Monthly Archives: July 2011
Winsham, Somerset, England
Weather: Grey and raining
Sitting my bedroom back in the UK, I finally have a moment to reflect upon the last 6 months of my life in Central Europe. I had hoped to post this before I left dear Slovakia, but the last month was filled with sunshine, people, parties, goodbyes, admin and pretty much trying to squeeze something out of every moment I had left that I didn’t have a moment to sit down and think about things.
In just 6 months I experienced temperatures from -10 to +34 C, thunderstorms that shook my building, I watched the country and the city transform from a barren brown landscape to a flourishing display of colour, I visited 4 countries, including 3 capital cities, attempted to learn a new language, hiked round Bratislava, through the Mala Fatras, visited 4 unique castles, enjoyed local food and drink, taught mad 3 year olds, business execs and rude children , met some amazing people and met some friends for life. What more could you ask for?
The question most frequently asked by my students was “Why are you here?” and “What do you think of Slovakia and the people here?”
The first question was often exclaimed with great surprise when I told my students where I had previously lived and worked. They seemed unable to conceive why I would leave such a place and replace it with Bratislava. My simple response would always be “I wanted to go somewhere totally different”. That was the simplest answer and the most truthful. Indeed, I needed a new challenge and I certainly got one. Much as I loved Spain and my life there, a change was needed, so when I saw Bratislava pop up in my job search on a wet December afternoon, I googled it, it intrigued me so I applied. It couldn’t have been further from what I was used to: Teaching at 7:30 am, eating lunch at 12:00, going to bed at 10pm, running around the city, trying to gather a language that was alien to me, dealing with a fair dosage of snow are just a few things that challenged me.
Unfortunately my vocalisation of said challenges was wrongly perceived as a dislike to my environment and lifestyle. While I admit it was far from easy at times I don’t remember ever feeling a strong sense of dislike to the city or indeed Slovakia. In fact, quite the contrary, as I gazed out of my window on the train to Prague, heading homeward bound last weekend, I sadly wondered when I would see such natural beauty again. I’ve visited many places which radiate beauty, but nowhere in such an understated way as Slovakia. It’s a country who hasn’t yet realised its potential. Tourism is starting to kick off and the nation hasn’t quite decided to what to do about it.
The Slovaks? Apart from a few people who made me want to slap them round the face (but name me a country where you won’t find people like that!) I left with a very positive impression of a very friendly, altruistically helpful nation. My initial surprise at the high level of English embarrassed me as I struggled to make myself understood ordering coffee and was nearly always responded to in perfect English, was sometimes challenged by the unnecessarily rude people working in public services, but again find me a nation that doesn’t have those.
One of my greatest challenges in the early days was trying to get adults to speak in class. This, coming from Spain, where trying to get them to stop speaking is a challenge, was difficult to deal with at times. I could describe the Slovaks as a humble nation, reserved and lacking the confidence to be proud of their nation.
Bratislava handled the Ice Hockey Championships pretty well and continuously impressed me with its snow control, but my most frequent phrase was “they haven’t quite thought this through”. It seemed always that the ideas where there, but things didn’t quite get thought out. An example of which would be standing in a 4 hours queue to get into Bojnice castle. They had though to provide us with food and drink to our heart content, but failed to provide toilet facilities…
Bratislava is described as the Little Big City. In comparison to its neighbouring capitals it’s a village, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in community spirit. A student once told me that Slovakia is so small that you are hard pushed to not find someone that knows someone who knows someone you know, so you should never need to book a hotel anywhere, just call your friend of a friend of a friend. I really do get that feeling about the locals. One of the best experiences I had was a weekend I spent with a group of people I met one Friday night, who then invited me to something on Saturday, which turned into something on Saturday night, something on Sunday and something on Sunday evening. By the end of the Sunday I felt like I belonged to a family of friends and wished I had met them in my first month.
It’s really hard not to make comparisons when you move to a new culture and reminisce about how it was, would have and might have been. I have no doubt that I’ll grumble in my next location about how it’s done in Slovakia, which I could sip a Frankovka Modra, gulp a Zlatý Bažant or start the day with a Becherovka. I’ll be saying Prosim and Ďakujem for a while yet and will get into my Slovak cook book to try and recreate garlic soup in a bread bowl or dumplings in sheep’s cheese. I still have the weather in Bratislava bookmarked as a favourite, I’m still gasping at the price of alcohol and transport here and I am still fondly enjoying my photos and retelling stories.
I’ve enjoyed sharing my observations and anecdotes over the last six months. I may even continue blogging about my dear country over the summer.
Until the next time,
Friday 17th – Sunday 19th July
The entrance to the Vratna Valley and home of Slovakia’s Robin Hood (Juraj Jánošík) was the perfect location for my weekend in “the nature” of “middle Slovakia” with a friend. Lovingly organized by an enthusiastic student, I had little part to play in the preparations other than buy my train ticket, which in true Grace in Slovakia fashion, did not go according to plan. I went to the train station with my written instructions on how to ask for 2 window seats, together, facing the direction of travel. When we got on the train the two seats were in separate cabins, not next to the window and not in the direction of travel. Thanks.
That was really the only thing I could think of being annoyed about. All connections ran smoothly, the pension was quaint, the hiking was epic and the weather was nothing to complain about. Perfect.
My hiking partner in crime and I rose early on Saturday morning, with high spirits, donned out walking gear and strolled out of our pension before 9am in the hunt of a hearty Slovak breakfast to send us on our way. Much to our surprise at the “entrance to the Vratna Valley”, start of numerous hiking and biking trails it was nigh on impossible to find anywhere other than a supermarket to sell us any food. Not even our pension was serving until 10am: 30 minutes after out bus to the start of our trail. We stocked up on various processed items, stuffed them in our bag, and strolled off to the bus, still excited about our nature day.
The start of the trail was obvious and they are well marked in Slovakia. We began along a footpath that lead us through a meadow, soon to cross a stream which we were to follow along its ravine over the next few hours before climbing out of it up a series of ladders and bridges. The scenery from the offset was spectacular: deep cliff faces draped in luscious greens of every shade, complimented by the rushing, fresh water of the river, dropping and cascading over rocks we scrambled over. Some parts of the trail were surprisingly challenging: climbing up rocks with metal rails and chains and climbing up slippery metal ladders over waterfalls and bridges high over the ravine. It was impossible to show fatigue as there was a group of pensioners complete with full picnic, hiking sticks and fresh faces doing the same as us, as if it were literally a walk in the park. We stood back gaping in horror as a Russian family (mums, children and dads carrying toddlers in backpacks) swiftly over took us, scrambling up the rocks wearing Crocs and flip flops.
I was unable to put my camera away at some points for my need to capture the moments and the
views and took as many opportunities as possible to stop and do so. Meadows filled with wild flowers, backed by dusty blue mountains, steep green valleys, green forest paths, leading to a world begging to be explored.
We hiked for 5 hours on the first day, and 3 the second, stopping only for photos and food and a good gossip. We had a slight moment of fear on day two when attempting a pretty steep climb because we convinced ourselves we might meet a bear and wouldn’t have the strength to climb the tree as advised. Still the photos turned out well.
The food in Terchova was top class, the hospitality, as always, was first class and the weather, even though the rain dumped on us twice, was much better than predicted and simply added to our outdoor adventure. It was one of the best weekends I have had. Thank you Slovakia for providing me with yet another reason to doubt my departure!