Saturday, March 12, 2016

Trip to Portland, Oregon - the anti-Bratislava

Not long after arriving in Portland for an extended weekend trip, I proclaimed, "Portland is the anti-Bratislava!" This is because many of Portland's neighborhoods are spilling over with interesting, hip, innovative, diverse, and sometimes genuinely great eating options. These range from empty lots covered in food trucks, to strips spanning several blocks lined with a dizzying array of independent-minded restaurants, pubs, and cafes. Choosing where to go can seem so overwhelming that in some areas you can just close your eyes, spin around a few times, and point, and the place you end up at will probably be, at the very least, interesting.

By contrast, in Bratislava, Terezia and I would probably have considerable difficulty coming up with more than five truly great restaurants (a few of which, like Liviano are honestly wonderful, however).

But Portland's appeal is not just about food. The city has become a magnet for creative, driven weirdo artist types who want to leave their mark, and this instills the town with a palpable energy. In addition to all the food, Portland's got a vibrant indie music scene, lots of artists, and a strong sense of progressive-minded activism, which adds to the energy and further sets it apart from Bratislava, where a general sense of conservatism and fitting in are much more the norm.

Of course, this also brings to Portland things that can be a little silly, like the current proliferation of what appear to be hipster barber shops catering to lanky 20-something dudes with lumberjack beards who need to keep their trendy 80s coifs immaculately shaped and sculpted.

But it also makes Portland feel incredibly inhabitable - like, you'd never really get bored if you lived there. Each time I go to Portland, I come away feeling as if I could live there and be happy. Terezia felt exactly the same way after this trip.

Portland also boasts a mind-boggling number of shops overflowing with insanely cool, used, mid-20th-century modern furniture. You could spend a couple of days trying to visit each and every one, and we only made it to about half the shops on my list. Sadly, we couldn't buy any of this stuff because we had no way of taking it back with us on the plane, but for us it's like walking through a museum of insanely cool, artful designs. Just the amount of pastel-colored, atomic patterned 50s lampshades alone is astounding. (You used to be able to find some of this stuff in the Bay Area a couple decades ago, but it was largely picked over by the early 00s, and when you come across it today, you're going to pay top dollar.)

At any rate, we decided to take a little trip somewhere to celebrate Terezia's 40th birthday. Terezia had never been to Portland, and I hadn't been since 2009, so we were clearly overdue for an excursion there.

Also, the Bay Area can feel a little isolated at times because the closest large metropolitan areas are really far away. LA is a seven-hour drive, and it takes about 12 hours to reach Portland by car (making the hour-and-a-half long flight incredibly appealing). One of the cool things about Bratislava (and Europe in general) was that we had such easy access to so many insanely cool cities (Vienna was an hour-long train ride away; Budapest about 2.5 hours; Prague was four hours, etc.). While Bay Area folks do have easy access to vast, beautiful, and extremely diverse expanses of nature, we've been pining to spend a little time in another city, and that's not as easy to do.

The forecast basically said it was going to rain the entire time we were there. We lucked out: we encountered very little rain, despite cloudy, occasionally ominous looking skies, and the only torrential downpour we were caught in barely lasted five minutes.

We stayed at a cool B&B (with lots of early 20th-century detail) in the SE, near SE Division and Caesar Chavez, nestled in a beautiful neighborhood filled with the early 20th-century bungalow style houses and narrow, lush, tree-lined streets that are typical of Portland.

That Portland's various fruit and magnolia trees were in the midst of their mid-winter bloom, with vibrant explosions of white and pink on seemingly every street, was a nice bonus.

SE Hawthorne has always kind of been Portland's Telegraph Ave or Haight Street, with a strip that contains all the things that usually attract artists and freaks. It boasts the city's best (and only truly decent, that I've seen) used record store (Crossroads Music); several used clothing stores with an array of unique and pleasantly weird stuff; numerous atmospheric cafes; funky, historic, art-house cinemas; and lots of the aforementioned eating options.

But Hawthorne's got some competition. SE Division, closer to where we were staying, is becoming increasingly interesting, and up in the North East (NE) area you've got several blocks of Alberta lined with a vast array of cool shops and restaurants, as well as a few-block stretch on Mississippi, not to mention many smaller pockets sprinkled around the city.

The Food

For lunch Friday we ended up at a sandwich place on SE Hawthorne that I'd read about called Lardo. Lardo specializes in pork stuff, and I have to say, Portland seems to have been hit with a deluge of pork products, to the point where the place is at risk of cheesily being referred to as Porkland. In fact, it seems that if you're vegan/gluten-free, or super obsessed with pork, Portland is the city for you.

At any rate, Lardo had a long line, requisite hipster staff, and pretty darn tasty sandwiches. We ordered the pork meatball banh mi, which was extremely good, and a smoked pork shoulder thing that was fine, but gave off a slight aftertaste of artificial smoked flavor. The banh mi was totally worth it, though.

For dinner Friday night we went to the super trendy Pok Pok, Portland's most popular Thai restaurant. Pok Pok eschews all the usual Thai curries, soups, and noodle dishes in favor of what's purported to be authentic Thai street food. I'd been there once before in 2009 and I liked it enough to want to come back.

Pok Pok doesn't take reservations for parties with fewer than five people, and the wait to get in is notoriously long if you show up after 6:00. We got there closer to 5:00 and were seated right away!

We started with the spicy chicken wings, one of their signature apps. Tender wings were slathered in a spicy, flavorful, sweet/savory sauce that was layered, rich, and tasty.

For the mains we had the pork belly/shoulder curry, and a dish consisting of ground duck meat and liver served with heaps of cilantro and other herbs. The pork curry was insanely good, with awesomely tender and flavorful pork and a uniquely sweet curry sauce. The duck thing was good, but if the menu hadn't said that the ground meat was duck, we'd have had no idea what it was. Still, the meal was genuinely great and I appreciate their innovative approach to the cuisine. Of course, if I were living in Portland, I'd still want to find a great Thai joint that does the usual curries and noodle dishes too, since Pok Pok is not the place to go when you're in the mood for that kind of thing.

Afterwards, we walked off the meal by strolling from SE Division to Hawthorne, then headed several blocks east up Hawthorne, before rounding back to the B&B. Portland's picturesque SE area is perfect for aimless wandering, and taking advantage of the weirdly cooperative weather seemed like a no-brainer.

Since we gorged on pork Friday, we were craving something light and green the next day, so for lunch we went to some brunch/lunch place on Hawthorne that had salads on the menu, which were decent.

For dinner we met up with an ex of mine who I hadn't seen in years at a southern comfort food place called Screen Door, over on SE Burnside. My ex relocated to Portland last year and we got to hear all about her move, her super cool job, and how she's been adjusting after living in San Diego for nearly a decade.

I've been told that many restaurants in Portland, for whatever reason, just don't take reservations. Unless it's a chi-chi kind of joint, any good restaurant will have a line out the door that starts quickly expanding soon after it opens. You know that Portlandia episode about the trendy, new breakfast place with the line to get in that snakes all over town? That's not too far off the mark! I mean, sure, you can encounter lines in Berkeley/Oakland/SF, but they're still less common and easier to avoid.

At any rate, we met at Screen Door at 6:00 and we were told when putting our name on the list that we had an hour-long wait ahead of us.

Since we were busy catching up and being social, Terezia and I didn't scrutinize the food as closely, and I neglected to take any photos. The dishes were a filling and tasty take on southern cuisine, not unlike Angeline's in Berkeley. My plate of shrimp and grits was certainly satisfying. Terezia enjoyed a plate that included some tasty fried chicken liver.

On Sunday night, we hit up Little Bird, a French-inspired restaurant in the heart of downtown. Little Bird has won the James Beard award and it's been making quite a buzz. Most of the food we had definitely justified the fuss. The highlight of the evening was the seared foie gras, an intensely flavorful and richly complex appetizer. A seriously good radicchio salad was surprisingly well balanced and not bitter, accompanied as it was by pistachios and orange wedges.

For the main, I ordered the duck confit, which had a sublimely crispy skin, with tender, juicy meat underneath, and came served over a bed of rice mixed with crisp little squares of pastrami and chestnuts.

Terezia ordered what was actually a loose, playful, Japanese-inspired interpretation of coq-au-vin - kind of misleadingly so, actually, as none of the Japanese accents were even hinted at in the menu description. First off, the chicken was fried, but rather than deep fried, it was done tempura style, and it came in a sauce - the "vin" - that had a sweet/sour Japanese flavor. The whole thing sat on a bed of mashed potatoes with an array of mushrooms. Overall, really nicely done, and we'd both go back.

Other excursions, stray thoughts, and random observations

We did a few touristy things like visit the Japanese Tea Garden and the Rose Garden, both of which are actually worth seeing, in part because of their extremely green setting in Washington Park.

We also went to Powell's, one of the most sprawling and massive bookstores in the country. Their cooking selection alone is big enough to be its own bookstore. Terezia was overwhelmed. If we lived in Portland we'd be coming here all the time. Getting totally lost in Powell's is a must for any visitor to Portland who likes to read.

Sunday we met up with my old friend and former musical partner Wade and his girlfriend Helen. Wade moved to Portland nearly 10 years ago and he seems happy there. After piddling around a bit on the hip stretch of Mississippi and stopping for lunch and some very good ice cream there, Wade drove us over to the Skidmore bluffs, a field at the top of a steep hill that overlooks the railroad yard, and the Willamette river and downtown Portland and Forest Park beyond it. This is a place where hippies apparently like to go and get stoned while watching the sunset on nice evenings.

Even though we flew to Portland, we rented a car for getting around town. Portlanders tell me their public transit system is great, but navigating Portland by car is super easy. Plus, things are really spread out, and I do kind of question whether Portland's public transportation could whisk one around as efficiently as, say, the Paris metro. Portland is a pretty bike-friendly city too, and you see lots of cyclists out, even in shitty weather. Much of Portland on the eastern side of the river is quite flat, making it even more conducive to getting around on bike.

Portland's rental market is, by all accounts, insane. It's not as expensive as Oakland or San Francisco, but the city is still having a hard time meeting demand due to the never-ending influx of newcomers, so finding a decent, affordable one-bedroom apartment in a cooler part of town is insanely difficult and time consuming. Some say it's easier to buy in Portland than to rent, but home prices are steadily rising there as well, though they're still nowhere near as bonkers as the Bay Area. It seems the era of Portland being an affordable but hip alternative to the Bay Area is eventually going to come to an end.

Portland's most significant point deduction, however, comes from its relative lack of ethnic diversity. While Portland is definitely more diverse than, say, Bratislava, it's still much whiter than San Francisco or LA. One of my Portland friends once said that Portland is probably the most non-diverse city that badly wants to be diverse. But it's all relative. I mean, on any given day, you will definitely see more minorities walking around Portland than in Bratislava. Portland also has a staggering number of ethnic restaurants (especially Thai – it's as if the city passed a local ordinance requiring every block to have at least two Thai restaurants). So, yes, it's a pretty white city overall, but it has enough going on culturally to keep things interesting, and it's still much better off than Bratislava!

Finding work in Portland can also be difficult. Aside from a handful of big companies, there's just not a lot going on, and compared to SF and Seattle, there's apparently not much of a tech industry there (not yet, anyway). This means that some people who move to Portland end up waiting tables or doing similar work that likely pays a lot less than whatever they did wherever they were living before. It used to be that people could make this work because Portland was so affordable, but now the Portland dream is becoming less attainable.

Would we live in Portland? Sure! Will we go back? Definitely. I've actually lost a number of friends to Portland, and we only got to see a few of them on this trip (to those of you we didn't see this time, I apologize profusely! Next time, I promise!) I hope we make it back in the not-too-distant future.

My rant on Slovakia's deplorable response to the European refugee crises

I've been meaning to write about this for a while now and with Slovakia's 2016 parliamentary elections behind us (but their ultimate outcome is still unclear, at the time of writing), I thought it was time to chime in.

When driving to and from Vienna's airport on our trip to Slovakia over the 2015 winter holidays, we saw a refugee camp right on the Austrian side of the border by one of the old pre-Schengen checkpoints. It was made up of rows of attached shacks that looked to be fashioned out of shipping containers, and you could catch fleeting glimpses of people through the windows sitting around, milling about, and likely wondering about their fate. Part of what's interesting about this is that while stepping outside the border can afford one a sobering view of the European refugee crisis as it's unfolding, you'll see nary a trace of any refugees in Slovakia.

Knee-jerk bigotry and political fear mongering

Ever since the crisis blew up in the summer of 2015, Slovakia and its central European neighbors (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic) have steadfastly refused to allow refugees to cross their borders, and they have resisted complying with EU directives requiring countries to house a certain number of refugees (and Slovakia is even suing the EU over this).

Making matters worse, a startling number of Slovaks have reacted with hostility and racist rhetoric to what they perceive as an impending onslaught of barbarian, jihadist immigrants. Playing on people's baseless fears, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party have continued to regurgitate xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, and in the months leading up to the recent March 2016 parliamentary elections, they even erected billboards all over the country - with Fico's bruiser of a mug - boasting "We Protect Slovakia." Of course, we all know from whom.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Smer's toxic xenophobia actually backfired and an alarming number of people instead flocked to the far-right, extremist People's Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS), led by known fascist and all-around creep Marian Kotleba. I wrote about Kotleba here back in 2014 when he was elected governor of Slovakia's Banska Bystrica region. His party won 14 seats in Slovakia's parliament in this latest election. To any normal, rational people, this is a frightening wake-up call! But anyone paying attention to the prevailing views of many Slovaks since mid-2015 shouldn't be too surprised by this depressing outcome. If you spend time on the ground in Slovakia, the anti-migrant hysteria is everywhere and Terezia encounters it constantly through "friends" of "friends" on Facebook.

A huge number of Slovaks seem to be quite freaked out by the prospect of having to share their country with muslim refugees, and just about everyone in Slovak politics has pandered to this. Seemingly all the political parties leading up to the election, be it the ruling Smer or the opposition, have been united in their hostility towards the migrants. The only elected official brave enough to be the adult in the room is President Andrej Kiska. He seems to have been the only voice of sanity among the leaders of the four Visegrad countries, having expressed sympathy for the refugees and their plight. But his voice has largely been ignored, and sadly, Slovakia's presidents wield very limited powers.

Needless to say, it's deeply frustrating to see how so many Slovaks unquestioningly swallow the toxic, Trump-like fear and xenophobia spewed by many of their elected leaders towards the refugees (and towards multiculturalism in general), which belies deeper problems with the sheltered way in which Slovaks are brought up and educated.

A little backstory

Slovakia has so far refused to accept anyone other than a few hundred Christian (non-Muslim) refugees, which is, of course, ridiculous and entirely unhelpful, and even that still has many Slovaks totally freaking out. One reason laughably stated - with a totally straight face - by public officials for refusing muslims is that Slovakia has no mosques, so the muslim migrants wouldn't be very happy there. Problem is, the reason Slovakia has no mosques is because a law was passed years ago that prevents any from being built in the first place!

Check out this John Oliver piece on the refugee crisis (and some EU countries' response to it); he mentions Slovakia at 9:38:

Polls have shown a majority of Slovaks only want to live with other Slovaks and they are opposed to any kind of multiculturalism. Of course, this kind of closed-minded, provincial attitude is only going to ensure their country and their capital city remain boring, culturally homogenized, unintellectual, and lacking a pulse, but most Slovaks don't seem to mind.

Never mind that hordes of Slovaks go abroad to live and work for better pay and more economic opportunities, and the country is suffering serious brain drain as a result. Yet the prospect of people from the outside coming in scares them to no end.

The good news for these Slovaks is that the refugees don't even want to go to Slovakia in the first place, and Slovakia has little in the way of economic opportunities to offer migrants anyhow (unless they want to work in a car factory). Literally no refugees so far have willingly come knocking on Slovakia's door, as they'd much rather go to places like Sweden or Germany, where there are more jobs and a higher standard of living, and importantly, where they're more likely to encounter some people who are friendly and helpful.

Only a small minority of Slovaks seem to actively oppose the bigotry

Yes, I'm all too aware that Donald Trump is on the rise in the US in part because his mouth has been farting out the exact same racist hatespeak, but there is a crucial difference: unlike in Slovakia, most Americans don't actually agree with him, and the voice of the opposition to his hateful views is strong and very present - in the media and both in and out of government. Even big names from Trump's own political party have publicly condemned his chyme-encrusted hate speech. (And let's say hypothetically that Trump were to somehow win the presidency, the collective voice of opposition to him would remain immense).

By contrast, in Slovakia, only a tiny smattering of progressives, NGOs, and newspaper editors (like my friends at the Slovak Spectator!) are protesting against the hate, and their voices seem to be drowned out pretty easily by the din that Smer and other parties have generated. Even Slovakia's so-called liberal party, SaS, is led by, Richard Sulik, a tone-deaf asshole who insists Slovakia should close its borders and use "violence" against any refugees who try to cross over. Just how is he supposed to differ from Fico or Kotleba again? Pretty much all politicians in Slovakia know very well what the voters want, and they will drop any of their own party's purported principles or ideological leanings in order to stay in power. If the people want a xenophobic, knee-jerk bigot to lead their country, that's what they'll get!

And what about western Europe? Clearly, they're not all embracing the refugees with open arms. But, a crucial difference is that while Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front in France has yet to win any national government elections (even though its support has definitely grown), Kotleba's party has 14 seats in the Slovak parliament! And while there's plenty of violent, anti-refugee sentiment floating around in Germany, Angela Merkel is still (at the time of writing) dictating policy and keeping the door open. In much of western Europe (again, at the time of writing), anti-immigrant hysteria has gotten quite loud, but it's still basically on the fringe, politically. In sharp contrast, the central European countries, have managed to elect some of these far-right creeps into power.

So why are Slovaks freaking out so much?

Some Slovaks' fears are rooted in simple racism and misinformed fear; for others, it's ignorance of the severity of the situation in countries like Syria and Iraq, as well as misconceptions about the refugees and their circumstances.

To explain why this is, I think that broadly speaking, firstly, you can blame 40 years of isolated Soviet-style communism. During communism, very few immigrants came to the Soviet Bloc, and so people had no sense of what it means to live in a culturally diverse society. Everything was pretty homogenized and very white, and that's still more or less the case today, especially in Slovakia.

The quick and traumatic transition to capitalism in the 90s is another factor, which left many people relatively poor and without much of a social safety net. Most people in the Visegrad Four countries today feel scarcely better off financially today than they did under communism, except that now the social safety net has been diminished. This means many Slovaks feel their country lacks the resources to justify helping migrants. Slovak wages, especially outside Bratislava, are notoriously lower than their western European neighbors, and seniors complain incessantly about their meagre retirement pensions. And yet, the cost of living in Slovakia in most areas other than rent and real estate is about as high as in western Europe, so just getting by in Slovakia can be a struggle for many. So you have a country full of people unwilling to help those in need because they see themselves as victims in need.

I suspect many Slovaks see it simply as: we already have comparatively little, we make very little money, and our resources are already too stretched to accommodate immigrants. To that I say, Slovaks - your lives are still infinitely cushier than those of the refugees fleeing their own war-torn countries.

Education is yet another factor. During communism, education was tightly controlled by the state, and especially when it came to things like history, people got a very warped, one-sided, highly ideologically driven view. From everything I've read, history in Slovak classrooms today isn't much better off. Many students don't get a clear picture of what World War II, the holocaust, naziism, or fascism were all about, which can partly explain why Kotleba seems to appeal so much to young people (a lot of his support came from young, first-time voters in their 20s). They lack the historical context to understand what creeps of his ilk are all about. But even if they didn't, would they care?

Many Slovaks essentially grow up a little racist by being taught to hate/fear Roma (and to a lesser extent Hungarians). I could (and should) write a blog post on the ongoing tension between Slovaks and Roma, but I'll just say that the animosity between them is deep and profound. A lot of Slovaks grow up to be selective racists, whereby they hate the Roma but don't seem particularly bothered by other non-white ethnicities. Yet, the seed is already planted and it wouldn't take much for them to get riled up over another ethnicity that the media or government actively paints as something to fear. Simply put, Slovak children do not seem to be taught that racism is immoral and hurtful, and they're not raised in an environment in which diversity is valued (at least not consistently).

Another factor at play here is the deeply rooted insecurity Slovaks harbor about their cultural identity. Slovakia is a very young country, and Slovaks have a long way to go before they could even hope to establish the kind of instantly recognizable cultural identities of countries like France or Italy. France can absorb other cultures without losing its quintessential Frenchness. While I highly doubt Slovakia's Slovakness would ever truly be at risk of vanishing if people of other cultures started moving there, a lot of Slovaks seem to fear just that.

Final thoughts

Look, no one thinks the ongoing process of getting immigrants to learn and adapt to the cultures of their new countries is going to be easy, as events in Germany and elsewhere have shown. It's inevitable that problems and clashes will arise, especially when you have large concentrations of foreigners in a new place figuring out how to fit in while still retaining their own cultures and traditions. There's going to be a fairly steep learning curve for everyone.

But here's the thing: the majority of these refugees are genuinely in need of help because their homes have become uninhabitable; they are not terrorist "sleeper" soldiers sent to wage jihad on Europe (something some Slovaks we've encountered believe). They are normal people who want to live safe, normal lives with steady jobs and raise their children in peace. Plus, diversity and multiculturalism benefit everyone. Tensions will persist, but your cities and towns will become infinitely more interesting, cosmopolitan places, and their inhabitants will become more knowledgeable about cultures outside their own. Plus, the rest of the world won't think you're a country full of provincial, racist dick heads.

At any rate, these developments make us kind of relieved that we don't live in Slovakia anymore, but it's still hugely embarrassing and sad to see this country that we have such a deep connection to react in such a toxic, lunkheaded, reactionary way. Sure, one could be optimistic and say that eventually Slovakia might come around, but I fear that an awful lot of damage could be done before that ever happens.

Rather than drone on and on about it, I'll end my rant and link you to some opinion pieces from the Slovak Spectator that do a better job of discussing this than I do: (a witty piece written by my friend and former Spectator colleague James Thomson). (
This one, in particular, is interesting because it was written by a Slovak who really delves into the mindset of her people).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Trip to Slovakia for the holidays: Part 3 - the final leg

We're actually back home as I write this, and I'd have finished this sooner, but I keep nodding off at 7:00 in the evening from the jet lag. At any rate, two weeks is definitely not long enough for a trip abroad, and it's barely enough time to get over the jet lag. By the time we had to leave we were finally starting to adjust. Now that we're back, we have another two weeks of waking up at odd hours of the night and dozing off at random times of the day to look forward to.

Totally not getting over the jet lag.

But after a week and a half of unseasonably warm weather, winter finally decided to show up. Prague was cooling down the morning we left, but Podrečany was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived there, and it remained firmly below freezing for the rest of our stay. Even though that isn't Moscow cold or anything, it's still a bone chilling level of cold that you don't typically encounter in coastal California.

New Year's

At any rate, we got back to Podrečany in time for New Year's (called Silvester in Slovakia, named after that day's patron saint). Terezia decided to cook for her family an American style Thanksgiving feast for New Year's Eve. Before you scoff, Terezia does Thanksgiving food a million times better than any American. And I'm not a fan of turkey, but her's is insanely juicy (even the breast) and flavorful. Her family genuinely liked it, especially the mashed sweet potatoes. Interestingly, Thanksgiving food seems to translate well for Slovaks, because you basically have a plate of heavy, warm, mushy, moist food with lots of potatoes - very similar to a typical plate of hearty Slovak grub.

On New Year's Eve, we hung out with Terezia's brother Tony, his wife Silvia, their cousin Ludmila, and her German boyfriend Christoph until I passed out about an hour after midnight. I honestly didn't drink that much, but the amount I did drink coupled with my still lingering jet lag had me struggling and failing to stay awake much beyond midnight.

Something that I find particularly amusing about Slovak New Year's, particularly as a Californian, is the way seemingly everyone in the village buys fireworks, and some of them are seriously big enough to rival the displays that the villages put on at the kultúrny dom.

Barrels of fun on New Year's Eve.

Fun times at the village pub

I neglected to mention in the previous posts a couple trips to the local pub (the old pub, as opposed to the new pub) that we'd taken with Terezia's dad. The first excursion got pretty interesting when this thoroughly soused, older fellow with a toothless grin, five-day stubble, and BO to match, came over from another table to accost us introduce himself to Terezia, Tony, and me. When he discovered I was American, he started playfully grabbing my head and putting it in a sort of affectionate headlock which had my nose in his armpit, all the while blathering incoherently in Slovak in a drunken slur. At one point he got down on his knees in front of me and blathered some more. I'd been greeted with polite curiosity by the pub's patrons before, but I'd never been the recipient of this kind of attention. The guy subjected Tony to the same treatment. He then kept trying to buy us a round of shots, and wouldn't leave us alone until we relented.

He also kept asking us who we were, and Terezia had to explain several times that she and Tony were Anton's kids and that I was her husband from the states. That last bit of info took a while to fully sink in, as after several minutes of this he finally realized, "Oh, because he's American, he doesn't speak much Slovak, and that's why he's not talking very much!" Terezia's dad sat there rolling his eyes the whole time.

The very communist looking old pub.

It never feels right to snap a photo inside the old pub, as much as I'd love to, partly because I don't want to bring attention to myself when I'm there, but also because the regulars don't exactly look like they'd respond well to having their photo taken. But try to imagine a very plain, dimly lit, rectangular room with dingy, grey, smoke-stained walls, requisite lace curtains over the windows (seemingly all Slovak houses and dining/drinking establishments have the same white lace curtains on the windows), and worn, nondescript tables and chairs, while a soccer game is usually on the flat screen TV that's affixed to the wall. On a typical evening you'll have anywhere from 5-15 people in the place.

Fun pub-related story: Christoph and Terezia's cousin Janko were at the old pub one afternoon watching a soccer match on the TV, along with 10 or so other people. Everyone was engrossed in the game and their beer until these four local hunters walked in, and before they'd even sat down, someone madly grabbed the remote and switched the soccer game to the hunting channel. Janko explained to Chris that they had to do this whenever the hunters came in and there was simply no way around it. It doesn't matter if you have a clear majority of people in there with their eyes all glued to the most important soccer game of the century; the second those hunters set foot in the place, you're all watching the hunting channel. And if you don't like it, you'll have to go to the new pub down the street and hope there aren't any hunters there.

I asked Janko why the hunters have so much sway over the pub's TV, and whether they have some sort of elevated status in the village's social pecking order. He basically said that people do this simply to avoid confrontation. Also, Terezia suggested that some villagers rely on these hunters when they want a wild boar or a duck, or whatever, so I guess that's further reason not to upset them.

But why these hunters apparently lead lives with such narrow focus that it precludes even tolerating the odd televised soccer game is beyond me. I mean, is nothing outside hunting even remotely interesting to these guys?

Back to Bratislava

We drove back to Bratislava Friday evening and started hitting snow a little past the halfway point, approaching Nitra. From there on, a thin blanket of snow coated the ground, which remained at least through Saturday. Being from the snow-deprived Bay Area, we desperately wanted snow this whole vacation, and weren't even close to getting any until now, on the last day of the trip.

Snow in Bernolakovo.

We spent some much needed time Saturday in Bratislava's old town looking for a few Xmas gifts for people back in the states, but also just wandering aimlessly and revisiting the old sights and reminiscing. Not too much had changed. Several restaurants and cafes have closed in the last year, and a number of new ones have opened up, so the cycle of life and death in the old town continues. We strolled by our old apartment building on Medena and wondered who is living there now. I was sad to see one of the two guitar shops over there had closed. Not that I ever went in there often, but I did buy a capo from them, and I used to gaze admiringly at the Fender Jaguar reissue they had hanging in their window for a while.

Later in the evening, Tony and Silvia drove us to the hotel at the Vienna airport, where we stayed on our final night of the trip, since we had to wake up at an ungodly hour in the morning to catch our 7 AM flight back to the US.

When driving to (and from) Vienna's airport, we saw a refugee camp just on the Austrian side of the border with Slovakia, in the parking lot of one of the old pre-Schengen border checkpoints. It consisted of rows of attached metal shacks that looked as if they were fashioned out of shipping containers. You could catch glimpses of people through the windows, sitting around and milling about in the brightly lit, bunk-filled rooms, likely wondering about their fate.

I may do a short rant on Slovakia's embarrassing and provincial response to the refugee crisis soon, but this camp was the only physical sign we saw of the ongoing crisis on this whole trip (well that, and also when Czech police in SWAT gear held the train to Prague in Břeclav and walked through all the cars, even checking the passports of a few random travelers - something we'd never seen before).

Missing Slovakia, Europe...

I mentioned previously that we hadn't been away long enough to truly miss the place, but as it turns out, we really did miss certain aspects of life in and around Slovakia, particularly Terezia's family. We also missed pagáče (a tasty, flaky biscuit with pork rind cracklings woven throughout that must only be eaten fresh out of the oven); drinking beer in smokey pubs full of toothless, old, drunk guys; the landscape in the middle of the country, with its rolling, forested hills and ramshackle, rust-colored, middle-of-nowhere villages, and the odd castle ruin; and a juicy, intensely flavorful duck or goose leg served with dumplings and a pile of sauerkraut or red cabbage.

But more than that, we really miss being in Europe, and living so far away from it is kind of torture. We especially miss being able to take relatively short train (or plane) rides into other countries with different languages and cultures, and beautiful, old cities. We miss the history, the layers of lovely and varied old architecture, the art, etc. As a result, we both feel extremely torn between California and Europe, and we really weren't ready to come back from this trip.

While I don't think either of us would want to live in Slovakia again, I could easily see us living elsewhere in Europe. Slovakia, after all, is a very small country and Bratislava is a small city, and neither have enough of the things that would make us happy to live there over the long term. I mean, hell, that's partly why we moved back to California in the first place. But if an opportunity arose that allowed us to live in, say, Vienna or Prague, we'd seriously consider it.

Back home

At any rate, we arrived home to find that, while we were away, someone pried our apartment building's mailbox off the wall and made off with it. This somehow left a small hole in the side of the building, on the other side of which is the storage room. Our apparently clueless postal delivery worker seemed to think it was okay to just pass the mail through that hole where the mailbox had been, so our neighbor had to keep going down into the storage room to collect everyone's mail. We're thinking the thieves may have nabbed the mailbox to sell for scrap metal, or hell, maybe they just wanted it for themselves, because anyone wanting our mail could have simply opened the boxes up without a key, as they weren't actually locked. The new mailboxes have locks, but it took the landlord several days to get everyone the keys. Welcome back to Oakland!