Friday, October 1, 2010

Je kulturalne, a viac

["It's cultural," and more]

Minutes before my alarm went off this morning at 6:15, I was intending to start off this post with "So, today I met a very haggard (poor man) President Obama here in Slovakia..." It makes me so sad to wake up from vivid dreams and have to face the facts. Ah well.

So, no U.S. presidents' visits; just everyday life and my ruminations on culture. Here goes.

Yesterday after dinner Ruth and I were telling each other about horror movies we'd seen and watching various trailers online for them (though neither of us is a horror buff). There was an interlude, and then Ruth opened a new tab on the internet and typed in Nice, Ruth. Very subtle. "So, what do you have in mind?" Ah. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Deirdre and I had tried the Quaker oats recipe for those cookies once, and it had turned out wonderfully. So Ruth and I looked up the Quaker recipe. We had half the amount of butter, no flour, and not nearly the 3 1/2 cups of oats required. Ruth was devastated. "I really, really wanted them right now..." I had no homework to do, or really anything to do, so I was happy to walk to the grocery store in Mlyny. Ruth protested again and again that it was a far walk, and it was dark, etc; and finally we compromised--she came with me.

Surprisingly, there were a lot of people around at 7:30 at night. The streets were well-lit, but Ruth and I kept freaking out at little things in the darkness off the street... That's what you get for discussing scary things at night. Not a smart thing to do.

We had some strange things happen in the supermarket. First, we saw a giant Christmas display. Seriously? That's not okay. While we were remarking about how ridiculous it was, a very strange man came up to us and started gesturing--it seemed-- about how absurd it was as well. He was moving his mouth and smiling and making hand motions, but he was completely mute! Very strange, and we moved on quickly. Then, right afterwards, there was a woman making loud, realistic pig snorts! She was behind me, and for a while I thought it was the same man following me down the baking aisle. That would have been really creepy.

Somehow, what is a five-minute walk each way to Mlyny, turned into over half an hour. Well, we had a lot of groceries to get and the lines were long, I guess. We continued talking about horror (why?!) on the way back to the flat, and as we approached the doorstep we started getting more and more terrified. We could make out the outline of a man standing on the steps, turned towards us expectantly, just waiting. Ruth was hyperventilating more and more, and I was getting ready to run, when suddenly I realized, "It's Tibor!!" We hadn't been able to see him in the darkness, but I had just then seen Kora sniffing around near him. Whew! Tragic slaying averted.

It took us an hour and a half to make and bake the cookies (three batches). It didn't feel half that long, but the clock never lies. Ruth and I have had such incredible luck baking together. Every single thing we've made has turned out perfectly! These most recent cookies are no exception. Unfortunately, after the second batch of Fudge Quickies, the jar of peanut butter I brought with me is now empty. (It was good for three batches of peanut butter cookies and two batches of Fudge Quickies. Wow!) Ruth has never seen peanut butter here in Slovakia, but she looked online and found out we can get it at Tesco (apparently a British company), so we'll investigate that soon. Vanilla extract is a more pressing issue. There's not much left, and everything we would bake requires it. And you can't get it here! Maybe Austria?

Okay, the rest of this post I'm going to devote to interesting cultural differences I've observed, mainly at school.

When people enter the classroom in the morning, they say "Ahojte!" or "Caute!" These are the ways to say hello when you're addressing more than one person ("ahoj" or "cau" are the singular forms). So everyone is in a way saying hi to everyone in the class at once. And they don't go unnoticed; most people respond back "ahoj!" to each person! I think it's a nice way of greeting your classmates. There are also physical greetings to accompany the spoken ones; girls will kiss and boys will shake hands. Hugging is not so common; when it happens, it's more a kind of embracing. Oh, and while I'm still on this topic, it's interesting that there's a rigid code for the more formal greetings. "Dobre rano," which means "good morning," is exclusively used before 8 o'clock AM. For all daylight hours after that "dobry den" (good day) suffices. I wonder if people are actually looking at their watches before they speak? I'm guessing it's probably very internalized and comes without thinking, but I've listened carefully, and they have it down practically to the minute. It's not even just by class schedules that they know! Once, the teacher entered the room maybe two minutes early, and it was "dobre rano" to her (teachers are always greeted). 8:01 it's "dobry den, professorka!"

Grades are determined differently here. For one thing, instead of the letter system of A, B, C, etc., they have numbers 1-5, 1 being the A equivalent. (One boy once asked me if failing in America was worse than getting a 5. I didn't know what he was talking about, and then he said "Because "F" is the sixth letter. So is it a 6, then?" Haha.) But as far as I know, there are no points for participation and no points for doing your homework. Instead, your grade is made up of written tests and oral tests.

Oral tests! This was hard for me to get used to. I still sort of wince when things go badly. The teacher calls up a student to the front of the class--I'm not sure if kids know beforehand; I think sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't-- and then asks them questions. They respond, and the teacher (rather subjectively) decides what s/he's going to give them. Different teachers have different ways of carrying this out. I have one teacher who takes the student to a discreet corner and very quietly talks with them; everyone else is allowed to talk and do whatever they want, so the person being quizzed is unheard and unwatched. Other teachers make a big deal out of themselves standing in the back of the classroom while the person being quizzed is front and center, and insist that everyone else pay attention to what is being said. One teacher I have does sort of dueling quizzes, where she has two people up at the board at a time, and at the end she asks the class, "Who did better?" It's not a popularity contest here; everyone shouts the correct name. The teacher marks the grades accordingly.

Some teachers will help out the student, giving hints, etc.; others wait in silence. And the grades themselves are pretty subjectively decided. Maybe you knew most of it and you get a 1 from your Biology teacher, but your Geography teacher gives you a 2... or even a 3! Who knows. The other big revelation for me is that grades are universally known; there are no secrets. After these oral exams, the teacher shouts out the grade for everyone to hear. Passing back written tests, the teacher will often call out each person's score. For smaller written quizzes, everyone stands up after the quizzes have been corrected, and the teacher calls out, "Sit down if you missed six... if you missed seven..."

At the Rotary weekend, they gave presentations on culture, and one thing I noted was they said "Cheating in school is common." I had noticed that during most written tests, unless the teacher was especially threatening, everyone would whisper among themselves and basically work communally. I assumed this was the extent of the above statement. Today I got a more severe taste of it. Two periods before the test, I saw a boy photocopying the answers (I've always wondered how people even get their hands on them!) in miniature form (maybe three inches square) thirty times. In the break before the class, the little squares were all cut out and universally distributed. The best and the worst students alike spent the whole twenty-minute long break working to memorize the sheets.

So here's where my musings come in. I would say I think cheating in this form is morally wrong-- you should study for the test and do your own work. But I hesitate to condemn anything as wrong, repeating to myself the Rotary maxim, "not better, not worse, just different." In an extreme example, Osama bin Laden would find the way I dress very morally wrong indeed. So who's to say? I find his terrorism very morally wrong. I think the Rotary saying is important, though not universally true. Maybe it's in Osama's terrorist subculture to kill the evil capitalists. That doesn't mean we can't say he's evil or condemn him. ...But that's a pretty absurd example since it's so extreme. In general terms, thinking about culture as far as "not better, not worse, just different" is probably a really good idea. Uggh, I'm twisting myself into philosophical knots here. Cheating is. I'm not going to do it. So there.

On a lighter note, math is done in pen! Which I love, because that's how I always did my math at home. Everyone uses blue ink for everything here. Power to the pens! That's the way I like it. I had a really hard time at the beginning deciphering teachers' writing on the blackboard, because not only does everyone use cursive, it's a different cursive from the one I learned! I've gotten much better at reading it now, but it can still be hard if they write sloppily. T's and K's in particular can be hard to distinguish; they both look completely different from anything you've ever seen, I bet. Slovak words can go many letters without a single vowel, so sometimes it's hard for me to recognize if what I copied down was an actual word or not... Well, I can't read the notes regardless, so I guess it doesn't matter.

Thinking more generally about school, students can't choose what classes they will take. And they take the same subjects every year. So, a student graduating from gymnazium has had ten or so years of biology, chemistry, etc.! But they're just starting cellular biology in the sophomore-equivalent grade, after supposedly many years of biology already, so I don't get it. At the end of gymnazium you have Maturita exams. They fill every gymnazium's students nightmares for years. Ruth will be heading into the maelstrom soon enough; everything gets intense in December. Maturita is how you graduate gymnazium and is one of the big determining factors universities look at. It's also kind of controversial, because it counts for so much, but it's not standardized. Every school has their own exams, and teachers are the ones administering them. What happens, at least at Ruth's school, is for each subject you get a giant list of eighty or so very in-depth questions which are picked from everything you've ever learned ever. You know that in May, when the oral exams are, you will be asked a few of the questions from that list. So, ideally, you have to be able to answer every question there. Written exams take place in March, so you have to be prepared by then. Students choose I think three subjects to take Maturita in; Slovak Language/Literature is the required fourth subject. What I don't understand, is if it's so incredibly intense, as everyone wholeheartedly assures me it is, how does anyone pass? People talk about "oh, that's the bad university, anyone can get in there"-- but obviously to get in to that university, bad students or not, they had to pass Maturita. There's something strange here.

In preparing for Maturita, you're required to attend long extra classes before and after school. But kids who aren't in the fourth grade (seniors) are also taking extra classes. A fair amount of people go to language school. This can be private (very expensive), but the school also puts on extra foreign language classes after school, which (at least at Golianove) go from 5:30 to 8 at night. I don't know if you have to pay for them or not. I haven't met anyone yet who tells me they really like foreign languages or who is especially good at them, but everyone takes them seriously. (Okay, maybe not German...Most people hate it and figure they're okay as long as they've got English.) In a sense, it's a matter of survival! Just about every job requires you to "speak" another language (a minimal level of proficiency, anyway). But also, if you have any hopes of ever leaving the borders of Slovakia, even only to travel, you need another language. Which is hard for me to imagine, since I'm so used to everyone understanding me, no matter where in the world I want to go. But no, Slovaks are stuck if they just speak Slovak. Even a lot of Czechs can't understand them. I find this kind of sad...

A lot of young people tell me about their dreams of traveling the world (London! America! New Zealand!)--a lot of them seem to have this wanderlust, to "get out"--but actually most Slovaks I've known have lived their whole lives in the places they grew up. Culturally speaking, I think families are much closer than in America (certainly they tend to be geographically, if they're all in the same city), and, to quote the Rotary presentation, "friendships are more profound." Being friends, being family, and being friends of family are all very important bonds. You'll go a long way for someone you have a connection with. I think it's a very nice, warm environment.

Maybe it's because people tend to stay in the same city? Dialects are, to quote my learn-Slovak book, "strong and varied." And such a small country, too! As Mario said, "A man from the West can have a very hard time understanding a man from the East. That's why, when they were writing down the rules of Slovak back around the turn of the twentieth century [Slovak is a very modern language in this way], they pulled it from the middle of the country, where things were more balanced out." At the Rotary weekend I was talking to a girl who is living in Roznava, in the East near Kosice, and we were comparing common slang. I'd never heard of hers, and she'd never heard of mine!

Talking with Ruth, I was amazed to find out that even cities (plus their suburbs) have their own dialects! I was wondering why it sounded like the accent was on the second syllable in "Topol'cany" (a small town twenty kilometers from Nitra). "Mhmm, that's probably because of the "L'," Ruth said ("L' " is supposedly the hardest letter to pronounce correctly in Slovak). "But here in Nitra, we don't say it like [insert sound here], we just say it like a normal el." "You know, I thought I hadn't heard it!" I exclaimed. I'd always thought it was just too subtle for me to distinguish. I don't know how you pronounce it, so I guess it's lucky for me that I'm here in Nitra and don't have to! But Ruth says in the East they really accent that sound, along with others that fit in that category-- I don't know how to describe them. But even in Bratislava, just an hour from Nitra and also in the West, they speak differently! Ruth was saying how it really irritates her how people there pronounce "I don't know" as "neviem." (That's the way it's spelled.) Here in Nitra, and officially, it's pronounced like "nyeviem."

Ruth and I were talking about languages, and I said I thought English pronunciation must be hard (as opposed to, say, Spanish). She said yes, she thought that was the hardest thing about it (at least for her), "because, in English, there's only one right way to say it. No matter where you go, if you don't pronounce it exactly that way, it's wrong. Slovak... Well, you have a lot more room for variation." This is interesting for me to consider, because I'd never though of English pronunciation as especially rigid, but now that an outsider has pointed it out to me as such, I can't imagine what "non-rigid" pronunciation would be like!

I should further mention that all the people in Ruth's parents generation grew up learning Russian. Tibor and Aneta were talking about this, and they said it was called their "duty." It was required under Communist rule, and they all absolutely hated it-- because they hated the Russians! So Ruth says, even though they all learned Russian, no one from that generation would ever speak Russian unless they absolutely had to. They're just so bitter. I guess tension has cleared since, though, since at Golianova they actually have a special Russian program, unique among the gymnaziums in the area.

Well, I wrote this post Friday afternoon, and then before I could post it Ruth and I had to literally run to catch the bus to Klokocina; it turned out to be one of those moments of absolute luck, and had anything detained us for even a second, we would have missed it. We were going to Silvia's home. I was very surprised at the route the bus made; I'd never known the extent of Klokocina. Silvia lives at the very edge of the hill. It was so neat to see this completely new view of the city. There was a beautiful church with a very unusually-shaped bronze roof that I'd never seen before, and a very long strand of poplars in the distance, looking like dark sentinels in the misty, gray late-afternoon. The stare mesto from this vantage was I think more accurately presented than from my window: the big double-spired church, the hrad, and Ruth's school's church looked very spaced out, very far from one another. As it actually is! From where I stand, they all look side by side. They're the largest things around, and they're roughly in a line, so it's only when looking from that other side, up on Klokocina, that you can see how much is really in between!

We went to Silvia's because Ruth and Silvia are working on learning this dance that the Black Eye Peas did for Oprah; as the oldest class at the gymnazium, at the upcoming prom-equivalent, they will have to perform a dance for the school. Ruth and Silvia are organizing the choreography for this dance, and they're learning it from a flawed YouTube video... I don't envy their job! It's really hard work.

A few hours later the three of us walked to the Klokocina church, which is fifteen minutes away from Silvia's flat. I think I've mentioned before that it's the newest church in the city; Ruth had her Confirmation there when it was brand-new, three years ago. A few weeks ago when I was at the Rotary weekend in Strecno, Ruth went to mass on Friday at this church and got recruited for a fledgling youth group (just after joining the Sunday Chrenova one!), so now she and I have been going there every Friday, but it has yet to happen.

This Friday we had mass, and then we all (there were lots of teens, all of whom were from Ruth's school) hung around for a while: the teens are the ones who clean the church after everyone clears out. (Which I think is a good practice. And I've always appreciated how spotless this particular church is, with its granite floors gleaming. Now I know why!) But despite our waiting, the youth group again did not take place. I'm not sure why. Veronika, Ruth, and I took the bus at 8:30 back home, though Ruth and I got off before Veronika did, since the latter lives all the way at the "top" of Zobor (that is, at the top of the Zobor community, which is at the base of Zobor itself).

Happy October!

Much love!


  1. Ahoj Rhiannon,
    We've been fascinated by your accounts of your adventures in Kosice and Bratislava. Is Mario the Mario Fancovic of Close Harmony Friends? We have been viewing a number of their performances and are very impressed with the artistry and the spectrum they cover music wise.
    Love, Granddad

  2. Wow, that was some sleuthing you did! Yes, that's him. :) It was a great concert! Thanks so much for reading.