28 May 2009

A Helpful Infographic

For the ornithologically inclined readers of this blog, I have made this helpful infographic in order to clear up any confusion from yesterday's post in which I erroneously mentioned birds:

Today, among other things:

  1. I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said "C is for Crack Whore." I'm guessing she didn't know what it meant.
  2. I saw the KDH (slogan: Veríme tak ako vy -- We believe the same way you do) €urocampaigning (€uroparliament elections on 6 June) have a rally on the Hlavná.  How do politicians show how 'traditional' they are and how much they care about families, etc in the middle of a big city?  With a 4 piece band: bass, violin, cimbal and accordion!
  3. I finally got some visiting cards/visitky made -- totally simple and not a triumph of design in any way, but I got it done in less than a half hour for about €3.  Not bad.

27 May 2009

It's been a while since I've had these...

So yesterday after school I went into the office for something, I can't remember what, and began having a pleasant conversation with Amazing VP and one of the admin assistants, who is a genuinely excellent human being.  Genuinely excellent admin assistant hands me a candy, which I unwrapped and when I looked at it I immediately knew what it was, and got supremely excited:
Шипучка (Šipučka) candy
Yes, this Ukrainian candy was in fact the same basic concept as Warheads, which I would buy with great gusto as a preteen mall rat.  Thankfully, the Ukie version is not oppressively sour, which would have rattled my fragile, post-teaching hours nerves -- but they still have the delightful effervescence thanks to the magic of malic acid! 

Panelák photography

This is a great online exhibit from lensculture.com taking a look inside paneláks -- the huge apartment blocks that can be seen in all the cities in the former Eastern Bloc.  Lots of people think of them as huge, impersonal eyesores, which they kind of are, but really I like to think of them as huge 'bookshelves' of human potential -- so much human potential is stored inside of them, what would happen if all of the human potential inside of them reached a higher spiritual plane? 

From the statement:
No, the inhabitants of these Slovakian prefabricated buildings probably do not behave as uniformly as might be suggested by the exterior of the omnipresent high-rises filling the suburban landscape. Built with the intention of providing affordable housing for everyone, this industrial mode of construction quickly became synonymous with a highly anonymous lifestyle, devoid of any individuality. ... Who are these people in these prefab buildings? Is there a prevailing type, perhaps even a prefab person?
 Full disclosure: I live in a panelák and really rather love it.

Catching up...

Ah there is so much to blog about!  I’ve been holding things for nearly month in some cases, wanting to do justice to all of this stuff, at the expense of losing the relatively immediate reactions that blogging provides.  Because of the delay, I’m interested in writing this particular post thematically rather than chronologically – and this post has the length of a novella.  Probably I should break it up into smaller posts, but for whatever reason, I won’t.

So.  Immediately.  Birds.  The storks are back from North Africa, but even better, recently I’ve been seeing lots of beautiful pheasants in the fields outside of Prešov – especially south of the city around Haniska and Abrahamovce.  Too cool, really.  Pheasants, which are also the Pennsylvania state bird, are really very beautiful and quite dramatic (in their flashy male version) when you see them poking around with their brilliant red heads.  They are also very tasty and as a result, a great treat when possible.  While I’m on the subject of animals, it is important to note that I have not been eaten by a tiger.  One escaped from a zoo in Poland, crossed the mountains, and is/was somewhere in the woods slightly west of Ružomberok near Stankovany.  Supposedly a mountain biker saw it nearly 2 weeks ago, but this is doubted by the forest authorities, and I can’t wait to find out how/when/if said tiger is caught, but the news is being quiet about it, until it gets caught -- though it may also be dead!  I also heard recently that somewhere near here, a guy was walking in the forest, where he encountered a mother bear with her young, and the mother bear nearly tore the guy apart.  One of the sisters works as a radiologist, and she saw the results of this bear attack with her own eyes because when he was taken to surgery with his face and arms ripped apart she was involved in doing the x-rays.

We had a notable team-building exercise (as it would be called in America) after work about 2 weeks ago on a Tuesday night because one of my colleagues moved to work in Košice.  Many freshly grilled pork products, 5 liters of red table wine and a significant amount of homemade slivo and Fernet Citrus.  We were all at work at on time Wednesday morning, but I admit to taking some Tylenol just to stave off the final effects and ease my nerves as I taught.  Yes kids, this is what can happen behind the school when you’re not there.

Nearly three weeks ago, I met some of my Ružomberok sisterly crew in Prešov for an evening at the theatre; specifically, the musical František z Assisi.  My expectations were, as usual, not very high (I don’t have high expectations because I’m expecting something bad, it’s just that when I don’t know what to expect, how can I expect very much?) and again, I was very pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of musical theatre in Prešov.  While one may perhaps think it would be a lot of dancing and singing monks, that was really not the focus of the play and some of the major drama towards the end dealt with changes the order underwent in Francis’ absence during his trip to the Holy Land.  Further, there are many stories of his temptations, which were well-handled, and the music was high-quality and quite catchy.  To add another layer to the experience, it should be noted that our PUĽS was the background singing and dancing – kind of cool though the musical, while really good, was not nearly close to their true capabilities as cultural activists, performers, and musicians.
 Francis, in his pre-mendicant days.

When Clare jilts her fiance and goes to live with Francis and the other monks. 
 The devil, with one of the three heavy metal demons in the background.

Two weeks ago, the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders all went to a modern dance interpretation of the life of St. Paul.  The main metaphor was some kind of card game, which I really didn’t get, and while good, I think it wasn’t particularly accessible to the kids, either.  I needed it explained to me three times and I still didn’t get it.  The problem with things being not especially accessible is that it led the kids to make kind of smart-alecky comments during the performance because they felt the need to compensate for their lack of understanding somehow.  Even though I’ve seen quite a lot of very high quality modern dance from all over the world, this in particular was very difficult and even though I had to play the responsible adult and tell the kids to quiet down and pay attention, I could empathize with them a bit.

Also about two weeks ago already, I stayed another day in Ružomberok and went along with a 5th grade class on their field trip to some places around Nitra.  I didn’t realize it, but as I was talking about it with a friend I mentioned that I got a bit angsty there because it was such a big city and there was so much traffic, and it turns out that population-wise, Nitra is only ½ the size of Prešov!  The differences in geography make a big difference, it would seem.  In Nitra, we went to the Mission Museum of the Verbisti, and from a museological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating.  It came off in some of the same ways that the British Museum or the Louvre can come off in seeming really imperialistic, and showing the spoils of imperialism – and let’s face it, since Columbus missionary work has gone hand in hand with imperialistic conquering, up to the present with American cultural imperialism and all sorts of Protestant missionaries of American origin knocking on my door in Prešov.  Unfortunately, there have been too few Bartolomé de las Casas types throughout history.  I just don’t think that being of Western/European origin gives us any right to say that our religious/spiritual expression is any better than other iterations – it’s one way to achieve a common goal and it’s what works for us -- and I'm not saying that this is how this order is.  But when we get epistemological about it, that's what it can look like.  Anyway, they had a really excellent taxidermied animal display as the result of a museum in Baden-Würtemburg closing, and the rest of the displays were artifacts arranged geographically from places where the priests were missionaries.  The museum was well done, if low on interpretation, which seems to be the norm here in Slovak museums.

The taxidermied animals from Germany. 
 The material results of missionaries.  
NB how the name of the museum and location of it is over the vitrine, so that it gets into the picture easily.  
Every vitrine was like that.  Saves us from the question, "where was that again?"

We were supposed to go to an arboretum, but Slovakia was in the process of getting some much-needed rain, so Plan C was the Topoľčianky Château.  This is a Late Gothic château with interesting Renaissance and Baroque additions, including a very attractive central room with cupola – and part of it has recently been renovated into a hotel.  It was built by Hungarian nobility, became Hapsburg, and then was highly favored as a place of respite by the first president of Czechoslovakia, T. G. Masaryk.  Unfortunately, photos weren’t really allowed inside, and I wasn’t able to successfully sneak any.  There was a beautiful library hidden behind a wall, with 16,000 books, none of which were in the Slovak language.  Also in Topoľčianky is the Slovak National Stud Farm (!! their translation, not mine), where they do horse jumping and those sorts of things.

As we were at the Château, I was thinking about how the kids had no concept of how not very normal it was to be able to go to a Hapsburg château on a field trip.  At 10 years old, they have a very clear concept of who Maria Theresa was and why she was so important to their collective cultural and historical development.  When I was 10 years old, we were going on field trips to Old Bedford Village and watching how they made butter and brooms in the pioneer days.  Definitely not the same cultural touchstones!  When I made the comment to my colleagues, they couldn’t relate too much either – because it’s just as normal for them as it is for the kids!  I mean, when we went to Rome and our field trips were to Cerveteri, Anzio and Nettuno and the center of Rome, like that’s not very normal, either! Except that in Europe, it is.  And we in America think we are Eurocentric and don’t give enough attention to non-Western cultures – what about Europeans!? Many of them are (by design?/nature?) even more Eurocentric than many Americans!!!

Speaking of the kids, with some of my after school groups in the last few weeks we were able to video conference using Skype with a group of students in Pittsburgh (many thanks!!! to blog reader + homeroom teacher Leslie) – which was excellent because my crew was able to practice a little, except when they got super shy about speaking English, Leslie’s crew heard some Slovak, which was new to them (my crew was super impressed that they study Latin there) and everyone was able to see that they looked alike and listened to the same music and these sorts of things.  Like my mom always says, people are more alike than they are different – and I would only add that we all need constant reminders of this sort of thing at any opportunity possible.  I’m very happy it worked out as well as it did considering our somewhat slow internet connection at school (sometimes it causes hiccups) and also the difficulties of scheduling due to the six hour time difference.

And speaking of Topoľčianky, on Saturday I had some Château Topoľčianky Cabernet Sauvignon – you can get all kinds of wine here (including very affordable and quite drinkable Chilean wine) but since I’m here, I’m interested in trying out the Slovak-made wines, some of which are really quite good – and mostly from the area around Nitra.

Also quite cool was a recent walk to Zbojnícky hrad near Prešov.  I suspect it is possible to take the regular public bus to Ruská Nová Ves and then you can walk from there – not strenuous.  The castle ruins themselves are not nearly as impressive as they are at Kapušany castle or Šariš castle, but the view of Prešov is the most unobstructed.  It was a gorgeous clear day, and the High Tatras were visible from there, which was quite cool.  In the same general area/direction as Zbojnícky hrad is the famous opal mine outside of Prešov, which before Australia became Australia was the main opal supplier to the world.  Now that I know more or less where it is and how to get there, I would want to be in a Lada Niva or some such to get there -- though a regular, plucky Škoda would probably also do.  It’s the sort of location that makes me wonder how people figured out that there were opals there in the first place in the same way that I wonder how people figured out that certain herbs are good for various illnesses or how people figured out various things that maybe required profound experience and that now we take for granted.

It is very rare that I speak with people on the train, because usually I’m sleeping, listening to This American Life, watching some downloaded Murphy Brown episodes (hi mom!), and/or watching the unbelievably beautiful landscape as it passes by.  Last week going back east, on a crowded train, I sat in a compartment with a woman about my age, and three old men.  At Štrba, one of them handed me a flyer and said, “You know you have to vote on 6 June.” To which I replied, “I can’t vote here, I’m from America.”  And by Poprad, one of the three old men had pulled out his flask and portable shot glass from his hiking rucksack and we were saluting each other’s health with an unknown, but very pleasant herbal liqueur. Before I started talking to them, one had been showing the other two all of the various accoutrements he carried around with him in his rucksack – including an Ace bandage.  Said one of his comrades, “I’ve got one of those … at HOME.” And said he, “yah, but I’ve got it with me in case You need it while we’re out.”  Too cute.  They were all well over 80, and every week they go somewhere on a long touristic walk somewhere in Slovakia.  So last Wednesday they had gone from Ružomberok to Donovaly by car or bus, and from Donovaly to Banská Bystrica by foot using a trail made by the SNP during WW2.  Their group used to be 7 people, but these are the last 3 who are left.  It was pleasant talking with them – they were true old Prešovčans, and they carried the spirit and history of the city with them.

While it may seem like I’ve been hanging out, going to castles, and drinking wine, these are all exceptions rather than the rule. Mostly I’ve been supremely preoccupied with organizing in order to create the kind of future I want to live in – which is slightly stressful and yet very exciting at the same time.

12 May 2009

This week, teaching

Last week I learned that the concept of Mad Libs does not exist in the imagination of Slovak children, unfortunately.  When such things happen, I'm the one who ends up looking crazy, not them. 

Today, I asked my best group to invent the title of a book and then tell me what the book was about.  One title was Ghost of Red Star.  Roughly speaking, the ghost of Che Guevara comes to one of my students and gives her advice about how to create a revolution in Slovakia.  When I asked her what that may entail, she said that the president and prime minister had to go.  I made the rather obvious observation that this was suprising because they are on the left and so is Che, so why should they be offed?  And she said, and I am not making this up, "These are only little problems!" The book ended with Che's ghost entering another man so that she could marry him.  When I asked whether this was fiction or nonfiction, the response was autobiography.  I totally can't make this stuff up.

Other books included a nonfiction book about wolves from their perspective and a guy who got injections in one of those sell your body to science experiments to pay for school and ended up having hallucinations.  Or not.

02 May 2009

Today's Vintage Rusyn Photograph

Not quite vintage, but it looks vintage, so it will do.

Rusyn couple near Chust

01 May 2009

PUĽS = kick @$$

Tonight, we went to the season premiere of PUĽS (Podduklianské Ľudove Subor = Beneath Dukla People's Folk Ensemble).  OMGZ.  It's been like 15 years I've been seeing this crew, and they never cease to amaze.

Theatre experiences in Prešov are best described as sophisticated -- not bad for a (relatively small) city on (what sometimes seems like) the edge of the world.  My experiences as an audience member here can directly compete with contemporary dance, musicals, and other performance art I've seen in the US and Western Europe.  The Duchnovyč Theatre productions and PUĽS productions (tonight it was an almost-full house at the BIG Zaborsky Theatre in Prešov) are sophisticated.

PUĽS is not necessarily strictly traditional, but they, like AAADT, elevate folk culture into high culture.  By using universal visual clues, the performance is totally transformed into something much bigger than itself, and most importantly, it moves our Rusyn culture forward instead of only preserving it.

This is an archive photo, but this was one of the sets they did last night (different costumes) 
-- totally evocative of the hills in springtime, with spectacularly graceful movement.

It makes me really happy that I live somewhere where the local economy can support such a group of artists (who by their actions are also important cultural activists), and that there were like 6 encores this evening, which was well-justified.