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!)

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