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!)