Thursday, January 31, 2013

One of my favorite neighborhoods in Bratislava

Just outside Bratislava's attractive and recently scrubbed/restored pedestrianized historical center, there are several smaller pockets of beautiful and slightly grittier neighborhoods lined with 19th (and very late 18th) century facades, which are largely off the well-worn tourist path. There is one such neighborhood in particular that I'm really drawn to, which is located where Štefánikova meets Palisády - across Štefánikova from Hodžovo Square and the Presidential Palace - (scroll down past my rambling text to see photos of it). The name of the latter should give you an indication as to the kinds of people these buildings were originally built for, as they are rather palatial. In fact, Štefánikova, a major artery that runs the length between the pedestrianized historical center and the main train station, has a slew of large, beautifully ornate buildings from around the same period, which is where the city's 1% flaunted their wealth during the Habsburg era with goopy, colorful, and ornately detailed facades. 

More Štefánikova

As the area developed, a lot of the streets branching off from Štefánikova began filling up with similarly ornate buildings, forming neighborhoods like the one I'm discussing here. Most of these buildings have long since been sectioned into apartments, while several actually house office spaces. It's often the case that rent in these types of buildings is more affordable for small businesses than for the average Bratislava resident. 

The majority of these buildings' facades look to me like they're from the 19th century, designed in a style that is a mix of historicist (an eclectic and ornate mishmash of past styles, from gothic through renaissance to baroque) and victorian. Facades can be deceptive though, as it was common for people to update the facades of their buildings in whatever style was fashionable at the time, so the buildings themselves could be older. 

This particular neighborhood is unique in that it's probably the most consistently attractive and the most consistently historical, as it is uninterrupted by bleak, commie-era monstrosities and modern, contemporary development. What's depressing, however, is that so much more of the city around the pedestrianized historical center used to look like this. But large chunks of it were razed in the 20th century, especially during communism, when beautiful buildings like these were seen as totally decadent and therefore in ideological conflict with communism's stark, utilitarian vision. Thus, where there could have been a cohesive layer of late 18th and 19th structures surrounding the medieval and baroque historical center, there is instead a motley mishmash of styles. Some of these pockets may only consist of a street or a single block, while others, like this one, are a little bigger (albeit still compact). Cities like Krakow, Prague, and Vienna have done a better job of keeping the 19th century layers that surround their medieval centers intact. 

There's not much going on in this neighborhood other than a couple of low key restaurants; there are no museums or tourist sites. Just beautifully ornate 19th-century architectural detail that people like me can drool over. The average tourist would probably stumble into it by accident, if at all. 

Most of the buildings in this little corner of the city are a bit worn down and rough around the edges, to varying degrees, with cracks and chunks of missing plaster here and there, which to me makes them more appealing because they actually look their age (unlike some of the buildings in the center with their shiny, new coats of paint). 

This sign on one of the buildings in this neighborhood is telling passersby to watch out for falling chunks of plaster. You can spot signs like this all over town if you keep an eye out for them.

At any rate, I'll stop blathering now and move on to the photos. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Totally belated post about Slovak Christmas traditions

So, I had every intention of doing a post about Slovak Christmas traditions in time for Christmas, but wound up being too busy with the pre-Xmas trip to Krakow, then the move, and the back-and-forth between Bratislava and Podrečany over the holidays, to get around to it. However, rather than wait another year, I thought I'd just post it now and get it over with, even though it's a month late and no one gives a shit about Christmas anymore.

Slovakia's Christmas traditions are worthy of a write-up largely because they are pathologically detailed and specific. T
he Slovak Christmas meal has a very solemn and ritualistic aspect to it, which people adhere to fairly strictly.

What's interesting about Slovak Christmas dishes is their totally non-decadent, bare-bones simplicity, which feeds into the solemnity of the occasion. Every part of the meal has some kind of religious meaning or symbolism, which goes a long way toward explaining why they eat what they eat. Basically, rather than being about preparing some decadent and flavorful gourmet feast, it's more about obsessively following very specific traditions. No one I spoke to could really explain too deeply the origins or historical significance behind these traditions; I get the sense that they derive comfort out of the whole thing since that's what they've been doing all their lives, and that's enough for them. Ultimately, it's just what they do and there's never much thought of questioning it or deviating from it. 

Before I go on, I should point out that Slovaks are pretty hardcore Roman Catholics. Something like 70% of Slovaks claim to be catholic, making them almost as serious about it as the Polish. (Though just how devoutly Catholic they are on a day-to-day basis is very much up for debate). This means that just about everything they do at Christmas (especially the food) is dictated by catholic traditions, which are totally alien to me since I am staunchly non-religious (and in my younger, pre-adolescent years was exposed to more of a protestant-leaning environment, if anything).

First of all, Slovaks celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. I haven't really worked out why, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps the whole country grew so impatient that they couldn't bear to wait another day. So, the big meal and the gift-giving all occurs on Christmas Eve, while no one does squat on the actual day of Christmas.

A crucial aspect about Slovak Christmas (Eve) is that, in line with catholic tradition, you're supposed to fast the entire day until the big meal at dinner. Of course, not everyone adheres strictly to this, and at Terezia's parents' house they let us eat breakfast, so we're really only missing lunch. But people tend to sneak into the pantry periodically throughout the day to nibble on what typically is a vast array of Christmas cookies and anything else that might be sitting around in there. 

You're also not supposed to eat meat, again, as dictated by catholic tradition, so it's typical for the main dish to consist of fish, and given that we're in the land of fried food, the fish is often fried. But before I get into that, let me lay out the entire traditional Christmas dinner meal. This is something that, according to those I have spoken to, most Slovak families adhere to, give or take a few variations here and there.

The meal is started with a prayer. Not the brief, personalized, off-the-cuff sort of grace that I remember my protestant father giving when I was a kid, but an agonizingly long prayer of Melville-esque proportions delivered from memory in a robotic monotone. This epic prayer seriously feels as if it goes on and on and on. And on and on. Of course, being devastatingly famished after not having had a proper meal since breakfast, sitting through the entire prayer becomes a painful test of endurance, especially when you think they're done reciting it, but realize they've only paused for a second to catch their breaths and there's still more to go. 

When the dreaded prayer is finally over, you collapse into your seat and the eating begins.

First, after a round of shots and a "na zdravie", someone, typically the father, slices an apple in half from side to side. If this is done in such a way that the seeds remain in place and undisturbed, that ensures that the family will enjoy good health in the upcoming new year. If the seeds have shifted, you'd better go see your doctor. The apple is then sliced into little pieces, which are passed around and eaten by the family. This part of the ritual is done with immense anticipation.

The Christmas table prior to eating. Notice the fruit in the center, which will be ritualistically sliced and distributed.

Next, an orange is peeled and sliced, and similarly passed around the table and consumed. After that, it's a banana. (This may be specific only to Terezia's family, but I've noticed that they peel bananas the wrong way. Instead of starting with the stem at the top and peeling downwards, they dig their fingers into the bottom non-stem end and peel it upside down. When I politely point out how bizarre and non-intuitive this seems, they ask me how I peel bananas and then laugh and tell me I'm doing it wrong. Pffft, whatever...). Sometimes a few walnuts are shelled and pieces of those are passed around as well.

My favorite part of the ritual comes next. They bring out a plate stacked with oblatky, which are these flat, disk-shaped wafers, usually about 7" in diameter, often with something Christmas-y, like a nativity scene, stamped onto them. Terezia's mom takes the oblatky and spoons honey on them and then places onto each one a raw clove of garlic. You take the wafer and break it in half, folding it over so that it's kind of like a honey and garlic sandwich, and then eat it. It sounds weird, but the combination of wafer, honey, and garlic is actually kind of fun. The wafer is supposed to somehow symbolize the body of Christ (such a morbid religion - hey, let's eat the body of Christ!), while the honey and garlic, once again, are meant to ensure good health.

When I asked about the origins of the Christmas oblatky custom, no one could really explain it to me, so I had to google it and found some info here. It is believed that oblatky were communion wafers which were cranked out weeks before the holiday and then blessed by the local priest for people in remote, snowbound villages who couldn't make it to church for the midnight mass.

Serving up oblatky with honey and garlic.

At this point you'll notice how everything seems to be focused around ensuring good health. You might think that if health were really such a concern, this would be a good time to consider easing up on the homemade slivovice and sausage, but that suggestion is not likely to go over well. 

Next comes the obligatory soup. Slovaks are obsessed with starting every meal with soup, so the fact that it factors into the Christmas ritual is no surprise. But what's interesting about the Christmas soup is that each region has its own special variety. In the region where Terezia's parents live, they traditionally prepare a mushroom soup. But because it makes Terezia's father happy, they prepare the soup from the region where he is from instead (Partizánske, in Nitra Region) - a split-pea soup with bits of halušky, which are like little, misshapen pieces of gnocchi. It's simple and straight-forward, but pretty tasty and comforting on a cold winter's day.

Split-pea soup with little potato dumplings. 

Next comes the main course, which if you're a hardcore catholic, involves mainly fish, because for some reason Catholics don't eat meat on Christmas Eve. As I mentioned earlier, the fish is often fried. However, it's not uncommon for there to be some pork schnitzel as well, and there's always a pile of it at Terezia's parents. But if Terezia's mom is feeling a bit more Catholic than usual, she won't eat any pork schnitzel until after midnight. 

Now, here's where it gets kind of weird. Firstly, I'm not a fan of fried fish and I feel it's only something that people do to fish that's reaching its sell-by date in a vain attempt to mask the funky, fishy flavor. Call me a food snob, but I think it's just an iffy way to prepare fish. Only the Japanese, with their tempura technique, fry fish in a way that makes me want to eat it. 

What's even stranger is the kind of fish that many Slovaks fry up for this occasion: carp. No, that is not a type-o. Slovaks love to eat carp, and around Christmas time grocery stores have these plastic tubs packed with live carp swimming around in slightly scuzzy water. 

I don't know if people in other countries eat carp, but in California carp is something you throw back in the river because you're trying to catch salmon or trout. Carp is kind of a gross, muddy-tasting bottom-feeder, and whenever I've had it, that's exactly what it tasted like. And frying it doesn't help. Even baking it with herbs and a good, simple marinade doesn't really make it any more appealing. It's no coincidence that carp is an anagram of crap.

But not everyone here eats carp, and not everyone fries whatever fish they do eat. When Terezia was growing up, her family couldn't afford carp (that's right, they couldn't afford carp - it's amazing how this country has elevated the bottom feeder), so they'd fry up some cod instead. But these days, at Terezia's insistence, they buy fresh salmon and bake it using one of Terezia's tasty recipes. A few other families I've spoken to bake salmon as well. But this does break with tradition, and I'm not sure how common it is.

I'm not a big fan of pork schnitzel either. I can appreciate it when it's well prepared (i.e. tender, not like eating a shoe, not greasy), but ultimately, I think it's a fairly unexciting dish. But people in Slovakia seem to go nuts for it.

Pork schnitzel and potato salad. 

The fish and/or pork schnitzel is accompanied by a heaping pile of potato salad. Again, I don't mind potato salad, but to an American, it's a bizarre thing to eat on Christmas, because for most people in the US, it's something you'd eat at a 4th of July picnic on a hot summer's day. But I suppose it fits into the kind of solemn, no-fuss, non-decadent Slovak Christmas meal because of its relative blandness and simplicity. Call me crazy, but I've never had a potato salad that blew me away. To me it's just bland, mushy picnic food. But, Slovaks go ape-shit over it, and they really get into comparing and contrasting the nuances of different potato salads. Everyone will tell you that his or her mom makes the best potato salad.

At any rate, after all this, it's time to bring out the kola
če, or cookies. While some of the cookies that Slovaks bake are what people in the US would recognize as cookies, they also bake these sort of cake-like things, then cut those up into little brownie-like squares and call those kolače as well. The kolače that Terezia's mom makes are generally quite good, especially one in particular that involves walnuts. Some Slovaks like to outdo themselves each year with the kolače, and they will brag to each other about how many different types their family made.

A plate of Terezia's mother's tasty kolače.

Then it's time to open gifts. A funny thing about this - children's Christmas gifts in Slovakia don't come from Santa Claus. In fact, Santa has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in roman catholic culture. Rather, Santa (Saint Mikuláš in Slovakia) comes on December 6 to put small gifts (usually candy) in children's shoes, which they leave on the window sill the night before. Children who behave like shit heads get a wooden spoon. But on Christmas, the gifts are delivered by an infant Jesus, called baby Ježíško, who somehow flies around leaving presents under everyone's Christmas tree. The details given to children about how he manages to do this require an even greater suspension of disbelief than the the explanation given for Santa Claus, but who cares - to kids, a gift's a gift. 

You'll find that a lot of these traditions are shared by other central and eastern European countries as well, particularly the Czech Republic (obviously) and Poland, so I don't know how many of these customs are Slovak-specific. 

But it's interesting to me because in the US, while there are certain dishes that are considered traditional, people generally prepare all kinds of different things, and there is more emphasis put on cooking really flavorful and special dishes (that or just plain old gluttony). Also, no two families really cook the same thing. I know one family whose father would prepare this totally amazing spicy shrimp dish, while my mom has been known to prepare a rib roast, and other families tend to do kind of a Thanksgiving redux. So, for someone who is accustomed to the anything goes nature of Christmas feasts in the US, these Slovak traditions are quite a novel change. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Slovakia's aversion to showers and shower curtains

No, I'm not talking about showering in terms of hygiene, which I discussed in this post. Rather, I'm talking about what has to be one of the single most vexing cultural traits I've encountered here in Slovakia. An issue more bizarre than the nation's devotion to homemade gut rot that could double as paint stripper; more disconcerting than how the whole country willingly subjects itself to the nauseating top 40 diarrhea played on Fun Radio and Radio Expres; and more baffling than the Slovak people's love of putting Coke in their wine. What I want to tackle in this post is the general absence of, or resistance to, showers and shower curtains, which makes trying to take a proper shower in Slovakia quite difficult.

The majority of dwellings in Slovakia seem to have bathtubs as opposed to stand-up style shower stalls. But whereas in the US pretty much all bathtubs come with a shower head mounted on the wall at head level or higher and, quite importantly, a shower curtain (or sliding glass doors) to prevent water from spraying all over the bathroom, in Slovakia this is not the case.

Firstly, in most Slovak homes the bathtubs almost never have a shower curtain. Secondly, in the tub there is usually a hand-held shower head attached to a hose which runs from the faucet, and in some cases there is a mounted shower head holder on the wall, in which you can place the shower head. However, this shower head holder is usually placed either too low or at too strange or awkward of a spot to be able to use it for taking a normal shower. It's really just there to hold the shower head when you're not using it.

You're not taking a shower in this tub, buddy! Unless, of course, you're 2 feet tall. There's no curtain and the shower head is mounted down low on the wall, which is quite typical in Slovakia. Also, notice the close proximity of the electrical outlet to the tub. You'd better be really damn careful where you aim that shower head!

This is the shower/tub in our former apartment on Dunajska. Although there is a shower curtain, you can see that the shower head is sitting in a mount that was inserted into the wall at about shoulder level. Also, notice how the window prevents one from mounting the shower head up on the wall above the spigot, where it would normally go. This certainly indicates that the apartment owner has a strange concept of how showers work.

To someone who's not used to this set up, it poses several problems:

First of all, since there is no shower curtain you have to be really careful not to douse the bathroom with the handheld shower head. One wrong move, even for a flicker of a second, and you've sprayed the room, which means when you're done you will have to find some towels and dry the floor and anything else that you've drenched. (And you better hope that you haven't sprayed your significant other's straightening iron that she's got plugged into the wall on a nearby counter).

Of course, the lack of a shower curtain also means that you have to sit, squat, or crouch uncomfortably in the tub to wash yourself, because you'll drench the room if you attempt to stand. This is what the Slovaks do. It probably isn't an issue for more limber yoga-bodied types, but if you're tall, non-limber, stiff-backed, and tend to make grunty old man noises whenever you get up (I am guilty of all four), then this can be quite a formidable inconvenience.

But that's not all. Trying to wash yourself while you've got a shower head in one hand (with which you're trying really hard not to spray the room) quickly becomes a tricky and awkward juggling act. I mean, what do you do with the shower head when you're washing your hair or lathering your body? Unless you're Shiva, you have to keep setting it down to free up your hands, which means that you get cold each time that you do, and if you leave the water on while you've put the shower head down, not only are you wasting water, but you have to make sure the water pressure doesn't flip the head around like a snake and spray water out of the curtainless tub.

This is the bathtub at Terezia's brother Tony's house. When Terezia and I lived here for about a month in 2011, we found "showering" in this tub to be quite the ordeal. Notice the shower head holder mounted on the wall, which is rendered useless by the absence of a shower curtain. Also, notice how all the toiletries are on a shelf unit that's right next to the tub! Trying to wash oneself without accidentally spraying this shelf was a monumental challenge.

So, as you can see, trying to stay clean in this country can be an awkward and uncomfortable experience. Their bathtubs all seem to have detachable shower heads, but without a simple shower curtain, washing yourself becomes a messy and awkward affair. And yet, quite vexingly, despite the fact that this problem is easily solvable, many Slovaks don't seem to have a problem with it in the slightest.

Sure, I could just chalk this up to simple cultural differences and get on with my life, like any normal person would. But no, I decided I needed to get to the bottom of this. I've spoken to a few other expats and non-Slovaks about this and they find the whole thing equally baffling. I mean, it's not like we're in some totally undeveloped country where everyone has to bathe in the local stream and crap in holes. Plus, for me, being able to wash yourself while standing under a constant stream of hot water for a few minutes is one of life's simple pleasures, and I know I'm not alone on this. It's fascinating that a nation's people would deprive themselves of this.

Of course, I want to emphasize that I'm not trying to cast judgment or claim some kind of cultural superiority by condescendingly telling the Slovak people they're "doing it wrong" or that they're doing it the "hard way". I'm really just trying to understand what to me is the perplexing mystery of how so many Slovaks get by in this world without normal showers.

I interviewed a few locals to get a little insight into the matter, although in the end, I'm really no less confused about why Slovaks tend to be cool with this set up. It's simply how things are, apparently, and they just seem to roll with it. At any rate, here's what I found:

1. The notion that a bathtub can double as a shower, simply by using a shower curtain and a logically placed shower head, seems to elude many Slovaks.

They seem to view bathtubs as something you sit down to bathe in, whereas they see showers where you clean yourself while standing as something you only do in stall-type showers.

Case in point: when we first viewed our new apartment, the previous tenants were still living in it, and we got to chat with them a bit. When we walked into the bathroom, we immediately noticed that the bathtub lacked a shower curtain. There was, however, the requisite shower head attached to a hose. Terezia innocently asked how they took showers without a curtain. "Well, this is for sitting, for taking baths," the guy explained matter of factly, as if the concept of buying a shower curtain and mounting the shower head up on the wall was completely unheard of.

Second case in point: in a few of the apartments we looked at during our search, as well as in numerous other apartments that we saw online, the owners had installed a bathtub in one corner of the bathroom, and a separate stall shower in the other corner. I mean, seriously? Am I the only one who sees this as a flagrant waste of money and energy? Don't these people realize that they could simply set the bathtub up with a shower curtain and shower head and be done with it? (And I should stress that these weren't fancy or expensive apartments).

An example of a bathroom containing both a stall shower and a bathtub.

2. Most Slovaks apparently just don't seem to mind sitting/crouching/squatting in the tub to bathe themselves. 

When I asked some Slovaks if this was problematic for them, most shrugged their shoulders or quizzically shook their heads, as if it was something they'd never really thought about. For me, squatting in the tub destroys my knees, and it does little to alleviate the stiff back I sometimes wake up with in the morning, unlike regular, stand-up showers, in which I can loosen up my back after a couple minutes of standing under the hot steady stream of water. However, the people from the US and UK who I've spoken to about this who don't suffer from such back issues agree that having to squat down in the tub is definitely less than ideal.

When I asked Terezia's brother Tony about this, he admitted that having to squat in the tub does seem to irritate his back sometimes, and that standing up to take a normal shower would be preferable.

3. Years of experience appears to have made many Slovaks pretty adept at aiming the shower head so as not to drench the bathroom. 

When I asked people how they avoid drenching the bathroom with their handheld shower heads and curtainless tubs, they told me they usually sit so that the larger wall is directly behind them, and they are careful to aim the shower head in the general direction of that wall. This was my approach when we were staying at Tony's, and while it sounds logical enough, I can tell you from experience that it's easier said than done. A shower curtain would certainly make the experience much less of a hassle.

One of the locals I spoke to said that when he takes a shower, he is constantly conscious of where he is aiming the shower head, to the point where he admitted that taking a Slovak style "shower" is not a particularly relaxing experience for him.

Here's the tub in our new apartment. We need to get a shower curtain ASAP. 

4. Those that I interviewed do, in fact, place the shower head down to free up both their hands when lathering themselves with shampoo or soap. 

This is clearly how you avoid the juggling act, but of course, simply having both hands free while you stand under a properly mounted shower head is so much easier and more pleasant. But the other problem for me and other expats is that as soon as you set that shower head down and the water is no longer streaming over you, you get really cold!

See, when you get out of a hot shower or bath, this phenomenon occurs wherein the droplets of water on your skin evaporate, thus causing your body to immediately cool off. When I asked my Slovak interviewees how they cope with this when setting the shower head down to wash their hair, most acted like they didn't know what I was talking about. This led me to believe that Slovaks must be totally insensitive to abrupt climatic changes. After a bit more probing, however, I discovered that apparently, a lot of people in this country actually don't shower with steaming hot water like most Americans do, but with lukewarm water. So, maybe they're already kind of acclimatized to the cold while showering to begin with?

I don't know about you, but when I shower even in lukewarm water, I get goosebumps and my teeth start chattering. Most people that I know from the US are the same way. Sure, I knew a couple of people back home who claimed to take (and loved to brag about) cold showers, but those people were also totally fucking nuts.

But why lukewarm water? Are Slovaks all born with some kind of special, thick, super-human skin? Or, are they just trying to save on their gas bills? Or are they just used to living in places where the hot water can be really erratic (which is not at all uncommon)? I didn't really get a clear answer on this, although one respondent told me that he believes showering in really hot water is unhealthy, while another said that if the bathroom is properly heated, she doesn't get cold when putting the shower head down or when using tepid water. So, there may be something to this thick super-human skin theory.

5. Many people in Slovakia apparently grew up with bathtubs, not stall showers, and for whatever reason, showers that allow you to stand up while showering are still less common today. 

The concept of standing up to take a shower seems to have caught on quite late in Slovakia. In terms of their development, it seems people got as far as installing in their tubs the now requisite detachable shower head, and then just said, "ah, screw it, that's good enough". So, why in this day and age have more people still not made the leap? They've embraced so many other aspects of western culture - why overlook this one area? Most hotels seem to have stall showers, and quite a few people here do actually have them in their apartments or houses, so the concept of standing up to take a shower is not totally foreign, yet strangely, it still seems to be outside the norm.

6. Bathtubs are often installed in places where it's difficult for them to double as showers.

Basically, it seems not to have occurred to many Slovaks that the tubs they install could also be adapted for use as stand-up style showers. In Slovakia, it's common to see bathtubs with two or three exposed sides, which of course makes it impossible to install a regular shower curtain rod. In the US tubs are almost always wedged in a sort of alcove so that they're surrounded by walls on three sides, making it easy to put up a curtain rod along the one exposed side. In older bathrooms with claw foot tubs, which are not hemmed in by any walls, there are "floating" style shower curtain rods, which are not hard to find and set up, as well as curved rods, which could be a good solution for those corner tubs that are so common here. I suspect this is one reason why some people just couldn't be bothered to get a shower curtain, since installing a curved rod might be a little less straight-forward. But to me, the hassle of putting up a curved shower curtain rod is far outweighed by the unpleasantness of squatting in a tub and doing all I can to keep from accidentally spraying water all over the bathroom.

Tubs with two or more exposed sides are a common sight in Slovak bathrooms.
By contrast, tubs in the US are more commonly placed in alcoves so that only one side is exposed, making it easier to install a shower curtain. 

Sometimes even if tubs in Slovakia are installed in a three wall alcove, like in our former (and current) apartment, you still have myriad other issues that make showering difficult, like a window where the shower head would normally be, or the shower head placed in a weird non-intuitive spot. Or, of course, no shower curtain.

Ultimately, I still don't have a clear or definitive answer to my question about why Slovaks shower the way they do. It seems like they're used to doing things a certain way, and it just hasn't occurred to them to do it differently, and/or they are just totally okay with it. The Slovak way of showering is not for me, and it's certainly bemusing to the non-Slovaks and expats who I know. But like I said above, I really don't want to come off as patronizing, so I should end this by stressing - to each his own.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The new apartment!

So, we're all moved into the new apartment, and I think we'll be happy here. Unlike the old apartment on Dunajska, which had furniture so unrelentingly tacky that it felt like walking through the most depressing thrift store in the world, and tiles on the walls with a milky white color oddly reminiscent of sperm, this new place has been tastefully furnished and renovated. It feels warm, cozy, and inviting, but is quite spacious (and only a little smaller than the old apartment, which was bigger than what we really needed). It's so nice to live in an apartment where I can look around in all directions without cringing and becoming morbidly depressed. I get profoundly bummed out when my visual surroundings are ugly, especially in the place where I live, which is a little quirk of mine. This new place is also a wee bit closer to the pedestrianized historical center than the Dunajska apartment.

This apartment is extremely quiet, so no more loud, beeping Tesco delivery trucks and exhaust fumes at 4:30 in the morning; no more old drunk guys hanging out right behind the building wailing tunelessly and leaving behind piles of garbage that never get picked up; no more men urinating against the wall of the building; no more bright Tesco lights blasting right outside the window; no more disgruntled Tesco employees on the nightshift sending large crates of garbage crashing into the dumpster at odd hours of the night.

Terezia was upset with me for not ensuring that the pillows looked nice before taking this photo. Oh well. 

The stairwell is also infinitely nicer than the one in the last place. (I don't have a photo of the last one, but trust me, it was kind of a dismal puke green and looked like something from a college dorm).

And there are views of cool things from the stairwell windows.

Here are some other plusses:

The new place has recycling! Slovakia's waste management ranks pretty poorly among EU countries, and recycling is not a mandatory thing the way it is in much of California. In the Stare Mesto, public recycling bins can be fairly elusive, depending on where you live. Many residential buildings have them, but many others don't. It's up to the owner of each building to obtain recycling bins, but that of course increases the garbage bill, and if the owner or a majority of the building's tenants don't want them, then you're out of luck. At the Dunajska apartment, there were unfortunately no recycling bins, and it always pained me to see other tenants just throwing bottles and cardboard into the trash.

The nearest public recycling bins to our former apartment were about five blocks away, and as a result we tended to let it accumulate to the point where we'd have too much to shlep on foot. That meant we had to sweet talk Terezia's brother Tony into coming by in his car periodically to help us transport it. And even then, sometimes those particular bins were full to overflowing, in which case we'd have to find some others, which usually meant driving up into the hills. It's absolutely crazy that Bratislava is so appallingly backwards in this regard, especially in this day and age, but it's not at all surprising.

But since the new place has recycling bins on the premises, that particular hassle is a thing of the past.

No centralized heating! It's not uncommon for residential buildings in Slovakia (and elsewhere in Europe) to have centralized heating, whereby heating for all of the apartments is controlled from a central system. In such buildings, tenants have no control over the heat in their apartments, and are completely at the mercy of what I always imagine to be this grumpy, soot-encrusted troll who controls the thing from the dimly lit basement. This was the situation in our old apartment, and it was far from ideal. I envisioned the heating system control panel to consist only of one massive, black vintage dial with two settings: off and sweltering. It seemed liked there was no in-between. This meant that from November through March, the apartment was so stiflingly hot that we always had to crack open a few windows and that, even if it was 15 below outside, we were walking around the place in t-shirts and shorts like it was summertime. It also meant that when it started to get cold in October, we had to wait for the outdoor temperature to be cold enough (something like below 13 degrees celsius for three consecutive days) before the soot-encrusted troll in the basement would turn the heat back on. This situation was obviously absurd on many levels, and it always struck me as extremely wasteful.

At the new place, each apartment controls its own heat, so we have full control over the climate, which is much preferable. Of course now we have to make a point of remembering to adjust it and to turn it down if we go out of town. Gas is included with all other utilities in our rent, but if we go over a certain amount, we have to pay the difference at the end of the year.

There is a balcony! What can I say, balconies are nice to have.


Some of the windows have screens! For whatever reason, windows in most European dwellings lack screens, which is odd to me because that means if it's summer and if you live near water, and if it's so hot that you have to keep your windows open at night, you will be invaded by a swarm of mosquitos. This was an ongoing problem at the Dunajska apartment. Every night we were eaten alive by mosquitos, and we would kill them by the dozens each day. Given that we are now closer to the Danube, I imagine that the mosquitos will only be worse in the summer, so the screens are awesome.

The bed in this apartment is way more comfortable! Not only does the bed look much more acceptable, but the mattress is so much more comfortable. The bed in the Dunajska apartment was offensively hideous, resembling the backseat of a 1970s pimp's Cadillac (the only thing it lacked was a pair of retractable coke mirrors in the built-in side tables). And its mattress was so hard that it was scarcely different from sleeping on the floor. It may have even contributed to my back blow-out last May.

The interior walls are about two feet thick, which is just kind of neat.

Oh, and there's this bizarre sculpture in the entryway to the building. I'm curious to know the story behind it.

See, it's actually a machine.

So, yay! We dig the place.

(Click here to see more recently taken photos).