(Rotary Christmas weekend in Bratislava)
Such a lot to tell... It´s been, what, three weeks? Well, that´s awful, but I honestly had no time in which to write it all down. So I´ll finally start now--slowly-- and try to get through three whole weeks... I think there are at least four blog posts which are overdue!
Last Friday Larissa, Ramiro, and I got out of school because we had to go to Bratislava for "Rotary Inbounds Christmas weekend." I was so excited!
The three of us, plus host parents, met at the bus station in Nitra (which happens to be one alleyway over from the apartment building of my first host family). Buses leave for Bratislava from Nitra at least every hour. Very nice.
We had been told in emails that soon after arrival in Bratislava we would be meeting the prime minister of Slovakia (Pani Radicova) and taking pictures with her, so we had to have our Rotary blazers on hand. Mine is so fragile from the several pounds´worth of pins hanging off of it that I didn´t want to stuff it into my duffel bag. So instead I stuffed away my peacoat and was wearing my blazer. It was a cold morning waiting for that bus! Sandy and I stayed inside the car with the toasty heated seats until we saw the others.
We waved goodbye to our host parents (the three of us were traveling unchaperoned because Rotary said we could do so to and from this weekend) and got on the bus (2.60 Euro one way--much faster, nicer, and cheaper than a bus from Olympia to Seattle). It was mainly empty and the three of us got the five seats in the back to ourselves. We were right on the heater.
It was such a languid, relaxing ride. We were warm, we were talking; villages and countryside and gently rolling hills flashed by us. The snow had been done with Nitra, but as we got into Trnava, a large city halfway between Nitra and Bratislava, we went into flurries. It was pretty and exciting--it´s always fun to watch snow when you´re safely bundled up inside!
There were delays on the road due to the snow, and the normally one-hour drive took nearly two. We arrived in the Bratislava bus station at 10:30 and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking around at where we should go. No panicking, though; we spotted the Rotex guy waiting for us. We were very late, but the two kids traveling by bus from Banska Bystrica had yet to arrive as well.
The Rotex guy, Richard, took us to the van and let us stow away our luggage. We were going to wait in the van for the Banska kids, but just as we sat down, Ramiro realized he´d lost his wallet. Oh no! He looked everywhere in the van for it, but finally had to accept he´d left it on the bus. So Larissa stayed in the van with the stuff, and Ramiro, Richard, and I went back to the station to look for the wallet. While Ramiro and Richard went to find where our bus had ended up, I stayed on the sidewalk to wait in case the Banska kids showed up.
It was lucky I stayed, because five minutes later the Banska kids´bus did get in, and I saw them and pulled them over to wait. All good news: ten minutes later Ramiro and Richard came back having successfully located Ramiro´s wallet. The five of us went back to Larissa in the van and Richard drove us to the train station where everyone else was meeting. (I.e., where everyone else had been waiting half an hour for us.)
Horror at the train station: twenty-some kids all with luggage, and all that luggage had to be squished into the van´s trunk, which, while sizeable, was after all only so big. It worked, I guess. From there we walked for maybe half an hour (maybe it was a little shorter? Hard to say--it felt long) to the Parliament building. In some respects it was a miserable walk, since it was freezing, lightly snowing, there was a sharp wind, and all the streets were covered in sludge (plus, I was wearing just my blazer for warmth and I´d left my hat in my duffel bag, assuming I could get it sometime before we went out into the elements). However, I had a good time seeing everyone and reconnecting.
At the Parliament building we had a long time in the lobby getting our passports checked (yes, mine does have that shiny visa-equivalent sticker!) and getting through the metal detectors. When everyone was cleared, we got a nice tour of the important rooms. It was a really good tour in that it was interesting, informative, and just the right length. We saw the room where all the deliberations take place, the press conference room, and several others. We did not see Pani Radicova. I guess she was busy, you know, running a country and all. That´s okay.
Another sizeable walk followed our hour or more in Parliament. Before we set off, however, we got to change out of our Rotary blazers and into our real jackets. I still didn´t have my hat, but I felt equipped. We walked to what I´m guessing is downtown Bratislava, somewhat near the stare mesto. We were going to lunch (it was after 1:30 by then) at a huge pub/restaurant. Everyone was so happy to be inside and warm.
One of the longer lunches ever! It was literally two hours. We had a few menu options to choose from, and I felt bad for the people who´d gone for the dumplings (me: goulash), because their meal didn´t come until the end of those two hours! But I was having fun. It was great to be seeing and talking to everyone for the first time since Strecno--actually, for the second time ever, but of course it didn´t feel like that.
Off for another walk! Not too far this time to the stare mesto. I´ve only been to Bratislava´s stare mesto once before, when I was at the old opera house with Tibor et al. (Actually, the new opera house is right there, too, but I didn´t know that at the time since it´s a pretty self-contained complex. Also since I suck at knowing just where exactly on the planet I am.) I had thought that the one square with the old opera house and the embassies surrounding it was the whole stare mesto ("That´s it?"). False! There was much more. My respect for Bratislava has skyrocketed since that weekend. I have yet to understand why everyone in Nitra I´ve talked to about their capital city has expressed such hatred. You know, I really quite like it.
So, we arrived in the stare mesto with our tour guide, a native of Bratislava herself. She took us on a really enjoyable tour through the (actually good-sized) stare mesto and I learned lots of interesting things, including one little tidbit that helped me later in History class at school. (They were discussing something about Presburg, and I understood since I remembered that was the German name for Bratislava.)
One of the most interesting things I learned on the tour was about the witch burning. Apparently witch burning was a pretty commonplace thing? It didn´t sound like it was anything unusual or exceptional. Rich, pretty girls would be accused of witchcraft by persons who had something to gain by getting them out of the picture--their land or their money. Sounds like a much easier way to collect than in modern days when you have to wait for someone to die a natural death or else hire an assasin. Kind of freaked me out: we were on the oldest bridge in Bratislava, at the end of which were two very short tunnels opening onto shopping squares and so on. In the days of the witch burnings, our guide told us, the large opening (car-sized) was used by everyone, but the small opening (only wide enough for two people abreast) was used for people being taken to be executed and witches being taken to be burned. No one else! Okay, that´s macabre to begin with, but what chilled me was that Nitra has two short tunnels of the exact same size and design on the way up to the hrad (as the bridge in Bratislava was). Of course I always walk through the smaller entrance, since the large one is for cars and it would be dangerous to walk there. But now I wonder. Nitriansky hrad is extremely old. And it is a "hrad," after all--hrad= defensive castle, as opposed to zamok, which equals pleasure castle (basically palace).
I got points with myself later in the tour when we reached a statue of a man killing a dragon. We had earlier passed another statue of a man killing a dragon, and our guide had identified the slayer as Saint Stephen. So, she asked, did anyone know who this second dragon slayer was? I took a guess-- "Saint George?" Bingo.
We ended in Bratislava's large Vianocne trhy (Christmas market). From there, we were given an hour of free time to explore (in groups of four or more) the stare mesto and trhy and all that. In our group of five we dutifully walked the Christmas market, though none of us bought anything (for me, it was a simple matter in that the Bratislava market, while much bigger, had exactly the same trinkets and food as the Nitra market, and of course it's expensive in the capital city).
So, we didn't spend long in the market, but then we went on to explore the specialty food shops in the surrounding area. Rachel and Larissa got delicious specialty hot chocolate at the first chocolate shop, while I held out; later, at a place called Bon-Bon that I think was so saturated in sweet you gained calories by breathing in the air, I had the hot chocolate along with them after trying a bit of Rachel's. It was so thick the spoon just sat on the surface. Rachel's dark chocolate tasted perfect, so I thought the milk chocolate would be better, since I'm not a dark chocolate person. Bad move--it was almost inedibly sweet (I shudder at the thought of the white chocolate!). I drank it anyway, because it was incredible despite the sweetness, but very slowly and with a lot of water in between.
We also stopped in a special marzipan shop, just to look at the marzipan sculptures. Aside from the marzipan man in the shop window, they disappointed. The fruit-shaped marzipan was really amateurly formed. But no matter. It was entertaining, anyway, and it got us out of the bitter cold!
After all of us met up as a group again, we walked to nearby Eurovea. Eurovea is the trendiest shopping center in Bratislava, I believe (certainly the prettiest)--it's the awesome one I went to when I went to the new opera house in Bratislava with Tibor et al. before. You know, the one that actually goes under the fountain in the square? Yeah, that one.
I can't remember what the time was when we got there, but it was something like 5:30. We had to be back at the front of the place by 8. It was fun to shop in the warmth. I was still sick, you know, so I had no appetite that whole weekend, and for dinner I just had a tiny fruit salad. Meh. For the record, I have finally made a full recovery in the last two days. That was maybe the longest illness of my life! Whew. Good to be healthy again.
After Eurovea, we had to walk to our hotel. It was a really long walk and it was so terribly cold. We were all so completely relieved when we finally got to the toasty lobby!
All our stuff was waiting for us, and we got room assignments and got to unpack everything. A surprise for me: alone of everyone else, I had a single room. So, you would open a door to a room, and there would be three doors within there. Two of the doors opened onto two and three- person rooms; one was a single room. I guess in the other people's rooms the single room was unoccupied. But yeah, luck of the draw meant in this room it was mine. It was kind of lonely, but I hung out in the other rooms with everyone else, and I guess I probably got more sleep...
Saturday breakfast started at 7 (after we'd gone to bed at 11 the night before!). I think at 9 or so we were finally ready to get on the bus. We were off to Vienna for the day! We had been warned about the terrible weather that awaited us, and I dressed accordingly. I was decked out: long underwear top and bottom, thermal shirt, sweatshirt, coat, jeans, thick socks, boots, gloves, hat, scarf. It turned out that the heater on our bus there was broken, but none of us were cold. Fun fact I learned: Bratislava and Vienna are the closest (geographically) country capitals in Europe. That's an important relationship.
As we arrived in the center/old town of Vienna, we got a tour from one of our Rotary chaperones from the Bratislava Rotary club, who actually lives in Vienna--he directed our attention to things over the bus intercom. He was extremely knowledgeable and it was very nice (especially since we weren't actually outside walking around!). The weather was awful indeed. Flurries, negative ten Celsius, horrid winds, icy slush everywhere. I had dressed as best I could, but I was still dying of the cold. I guess the best that can be said is had I not dressed as such, I can't imagine what would have become of me.
After our audio tour of the downtown, we drove to Schonbrunn, the huge palace in Vienna. I had been there with Ruth and Silvia during our weekend in Vienna, but only briefly, and I was glad to be going back. Still, the initial moment of getting off the bus felt unreal--like, am I actually doing this? I'm actually throwing myself into this weather which no one should be in? Guess I am...
There was a Vianocne trhy there in the square in Schonbrunn, and we walked it twice. There was one pretzel (brezel--we joked that all our hard work in Slovak meant nothing now that we were across the border--at least we didn't have to change the money) stand that was amazing. That party brezel was a party in my mouth. And I remembered just in time to say "bitte" and "danke" like the little poser I was. (I also remembered that Silvia, who spent a month in Vienna last summer studying German, told me you have to say "bitte" back to every "danke.") Of course, despite my efforts, the Austrians behind the counters said "thank you" back to me.
After the trhy, we walked around the side of the main palace to see the gardens. I was surpised that all the deciduous trees still had leaves on them, a very beautiful shade of dusty maroon. They were cut severely in their rows, like hedges. The gardens themselves were covered with a thick layer of snow, and the statues around them were more literally covered--by thick white tarps. There were some beautiful, long passages covered by trellises whose vines were bare for winter. In the distance on a hill I saw a cluster of Roman-style columns. I wanted to go and see them, but it was across this incredibly wide, incredibly flat square, the kind of place that is so large and monotonous that perspective is utterly distorted. There were people standing at the opposite end by what was a fountain in summer... It looked like a five minute's walk to them, except for their miniscule size, mere dots in the sea of white. We didn't have enough time at that point; we had fifteen minutes to get back to the meeting place (five Euros' fine for every five minutes late) and we didn't want to take any risks on time in the vast palace complex.
On our way back, we stopped quickly in a marionette shop there (admission free, so why not?). It was fun to look at the marionettes on display. Every part of them was hand-crafted: painted wooden bodies with specialty clothing and accessories. Each took three weeks to make, I learned. Most sold for over 1,000 Euros. The shop also held daily performances, which was its main attraction, and according to the informational posters, set designing for marionettes is a very tricky process. I had never realized that the person who designs these kinds of sets has all sorts of special considerations, such as the marionette's strings.
We all met up and then the bus took us back downtown for free time. Long free time! I think four hours or something? We were all horribly cold, and started off at Starbucks. I caved and got an eggnog latte. God, it was delicious. We spent a long time there enjoying the warmth and talking and each others' company. And then... we walked, we shopped. Aside from the millions of stores we went into...
We went to Stephens Dom, the super cathedral there. With Ruth and Silvia, I actually went to Sunday mass there. This time, we just walked through briefly. But it's a great place.
Oh, and how was Vienna decorated for Christmas? According to one girl there, there are forty-six Christmas markets in the city this year. The most famous, nicest one, is the one outside the Rat Haus (radnica, in Slovak), the town hall. The Rat Haus is further away and we didn't get there (I got to see it with Ruth and Silvia, though). The streets were strung out with beautiful lights (my favorite were the sorts of chandeliers) and giant balls of red lights like barn-sized Christmas ornaments hanging above us. At night, the bridges were lit up with different colors.
Another highlight was a total surprise which came twenty minutes before we were due back at the bus. There was this giant skyscraper, a beautiful building of glass with a swirled, artsy design on the outside. I assumed it was an art gallery or something. We were curious and had nowhere else to go, so we decided to take a peek inside. Whoa! It turns out, the whole building was dedicated to furniture shops. Amazing furniture-- the kind that costs way too much but looks awesome. More importantly, the building was an architectural miracle. Everything was lights and mirrors, like some glorious funhouse that was splitting space and time. It was incredible. It blew my mind. Maybe the best part of my day.
We finally were all back on the bus, ready to head back to Bratislava. It was only 5 PM, which at the time, and especially now, thinking back, is hard to believe based on how dark it was and how tired I was. And then, to everyone's shock, right then we had a medical emergency. I don't want to go into details, and we still don't know how things ended up, but needless to say things felt very different afterwards.
Back in Bratislava, we went to Aupark, a huge, very trendy mall I'd never been to. We shopped around and I had another small fruit salad for dinner. Afterwards, we waited across the street for the bus. There were so many of us, half of us had to wait to take a second bus. I was surprised to find that the way Bratislava's bus system works, you buy a ticket good for fifteen minutes' ride (almost twice as expensive as a Nitra bus ticket which has no time limits). As I sat, I wondered about the fairness of this system, especially in winter when there are invariably snow and ice delays, and thanked Nitra's bus system for operating differently.
We had a walk from where the bus dropped us off to the hotel, but then we were there and inside and it was all good. It was a mixed day for me. I had so much fun shopping with friends-- and the weather was so opressively awful. But there it was.
We hung out all night, and while I thought I went to bed late at 12:30, and couldn't fall asleep until 2:30 from all the noises, I knew people who didn't get to sleep until 4, so I guess I was lucky...
I woke up to Sunday and couldn't believe how quickly the weekend had passed. Breakfast was a very somber affair as what we had anticipated all weekend long had suddenly arrived: the language test. Right after breakfast we were shown to the testing room and seated.
So, the test had three parts. The first part was listening: the Rotex members would read a passage twice (two different people, once each) and then we would answer a multiple choice question about that passage. The second part was reading: we had a page to read and multiple choice questions (in Slovak) to answer about the text. The third part was by far my favorite: it was fill-in and things like writing questions to answers and answers to questions and conjugating irregular verbs and even a little declining. I was so surprised and disappointed there was no speaking and, especially, writing portion. I had wanted to write so badly-- I mean, I don't count writing questions/answers, etc. as "writing." What I mean is free writing. But oh well. I did my best and I'm still waiting on the results, so we'll see.
And then it was over, and we couldn't really believe the object of our anticipation had been removed, and everyone sat around smiling as Rotex passed around chocolates. We were all so grateful to Rotex (and the Rotary club of Bratislava) for their hard, hard work that weekend. They're all volunteers and they were so great to us.
It was sad that after finishing the test it was time to say goodbye to everyone. The kids going by train all left for the station, and then it was just us Nitra kids and Bratislava kids headed for the Bratislava bus station. We took a bus there together and then Larissa, Ramiro, and I got on the bus for Nitra. A great weekend in Bratislava and Vienna, and I was sad to leave!
The bus ride back to Nitra was peaceful, warm, and nice. I said goodbye to Larissa and Ramiro back at the Nitra bus station and walked to my former home, the flat on Stefanikova street, so close to the station you can actually see it from there.
It was a glorious morning (well, it was 12:30 by then) in Nitra. The sun was shining, the air felt clean and fresh, the birds were singing, and everything was dusted prettily with snow. When I got up to the flat, Ruth told me we were just a little too late to go to lunch at her cousins' flat in Chrenova (Gabo et al.). They're great people, but the flat was so clean and warm and freshly decorated for Christmas, and the dogs had just been bathed so were at their cleanest and cutest....I was happy to stay where I was.
Ruth and I had a wonderful afternoon and evening together. We lounged for several hours over lunch, and then we went out shopping to get ingredients for special Christmas cookies she wanted us to make together. We got back from shopping at 4:15 and were shocked to find it was pitch black outside by then. We spent three hours making the cookies-- a very warm, relaxing three hours in the kitchen. It was so nice. Oh, I think I forgot to mention why I was with Ruth, besides that was fun: my current host family had gone to Italy for the weekend (I couldn't go because of Bratislava) and wouldn't be back until Monday. Tak to.
Then Ruth made dinner! Oh, draha, she knows me so well: fried chicken and buttered noodles with Kofola. My favorite things she makes. It was so wonderfully delicious and the perfect end to a perfect day. Tibor came home and said hi before going to bed. I had been so tired the whole day from only getting three hours of sleep that night, but I went to bed at 11 since Ruth and I had been talking and hanging out. I was so excited to be sleeping in what I still think of as "my room."
I slept so well, and just prior to waking, I had a dream in which Ruth and I were talking. I said to her, "I wish I would just wake up and be fluent in Slovak." She said, "Now you are." And then I woke up. And was convinced it had actually happened. The day was magical. It was what overnight fluency is supposed to be. I understood actually 100% (no 95% here) of everything I heard, including whispered conversations, side conversations, cell phone conversations-- all the background noise I usually can't catch. I spoke quickly, correctly, without having to think about it-- the words popped out faster than I could think them, much faster than I could mentally translate. Translating had nothing to do with that day; it all flowed fluidly in waves of understanding.
But somehow that day I could also sense it was temporary. One day fluency? Is that possible? Well, the next day I was certainly better than I had been on, say, Friday, but not fluent, I don't think. It's been increasingly good since, but no, not fluent. Ah well. These progresses, at least, keep my momentum up and keep me from getting bogged down. I was especially pleased because I had felt it coming. The whole weekend, even though I only spoke and heard English (exchange students together), I had felt like I was teetering on the edge of something else, some new breakthrough. Things were clearing up. I guess they haven't cleared entirely, but yes, things are going well. As far as understanding is concerned, I could be very close to fluency, I think. As far as speaking... well, I can get my points across, and more and more I can say exactly what I want, but speaking perfectly? No way. I don't know where to draw the line for what is "fluency." For many people, where I am now would definitely be "fluent." But I don't consider myself the converted. So... I'll keep waiting, and I assume when it finally happens, I'll know.
Huge news: well, Christmas in Slovakia is December 24th. Christmas in Italy is December 25th. So, Saturday night at 11 PM the four of us (my host family and me) are flying via Ryan Air (super cheap! 17 Euros) to Italy. It's only about an hour-long flight. This means that after two Slovak Christmases (I'm spending Wednesday with the Baneszes for a Christmas celebration) I then get an Italian Christmas. But not just that... We're not leaving Italy until January 9th! OMG. So, two weeks in Italy. Marco's family lives in Verona, but Sandy also wants to visit Venice for a special celebration they have there as well. Anything in Italy is much more than fine by me!