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!