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!


  1. Granddad and I are so pleased with your blogs, especially with your rapid learning of Slovak and your awareness of the little differences with Polish and Czech. Your writing is very compelling and sometimes quite beautiful. The descriptions of the churches you've visited and the people you have met are very insightful. Keep it up, but be careful of your health!
    Love, Nana and Granddad

  2. Your trip to Kosice sounds like another magical adventure! Get well, Rhiannon! Love, mom.