Monday, February 27, 2012

Oral Gymnastics with the Slovak Language

Anyone who thinks French is difficult to pronounce has never tried to learn Slovak. The Slovak language contains numerous words that are painfully difficult for a native speaker of English to get his or her mouth around. It's as if someone sat around trying to come up with the most impossibly difficult sounds to make: sounds that the tongue simply wasn't designed to utter; sounds that force one's mouth to twist and contort in ways that seem to defy what human jaw muscles are physically capable of. That said, it's a beautiful sounding language; it's fairly delicate, soft, almost kind of understated (which is why Slovaks understandably get pissed off when foreigners can't tell them apart from Russians; Russian sounds very harsh by comparison). I studied French for 7 years and Italian for 3, so I'm no stranger to learning new languages. But nothing in either language gave me anywhere near the trouble that some of the most basic Slovak words do. Trying to learn Slovak is a humbling experience.

Let's start with the common/formal "hello/good afternoon" greeting, "dobrý deň." First off, that "r" requires a hard roll of the tongue (something I've always had trouble with), and the ň - with that little v-shaped accent mark - is pronounced like the "ny" in "canyon." I don't know about you, but this is not a greeting that rolls off my tongue easily. Phonetically, it would look like doh - b-r-r-r - ee  den-yə, but that closing schwa sound is swallowed, so it's kind of only half pronounced. (FYI - "r-r-r" is my made-up pseudo phoneme for a rolled "r" sound). Try saying it! You'd laugh at how often I fumble this one. I mean, it's a totally basic phrase that's necessary for day-to-day survival in Slovakia, and yet saying it correctly still poses a formidable challenge. Contrast this with the Italian "buongiorno" or the French "bonjour," which are both silky smooth greetings that roll off the tongue naturally. Even the German "guten tag" is a breeze, and of course "hello" and "hi" are a snap. 

Fortunately, the Slovak greeting for goodbye  - dovidenia - does roll off the tongue nicely, and it sounds pretty too. 

Slovaks LOVE consonant clusters. The Slovak language has turned lengthy and continuous strings of consonants into an art form. They have words that are entirely devoid of vowels. Yes, there are subtle, de-emphasized vowel sounds - there have to be - but when you see some of these words spelled out, it's a bit of a mind bender. Take the simple "trh," which means market, pronounced t-r-r-r-h. You have to give that "r" a nice hard roll of the tongue and follow it with a subtle, seemingly incongruous "h," like "hello" but without the "ello." Easy, right? Then there's "štvrť," pronounced kind of like shtvertchyə, which means quarter. Again, that schwa sound at the end is swallowed, but it's kind of there if you listen for it, almost like a whisper. Or there's my favorite, zmrzlina (ice cream, an important word to know; to pronounce it, just put an "er" sound between the "m" and the "r"), which doesn't give you a vowel until after 5 letters in. I found a fun blog post devoted to vowel-less Slovak words here. (It's a great blog - check it out!). 

By far one of the most challenging words is "vchod" (entrance). I mean, how the hell do you put a "v" before a "ch" without a vowel in-between? Written phonetically for an English speaking person, it would look something like: vchkhought. But even looking at it phonetically doesn't make it any easier to pronounce. You have to start out with that "v," then for the "ch" you make a soft phlegm hacking sound from the back of your throat, and follow that with "ot," pronounced kind of like "ought" but with more emphasis on the closing "t." Following a "v" sound with just about anything other than a vowel is like some kind of heinously cruel punishment. But Slovaks love starting consonant clusters with "v," so you just gotta get used to it. I still can't quite get this one right. 

Another word that makes me sound like a blithering idiot is the simple word for "where": "kde." Who the hell puts a "d" after a "k," right? Slovaks ram those two consonants together like there's nothing to it. It's pronounced a little something like "g'day," but they kind of run that g and d together and then soften it up by slipping a slight "j" sound in there, so that it's more like: gdjyeh. Terezia says it with such ease, and every time I attempt it, I butcher it like a cleaver-wielding serial killer. I absolutely dread having to ask where someone or something is. 

Here's another fun one: "chcieť," the verb for "want," pronounced with that phlegm hacking sound again, then ts-yeh-tchyə, ending once again with that swallowed schwa sound. Chktsyehtchyə. You can almost hear it as "ho-tsyetchyə," but you've got to do the phlegm hacking thing at the beginning. Conjugated in the first person, it's "chcem." Do the soft phlegm hacking sound, followed by a subtle "ho," which is then followed by "tsem." ("C" without an accent in Slovak is pronounced like "ts," while "č" is like the English "ch." The little v-shaped accent always softens the letter that it hovers over). You want something badly? You better learn this word, or you're out of luck!

And this is all just pronunciation - Slovak offers a whole other world of pain when it comes to grammar. For example, Slovak nouns are subject to declension, meaning, the nouns actually change form. I'm not talking about mere differences between singular and plural. Noun endings change form depending on the preposition (it's kind of like the preposition is built into the noun itself), but it gets even more complicated than that. But I'll get more into that some other time. I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of these basic yet punishingly tongue-twisting words. 

(Click here to see this month's batch of Bratislava photos). 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Old cemetery in Bratislava

Anyone who knows me well, knows how much I love old cemeteries. The cemetery in the Oakland hills has been a favorite haunt of mine for eons, and I was blown away by cemeteries I've visited in Paris, Prague, and Florence. We'd been holed up in the apartment with colds the past several days, and with the weather being so nice this week, it was the perfect afternoon to get out and see the cemetery on Palisady, which I'd been eyeing. Unfortunately, I stupidly failed to foresee just how muddy this place would be. None of the pathways are paved, and with the continuous barrage of snow (and then rain) we'd had over the past couple weeks, the place was heavily saturated and extremely muddy (like, foot sinks two inches into the muck and you almost slip and fall every few steps muddy).

At any rate, it was a nice place. Lots of old headstones, obviously, many dating from the 1800s and early 1900s, several of which had fallen apart and/or fallen over...

...and many of which were jutting out from the ground at severe, fun angles.

Lots of German names, which is obvious since Bratislava was known as Pressburg up until the end of WWI, but a fair amount of Slovak and Hungarian names as well. At any rate, I do want to come back when the ground has had a chance to dry out a bit. Trudging through the mud in this place today was comically treacherous. Plus, there are a couple other old cemeteries I need to check out soon!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Help! Bratislava is full of empty concrete planter boxes!

After being in Bratislava for a couple of weeks, I started noticing empty concrete planter boxes everywhere. Not necessarily empty, but you know, full of dirt , weeds, cigarette butts, and/or remnants of long dead plants. Why are there so many of these things? Are they actually alien pods lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to rise up and overtake the city?

I'm guessing that at some point, someone had grand visions of lining this grey city's streets end to end with lush greenery and went absolutely ape-shit with these things. While that is an admirable and well-intentioned goal, I suspect that at some point the funding for this ambitious project ran as dry as the dead weeds that populate many of these planters. So, now we are left with these things strewn all over the sidewalks. It's difficult to walk more than a few blocks without running into them. To be fair, certainly not all of them are devoid of living plants, but a whole lot of them are. The irony is, what was intended to make the city greener has left the city's landscape looking as bleak and grey as ever.

They come in all different shapes and sizes. 
These lovely boxes make up a wall that barricades the front of the Water Barracks wing of the Slovak National Gallery. 
Sometimes they're pushed together to form barricades. 
Some of them are shaped like hexagons. 
Sometimes they get pushed around into random clusters. 
Others get tipped over. 
This one's comparatively lush. 
So,  what's the deal? One thing that I've discovered while being here is that under Communism, Slovakia had a lengthy love affair with concrete, the result of which you can see everywhere. It appears that for a while, they were making everything out of the stuff: fences, bus stops, benches, telephone polls, and of course, housing, as seen with the thousands of panelaks that are all over the place. The kind of lots or areas that in the US would be enclosed by cyclone fences are walled in by concrete here in Slovakia. According to Slovak architect Peter Zalman, after the adventurous and relatively unconstrained architectural era of the 1960s, "the regime 'concretized'." (travel.spectator...). A friend of this same article's author added, "don't you love it? Everywhere is koncrete. You need a bench? Koncrete! You need a garbage can? Koncrete!" I'm guessing all of this concrete stuff was cheap to manufacture and it probably became an easy way to employ lots of people. At any rate, the Communists really seem to have had a fetish for the stuff, which is partly what gave the former Eastern Bloc its reputation for looking stark, cold, and grey.

Typical Communist-era concrete fence
Another type of commonly seen Communist-era fence. This one surounds an old cemetery. I know that this cemetery HAD to have once been enclosed by an old stone wall or wrought-iron fence, but when that fell apart, it was replaced with this. 
So, what should the city do with all these empty concrete planter boxes? I think they should try encouraging local residents and businesses to adopt the boxes in front of their buildings, and they can be responsible for keeping them full of whatever plants they want. Maybe it wouldn't work, maybe nobody really cares, but it might be worth a try.

(Click here to see recent photos I've taken of Bratislava).

(Click here for access to all of my Flickr sets).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Miestny rozhlas

Some of you already heard me blather on about this last year after my first trip to Slovakia, but I was so taken by this cultural phenomenon that I felt it deserved its own blog post. In every smaller town or village, you'll notice these public address speakers mounted on polls everywhere. I remember asking if they were cold war-era air raid sirens. We have those in the US in towns that were located near old missile sites. But no, the explanation was a little more prosaic.

Every day, usually late afternoon or early evening, you'll hear about 30 seconds of instrumental music blaring through the crackly speakers, usually something vaguely patriotic or tranquil and Eno-esque. That is followed by a series of announcements, seemingly always in a woman's voice. These announcements usually take about 3 minutes. Needless to say, to someone who didn't grow up in the Eastern Bloc, it's kind of surreal to hear all of this stuff echoing through the streets!

This initially struck me as kind of Orwellian, for obvious reasons, but it also reminded me of announcements being delivered by the principal during 1st period over the high school intercom. Of course, my first thought was, in this day in age, what on earth - barring some huge catastrophe - could one possibly need to relay to the public via loudspeakers? Terezia's aunt Elenka explained that where she lives in Podrecany, the announcements alert people to things like changes in the garbage pick-up schedule, or if somebody in the village has died, or when Chinese or Hungarians will be passing through town to sell things. She seemed surprised that this was such a bemusing and alien concept to me. She asked in earnest, "in America, how would you know if people come through your town selling potatoes?"

I didn't even know how to answer this. I mean, for one thing, things are set up so differently in the US, that I wasn't sure where to begin. Yes, I could go on about the prevalence of local farmers' markets; about finding out about your local farmers' market by going online (or at least a newsletter that gets sent out?); or even about those guys you see on the corners of busy intersections selling strawberries or cherries, or whatever, depending on the season...

And of course there's the issue of different ethnic groups passing through town to sell goods or produce inexpensively. What a quaint idea! There's something kind of Old World about it. You just don't see this kind of thing in the US, at least not where I'm from. The closest we might have to this might be the gourmet cupcake truck that goes back and forth between San Francisco and Berkeley. But even if we did have Hungarians periodically driving through town to sell potatoes in the US, you'd probably be able to track their schedules via Twitter or blogs, which is how people track the whereabouts of the cupcake truck. In fact, it was probably Twitter that inspired the whole cup cake truck thing into existence in the first place.

Ultimately, we just have very different ways of disseminating this kind of information.

Getting more to the heart of the matter, the miestny rozhlas speak to a fundamental cultural difference between Western and Eastern European society. I mean, first of all, there's something vaguely totalitarian about the miestny rozhlas; clearly they have their roots in the days under Communism. It might be the fact that the miestny rozhlas remind me of the school intercom that makes me equate them with undemocratic regimes. Schools are not democracies, after all, and hearing these makes me feel like I am back at school. Also, just the fact that the town has some announcements to make, and you're all going to hear them! Sure, you don't have to sit there and listen to them. No one's actually forcing you. But then if you miss one, you might be totally surprised the next day when your neighborhood's power goes out due to some nearby construction. Yet the way this information is relayed by blaring it through the streets over loudspeakers is still just so endearingly quaint.

For practical reasons, miestny rozhlas totally make sense. With Slovakia being historically quite poor and rural, they couldn't count on everyone having televisions or even radios. So, how do you get your time-sensitive message across? Problem solved.

But is this still necessary in the 21st century? We don't have miestny rozhlas in Bratislava, which kind of underscores the increasing gulf between Slovakia's larger, metropolitan areas and the rest of the country, which is predominantly made up of rural and small factory towns. But, there's high speed wireless internet at Terezia's aunt Elenka's house in Podrecany. Yet, Terezia's parents, who live about 7 doors down, don't even own a computer. And in rural villages like Podrecany, I don't think that is too unusual. So, obviously, the miestny rozhlas aren't going to be phased out any time soon.

(Click here to see this month's batch of Bratislava photos).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Banska Stiavnica and Kremnica

We made a spur-of-the-moment decision to head out to Podrecany for the weekend to visit the in-laws, and with beautifully sunny weather on Saturday, we took Terka's dad's Skoda for an excursion to sort of nearby towns Banska Stiavnica and Kremnica. We took a day-trip to Bansk Stiavnica last year, but it was so horribly cold and snowing so heavily that just being outside was deeply unpleasant, so we didn't get a chance to explore the place or anything. This time, however, conditions were perfect for tromping around the historical hill town.

Picturesque Banska Stiavnica is situated dramatically amid mountainous, tree-filled terrain. Its steep, curvy, narrow roads snake back and forth along the slopes. It was originally a prosperous mining town, and the mines were owned and operated by German settlers. Now it's got UNESCO world heritage status, and is a fun place to wander. There's an old castle and a new castle, the latter being more like a glorified look-out and defensive tower. Pesky Ottoman invaders were an ongoing threat in the 1500s, so all of these old towns have castles or defensive walls of some sort.

Banska Stiavnica's old castle, center right. 
Banska Stiavnica's new castle. 
We had lunch in the same mediocre pizza place that we ate at last time. That first occasion was notable because the waitress took our order while talking on her cell phone (Slovakia, sadly, kind of has a reputation for bad customer service). We had the same waitress again, but she was a bit more pleasant this time.

After lunch, we slowly made our back to the car and headed over to another picturesque medieval hill town, Kremnica. I'd never been there before, but its claim to fame is having been one of the earliest coin minters in the region. Coins minted at Kreminca were said to be of such good quality that they were highly revered all over Europe. Today it's a sleepy town that's stuck on the side of a fairly steep slope. The surrounding area is not quite as picturesque as that of Banska Stiavnica, but it's still pretty darn nice. Kremnica at first appears to have a larger population, as it has a dense patch of panelaks that you drive through before hitting the center of town. But Stiavnica is more spread out and its population is actually about double that of Kremnica's.

We wandered the town, searched in vain for a place to pee, and then found one in a cool cafe where all the young locals were on a first name basis, and we had some awesomely amazing, rich, thick hot chocolate. You have to pay through the nose at chi-chi yuppie joints to get hot chocolate like this in the US. But here it was about a euro per cup. The main square is quite large and sits on a steep slope. It was covered in snow and a bunch of kids were sledding down it. The town appears to retain most of its original medieval walls. Perched dramatically at the historical center's highest point are a couple of medieval towers, one of them being a Prague-ishly ornate clock tower. These are part of the castle, which actually has its own set of medieval fortifications even though it sits inside the town's walls. These folks were evidently big on security.

Both of these towns are pretty remote (Banska Stiavnica is particularly isolated and inconvenient to get to in anything other than a car) and I don't know if they attract many non-Slovak tourists. Neither of 'em are in Rick Steves' book, so that should tell you something. I don't know how busy these places get in the summer, but it was nice to experience them free of tourists in the winter.

(Click here to see more photos of Banska Stiavnica, and click here to see more photos of Kremnica).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kapitulska ulica - my favorite street in Bratislava

I have several favorite streets in Bratislava, but Kapitulska stands out as being particularly unique. It runs for three blocks along the northwestern edge of the medieval center, parallel to the the medieval wall. It begins at the north side of St. Martin's cathedral, and curves gently up a slight ascent to where it eventually runs into Na Vrsku. I was struck by Kapitulska's beauty the first time I stumbled upon it. It's incredibly atmospheric, peaceful, and one of the few streets in the old center to not have any shops, cafes, or restaurants. The cobble stones are quite noticeably older and much rougher and uneven than the rest of the centrum (the street's a real ankle-sprainer), and many of the buildings are considerably more worn or run down, not having undergone the facelifts that many other facades of the centrum have. The street has a look and feel that's more medieval, more Old World, and grittier than the rest of the town. It really feels like stepping back in time.

The first block of Kapitulska, looking south towards St. Martin's cathedral, where the street begins. 
Looking up Kapitulska in the other direction. 

The buildings along the first block seem to have been restored and/or well-maintained, like the eye-catching green one and the red one just beyond it.

But as you wander further up the street, you start seeing a lot of dilapidation. On the last block, things look seriously bad. Suddenly there's graffiti everywhere, and some of the buildings look like they've just been bombed out in a war. A few are gutted and boarded up, while others appear to be on the verge of collapse.

I'd have expected to see scenes like this 10 years ago in Sarajevo, but here, now, in Bratislava?

And yet, these were obviously once beautiful structures. Given that the first couple blocks look reasonably spiffy, why hasn't some hotshot developer come in and straightened up the rest of this street and flipped it? Who owns these buildings anyway? Given that it's not a major artery in the centrum and has relatively minimal foot traffic, I can see why developers might be more reluctant to do something here. But still, you absolutely wouldn't see a medieval center street today in such poor condition in cities like Florence, Siena, or Prague. So, what's the deal?

To find out, I did some googling and discovered that the street is steeped in history. According to this travel blog:

[Kapitulska] is one of the oldest streets in Bratislava, if not the oldest. Records of the streets' existence go back all the way to 1204 with connection of the street to castle hill. The street also was of great importance due to St. Martin's Cathedral located at its end. If you walk along Kapitulská ulica you'll see gold markers on the road, stamped with a crown. These are markers identifying the route taken by the coronation procession from the cathedral, walked by 11 Hungarian kings and 8 royal spouses.

Kapitulska is also supposedly the only street in Bratislava to have kept its original name. More importantly, all the buildings up and down the length of the street were owned by the catholic church.

All church property (except for the actual churches) was seized by the state during Communism, and many of these structures fell into disrepair in the ensuing decades while the government just sat on them. Once Communism ended, the church got it all back, but many of the buildings were in horrible condition, and the church apparently didn't have the money or the motivation (I don't know which) to restore everything. Preserving historical structures is undeniably expensive, but is it okay to just let these buildings disintegrate? The church appears to have sold some of the buildings off, and those have been restored and renovated, transformed into apartments or small office spaces. But several other buildings are in desperate need of attention. We actually looked at an apartment in one of the newly renovated buildings, but it had a few too many caveats for us to want to take it (despite awesomely vaulted ceilings and walls that were 2 feet thick). The owner of the apartment we looked at told us some interesting things about the street and nearby buildings.

Directly across the street from the apartment we checked out is a decent sized two story building (three if you count the ground floor) that should be housing a few awesome apartments, but is instead languishing, covered in graffiti, and totally gutted. The owner we spoke with told us that this building was recently discovered to be literally on the verge of falling down, so whoever owns it had to stop sitting on it and do something about it.

In America, people would assume this is a crack house.  But in Slovakia,  people associate buildings like this with the catholic church. 

He then pointed to the once glorious building right next door to his, and said that the roof partially collapsed and that it'd been given a bandaid repair, but was still in dire need of more substantial restoration.

This owner also claimed that the poor state of these buildings was really the church's fault. He said anytime you see a really run down building in a town's historical center, there's a good chance the church owns it. He made no mention of the Communists' alleged participation in this neglect, but who knows? Maybe both parties were complicit. Or maybe some of these buildings were damaged back in WWII? But the church has had a couple decades to spruce things up. Do they simply lack the money? Do they even care? Are they reluctant to sell off their property to someone who can renovate it? If so, why? Is it difficult to allocate state money to aid in restoring church-owned buildings, even though they have historical monument status? So many questions! Whatever the reason, it's truly sad that these buildings have been allowed to fall into such a serious state of disrepair.

Despite all that, Kapitulska is still a beautiful street, and I sometimes go out of my way just to walk through it. At any given time, I'll see another person who appears to be as taken with the street as I am, snapping away at his or her camera. I hope the buildings that are on the brink of collapse can be saved and preserved, but I'm just happy this street exists.

Kapitulska at night.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Day-trips to Vienna

One of the cool things about Bratislava is that it's close to a lot of great cities, like Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. Bratislava is a bit on the small side, so it's nice to be close to larger cities like Vienna, which makes up for some of the things that Bratislava sometimes lacks (like greater ethnic diversity, record stores, world class art galleries and museums, bountiful farmer's markets with more exotic produce, massive gothic cathedrals, etc.). We've gone to Vienna a couple times over the past month or so. It takes less than an hour to get there by train, and round-trip tickets are totally affordable, *and* for a few extra euros, train tickets include tram fare for getting from Vienna's train station to the center of town and back. That is a cool deal!

With Vienna and Bratislava being so close to each other, the two cities have worked to make getting to and from as easy as possible. You can also get there by bus as well as a (very pricey) boat ride on the Danube. And a funny anecdote on that last option: several years ago, Terezia took this boat to Vienna and back. At the dock in Bratislava were brochures for Vienna for all of the museums, galleries, operas, symphonies, and other cultural happenings that are everywhere in that city. But at the dock in Vienna on the way back, Terezia saw that the brochures for Bratislava focused only on the clubs and nightlife, with photos of stereotypically hot, scantily clad, Slovak women. Poor Bratislava!

I've been a little ambivalent toward Vienna, but I'm growing to like it more with each visit. I'm probably never going to like it quite as much as Florence, Paris, or Prague, but it's still an attractive and fascinating city, and I can see how it would be a nice place to live. Culturally, it's got everything you'd want out of a big, metropolitan area, and it has a comfortable, fairly laid back vibe. There's a good modern art museum; the massive Kunsthistoriches contains some priceless Renaissance paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, and Bruegel; there's a lot of great art nouveau and liberty style architecture throughout the city; there are a slew of atmospheric (albeit pricey) cafes; the sprawling, outdoor Naschmarkt has a great assortment of produce, meat, and asian food stuffs (and I've bought some AMAZING medjool dates here); and you can find some really good restaurants (with cheap lunch specials) if you know where to look. Vienna also has a few good record stores that are worth a peak (I've only found one in Bratislava), as well as way more melodramatically posed caryatids and telamones.

One of Vienna's problems is the Kamtner Strasse, the major artery that runs from the opera to the awesomely stunning St. Stephan's cathedral. For many people, this is the gateway into the historical center, and sadly, the strip is basically a tacky, flashy, clogged, upscale outdoor shopping mall. Beautiful, grand 18th-19th century facades are littered with signage from upscale to mid-level shops. The Kamtner Strasse was my first experience in Vienna after getting off the tram, and I found it truly off-putting. My first thought was that it looked and felt an awful lot like San Francisco's Union Square. But at least now we know to take the quiet, narrow, atmospheric side streets and avoid Kamtner Strasse when wandering through the historical center.

Another issue is that Vienna was hit pretty hard in WWII. I'm not sure if that's what obliterated a lot of the medieval-era architecture, or if that occurred during urban "improvements" in previous centuries, but you see far fewer medieval-era structures here than in, say, Prague or Florence. This also means that Vienna's historical center is squeaky clean, as many of its facades were restored or rebuilt post-WWII. As a result, the historical center lacks the grit and the wear of places like Florence or Paris, and even parts of Bratislava. It all feels a little too clean and upscale. You don't see any of that exposed stonework or missing chunks of plaster.

Of course when you head to Vienna's outer rings, into the real Vienna, things get a little grittier, which is nice. But I find when wandering Vienna's streets that, as beautiful as they are, I'm not quite as awed as I am when tromping around a place like Florence; I don't reach quite as often for my camera. My favorite Italian cities just have this particular vibe, this atmosphere that's more appealing: the narrow, winding, cobble-stoned lanes; the grit and the grime and the cracks; the old rustic medieval stonework; the old and worn steps; the vespas noisily buzzing through the streets; the vibrant energy of its people, etc. And let's not forget that Bratislava has plenty of rough-edged charm with places like Kapituska ulica, and its myriad old palaces on Stefanikova and elsewhere. Vienna, by contrast, seems a tad too clean, polite, and genteel. A little too bourgeois.

But at the end of the day, Vienna is still a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. With so much cultural stuff going for it, I'm glad it's so close to where we live, and I look forward to exploring it a lot more.

(Click here and here to see more photos of Vienna).