Friday, September 19, 2014

We're going home!

After calling Slovakia home for three years, Terezia and I have decided to leave this country and we'll be moving back to California in November. This decision did not come easily, and while we are happy about going back, there are things about living here that we will miss deeply.

So, why in the hell are we moving back to the country of bad beer, Kraft Singles, rampant gun violence, and racial tension stoked by trigger-happy cops and out-of-control police militarization?

Firstly, we both feel like we are through with Bratislava - and Slovakia - and we're ready to move on to something else. This small city and country definitely have their charms, but we have been pining heavily not just for our old life in the Bay Area, but the kind of lifestyle offered by bigger and more diverse, culturally switched-on, artist-friendly and energetic metropolitan areas like the Bay Area. To put it very bluntly, Bratislava is not exactly what we'd call a beacon of culture, and it's a bit short on the kinds of things that would make us excited about living here for a longer period of time. (This post explains what I'm getting at a little more in depth).

Of course, we also dearly miss our family and friends in the US, and living so far away from them has been rough and at times lonely.

Importantly, Terezia feels like she has a better chance of re-establishing and sustaining her career as a chef in the US. There are virtually no female chefs in Slovakia - not even in Bratislava - and Terezia really lucked out by landing her job as the chef for the US Ambassador. Her field is also statistically one of the lowest paid in the country, and there are just too few people here who are genuinely interested in the kind of cuisines she so expertly and lovingly prepares. Most of Slovakia remains behind the curve in terms of culinary trends and gender equality, and Terezia feels like this is not a country where a good female chef with international expertise can thrive professionally.

My job with the paper has been a wonderful experience (and importantly, it saved me from having to teach!), but I haven't been able to pick up enough extra work on a consistent basis to supplement the income, so it's just not a tenable situation for the long term. Terezia also wants to find a job situation that is more economically viable over the long haul.

Why not move somewhere else in Europe? We have actually considered this, but as Terezia and I are both quickly approaching 40 (Terezia would like me to point out here that I'm closer to 40 than she is), we'd kind of like to feel settled somewhere and not keep country-hopping around at this stage of our lives.

Well, I personally wouldn't mind country-hopping so much, but remember, Terezia already moved away from her native country at the age of 18, first to Germany then to the US, where she ended up in San Francisco and quickly fell in love with the place. She essentially did what I had always wanted to do, just in the opposite direction, and got it out of her system. And after spending years working her ass off to carve out a career and a life she was happy with, the Bay Area came to represent for her a sense of achievement, success and fulfillment. (Plus, she really likes being near the ocean!)

Terezia shortly after moving to the states around '96.

It was I who uprooted her and brought her back to the country she left behind (though she did come willingly). Also, the Kafka-esque red tape involved in relocating to another European country is not something we're ready to endure again at this point.

I suppose you could say we're moving back to a place where we feel like we can be happy. But who knows? We're both going to miss Europe like crazy, and we could easily move back to this continent some day.

We never saw this as a permanent move. Neither of us actually thought that we'd want to spend the rest of our lives in Slovakia.

We moved here with no jobs, no clue as to how things would go or whether anything would work out, figuring that we'd try to last for at least a year. After six months of draining our savings, tirelessly searching for jobs and getting absolutely nowhere, and thinking we'd have to move back to California after a year with our heads hanging in defeat, we finally managed to find some really interesting jobs and started to eek out some semblance of a life here. Things worked out for us here much better than we could have hoped, and we stuck around longer than we ever expected.

But one thing we will miss profoundly is getting to travel around Europe without having to deal with jet lag and those nasty, epic (and super expensive) trans-Atlantic flights. Of course, we are deeply disappointed that we weren't able to check off all the places on our list, but we nevertheless managed to get around as much as our tight budget and paid time off allowed.

We went to Prague - one of Europe's most stunningly beautiful cities - countless times, took numerous day trips to nearby Vienna, and also made it to Budapest, Krakow, Amsterdam, Brno, and Croatia's Istrian coast - all thoroughly mind-blowing places (well, Brno wasn't exactly mind-blowing, but it was cool). We took a month-long trip to Italy shortly after moving here, and we've got a trip in the works for this October before we move back.

Rovinj, Croatia
Random photo of Terezia drinking beer in Prague.
Krakow, Poland

Also, we did a decent amount of traveling (but not nearly enough) around Slovakia, and had we not moved here, I probably wouldn't have had the chance to see so many of this country's attractive and offbeat surprises, not to mention its abundance of beautiful nature. (And I probably never would have gone mushroom hunting!)

St. Elizabeth cathedral in Košice.
Orava Castle
Poľana near Hriňová.

But we will miss Terezia's family even more, and they'll provide a handy excuse to come back on a (hopefully) regular basis. While living here we made a point of visiting her parents once a month, sometimes more, and it was wonderful getting to know them and the rural, slow-paced life that they enjoy out in the middle of nowhere. And yes, Terezia is sad about the prospect of living halfway around the world from her family (again), but she feels that she cannot sacrifice her own personal and professional happiness just to live closer to them.

But we're happy that we were still around to see Terezia's brother Tony finally tie the knot with Silvia this summer. No one from Terezia's family was able to come out to California to see us get married, so at least we were all able to be together at someone's wedding.

At any rate, we're super glad that we had the chance to live here. Most Americans aren't able to say they lived abroad for three years. The one thing I always regretted more than anything was that I didn't take off and live somewhere in Europe back in my 20s, when I had the naivety, restlessness and lack of responsibilities to go off and do something like that. And with this experience I tried to make up for that as much as I could.

The decision to go back to the US was a very difficult one to make, but we're psyched to move on and see where this next chapter takes us.

As I mentioned above, we've got a vacation planned for October. Plus, there is sure to be some red tape-related hilarity involved in doing all the things we need to do to extricate ourselves from this country, so stay tuned for that and anything else that pops up between now and our move!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pozor! Part 4 - Yet more fun with Bratislava's pockmarked streets (with updates!)

Since my Pozor! posts have proven to be quite popular, I couldn't resist the temptation to do just one more. I should point out that a lot of the ankle-spraining potholes, divots, and cracks featured in my last Pozor! post (in my opinion the best of the series) have since been repaired, albeit some of them in a quick and dirty, band-aid kind of fashion. But like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, new holes spring up faster than the old ones can be filled in. So, here are some more gems spotted along our many walks through the streets of Bratislava.

This beauty is located on the curb of a bus stop on a very busy bus route in front of the Slovak National Gallery on Rázusovo nábrežie.

The streets in the posh neighborhoods in the hills are in no way exempt from the neglect and deterioration. In fact, some of them are in even worse shape than the streets downtown, as seen by this mess on Holubyho.

And here is one of my current favorites. This massive hole in a gutter on Hlboká has been left there for more than two months at the time of writing, right out in front of this big old sanitarium that was recently converted into super swanky upscale apartments. The sidewalk itself is in pretty dire shape, too.

Some of the older communist-era benches along the Danube promenade have certainly seen better days.

Here are some examples of the city's well-maintained bicycle paths. This rear hub-busting obstacle course is on the Danube promenade.

This one leads to the Danube promenade from the Old Town.

A two-block stretch of Štúrova, a major artery in the center of town, has been completely fenced off and under construction for what feels like 8 million years now (they're installing new tram tracks and replacing old sewage pipes). I love how they apparently didn't quite have enough fencing to make it all the way around the perimeter of the massive hole they dug, which ate up a big chunk of the crosswalk. This fence also seems to get knocked down every time a strong gust of wind blows through, which in this town is fairly often.

Beblavého just below the castle seems to be in a perpetual state of disrepair.

There are numerous "secret" pedestrian pathways that serve as shortcuts through the circuitous, winding streets of the neighborhoods in Bratislava's hills. These paths are fun to explore, but on some of them you almost need a machete to hack through the overgrown vegetation.

And some of the paths themselves are pretty worse for wear.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hiking in the Low Tatras

Terezia's brother Tony had been promising to take us on a good mountain hike for nearly three years (i.e., since we first moved to Slovakia), and he finally delivered on that promise with a very cool hike in Slovakia's Low Tatras.

The Low Tatras - as opposed to the High Tatras in the north of the country - are comprised of a meandering mountain range that runs through the heart of the country in an east-west direction, and there is even a popular backpacking route called the Low Tatras ridge hike, a roughly 55-mile path that goes all the way from Telgart to Donovaly along the top of the network of mountain ridges. The Low Tatras are, of course, not as high nor as dramatic as the High Tatras, but the scenery is still lovely and picturesque.

The hike we took was only about 5.75 miles (9.25 kilometers), but it had plenty of steep ascents and fairly rugged, rocky terrain, which made it more of a challenging trek, yet still totally doable for anyone who does a decent amount of hiking, like us. Tony's plan was to make a big loop that would first take us to a chalet, then past Ďumbier peak (the highest in the Low Tatras range), with the final destination being Chopok, the third highest peak, yet the most popular as it's one of the region's biggest ski resorts and has mountain gondolas that carry tourists to the top on both the north and south sides of the mountain.

A map of the hike (click to enlarge). From Chopok, at the end of the hike, we took the ski lift down the mountain back to the bottom/start.

After literally nabbing the last space in the parking lot, we made for the trailhead, which first took us uphill through a steep, meandering ravine marked by lush, beautiful, forest-y terrain. Curiously, the trail was strewn with rocks and stones, which made it necessary to look down at all times while walking so as not to trip or sprain an ankle. If you wanted to take in the scenery, you literally had to just stop walking and pause for a second to enjoy the views.

Along the way we saw a couple of guys trudging up the path carrying these massive loads of food supplies on their backs. They were making deliveries to a chalet at the top, and we saw one poor guy about 3/4s of the way up whose legs were visibly trembling under the weight.

The ascent gradually gets steeper and steeper, especially once you get above the tree line, until finally it's steep enough to turn into a switchback that takes you to the top of the ridge, where we were greeted by the bustling chalet. This first leg is only about two miles, but it's a good uphill workout.

In front of the chalet.

We took a break and had some beer and snacks before pressing on. From here the trail was generally not as steep - more gentle ups and downs - but definitely quite rocky and rugged. The path took us west through the area between the ridge peaks (to our right) and the top of the tree line a good way below.

The trail plows right through several of these large fields or cascades of boulders - these massive deposits of boulders and rocks piled on top of and alongside one another in such a way that when you're walking over them it's difficult not to wonder what's keeping them in place and why they're not sliding down the hill in a massive avalanche. It appears that people made paths right through these 'frozen' cascades by finding perfectly shaped flat stones and just kind of wedging them into place, so you can generally walk across without having to scale over the rocks, though a decent amount of boulder scaling was still inevitable, especially when making room for oncoming traffic.

Walking across one of the numerous boulder 'cascades'.

We eventually got to Ďumbier, the highest peak in the range at 6,703 feet. The south side of Ďumbier is a green and smooth slope, but the north side is all jagged, mountainous, craggy rock and steep 90 degree angle drops, and it offers beautiful views of the High Tatras off in the distance to the north.

The rockier, northern side of the tip of Ďumbier peak. 
The High Tatras in the distance.

From Ďumbier to Chopok, large segments of the trail consist of a winding manmade stone path, with flat stones wedged together like puzzles pieces. This was generally easier to walk on than the more rugged trail between the chalet and Ďumbier, though at times it was deceptively steep, to the point where you had to take baby steps down the descents if you wanted to avoid slipping and tumbling down the path.

The trail to Chopok.
The start of the path to Chopok from Ďumbier.
Looking back over the route from whence we came. The biggest peak in the background is Ďumbier, 

Once you finally round Chopok peak, civilization comes abruptly into view on its western side with a massive, modern gondola station by the top with a huge outdoor observation deck and the requisite cafes/pubs and hordes of people. There is also an old school chalet next to it, which pipes out a strong odor of schnitzel and other fried Slovak "delicacies". Somewhat perversely, the highest observation deck of this huge, multi-story gondola station/pub/cafe thing was about as high as the tip of Chopok peak right next to it.

The views from Chopok are, of course, spectacular. It's also easy to distinguish the people who hiked up the mountain from those who simply took the gondola up from the bottom.

The tip of Chopok peak as seen from the adjacent observation deck.

We took the gondola back down, which was pricy but fun. The bigger enclosed gondolas only take you halfway down, however, to another ski station/chalet, where you then get onto a more traditional (i.e. exposed to the elements) four-person ski lift chair that takes you to the base of the mountain, where we opted to have a beer before walking the last 3/4s of a mile back to the car.

The view from the gondola on the way back down.

All in all, it was a fun and scenic hike, and although it's not too long, there are enough very steep uphill sections and rugged pathways to make it a pretty good workout. Definitely not a bad way to spend a sunny, mild late-August day. And it's nice to have a 360 degree view of the surrounding Slovak landscape, with virtually nothing but wild, mountainous nature to be seen for miles around.

The Telgart-Donovaly ridge hike is probably fun to do if you're into backpacking. You can actually stay overnight at the chalets along the way, although I have no idea if you have to book them in advance (and if so, how far, and how much they cost) and I suspect the accommodations are more at the youth hostile end of the overnight accommodation spectrum. That hike supposedly takes a couple days, and it's pretty popular, though most people opt just to do segments of it like we did.