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!

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