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!