28 September 2008

Keep Your Hand on the Plow

To some extent, it's very repetitive to keep asking Slovaks about the Roma, because usually there are no surprises. But there are as many answers as there are people, so it's still interesting.
Finally, though, someone here said something I've been waiting to hear from someone, anyone here:
"You Americans equate the situation of the Roma here with your Civil Rights Movement."
This wasn't said in a completely positive context, but it shows a lot of insight. And by giving it a name, the situation is acknowledged. In our so-called post-racial society, the struggle for civil rights continues. It continues in America, it maybe has yet to begin here (all over Europe). It continues everywhere, all the time, because we are human. Cultures can be different, but the issues remain the same. When Silvio Berlusconi recently made anti-Roma comments and especially anti-Roma policy, (it's definitely racism) can we not also consider it a form of apartheid?

I'm still thinking about this, but I invite your thoughts.

26 September 2008

Two pieces of paper

I'll leave it up to you to figure out what correlation they have, if any. To me, they show interesting facets of culture, society, and law.

The top paper was stuck into an egg carton. It explains the coding system that is printed on every egg shell, noting quality and country of origin. For years, I've admired how Europeans document and clearly display in the grocery stores exactly where their food comes from -- I think it helps consumer awareness on multiple levels ("Where and who are the migrant farmworkers picking my grapes?" and "Gee, maybe I shouldn't buy this powdered milk product from China").

The bottom paper is a receipt (with the omnipresent pečiatka - seal - proving its originality) from the Slovak Railway company that says I went to the bathroom and paid for it (is there a pun in there somewhere?).

bleg: music to teach with

It's kind of early to bleg, but this week, I realized that I really want to use music more as a teaching tool. Two big issues that came to my attention this week:
First, my really wonderful 7th graders were studying Australopithecus Afarensis but didn't know "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (which is fine because it's somewhat obscure), but they were woefully unfamiliar with The Beatles -- the answer I got was "hippies!" and we all know there's so much more to them than that. Secondly, my wonderful 9th graders are so punk that they think they don't like hip hop. If Talib Kweli was somewhat more accessible, I'd be playing his sophistication for them until they swore they absolutely adored it. But they also are really into punk in a cool way, and I'd like to introduce them to some Velvet Underground/Lou Reed as a way of introducing their proto-punkness in a highly educational, useful-for-teaching-English sort of way.

Of course, any suggestions need not be limited to the Beatles, Talib Kweli, and assorted Lou Reed projects. This article was somewhat helpful to me, but of course I won't limit myself to British music. My main criteria are that the lyrics are more or less clearly understandable, mostly uncomplicated without complex allusions, and that it's uhm, Catholic School appropriate -- otherwise, I'd be doing Cocaine Blues right away! ;)

So please, leave a comment with any suggestions and have an opportunity to corrupt the minds of youth. I have some ideas, but I'm curious about what you think and would suggest.

25 September 2008

vlog: fall fruit

Making compote from Maria Silvestri on Vimeo.

We always knew it was possible

This is excellent, because this article really defines the American-Rusyn position, and explains why I was so frustrated a few days ago.

Kapusta woot!

Proof that I'm in the process of going native: lunch today is boiled potatoes and red cabbage from a jar, omgzthebestthingever. You can tell it's the cabbage time of year, because they sell these special crocks in the grocery store. The other day, my colleague was on her way home to do something with cabbage that I think is like a cross between sauerkraut and kimchee. She was making a stomping motion with her feet, and then I see these crocks in the grocery store... I think it's a very involved process because when I asked her about it the next day, she said that they finished around 8 that night -- and she started around 1 in the afternoon.

24 September 2008

This week, teaching

I have 10 classes every three days that I’m here. Generally, I prepare the same questions and same lesson for all of them, with slight improvements as I go on and with some modifications for the relative levels and dispositions of the classes. The absolutely fascinating thing about it is that even when I ask them the same questions, every group has either 1) completely different answers or 2) a different way of telling me.

The teacher-people reading this probably already know this, and are perhaps amused by how novel everything is to me. There’s a student teacher who started today, and her supervising teacher is already so impressed with how good she is, how dynamic she is and how great she is at discipline (let’s say ‘classroom management,’ ok?). The difference between her and everyone else and me is that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing most of the time (nor is there anyone supervising me to know how dynamic I am in the classroom ;) ). I have no clue if they’re actually learning anything, and I have to pull the English out of them sometimes. Today I had some classroom management issues, with a class that is actually quite good at speaking English but who was unusually awake and rowdy for a Monday morning. They’re not bad, it’s just highly annoying for 14 year olds to be throwing God knows what around a classroom, and if they have enough discipline to stand when I walk in, then they can wait until their break to throw things and wrestle and do whatever it is that they do. Alas. On the other hand, they’re quite normal and very nice kids from good families. My colleagues are so helpful and supportive too, and keep telling me how happy they are that I’m here. It’s really quite excellent to be doing this.

The drill this week was that I show them a rather cartoony map of Pittsburgh (made to advertise the Great Allegheny Passage – and US Steel’s support of it – they all recognize the logo) and explain what various places are. Pointing to the Civic / Mellon Arena and explaining that this is where hockey is played invariably gets the response ‘Marián Hossa’ who of course is unfortunately no longer with us. Then, we unroll this great aerial or satellite photographic map of Ružomberok, which they all absolutely love.

Some of the questions/some of the answers:
What is the tallest building? – interesting answers included ‘Tesco,’ which I have not actually seen but tend to doubt is the tallest building in Ružomberok. There are apartment buildings that are 14 stories – those are the tallest buildings. I think some were confusing tallest with biggest, because the words sound very similar in Slovak.
• Where do you go to have fun? – Evidently there is somewhere that they go to dance, and also an indoor sports center. One kid likes to bike along the river. Excellent. Further, as I learned this summer, ‘the River Váh (which goes through Ružomberok) is the longest in Slovakia.” On the other hand, my favorite group of 9th graders (they are joyfully full of angst and very into punk – I love them) said, “there is nowhere in Ružomberok to go have fun” and described the place for dancing as full of ‘kindermafia.’
• Where do you play sports?
• Where do you shop for food? / clothes? – Tesco, Billa, Lidl, Kaufland. / Everyone shops for clothes at the ‘Činský obchod’ – the Chinese store. Everyone also laments their ubiquitousness, but they’re actually pretty fascinating places and I have been known to patronize them myself.
• What is the first place someone should go when they come to Ružomberok? / Where should tourists go in Ružomberok? – This elicited some interesting responses, including the suggestion of walking in the hills. I was happy to hear this, because it tells me at least some of them recognize the sublime beauty in which they live.
• Where is a good place to eat?
• What is a historic place? – (Interestingly for the ommipresent museum geek in me,) the museum was a common answer, to see pictures and animals. However, I don’t think the building itself is particularly historic -- I think they heard historic and thought about somewhere where you could go to see it. Also, across the river there’s a castle and a 13th century church. I was really happy with the kid who was able to say thirteenth century. There's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby, and one group thought it was funny to suggest that Hypernova, a large supermarket chain, was also UNESCO. By speaking with one of my colleagues, I learned that Ružomberok has a really nice founding legend: a knight was trying to shoot a deer, and instead hit the middle of a rose. As a result, the main square has a rose growing in it, and there is a street named after the knight.

The question that really didn’t work well (either because they are prematurely pragmatic or the concept of WeirdNJ does not exist here) was “is there somewhere haunted?”

After we got done with the above questions, I asked them to describe their neighborhoods. This was met with such an unbelievable amount of difficulty that I have trouble understanding. It is possible that 1) they didn’t understand the question well, even with a dictionary, 2) they don’t think of where they live in terms of a neighborhood the way we tend to in Pittsburgh / America, or 3) I am expecting them to create language beyond their skill level, which I doubt because I know where they are in their books. The best answers came from one of the ‘silent-but-deadlies,’ who described her house, yard, fruit trees and two dogs so well and yet only after me practically having to beg the class. Anyway, Silent-but-deadly’s very coherent, multi-sentence answer rather shocked me, and definitely floored her classmates, if I can judge from the looks on their faces. In another class, after quite a few minutes with a dictionary, one girl came up with “Ružomberok smells.” This sounds quite funny, but a lot of people have mentioned it though I have yet to experience it. Evidently the paper factory creates a bad smell, which doesn’t go anywhere because the whole city is surrounded by hills, which makes the clouds stay put.

Quite a few people here have told me, “Slovaks won’t speak unless they have something clever to say and they know they’ll say it without making mistakes.” This is a really interesting comment from the inside about mentality, but it’s frustrating when I’m trying to encourage students to speak English. And obviously, it’s not like I bite or anything when they make mistakes. ;) But on a rather serious note, after school no one ever tests you on grammar; the goal is to be able to speak. The question is not “How well do you know English grammar?” but rather “Do you speak English?”

With my favorite group, they asked me for the umpteenth time if I spoke Slovak, and then said the (highly annoying but annoyingly common) phrase, “Na Slovensko, po slovensky” – “In Slovakia, in Slovak.” At which point I said, “But that is fascist!” They understood this, and laughed. With another group, when they said this, I said, “Na Slovensko, po anglicky” which then made them laugh and then be like, “wait, do you speak Slovak?” But my point about all of this nationalism surrounding language is true! Cf. the lecture I went to last summer in Vienna about linguistic economy, in which the man discussed the importance of maintaining these little-spoken languages (circa 5 million Slovak speakers worldwide) versus the current global imperative for being multilingual – all of my students also study German – it’s all about moderation. I’m happy to speak Slovak in Slovakia and I definitely don’t expect everyone to speak English, but I also know the reality. Most of these kids will end up working outside of Slovakia for at least part of their lives, and 5 million speakers of a language out of +6 billion humans is a drop in the bucket – I won’t even get into Rusyn here. But I rest my case.


It puts me in a state of absolute wonder that there is sometimes obviously a big difference between what I think I’m saying in Slovak and what is actually understood. Sometimes the confusion amuses me; other times it frustrates me. Generally I think it is not necessarily bad, because I am kind of forced to simplify how I communicate, and in English I tend towards the complex instead of the simple. I’m getting there, but until then, let confusion reign!

23 September 2008

Kružok Question

If I were tiny, I would…
If I were invisible, I would…

I was thrilled with the excellent, enthusiastic responses I got for this one. For example:
If I were tiny, I would…
• Watch TV like in a cinema
• Eat crumbs
• Eat a big strawberry all my life
• Live in a wolf’s ear (or a wolf’s eye, I’m not quite sure)
• Make a video about little life
• Climb a mountain of sugar
• Make a group of other tiny people
• Swim in a teacup
• Sleep in a nutshell
• Fly on a leaf
• Live in Axl Rose’s hair / a beehive

If I were invisible, I would…
• Scare other people
• Rob a bank
• Be smelly
• Listen to adults talk
• Get a new look
• Observe my lover (this kid is really funny, and I love the language)
• Help the police
• Go on the bus free / go to the cinema for free
• Not wear clothes (the first answer was ‘be natural’ which I understood, they revised it)
• Visit the zborovňa (zborovňa is the teacher’s room, which is a highly mysterious place for the students, who never enter it – they only stand at the door and try to look around the teacher standing at the door. Usually this is averted by a teacher posted outside during all of the breaks, who comes in and announces who one of the students want to talk to by calling out the teacher’s last name). Sometimes the kids get agitated when I'm the teacher at the door, because then they have to ask for whatever it is they want in English. ;)

I forget which scholar it was who said that the way we think is really influenced by whatever our native language is – so the insight I’m getting on language is beyond fascinating because it proves how absolutely creative language is. One of the results of being so lost in translation is that I’m feeling so much more poetic.

Tales from the zborovňa

Today there was a highly hysterical moment at school. I was the only teacher in the zborovňa, and one of my colleagues sent a student to ask me for something. I didn’t understand him, so I handed him a dictionary, and he told me ‘zbirnik, anthology’ – and I was like, for what? – the room is full of textbooks! I didn’t understand what subject it was for, and then he told me ‘shelf’ – there’s a ton of shelves in the teacher’s room. Then, I was like come on to the classroom because I have no idea what the teacher wants. So she asked me to watch the classroom for a second while she ran to the zborovňa.

After that class period, I asked my colleague what happened and what she wanted. It turns out that she knew I was the only one in the zborovňa, so she asked who spoke English well enough to go ask me for what she needed. Alas, the kid only spoke to me in Slovak! But it turned out she needed a folder of pictures of Slovak literary figures (anthology of photographs ?). We had an excellent laugh over the whole ordeal! Speaking of which, this particular colleague is one of at least two of my colleagues who are at least partly Rusnaks from eastern Slovakia. This means, world, watch out because we are everywhere.

Earlier in the day, I was in the zborovňa with two of my colleagues, and I asked them to explain to me what kind of milk it was sitting on one of our other colleagues’ desk, because I see this milk everywhere. It’s this flavored sour milk, which I swear flies off the shelves of the grocery store – I should buy some to try it. I said, “this and beer is like your national drink, because I see everyone drinking it.” A few minutes later, we were talking about how absolutely chatty one of the classes is, and my colleague said, “what they need is some slivovica – that is our national drink, not sour milk!”

20 September 2008

Ako je počasie?

Discussion of the weather is loathsome, but I haven't seen the sun in like a week, seriously, and it's really starting to get to me.

"i tak dalej" - "and so on and so forth"

Some good news for American Rusyns: we're not the only ones who can tend towards being out of touch with (choose: ourselves / the youth / reality) -- or, yet again, it is plainly obvious that people all over the world are more alike than they are different (and they have the same problems). Today I was at an absolutely fascinating meeting of Rusyn intelligentsia -- fascinating maybe not for its content, though that was interesting for a variety of reasons -- but fascinating for the opportunity to observe how the indigenous Rusyn intelligentsia is in its element.

Before I go much further, I promise that while I'm about to kind of rant, I'll try to do it in a mostly coherent and organized way. I also must acknowledge my self-identification as a Rusyn. It is often painfully obvious that I am not indigenous, which is fine, but regardless of where we're all from, what we have in common is that we're Rusyns. In fact, in a conversation on the street afterwards, it was suggested that it would be good for me to familiarize myself with the Rusyn mentality, and I jokingly (though truthfully) replied that I was already well acquainted with it! I have been using we and us while talking to other Rusyns -- it's so important to me to communicate my self-identification (and as a result what I consider to be our mutual self-identification). Of course, being Rusyn is only one part of my overall identity, but for now we'll pretend that it's the one and only.

This was a meeting of Rusyn intelligentsia mostly from Prešov -- meaning people who are from the villages but now live in Prešov. The program was the hardcore historiography and metaanalysis that we Rusyns do best. (As usual,) I was the youngest person in the room, but one of the presenters was a young Rusyn scholar just a few years older than I. Most of the presenters sat down at a head table and read from papers they had prepared, though some were more dynamic and had visuals that would have made an excellent Powerpoint. I can't comment too much about the actual content, because I have to concentrate so hard to understand. But perhaps more telling was that multiple people nodded off at various points and others were obviously not paying attention, yet they were willing to sit there for the entire morning. This can't be the way to do things! Not even most of the people there were engaged. And yet, this is how things continue to be done. Regarding the structure, content and our apparent fetishization of historiography and meta-analysis, I was really frustrated until I read the following by Stuart Hall this afternoon:
"Sometimes national cultures are tempted to turn the clock back, to retreat defensively to that 'lost time' when the nation was 'great', and to restore past identities. This is the regressive, the anachronistic element in the national cultural story. But often this very return to the past conceals a struggle to mobilize 'the people' to purify their ranks, to expel the 'others' who threaten their identity, and to gird their loins for a new march forward."
It seems to me that this is exactly what I saw today, except that 1) it may already be too late, or 2) there's never enough time, what are we waiting for by "girding our loins"? Avanti, popolo!

My questions became where are the people? I don't want to only know the so-called intelligentsia, I want to see the masses, the supposedly hundreds of thousands or half-millions or millions that just are Rusyn and don't need to constantly re-overanalyze it (and I do include myself in the group of re-overanalyzers) -- and where is the new culture being developed? Instead of making historiography, where and what is making history at the grassroots? I genuinely believe that it is (the concept of) the Museum where the grassroots and the intelligentsia can meet, and I hope and do think that I will see that while I'm here.

The real fun came during lunch, wherein the assembled engaged in oft-colorful polemic (talk about Rusyn mentality -- it was proposed to me this afternoon that this is a genetic characteristic, and I can't disagree -- and woe to me who gets such a thing from the Italians also! + what am I engaged in by writing this?) and preached to each other's choir about the same causes they've been concerned about for the last 15 years, most of which are not culture-building, nor necessarily progressive, but about which I can say that they are trying to make something that is inherently intangible into something more tangible -- though to what end I don't quite understand.

There are so many other things that I'll not even get into, because I have the sneaking suspicion that such things are perennial and will present themselves again in the (near-ish) future. I am so happy to be able to observe how normal, everyday Rusyn culture is practiced here (though of course today was only one iteration of cultural expression -- and I've not been here long), and it's really excellent to meet everyone and be able to talk more with everyone. I am trying to explain to people that I know we American Rusyns don't know really what happens here, and Euro Rusyns definitely don't know what happens in America -- and so I'm just trying to understand everything, and it's definitely absolutely fascinating. Today I felt like I was at the center of the (Rusyn) world, which is really quite cool.

19 September 2008

Rusyn Institutions

Today I was at the Museum of Rusyn Culture and at the cathedra (oh how I love the terminology of European academe) of Rusyn Language and Culture at Prešov University.

I'm about to write an entire thesis about the museum, so I'll hold off on that, but a quick and interesting note about the academic department:
When the department was first established, it was in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Then, it was renamed/reorganized into the Department of Regional Languages and Literatures, and now it is finally its own independent Department of Rusyn Language and Culture. The point being that a group of people who are indigenous were included in the category of foreign.
The coolest thing though is that today, and basically just by walking across the street, I was in two of the most important Rusyn institutions in the world, both of which are basically brand-new. It's time for such things -- we humans need institutions, if only to have something tangible to attempt to represent that which is certainly intangible.

vlog: Globalization at the supermarket

I'm experimenting a bit with vlogging!
(For best results, view the blog on the webpage, because Flash does not work with most e-mail clients.)

Andy Warhol famously said, "I come from nowhere." Since Andy Warhol's roots are in NE Slovakia, I am currently nowhere. But it's hard to feel remote when I can buy anything I'd ever want and then some:

Food, Globalized in NE Slovakia from Maria Silvestri on Vimeo.

The Roma

In preparation for coming to Slovakia, this summer I read the very well-done book Bury Me Standing, which really dissected the political situation (or lack thereof) of the Roma in Europe.

Then today I was surprised to find out that Utne Reader has organized an entire project about the Roma. Utne Reader has not been on my happy list for the last few years, as Nina Utne kind of sold out to an "independent publishing conglomerate" (Ogden Publications) which is really oxymoronic to me. But alas, I still get e-mails from them that often have links to really great articles. Here's a link to their Roma Project, which has a lot of great links.

A big theme of me being here (maybe the theme) is that I'm trying to immerse myself in things that I can never possibly understand -- it's very Sisyphean. For example, there's a lot of relatively recent history that I wouldn't understand because I didn't live it -- I live in the present -- and so the only way that I can come closer to understanding is by talking with people who did live through things. So my current physical proximity and growing ability to communicate is a huge help, but it will never be enough. Similarly, I don't think that a lot of the Slovaks I've talked to about the Roma can understand what seems to me to be an American fascination with the Roma and a huge concern for human rights/civil rights issues. Almost everyone I talk to gives such a similar answer that I wonder... There is some variation/deviation, and only one person I've talked to here so far has even come close to admitting that (some, if not most) Slovaks are racist vis-á-vis Roma. I am fascinated, but also aware of the decades of systematized misunderstanding from both sides, which has rendered me an observer thus far.

18 September 2008

Dialogue: Holy Rollers

I was on the phone this afternoon with Peggy and the buzzer for the door rang. Of course I wasn't expecting anyone, but I saw two people through the peephole. Really, I shouldn't have even opened the door, but one never knows.

One lady in a long skirt and turtleneck, one man in a hat. I could read the Slovak on the pamphlet as she pointed to it -- the word 'koniec' - which means 'end' was very clear -- and knew exactly what was going on.

Self: Prvý, nehovorim po slovensky. - First off, I don't speak Slovak.
(And I knew as I was saying it that it wasn't going to work.)
Lady: But I speak English.
(With, suprisingly, an American accent! How could this be possible?)
Man: You have no interest? (Again, an American accent! Coincidence? I think not!)
Self: No, I'm a quite happy Catholic already. (The truth.) Good day.

[Post-socialist neocons exeunt.]

Baking a Cobbler

I really don't normally bake. It seems to be the sort of thing you either do or you don't, and since no one really baked around me when I was growing up, I'm not especially comfortable doing it. It's not particularly relaxing for me. But why not, I thought -- so I put some revolutionary music on, sang along, and endeavoured to bake, because I had way more fresh from the tree apples, pears and plums than I could possibly eat, so I decided I would make something with them (thanks Petra's family!). I thought a dainty cobbler with a nice dainty crumbly top would be really excellent.

But I think I maybe put a bit too much baking powder in, and/or maybe had totally too much because I converted to metric the wrong way, and I ended up with mighty behemoth cobbler. But it's definitely edible and also solved my problem of not being able to eat everything before it got bad. My other idea was to really go native and make compote, but I held myself back. I still may... Plum compote? Part of me can't even believe I'm even thinking about this, let alone actually baking of my own accord, but on the other hand, it kind of feels nice.

17 September 2008


Today I was in the office, and the school secretary sister handed me a banana. I declined, as I am not really a fan, but we (self, secretary, principal) started talking about them. I said that when people immigrated to America from, for example, Slovakia, they didn't know what a banana was because they had never seen one.

The principal told me that here, older people started eating bananas about 30 years ago. They didn't see what the fuss was all about, because it reminded them of potatoes that had been in the pivnica (cellar) too long. Evidently, old bad potatoes get sweet and are a lot like bananas.

Feeling fundamental

I must say, I love how I have been taking a break from the computer while I'm in Ružomberok. In the evenings, I listen to music (these days usually a combination of Pete Seeger/folk, Johnny Cash and operas) or podcasts of American public radio like The News from Lake Woebegon, Car Talk, This American Life, The Moth, and Studio 360. I also have a season pass for Mad Men from iTunes, and really enjoy watching it -- but that and the TV evening news is about all the TV I watch. Watching the TV news is part of my daily routine in Ružomberok -- I have my evening food and then watch the TV news with the sisters who watch it.

So, I need the internet and I need my computer to keep the flow of podcasts and music coming, but I thoroughly enjoy how it's not attached to me at the hip the way it would be if I was in America. I love giving myself the gift of actually listening. I didn't bring any books with me, which is so totally fine with me, because I've been writing and thinking more, and I feel like I have my brain back because I can actually think through and organize my thoughts in my head. Further, being around my books is an important part of me establishing my comfort zone, kind of like Linus and his blanket, so it's good for me to be weaning myself of that need. Because it's a heavy (both physically and mentally) need.

But having my brain back is so excellent and it's just one of the reasons I'm so incredibly happy here. It's also why me being in a convent half of the week is really great -- my day has structure, which to an extent carries over into the time I'm not in the convent, and when I'm there I'm reveling in the quiet and not being busy -- I have plenty of time to do what I need and I never have to hurry. It's so wonderful.

Smells like Christmas

Usually the convent is really quiet and I don't see many people, I just hear them walking.

It merits explanation that it seems to me that Slovak people have a really complicated relationship to their footwear. They seem to feel strongly that it is really bad for one's feet to wear the same pair of shoes all day. Further, and this I can understand, it is much cleaner if you wear slippers rather than walking around the house in your shoes that have been outside. In school, the kids all wear slippers, and some of the teachers do. Normally I don't because I'm really not used to it and I wear very comfortable shoes to begin with, but in the convent and apartment I wear slippers because it's what one does. It is also can be kind of important to have 2 pairs of slippers, one for inside and one for outside, though this area can get a bit grey.

So the sound I usually hear is the sound of slippers shuffling around.

But last night was different. When I went downstairs for my evening food (which was absolutely amazing by the way: sauteed red peppers, onions, tomatoes and tvaroch + Slovak bread, which is also really great and has no real American equivalent. Tvaroch is a highly mysterious thing to me, and it's closest American equivalent is farmer's cheese, but it's not farmer's cheese), there were a lot of voices, and it was kind of loud.

So after I ate, I brought my dishes into the kitchen, and there was everyone, baking cookies! It appears that there were 2 or 3 groups of rolling dough and cutting out the little heart shapes, putting the cutouts onto trays, and putting egg yolks on them. Then others were carrying trays to and from the oven, and setting the baked cookies in trays and layers with paper. Quite similar, in fact, to the process of making medovniki in Uniontown.

The sisters were making the cookies to benefit a mission on some island either in Africa or the Caribbean, and they'll be selling them for 12Sk over the next few weeks. I'm thinking the taste was maybe nutmeg or clove, it wasn't cinnamon. The cookies were like medovniki, but they weren't. Evidently, they're what Christmas here smells like.

Kružok Question

1. Do you want to be famous?
2. What would you want to be famous for?
3. What would be good about being famous?

The answers I was getting from the students mostly were along the lines of "Johnny Depp!" and "to have a big house and nice car!" so I asked them if it was possible to be famous but not rich, with the (obvious) example of Mother Teresa. Some of their other answers were "to have a lot of friends" and "to have people like me", so we talked about how this was possible without having a lot of money. I'm so absolutely fascinated by their answers to all of my open-ended questions, because they could be anything, and sometimes they really suprise me.

"Open the box Miss Teacher!"

  1. Have I said yet how much more I can come closer to understanding why my mother was so tired when she got home from work? And how I can come closer to understanding why the last thing she would have wanted to do when she got home every evening would have been to cook dinner? I'm teaching 10 45-minute periods in 3 days and it's definitely enough.
  2. Every day, I tend to be horrified of how I may have acted as a student. On the other hand, I also realize a) how normal I was, and b) how this is yet more proof that people everywhere are more alike than they are different (thus rendering war, for example, a very bad thing).
  3. For example: students, if you pass notes, I will see you, even if my back is turned. Why? Either a) I have eyes in the back of my head, b) I wasn't born yesterday, or c) both.
  4. It is highly annoying to have chalk all over me. It makes the students giggle, as if they have never seen such a thing, and I need to wash my hands after every class because it's just annoying.
Incidentally, there are sinks in every classroom and in the teacher's room, not in the bathrooms. The students wash the chalkboards themselves between classes. They may talk the entire class, but at least they are disciplined enough to wash the chalkboard after I'm done using it.

One of my main teaching tools this week was an empty box. The students didn't necessarily know it was empty, although one class thought that it was and kept yelling for me to open the box. This was not bad, because at least they were speaking to me 1) in English and 2) imperatively, regardless of whether or not they knew it. However, the line of questioning was something like this:
  • What is this?
  • What's in the box? (one of the more interesting answers: ambition, from a 9th grader)
  • What's outside of the box?
  • What's not in the box?
  • What would you put in the box?
  • To whom would you give the box? (One answer was Axl Rose.)
  • How would you wrap the box?
  • What color is the box?
  • Where would you send the box?
The goal was to encourage thinking outside the box. Alas, a highly funny moment happened with some 7th graders and the last question. One girl said, "under the table" so I put the box under the desk, at which point the bell rang. I got my things and left the classroom, and then realized I had forgotten my box. When I went back into the classroom, they were all laughing hysterically, and so was I. I'm learning that kids are much smarter than we give them credit for.

I'm also learning that being a language teacher requires a great deal of animation. Luckily, it seems my personality is conducive to this sort of behavior. ;) The rule of the week has been that "I don't know"/"Neviem" is not an answer. When someone says it, I've been writing it on the board and Xing it out to the max.

16 September 2008

Kružok Question

For those students so inclined, after school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays I have an extra 45 minutes of after school English conversation practice, which also includes the encouragement of creative thinking. I prepare one question that we discuss for the entire time -- usually it takes a while to understand the question, and then a while to formulate an answer, etc. But they've told me it's good for them, so I'm happy and feel it's time very well spent.

I thought it would be cool to post these on the blog and then if you're so inclined, please leave a comment (if you are subscribed to the blog via e-mail, click through to the blog) with your answer.


You have €1,000,000 that you must give away. How will you do it?

15 September 2008

Jadranská torta

My delicious preemptively-celebrated Birthday Cake!

So. Cake layer, cacao goodness though not overwhelming. Filling layer, buttercream and crushed hazelnuts, fresh from a tree in Sobrance. Top layer, gelatinous gelatin giving a smooth texture. Super yummy.

Music: A od Prešova

(If you are subscribed to this blog via e-mail, you may need to click through to the website to get everything from this post.)

I really love this waltz:

A Od Presova - Slovenský folklór
(and here's a link to the sheet music)
There's another song at the end of the track, which nicely complements the first part.

I'd heard it before, but last week, last Sunday, the family of the convent's superior stopped by the convent en route from a folklore festival in the Czech Republic on their way back to their village near Prešov, and they played this song along with dancing and other songs. Excellent.

14 September 2008

Music: Attention, please.

(re: video -- A rather insipid version, but the only one I could find.
The train station tone is much more utilitarian, sans the superfluous instrumentation and Czech.)

When they make an announcement in the train station, the signal that there is an announcement is the first few notes of the song "Jedna ruža, dve ruže." I mentioned this to Petra, who laughed and then we sang a bit of it together. Now that I look it up, I wonder why we only learned the first two verses of the song in Slovak class...? ;) On the other hand, I'll be thinking of this song whenever I'm in the train station.


I had an excellent weekend with Petra's family -- great company, great food, great company. It turns out that last Friday, 8 September, is my (and Petra's mom's and grandmother's, and half of the parish's and a good amount of the entire country's) name day. So we had a nice day and went to church Friday evening. Saturday we made this really excellent cake, and then today preemptively celebrated my forthcoming birthday.

Also today, we went to a country house in Hungary that used to be owned by the Károlyi family -- they were somehow closely connected to Ferenc II Rákóczi, but I am largely ignorant of the history of the Hungarian aristocracy -- they also were owners of extensive vinyards and connected to the Hollóháza Porcelain company. This house is in Füzérradvány (try to pronounce that), which is really very close to the border. In fact, it would be very possible to go there via bicycle from Petra's house, that's how close it is. The house is beautiful, with some unusual architectural details that really make it unique. There were two really cool things in the house -- reliefs of phoenixes in the backs of the fireplaces, and really nice built-in bathtubs.
Of course, the house had undergone many changes over the years, and one notable euphemism being when the house was "put under government management" and made into a hospital or sanatorium or something, and all of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque-era furniture the family had collected was lost. There remains beautiful columns. We were guided through the place by a really well-meaning docent who spoke like no English and no Slovak, only Hungarian. This meant that Petra and I were completely unable to ask any questions, and there was a lot of lost in translation going on. But it was fun to listen to Hungarian, which has such an interesting sound and yet is also totally incomprehensible to me.

It was rather strange seeing such a strictly Italian country house so rather out-of-context, but maybe in some ways the diverse Austro-Hungarian Empire was like a precursor to today's cultural pluralities and globalization.
Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me... Here are some other pictures.

¡¡¡I almost forgot the most adventurous part of the afternoon!!! The grounds of the country house were used as hunting grounds by the family, who used the house mainly as a hunting lodge. We had some trouble finding the way in (all of the signs are in Hungarian, most not translated) and so we walked in towards the house through a park that is related to the house but isn't part of it. The house was fenced in, and we were walking along the outer perimeter -- so we could see the house but couldn't get to it. It really didn't matter because it was a nice day, and they were pleasant woods. Anyway, at one point as we were walking, Petra spotted a grenade, intero as they say in Italian. Alas, these sorts of things are around, but wow. Who knows how it got there, or how long it had been there, which doesn't diminish its potential danger.

I was concerned because I didn't have my passport with me, but it wasn't even a problem because now Slovakia, Hungary, et. al. are Schengen countries now, and we entered Hungary by turning off the road onto a short gravel section that was paved once we entered Hungary -- they used EU funds to pave the road (previously a path for bicycles and local foot traffic) -- and once again I heard the phrase, "Welcome to Slovakia." No guards or control whatsoever. Evidently this region of Hungary is autonomous, and they have spent a lot of time and money developing a tourist infrastructure, because it's the only part of Hungary that is mountainous, so people like to visit it.

On the way back to Slovakia, where I was going to get the train in Michaľany, we stopped to see if we could get into the Greek Catholic church in the village. An old lady who lives across the street was out, and Petra's mom got out of the car to go talk to her. It turns out she spoke the local Zemplen dialect perfectly, which is good because otherwise there would have been major communication issues. It's so amazing, from their houses they can see what is now Slovakia, but really only the older people can communicate in either the dialect or Hungarian. It turns out that these ladies knew someone from Petra's village because she grew up there and then married someone from Petra's village -- and Petra and her parents knew the lady but had never heard her speak Hungarian -- because no one else in the village does!

There's one train a day that goes directly to Prešov. It starts in Čierna nad Tisou (cf. 1968) and goes as far as Prešov, via Košice. As far as Košice, I was with a friend of Petra's family who I'd met years ago in Rome, and we had a pleasant time chatting on the way about a lot of things. Quite excellently, she said to me, "You're at home here with us" which is very, very true. Also excellently, she extolled the virtues of we Rusyns, though stopped short of self-identifying as one.

Originally, I was going to go straight to Ružomberok, but I had to come back to Prešov to take care of something. The weather is getting colder and it's going to be rainy (last weekend it was so hot and humid, this weekend it's the opposite). I had wanted to go walking in the hills around Ružomberok and thought I'd be able to tomorrow because it's a holiday and we have off -- and obviously normally I wouldn't be able to, but this is just as well.

11 September 2008

The Use of Church Slavonic vs. Slovak/English

I really want to write about this, but I'm still thinking about it.

10 September 2008

First Reflections on Teaching

That I am teaching is slightly extreme. While I definitely consider what I do vis-á-vis museums to be highly educational, it is passive education -- objects, text, and context are an intermediary between me and the learner. This active teaching is something I'm learning how to do the way sometimes parents throw their kids into a swimming pool in order to teach them how to swim. At this point, I have a ton more empathy for teachers and I understand more why my mom was always so tired when she got home from work!

A lot of the system is quite foreign to me, and/or everything is highly mormal and I have been completely unaware of the behind-the-scenes aspects of education, specifically regarding the vast amouts of highly bureaucratic paperwork that are involved. For example, after every class it is necessary to write down in a book called the trieda kniha (classroom book) the objective for the lesson, plus note who is absent and initial it. This needs to be written in Slovak because it is a semi-legal document, and so I get help with it. This particular book stays in the classroom, as do all of the students throughout the day. Instead of having their own classroom like in America, every teacher has a desk in one room with all of the other teachers. I like this system, because it generally cuts down on hallway idiocy between class periods.

The really nice thing is that all of my classes are split, which means that I only have half of one class at a time, and there are two classes per grade -- A and B. So for example when I teach, I have only half of group A, which is only 11 or 12 kids. At the same time, the other group is also learning English, or depending on the grade, maybe German. Thank God I'm only teaching half a group at a time, because otherwise it would be beyond bedlam.

Because it was the first time that I was teaching them, I started every class by trying to explain to them how important it was for them to stop me if they didn't understand or if they needed me to repeat something. When they ask me if I speak Slovak, the official answer is no, but it has to be obvious that I understand it because if they give an answer in Slovak, often my answer is, "yes, but in English, please!" They're usually able to do it, and I can usually tell by the blank stares and frustration when they're not getting it. It's amazing how easy it is to tune out Slovak and only be thinking and speaking in English, and when I'm walking in the halls or something, usually there are greetings of "hello!" or "bye bye!" and I answer in English only.

I'm trying to encourage them to help each other, but this is a double-edged sword because it usually means that one or two of the students are translating everything for the rest of the class. I'd prefer for these students to begin to arrive at the point where they are thinking in English, but at the same time I kind of need them to do this so that I know they understand, and I definitely want them to help each other -- it goes without saying I'm trying really hard to positively reinforce as much as possible, especially with the students who I think may want to be a handful. I'm trying to explain to them that I'm not really teaching them, I'm there because I already speak English and they will learn from each other if only they would listen to each other. But this is 1. hard to explain in Enligh and even harder to understand, and 2. a somewhat radical concept and definitely not a way that they are used to learning. I haven't gotten to the language-is-a-creative-act point yet, but it's definitely on the horizon -- I know they aren't used to learning this way -- and we're still at the highly pragmatic language-is-a-tool-for-communication point.

The youngest students I have are in the 6th class, and they are mostly still quite cute, although I had one section that was rather difficult because it was painfully obvious they were trying to 'test' me. Usually this means that they ask me to go to the bathroom, which is a non-question because they have 45-minute periods with 10 or 15 minutes in between, which is of course more than enough time to go -- and as I reread this sentence, I hate how 'grownup' I sound. But it's the truth!

Almost every class had someone who is, shall we say, silent but deadly -- usually someone who sat in the last row and was either pretending to not pay attention or who seemed not into talking, but then who came through at the right moment with the right answer perfectly, to my suprise and to the suprise of some of their classmates. I'm happy when this sort of thing happens. ...it also turns out that with some of the kids, they are paying attention even when I don't think they are.

Since the groups are split in half, they're spread out all over the room, and I ask them to move forward from the back of the room if they're sitting towards the back. At times this elicits whines, but they are really very respectful. When I walk into the classroom and when I leave, they stand (which kind of amazes me). And so, when I ask them a question, they try to answer, because they won't say no to me because I'm the teacher (this definitely amazes me). The respect is there, and of course it has to be mutual, and it is.

This week, all we did was introductions. But I put them in pairs or trios and they introduced each other, very simply: This is my friend ______. S/he lives in ______. His/Her hobbies are ______. Then after that -- and trust me, communicating that they would introduce each other was really amazingly difficult -- I asked them individually about their brothers and sisters and asked if they are older than them or younger than them. This introduced older/younger and oldest/youngest without them even knowing it. For some of the older kids, this went very quickly and we moved on to other things, but for the 6th class, it took all 45 minutes of the period.

06 September 2008

Thinking About Accessibility

...because it doesn't really exist here.

Today, I was waiting for a bus, and a woman in a wheelchair came to the bus stop. The bus came, and I thought, "hm, maybe someone is coming to help?" but when I got on the bus, and thought about it, I quickly came to the realization that none of the bus entrances were remotely accessible. I'm not sure if she was actually waiting for the bus, but if she was, I don't know how she could have gotten on.

Because of my museum geekitude, I thought back to yesterday, when I went to the Šarišská Galéria. No elevator down to the pivnica (basement) or up to the first floor, or even to most of the ground floor because the gallery is in a 17th or 18th century building. Any renovations that may have been done don't include ramps or elevators at all. Nor were the labels large enough for someone with visual impairments.

Most sidewalks have ramps, but I think most of Europe has a long way to go on this issue.

04 September 2008

Some things about Slovakia I may never get used to

a list I may keep adding to
  1. The near-ubiquitous use of nylons amongst women of all ages. I mean, I didn't wear nylons to the three proms I went to! Perhaps my aversion to nylons is truly post-feminist American female; remember these girls?
  2. The near-ubiquitous use of nylons amongst women of all ages with the addition of wearing sandals. I try so hard to be so euro, but socks + sandals is something I just can't do.
  3. Units of measurement, specifically with regard to weight. This was a problem for me in Italy, too. Here you use deka (deca?), which I don't even know is for grams or kilo grams. All I know is that 15 deca is .15 of a kilogram, and 1 kilogram is 2.2 pounds. My conversion widget tells me this is about 1/3 of a pound, but I don't have my laptop with me at the salami counter, obviously.
  4. The Speakers. This is like a Socialist-era hangover, and it really makes me feel kind of funny. Maybe looking further back, it's the electrical age-equivalent of a town crier. But seriously, I can't get used to it. In Petra's village, they play a different song depending on the reason for the announcement, which usually is about the week's soccer match -- so there's a special soccer song. Yesterday afternoon in Ružomberok, there was a nice jazzy song playing all of a sudden, which sounded like a really loud car radio. Then The Voice came on. It's really very strange. Then they play out The Voice with the song again. Evidently there are a lot of jokes about this speaker system -- maybe along the lines of "Dear Fellow Community Members, today nothing happened."

On riding the train

  1. Going between Prešov and Ružomberok on the train is a beautiful way to spend 2 and a half hours.
  2. A few days ago, I came across this website: Passing by
  3. Soon, I'm going to add my own videos to it.

View Larger Map

The train goes all through the Low Tatras and by the High Tatras. The High Tatras never cease to be dramatic, as they rise up from a plain and are visible for miles because nothing blocks the view of them. I remember the first time I came to Slovakia in 1992, and we landed at the Poprad airport with all of these (dare I say it?) majestic mountains all around. It was the best introduction possible to Slovakia.

The route takes about 2.5-3 hours, depending on whether or not it is necessary to transfer in Kysak or not. On Friday afternoons and Sunday afternoons, there is a direct train from Bratislava-Humenné via Prešov in order to accommodate the vast numbers of students who are coming home from uni. I can take the train on Sundays, but when I'm going back to the east on Wednesdays it takes a bit longer because I have to transfer.

The trains are mostly Intercity, and are divided into compartments. There is a bit of etiquette involved, maybe similar to the urinal code (though of course I can only imagine). When you find a compartment with people sitting in the correct arrangment, meaning at least one corner is free for you to be able to sit at, with the windows filling up first, you enter the compartment and say, "Je voľno to mesto?" - "Is this seat free?" even though it's already rather obvious that it is. Then when you get up to leave, you say "dovidenia" which is just super nice, kind of like how before you start eating, it's really important to say "dobru chut" - "buon appetito." This is what good manners are all about, for real.

Change and Progress

I've been thinking a lot about this since I got here and then went to the new Max place that's like an American-style mall. I think, in the whole scheme of things, it's actually very cool to have so many obvious dichotomies present in a societal sort of situation -- and maybe that's one of the points of the film Iné Svety, which is about this region.

For example, when walking on the street, one sees young people in jeans and t-shirts, obviously looking skater, goth or hipster, and then at the other end of the spectrum, older ladies dressed pretty traditionally. Since I didn't want to/couldn't whip out my camera to take pictures, I drew one instead:The colors may vary, and most of the blouses and skirts have a pattern in them but like woven into the fabric, not a different color. The goal does not seem to be to dress in complementary colors, either. On one hand, hardly anyone dresses like this, and on the other hand, enough older ladies do to merit discussion. By the outward sign of dressing this way, these women tend to represent one part of all of these drastic changes that have happened here over the last 15 or so years. It's almost like a physical manifestation of their memories.

Slovenské jedlá

probably the first of many posts on this theme

Since I've been here, I've been eating very well. Breakfast is, of course, a salami sandwich -- on which I also put soft cheese. Or, at the convent, butter and homemade jam on Slovak bread, which is a highly pleasurable way to start the day. To drink, coffee or tea and some mineral water. Generally, I eat something similar in the evening.

The big meal of the day is around lunchtime. This means soup and then meat and a side, with finally maybe a piece of fruit. It's perfect, because all day I feel like I've eaten, and you don't go to sleep on a full stomach.

I bought some frozen spinach to make my favorite frittata, and came upon some European ingenuity. Of course, these are the same people who built the Leaning Tower and the Atomium, so we should not be too surprised. The spinach came in a bag, and there were these weird pictures on the front of the bag, which I only noticed when I opened it. It turns out, the spinach is frozen in pellets!! -- That is, instead of an unwieldly frozen brick, so the spinach cooks much faster.
Adding to the benefit, you can buy red pepper and salt together in a grinder!

And finally, a comment on Kofola. This is something I was very excited to try, because my Slovak teacher Martin told us about it this summer. It ranks up there with Almdudler in the category of country/regionally specific soft drinks that are also much better for you than Coca-Cola if you are going to be drinking a soft drink in the first place. It's got a really complex taste, like rootbeer and apple juice together but not quite.

But the one thing that is most obvious while walking down the street is that this country is in a serious relationship with ice cream -- zmrzlina. It costs only 8ks (38¢ by today's rate) for a one scoop cone, and it totally hits the spot. People start eating ice cream well before noon, and it continues all day. I think it would be considered the hilt of bad manners to eat a sandwich while walking down the street, but it is totally socially acceptable to eat ice cream while walking down the street, which is a really nice thing to do.