31 October 2008

The Lovely Omnipresence of Modern Design

or, further reason to love Europe.
or, a beautiful marriage of culture and package design.
or, just plain-old fangirling.

Yesterday, I had to buy a lightbulb. Here's the box:
Nice, clean sans-serif font, the extreme localization with 27 languages, made in France by a German company and on recycled cardboard -- nothing special, right?

But wait! There's more!
My love for things Bauhaus tends to know no bounds. It excites me in MoMA design exhibits, it makes me forgive Breuer's Whitney (which in general I love to hate), it put me near ecstasy in at the Pompidou and in Barcelona... So it always makes my heart sing when I see the influence of a movement that arguably was peripheral at the time though has since accomplished its objective of mass-producable, well-designed, functional products to the extent that people don't even think about it any more. Ikea? Not so avant-garde!

So, the detail on the box, with its rather generic scenes of living space that are no more than an inch high on the box, is kind of interesting. Why? Because we're looking at what's basically a Breuer chair and a van der Rohe coffee table!

Yay for the simple beauty of tubular steel! And hurrah that good design has reached the masses to the extent that now it's part of our visual culture!!

30 October 2008

Rainy evening

It's awful how early it gets so dark.

What will I do?

Now that Mad Men, season 2 is over, what can fill the ensuing void?

Pumpkin Alternatives

As all of this Halloween nonsense gets going full swing, I'd just like to note that here in Slovakia, where Halloween exists only as a form of cultural imperialism, they we actually eat pumpkins in forms other than pie.

For example, this week I had fried pumpkin that was just as tasty and delicate as fried zucchini -- flour, egg then finally breadcrumbs cover the pumpkin. There is also a side dish with grated pumpkin + sweet cream that is really good. Here's a recipe, although I've not had it with the vinegar taste I don't think. Here are even more recipes, from Britain -- speaking of cultural imperialism. ;)

29 October 2008

Kružok Question

What are some things that have not yet been invented?

Some answers I got:
  • normal emo people (this made me laugh so much, I love these kids!)
  • fluid sand (amazing thought, no?)
  • a cure for AIDS
  • hotel in space (and various other flying objects)

Pork products, one of the keys to my heart

Because of the time of year, people are starting to get excited about killing pigs. I may be am highly biased, but their excitement is infectious. After an earlier post extolling the virtues of bacon, my mom and I were talking and she said, "I'm so glad you enjoy it, but think of your arteries!" My answer: "But Mom, I feel so good, now!" We both had a good laugh.

Before I go any further, I must ask you to please devote a few minutes of your day to listening to this amazing story told by Edgar Oliver. It will help you feel excited, too.


Now that you've listened to it, you're just as excited as I am.

Evidently, it's best to kill a pig when there's snow on the ground. There's no snow yet, which is why no pigs have been killed yet.

This week, I was in the zborovňa and one of my colleagues was refilling an inkjet cartridge with a syringe. He said, "This printer comes from America, so it's 120v. Here we have 220. So there's this big transformer here. [A big metal doorstopper of a transformer, like what my friend Bridget had in Rome courtesy of the Embassy.] My dad made it -- actually, he used it for killing pigs! [My colleague laughed and showed where on the throat his father would shock the pig.]

Evidently the process was 1. electrocute, and 2. bleed. The instrument is now sitting peacefully in our zborovňa.

This week, teaching

Ludovico Carracci, Saint Sebastian Thrown into the Cloaca Maxima. 1612, oil on canvas. J. Paul Getty Trust.

A group that I was really having trouble with -- it turns out, it's not just me, they really are a bad group.

While using the structure: _____ is good, but _____ is better, and _____ is bad, but ______ is worse, I got two fascinating answers:
Film is good, but theatre is better.
Tears are bad, but grief is worse.
These kids can be deep, I swear. I love how theatre is an entertainment option just as accessible as going to the movies, which also do not cost the obscene amount that they tend to in America. Last night I went to see Paris, Je T'Aime and it cost under $4. Live theatre does not cost much more, and every school kid gets subsidized tickets, without asking for them, without any special programs. That's what I call an arts policy.

One of my colleagues handed me a stack of projects to look at -- basically, a bunch of very well-designed compositions. One, about the homeless, said that the homeless live in cloaca. The word choice is what made it so memorable. It definitely works, it's just also obviously from a dictionary or something and would not be part of the vocabulary of your average 5th grader.

Finally, a quick rant about the present tense. I'm sick of it. Specifically, I'm sick of the present simple and the present continuous. They're really hard to explain, and it's even harder to explain why something like "I is reads" is not a correct grammatical structure. Hurrah for more Latin-based languages (arguably, a ton of English is Latin, but obviously the grammar is not) which only have one present tense that expresses both simple and continuous.

24 October 2008

Election mania

I realized today how probably really, really good it is that I'm not in the US right now. The relative distance I have from the election stuff is good for my mental and physical health. For those who know me well, I will gladly accept a (virtual) pat on the back for keeping this blog limited to my adventures and for staying mostly out of the political realm. The only things I've been blogging about that have to do with politics are my voting from overseas (this is a huge responsibility and duty, everyone) and the absolutely horrific government-sanctioned racism in Italy -- I've stayed out of US politics.

But it's so hard.

Today, as everyday, but for a huge reason, I'm very proud to be typing this blog on an Apple product.

23 October 2008

Pošta pre teba: Pani Carol

This summer with my Slovak class classmates, the question came up as to whether or not it was possible to speak Slovak with an American accent. I now know the extent to which it is possible, and I'm happy to share it -- here it is -- but it's really very impressive how grammatically correct she speaks. Pošta pre teba (Mail for you) is this show that reminds me of elements of a Clinton-era daytime talk favorite, Forgive or Forget with Mother Love. People come on the show because they're looking for some long lost friend, their biological parent or child, or to thank or recognize someone important in their lives for being so special -- there's also a door and a dramatic reveal. Alas, I'll have to make you watch the segment to see what happens at the end, because I don't want to give it away. They do such a great job of telling a story.

Dialogue: Sauerkraut

On Monday, the big news in the convent was that they had bought a lot of cabbage in order to make sauerkraut on Wednesday. So on Wednesday, as I was leaving, I went to try to find someone to let them know I was heading out, and let us imagine a scene something like this:

Sr. A: They're making cabbage sour downstairs. Do you make it at home [in America]?
Self: No, we buy it already made.
Sr. A: [disapproving look] Here, let's go downstairs so you can see it! [disapproval turns to excitement]
[We go downstairs.]
Everyone: Mária!!!
[I see a young man in special rubber boots stomping on shredded cabbage. Think something like this picture, except that what I'm witnessing is about as Slavic as things can get. This means, among other things, that the sense of humor is different.]
[In another room, two of the younger sisters are shredding cabbage with a manual meat slicer, and the cabbage is falling into one of those industrial-sized rolling canvas laundry bins. The stamped cabbage is being put into large glazed terracotta crocks with dried dill and chunks of onions.]
Everyone: Do you do this in America?
Self: No, we buy it already made.
Everyone: [disapproving looks all around]
Sr. M: That's what's wrong with America. Because you all buy sauerkraut, you don't make it.
Self: Right, this whole crisis is because we buy sauerkraut.
[Laughs all around.]
Sr. A: Alright, end of the excursion. Have a good trip!!

The whole making cabbage thing was an all-day activity which required everyone's help. If I didn't have a train to catch, it would have been a pleasure to help out and really learn how to do it. Grocery stores have had these crocks for sale for the last month or so, they're definitely a seasonal item, competing now with Christmas decorations.

Kružok Question

This image has absolutely no basis in reality,
but it's so funny I had to include it and not an actual historical portrait of her.

Choose a historic person (they must be dead, so Axl Rose unfortunately is not an option) and give them a gift.
What would you give them and why?

One really good answer I got: give Elizabeth Báthory psychotherapy.

This week, teaching

"On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur, l'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."

Things were nice this week because it turned out I had one class canceled each day -- Monday because of a school-wide cultural foray, and Tuesday and Wednesday because classes are having retreat days -- which in Slovak translates into something like 'excercises for the soul.'

Our cultural foray was to the city House of Culture (a socialist-era hangover, like the speakers) for a theatrical adaptation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The production was fascinating to watch -- the only actors were two young women, one was wearing all black and being a marionettist for the Little Prince, and the other woman played the pilot and all of the allegorical characters. The allegorical characters (King, Conceited Man, Drunk, Businessman, Lamplighter, Geographer) were all represented by different masks and jackets. The set was black, with the exception of some boxes covered by a parachute, behind which the one actress changed masks, and the boxes were also places for the prince and narrator to sit. The production really forced the use of the imagination in a way that was still very credible.

However, of course the production was not the only thing when you're also in a room with 350 kids. With one of my colleagues, we herded 15 second graders down to the theatre and got them all seated. As we were waiting for it to start, it seemed like half of the school had to go to the bathroom -- these are the things about being little that I can't understand because I don't remember. They didn't know me at all, and when they heard my colleague and I speaking English, they asked her what language I was speaking! On the way back to school, they practiced "What is your name?" and "How are you?" Supercute. At one point during the play, a ninth grader sitting in the balcony started making shadows on the wall with one of the spotlights, actually during a quite appropriate part. It was quite amusing to watch him get dragged away by his class teacher! At the end, a critical mass of kids just got up and started to leave, instead of clapping, prompting my colleague to say, "very cultured, eh?" I was a bit surprised, but on the other hand, learning how to act at such venues is a process, and the important thing is the exposure.

This week with my ninth graders, we played a game that I found on a website of EFL resources for asking questions and using the past tense. Starting from the premise that they are accused of robbing a bank, two students leave the room to create an alibi, while those of us in the classroom brainstorm questions to ask them in an attempt to bust the alibi. After about the third round, they got the hang of it, the alibis got more complex and the questioning became more intense. It was really quite fun and a great way for them to formulate questions and speak to each other in English. The more I think about it, I think it would be a totally fun party game -- grabbing a few beers and/or some Côtes du Rhone and trying to make and bust alibis would be more entertaining than, for example, a seven hour Charades marathon with clues like 'mournful Russian landscape.' :)

Discipline with some groups remains an issue. The class half of whom I po škole-d are a bunch of angels and an absolute joy to teach because they try and they participate and they behave, after I instilled the fear of God in them. The other half of their grade is bordering on the complete opposite and it's getting time to clamp down. This means that two of four groups have no problem with adding 's' to the third person singular in the present simple tense (I like, she likes, etc) but the other half say 'third person' and then say things like "I is likes!" I attribute all of this to their chattitude, not their lack of intelligence, but I am annoyed because I can tell they're not listening to me or each other. This is not difficult grammar, just simple conjugation. It's prompted interesting discussions about methodology and has made me realize how progress-oriented I am. Sometimes I wish I felt I knew more about what I'm doing.

Horse chestnuts

This post is the result of about two weeks' action and observation -- I didn't want to post about it at first because I was slightly embarrassed by my own stupidity until I learned the extent of my stupidity.

Along the street in Ružmberok are these really beautiful trees with these rather large seeds.

View Larger Map
The kids have been spending a reasonable amount of time in school-sanctioned seed gathering, to what end I don't know -- though I suspect rather large rosaries.

Last week, I was walking down the street, and saw one of these seeds, identified it as a chestnut, took out a pocketknife and tried to eat it. Alas, it was highly astringent and therefore hugely disgusting. Yesterday, as I was leaving, some of my colleagues were talking about gaštan -- chestnuts. But then one said, "But we don't eat these -- there are two types, one for people and one for animals."

So it turns out that what I ate a bite out of was actually what we would call a buckeye, which is potentially poisonous to humans. Luckily my neuromuscular system did not seize up. I guess now I'll stick to buying chestnuts from the store or street vendors instead of trying to pick them up off the street myself -- because the seeds look really really similar. On the other hand, if things are going to be planted in public places, should they not be edible in order to present the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people?

18 October 2008

Fall Foliage

It was not exactly leaf-peeping for the sake of leaf-peeping, but the smell of the leaves, the sun, the brisk weather and good company made for a perfect autumn day.

Looking SE from Šariš castle, with Prešov to the upper right

At first I thought we were at Kapušany because I forgot there were other castles closeby -- but in fact, we were at Šarišský hrad in Veľký Šariš. The walk was so pleasant, and the ruins of the castle were actually quite extensive. There is a group carrying out preservation and trying to keep the local tradition of shingle making alive there -- plus some goats! Seeing them and recently reading this article in the NYT, my dream of someday owning goats is in a period of rising fervor.

We went to the very top of the keep(?), which is where they filmed those scenes in Iné Svety, and it turned out that one of the people I was there with is the grandson of the folklorist guy in the film. He's 88, still writing and publishing books, and dancing.

From the top, you can see all of Prešov, all the way to Kapušany castle, all of Sabinov to the west, and 360° of beautiful mountains.

17 October 2008

TV and supermarkets

Two of my favorite meters for monitoring the flavor of whatever country I'm visiting are television and grocery stores. They both have global elements, but a lot of local flavor (as the saying goes, 'what's global is local and what's local is global') is involved, and they show priorities. For example, a Velvet Underground documentary subtitled in Català can be seen as an interesting statement for both Catalunya and Spain, what the media presents, and what types of culture people are interested in. Also today I spent a significant amount of time in Tesco (a British chain) and I love watching people shop for food. It also takes me a long time to grocery shop anyway because I don't know where stuff is. I'm slowly learning the supermarket closest to me, but it's all a process -- they're all like as big or bigger than Giant Eagle or Shoprite and it can be really overwhelming.

This evening, I put on the TV, and there was a rather fascinating thing on STV2 (called 'dvojka') -- a 20-minute, blast-from-the-past, back to the future newsreel show called Československý filmový týždenník (you can watch online). It turns out, this year they're replaying the news from 1968 every week. A fascinating way to honor the memory and courage of so many -- although at this point in the year, the country was already occupied by the Warsaw Pact. In the episode I saw, there was this excellent show of products from (capitalist) countries, with a focus on Fiat cars and motorcycles -- they made huge amounts of money during the Cold War by building factories in the USSR and their Italian workers were mostly highly sympathetic to the cause anyway. Then there was a motorcycle rally type race on mud paths in the mountains, which looked really fun but also supremely dangerous, proletarian-on-the-street interviews, and a oh-so-1968 ČSSR version of Nancy Sinatra + Patty Pravo -- that powerful yet somewhat mournful female late-sixties pop singer type of style.

Then there was a newsmagazine-type show on, and the big news of the day is that now Slovaks can go to the US as tourists (up to 90 days) without a visa. People have been talking about this for months and it's a really big deal. During the segment, there were clips of Forbes Avenue in Oakland, which was kind of strange to see but I recognized it immediately of course -- and of course, President Gasparovič was in Pittsburgh last week, so no surprise our fair city was part of the stock reel. The US ambassador to Slovakia was on the show talking about the no visa thing, but it was mostly boringly information, not really any policy statements. Another segment was about the types of food Slovaks buy and who eats the least healthily -- Bratislava and Košice regions have the worst diets. The top three products people buy are apples, chicken and potatoes -- not very suprising but definitely not a bad thing either. Finally, the Rusyns made it onto the news, although in a Fark-ish non-news sort of way: apparently residents of Ulič live very close to the Ukrainian border and people could theoretically walk back and forth between the countries even though there's no actual road connecting them, just a path. The two countries want to build a road I think, but of course it's kind of an issue because Ukraine isn't Schengen.

Also, I'd kill for a fresh salad right now, preferably containing romaine lettuce, but really any kind of fresh (raw) greens and vegetables. I'm really starting to love cabbage, but it's not the same. I'm in a salad kind of mood, but I can't act on it.

16 October 2008

Some Slovak language

Many people who know me know that I often tend to ... make up ... words as I speak. If I may be my own apologist, they do make complete sense gramatically, they're just not in the Oxford dictionary yet.

It's relatively common to have dictionaries of foreign words here in Slovakia, and in the front of one I found common prefixes and suffixes. This is something I was dying for this summer, and so I'll share a bit of it now:

a-, an-ne-, bez-,
ab-ne-, od-
anti-, contra-proti-
ex-bývalý, von, preč
co-, com-, con-s-, zo-, spolu-
re-opäť-, späť-

The point of all of this is that now I can more effectively make up words in Slovak!

Two book recommendations

On one hand, I've been absolutely starved for books -- as if Linus' blanket was yanked out from under him. On the other hand, I've been practicing more organizing thoughts in my head and writing things longhand first in order to be a more disciplined thinker and to organize what's already there without putting more in. Also, the gorgeous British edition paperbacks (of so many post-modern, post-colonial, "Non-Western" -- though how that term drives me crazy -- writers that we don't really get in America) are to an extent cost-prohibitive though available.

But. Every once and a while something magically pops up in the zborovňa that fascinates me. It fascinates me because of subject matter and also because I tend to wonder how it landed near my desk in the middle of Slovakia in a place where such books are not widely available though they are accessible. An example of this wonderful phenomenon is Global Issues from the series Resource Books for Teachers (of EFL). I found a few things in there that I am really looking forward to adapting for my classes (my colleagues are not very likely to use the book because of the huge effort to read the English) -- especially about things like carbon footprints, being a global citizen, and house vs. home issues. From my experience so far, I think the kids will have really interesting perspectives on these sorts of things, and the book is great at constructing activities in such a way that they transcend ideologies and really focus on the creation of language.

There's a really lovely bookstore in the Max in Prešov, and there I found Changes of Changes: Society and Politics in Slovakia in the 20th Century by Ľubomír Lipták. The book is an organized series of essays -- not entirely cohesive, and nothing goes into nearly enough depth, but I did learn a lot by reading it. There were a lot of really nice things about the book: he recognizes and mentions Rusyns as a minority group within Slovakia (that's Rusyns, not Ukrainians or Rusyn-Ukrainians). It also helped me understand on a more macro level why a rather hostile attitude towards the Hungarians still exists -- the Slovakization of (Czecho)Slovakia after 1918 was a huge issue and took a long time to consolidate. I've been wanting to blog about this, because I think it can be a symptom of a greater ill towards minorities, but I didn't understand it well enough. Hopefully soon I can hypothesize a bit more about the situation.

Amuse bouche

Because of the incredible kindness of others, it's highly inaccurate to say I'm living off the economy. Along those lines, I've been eating so well it seems I'm filling out a bit... On the other hand, potatoes are 50¢/kilo and I love them, buy them often and eat them even more often.

Yesterday at lunch, there was a big deal about the soup. Everyone was like, "tell us how you like the soup, it's our favorite omgzIhadthreebowls!!!" I look into the tureen, see what look like Bob Evans big fat 'merican noodles, hear držký (try saying that!), and understand tripe. Alas, it was really good, I really liked it, and even had a second ladle. The second plate was macaroni and some cheese with bacon and potatoes -- amazing.

This weekend at Petra's I had some homemade bacon. There are few pleasures better.

This week, teaching

First, it's rather amazing to me that I like teaching as much as I do. I really didn't think I would.

Subconsciously knowing that I'd be really busy this past weekend and therefore not really able to do lesson planning, which is kind of a drag anyway, last week I assigned a project to my (2 groups of) 9th graders. I gave them a list of questions along the theme of "populate an ideal land" by taking a chunk out of Slovakia and infusing 20,000 foreigners. They had to discuss what the political system would be like, what the culture would be like, where in Slovakia it would be, education, etc. The first group was pretty literal (or not especially creative) and proposed something that sounded a lot like Ružomberok, right down to the paper factory. The only surprise was from one group who suggested home schooling and then only going to school to take tests. Home schooling is an interesting topic to ask people about here, because it's not allowed but people know about it. The next group was disappointing, because I had anticipated they would not be prepared, but then they really weren't. One group had someone in the hospital, another group just didn't do it because the kid is the type who is a leader type of kid, and he was lazy, which really bothered me. The one group that was prepared and did present was exceptionally good and highly creative -- they set the standard. The country would be limited only to those people who like rock n' roll, and the official language would be British English (one of the girls is a huge Sex Pistols fan). Guns would be prohibited with the exception of water guns, people would be able to drink beer at age 15, and there would be music conservatories to study at. I finished up with each class by conducting a discussion of "What is Slovak culture?" -- bryndza cheese, various TV programs, artists like Benka and Fulla, etc. In their textbooks, there are lots of articles about culture, history, etc. in the Anglophone world. But I think it's really more interesting and more important to talk about things closer to home.

At the beginning of class, there's this special book I where I have to mark who's absent and what the objective of the lesson is. This week, one class starts running up to me with pens, and I'm like, "Thanks, I've already got one" and they're all yelling at me, "BLUE PEN!!! Not black pen!!!!" Last week I had written in black pen, and their teacher (who is really quite an excellent colleague) told them to tell me to do it in blue -- because it's the law, which it is. Alas. I tend towards loathing blue pens, but I have to use them here almost exclusively because of the amount of legal bureaucratic documents it seems I'm having to deal with.

Also this week, I had to go to this special training session about emergencies from the fire department. But before this, no one knew how to explain it to me, and I was really confused -- as it turns out, it was a window onto yet another facet of the Slovak bureaucratic polyhedron. The viceprincipal told the fireman that I didn't really speak Slovak, and he said, "It's ok, only her signature matters!" This was the first Powerpoint I've had to sit through in quite a long time (amazing how much I don't miss it) and also included the fireman person taking a cell phone call in the middle and a returning pseudo-retired widow veteran teacher making wisecracks throughout. Here's what I could understand:
  • I should not smoke or drink alcohol while teaching.
  • I should keep caustic chemicals away from the eyes.
  • Only one person should stand on a ladder at one time.
  • In the event of an emergency, dial 112 or 150.
After the Powerpoint, he passed out a test form, which we had to sign and give ourselves the grade of 1 (equivalent to A) before we even started it. He then proceeded to dictate the test to us while we watched it on the screen -- all we had to do was check the right multiple choice. Evidently the quiz was really easy for everyone (except me, because I couldn't understand it). I copied off of my colleague, which was of course no problem because it was being dictated anyway and I already gave my signature. Afterwards, I was left with the feeling of "Wow, what just happened to me?" And still they couldn't explain it! I was talking later with the principal, telling her what I had understood, and she said, "wow, you're so smart and nobody knows it but you!" This was hysterically funny to both of us -- to me because of the mutiple levels of interpretation possible.

And, because I've been fighting with the internet connection all day, I'll put the kružok question in this post:
What is free?

EDIT: I forgot a few things.

First, this week with 6th graders we were talking about holidays in the year according to the Slovak calendar. One group didn't know why Cyril and Methodius are important to Slovaks, and the another group didn't know what SNP (slovenské národné povstanie -- Slovak National Uprising -- WWII partisans) stood for. These are quite possibly two of the most important parts of Slovak National ... pride? propaganda? identity? and I was a bit suprised they didn't know. They had fun explaining Easter Monday to me: "Boys ... girls ... splash ..."

Also, some of my best (or rather, most enthusiastic) students are Roma kids. In the continual culture wars, the usual response is something like, "Slovak gypsies like going to England. They go there and do nothing and think they've made it. So these kids want to learn English so they can go to England." Somehow, I can't believe this is why they're enthusiastic. Could they not be enthusiastic for other reasons, like because they enjoy learning English or they're quite intelligent kids and it comes easily to them or any number of other reasons?

Finally (I can't believe I keep forgetting this of all things), while going over the calendar, when we got to December, one group of 6th graders asked me if I believed in Santa Claus. At which point I froze. When I told my mom (a professional educator) about it later, she said, "The correct response is, 'of course I believe in Santa Claus!' or 'of course Santa Clause exists!'" But I am not so sanguine. I deflected the question, because I didn't want to be the one to poop (or not poop) the party. After class in the zborovňa, I asked my colleagues about it. They didn't really have a sufficient answer and I was slightly traumatized. I'm much more happy with the idea of Saint Nicholas than I am with Santa Claus (because Saint Nicholas is not really an agent of global capitalism nor cultural imperialism), and so maybe I could have emphasized Saint Nicholas more than I already did? I invite any other current or former professional educators to weigh in on the issue. ;)

12 October 2008

Accuracy and brilliance

Today, while watching a little girl play with some dolls and small plastic farmyard animals on the train, I realized the absolute brilliance of Gilda Radner as Judy Miller:

Daniel's Ordination

This weekend, I was down near Trebišov to celebrate with Petra's family the ordination of her brother, Daniel! It was an excellent celebration, and I'm so happy I could be there to celebrate with them.

I got there on Thursday afternoon. The ordination also meant a visit from the bishop, and people were over at the church cleaning and painting the rectory and doing all sorts of things. We took them zákusky, which are small assorted cakes. (Look for this to be a continuing theme of the weekend.) Friday was a whirlwind of cleaning and cooking. We were moving plants around, I was mopping the walk, Petra was mowing the lawn, etc. During breaks, we ate zákusky. Petra's mom and I made this totally killer halupki (they call them huľki in the Zemplen dialect -- for the non-Rusnaks reading the blog, I'm talking about stuffed cabbage) filling, with ground beef, pork, sausage, and baconbaconbacon, plus veggies fried in baconbaconbacon. I went over to the hall where the reception was going to be and helped Petra's mom's cousin hang the backdrop for over the head table. He's an artist and writes icons, and his old job was painting murals and backdrops in the socialist realism style -- but his real interest is in painting religious themes. We got back to the house, Petra's former roommate from Gaming, Katie, arrived, and we ate some zákusky then headed over to church. Baba was getting really antsy because the halupki weren't made, but Petra's mom, Daniel's wife, and I made them after church quite quickly. As the law of halupki making goes, we were one piece of cabbage short, so we also had 2 small meatballs in the pot.

On Saturday, we ate the halupki for lunch. They had been sitting on a wood-burning stove all day with a weight on top of them (in the form of a pot lid -- Baba's idea) and they were hysterically good, which I attribute almost completely to the high amount of bacon fat present and the creative mix of meats in the filling. They were so good. Most of the day's work was about decorations. We made ribbons for the ushers, made ribbons for a garland Baba had made, and Katie and I were supposed to decorate the fence at the front of the house. Petra's mom was almost done getting a haircut, and I asked her to come outside when she was done to show us how she wanted it, and she was like, "Don't worry about it, whatever you do is fine." So we went out, started putting up crepe paper, and Baba came out, started laughing, and was like, "I think this is too much." So Petra came out, also started laughing, and explained how to do it.

Both Friday and Saturday evenings, people were coming over for visits. On Saturday night it got especially crazy, because there were relatives from all over the country coming over, plus friends. Katie and I realized there were multiple waves, and because the family was really busy with visiting, we just did dishes and refilled dishes of zákusky and salads (including this one ham + red cabbage one that was really good) between the groups of people, anticipating more.

Sunday morning at church: dew on a spider web

So the ordination itself was absolutely lovely. The music was done by the group Daniel used to sing with at the seminary, and it was beautiful. There was a nice mix of Church Slavonic and Slovak, and the church was packed. I had a really good spot in a corner near the front, which was a good place to take photos and also have a little space to breathe. Out in front of the church, there was a tent with a large flat screen TV so that all of the people outside could see what was going on inside.

Beatitudes from the liturgy. Sorry about the scratches at the beginning.

That's Bishop Milan Chatur of Košice.
The Lector on the right holding the book was
very handsome.
So here is the part right at the beginning of the actual ordination. Right after this, all of the AXIOS!es (he is worthy) started and there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

Afterwards at the reception it was lovely to see some friends and make some new ones. Amazingly, I was sitting by a Rusyn priest from Osturna and another priest and his wife originally from Svidník. When he found out I had family there he was like, "I bet by the end of this we'll figure out we're related." I don't think we were, but we knew some of the same people.

I had to leave rather prematurely to get to Ružomberok, but it was an excellent weekend.

08 October 2008

Romanticization (¿nostalgia?)

So. I was talking with one of my colleagues today, and she said something quite insightful and definitely informative from a 'native' POV. She was telling me about how, a few years ago, some cousins of her grandfather came to visit them in Slovakia, somewhere near Ružomberok. And about how they (the American relatives) were surprised that they (the Slovak relatives) had electricity, running water, etc. This attitude surprised my colleague -- she couldn't believe that they were so surprised! I am writing this on a laptop with a wireless connection. I am doing laundry in a machine, not by hand. The list goes on... While I find myself occasionally falling into the trap of romanticization, I'm also here because I'm interested in the present.

Can we all please agree to try to remember that being here does not magically transport us back to the 19th century?

This week, teaching

Oh my nearly sacrosanct Wednesday evenings. Boiled potatoes, red cabbage, beer, and Mad Men.

I'm learning (as I bumble along) of the many special needs that some of my students have. Generally, what happens is that I recognize some sort of pattern of behavior, then talk to my special needs coordinator colleagues, who say something like, "Wow, good for you that you noticed that, that's the sign of a good teacher." At which point I respond with something like, "that's nice, now what do I do?" I think most of the big things I need to know about I know about now, but I'm starting to get concerned because we're already more than a month into the school year and time's a wastin'.

The crew (I generally call my classes my crews, and start class with "Righto, crew." Every foreign language teacher I've ever had has had a signature starting line, and this is mine) I had po škole last week were absolute angels this week -- ideal students if there were such a thing. They participated, they were mostly quiet, and they were really paying attention. The worst offender has apparently found Jesus, because every time he saw me this week he greeted me with the Slovak equivalent of "Slava Isusu Christu" which is a phrase I really have trouble remembering -- the first word is really long and complicated. We'll see how long all of this lasts. While talking about the general phenomenon of their angelicitude with one of my colleagues today, an interesting dialogue happened (in Slovak):
Colleague: Well, it's good that they respect you.
Self: I respect them, too. It's important that we respect each other.
Colleague: And become friends.
Self: Uhm, I'm not really here to be friends with them.
Colleague: (perhaps not understanding my POV) Don't worry, it's still early in the school year.
Self: (blank stare) ?
For real, as much as I know the way I handle my classes is probably completely not like how a lot of their other classes are, it is important to me that there's that mutual respect. I know they're not stupid, and I think they realize that I've got a lot to teach them.

Another interesting thing that another colleague brought up (there's a lot of colleagues -- this one we speak to each other in broken Slovak/broken English, and usually about things that can be vaguely politically related) was how hard it is to be able to support a family now, and in how many families both parents work outside the home, which the teachers can tell in school because of how the kids act.

Now, if I may tend towards the slightly ribald for the rest of this post:
This weekend the general buzz throughout all of Slovakia surrounded the presence here of one Pamela Anderson and her sometimes-heaving bosom. After the news on Sunday evening, there is a (rather insipid -- worse than E.T. and Access Hollywood put together) show called "Prominenti" that I think is about famous people. They dedicated the entire show to Pamela on Sunday, because she was here for (judging?) a (pageant?) called Cat Girl 2008. Pamela even gave a very sultry "Ahojte Slovensko" when she came up on stage. My students felt the need to comment on the entire occasion this week - I don't know what could have interested me less.

Quite possibly the funniest moment happened towards the end of my class of currently-angels while I was trying to sum up everything. They were starting to get a bit chatty and restless, and so I began with my (seemingly) constant refrain of "In English!!!!!!!" So one student began: "My neighbor... very bad... (if only you could have seen the look of sincerity on this kid's face) Every night (brings) different girl... and I can't sleep!" As Authority Figure, I thanked my student, finished up class as the bell rang, and saved my chuckles for the walk back to the zborovňa.

Thank you, Allegheny County

This is rather serious. Today, I got my absentee ballot in the mail, and it will be back on its way to Forbes Avenue tomorrow morning, first thing. If you're not already registered to vote, it's almost too late, but not quite. It's quite a responsibility, enough people have fought for this right, please don't waste it.

05 October 2008

♥ train

It's really quite funny, waiting for the train in Prešov that goes to Bratislava on Sunday afternoons. Parents wait there with their university-bound children on the platform, and the university-bound children are trying to look like they're not there with their parents. It's the sort of awkward absurdity that Garrision Keillor describes so often and so well.

When the train passes Štrba, the already-snow-covered Tatry rise above the clouds and the afternoon sun shining from the west reflects the snow as it sets -- the wayward side is already dark.

Otpust for Pokrov

I've really refrained from writing about things church-related, because I go to the liturgy in Church Slavonic and am highly conflicted about it. But this morning, due to the otpust (which has a completely different meaning here than the way we use it in America) because of Pokrov, when I walked upstairs to where I sit in the cathedral, there was a choir, 4 parts kicking it old school prostopinije, with a female director. Excellent. Afterwards, a procession around the cathedral with banners, portable loudspeakers, and four more gospel readings. The end in front of the cathedral was enough to stop quite a few passers by.

04 October 2008

Na zdravie

There is a way to make slivovica highly palatable. It involves gently heating it and mixing it with honey. This removes the strong firewater taste, and actually creates a flavorful, nuanced experience for the palette. The resulting taste is not honey, nor slivo, but something new and pleasant -- truly alchemistic.

Slovensko Má Talent - Slovakia's Got Talent

I've seen one or two episodes of America's Got Talent, with Jerry Springer and Sharon Osborne and various trained dogs, cute kids who sing, and breakdancing crews.

The Slovak version has all of that, plus some 'folksier' (though that word now has a bad connotation, thanks to Sarah Palin) elements. For example, a Roma folk group from Kežmarok in which the lead person introduced everyone as "This is my cousin, Sílvia. And this is also my cousin, Mária. And this is also my cousin, Lubo. And this is also my cousin, ..." Also quite impressive was a 40-year old man who was able to chug a pint of beer while also doing a handstand, then chug another pint standing up, and finally begin to sing a song extolling the virtues of beer. One of the judges then asked, "Sy ženatý? -- Are you married?" Somehow, it wasn't a surprise that he was not. If I had to guess, I'd say that the Slovak version has an exponentially higher number of accordions per hour, on average (I think I counted 4), than the American version, including one 6 year-old girl playing and singing -- supercute.

03 October 2008

Excuse me?

For some horrifically frustrating reason, I am not able to get cash out of the Bancomat like a normal person. I've called PNC tons of times about this, no clue what the problem is. But when I want cash, I need to go to the bank and do a cash advance, which is a long, drawn-out process involving phone calls to Bratislava, forms, passports, stamps and signatures.

So yesterday, when I went to the bank to get some cash, the lady said to me, "Is that all?" (meaning, "Such a small amount?") and I was really rather offended by her indescretion.

01 October 2008

Was there a full moon last night?

  1. My previous post about the brilliance of my students is only half of the story.
  2. I don't know which I prefer, or which is worse: first class in the morning, when we're all still somewhat asleep but they're quiet, or later on in the day when they're all awake but also more likely to be bouncing off the walls.
  3. I also don't know who's worse sometimes: girls or boys. They've got different things going on.
During my last lesson today (a group of 6th graders), they were so impossible to keep together that I finally got to the point of writing in the class grade book. When the teacher so much as touches the gradebook, the kids tend to freak out, because they know something bad is coming. It got so bad that finally I was like, "fine, I've got time, we can all be here po škole -- after school." I was quite angry, whereas usually I'm super easygoing about things. I've been so ridiculously relaxed since I've been here, it's not at all like my American version of self, which tended towards the tightly-wound.

The thing is, I told them they'd be there po škole (I can't even use the phrase detention) and then I had no idea what exactly to do because I'd never done it before. It took two other teachers to adequately communicate to them what was happening -- only the group (half of the class) that was with me was going to be staying -- and their homeroom teacher was kind enough to write something relatively threatening about bad behavior resulting in lower grades that they had to copy and then have their parents sign. Yes. It was that bad. At that point, I came back into the room and sat with them for their po škole.

The first issue was that they needed to know what time it was. I said, "You'll know what time it is when the bell rings."

Then the glares started. And the tears. I couldn't believe it. Like they were angry at me for the way they had acted. I explained to them that if one of them (even though all of them were problematic today) was not behaving, they would all stay after school together. At this point, I might include a short excerpt of an e-mail from my mom about this:
Did the entire class have to be kept? or were you able to leave a couple of kids who never cause problems go? (I am a little sensitive to this because when I was in first grade my dear teacher, Mrs. Duncan, left the room for a minute. When she returned there had been talking, etc., so she lined ALL of us up and paddled all of us -- even teacher pleaser's like me! haha Maybe that's where my strong sense of injustice first appeared! )
They all stayed, except one girl who lives so far away that she would have had to wait until after 3PM for the next bus to her village. But the rest of the group stayed, because 1) they were all being problematic to some extent, and I hope it encourages some sort of self-policing farther down the line. But I know some of them were thinking that I had committed a gross miscarriage of justice, and I do feel bad about that -- hopefully this action creates a nascent anti-authoritarian young radical somewhere down the line. On the other hand, TS -- they know to behave better than they did and I don't understand why they couldn't. It was relatively important to come down on them like a ton of bricks. By the time I got back into the classroom, two other teachers had also severely scolded them, so it was pretty intense.

More glares. Then the whispering started. Which then caused me to further firmly, uhm, admonish them. And then they asked, "but what are we doing?" because they were just sitting there. And I know, because I was 11 once too, that for them, just sitting there was really horrible. And I had no idea what time it was either, because I don't wear a watch (though I probably will at school once I get some batteries replaced, it would be useful). Even more glares.

Then, blowing of noses (due to the tears) and "But pani učitelka (Ms. Teacher -- this is the way teachers are addressed -- Ms./Mrs./Mr. Teacher Surname), wasn't the other group yesterday bad?" And I said, "The group yesterday doesn't matter, I just care about you, today, the other group doesn't matter." The irony is that quite possibly the worst, most notorious kid in the school is in the other group -- and they and I both knew it. The situation was grave enough that I even spoke to them in Slovak a bit.

Finally, the 45-minute period was over. Three of them asked to leave about 5 minutes to catch a bus, and I let them (2 girls, one boy) go, at which point one of the kids tells me that the boy usually catches a later bus on Wednesdays because that's when the boys have gym, and it wouldn't be that much longer of a wait for him. Since he was one of the worst, I called him back into the room, and I was really annoyed at the way he tried to slip one past me.

So the conflict here is that on one hand, I hate sounding and acting so much like an adult! and on the other hand, it's so annoying when they either lie, make excuses, and/or think I was born yesterday. I know this will spread like wildfire through the kindermafia channels of communication -- because it definitely spread like wildfire in the zborovňa and to the principal's office -- and hopefully this crew will be an example for the rest of them. Another potential issue is that this is really not the way I want to be managing the classroom -- it's so uncivilized to use what are ultimately scare tactics like this. On the other hand, hopefully this encourages them to take responsibility for their actions. It's excellent that I've got such support from my colleagues and boss.

I was exhausted by the end of the day, because I had four classes, po škole, and a kružok without a break. The one beer (nearly the only one I have) that I truly enjoy every week is the one I have Wednesday evening when I get back to Prešov, and this week was no exception. I did have one great triumph today, but this whole ordeal kind of overshadowed it.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that when the bell rang and they were all leaving, every one of them thanked me as they were leaving. I'm not making this up.

This week, teaching

These kids are super intelligent, and it excites me to no end when they come through with something brilliant, in English, when I least expect it. Which means that usually even though I have no expectations, sometimes I do with them because I know they can speak English, they’re either just lazy or shy or something that makes them not want to speak English, which I can identify with completely, but I still need them to speak English regardless. Speaking of no (or few) expectations, I remember once in 9th grade, one of my teachers asked us to write about our expectations for the school year, and I said I really didn’t have any. This was a huge problem for her, but it was (and remains) the truth. Not having expectations doesn’t prevent me from disappointment, but it does keep me in a near constant state of wonder.

With the 8th and 9th graders this week, we looked at various photographs of graffiti – which included three examples of Banksy and one of Keith Haring (it was hard to find an appropriate example of Basquiat), except that they didn’t know that at first. I tried to find as wide of an array as possible, from a wall of tags to a Keith Haring ‘museum-quality’ piece, a few trains, etc. The progression of open-ended questions was something like this (my commentary is composited for the sake of brevity and interest):
• What is this? Describe the picture.
• Can you read what it says? What does it say? One that they had clearly said ‘happiness’ and another said ‘READ!’
• Is it beautiful? Why? The interesting thing is that sometimes they’ll say yes or no, and I’ll ask why, and then they’ll change their answer to the opposite and simultaneously, magically, the whole class agrees. Then I ask them if they all have the same brain, because it’s impossible that they could all agree like that. Some groups distinguished hierarchically between the tags and train pictures and more finished walls as being ‘more’ beautiful, which I found interesting.
• Where is this? Where do you usually see graffiti? Where are good places for graffiti? Is there graffiti in museums? There were some pictures that were clearly London, New York and Los Angeles, but others were rather anonymous walls. The answers about where they usually see graffiti were pretty interesting: at the station, under bridges, behind the church, old buildings (by this I think they mean like abandoned buildings), garages (which they so charmingly pronounce the British way). When I asked if there was graffiti in museums, the answer was a completely unanimous no. When I asked why, they said that museums are historical ‘pamiatky’ – ‘remembrances’ where there are also security guards and ‘nice things.’ But then, some of them recognized that (and this was so impressive) even if they weren’t beautiful or important works, the way I presented them as photographs made them historical documents. I’m not kidding. These kids are really smart.
• Who creates graffiti? What kind of person? Are any of these pictures made by someone famous? A lot of times when I ask questions, they answer quite literally. When I asked who creates graffiti, in some groups half of the kids pointed to one or a few kids in the class, who then were in some cases more than happy to pull their graffiti accoutrements from their backpacks. Another group distinguished between artists and ‘rebellious young people.’ I love that they come up with this language, and it’s an interesting dichotomy that I don’t completely agree with.
• What is important about graffiti? Hrm. This one was a difficult question, but it often referred back to the idea of historical documentation, but this is when they started making quality judgments. I also had a picture of some 17th century graffito chiseled into a wall somewhere – and so we talked more about history, document, and quality.
• Why is it art? They didn’t always agree that it was art, but for the most part they did.

The silent-but-deadly of the week concerned this picture:The girl said, “This is not a flower, this is a picture of a drawing of a flower.” Wow, way to bring up issues of the very nature of photography, of originality, and to an extent, of style.

My whole goal is to drum into their heads that language (like graffiti, in this case) is a creative act. No matter what language we’re speaking, it’s a creative act.

Some of the older ones have kind of figured out where I live, especially because there’s a special fundraising project going on, and so some of them were over here on Sunday evening when I arrived. I think it best to be honest, they have some questions, and I tell them it’s not bad at all, which is definitely the truth.

Since no one responded to my bleg for song ideas, I figured out one on my own for the 6th and 7th graders. I found this, which is the lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with some words blanked out. The goal was for them to listen once, and then I played the song again and they needed to fill in the words and we worked on understanding it. Some of them wanted to sing along, which at that point was cool. Not being one for Disney movies too often (except I did really enjoy Ratatouille), I had no clue that they would all know the song from having seen the Disney movie "Madagascar." They thought they knew it, but now I’m relatively confident they understand it, and that’s a good feeling.

However, it’s totally not too late to suggest songs (in fact, please do!), especially for my older crew. “What a Wonderful World” is a choice I’m happy with for the 6th and 7th graders, but it would be way too easy for the older kids.

It was like the Sound of Music a little bit...

The other day, I went walking in the hills nearby that overlook Ružomberok. You can be totally in nature and still also watch the city below. Out of one eye, I saw (and heard) sheep, and out of the other eye, I watched the mountains of wood chips grow outside of the paper factory across the city.

On my way back, I went to the cemetery (or one of the cemeteries?). It is possible to learn a lot about a place by visiting the cemetery, and there are often curious things – one of my favorite places on Earth is the Protestant Foreigners’ Cemetery in Rome. Here, for example, I learned that there were a lot more Germans and Hungarians than I would have thought. Not so many any more, but a friend reminded me that it’s only a hundred years ago that this was still part of Hungary. One of my (relatively young) colleagues still can speak Hungarian, and one of my students has a Hungarian surname, but the majority of Hungarians here in Slovakia are in the south, closer to Hungary. Their political party is quite powerful. There were also a lot of Germans, and the so-called Carpathian Germans were just to the east of here in the Spišský kraj. It seems they have mainly survived only via surnames – and of course, some Rusyn villages are close by to these German villages.

The Jesuit plot was probably most dramatic – (in Latin) “Here the following members of the Society of Jesus expect/await resurrection.” Following the many Hungarians and Germans, there were a lot of epitaphs in those languages. One tombstone had this bronze relief with the ČSSR and USSR flags together, and I could tell it wasn’t a war monument; it was someone’s personal plot. Another was like this ‘NAME OF DECEASED s manželkou’ – ‘NAME OF DECEASED with his wife’ for two brothers in the same plot. That’s interesting, because these two wives are kind of relegated to an earthly future of anonymity, whereas the usual thing here is to put the woman’s family name on the inscription as well. One tombstone announced the (not-yet) deceased as an American Slovak.

There were families there doing work, like repainting iron black or scrubbing down the monuments and working with flowers. Often, people keep a plastic water bottle tucked behind the tombstone, which looks strange except that it has a very practical purpose – it’s of course there so that they can keep water in the accompanying vases and plants. Also while I was there, a funeral was finishing. The grave diggers (there’s a better word for this in English – what is it?) were very smartly dressed, and the priest had on a beautifully dramatic purple cape that stood out among the relative gray of the rest of the cemetery.

an unfortunate update

HT goes to Lee, for an update of sorts on this post.

This is the news that we don't hear from the American media, which of course doesn't mean that things aren't happening.