Monday, July 30, 2012

Things We Miss

People often ask us if we miss the US/California, or if we feel homesick. My usual response is that while we haven't been away long enough to really miss it (and while we're still having too much fun getting to know this place), we do miss certain things.

Aside from the obvious - my family and our friends - we miss certain things that were a big part of our lives, some of which you just can't really find here in Bratislava. Here is a list of some of the things we miss the most.

1. Thai food
For us, Thai food is a staple. For me, it's been the bryndzove haluski or pork with dumplings of my diet for eons. Yes, Terezia makes an awesome green curry chicken with pumpkin. But we both really miss the Thai place - Banana Blossom - that was a block away from our apartment in Oakland. At times we go into heavy withdrawals dreaming about their orgasmically rich, complex massaman curry with chicken, their sublimely delicious spicy crab noodles, and their tasty and refreshing papaya salad. We really miss going to this place on a Friday night and unwinding with a bowl of their spicy curry. And I miss Thai iced tea. None of the Thai restaurants we've been to in Central Europe even offer it, which to me is tantamount to a Slovak restaurant not having any beer. Plus, the only Thai restaurant in Bratislava is pretty terrible and ridiculously overpriced to boot. (Update - a new Thai-ish restaurant has recently opened up in the center of the Old Town. We'll have to try it and report back).

Banana Blossom - our favorite Thai place in Oakland.

2. My LPs 
Although I digitized a large portion of my collection before moving, so I at least have the music with me, I still miss my record collection. I miss flipping though the LPs, pulling them out, gazing at the covers, carefully removing the records from the sleeves and putting them on the turntable and listening to them while lying on the couch. Now it's all iPod and laptop, and while that's infinitely better than nothing, I have been feeling a bit of vinyl withdrawal. 

My LPs in our old apartment back in Oakland. 

3. Record stores 
I seriously miss going to Amoeba in Berkeley every week and flipping through the used LPs, especially the racks of new arrivals. I went there far more often than any sane person should. I miss Amoeba's larger San Francisco location as well, in addition to some of the other smaller independent record shops in the Bay Area. There is a record store in Bratislava that's a mere three blocks away from where we live, and it's decent, but the guy's stock doesn't really change at all - he's had the same LPs since the first time I went there back in December (he's got a lot of prog and 80s metal, strangely enough). My only other alternative is to go to Vienna where there are a few decent shops, but nothing on par with Amoeba, and I don't make it over to Vienna so often anyhow.

Amoeba's location on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley.
There's simply nothing even remotely on par with this in Prague,
Vienna, or Bratislava (and, I'm guessing Budapest as well, although
I haven't visited any record stores there yet). 

4. The Deck
Terezia really misses the deck at our old apartment in Oakland, on which she spent many evenings relaxing, working on menus, and watching the sunset and the views of the bay. We grew numerous herbs and other things there, which we always cooked with. Terezia also misses grilling on the deck - especially grilling salmon on a cedar plank as well as flatbread. 

5. Ben & Jerry's (and just being able to buy good ice cream in the store) 
We are totally crazy for ice cream - who isn't? But we don't eat it too often so as not to expand our waistlines. That means that when we do eat it, it's a special event and we want it to be good. Sadly, most of the ice cream sold in stores like Tesco or Lidl that we've tried ranges from not very good to terrible. They have Hagen Daaz, but a pint of it costs over 7 euros! The most commonly found brand, Carte d'Oro, is really inconsistent. Some of its flavors taste chemically and have the texture of a sponge, although at least one flavor, called Caffe Latte, is okay. Ben & Jerry's is badly needed here. You can find decent ice cream at ice cream shops, though. The best is a place called Zahradna zmrzlina in Lucenec. But, of course, since it's all the way in Lucenec, we can't just hop over there any time we get a hankering for the stuff. Bratislava has a few decent places, but they're a bit pricey. (Update - our friend Chris [Ludka's boyfriend] says that he spotted a small Ben & Jerry's freezer at a Subway Sandwiches in Bratislava - we're obviously going to have to check this out).

6. A vast and varied selection of ethnic eateries
We both miss being able to walk down the street and see a Thai restaurant, an Indian joint, a Mexican place, an upscale Italian trattoria, and a sushi bar, sometimes all within a few blocks. On most Bratislava streets, you see a Slovak restaurant, and then another Slovak restaurant, followed by 4 or 5 other Slovak restaurants, and then maybe a kebab stand or two. There are a handful of Chinese restaurants, but we got burnt out on Chinese food years ago so we rarely crave it. There are a couple Vietnamese places, but the garish color photos of their dishes that are plastered all over their shopfronts look horrible and unappetizing. Pizza seems fairly easy to find in Bratislava, and one place very close to our apartment is at least decent. There are a handful of sushi restaurants, but we have not tried them yet, and I have to wonder about a sushi place in a land-locked country. We've walked past an Indian restaurant on Obchodna many times, but again, our experiences with Thai food make us a little skeptical (and I doubt it'd be anything like Vik's or Ajanta in Berkeley). We'll try it at some point, but options for non-Slovak cuisine are seriously limited compared to what we're used to in the Bay Area. And since Terezia's mom cooks excellent Slovak food when we visit her, we seldom go out to eat the stuff here in Bratislava.

Part of the issue here is that Bratislava just isn't the kind of ethnically diverse melting pot that the Bay Area (or Paris or London, etc.) is, but I suspect that might change over the next few decades. Immigrants typically bring their cuisine with them as part of their overall cultural package, and it would be wonderful to see some of these things added to Bratislava's cultural stew.

Vik's heavenly samosas with the rich and complex cholle sauce.

7. Playing guitar
I needed to take a hiatus from making music (some of you may feel it should be a permanent one!), but now, after nearly 10 months of guitarlessness, I'm kind of wishing I'd figured out a way to bring one of my guitars over here. I could always buy one here, though, but then that costs money. It would be nice if I at least knew someone here with a guitar who'd let me play it now and then! 

Playing my 1967 Guild Starfire 12-string at the Make Out Room. 

8. Monterey Market in Berkeley
Berkeley's Monterey Market is probably the best place to buy produce in the East Bay. Not only do they have wonderful, fresh, reasonably priced organic produce, but they have a slew of more exotic things that you just can't find in the chain stores (and always at cheaper prices than Whole Foods). For example, they have the most diverse and varied mushroom selection we've seen anywhere, and for decent prices too. Depending on the season, they'll have massive, fleshy chanterelles; wonderfully flavorful black trumpets; intensely delicious porcinis (both fresh and dried); healthy and plump shitakes; and a gazillion other varieties. They also have some of the best, most amazingly soft and sweet fresh medjool dates that you can find anywhere, and in August/September, Monterey Market is the place to buy figs, one of my favorite fruits (especially the black mission and candy stripe varieties). True, Bratislava has Mileticka, a nice and fairly large outdoor market, and while the produce is usually good quality and well priced, we never see the kind of variety or the more exotic things that we could find at Monterey Market. The closest we've found here is the sprawling Naschmarkt in Vienna, but given that it's an hour a way, we don't make it there as often as we'd like. (We also miss the Lakeshore Farmers' Market in Oakland and Berkeley Bowl for similar reasons, but Monterey Market really was the best).

Part of Monterey Market's amazing mushroom selection.
Terezia and I came here as often as possible. 

9. Riding my bike 
In Oakland/Berkeley, I rode to work everyday (15 miles round trip) and loved it, and I did lengthier rides on weekends whenever I had time. However, having been fiending to ride again, I recently broke down and bought an early 1980s 10-speed Peugeot road bike. I had it fixed up a bit and have started riding the dedicated bike paths in both directions along the Danube. It's a beautiful feeling. The Peugeot is not as nice as my Univega back home, but it will suffice for the time being. Expect a future blog post about my bike-related adventures.

My bike back in the States. Nothing fancy, but as silly as it
sounds, I really felt one with the thing. 

10. Misc.
Terezia also misses her car and driving it on California's freeways, hiking through the lovely redwood tree-filled trails in the forests of the Oakland Hills, seeing films at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater, and her colleagues at her old job at the Palo Alto Elks Lodge.

Soon I'll have to do a post about the things we don't miss.

(Click here to see recent recent sets of photos!)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vienna, Prague, and back to Bratislava.

Sadly, my brother had to cut his trip here short due to work-related reasons, forcing him to fly back Monday morning out of Vienna, while my dad stayed until Friday morning, as originally planned. We got to see Jon one last time on Sunday afternoon/evening in Vienna, after he and my dad returned from their stint down in Belgrade and Montenegro. We wandered Vienna's streets a bit and had a filling and tasty dinner in the Spittelberg neighborhood. Jon seemed to agree with me that, although nice and clearly full of appealing and diverse culture (and home to a cool looking cathedral), overall Vienna feels and looks a bit too sterile and soulless compared to cities like Budapest or Paris.

At any rate, my dad really wanted to see Prague, so he and I took a short trip up to the spire-specked city, and I played tour guide once again (I'm happy to report I no longer need a map to navigate the labyrinthine streets of Prague's Old Town), hitting a lot of the major sites but venturing through a few less traveled areas as well. 

I have to say, though, that in the past I have only been to Prague in the winter, during which the streets are far less crowded, and you can actually walk across the entire Charles Bridge in a straight line. This time, during the grind of peak tourist season, Prague was quite predictably mobbed, which is something I had yet to experience. Charles Bridge was crammed full of ambling tourists, all of them wandering circuitously in a million different directions, understandably in a constant state of being distracted by some amazing detail they'd just discovered. It was worse in the afternoon/early evening; at least at 10:30 in the morning the bridge was manageable. The inside of St. Vitus cathedral, too, was absolutely mobbed, making it a bit difficult to enjoy.

But still, it's quite easy enough to avoid the clogged tourist arteries. Basically, it comes down to avoiding Charles Bridge after 12:00, and the adjoining Karlova street at pretty much any time of the day. Just walking down one of the old streets parallel to Karlova gives you a completely different and infinitely more laid back vibe (and you can also avoid all of the hideously tacky tourist tchotchke shops that line Karlova). I don't know if there's a better time to check out St. Vitus, though.

Despite the hordes of tourists (and who can blame them, Prague is a dazzlingly beautiful city, particularly due to having survived both WWII and communism mostly unscathed), I still love the place, and my dad really seemed to enjoy and appreciate it. He found the Museum of Communism particularly interesting, and he was impressed by the lovely main Old Town square as well as the sprawling Vaclavske square, the dramatic interiors of the centuries old churches, the narrow cobblestoned lanes, and the panoramic views of the city's spire-studded skyline from the castle.

He also dug the food and accompanying beer: both at Terezia's and my reliable standby U Parliamentu, and at a new place I hadn't tried before, called Hospoda u Novaka, located a block or two behind the National Theater. U Parliamentu, in particular, is a fun place because in addition to serving genuinely good food, it's typically full of these boisterous, pipe-smoking, shaggy-haired, local university professor types in their 60s who look like they meet here every evening. 

This is where they put tourists who amble
obliviously in front of you when you're trying
to cross Charles Bridge.
The hotel we stayed in. 

We headed back to Bratislava Wednesday and got back about the same time that Terezia returned from spending a few days with her parents in Podrecany. 

I had to work all day Thursday (yes, work! I'll get into the details of that in a future post), but Terezia didn't, so she hung out with my dad on his last day here and took him to Devin. Tony was nice enough to drive him (and us, to say goodbye) to the Vienna airport early Friday morning.

Overall, I think my dad thoroughly enjoyed his trip. He said that the couple days spent in Podrecany for the reception probably made the biggest impression on him, but he really liked all of the cities he visited for fairly different reasons. I was sad that Jon wasn't able to stick around to see Prague, but that just means we'll have to coax him out here again and rather than venture south, we'll head north instead.

An amusing anecdote: back in Budapest, when Jon, my dad, and I were floating in the soothingly warm waters of the Szechenyi baths, we talked about the fact that the three of us absolutely would not have been out here together were it not for my meeting Terezia, and that we owe this whole experience to her. It's funny how meeting one person can really alter your life trajectory!

(Click here to see more photos of Prague from this trip!)

(Click here to see my personal favorite set of photos of Prague, taken back in winter!)

(Click here to access all of my Flickr sets!)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dragging My Brother and Dad through Budapest

Unfortunately, my brother Jon's trip out here was cut short a week due to some sudden work-related obligations that came up, so that resulted in his creation of a fairly whirlwind travel itinerary. He had a lot of places he wanted to see, which meant that after driving home Sunday from Podrecany and recovering from the previous day's partying, we set off for Budapest early Monday morning.

Overall, I think they really enjoyed the city. I certainly dug getting to visit it for a second time, however briefly, and can't wait to go back. Jon and my dad definitely benefitted from my having already been there. Sadly, Terezia had to work and couldn't come down with us.

I managed to rent a studio apartment for us that was right along the riverfront, a few doors down from the white Elisabeth Bridge. Not as great as the apartment Terezia and I stayed in last time, but it was fine, the building itself was incredibly nice, and the central location was pretty much unbeatable.

The apartment building

It's also nice to visit Budapest to get more of that big-city, cosmopolitan feel, something Bratislava, as nice as it is, kind of lacks, partly due to its size. As we were making our way from the metro station to the apartment, we all noted how Budapest just felt like a real city.

After arriving, we sauntered through Parisi Udvar and the old streets of Pest, then walked across the Chain Bridge to the Buda side, where I dragged Jon and my dad up the hill to the castle, Matyas cathedral, and the Fisherman's Bastion to take in the stunning views of the city.

There were two things I definitely wanted to check out this time that Terezia and I weren't able to hit back in April: one of the "ruin pubs" in the Jewish quarter, and the Szechenyi thermal baths.

After dinner on Raday Utca, we went to a "ruin pub" called Szimpla, which Rick Steves describes as being the best of several such pubs located in Budapest's Jewish quarter. Basically, these pubs exist in large, old, crumbly, formerly residential buildings that appear as if they are on the verge of being condemned. At Szimpla, you walk in off the street into a network of hallways that lead to the pub itself, which then branches off into several rooms, the most prominent one being the open-air courtyard in the center of the building. The walls were riddled with chunks of missing plaster, knife-scrawled messages, and an eclectic assortment of off-beat art and random found objects. Some of the seating was made out of small, old, communist-era cars that had been chopped in half. The place was bursting at the seems with visual stimuli. The lights were dim, and a series of old-timey black and white film footage was being projected on one wall, much of which looked like pre-1930s women's fashion shows. Several tables had hookahs. The crowd ranged from hip looking students to middle-aged yuppies. I didn't hear nearly as much English as I thought I would, but plenty of Hungarian and other languages. We tried some Hungarian beer that was suitably tasty. I would absolutely go back.

Not my photo: Szimpla is sprawling, but here is a pic of one of its rooms.
The next day, after going to the Great Market Hall to get some langos and wandering around the parliament building, we set off for the Szechenyi baths. These were built around the start of the 20th century (over an older thermal bath complex) in the city park. There are three outdoor pools: a lap pool, with cooler water; the "fun" pool, with 80 degree water and a fun loop in the center with a powerful jet-induced current; and the "relaxation" pool, with 100+ degree water and an appropriately mellower vibe. After 10 minutes in the "fun" pool, we decided to check out the warmer water of the "relaxation" pool, which was much nicer, and we floated around in its soothingly steamy water until we felt sufficiently relaxed and prune-like. The crowd was a blend of tourists in bikinis and pot-bellied locals in speedos. The entrance procedure was nearly as complicated as the travel guides make it out to be, but the experience was definitely worth it, and I would certainly return.

Not my photo, but this is what the place looks like. 
After another dinner on Raday Utca (this time at Cafe Intenzo, a place where Terezia and I ate back in April), and a rest-stop at the apartment, I took them to the train station where they caught the night train down to Belgrade in Serbia. I tried to convince them to stay two nights in Budapest, but the night train was a good compromise that at least allowed them a couple days in the city (even though they still missed several areas, like Andrassy blvd.). I spent the second night there by myself and woke up early the next morning to get in another couple hours of exploring the city.

Jon has a cousin named Vuk who lives in Belgrade, and my dad and Jon went to stay with him for the following two days, after which they headed down to the coast of Montenegro where Vuk's mother (Jon's aunt) owns a summer home.

Jon polishing off a beer at Cafe Intenzo.
Two weary travelers on their way to the night train to Belgrade who wish I'd just put the freakin' camera away. 
Budapest's totally groovy, vintage, Soviet-era Metro cars of lines 2 and 3. 

Click here to see more photos from this trip to Budapest!

Click here to see photos from the previous trip to Budapest!

Click here to access all of my Flickr sets!

Crazy Fun Slovak Wedding Reception/One Year Anniversary

When Terezia and I first decided to tie the knot, we had originally planned to do it in Slovakia, partly on the assumption that marrying here would make it easier for me to obtain the residency visa necessary to live here (and in the EU) for longer than 3 months. But when the very helpful and informative guy at the Slovak consulate in LA told us, no way, that's not the case, that the process is (surprise, surprise!) actually more difficult if done in Slovakia, we decided to have our wedding in SF last July before moving.

But because nobody from Terezia's family was able to fly out to the US to witness the occasion, we really wanted to do something for them. So, we decided that on our one year anniversary we'd have sort of a second reception at Terezia's parents' house, which, much like what we did for the original reception at my mother's house, would be held in their garden out back.

We also thought it would be fun to coax my brother Jon and my dad to come out and visit us and attend the reception as well. After only a little cajoling they kindly obliged.

Jon and my dad arrived in Bratislava on a gloomy, overcast Thursday afternoon, thoroughly jet-lagged and weary. I had wanted to show them around Bratislava on Friday before leaving for Terezia's parents' place in Podrecany, but the nonstop rain that day (which somewhat suddenly appeared after weeks of intense heat and sunshine) put a damper on that. We sauntered through about half the Stare Mesto, had lunch, took refuge in a cafe, and finally escaped the soggy greyness by going back home.

The forecast for the weekend was not looking so great, particularly since we were planning on having the reception outdoors in Terezia's parents' lovely garden. We came up with a back-up plan to move it to the local Kulturny Dom (basically a town community center, which looks every bit as depressing as it sounds) if the weather misbehaved.

Luckily, we didn't need to. The weather was actually quite beautiful for several hours before the rain came along - very sunny and almost too warm. Also, Tony had purchased four large water resistant canopies for everyone to sit under, with the intention of providing shade from what we initially anticipated would be an afternoon of blistering sunshine. Thankfully, the canopies also shielded us from the rain that started gushing down in buckets at about 5:00 PM. But since the party started at 2:00, we were happy to have gotten through the meal and dessert before the rain.

The reception was a total blast, everyone seemed to have a fabulous time, and when the rain finally did rear its unpleasant (albeit much needed) head, we stubbornly gave it the finger and danced through the evening under the canopies. Terezia's dad worked throughout the party, plying everybody with a seemingly endless flow of shots. 

Pretty much everyone from Terezia's mom's side of the family was there, and several people from Terezia's dad's family came out from Partizanske. It was incredibly nice to see everyone, and I hadn't seen the Partizanske folks since the winter holidays at the end of 2010 when I first traveled out here with Terezia and her dad.

A few of Terezia's friends were sadly unable to make it (Zdenka Valvodova and Martina Hazlingerova, who live in Prague, and Cico, who works a lot of the time in Germany), but luckily Terezia's good friend Martina Zilkova came.

Amusing cultural tidbit: after Terezia's mom did a formal greeting and toast, Terezia's aunt Ludka read what I'm told was a really nice Slovak poem, after which everyone suddenly stood up and starting singing the word "Zivio! Zivio! Zivio!" over and over, in this strange ascending melody. I had no idea what the hell was going on and it kind of freaked me out! Nobody had warned me about this, nor could anyone give me a clear or precise explanation of what it means. Welcome to Slovakia!

Tony and Martina
The Gurlz: Martina, Ludmila, and Terezia
Terezia's parents
Me documenting Tony documenting the reception. Notice how lovely the garden and the sky are!
 Ludmila and Chris
The fam from Partizanske
Terezia's aunt Elenka shows off her relatively new granddaughter.
My dad and my brother; both have been given only a couple of shots at this point.
Terezia's dad singing with his sisters. They're actually really good! 

 Not quite everyone. 
Bob cuts loose. 
The dancing begins...
...and lasts through the evening.