Miskolc- Part 2

Cave Wine Cellar

Cave Wine Cellar

We headed off to the gathering of our host’s friends at what we were told was a wine cellar. In 2006, I visited an old wine cellar in Vienna that served as a restaurant and a place where people could also enjoy regional wine.

This was not at all like my experience in Vienna. The wine cellar, it turns out, was actually one of 900 caves under the city of Miskolc that had been turned into a wine cellar by the owner. It was 400 years old. The cave was cold, damp, and covered in all sorts of fungus, mold, and other microorganisms that apparently are essential for the keeping and creating of wine.

We entered the cave, standing in a semi-circle around our host, each holding a wine glass. Our host explained that he had previously been a school teacher, but now he owned and operated a vineyard in the famous Tokaji wine region of Hungary. He told us that the wine would not be spectacular, as the unseasonably rainy summer changed the chemistry of the grapes. He shared so many interesting facts about the craft and science of vinting, that I wished I could soak it all up to remember later. As he offered us samples, he uncorked his giant wooden barrels of wine and used an old fashioned “lobo” to pull the wine from the barrel, using his mouth to suck the wine up into the large, thin, glass instrument. We were told that this was originally done using a long necked gourd and that later, the glass version was used.

A storage area for much older wine that we sampled. No that is not frost or snow- it is mold!

A storage area for much older wine that we sampled. No that is not frost or snow- it is mold!

We started with a white wine, moving to a rose, then to a series of reds. He said that this was standard practice and that you should always move from light to dark when sampling wine. He also told us that a rose should be opened and consumed right away and that a rose more than two years old will not be good.

We all sampled the various wines and in the end voted on which we thought were the best. We decided that two of the reds were our favorite- I sadly can not recall the names as they were Hungarian and even if I could say them aloud, could not properly record their spellings.

Next, we went outside set up a couple of tables and began preparing for a BBQ. We basically made a small fire, then roasted a variety of sausages, vegetables, and cheeses over the flame. People had contributed all sorts of breads, chips, and spreads- it was really a feast of all good things!

We sat around, eating, and talking. The group was entirely made up of educators from around the world, so there as plenty to discuss. Among us there were three Americans, two Spaniards, and the remainder were Hungarian. We learned about each other’s lives and shared a few phrases of language with one another. Andrew and I learned to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Hungarian, as we found these expressions to be among the most useful.

Stands of beech trees in the Bukk Mountains

Stands of beech trees in the Bukk Mountains

After a while, the Spaniards and I got cold, for which we were teased a great deal. I am not sure how chilly it was, but it was getting late into the night and the temperature had to be in the low 40′s Fahrenheit. I was so cold that I resorted to wrapping myself in a green gingham plastic table cloth to retain my body heat. To be sure, it looked ridiculous and I was probably “that weird American,” but I was determined to get warmer and ward off the chance of sickness. Plus, my hair was still damp from the cave baths. My life is so hard! :)

After we all had eaten our fill, we closed up shop, so to speak, and headed to a local pub. Again, we continued with our chatting and conversation until we were all too sleepy to stay awake and so we headed to our home for the night.

The next morning, Andrew and I awoke and walked to a grocery store to purchase some breakfast. We each bought a roll and a strawberry Greek yogurt. It was a gorgeous fall day, complete with blue skies, sunshine, and golden leaves all about. We sat outside on a bench and ate, reflecting on how much we had accomplished in our first 24 hours in Hungary.

Around 11:30, we loaded into our host’s car along with two other teachers from the night before and headed into the Bukk Mountains. In English, Bukk means beech tree. The drive up the mountains absolutely took my breath away.

We arrived at a location where we met with some of our host’s friends. They are a family of avid hikers and each Sunday they hike extensively in the mountains. We joined them for about 4km in and then we were to hike 4km out. We did not follow a path, but rather followed our guide, his map and compass. Eventually we came upon a ridge and were treated to a spectacular view. We could see across Hungary and into Slovakia and, we were told, on clear days, we could have seen the High Tatras, which border Poland.

After working up an appetite hiking about 8km, we made our way down the mountain by car to our next point of adventure. In the Bukk Mountains, a family has been stocking and raising trout since the 1920s. Every summer and into the beginning of fall, they open the trout farm as a restaurant. We were there for the last day of their 2014 season. You may order only fish and sides as well as drinks. I ordered my trout smoked with a side of potatoes and water. When your order is up, you receive an entire trout- the only thing that is removed is the eye balls, but everything else is still there. The fish is steaming hot, and is to be eaten with your hands. I can not explain how tasty this treat was. The fish was as fresh as could be and utterly delicious. The cold mountain air and the rustic atmosphere managed to make it taste like a total treat. I made a huge mess of my fish and probably looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings while eating, but I really, REALLY enjoyed my food.

The gratuitous view from our hike

The gratuitous view from our hike

After we sucked our fish bones dry we headed further down the road to another attraction, the hotel at Lillafüred.

This historic hotel was built atop caves that had served Hungarians as a place to remedy illness for hundreds of years. Early in the 20th century, opportunists built this gorgeous structure to appeal to the rich and famous who could afford the 4-star accommodations. The hotel is still operational today and the caves still function as medicinal spas. Many famous Hungarian poets and writers took refuge at Lillafüred, many finding inspiration for some of their most famous pieces while in residence at the hotel.

We walked around the premises and then took a walk half way around the nearby lake. The colors of fall reflected in the water was simply beautiful.

Lillafüred hotel I did not take this picture nor do I own the rights to it

Lillafüred hotel
I did not take this picture nor do I own the rights to it

We then grabbed dessert at a nearby restaurant, Andrew and I shared a concoction of chocolate sponge cake and something that resembled flan, topped with a dense chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Presso, short for espresso, was also imbibed.

Andrew, another teacher and I then headed to a stop of the local “forest train,” a little open air train that takes people from the city to Lillafüred and vice versa. We enjoyed a beautiful ride through the forest as our cheeks and noses went numb in the fresh autumn air.

Upon arriving back in Miskolc, we trekked back to the apartment of our host, packed up our things, bought some snacks for the train ride home, then made our way to the train station.

By the time I arrived back in Kosice, it was 10pm. I made it hope by 10:30.

Needless to say, I slept a deep, deep sleep Sunday night with images of ancient Hungarian kings and queens dancing in my head. (I really did dream about ancient Hungarians in the Bukk Mountains).

The weekend has inspired me to couchsurf in the future and to be as opportunistic as possible in my time abroad. I feel content and blessed.

Miskolc Weekend- Part 1

Saturday began the most packed weekend of my time in Europe thus far.

At 6am, my friend Andrew (whom I visited in Svinik) and I boarded a train headed to Miskolc, Hungary. Our aim was to tour the Castle Disgyor, bath in the famous cave baths of Tapolca, and, for me, try my first shot at couch surfing.

Sunrise near the Slovak-Hungarian border

Sunrise near the Slovak-Hungarian border

Upon arriving in Miskolc at 8:30am, we purchased city tram tickets using non-verbals which included a great deal of gesturing and the holding up of fingers. I drew on my knowledge of the Kosice public transit system to make educated guesses about how the Moskolc transit system worked. Thankfully, I was correct.

We also had to withdraw Hungarian currency, the forint, in order have purchasing power during out weekend. 1 USD is the equivalent of 240 forints. To my American mind, the amount of money I had to withdraw was totally absurd. I may or may not have giggled a time or two and joked with Andrew about how we were “rollin in the forints!”

We rode the entire length of the train track, knowing that the end was near the caslte of Disgyor. We did not have a map or access to the internet. We also did not speak Hungarian. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day as we meandered around town, looking for some sort of breakfast food before (hopefully) making our way to the castle. We did not find a breakfast establishment. That seems to be the norm in this part of the world. We did however, find a bakery where we bought a really delicious Hungarian treat that translates into “cabbage pockets” due to the fact that it is shredded cabbage or kapusta, clearly sauteed in butter, salt, and pepper, then stuffed into filo dough. Can you say “yum?” We did. Several times. We even reminisced about it later.

Andrew caught me talking on this one- if you know my mom, you can tell how much I look like her in this picture! Oh, and there's a castle behind me.

Andrew caught me talking on this one- if you know my mom, you can tell how much I look like her in this picture!
Oh, and there’s a castle behind me.

After getting some nutrition, we followed signs to the castle, which, contrary to our expectations, was not on a hill. Rather, the castle sits on the outskirts out what once was a village with views of the surrounding mountains and down the nearby valley.

The day was absolutely perfect. With our packs on our back, we made our way into the castle. We later learned the the castle is only newly renovated. As in, only about a month ago was the castle re-opened to the public after sitting in near ruin for centuries.

I truly was filled with awe as I looked about me, not because of grandeur or royal pomp nor because of any spectacular view. In fact, from the south side of the castle, one can really only see blocks of Soviet era flats. I was moved because centuries and centuries ago, lords and ladies, soldiers and maids lived, worked, and died here. They worshiped, loved, and fought for their land, hungered, cried, and laughed just as I do. Sometimes history finds a way to touch you and the Disgyor castle touched me.

After seeing the castle, Andrew and I needed to meet up with our coachsurfing host. Many people know what this is, but for those of you that don’t, couchsurfing is an organization that is web based in which people allow others to stay with them free of charge. The understanding is that you open your home to someone and, someday, they will pay it forward. Andrew is a travel pro and has done this many times, both surfing and hosting. However, I have never been able to do this. I have never been brave enough. However, trying this with an experienced male surfer seemed like a good way to branch out and try something new.

It was the best thing that we could have done. Our host owned a one bedroom flat with two couches and a mattress. He also works in education and was incredibly kind and generous. He welcomed us into his home, then drove us to the cave baths.

I can not fully explain to you how insanely cool the Tapolca cave bathes are. After paying at a gate, you are given a wristband that allows you access to the caves. Atop ancient hotsprings, a company built a spa resort while preserving the original caves and adding features to make the caves more tourist friendly. These springs have been a medicinal hot spot (pun intended) to Europeans for hundreds of years.

The entrance to the cave baths! Picture credit: Andrew

The entrance to the cave baths!
Picture credit: Andrew

After changing, Andrew and I headed to the caves. It is so difficult to explain this experience. Imagine walking into a zero entry lukewarm pool that leads into a cave. Then, when you are in the cave, you walk in waist deep water through a series of water ways, some that connect and some that you have to get out of the water to walk to. Meanwhile, all around you are ancient limestone caves, illuminated by light and water. You’re in a spa and in a cave. At the same time. It was incredible and unlike anything in the whole wide world.

When we were done, we were hungry. One of the “benefits” of the baths is that they are supposed to increase appetite. We grabbed some traditional Hungarian soup- Andrew goulash and for me, broccoli cream.

We then caught a bus back to the home of our host before heading out to what we were told was a “Wine Tasting and BBQ.” It turned out to be SO much more than that.

End Part 1

Marathon Weekend

One of the major annual events of Kosice took place last weekend. That is, the weekend of the Kosice International Peace Marathon. I am sure that each participant in the weekend had a different experience, as tends to happen in life, but I will share the narrative of the events through my eyes.

On Friday afternoon, I was kindly invited to coffee and then dinner by two of my co-workers. In the center of town, one could not miss the signs that something big was about to happen. People were busy putting up platforms and signs, and vendor tents were erected in the Námieste osloboditeľov (the square outside the major shopping center, Aupark, which is directly adjacent to the Old Town). My co-workers were kind enough to help me pick up my registration packet (located inside Aupark) translating for me, and helping me understand exactly where to go and what to do. I can not stress enough how nice it was to be invited out by friends!

Saturday, I was invited to a Slovak, Catholic wedding. This was unrelated to the local events, but a part of my personal experience. The ceremony was held in a beautiful historic church and traditional mass was held. The bride hails from a very musical family, so there was a great deal of singing, and music was clearly paramount in shaping their desired wedding experience. One noticeable cultural element was the many people arrived to mass after the ceremony had already started. In fact, we arrived about five minutes after the ceremony began, forcing us to stand. We were not the last ones to arrive by far, though. People spilled out of the church and into the court yards, peeking in from time to time, and making their way in to take the sacrament. After the ceremony, I departed, heading to meet up with some of my 4th year students in the center of town.

For curious minds, the reception lasted until the very early hours of the morning. My host parents did not return until 3:30am, leaving the party early. From what I understand, this is very typical for Slovak wedding receptions. At certain hours of the evening, certain events traditionally take place. This was told to me by my host mother and because of our language barrier, I may not be entirely accurate in my understanding of the traditions.

First, the groom is presented two different axes by the father of the bride. One axe has a thin handle, one has a thick, large handle. The father of the bride tells the groom that if he is truly a man fitting of his daughter, he will choose the axe that has a handle that can be broken. The trick is that the thin handle is made of new, green wood, so it is very strong and nearly indestructible. The thick handle is made from old wood, and more easily broken. Everyone yells at the groom to pick the correct axe and cheers him on as he demonstrates his worthiness.

Another tradition includes the bride milking a paper-mache cow that has a latex glove attached to it. I am honestly unsure of how this works, but apparently it is very funny to watch the bride milk the fake cow, and at this particular wedding, it took her 15 minutes to finish her milking. This again, is to demonstrate the she will be a good wife and be able to provide for her husband.

At midnight, the bride steps out of the room and changes out of her white dress and veil into a red dress. This is a not so subtle way to illustrate that she is now married, she is rid of her purity and she is married to her husband. She then performs a traditional dance.

I was told that at this particular wedding that the couple was more in love than anyone had ever seen before. :)

While the wedding festivities took place, I joined some of my students in the center of town. Along with thousands and thousands of others, we took in the spectacle that is Biele Noc, or White Night. A tradition borrowed from the French, this is a festival of illumination the night before the annual marathon. The entire Old Town is illuminated from within and without. Different artists perform their craft in traditional as well as very modern ways. Much of the art is modern, dealing with light and animation all in one. It was wonderful to be out with my 4th year students (17-19 year olds). They are all completely fluent in English and seem to be genuinely good people.

Although Biele Noc lasts until late into the night, I had to head home to bed as I had a race the next morning- a half marathon.

Here is a 30 clip showing some of the art exhibitions from this year’s Biele Noc: http://article.wn.com/view/2014/10/05/Biela_noc_Biela_noc/

In the morning, I had my usual half marathon fuel- two cups of coffee, a piece of bread, and a banana. My host family drove me downtown so that they could attend a special marathon weekend mass and then watch their many friends participate in the races.

Race Course for 2014 Kosice International Peace Marathon

Race Course for 2014 Kosice International Peace Marathon

I made my way to the start and watched as people from all over the world gathered to run. It is also important to add this this race is the oldest official marathon in Europe and the second oldest in the world. Only Boston is older.

As this event is large and international, there are several events.

Here are the events:

Full marathon- 26.2 miles or 42km

Half marathon- 13.1 miles or 21 km

Mini-marathon- 4.2 km

Within these events there is a “handcart” or wheelchair race, inline skate race, and a relay race in which each runner takes a quarter of the marathon.

I had never run in such a large event before, and it was really spectacular. We ran through all different parts of Kosice, the old, the new, a park or two.

For my runner friends, I would warn you of a few things before running an international race (or at least this one). One, be sure to really know the conversion between kilometers and miles. In my exhaustion, I started to doubt that my own conversions were correct. This made my self talk suffer, even stutter, you could say.

The race begins! Photo from spikes.iaaf.org I do not claim the rights to this photo

The race begins!
Photo from spikes.iaaf.org
I do not claim the rights to this photo

Also, do not expect as many volunteers at stations, do not expect that you will receive what you expect (energy drink, GU, etc), and prepare for far fewer port-a-potties! This last one was particularly surprising for me, and I was thankful that no issues arose for me! Be prepared to see men of all ages stop a few feet off the edge of the course to relieve themselves. In my previous races, people would try to go out of sight or at least a further distance off the course.  I do not share this to be rude or crass, but I know that I have many friends and family members who race and could race abroad one day- this could be good to know!

Also, people will be cheering for you and the other runners, and you will not understand what they are saying, unless you speak the language. As my Slovak is extreeeeemly limited, I had to assume the best in my fellow man. One man was yelling at me so ferociously that I felt the need to point to the American flag on my bib and say in Slovak, “I do not understand Slovak!” which caused his friends to roar with laughter. I’m not really sure what that interaction was. Also, I high-fived a gentleman with four fingers, causing my to wonder what to call THAT interaction for the next couple hundred km. Is is still a high-five if only four fingers are involved? Regardless, I appreciated the encouragement and support.

And we're off! Photo from joobilli.com I do not claim the rights to this photo

And we’re off!
Photo from joobilli.com
I do not claim the rights to this photo

As I did not train the last three weeks prior to the race, I can safely say that, although the course was flat, this was the most laborious and painful race of my life. I have learned a good lesson- I will follow my training plan up to race day! I did, however, make it within my goal time. I hoped to finish between 2:30 and 3:00 and I finished in 2:35. My fastest race time was 2:07 about a year ago, so hopefully by my next race, I can be back within that pace range!

Each finisher received a non-alcoholic beer, a bottle of water, a banana, apple, and a granola bar of sorts (it was a wafer sandwich with peanut butter and chocolate…not sure how that translates).

My host family met me at the finish line and took me home.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing, recuperating, eating, and reading. The next day at school, I wore my medal and was able to talk to many students and staff members about the race and running. It was truly a community event and my participation in the race may have demonstrated my desire to be a part of this community.

Weekend Trip to Svidnik

Last weekend, the other ETA from Kosice, Kelsey, and I hopped on a bus and did a bit of traveling. Three of the nine of us are located in the Eastern part of the country and we decided to meet up and see some sights.

Friday afternoon Kelsey and I caught a Euroline bus to Bardejov. This was an interesting experience. We were very nearly the last people to get on the bus and we had to stand for the first 30 minutes of our hour and a half long journey. It was ridiculously inexpensive. After the bus stopped in Presov, we were able to sit down and enjoy the trip a bit more. The sight of the Slovak countryside was picturesque as we threaded our way through little villages and bus stops in seemingly the middle of nowhere. You could feel autumn easing her way past summer.

When we arrived in Bardejov, we met up with Andrew, an ETA in Svidnik and the third member of our Eastern delegation. As we entered the center of the ancient village, I heard my inner voice say, “This is the Europe I have been looking for.”

Bardejov town square Photo cred: Kelsey Castaneda

Bardejov town square
Photo cred: Kelsey Castaneda

Bardejov was built in the 13th century as a far Eastern post of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s beautiful Cathedral and town square clearly had been centers of trade and social happenings for hundreds and hundreds of years.

In fact, the town square was so old that it was not paved in cobble stone. Instead, it was paved with rocks in all sorts of shapes and sizes, covered with a bit of moss and smooth from millions of footsteps across time.

After a few hours walking around the town, we got on a second bus and headed north east to Svidnik, Andrew’s home.

Svidnik has a population of about 11,000. However, it takes a grand total of 10 minutes to travel on foot from one side of town to another.

Svidnik historically was a town adhering to the pastoral tradition, economically founded on agriculture. Homes typically were wooden and brightly painted in different colors. However, the years under Soviet rule completely transformed the place. Soviet Block housing is visible from every part of the small city and the land previously producing the lifeblood of commerce now stands fallow. At the same time, locals seem to think of nothing but fond times under communism. According to them, everyone had jobs, everyone was provided for, and the only problem of which they speak is the limited freedom of expression. The interactions with locals gave me a great deal to think about in terms of economic and governmental philosophy.

Svidnik is now largely known for a major battle which determined the Soviet defeat of German forces at the end of the Second World War. Just a few kilometers away from the city is Dukla Pass, a pass over the hills which separate Slovakia from Poland. There are several monuments and cemeteries around the area that demonstrate what occurred in the fall of 1944. This is only fitting; so many thousands of men died in that pass that there are mass, unmarked graves all across the land. There are also specific cemeteries for the German, Czecho-Slovak, Soviet, and partisan forces across the landscape as well.

On Saturday, we traveled to many of these memorials, famous landmarks, and battle grounds. Strikingly, when the Soviets won, they simply packed up and moved back to mother Russia. They abandoned their tanks, bombers, weapons, all their goods of war, on the Slovak countryside, and made their way home. It is hard to blame them knowing how incredibly difficult it was for Russian forces to fight and persist throughout the war. We also were able to walk across the border to Poland, as demonstrated in the picture of me below. We also hopped across the border to get gas for the car- goods are cheaper across the border as they are on Zloty and Slovakia is on the Euro.

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On Sunday, we visited a UNESCO world heritage site at the Open Air Museum in Svidnik. Here, old homes and buildings have been relocated to form a replica of 19th century pastoral Slovak village. It is complete with one of the famous wooden churches that is still functional and used for weddings to this day. The village replica includes the aforementioned church, sawmill, homes (complete with root cellars), school house, and community center. A pony, a herd of sheep, and several goats roam around the “village” causing the experience to not only look, but smell authentic. :)

We took a bus back to Kosice on Sunday morning, enjoying more of the beautiful countryside and a deeper understanding of the diversity of the country, and a deeper understanding of the diversity and history of our Eastern region.

I hope to someday return to the northeastern part of the country. I leave feeling more and more confident in my ability to travel and navigate my way in a land where I do not speak the language.

Wooden church at the Open Air Museum

Wooden church at the Open Air Museum

Sawmill at the the open air museum.

Sawmill at the the open air museum.

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View of the Polish, Slovak border from a watchtower atop Dukla pass.

Bardejov Cathedral  Photo cred: Kelsey Castaneda

Bardejov Cathedral
Photo cred: Kelsey Castaneda

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