[Happy birthday!] --whew, that Slovak phrase is long...
It's overdue, but my birthday in Slovakia definitely needs a post. If only I can remember everything!
Ruth and I went to lunch at her grandma and grandpa's flat. I've met stara mama many times now, but it was my first time meeting the grandfather. He's Tibor's father, originally from Hungary-- he raised Tibor bilingual. (Why couldn't I have been raised bilingual?!) The plan was that later Gabriel's family would come over and take me to the hrad.
Lunch was... wow. Nicer Slovak lunches are traditionally three courses: soup, an entree, and dessert. The starter soup was--ahh, I always forget its name. But I've had it several times before and it's always been good: lots of vegetables and noodles in what I think is a chicken broth. For the entree, they had no way of knowing that duck is my absolute FAVORITE... so I just got lucky on that one! I couldn't believe it. Duck? Really? And what's more, with knedla on the side! I suppose knedla is a kind of bread, but it's hard to think of it as such. It's white, and outwardly looks and tastes like the dough on the outside of a humbao. But it's thick and fluffy. It's cut into slabs and makes a perfect side to just about any dish, especially runny ones--perfect for mopping up the juices. Knedla is, next to Kofola, my favorite Slovak food. So doubly lucky there...
Words fail when describing the duck. (Certainly my Slovak ones did when I tried to express myself at the table!) I think I can safely say it was the best duck I've ever had. And considering I've had duck at Seattle's finest--Wild Ginger, the Dahlia Lounge--that's saying something. It seems impossible, but perhaps even more delicious were the drippings. They were the color and had the glow of honey in their little bowl. I was hesitant about putting drippings on my knedla, since I don't like anything with the knedla (I'm not the one mopping up juices), but I decided to give it a try...
It surpassed understanding. It just was. I can never retrieve that moment, but I'm thankful that I had it. Pretty life changing. I don't think it's possible that I can ever have better food.
I toasted my osemnact' over a glass of red wine, and soon afterwards Gabriel's family arrived. We hung around talking for a while, and then I heard singing coming around the corner from the kitchen into the dining room. What was this? I had thought that lunch was everything! It was certainly more than enough. But no, Gabriel and Grandpa were singing the birthday song (in English), each carrying a large red flower. Everyone started shaking my hand as they wished me the long phrase this post is titled (stara mama and two year-old Miska got kisses). And then-- I can't remember who brought it out, but there was a GIANT cake, a dozen candles lit on top! It was so incredibly exquisite, chocolate frosting with white tufts around the rim. I was determined to finally, for the first time in my life, blow out all the candles at once. And I thought I'd succeeded, until I stopped, and saw I'd missed just one. Oh well. There's always next year.
It was my honor and duty to cut the cake, but I felt very unworthy, knowing I'd be "troubling the new snow" (great line from The Left Hand of Darkness). I think I did okay though, considering. It was great cake, though I'd already been unbelievably stuffed before. I kept saying to myself, "Myslim ze uz nepotrebujem vecera!" ('I don't think I need dinner now!). Later, Ruth told me that she'd brought the cake in the car with us when stara mama picked us up. That sneaky girl, she'd said "oh, I forgot something, I'll be right back" when we were waiting at the curb, and then stashed the bag in the trunk. I'd suspected nothing.
When we were all done eating, we walked over the namestie (square) that all the pedestrian zones lead to, where the tourist train started. Gabriel took me the information center there that I'd somehow never noticed and got me tons of pamphlets about Nitra in English, including a map. Nice!
The train was pekny (nice), slowly winding its way through the pedestrian zone, through a few neighborhoods, and finally up to the hrad. A speaker announced the highlights as we went, though unfortunately for me all the descriptions were in Slovak. Even though the train went slowly, in five minutes we had arrived at the castle.
It was different this time in that there was no giant wedding party to intrude on (much quieter!). Gabriel, stara mama, and I went to the Diocese museum that was there, which had been closed when I went before. More prices to love in Slovakia: museum admission was .60 Euros for me. Seriously?
And it was a really nice museum! I think I'll go back sometime and spend even longer. It wasn't very large, but it had a great collection of ancient books (I loved studying the calligraphy) and, downstairs, all the precious-stone-studded jewelry and chalices you could feast your eyes on. Very enjoyable.
After we leisurely sight-saw for an hour or so, we walked to the base of the hrad and said our goodbyes-- they were taking their car home, and I was walking. A great walk, of course. The stare mesto is always great.
So, a wonderful birthday! Vel'mi pekne d'akujem to everyone!
The next day, it was crunch time for Ruth, whose big exams were the next day. Since she was in America last year, she had to take exams in Biology, Chemistry, and Slovak Literature in order to pass the grade; a fail would mean she would have to repeat the year. High stakes, and the grades on the exams mattered too for applying to university.
It was gray skies and raining, but the exact degree of rain I associate with Washington. The kind of rain you can go out and work in. So I got my raincoat and decided to make the long walk to the giant park I'd heard of, near Zobor. I'd seen it from the hrad, so I knew what direction to go in. (I'll say it again: the hrad is such an awesome landmark. Night and day, it's visible everywhere. I can never get lost.) I wanted to find Ruth a four-leaf clover, but there was nowhere in the city I'd explored that I could get lost in a clover patch for an hour or so. Thus, what I thought of as my pilgrimage.
To my surprise, Nitra seemed much busier in the rain than I'd seen it under sunny skies. Everyone was out and about their business; traffic clogged the streets. I got strange looks from everyone I saw, since my head was bare. Everyone desperately clutched their umbrellas. It made me laugh inside. Ha! This is how we have to function where I come from! If you need an umbrella, you'll never get anything done! The rain was perfect. It made me feel so good.
The one downside was the way rain distorts noise. Harder to jaywalk around blind corners! At one point, I was concentrating so intensely on hearing the cars, I forgot another rain consideration, and didn't see it coming when some car deliberately soaked me in a puddle. Thanks. Appreciated.
It was a very long walk to the park, but I was in no rush. Finally, I saw the long green stretching into the distance that I knew must mean my destination. And just before it was a HUGE clover patch. I could have spent weeks there, probably. Here was my mission! So I went into my trance state and spent probably an hour there. I failed. Well, I found two, but I couldn't really count either. One was almost perfect-- it had four fully formed leaves, but two were joined just a tiny bit-- they looked like they were just overlapping. So disappointing. The other definitely had four leaves, but the placement was so strange I wondered if it was another species. I put both in my pocket anyway, though the failure stung. Only a little.
Just across the street from the park this whole time, I finally went into it. I had it all to myself. I have no idea how huge it is, since I only visited the smallest corner. I've heard in another part they have deer and other animals. Another time. I walked around the edge of a lovely lake, dripping with willows. There was a bronze statue of a woman that I really liked; in the rain, it looked like she was crying. And well she might: there was graffiti on both her legs.
I went to the playground that was there. All the little kids and their parents were staying inside, so there was no one to give me "aren't you a little old for this?" stares. There were great (and at times lawsuit-worthy) toys. My triumph at being alone was a little hollow, though, in that most of the toys required two people. Seesaw for one, anyone?
And then I went home, and gave Ruth the fruit of my failures. I guess it was alright anyway, though, since she did so incredibly well on her exams. All right, Ruth!
[Interlude: the lighting is incredible right now. I can't see the sun, but the entire stare mesto is bathed in a rich red glow. I tried my camera on it, but no luck.]
The next day, to celebrate Ruth's week of intensive studying finally being over, stara mama and Grandpa took us out to lunch at a nice restaurant. But since this is Slovakia, a three-course meal for four was 15 Euro. What?! If I'm not careful, I'm going to get used to this kind of living and then have to come back to American prices.
It was a long day of different friends of Ruth's coming in and out: shopping with Veronika (a whole new bargain shopping center to explore! Yay!), baking banana bread with Elenka (well, I just watched while they did). And then Ruth, Elenka, and I took a bus to Kolkocina, the hill everyone seems to live on, for church. It is the newest church in Nitra, and in fact looked like a very large, very nice American church, in terms of the modern design. It was very beautiful, and I had a good time. We had gone to this church because afterwards there was going to be a "music thing" (details?) there.
It turned out that part of the church complex was this large performing arts center where a four-boy band was playing. I don't think it was church-related music. They were really good! Though I definitely had hearing loss afterwards. I was mostly amazed by the special effects, the lighting and smoke machine. Very professional.
Good prescience on my part that I'd decided to wear my warm jacket, because there weren't any buses going to the stare mesto. So we walked back home. I appreciated the landmark of the hrad even more that night. Looking down from Kolkocina, the hrad rose out of a sea of darkness, every inch illuminated.
Back at the flat, Ruth and Elenka ordered pizza, and we settled down to watch Remember Me, a movie Ruth had liked in America, and which she'd managed to get here with Czech subtitles. Veronika and Silvia came over later, and another pizza was ordered.
An interesting thing about the movie: the end has a shocking plot twist when it turns out it's September 11th. Watching, I saw the main character get in the elevator and go up to the 90th floor. I started to get confused. What building is that high? The little girl's teacher tells her to pay attention, and the date on the board is focused in on. Even then, I didn't really get it. What...? And then, when the main character has resolved his issues with his father up in the office, he looks out the window, and the camera pans out to reveal the World Trade Centers. It finally hit me then. I thought, oh God! Like I'd been punched in the stomach. It was so awful...
The movie ended soon after, and I had one of my stranger moments of culture shock. Somehow, reliving 9/11 while not in America made it that much more horrific for me. I experienced this other dimension of the tragedy I had never felt before. I can't really shake it. I really started to realize something, but I can't really express it here. Interesting.
To end on a happier note, though Tibor had said he'd come home in the afternoon of the First, he got home at 3:30 this morning, fifteen minutes after I'd gone to bed. Bosnia and Herzegovina sounds like it was a happy challenge.
School starts tomorrow, sort of. Ruth says you just go for a little while, maybe a half-hour or so? We'll see. Tibor's going to take me and work out things with Golianove, but after the first day I'm going to have to navigate the bus system and Kolkocina. That hill is a maze!
P.S. If you need a laugh, look up "Jozin z Basin--English subtitles" on YouTube. Wow. Oh, and I forgot to mention this, but I have to give a presentation to my host Rotary club this Monday. So does Ruth. Kind of worried about that one... wish me vel'a st'astia!