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 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
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
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!