Bratislava and Back

Last week, I attended Fulbright Orientation in Bratislava. To get there, I took a train 5.5 hours. In doing so, I nearly spanned the entire width of the country of Slovakia.

Before continuing, I would like to clearly and explicitly state that anything written in this blog is the express opinion of my individual person and not the opinion of the Fulbright Commission or the United States government. Everything said herein is stated from my Western perspective and in no way is intended to cause offense or harm to anything or anyone discussed. I feel humbled and privileged to be afforded this time in Europe and especially appreciate the kindness and warmth of the kind souls who have welcomed me into their fold.

The Fulbright Orientation was largely geared toward the cultural ambassadorship charged to each of us Fulbright Fellows. This meant that we had the great privilege of meeting the ambassador of the United States to Slovakia, as well as many other constituents of the United States embassy in Bratislava. We were also introduced to resources available to us as teachers of English and of American citizens.

Additionally, we were given historic context for culture via lecture. When my students told me that they were from “Central Europe” and not “Eastern Europe” I learned that this was because no one wants to be East. The idea of being “Eastern” in modern history has a distinct correlation with archaic practice and Soviet rule. Personally, I savor the moments in which “the East” is presented to me. I love watching the mixing and mingling of East and West, past and present, old and new, and have intentionally started searching for those moments around me. This contextualization also helped me to understand the mindset of many of my students and those of my generation that “West is Best.”

It was lovely to meet the seven other ETAs and the two Fulbright scholars. Each of us has a different story and a different perspective on the country. It was also great to share community with other native English speakers. The opportunity also opened my eyes to the idea of foreign service and the idea that perhaps someday I may explore that option as a career.

We also had an opportunity to see some of the historic sights in old town Bratislava. I was able to explore my first Slovak castle and enjoyed walking through the ancient city.

Through and in conjunction with the Fulbright Commission, I have made two new connections. One is with the InfoUSA center here in Kosice. In other parts of the world, similar institutions are called “American Corners” but because the Soviets had their own institution called “Soviet Corners” we call the three centers in Slovakia “Info USA” centers. Within the centers, American citizens and members of the library can check out American books and movies as well as find connections with fellow Americans and the U.S. embassy in Slovakia. I was introduced to the director of the center here in Kosice and yesterday was able to go to the center. It is well furnished and a bright, modern spot located within an old, historic building in the center of town. Hopefully, Kelsey (the other Kosician ETA) and I will be able to lead discussion groups and attend movie nights there. Apparently, community members enjoy having the opportunity to engage with native speakers. I have no problem using this as a platform for cultural ambassadorship. Any time spent in the walls of a library is a good time, as far as I am concerned.

Thanks to a former Kosician ETA here in town, I have also been able to make a new friend that is fluent in English. He is a Ph.D student studying cave biology. Last night we met for the first time at a tea house and chatted for several hours. After living the past three years in a location with few friends and fewer things to do, it is so nice to meet people and spend time with people my own age.

Since I was out all but one day last week and Monday was a federal holiday, I still feel like I am in the beginning stages of the school year, despite it being the third week of school. My students are well behaved and seemingly eager to learn English. I enjoy fielding questions from them about the US or my personal life.

One question was posed to me yesterday by a first year student.

What do you miss most about home, other than your friends and family?

My answer? Real Diet Coke and American football. Here, I can only drink Coca-Cola Light which is Coke Zero and not the same thing. I’m sure it’s better for you to drink Coke Light, but I don’t wanna. Therefore, the only carbonated drinks I will likely imbibe this year will be beer and mineral water. And, although I know American football exists here in certain nooks and crannies of society, it is a far cry from living in Alabama, deep in the heart of the SEC, where every game day feels like a holiday.

Holiday Weekend

This past weekend, everyone had Friday and Monday off of work due to the celebration of the Slovak National Uprising, a national holiday.

Here is a brief history lesson on what occurred and why the Slovakian people still celebration this day;

In 1944, the German army retreated from Russia after being defeated. When will people learn that invading Russia isn’t a great idea? (*cough cough* Napoleon! *cough cough*). In an attempt to kick the Germans while they were down, Slovak resistance fighters, as well as other small resistance groups from East Central Europe banded together in guerrilla warfare to attack the retreating German army. There is also some theorists who believe that the attack was also meant to overthrow Jozef Tiso, the collaborationist leader of Slovakia. Although Nazi forces ultimately defeated the resistance fighters, the day is celebrated to remember Slovak independence of thought and resilience throughout the ages.

With the time off, my host family and I took the opportunities to get out and do some living.

Friday night: Belle and Sebastian at the Amphitheater

While exploring “things to do in Kosice” on the city’s website, I discovered that on Friday evening there was a screening of the movie Belle and Sebastian  at the local amphitheater. My host mother’s sister, her 9 year old daughter, and 11 year old son, attended the event with my host sister, Bety, and me. For only 2 Euros each we watched the beautiful movie under the stars on a pleasant summer eve. There was a small concession stand where one could purchase beer, wine, cola, or snacks, but we opted to pack in our treats, including hot tea in a thermos. 

For those who haven’t seen the film and love animals and/or beautiful cinematography, I highly recommend that you check it out. The film is set in the French Alps along the Rhone river and focuses on a little alpine boy who befriends a large dog named Belle: a previous victim of a local villager’s abuse. Together, they work to help a family of Jewish refugees escape to Switzerland.

Originally in French, we saw a version that was dubbed in Czech with no subtitles. Gitka, my host mother’s sister, sat next to me and translated crucial pieces of information or jokes for me, while really helped my comprehension. However, since it was a family movie, the action of the film really spoke for itself, so I did not have too difficult of a time keeping up.

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“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

Yesterday, I managed to get myself to and from the city center independently. It is said that traveling builds confidence in one’s own ability and judgement, and this small win did both for me. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but given that I do not know the names of the stops and have to navigate simply by memory and awareness of my surroundings, I feel like it was a large step for me.

I met up with Kelsey, the other Fulbright ETA in Kosice. She is 22 and originally from Lexington, Kentucky. We walked around the historic part of downtown, taking a few pictures and chatting. So far, we have had fairly different experiences in our schools. Plus, she has been apartment hunting with the help of some of her host teachers, which is a entirely different experience than my easy home stay. It will be interesting to compare our experiences and learn from one another. We also both agreed that we would like to explore the region together and do all the “touristy” things that locals may not want to do.

Me in front of the famous Singing Fountain

Me in front of the famous Singing Fountain

After walking around downtown, we stopped at a cafe to eat. Kelsey ordered a plate of french fries and a water. I ordered bryndzové halusky and a glass of local red wine. When I ordered the dish, I did not realize that I ordered the national dish of Slovakia. It is essentially potato dumplings, sheep cheese, and amazingly succulent chunks of bacon. I will admit that I ordered it due to my unhealthy obsession with halusky, or potato dumplings. Our waiter asked how I liked it and I told him that it was “dobre” or good and he seemed ever so slightly impressed. I was probably more unnecessarily  impressed with myself than anything. ;)

When I returned to my family later in the evening and told them all about my night, they were really happy that I had chosen bryndzové halusky and even happier that I liked it so much. They thought most foreigners may not choose to order such a dish, as it is so unique to the country and has quite a distinct and different flavor due to the sheep cheese and bacon. Regardless, I am in love with the national dish and will have to restrain myself from ordering it all the time. Or, I could start working out three times a day to justify its mass consumption. I guess I will cross that bridge to obesity when I get to it. 

My new love, bryndzové halusky

My new love, bryndzové halusky

My evening with Kelsey concluded with a venture into a grocery store. Kelsey is staying in a hotel until she can sign a contract on a flat, so she wanted to pick up some snacks to have on hand. It was my first time in the grocery store with the option for me purchasing items for myself, so I had a chance to peruse a bit. I couldn’t help but notice the presence of many American products intermixed with the Slovak items. Notable differences between American and Slovak groceries included the presence of LOTS of freshly baked bread, wine, beer, and vodka sold in store (I did not see any other kinds of hard liquor) and seemingly random articles of clothing that you could buy off of a table in the middle of the store. Interestingly, a 750ml bottle of vodka was almost the same price as a 750ml bottle of wine. In the states, you would be purchasing terrible vodka if you paid so little for a bottle. When we checked out, we were not given grocery bags, but were offered the option of buying a reusable bag for 2 Euros. Props to the store or the Slovak government or whoever made that decision for promoting sustainability by reducing the use of plastic bags! However, I was glad I only bought a few items, as I had to carry my purchases with me for my trek home. I’ll know to bring my own bag next time.

 

Buying Time

Two days ago, I accomplished two things that will provide me with more independence. First, I bought a SIM card (SIM karte), then a bus pass.

SIM Card

Mt cell phone for the next year with the SIM card packaging from Orange.

My cell phone for the next year with the SIM card packaging from Orange.

My host sister Sara and her friend took me downtown so that I could make the purchases needed. They translated for me the whole time, which was incredibly helpful. We took the bus down to “the center” and went to the mall that I visited the first day in Kosice. We went to a store called Orange where we took a number to wait our turn for a customer service representative to assist us. When called, Sara and her friend took turns translating for me. I had already familiarized myself with the services available to me, so there was no need to listen to a sales pitch or any of the usual jargon that comes with a purchase at a cellular store. I purchased a SIM card for 7 Euros which should last me for about three months. Quite a deal! If I should run out of time before then, I simply go back to the store and reload my SIM card with minutes from a machine.

My host family is allowing me to borrow an old cell phone while will enable to me to call and text the many friends I have not yet made! :)

The customer service rep was about my age and was again shocked and surprised that an American would want to live in Kosice. This time, her reaction was more of excitement that an American was actually in Kosice and less of the cynical shade of “why would you leave America?” that I had previously experienced.

Bus Pass

We left the city center and headed a few blocks away to an office specifically for handling bus passes and what I can assume would be some sort of transportation department. The inside reminded me of  a bank, with tellers behind windows, a seating area, and a central table for filling out forms. We again took a number to wait our turn to be seen.

When called, the girls again translated my needs to the clerk, informing her that I would like to purchase a refillable city bus pass. Once all the information was exchanged, I was charged about 7 Euros for the card and then filled the card with about 10 Euros to start off my bus fare. In Kosice, a 60 cent ticket gets you four stops, which is exactly the amount of stops from my nearest stop to the city center. It should be pretty affordable for me. I also had my picture taken for the card, smiling as I always have for photo ID. I was informed that this was very American of me; most people in Eastern Europe do not smile for such things.

I left with the card in my wallet, feeling happy to have a new sense of independence in both communication and transportation!

Front of my bus pass

The front of my bus pass

The girls and I went shopping (I bought two sweaters and a button down) and then headed to lunch at a cafe in the historic part of downtown. They explained to me that you can get a great deal on food if you order one of about five daily specials served at any given cafe. You will always get a starter of soup, your entree, and typically a glass of Koafola (very Slovak drink- close cousin of Coca-Cola), all for less than 4 Euros. If you want a beer or a glass of wine, it’s usually less than 1 Euro for a single serving. I enjoyed a starter of lentil soup, the entree of chicken steak covered in vegetables and a cream sauce with potatoes, and a class of regional Slovak red wine. We were covered by umbrellas, which was convenient as it started to rain. Our waitress also brought out blankets for us when the precipitation began- apparently you can expect this in Kosice as the temperatures tend to drop quickly as autumn approaches.

The back of my bus pass

The back of my bus pass

Sara and her friend were to meet up with a friend of theirs and so they walked me to a bus stop, told me how many stops to wait before disembarking, then sent my on my merry way. I followed their instructions, putting my new transportation card to use, and easily found my way home (probably 1.5km) from the bus stop. 

For curious minds, the bus pass works like this:
1. Get on the bus
2. Hold your bus pass up to a red circle on a yellow validation box, directly above where tickets are normally validated
3. Wait until the yellow validation box makes a sound and tells you that you are free to proceed
4. If you are traveling less than 4 stops, be sure to tap your pass on the validation box again when you disembark so that you are not charged for more than you travel

It is with hope and excitement that I have made these two purchases. Two days ago, the other ETA from the States, Kelsey, arrived. I am hoping my new purchases will facilitate the start of a new friendship and a new companion in adventure.

 

One Week

Yesterday marked one week in Kosice. I am thankful that I arrived early enough to adjust to the time difference and acclimate to the new norms of culture and the ever strange feeling of not understanding the language spoken around me.

Peter, Sara, Maria, and Bety at the zoo

Most of my host family: Peter, Sara, Maria, and Bety at the zoo

Education

I have had two teacher work days with the rest of my teaching staff. The structure of the education system is very different from the United States, and I must admit that I am very comfortable in this system. For one thing, teachers have the option of working full or part time. The teachers that work part time usually also teach at a private school or use their free time to be a parent. There is one couple at the school who splits their time. The dad works in the mornings, then leaves to be with this children when the mom comes in to work. 

The entrance to my school

The entrance to my school

 

 

Another difference lies in the fact that teachers do not see every student, every day.* In order to accommodate student needs, teachers see students at a variety of times throughout the week. With some of my classes, I see them only once a week (the class functions as more of a language “lab”), some I see twice. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. I also am only truly working 11 hours a week with students, then will be offering my American “expertise” in other classrooms, most likely history and English classes. 

 

I must admit that there is a little, tiny bit of “celebrity” that has come with being a native speaker. People, especially young adults, love to practice their English with someone they know is native. There is also an apparent adoration of the United States and its culture. My host sisters inform me that being a young American is going to automatically make me “cool” in the eyes of my students. Time will tell if this is true or not!

There is one other native English speaker at the school, who is originally from South Africa. He has been very helpful and, although he is not completely fluent in Slovak, he is married to a local and comprehends a great deal. 

I look forward to the rest of this teacher work week and especially look forward to meeting my students!

Catholicism

Twice now I have attended mass, of course in Slovak. Both times I spent a lot of time watching for non-verbal cues from my fellow worshipers in order to fit in properly. Since I am not Catholic, I have not taken the sacrament, and no one seems to mind or ask questions. Both masses have been very modern, in new buildings, with lots of color and modern art. Although I am still navigating the “why” of this, I can’t help but think that it is because people want to celebrate their freedom to openly worship and express the new and modern day for themselves and their culture. Under the USS, freedom of worship was essentialy non-existent, if I understand correctly. I intend to attend mass at least once with my host grandparents, who attend a much more traditional church.

With that in mind, I should also mention that Babka takes her faith very seriously, listening to the Catholic radio station and spending much time making Catholic prayer beads for friends and family. One special afternoon last week, she taught me how to make my own prayer bead bracelet. It was a highly memorable moment as she taught me without using a stitch of English and with me only truly comprehending when she told me “Ano” or “yes.” I wear my prayer beads daily, mostly to please Babka, but also because I see most people at my school wearing them. 

The red prayer bead bracelet is my creation. The other is a gift from Bapka.

The red prayer bead bracelet is my creation. The other is a gift from Babka.

One of the first lessons I must teach is the “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer.” I also think that it will not be long before I learn the same prayer in Slovak, as it is said very regularly. It is also expected that my classes will learn several other Catholic prayers under my tutelage, including the “Hail Mary.”

FOOD

The food is simply fantastic. Babka is does a wonderful job of keeping us full and satisfied. We have eaten a great deal of Slovak food, but also favorite Russian and Hungarian dishes as well. I am obsessed with halusky (pronounced, hal-oosh-key), which is a very traditional dish. Essentially it is homemade noodles, usually from potato, with chunks of more potato, with a cheese that is made from soured cream. It is usually served with a glass of milk as it is incredibly rich! It is one of the dishes that I am determined to learn how to make within the year. If ever I have children, then need to know the wonders of halusky,

I am also loving the chocolate. It is all you could wish for and more. I recognize several notable lables like Milka and Kinder from my trip to Germany in 2006. 

A notable difference between US and Slovak breakfasts is that it seems quite common for fresh vegetables to be served with bread, butter, and cheese with a cup of coffee or tea. We have been eating many things from our garden, but especially eating lots of tomatoes and peppers. I enjoy eating veggies with breakfast, even though it is not something I am totally used to.

Activities

We went to the Kosice zoo on Saturday and had a great time. My host sister, Bety, is a HUGE animal lover, rivaling only my good friend Carol for the award for “most enthusiastic baby zoologist”. The Kosice zoo is located outside of the city which allows for a very natural feel to the zoo’s environment. It also lends itself to beautiful views of the valley below.

View of surrounding hills from the zoo

Bety feeding the mules

Cultural differences at the zoo were very apparent. For one, families find it totally normal to pack in food to feed the animals. Bety brought in carrots that she had cut into bite sized pieces as well as a lumps of sugar. Bety fed the bears, camels, kangaroos, the deer…basically anything that looked like they would eat her offering! Again, she was not alone…I saw many families do the same. People also were very hands on with the animals. I watched Bety and my host father pet a camel and several types of horned or antlered animals. The zoo included an exhibit were birds of prey were tethered and cared for by bird keepers. Because of this exhibit, I had the awesome experience of holding an owl! 

I have also been able to enjoy a great deal of jogging in the nature park near our house. It is not only beautiful, but it is fun to see the many other joggers, walkers, and rollerskaters enjoy the park as well. Hopefully I can continue to enjoy the exercise and be prepared to run the Kosice Peace Half Marathon the first weekend of October!

Bety feeds a camel sugar lumps.

Bety feeds a camel sugar lumps.

 

*Comparative statement to the high school in which I worked in the US. I understand that not all high schools operate on the same structure of schedule.

 

 

Home

The home in which I now reside is a three story residence complete with a basement, garden, and barbecue. It is also very conveniently located a mere two minute walk from school!

The basement is almost entirely furnished with a small kitchen, bathroom, and living space. I have a feeling that this space serves to host company when they arrive from out of town or when grandpa has friends over. The basement also contains a pantry and storage area. I have a feeling there may be some sort of shelter space down there as well.

A view of our street

A view of our street

Bapka (grandma) and grandpa live on the first floor of the home. Bapka cooks the noon meal for everyone and is always on hand for her children or grandchildren. Their area contains a kitchen, a work area for Bapka where she works on crafts, a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom.

My host parents live on the second floor where they have a bedroom, a bathroom, a smaller living space, and two large storage areas.

Our home

The third floor is where two of the girls share a room, a bathroom, my room, a living room, and a kitchen space. My room has a lovely little balcony off of it, complete with pink geraniums in planters along the rail.  The balcony featured in the photo to the left is off of the girls’ room. Mine faces the opposite direction and, tonight, had the view shown below.

Panoramic view from my balcony

Panoramic view from my balcony

Redtape and a Field Trip

The past two days I have had the privilege of enjoying the company of two of my three host sisters. 

Yesterday, Sara was a wonderful help. She assisted me in doing something there is no way I would have been able to accomplish alone: declaring my presence in the Schengen Zone. Although it may not seem conventional, I do not yet have a visa or a temporary residency permit. I am here under a clause which states that as a citizen of the United States, I may reside in any Schengen Zone country for 90 days without a visa or permit. The Schengen Zone consists of 26 European countries that allows Americans to stay in the Zone for the purpose of short term, business, travel, or en route to a non-Schengen country. My 90 days started the second the Dutch security agent stamped my passport at the Amsterdam airport. I am here for business reasons: technically the business of the United States Department of State. However, Americans must declare their presence, either by checking into a hotel or other housing accommodation. These businesses would then send the registration to the Alien Police Department or the Immigration Office, country depending.

However, since I have had the great fortune of staying with my host family, I have not needed a hotel. Thus, it was been left up to me to register with the police so that I am held accountable for securing the proper residency permit within the given time period.

I needed Sara’s help because, once again, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed a native speaker to help me accomplish the tasks at hand.  In order to “master my objective” (*TFA humor*), Sara assisted me in buying bus tickets, catching a bus, transferring onto a Kosice trolley, then navigating our way to what I am assuming was the “Alien Police Registry.” I should add that Sara also made sure that I had all the proper documents (and then some) and was very prepared and professional. Although she is only 18, Sara spoke on my behalf to the secretary at the registry, then listened when police officer arrived with my paperwork, explaining what information was needed to declare my presence. Together we filed my paperwork, the entire time in the police office taking less than 10 minutes. 

There was a moment between checking in with the secretary and awaiting the officer that Sara and I took in our surroundings. We seemed to be thinking the same thing- this was most definitely a building that had housed government offices in the Soviet era. Everything was gray. The tiles, the floors, the stairs, the crumbling steps out front- gray, gray, gray. The florescent lights flickered and my nose registered the smell of cigarette smoke. Stale or fresh, I could not tell. I thought that perhaps it was the scent of gray itself. Sara remarked, “Ooo, I hate being in these old communist buildings! It’s creepy!” And I just nodded, thinking that she hit the nail on the head.

However, gray or “creepy” Sara and I accomplished a major task. I have now officially declared my presence in Kosice and will be monitored to ensure that I do not outstay my Schengen Zone welcome.

As Sara and I rode the bus home, we had a great time discussing language, culture, and the differences between the college and university system in the US and the UK, where she will attend the University of Edinburgh this fall. I learned a great deal from her and truly enjoyed her presence. She is a wonderful girl.

Today, I was lucky enough to receive hands on Slovak tutoring from 11- year old Bety. I have been devoting a few hours each day to the online program “Memrise” to help with my acquisition of the language. (Side bar- when I tell native speakers that it is my intention to become Slovak procifient, they look at my with sympathy and remind me that, “Slovak is a very hard language. There is a lot of thinking to do”).

While Memrise has been great, Bety has continued to use the aid of our “textbook” mentioned in an earlier post to help me acquire vocabulary. I am sure that no one is surprised to hear that I am most concerned about being able to talk about food. :) After my many attempts at pointing to a vegetable, attempting to pronounce its name, pointing to another vegetable, failing to correctly pronounce ITS name, and then forgetting the name of the original vegetable, Bety made a brilliant decision as my educator. She decided to make my learning hands on. Bety took my out to the family garden where I learned the words of blackberry, strawberry, plum, cucumber, tomato, and a few others while being outside and in the garden. We even got to eat the slivky (plums) right off the tree! Bety demonstrated a great deal of patience and also did a really great job of stretching her own vocabulary to teach me what I needed to know. I’m happy she will be my student!

Bety also took me to the library when I inquired if there were any books in English that I could read. I have a feeling that as the months get colder, my desire to curl up in bed with a good book will increase. Although there were no books in English, we took advantage of the trip out of the house to visit a local bakery and indulge in my first Slovak baked good. It resembled a doughnut, but it was not fried. Imagine a sweet roll, filled with real blueberry, topped with chocolate, and a small dusting of coconut flakes. As Bety said, “Very good!”

Bety and I also went by the school (my second time there…Sara took me by briefly yesterday) and we both were excited to be starting our first days there.

When we made it home, I was able to take a few adorable pictures of Bety and Lucky. It is so nice to have such a wonderful host family to make the transition to Kosice so smooth!

Bety and Luky in our yard

Bety and Lucky in our yard

“I shall lift my arms, And my roots will set off to seek another land” -Pablo Neruda

My first full day in Kosice was exactly what I needed: an introduction to my host family, a hot shower, time to settle in, and a little sight seeing.

After arriving home, I was given a variety of breakfast choices and offered a much needed cup of coffee. I decided to opt for plain yogurt with corn flakes, as I had been advised by Ms. MaLinda Luker that yogurt would help with my dietary transition. I chatted with Maria (my host mother and principal) and then she had to head to work. As one can imagine, administrators have a great deal to sort through and accomplish two weeks before the start of a new school year.

I had the opportunity to put away most of my clothes and belongings, take a hot shower/bath, tell my parents that I had arrived, update my blog, and then enjoy lunch with Maria, Sara, Mime (pronounced Me-ma), and Betty. As Sara and Maria prepared the meal, Betty and I sat with a book that I brought with me, a child’s picture book with Slovak and English vocabulary, Obrazkovy slovnik: slovensko-anglicky. The family also had a copy and so Betty brought it out and we each flipped through the pages, inquiring about pronunciation. I attempted to pronounce the words in Slovak and she then would ask for help saying English words. Needless to say, she was far more advanced than me. Fun fact: one word that was tricky for both of us was diviak or a wild boar

My bedroom

My bedroom

We enjoyed a starter of letch-key (phonetic spelling). Sara informed me that this is a traditional way to begin many Slovak meals- with a vegetable based soup. It was delicious. We then had pasta with chicken and pesto as well as a tomato and cucumber salad. Although Slovak manners are continental, the napkin is to remain on the table at all times during the meal. Given that my mother strictly enforced the “napkin in your lap” rule from the cradle, I had several moments where my napkin seemed to manifest itself in my lap without my cognizance. 

Upstairs Living Room

Upstairs Living Room

In the evening, I presented my family with the gifts I brought them from the United States. I brought a bar of chocolate filled with huckleberries from Montana, Oregon chocolate, Pacific salmon pate, Oregon hazelnuts, bison jerky and a cookbook of Oregon recipes that is laden with pictures of both food and Oregon. They were appreciative and thanked me for the gifts.

State Theater Kosice

State Theater Kosice

Maria, Peter, Betty, and I headed into the town center to walk around, run a couple errands, and eat some pizza. We parked under a large mall in a parking garage, ran a couple of errands in the mall, then headed out into old town Kosice. It was a beautiful night and it was lovely to take in the architecture and culture of the 800 year old city. Since Betty and I are both “Elizabeths” she made sure to point out the gothic spires of St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral that was constructed starting in the year 1308. We both agreed that it was likely named after the two of us, despite what historians maintain. :)

We also passed the famous “Singing Fountain” where families enjoyed the weather and couples snuggled on park benches. Directly next to the fountain, we saw the State Theater of Kosice. I hope to attend several shows there while I live in the city. Currently showing: “The Scottish Play” and Anna Karenina.

We continued to make our way past the many sidewalk cafes, until reaching our pizza restaurant. It was down a small alley and into a courtyard. I believe it was called Cafe Moderna. The adults enjoyed a beer and Betty had something called “multi-juice” which was served in a glass bottle with a juice glass. I am assuming it was a blend of juices. The pizza was very tasty. I definitely want to return to the restaurant to try some of their other pizzas which included corn and egg as a toppings.

The Singing Fountain

The Singing Fountain

The sunset around 7:30, so it was dark as we walked back to our car. As we walked, Maria told me that we were only about a 25 minutes drive from the Hungarian border if we headed due south. We are also about an hour and a half due west of the border with the Ukraine.

I am thankful to have arrived earlier enough to enjoy acclimating to my new home before I begin the tasks set out for me by the Fulbright Commission and my gymnasium.

Starting With A Single Step

Greetings from my new home, the city of Kosice, Slovakia! I arrived this morning at 7:30am, right on schedule!

This blog entry details the events of my journey around the world, August 16-August 18, 2014.

 On my way!

On Saturday, August 16, my wonderful mom drove with me to the airport where I said the last of my many goodbyes. From the time I walked through security, I put behind three months of farewells and began with my long awaited myriad of hellos.

Leg 1 of journey: Portland, Oregon, United States to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Duration 1 hour

I first hopped on an Alaska Airlines plane out of Portland for a brief flight up to our neighbor to the North. It was on this flight that I learned that my new “sippy top” water bottle does NOT work well under pressure! When I opened the water bottle somewhere over the state of Washington, the thing spurted out water like a gyser, soaking my pants, and nearly soaking my customs form. Thankfully my seat partner, a Canadian teenager named Kelsey, saved the paper so it wasn’t soaked!

Layover 1: YVR Airport
Duration 4.5 hours.

YVR walkway from customs to the international terminal

YVR walkway from customs to the international terminal

I was able to journal, read, and snack comfortably. Canadian customs was no big deal. I began to realize just HOW heavy my carry-on backpack was.

Leg 2: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration 9 hours

We boarded at 3:00pm for our 3:45 departure on Delta. The plane was configured with aisles of window seats on each side, and a middle row of four. I was seated in an aisle seat, in a middle row with three adorable Dutch children, all of whom appeared to be younger than 7. I was relieved when they were sweet and well behaved. Good food was served and the in flight entertainment was lovely. I learned a little Dutch from my row companions via eavesdropping. 

Layover 2: Amsterdam Airport
Duration 2 hours

I was eager to get through Schengen Zone customs so I could wash my face and brush my teeth! I had been awake for a solid 21 hours and my body was starting to get pretty confused about what was going on. I slowed down my eager walk through the airport when I realized that the Dutch security guards were incredibly handsome. Think 6 feet tall, broad shouldered, blonde, blue eyed, and charming. Maybe I’ll find my way back to Amsterdam while I’m on the continent. :)

Leg 3: Amsterdam, Netherlands to Prague, Czech Republic
Duration 1.5 hours

Another Delta affiliated flight carried me from Amsterdam to Prague. I was finally able to doze off for brief increments at a time. The descent into Prague was beautiful. Red roofs, farm fields, and a clear architectural collision of history and present as soviet era housing erupts from from cobblestone and years of ancient monarchy: again, beautiful.

Layover 4: Prague Airport, Train Station, and Wenceslas Square
Duration 8 long hours

Historic Prague Train Station

Historic Prague Train Station

After collecting all my worldly possessions from baggage claim, I withdrew Czech crowns from a Travelex ATM. This stressed me out, because although I was aware that the Czech Republic was not on the Euro, I was not aware of the conversion rate from dollars to crowns. Hence, when I had to withdraw a minimum of 500 crowns from my account, I had a miniature anxiety attack. All I needed was bus fare to the train station, money for a luggage locker, and eating/drinking/bathroom money. Things were put into perspective when my bus ticket cost 60 crowns to get on the Airport Express to the main train station. I unclenched every muscle of my body…

Until I got on the bus! Again, I had on my pack, 50 lbs of a rolling suit case, and a “front pack” that weighed probably 30 lbs. The bus was full and I was extremely awkward in every way. Apologizing in English for knocking into people. Repeatedly hitting my “seat partner” with my luggage (seat partner is in quotations because although I was seated, I was more just partially squatting on top of a rolly bag). Blocking people from both getting on and getting off the bus when it stopped. An appropriate description would be “hot mess.”  I was both green with motion sickness and relieved when we arrived at the main train station in the center of the city. 

I located a luggage locker, for which I was grateful. I was able to pay 80 crowns to securely store my luggage for 24 hours.

The plan was to walk around the city with my blue backpack, see some historic sights, and drink some Czech beer in a quaint cafe while writing to my parents to assure them that I had in fact made it safely to Prague. What actually happened? I ended up traipsing around the train station, walking through some sketchy, graffitied tunnels, and dodging the glances of some characters who looked like they wanted to relieve me of my very heavy backpack in the fashion of good old robbery. 

I made it to Wenceslas Square which was lovely. It has been said that in times of strife, the Czech people will gather here, below the statue of the Good King Wenceslas to unite. History has proven this to be true time and again. I admired the architecture, the crowds, and the pleasantly overcast day. Walking towards what I thought was Old Towne (I did not bring a map and did not have access to one electronically), I ended up back at the train station. I realized that I could have easily made the trek to the square going out the BACK of the station and not the FRONT, like I had done. 

Back at the station, I settled into one of the non-chain restaurants and purchased my lunch/dinner: a baguette sliced and filled with prosciutto, goat cheese, and arugula.

And then, I sat for several hours, people watching, trying to keep myself awake, paying to use the bathroom, and walking around the train station. In retrospect, I should have done something really touristy with low lift effort, like taking a double-decker bus around town, or finding a guided walking tour. However, I felt uneasy being alone, female, and carrying my heavy bag, so I stuck to the train station. The people watching was spectacular. All sorts of languages swirled in the air around me. Happy hellos and passionate goodbyes were exchanged. Humanity ebbed and flowed through the relatively dirty, heavily trafficked station and I was its bystander.

Final leg: Night train from Prague, Czech Republic to Kosice, Slovak Republic
Duration 8.5 hours 

Hauling all my junk up the escalator, onto the platform, and into the train proved to be rather strenuous. I was tired, sweaty, and wanting to lie down. Alas, as with many things, this proved to not be the case.

I checked in with our conductor and headed to my assigned cabin. My heart sank. There was NO way that all my things were going to fit on my bunk AND allow me to get some rest of there as well.  Each bunk was maybe about 2.5′ by 6′.  There were three bunks on each of the walls. I was assigned the top most bunk, left side.

I heaved my packs up onto the bunk, scaling the tiny, precarious ladder to do so. It was when I was contemplating my ability to get my 50lbs suitcase up to the bunk when a handsome young man walked into the room.

I said, “Hi, there” to which he responded in a thick, Slovak accent, “You don’t speak any Czech or Slovak, do you.” It was more of a statement than a question.

Me: “No, I don’t” 

Him: “Well, six of us are going to have to sleep in here.”

Me: “I know. I am trying to get all my stuff out of the way.”

Him: “And you’re going to sleep up there too? There’s no way that will work.”

Me: “Well, I have literally all my earthly possessions with me, so I need to make it work. Maybe I should ask the conductor if there is extra room?”

Him: “There won’t be room. This train is always fully loaded on Sunday nights out to Kosice. We will need to make this work.”

At this point, a pretty young woman walked in. He turned to her an they began talking to Slovak. It was obvious they were talking about my conundrum.

Turning to me, he picked up my suitcase and hauled it up to the bunk.

Me: “Oh, wow, thank you so much! I really appreciate that. I really do not want to be in anyone’s way.”

Him: “You won’t be able to sleep up there.”

I crawled up to see if I could manage to make something work. I turned to the two of them and laughed at said, “maybe I can just sleep like this!” as I wrapped my arms and legs around my suitcase, like a sloth around the trunk of its favorite tree.

No laughter. “Yeah, I guess you might have to.”

I got down as the two of them put their things up on their bunks and they continued to talk about me. I appreciated their concern, but felt super awkward as there was no where else for me to go and I was clearly the third wheel in more ways than one.

Just then, a stern faced mother walked in with her roughly 16 year old daughter. There was an exchange, and although I do not speak Slovak, I could tell she was less than happy to be traveling with three 20 somethings and her teenage daughter. I followed the couple out of the room and out into the tiny hallway. The guy lowered the window to let the cool night air in. It was a really lovely evening and I smiled as the smell of it came into the cramped car.

He turned to me and asked me a series of questions, like , “Why would you leave the United States to come to Slovakia?” and “Did you choose to come here? Why?” I was friendly in my responses, asked him about his life, his job, his impressions of Kosice, where he was born and raised. He was guarded and curious, kind, but not overly friendly. When he told me that there was “nothing to do in Kosice,” I laughed and explained my life in Greenville, Alabama over the past three years. This led to discussion of poverty in the States, poverty in Slovakia, and mindsets on government. I felt like I kept surprising him with my eagerness to live in Eastern Europe and my willingness to assimilate as quickly as possible while serving my country as a cultural ambassador. Maybe I was just happy to talk to someone after roughly 2 days of no real social interaction, but I felt like this was someone with whom I could be friends. When I learned that he was 25 and she was 29, I got excited because I found people my age! Educated, English speaking, kind, people my age!

I finally realized that I did not introduce myself, and so we exchanged first names. Although “Elizabeth” is a Catholic saint, and therefore a relatively common name in Slovakia, the nickname “Liz” appears to be a less popular. I am unsure as of yet, but I think that they spell it with an s and not a z.

My friends helped me manage to store my backpack and my pack so I only had to bunk with my suitcase. I put it at the head of my bunk, so I had about four feet of length. As I was falling asleep, I tried to think of how I would describe the position I assumed. I was not so cramped that I was in the full on fetal position. Rather, I was nearly in fetal, but was able to relax a bit more. I decided on this metaphor: If fetal position is a true, rounded Afro hair style, then the position I occupied was more like Kramer’s hair from Seinfeld.

I woke up periodically throughout the night, as we swayed through Bratislava, around the Tatras, into and passing Poprad and at one moment, I had a golden ray of clarity kiss me on the cheek, forcing me to smile. The young couple had made this last leg of the journey bearable and possible. What if I was put with five other people that did not speak English? Had not cared to help me? Had been smelly, loud, and obnoxious? It was in that moment that I realized that this was, to me, a result of the prayers, blessings, and good vibes that I knew were being poured out for me from around the world. From my students and friends in Alabama. From family in Oregon, Colorado and Montana. From teachers, mentors, and friends in California. As the train rocked back and forth, I felt cradled, safe, and loved. I do not have many spiritual moments these days, but this was one I will not forget. I am determined to return this love, share it with my new host family, and seek moments to make life bearable and possible for others, like my new friends did.

Their kindness continued the next day, when they translated the conductors 10 minute warning for me, retrieved my luggage, insisted that they help me take the heavy pieces down the stairs of the platform, and show me where to wait for people who were picking up passengers by car. I asked them for their email addresses and will thank them soon. Who knows, maybe we can be friends? And if not, they taught me a lesson that is worth remembering.

I was picked up by my host mother, her two daughters, Sarah and Mimi, and we headed home in their volvo. I soaked in my new home with wondering eyes and did my best to converse with Maria. We arrived home, unpacked the car, and I met my host father, Peter, and the parents of Maria. I do not know as of yet what I will call them.

Oh, and I also met Lucky, the golden retriever, yellow lab mix who offered me a nice block of wood as a welcome home present.

I am now relatively unpacked and will take my lunch with the family.

Details on my home and family to come!

Background Information

Chapman University photo by Cynthia Kirkeby

Chapman University
photo by Cynthia Kirkeby

This post will include three sections of interest.

  1. How I applied for the Fulbright ETA
  2. The nature of my teaching assignment
  3. My housing arrangement in Kosice

 

  1. How I Applied

There are two ways that you can apply to become a Fulbright Teaching Assistant if you are someone like me; you can either apply as a candidate “at large” meaning you apply without a tie to any given college or university or you can apply with the help of your university. Typically, ETA applicants are people in their final year of undergraduate study, or young professionals that are a few years out of undergrad. I, of course, am the latter.

My wonderful alma mater is Chapman University, located in sunny Orange, California. I graduated in May of 2011 and almost immediately moved to Alabama to work as a

Teach for America corps member (which I did for three years). In September of 2014 I realized that I had a very brief window of time to apply for the October 10 deadline, so I immediately contacted the ever helpful Dr. Jankowski at Chapman.  She helped me to get the ball rolling on the application process. Ultimately, one must do three things to apply.

Helping to present the youngest survivor of Schindler's List, Leon Leyson, with an honorary doctorate before I receive my own degree.

Chapman University, Wilkinson College Commencement, 2011. Here I am helping to present an honorary doctorate to Mr. Leon Leyson, the youngest survivor of Schindler’s List. It was an honor to assist in such a special event on the day of my own graduation.

A. Request three fabulous individuals to serve as your recommenders.

B. Draft a statement of intent of grant and a personal statement, both less than a page

C. Fill out the required online application

 

B. My recommenders were a powerhouse of awesome. You really want these people to be on your side and in your court, as they have the daunting task of filling out a recommender form. I do not know what this looks like, but I know that it is time consuming and not for the faint of heart.

I would like to take time to discuss my recommenders to demonstrate my relationship with them as well as to show how awesome they are. First, was Dr. Marilyn Harran, Stern Chair to the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and faculty member at Chapman University. She is a lot more than that- I just need to finish this blog post today. J Thousands are the ways I could sing her praise. She has been my academic mentor since my first week at Chapman and has blessed me with more opportunities than one person should be afforded in seven short years of an acquaintance. Second, was the ever fabulous Tosha May, who was my Mentor of Teacher Leader Development as a TFA corps member.  Tosha is an inspiration to all who know her, a champion for children in education, and now a mommy! I love and miss her dearly. Finally, was Mrs. Jennifer Burt, an assistant principal at my high school.  I highly respect this woman as it takes guts, intelligence, and perseverance to be a wife, mother, and high school administrator. She also should be acknowledged for recovering for foot surgery while completing my application! I am so blessed to have such great people in my life.

 

B.  Here is why I strongly recommend alumni to apply via their alma mater. Once I had drafted my statements, Dr. J edited them for me, Skyped me in to a call to discuss and “flush out” the writing, reedited my next draft, and finally, gave her seal of approval.  I cannot tell you how helpful this was for me. I cannot help but wonder if I would have been afforded my impending opportunity, had it not been for her.  All universities may not have this high level of support and professionalism, but I am very thankful for mine.

Dr. J also helped me to encourage my recommenders to finish my recommendation on time when the deadline was fast approaching. She was very responsive and helpful throughout the duration of the application process and beyond. Thank you, Dr. J! J

C. Filling out the application is the easiest part. The hardest part is drafting your statements and rewriting and rewriting and making them perfect.

 

 

  1. The Nature of my teaching assignment

I have been in education in the United States for three years. Never have I been so far out from a school start date and been so incredibly informed about the nature of my teaching assignment. It’s amazing.

I will be teaching at a Gymnasium in Kosice.  Gymnasiums are the five year institutions in Europe that are the equivalent of a high school in the United States. All graduates of gymnasiums are expected to attend a university. My school is the St. Edith Stein Gymnasium (very rough, but most assessable translation). This school focuses on creating world citizens that are multi-lingual.

Photo of Edith Stein c. 1926

Photo of Edith Stein c. 1926

As it stands today, I will be teaching three different classes at various times throughout the week. I will teach conversational English to students in their first year at the gymnasium (12 year olds). I am told that they will be very hesitant to speak: quite the change from the students I have known and loved the past three years! I will also teach intermediate conversational English to students who will be roughly 16 and have studied English not only in English class, but as the primary language in other core classes as well (there are several units of World History taught in English). Finally, I will teach a small consortium of students in their fourth year Academic Writing in English. The goal is to prepare them to apply to and be successful in an English speaking university, likely in the United Kingdom. I have also been charged with being the faculty sponsor for either a drama or debate club, depending on which students express more interest for.

Interestingly enough, I will not be given an in person orientation prior to my departure to Europe nor prior to starting classes with my kiddos. I’m glad I have three years of experience under my belt!

 

Another fun fact for people who know me: Saint Edith Stein was a victim of the Holocaust that was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1998. It is so interesting how life works.

  1. My housing arrangement in Kosice

Our school contacts (mentioned in a previous post) are charged with helping us find housing. It is highly recommended that no one signs a lease until they are on the ground and able to view their potential housing. I am in a non-traditional situation going into Kosice, as I have the opportunity to rent a room from a family. We are going to see how it goes for a month, and then I have the freedom to secure different housing or to stay as long as I like. The host mother is actually my future principal. She has three daughters, one of which is away at university. I will be renting her room. The other daughters are the equivalent of middle school age and high school age in the US.

Their home is a five minute walk from my school, near a bus line, and looks beautiful on Google Earth. J

The fact that I have so much freedom of choice makes me feel comfortable with the fact that I will be living with my boss.