be encouraged to speak English... I couldn´t get over feeling guilty and wanting to toss in as many Slovak words as I could. German was interesting, as my first time being deadweight in a language class! We were playing a game in groups, trying to generate the most number of German words that started with certain letters. I felt bad for my groupmates, since I was no use. (The only "s" word I knew which fit the categories asn´t very appropriate, so I didn´t bring it up.)
A word about German in Slovakia: the Slovak kids I´ve talked to consider German much harder than English, principally because of the genders. Slovak and German both have three genders (male, female, neuter) which all nouns perscribe to. But of course, in a lot of instances nouns are different genders in the different languages. I have no problem thinking of a book as male in Spanish and female in Slovak§ but then, my native language doesn´t use genders, so whenever I use them, it´s just something foreign I´m memorizing, like a verb conjugation. Deirdre sent me an excellent article about this called The Philosophy of Language, published in the New York Times. But genders become deeply ingrained in speakers of gendered languages, so that they actually feel that inanimate objects are male, female, whatever. I can see how it would be difficult, then, for such people to learn another gendered language.
Despite its difficulty, German is important in Slovakia. The English teacher asked the students, "Do you think it´s important to know English?" Everyone nodded and said "Of course! Everyone in the whole world speaks English." Then she said, "Do you think it´s important to know German?" (This is the group of kids whose second language is English and distant third is German.) Everyone hissed and shook their heads and muttered things like "I hate German!" "No, it´s not important! English is more useful! German is just hard!" The English teacher calmly listened and nodded, and then said, "You know, I speak English and French. This is my first year teaching. When I was looking for jobs teaching all over Slovakia, many I had to immediately discount because they required both English and German. English is just the expectation. So many jobs require applicants to have German as well. Don´t rule it out just yet... every language you know will help you..."
It was a long, seven-class day (actually, the exact length of my old American schooldays, but I think having more classes makes it feel longer), as all days except Friday will be, and I was so hungry by lunch time at 1:30, having not eaten since seven that morning. The cafeteria food´s not known for being gourmet (quite the opposite), but the good news is that when you´re hungry everything is delicious! An unexpected nice surprise came when the lunch lady called me aside-- my classmate translated for me. She asked where I was from (I guess she´d heard me speaking English...hopefully it´s not because I stick out that badly!)§ I told her America. It turns out she wants an English-speaking friend for her teenage son to improve his language skills. She asked if I have time on Saturday. I hope so, because I´d totally love to do it! I´ll ask Ruth, when she comes back from her school´s retreat, if she had anything already planned...
After school, Natalya, Larissa (other American exchange student in Nitra)´s host sister and the sister in what will be my third family, picked us both up to take us to the Rotary meeting, held on Klokocina near the school. I found the night before I was actually not presenting my Powerpoint, as I´d thought, but just introducing myself. Oh well. I finally got to meet Ramiro, the Mexican exchange student, and Miroslav, my counselor. I was surprised at the size of the club: only thirty people at the most, compared to the 200 plus at my Olympia club. Lots of variety. I´m glad the meetings are held at 3:30, because they want us to come every week. That´ll be easy to walk to after school on Mondays, once Larissa and I figure out the way.
There were a few special guests at the meeting: a couple from the Czech Republic (whose son, I found out from the mother, had actually been an exchange student in Snohomish, so when the parents had visited him there, they had travelled around all of Washington, including Olympia), and two rebounds, one who´d gone to Turkey (!) and one who´d been in Canada--the Northwest Territories, as a matter of fact!
We did end up having to introduce ourselves. I think I spoke well§ the Rotary woman said, "Congratulations on your Slovak. It is very good."
A big highlight for me was getting to meet the woman who will be my second host mother. It´s amazing how instantly you can love someone! Imagine the nicest, kindest, sweetest, prettiest person... And, what´s more... I´m still reeling in shock... Her husband is Italian (and speaks excellent Spanish, she says!), so this Deember they´re taking me to Italy-- for THREE WEEKS!!!!! Wowowowow. I guess I better brush up on my Italian. Buongiorno! Grazie! Prego! Arivaderci...
And speaking of awesome trips, I was talking to the boy who´d been in Canada, and he says he heard we´re going on a Rotary trip sometime this year to Barcelona, by bus. Seriously?? Spain? How awesome is that!
After the Rotary meeting, Natalya picked Larissa and me up and drove me home. Tibor and Ruth were both out, and I felt justified in treating myself, so I decided to walk to the mall and buy myself a Milka bar, which I´d been hearing about from so many people. I was maybe a little too determined... This was not the kind of Washington rain you go out bareheaded in. This was the insta-soak variety. And I hadn´t thought to grab an umbrella from the closet. I´m hoping, maybe in vain, that my jeans (my only remaining pair, since the others are in the wash!) will be dry by tomorrow... At least I got a walk, got my candy, and got a nice hot shower afterwards. And God, that candy was worth every raindrop. Sorry Dad, it´s got me questioning Ritter Sport...
Tomorrow is my three week mark. Really? It still feels so fresh and new, even though every day has been so long and full... I´m not feeling the exchange student doldrums yet!