Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hungarian fun

Temp: 2 C

Weather: mist and rain

Location Bratislava, Sturova, Esztergom (Hungary)

We got off the train in Sturova, on the border of Slovakia. I was very excited about the idea of walking across the Danube into Hungary. So trudged along, behind the group of course, at the pace my silly legs can only carry me for the best part of an hour. The train was divided into compartments of 6 seats each with its own door and heating that seven of us had squeezed into.

It was a curious notion for me that on one side of the river was one country and on the other, another. That too, on one side of the river people spoke one language and used one currency and on the other a different language and a different currency. For a mile of the walk towards the river there were numerous places offering currency exchanges. Not only were there banks and Bureau de Change, but ramshackle little sheds at the side of the road with hand written exchange rates and someone sitting behind a window listening to the football. There was also no border control, no passport check (thank god cos I had forgotten mine) nothing very obvious other than a sign about half way across the bridge with the Hungarian flag on it. This puzzles me slightly, and maybe my ignorance will become apparent in the next sentence, but you can travel freely around Europe, moving across borders with little to worry about unless you forget that the currency has changed. But you can’t even consider entering the UK in the same way.

So the town itself was pleasant enough, although unfortunately blanketed with mist and drizzled with rain. We were surprisingly hard pushed to find a restaurant to eat in, and there were few shops open or people on the streets. I wondered if we had crossed a time zone too, as I was certain it was Saturday and couldn’t understand where everyone was. Restaurant chosen, seven of us poured over the menu hungry and eager to try Hungarian cuisine. Unfortunately it seemed that all the people we hadn’t seen earlier must’ve had an early lunch in our restaurant and eaten everything on the menu! I tried, with my little phrasebook to order my food in Hungarian, but was answered, as I so often am, in perfect English. Most of us half way through pronouncing what we’d like were interrupted with a wag of the finger and “no”. So my final choice was pork medallions, cooked in a tomato sauce with “Hungarian” potatoes. All our dishes were served in a clay casserole pot of metal dish like a mini paella.

A trek up some slippery wooden steps led us to the Basilica which loomed majestically over the city and the Danube. Inside the beautiful domed roof was painted in gold with intricate carvings. The area and the views around the Basilica were obscured by the mist, leaving us with a somewhat eerie view of the city. Some group photos were taken before realising that it was time to make the trek back to the train. This seemed to take over an hour, in the rain now and when we finally slumped into our seats, it’s fair to say we were all exhausted.

the old town

The old town

Like most European cities, Bratislava’s charm lies within the cobbled street maze of the old town. At every turn there is a bar, café, restaurant, theatre or random sculpture. The old town has managed to keep hold of this charm too, by there being almost no shops amongst its streets. Aside the odd tourist shop, or gift shop there is little else, so the streets are not packed with Saturday shoppers.

Bratislava doesn’t really have a main street, nor an exact city centre. I think we usually mark the centre by the location of shops, so since most of these are malls on the outskirts it’s hard to pinpoint where the centre is. Each street has a charm of its own, with a sculpture oddly placed, or something historical to remind you of times past. The main Square, Hlavne Namastie might be considered central with its open air ice rink.

Here’s a few pics of the best bits…

are you healthy?

21st Feb

Temperature -6

Weather: cold and grey

By Slovak law workers have to undergo a health check before they start a new contract. So six weeks into my contract I received a doctor’s appointment for mine…

By a series of small events I, of course, missed the bus I intended to catch, arriving in the centre 5 minutes later than planned and a little more pissed off that I would have liked. Shuddering my way through the centre following my map, to my horror I saw that it was -6 and after scrambling around in my bag realised my gloves were in my other coat pocket.

So I made my way to the Merciful Brothers Hospital and entered the building with the familiar smell of urine and disinfectant that foreign hospitals seem to have. It was now five minutes after my appointment and I couldn’t see any staircases or an obvious map. On my frantic tour of the hospital I came across nuns and religious paintings at every turn. I made it eventually to the “waiting room” and seeing there were no free chairs, I stood feeling stupid and panting as it was now 9.07am. For those of you who don’t know, an ambulatorio (in Spanish) is the section in a hospital where people go for dr’s appointments. This may also happen in the UK, but since I am small town, going to the dr’s means you sit in a cosy waiting room, flicking through a magazine, listening to local radio. In Slovakia and in Spain, you are in a section of a hospital and you sit in the corridor outside the door with your dr’s name on it.

A seat became available so I shuffled over and fell into it. I had followed my instructions not to eat anything and to drink nothing but water and by now was feeling rather hungry and weak. The door opened, a nurse came out with a list, as they do in Spain, reeled off a few names and disappeared again before I had a chance to register if she’s said my name or not. This happened again and I wondered if I was too far away to be noticed, so I got up reluctantly and planted myself nearer the door, on foot. Door opens again, another person silently goes in, so I take the seat, now in view of the door. 30 minutes later, I realise it’s 9.45 and not much action has happened. Was I too late? Had I missed appointment? Why was no one asking who I was? Now ten o ‘clock and the nurse appears and disappears again. My papers are in my hand and my expression invited the attention of the old couple sitting next to me. She said something incomprehensible to me, as everyone else went silent. Now for my big language test… I’m sorry, I don’t speak Slovak, I told her in Slovak. This didn’t register (I mean, really?? You are here and you don’t speak our language?!) So she tried again. I’m sorry, I responded, I don’t understand Slovak. Again, this didn’t seem to register. Grandma tried again, so I showed her my paper, pointing to the handwritten note saying that my appointment was at 9am. Grandma still didn’t get it, so said something else, to which I responded I don’t understand, I am English. Her and her husband then gave up, but talked rather loudly, obviously about the silly girl who didn’t understand anything. I just shrugged apologetically and sat there feeling really stupid. I really did not have the language to find out if I had missed my appointment, or indeed even have one! The nurse appeared and disappeared once again, but this time on her way back grandma grabbed her and said something to her, of which I understood “she doesn’t understand”. I started to stand, proffering my piece of paper. “English?!” She barked. “Yes!” I gasped, relieved. To which the response was just a hand gesture to sit my arse back down. Right, marvellous. Again, had I done this in Spanish I would have been making friends with grandma and grandpa, having a good joke about not understanding the system, or perhaps taking the piss out of the fact I’d been waiting an hour.

Grandma tried again a few more times, but to no avail. I still didn’t understand what she was trying to say. Finally after 90 mins of waiting, and now starving from having no breakfast I was ushered in.

The nurse pointed to where I should leave my wares and took the papers I’d been clutching for the last hour. “Good morning!” Beamed the doctor in English. “You are Grace! Grace Elizabeth! Lovely! And Langridge… is your family name?” no apology for the 90 minute wait. “Are you Healthy?” She asked already signing my fitness to work form. I stupidly started to mention my back history and quickly wished I had kept my mouth shut as she started having difficulty asking me about x-rays and treatment and medicine. At least I had remembered to bring my painkillers. I dashed over to my bag to get them for her and remembered there was a bottle of my wee in there too. “Would you like this now?”, I asked. “Yes, please, you can give it to the table.” Now was not the time to correct her English. As I sat down again, “Can we take your blood?” Why yes of course! I am starving, and if you don’t take it I’ll have been sitting there with no breakfast for nothing! Slovak nurse instructs me in Slovak as to what to do. Lucky for her I’m somewhat of an expert on blood tests as that seemed to be their favourite hobby in Spain!

When she seemed to have all the answers to her questions (she wrote nothing down) She gave me her email address (to make future appointments?) and said “Best Wishes and enjoy your visit to Slovakia!”

I left the hospital two hours after arriving. She hadn’t weighed me, measured me, listened to my heart, checked my pulse, taken my blood pressure or really done much to check my health. Tired, hungry, and now rather dizzy having given away some of my blood. I said goodbye to grandma and grandpa and wished that being English didn’t make me feel so ignorant!

slippery business

Feb 16th

Temperature: -1

Weather: freezing mist

At 06.40 this morning, I got a message from my flatmate warning me that the pavements were slippery cos it has been raining and that she’d fallen over on her way to the bus. I was so disappointed it wasn’t a message from a student cancelling a class so I quickly forgot about it and carried on getting ready.

On stepping out of the building with my other flatmate at 07.15, I quickly realised what she’d meant as my foot disappeared out from under me. We both flashed each other a look, as our second step sends us both wind milling our arms. So she wasn’t just being dozy on her way to the bus, it really was slippery. I screeched in alarm as I rounded the corner and slid 3 feet. The pavements were covered in invisible, yet lethal ice, as it had indeed been raining and the temperature was sitting below zero. I decided to cross the road, assuming it would have been treated, but met the same surface. On the other side, the pavement offered me the same fun, so I opted for the grass, knowing there was plenty of frozen dog poo waiting for me, but wondering what would be worse: falling on my face/back/laptop, hurting my face/back/laptop or going to my next four classes with dog poo on my shoes. I pondered this as picked my way through the frozen grass, surrounded by sounds of people scraping invisible, but thick ice off their cars that was stopping them getting in. I then crossed the parking area, thinking as this was gravelled, it would be safer, but no, even harder to traverse. I was only half way to the bus stop as I watched it pulling away, but decided now was not the time to be rushing. I eventually arrived along with a few others slidding along with their arms out, like children playing aeroplanes.

I fired off a quick text to my flatmate, thanking her for the warning and reporting my perilous journey to the bus stop. What awaited me when I got off the bus was worse. I was greeted with a scene of chaos as people tried to navigate the sloping footpath once getting off the bus. I saw one girl just stand and let the ice take her down it. I decided carrying my laptop was too much of a risk, so went through the bush, grabbing it for support as I made my way through to the very smoothly iced car park. I saw a colleague arriving at the company skating her way across the carpark and immediately started to dread crossing it. One foot on, I skidded a foot to my right, then back the other way and went through the flower bed on the other side. Inside was a group of teachers all sharing stories of watching people go flying on their way to work.

Worse was to come when I made my way to my second class. First I had to change from the bus to the tram. I had thought that now, after 9, everything would have been treated and running smoothly. Wrong. Still very icy. Still impossible to see. I stepped off the tram very cautiously, as I’d received another message from my flatmate reporting she’s seen a man step off the tram and go straight down. As I got off I saw a man shovelling gravel onto the platform. This didn’t make it any less slippery, but incredibly painful if you DID go down!

I watched a woman step onto the pavement after crossing the road hit the deck. The woman next to her did nothing to help her, but I realised she was struggling to keep upright. I crossed the road dreading the slippery ascending and descending footpath ahead of me. As I started to ascend the slope I heard a thus and a scream and turned to see a woman on her back. Yikes! I looked around hoping someone would rush to her aid. No, only me around. I can’t help her, I thought wanting to continue on my way. How selfish I thought, battling with my conscious: she was a big woman, if I get to her without falling, how am I going to get her to her feet?? How am I going to do that in Slovak?? Oh please, get up!! I started to edge my way back down the slope to her, and to my relief she was rolling onto her front and back on her feet before I’d got too far. Phew!

I made it to the top of the slope and then slid my way across a grassy area, somewhat alarmed how grass could be so slippery! I whimpered my way, skidding and sliding at every opportunity, to the primary school I was heading to. I descended a slope adopting the technique I’d seen earlier, of standing at the top and letting gravity do its job. By the time I reached my class, I was thoroughly exhausted!

It seems the universe gave me a little break after my morning ordeal. I came out of the class, and it was still slippery! At 11.30!!! But, hallelujah, My next class was cancelled! Thank god I didn’t have to attempt another journey other than back to school, in the centre and well-treated pavements!

Since writing this blog, I found out that the number of car accidents that morning was double and 200 people were admitted to hospital with injuries or broken bones! Wow Slovakia!

A walk in the woods.

13th Feb

Temp: -1

Weather: random snow

A trip into “the nature” was the course of today’s action at a temperature of -1.

According to my trusted Lonely Planet (LP) there are hiking trails within reach of the city, so off we set into the centre to get on the trolley bus to Koliba, the last stop on the line. The journey itself was accompanied (as my journeys often are) with a drunk, who got onto the bus very pleased with himself having picked up someone else’s half smoked cigarette whilst waiting. He got on, made a beeline for us and as we covered our mouths to avoid his stench he leaned in and rambled some incoherent sentences, repeatedly.

The bus lurched up the hill, bouncing up cobbled streets that I hadn’t seen before and as we started to leave the city we came across houses, with upstairs and downstairs and gardens! This is a novelty when you live in a tower block.

The bus did an emergency stop (that’s how they like to pull into bus stops here) and we alighted and followed some people with walking boots and sticks. We entered a very brown forest, I suppose it’s too early for green things and worked our way upwards assuming there would be a summit somewhere or at least something that people were heading for. I was surprised, as it’s been so mild recently, to find thick , skiddy ice covering the tracks at times. As you’ll see from my photos, just a regular forest, not exactly Narnia land. The first “map” we came to had been defaced so the rest of our journey seemed a little difficult, but then spotting a little wooden gazebo we headed that way and found ourselves at the foot of the “picnic and play area” the LP had directed us too. LOTS of dog walkers and people wrapped up warm. We found a tree top climbing course, a bob sleigh toboggan ride, some rustic hotels and huts selling steaming hot drinks. People appeared to be drinking hot alcohol, and as it was Sunday and I was nursing the onset of a nasty hangover I headed straight there and managed to order myself a hot dog and a hot red wine and rum without too much bother. As I was dithering over the drinks menu and trying to figure out how to ask for the hot wine I heard a little voice that I recognised. Yes, I knew that whine.. I froze, was this a student? Surely not, I mean I was OUT of the city… Said child had his back to me, but I slunk back out of view just in case, hearing that recognisable tone yet again as he turned round I saw it was indeed Pet’ko ( Peter) from my Kindergarten class. I might point out that in class he is slightly odd. He wears shorts over tights with sandals. He also shouts at me repeatedly in Slovak, and I recently discovered he is actually saying “English Teacher” whenever he wans to show me what he has done. I told him once that I speak English and he responded under his breath : English is shit. I have no idea where he picked that up from, but it his response to the word English.

After realising our bottoms had gone numb from the cold whist we were enjoying hot alcohol, a hot dog and “chipsy” (crisps) we headed on up the trail to find the Chair lift. This list takes to the other end of the trail, or back down if you manage to hike up that far. Some other maps were located and it seems there is a nature trail, several hikes of varying ability, a bike trail and a few more hot alcohol huts to entice you further into the woods. Dusk was on its way, so we turned on our heels having sussed out a few good Sunday afternoons worth of enjoyment and on our way back to the bus stop it started to snow. It seemed to finish our hike in the most appropriate way and we smiled all the way back home.

Alien police and bank accounts

Alien registration

Date: 31st January

Temperature: -6C

Weather: clouds, snow expected, but not yet received.

Instead of enjoying a lie-in because the school children are on holiday and therefore my first class cancelled, I set my alarm for 7am in preparation to leave the flat at 8am: heading first to the post office, then to the foreigner’s police, then to open a bank account, then plan today’s classes, teach them and hopefully end up at a free concert in a book shop!

My flatmate and I set off at 8am this morning, armed with well- practised phrases, a handful of paperwork and some apprehension thrown in. Not forgetting of course tights under our trousers, a total of 5 cardigans, 3 scarves and 3 pairs of gloves between us. This is no mean feat, as the heating in our building is not controlled by us, so these layers can only be added just before departure. Failing to do so may end in passing out from the heat.

Our first stop was the post office to buy some “duty stamps”, needed to process the paperwork in task 2 of the day. We located it easily, quickly rehearsed what needed to say and pushed on in. We were first greeted by a man who said something like “blabla blab la blab la”, along with some gestures that seemed to indicate we were to go in front of him. We giggled over to the counter and I said Chcela by som Kolok prosim ( I want to buy ( a word that was written on my piece of paper from school) please) I assumed that she would know exactly what I wanted and give it to me in exchange for the €4,50 I had ready in my hand. I did not anticipate a question. It was obviously incoherent to us, so I started my well-rehearsed “Prepacte, nie hovorim po slovensky” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Slovak) but she quickly interrupted me with another attempt, this time in German. In the past, assuming I was German would have offended me greatly, but it seems it’s what the Slovaks fall back on when they have no other option. To which my flatmate beamed and responded in German and thus the exchange was done, the stamps bought and we left, one of us feeling rather more smug than the other.

Following our directions, we got on the bus and headed a few stops away to another place in our wonderful housing estate. We found the blue building as instructed and after initially having some confusion over the location of a very un-obvious front door we entered the Police Office for Aliens. Yes, this is what is said. I have been referred to as an Alien before in other foreign situations, but it never ceases to amuse me. Sitting down, having printed my ticket, I started to peel off my layers and was about to get out three lesson’s worth of planning when the screen flashed my number. This took me somewhat by surprise, but this might be from 5 years in Spain, we had left ourselves a very generous three hours in which to complete the process and you may not be surprised to learn that we were out of the building within 15 minutes. I went through to the door as directed. And there were two stern and bored looking boys behind glass. Dobre Den! I breezed as I handed over my paperwork, only to be greeted with a to complete form and a gesture towards the pen on the desk. Friendly! I filled out the badly translated document, guessing in some parts as to what information they needed and was told ( well my flatmate next to me was, mr friendly seemed to assume I’d just listen to the instructions given to her) that I’d get a text message when my ID card was ready to be collected. Bye then!

It was a fairly unstressful operation and on the strength of it being 9am we decided to head to the bank and tackle that one too. In we went, churned out our other well practised “ Hovorite po anglicky?” (Do you speak English?) Her response was “a liddle”, and it really was. Between the two of us, her and her colleague we managed to establish that we both wished to open a personal account. I was then instructed towards her colleague, who showed no evidence of the “perfect English” we’d been told that they have in the banks here. With the help of google translate, the four of us managed to muddle through handing over various documents and addresses which we’d fortunately been carrying and an hour later we returned to sign contracts ( printed out in English) and other pieces of paper in Slovak before walking away having apparently just opened a bank account each. For all I know, I may have just signed my salary over to the bank clerk’s little brother!

That done and dusted we beamed into school and were to some extent disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm shown for our efforts and headed straight back out again for a well-deserved coffee and piece of cake!

It was in incredibly long day, lessons were planned and carried out, but the concert was not attended, sadly due to long events and draining of energy and 6.30am start tomorrow. Still, I can sleep well tonight knowing that I might have somewhere to pay my salary into and that in two weeks I will receive my offical Alien card!