Monday, February 18, 2008

A Weekend in the Tatras

Two weekends ago, I went with basically all the other Americans here, and a few Slovaks and a British guy as well, to the High Tatras, a mountain range in the middle of Slovakia. We stayed in Tatranska Lomnica in a penzion.

We left Bratislava Thursday evening (we had school off that Friday). Friday morning most of us went skiing or snowboarding. The rest went on a hike. I went skiing.

Now, I haven't gone skiing more than a half a dozen times in my life, but I didn't think it would be much harder than the other times. Let's just say that I couldn't have been more wrong. There were so many times when I thought I was going to die. When I went skiing before, it was on little mountains or hills, nothing spectacular.

It took a good eight minutes on lift to get to the top of the hill. I exaggerate things quite often, but this is no exaggeration. The first time we went up, the lift just kept going and going and going. We went into clouds. It was absolutely ridiculous. The temperature must have been 20 degrees colder on the top than on the bottom.

It was so cold that ice froze in my beard, as you can see in the picture on the right. Lying on the ground is also how I spent about half of the day. I didn't make it down the mountain without falling once. One trip down the mountain must have taken a good 20 minutes with about 5-7 of those minutes falling down and trying to get back up.

Though the skiing was very difficult, the best thing about skiing was the view from the top. I could see for miles and miles. Simply amazing.

The next day we went hiking. I was quite sore from skiing, mostly from falling down, and from not knowing exactly how to ski. I was told that it would be a two-hour hike to a cottage that serves food. This sounded like just the right amount of time for me. Nevertheless, this time estimate was highly exaggerated and it took twice as long to get there. Though the hike wasn't what I expected, the area was quite beautiful with the pure snow and land nearly untouched by humans.
On Sunday, we returned to Bratislava, refreshed and ready for another exciting week of school.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

4A Fashion Day

This week in my fourth year class we are discussing fashion and clothing, so I gave my students the home assignment to come to school dressed in something that they think should be fashionable. One of my classes just wore regular clothes. The other class went all out. I was quite impressed with them, and I thought I'd share some photos.

In the picture on the right is Andrej . Andrej said wearing winter clothes - hats, gloves, and scarves - inside should become fashionable.

In the next picture is Tatiana, wearing the traditional Slovak garb. She said we need to go back to our roots and wear what our ancesters wore. I asked her later where she got the outfit from, she said she borrowed it from her grandmother. I can't imagine wearing anything my grandfather wears.

Next is Regina. She thought we should dress more like children, so she wore a Princess Jasmin t-shirt.

Next is Ivan, a.k.a. Crocodile Dundee, who said that all students at the Lyceum should wear this outfit so that no one makes fun of anyone else.

And here we have Ada wearing a dress over regular clothes. I'm not quite sure why she was wearing this, but another teacher, Kendra, looked at pictures and liked her outfit, saying she would actually wear that. Strange people.

Last but not least is yours truly. I told my students that in the future, headbands will become more popular, especially with dress clothes. Strangely, I'm wearing a headband as we speak. Notice the beard-tie. That will definitely be a hit in the future.
Anyway, so the purpose of this class was to discuss why certain clothes become popular and whether we actually wear what we like or we really wear what others want us to wear.
You'd think such a discussion would be light-hearted, but, as the tendency is with that class, the discussion grew intense quickly as the class soon began talking about respect and whether people respect others out of love or out of fear and what the difference between those respects are. Those kiddos love having deep conversations. Usually I just sit back and let their minds mature through deep discussions.
The high point in the class occurred when the class began talking about the notorious first-year girl who wears extremely large slippers and tootoos. One girl noted that the more people made fun of her for wearing what she wears, the more brave she becomes. I then warned the class to be careful about something like this because the person who you mock may someday harness that mockery into something which you cannot defeat. That person acts completely out of love, which is inevitably stronger than fear. A person who has no fear can do anything.
Well, that's all for now.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

This Is Why I'm Here

After church today, a girl Petra who works at the Bishop's office jokingly (I think) asked if I wanted to help her move into her new apartment in town. Remembering how much I despise moving in by myself and how helpful it is to have other people around, I said sure.

I have had some bad experiences moving people in, mostly just my sister whom I moved in on a Friday and she moved out the next week. But that's another story for another day. I have to say that if every moving in experience could be as good as this experience, I would do it every weekend.

I arrived at Petra's new apartment building, an eight-story (nine in America...they call the 2nd floor the first floor) communist style building around numerous other communist style buildings. For those who don't know, a communist style building is an extremely large slab of concrete. Petra lives on the top floor. When I arrived, her grandfather was just beginning to put boxes on a dolly. Thankfully, the apartment has a small elevator, so some objects could fit in the elevator, but others, like the pieces of her bed, had to be carried up to the top.

Petra understand English quite well, so it was no trouble moving her belongings at first. Then other movers arrived with more furniture. She had a total of three vans. Her sister was moving in, too, so it wasn't too much, and the apartment had absolutely nothing in it except a tub and a toilet.

So I had to take pieces of her bed up the stairs with Slovaks who understand very little English. They couldn't understand me and I couldn't understand them. But we all understand the goal -getting up the stairs. The bed made it to the top without getting too many scratches on it.

I got to spend some quality time in the elevator with a little Slovak boy, Philip. He is 10 years old. He seemed to think it was very cool that I was American (and that I had an awesome beard). He kept asking me questions in Slovak, but it was hard to answer, so I just said what I knew - my age, where I live, where I teach, where I am from. I tried to ask him a few questions in English but the only one he knew the answer to was "how old are you?" Riding the elevator was quite fun with him. I had no idea what to say to him and he had no idea what to say to me.

While moving Petra's belongings in, I felt as useless a little Philip. He was the elevator operator. All I could do was carry. I obeyed no orders. I was all braun and no brains. I wished I could take some of his knowledge of Slovak in exchange for some of my muscles (no worries, there's plenty to go around).

After a few hours, Petra's grandmother brought out some food. Rezen (pork in potato batter), pickles, bread, and sweet rolls were among the choices. Also available was mineral water. I would prefer regular water, but they are big on mineral water here.

After eating, Petra's grandfather opened up a bag and pulled out a flask. I knew what this was - Slivovica (plum brandy). When someone offers you Slivoviva, you drink Slivovica. That's basically how it goes. Drinking Slivovica is like swallowing a heater and the worst cough syrup you could ever think of. After you drink it, you could walk outside in -50 in gym shorts and a t-shirt. I drank one and then he offered me another. I wanted to say, "Come on now, none of that," but I didn't want to be rude and reject him. So I respectfully drank it and said to Petra, "No more Slivovica, please." And she said he had none left anyway. The Lord lives.

After the Slivovica, I stood around for a while and there wasn't much for me to do, so Petra said I could go home if I wanted. Feeling that there wasn't much for me to do, I decided to leave.

As I walked to the bus stop, I kept laughing at how crazy it was to help Petra move in when I understood nothing that was going on. This is the summary of my experience here. When I got to the bus stop, one of Petra's friends who was helping her move in was there. We didn't speak at all while we were moving her in because we didn't understand each other.

Nevertheless, I have to say, on the bus, I had the best conversation with someone who couldn't understand my language and vice-versa. We tried to explain to each other in both languages, whichever would work, our names, what we did in Bratislava, where we lived, our ages, and such seemingly trivial things. His name is Jan (John), he is my age and he goes to a seminary in Bratislava. Just before my bus stop, I said to him in Slovak, "I don't understand Slovak and you don't understand English." He said, "Yes, but I really enjoy the conversation" in English, I believe. He obviously knew more English than he gave on to, but that matters little.

As the bus pulled to my stop, I said, "Nice to meet you," in English, forgetting how to say it in Slovak, and got off the bus. As I was walking back to my apartment, I laughed for a moment thinking about how crazy our conversation was and how hard it was to understand anything, then I smiled and thought, "This is why I'm here."

I'm not just here to teach English to students at a high school. I'm here to build relationships with others, whether we understand each other's language or not. I'm here to help understand other people, whether I understand what they're saying or not.

Verbal language only conveys so much. Someone might tell me they are sad or happy but I never really understand until I see tears rolling down their face or a smile pass across their face. Jan and I's conversation wasn't just about what our ages were and what we did and where we lived, it was about understanding each other as human beings. We were conversing about something deeper than words. Whether we understood each other's language or not, I couldn't truly explain what I'm doing here. Only through seeing what's behind my words can a person see what anyone is doing.

I hope that Jan understood this after our conversation. I hope that as you read this, you understand what I mean. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

"Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still." - Four Quartets

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I am the Judge and Judgee

Today, the United States Ambassador to Slovakia, Mr. Obsitnik, came to the Lyceum to talk to some students about this election year. Many of my students were excited about this presentation and I gave many of them information about our election process beforehand to prep them. About a hundred students were stuffed into our cafeteria to listen to the ambassador speak.

Today was my first meeting with the ambassador. He is new as of a few months ago. I did not get a chance to meet the ambassador before him.

Near the beginning of his speech, he said, "As an ambassador, I am supposed to stay unbiased." Then he neglected to give actual information about the candidates. He said absolutely nothing about anything the candidates stood for, but took time to point out that people think Clinton and Obama might lack experience while parading Republican experience. Still unbiased, Mr. Ambassador?

Later, he began talking about how Barack Obama could be the first African-American president of the United States. He then said, "Do you think African-Americans are intelligent?" We all looked at each other, thinking, "Did he just ask that?" Then he said, "Everyone in here is white, right?" Well, actually no. The Americans were pointed out beforehand and our librarian happens to be black. We could not believe what we were hearing. Though his point was that anyone can be intelligent (I think), I'm not quite sure why he was asking something like that. A few sentences later, he said something to the effect that everyone is on a level-playing field in the United States. Sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but that's not true. We're not all really equal.

Later, a student asked a question about problems in the economic and in the housing market. The ambassador answered his question by saying there's absolutely nothing wrong with the economy and if there is a problem in the housing market, we will fix it. "We will fix it," he said. "We always have and we always will."

At the end of his speech, a student gave him a bonquet and a bag of Lyceum attire. He looks into the bag, pulls out the t-shirt and says, "Oh great, another t-shirt I can add to the 200 I already have." I learned to be grateful when I was about 13 even for gifts that I didn't want.

A number of students spoke with him afterward about U.S. policies and the war and potential problems in the future. As the next class was about to begin, I make sure to thank him for coming (Me being grateful for gifts that I didn't necessarily want).

After a few of my classes, students who were at the presentation came up to me and asked me what I thought of the ambassador. I put the question on them. "Well, I don't really like him," said one student. "He was quite rude," said another. "I thought you did a better job explaining the candidates and the election, professor," said another.

I was quite proud of my students and our students in general. My students are interested students. If I don't tell them about something, they want to know about it. They wanted to know the difference between a caucus and a primary and everything about the candidates. My students are informed. They can speak at length about the reasons for the United States to leave Iraq and the reasons for the United States to stay in Iraq. They know about something that doesn't even directly concern them. How often can we say that about things happening in other countries?

Throughout the day, I did a good deal of thinking about how often something like this happens. How often does someone misrepresent the United States? How many people are influenced by misrepresentations? Many people will base their judgment on the entire country but just one encounter with one individual. The ambassador might have just had a bad day. We cannot know.

So, at the end of the day, I realized that we are all ambassadors. At each moment, we represent not only ourselves, but also our country, our beliefs, our families, and humanity.

Unfortunately, we make judgments. We try not to, but we do. We judge a person at first glance. As judgees, we must attempt to present ourselves always at our best. As judges, we must attempt to let people be dynamic, changing people.

If and when I see the ambassador again, I will try to give him a clean slate.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Weekend in a Willage

Greetings all! I have been aching to update my blog with what has been new in the last few weeks, but I was waiting for photos to do so (I am not good at taking photos myself, so I have to rely on others, imagine that).
Two weekends ago, I went with three other friends - Amy, Kendra, Sonja - to Tisovec (pronounced "tee-so-vits") for the weekend to visit other Americans - Eric and Carsten. Eric was my roommate during training in August. Tisovec is a small village in the middle of Slovakia. Slovaks have trouble saying "v's" at the beginning of sentences, so they say "w's." It sounds like something Bugs Bunny would say. "We went to a wittle willage."

To get to Tisovec, we had to go on a three and a half hour bus ride and then another hour and a half bus trip. Getting there wasn't a bad as getting off. Going back was a straight five hour bus trip, no bathrooms.

We arrived sometime around 10 p.m. in Tisovec and had to wait for Eric and Carsten to pick us up. We had no idea where we were or where we were going. We thought that maybe if we walked a feet or two we'd get lost because Tisovec is so small.

The school in Tisovec is quite new, just over ten years old. It is much nice than our school in Bratislava. We became nearly jealous of their school. It had new desks, new chairs, and a beautiful view from the window. Nevertheless, our school has one thing that they lack in Tisovec - bathroom walls.

We visited their school Saturday then went on a glorious hike above the city. Tisovec is surrounded by hills, so the hike and the view was simplying amazing.

We hiked around for about 4 or 5 hours. It was a nice easy hike for the first 2 and a half hours. Then the hike went somewhere I didn't want to go.

Carsten, a very outdoorsy guy, led us around atop of these huge rocks above the hills. I began to wonder when I signed up for rock climbing. I just kept thinking that I had to stay very close to the ground and take no risks.

The picture on the right shows my demeanor quite well. Everyone looks fairly happy. Carsten, the first person, couldn't be happier. Me, I take after my mother, I couldn't wait for the end.

Later on the hike we were walking down a slope which was raised on both sides of it like a half-pipe. The slope was quite slippery. It was covered in wet leaves. Everyone else had nice hiking boots while I had my trusty tennies. For those of you who don't know, my body has no brakes. My knees have trouble with pressure. It is very difficult for me to stop my momenteum. So, while walking down the hill, I slipped a little and my legs started moving a little faster and I couldn't slow down. I was at the back of the pack as the happened, so I passed others as I began unintentionally running. It felt like skiing. All I could do was yell, "Move out of the way. I got no brakes." Realizing that a fall would cause quite a number of bruises if not breaks, I started banking left and right. I was running downhill from the left to the right until I could jump onto a tree.

The picture on the right captures the scene very well. Kendra had time to take a photo of me hugging my new best friend in the upper left hand corner of the tree. Kendra and Amy thought it was quite funny. I'm sure it was hilarious.
Anyway, that about captures the weekend. We left Sunday morning to return to Bratislava refreshed by the fresh air and good times with friends.