Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hore na hori (Vysoke Tatry)

(High up in the mountains--the High Tatras) --Yes, interestingly enough, the word for "high/up/upstairs/upwards" is the same as the one for "hill/mountain"--if you´re up, it´s got something to do with "hore."

Big news straight off: SNOW!!! Finally, finally, finally! We woke up on Friday morning to a winter wonderland. Okay, not that much, but everything was white. It´s amazing what a difference it made. Everything just looked so much prettier and festive. The sky was blue and the sun was bright and everything was so fresh and alive. Winter! It was so beautiful.

Now that that´s out of the way, I think I´ll "talk" about today, Tuesday. It was my first day back in school in a long time, since I was sick Monday and Tuesday; I had to stay home and pack Thursday; Friday I had to stay home to get ready for the Tatras; Monday we were still in the Tatras... This morning I got up at 6:15 (no need to get up that early; tomorrow it´ll be 6:45 for me) and really felt completely terrible in just about every way. Sick sick sick! But I got ready for school and at 7:30 we left, Sandy driving Sasha and me.

Sasha´s school is near mine. Sandy dropped her off and then me. I went upstairs to the classroom at 7:45 and got the same sinking feeling I´d had when I hadn´t known about the school trip to Zobor. The room was empty, all the chairs were still overturned on the desks... What had I missed this time? I didn´t feel as hopeless as before, though, because I´d seen some girls from my class downstairs. I went back downstairs and met some friends on the way. Apparently we were all off on a field trip to see an electricity substation! Yay!

We found my class teacher, who is a very nice woman, and she asked if I had my passport with me. No way am I carrying that around school! She called the director of the electricity substation, who said no passport, no can do. So I called Sandy and she kindly came back and picked me up, soon after the bus with all my classmates on it had left, and she took me home. That actually worked out fairly well, since I´m feeling so awful it would have been a really bad day at school.

So, let´s see, what did I do this weekend... Well, I spent three days in the High Tatras, Slovakia´s crown jewels! Off we go...

We left at 10:00 on Saturday morning. It had snowed more that night and was still snowing lightly as we got into the cars. It also happened to be election day in Slovakia. I´m happy it´s over with--I´m so sick of the campaign junk everywhere! Posters in the bus, on the billboards, on telephone poles; pamphlets turning up in every office, as litter on every street... I remember it started back in September, when these big billboards started turning up which had a big picture of Jozef Dvonč´s head and the caption "Jozef Dvonč: Naš primátor" ("our mayor"--interesting to note that captions and book titles and things like that generally capitalize the first letter of the first word and nothing else, as I´ve done in my post titles). Then everything started saying things like "Pod Doc. Mgr. Jozefa Dvončom naš primátor mesta Nitry"--very formal ("Under *insert long list of abbreviated titles here* Jozef Dvonč our mayor of the city of Nitra")...I still don´t understand that, and it alway sort of irked me: Everything having to do with the arts was apparently "under" him--all those concerts I went to with Erika, various theatrical productions, the art gallery exhibits... even a concert for a metal band called Nazareth whose tagline was "vitajte na konči sveta" ("welcome to the end of the world"). Hmm.

Something I´ve neglected to mention: Sandy grew up in Lehota, and the house she grew up in, where her parents still live, is maybe two feet from this one; the two share a driveway. The grandparents are always around. Sasha sleeps at their house at least once a week! So, we went to the Tatras with the grandparents and Sandy´s brother, his wife, and three year-old daughter (they live in Trnava, which is a city about halfway between Nitra and Bratislava).

It was a beautiful drive. I´ve been on this northern highway route many, many times now (only a few times, and not very far, on the southern route), but I was seeing it with fresh eyes as it was all under snow. There´s a place somewhere, maybe near Zvolen, where once you pass it the climate suddenly is somehow very different from Nitra´s (though they´re only an hour or so apart)--much more snow! We stopped for lunch in Zvolen, which I´ve never seen before. I´ve always seen the signs, but you have to get off the highway to actually see the city. It didn´t look like it would be pretty when the snow thawed, but with all the white it looked quite nice... Everything looked nice! Factories belching out smoke--lovely. Auto dealerships and factories in Ružomberok--lovely.

I´m always, each and every time, amazed by how long it is from Nitra to Banská Bystrica. I calculate the mileage in my head (I´m quite good at the kilometers to miles conversion) and I think, okay, here we go, this should be an hour or so... And it always turns out to be what feels like three hours! I don´t know how long it is actually, but it´s much more than just 60 minutes. One of my problems is that I calculate times based on a 60 mph average, which is fair by American freeway standards. That doesn´t cut it on the two-laned Slovak highway. I don´t know how fast we go but it´s not 100 km/h.

I´m sure I´ve mentioned this before, but I really like Banská Bystrica. It always makes me so pleased when we finally get there on the way to getting somewhere else. It really makes me feel like yes, we´re underway and we´re making progress. Before we get there all I can think about is getting there...

Banská Bystrica is surrounded by some beautiful, high, forested hills. The forests looked just incredible with the snow. So, so beautiful! We were listening to Sasha´s Shakira CD. Good going.

Through Donovaly, moving higher into the mountains... Up in Liptovský Mikuláš I was really feeling the mountains. It was snowing, the forests were white and drooping with the weight of the snow, the lakes were frozen... It felt like Vianoce was already here.

Whoo! We finally made it (after a very enjoyable drive) to the Grand Hotel Permon. (Almost all hotels list after their names the amount of stars they have. Permon: ****). An amazing thing about this hotel which I didn´t discover until later: It has the most ideal view of Krívaň. Krívaň is not the highest of the Vysoke Tatry, but it is certainly the most important. It´s a breathtakingly-beautiful mountain with a very characteristic crooked peak. It is the ultimate symbol for Slovakia and its people. (It´s on the coins, too!) The reason why I completely missed that it was there is because it was fully hidden in the hmla--fog/mist.

We checked in. We had rooms all next to each other. Sasha and I shared a room, but she slept with her parents during the night because she wanted to. First thing after getting in, we got our swimsuits on and headed downstairs to the pool!

We swam for a while and did the water slide many, many times...Perhaps others might have tired of doing it again and again, but hey, I´m the girl who beat the Mile Slide Challenge in Silvertown, Minnesota. This was not the longest slide I´ve ever been on but it was certainly the coolest decorations-wise. It had what sounded like African drum music pumping through it and the whole inside was colored black; there were all sorts of designs in wild colors popping out of the black, like flames, lightning, sea creatures, stripes, griffins... My favorites were the manatee, porpoises, octopus, and manta ray. I certainly got to know them well!

After a very long time of all this, we had to change out of our swimsuits and instead wrap these sheets around ourselves like togas in order to go to the spa. As we were getting ready, guess who I saw coming out of the spa? Tibor!!! He wasn´t staying at the same hotel; he´d just come for the spa. I was so surprised and happy to see him, though we just said hi.

The hotel boasted ten different kinds of spas! I was so excited. It was my first time in any spa. I was sure it would be good for me, too, since I got sick again on Friday.

The spa center was very calm, mellow, and soothing. Ethereal music floated around. There was a little well with a bucket in it. The stone floor was heated (no shoes allowed). There was soft lighting and a vague citrus fragrance. The entrance to the spas had a bowl filled with snow, and next to it a path you could walk which was first through warm water, which then turned to ice-cold water. (The unpleasant thing about it was that while you were in the warm section you triggered a motion-activated shower to come on which sprayed you with ice water.)

We started off in a salt inhalation room. I had no idea what to expect. We went into this dimly-lit, very hot room that was so thickly-filled with vapor it was hard to see anything except the colored pinprick lights, like stars, on the ceiling. We sat down on hot, heated stone. Everything was wet. I couldn´t breathe; Sasha and I coughed for the first few minutes. It didn´t feel like salt, exactly, but it felt like something my lungs didn´t want to take in. (The next day we went back and it felt good and natural; I didn´t cough at all.) In the center was a little fountain filled with cold water that you could splash on yourself if you got too hot; there were also shower heads all around. What I really wanted was to drink some water! But not an option. Regardless, it felt good and cleansing.

I think that was the most interesting of the spas we went to that day... We continued onwards, passing a deep, but small, pool filled with ice water... There was a ladder for whoever wanted to take a dip. I might have been tempted if I were alone. We went outside, to the other part of the spa complex. It was night already and it was the most perfect winter scene: a frozen lake/pond with snow-capped stones in it; a little wood hut next to it; snowy forest all around. There was a giant hot tub next to the lake boiling away. It looked great. I was so hot from the salt room that I was walking on barefeet on the snow and it wasn´t cold.

We went to a traditional sauna next: Cedar walls and coals and the smell of it and the silent people huddled on benches together. The little room had two windows looking out on the lake; the lighting made it look like there were candles in the windowsills, just that little bit of warm orange glow. It was very peaceful.

We finished off the evening in what I think of as the "citrus room." It turned out to be Sasha´s favorite. It had this very nice, light citrus fragrance. The lighting looked like candles. We lay down on warm, white-tiled benches in the dim light. Music that sounded straight from the Apollo movie soundtrack by Brian Eno drifted around and I felt like I was floating through space.

We finally went back upstairs and dipped into the pool again--brrr! There was an unofficial water-aerobics/dance class taking place (as in, anyone could swim up and join) and we joined in. Finally we went back to the room and took showers before heading to dinner.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant and was buffet-style. Afterwards we went into the nearby game room and played many rounds of fusball (spelling?), which I really like. I played enough this weekend that my skills have certainly improved!

Mickey Mouse and staff had gone around at dinner advertising a disco for little kids that night in the night bar (yes, great place for it--the entrance had a kids´drawing of a pirate ship and right next to it a large poster advertising vodka). Mároš and his wife Nadja were interested for their daughter Greta; Sashka was not keen on it, but her parents were! So after dinner we went up there (major problem with the hotel design: twelve floors and only one elevator! We spent so much time just waiting for it to come).

The night bar had a dance floor set up and disco lights going everywhere. A clown came out and asked for all the young kids to come up. (I´m eighteen, thank you very much. I think I´m finally too old to be pushed into such things.) There were only five, I think, including Sasha and Greta. The clown had them dance things like Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (a British version which I did not recognize). I noted that the clown was a very good dancer; you could tell she had that dancer´s grace and fluidity. It went on for a while and then they finally opened the dance floor for anyone; Sasha, her grandma, and I danced to Wakka Wakka by Shakira--good song!

Sasha and I went back upstairs; I don´t remember why. We didn´t know where anyone was so we went back to the night bar, where they all still were. Surprise! The night bar had turned into a real night bar, with a lot of thirty-somethings out to get smashed on a Saturday night. It was a cast of recurring characters that whole time at the hotel: The guy who had gone around in orange Crocs and a bright orange shirt identifying him as a children´s events coordinator, roping up people for the children´s disco, was now quite smoothly dressed in jeans and a nice shirt; he was really a great guy and remembered everyone´s name and where they were from--also preferred language, as he was fluent in English and there were a fair amount of Hungarians and Poles and Germans--after seeing them just once. The girl who had been the clown--she was maybe in her mid- to late-twenties--had the personality of someone who should work at Disneyland and had actually also been the person in the Mickey Mouse suit, and later was one of the swim-aerobics instructors, and was also my salsa instructor the next night, though I´ll get to that later. There was one other girl around the same age as this girl and the guy; she was also part time children´s event staff, part time aerobics instructor, part time dancer, and all three of them went together doing their various jobs, changing outfits quite a lot. It was funny how often they kept cropping up.

So, this real night bar was having a competition called "James Bond" there on what had been the kiddies´dance floor. The guy was running it. How it worked was there was a chair in the middle of the floor. A little bit of music would play; if you knew what musical/movie it was from, you ran up and sat in the chair first. Then the guy would ask some questions in both Slovak and in English, and if you answered correctly you got a glass of champagne (must be 18 years or older to participate) and two straws. In the end, whoever had the most straws was the victor and won two nights´free stay in the hotel. High stakes!

I had a premonition that the "Love Theme" from Titanic would come on and the question would be the names of the two lead actors. Oh, it happened. I was meant for that question. I ran; I beat a guy to it. Poor youthfully-visaged me: Of course, the actual first question the guy running it asked was, "So, before we start, I have to check: How old are you?" Then came the questions I had foreseen: Name of the movie? "Titanic." Names of the two leading actors? "Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet." Very good. And now... He gave a winking smile and asked something in Slovak I didn´t understand. The crowd roared, and I heard Sandy say, "No, don´t ask her that, that´s not fair!" He repeated it in English. How many people survived the Titanic? Oh dear. "Um...215?" He kept making the downward motion with his hand that means "less" in America, so I said, "113? 25? 6?" "Do you really think just six people survived!" "Um, 625? 1000?" Obviously I had no idea whatsoever. I didn´t hear what the correct answer was either, but it didn´t matter. It was just a fun question that didn´t matter in terms of the actual competition. I won my straws and champagne--the latter of which my host grandmother drank. In the end our table had two straws, from me. There were two tables who had eight straws each; they dueled it out and someone won. A fun night.

To bed! We got up at eight the next morning (Sunday) to find it had snowed a lot more that night. We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then got all bundled up for a walk in the snow. Excellent! This is what I´d been dying to do since we´d arrived. It was all of us except for Mároš´family. Oh, the weather was perfect, and I was just the right temperature all over...

We walked for at least two hours all over on the roads through the forest. We didn´t range very far, but we saw a lot and we breathed in deeply that clean, fresh mountain air. There was one mountain krčma (kircma, that is--I´ve been spelling it wrong)--closed, unfortunately--which had dozens of CATS inside (we could see through the windows) and outside...There were so many dainty cat tracks through the snow. I wonder how they liked the cold weather. They didn´t seem to mind, just sitting on posts licking themselves nonchalantly like they always do, or, like one black cat we saw, running through the snow on light feet.

We also saw a memorial to "partazán"s--they described to me what partazány are, and I´m pretty sure they´re guerillas. (Surprisingly, the word in Italian is something very close to "partazán" as well, not "guerilla" like it is in Spanish.) Apparently partazány had hid out in the forests there. The memorial was a few large, inscribed stones. I think this was during the Slovak National Uprising during WWII? One of the heroes recognized was a Russian; the Slovaks and Russians were allied then. Also recognized was General M.R. štefánik, whose name you see everywhere; I hadn´t known he was part of the "partazánská brigada." It´s him whose giant statue I saw across from the opera house in Bratislava; štefániková street, which I used to live on, is also named after him.

We passed by the hotel Krívaň, where Tibor had said he was staying. I didn´t see him again, but I mentally waved "ahoj!"

Heading back to the hotel, we saw some genuine Slovak hunters. They were dressed in forest- green wool, with hunting caps and breeches, hounds (noses pressed to the ground), and old-fashioned shotguns slung over their shoulders. They looked entirely no-nonsense. (At dinner the night before, deer had been a meal option. Maybe they had shot it.)

Back in the toasty hotel, we sat in the lobby (which is on the eighth floor) drinking warm hot chocolate. There were two caged parrots in the lobby. Marco went up to one and calmly offered his finger to the bird. The bird bowed his head, and allowed Marco to rub his head and neck (he closed his eyes in pleasure) for as long as Marco was willing. All Marco had to do was put his finger there. The bird was obviously very friendly, I thought, so I put my finger near him as Marco had done. The parrot lunged forward to bite me! Whoops, lesson learned. (When we left, the bird called frantically after Marco, "Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!", whistling.)

Time for lunch. This was when the hmla finally cleared and I realized we had the ideal view of Krívaň from the hotel windows. The shape of it makes me feel like I´m up in the Himalayas. How beautiful.

After lunch we rested for a little while. Sandy, Mároš and I went to the fitness center and worked out for twenty-five minutes or so. Then we all got together again for more swimming. A long time swimming and even more watersliding than before.

Then time to go spa-ing. We started in the "citrus room," lying in the semi-darkness. Then on to an inhaling room...I don´t remember what it was we were inhaling, but it wasn´t my favorite. Then on to the eucalyptus inhaling room! That was great. It felt so good and purifying. We went back to the salt inhalation room, which did not make me cough at all, second time around.

It was dark by then when we went outside. We were freezing in the snow and ducked inside a sauna. It was a warm, dark little room heated by a roaring fireplace. Just that: the cedar walls, a little window, coals, and a warm fire to sit by and look into. It got painfully hot quickly, but it was very beautiful in there.

We went outside again and walked up a ramp to a separate wood hut... The strangest spa of all. We entered a man-made salt cave, walls and ceiling dripping with salt stalagtites, everything centered around a yellow salt pillar. Molded into the salt formations were different colored lights; the floor was all white "sand" (some kind of salt). There were blanket-covered beach chairs to lie on and a recording of ocean waves and gulls was playing. Like home! The room was warm, too, of course. I think that was my favorite of the spas. Certainly the most interesting.

Marco and Sasha went back upstairs to go swimming again; Sandy and I went to another sauna, indoors, just plain cedar and coals. I was ready to go up swimming again, too, though, when a guy came in and dumped four full glasses of water on the coals (this was a tiny room) and got things boiling.

Swimming was frigid after the toasty spas, but I got over it and we swam for a while before going back to the room, showering, and going down to dinner.

After dinner we went bowling as a family of four. The hotel had two bowling lanes down on the first floor. This bowling was different from the regular kind (which I was assured Slovakia also had). The pins were smaller, and had strings attached to their heads for the machine´s easy rearrangement. They were arranged in a diamond, rather than triangle formation. The balls were smaller, heavier (they were solid), and had no holes to put your fingers in. Leading up to the actual lane was a stripe of red linoleum on the floor; rules decreed the ball must touch the red linoleum line first, before touching the blue-colored lane.

It was hard going! The pins were much harder to knock down than the ones I´m used to. I don´t think they really knocked each other down. No one ever got more than seven pins down out of nine, even when they threw a hard, dead-center ball that looked like it should be an instant strike. It was fun, though.

Sasha and I went to play darts, which I´ve actually never played before. The electronic dart board was very cool. Once Sasha actually got dead center--it was not possible to be more center than she!

Afterwards we went upstairs to the night bar. The same familiar faces were there, this time dressed with Hawai´ian leis and hula skirts. The dance floor was out and the disco lights were going. It was learn Spanish dancing night.

Sasha and I agreed to go together; the ubiquitous three were desperately rounding people up (no one was there; ours was the only table, and then there were some scattered drinkers at the bar). The girl who had been Mickey Mouse/the clown/the aerobics instructor was now dressed like her normal self (with a lei and flowered jacket) and was going to be the dance instructor. It was great! I learned how to dance salsa, meringue, and bachata to music. Just the basic steps, of course, but much more than I´ve ever known before. I really enjoyed myself, and got excited when Sandy told me that Zumba, the fitness thing she´d already said she wanted to take me to in January, was just like this.

I slept so well that night I didn´t even wake up to my alarm! (No wonder, the hotel´s alarm clock was just whispering the beep noise.) No worries, though, I got all ready on time. It was snowing heavily outside. Beautiful! We headed down to breakfast, and then went for a last swim in the pool. We found out only once we were there that the waterslide and all the spas were closed. Too bad. Instead of an hour, we only stayed twenty-five minutes.

We took showers, and then afterwards loaded all our stuff into the cars, which were packed in some places in ten inches of snow. (I randomly saw the guy from the James Bond competition again--he was clearing snow off his car.) Waiting for Marco to come back with the car, I saw a brown-black squirrel with the biggest tail I´ve ever seen on a squirrel leaping between branches in the distance. Isn´t he supposed to be hibernating?

We drank some more hot chocolate in the hotel lobby (white chocolate with hazelnuts for me, yum--I hear Dad gagging somewhere out there) and then got underway. A beautiful drive back, as well! We had lunch in Banská Bystrica, at a McDonald´s. It´s so sad how Banská Bystrica was absolutely covered in snow, and then we passed some dividing line near Nitra and all the snow disappeared. There is still a good covering here in Lehota, but the actual city is not so endowed. It´s cold enough for it--it was minus 1.5 degrees in the morning and it really felt icy. Black ice abounds, so I have to tread carefully in my leather boots!

Much love!

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