Monday, October 25, 2010


Yes, it finally happened. I went there. Well, I've been there once before, but airports don't count...

A little background on the significance of Prague to me. When I was little, my dad got me a picture book called Golem by David Wisneiwski which told the legend of a giant guardian made from clay who had protected the Jewish ghetto in Prague back in the 1100's. The pictures are incredible, because they're actually photographs of exquisitely-detailed cut-paper artwork. I will never understand how the author does that. Well, the book is incredible, and always captured my imagination; especially the spindly silhouettes of Gothic architecture in the city.

Sometime down the road, I found out Prague still looks like that. So actually going there and walking those streets was definitely a when, not an if. Kind of sad to say, but maybe it was as good a reason as any, Prague was the reason I put the Czech Republic down on my country selection sheet back in December when I was applying for Rotary. (Strange to think that's almost a year ago now!)

I summarized to Tibor this visit to Prague's significance for me as we drove, and he said, "So, finally, thirteen years later!" My thoughts exactly.

We got up at four AM on Saturday (okay, that was just me--I need time to get ready!) and left at 5. Elena, one of Ruth's best friends, had stayed the night because she was coming with us.

And then we drove for five hours. It really didn't feel long at all to me. (I also wasn't the one driving.) I was excited also to get to see the Czech countryside; surprise, it looked like the Slovak countryside! The major difference was that the Czech Republic has none of the hills which really characterize Slovakia.... Okay, maybe different after all. It looked like western Slovakia, anyway. The fall colors were breathtaking; Fall is finally full-blown here! And I knew, with almost exclusively deciduous trees everywhere, it would be a show. Very beautiful. (I'll say it again: no reds; but the yellow-orange-brown spectrum is still really something to see.)

Czech towns, as far as I could see from the freeway, also looked just like Slovak towns. I know you'd probably expect that, seeing as they were the same country for a very long time, but for some reason I anticipated big differences across the border. Well, the signs all changed their languages...

I expected Brno to be awesome, but unfortunately there really wasn't anything to see from the freeway. Population-wise, Brno is the second-biggest city in the country. (Praha-Brno-Ostrava. In Slovakia, it's Bratislava-Kosice-Presov-Zilina/Nitra.)

We stopped for lunch somewhere in the Czech Republic, at this place which had goats out front. Yes, I remember places by the animals that are there. The goats were amazing. They were so quiet and sweet and didn't mind that I stroked them. They were so soft and beautiful (three black, one caramel with black markings). I felt so sad they had such a small pen with not much grass. So sad.

The sign said 20 km to Praha, it was 10:30 or so in the morning and I was really feeling the excitement, and then BAM! We hit Prague traffic. It was almost at a standstill. We had to inch along for the next half-hour or so. What do you expect...

Finally, we broke out of the congestion and drove into the heart of the red roofs before us. Not only was I completely excited, it was a very cool feeling that we had drove here. Like, wow, I'm in Prague and it's basically in my own country! On the radio, Enrique Iglesias' "I Like It" came on, and that pretty much summarized my feelings! (Please don't look up the lyrics and then reread this. I'm talking strictly the song title, here.)

We were staying with Michal, who is Erika's middle-aged son (also Tibor's good friend). He has a flat in the heart of the city. How wonderful is it that I can be welcome to a bed in the room of my host sister's grandma's friend's son's son? (Because Ruth, Elena, and I slept in the two sons' room--the boys are 18 and 23.) Michal was actually away on business most of the time-- I only met him for five minutes-- and his sons were both away for various reasons as well, so Olga, his wife, was our hostess.

Olga was a very nice woman (who looked exactly like Kate Bush!). Over tea and biscuits in the nook she told us how she was teaching herself English. Despite that we were in Prague, because Michal is Slovak I just assumed Olga was as well and didn't listen to her accent carefully. I found her harder to understand, but she and I had a short conversation, and then Tibor proudly proclaimed, "You see? She understands Czech too!" Ah ha. So that's what Olga had been speaking! I don't know why I didn't recognize it, because usually I do. Afterwards I certainly heard it.

They had such a beautiful flat! It had that rare grace of being both light and airy, and yet also warm and inviting, even in the depths of winter. I hope my future home has that someday.

We dropped off our stuff and then the four of us, along with Olga, set out for sightseeing! No time to waste.

We took a half-hour ride on an electric tram (they were everywhere) up to near Prague Castle. Well, I guess I could say it now rather than later... That kind of summarized Prague for me: Beautiful-- and way, way too many tourists everywhere. (Larissa told me recently it is the number 4 most visited city in Europe after London, Paris, Rome.) Sadly, it kind of spoiled the beauty for me. I definitely appreciated the exquisite architecture, and the fact that every single building was old and special; but the entire time I was elbow-to-elbow with a million other people also craning their necks to see the next Gothic building. Every place we went I heard English everywhere, along with a dozen other languages from all over the world.

Okay, despite this all, Prague castle was great. The weather was perfect for sightseeing and for picture-taking-- I can see how nicely the clear blue skies contrasted with the red roofs, now that I look back through the four hundred pictures I took.

Prague castle is actually where the president of the Czech Republic lives, and while there were uniformed guards who couldn't smile (just like at Buckingham Palace-- and all the obnoxious people trying to get them to move were there too), I'm sure there was much more important, hidden security around.

One archway past the castle was the cathedral... I think I can say that's the most intricately-detailed architecture I've ever seen! Every spire had another spire on top of it, and so on. The coolest gutters you'll ever see-- at the front, on one side of the door was an owl, and the other side a gargoyle. When it rains the water spouts out their mouths... Unless they've blocked them now for safety reasons, as I can imagine, because it looks like they would be spitting a lot of water, and it's at least twenty feet down from there... Look out below! That would hurt.

Through a few more courtyards, a short street, and two more archways, we emerged at what must be the very best view of the city. We waited our turn, and then got to lean out over the walls (chin-height at the highest, waist-high at the lowest) and see all of Prague. Now that was exciting for me! I could pick out all the buildings and bridges I knew so well from photos. It was different in that a) I was actually there seeing them; and b) it was a nice day. For some reason I've always imagined Prague under an oppressively overcast day. Don't worry-- I got that dream fulfilled on Sunday.

We drank in the view for a long time, and then we walked down several of the narrow cobblestone alleys Prague is so famous for, and went to a traditional little kircma. (For those who don't remember, "kircma"= place you drink. Basically a pub. I think the name also denotes "dive"; you wouldn't call a nice place a kircma.) As expected, it was a very smoky place with only a few tables-- everyone was sitting at the bar. We sat at a table with the coolest ashtray I've ever seen: a large ceramic polar bear (with red eyes!) leaning over a glacial pool (the latter = where you shake the ash into). I think ashtrays are generally supposed to be small and discreet, and that was neither.

Tibor and Olga took the alcohol-and-cappuccino approach, which is what most people do at kircma. Ruth, Elena, and I all got punch (I didn't know what to order, since the whole menu was alcoholic or coffee, so they recommended the punch, saying it was delicious and had a low alcohol content). The punch was hot, but not too hot (just the right temperature for me!), bright red, and came with a lemon to squeeze and then drop into it. I thought it was delicious.

Elena and Ruth came back from the bathroom (called WC --pronounced "kvetsie"), and then I went. I opened the little door, expecting to see a little closet, and was in for a big surprise... I was in a garden! Okay, I had the brief, ridiculous thought of "Do they seriously want people to use their garden?!", but then I thought further. I'm sure space in Prague, as in any beautiful city, is very dear, so this garden in a large, quiet courtyard was quite unexpected. I walked around for a bit, and then found the actual WC, which was in fact a tiny closet. That was an interesting experience, though, in opening doors! I'm glad Elena and Ruth didn't warn me, but let me discover it for myself.

Olga said goodbye to us after kircma, because she had other errands and things to do. We walked on. This is all a bit of a blur to me, because we went everywhere and took the electric trams and the underground subway countless times to different places around the city. I think we went next to a bridge near the famous Charles Bridge (Czech: Karluv most; Slovak: Karlov most). We admired the Charles Bridge from afar, and the river below us, and the city on both sides. As we went, Ruth told me the very sad story of Ceskoslovensko...

The way I'd read about the countries' split at the end of 1992 (officially on January 1, 1993), it had sounded like a "best for all involved," natural thing. As in, oh, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had never really merged into one country, but had been two countries forced to act as one. Plus, it was a hassle to have the capital, Prague, be so far away for people in, say, Slovakia. So it was a mutual decision, once they were free from Communism, to split.

Not what I heard from Ruth! "We were better as Ceskoslovensko. We were both stronger countries that way." According to her, two evil politicians got together and worked out this deal for themselves. One was Czech and one was Slovak, and they wanted the countries to split so they could be the respective presidents (as it happened) and get lots of money and power. The actual citizens didn't want the country to split. But--ta da! They did it. All according to plan. Ruth says the countries will probably never get back together again; not only is it too complicated, etc., she says the young people of the countries don't really like each other now. A lot of Slovaks I know don't consider Bratislava their capital, but Prague. And I've heard Czechs lament losing all the mountains (Slovensko's got them, Cesko doesn't). It seems very sad to me...not to mention just plain evil.

After we were over the bridge, we went to a place for lunch. It was in a smoky basement area and had a pirate theme for some reason--all the walls were cheaply painted with waves, and ghost ships, and one pirate. At Ruth's suggestion, I ordered the Czech national dish. (Oh! I should mention that now I do like the Slovak national dish, halusky. I had it again [actually at a Rotary meeting], and I really liked it.) It's knedl'a (my favorite!) with pork and sauerkraut. I think it's delicious. They certainly prepared it really well in that place! (Though, truth be told, the knedl'a slices were pretty stingy in size. Sort of sad.)

After lunch, we walked around some more, and then went to another kircma. Maybe I can't say "kircma," actually, because this was a top-of-the-line bar. It was huge. The room we were in had a wall that was just a giant TV screen. (The news was on.) The bar itself was made of light panels that changed colors in a pleasant, subtle way. Each table had its own (what I'll call) smart tap. These things were incredible. You held your glass up to the tap and pulled back the handle, and on the screen a price would immediately start ticking upwards, about 7 cents a second or something. Not only that, the smart tap had jukebox and table service options, among games and much more. I've never seen that before. (Then again, I've been in only one other bar in my entire life, at age 12 in Princeton, NJ; so who am I to say what's standard?)

Then we were off to the Charles Bridge. It's called Karluv Most in Czech, and Karlov Most in Slovak. (We took trams and the subway to so many, many places, I can't note here when we walked somewhere and when we took public transportation.) Yay! The highlight of Prague!

And...a billion and a half tourists. I heard English or German or Dutch or Chinese way more than I heard Czech. It was just a sea of people. But hey, I was one of them, and I snapped a million and a half photos of every little cobblestone from five different angles. (I took over 700 pictures in Praha alone.)

So, yes, it was extraordinarily pretty. There were caricature artists and people selling jewelry and postcards, all for what were no doubt extortionate sums, along the bridge; I saw one young beggar who had his head covered by his sweatshirt; I saw him later, not on the bridge, with his friend, and he looked like a very well-off con artist. Um-hmm.

From the bridge I could see little waterfalls in the river below. Once, a cloud of birds took to the sky, and I managed to capture it in my camera's lens. I didn't stop to look much at the individual statues, because they were too crowded and there are so many of them. Actually, this last week in Ethics class at school we passed around photos of statues on the bridge and had to guess what idea they represented (things like "paternity," "vanity," "fate").

We spent a very long time on the bridge, but afterwards we had to hurry, almost running, to get to the stare namestie, the square in the old town (that and the bridge are probably the most famous parts of Prague). We had to hurry because it was only a few minutes to the hour, and we wanted to see the ringing of the bells at the tower.

The square was packed and I held my bag tightly in front of me--city of pickpockets! There was the astrological clock above us, marked with names for all 365 days. I primed my camera. It began. A little skeleton figure rang a bell in his hand, a few figures came out very quickly on some revolving mechanism, and then the door shut and it was over! What?! "Yeah," Tibor said, "I've heard it's not supposed to be much." It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds. Oh well!

There in the main square was my favorite building in Prague. In all the pictures I've ever seen of the city and all that, I've always loved this one the most. It's a very sharply-spired, black-roofed Gothic church, rather ominous-looking; in the center is a large design in gold. We didn't go up close, but I took it in enough from afar.

Also in the square were little huts selling food; a lot of it were things cooked on wood; the huts' walls were basically just stacked firewood. There was also a very large, green-bronze sculpture. I would say statue, but I think of statues as being upright; this was more of a horizontal sprawl. Interesting.

We briefly looked inside another church that was on the square, and then we continued through the narrow alleys stuffed with souvenir shops.

We walked on, to the newer, trendier shopping parts of Praha (just as many tourists!) as it got darker. Tibor dropped Ruth, Elena, and I off at a large mall; we were going to go dress shopping for Stuzkova (Slovak Prom-equivalent), because there are only a few dress shops in Nitra, and Ruth and Elena were hoping to find dresses that the whole class wouldn't have. Unfortunately, after a lot of walking around, we found out the mall did not have such a shop. So, oh well.

It was 7:30 by that time, and time to make the long way home. It took at least an hour to get back--long tram rides! Olga was waiting at the apartment, and we chatted for a little while, but then we went out again for dinner.

I had vyprazany syr--my favorite--for dinner with kofola. We were all kind of tired and worn out and ready for bed. That came soon enough.

Next day! Sunday. Olga laid out a beautiful breakfast spread for us of yogurt, granola, rozky (rolls), parky (sausages), and tea. We took our time, and finally hit the streets at 10:30 or so.

We first went to yet another old Gothic church--I don't think it's very famous, but every building in Prague is worth looking at, you know. Sunday morning mass was starting, and Ruth, Elena, and I popped in quietly to take a look, and then ducked back out. The church was in a small, empty brick square. It also had the gargoyle-gutters above its door. I'd like to see those in the rain!

And then time for Wenceslas Square! Vasclavske Namestie, as Pimsleur Czech taught me to say many months ago.

This was where the Revolution took place. I'm talking about the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when Ceskoslovensko ousted Communism. As with most revolutions, it was given force primarily by the young people, the students. There in the square, people would hang out their balconies "ringing" their keys. The Revolution is really amazing. How do you overcome Communism without even one good ol' defenestration, Prague-style? (It's called "Velvet" because there was no violence, no casualties.)

The square is a long mall visually unobstructed except by its main feature, the very large stone statue of King Wenceslas on his horse. (The horse's tail is knotted up.) It hadn't rained on us, but it had rained the night before. The sky was gray--more how I picture Prague--and the ground was wet. When Ruth, Elena, and I took a picture together on the steps of the statue, you could see the puddles on the stone.

We also went to Starbucks there. There were so many Starbuckses in Prague! It was Ruth's first time having Starbucks since America, and she missed it dearly. (There is not a single Starbucks in Slovakia. Even in Bratislava.) Though I like Starbucks, I didn't feel the need to get a coffee. The nice warm smell of roasting beans was good enough!

(this is the point at which my computer restarted after the internet died. I had already finished the whole post. That really, really sucked.)

We walked on through the narrow alleys of souvenir shops, and this time did some shopping. I got a blue and saffron-colored Prague scarf--it looks like a tapestry. I wear it all the time and I really notice when I don't and am waiting for the bus in the poor neck.

We popped into the information center for Charles University there in Prague, one of Ruth's top choice schools she'll be applying too. Something amazing, and hard for me to believe, but it's true: tuition to all schools in Slovakia and the Czech Republic is entirely free, including for foreigners. What?! It's a good arrangement for the people in Slovensko and Cesko (well, mainly Slovensko--more Slovak students are going to Czech universities than the other way around), but why doesn't the whole world flock to Central Europe to get in on this? My only explanation is the language, I suppose. Not many people outside of Ceskoslovensko speak the languages. I will be one of the exceptions at year's end. :)

The day was cold, gray, and misty, and threatening rain. We'd seen everything you're supposed to see and had definitely walked the city. So we took the half-hour electric tram ride back to the apartment to wrap up our stay. Olga had warm tea waiting. I did all the dishes that had accumulated, and then we went out to lunch at a restaurant just around the block.

I had something similar to the Czech national dish again. So, something interesting to report about dining in Praha: Many months ago, when I watched Rick Steves: Prague and the Czech Republic, Rick had warned me about finishing off your drinks; he said they would immediately be refilled (without asking), and you would be charged! I didn't experience this, actually; though the waiters had an uncanny sense for the fullness of my glass (I would go unnoticed for fifteen minutes with one swig of Kofola left; when I finally took that last sip, they would instantly appear and whisk the cup away), they always asked me if I wanted another. However, something else regarding drinks, which I don't remember Rick talking about: When you would order drinks, the waiter would make tick marks on a slip of paper, which he would leave on the table and add to when things were refilled. At the end of the meal, he would write all the totals on the tab of paper and that was your bill. I'm not sure if this is exclusively a Prague thing, or if it's widespread in the Czech Republic, but it's definitely not the case in Slovakia.

Back at the apartment we got all our stuff together at last and said goodbye to our kind hostess. It was 1 o'clock or so and we were back on the road. The rain broke at last there, and aside from the beautiful Fall forests, the drive was pretty uneventful. We listened to Karel Gott, and Ruth somehow got stuck in the backseat behind the front seat. Hmm.

Something rather funny. We stopped for gas in a little town outside of Trnava (about halfway between Bratislava and Nitra). It was dark, it was rainy, it was cold. Ruth, Elena, and I got out to use the bathroom. Waiting for each other in the hallway outside the bathroom, we were looking at the two large, framed maps of Slovakia that were on the walls. The first was a topographical map under glass; looking closely, we realized above where Nitra was marked, someone had scribbled over the glass in red marker, so you couldn't read it. The other map had no glass over it. What?! This time, where Nitra was, the angry person had actually cut out the name with some sharp object, so all you could see was cardboard where the name had been. Furthermore, this thorough person had also scratched out "Nitra" below the map, where it was ranked by population with other Slovak cities. Obviously some psycho has it out for my beloved city.

We got home, it was 7 PM, and we dropped Elena off at her house on Zobor. For the events that followed, see one of my much older blog posts.

Whew! Finally done with that post! It was awful that several times huge chunks of it got deleted because the wi-fi died. According to the publishing program I've been working on this thing (off and on) since October 25th! Well at least it wasn't a full month... ;)

Much love!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Viac a viac

[More and more]

This will be a pretty short post. I just want to get it out of the way so that the next post, which I will introduce towards the end of this, will be untainted by any irrelevant past information.

This has certainly been a week with Erika! Let's see, I've been to her house for cookies and a concert Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and I will be going today, Friday... Wow. I'm going to be cutting back next week, though, because being there means I haven't been home much, which I don't like.

But let's see: Wednesday I came over to Erika's house at 6, because she'd had guests over. We had about a half-hour until the concert, so she fed me with some delicious rice pudding she'd made and tonic water, and we talked for a while. Then she went to some back room and rummaged around in there for a few minutes, and emerged with six heavily-laden rings of cookie cutters; her entire collection. "Choose!" she said. (I should mention that Erika doesn't speak any English, so we speak exclusively Slovak together. Any quotations here are translations.) I had had so much fun decorating the humanoid figures last time (Mikulas, the angels, Certik), that I wanted to do more. So I selected a man, a woman, a man and a woman holding hands, and a large angel. Besides that, I had a large sheep, a cat, a minuscule dog, a butterfly, and a horseshoe. It always surprises me what turns out to be the most fun ones to fill in with frosting, so we'll see.

Then we went to the concert. This whole week has been a classical guitar festival. (If anyone was worried, Erika's tickets were free. That makes me feel less guilty.) That night we were seeing Zsofia Boros from Budapest. We had the same seats as the day before, at the furthest end of the first row.

I liked her style much more than the Polish guy's. He had liked slow and contemplative; she liked full strumming and wild. She also did a fair amount of simultaneous guitar-tapping, and string-tapping, and backwards-strumming of the strings, which I all enjoyed. There was one piece in particular, called Cielo Abierto ("Open Sky" in Spanish), which featured a lot of this and was just awesome. Once, she also did a rather strange thing, which was when it looked like she'd ended the piece with a long chord strumming, everyone got ready to clap, but then she picked up her guitar and waved it fan-like across the audience. Okay, I didn't really appreciate that-- it came across less musically-interesting than just plain weird.

And as far as facial-expressiveness goes, she was at the upper end of the spectrum; while the Polish guy had looked like he was in pain, she looked like she was in ecstasy. It reminded me too much of one cellist I've seen, so I didn't like it.

Between pieces, she would talk about the next one. I have no idea where, why, or how she learned Slovak, but she spoke perfectly. And none of the Hungarian accent overlaid there, which most Slovaks find maddeningly irritating. (I like Hungarian itself, but I also don't like the Hungarian-Slovak accent.) I thought I might be in no position to judge, since it's not like my accent is perfect or anything, but I heard Erika afterwards talking to her friend, and they were discussing, "She spoke so beautifully--and none of that horrible Hungarian accent, either!", so I guess I was right!

At intermission, we went upstairs again to look around, and this time there was a different art gallery open. Unfortunately, I really did not appreciate this art. The artist made interesting, fractal designs by different techniques of drying watercolor paints, and that was cool; but the colors he'd chosen for the paintings were awful, and then he'd overlaid these ugly swirls, and paired these paintings with weird photographs. The photographs and watercolors really just looked terrible together. Oh well..

Yesterday I arrived at Erika's at 4, and stara mama and Lenka had also just arrived. We all had coffee (for the older generation) and tonic water (Lenka and I) together. For whatever reason, Erika had brought out a large box filled with matchbox cars, left over from her sons and grandchildren, for Lenka to play with. So while stara mama and Erika chatted (Molly, Lilly, Ajka and Kora all running underfoot), Lenka and I had fun examining all the different cars and trucks and tanks and playing with them. Lenka also showed me her English workbooks. I found it hilarious that on the front of the notebooks, on the line where it says "Teacher's Name," Lenka had scribbled "Ruthka Baneszova." (Ruth tutors Lenka on Tuesdays and Hanka on Thursdays in English.)

After stara mama and Lenka left, Erika brought out a covered bowl filled with dough she'd prepared for me, and under her careful supervision and with the aid of a ton of flour, I rolled it out thin. I cut out all the figures from the cookie cutters I'd set aside the day before. The cookies, crammed together, filled two baking sheets. Then, using a grass whisk, I brushed the tops with a whipped egg yolk, so that after baking they would come out with a nice glossy brown finish on top.

They only baked for two minutes or so, and rose considerably in that time. Then Erika put them outside, where it's freezing cold (it's around 5 degrees Celsius a lot of the time), and within half a minute you could hold the baking sheets with your bare hands. That was all the steps we had time to do before going to the concert. Erika also wrote the recipe out for me! It's all in Slovak, but I assured her I could get it translated later. It's nice of her, but I don't know if I'll ever be making it... The European system of measurements I just find really messy and troublesome. (Instead of measuring out a cup of floor, you have to weigh the floor in grams; instead of measuring out a cup of water, you have to get out your graduated cylinder and see how many milliliters it comes to.)

The concert we saw last night at the synagogue was again classical guitar; the musician's name was Jan Labant, and he was Slovak, actually from Nitra. The previous concerts had been all younger people; had they been at the Washington Center, they would have been part of the Young Artists Series. Jan Labant was middle-aged, however. They say with age comes experience, and he definitely proved that one!

While he stayed away from the wild, intense strumming of Zsofia Boros that I had so appreciated, he just had that indefinable better sound. He was just clearly the best of the ones I've seen. And you know, I can't tell you why that was, but it was a fact! (Despite this, I still think I preferred Zsofia Boros above all.)

At intermission, I had two chance encounters. First, I went back upstairs to look at the Holocaust Museum more in-depth. (What I discovered: Before the War, there were 135,000 Jews in Slovakia. 108,000 died at various concentration camps.) I was heading towards the door, when i heard a familiar voice saying carefully, "There were 135,000 Jews in Slovakia..." I turned aroun, and there was Lupka (as in, from canoeing), narrating in English. "Ahoj!" I said, and she gushed, and kissed my cheeks in hello. "These are my friends from Canada!" she said. They were a couple from Winnepeg (as heavy a Canadian accent as you can imagine. They even said "don't you know" many times). Lupka told them I was on exchange with Rotary, and they told me their son had done a summer exchange to Munich also through Rotary, so that was cool. They were nice people, but it felt very strange to be speaking English to native speakers! Somehow, speaking English with Slovaks feels much different. Even speaking English with Larissa feels different. This just felt strange!

I went back downstairs and took my seat (forgot to mention that Erika and I were first row, dead center), and then a middle-aged couple came up to me. I knew that I knew them, but I couldn't place where. "Do you remember us?" the woman said. "We're Elena's parents!" Ah-ha! Such nice people. So, right there the three of us had a nice conversation in Slovak about various musical instruments. It turns out Elena's dad plays the guitar, while Elena's mom plays the piano. (At Elena's house, I'd noted that Elena actually had an upright piano in her room! That's cool.)

And that was my night!

No school today, which is pretty nice. They're repairing windows in the school. Yay! As soon as I finish typing this, I'm going out to buy some winter boots (it's freezing and Erika has been getting on my case for a while about this) and then going over to Erika's for one more (long!) cookie session, and then a concert-- a guitarist from Australia.

Random but funny: I had checked over an essay Ruth had written for an English certification class. She got it back corrected yesterday, and there were several marks on it as errors. I looked the corrections over very carefully, and I disagreed on every single one! The semicolon usage was correct, and several things were just stylistic choices. One correction was dead wrong, even for British English! I was kind of angry, but it was also funny. Ruth thought it was hilarious.

About language: A few things that have been troubling me consistently. Well, there is no word for "of." So, you just have to use some other preposition when you want to say that. Which naturally I find very challenging, because not only is it hard to imagine a world without "of," I don't know which preposition you're allowed to substitute for it in which case! (In many cases, it's compensated for not even by a preposition, but by an adjective which I never believed you could form; like making an adjective out of "book" or something. That happens.) And another thing: There is almost no such thing as a "regular" Slovak plural. I guess before learning Slovak I always took it for granted that plurals would be as easy as tacking on an "s" (English & Spanish). In fact, many plurals you can't even tell are plurals just from looking at them, because they might end in an "a," or an "i" or an accented "i" or an "ice." In these cases it actually helps me to have an adjective out front, because if it's in its neuter form, that means it's modifying a plural. The only "regular" plurals I've seen are the maybe four or so words that actually go to ending in a "y." To make matters worse, many (almost all? I don't know) words have two plural forms: one for if the amount is two to four, and one for if the amount is above five. If the amount is uncountable or doesn't matter, however, you use the 2-4 amount word. I really don't know why, and that strikes me as a little counter-intuitive, because I would think the 5+ word would make more sense in such situations. Oh well...

And now, the most exciting news ever: It's definite. Tibor is taking Ruth, Elena, and me to Prague tomorrow. It's a five-hour drive, so we're staying the night. Actually, we're staying with one of Erika's sons there. I am so unbelievably excited. I spent a half-hour today going through all the pictures I've ever taken here, which was 800 or so, and deleting as many as I could, so that I'd be all primed and ready for Prague. I got the number down to 687 (I took a lot of bad shots through the car windshield on the long drive to Kosice), so I'm hoping it will good... When my aunt Terri, uncle Ron, and cousin Alex gave me the camera for my birthday, Uncle Ron told me he thought the memory card would hold 900 or so pictures. So we'll see...


Much love!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No, vsetko boli ste chyba...

[Well, everything you've missed...]

Quite a lot to talk about... I'm going to warn you right now that this is my longest post ever.

A general statement first. Fall has finally arrived, and Winter is racing it neck-and-neck. The trees are finally putting on a show, coating the ground with leaves. (Just yellows and browns as far as Fall colors go, though.) It's windy, it's very cold, it's off-and-on rainy. Here's where Winter starts to rear its head: Next week it's supposed to snow in the Czech Republic! Slovakia's of course colder, due to the higher elevation, so I'm getting expectant. Ruth says it's pretty miserable when it snows. It looks pretty for one day, and then it melts and you're left with very muddy sludge for weeks. Sounds fun.

Chronologically would be a good way to go for everything else. So, Friday night Ruth and I stayed up late watching Twilight (I'd never watched it before). Consequently, we got up around lunchtime on Saturday. After eating and lounging for a while, I went to Erika's at 11:30 to continue the cookie-decorating process.

Erika was going to be having guests over, an elderly couple, so she seated me in another room (usually I'm in the main room which is connected to the kitchen). I worked nearly til 2 and got a lot more cookies done-- still going strong! Erika, in her infinite goodness, showed me what the finished product would look like: She has a special machine which packages the cookies in individual, clear-plastic, sealed envelopes. They look very nice. (The next day, Sunday, when I saw Erika again, she showed me a filled tupperware bowl: She'd covered all of the ones I'd finished!)

I was planning to go home again at 2:30. Erika's guests were gone, so she brought me into the main room for lunch. Prosciutto with spicy radishes, cucumbers, and fried eggplant, with tonic water and rice pudding for dessert. It was beautifully prepared. Dakujem Vam, Erika!

I went back to the flat and then Tibor drove Ruth and me to Zobor. We were going to visit Elena, who is one of Ruth's three best friends. I've always liked Elena, but I was particularly excited because she happens to have a cat... If you know how much I love cats, you can probably guess how starved for them I've been these last two months without.

Zobor is so my favorite part of the city! I just love being up there with the wonderful views and beautiful houses. Elena's house was no exception; it was huge and gorgeous, inside and out. I went inside and set my bag down and just about drowned in ecstasy. Sitting on the kitchen floor lapping his milk was a gray tabby cat. (Cultural thing: Here, all cats have food and milk. Never food and water. Ruth told me how weird she thought it was when she came to America and saw that none of the cats had milk.)

I contented myself to sit on the floor next to Muro and stroke him, waiting to pick him up and put him on my lap as soon as he was done eating. Well, it turns out I had a long time to wait! I couldn't believe it. He simply would not stop. They refilled his milk bowl several times. He was eating and drinking for at least twenty minutes. You can bet the moment he lifted his head and licked his chops to show he was done, I was there. I held him on my lap for as long as I could (over an hour. He made unhappy noises a few times, but he also purred a few times). He was a quiet, very sweet cat. Interestingly, I discovered I have an exact knowledge of cat proportions. Muro looked like an average cat, but in stroking his ears, I instantly knew they were too small. I know how much of a cat's ear I should be able to grip in my palm. His head was also unusually small. But he didn't look it at all.

It was so wonderful to stroke a cat again and have quality time with one. I can't wait to see Muro again. Hopefully soon!

After my cat attack, Elena, Ruth, and I watched Hot Tub Time Machine on Elena's sister's laptop in English with Czech subtitles. It was exactly what I expected from a dumb rated-R comedy, but I was deeply disappointed with John Cusack. I couldn't believe he was in it. His darkest hour. (Chevy Chase also had an embarrassing, rather painful cameo.)

Elena's mom made a delicious dinner for the three of us, and then after a long night Ruth and I finally had to go home by bus; it was 8:30. Even though we'd already watched a movie that day, I was still in the mood to see another. So we watched Memoirs of a Geisha--only my second time seeing it. An incredible movie.

Another late night, but Ruth left somewhat early the next morning for church and then studying Biology with Elena for the day. At home, I washed Phoebe and Roxy (separately) in the tub. The dogs hate it, but it's so worth putting up with their displeasure for how soft and fluffy they get afterwards. I took them for a walk, and then Tibor asked me what my plans were for the day. Well, I had to be at Erika's at 5:30 for (yet another!) concert at the synagogue, but otherwise there was nothing. He was going to a jarmok. Did I want to come?

I said yes, of course, and made sure to grab my camera this time, but I didn't know what a jarmok was. I finally got it, when we were in the car and he told me we were off to Levice. Levice is a small town forty kilometers from Nitra. It is known nationally for its yearly crafts market and fair. I had planned to go with my Rotary club to this fair
(the word "jarmok" was not used) in Levice last Thursday, but the opera was the same day. So, here in the car I put two and two together about what exactly a jarmok was. Too late-- I only had 8 Euro in my purse and had left the 20 Euro bill in the flat. I thought it was such a pity, because my Rotary club counselor had told me before what interesting, unique things you could buy at the jarmok. I was just praying for low low prices and warned myself to shop around before spending.

Tibor and I picked up Aneta's two sons, who were also going. I've met Paco, 12, several times now, but it was my first time seeing Viktor, who's a chef in his early twenties. I did the easy conversion in my head as to how far away Levice was--24 miles--and thought, hey, that's nothing; just a half-hour or so! I always trick myself like this, because in my head I always assume it's a 60 mph American freeway. The reality is going 60 km/h on the one-lane-in-either-direction highway at best, and crawling through village after village at slowest. So it really took at least an hour to Levice. Beautiful countryside!

The jarmok, it turns out, had started almost a week earlier and was on its last day. There was still a lot to see, despite the scarcity of people. They had a section for all the different amusement rides, and then the rest was three long streets' worth of stands. The stands came in basically two varieties: clothing & handbags and decorated cookies. There were a fair amount of knitted tops, which looked like Nordic-sweater t-shirts, that I'd never seen before; but otherwise, it was clothing I could get in Nitra, so I had no need to buy there.

The decorated-cookies stalls all sold almost identical merchandise! There are stands for these in malls, too. They're very traditional. What they are are large, heart-shaped cookies of the exact same type Erika taught me to make. They usually have simple frosting borders and then are decorated with frosting flowers or something similar, and then text. At the cookie stands in the malls, I think it's most common to request a personalized message or name, but the ones at the jarmok were ready-made. At the time, I assumed all the messages were "I love you" or "Cutie," etc., like the conversation hearts you get on Valentine's Day. (I'll mention here that Slovak has this thing I love, the fact that there are three different classes of "I love you." At the lowest end is "Mam t'a rad(a)" which is just "I like you," and is acceptable between friends, etc. Then there is "L'ubim t'a," which is "I love you." And then, there is the ultimate love: "Milujem t'a." [One girl translated it for me as "I adore you," but most people translate it just as "I love you."] I asked Ruth what the difference was between the last two. "Milujem t'a is just more," she said. "It's just deeper." The jarmok stands sold cookies with these three phrases, and more. I'm wondering, is the "L'ubim t'a" cookie what the boyfriend who's scared of commitment gets his girl, instead of going all the way to 'milujem'?)

I found out later that not all the cookies were sappy. Tibor surprised Ruth and me later with two. Mine says "Pre Stastie," which I really appreciate ("for luck"); Ruth's says "Certici." The latter is the female form of "Certik." Certik, in Slovak Christmas tradition, is the creature who accompanies Mikulas (Nicholas) and punishes the bad children. Ruth showed me a picture of him online: Let's see, red horns, cloven hooves, forked tail...yep, he looks exactly like Satan...but Ruth protests that there is a difference. Not physically, at least. So, back to the story--why, I wondered, would an innocent cookie stall sell cookies with a Satan-double's name on them? Ruth says it's meant as a joke. She was not very amused.

We walked the stalls at the jarmok, and Tibor and I split a slice of Slovak pizza. (I don't know how to describe it, so let's just say it's not the American or Italian varieties you're used to.) Of course Paco and Viktor wanted to go on the X-treme rides. I don't enjoy those thrill-seeking things--they just make me a nervous wreck--but Tibor was encouraging, so I went with the boys.

Big mistake!!! We went on one of those things that looks like an upright hammer, with its mallet head on the ground, and you sit inside the mallet. Then the hammer goes around and around and around and enjoys resting with the mallet on top, up forty feet in the air, while people inside the mallet are completely upside-down. Not many people were at the jarmok on its last day, and very few of those people were on the rides, so it was just the three of us on this one. The two boys were put at one end, and I was put at the other. A guy whose entire bearing of being said apathy strapped me in and then closed the metal cage over us. Tibor smiled and waved and started taking pictures of me and I got that terrible feeling of oh no! What have I done?! What was I getting myself into?

Pure torture, as it turned out. I mean, not only do I not enjoy these sorts of things, when I saw the apathetic guy who strapped on my harness, I suddenly realized I wasn't in America, land of lawsuits. The cold realization made me stop for a second and really look at where I was sitting. The rusted parts. The hole two inches from my face where the plastic had cracked away in the wall of the cage which was supposed to keep me from falling to my death. The harness that wiggled. A lot. No! Get me out of here! I'm going to die!!!

It got worse. So, the hammer started to move, and it hadn't even gone vertical before I realized I was just going to have to keep my eyes tightly shut and my hands gripped as hard as I could on the metal bar. Then the hammer went vertical, and hung that way for a whole ten seconds, and I was sliding out of the harness! Seriously! I was actually doing an upside-down pull-up on the metal bar in front of me to keep my shoulders from sliding out. And sometimes my feet slipped from where they gripped and were just floating away into the upside-down world... The hammer did a few of the nasty plummets where it dropped as fast as it could and my stomach hit the ground with it, but most of the time it preferred to stall upside down for ten or even fifteen seconds. It just went on and on for five minutes... I was just glad to make it out alive. Afterwards my arms were really sore (and the day after, too!) from my intense bar-gripping.

Then Paco and I went to the flying swings. I've seen these at other fairs and always been wary, but Tibor said I'd probably get a good view of Levice from up there, and I realized he was probably right, and that would be worth it. The two of us were in a swing (thanks for not even buckling the harness, Mr. Apathy) which was attached by a metal chain at the top to a central pole, along with twenty or so other swings. The central pole spun us around and around, while at the same time inching us higher. I started panicking as, the higher the swings went, the more precarious their angle of revolution became, but about halfway through I managed to make myself relax. It was certainly better than the hammer. (Though, sadly, not as good a view as I'd hoped.) I actually enjoyed myself.

Finally, the boys and I went in the bumper cars, which somehow I've never done in my eighteen years of life. (More sketchy situations: the cars were electric-powered. The arena where they were had a low ceiling made of chain-link fence. The backs of the cars had electric antennae which would run along the chain-link grid. On most of the cars, the antennae were live wires, fizzing bright blue and spitting sparks like crazy.) I had a really fun time. I was also happy to tick bumper cars off my life to-do list (they weren't very high up on there, but nevertheless...).

After a good few hours there, the four of us headed back to Nitra. We went to Aneta's apartment in Klokocina for coffee, dessert (made by Viktor), and this special drink which is unique to Slovakia-- it's not even in the Czech Republic. It was yellow, almost-wine; it had the white-wine flavor, but I liked it better and it was not, in fact, wine. It didn't have much alcohol in it. There's a drink here which I don't think I've mentioned before called Vinea. I actually even prefer Vinea to Kofola, but it's more expensive, so I don't have it very often. It's made from grapes, and has a vague wine flavor, but it's non-alcoholic. (It comes in both red and white varieties. I've only ever had the latter, but everyone assures me the white is the better flavor.) This specialty almost-wine I had I would put one step closer to wine than Vinea, flavor-wise. Tibor had bought it at the jarmok.

Straight from there, Tibor drove me to Erika's house (5:30). We were seeing another concert at the synagogue at six! Erika and I had the nice, four-minute walk to the synagogue, and then we got seats in the very first row, on the left, so we had the most perfect view of the keyboard-- we were seeing a piano recital. I couldn't read the program, so Erika translated for me that the pianist we were going to see, Magdaleny Bajuszovej, was one of these child prodigies: giving concerts at the age of six, admitted to a Conservatory at the age of eight. You know how it goes.

Magdaleny was a thirty-something year-old woman with a vague, sphinx-like smile as we applauded her entrance. She sat herself at the Presof grand piano, breathed deeply, and then began the Bartok (from memory). Would this be an appropriate point in my narrative to say she was downright incredible? She was just perfect. I wouldn't have wanted anything differently. She had the lightest, quickest touch on the trills; she would go from the most sweetly-beautiful, reflective movements to the wild, ten-different-notes-at-a-time bits with the most subtle grace. After the Bartok came Hayden, which I liked more (and I had liked the Bartok).

Finally, by far the best for me, was Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff has these violent, technically-impressive, showy bits, and she knew how to work them, without ever looking like she was showing off. No need to show off if you play at that level the entire time! In the half-minute pause after the Hayden, Erika had pointed something out to me in a whisper which I hadn't noticed before: Magdaleny had this way of curling up her pinkie tightly (try it). When the Rachmaninoff started, I was now looking for this, and yes, Erika was right, she did it all the time. In my lap, I tried to curl up my pinkie like that-- not only could I not, it was very painful. Magdaleny's face was serenely calm, effortless-- and not only was the pinkie curled whenever it was not in use (I don't know why), the rest of the fingers were simultaneously perfectly splayed. It feels like a tendon impossibility to me! But she did it...

So, I can't capture how incredible the concert was, but it was by far the best of any of the amazing ones I've seen here in Slovakia (including the operas)! I can't compare it to American piano performances I've seen, because none are coming to mind, though I know I've seen world-class many times at Benaroya Hall. But it was just awesome.

Waiting outside the synagogue doors afterwards to surprise me were Ruth and Ondrej! Ondrej is one of Ruth's close friends who has been studying, this year and last year, in England, and I got to know him over the summer before he went back to school. He just got home on Friday night for a Fall break. The three of us went to Marks & Spencer to try to buy more peanut butter--out already-- but to Ruth's and my horror, they had none, with the appearance that they will not be stocking more in the future. Devastating...

We said goodnight to Ondrej, who had to take a bus home to Klokocina, and then back at the flat Ruth, Tibor, and I watched Ceskoslovensko Ma Talent and Talentmania at the same time. The two shows are takeoffs on America's Got Talent and are identical to one another so much, they even air live at the exact same time on Sunday nights (not sure if they planned it this way, but it means we get to skirt commercials!). The shows are fun to watch, even if a lot of the acts have issues (not talented, or weird, or scandalous, etc.). The three of us like to watch them together on Sundays.

Monday was a school day, and then afterwards I was excited to be going to my first Rotary meeting in two weeks, since they've been canceled. I got to the driveway above the hotel, and I saw Ramiro out with his giant camera, taking photos. No sooner had he told me the meeting was canceled (no!! not again!), I turned to see our bus pulling away, and Larissa, who had just gotten off that bus, walking towards us. I shouted the news to her, and the three of us took off running desperately down the muddy hill after the bus, but we finally had to admit defeat (bus stops are very widely spaced apart, so it's not like you'll only have to run a couple of blocks to catch it at the stop).

We were too far from the Centrum to walk, so we had to wait fifteen minutes for the next bus. But it passed quickly between the three of us. The afternoon was young, so we decided to go to Mlyny together and get McFlurries at McDonald's. (It also happened to be the day before Ramiro's birthday, so maybe that counts as a small celebration?) We had a great time and then the two of them had to take buses to opposite sides of town, and I had the luxury of a five-minute walk. Ohh, I have such a sweet living location, you have no idea...

Yesterday, Tuesday, both Ruth and I took the day off from school for my Slovak medical examination, a requirement as part of the process of getting a visa-equivalent. I'm not going to go into details, but I had been dreading this as a definitely unpleasant, quasi-ordeal.

Ruth and I got to the hospital by 7 in the morning. (No breakfast for me--for some reason not allowed to when I was going to get my blood drawn. No breakfast for Ruth-- no time.) The "hospital" is a huge, sprawling area that looks like a college campus of many different buildings as far as the eye can see. Tibor had taken me to the injection building the morning before for some paperwork, so I knew where it was.

Ruth and I sat in this little 8 ft. by 8 ft. square room (I know because the walls were tiled partway up, and the green tiles were about 6 inches long) with three benches along the walls. It was a holding center. There were two other people there at the beginning, two Polish men, though many more people filtered in over time (it got up to seventeen of us). There were three doors: the one we'd come through, the one that opened into the examination room, and the bathroom. Why do I bother describing all this? Well, I had a lot of time to take it in, since Ruth and I had to sit there for well over an hour and a half... There came one time when the nurse opened the door and said "Next, please," and before Ruth and I could even blink, three people who had only been waiting a few minutes--as opposed to us, who were next in line after an hour--were already in the door and had slammed it behind them.

Ruth and I stared at each other in a state of shock and anger. We resolved to get in no matter what the next time, and started getting angrier as one woman who'd arrived a few minutes before actually moved so she was sitting closest to the door. When the door finally opened again after another twenty minutes, Ruth and I jumped up, and while the lady who'd moved to the door ran in first, we got there. Another Polish man who was waiting his turn, and who was right behind us in line, freaked out. He started shouting at the nurse (I understood) "No! That woman got in only because she made sure she was sitting closest to the door! I've been waiting my turn!" Somehow the nurse placated him, but sadly he did not get in because the nurse accepted the woman who was already in the room.

There were some tests and a lot of paperwork, and then blood drawing! My ultimate dread. Last time I got my blood drawn, a year and a half ago in America, the nurse hadn't been able to find a vein for the longest time, and stuck me fifteen times in the process of finding one. Pretty traumatic on top of my fear of needles. This time, I knew which had been the "good arm." The nurse still spent at least five minutes trying to find a vein. I appreciated that she didn't just stick me with the needle to see if she'd found it. It was still painful, though-- she tied this band tightly around my bicep, and it was there for five minutes! Finally, after binding the vein around my wrist, she found the vein (she told me in Slovak, "You're lucky I'm such an experienced nurse. Anyone else would have just given up"). I just shut my eyes tightly and turned away. It was the highlight of Ruth's day, though! She'd been looking forward to watching. She wants to be a doctor and thinks blood getting drawn is awesome. I'm happy she got something out of it. Afterwards I had to lie down for a minute because I felt really sick!

Done with that, we had to walk to another building for a chest X-ray. Not too long of a wait. I was surprised in the X-ray room that, while Ruth was told to leave the room during the radiation part, the X-ray technician certainly didn't, and there wasn't any protective screen or something for him! Oh well... He was a really nice guy.

The X-ray technician gave us the actual X-ray, which we had to take back to the nurse in the other building. I'd never gotten to hold an X-ray before, let alone my own! Ruth said my lungs looked very healthy-- she'd learned how to tell when she'd shadowed a lung-specialist in a Chicago hospital. It was a good thing to be able to see all the ribs, as you could on mine; X-rays of unhealthy lungs apparently have opaque spots. She even saw one X-ray, with the lung-specialist, of a man who was dying: his lungs were completely opaque, and there were even dark areas where there wasn't any tissue.

We finished just before 11 (after getting there at 7, remember!). We were both starving and had a nice big lunch back at the flat. Ruth bought us a treat to share for dessert: the stand that had sold ice cream all summer apparently sells this special bread in the winter. I'd had the bread just two days before in Levice with Tibor. It's cylindrical, because they cook it on a spit, and there are different flavors (so far I've had nuts and cinnamon, and still have to try cocoa and vanilla later).

That afternoon, I went over to Erika's at 4 to finally finish decorating the cookies. It took me two and a half hours, and then I was done. I didn't feel happy and accomplished. "You're all done!" Erika said cheerily (in Slovak). "Yes, but it makes me sad," I said. "I really liked it." "Well, in that case," she said, "you're going to come over tomorrow and we'll start another batch of them!" Yay! I would worry I'm imposing on her, but she likes me there, and I like to be there, so it's all good.

At a quarter to seven Erika, myself, and Erika's friend walked over to the synagogue for yet another concert! It was pretty full when we got there, and I thought we were going to be sitting in the second-to-last row (out of like six rows, so not a big deal), but then Erika spied two seats at the farthest end of the front row, and another seat right behind it. I was going to sit in the seat in the second row there, but then a man in the first row moved over one seat for me, and that made three.

This time, unlike previous concerts, the stage was elevated. I'm not actually sure why they haven't done that before. Hmm. Being in the first row, I obviously had a great view, but Erika and her friend encouraged me to turn my chair at a 45 degree angle (since there was no one behind me or anything), and that helped a lot.

We saw a young Polish classical guitarist. He had a tiny, fold-out wooden step to elevate his left foot on-- I'd never seen one of those before. Before he started playing, he made a little speech, and it started off, "I'm just going to speak Polish, because I know you'll all be able to understand me..." Well, obviously that's true, since I understood that first sentence! I actually understood most of what he said. Czech and Slovak are so close, you know, but when I watch TV shows in Czech or whatever I understand only a little bit. Whereas Polish, which isn't as close, is easier for me... I think the lilt of Polish more resembles Slovak than Czech.

It would be pointless to tell you the names of the composers because I'm sure you've never heard of any of them. Very interesting: He had no pick. Instead--a little hard to believe, but I saw it--the fingernails on his right hand were grown very long, especially the thumbnail, and he plucked the strings with those (the nails on the left hand were cut as short as possible).

I'm pretty sure I've only seen classical guitar twice before, many years ago at the Washington Center. Honestly, the slow bits didn't do much for me, but when he picked up the pace and really got it going, that was amazing. He made it sound like there were three different instruments in one. It's also always interesting for me to see how facially-expressive a musician is going to be. So, the incredible pianist the other night had basically nothing; just a kind of inner illumination in her eyes. This guy was totally lost in his own world. His eyes were closed the whole time, and every so often he would make little gasps and hisses as his face contorted, his body hunching over and his head turning to match.

He played for thirty-five minutes and then left the room and everyone applauded, etc. What? It was over? That was really short... It had been hard to follow where he was in the program, because he would pause at times for various reasons, and every piece was something like "five interludes" or "ten preludes." He had had to pause several times because he was having tuning problems (he would just quickly give the peg a little tug and then resume). It all sounded the same to me, but apparently this one string was giving him trouble.

Well, not the end of the concert after all. Just a special intermission in which to go upstairs and appreciate a new art collection on display there in the synagogue. The artist is Jewish, and the paintings had Jewish themes, including Hebrew characters woven into some, passages from the Torah, and hints of the Holocaust in others. I thought the paintings were incredible. They simply breathed life. And they were so colorful and detailed! I'm excited to get to study them again tonight and tomorrow night (oh yes, there are more cookie sessions and concerts with Erika planned). On the upper floor, which we only had time to briefly touch, is the permanent Holocaust museum. The synagogue was built around the turn of the 20th century, so it lasted through WWII. I'm not sure what the whole history is, but Erika said it was bombed! (And then rebuilt almost immediately.) I'll have more time later to see the whole museum. I know nothing about the fate of Slovak Jews during the Holocaust, except that it didn't end well...

We had about ten minutes, and then we went back downstairs for the rest of the concert. Vel'mi vyborne, a d'akujem pekne, Erika! Today at six I'm going to Erika's again for cookies and a concert, and then tomorrow at four for the same. I'm so excited. I love afternoons at her house so much.

I got back home at 9 (it had been a long concert after all!) and sadly found that Ruth had been waiting to eat with me! We had one of my favorite Slovak foods, which is whipped egg and flour fried in oil. Delicious. I asked Ruth what it was called in Slovak on Tuesday, after the medical examination. I was eagerly expecting some cute, diminutive name. "Slepe kura," she told me. What? Ouch! I knew what that meant! "Blind chicken." Nothing cute about that...

Two random things. One, I had a hungering to listen to a song from the animated movie Anastasia this afternoon, and was surprised and pleased to find a Russian version of it on YouTube. The person who'd posted the video had also included the Russian lyrics and a line-by-line English translation. The Russian was not in the Cyrillic alphabet, but in Roman characters. I read along, and Wait a minute! I understand this!! Well, not a lot--as much as I would have understood in Slovak--but still something. Because, it was Slovak. So close, anyway. I was very interested to see the declination was the same with some of the prepositions. Strange, though, that given all the similarities, the word for "and" is different ("a" in Slovak vs. "i" in Russian). It was just so utterly cool to be reading Russian! If anyone wants to appreciate my skills, you can type "Once Upon a December-- Russian" into YouTube and probably find the video.

I really, really would like to learn Russian someday (soon?). I was reflecting the other day how before I started learning Slovak, it sounded exactly like Russian to me. Now I can't possibly think it sounds like that, because I can't really hear it. I mean, I can't be the unbiased listener who is tuned solely to sound. I'm tuned to picking out the words and stringing together meanings, etc. Listening to this Russian song, even though a fair amount of the words I do know in Slovak and can pick out, it still "sounds like Russian" to me, as opposed to Slovak, which now sounds very natural and close to home. Though, I do think of the sound of Russian differently now. Before any of this, I always imagined Russian as sort of rough and guttural and intense. Now I think of it more like Spanish, very soft and running together nicely.

At Golianova, my school, there are actually some kids who take Russian instead of German for their "second" language (English is a requirement for all). Hmm... If Russian had been offered at my high school in America, would I have taken it instead of Spanish? I don't know. But anyway, I think that's very cool that it's offered there. For a while now I've enjoyed looking at the poster up in the hallway at school; one of the Russian classes made it, and it's both in Slovak and in Russian, and is all about why you, the young freshman at Golianove, should take Russian. Interesting statistics I've learned from that poster in my three dozen times reading it: There are 350 million Russian speakers worldwide! There are as many as 500,000 words in Russian! (But the actual amount is hard to determine because of all the diminutives... As I've said, every last noun gets a "cute" form.) Also through the school, they organize a trip to Moscow and this one other city whose name I don't remember, but it ends in -grad. Very cool.

Second random tidbit. Today in Chemistry, in partners, we were given petri dishes, the teacher put a few handfuls of rice into them, and we were told to count how many grains there were. Oh, I thought, this must be a demonstration of the usefulness of moles! How clever! In fact, it was not. If I'm ever a teacher someday, I'll keep in mind "ways to keep a class busy and quiet." So, my partner counted 384. And I.... Well, as I was going along, I was getting a four-leaf clover feeling. And guess what? The random amount I'd scooped out of the dish to count was exactly 500 grains. And I had separated everything into piles of ten, so I didn't make mistakes as I went. That's pretty incredible. Not to mention I had kind of had a feeling something like that was going to happen, so I couldn't help but feel responsible when it did...

I'll end this extremely long post with an apology for not posting sooner--both because it was a long time sans post, and because no one likes to read a giant block of text. On the bright side, there might be some fun reading on Sunday, because on Saturday Tibor may or may not be taking Ruth and me to PRAGUE!!! We'll see. (That last sentence I think I use a lot more now, because it's a very common Slovak phrase. Uvidime.)

Much love!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Druha opera v Bratislave

[A second opera in Bratislava]

Tibor had told me he was taking me to a "concert" in Bratislava on Thursday. When we went to the Old Theater (Stare Divadlo) in Bratislava, he had told me he was looking into getting tickets for an opera at the New Theater (Nove Divadlo). I hadn't known the two were one and the same! (I think I was supposed to know this, but everyone had used the word "koncert," not "opera," so how was I to know?)

I got dressed up nicely when I got home from school, and at 4 Tibor came home and we left. I had known Erika, the music enthusiast, was coming, but I hadn't known stara mama was going as well, until we turned down the road to her apartment.

We drove into Bratislava, and I got a taste of more of it, but I still found it totally fine, as far as cities go. I mean, it's not a beauty and I wouldn't make it a tourist destination, but there was nothing wrong with it. Everyone I've met here in Nitra not only does not like Bratislava, they hate it. (Not even just the youth, as I've said before--the adults, too.) Maybe it's worse if you live your whole life 80 km (48 mi) away, having to go there for various reasons, and it's never visually pleasant or enjoyable...

Tibor suddenly pulled up to an apartment building, and I was wondering why, until I saw the woman standing there. She was Eva, Tibor's charismatic, much-younger cousin (she looks no older than 25, though Ruth told me she's in her thirties). I had seen her, but not been introduced to her, at her father's--Tibor's uncle's--wedding celebration. She works for a government agency there in Bratislava, translating news from English to Slovak (so you can imagine she spoke English very well). She and stara mama spent a while in the car discussing how much they hate Bratislava. Even though Eva has to live in Bratislava during the work week, she always escapes back home to Nitra on weekends.

We arrived at the back side of the Nove Divadlo. It reminded me somewhat of Nitra's Nove Divadlo, except about thirty times bigger (and I thought the Nitra one was huge!). Both buildings are very beautifully designed, made of white stone blocks. I thought I had seen everything, and was very impressed. Then, we walked around to the front of the building...

I think my jaw probably dropped. It wasn't just one building there, but an entire square. There was an enormous, state-of-the-art mall, a Sheraton hotel, a war memorial, a giant fountain, a beautiful view of the Danube, and many more stores. So, where do my descriptions start? I'll take the easiest route and start with the memorial.

Near the edge of the river was a sixty foot-high stone pillar, on top of which was a giant, black lion, holding some crest in his huge paws. When the two countries had been Czechoslovakia, he had been their symbol, and now served as a memorial for the ousting of Communism back in 1989-- the so-called Velvet Revolution. (Not to be confused with the Velvet Divorce in 1993, when the two countries split.) This whole square was brand new, so the lion had been moved from somewhere else to here very recently. I thought he was great, though I found one thing slightly flawed: there is a modern-art sculpture at the front of the Divadlo, about a football field away from the lion's pillar. It's made of bronze and is very nice, in that you can walk around it and it looks different from every angle. However, it works out that the sculpture is just so high that, with perspective, it blocks out the lion in the distance. If it were just a little differently positioned, the lion would be perfectly framed within the sculpture. But I guess that would have required a lot more planning...

Not far below the lion, seemingly leaning up against his pillar (and therefore invisible from the non-Danube side) was a gargantuan sculpture. He was cool just because he was so big--maybe twenty feet high? He was some General Stefanik, dressed like a WWII pilot (maybe he was?). I had a fun time imagining him coming to life and then stampeding through the square. That's one Golem I wouldn't want to mess with.

After admiring the memorial, the four of us (Erika had met up with friends in Bratislava) went to the mall. I should note that everything in this square was in a white-gray stone, including the cobblestones underfoot. What wasn't stone was thin glass or smooth stainless steel. Many buildings were partially made of a block of colored lights, which would change subtly. It was all extremely pretty and metropolitan. So, we went into the mall... Sorry, Mlyny, you were the prettiest mall I'd ever seen--until yesterday. It had Mlyny's semi-reflective, shiny white-tile floors, and was three or four stories high like Mlyny, but the ceiling was a warped arch of what looked like netted glass-- crisscrossing white metal bars framing pieces of glass. We got halfway through, and suddenly the ceiling was different: OMG! We were underneath the fountain!

The fountain in the square was ingeniously designed: it was large and mostly flat, but it somehow managed to be very interesting anyway. It was illuminated from within and was made of raised tiles of a strange material (ha! now I see they were either glass or clear plastic). There were a few, very short (a foot high?) fountains along the surface. So, here we go into the depths of the mall, and look up to see the ceiling is rippling in a greenish glow! It was extremely beautiful; you really felt like you were underwater.

We went straight through the mall, and came out the doors-- on the opposite side of the square! I was wondering how this was possible--did I fall through a wormhole or something?--when I remembered we'd gone underground. Still a little mind-bending, though.

I can't imagine what the square must have looked like before any of the other things were put in. Eva told me it was all "new"; that's a relative term, so I asked for exact figures, and she said three months. Wow! Very new indeed.

And, despite all these miracles of design, the Nove Divadlo managed to remain the focus. The design of the square itself bowed towards the building. It was the most beautiful one there, top-of-the-line classy, with many little windows revealing the inside. It is officially the Slovak National Ballet and Opera Theater.

The inside was just as exquisite! The floors and walls were all in white marble, except for the cafe, which had red carpet. Many people were dressed to impress in showy dresses you can only wear to an opera. One woman, Eva pointed out to me as something of a celebrity: she's a famous talk-show host here in Slovakia (and her husband is apparently a famous opera singer). We heard quite a lot of German. Bratislava is right on the Austrian border, so Eva says a lot of Austrians come over for the opera, which is cheap by their standards.

There were too many mirrors for my liking (and they were designed to distort somewhat, so that made them more grotesque), but that's just the opera house tradition. Along one wall they had intricately-detailed, luxuriously rich previous costumes. A lot of fun to see.

We checked our coats and then went inside the actual performance space. I was shocked, given the incredible size of the building and everything else, how small the actual theater was! It was not very many rows long and not very many seats wide, with no side balconies and only one other floor, which was only three rows long! I looked around for a long time, in vain, searching for a hint as to how it might fold out or something. Unless wood folds...

And I haven't gotten to the best part yet. So...(deep breath here) Our seats.... FIRST. ROW. Seriously?!! I couldn't believe it, even after we'd sat down (Tibor, Eva, me-- stara mama and Erika sat elsewhere). I still don't believe it. That's something that will almost certainly never happen again in my lifetime! Wow, typing it here, it stuns me all over again...

I could see the inside of the whole orchestra pit. (Actually, I could have reached over and touched the cellist's cheek, probably.) Just incredible. And being that close surprisingly did not make it harder to see the whole layout of the scenes or anything. The only thing it hampered was the ability to read the subtitles-- they were directly above us, so you really had to crane your neck. Not really an issue for me, since the subtitles were in Slovak and so I didn't plan on reading them anyway, but Eva had a sore neck by intermission.

So, what opera were we seeing, exactly? Madam Butterfly by Puccini. I'd always known it's a classic, but never known what it's about. So... wow. An opera with actually an interesting, unpredictable plot that doesn't end with everyone frolicking in a trite, mass marriage! (Though I guess another one of those really old opera stereotypes is the singers coughing up blood, since they all had tuberculosis-- and this ended with people coughing up blood!)

The plot: Pinkerton, a (expletive) American in the late 1800's, stationed by the navy in Japan, buys a contract from a sleazy middleman to a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio San (called Butterfly). The contract guarantees him a house, servants, and sex. He plans on having a real marriage in America. His friend, another American, tries to tell him that the marriage means a lot to Butterfly, but Pinkerton won't listen. The two marry, and Butterfly is denounced by her family. She falls deeply in love with him, and he seems to love her as well. But he leaves for America. Butterfly waits for him for three years, certain he will return. She has borne a son by him, whom she has named Pain (to be renamed "Joy" upon his father's return). Well, Pinkerton finally does come, but with his American wife in tow, planning on taking his son and leaving Butterfly forever. Butterfly is distraught, and forces Pinkerton to come in person to pick up his son. She commits seppuku (men put the sword in their bellies, women put the dagger in their throats), Pinkerton finds her dying, and realizes he loved her, and will never be happy again. The end!

At Intermission Tibor left Eva and me to talk, and then returned with a program for me. Dakujem! So, reading the plot synopsis in there, I was able to understand everything. The First Act, before Intermission, I pretty much had no idea what was going on. I couldn't understand the Italian at all. I thought all these wannabe Asians were Chinese! I say wannabe, because none of them were actually Asian, and a black wig does not an Asian make. The main woman's make-up was done well, though, and she looked pretty convincingly Japanese. (So, my question: If they can do it for one person, why not all of them?) The main woman was older, probably in her fifties; reading the plot synopsis in the program, I discovered Butterfly is supposed to be fifteen when she first meets Pinkerton. What?! I just had to ignore the actress' age, because I certainly couldn't imagine away thirty-five years...

Okay, but my nitpicks aside, it was great. The costuming was absolutely fabulous, all these detailed, many-layered kimonos and Oriental designs. The wedding scene was the best feast for the eyes, as all of Butterfly's family--fifty or so people, each in an incredibly intricate outfit--walked in a circular procession, singing. The scenery was very well done, as well--simple and easily-convertible, but also interesting to look at. The richly-colored lighting looked wonderful on all the rice-paper-covered screens. The night scenes were my favorite: the walls were covered in a million tiny lights for stars. At the very beginning, when the sleazy fellow is trying to sell Pinkerton various Japanese women, there was a huge screen behind the two men which images were projected on: black-and-white photos of destitute, at times half-nude, Japanese women with prices clumsily scribbled next to them. Very interesting.

One neat scene, when Butterfly's family are denouncing her, had a man burst through a rice-paper screen, coming down from the ceiling. Then he just hung there for a while as he sang his outrage. He was dressed in a very oversized militant Japanese costume; it was much too big for his body, and served to make him look larger and more impressive, which was certainly the point.

For Butterfly's son, they actually had a little boy up on stage. He was very young; he couldn't have been older than six, I thought. He didn't have any speaking roles, but he had a lot of acting to do. He did a great job! It must have taken him so long to memorize all the things he had to do. That's so impressive.

You expect a National Opera Theater to have quality singing-- and of course, it did! I may not like the sound of opera singing, but I really appreciate it and it always blows me away. Especially when you hear the music building, and building, and building-- and finally the belt of sound you were waiting for from the singer. I should add I thought the background music of this opera was especially good, with a nice Oriental flavor. Usually I don't notice the actual notes, because it all just blends for me as the opera singer goes up and down and up and up, etc.

It was three hours long, and we finished at 9. I was very, very tired. Erika didn't ride home with us; I think she was going to stay on with some friends in Bratislava. I fell asleep almost immediately in the car, and when we got home, I was ready for bed in three minutes flat. It was 11:15.

Unfortunately, I was so exhausted the next day (today) I did one of those bad things where I turn my alarm off in my sleep. So, when I finally opened my eyes, I knew immediately, by the amount of light there was in my room (usually it's pitch-black), I'd overslept. Yep, over an hour later than I'd planned on getting up. (Also, Ruth gets to sleep in on Fridays, so her getting ready for school hadn't woken me up.) Five minutes to get ready and be out the door to catch the bus to school. It wasn't fun. But I made it.

Sundry plans for tomorrow! We'll see.

Much love!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kolaciky a kino

[Cookies and the cinema]

Yes, it's called the "cinema" here. Well, not even really "the," since that part is usually dropped. It's, "so, I went to cinema" and "are you going to cinema soon?" British English, I believe. Someday I want to go to England and see if they really talk like this.

So, Monday I went back to Erika's house to work more on the cookies. She whipped up the cups of frosting again so I could finish the five or so cookies I hadn't done the day before (only the base layer of frosting, you understand). When I was finally all finished, she made up three tubes of frosting for me, in the same three colors (red-pink, yellow, white). Time for the really fun part! Decorating.

Okay, I thought I made some pretty cool cookies last time. Well, not like this. When selecting cookie cutters this time, I purposely chose a lot of human figures so I would have more to work with. Definitely a good choice! I got to draw faces and clothing and accessories and sign them in cursive... I had so much fun--actually ecstasy would be closer to it--working.

There's this one Madonna and Child cookie I made that is by far the best. I used all three colors of frosting in both the base layer and the decorative layer. The two's base clothing is in red (decorative layer which denotes creases in the clothing is in white), their hair is yellow, their skin is white, their facial features are red. It just turned out awesome. I also had a little surprise-- the figure that I hadn't known what it was when I cut it out of dough turned out to be Satan! I had wondered what benevolent Yuletide character had horns and what looked like one cloven hoof... Maybe a faun from Narnia? Because even though all the evidence was pointing to Satan, I couldn't believe Erika would have a cookie cutter of him. Then she showed me some finished cookies she'd made years before. One of them was Satan, with a wiry broom in hand and a long, fierce tongue. I think it's great, though. I've got like five or six of them to design and I'm going to enjoy each one.

One thing's for certain: I'm going to die a little inside whenever one is eaten. Erika believes you should make them and then give them out as presents or else eat them in your home... I want to respect her wishes, but it kills me. Maybe it won't be so bad if I make sure to photograph them all first. And the Mary and Child is off-limits, no matter what.

I only got through seven or so when it was getting time to get home (I got there at 4 and I promised Ruth I'd leave by 6 so I'd be home for dinner). Suddenly, Erika emerged from the kitchen with a giant platter of food-- dinner for me! It had special Polish sheep cheese, which I've had before (in Poland-- it's very salty); delicious toasted rye bread to be buttered; and some very spicy vegetables: watercress, onions, leeks, and these things which looked like miniature radishes, but which tasted like fire going down. It was so nice of her. And I was very hungry! (The only downer to this is that when I got home I found out Ruth had been planning a nice dinner... So it had to wait til Tuesday.)

And speaking of Tuesday... The next day after school, I took the bus with some friends from school to Mlyny. We went to McDonald's first, since we'd all gotten coupons for there in class (I have no idea why). Then we caught a bus to the Max shopping center. The Max is in Chrenova, and I'd seen it before, since it's ridiculously huge (yes, it makes good on its name), but I'd never been inside. It was a giant mall, and somehow managed to be very labyrinthine inside. Everything twisted around on itself. Interestingly, while Mlyny is always packed with people (I should also note that Mlyny has the reputation of being the coolest, trendiest mall in Nitra-- and I live right next to it! Yay!), this giant center was pretty empty. Except, while next to no one is ever in the food courts of Mlyny, the ones at the Max were packed. Hmm.

We were going to see a movie. According to Ruth, it takes several months for Hollywood movies to show up in Slovakia. But she and I don't understand why, because they just have subtitles. They only actually dub children's movies-- AND Harry Potter. Seriously?? The first part of the last movie comes out next month, and I'm going to have to see it. In Slovak. :(

So, everyone wanted to see The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is a Disney movie that came out at the beginning of the summer back in the States. (Oh! I saw that Eat Pray Love is playing. I really wanted to see that but I missed my chance in America. Maybe I'll look into showtimes... Movie tickets are only 4 Euro-- though this is considered very expensive by Slovak standards. Ha! Try $10!) I had had no need to see TSA, especially since it stars Nicholas Cage, whom I've always despised, but I was surprised. It was much better than I thought it would be. (Everyone else in the group hated it.) For the first time ever, I didn't hate Nicholas Cage-- I actually appreciated his character! Yes, it had the Disney cheesiness, but it also had the Disney funding, so the special effects were great. There was this one great scene where they remade the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene from Fantasia, this time not animated. I love when the mop (or, I guess it's a broom in the original?) whistles to the other mops. Classic.

So, that was all very fun, and the movie ended at 6:30. We had a bit of a walk to the nearest bus stop, and I contemplated just walking home, since it's a straight shot, but I didn't want to get back too late. I got home just before 7, and Ruth was starting dinner, the one she'd wanted to make on Monday night. It was great! A totally unexpected combination that was wonderful: a peach slice on top of a cheese slice on top of chicken, frying in the pan. It was great. Oh, something I've never mentioned: well, sticky rice is a very common side dish, and the way they put it on the plate is in a perfect little dome. They actually have a special utensil for making these perfect domes, a plastic thing which kind of looks like a measuring cup. I kind of want one.

This is a very short post by my standards, so I'm going to add a completely unrelated, but funny, anecdote. At school, I was playing Hangman on the blackboard with some people. Of course, everyone always guesses the vowels first, but then what letters might you choose? This is very telling about the Slovak language. "Um... C? Z? Y? V? K? L? S?" Yep. We played several rounds of Slovak Hangman, and then one girl decided to do a word in English for me to guess. I got down to two letters and still had no idea what it was. She filled in the last "c." "Tam!" she said. ("There!") "Acomodation!" No wonder I didn't get it...

Much love!

Vecer s Erikou

[An evening with Erika]

Sunday was a very, very good day. Tak, pod'me!

Ruth and I had stayed up almost to one the night before, so we slept in until eleven the next day. Ah, the luxuries of the weekend. Tibor came home at around one, and together we had Sunday lunch, prepared by Ruth, meat courtesy of Tibor. It happened to be the Czech national dish: pork, sauerkraut, and knedl'a. It was so delicious. Sad that I like the Czech national dish but not the Slovak one, which is bryndzove halusky. "Halusky" is invariably translated to "gnocci" on restaurant menus, but if it counts as gnocci, it's certainly not the Italian kind! It looks like a mass of tiny, irregularly-shaped pieces of white pasta-dough. Which I really like. What I do not like, as of yet, is the bryndza part. Bryndza is a special Slovak sheep cheese which is nearly liquid-- about the texture of ice cream after some little kid whips it with their spoon for a few minutes. I absolutely hated the bryndza when I had it. But I'm open to having it again. Ruth says everyone, including Slovak children, hates bryndza when they first have it. But according to her, you gradually acquire a taste for it, and you end up liking it--or at least thinking it's fine.

After lunch I went to Marks & Spencer in Mlyny to buy more peanut butter-- we used up the whole jar I bought before on just one batch of Fudge Quickies! This time, I was planning on buying up at least two jars, but it turns out I couldn't. The peanut butter was on super clearance and there was only one jar left... I'm hoping they're going to get more soon, and this doesn't mean they're going to stop carrying it (since the market for peanut butter here is zero).

After getting peanut butter, I went to the second floor of Mlyny, to the bookstore. Many people had told me they have a large English section, so I decided to finally see for myself. Well, unless I was missing something, it was actually just one table; but happily, most of the books on that table were thick and inexpensive classics. Each book was two or three books in one. So, since I've always loved his children's stories, I got a Rudyard Kipling book which was both The Jungle Book and Kim, for five Euro. In the same section, I found something wonderful. I just had to get it. It's an "obrazky slovnik" (picture dictionary) to help Slovak children learn English. Well, that works both ways! What it is is fifty-five pages of beautiful illustrations which have vocabulary words for everything in day-to-day life: in the town, in the city, in the farm; clothing; food; occupations; places; around the house; cooking, etc. All the words I really need to know! Plus an extra dictionary in the back for more words and phrases. I'm in love with this book already. I love just flipping through the pages to look at the drawings. And I think it must surely be easier to memorize vocab when you have an accompanying visual, instead of just squinting into a pocket dictionary and repeating a word a few dozen times.

I got home at 2:30 and was preparing to go out immediately to walk to Erika's, but Tibor kindly drove me instead, since he had to pick up Kora. So, what was I doing with Erika today? Making Christmas cookies! She tied the apron on me and laid out her full collection of cookie cutters for me to choose from. I picked a violin, a Star of David, the outline of Mary and Jesus, Mikulas (St. Nicholas), what I later discovered was Satan (no joke), a bell, a candle, a church, two different angels, and a little house. I rolled out the dough, pre-made by Erika, and cut out all the little designs. They filled two cookie sheets. I brushed egg yolks over the tops, Erika popped them in the oven, we let them cool, and then I got to work frosting! (Things moved much more quickly this time when I knew the routine.) Erika had three colors for me to work with; red, yellow, and white. These were just the base colors, and I would apply the decorative frosting later. I struggled with this last time, but this time it was a breeze! I got through all but five by the time Erika said we had to go.

Go? Where? Huh? To the synagogue, for a concert, of course! Oops. I didn't know about this. Luckily I happened to be wearing my nice trousers and blouse and not tennis shoes, but it was definitely a step down from my dress the time before... It had been a warm day walking over there, and I thought I was only staying until six or so, so I hadn't brought a jacket. Erika was worried I would be cold, and gave me nylon stockings for my sandaled feet (people only wear socks with tennis shoes, and if their feet are at all exposed, it's never just bare skin-- it's always nylon stockings) and an old sweater of hers. We walked over to the synagogue, and were lucky to get seats in the front row, dead center! Maybe not so lucky, as there was practically no one there, and for some reason everyone was choosing seats in the back rows...

What we were seeing that night: a quartet consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello. They were all only a few years out of university, having met at the conservatory in Bratislava. However, they were recognized as the best young quartet in all of Slovakia. (And they played for an audience of fifty... how sad.) It was a long concert. They played Mozart, Zeljenka, and Shostakovitch. The Mozart was light and sweet. I'd never heard of Zeljenka--obviously some Czechoslovak composer--and it was obvious why; the music was very modern. The Shostakovitch was my favorite. I imagined it was a storm brewing, and every so often the dark clouds would burst, and it was incredibly violent. They were all just tearing at their strings. Several broke some bowstrings. And no guessing why!

It was so wonderful to be only six feet away from these people. There's no elevated stage or anything; they're all sitting at the same level as you. So I was actually on eye-level with them. The most interesting thing for me, aside from the music, was getting to see the unspoken communication that is so vital in a group that has no conductor. All the eye language and breathing cues, etc. I'd never been close enough to really get to observe that before.

It was a great concert and I was so grateful to Erika once again. As she and I parted ways outside, I asked her if it'd be okay if I gave the sweater back Monday, when we were going to meet again. She told me just to keep the sweater, since it doesn't fit her anymore and fits me perfectly. Dakujem!

I got home just before eight, and before I could eat anything Ruth and I had to leave! We were going to Sunday mass. I couldn't believe Ruth hadn't been yet, and what church held service this late?

It turned out to be a church I've never been to before (yet another one! yay!), actually the closest of all of them to the flat. It's the one inside the hospital. When I first arrived here, it surprised me how there were ambulances roaring past the flat all the time (though it's very quiet here; city noises never disturb me). I found out quickly from Ruth that the hospital was near us, and that was why. Since then, I'd always wondered where this mysterious hospital actually is, because I'd never seen it! Well, Sunday I finally did. Or a part of it, anyway--it was dark when we got there, of course.

The reason Ruth's never taken me to this church is because she doesn't think it's fun in that "they don't sing." But I loved it! It was a very narrow, not very long room with an extremely high ceiling that was all glass and windows all the way up on both walls. The decorations were simple but very beautiful: all clean, smooth wood; granite floor, and some potted orchids. It had rows of two chairs, separated by an aisle. It fit 60 people max (I counted), but it looked like it should only fit twenty. There were only fifteen people there, including us. Everyone was sitting by themselves in the rows, so Ruth and I had two options: to not sit together, or to sit in the very first row. We chose the latter. I realized later it happened to be the only row (that is, two chairs) which had a front step for kneeling on. That's always nice.

They did, in fact, sing. One woman with a very nice voice led two songs. Not as much as at other churches, but for some reason I just loved this place. It was very calm and personal. There was just one priest (at the larger churches there are legions of brothers and alter boys and nuns and everyone else). At one point he went through a thick stack of index cards, saying "Prosime..." and someone's name. You could write requests on the papers for him to read. Obviously a special feature since it's the hospital.

We got home after nine and though I hadn't had dinner, I wasn't particularly hungry. And that was my night!

More posts to come to fill in the details of my week. Let's pray for the wi-fi to hold out!

Much love!