Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Jeff's New Job

So, I've been tight-lipped about this, but to answer the lingering question my remaining 2.5 readers are all asking, yes, I have finally landed a job. At the end of July, I started working as an assistant editor for the Slovak Spectator, an English language newspaper (which publishes both in print and online) based in Bratislava. The Spectator provides news to expats, foreigners, as well as Slovak university students, an increasing number of whom are learning English. To say that I'm excited about this opportunity would be a gross understatement.

But wait, wasn't I supposed to teach?

Although I came to Slovakia fully equipped with a Cambridge CELTA to teach English, I have never been entirely thrilled about teaching, and felt somewhat ambivalent about my experiences teaching in the past. More importantly, there simply haven't been any English teaching job openings in Bratislava at schools that use CELTA methodology. All the schools that posted job listings, including one for which I interviewed, were - what are considered in the world of teaching English - "cowboy" schools, which are usually slightly sketchy operations set up by people trying to market their own extremely dubious and unproven teaching methods. The schools that do use CELTA methodology, like International House, simply had no job openings. At least in Bratislava, finding a good teaching position was proving to be impossible. (The Cambridge CELTA is one of the most reputable TEFL certifications out there. Schools that hire CELTA qualified teachers tend to be better quality, more legit institutions).

But this job with the Spectator feels like the perfect situation for me, and is preferable to teaching. It's both a pleasure and a fun and engaging challenge to edit the articles submitted by the paper's Slovak reporters. I'm also learning a lot about Slovakia, both politically and culturally, and the staff has been nothing but friendly, helpful, and accommodating. This is an incredible opportunity, and I hope it lasts!

Somewhat related to this is something else that I've been tight-lipped about: back in March I was asked by the Slovak Spectator to contribute several articles to their annual travel magazine, Spectacular Slovakia. The magazine is a really well put together publication that covers practically every corner of the country - a necessity given how most popular travel books only scratch Slovakia's surface. After reading some of my blog posts, the Spectator folks asked if I would be willing to write several pieces on Bratislava, to which I happily agreed. This was another amazing opportunity that allowed me to do something I love (and that I'm actually kind of good at). I believe the issue with my articles should be out by the end of the year. Here is the website, where you can check out articles from previous issues.

Things are going well with Terezia's chef gig for the US ambassador too, which is obviously a good thing. She's been there for just about three months now. She has also cooked a few times for the vice ambassador, and his family loved her cooking as well, which is clearly no surprise.

At any rate, it took a while, but things are finally appearing to come together for us here. After submitting countless resumes to mostly non-responsive employers, we were beginning to grow disillusioned, especially with unemployment here hovering at just under 14%. But now the pity party can end and we can get on with our lives, which of course makes both of us immensely happy.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Buying Figs at Vienna's Naschmarkt

I've mentioned Vienna's colorful outdoor Naschmarkt food market here and here, and since we went there again this weekend, I thought it was time to dedicate an entire post to the place. First of all, yes, Bratislava has its own outdoor market, known as Mileticka, and while it has plenty to recommend it and we love to go there, it does seem to lack certain things that can be found in abundance at Naschmarkt, and which we used to be able to find with relative ease back "home" in Berkeley and Oakland (Naschmarkt is the closest we've found to places like Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, or the Lakeshore Farmers' Market, as well as the awesome Mercato Saint Ambrogio in Florence, Italy). (Nevertheless, while I did brush on Mileticka here, I intend to do a more thorough post on it as soon as possible).

Naschmarkt is a sprawling outdoor market built over what was once an exposed canal that meandered through Vienna. Local chefs brag about sourcing their ingredients from the market's vendors. Hordes of people, both locals and tourists, cram its narrow aisles and jostle for glimpses of the beautifully laid out, fresh seasonal produce, as well as the amazing looking artisanal cheeses, freshly made pastas, and the fresh products of butchers and fish mongers. Naschmarkt is also a good place to find some potent truffle oil or a nice bottle of aged balsamic vinegar. Several vendors sell an array of Indian and South East Asian spices, so if you're looking for some curry powder or cardamon to make some Thai or Indian curry, this is the place to go. The wonderful scents that permeate the air and bombard the senses are completely intoxicating.

Naschmarkt also comes in handy if you're looking for a cheap lunch in a city that's otherwise known for being on the pricey side with food (at least compared to Bratislava). For 3 euros you can get a massive and tasty chicken or lamb kebab sandwich from a guy with a cool Morrissey pompadour and sideburns, and there are also falafel stands as well as a woman who makes grilled fish sandwiches, which we haven't tried, but they smell amazing, encrusted as they are with herbs and seasoning.

However, part of why I was so excited to go to Naschmarkt this weekend is because fig season has arrived (!), and we have not seen any figs at Mileticka so far. Maybe they will start to appear as the lamentably short fig season progresses (fig season really only lasts from most of August through September, winding down in early October), which would be nice. Terezia actually spotted some in Tesco in a small container, but they looked kind of sad. I just don't know if figs are popular in Slovakia.

But at Naschmarkt there was an explosion of figs. Many of the produce vendors were selling beautiful, plump,  purple turkish figs, as well as what are known in California as black mission figs (brought to CA from Spain by missionaries). We bought figs from 3 separate vendors.

Figs are my favorite fruit, but there is a science to picking the best ones - perfect figs can be somewhat elusive. A perfectly ripe fig has a complex flavor - sweet but with a bit of sourness to balance it out - with a soft fleshy consistency. The inside (of the varieties that we prefer) should be bright crimson and will glisten just like raspberry jam. It should almost look like something you could spoon out and spread on toast. Figs are a tricky fruit to deal with: they have to be picked at just the point when they are ripening and then rushed to the market before they turn to mush. If picked too early when they are still rock hard, figs don't really continue to ripen properly like most other fruits, so you can't buy a bunch of hard ones and expect them to ripen and become edible later in the week. When selecting them, feel is incredibly important. They need to be pretty soft but still just firm enough so as not to indicate that they're bruised or too old.

When medjool dates are in season, Naschmarkt is again the place to go. The only medjool dates I've seen in Slovakia were the totally dried out and disgusting prepackaged ones that are akin to chewing on a tire. But last winter at Naschmarkt we bought some beautifully soft, tender, deep amber colored medjool dates. When they're perfect, they melt in your mouth like butter and offer an earthy sweetness that's intense and almost caramel like without being cloying. Medjool dates are like an artisanal dessert plucked straight from a tree. When I eat them I just want to lie on the floor in a date-enduced stupor.

Naschmarkt vendors also have piles of wild mushrooms, another favorite of ours. Some tables on Saturday were overflowing with beautiful, fleshy, golden chanterelles - an awesome type of mushroom we have not seen sold in Slovakia. We also saw some good looking porcinis - something I know grows in abundance in Slovakia's forests, but which we have not seen being sold at Mileticka (except on one occasion when some people were selling a handful of really old and messed up looking ones out of a bucket).

Notice that pile of golden chanterelles. Yum!
Another curious difference between Mileticka and Naschmarkt: in winter Mileticka is practically dead, while Naschmarkt is still overflowing with in-season produce and hungry customers. We took our first trip to Mileticka last winter and we were shocked at how only a handful of vendors were open, selling nothing but apples, squash, and potatoes. Naschmarkt, by contrast, had those typical winter standards, plus piles of fresh wild mushrooms, heaps of medjool dates, mountains of lovely winter greens, and anything else you can imagine that is in season during winter. Do people in Slovakia just stop buying produce in winter? Are they content to subsist on all the stuff they'd pickled for winter, or on the potatoes stored in their root cellars?

It could also be that while Naschmarkt is closer to the center of town and easily accessible to both locals and tourists, Mileticka sits well outside the historical center and involves a 10-15 minute tram ride out toward Ruzinov, meaning that it remains totally off the radar of all but the most brave and adventurous tourists.

Naschmarkt also has a slew of small casual restaurants, serving food from all over the world. 
However, as nice as Naschmarkt is, it lacks the grittiness and local color of Mileticka. Next time we go to Mileticka, I'm bringing my camera so I can properly document the experience for a future blog post.

(Click here to see my Flickr photo sets).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pozor! Pt. 2 - more peril and pain in Bratislava's urban landscape

Since my last post on the perils and potholes of Bratislava's pockmarked streets, I have stumbled on some more amusing perilous urban obstacles that I thought worthy of bringing up in a second post on the subject.

First I want to revisit this extremely slippery-when-wet stairway that I covered in the last post, as there is now a large chunk missing from its top step. To be fair, it was probably more dangerous before somebody took the loose and dangerously wobbly step away, but still - pozor!

Now take Obchodna, a bustling shopping street that is pedestrianized, except that pedestrians have to share it with a steady stream of trams. I have routinely seen pedestrians narrowly avoid getting flattened when ambling through this intersection in the two photos below as the trams whip around this blind corner. 

At this intersection where Obchodna meets Hurbanovo, trams
regularly whip around this tight, blind corner.
Facing the start of Obchodna, just to the left of the above photo:
people walking through here must cross the tram tracks, which
have no bright or textured borders to alert you that they are indeed
active tracks. People walking in the direction of this man in the
photo with the briefcase can't see whether a tram is about to hurdle
around the blind corner until it's almost too late. 

For those on foot, the trams are dangerous in general, as they are relatively quiet, they accelerate deceptively fast, and by law they do NOT have to yield to pedestrians. Tram drivers evidently take this law to mean that it's open season on pedestrians, as if they are not legally responsible for nailing anyone caught in their path. I have seen several instances where people (in crosswalks) came within inches of being run mowed down by trams. Terezia once witnessed an elderly woman who fell down on the tracks adjacent to a tram stop. A tram was barreling through and Terezia had to quickly reach down and help the woman get up and get out of the way, while the tram driver looked like he had no intention of slowing down or stopping. The drivers simply act like they don't even notice the people whose lives they nearly obliterate. 

If you continue down Obchodna, you'll notice that for much of it, there is virtually nothing to separate the pedestrian walkways along the sides from the tram tracks in the center; no raised sidewalks (except for a couple of short stretches), no bright yellow idiot buffer lines, no railings, no border of bumpy textured paving stones to let blind people know they're about to walk onto the tram tracks. 

And of course Obchodna wouldn't be complete without this nice pothole right smack in the middle of a crosswalk where the pedestrianized section ends. Pozor!

Check out this fountain in the modern Aupark shopping mall in Petrzalka: 

I love how in Slovakia you can just build stuff like this without any regard as to what might happen to idiots on their cell phones or hyperactive kids when they don't notice the fountain. Okay, so this fountain is bordered by a very slight and narrow ramp, but c'mon, the water goes right up to the edge, and the texture and color of the marble on the floor is virtually the same as that under the water (basically camouflaging the water). Like I mentioned in my last post, I really think that the culture here must be far less litigious than in the US, because in the US you simply couldn't get away with creating a fountain like this without erecting some kind of barricade around it. I'd be a little surprised if someone hasn't walked into this thing yet. 

Next let's visit the paved promenade along the left bank of the Danube. They have recently repainted the bike lane along the stretch between the Novy Most and the River Park complex. That's all fine and good, except that they have widened the bike lane so that there's not much room left for pedestrians, who definitely outnumber the cyclists who ride through here. I don't cycle along this stretch because the pedestrians are usually ambling into the bike lane anyway, and the pavement is annoyingly bumpy and warped at certain points. Interestingly, this newly expanded bike lane has been getting a lot of attention in the local papers. 

Notice these loose cobblestones at the bottom of Beblaveho street, which is one of the most commonly used routes for ascending the castle hill. 

And finally, watch out for that rogue stone step!

(Click here to see recent photos of Prague, Budapest, and Bratislava!). 

Things We Don't Miss

I thought I'd follow up our "Things We Miss" post by talking about some of the things back "home" that we really don't miss, so as not to give people the impression that we're in the throes of total California withdrawal and in a constant state of rolling around in fetal position pining for the Bay Area.

1. Heinously bad public transportation

Public transit in the Bay Area is a joke, which is ironic given how "progressive" and generally "with-it" its cities and greater metropolitan area purport to be. San Francisco's Muni is a horridly inefficient mess with frequently late busses and epic waits at the bus stop. The East Bay's AC-Transit is equally appalling. For both, it's all too common to wait 25 minutes for a bus only to see two of the same line approaching, one right behind the other. Of course the one in front will be packed sardine-like with people, while the one behind it will be virtually empty. When I worked at UC Press in downtown Berkeley it took an hour to ride the bus from my apartment to work, whereas when I rode my bike (which is how I got to work during my last 3 years there), I'd get there in ~30 minutes.

BART is decent as far as getting you from one town to the next, across the bay, or from one end of the city to the other, but it's become increasingly pricey, not to mention that at some stations, if you miss your train you're in for a 15+ minute wait. And the fact that at the time of writing BART still doesn't extend all the way around the Bay and through San Jose is genuinely perplexing.

Thankfully, Bratislava's system of trams and busses is quite reliable. The trams and busses will get you just about anywhere you need to go, and they usually seem to be on time - I've rarely had to wait longer than ~7 minutes. It's not the best public transit system; few systems can top Paris' super efficient web of metro lines, to name one example. But for a city the size of Bratislava, its system seems to work well, and having relied solely on public transit since moving here, we have few complaints. I particularly dig the old red Communist-era trams, just because they look so, well... old, red, and Communist. Even our friend Chris says that Bratislava's public transit meets his "German standards", which is definitely saying something.

One of Bratislava's old Communist-era trams. Much more reliable than Muni or AC-Transit.

2. Driving and owning a car

While Terezia actually does miss her car, she doesn't miss sitting in Bay Area traffic, which consistently ranks among the worst in the US (sometimes in the top three, along with LA and NYC). Rush hour traffic in Bratislava, particularly on the freeways on the way into the city, is equally brutal, but since we're living in the city, we never have to deal with it.

The SF Bay Bridge during rush hour. I don't miss
scenes like this one bit. 
The SF Bay Bridge toll plaza back-up during rush hour. There are times of
the day when people who know better simply do not drive into SF. 

I have nothing against driving, per se, but for me not having a car has been liberating. For one, it's nice not to have to worry about hemorrhaging money for gas (especially in Europe where it's so much more expensive), or monthly insurance payments, or even routine maintenance or repairs. It's thoroughly awesome never to have to even think about parking. Also, not driving is obviously better for the environment.

I love that where we live there are several grocery stores which are walking distance from our place (hell, we're practically right next door to a Tesco), and many of the tram and bus lines are very close, so there has really been no practical need for a car. Contrast that with the Bay Area, where running errands or shopping for groceries was infinitely easier with a car, particularly given how lousy the public transportation was and how spread out things tended to be.

Of course having a car might make it easier to explore other parts of Slovakia that we still have not had the chance to visit, like Orava, the High Tatras, or Slovensky Raj, to name a few, but I suppose we'll just have to borrow Terezia's parents' car now and then.

3. Cold, grey, miserable summers

There's a famous quote that's commonly attributed to Mark Twain: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Anyone who has lived in or near San Francisco long enough knows exactly what Twain was talking about.

Westerly winds that regularly hit the coast from the Pacific frequently bring with them a dense layer of fog, and it seems to happen most frequently during the summer. It's actually quite beautiful to see the thick white blanket of fog cascading over San Francisco's hills and through the Golden Gate, before quickly heading straight across the bay to smother Berkeley and Oakland, like something out of a cheesy horror flick. But having to live under it for days on end in the middle of summer is deeply unpleasant. This occurs pretty routinely most days of the week in the early evening. While it does usually mean that any heat waves are short-lived, it also means that half the summer is spent under a bleak, frigid, grey canopy of wrist-slitting sadness and gloom. Sometimes you can go as long as a week or more without so much as catching even a single, quick, fleeting glimpse of the sun. Planning outdoor activities is always tricky because you never know if the weather will be bright, sunny, and warm (i.e. - summery), or so depressingly overcast that all you want to do is stay home and cry.

Don't get me wrong, the summer weather here in Bratislava has been freakishly weird and totally unpredictable. But at least there seems to be quite a lot more sun and heat (Terezia would say too much, as we've had weeks that were so suffocatingly sweltering and humid that we felt like we were drenched in sweat the entire time). It's nice to have a summer that at least feels like summer most of the time.

4. A lack of seasonal change

The Bay Area's mild climate barely even has what people from countries like Slovakia would call seasonal change. Seasons change very gradually and reluctantly in much of California. Just when you think that fall has fully arrived, you'll find yourself on Thanksgiving day with 79 degree fahrenheit (26 celsius) weather. Maybe it'll feel appropriately cold and wintery on Christmas, or maybe it'll be bright, sunny, and 70 (21 celsius) degrees - exactly how you wanted it to be back in the summer when it was instead depressing, cold, and grey.

In Slovakia, fall announces itself the way it does on the east coast in the US. A monopoly of deciduous trees turns yellow and orange all at once, and then those lush green forests that looked so nice throughout the summer soon turn brown, grey and damp until they become coated in snow. Winter here is the real thing: snow, plenty of days or weeks that are below freezing, and totally deserted city streets, although I should admit that it gets much colder in the eastern part of the country; Bratislava's winters are considered to be comparatively mild, even though they're infinitely more intense than the Bay Area's lame excuse for winter. And when winter finally recedes and spring moves in (this year that really didn't happen until early April), you really gain a newfound appreciation for things like sunshine and warmth.

Bratislava getting its first dusting of snow last winter.
A real winter in Podrecany. 

5. Being far away from Terezia's family

It was obviously tremendously difficult for Terezia to be half way around the world from her family all those years. Sure, she traveled back home when she could, and her parents came out to visit her a few times, but the separation was not fun. In fact, one of Terezia's primary motivations for moving back was to be closer to her family and spend more time with them. We're currently ~2.5 hours away from her parents' place by car, and 4 hours away by train, both of which clearly beat an exorbitant and epic transatlantic flight. We spend the weekend at Terezia's parents' house once a month, and we try to hang out with Terezia's awesome cousin Ludka and her boyfriend Chris (who live in Bratislava) when we can.

6. Being far away from Europe

I've mentioned this before but it's incredibly awesome to be able to hop on the train and get to Budapest in 2.5 hours, or Prague in 4. Italy is but an hour long plane ride away, while Croatia is supposedly a 7-8 hour drive, at least to Istria. It's nice to be able to show up at these places without feeling jet-lagged after a brutal 12 hour flight. It also means some of these areas can be explored on shorter get-aways, and not crammed into what would be part of a longer 2-3 week vacation. Plus, going to Prague or Budapest is just plain more exciting than going to LA or Portland, Oregon (nothing against those fine cities, but you know...).

7. The sound of gunshots at night

A common trope about Oakland is that because of its history of gang-related violence, the entire city must be an uninhabitable, crime-ridden war zone full of drive-by shootings and zombie-esque crackheads. To be sure, there are areas of Oakland that kind of live up to that reputation, particularly parts of East and West Oakland. However, Oakland also has large swaths of territory that are incredibly nice, beautiful, generally safe, and free of violence and crime, much like the neighborhood where we lived, where, despite the occasional car stereo theft or house break-in, and one mugging several years ago, it felt very safe. However, sometimes we could hear the sound of gunshots echoing across the city, usually at night, reminding us that possibly just five miles away was a completely different world.

We haven't really heard gunshots the entire time that we've been living in Bratislava (instead we hear the distant and not-so-distant howls of old drunk guys reverberating through the streets). I'm not sure about crime rates in this city, but it feels incredibly safe here. True, there have been some isolated instances over the years of neo-nazi types savagely beating non-caucasians (sometimes tourists or Roma), which is obviously profoundly and unimaginably awful. But it's by no means an every day occurrence, and possibly not an every year one either. Around 10 years ago there were some pretty serious problems with the Slovak mafia, but much of that was relegated to smaller towns outside the city, and according to a book Terezia read on the subject, a lot of them wound up literally killing each other off. Like any city, I'm sure there are plenty of shady goings on and lots of petty crime (pick-pocketing, cell phone and purse snatching) and car theft, but it's a far cry from cities like Oakland, LA, New York, etc...

I couldn't fit all of Oakland onto the screen when doing the
image capture, but you get the idea. 

2011 homicide statistics for several different Slovak cities and towns.

8. The routine

The day-to-day routine back "home" was seriously driving me to the brink of insanity. The repetition grew to be absolutely mind-numbing. There were times when waking up on weekday mornings required every inch of psychological strength that I could muster. The job at the Press, in particular, had become monotonous, despite working with some genuinely wonderful people and helping to put out some truly worthwhile publications. The time to shake things up was long overdue, and shake things up we have.

I should mention that Terezia didn't mind her routine in the US so much, and being pulled out of it, away from the job and colleagues that she liked so much, was not easy for her. But with Terezia's newish job with the US ambassador and my new gig (that's right - more on that in a future post), we'll be settling into routines here soon enough. Yet it feels so liberating to have broken free of the old soul-crushing routine and to be doing new, different, and truly exciting things.

(Click to see recent photos from Prague, Budapest, and Bratislava!)