Saturday, December 22, 2012

Trip to Krakow!

Getting to Krakow from Bratislava or Vienna is a pain in the ass. There are no flights at all, direct or otherwise, from Bratislava, while flights from Vienna generally seem to run $350 per person at least, which is totally outrageous given that it's an hour-long flight and that, as the crow flies, Krakow is really no further away from Bratislava/Vienna than Kosice or Prague. Trains are also problematic. If you ride during the day, it's an epic, snail-paced 8-10 hour journey involving multiple transfers. However, since night trains run regularly from Bratislava (starting in Budapest), we eventually had to accept the fact that if we were ever going to see Krakow and not spend a fortune getting there, we would have to take the night train.

I suspect Krakow is so difficult to get to from here simply because there is not enough traffic between the two regions and therefore not enough demand to warrant cheaper, more frequent or direct flights, or faster/more direct trains, which is puzzling since having now been there, I can say that it's definitely a destination worth going to.

At any rate, I can add trains to the list of moving objects (which includes airplanes, cars, etc.) in which I am unable to sleep. The bunks were clean and just barely spacious enough, and while they were not what anyone would consider comfortable, per se, they were at least not painful. But even with a prescription sleeping pill and ear plugs, the constant bouncing, lurching, and frequent stopping made it difficult to get any kind of meaningful shuteye. Terezia slept okay, though, but she usually sleeps like a rock. The train left Bratislava around 11PM and we rolled into Krakow at 6:45 the next morning.

When we walked out of the extremely conveniently located main train station and passed under the street into the old town, the sun was only just starting to rise, and the dim, misty sky seemed to really suit the atmosphere of the medieval town. Krakow was just waking up, which is what we still needed to do, so we nabbed some front window seats at a cafe on the sprawling Main Market Square and took in the view.

St. Mary's cathedral on the Main square. 

Rick Steves has called Krakow Central Europe's second Prague, and that's partly what drew us to the place. We both go gaga for cities with lots of well preserved medieval and renaissance architecture, like Prague, and we'd heard nothing but positive things about Krakow from numerous people. It struck me as more of a low key Prague: not as dramatically over-the-top stunning (Prague's spire-studded skyline is hard to beat), but still quite beautiful, atmospheric, oozing history, and perfect for aimless strolling.

What Krakow does have over Prague, however, are fewer tacky tourist trinket shops littering some of the major arteries. Krakow has some, just not as extreme as the nauseating kaleidoscope of souvenir vomit that you see along Karlova in Prague.

Krakow's Main Market Square is massive - the largest medieval town square in Europe - and in the center of it is the Cloth Hall, a beautifully ornate Renaissance-era market hall, the inside of which is unfortunately lined with vendors selling tourist crap. But that's okay - at least it keeps the trashy tourist tchotchkies off the street and out of sight.

Krakow's main square and Cloth Hall. 

The square is lined with gorgeous facades - some stately and neoclassical, others more flamboyantly gothic or baroque. It's a great place for people-watching, too - probably better in the summer.

St. Mary's cathedral towers over the northeastern corner of the square. While not as dazzling as Prague's Tyn cathedral, it's still quite a fetching structure, with an ornately detailed interior, the centerpiece of which is this massive and intricate 15th-century wooden altarpiece by Veit Stoss. I do have to say, however, that the cathedrals in Krakow are fairly non-tourist-friendly. For example, none of them allow photos, and the St. Francis church, which all the guidebooks list as an absolute must-see for its unique melding of gothic and art nouveau, was full of people praying, genuflecting, lining up for pre-xmas confession (that is something catholics do, apparently), and giving stern or disapproving looks to tourists like us, who were clearly not there to do the same. And this interior really was unique - I suppose it goes to show just how seriously catholic the Poles are. Unlike the Italians, they seem reluctant to share their historical churches - which are still very much in use - with the tourist industry.

The streets that take you off the main square are all pretty consistently attractive. While their facades run the gamut from medieval to renaissance to a kind of 19th-century eclecticism, there's almost no post-WWII intrusion to speak of (except for this). It is thoroughly amazing that Krakow survived WWII and communism pretty much unscathed. What's also nice, however, is that the historical facades aren't too pristine or whitewashed. Many have obviously been restored, but there are still many others that look beautifully worn down and ooze character.

Wawel castle, which overlooks the town, perched on a small hill, is quite striking, and its cathedral, a crazy mishmash of architectural styles, is packed with ornate tombs, and is a who's who of important Polish historical figures. The hill also offers views over parts of the city that most tourists wouldn't dare to tread.

The one thing that we couldn't help noticing was that Krakow is a big university town. It seemed like at any time of the day the streets were teeming with university aged kids. It almost felt like we were on a university campus. Going on what we saw, one would think the average age of the city's inhabitants was about 20. This, of course, seems to give Krakow its pulse, and it also seems to go someway toward making Krakow feel a bit more "with it" culturally.

That culture came out in spades in the Kazimierz district, a soot-stained, endearingly worn down borough, which for centuries was the district where the city's Jewish community resided. The Jewish presence is still very much there, with old synagogues and klezmer music venues seemingly on every corner, as well as two Jewish cemeteries. But Kazimierz also has a bit of that offbeat gentrified hipster neighborhood vibe, so it's definitely the place to go when you're in need of good cafes decked out in cool and kitschy mismatched vintage furniture, hip vintage clothing stores, junk shops, and trendy modern restaurants.

A quiet corner in the Kazimierz district. 

But there is a palpable working class vibe there as well, particularly in the neighborhood's center at the Plac Nowy market, where you can buy cheap street food like Polish staple zapiekanki. In fact, the zapiekanki that we ordered (on two occasions) from the Endzior stall was some of the best food we had the entire trip. Zapiekanki are long, toasted, open-face baguettes with an array of different toppings. We chose one with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, and a garlic and a hot chili sauce. It was surprisingly rich and flavorful, the ingredients were piled kind of high, and I love how it's damn near impossible to eat one of these things without getting it all over your upper lip, yet the vendor only gives you little squares of wax paper for napkins. At 8 zloty (about $2.65), they're dirt cheap, too, and we found them to be large enough so that we could just order one and split it!

Terezia enjoying a delicious zapiekanka at the Plac Nowy market.

As for food in Krakow, the non-zapiekanki choices were hit and miss. Krakow appears to suffer somewhat from a lot of restaurants that are trying to be upscale and international, yet their cooks lack the skills to really pull it off. In fact, it seemed like the cheaper, more student-y food options wound up being the best. While a restaurant called Aperitif, touted by several travel guides, basically sucked, I had some of the best falafel in my life at a cheap vegetarian restaurant that we stumbled on just outside the historical center.

We also strolled through Kazimierz's New Jewish cemetery, which should really be called "newer," because it's still fairly old (people started to be buried there around 1800). The Nazis vandalized this cemetery, but thankfully didn't annihilate it. Like other old Jewish cemeteries in Europe, a lot of the headstones are densely clustered, shooting out of the ground at odd angles. This is probably the biggest Jewish cemetery I've seen in Europe - the lot actually went pretty far back.

The "New" Jewish cemetery in Kazimierz

The area around the historical center, including Kazimierz, was pretty interesting and (much like Kazimierz) had a lot of soot-stained, beautifully detailed 19th century facades with cracks and chunks of missing plaster. This ring was way more consistently 19th century than the same ring that encircles Bratislava's historical center. A colleague of mine told me about a very cool bookstore/cafe just to the east of the historical center called Massolit, which sells used books in English and has kind of a nice Berkeley vibe. Definitely a place worth checking out.

Our hotel was noteworthy for many reasons (like its excellent central location), but mainly for the awesome, faded, and water-stained art nouveau designs painted on the walls of the cool stairwell.

More examples here and here.


We spent one day of our trip visiting Auschwitz, since it is fairly close to Krakow. The trip requires the better part of a day: the bus ride from Krakow to Auschwitz alone takes about an hour and 45 minutes, and you can easily spend several hours at the Auschwitz I camp before moving on to nearby Birkenau.

Even if you are aware of everything that what went on in these camps, it's still a deeply moving experience to actually walk through the halls of these barracks and see the faces of the prisoners whose portraits line the walls. They look so uncertain, a bit frightened or nervous, but still trying to stay composed even though their heads have just been shaved and they're wearing prison stripe uniforms despite the fact that many had been told they were simply being relocated. Absolutely devastating.

Prosthetic limbs, crutches, and braces at Auschwitz. 

Seeing the execution wall was also really intense, as was the first gas chamber/crematorium. The material evidence bunker is particularly noteworthy, since that's where they keep the massive piles of spectacles, suitcases, shoes, clothing, and prosthetic limbs and braces that were taken from those who were imprisoned.

Birkenau has much less in the way of exhibits, but I think part of the point is just to show how mind bogglingly sprawling it is. As soon as you walk through the gate and look out at the fields behind it, you see acres and acres of chimney-studded fields, with many of the surrounding wooden barracks having burned down or collapsed. A row of these toward the front remains, however, and by the time the Nazis were using these wooden stables to house their victims, they were cutting so many corners that the original two-level brick bunkers almost look cozy and inviting by comparison. In particular, seeing the row of latrines, which is just a long ditch with holes in the cover, was pretty horrifying, as was the method of heating - a fireplace at one end attached to a lengthy hearth that ran horizontally all the way to the back of the stable. People had to sit on these for warmth in the totally uninsulated structures.

The slightly earlier brick structures at Birkenau were similarly squalid, cramped, and dehumanizing. The remains of the larger gas chambers and crematoriums at the back of Birkenau are still there, left in heaps of rubble after the Nazis bombed them to destroy evidence.

What was truly bizarre to me was to discover that there were clusters of modern residential houses just beyond the wall behind Birkenau, which had clear views of the destroyed crematoriums and gas chambers. Call me crazy, but who would want to live right behind Birkenau? How do you tell your friends and colleagues about the house you just bought with views over the death camp? I can't help but think that living in such close proximity to one of the most infamous symbols of the Holocaust would put a damper on any backyard barbecue parties, not to mention have a negative impact on the property value.

The dark grey cloud of death that the bus between Auschwitz and Birkenau was belching out seemed to indicate that Poland's laws on vehicle emissions are really lax. I swear, when we stepped off this thing, I felt like I was wading through a sea of dry ice at a rock concert. Adding insult to injury, the bus was idling when we got on, and with all three doors open, all it took was a light breeze to blow the fumes straight into the bus. The driver was apparently not in the least bit phased by the prospect of killing his passengers by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The bus ride between Krakow and Auschwitz was initially interesting because it gave us a glimpse of Krakow's outer layers, and we got to see a few communist-era monstrosities, in addition to some communist-era panelaks and these sort of sooty, dark grey apartment blocks built shortly after WWII that I like to call proto-panelaks, which we have a lot of here in Bratislava. Also, like I mentioned above, a lot of 19th-century buildings still survive. However, the countryside outside the city was oppressively dull, and kind of reminded me of parts of Ohio or something.

Back to Krakow

I was surprised at how close the Polish language is to Slovak. The two languages are technically not mutually intelligible, and they have some different letters and accents, but Terezia was able to interact with several Poles, with them understanding her Slovak and she understanding their Polish. When I would listen to Polish people converse around me, I could make out a lot of words that are very similar to or pretty much the same in Slovak. Neat!

Empty concrete planter boxes and a Trabant - it doesn't get much more communist than that!

Anyhow, I can definitely see us wanting to go back to Krakow and explore it further. It certainly has more to see, like the massive Nowa Huta communist-era residential development, Podgorze (the site where Krakow's Jews were corralled in WWII and Schindler's factory), and other areas around the historical center.  Plus, it would be nice to see this city in the summer when the sun is out. Traveling in the winter is doable as long as there's not a blizzard, but it can still be too cold to actually sit outside and people-watch and absorb the scenery.

For a smaller city (albeit bigger than Bratislava), it has a fair amount to offer. We liked how it managed to come across as reasonably cosmopolitan despite existing in such a catholic and conservative country. It has a nice pulse and a pleasantly laid back vibe, as well as enclaves that seem fairly "with it" and hip, which is something I can't quite say about Bratislava. We give Krakow two thumbs up, which means we'll have to endure more sleepless nights on the night train.

See the whole set of Krakow photos here!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Apartment found!

So, against all odds, we managed to find an apartment in this town without any glaring flaws, and in an area that we like that's really only a five minute walk from where we currently live, and still on the edge of the pedestrianized historical center. We think we'll be a lot happier here than in the current, drab place.

We met the owner (he's a nice guy) and signed the lease, but it all feels a bit anticlimactic since we can't actually move in until January 1. We initially could have moved in at the start of December, but the apartment that the current tenants are moving into is apparently not going to be ready until the 15th, and the owner needs time to clean the place up and whatnot, so January 1 it is.

Of course, that means we have to spend one more month here on Dunajska, where passersby relieve themselves in broad daylight around the base of the building and drunken louts wail tunelessly into the evening in hoarse slivovice-roughened voices. But at least the owner of our current apartment was kind enough to let us stay an extra month beyond our lease, so we're not camping out on the street or anything.

The new place is in the neighborhood around Medená, which is just spitting distance from the historical Hviezdoslavovo square, in a building constructed around 1920. The area should be a lot quieter - the windows all face mellow, sort of non-street areas, so no more being awakened at the crack of dawn by loud, beeping Tesco delivery trucks. One side of the building faces a little, elevated triangular island with trees and vegetation that has apparently become the de facto neighborhood dog toilet. But hey, that's a step up from living in a building that has become the de facto neighborhood people toilet!

I'll bore you with a more detailed post about this place when we actually move into it.

It came down to deciding between this apartment and a really nice flat over on busy Obchodna. But the one we chose had the edge, partly due to it being in a nicer, quieter neighborhood, but also due to some other factors that I won't bore you with here. One on Sládkovičova - the "myopic landlord" apartment in this post - was a contender as well, especially given that it's in one of my favorite neighborhoods, but Terezia felt that the quasi ground floor windows would make us feel sort of exposed. 

So, hurray for us. Hopefully when we move in the owner won't have covered all the hardwood floors with wall-to-wall baby shit brown carpeting, swapped out all the furniture for threadbare 1970s-era crap from his grandmother's panelak, and replaced all the doors with those sliding vinyl accordion thingies.

Building codes? Who needs building codes?

Living in cities where people blatantly violate building codes can be fun, and Bratislava is no exception. A colleague of mine brought this one to my attention. The front of this unfinished building on Šancová (a few blocks away from the main train station) hangs over the sidewalk to such a degree that it engulfs a street lamp and brushes up against another. Not surprisingly, the building has been left in this incomplete state for a long time.

Of course, this particular situation raises the question (well, several questions, really): if construction on this building is ever resumed and completed, will this protruding overhang serve as a balcony, or will there be a wall that will have to engulf the lamp post as well?

I love how construction of this building even got as far as it did. I wouldn't be surprised if its construction was halted for reasons far sketchier than this street lamp issue. I'm sure the street lamp was just the icing on the cake. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 3

Before I get into our third and final installment of this series, I feel oddly compelled to share how the other day, when looking down from our kitchen window, Terezia and I saw an inebriated woman taking a dump on the common patio area right behind our building. Have I mentioned that we're looking forward to moving?

Grandma's communist pad: We were shown this apartment by a friend of a friend of a friend. He knew we wouldn't be interested in it, but we thought we'd check it out anyhow, because looking at apartments is kind of fun. This guy's mother had lived in this apartment for a while until she passed away a few years ago, but his brother doesn't want to sell it, so they are trying to rent it out instead.

I didn't have my camera with me, but I will do my darnedest to paint as vivid a picture of this place as I possibly can.

Let's start with the kitchen. Every inch of counter and cupboard surface was coated in a fake, worn grey marble-patterned formica, while the cupboard doors and even the drawers all had strips of gold tinted aluminum border inlays for added flair. Directly over the sink, however, was one cabinet door inset with glass, and in the center it had a clock set into it with the numbers glued directly onto the glass in a circle around the hands. The faucet had two enormous round meters affixed to the hot and cold water levers. The space between the top of the cabinets and the ceiling was lined with half empty bottles of various types of hard liquor.

Most of the doors in the apartment had been removed and replaced with those sliding grey vinyl accordion style doors that move back and forth along a track in the ceiling.

In the living room, a dining area was separated from the area with the couch and TV by a massive, floor-to-ceiling glass partition, framed by panels of wood that were painted a shiny black. The wall behind the dining table was lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with old books. The 40 year old TV sat in a large, 80s-era entertainment center/book shelf that was similarly crammed with old books, as well as piles of old blank cassettes. The massive sofa was a very 1970s beige intercut with horizontal strips of dark brown pleather. A random assortment of paintings covered much of the available wall space, some of which were apparently done by a family member, and appeared to depict abstract raccoon faces done in vibrant air-brushed pastels.

The apartment had a balcony, which looked down onto a sort of brutalist "garden", which was mainly sad bits of plants engulfed by big, grey, blocky concrete planters.

Despite the obvious, um... let's say eccentricities, the place actually felt quite warm and cozy. Clearly not something we would want to live in, but the kind of place you could imagine your grandmother living in in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia. I know a few people who would probably consider living here voluntarily just on the abundant kitsch factor.

The tree house: This place was on Lazaretska and had great views overlooking the picturesque, tree-filled Jakubovo square. The building was somewhat old, and the apartment was nestled high in the fourth floor attic space.

While the views from some of the windows were quite nice, the severely angled a-frame ceilings - as a result of it being in the attic space - posed a bit of a problem. Since Terezia and I are both around 6' tall, we'd run the risk of hitting our heads on the sloping, 45 degree angle ceiling. The worst instance of this was in the bedroom, where whoever gets the left side of the bed would have to duck down really low when getting up so as to avoid bashing his or her head into the ceiling. I think we both envisioned a heated game of rock-scissors-paper to decide who'd get that side of the bed. I've already killed enough brain cells with all the homemade gut rot I've had to endure in this country, so I don't want to make matters worse. I suppose I could wear a bicycle helmet to bed so that I don't have to worry about slamming my head into the ceiling when waking up at 3 in the morning to pee, but... no.

Apart from that, however, the apartment was actually quite nice. It had modern and tasteful furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, nice hardwood floors, and dark wood support beams in every room that really lent the place a rustic feel, not unlike being high up in a tree fort. However, there was a bit of miscommunication with the price of the rent. The owner actually wanted 50 more than what was advertised, which also happened to be 50 more than what we're willing to pay. The apartment was also kind of getting a wee bit further out from the center than we'd like, and the bus route to Terezia's work would be a little more complicated. So, while we did pass on it, it was definitely one of the nicer apartments we've seen.

Another unaffordable dream apartment: We've seen a few other apartments as well, but none of them are worth mentioning except for another dream apartment that our friend Katka managed to show us. This was located in the same beautiful historical building as the bookstore - Kníhkupectvo u Bandihoshe runs with her husband, right on the corner of Medena and Kupelna. The place was lovely, with the requisite museum style parquet hardwood floors; large, spacious rooms with high ceilings and big windows; gorgeous exterior details like a lovely entryway and stairwell; and to top it all off, it was on the fourth floor. Sadly, like the last dream apartment we saw through Katka, on Heydukova, this was yet another case of the utilities pushing the monthly total anywhere from 100-200 out of our range. Katka is so incredibly sweet, but damn, I wish she'd stop doing this to us! Maybe next year.

I should also mention that this dream apartment was the 5th place we've seen that had been previously inhabited by Greek university students. I would've thought that was a strange coincidence had I not edited this little piece for the Spectator a while back.

At any rate, we've narrowed our search down to a couple of pretty cool apartments, both of which we think we'd be happy in, so stay tuned to find out which one we end up choosing and why!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Broken buildings: more lunatic rantings about Bratislava's urban fabric

One of the things I noticed soon after moving to Bratislava was that the larger area of the Stare Mesto (that more or less encircles the pedestrianized historical center), which is a mishmash of architectural eras and styles from medieval to Habsburg to communist to contemporary, has a number of historical buildings that are in serious states of disrepair. These buildings are not merely dilapidated - they're literally falling apart, with boarded up windows, gutted interiors, large cracks and chunks of missing plaster, etc. They are probably condemned and uninhabitable to anyone but the bravest of squatters.

Don't get me wrong, I like a little dilapidation. There's something romantic about when these old buildings actually show some signs of their age. That's what makes streets like Kapitulska or Konventna so appealing and actually kind of preferable to much of the pedestrianized center which, if anything, is a bit too whitewashed. But I'm aware that at some point those cracks and holes need to be filled, and those facades need to be painted so as to prevent these buildings from disintegrating beyond the point of repair.

You might remember my post about Kapitulska, a beautiful street in the historical center with several very old buildings that are on the verge of collapse, for which very little is being done beyond minimal bandaid repairs. But with Kapitulska, we know why these buildings are in the state they're in: the catholic church owned many of them, but they were seized by the state during communism and basically neglected for 40 years. When the church got them back, it lacked the money and/or the incentive to restore the buildings, yet it has been reluctant to sell them to developers. So they're just sitting there deteriorating.

As for the buildings just outside the pedestrianized historical area, there are probably a variety of reasons as to why they are being neglected, although in the end I'm sure it all comes down to money (or lack thereof). Below are several such buildings that have caught my attention.

This sad building on Namestie 1 maja is now an entrance to a parking lot that's in back of it. 

If you look closely, you'll notice the facade has been covered in chicken wire netting to prevent falling chunks of plaster from hitting passersby. This is not an uncommon site in Bratislava. 

What strikes me as odd about these buildings is that one would think that, given their relative scarcity and unique beauty, they would be highly valued and that developers would be falling over themselves for the chance to restore and renovate them into stylish residential flats or office spaces. This has happened with many of Bratislava's historical buildings to varying degrees, but I worry that these particular buildings might be too far gone to bring back to life; the repair work they need may be so severe as to render them unprofitable. Restoring historical buildings is enormously costly, and some of these buildings could conceivably turn into a financial black hole.

This building and the one in the photo below sit next to each other on Panenska, a cool historical street that sits a couple of blocks outside the pedestrianized historical center. 
This building's not totally boarded up yet, but it could soon wind up that way, just like its next-door neighbor, above.
Panenska building detail.  

I'd love to know who owns these buildings. Were they returned to their rightful owners after communism ended? If so, are the owners just sitting on them, waiting for the market to pick up, or do they want to restore them, and simply lack the funds? Or, were the owners or their descendants nowhere to be found, leaving these buildings under state control? If it's the latter, that could explain a lot. Still, it seems wrong to me to just let these buildings languish. I wonder if there is some state or EU aid that can be tapped for restoring historical buildings.

This sign is telling people to watch out for falling chunks of plaster. If you look carefully you can see signs like this affixed to some of the older buildings around town. 

If you look close you'll see that this highly visible structure on the busy corner of Stefanikova and Palisady is actually two buildings that are attached. The one on the right is not only boarded up, but adding insult to injury, it's being used as a colossal billboard, which is wrong on so many levels, and a prime example of Bratislava being literally swallowed up by hideous billboard advertising

This building is actually right in the heart of the pedestrianized historical center, a short block away from Hlavne namestie, the main square. This is the only building in the historical center that I can think of outside of Kapitulska that is uninhabitable. Sad!

What's odd about this is that in other historical European cities, like Florence, Siena, Prague, or Vienna, you really don't see buildings like these that are on the verge of collapse. They've all been restored or well maintained, and one gets the impression that there's just no way anyone would have allowed that to happen in those cities. But in Bratislava, it seems that a lack of money, and perhaps even a lack of motivation or interest, is a major obstacle.

Not sure what's going on with this building on Jozefska. Someone clearly started adding another level, but this gutted building has been sitting like this for a while. I've strolled by several times and have not seen anyone working on it, but who knows. Some projects move at a snail's pace. Also, who knows if the upper level, if completed, will cohere to the historical style of the first two levels; historical buildings with jarringly incongruous modern add-ons are not uncommon sights in this town. 

This palatial house, located on the corner of Sulekova and Zrinskeho, a block up from Palisady by the cemetery, is pretty amazing, yet sadly neglected. There doesn't appear to be anyone living in it, and even the gates in the front are padlocked. 

A close-up of the building above. Looking pretty rough. 

Part of why I care about this issue so much is not just because I really dig historical architecture, but that Bratislava already lost enough of its history during communism and even in the post-communist era. Communist panelaks and glass and steel shopping centers and office buildings have been encroaching on the historical center for decades. As a result, Bratislava's historical center is woefully small when compared to other cities (which in my opinion is a major reason why it doesn't attract as many tourists), so you'd think it'd be really important to preserve what's left.

See the building on the left? It's gone. Totally demolished. Now, even though it was not as attractive or unique as the building with the crumbling neoclassical facade next to it, it was still a nice building, and the fact that it's gone is basically my worst fear realized. The building next to it is in pretty rough shape, but at the time of writing, people are living in it, despite the fact that a wooden cover had to be put up over the sidewalk to prevent chunks of plaster from falling off and hitting passersby. 

However, I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. This attractive, and until recently crumbly, building behind the US Embassy is currently getting a thorough restoration. Check out these before and after shots.

This is how it looked last January. 
The new addition on top is questionable, at least as far as historical authenticity, but it could be worse. 
Detail of the front door. 

(Click here to see more of my photos!)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nifty Bratislava fog

I really dig the fog we've been getting here recently. 

Here is a photo of Hotel Kyjev taken from our kitchen window with Tuesday evening's fog, and below it, the same shot the next morning without the fog. Neat!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 2

Our epic apartment hunting saga continues...

What's the point?: This place was damn near perfect. A beautiful, tastefully furnished apartment in a sweet historical building on Laurinska, which is a picturesque, pedestrianized street right smack in the middle of the historical center. The only real flaw was that the kitchen sink was kind of small, making it  potentially difficult to wash large pots or baking dishes. But we could've lived with that. Besides, it had a dishwasher. Everything else about this apartment was perfect. Big beautiful windows, hardwood floors, a stylish looking kitchen with groovy red tiles, and super nice furniture, all for the same rent that we currently pay, including all utilities and even internet/cable. Wow!

So, when we told the realtor we'd take it, he revealed that someone else had already agreed to rent it, but hadn't signed the lease yet, but that in all likelihood it was a done deal. So, um, what in the hell were we doing there, then? Well, you never know, he said. Sigh... Seriously, only an imbecile would back out of renting a place like this.

Claustrophobic: Located in an old, medieval-era building on the corner of Laurinska and Ursulinska, across the street and a few doors down from the apartment mentioned above, and in the same building as the Oxford Bookshop, this apartment actually had a lot going for it. Nice and tasteful furniture, reasonably spacious, great hardwood floors, etc... This place had been previously used for short-term holiday rentals, but the owner wanted to switch to a long-term rental situation. But the deal-breaker? All of the windows of the 2nd floor flat looked out into the building's interior courtyard, which was really more of a glorified air shaft or light well, as it was far too small to really be considered a courtyard. That means when you looked out the window, all you could see was the wall across the way - which was at max 10 feet away - and right into someone else's apartment. Bummer.

The corner of Laurinska and Ursulinska. 
An aerial view of the building on Laurinska, where you can see the tiny "courtyard"/air shaft that I've circled in red. 

Beds and hair everywhere: This next apartment was in the same building, owned by the same person, and had also been used as a rental for short-term stays. But it was much larger than the first - palatial, actually, and with rent to match, of course. But we thought we'd check it out anyway, since we were there. The windows actually had street views onto Ursulinska. But what made this apartment worth mentioning was a matted wad of long hair stuck to the bathroom counter and dirty q-tips on the floor. I mean, come on, would it really have put them out to tidy up the place and make it look more presentable?

Also off-putting was the fact that the apartment had beds everywhere. There were 2 or 3 single person beds stuck in every available corner of the living room, while the bedroom also had an extra bed along the far wall. Here's an idea: how about ditching all the crappy extra beds! Because I guarantee you, unless you're specifically trying to rent your flat to a large group of students, you're not going to attract any potential tenants with the vacation rental look.

Myopic landlord: We liked this place. It was located in one of our very favorite neighborhoods, near where Stefanikova and Palisady intersect, where there are several blocks lined with beautifully ornate 19th century facades. This apartment had a lot of nice, old-timey details (like intricate woodwork on the door jambs, massive beautiful solid wood doors), very high ceilings, and was fairly spacious, with a nice big kitchen and an airy living room. Although it was at quasi-ground level, the windows were probably about 7 feet off the ground, so it's not like people walking by could peak into the place. (Besides which, it was a pretty mellow street). And speaking of the windows, they were huge, old, and beautiful - and let in lots of natural light. Terezia had some reservations about the ground floor, but despite that, we decided we'd take it.

So, what went wrong this time? We actually saw this place back in October, and when we said that we couldn't take it until December 1 because of our current lease, the owner decided that was too long to wait, and opted to gamble on someone else being both interested and able to move in sooner. Of course, at the time of writing nearly a month later, this apartment is still available, and they've even decreased the rent by 50 euros. So stupid - had they agreed to let us take it in October, they could've locked us in at a higher rent. But now that the rent has gone down and Dec 1 is fast approaching, maybe we'll get in touch again.

Stay tuned for part 3 of Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 1

So, our lease is up at the end of November, and we decided that we want to find a better apartment. The place we're in now has never been ideal, but we chose it out of desperation because we really needed to get the hell out of Terezia's brother's house in Bernolakovo as quickly as possible.

Our apartment does have its advantages: it's centrally located and close to lots of shops and key tram/bus stops; it's spacious and happens to be situated in a solid, well-constructed late-1940s building; it's got a really nice kitchen; and the owner, who lives next door, is quite friendly.

But, it's also got a lot of negatives. First and foremost, the furniture is unrelentingly hideous. When my friend Jason and his brother Dan came to visit in May, they both laughed out loud for an awkwardly long period of time when they walked into the living room. The blue/green carpets are clean, but also threadbare and cringe-inducingly ugly. The bed, the apartment's pièce de résistance, is an uncomfortable and hysterical 1970s artifact, covered in white vinyl, complete with a crazy headboard that resembles the back seat of a 1970s pimp's Cadillac, with a mirror on top.

Other issues include these old, loud, quasi-homeless alcoholic guys who camp right outside the building on a patio in the rear and leave piles of garbage behind, which the building's maintenance person/janitor clearly couldn't be bothered to pick up. The loud din between 4:30 and 7:00 in the morning from Tesco's delivery trucks is another serious issue (I have to sleep with earplugs), as is the daily sound of men urinating on the wall at the base of the building. It's a distinct sound that cannot be mistaken for a garden hose, and we can hear it very clearly from up on the third floor!

So, we're looking for an apartment with nicer furniture (most apartments in this town seem to come furnished) so that we can feel more comfortable and more at home in the place, but also a place in an older and nicer building on a quieter street. But of course we still want to be centrally located in the Stare Mesto.

But, much like what we experienced this time last year when we looked at about 14 or so apartments in the Stare Mesto, each place seems to have at least one glaring, deal-breaking flaw. Here are some of our Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!experiences so far. 

Bedroom is a closet: The first place we looked at was in an older building on Banskobystricka, and had a lovely, spacious, reconstructed kitchen with big windows that let in lots of light. From there you entered the living room, which had nice hardwood floors and more big, old fashioned windows that let in lots of light, with nice views over the large park across the street behind the presidential palace. But as soon as we walked into the bedroom, our hearts sank. The bedroom was so narrow that one side of the queen sized bed had to be pushed up against the wall, while there was scarcely about 2 feet of space between the wall and the other side of the bed. Making matters worse, you had to squeeze through this narrow path in order to reach the bathroom at the other end of the room. It really felt more like a glorified hallway.

Apparently, this apartment is having trouble renting (it's been online for a couple of months), and we suspect the crappy bedroom might have something to do with it. The realtor actually called us a week after we saw it to ask if we would reconsider (which has never happened to us before). When we told him why the bedroom wouldn't work for us, he actually said that we could move the bed so that the headboard was against the wall, which is hilarious because if you did that, you would have to literally climb over the bed to get to the other side of it (and to the bathroom!).

Here's the floor plan of the bedroom. That' s the doorway at the lower left side, the bed in the middle, the window and heater beneath it along the bottom, a large armoire at the upper right hand corner, and the door into the bathroom along the upper left. Just all around terrible feng shui! 

50 Shades of Grey: This next place, in a large, attractive complex of old buildings between Tobrucka and Vajanskeho Nabrezie, had potential. It was on the fourth floor of an older, pre-WWII building and the owner had recently renovated the entire apartment. It was nice, but we weren't in love with it. One of the main issues was the owner apparently has a deep obsession with the color grey. The kitchen was kind of a grey monochrome, but the bathroom was tiled from floor to ceiling with every shade of grey in the spectrum. The tiles were completely random - there was no pattern or anything, like a jumbled up greyscale - which had kind of a nauseating effect.

What was funny about this place though was that at one point, when Terezia and I were taking a second look at the kitchen, the owner pulled the realtor into the other room and scolded him, saying, "You're doing a shitty job selling this apartment. I can tell they are not 100% sold on this place, and you need to go in there and convince them." I mean, what did he take us for, a couple of undiscerning, feeble-minded knuckleheads who can just be manipulated into signing a lease for any old place?

Bait and switch: The next apartment was located very close to 50 Shades above, but looked out over Medena. The photos were sweet - the place just oozed the kind of old architectural detail that we go totally gaga over, but was recently renovated with new hardwood floors and amenities. But when we met the realtor out front, he ushered us into an apartment that was not the one pictured or described on the website. It had identical furniture and appliances (all very tasteful and modern), but while the one on the website was a proper 65-square-meter one-bedroom flat with large widows overlooking the street, this was much smaller and felt more like a glorified studio apartment, with the kitchen and living room crammed into the same small space, a narrow, partial wall that barely separated the bedroom, and windows overlooking only the building's interior courtyard.

He then took us into the apartment next door, which was virtually identical, and still definitely not the one we saw in the ad online. At this point, I said to the realtor, "This feels very deceptive. Why aren't you showing us the apartment that was pictured in the ad on the website? If we had known you were going to show us these, we wouldn't have bothered responding." The realtor seemed totally shocked that I would say this, and he explained that they have seven units available in the building and that they use the photos of one of the nicer apartments to represent all of them, because they all have the same furniture, appliances, hardwood floors, etc. When we asked if the one on the website was available, he said it was, but the catch was that it was actually going for 1,000 per month (which was well out of our budget), despite the fact that it was advertised on the website for a good deal less, including all utilities.

But we checked it out anyway, and while it was definitely a nice place, the whole exchange left a bad taste in our mouths. The guy kept saying, "See, same furniture! Same appliances! Same bathroom!" as if to reassure me that there was nothing deceptive going on. Never mind that this flat was quite a bit bigger and nicer than the others. When we told the guy that we definitely couldn't afford it, he asked us our price limit, and when we told him, he said that he was pretty certain that the owner would come down to our range, but that we would have to take the apartment right then and there. "Can you take the place right now?" he asked. Well, no. You see, we're bound until the end of the month to this thing called a lease...

Dream apartment: Next we saw a place that we were told about by a friend of Terezia's named Katka. Katka and her husband run a bookstore in the center of town on Medena, and they seem to know everyone in Bratislava. A retired friend of hers looks after a few apartments, and one located on Heydukova recently became available. The rent Katka mentioned was right at the upper limit of our range, but she didn't know whether it also included utilities (it's common for apartments here to either include utilities in the rental price or list a set monthly fee for utilities that you pay the owner with the rent). The second we sit foot in this place, I knew immediately that the rent wasn't going to cover utilities.

Firstly, the building itself was quite old, with a beautifully ornate 19th-century facade. The apartment was massive - 100 square meters - and it had beautiful hardwood floors, high vaulted ceilings, and stylish modern furniture. We were in love. The apartment actually had two bedrooms and a super nice, modern kitchen. Katka's friend who showed us the place was this really nice older fellow who gave off a bohemian vibe (as in the lifestyle, not the Czech region) and had a good sense of humor. But I felt sad and defeated as we walked through the place because it was clear that the utilities would push the rent well out of our reach. What a tease!

Since most people's eyes will probably glaze over before they even finish the first paragraph of this post, I'll leave the next round of apartment rental fun for Part 2 of Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Miletička and mushrooms update!

So, in my post in September about Miletička, Bratislava's outdoor farmer's market, I lamented the lack of more exotic produce, like figs, medjool dates, and wild mushrooms. Well, apparently mushroom season arrived a bit late this year, as just this past weekend we finally saw countless vendors selling plump porcinis, meaty chanterelles, and some other varieties of wild mushrooms. (But sadly, no black trumpet chanterelles, which are a favorite of mine - not sure if they grow here). We bought some and made a tasty wild mushroom lasagna, one of my very favorite things to eat.

This is also nice because Terezia's parents and brother, who are avid mushroom hunters, say that in the region where they live, the mushroom season has been tragically sad, with nary a porcini to be found. This was due to a lack of rain in the area at the right time. Usually they bring home porcinis by the sackful and then dry them, and we get a year-long supply of 'em. Sadly, that's not going to happen this year. But other regions in Slovakia appeared to do quite well, judging by what we saw at Miletička. So, at least we won't be completely deprived of these forest-floor delicacies this year.

So, probably not a very earth-shattering post (unless you ask my taste buds), but I didn't want to misrepresent Miletička. I'm just happy we don't have to trek out to Vienna if we want to make something involving wild mushrooms.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The cultural spectacle that is Dajto Sexy Sport

This is already kind of old news in Slovakia, but it's so amusing and silly that I couldn't not bring it up. TV network Dajto recently decided to spice up the world of sports news by airing a new nightly show called Dajto Sexy Sport, on which said sports news is delivered by young women while they gradually take off their clothes, piece by piece in a kind of strip tease, until the end when they're completely topless and wearing nothing but underwear. Talk about pegging your demographic.

The problem, however, is - surprise! surprise! - apparently the women are pretty lousy when it comes to actually delivering the news with any sort of authority or credibility. I obviously don't know Slovak well enough to tell the difference, but people who do assure me that these women come off like airheads. Professional news anchors or sports broadcasters they're obviously not. Instead, the execs at Dajto apparently picked several ladies from the local porn industry or their favorite strip clubs who were game enough to give it a try. Clearly, the content of the sports news is secondary. 

According to Wikipedia, Dajto, which launched just this past August, is the first channel in Slovakia to target "active, young" men. Its programming consists of various foreign and domestic shows and films that appeal to a predominantly young, male audience. No surprises there.

But this got me thinking, is Slovakia more tolerant of nudity than the US? While Slovakia is perhaps a bit more laid back with regard to the US in terms of its acceptance of nudity, I wouldn't want to give the impression that this place is some cool, progressive bastion of liberalness, because it's actually a pretty conservative country overall (and extremely catholic). And while nudity seems to be more prevalent in the media here, it doesn't usually seem to be presented in a particularly tasteful or enlightened way. 

For example, in the uber popular trashy tabloid Nový čas one can find a pointless array of photos of topless women in various contexts and situations, which may explain why the tabloid seems to be just as popular with men as with women. As far as these things go, it's fairly benign, albeit cringe-enducingly sleazy. Nový čas also happens to be the best selling daily in the country by a fairly wide margin which, sadly, says a lot about the average Slovak's thirst for real news.

Rather than promote a more progressive or enlightened take on nudity, I think publications like Nový čas are just trying to see what they can get away with - whatever sells more copies or (in the case of Dajto) attracts more viewers. So, it's exploitative and sleazy, rather than enlightened. (And from what I gather, gender equality here is in some ways stuck in the 1950s).

Of course in the US, such material would be branded pornography and banned from being sold in places where kids under 18 could purchase or peruse it. You'd also have religious wingnuts flipping out, decrying the moral decline of society or whatever. Yes, America is far too uptight about nudity and sex, particularly when you consider its longstanding love-affair with violence.  

However, here in Slovakia, minority parliamentary party OL'aNO recently announced its intention to pass a law that would ban mainstream publications like Nový čas from publishing nude photos. Given OL'aNO's minority in parliament, however, I'm not sure how much traction they'll get, but who knows. If such a law were to go through, would Slovaks be up in arms about it? Would OL'aNO still be getting their underwear in a knot if the photos were presented in an artistic non-sexist context, a la Man Ray?

Meanwhile, Slovak Culture Minister Marek Maďarič recently announced his incredibly delayed discovery of the garbage on prime time TV by singling out some of the popular reality shows as being responsible for the "barbarization" of the nation. What was funny about this is that even though these shows have been airing for years, he only just found out about them, demonstrating that he's really got his finger on the pulse of contemporary Slovak culture. However, he made no mention of Dajto Sexy Sport (that I'm aware of), but I wonder what he'll say several years down the road when he finally gets around to noticing it. 

So, I'm hesitant to make any claim that Slovakia is significantly more progressive over nudity. I get the impression that while some people here may not approve of it (particularly older adults), they tend to shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives, rather than make a stink about it. 

Ultimately, I think a lot of people in Slovakia have more pressing issues to deal with. The average national wage stands at around 
800 per month, while the cost of goods is not less expensive in proportion with that. Compared to countries like Germany or Sweden, making ends meet in Slovakia is quite a bit more challenging, and in the grand scheme of things, women baring their breasts on TV or in popular gutter tabloids probably doesn't seem like that huge of a concern to many. And while it's nice to know that Slovakia seems to be a bit less uptight about nudity, that doesn't mean it's always handled tastefully. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Differing attitudes towards body odor

Sometime last winter around the holidays during the epic four hour train ride from Podrecany back home to Bratislava, an elderly woman entered our enclosed six-seat cabin in Levice and asked if she could sit in the only available seat, which happened to be right next to me. I nodded yes, she sat down, but as soon as she unzipped her thick, down winter coat, a putrid, ungodly stench permeated the cabin and pummeled my nose. I looked across at Terezia, who crinkled her nose as she exchanged my glance with a knowing roll of her eyes.

A mild bit of BO this was not. Think of the most full blown, hasn't-showered-in-two-weeks, Berkeley, crusty gutter-punk armpit stench you could ever possibly imagine, and then multiply it by 10. I am not exaggerating - this woman's odor was a nauseating death-cloud of olfactory pestilence. And from Levice, we still had about two hours to go.

This was not an isolated incident. Here in Slovakia, I've encountered too many instances to count of BO powerful enough to trigger my gag reflexes. When I was a kid I always used to hear people joke about the French reeking of BO on the metro in Paris. But when I finally spent three weeks there a few years ago, I didn't smell a thing the entire time. Neither have I ever come across any particularly memorable odors on any of my trips to Italy.

Yet in Slovakia you'd be hard pressed to find a tram or bus without at least one person whose toxic stench fans out in a 5 foot radius.

But here's the thing I've noticed: in my experience, about 90% of the time, the body odor comes from people aged roughly 45 and up. Rarely does the stench emanate from people who are younger. In fact, if you're on the tram and surrounded by people in their 20s and 30s, you're more likely to encounter pungent clouds of cloying perfume and cologne. But if an older person gets on there's a bit more of a chance that he or she will come accompanied by an stench pungent enough to make the hardiest of plants wilt, and for which the perfumes and colognes of the younger generations are no match.

So, why is this? Terezia says that back in the days of communism it was normal for people to take about one bath per week. Back then, baths were seen as somewhat of a luxury, especially in small towns and villages, much like where she grew up, and it wasn't uncommon for people to stink as a result. Besides, hot water in many panelaks tended to be erratic, and who wants to subject themselves to a freezing cold shower? Simply put - during communism, BO was socially acceptable, or at least an unavoidable part of life.

This could explain why older people today who spent a significant portion of their lives under communism tend to be the sources of the offending odor, and why younger people who spent more of their adult lives in the post-communist world, after western goods and values flooded the landscape, are far less likely to smell.

Furthermore, pensions in Slovakia are criminally meager. It's not uncommon for retired people to have to live on as little as 300 euros per month. That means that buying deodorant (which costs about the same as it does in the US) is understandably not a high priority, while keeping one's water bill down by not showering every day, is.

So why do I care? Have I been conditioned by a society that says BO is bad? Maybe to some degree? Compared to most of the world, one can rightly argue that America has a freakish obsession with never smelling bad. Frankly, I can tolerate BO in light doses, unlike some people, and I can admire at least on principle how some people shun deodorant as a symbol of a decadent society that has completely lost touch with nature. BO is the natural human scent, after all (although showering regularly, even without ever using deodorant, does keep the BO in check).

I mean, I grew up around hippies, and everyone knows that hippies tend to be aloof about BO, if not enthusiastic. I've never considered myself a deodorant nazi, and I think it's good to not use anti-perspirants that clog your pores with evil chemicals. Sure, I use deodorant, but I absolutely refuse to wear anything scented. I hate men's cologne with a passion, and I go out of my way to buy deodorant, soaps, and hair products that say "unscented" on the packaging. The point is, while I'm normally not a source of any offending body odor, and while I'm not a fan of the smell, I don't go out of my way to make myself smell unnatural or cover anything up.

Ultimately, I suspect that much like the way some people secretly kind of like the smell of their own farts, other people kind of secretly revel in the stench of their own body odor. And we all know how unpleasant it is to be subjected to someone else's flatulence! I think the same can apply to BO.

So, what do you think? Did this woman on the train cross the line? Was it rude of her to subject everyone else in the cabin to her deathly odor? I'm inclined to say yes, if only because I've sat near plenty of other people on trains or trams here who at worst had detectable yet much milder BO, and it didn't phase me, or none at all. However, if we were in a much poorer country where all generations smelled strongly of BO, I suppose I'd have to say no.

Either way, it's interesting to live in a country where people aren't as uptight about the way they smell. On the other hand, some people really do smell awful!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The new Spectacular Slovakia is out!

As mentioned in this post, I had the chance to write six (well, five and a half) articles for this year's (2012/2013) issue of Spectacular Slovakia. The magazine is out now, and we had a groovy launch party a couple weeks ago to celebrate.

The new Spectacular Slovakia tastes good too!

I don't believe much of the content is available on-line (nor will it be for sometime), but you can at least check out the table of contents and some sample pages, or order a copy, if you feel so compelled.

What caught the attention of the people behind the magazine (and what compelled them to contact me for this project) was this blog post that I wrote back in January, about how in the 1960s the communist regime bulldozed nearly all of old Jewish quarter and a large chunk of buildings adjacent to it to clear the way for the UFO (SNP) Bridge and the connecting freeway. I also wrote a sequel to that post that discusses other areas or structures that were demolished by the communists, and Spectacular folks liked the before and after photos I included in both posts. I took the mad, wordy, and pedantic ramblings of these posts and reworked and condensed them into a ~1500 word article on the subject, which will hopefully give future travelers a little insight into why the historical center is as small as it is (compared to other European cities), and why it seems to get cut off so abruptly at certain points.

I also did an obligatory but incredibly fun article on Bratislava's historical center and main attractions, as well as three shorter pieces about where to find traditional Slovak culture in Bratislava, Bratislava's swankier side, and things to do and see around Bratislava's outskirts. Basically, they entrusted me with writing all of the pieces on Bratislava for this issue. There is also a short sidebar piece on miestny rozhlas, which is a condensed, new-and-improved version of this blog post.

The other articles were written by Slovak journalism students from a local university, which is great because it gives them the chance to write interesting and fun articles in English, and also allows them to show off their country to a foreign audience. Another good chunk of the articles were written by an American couple who I have never met, but who are clearly enthusiastic about Slovakia. Finally, a renowned British photographer named Chris Steele-Perkins, came to Slovakia to do a photo-essay for the issue. (He first made his name in the early 70s by delving into the culture of English teds, or teddy boys, and taking photos of them, and I got to see a lecture he did for the journalism students who contributed to the magazine this year).

At any rate, it was an immensely awesome experience to write these pieces, and it's equally awesome to have been published in what is a unique and worthwhile travel guide. I'm hugely indebted to the folks at the Spectator for giving me this chance, and I hope I'll get the chance to contribute something in the next issue.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Year in Slovakia!

One year ago today, Terezia and I arrived in Slovakia, frazzled and jet-lagged, but ready to begin what would be an exciting, frustrating, fun, vexing, fascinating, and challenging year. It's kind of hard to believe that we lasted a year, which was our goal. We pessimistically figured that we'd come here for a year, not find jobs (or at least not particularly satisfying jobs), then go back to the US with our heads hanging in defeat. I'm happy to report that that's not the case.

At any rate, I thought I'd run through a quick summary of what this year entailed, because it's nice to contemplate what we managed to accomplish in the land of hruškovica and pivo.

After a brief and somewhat unproductive first week that served as our introduction to Slovak-style bureaucracy, we took off for Italy for 3.5 weeks, where we had a consistently fabulous vacation, knowing full well that it could be the last 3.5 week vacation we'd be able to take for a long time.

Siena, Italy!

When we returned, we dove headfirst into the murky sea of Slovak bureaucracy in an effort to register our marriage in Slovakia and get my residency permit. It seemed insurmountable initially, and the entire process was stressful as hell, especially when waking up at the crack of dawn to wait for hours at the charming Alien Police only to be told that it would be next to impossible to get my residency before my three month EU travel visa expired. But by Xmas, we'd worked it out, and miraculously, I was granted residency literally days before I was supposed to have flown back to the US.

Bratislava's lovely Alien Police, where we spent countless hours in line having oodles of life-affirming fun. 

Finding a place to live proved daunting, as just about every available apartment in our price range in the center of town was significantly flawed in one way or another. But we were so desperate to get out of Bernolakovo and into our own place that we settled on an apartment, which, while not ideal, is at least very centrally located and has a decent kitchen in which Terezia can work her culinary magic. (But we'll be keeping an eye out for a better place before our lease is up in December).

Then came the job-hunt, which was the most frustrating challenge of all. Countless resumes were sent into what seemed like a black hole. Even though we have experience up the wazoo, and we both speak fluent English, recruiters just weren't biting. I had an interview for an English teaching position at Empire, a language school with extremely dubious methodology that didn't give two shits about my Cambridge CELTA qualification. They wanted to hire me, but I turned them down! Any other schools who published job listings during this period seemed similarly sketchy.

Being jobless for 7+ months was particularly demoralizing for Terezia, who felt unwanted in her own country, despite having so much to offer. I should admit, however, that I didn't mind it so much myself, and I tried to take advantage of (and revel in) the time off as much as possible. 10 years at a dead end desk job will do that to you. Money was tight, but I was free!!!

By spring morale was low, and we were even seriously toying with the idea of moving to Prague.

But when Terezia spotted a job listing for a chef for the US embassy in late April, I had a really good feeling about it. Terezia was up against a gazillion candidates, but I knew she had something that doubtlessly most of her presumably Slovak competition lacked - loads of professional experience (and passion for) cooking NON-Slovak food. Having dined and worked as a chef all over the SF Bay Area, Terezia knows exactly what the discerning palettes of those demanding and well-traveled gourmands look for in food, and she can deliver it. She can cook food that's fresh and healthy without making compromises in the flavor department, and that's clearly what endeared her to the ambassador and his family. (I mean, I'm not trying to insult the culinary traditions of an entire culture, but when you look at what you're eating on a day-to-day basis, would you rather be weighed down every afternoon by a pile of 
Bryndzové Halušky, or nourished by a perfectly cooked, excellently seasoned and moist salmon fillet? Would you rather be punched in the gut by a mound of fried cheese, or pleasantly sated by roasted chicken thighs slathered in fresh, homemade basil pesto? Would you rather have a fresh salad with seasonal ingredients, or well... no salad at all? You get the picture). 

As for me, well, during winter, when I was busily writing blog posts about our short travel excursions, and epic lunatic rantings about Bratislava's intriguingly bizarre urban fabric, Terezia sent the blog's url to the editor-in-chief at the Slovak Spectator (a local English language newspaper), completely unbeknownst to me. They took a gander at the blog and apparently dug what they saw, as they soon contacted me and arranged a meeting at which they asked if I'd be interested in writing some articles about Bratislava for their upcoming issue of Spectacular Slovakia, a nice and in-depth Slovak travel magazine/guide (written in English) that they publish once a year. To say that I was elated would be an understatement. 

(By the way, the new magazine is out - look for another post on that soon).

Long story short, they were impressed enough with my articles to ask if I'd consider taking a position at the paper as an assistant editor, since one of theirs was leaving in July. I'm hugely appreciative that they decided to give this total weirdo from California a chance to take a stab at something I have always wanted to do. Of course, being a good journalistic editor is quite a different kettle of fish from merely being a decent writer, and I suppose the jury is still out on just how good of a job I'm doing. It's quite challenging, but immensely gratifying, and I'm learning and absorbing new things every week, something I'm not sure I can say about some of my previous jobs. 

I also had a fun-filled month and a half becoming intimately familiar with Slovakia's health system due to a particularly horrible back blowout! And, we got to take part last December in a zabijacka! How many people can say that?!

And finally, we did get to travel a bit, but not nearly enough. We have taken a few trips to Prague, a city that I find to be utterly awe-inspiring and drool-inducing, and Budapest, a city that has a lot to offer and seems totally alive and livable, as well as nearby Vienna, which I find to be a wee bit bland visually, but still appealing culturally. Sadly, we still have not made it to the Croatian coast (I'm dying to see Rovinj, Split, and Dubrovnik), or Krakow, a small city whose gorgeous medieval architecture beckons. And of course, we still desperately need to see Košice, Slovensky raj, and Orava in Slovakia! Hopefully next year.


So, I'm not exactly sure where things are headed, but life here has taken a positive and intriguing turn, and we're both curious to see where we'll go from here! Also, a thousand thanks to all of our friends and family who gave us lots of help and encouragement!

(Click here to see our sets of photos documenting this past year!)