Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mushroom hunting in Slovakia

I am totally nuts about wild mushrooms. Their rich, earthy, complex flavors, so uniquely evocative of the forest floor, can be used to make explosively delicious pasta dishes as well as a killer wild mushroom pizza, and they pair well with a variety of other things. I'm especially obsessed with porcini (boletus edulis, called dubaky in Slovak), since they have the most potent flavor of all of them (except for truffles, of course), but I also go crazy for chanterelles, black trumpets (aka black chanterelles), and morels. Some of my very favorite dishes in the world involve these meaty, fleshy, potently flavorful shrooms. 

And so it's extremely fortunate that mushroom hunting happens to be a popular pastime here in Slovakia. 

A life-altering tagliatelle with porcini at Liviano in Bratislava. 

When I first met Terezia I was ecstatic to learn that her parents and brother are seasoned mushroom hunters, and that porcini grow (sometimes in abundance) in the forests near where they live. Terezia and her brother Tony were taken mushroom hunting by their parents ever since they were little, and her parents still go hunting in the forests near their village whenever conditions are right. Tony doesn't go as often, but he has eagle-like vision when it comes to spotting the delectable funghi. Before moving to Slovakia, Terezia and I would both look forward to the big bags of dried porcini that her mom would occasionally send in the mail, which was an especially cool thing to receive in the Bay Area, where even buying dried porcini can do some damage to your wallet.

In the summer of 2011, just before we moved here, Tony struck wild mushroom gold one day deep in one of the forests near his parents' place and literally filled up every sack he had with porcini. He even had to take off his shirt and fashion it into a bag because he kept finding so many. Hearing about this made me salivate, because in the US (and elsewhere in Europe) porcini are an expensive delicacy - often anywhere from $8 to as much as $30 a pound, depending on the type, condition, size, etc. Ditto chanterelles and especially morels. This meant that we would usually make our favorite wild mushroom-based dishes only on special occasions.

Heading off to the forest at the crack of dawn to find some mushrooms.

Sadly, it's just my luck that since we've been in Slovakia, this year's and last year's mushroom seasons haven't been so great, and porcini have been pretty scarce in the areas where they usually appear. Experts say that this has been due to heavier than usual rain (in spring and summer) followed by worse than usual heat waves. Last spring's long winter, when the snow kept coming down until mid-to-late April, didn't help either. Wild mushrooms require the perfect balance of dampness and heat. For example, in summer, they thrive when you have some warm days followed by a good rain. But when that balance is thrown off due to excessive rain or heat, they just don't grow. So, while there have still been a decent number of wild mushrooms to be found, porcini haven't been found in their usual quantities.

Some of the varieties that grow here

Pretty much all the mushrooms that I'm accustomed to feasting on in California grow in Slovakia. In addition to porcini, you've got a few varieties of chanterelles (called kuriatka in Slovak), as well as black trumpets (lievik trúbkovitý in Slovak) and even morels (smrčky in Slovak).

A porcino/dubak that Terezia found back in the summer. 

But you've also got a slew of other porcini-related varieties, some of which I've never seen in the US, and most of which seem to be pretty good. They get a lot of what they call suchohriby, which are a cousin of porcini - part of the boletus family (boletus badius, I think?). They are typically smaller than porcini and they aren't as rich and flavorful, but still good. Despite their fleshy appearance, they're more delicate and you've got to sauté them fast or else they get soggy quickly. Like porcini, they have a round, brown cap and a kind of spongy, porous underside (as opposed to gills), although the underside has an almost radioactive green/yellow hue, which probably doesn't look so appetizing to the uninitiated. Their stalks generally seem to be more slender than those of regular porcini.


They've also got kozaky, which are another member of the porcini family (boletus amygdalinus, I thinkand more flavorful than suchohriby, but also more elusive. These have kind of a wider and more disk-shaped cap than typical porcini/dubaky when fully grown, but with a similar brown color on top and the same spongy, porous underside. They also tend to have slimmer stalks, like suchohriby. Their insides darken when sliced, and when you dry them the slices turn a blackish grey.

A good-sized kozak (right) next to a young porcino/dubak (both found by me!).
Some smaller kozaky. 

Mushroom hunting

As I mentioned above, mushroom hunting is quite popular in Slovakia, especially among pensioners and Roma, when you get out into the country to the forests and mountains. In the village where Terezia's parents live, word of new porcini sprouting up spreads fast, and the pensioners hit the nearby forests like flies on shitakes to gather up whatever they can find. It's not uncommon when combing the forest to stumble on a pile of discarded mushroom stalks next to an empty can of beer or bottle of homemade gut rot, which obviously means someone's beaten you to it. Of course, mushroom hunters are always a bit secretive since they don't want to reveal their favorite spots, but people are usually willing to tell you the general vicinity (like, the forest behind such and such village, or by such and such lake, etc.); but from there, you're on your own. Either way, you've got to get out there pronto before they're all snatched up.

And you're not just competing with pensioners who have oodles of free time on their hands, and Roma, who typically go out in groups to collect them to sell at farmer's markets. You've also got wild boar rooting around the forest floors in search of these things, as well as a variety of worms, insects, and slugs.

Signs that a wild boar has been rooting around for the same mushrooms you're trying to find. 

I first went mushroom hunting with Tony back in early July 2012, and that time we found zilch. Hugely discouraging. We didn't go again for about a year, but we actually found something that time, albeit not a whole lot: mostly some chanterelles and a bunch of suchohriby, and Terezia actually found a small porcino - her very first! All told, at least it was enough to make a tasty wild mushroom pasta.

Scant, but still nice findings from an earlier hunting excursion in June 2013: a bunch of chanterelles and a few suchohriby. 

Tony and I tried again in early October, but this time we only found a bunch of betle, which Terezia thinks are related to portabello mushrooms, and a handful of suchohriby. Betle aren't super desirable, but if you sauté them in some butter and just eat them plain with a pinch of salt they have a mild but pleasantly eggy kind of flavor, and a texture not unlike portabellos. On this particular excursion we saw a group of three people with sackfuls of these things. Apparently, if you dig betle, you're in luck, as they seem to be pretty common in early autumn.

A betla, which could be related to the portabello. Not too exciting, but worth picking up if you see 'em. 
Cooking up some betle.

Porcini found!

We went again in mid November and this time we finally brought home some bounty worth writing about, including two porcini. Tony found a lovely big one, and I unearthed a beautiful and healthy smaller one whose cap hadn't really turned brown yet. Finding even a few porcini can suddenly boost your optimism, so we kept searching. In addition to a decent pile of suchohriby, I nabbed a nice, good-sized kozak, and Tony found about five or so small ones.

Tony found this lovely porcino. 
My first porcino/dubak!
I found this nice kozak growing by the base of a tree. 
The goods.

Tony and I went back to the same spot early the next morning for another look. I lucked out and found yet another porcino, this time a bigger, beautifully plump one, while we both found a ton of suchohriby. We then went to another forest up the road where we found more suchohriby, a few betle, and most surprising of all, I stumbled on a batch of four or five black trumpets. Terezia's family doesn't hunt for black trumpets (which is seriously weird because they're really a delicacy, but whatever), yet according to Tony's exhaustive Slovak mushroom encyclopedia, they are definitely findable in this region.

The next morning's find. You've got some betle in the upper left corner, a bunch of suchohriby on the right and center, and a porcino that I found at the bottom, center. 
Super delicious black trumpets, aka black chanterelles. 
A nice, plump porcino/dubak discovered and dislodged from the soil by yours truly. 

Black trumpets are easy to identify and quite flavorful - they're related to chanterelles, but have an earthier and stronger taste. Strangely, I have never seen black trumpets sold in the markets in Slovakia, but if you go to Vienna you can find piles of them being sold for a high price at Naschmarkt, and back home I used to find them in Berkeley selling for $10 or more a pound. So, I was jumping up and down at the site of these. I really wish I'd found more.

Hunting observations/tips from a total novice

Hunting for mushrooms isn't all that easy. They blend in with their surroundings and when you first scan a leaf-covered forest floor, the prospect of finding any can seem totally daunting. But your eyes eventually adjust, and if you've stumbled into a good area, they suddenly start appearing, seemingly popping up right as you're about to step over them.

Finding mushrooms amid all the leaves and other debris on the forest floor is no easy feat.

A good rule of thumb is that if you hit an area with a lot of poisonous or undesirable mushrooms, which you will generally see in abundance if any are growing at all, you're more likely to find some good ones because most mushrooms seem to thrive in similar conditions. So, when you see a patch of bad ones, it can pay off to do a closer scan of the surrounding area. Of course, if you're not seeing anything, don't waste your time - it's probably a good idea to move on to another area.

But as far as locating the good ones, to the layman there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to where they grow. They seem to be just as likely to grow near trees as away from them; and just as likely to grow near a decomposing log as on a random spot on the ground not close to anything else. One thing to remember, however, is that if you find one, it should typically have what Tony calls a "friend" nearby, so it's good to look around for some more within a radius of a few feet or so.

Another thing to look out for are little white slices or shavings of porcini stalks on the ground. When a hunter has plucked one, he or she will take a knife and shave/slice off the outer layer of the base of the stalk, basically removing the dirty part. If you notice a little pile of these shavings, it's worth having a look around to see if you can find any porcini that the last person might have missed. That's actually how Tony found his porcino on this most recent trip.

I've also noticed that we see far fewer mushrooms on hillsides that face south and get more direct sunlight and heat throughout the day and therefore are drier, whereas we seem to find more on hills facing other directions that aren't exposed to as much (or any) direct sunlight. I don't know if this is a rule of thumb for any mushroom-rich region, but it seemed to be the case here, and it makes sense if mushrooms need more dampness to thrive.

Poisonous mushrooms

Finally, to answer the question that I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Isn't mushroom hunting dangerous? Can't the wrong one send you straight to a sudden and painful death? How do you distinguish the good ones from the poisonous/inedible ones?

Fortunately, Terezia's family has more than enough experience to be able to make that distinction easily (at least in their region), and I probably wouldn't go hunting for mushrooms without them. But at least in the forests near their village the good mushrooms look nothing like any of the poisonous or undesirable ones, and if you know exactly how the good ones look, it's not a problem. You need to know what you're looking for, and you need to go with someone who can identify them if you're not certain.

The super colorful mushrooms with candy-apple red or super shiny orange creme brûlée caps may look cool, but they are typically extremely poisonous. You can also find a lot of these cute little bulb shaped mushrooms with a hole at the top in the center, from which a cloud of mushroom spore dust is released if you pinch them or poke them with a stick, like some kind of noxious alien plant out of an episode of Star Trek. These are said to be inedible when fully grown, but apparently you can eat them when they're small/young (but how you determine when one has gone past its prime, I've no idea). And there are a slew of others, some of which have exotic colors or patterns, others which look more pedestrian, and still others which are slimy and gross, and look nothing like anything that you would encounter at your local farmer's market, much less something you'd want to put in your piehole.

A good example of a poisonous mushroom, which you should never, ever eat. 
This one releases a fine cloud of spores through its hole at the top when squeezed or poked. You can apparently eat these when they're young, but not when they're fully mature.
I don't know if this one is poisonous or just gross, but I saw a lot of these in early autumn. 

I'm told that you do have to be careful when collecting betle. If they have a ring around the stalk, they're safe. But there is a mushroom that apparently looks similar to them which lacks the ring, and you want to avoid those. The rings are clearly visible, though, but if you can't tell, just leave it.

Tony has an awesome wild mushroom encyclopedia for Slovakia with good, color photographs and descriptions of every type of mushroom you can find here, including a rating of how good the edible ones taste (with porcini classified as a delicacy, for example). I wouldn't even think of attempting to forage for mushrooms without some kind of guide like this.

The resultant wild mushroom pasta and scrambled eggs

Terezia made an awesome wild mushroom pasta with the funghi we found - a seriously flavor-packed dish. When cooking wild mushrooms, it's good to use a generous helping of herbs, like parsley, thyme, and rosemary, as they really help make the flavor pop. The next night we used the rest of our mushrooms to make scrambled eggs, a wildly delicious but surprisingly simple dish, which really highlights their earthy flavor, especially when seasoned with a bit of thyme (and sautéed with some leeks).

A super flavorful and delicious wild mushroom pasta made using the mushrooms we found. 

One of my favorite things to make/eat is wild mushroom lasagna. You need a lot of those suckers to fill a lasagna, but if you have porcini and black trumpets (regular chanterelles work too) and you make it with a béchamel, the result is a rich, life-altering, flavor-packed lasagna.

A lot of people (Terezia's family included) set aside a portion of their mushrooms for drying. It's common to cook with the nicest ones when they're fresh, and dry the ones that aren't as in good shape. This is a great way to make use of a ratty looking porcini that's full of worm holes, bite marks and bruises; just cut off any unsalvageable bits and slice up the rest for drying. But drying is also necessary when you've simply found too many to consume right away. I honestly find dried porcini to be as good as fresh porcini. The drying process really seems to concentrate the flavor, and when you rehydrate the dried pieces in hot water, that water can be strained (to remove the grit) and used for an intensely flavorful mushroom stock, which can then be used to enhance pasta sauces and whatnot. Terezia's mom gives us dried porcini when she has them, and she has big jars of them in her kitchen which she cooks with when she's in the mood.

(Some people in Terezia's family like to pickle porcini, but I think that should be considered a crime against humanity. It totally kills their unique, intense flavor - a complete waste of good porcini, if you ask me).

Much like with pig slaughterings and vegetable gardens, mushroom hunting is another example of how Slovaks in the countryside demonstrate a close connection with the land and an ability to be self-sustaining, which I always find truly admirable. I hope this tradition doesn't die out, but if it does, I suppose that means more porcini for us.

At any rate, I plan on going mushroom hunting whenever I can while I'm still here. Hopefully next year's porcini season will be better.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Slovakia - one of the top 10 unfriendliest countries in the world!

Earlier this year Slovakia made the list of the world's top 10 unfriendliest countries in a report published by the World Economic Forum. Countries were ranked in terms of their attitude toward foreign visitors, and while some might be shocked to see little old Slovakia on this list, it kind of isn't all that surprising. Slovakia placed 8th, while the only other European countries included in the list were Russia, Bulgaria, and Latvia.

Here's the whole list:

1. Bolivia
2. Venezuela
3. Russia
4. Kuwait
5. Latvia
6. Iran
7. Pakistan
8. Slovakia
9. Bulgaria
10. Mongolia

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much information on how they assessed attitudes towards foreign visitors, i.e. what kinds of questions were asked and to whom. Interestingly, most of the people I've met who've traveled to Iran or Pakistan, for example, described the locals there as overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. That is purely anecdotal, obviously, but it does illustrate the need for a good understanding of how the survey was conducted if you really want to comprehend the results. Short of that info, however, it's not difficult for us (as residents of this country) to guess how Slovakia may have garnered its reputation for meanness.

We've actually spent very little time in our 2+ years in Slovakia as tourists because, obviously, we've been living here. Aside from a couple nights in a hotel in Kosice, and a few trips to touristy sites, we have rarely experienced Slovakia as tourists. But it requires little effort to imagine the sorts of things tourists here might encounter. And it's not just about the a lack of friendliness in the people you encounter - other factors can make tourists feel unwelcome too.

At any rate, below are a few of my guesses as to how Slovakia could earn the dubious honor of being placed on such a list.

Ha! You want it when?

Firstly, Slovakia has a reputation for appalling customer service. And the Slovak propensity for service with a sneer does not discriminate: you're just as likely to experience an unpleasant interaction whether you're a tourist or a life-long native. People here are becoming increasingly aware of the problem (ever since the country opened up to tourists in the early 90s foreigners have been continually pointing this out to them), but it nevertheless seems like a difficult habit to kick.

Most agree that you can probably blame 40 years of communism. You see, when everything was state-owned and shops or restaurants didn't have to compete for business because there simply wasn't much of a choice, there was no reason to be friendly, kind, or helpful to boost clientele. People had to come to your store for whatever it was you were selling because it was likely the only place in town or the neighborhood. If you hated your meaningless, soul-draining, go-nowhere cashier or waiter/waitress gig and you had no real prospects for meaningful advancement in life, why put any energy into pretending you were happy? Why even lift a finger to make a customer happy? What you had here was this sort of collective culture of misery. Shop owners/employees felt no compulsion to be nice, and customers didn't expect it. (And if you did want special treatment, you often had to resort to bribery. But that's another can of worms for another post!)

This attitude became deeply engrained within the culture and it persists to this day. Sometimes an interaction with a shop clerk can feel as unpleasant or frustrating as an encounter with someone from the foreign police or the tax office. Most of the time it's not that you're treated with overt hostility, but rather with a very palpable reluctance or unwillingness to be helpful or friendly. Often clerks will act like you're really putting them out by having them ring you up at the counter.

But I don't want to give the impression that everyone here is a dick. Honestly, for every unpleasant encounter we have, there's probably another that is, if not overwhelmingly positive, at least harmless or uneventful. Terezia was treated with considerable hostility when she decided not to buy a swimsuit from a local hosiery retailer because she wanted to shop around a bit more. But I had a delightful and easy encounter with an older lady at a flower shop when trying to pick out flowers for a bouquet for Terezia for her name day. The lady spoke zero English but was quite patient with my super crappy Slovak.

I'll never forget one afternoon in a post office when we were waiting in line to send a package. When it was finally our turn, the woman at our window just got up without even acknowledging us and went over to another woman working a few windows down and started sharing a tin of homemade cookies with her, while the two just sat there chatting for a few minutes. When their chit-chat was over, she came back to help us without offering any kind of apology.

I've probably encountered just as many restaurant servers who displayed a modicum of friendliness as those who were aloof or unpleasant. But problems in restaurants can go beyond a rude or indifferent server. For example, if you set both your fork and knife down on the plate mid meal to sip your drink or to wipe your mouth with your napkin - even for a second - it's not uncommon for a busboy or server to suddenly materialize out of nowhere and whisk your plate away as fast as you can blink. I've lost a couple of half eaten lunches this way, and I learned that you've got to get in the habit of at least keeping your fork in your hand if you want to avoid this. Now, there's a chance that in Slovak culture this may not even be considered rude, but to an American, taking someone's plate away before they've finished - and without even asking first - is the absolute height of rudeness, and often ensures that the server will get shorted on the tip and the disgruntled customer will write a pissy review on Trip Advisor. (Granted, you're less likely to see this in high end Bratislava restaurants, which seem to be more attuned to the customs of more culinarily switched-on parts of the world).

These kinds of things happen here with alarming regularity (and I could come up with a zillion more examples), and you can encounter varying degrees of unpleasantness or unhelpfulness on a weekly basis. If tourists experience this kind of treatment, they're bound to remember it more than interactions that occurred without incident.

Jake Slegers from the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia was recently quoted as saying that if students studying to be in the hospitality industry here were instructed to smile, that alone would boost tourism by 50%. He was obviously indulging in a bit of hyperbole, but you get the point. Of course, it's also worth noting that the insultingly crappy wages that most Slovaks have to live with offer little reason for smiling (Slovakia is known to foreign companies as a cheap labor source). But still, most of us have some kind of crap in our lives that we're wrestling with, so why not just be nice?

Slovak hospitality and civility

What's amusing is that when Slovaks hear about these types of reports, some are genuinely shocked and go on and on about how hospitable they are, about how they receive guests with wide-open arms and stuff more food down their throats than a goose on a foie gras farm. While this can be true, that form of hospitality is typically reserved for family or close friends. And I've heard many stories from visitors who got the chance to go into the home of family or a friend and they were amazed by the kindness and generosity displayed by their hosts. But if you're a tourist, i.e. a stranger, Slovaks can be a hard nut to crack.

Yet, Slovaks do display signs of friendliness in other unexpected social situations. For example, I remain pleasantly bemused by how in Slovakia it's normal for complete strangers to walk into an elevator and say "dobrý deň" ("hello") to each other when they step in and "dovidenia" ("goodbye") when they step out. And if you don't say "hi" or "bye" back, you might get the stink eye. This stands in sharp contrast to the US, where the unwritten social etiquette usually dictates that it is forbidden to say anything on an elevator, much less make eye-contact, unless you see someone you actually know (or if you're in a residential building where you live and you see a neighbor). American elevator etiquette doesn't stem from rudeness, but more out of a sense of respect for the personal space of the strangers around you. But why in Slovakia it's suddenly okay to act civil to one another on elevators, of all places, I'll never know.

I asked my brother-in-law Tony about this and he said quite matter-of-factly, "Well, because it's polite!" I reminded him of how in the US people never talk on elevators (he lived there for many years), and asked why is it the norm in Slovakia to be kind on elevators yet it's completely acceptable to act like a jerk when ringing up paying customers. He admitted that I had a point.

I've also noticed here that in waiting rooms at doctors' offices when a person is called in he or she will often say "dovidenia" to everyone else before heading through the door, and you'll hear most people in the room quietly say "dovidenia" back. You'd never see this in the US. People usually keep their distance in American waiting rooms, probably out of fear of catching some horrible illness and/or bothering someone who isn't feeling well. But here we've got another amusing instance where it's okay to be civil in Slovak culture.

But tourists are unlikely to ever find themselves in either of these social situations, as most won't end up in an elevator unless it's in a hotel with other tourists, and hopefully, most don't end up in hospitals.

Tourism: you mean to tell me I spent all day getting here and this damn thing is closed? 

While we haven't done too many touristy things in Slovakia, the few places we have visited were almost comically uncompromising in terms of their rules and opening hours. Readers might recall on our trip to Košice last May how we weren't able to ascend the clock tower of the city's cathedral, one of the city's prime attractions, because their more flexible summer tourist hours hadn't kicked in yet. Or some might remember the Kafka-esque rules for seeing the St. James church in Levoča (a major tourist destination in the region) that contains Master Pavol's famous wood altar sculptures. Or (I didn't write about this one) when visiting Bojnice Castle, one of the country's most famous and well-preserved castles, we were told that they only let people inside in groups of 10, and that the four of us would have to wait until 6 more people showed up to take the guided tour of the place, regardless of however long that might take (and it was a slow day).

This brilliant cartoon by the ever talented Marek Bennett is yet another example of what tourists can expect when trying to visit some of the country's more remote attractions. I've heard countless stories like this, and while they make for amusing anecdotes, especially for people with patience and a sense of humor, these sorts of things still undoubtedly contribute to the perception of Slovakia as unfriendly.

I've been told by a few people who've been here longer than we have that some of these tourist attractions simply aren't interested in attracting more tourists, and they don't particularly care if they lose money by driving tourists away with their uncompromising hours and rules. A lot of these sites are able to get enough funding to sustain themselves (pay the employees, keep the place clean, etc.), so they're not overly reliant on money from tourists to stay afloat. That means there's very little incentive to be more flexible or accommodating with tourists, regardless of how difficult it was for them to get there. And many also agree that this stubborn inflexibility is another holdover from communism.

What's ironic about this is that Slovakia is still desperately trying to boost tourism so it can reap the economic benefits. Its annual tourism figures are low compared with neighboring countries that have far more to offer, and Slovakia's attempts to market itself have been futile at best. Compounding the problem is that a good number of the worthwhile attractions outside Bratislava are far, remote and sometimes difficult to get to, and some of the transit connections from region to region are inadequate, and in some regions freeways haven't even been built yet, which can make even driving from one site to another an epic endeavor.

Basically, you have to be really committed to exploring Slovakia, and you have to be up for a bit of an adventure if you really want to see anything outside the capital, and you've also got to remain flexible for when that thing you really wanted to see is unexpectedly closed. Most tourists simply hit Bratislava for a day while en route from Prague or Vienna to Budapest, but the conditions here aren't likely lure them deeper into the country.

Of course, it also doesn't help that even the main tourist center in downtown Bratislava has been known to be out of maps on occasion - the one thing you can guarantee that pretty much every tourist that goes in there will be looking for.

No English

It's rare to find English-speaking people at train stations and bus depots. Now, I would expect this in smaller towns or villages, but in Bratislava it's totally inexcusable. For better or worse, English has become the lingua franca in Europe, and many tourists speak some English, as do many employees in places that cater to tourists in other countries. I've actually been surprised by the vast number of locals who do speak English, but they are overwhelmingly younger, in their 20s and 30s, and they are generally better educated and work at higher paying jobs. A lot of the folks you see working the windows at train stations or bus depots tend to be middle aged, and people from this generation are less likely to know English. This can obviously make things difficult if you're a tourist with questions about how to get somewhere.

Speaking of train stations and bus depots, both the main train station and bus depot in Bratislava are scary, depressing, small, dingy, inadequate, and utterly bleak gateways to the city/country, both inside and out. Even if the staff at the train station bent over backwards to be helpful, a typical tourist would still want to get the hell out of the place ASAP.

Racism and a lack of diversity

There have been several incidents of hate crime over the years in Slovakia that may have made some people think twice about traveling here. Back in 2000, a couple of Japanese tourists were physically assaulted in Bratislava by white supremacists (click here for details of this and other hate crimes from that time, and here's another article). More recently, an African American man playing for a basketball team here was the victim of what appeared to be a racially-motivated attack in a bar in Nitra earlier this year, and in 2008 an African American woman was the victim of a harrowing attack in Košice (click here for details on both incidents).

The singer of popular rock band Elan said in a 2012 interview that he had his gun ready to protect his family from some influx of Chinese immigrants that he was anticipating (I wonder if he is pen pals with Ted Nugent?).

These, of course, are just a few of the more extreme examples; the majority of non-caucasian tourists (most of whom seem to come from east Asian countries) go through Bratislava every year without incident. Racism, however, is nevertheless another potential problem. We've observed a kind of latent racism or intolerance that is, lamentably, a little too common in Slovakia, and while hardline racial extremists are definitely a minority (although they do organize marches around the country several times a year and occasionally run for political office), we've been shocked at how many well-educated, well-traveled and seemingly normal people we've met who turn out to harbor knee-jerk insensitive or intolerant views.

The problem is that Slovakia is an extremely homogenous society, both racially and culturally. Two world wars saw hundreds of thousands of Jews and many European ethnic groups (Hungarians, Germans, etc.) literally forced out of the country. The tightly controlled borders during 40 years of communism meant that very few people from other countries came here, while the regime's intolerance towards Jews led to many more of them fleeing. Today, most of the country's Roma population live isolated in separate ghetto-like communities and have limited contact with ethnic Slovaks. There is a Vietnamese community here (originating from student exchanges with Vietnam during communism) and an increasing number of Koreans thanks to the Kia factory in Žilina, but you can go for days even in Bratislava without really seeing any minorities. This has made Slovakia a disconcertingly Caucasian country, and coming from the culturally diverse Bay Area, I'm still not used to mostly just seeing white people everywhere.

This means that the concept of racial diversity is still kind of foreign to many natives, who just aren't used to seeing or interacting with ethnic minorities, nor are they as hip to the concept of embracing diversity or interested in the offerings of other cultures. Again, I'm absolutely not trying to paint all Slovaks as racists, but you can encounter a varying degrees of insensitivity (sometimes genuinely unknowing) here. That some mainstream politicians here have embraced racist and nationalist sentiments and policies obviously hasn't helped.

On a few occasions Terezia and I have noticed locals pointing, giggling, and one time even catcalling at muslim tourists in the Old Town, especially when the women were wearing face-covering niqab veils. Because muslims aren't an everyday sight (Slovakia is the only EU country without a single mosque), some locals seem to freak out a little over it.

I don't want to delve too deeply into this can of worms right now, and of course, pretty much all countries struggle with racism to varying degrees. Luckily these more vicious attacks aren't a weekly occurrence here. Yet, when they happen, you can bet people are going to hear about it, and it is going to shape the way people perceive the country, with the result being that some ethnicities might feel a little unsafe or unwelcome here.

Some gay and lesbian people might also feel a bit wary traveling here, especially after ~70,000 people showed up to a mass anti-abortion demonstration in Košice in September which had "traditional family" (i.e. anti gay marriage) as one of its main themes. The LGBT community here is feeling like they are slowly making progress, and indeed, the situation in Slovakia is far better/safer than in Russia, to cite one example (Slovakia did not make any of the "least gay-friendly nations" lists that I saw, yet it's not likely to make any gay-friendly lists anytime soon). But acceptance of the LGBT community and support for expanding their rights still have a long way to go here. (See my post about the Pride march).

Uncompromising shopping hours

I sort of hesitate to bring this one up because I don't think most tourists are likely to encounter it, but it could still potentially throw unknowing visitors for a loop.

Most independently-owned non-chain shops are closed all day Sunday (which is common throughout Europe), but are only open for about 3-4 hours Saturday morning. Many of these stores are only open from 9-5 during the week. This means that if you, like most people, work a typical 40-hour week from Monday to Friday, you've basically got a 3-hour window on Saturday morning in which to get any shopping done.

Thankfully, this does not apply to any of the big supermarket chains, fashion retailers, or any shops in malls, which stay open all through the weekend. But seemingly all independent shops refuse to take advantage of the fact that the weekend is usually a great time to shop.

Terezia's mom explained to me that during communism weekends were considered sacred. Sundays were obviously out of the question, but putting in time on a Saturday was also unheard of. My immediate reaction to this was, hadn't anybody heard of staggered weekly shifts?

This attitude has carried over to today. The only real exceptions are restaurants and some of the bigger museums. But I've been told that you can't even have a company picnic or other sort of work-related event on a weekend because literally no one will turn up.

Pozor! Watch your step!

Finally, Bratislava's crumbling and neglected infrastructure (mainly in terms of the cracked, potholed, jagged, warped, divot-filled, and slippery-when-wet sidewalks and streets) is clear evidence that the city isn't going out of its way to make tourists feel welcome. You can read (and see lots of fun pictures) all about this in my Pozor! posts, the most recent of which you can find here.

At any rate, many of these factors really could leave tourists feeling like Slovakia could care less about them. And given that this country's attractions are relatively fewer compared to what you can find in the Czech Republic, Austria, or Poland, that's sure not going to help with the lack of tourism, nor will it pull Slovakia off the list of unfriendly countries. Maybe after a few generations this will change. But until then, we'll have to take our bryndzové halušky with a side of 'screw you!'

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yet another fun-filled weekend in Prague; we never seem to get sick of this place

It had been far too long since we'd last been to Prague, so it was high time for another extended weekend getaway to the spire-studded city that we never seem to get sick of. With hotel rates in the city center dropping as much as 50% when November 1 hits, the first weekend in November turned out to be a good time for a visit.

This time we were able to meet up with Terezia's close friend Zdenka Friday night in the Old Town, and on Sunday afternoon we trekked out to her and her significant other's abode in what I think was Prague 15, a district way out at the south-eastern edge of the city. This was especially nice because we finally got to meet Zdenka's awesome almost-2-years-old son, Alex. It was also interesting to see a more modern part of Prague that most tourists would never set foot in.

The forecast called for on-and-off showers, but it only drizzled a bit Saturday morning, forcing us to duck into the museum of medieval art for a bit, before things cleared up fairly nicely for the rest of the day, allowing us to stroll through our usual favorite streets and neighborhoods in the historical districts.

A climb up to the top of the St Vitus cathedral clock tower (for some reason we'd never ascended this thing before) afforded us stunning views of Prague's landscape. The way that the Vltava River snakes through the city, combined with the gentle, rolling hills on the Stare Mesto side, and the sharp, green hills on the castle side, really does lend it a kind of majestic beauty.

Sunday morning's more substantial rain just meant that we went back to the Veletržní Palace for a more relaxed look at Prague's awesome, sprawling modern art museum than we were able to do on our last trip. I mentioned this in the last Prague post, but this museum really has an impressive collection. Floor 3 contains an awesome array of not just Czech cubists, but a Picasso room and Braque pieces, as well as an impressionist section with a Van Gogh, some Monets, and a slew of Rodin sculptures. There was a smattering of other people there, but I honestly don't know why more people don't go to this place. I don't get why this place wasn't packed on a rainy Sunday morning. No, it's not the Pompidou, but few modern art museums are, and for central Europe, the Veletržní's collection is wonderful.

A piece from the Picasso room.
Lady in Sweater, by Antonin Prochazka
Accordion player by Josef Čapek.
Another one from the Picasso room. 
The museum's one and only Van Gogh.

As for the medieval art museum, like most of these, Prague's gets boring really fast. It's a great collection, but Terezia and I get sick of seeing painting and after painting (and sculpture after sculpture) of Mary holding baby Jesuses that look like creepy, pudgy little middle-aged men. But it was drizzling outside and we were in the area, so we thought we'd check it out, though it's certainly not something we'd return to.

Some readers may recall that in early 2012 we tried a couple of Thai places in downtown Prague, one of which sucked donkey balls (Lemon Leaf), and the of other which was solidly mediocre (Orange Moon). This time, determined not to weigh down our stomachs with Czech food every damn night, we tried another Thai place, called Občanská Plovárna, which has a highly visible yet slightly confusing to access position right along the riverbank between the Čechův and Mánesův bridges.

The restaurant looked posh, with lovely views of the Vltava through its massive, wall-sized windows, but the prices were entirely reasonable. I think we spent the equivalent of €30 for the whole thing. The menu offered more or less the usual range of Thai dishes. First, I should note that we are totally spoiled by Sri Thai Imbiss in Vienna, which makes some of the best and most authentic Thai food either of us have ever had anywhere, ever (which I've written about here and here)so that immediately puts Občanská Plovárna (or any other Thai place) at an extremely unfair disadvantage.

Having said that, Občanská's tom ka kai was… decent; definitely not amazing, but strangely quite spicier than I've normally had it. However, it lacked the intense aromatic flavors of Sri Thai Imbiss' version, courtesy of the generous helpings of kafir lime leaf, lemongrass, galanga root, and cilantro that Sri Thai's chef lovingly graces her soup with. Občanská's was more like what you'd find at any run-of-the-mill Thai place in the Bay Area, only spicier.

But the second starter, jum mum, consisted of these insultingly bland meat-stuffed dumplings that came with a revolting sauce that really tasted only of vinegar. There were no herbs, no seasoning, just unrelenting blandness and a near vomit-inducing sauce with no traces of Thai-ness.

Fortunately, the green curry chicken was actually pretty good. I wouldn't call it mind blowing, but it definitely had a pleasing, rich flavor and a pleasantly spicy kick. The chicken consisted of these kind of bland bits of chicken breast, and the little wedges of eggplant were not cooked all the way through, but overall, I was impressed enough with the flavor of the curry that I would order this dish again.

Terezia opted for this strange noodle dish (can't remember the name and I don't see it on their online menu) that was recommended by the waitress. It consisted of what appeared to be every kind of noodle they had on hand in the kitchen, plus bits of chicken, red bell pepper, cilantro, bits of fried egg, pepper flakes, and maybe a few other herbs. The flavor was decent if well short of life-altering, but it was a generous portion and it wasn't awful or anything. I'd probably try their pad thai next time. The curry was definitely the star of the evening.

Unlike the other two Thai places we tried in Prague, we'd actually go here again, but we remain convinced that there must be a better Thai joint in this city. (But at least this place is better than either of the two Thai places in Bratislava). Despite some redeeming qualities, I would still implore Občanská's chef to take a trip down to Sri Thai Imbiss in Vienna and see how truly good Thai food is made.

We also had an awesome meal at our usual Czech haunt, U Parlamentu, which makes a truly mean duck. On any given night, U Parlamentu seems to pulsate with boisterous chain-smoking Czech-speaking locals, making it a cool experience.

It's interesting to note that this is the first time we've been to Prague in the fall. In the past we've gone at different points during the winter, and I also went with my dad in July 2012, right smack in the middle of peak tourist season. In early November, however, the historical center's main arteries seemed to be every bit as tourist-clogged as in summer. And when we've gone in January or early March, it's actually been less congested and crazy. So, it seems like tourist season is still in full swing when November rolls around, but that it doesn't quite pick up again after its lull until winter is over.

I'm just glad the hotel rates go down in the late fall and the non-peak winter months. A friend of mine was told by someone who runs a travel guide bookstore that Prague hotels were encouraged by the people behind websites like Venere or Trip Advisor to boost their rates, essentially advising them about how much they can get away with charging, and how long they can stretch out their peak season rates. These websites get a cut of any booking made through them, so as troubling as this is, I suppose it's not horribly surprising. Of course, this means that Prague, which used to be a relatively inexpensive city to stay in, is now about as pricey as any other major European city, at least for most of the year.

At any rate, going to Prague is always bittersweet for us. We love exploring the city's narrow, old, atmospheric streets and lovely old bridges, and gawking at its overwhelming and colorful array of historical architecture. We also love that, unlike Bratislava, Prague actually feels like a city; it's so much more cosmopolitan, and it has a bustling urban pulse. So, it's always sad when we have to return back to sad, grey, bleak Bratislava. But at least Prague isn't too far away.

A rare quiet moment on Charles Bridge on Monday morning, before the tourist hordes wake up and invade the thing.

(Click here to see the full set of photos, and here to see photos from an earlier trip to Prague this year!)