Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Back in the US!

We've been back in California for just over a week at the time of writing this, and even though we're still a bit bleary eyed and fuzzy from jet lag, and still waking up at odd hours of the night and crashing involuntarily at 8:00 in the evening, transitioning back to our old life in the Bay has so far been reasonably smooth.

Even the epic trans-Atlantic flight back home wasn't all that bad. The more of these 10+ hour flights we endure, the less grueling they seem to become.

And we're already readjusting to elements of Bay Area life that are both refreshingly pleasant (engaging in friendly chit-chat with grocery store cashiers who smile and ask how you're doing; hitting up some of our old favorite restaurants [Bratislava was sorely lacking in the restaurant department]; going to parties and not being expected to pound shot after shot after shot of slivovice or some other brain cell destroying hard liquor) and somewhat bemusing/annoying (ridiculously pricey cell phone plans; slow drivers in big cars; women [and some men] everywhere doing errands while wearing exercise/workout/yoga clothes [something that's just not done in Europe]). Either way, we're happy to be back.

A trip to Banana Blossom - one of our favorite East Bay Thai joints - on our first week back was absolutely necessary.

Saying goodbye to Terezia's family was of course very emotional, but we were nevertheless 100% ready to leave Slovakia and dive into the next phase of our life together, wherever that winds up taking us, and her family totally understands that. We'll obviously miss Terezia's family deeply, but at least they'll provide a reason to go back and visit Slovakia whenever we're able to.

But we didn't feel even a twinge of sadness as we drove past downtown Bratislava for the last time on the way to the airport. After three years we really had our fill of the place, and we're totally ready to move on. (In case you missed it, read this post for more on why we chose to leave Slovakia.)

And I don't really envision us ever really longing for Bratislava, though I'm sure we'll have moments when we'll miss certain aspects of the place. But Bratislava is a small, culturally homogenous city that offers very little of the diversity, richness, and stunning visual scenery of cities like Paris, Vienna, or San Francisco, and even though we met some wonderful people, we really felt it was the right time to leave.

But we will miss the snail-paced life in Terezia's parents' village, where we often helped out in their garden, took Terezia's dad to either of the village's dingy, smoke-stained pubs to have shots of twitch-inducing slivovice or borovička chased with refreshing pints of Slovak beer, or just walked around and gawked at the old tumble-down barns and narrow-fronted homes and fences overrun by twisted blankets of vines. Quiet, rural Podrečany was a nice retreat from grey, concrete Bratislava, and Terezia's parents were always happy to have us in their modest home, and they always plied us with copious amounts of food (and Terezia's dad's homemade moonshine).

The last two weeks in Slovakia couldn't have gone by fast enough, since, as I detailed in the previous two posts, we spent much of them in the isolated (if you don't have a car) suburban purgatory of Bernolákovo (where Terezia's brother Tony lives) taking care of paperwork and wrapping everything up.

Fortunately, moving back to the US requires less red tape than moving to Slovakia, i.e. there's no permanent residency to re-establish; you just come back and pick up where you left off, more or less.

The only major thing to deal with is that since we're currently unemployed and we have no idea how long we'll be jobless, we are required to get health insurance as part of the Affordable Health Care Act, which so far does not seem to be too big of a deal. A representative we spoke to claimed that we qualify for Medi-Cal, a state subsidized program that, while far from ideal, will at least keep us covered until either of us find a job that offers a real benefits package. So, at least there's that.

And of course, we've started the job search, and we're both hoping that the experience we've now got under our belts from what we did in Bratislava will open up some new doors and hopefully enable us to find work that's not soul-crushing or tedious.

So, while we're obviously glad that we're back, there is an element of uncertainty to the whole thing, as we have no clue how long it will take us to find jobs.

Plus, the Bay Area has changed in some fairly surprising ways in the three years we were away. Mainly, the recent tech bubble in San Francisco and Silicon Valley has driven rents up to the stratosphere, and there has been some inevitable spill-over into our territory in the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley, two very cool towns to live in, which, until recently, were generally a more affordable alternative to the real estate insanity across the Bay in SF.

These days a one-bedroom apartment in a desirable Oakland neighborhood can run you as much as $2,000 a month - the kind of pricing typical for San Francisco over a decade ago during the first tech bubble. And even if this current tech bubble bursts, the sky-high rents would likely only level off and stagnate, rather than decrease. Getting priced out of the Bay Area is a very real fear, so I'm sure there will be some anxiety over whether or not we can make this work.

As for the blog, readers can breathe a sigh of relief as the activity here will inevitably slow down. The main purpose of this blog was to write about our experiences in Slovakia and our perspectives of the place, as well as our travels around Europe while living there. And with that big three-year adventure behind us, I'll be putting the blog on semi-hiatus. But do check back from time to time, as I'll likely come back occasionally to blather about any interesting developments in our lives or future trips to Slovakia or elsewhere in Europe (or the world), or to report on any amusing, bewildering, or depressing noteworthy political developments in Slovakia. But for now, we'll be focused on getting back into the groove of Bay Area life, and while we're genuinely excited about that, I don't think that will necessarily make good fodder for the blog.

At any rate, I really want to thank all the folks who actually took the time to read my often rambling posts and even left comments, as well as all the Russian spam bots that really helped boost the blog's page hits and overall traffic. Even though Terezia and I have complicated, ambivalent feelings about Slovakia, if anything I've written has stirred even a modicum of interest in the country, that's a good thing!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Can Terezia and Jeff avoid a trip to the Slovak Foreign Police??? Read this post to find out!!!

We rolled out of bed early to catch the 7:15 bus to Senec to go back to the administrative office where the bureaucratic overlord for Senec county presides. As I mentioned in the previous post, this was the woman we needed to talk to about whether or not I need to go to the Foreign Police to cancel my permanent residency in Slovakia.

The office from where the bureaucratic overlord for Senec county presides.

As it turned out, we'd crossed paths with this woman before. In fact, I wrote about her in a blog post back in 2011 when she refused to give Terezia her permanent residency ID card because of some complicated Kafka-esque BS. On that occasion, she kept shouting "Nedam! Nedam!" (a very brusque way of saying "I'm not going to give it to you!"), while pounding her fist on the desk for added emphasis.

This time she was much more pleasant, and after Terezia jogged her memory a bit, she even remembered us. But as soon as she recalled that I'm a foreigner, a cudzinec, she immediately and unequivocally stated that she would have nothing to do with my case, that it was completely out of her hands and under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Police. She also confirmed that we had to go to the Foreign Police office in Dunajská Streda and not the dreaded Bratislava location.

But as I mentioned in the previous post, getting to Dunajská Streda from Bernolákovo or Senec without a car is no easy feat. You have to take a bus from either town to Bratislava and then transfer to another bus to Dunajská Streda, or take a bus to Galanta and transfer to another line there. Both take about two hours in one direction, even though Dunajská Streda is only about 30 kilometers if driving directly from Senec.

As it was still early in the morning and we didn't have anything else lined up that day, we thought, "screw it, let's just go to the Foreign Police in Dunajská Streda and see what happens!!!"

Trying to rely on public transportation in Senec county

But before I get into that, let me pause for a minute to explain what a massive pain in the rectum it is to get around (and get to and from) Senec and Bernolákovo without a car.

The bus schedule for the lines that run between the two towns is wildly erratic, and the printed schedules that are posted at the bus stops can be difficult to decipher. If you see someone else waiting around at the bus stop, it's sometimes easier to just ask that person about the next bus rather than trying to decode the cryptic schedule.

To give you an example of how wonky the bus schedule is, we made it to Senec Monday morning by 7:45 AM, we'd taken care of business by 8:20, and we were back at the main bus depot by 8:30. But the next bus to Bernolákovo wasn't running until just after 9:00, and that bus would only drop us off clear across town from Tony's house, requiring about a mile and a half of walking. The bus that drops us off closer to Tony's house wasn't leaving again for another two hours! Normally, walking a mile and a half wouldn't phase us in the least, but Bernolákovo is so mind-numbingly dull and so utterly devoid of any charm or stimulating visual scenery, that walking through the town feels like an eternity.

You can also take the train from Senec to Bernolákovo, but again, the train station is kind of across town from Tony's house, requiring a mile and a half walk. There are buses that you can catch about a block away from the train station, but they also run infrequently, and they don't always take you to the stop by Tony's house, so it's often faster just to walk the rest of the way back to Tony's.

Basically, if you don't have a car (or a bike), and can't manage to time your errands around the perplexing and uncompromising bus schedule, you're screwed.

A trip to Dunajská Streda!

So, we took the bus to downtown Bratislava's main bus station (usually a 30-45 minute ride from Bernolákovo and buses to Bratislava only come once an hour), transferred onto a Dunajská Streda-bound bus, and settled in for the hour-long ride.

Dunajská Streda is a small town about 50-ish kilometers southeast of Bratislava with absolutely nothing of any interest to anyone who doesn't actually live there. But in the 1990s it became infamous as a hotbed of mafia activity. Things got so bad that the regular inhabitants started fearing for their lives, as innocent bystanders were getting caught in the crossfire of shootouts between rival mafiosos, and businesses were being burned to the ground for failing to make their monthly "protection" payments to the local mafia thugs. Things eventually simmered down (essentially once enough of the rival mafia gangs shot each other off, according to a book Terezia read on the subject) and today it's just another example of a blah nowhere Slovak town whose former Habsburg-era visual charm was ruthlessly obliterated by the communists. (It also has a substantial Hungarian population, as do many towns along Slovakia's southern border, so it's interesting to hear a lot of Hungarian spoken on the streets and to see signs with both languages.)

Fortunately for us, both the train station and the bus depot are situated a mere few blocks away from the Foreign Police, which is hidden away on an unassuming residential side street. The office is located in a building that looks like it used to be a big house, and the well-worn interior was clearly converted into a government office space long before the Velvet Revolution.

As soon as we walked in, we noticed that there wasn't a really a waiting room - just a narrow, dingy, dimly-lit hallway. Just past the entrance, you make a hard left into a small room with a counter staffed by two Foreign Police officers. One very young female officer was in the midst of a tense sounding discussion with a Slovak woman who was apparently trying to bring her foreign fiancee into the country. A middle-aged woman to her right noticed us from behind the counter and called us over with a "Nech sa páči".

And that was it. No taking a number from a ticket machine! No 5-6 hour wait! In fact, no wait to speak of. Wow!!!

What happened next, though, was an amusing example of how even though the bureaucracy in this country is very real and fairly painful, the people who devised the system didn't think things through all the way, and for cases that are more unique, they almost seem to be making up the process as they go along.

Terezia explained to the woman that we're moving and I'm canceling my permanent residency. The officer pulled out a blank piece of paper and a pen, and dictated a paragraph from memory in Slovak for Terezia to write down by hand, which basically said that I was voluntarily relinquishing my permanent residency in Slovakia after three years on such and such date, and blah, blah, blah...

Let's just contemplate for a second how beautifully absurd it is that they really don't have a standard official form for this exact purpose already typed, printed out and ready to sign. I mean, you go to all this trouble to create such a needlessly complicated bureaucracy in which you have to fill out a new pile of paperwork at every turn, and yet when someone wants to leave the country, you don't even have a single form?

When the officer was done dictating the letter, I signed and dated it, she photocopied it, stamped and signed the photocopy to make it look official, took my permanent residency ID card (which is fine, as my picture - taken after standing in line for several hours since 6:00 AM - was hilariously awful), and that was it! There was nothing more to do, according to this woman. No retrieving my file, no having to explain my reasons for leaving, no fees to be paid in kolky (stamps issued specifically to pay various state fees), etc. Nothing. We were in and out in 10 minutes.

Sure, we did spend four fucking hours just getting to and from Dunajská Streda via public transportation, plus an additional 45 minutes or so piddling around Dunajská Streda waiting for the next bus back to Bratislava, which is about how much time you can expect to spend waiting around on a typical day at the Foreign Police in Bratislava. But the bus ride, as dull as it is, is still totally preferable to standing around in the soul-crushing, Dante-esque nightmare that is the waiting room at Bratislava's Foreign Police office.

But there was still the small matter of how the administrative offices in Senec and Bernolákovo would know that I'm no longer living there. Terezia asked the woman if we have to bring them any official documentation, but she said 'no', explaining that they send the information to the state statistics agency, which in turn informs the relevant authorities in Senec and Bernolákovo the next time there's an election, since there would be one less resident at a particular address who would vote. That would then prompt the authorities to unregister me from that address.

Slight problem though: not being an EU citizen, I was never allowed to vote in any Slovak elections in the first place. And I wouldn't be eligible to vote anyway unless I became a Slovak citizen. So how exactly would this work, then?

Again, it seems like no one bothered to really think this process through. It's like it just never occurred to anyone that someone might actually want to leave this country, so they didn't come up with a proper procedure to follow.

At this point we began wondering if Tony might have to go to the Matrika in Bernolákovo or Senec and unregister me from his home himself. And he would actually have a good reason to do this: since Terezia and I have permanent residency at Tony's address, that means he pays more for his garbage bill. This is no joke - they don't bill you based on how much you actually throw away, but on how many people are living in your home. This extra amount he's paying on his garbage bill is actually fairly trivial, but still, it's the principle of it!

But ultimately what matters here is that the Foreign Police lady insisted that we have done everything we need to do, so from this point on it's really out of our hands!

At any rate, as we sat on the crowded, hour-long bus ride back to Bratislava (and the other crowded bus to Bernolákovo) we felt a sense of relief that we could finally put the Foreign Police behind us for good (unless of course, god forbid, we decide to move back someday!). This was something we'd been dreading for months, and it turned out to be surprisingly - almost suspiciously - painless.

Back to Senec

Wednesday morning we went back to Senec. We took our copy of the handwritten note from the Foreign Police over to the bureaucratic overlord, who said this document was good enough for her. Terezia mentioned to her what the woman at the Foreign Police told us about how the statistics agency would inform them of my departure when the next election rolls around, but she interrupted Terezia to say "We don't get anything from the Foreign Police". Then she looked me up in the system, and somehow I'd already been unregistered from Tony's house, but she couldn't explain why or how. She only said, "Well, he's here, but he's not here," which is, like, really cosmic, man. But what in the hell was the lady from the Foreign Police going on about then???

I suppose this is yet another example of how no one really seems to know quite how anything in this overly complicated bureaucracy works, yet somehow the system still manages to trundle along. Yay Slovakia!?

This is the old, abandoned Jewish synagogue in Senec. I've written about this subject on the blog before, but after many Slovak Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and after a good number of those who survived fled when the communists came to power, most synagogues were abandoned. Some still survive today, albeit in a dilapidated state, because no one seems to know what to do with them or has any money to restore them. A handful are still in use, several were demolished, a few have been converted into galleries or cultural centers, and many have just been left to the elements.

She then looked at a form that Terezia had filled out in order to cancel her permanent residency, on which Terezia had to list the address that she's moving to. The woman asked whether California was a country, and Terezia had to explain to her that it is one of America's 50 states. There's something almost kind of endearing about a person so oblivious to the world outside her little central European country that she's never even heard of California, the eighth largest economy in the world!

Now Terezia has to finish canceling her permanent residency, we have to go back to Dôvera to cancel our health insurance (both of which will require one last trip to Senec), and we have a few other smaller matters to deal with, and then we'll finally be set to leave this country.

Panelaks in Senec.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A little fun with Slovak bureaucracy before heading back home

Terezia (on the phone with the Matrika [town registry] in Bernolákovo): Hello, could you please tell me what your hours are today?

Person at Matrika (in a testy, patronizing tone of voice): It's on the internet. Go to the website.

Terezia: I'm sorry but I'm not at home right now and I don't have access to the internet, so could you please just tell me how late you're open today?

And with that pleasant phone call we officially began our foray into the bureaucratic obstacle course that we must navigate in order to leave Slovakia legally.

We moved out of our apartment in downtown Bratislava shortly before leaving for France, and we'll be staying at Terezia's brother Tony's house in Bernolákovo (a small suburban town outside Bratislava) until we fly back home in mid-November. We gave ourselves a couple of weeks to wrap things up in Slovakia before leaving.


Having fun with the cable company

First, we had what should have been the quick and simple matter of closing our internet/cable account with UPC and returning the cable box, a process that wound up being eerily similar to a typical experience with any state office.

We arrived to find their Bratislava customer service center was not mobbed like it was on previous visits, and got our number from the ticket machine and waited just a few minutes - exactly the time it took for the girl who helped us to finish her giggly conversation with her co-worker.

Since we signed a two-year internet/cable contract with UPC at the end of December 2012, our contact won't end until the end of December 2014, but we have to keep paying €30 a month until then. If we end the contract right now, even with less than two months to go, we will owe UPC €500 - their penalty for ending a contract early. There's a reason why Slovaks refer to cable companies as mafia.

Things were moving along swimmingly until our encounter with the young woman to whom we were supposed to return the cable box. As she opened the package and rooted around, she said in a slightly haughty tone of voice, "OK, so, I don't see the cables. This obviously came with two cables. Do you know where they are?"

We said, "Well, we're not sure. Could you describe what they look like?"

"Ah, so it seems you don't have the cables," she said, as if we'd committed some unthinkably grave error and we were now in serious trouble.

She fished around in a box behind her desk and produced the two cables. I quickly realized that one cable, which connects the cable box with the TV, had been mistakenly packed with the TV in a box, and the cable that connects the cable box to the cable line connector in the wall was left at the old apartment.

We explained that we had just moved and that we honestly couldn't remember every little thing that came with the cable box. Surely we weren't the first people in the history of modern Slovakia to forget to return these cables.

"Well, you'll need to find the cables and bring them back," she asserted.

Terezia and I both gave her a death stare that said, "You can't be serious."

"Or, you can pay a fine," she added.

"OK, how much is the fine?"

She looked through a dense spreadsheet for the fine: "For both cables, you will have to pay a total of €3. So, what do you want to do?"

Terezia and I gave her a look that any perceptive person would read as, "You're copping this much attitude over three god damn euros?"

"Um, yeah... we'll just pay the €3 fine, thank you."

"Fine, suit yourself!" the woman responded, shocked by our willingness to subject ourselves to such a harsh punishment.

She printed out a form that we had to sign, then went to a back room to make a photocopy of it for us, after which we had to take another number from the ticket machine and wait in a different line to pay the fine. This time we waited about 15 minutes until we were finally summoned to counter #15, where a young guy sat and stared at the photocopy of the form for about five long, agonizing minutes, before finally asking, "I can't make out what this says; are you a company?"

We noticed that the form was barely readable as it had been copied on a machine that was in desperate need of a new toner cartridge. Terezia took the form and read the information off to him. "Whiteaker..."

Bernolákovo's Matrika

Next up was the Matrika back in Bernolákovo. We dealt with this fairly unpleasant woman back in 2011 when trying to register our marriage in Slovakia and establish our residency at Tony's house. We managed to make it to her office by 11:40 - just in time to catch her before she took off for lunch.

As Terezia began explaining our situation to her, we were quickly reminded of this woman's annoying habit of interrupting you mid-sentence to tell you that whatever it is you need from her does not fall under her jurisdiction. Then you get a few more words in, and she interrupts again, and this pattern repeats for a while until she gradually comes around to realizing that she is, in fact, supposed to do something.

It sounded like canceling Terezia's permanent residency would be relatively straightforward, but she said that I would have to go to the Foreign Police, that she had no role in registering me at Tony's house, and that she'd have nothing to do with unregistering me. This last bit seemed a bit odd to us, as she did have some small role in registering me at Tony's house after I was approved by the Foreign Police to live in this country. But who knows? Maybe the process has changed.

Taking care of business in Senec

The next morning we headed out to the nearby town of Senec at a quarter past 7:00, where we needed to visit several offices. Senec is like the administrative seat for the county - if you could call it that - where Bernolákovo is situated, and is where most administrative matters in the county are handled. For example, if you have permanent residency in Bernolákovo, Senec is where you have to go to set up a business license, deal with the tax authorities, register with the social insurer, get a driver's license, and so on.

We got to Senec via the bus around 7:40, and first walked over to the administrative office where we opened my business license so that we could close it. I need to close the business license so that I can, A. go to the social insurer to let them know that I am unemployed and will no longer be making contributions, and B. let the tax office know so that I can stop paying taxes (even if you have a business license for something you do on the side, but you're making zero income from it, you still may have to pay taxes and make contributions to the social insurer unless you close it).

This turned out to be a breeze. In fact, opening the business license was pretty easy too, and closing it was a snap. A few forms were stamped and signed, and that was apparently it.

Next, we walked several blocks to the social insurer. The social insurance building in Senec is kind of fun because there's absolutely no privacy, or diskrétna zóna, for the clients. Every word uttered in this uncarpeted, echoey room reverberates for everyone else to hear. On a previous visit, the entire room got to hear one of the ladies working there verbally ream an elderly man over some error he made in trying to collect his retirement payments.

This time there was no line. We produced the necessary forms to a young woman whose extremely short, tight, revealing dress looked far more suited to going out clubbing than helping people with social insurance issues. She showed us the balance that I still owe (€120), some forms were stamped and signed, and we were soon on our way.

After that we walked over to the tax office, where I had to return a card I was issued that essentially served as my tax ID, and filled out a form to show that I would no longer be a tax-paying resident after this year. Again, it all seemed fairly straight forward.

Next we went to the office for Dôvera, the health insurance company, to find out everything we need to do to cancel my health insurance.

Everyone in Slovakia is required by law to have health insurance, and if you are self-employed like I was, you cover the monthly €60-ish fee yourself. In order to cancel it and stop paying each month, you have to prove one of two things: that you no longer live in Slovakia, or that you are a legal resident of another country and have health insurance or coverage there. Since we obviously won't have health insurance in the US before we leave, we'll have to do the former, which requires us to cancel our permanent residency in Slovakia as proof that we no longer live here.

Canceling our permanent residency could be a hassle if we ever decide to move back to Slovakia, but for now it's all we can do. When we first moved here, establishing permanent residency wasn't just a pain in the ass for me as a foreigner, but it also proved to be a hassle for Terezia - a native of the country. But if I don't do this, I will be legally obligated to keep paying for health insurance every month, and I'll get into all kinds of trouble if I simply stop paying.

Fortunately, my permanent residency ID card expires on November 25. It was supposed to last five years, and I'm legally entitled to live here for five years, but because my US passport expires in March 2015, the Foreign Police decided to have my card expire after three years, and I'd have to renew my US passport in order to renew the permanent residency card.

At any rate, the impending expiration of my residency ID turns out to be incredibly helpful for providing Dôvera with proof that we're leaving the country. The woman there said all we really need to show her is my soon-to-expire ID and a printout of our plane ticket back to the states.

The Foreign Police?

So, there is a small chance that we may not have to go to the Foreign Police after all - at least not for Dôvera. If that is the case, it would be a profound relief. Readers may recall our torturous experiences with the Foreign Police back in 2011 when I was trying to become a legal resident. Their office in Bratislava's Petrzalka district is truly a Boschian vision of hell, and something no one should be forced to endure.

Even worse, in late September the Slovak Spectator ran a short piece about how the lines at the Bratislava Foreign Police have gotten so bad that people are now camping in tents out front over night, getting in line up to 15 hours before the office opens at 8:00 AM. (Since then, the situation has apparently improved a bit, and the office has even extended its vexingly uncompromising hours: it used to be open only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings, and was closed Tuesdays and Thursdays; now, after the situation got some attention from the media as well as the Slovak ombudswoman, it's open on Tuesdays and has extended its Wednesday and Friday hours.)

Bratislava's inviting Foreign Police office. 

But, some big changes have been made since my last visit, and because I have permanent residency in Bernolákovo, a town just outside Bratislava, I would now have to go to the Foreign Police department in Dunajská Streda instead, a town that's about an hour's drive southeast from Bratislava. This could really save our asses if we do end up having to go, as I imagine the lines and the endurance-defying wait-times at a Foreign Police department in a smaller town like Dunajská Streda would be far shorter.

Of course there still is one caveat: we do not have a car, and there are no direct bus or train lines from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda. To get there, we would have to either take a bus from Bernolákovo to Bratislava, and then transfer to a bus to Dunajská Streda, or take a bus to the town of Galanta (which is basically 30 minutes by car in the opposite direction from Bratislava) and then transfer to a Dunajska Streda-bound bus there. Both options take about two hours one-way, including the time spent waiting around for the connecting bus. (Driving directly from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda supposedly takes about 30-40 minutes.)

I need to pause here for a moment and state how bizarre it is to me that there are zero direct bus lines from Bernolákovo or Senec to Dunajská Streda. Tony and his wife Silvia had a more typically Slovak attitude towards this dilemma, saying that nobody ever goes from Bernolákovo to Dunajská Streda anyway, while still conceding that maybe it's a tiny bit weird that there are at least no lines from Senec.

I also have to point out that it does seem a bit strange that someone in Bernolákovo would have to go to the Foreign Police in Dunajská Streda. Bernolákovo is much closer to Bratislava than Dunajská Streda, and Dunajská Streda is in a totally different region (there are eight self-administrative regions in Slovakia; Bernolákovo is in the Bratislava region, and Dunajská Streda is in the neighboring Trnava region).

But whatever - not having to subject oneself to the special plane of hell that is Bratislava's Foreign Police office is a blessing and I shouldn't complain too much!

We called the phone number for the Dunajská Streda Foreign Police department listed on their website about 15 times over the course of a few days during their working hours, but no one picked up once. Not even a recording. The phone just rang and rang and rang. Needless to say, this did not instill us with much confidence.

There is one more person we still need to talk to in Senec (at the same office where we canceled my business license) who is apparently the bureaucratic overlord for the entire county. Unfortunately, she was out of the office on the morning we visited, but the woman we spoke to there said that this overlord is the one we need to talk to about all matters pertaining to canceling our permanent residency, and that she should be able to help us if the woman at the Matrika in Bernolákovo is being difficult or unhelpful. She will ultimately be the one who will tell us whether or not our immediate future will involve a visit to the dreaded Foreign Police.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

France: A thoroughly awesome trip and some final random observations

We left Avignon around 10:00 Saturday morning and headed back to Paris' CDG airport via the TGV. We're still amazed that you can get from Avignon to Paris in just over three hours. This distance is comparable to going from Prague to Budapest, and that takes nearly seven hours on a regular train. So, we love the TGV, despite the fact that it's pricey and you have to buy your tickets kind of far in advance. If only they had some kind of high-speed rail system in central Europe.

From there we embarked on the two-hour flight to Vienna, then the hour-long bus ride to cold, grey, gloomy Bratislava.

And with that, we said goodbye to France. This was a thoroughly amazing, fun, and beautiful vacation for both of us, despite catching nasty colds and having to endure a few lousy meals. Easily among the most memorable three weeks either of us have ever experienced.

For Terezia, Paris was simply the most amazing city she'd ever been to. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it pulses with life and feels like a truly culturally switched-on and cosmopolitan place. With the gorgeous buildings, the dizzying collections of art, the diverse array of people, the fascinating layers of history, and some of the food, this city simply never gets boring. Getting to see Paris was a genuinely eye-opening experience for Terezia, who now feels like we wasted our time living in Bratislava for three years. If we could live anywhere in the world, Paris would probably be our first choice.

Exploring Provence was a major highlight for both of us. We were floored by everything we saw, every town we visited. It was also great to leave Provence for the end of the trip: coming after the energy of Paris, then ramping down a bit with Lyon, it felt wonderful to readjust to the slower, more relaxed pace of life in Provence.

Renting a car and driving around Provence was an especially awesome way to explore the region, and we'd happily do it again. Getting to see stuff like Les Baux-de-Provence, Pont du Gard, and the gorgeous hill towns in the Luberon region was a truly eye-opening experience.

We found the range of ethnic diversity refreshing (especially after living in homogenized Slovakia for three years); not just in Paris, but just about everywhere else we ventured. It's this kind of diversity that makes cities and towns much more exciting and enriching places to be in, and it's definitely something we need in any place that we would call home.

We feel like we got to experience a fairly good cross-section of France, and I'm happy that after all these years I finally got the chance to start getting to know this country the way I've gotten to know Italy.

We're already thinking about which new places to go on the next trip to France, with the Dordogne and the Ardeche River/Gorges at the top of the list, and perhaps some of the less touristy, upscale areas along the Mediterranean coast (are there still any left?). We're also curious about Marseille. And I still need to see the Gothic cathedrals in Chartres, Reims, and Amiens.

I've been inserting random observations about France in some of my posts, and I thought I'd close this out with a few more.

Putting an end to French stereotypes

You know the stereotype: that the French - especially Parisians - hate Americans, refuse to speak English (or at least do so with disdain), act condescending when foreigners butcher their language, and display a general air of rudeness.

I didn't encounter any of this behavior in 2009, and we certainly didn't experience it this time either. Pretty much everyone we dealt with in restaurants or shops was friendly, patient, and totally willing to speak English, especially when explaining menu items we didn't understand, and never resentful about doing so. We made a point of starting all communication in French, however rudimentary, and as soon as it became clear that my vocabulary was limited, the restaurant server or shop clerk would switch over to English without batting an eye.

And yet, this stereotype still seems to persist in some circles, and while there may have been some truth to it decades ago, today it's time to lay this sucker to rest. The French appear to have accepted the fact that English has become the lingua franca for people from all over the world (and that learning it these days is pretty much mandatory for people in numerous career fields), and I think it's possible that the younger generations today simply may not have any of the hang-ups or resentments that the older generations might have harbored.

But we always try to be polite and we always make our best attempt to initiate communication in French. I'm sure there exists a breed of fussy, rude, or inflexible Americans who make life difficult for hotel or restaurant staff, and perhaps the French reserve their ire for them. But the interactions we had were nothing but polite and friendly.

And I'll end with this: we've encountered infinitely worse customer service here in Slovakia than anywhere in France. France has Slovakia beat in the customer service department by a profoundly significant degree.

The Paris Metro

My brother lived in Paris for over a year in 2009-2010, and when he moved to San Francisco, he was quickly overcome by a deep depression. The reason? After getting accustomed to zipping to any corner of Paris with ease on the Metro, he had come to the realization that San Francisco's public transportation system stinks.

He found himself stymied by perpetually delayed buses that share the roads (and the traffic jams) with the cars; he was unwilling to rely solely on his bike in a city with such steep hills and car-related congestion; and he was bummed out about having to drive everywhere and spend an eternity searching for parking. In short, he had been spoiled by the Paris Metro system, and San Francisco's pitiful excuse for public transit was seriously getting him down and tainting his impression of what is otherwise a city with a lot to offer.

If you live in Paris there is absolutely no reason to own a car. The Metro's complex web can get you pretty much anywhere, and if it doesn't, your destination is usually within walking distance, and there is a system of buses to fill in the gaps.

We are also amazed by the intricate warren of tunnels and passageways that lead in and out of and around the underground stations, especially those with connecting lines. You lose all sense of direction when you're under there, and you just have to follow the signs, which are usually clearly marked and easy to find. The system map looks daunting at first, but you get the hang of it quickly and then it's a breeze.

Since we were there for more than a week, we both got a Navigo card - a magnetic card/pass that beeps when you flash it at the turnstile and lets you through. You pay about 20 euros for a week of totally unlimited use within the city's system, and if you're using the metro a fair amount, it's really the best and most convenient way to go. (The only catch is that when you charge a Navigo for a week, it starts on Monday morning and ends Sunday at midnight, so if you fill your card on, say, a Wednesday, you won't get a full week's use because it'll still expire Sunday.)

More on the several life-altering and the few lousy restaurant meals we had on the trip

I know we griped about a few of those lousy meals, but we did have several outstanding ones, a few of which we'll probably remember for the remainder of our lives. That lamb saddle with wild mushrooms dish we had the very first night of the trip was never quite topped, and it certainly set expectations high, but we had plenty of other meals that were extremely memorable.

Awesome dish from Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris.
The most mind-blowing mussels ever from A Cote in Arles. 

But Terezia was genuinely shocked by some of those less-than-stellar (or downright horrible) meals we had. I think she was expecting that more chefs/restaurants would maintain a higher standard, and she was surprised to see a couple places (which were highly rated, non-touristy establishments) churning out some truly awful stuff, especially in a country with such an unparalleled reputation for its cuisine.

The under seasoning was especially strange to her. She doesn't understand how a chef could live in a country with every herb imaginable readily available, and yet insist on totally under seasoning his/her dishes. Part of the art of cooking is knowing how to use herbs, and how to strike the perfect balance so that they elevate and enhance the flavors; not eschewing herbs altogether so as to produce bland and unexciting food. If we'd wanted bland food, we'd go to Scandinavia, or we'd eat out more in Slovakia! Terezia would've gotten an 'F' if she had tried to prepare a few of these bizarrely under seasoned dishes at the school where she trained to be a chef.

But again, we did have numerous meals that totally met or even exceeded our high expectations, and you're always bound to run into some degree of inconsistency no matter how much research you do. At least there still seem to be plenty of chefs who 'get' how to cook in a way that makes the flavors pop - it's just a matter of finding them!

Amazing tagliatelle with truffles from Le Petit Gourmand in Avignon.

My French

In a word: pathetic. But, since Terezia's knowledge of French was zilch, we had to rely on my pitifully rusty, barely existent French to get by. She kind of got a kick out of this since I'd become so reliant on her in Slovakia and on our numerous travels to the Czech Republic. Fortunately, things worked out OK.

We had a few instances where I needed to sort out a minor problem in French, and in most cases, as I mentioned above, the people we dealt with spoke decent English and had absolutely no qualms about doing so.

In a grocery store I had to ask a clerk whether they sell wine bottle openers, since we didn't have one, but I didn't know the actual word for that. So, I had to stupidly ask, "Avez-vous la chose pour ouvrir une bouteille de vin?" (Do you have the thing for opening a bottle of wine?)

Or when Terezia's Navigo card stopped working (only temporarily, it turned out) because she didn't hear the beep of the turnstile and hesitated too long when going through it, I had to explain to the station agent: "Nous avons achete ce Navigo hier, mais ce ne marche pas aujourd'hui" (We bought this Navigo yesterday, but it's not working today). I didn't always know the most common or eloquent way to phrase things, but I gave it my best shot, and the conversation would usually transition to English anyway.

Still, I'd really like to brush up on my French before the next time we go back so that I can feel a bit more confident about communicating in certain situations. My main fear is speaking to someone in French but then not understanding what that person says back to me and feeling like an idiot. I could understand anywhere from 15-50% of the French that I heard around me, depending on numerous factors, but when attempting to speak the language, it is exceedingly difficult for me to recall the words from my failing memory and get them from my brain to my mouth.

I fared better with my Italian when we were in Italy back in 2011, but since then my Italian has faded alarmingly fast! But sometimes when trying to remember how to say something in French, I could only think of how to say it in Italian. So, I'm basically completely useless when it comes to foreign languages!

At any rate, we're now back in Slovakia attempting to navigate the bureaucratic obstacle course involved in tying everything up here before we move back to California (I'll write more about the fun we're having with state offices and the super happy fun people who work in them soon!). As for France, we're still reflecting back on the trip constantly, and we wish we'd made it there sooner!

Monday, October 27, 2014

More fun in Avignon

I mentioned in a previous post that our hotel in Arles stingily charged €8 extra per person per day for breakfast on top of the rate for the room (an alarming trend we noticed when researching B&Bs in France), which forced us to seek out breakfast on our own. This proved particularly frustrating in Arles because the inhabitants there seem to maintain a very clear distinction between bakeries and cafes, and the two almost never seem to overlap (e.g. you can't get a pastry with your coffee at a cafe or vice versa at a bakery). That meant we had to go to a cafe or a bar for coffee (and these places never served it to-go), and then head to a bakery (or grocery store) in search of some food to eat. This ate up valuable time, and we were sometimes grouchy and foggy-headed while wandering the streets in the morning in search of the best looking places for our morning fuel.

But this was not a problem in Avignon, despite the fact that the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Colbert, which was an otherwise nice and classy-looking place) had the same stupid breakfast policy. Avignon has an abundance of cafes that also serve croissants and other pastries, which meant we could get everything we needed in one stop, and made mornings significantly easier.

Caught in the Mistral wind!

We had a lazy morning checking out some of Avignon's vintage clothing shops and record stores, exploring some of the old, funky Medieval churches, and keeping an eye open for potentially good restaurants. We also wandered into Les Halles, Avignon's big indoor food market, which like seemingly all food markets in France was spilling over with a vast assortment of fresh produce, seafood, cheese, meat, etc... I hope people who live near these markets realize how lucky they are. Terezia can't emphasize enough how much she misses stuff like this in poor old Slovakia, where the markets just pale in comparison.

We wound up back on the picturesque Rue des Teinturies and settled on a bustling place for lunch called Le Zinzolin. It had a very hip, artsy, casual vibe, as well as waitresses with nose and eyebrow piercings and funky art on the walls. The clientele appeared to be all local. What caught my eye was the risotto with chanterelles on the menu.

Sadly, the lunch wound up being so mediocre that I forgot to take any photos of it! We split a caesar salad which came with spinach and arugula rather than romaine, and had fried pieces of chicken and zero anchovies or anchovy flavor (most European establishments have a very open interpretation of what constitutes a caesar salad). My risotto was just OK. The mushrooms were nice, fresh, and forest-y, but again, the whole thing was very under seasoned, excessively creamy (needed an infusion of wild mushroom stock to elevate and balance the flavors) and was desperately crying out for a generous helping of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, which a good Italian chef would absolutely know to do automatically.

Terezia ordered a burger that was dry and overcooked. The whole thing was very 'meh', while the service was super slow. Not sure why this place is so popular. And given that we were two for two with lousy restaurants in Avignon, we were starting to panic a bit.

Palais des Papes and the St. Benezet Bridge

Later that afternoon we went into the Palais des Papes. Most people surely know the story, but back in 1309, the Vatican elected a French pope who moved the catholic church headquarters to his native France in Avignon. He and a series of French successor popes built the Palais des Papes, a massive Medieval palace to house the entire operation, which in turn brought loads of money, status, and development to Avignon, transforming it from a little hick town into a bustling Medieval metropolis. In 1378, some Vatican officials back in Rome grew frustrated and elected their own Italian pope, which resulted in the well-known schism, where for over 30 years there were two popes - one in Avignon, and one in Rome. This situation was finally resolved in 1417, but Avignon remained an important and wealthy town in the region.

The Palais des Papes is the biggest surviving Gothic palace of its kind. The interior is curiously unfurnished, however, as the place seems to have struggled to find things to fill up its vast rooms and lure visitors. Some rooms go into great detail about the construction of the palace and its gradual expansion, with models and diagrams of the different stages. A few rooms have spare period furnishings, while others feature gorgeous, immaculately restored frescos.

We thought it was cool that a few of the bigger rooms, like the papal conclave and the airy Gothic Grand Chapel, were being used to display contemporary art. The spacious, Gothic chapel had an exhibition by Stefan Szczesny, whose whimsical, sensual female nudes were a refreshing sight in a place that for centuries represented Catholicism and all of its rigidity, conservatism, and oppression.

Going into the Palais allows you to ascend one of the guard towers for some amazing, panoramic views over the city and surrounding area. The Mistral wind was still cranked up to full blast, though, which made piddling around on the guard tower kind of a challenging experience. I kept feeling like it was going to whip my scarf away.

We got the combo Palais des Papes ticket which also included entry to Avignon's popular, "broken" St. Benezet Bridge, where the wind was even more brutal. Walking out on this bridge with the Mistral roaring down the river was perhaps not the best time to experience the thing, but what can you do?

The bridge is the subject of an apparently famous children's nursery rhyme (one that neither of us had ever heard), and its broken state makes it a popular curiosity. When it was built in the 1100s, it was the only bridge that crossed the untamed Rhone River, but it kept collapsing due to unpredictable flooding, and at one point destruction by a French king in a battle. Its last incarnation collapsed in the early 1600s during a particularly nasty winter flood, and it has remained a broken bridge to nowhere ever since.

Near the ticket office was a room showing an interesting documentary about how historians are currently creating a full digital image of the entire bridge using old archival documentation and illustrations, as well as digital mapping of what remains of the bridge. The goal is to create something that can allow visitors to virtually walk its entire original length. This is more complicated than it might seem because the river banks have shifted dramatically since the 1600s, including the big island in the middle of the river, which was smaller and in a different place when the bridge originally crossed it.

Since we went out for lunch, we opted for some inexpensive sandwiches for dinner and eclairs for dessert from one of Rue de la Republique's several quality bakeries, and gleefully broke our hotel's stupid rule against eating food from outside establishments in the room!

Final day in Avignon

For our last day in Avignon, we were considering taking the train up to Orange to check out the huge  and amazingly intact Roman amphitheater there (I've always known it as the venue where the Cure played in the 'Cure in Orange' live film). But given that we'd been traveling for three weeks and this was the final full day of the trip, we were frankly feeling a bit run down, and just felt like having a slow, relaxing day. We decided to save Orange for next time, and lazed around the town instead, exploring more of its picturesque streets and checking out the Angladon Museum.

The Angladon has an intimate collection of art from the private collection of the late Jacques Doucet, a Parisian fashion designer and collector. It includes a smattering of big 20th- and 19th-century names, including a few small Picassos, a Modigliani, a Van Gogh, a Cezanne, etc., as well as many pieces by lesser knowns that go back to the Renaissance and several eras in-between. Some of the rooms are more about the antique furniture and decorations than the art. It's a small museum that almost feels like going through a private collector's house. We would not call this a must-see, but it could be interesting to any serious art geeks staying in Avignon for more than a day.

Fortunately for us, by this point the Mistral wind seemed to be winding down. After a few final strong gusts in the morning, it settled to a calm breeze, after which the weather warmed up and all the restaurants and cafes' outdoor tables started filling up.

We took a break from ice cream when we were sick in Arles, but we thought we'd check out this place called La Princiere that reportedly makes the best ice cream in Avignon. Whoever owns this place has serious balls, as they charge even more per scoop than Berthillon in Paris (€2.25 per scoop to Berthillon's already whopping €2 per scoop). Their ice cream was definitely good, but not Berthillon good. If you're going to charge that much, you'd better back that up with the most amazing ice cream on the planet.

We ate a few of our cheap lunch and/or morning meals in a cool, inviting park near our hotel, called Place Agricol Perdiguier. The park is tastefully landscaped with ample seating under shady trees and cool remnants of old Gothic arches, all set against the backdrop of the side of an old Medieval church (which, I'm not sure is still being used as a church). We noticed a few other parks like this around town, and locals and tourists all seem to make good use of them.

In Place Pie there was a half-assed flea market of sorts, with a handful of vendors out selling old junk. I suspect that this market usually attracts more vendors but the Mistral wind was probably keeping people away. One guy who appeared to sell nothing but old, red, plastic objects, had his stuff all strewn out on the ground with a pile of wind-blown leaves all mixed up with it.

Final meal in France: Le Petit Gourmand

We desperately wanted our last meal in France to be a good one. I'll spare you the details, but we spent time refining our research to reduce the chances of having another shitty meal. We even asked the friendly hotel manager for his personal recommendations, and guess which restaurant was the first he mentioned: Le Caveau du Theatre - that wretched place from the other night! No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We kept our mouths shut, but this suddenly made us highly skeptical of his taste and the other two restaurants he recommended, one of which was already on our list (and we promptly removed it!).

So, we settled on a place that we only noticed after walking past it and scanning the menu posted out front. We made a mental note and went back to the hotel to check out any online reviews, and it had shockingly few negative write-ups and loads of praise. But reviewers did emphasize that reservations were crucial, as the place is tiny, and it was getting to be too cold to eat on their little terrace out front. We called 'em up, made a reservation for 7:30, and crossed our fingers.

Our research paid off, as Le Petit Gourmand turned out to be one of the better meals of the trip. Housed in a small place with relatively spartan decor, the dining area and kitchen were both sharing the same space in the front, separated only by a modular counter. There was only room for about 18 people inside, and that's after cramming everyone in with a shoehorn. The place appeared to be run by a super friendly husband-wife duo (or I at least got a husband-wife vibe from the couple): the wife cooks and the husband is the host/waiter. She had two younger assistants helping out in her tiny kitchen.

When we walked in, a table of six Americans were just getting their starters. (Why is it that whenever you encounter groups of white Americans in their 50s-60s traveling in Europe, they always seem to talk so loud? You can hear them declare in their 'outside' voices, "WELL, WE'RE FROM BUBMLEFUCK MISSOURI AND WE WENT HERE AND WE DID THIS AND WE ATE AT SUCH-AND-SUCH..." It's cringe worthy.)

The chef and the waiter both spoke decent English, making the ordering process smooth. For the starter Terezia had the foie gras, which came with toasts and apple chutney. The quality was superb and we both thoroughly dug it. I had what was basically like a cannelloni stuffed with a very tasty mixture of chèvre, pine nuts, and various herbs, but wrapped in thinly sliced zucchini instead of pasta, and served over a bed of greens in a sweetened dressing with two poached figs. I wouldn't call this life-altering, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly seasoned plate of food.

For the main dish, I ordered the foie gras-stuffed ravioli in a porcini sauce. The ravioli were tender, delicious, and perfectly cooked, though the sauce, while definitely good, could have benefitted from some actual chunks of freshly sautéed porcini to increase that earthy flavor (I think the porcini flavor came from a stock), and maybe a bit more herbs. But otherwise, it was a very good and flavorful dish.

Terezia's dish was the star: fresh tagliatelle with black truffles and a very light truffle oil-infused sauce. This was the best truffle dish either of us have ever had. The truffles themselves were super fresh and bursting with their characteristic rich, earthy flavor. And the chef was fairly generous with the amount of truffle shavings in the dish. This is a good example of a well-made, dead-simple dish that doesn't need any messing with because the star flavors can totally stand on their own. Just good, honest cooking.

When I've had truffle dishes in the US, they always seem a little on the bland side, in part because the truffles have to be imported from France or Italy, and by the time they reach the California they seem to lose some of their flavor (and they're always damn expensive - the restaurants pass those extra shipping costs onto the diners, obviously). So, it was really special for us to have a dish like this, which you'd really have difficulty finding in the US.

For dessert we split the chocolate macaron, which was sublimely gooey and rich, and came in a powerful chocolate sauce with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Insanely good.

Throughout the service, the chef would occasionally step out into the dining area and chat with guests, which, after the group of loud Americans left, consisted solely of French-speaking locals.

On our way out, the waiter shook our hands and thanked us, and we told him that this was the best food we had in Avignon. He seemed genuinely moved and appreciative. Too bad we weren't staying longer, because we would go back in a heartbeat. The scallop risotto that some people were ordering looked and smelled really good.

Of course, the irony that this excellent final meal in France consisted mostly of Italian dishes didn't escape us! But who cares. We wanted a really good and memorable final meal in France, and that's what we got.

At any rate, Avignon seemed like a more livable town than Arles, even if it lacked some of Arles' gritty charm. Avignon felt more urban and sophisticated, and struck us as a more vibrant and culturally switched-on place. We could imagine basing there for future visits to Provence and it would probably be better than Arles in some respects, partly because it's a bit easier to get basic necessities there. But both towns are short on major, must-see sights, and visiting them is really more about the ambience and the visual appeal.

(Click here to see more Avignon photos!)