16 December 2008

Homeward bound

I've posted these last two posts from the Vienna Flughaven -- as a result:
Pittsburgh people, give me a call, we need to hang out!
Non-Pittsburgh people, give me a call, we need to talk on the cheaper phone network!

Vienna at Night

It was a very serendipitous evening, I must say. Further, I think I have like a spiritual connection to this city – I feel comfortable and content here. I remember a friend saying ages ago that Vienna was like an exotic crossroads between east and west, and so really it’s a very appropriate place for me to decompress and reacclimatize before heading back to the US – this is the biggest city I’ve been in in four months; today was my first subway ride in about six months. The cosmopolitaneity of this city is part of what makes it so incredibly charming; walking on the street, I heard Italian, English, Slovak, and Russian in addition to the German. How cute it is to hear ‘tchuss’ again! Vienna is also a great city for street food. In rapid succession, and after a few kilometers of walking, I had a bratwurst and a fresh! döner kebap, washed down by a half liter (1 US pint) of Ottakringer beer. The cutest thing was that the guy had a hand-held, electric machine for shaving the meat off of the rotating spit thing.

My somewhat-stylish self. I've said it before, I'll say it again:
I love winter clothing much more than summer clothing.
It's inherently more classy looking, methinks.

The Mariapocs icon in Stephansdom.
This is one of the great unexplored art historical mysteries,
something I've wanted to research and write about for ages.
It looked gorgeous in the candlelight.


The most notable thing is that I let myself be a tourist (therefore I unapologetically enjoyed taking lots of photos and didn’t even try to speak German), and as always, enjoyed walking. The weather has been so incredibly warm that it’s absolutely perfect for walking – high 40s, clear. I didn’t have a map with me (really just my camera and a bit of cash -- no bag), and let myself use my inner GPS, which really worked well. A happy surprise was happening upon the Secession building, which not only gave me a great feeling (DER ZEIT IHRE KUNST, DER KUNST IHRE FREIHEIT), but also was a good landmark to let me know where to hang a right and head up towards the Museumsquartier. As a result, I passed the Kunsthistoriches museum, and had a lovely walk-through of the Museumsquartier. On the Ludwig, there was a video projection against its lovely black façade – this place is consistently world-class, überhigh-quality contemporary. When I first glanced at the projection, I thought – “Sperm?!? That’s so early-to-mid-nineties, not edgy at all anymore!” but it turns out, it was small white mice – a fascinating installation by Peter Kogler – maybe I'll post a video later. It looked like, even after 9pm on a Monday night, Musemsquartier was the place to be. There were tons of people there, lots of music, and a crowded bar. However, on the other hand, this is unsurprising – the weather is warm and this is the season of cooked wine!

Sculpture outside the Secession Building.

Ohhhh the Secession building. IMHO, one of the highlights of 20th c. culture.

The back of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, taken along Getridemarkt.

Museumsquartier detail.

Museumsquartier detail.

Along Mariahilferstraße.

The shop windows were filled with gorgeous and suprisingly not-overly-expensive New Years Eve gowns.

On the Way Home

Friday, I went down to Kosice to meet Petra and her parents before the holidays. For the first time in four months, I passed a McDonalds – the DriveThru in Košice is kind of a big deal. As I begin to write this, speeding on a train somewhere between Bratislava and Vienna, again I’m seeing the Golden Arches. What a horrific eyesore they are! – and now that I’m in Vienna, add Starbucks to the list of eyesores.

Leaving Prešov and Ružomberok was hard – of course I’ll be back, but seriously, I’ve already become attached. I’m already so excited to come back to teaching and researching in January, renewed and with a new sense of purpose and some new ideas. Today in Ružomberok it became obvious how close I’ve become to some of the people there and how much I’m really going to miss them while I’m home. The atmosphere in both places is so unbelievably life-giving. I realize so often how many times I make gigantic mistakes speaking Slovak, making me kick myself because I forget or grossly mispronounce words in the excitement of the moment. And people are still so gracious and patient with me.

Finally, a small victory over the Slovak bureaucracy. Today, at the absolute last minute, I FINALLY got everything squared away with the police. After three visits, and me running up and down the hill/staircases at least twice, and a visit to the insurance office. Here’s kind of how it went (except in Slovak, not in English):
First visit:
Self: Here’s my letter from the doctors in Martin and my insurance card. Is it all ok?
Policeman 1: No, you need a potrvdenie from the insurance company. But I’ll make a photocopy of your insurance card while you have it here.
Self: Could you please write that down? Thanks, dovi (short, rather slang form of dovidenia, the equivalent of arrivaderci – we’ll see each other again soon).
[I return to school to try to get this potrvdenie. Happy School Admin Assistant makes a photocopy for me. I then return to the foreigner police.]
Second visit:
Self: Is this enough?
Policeman 1: No, that’s a žiadost, we need a potrvdenie.
[At this point, there’s another guy taking documents to the police, and he miraculously has an example of the document I need. Sometimes, seeing things helps immensely (cf. apostille debacle). Still, this document required that I go to the insurance office, grrr. Happily, Happy School Admin Assistant came with me, and she really exudes positive energy so it was a nice small excursion.]
Self: [steam blows out of ears]
[Self exeunt, to teach 4th hour.]
[After the 4th hour, HSAA and I go to the office, the woman knows exactly what we need and the mission is accomplished in like two seconds. I make sure there is a pečiatka on the letter.]
Third visit:
[The entire male staff of the foreigner police is standing outside on the stoop, smoking cigarettes. Some are in uniform, some are not.]
Self: Hello. How’s this document?
Policeman 1: You can give that right to him, he’s the one it goes to.
Policeman 2: So you’re pani Silvestri.
Self: Yes. So, we don’t need to see each other anymore do we? [crosses fingers, knocks on wood, etc.]
Policeman 2: No.
Self: [Jumps for joy on the inside.] Ciao!
Then I went down to the train station to get my ticket to Vienna, which the woman did not really do correctly, much to my annoyance.
Then I went to the post office to pay my phone bill, wherein I waited like a half hour, and two pushy old ladies told me to move forward more, and I told them, seriously, that it wasn’t going to make anything go any faster. I don’t think they think they were satisfied by my response -- sometimes I really think, even though comparisons are odious, about comparisons to the Italians. Alas, it seems I have a huge space in my soul for people who enjoy crowding in lines, be they Slovaks, Italians, or whomever. Personal space? What's that?
Then I went back to the station, because the Polish store there had been closed for lunch, but I really wanted to get some special Polish candies there, and happily I got the last two bags they had.
Then I went to the exchange place with the best rates to exchange my koruny for euros, which will be legal currency upon my return in January. Except that they didn’t have any, much to my annoyance. So I said to the woman, "how is it that in two weeks this will be the legal currency and you don’t have any?" And she stared and me blankly and I went to the bank across the street, which did not have such a good rate. Which is unbelievable considering the official exchange that exists and the millions they will make because of the millions of people that will be changing money in the next few weeks.

10 December 2008

St. Nicholas Day

My big rush to get back to Ružomberok on Monday was so that I could see the St. Nicholas Day program at 11:30am. All I knew beforehand was that many of my students were performing in this theatrical extravaganza, and that it was about St. Catherine. Earlier, I had hypothesized about which St. Catherine it might be -- would it be St. Catherine of Siena and the drama of schism, or St. Catherine of Alexandria with a rather gory martyrdom? In fact, it was the story St. Catherine Labouré and the beginnings of the Miraculous Medal! -- which fits in nicely with the St. Vincent de Paul theme and the fact that this play took place on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

A very short summary of the play, which I found out today was written by the mother of one of my students:

The play opens with St. Nicholas' (one of the chaplains) entry, and he watched the show from the seat. The dialogue included discussion of his mitre. Above, after the first part introducing St. Nicholas, the play begins as St. Catherine's sister Zoë is born, and her mother dies, I think in childbirth if I understood correctly.

One of the many times St. Catherine asks her father to be allowed to go to the convent, and he says no. She is sent to Paris to live with her brother, who realizes how depressed she is and helps her convince their father to let her go be a nun.

Saint Catherine praying. I wish there was a photo of the appearance of Mary and the giving of the Miraculous Medal. When that happened, Amazing VP began to giggle a bit because of how dramatically the situation was presented considering the significant limitations of the staging, and her giggle was transferred to me because she's got such a joyfully contagious laugh, even though the appearance of the Mother of God surrounded by angels and the Miraculous Medal is a kind of serious thing. I was also laughing to myself thinking of my dad's story of how when he was a boy, he had the Miraculous Medal pinned on one shoulder, and a corno pinned on the other. His mother's reasoning: either way, he'd be protected.

St. Catherine and other Daughters of Charity helping injured people during the Revolution of 1848 or 1870 -- I'm not sure which and she was alive and in the community during both of them. At one point, a solider comes in, and the kid was dressed as a Roman centurion -- a costume used for Stations of the Cross later on in the school and liturgical year. Later, while joking with Amazing VP, we decided this was one of the postmodern aspects of the play. The ending was pretty dramatic, as St. Catherine died on 31 December, and on her deathbed, surrounded by sisters, she says, "I will not live to see the new year" and then she dies.

While talking later with Amazing VP, I half-seriously said that hopefully the kids acting out the lives of the saints would cause them to act more saintly, and she was like, "yah, I hope so too! lolz!" Then, as is the case so often when I say something cheeky like that, I foreshadow. Today, when asking one of my students (who was in the play) to please calm down, be quiet and pay attention, she said to me, "Ale som svätá -- but I'm a saint!" Keep reminding yourself of that, kiddo.

It may be of interest that some of my colleagues were like, "Do you have St. Nicholas Day in America? No, you don't, right?" and I was like, "of course we do!!!" And they were genuinely surprised -- because we often joke about things that we have and don't have in America (real bryndza cheese, homemade sauerkraut, namedays, pirohi, the stupid triedna knihas, etc). Sunday, when I got to Ružomberok, there were some chocolates and an orange, banana and lemon (that was a new one for me) from 'St. Nicholas' in my room... So I went downstairs to where my Sisterperson who makes sure I'm fed was watching TV and said "ďakujem -- thanks" and she smiled and said, "bol Mikulaš -- it was Nicholas" and I smiled and said, "yah, ďakujem."

This week, teaching

There is a full moon this week, which I didn't even need to look at the calendar to figure out (though it was there, on the calendar, looming at me) based on the way the kids were acting.

Occasionally, the kids get distracted, and start slinging insults at each other. Sometimes, unfortunately, this causes me to have to break character and even laugh, because of the sincerity and/or grammatical correctness they accomplish. Last week, one of my 6th graders said to me, "Pani učitelka, she stinks!" which prompted me to say, "No, she doesn't stink, but bravo, student, because you used the third person singular present simple correctly!" whereas normally my refrain is, "TRETIA OSOBA -- THIRD PERSON!" and they say, "tretia osoba with ssssss" which they usually a lot of the times when they speak. Today, a boy called a girl a "hybrid alien" -- in English, and if I heard correctly (quite creative name-calling, I must say), and she said back, "YOU IS ARE MUMÁK!" Mumák is a word translated as a nitwit or dunce, but the situation prompted me to review the conjugation of "to be" in the present tense. Seriously, sometimes instead of fighting the small battles, I just try to use them as educational opportunities.

One of my 9th grade groups, in fact, my favorite group (so favorite that 45 minutes every week is not nearly enough time for me to spend with them because they are that cool) is about half-full of artists, some of whom will be going to the art magnet high school next year. Upon some reflection about my teaching them, I decided that I would continue a personal December tradition that I began when I first got to SHU, that is, going to see Alvin Ailey in New York City in December -- a Christmas present to self. So I went on to teh YouTube, downloaded Revelations, and burnt it onto a DVD (part one here, then the rest are video responses -- give yourself the half hour to watch this brilliance). On Monday, Amazing Vice Principal lets me know that because one of my colleagues won't be available, I'll be having the group together on Tuesday when I was already planning to show the video. I was like, "ok, cool" but secretly I was like, "omgz!!!" Later, Amazing Principal, Amazing VP, and I have a little chat about it during lunch, and I am honest with them about my nervousness about having all of them together at once, and wow is it lucky I'm already planning on showing them a video. Amazing Principal laughs and says, "you're not zviknutá to have such a large group!" This is one of those concept words that doesn't have a good one-word translation into English -- best translation would maybe be accustomed, but it's more than that. So on Monday, before the Mikulaš presentation, I went over to where these 9th graders were sitting, and told them we'd be together on Tuesday. Then I handed them a note that said, "Who is Alvin Ailey?" and asked them to google it before class. Tuesday morning, before we started watching, I asked who Alvin Ailey was, got a sufficient answer, and reminded them that in oversimplified terms of musical history, gospel music is ultimately what gave us rock, so they could be thankful. About half of them were absolutely enthralled by the multi-sensory experience, occasionally dancing in their seats a bit, and the other half needed to be reigned in and kept from poking each other. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to discuss afterwards beyond their use of the adjective "good" which to me does not suffice in this situation.

This morning, in my first class, ... Here may be a good place to note that, now that I am somewhat of an authority figure, or at least I'm in a position of responsibility, the lighting of the advent wreath while we pray during the first lesson freaks me out, because having flames in a room full of potentially volatile tweens is just a little bit scary.
We get going reading a very short (like 3 paragraphs) article about Australian aborigines. The kids were annoyed with having to read, but it was my goal to 1. have them read to understand, and 2. try to instill some interest and empathy for different cultures that would be heretofore unknown to them. I was asking them questions that required them to answer verbatim from the text, which was not happening, which clued me in that they weren't understanding. Then, and this really horrified me from my culturally relativist, preferably non-Kantian stance, the word in the dictionary translating aborigine into Slovak was something that caused the kids to say that these people were "not intelligent" and "no technology." In the meantime, half of them (how much effort it is to keep 8 kids under control amazes me sometimes) were so not with me it was crazy, so that I couldn't deliver a short lecture on how incredibly spiritually and technologically-evolved these people are (a plug for Mutant Message Down Under here). I should probably take my own advice, as seen above, about picking battles -- but I was really shocked. In the meantime, one of the girls pulls out a bag of peanuts, and, I am not making this up, starts shelling them on her desk. Like, is this a baseball game? I couldn't believe it. Three times I ask her to put the peanuts away which she finally does, but they continue to talk, which is exactly why they weren't understanding the text, and so I asked, "Do we need the Klasifikacny?" (I often remember some advice I got before I left the US, namely "Maria, don't ever give the kids a choice" -- when I ask the kids questions like this, they are usually meant rhetorically and definitely with sarcasm.) Usually, just the mention of the Klasifikacny book (this is the gradebook which also includes disciplinary notes) makes them shape up, but I was getting really annoyed by this point. So I finally had one of them go ask for it (since the groups are split, I often don't have the book when I need it), knowing full well that the student would be asking the vice principal (teaching German next door) for something which could only mean that there was a disciplinary situation. So my student comes back into the classroom and in walks the vice principal, carrying the Klasifikacny:
[The kids immediately stand up, at attention, in a way only guilty Catholic School Kids are capable of -- I laugh to myself and think "wow, I remember this."]
Self: Good morning! Kids, we can speak English with Amazing VP!
Amazing VP: [in Slovak] I want to know, who is being bad?
Self: That's alright, I think we're ok.
[The kids are looking back and forth between us, shaking in their papuče (slippers).]
Amazing VP: No, who is having a problem?
Self: Really, I think we'll be ok now, thank you.
[Amazing VP exeunt.]
[Kids sit back down with relief, knowing I just saved their hides and practically let them get away with murder.]
After the class, I say to Amazing VP, "We're cool, všetko poriadok" and she was like, "Nie, nie je poriadok!" Later we talked about it, and I think came to a good understanding and consensus, but when these sorts of things happen it really causes me to think about classroom management -- which is all tied to my experience level, my own experiences as a student, and my assessment of the relative seriousness of the students' actions. I really think these kids are very intelligent and I also really believe they know damn well when they're acting inappropriately. Yet again, I am fascinated watching these kids even as I also need to be mentally present and in control of the situation. Sometimes I need to remind myself. Further, I really feel lucky to have such supportive colleagues and the Amazing VP who really help me work through these sorts of things and who help me to learn as I go along, at times flying by the seat of my pants. The system in place with the Klasifikacny can be really good, because (and this was my feeling all along) I wanted to see what else was there -- turns out, in October this student had been eating in class with another teacher, and that was really informative when I was talking with Amazing VP. And here's where my mum's pedagogy rubs off on me: this student is a natural leader. What she does, the other kids tend to do, so the challenge is to channel her energy into leading her classmates more effectively. I'm not sure being po škole is the way to do that, but I certainly could be wrong.

Savory breakfastdinner

Sometimes it seems like things we in America would normally eat for breakfast are eaten here for dinner. Last night, there was fried bread (like French toast, but on Slovak bread) onto which bryndza cheese is put. Amazingly delightful, and of course a more savory taste than sugar or syrup on the bread. My other option was to put ketchup on the bread, but this was not nearly as enticing as the bryndza. One of the sisters told me that her favorite topping for this bread was mustard and onions, which sounded really good, too.

08 December 2008

My Introduction to the Slovak Healthcare System

Disclaimering: … just… consider yourself forewarned. And, I'm not making this up. And, despite my whining here, the people I dealt with were very professional and I would not be worried if, God forbid, something were to happen to me and I'd need to go to a hospital here.

Since I finally have my legal status here, the Slovak government needs to know that I am not bringing in anything like malaria, HIV, etc. Actually, HIV rates in Slovakia are exceptionally low, under 300 people in a country of 5 million. This is attributed to excellent education (proof that our MUN suggestions would probably work in real life), and last week my older (8th and 9th grade) students and I had good, open discussions about HIV and AIDS on the occasion of World AIDS Day. They were already excellently informed, which made me so happy, so we focused on the English conversation part of it, which is the point anyway. …and I’ve gotten off on a tangent.

For the Slovak government to find out I am healthy, I had to go to the Martinská fakultná nemocnica – the Martin Faculty Hospital. Martin is about an hour west of Ružomberok, and omgz is it a beautiful-looking city. Martin, Prešov and Košice were in the running for European Cultural Capital 2013, and Košice won, but I can see now why Martin was in the running – and unfortunately I saw pitifully little of it. It is also surrounded by the Velká Fatra and the Malá Fatra mountain ranges, which exponentially increase the overall excellence of the general atmosphere.

I got the bus around 6am, which meant I woke up much earlier than I normally do. Of course, the Sisters are already up for what seems like hours at that point, but it is normally my modus operandi to sleep as long as possible. The bus dropped me off right across the street from the hospital, as the sun was coming up. I found Pavilon 5 , my target building. The hospital is a rather huge campus, with a mix of late 19th century eclectic and socialist-Bauhausy-concrete buildings. There are three doors on the façade of Pavilon 5. Behind door number one, I found the tuberculosis ward. I was starting to get slightly freaked out, and honestly Mimi of La Bohème crossed my mind (“Silvestri, don’t end up like this, it would be tragic!”), but then I was relieved by the faint smell of bleach though I decided this was not where I was supposed to be. Door number two was some office where people were lined up to have blood taken, but the general theme was infectious diseases (fun!). I got in line, stood like a bureaucratic stooge for a while because I thought it was the right place, and when it was my turn, they told me to go back outside and into door number three!

Door number three led to an empty foyer covered in posters about malaria and Lyme disease, with menacing mosquito and tick pictures and maps showing high-risk areas. This made me feel about as comfortable as the tuberculosis ward. I rang the bell (lots of locked doors and bell ringing here) and a lady came out – funny thing is that doors two and three open onto the same interior hallway, and they of course could not just tell me to come in and show me down the hall.
I go into an examination room, the woman data-entries all of my relevant numbers into the computer and then has me sit down so she can take some blood. This was no different than giving blood, and she was really good at finding a vein on the first try – this is a good skill for someone in her line of work to possess. Interestingly, while she was taking my blood, she was not wearing gloves. I was a bit surprised.

Up until that point, we did not have any serious communication issues. Then she hands me what looks like a rather long q-tip and says something very fast in Slovak, while making a gesture with this thing at her ... posterior orifice. I hope the look on my face adequately communicated, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?” because that’s exactly what I was thinking. So I asked as formally as possible (Prosím Vás, etc.) “Could you explain that one more time?” So she makes the gesture again with this thing, and then tells me to go to the bathroom across the hall. Two quick statements about this: first, I really hope I understood her correctly; and secondly, happily, that is definitely not something I need to do everyday.

If that were not enough, she says to me the word in Slovak for ‘pregnant’ which I understood because after she read the confused look on my face, she made a motion over her belly and said “Baby!?” My response was something like, “Argh! Vôbec nie – absolutely not!” At which point she says, “ok, go to the röntgen, it’s across the street.” Röntgen is a word (of German origin) that took me ages to figure out what it meant, because it came up in discussion a few months ago, and no one could explain what it was, and then finally I figured out how to spell it and found it in a dictionary – it’s an x-ray lab. At the same time she handed me the prescription for the x-ray, she handed me a receipt that I needed to pay. This was a small problem due to the quite tidy sum.

But I went across the street to the x-ray lab, and waited while the rather arrogant staff got around to x-raying me. I was shoved into a ‘cabinet’ – a tiny room about 1 yard square with doors on opposite sides, and told to take off my top. This I also did not understand the first time around, and the woman was practically screaming at me. Two thoughts: first, this entire experience featured vocabulary I do not use every day, so I had trouble understanding it; and secondly, speaking louder when someone doesn’t understand does not help the situation.
So there I am, standing topless in front of a rather large x-ray machine with a little, useless lead apron covering my butt (they would put more lead over me at the dentist in America than they did in this case), and Pani X-Ray Technician must correctly position me in front of the machine in order to take said x-ray. It turns out, I was supposed to face it with my chin up and against the x-rayer – but that took a while and featured her saying pointing to my head and saying “To je hlava – this is the head” and me thinking “yah, I KNOW.” The actual x-ray took like a second of course, and then I went out and asked if that would be all. No, it wasn’t. At this point, I had forgotten that in Europe, the patient keeps the x-rays. I had to wait and get the x-ray and clean bill of health from the radiologist, and then take it back to the Foreign Diseases ambulancia myself. The frustrating thing about the röntgen (actually, most of everything) is that nobody was telling me what or WHY things were happening the way they did, they just assumed I knew, which I didn’t. So I didn’t know why I was waiting (frankly, I didn’t even know what the x-ray was for), though it turned out I was just waiting to get my x-ray, which didn’t take long. It is also possible that I was cranky by that point because I’d been up since 5am and had not yet had any coffee or anything to eat, due to my blood being taken. While I was waiting for the x-ray, I wolfed down a granola bar, which got some bad looks but by that point I didn’t care.

Back across the street, Foreign Diseases Ambulancia Woman takes the clean bill of health from the radiologist, and asks if I’ve gone to the cassa to pay yet. I knew I didn’t have the money required on me, and I also knew that my card doesn’t work in the Bancomats. So I left the hospital grounds, crossed the street and went to the bank to get a cash advance. This is a supremely great annoyance, as I have previously described. At that point, it was 8:45am, and I really wanted to be on the 9:45 bus back to Ružomberok, because there was a St. Nicholas Day Pageant at 11:30 and also I would have had to wait a long time for the next bus anyway. But I also know from experience that this cash advance process takes a while and I still had to pay and run back to the Foreign Diseases ambulancia. So I go to the bank across the street – the general dialogue follows -- it's the same every time:
Self: I have a card, I need cash and I know the Bancomat won’t work.
Greeter Woman: Are you sure the Bancomat won’t work? Here, try this one!
Self: Fine, but I know it won’t work.
[I go through Bancomat process. It doesn’t work.]
Greeter Woman: Ok, go to the line at the end of all of the other lines.
[I wait in line for a desk that looks the same in all VUB Banks. I say a quick prayer of thanksgiving for uniform corporate graphic identities.]
Grumpy Bank Woman: Next!
Self: I have a card, I need cash and I know the Bancomat won’t work.
Grumpy Bank Woman: I’m not telling you that we can’t do this, but are you sure the Bancomat won’t work?
Self: [with uncharacteristic bad attitude] Look, this isn’t convenient for me, either. Do you think I want to be here? NO THE BANCOMAT DOESN’T WORK.
Grumpy Bank Woman: Go wait at that other desk.
[Because this is the third desk I've been shuffled to, my mind flashes back, I’m not making this up, to Sicily, 1990. Picture it: A precocious 4-year old and her occasionally sparring parents are trying to dodge local Mafiosi and cash traveller’s cheques, still a recommended form of transporting currency before Al Gore invented the Internet and money became more of an idea rather than something to actually have in hand, just one of the many issues in the current global economic situation. The precocious 4-year old watches as her sinus-infected father navigates the treacherous waters between the potentially irrational Sicilians (“It’s after noon, we don’t cash traveller’s cheques in the afternoon, signore” – or something like that) and her mother.]
Helpful Bank Woman: What are you doing here [at my desk]?
Grumpy Bank Woman: She came here by herself, I didn’t tell her to come over here.
[Yes, she did.]
Self: I have a card, I need cash and I know the Bancomat won’t work.
Helpful Bank Woman: Have you tried the Bancomat?
Self: [Steam blows out of ear canals.]
Helpful Bank Woman: Please wait here, and then we will go to another desk.
[We go to another part of the bank, a beautiful, marble-veneered, Art Deco bank room flooded with natural light. Definitely the sort of architecture that creates the feeling of money, success, and power in an early 20th century American sort of way. The process happens, which takes two bank employees to accomplish, and I walk out of the bank with my money.]
[Dramatis personae exeunt.]
At which point I ran back across the street, paid at the cassa, and took the receipt back to the Foreign Diseases place. I left the hospital with my somewhat expensive (by somewhat expensive, I mean its cost when compared to my monthly salary, which is normally very adequate) souvenir of the Slovak healthcare system:

Happily, there was enough time for me to grab some coffee (classic Slovak Turkish coffee – crunchy! -- though I realized I'm just impatient when someone hands me a coffee and I should wait for the grounds to settle... Yet again, Slovakia teaches me zen-like patience) and a fresh buchta from a bufet across the street from the bus stop before getting the 9:45 bus. Somehow, though not suprisingly, I made it all the way back to Ružomberok with lekvar all over my face, ftw. Because the trips were not by the same bus operator, the trip to Martin cost 4SKK more than the return.

Overall, fascinating, and most importantly, I made it back to school in time for the Mikulaš presentation, which was my goal -- I would have felt horrible if I had missed it.

05 December 2008

The Saga of Establishing My Legalness

Before I get into this, two thoughts:
  1. Because of the passage of time, I feel much calmer and complacent about the situation. Some small details may get lost, because I don't remember everything -- this is good, that means this post will be shorter. It was important to me that I do this post all at once, after all was said and done, to minimize the emotion, which at times was considerable.
  2. As with so many things in my life, other people do things for me, and get stressed out for me, so that I don't have to, and I just waltz in and everything's cool. Thank you, people in my life.
This story really starts before I even left for Slovakia. I was signing papers and sending back "two or four" copies so that even before I got there, the process had begun. I thought I would need to go to Washington, DC to the Slovak Embassy to get a jump start on the process, but that turned out to be unnecessary. On the other hand, there was a great deal of misinformation, starting with the people at the Embassy being kind of difficult to get a hold of, the people at the Consulate in New York having completely different procedures, and confusing documents on their website which did not really help. It turned out that I was spared a trip to the Embassy, because as an American citizen, "it is my privilege" to just wait until I got to Slovakia. So that was cool -- but this whole process was, to an extent, influenced by the fact that I am lucky enough to carry an American passport. I can only hope that people are treated as well as I have been when they visit America -- but I know that's not always the case, unfortunately.

So, I could wait until I got to Slovakia for a visa. On 28 August, I get to the airport in Pittsburgh, all ready for my exciting adventure. Since it was an international flight, I had to check in with an actual person instead of using the kiosk, also because I (thank God!) don't yet have one of those new-fangled civil liberties-destroying machine-readable passports. I had return tickets reserved for more than 90 days in the future, and so the airline made me change my tickets to within the 90 day limit, because there was nothing in my passport giving me permission to be there longer and they would not be liable to Slovakia for my legal status or lack thereof, as far as they were concerned. So even though the Slovak Embassy said it was ok, it was not ok for the airlines. Understandable, yet expensive: it costs $250 to change a reservation, which was something I had to do in August and then again in November -- do the math and tack that on to the original cost of my ticket.

So I get to Slovakia, everything's cool. The second day of school, we go to the Foreign Police in Ružomberok, everything's cool. About two weeks later, we go back to the Foreign Police, and they want to slap me with a 5000SKK fine because I had no proof that I had been there within three days of my arrival in Slovakia. First off, that's a lot of money (over $200) and secondly, they didn't make me sign anything or initiate the giving of any sort of proof that I had already been there. So from 19 September until this Wednesday, I had a ripped off piece of paper stuck into the pages of my passport, with signatures and stamps (the all-important, critical, crucial pečiatka) saying I had visited them. This is a good place to note that I practically never spoke while at the Foreigner Police -- I totally played ignorant until the very end.

There were forms and documents to fill out, listing the names, addresses, and birthdates of my parents and sibling. I of course also had to prove my degree, and had a document from SHU even though I have yet to receive a diploma, even though I got my BA in August 2007. There was my contract and a letter of invitation that established my residency. My contract meant that I did not have to provide any other financial documentation, which was really good. At one point in early October, on a Friday, the police show up to see if I'm truly in residence there. I felt really bad, because the last thing they needed was for the police to show up at the door. Also, every time there were documents missing, one particular police officer would call -- the dude is a really unhappy person and frankly, quite uptight. So uptight that he tapes a little piece of paper with his surname on it to all of his own pens. My mother will be happy to know I ended up praying for him, because really, he seems like a really unhappy dude.

I should comment on the fact that it is my preference to write with black pens -- specifically, black, extra fine Pilot Precise V5 pens. Here, that is really not an option because everything has to be written in blue ink or else it is void. Every legal document (this includes everything at school, basically, because ultimately the Ministry of Education could audit all of the books) has to be in blue pen, so the chorus of "modré pero" is nightmarish and yet inevitable. For some reason, inexplicable in the same way the smell of cantaloupe makes me angry, blue pens and any kind of pencils feel unclean to me on multiple levels: unclean as in dirty, and also unclean as in haraam. But here I've just got to bite the bullet.

So, there's a stack of documents which all establish my identity and all of these other things about me that the government wants to know, like that I also don't have a criminal record in Slovakia. Cool. I might add that at various points in the process, situations prompted the sisters to make jokes about the possibility of visiting me in jail, and asking me what they could bring me (chocolate and beer) and me reminding them that visiting people in jail was a Corporal Work of Mercy -- to which my incredibly awesome and wonderful principal quipped, "yeah, that's good for us, but not for you!" The only thing I had forgotten to bring with me from America was my criminal clearance letter. So I asked my dad to send another one, please. He did. We take it to the police. They take one look at it and say, "wtf is this? You could have printed this out on your computer! There's no pečiatka!
It should be from the FBI!!!!! It needs an apostille!!!! " Which made me think, "wow Mr. Provincial Policeman, you know both Slovak and American law? You should be in Bratislava, not here in this smallish city where most of the people you deal with are Czechs that have married Slovaks -- what a waste of your skills!" I called the US Embassy in Bratislava, explained what I thought I needed, and they told me I would have to go to the main police station in Vienna to be fingerprinted, because no one was able to do it in Slovakia. As much as I like Vienna, I was looking to save myself the trip, so I called my dad, explain the situation, and he goes back to the police department of our fair municipality, and gets another criminal record clearance, and has it notarized.

In the meantime (this is mid-October), as we're waiting for this to come in through the mail, a registered letter arrives for me which says all of this has to be completed within 60 days or else the process has to start over again. So now there's a time limit. The notarized paper arrives, we take it to the police. It turns out, and I am not making this up, the notary's seal and stamp wasn't big enough. The policeman takes a huge binder off the shelf, and makes a photocopy of the exact 1961 Hague Convention Apostille necessary. So I call my dad, who by this point has already made friends with the woman at the police department in our fair municipality, explain the situation, and we have a mutual ventfest together. At this point, though comparisons are odious, making comparisons to the Italian bureaucratic demands are becoming salient and appropriate.

Here's what I'm talking about (I found it via Google Image Search, and have edited it):
So this needed to be the exact apostille, and it needed to be 9 centimeters. Why our policeman friend couldn't have told us this the first time around, I will never know.

Of course, fees were also required, to the tune of what is basically my monthly salary. But, in a typically €uropean way of combatting corruption, these fees are paid to a third party, often a newsmonger or tobacconist, and they give you stamps:
These get stuck all over the paperwork, and signatures (in blue pen!!!!) and stamps get put everywhere. Of course, the price kept going up, which was kind of really annoying.

Finally, everything was organized, and it was just a matter of time. About two weeks ago, my principal thinks we may have a problem, which prompted nervous jokes that I might have to get sent to Užhorod in order to have a stamp in my passport showing reentry into Slovakia, but it was only the deadline to get all of the papers in, which we had already met. This Monday, despite some other really bad news at school, there was the good news that my document was ready. On Tuesday, I went to the office, which turned out to be closed. But no matter! I rang the bell, and the directress of the office comes out, wearing a white faux fur jacket, short-ish skirt, and knee-high white patent leather, uhm, go-go boots. Ostensibly, this woman is a police officer, but frankly she looked ... like she was on the other side of the law. But throughout the whole process, she had been really kind and helpful, including answering the door when the office was closed, so it was all good. So on Tuesday, I had seen the document, but was not yet in possession of it because I had to go get more kolok stamps (see above) and they were closed anyway.

During my free period on Wednesday, I went to the office, and a very helpful, nice, non-uptight policeman helped me. Stamps, signatures, and more stamps and signatures, and this beautiful sight lives in my passport:
Honestly, watching him put it in my passport was really anticlimactic after everything that had already needed to happen in order for this to happen. I am in possession of what the Italians call a permesso di soggiorno -- which is contingent upon my employment. Finally. This means a celebration (in the form of beer) with some colleagues on Monday, as we've all been living this saga over the last few months. No one had any idea it would require so much effort, time, and exactly 9cm
² apostilles on the top half of the reverse of the criminal clearance letter.

But wait! There's more! On Monday morning, bright and early (so that I can be back to school in time for the Mikulaš presentation -- featuring St. Catherine -- I hope of Siena, because the martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria would be slightly gruesome for a St. Nicholas Day pageant), I have to go to the special foreigner doctor in Martin so that they can determine that I am not bringing any diseases into Slovakia. When my
incredibly awesome and wonderful principal told me this, including that they would take some of my blood, I said, "all they'll see is how much wonderful Slovak bacon I've been eating." She laughed. When she called to find out about an appointment for me, she asked on the phone, "Foreigner Police? *Freudian slip* rather, Foreigner Doctors? *massive stifled laughter*" Alas, now that all this is over, we can laugh about it.