Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ten velky obraz

(That big painting)

This story is old, and this post is short. Oh well!

It´s a story long overdue. It actually starts, in fact, all the way back in October. That was when there was a Karol Felix exhibit in the Nitra gallery, and I started taking an art class there. My teacher always has us do works copied from or based off of whatever´s in the gallery at the time, and so after I´d made three sketches copying some of Felix´s paintings, she got out these large pieces of stiff paper-cardboard and told me it was time for an abstract painting.

The painting took probably about four or five hours total, spread over several different lessons (it was a back-burner priority, what my teacher would lay out for me to continue work on every now and then). The painting was finally finished, and then it disappeared to wherever all the things I draw and paint at my art classes disappear to. I basically forgot about it.

Then, in February, my art teacher announced she was going to dig up everything she had in the back rooms from the last two years of young people drawing and painting in the gallery, and put the best works on display in one of the halls as a competition. It was cool to see that two of my pencil sketches, as well as "the big painting" as I´ve come to call it (though it´s not enormous or anything--maybe 4 ft. high and 3 ft. wide), had made it to the hall, though I didn´t even dream of one of them winning.

For the next three weeks all of the visitors to the gallery voted on the works. My art teacher told me that I was one of the finalists and asked me to come to the awards ceremony at the gallery at 9 AM on a Tuesday.

So I went to the ceremony, and was happy to see some of my friends from the art class there as well--all of us girls go to different gymnaziums, but we´re all around the same age. There were a lot of small children--lots of schools take field trips to the gallery now and then.

After a rather long, very modern and abstract, but extremely skilled performance of a kind of Sleeping Beauty tale by a group of maybe eleven year-olds (I guess they were there for the little kids, but it was kind of strange), my art teacher, who was running things, got up to announce the winners. I had literally just thought to myself "I´m sure I won nothing" when she announced my name as being the winner of the visitors´competition. What?! I got a fat box of 72 top-quality oil pastels, several handshakes, and lots of congratulations. And then she moved into the second category, of the curators´picks. And... I won first prize! (And another box of oil pastels.) I was so stunned and amazed.

After the ceremony I had six interviews with six different news groups... of course, I did perfectly fine on the ones where I was just speaking into a tape recorder, and I totally botched the two on camera. So embarrassing. In one of them, the lady asked me to describe the whole process of making the painting (which was really detailed and in-depth)... okay, maybe a fair question, but I have no idea how to describe what I did in Slovak. So I said it in English and felt like a failure. In the other, I just had a really bad interviewer, I think--every time I answered a question, she would say nothing and give me a blank look, and then gesture for me to keep going. Uggh. Interviews were definitely the worst part about winning--but the only bad part! I was really happy.

Not only was the painting much too big for a suitcase (it would have had to been cut up to fit inside), I never felt a sense of belonging or ownership for it, as I do with most of my drawings or paintings. For these reasons, and especially because it´s definitely the most "professional" -looking thing I´ve ever done, something I actually feel looks technically skilled and good enough to be hung on a wall, I always had the intention of giving it away to someone here in Slovakia. So last week I gave it to Sandy and her family as a token of my gratitude for being such a wonderful host family. I should get a photo of it, though, before I leave...

Much love!


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Orava, Oslava; Rodiny, Punk!

(Orava, Celebration, Families, Punk)

Stretching back quite a while here... Let´s think back to February, shall we? Even though tomorrow is the first of April...

So, in February we had a week off school (Midwinter break, which Washington schoolteachers no longer get to enjoy--thanks, funding cuts and bad bargaining). It went faster than I could imagine possible, with the weekend suddenly turned to Wednesday and time for me to pack my bags.

Marco had planned to go with Sasha on a mini holiday with some of his colleagues, and he was nice enough to invite me along too! (Which required a lot of finagling on his part with the hotel and everything because there was only a double room booked, etc. Way to go, Marco!) It all ended up working out and Wednesday at around 10 we left for Orava.

Orava is a region of Slovakia to the north, right up against the Polish border. I´m not sure what the exact boundaries are, but where we were specifically was near Liptovský Mikuláš, which I´ve passed through several times on my way to elsewhere, and finally got to actually stop and stay in last week (later story).

It was a four and a half hour drive, which was pretty unbelievable to me--it really only felt like an hour and a half! The scenery was breathtaking. The region had this wonderful rustic feeling--old log cabins in the design I associate with Poland (as in, steeply-slanted wood roofs, as opposed to near-flat red-tile roofs I think of as Slovak), little villages nested in yellow-grass valleys, white mountains all around... There was one castle along the way--which I believe was called Oravý hrad?--which really captured the spirit of the area for me. It was so beautiful.

The skies were blue but it was a cold winter day in the mountains. A bitter wind was blowing every now and then (stripping right through all my layers) and there was some packed snow on the ground from two days before. (As we unpacked our things from the car icy flurries started.) We were staying at a koliba called Penzión Josu-- the three of us found the name pretty funny given that just a few days before we´d all sat around watching Jožen z Basen (which amazingly Sandy had never heard of). The names are similar, you know, and the song is actually set in Orava...

I forget the name of the village we were in--I don´t think I even knew it at the time. The point is, we were in a quiet little village where Penzión Josu was the biggest thing out of the thirty or so buildings, most of which were lodgings for tourists. Fifteen minutes´drive away was a skiing place and, sharing the parking lot, a waterpark. It seems like those two go together a lot of the time in Slovakia, but I´m not sure why--unless the combination of hot and cold is just super fun? Like hot tubs in the snow?

We got in in early afternoon, so we hit the waterpark that day. There were lots of Polish tourists inside and all of the signs were bilingual, Slovak and Polish. Slovak waterparks have slides, but most people stay in the "thermal" pools, which are warm and usually include a few small massaging waterfalls and lots of bubbly areas, as well as built-in benches for people to sit or lie down on.

All the slides were closed at this waterpark, since they emptied outside, but the pools continued outdoors at near-hot tub-temperatures. It was snowing outside most of the time as we went out and in through the plastic sheets that covered the entrances (you swam through). The three of us played a lot of tag games. The water felt so nice and as soon as you submerged yourself in it you forgot the world was still locked in Winter´s icy clutches.

We stayed maybe an hour and a half and then went back to the hotel. But while we were waiting in the parking lot for a while, I forget why, my hair froze! It had been soaked from the pools, and it became these solid sheets which I could break (not as in break off chunks of hair, but break the inner ice). It was very cool.

After showers and dry clothes we went to dinner at the koliba´s restaurant, which was somewhat attached (giant signs reassured us that it was only fifty meters from the hotel). I was really in the mood for some bryndzové halušky, which I now love and have been craving a lot recently, but--big shock!--they didn´t have it! I couldn´t believe it wasn´t even on the menu. I asked the waiter if they had it and he looked rather embarrassed as he told me "well, it´s a small kitchen..." It doesn´t matter; it was just so surprising to me that a Slovak restaurant could not have it. I got my backup choice instead, good old vypražaný syr (fried cheese). Mňam, chutny!

That night we went bowling there in the hotel with Marco´s friends and their kids, all from Bratislava. It was a lot of fun. My high score for the night was 70 and I felt extremely pleased with myself, given that that´s probably my highest score ever. Haha.

The next morning we hung out at the hotel--Saška and I with Monika and Natalya, aged 13 and 11, respectively--and in the early afternoon Saška got suited up for skiing! We went to the ski area next to the waterpark for her first time on the slopes. There was a little bunny slope there, and five year-old Elinka, who´d been skiing since was two, was carving through the little slaloms. Meanwhile her father, Jozef, and Marco coached Saška on learning how to ski. Afterwards we all got punč (hot punch)--I hadn´t seen it since Christmastime! Yay!--and the weather had turned cold, so we went back to the hotel.

After dinner at the restaurant (where I wasn´t hungry, so just ordered four slices of rye bread) we went bowling again! Yay! I managed to somehow bowl a 40. Wow, did I suck!

The next day after lunch we went to a different ski slope. Saška got a much fuller two-hour lesson, which ended for her on a very good note, and I... well, I couldn´t take it anymore, just watching all the skiers up above me, and I decided I wanted to go skiing with Monika and Natalya. Never mind the fact that I was wearing jeans and I hadn´t skied in five years-- I was hoping that miraculously I wouldn´t fall, because if I did even once I would be soaked through and that would be it. At least I had my ski jacket and a hat.

Riding up on the ski lift together, Monika and Natalya told me how they´d been skiing for ten and seven years, respectively. Hmm... Me, I had lessons when I was eleven and twelve, and we went to Whistler when I was thirteen and there were maybe two days of skiing at Crystal after that. People were telling me "oh, it´s like a bicycle", but I thought it would be a miracle if I could go down the bunny slope without toppling over. Also part of the reason I wanted to ski was because Rotary Ski Week was coming up in a month and I wanted to have some gauge on my ability before then.

And....all those people were right! I had watched during Saška´s lesson as Jozef coached her "lean to the left to turn right, lean to the right to turn left" and I´d thought to myself, "What?? I can´t imagine what that feels like--oh no, I don´t even remember how to turn!" But standing in ski boots my body knew it all for me. I didn´t have to think about anything. It was wonderful! I got tired quickly, partly because I´m out of shape, partly because Monika and Natalya were parallel-skiing straight down the sheets of ice and I was going as fast as I could to keep up, and partly because I hadn´t moved in that way in, well, five years. But it was exhilarating and the best kind of fatigue and aching.

Also amazingly, I didn´t really fall (though I came so close several times!). I had one moment where my skis got caught in a pile of sludge and I sort of sat down on the hill, but I was still moving and recovered instantly. So, so lucky! First and last time I ever ski in jeans, for lack of anything else.

The next morning we went home. It was Saturday-- my break was already over! But well spent, most definitely.

And now for something entirely different! (thanks, Monty Python.) A different weekend, maybe three or four weeks later, in mid-March: Saška´s party for her nineth birthday.

The night before we had spent a few hours getting ready. The table was set with an alternating pirate (Saška´s favorite movie is Pirates of the Caribbean) and Hannah Montana theme; we blew up about a dozen balloons (I lost a few million brain cells before Marco got home with the pump); rainbow streamers hung from the ceiling, and the pantry was stocked enough for a siege like Leningrad.

The morning of the actual day, the cake arrived. I need to note that birthday cakes here are made with a thin casing of marzipan for frosting, not buttercream. Saška´s cake was amazing. It was the head of a pirate (but 2-D): he had an eye patch, missing teeth, a red-with-white-polka-dots bandana, and a real earring in his ear. (Two lucky and rather morbid children were served just the ears on their plates, much to their delight. Hey, I wanted one of the ears too.) It was a work of artistry in marzipan. And it was seven-layered deliciousness, too. Mhmm. Oh, there was so much food at the party! Pizza and kiddie champagne and candy and chips and cake... Delicious at the time, sick to my stomach soon afterwards. My fault.

The party went on for seven hours or so, with a few "football" matches outside, rides on the I-Quad (four-wheel ORV; Saška´s Christmas present), X-box competitions, and movies. Two of Saška´s friends ended up spending the night. While they were getting ready for bed, Sandy, Marco, and I played a few games of Burracco, an Italian card game we like. Trying to avoid looking too closely at the "katastrofa" while it was happening, I was amazed that within a half-hour of the last guests leaving, the house was spotlessly clean once more. A miraculous mystery to me. Also that night I watched a Cuban movie in Spanish on HBO. My understanding of Spanish is the same as it was before... that´s nice to know. I have a plan laid out for how I´m going to get the language back this summer. (But when will I ever be able to maintain my Slovak? Sad reality. I think the best I can hope for is to later take Russian and put my Slovak skills to use that way. Oh! I was reading The New York Times the other day, and an article mentioned a Russian newspaper called Krasnaya zvezda. I knew what that meant--sounds like Krásna hviezda--Beautiful star--to me! Moments like that are really fun.)

Four months went so quickly. Probably in part because it was winter, which I´d spent all of fall mentally prepping myself for, and while it was going on I just tried to close my eyes and speed through it as fast as possible (not just winter in Slovakia; winter anywhere is always depressing and unpleasant for me). And then suddenly, it was. And it was time to move host families.

That was Sunday. Rewind a little to Saturday first.

Saturday I got home from the Rotary Ski Week (hello, next post) at 6 PM; Sandy and Saška were waiting for me at the bus station. We drove home, I changed my clothes, and because I was starving after being on the bus the whole day, Sandy fried me up four eggs with bread and tomatoes, which I wolfed down. Saška went to her babka´s house to sleep there for the night, and Sandy and I were out the door, off to a punk concert!

We first drove to Sandy´s friend Tina´s house, and then all of us together drove to a smoky pub in Chrenova. The smoke was intense, but the room we were in, where the bands play, was amazing. Every last inch of wall was painted in beautiful, incredibly skilled, rockband-themed designs. The sideroom we sat in before the music started featured a Last Supper takeoff, with some music legends as Jesus´--Ozzie Osborne´s (ew)--disciples. Out of the twelve I got five. Whoo! I had so much fun staring at the paintings all night. The walls´ base color was a calm peach-orange, and the figures themselves were done with just red, blue, and black (with a tiny bit of white for the eyeballs) on top of the orange. The blue shadowing was so beautiful. Mhmm, I wish I´d had my camera...

After a big tankard of Kofola and a lot of pizza-dough strips, we went into the other room for the concert. Tina´s husband and his three friends have been a band, called Diturvit, for twenty years. I´ve always seen the guitars at Tina´s house when I´ve been over, but I didn´t know he did punk! It drew an interesting crowd, definitely, the light reflecting off so many various metal piercings and nails in black leather jackets. The performers themselves were just wearing black band shirts and Converse.

Alica (Tina´s daughter, my friend) and I were standing front and center, right next to the speakers, and we definitely got hearing damage (my ears were buzzing for a longgg time), but it was great! I think electric guitar is definitely one of the best instruments ever. It blows my mind. (Watching videos of Jimi Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner...) So that was fun. They played some of their own songs and some classics, both Slovak and American (that Ramones song Ay Oh--or however you spell it--Let´s Go!).

It was a lot of fun, and when it finished at 11:30 the night was still young, so we were going to go elsewhere and keep going... But the fun place in question turned out to be closed, and some adults (not me, I just had Kofola) were too drunk... So at 12:30 we went home. Which maybe was better for me... Ski Week, with intense skiing days and staying up late, completely drained me and I spent a lot of the punk concert in and out of consciousness, including while the music was blasting. If we´d gone to the next pub we would have stayed out until 4 and that really would have killed me...

Regardless of getting in "early", I woke up at 11:30 the next day--and was exhausted. But the day was slipping away faster than I even knew; a few hours later I found out it was Spring Forward (whatever it´s called here) and we´d lost an hour. I got dressed, and then we immediately left for lunch with a grandparents at a traditional Slovak restaurant they´ve taken me to before called Sypka ("granary"), in the village of Velke Zaluzie, not far from Lehota.

The last (my first) time we went to Sypka, Sandy had spent the whole car ride there gushing about the amazing parene buchty, but we didn´t actually end up getting them because none of us were in the mood for sweets for lunch. But this time, seeing as it was probably my last (second) time at Sypka, I decided to go for it. I´m no stranger to parene buchty; the school cafeteria makes them all the time for Friday lunch, which is always something sweet (hard to get used to at first). What they are are basically humbao--that same kind of white dough, same size balls--stuffed with hot fruit and coated on the outside with oil and cocoa. As much as I like them, I was more than a little intimidated at the platter of six I got for my meal (and I´d already had soup!). Three of them I´d ordered with cocoa, which is what I´d always had them with before, and the other three with poppyseed. Along with a giant tankard of Kofola, of course.

Well, I got through five and then decided I didn´t need dinner. They were great, though. I think the poppyseed on top was the best. Parene buchty are delicious!

On Saturday night, Alica (Tina´s daughter), Saska, and I had talked about seeing a movie on Sunday, but when we got home from lunch that day it was already three and I started panicking because I was moving host families at 5:30 or so, and the last time I´d switched families I´d taken the whole day off school, and that had been the amount of time I´d needed. I worked really quickly and efficiently, though, and while I was stressed, I got it all done in an hour and a half. Then Sandy, Saska, and I just sat around on the couches for a while (Marco was on business in Poland). How sad! It really was.

Finally it was time, and we loaded up the car (Saska screamed a few times when the car would make a tight turn and she would get smothered in the heaping piles of junk) and went up Zobor. This time changing families was different from the first time around, because I´ve known this family since August. I unpacked my things in my beautiful new room, and that was it. Here I am.

It´s been over a week now and I´m not sad anymore over moving, just glad to be here. It´s a beautiful house in the prettiest part of the city, with a perfect view of the hrad from anywhere on the property. They´re such wonderful, helpful people. And they have one of the sweetest dogs ever!

Can you imagine what a luxurious life I lead? On Sunday morning the sun was intense, and my host mother Lydia moved the big lounge-swing into the sun for me so I could read outside. Wearing a tanktop and shorts (it got that hot!) I sat on the swing overlooking the terraced gardens and listening to the humming insects. Yes, that´s my life. (And as a result of that day, I finally finished The Decameron, which has taken me a whole month of a little on and a lot of off reading.)

I take the bus to school again, like in my first host family, now that I´m back in the city. It´s a long ride--exactly half an hour. But it´s nice, and I don´t have to get up very early. I love the five-minute walk to and from the bus stop. Zobor is such a wonderful place to be, and best of all for walking in. All of the houses have character; each has its own huge, overgrown garden; and everyone owns a dog or two, and as you walk down the street, every single one of those dogs sticks his nose through the fence at you curiously, or barks. It´s a fun place to be, right in the shadow of the mountain. I´m also right across the street practically from the huge park, though I have yet to have walked there since moving here (in my first host family, I went there several times).

And my morning walks to the bus stop are made that much nicer by the fact that in just about the last week Spring has officially arrived. All the trees and bushes have burst into bloom, the grass has come back (as opposed to winter´s bare mud), and everything has that sweet smell of rain and flowers and bees. Walking home from the bus stop, a longer walk since the bus doesn´t go as far, I got a perfect little Spring shower. There was a thick smell of rain and I saw little birds fluffing themselves in some newly-formed puddles. The clouds were the most beautiful shade of light gray-blue. Yes, what a wonderful world and how good to be alive!

One last anecdote. Yesterday I was walking down the hill to the hotel where Rotary meetings are held, and I reflected to myself rather sadly that I hadn´t found a single four-leaf clover since November. Was the gift gone? Had I forgotten how to use my magic? But just as I thought this, I got the tingle. Really. A little further down the hill, I stopped at a patch of clovers and told myself I would find three four-leaf clovers there. Within about three minutes, I had. (Though in the course of finding the third, one of the first two slipped out of my hand, and I couldn´t find where it had dropped.) My mojo is back!

AND--my parents are currently in PRAGUE! I may seem calm and laidback, but inside I´m beside myself with excitement. I can´t believe they´re just four and a half hours away from me by car. I´m counting the minutes.

Much love! (and I´ll be seeing some of you VERY SOON!)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rotary vikend v Banskej Bystrici

(Rotary weekend in Banska Bystrica)

Two weekends ago I was in the lovely city of Banska Bystrica for a Rotary weekend with all the Inbounds. Here goes!

Nitra is in the western third of Slovakia, and Banska Bystrica is in the middle third. (You know, all places are divided up somehow, Northern/Southern, Eastern/Western, etc.; Slovakia is divided into three main sections of Western, Central, and Eastern. There´s also Northern and Southern (Nitra is in the South-Western part of the country), but Western/Eastern is what matters culturally; you talk about North and South when discussing which highway to take and what the climate´s like.) It´s two hours from Nitra to Banska, and we had to be at our lodgings by 6, so we three Nitra kids just took a bus after school... luckier than the Kosice kids, who were on trains for six hours.

It´s always kind of hard for me to believe that in just two hours I´m in a different zone of the country, and the accents are different (hello, ľ ! veľmi ľubím ľad´! haha). Passing through Ziar nad Hronom, which is a very long name for a city (it means "Ziar, above the Hron" and Hron is a river), we came to our destination. It was the kind of cold that you just stand there swearing in for a while until you figure out it´s not going away. It was foggy and the sun was setting. We followed a map, very straightforward, to the dormitories, and had a short, nice walk; thickly-packed snow on the sidewalks, slippery ice on the crosswalks. Amazingly, I´ve only fallen down because of ice once this whole winter, and it was actually coming home from this weekend I´m writing about. (I might as well just tell it now: I was walking out of the Nitra bus station, and there were these unbelieveably slippery stairs. I slipped near the bottom, thankfully, but it was a big wipeout. At least it didn´t hurt.)

We checked in, got our room assignments, and then waited in a room while everyone got there. I don´t really remember what happened then... dinner, probably. We stayed in a dormitory for university students and the cafeteria was on the ground floor. Halfway through dinner a new inbound arrived, to much excitement: an Australian! I understand that Australians come in wintertime because they´re Southern Hemisphere, but what about the Brazilians? They all came in summertime. Hmm.

After dinner, we bundled up and took a walk to a sort of community performance space... it looked like a small church, and there was an organ, but no religious iconography. There was a concert, Spanish-Argentinian themed: tango and so on, with a pianist, bassist, violinist, and accordion-player, all of whom were gymnazium-aged. It was great; I especially liked the violinist. That was a nice thing to get to do.

Back at the dormitories, we reassembled in the sort of conference room. The Rotarians gave opening remarks (everything was in Slovak, so I felt bad for the Australian boy), and then we were divided into teams for a little competition. There were four categories of difficulty, and were worth, accordingly, 1-4 points for each correct answer. One by one each team chose which level of a question they wanted to answer, then were asked the question, and then responded. (Everyone got full points.) In the beginning all the teams went for 2-point questions, which were things like "name a Slovak story" (Popolushka! =Cinderella). No one went for the 4 points, because that meant singing a Slovak song. Surprisingly, I wouldn´t have minded singing in front of everyone, but I just don´t know all the words to any Slovak song! I can get through about a fourth of Horehronie, but that´s it... Well, I know all the words to the Orange Mobile commercial (ja som mala Vianocka, ruzove mam licka!), and I know all the words to this one kind of weird Czech song which I learned back in December last year, but neither of those work... So anyway. By the second round, one team decided to go for the 3-point level, which was where one group member had to talk for two minutes in Slovak on some specified topic. All the other groups had to meet this challenge. I went the first time around for my group; I got "discuss your hobbies" as my prompt and it was a very fast two minutes.

After three rounds of this, there was a lightning round: Rotexes asked questions about Slovakia and whoever answered first got the points (though there was a threat of point subtraction for incorrect answers). In the end our team came in third, and we got a big box of Lentilky, which are M&M-equivalents. Nice.

Then bedtime. It was late, and the lights were on until much later with everyone waiting in line for the shower.

Breakfast the next morning in the cafeteria, and then we had a long walk in the bright, crisp winter morning to the town center. The last time I was in the main square there was in September and I was so glad to be back. We went to the town hall (radnica-Rathaus in German), which had a beautiful pair of bronze doors on the outside. It was painfully hot in the entrance hall after the wintery outdoors, and everyone was glad when we were shown the cloakroom.

Our tour guide, who spoke English, told us that the building is three hundred years old and was actually just remodeled last year. It was a lovely place, with bright crystal chandeliers, pleasantly-arched ceilings, and a granite staircase. Our guide also gave us some history on the city: it had its origins as a German mining town ("Banska" is an adjective relating to mining, and is seen in other place names as well, such as the town of Banska Stiavnica). The rich Germans formed a sort of ruling class, and controlled the government. An interesting thing: apparently voting "back then" (restricted, of course, to landowners or whatnot) consisted of whispering one´s choice in the voting official´s ear. All voting took place very early in the morning, so that the outcomes could be announced at morning mass, at seven o´clock.

We were led to the second floor of the building, whose ceiling was beautifully painted. One of the rooms was where civil marriages are still held. A very nice place to get married! Another room was almost entirely empty except for a small door at one end. The door was intricately-designed wood, with many different types of wood inlaid, and dated from, I believe, the late 1400´s? I think what was the case was was that the actual building was three hundred years old, but that the town hall had been in that spot since the late 1400´s (hey, when was America discovered?) and they had preserved one of the original doors. Besides the beauty of it, the interesting thing about the door was how short it was, only maybe 5´7" or something. I´m 5´7.5" and I think I would have had to stoop a bit.

The third floor of the building was much colder than anywhere else. Our guide explained that they only heated it when it was in use, because of something about the wood floors and moisture... She wasn´t exactly sure and so neither am I. The roof was slanted and entirely glass skylights. We got to go out on the balcony from there. There wasn´t much of a view but it was still nice.

The tour ended when we were back downstairs, and eventually we stepped outside again into the main square. Our guide had told us that one of the main towers was slanted ("like the leaning tower of Pisa!") 60 cm., but I could only guess at which tower it was; they all looked pretty straight. (As to how it got that way, there had been an old building near the base of this tower, and eventually it was demolished. Only afterwards did they discover the building had been propping the tower up. The tower was resupported, but it still leans a bit.)

Then we were divided into two groups to go on a walking tour of the old town center. We went past one of the churches, the castle, a statue of Saints Cyril a Methodus (I always wonder about the history here, that these two saints went through the Slovak region and converted everyone, but for some reason their Cyrillic alphabet isn´t used in Czech, Slovak, etc.), and the old town wall.

We made a loop back to the town hall and went to lunch at a place called the Bamboo Bar, which had really good food. It was a nice lunch. A former professional hockey player on the Banska team owned the restaurant, and he gave us all signed stickers and keychains/miniature hockey jerseys.

Afterwards, we went to the Europa shopping mall, which I´ve seen so many times from the freeway but never been inside. We had a long period of freetime and didn´t have much to do with ourselves, so we had fun looking at the animals in the pet store (though kind of the same feeling I get at zoos...) and window shopping galore. I bought a sweater that was on super winter clearance sale, and that was it.

Back at the dormitories once more, we had dinner, and then it was time for the ping pong tournament. Boys and girls were divided into separate sections and these really professional tournament grids were posted, as to who was playing whom. I got through two rounds but lost on the third round, which was to be in the final three. The whole thing took a really long time, two solid hours! But I like ping pong. It was pretty intense.

And after that, it was ten o´clock and there was a dance party with a disco ball and a DJ. It started off really well and I had a good time overall... sad to say, after about an hour and a half the music was just bad and no one wanted to dance to it, so everyone ended up sitting in the chairs up against the walls... I never leave a dance party early, and I was optimistic it would get better... Well, there were a few good songs later, so that was good, but I was ready to go to bed, which we finally did at 1:30.

The next morning we had breakfast and then walked to the museum of the Slovak National Uprising. It was a very dramatic building we´d seen several times before, these giant, concrete sort of wings, cleaved in half with a huge, rather disturbing statue: four or so people, distraught expressions on their faces, standing on a mound of people who were apparently dead, all in black.

The Slovak National Uprising was when the Slovak people rebelled against Nazi Fascism during WWII. It was a very impressive museum. Our tour started with a black-and-white kind of horror film: pieced-together footage first of a baby being born, growing up, going to school...and eventually becoming a Nazi youth... Most of the film was waves upon waves of people of all different ages and backgrounds doing hail-Hitlers. The film was unnarrated.

The museum was organized chronologically and we had a tour guide. I liked how visual it all was: most of the exhibits were the different uniforms of all the different parties concerned. (It was surprising how small all of the uniforms seemed!) There was one typewriter, that I was interested to note, had the "y" and the "z" reversed from where they are on American computers; this is how it is on modern Slovak keyboards, but I didn´t know it went that far back, and I still don´t know the reason for it... QWERTZ, as it were. The museum really dealt with all of WWII, and there was a rather shocking number in there: the Slovak government paid 300 francs for every Jew they deported to the concentration camps.

After the museum we went back to the dorms, got our things together, and then it was time to go home. Most of us went to the bus station. I got back in Nitra around 1:30 that Sunday. I walked to Mlyny from the bus station and waited for my host uncle and aunt in the entrance hall there; there was a neat fashion show going on, displaying this beautiful bronze jewelry, and I watched that for a while.

What´s happened since? Well, this last Wednesday both Sasha and I had five lessons, so we were both out by 12:45, with lunch. Sandy decided to take us to Bratislava for the afternoon for shopping. Yay!

It was a beautiful day, a gorgeous blue sky and Spring in the air, and I felt wonderful. It´s amazing how good nice weather makes me feel. It was a forty-five minute drive to the city, and first we went to Avion shopping center, which I hadn´t been to before. It was a mall with really high ceilings and windows up high, letting in all that sun.

We went to a few shops and then got desserts at a little cafe. Then we went clothes shopping. I didn´t buy anything, but it was the greatest thing for me to see all the Spring collections in all the shops. It was a promise: Spring is really coming! Short sleeves, thin fabrics... Bright colors! I am utterly done with black leather, gray wool, and everything warm and bland in between. I don´t mind layers but I hate that they go hand-in-hand with static-y hair. But the colors are just the most depressing thing for me; I really don´t like dark colors all the time. It was so great so see all the intense, light colors again, the part of the spectrum I´ve been missing. Ahh.

And then, after Avion, we went across the street to IKEA. Which might just be my favorite store in the entire world... it´s a toss-up with the Seattle REI. It was only my second time in an IKEA, after my grandma took me when I visited her in Arizona a while ago, but it was even greater than I remembered. I just wanted to curl up forever in each of the full-room displays. What I love about IKEA is that, even when it´s too out-there or ugly, it still aims for this sort of dreamworld effect. It´s always aiming for the ideal of the whole. And at unbelieveable prices! Simply fantastic.

It was dinnertime after half an hour there, so we went to the restaurant there in the store. More seemingly unreal prices--delicious dinner for three for five Euros! I had Swedish meatballs and lingonberries and it was so good. Plus, it was like a mini-vacation to Sweden! Which sounds really pathetic, I know, but, well, everything was in Swedish and it was all calming Scan-design everywhere... I liked it. IKEA´s a great place.

Much love!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Co si robila?

(What have you been doing?)

Well, ouch...My blog tells me my last post date was December 30th. And here I am in the first week of February, and I only posted twice in December anyway... Explanation time. So, what happened? I don´t know. I had so much to tell in December, and no time in which to tell it; and then, after coming home from Italy in January, no desire to sit down and type it all up. I have at least five posts waiting in the wings, prodding me to just write them already, but each post takes on average 2-3 hours. And I just don´t feel like being on the computer that long.

But, blogging is important to me as both a way to keep everyone informed, and also because as easy as it is not to blog now, I know later I´ll regret all the memories left unlogged and then soon lost forever as a result. I´ve got to find the middle ground between my absurd writing fecundity of earlier months and ignoring the computer entirely. I´ll figure it out. For now, the first post in over a month! Yay!

So, some filler details of my last month. (Mostly the more recent things that come to mind.) What have I been doing?

Well, after Italy life slowed down several gears. December was such a busy month; there were celebrations--things to do, places to go, people to see--and I don´t know what else happening all the time. And Christmas night we left for Italy, so it all just kept going... Of course vacation in Italy was none too strenuous, but we certainly kept active. And it all felt exciting, as if I were on a brand-new exchange in another country. Language! Sights! Food! People! Culture! Even when I was sitting on the couch reading in the afternoon or something I think my blood pressure was raised at the excitement of just being somewhere new. Not that Slovakia had gotten boring for me. I had never been happier through all of December (and in the presentations they tell you December will be oohhh so saddd, rock bottom depression...) and was sad to have to stop speaking Slovak for two weeks. (Never fear! My Spanish magically returned with a vengeance and saw me through Italian like the good old friend it is.) But it´s all very familiar to me now, to the point where I sometimes will be walking down some very known street, and with a wave of nostalgia try to recapture the eyes with which I first looked at this street.

Coming home after Italy, I worried I was going to find all my Slovak gone, and, what´s worse, I would be unhappy to leave the cyprus-covered hills and pasta, instead buried under snow and waiting for the Great Spring Thaw... I was so pleasantly surprised to find myself wrong on both counts! Not only did I pick up my Slovak where I´d left off (though exchanging "dakujem" for "grazie" and "dobre" for "brava" were hard transitions again in reverse), I was so happy to be back in "my" country. I´d loved Italy, but two weeks was the right amount of time to be there. Two weeks is still short enough that it´s a vacation; longer, and you start really feeling the pressure to adapt. Not that adaption´s such a bad thing, but you hopefully get what I mean... As it was, immediately when we arrived I felt a need to fit in and not stick out like the foreigner tourist I am. Hmm, maybe part of what I was thinking of in the earlier statement is that, too, after a certain amount of time everyone else as well starts expecting you to adapt, to have adapted. Hmm.

What did surprise me, however, when I came back from Italy, was how much everything had come to a halt. Maybe it´s the cold and the darkness... You just get that primal urge to slip into inactivity. The bad ice and the 4 o´clock darkness meant no walking or other outdoor activities. No one plans anything big for January--as far as the world´s concerned, the month sort of stops after New Year´s.

So how did I fill all this empty time? I read. I had a hunger for anything written in English (hey, I put in the effort of reading in Slovak sometimes, but I deserve my pleasures too, right?), and hopefully something really substantial. This really kicked off in Italy, when I found myself with so much downtime I hadn´t had in December. It´s great for me that Ruth loves (prefers, actually) to read in English, so I can borrow all her books (unfortunately, most of the ones she owns are on her digital Kindle, which I do not borrow). The best thing I´ve borrowed from her was Gone With the Wind. Holding the 1000-page monster, with its very bland cover, and admitting to myself that I had no interest in the Civil War, I didn´t think I was going to do anything with it. But it was free. So I read it. And it was awesome. Thank God for classics, especially the big fat ones. It got me through six days, it was wonderful (though truly the most painful book I´ve ever read), and I get to add it to my list of classics. Nice.

As a natural counterpoint to all this reading, I´ve been writing a lot as well, at least a few pages in my notebook every day. No fictions; just musings and a few poems (not really up my alley) and of course I can´t resist throwing in drawings ever couple of pages. It feels good. I finally have time for this stuff.

And, what else do I finally have time for? Afternoon showers--and even baths! My whole life I´ve taken showers in the morning, because if my hair is even the slightest bit damp before going to bed it´s an unsalvagable wreck in the morning. And now my only time concern in the afternoons is dinnertime. I love my afternoon showers (and the two baths I had); I treasure every one. They feel wonderful and mornings are so luxurious.

And now for some unconnected events and trends.

One: I´ve become much better at the Slovak keyboard now than the American one! I know where everything is unconsciously (my pinkie reaches for the "y", knowing that the "z" and "y" are reversed) and type at my normal speed. I only realized I´d made the transition, though, on a school computer the other day. The school computer, for some unknown reason, was locked on the American keyboard, even though all the actual keys have the Slovak placement. It was torture--I just had to randomly hit every key and see which one came up with the question mark and so on. I couldn´t remember by feel! The reason why I hadn´t made the transition much earlier, though, is because in my first host family I used Ruth´s laptop, and it´s an HP she bought in America, so it´s an American keyboard. Um-hm.

And here´s something which feels strangely connected to my keyboard conversion: now, often when I type in English, I want to put commas where they would go in Slovak. Which is kind of ridiculous since I don´t begin to know Slovak comma rules (my book certainly doesn´t explain that!). Just basic rules I know from reading. But I´ve got the itch now. Like, whenever I say "did you know that..." I feel an essential need to make it "did you know, that", or if I´m saying "I was talking to the neighbor who lives down the street" I want it to be "I was talking to the neighbor, who lives down the street." It doesn´t really matter but I find it kind of interesting.

A wonderful January gift: I sleep so well at night! The whole month of December (maybe because it was a new-ish bed to me?) I was messed up, waking up with a start at least five times a night and feeling awful in the morning as a result. But January I finally got back on track. Ah, I sleep wonderfully--it´s such a warm and comfortable bed--and often dream. Plus, you know, not having any homework or late-night obligations means I can go to bed as early as I want, and getting up at 6:30 is so deliciously late for me... I guess I´m finally making up for all those years of four-hour nights. (Schoolnight schedule: go to bed at 10, get up at 2 to do homework!)

And Fridays I have a routine. Every Friday, unless I´m gone for some reason, I take the bus home from school to Ruth´s. I get there at 1, and she gets home at 3, so it means I have two hours alone to take the dogs for a walk and play with them. Then we just hang out and talk and go on errands if we need to, and she makes a glorious dinner for us (the same every time, because it´s my absolute favorite: breaded chicken, "buttered noodles," and this cheesy brocolli dish she makes). Then we watch a movie and stay up until 2 or something. We get up at 10:30 on Saturday, have my favorite breakfast, and do whatever we want until early afternoon, when I go back home. It´s so nice. We can´t get together any other day of the week since she´s so busy with school-- the big end-of-school exams, Maturita, are coming up in a very few short months and it´s crackdown time. But Fridays are free.

Two more little things...

One: Two weeks ago I experienced my first ever indoor snowball fight! And at school, no less. This would be pretty impossible at my school in America for several reasons: 1)it only snows a handful of days in the year, and when they coincide with school it often means a snow day; 2) there would be no way to get the snow from outside to inside without running back and forth every few seconds; and 3)you couldn´t have a fight for any decent length of time without some adult interceding. Well, here at my school in Slovakia, there is more than enough snow; it collects within easy reach of the students in the classroom, right there on the windowsill; and for a large part of the day the students are completely unsupervised (remember: kids belong to classrooms, not teachers). And so there was a wild indoor snowball fight! (The floors are linoleum, not carpeting, so it´s okay as far as that´s concerned.) To the point of pinning people down and rubbing snow into their hair and faces! But it was all in good fun and everyone was happy about it. It was fun for me to witness, though I was ducking out of the crossfire (there was a lot) rather than running to the windowsill myself...

Two: This Monday there was no school because it was "the end of a grading period," i.e., between semesters. (For the record, I received no grades. Which actually faintly disappointed me, because I had actually earned my 1´s--A-equivalents--in English, Math, P.E., and Art/Culture...) So I got up when I felt like it, and then after breakfast found that Marco and Sasha had rigged up some microphones in the living room. Sasha and I set up the laptop on the living room table, made microphone stands out of taped-together mops (thanks, Marco), and sang along to dozens of our favorite songs. It was great. I really love singing. Waka Waka by Shakira is probably Sasha´s favorite song ever, and so we practiced it and later Marco made a video of us on his iPhone which he says he´s going to put on YouTube... It´s all just for fun, and it makes me happy. It was a really fun day.

As to why I have time tonight to write my blog, it´s because Sandy and Marco are at a big Rotary fundraising ball which Sandy herself organized. (My God, I can´t imagine organizing something for four hundred people! She´s amazing.) And Sasha´s at her grandparents´ (who, incidentally, live right next door). So I sang for fun for three hours, had dinner with Sasha and her grandmother, and then decided to update my blog. It´s all good! :)

Much love!