Monday, March 31, 2008

Easter in Slovakia

I first heard about the Easter traditions in Slovakia around a campfire outside Slovak Paradise in early September, a full six months before the said holiday. A group of Americans and Slovaks were arguing whether the holiday tradition needed to be put to rest.

From pagan times, Easter Monday is the day when Slovak men "sprinkle" water on the women and whip them with whips (what else do you whip with?) The korbac (whip in Slovak) is made from braided branches of willow rods. According the legend, the whipping and water keeps the women beautiful and fertile for another year. After being whipped and watered, the woman gives the man chocolate and alcohol. Though Christianity came to Slovakia in the first millenia, this tradition remained.

The whipping and sprinkling is supposed to be gentle and merely symbolic; however, stories always arise of people being thrown in lakes and bathtubs. The first day back from Easter vacation, a Wednesday, I saw a girl drenched walking around the school with three of my students who were quite proud of hosing the girl down.

Before break, one of my students kindly (I think) made me a korbac. It was probably the nicest thing a student had ever done for me. He asked if I was going to use it. I assured him that I would hit each woman I could see as hard as I could. After break, he asked how my holiday was. I told him that I fulfilled my duty of hitting each woman as hard as I could. I guess I didn't tell him though that I only hit one girl with it and the hardest I can hit is a tap. He didn't need his heart broken.

So I did not participate in the tradition. The pieces just didn't add up to me. How is it that I get to hit someone, throw them in water, then I get candy, money, and alcohol? Shouldn't I have to pay for hitting people and throwing them in water?

Of the students I asked, the guys all said the tradition was worth keeping and nearly every girl said the tradition was bad.

I understand that traditions are important for a culture; they promote unity and uniqueness. However, the unexamined tradition is not worth celebrating. A tradition only remains a tradition as long as people celebrate it. A tradition comes into being whenever people celebrate it. My brother and I tend to spend holidays watching bad horror films (Usually zombie flicks. You can't beat a good zombie movie. They represent society and culture so well). Who knows? Someday every American will be watching "Night of the Living Dead" on Thanksgiving.

As far as this tradition is concerned, I have no problem with it as long as it becomes non-gender specific. Men need to be beautiful just as much as women.

I say again, as Socrates says before the jury before he is sentenced to death, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Who are the Responsible People?

During one of my classes yesterday, some students started speaking Slovak. As usual, I reminded them that English is the only language spoken in the classroom. A few moments later, I heard Slovak again. I reminded them again. A few seconds later, some Slovak passed through my ears.

"All right," I began. "Put your grammar books away and take out an A4 sheet of paper." (In Europe they have different paper. A4 is like the size of a letter paper but a little bigger. "You will write a 5-paragraph essay on speaking English in English class. Your thesis will be: speaking English is the best choice in English class."

The class was very irritated, especially those not speaking Slovak. One of my students, who never speaks Slovak in class, asked why he had to write it when he didn't speak Slovak. I told him that it was required of everyone. If one person is at fault, then all are.

After class, I read through the essays. Most of the students took the assignment seriously and wrote about how though it is difficult to speak a foreign language, the only way to learn is to try. Some brought up good reasons for not speaking English in class, which, though they were good reasons, were not a part of the assignment.

One of the essays completely disregarded the assignment and became a rant for how this student does not like literature and that one does not need to read literature to learn a language. Usually, we hate what we do not understand. This student rarely pays attention in class and does not take reading seriously.

In the essay, the student wrote how we should not read in class but talk about "important" topics, such as our interests, our family life, and our holidays. The student said that these are the conversations that people need to know how to have when learning a language. Though I do agree that it is important to know how to talk about these topics, I have never had a conversation above superficiality in which how I spent my Easter and the Jungle Bus were all I desired to discuss.

(I will break here for a moment to say that I feel I could have an intellectual conversation about the Jungle Bus. The Jungle Bus is the Bus 80, which takes me to school, that looks like a jungle on the inside and outside. The sides and ceiling is covered in trees and leaves with the sunlight shining through. I have thrice ridden on the Jungle Bus. When I rode on it this morning, I forgot I was going to school and thought I was on an adventure to find the Jungle Book and learn about the Bear Necessities)

In literature, we have an opportunity to learn other worldviews and discuss questions of ultimacy. We can discuss the meaning of life and how to live like the carpe diem poets wanted to live. If we can discuss such issues, how much easier will it be to discuss the beauty of riding to school in the rainforest?

In college, several professors told me that those students who receive a degree in a traditional "and what are you going to do with that?" degree (literature, religion, psychology, philosophy) succeed more in the business level than those who receive business degrees in college.

Furthermore, this student does not see the purposefulness of literature and refuses to understand that nearly every American knows who Holden Caulfield is and has read "The Raven." Who wants to just learn the grammar of a language? I have never said to myself in a conversation with a non-native speaker, "Wow, what incredible grammar you have? Forget what you think about American and British literature, let me hear some more of that breathtaking perfect grammar in a few sentences about how you spent your weekend?"

In my short life, I can at least guess that most people desire to go beneath the surface conversations and partake in intellectual conversations. Perhaps I am wrong.

At the end of the essay the student wrote, "I hope that the responsible people will look out for our best interest." This student would make a great satirist. Unfortunately, this student has confused responsibility and irresponsibility, cannot see the usefulness in the seemingly useless, and has a vendetta against any piece of literature or anything that requires the brain.

I hope the responsible people remain responsible.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Good News for People Who Like Good News

So, I imagine you're sitting there reading this blog thinking how much you love read my blogs about living and teaching in Slovakia. Well, guess what? You get the opportunity to read my blog for one more year.

That's right, folks. I have agreed to stay on for another year here in fabulous Bratislava, Slovakia.

"Why are you staying, Dan?" You may ask.

Two reasons: vocation and vacation.

After several months of teaching, I feel that this job is something that I am actually good at. I feel like I connect with my students. At least once a day, I leave class thinking, "Wow, these students actually understood what I was saying." Granted, some classes, I leave thinking, "Wow, did they understand anything I said?" Nevertheless, I look forward each day to the opportunity to turn misunderstanding into understanding.

Staying here, I get the opportunity to live in a city where I can learn about the culture and people here. I have the chance to hear other people's stories. I have learned and grown so much during that the last six months. It makes me wonder where will I be and what will I know in another 12 months.

Now you may be asking yourself: "Dan, it sounds like you want to stay there the rest of your life?"

Certainly I would love to stay here forever, but returning to the States is something I plan to do. I am not only here to teach, but also here to learn. I need to take what I have learned home and share that with others.

Doing a job I love, being with people I enjoy, having the opportunity to meet new people, living in a foreign culture, sounds to me like a vacation. That and I get to have another year of drinking Kofola. (Kofola is soft drink in Slovakia and Czech Republic)

A Roman Holiday

Over Spring Break, February 22 - March 1, I went to Italy with my brother, David. I flew into Rome Friday and met my friend Jennifer from Capital who is studying in Italy this semester. She showed me how to work the Metro and accompanied me to my first of many Italian dinners.

Friday evening I spent the night in a hostel with two other guys. One was a Russian Orthodox priest. At about 10:30 p.m., he asked if it was fine with me if he did some praying exercise. It was rather strange; he turned off the lights and placed his icons on the windowsill and did some arm exercises. He woke up at 5 a.m. and turned on the light for about 20 minutes. Who does that? Nevertheless, he was nice.
Saturday morning, I picked David up at the Rome airport. We went to the hostel to put his bags down and had a strange conversation with the hostel lady about breakfast. She kept saying, "Luigi didn't pay" and I kept saying, "That's fine because I don't even know Luigi." Then I finally realized that she was talking about David.

Afterwards, we went straight to the Colosseum, which you see as soon as you get off the Metro. The Colosseum never ceases to amaze me. Then we ran into these two guys dressed as Roman guards who started trying to fight us with swords and then wanted to take our picture. So we said sure, not knowing they would expect money out of it. When they said we owed them ten Euros, we said forget about it; we didn't agree upon that. One of the guys said, "Come 'on, five Euros for a beer." I responded, "But I don't want a beer."

After the experience with the false guards, we found an English tour of the Colosseum. Having a tour was definitely worth it. We learned some of the history and interesting stories from the guide.

After having pizza, we found a tour of Palentine Hill, where the Caesers lived. Not as interesting as the Colosseum, maybe because the tour guide didn't know English as well.

Following Palentine Hill, we took a quick nap and then went on to more sightseeing. That night we saw the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon was disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were too high. However, Trevi Fountain is the place to be. If there weren't three hundred tourists there, I would like to stay there for a few hours just looking at the architecture.

The next day we left Italy to travel to Vatican City. The last Sunday of the month is free, and so we sacrificed about an hour to save 20 Euros. I cannot say enough about the paintings inside the Vatican. Everywhere you look is another interesting piece of art. The frescoes were fabulous. The paintings in Sistine Chapel are unspeakable. After the Vatican Museum, we went to St. Peter's Square and Basilica. The Square was huge, but I can't imagine being there when there are 400,000 people packed shoulder to shoulder in that area.

As we were waiting in line for something that we didn't want to wait in line for, I can no longer remember what we were in line for or why we got in line there in the first place, I overheard a conversation between a couple behind me. A: "Does it cost to get in?" B: "Well, it's a church, isn't it?" A: "Yes." B: "So, yes." I suppose it didn't bother me that it cost money to enter certain buildings, but it bothered me that the perspective of people is that churches just want money.

That day while we were waiting in line to enter Vatican City, I watched a nun continually cut people in line. She would maneuver her way into a spot in the line, then, a minute or so later, she would walk another 20 feet to find another spot. I watched her do this until she was out of sight.

I wonder what the people who she immediately cut were thinking. I cannot help thinking that the general though was, "It's okay, she's a nun." A part of me wishes I knew more than 10 Italian words so I could have asked her why she thought it was acceptable to cut people in line.

A few hours later, waiting in line to enter St. Peter's Basilica, we stood in a large mass of people. A few people would stand as close as possible to the person in front of them and lightly push their arms into their back. When this happened to me, I leaned back and enjoyed having someone to rest on. I felt like everyone was just trying to get inside as fast as they could to see the church and then leave. People did not care who they cut or forced to stay in line longer. They just wanted to get in and out. Well, then again, I was a tourist, too.

Speaking of the mass outside the Basilica, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: metal detectors. Metal detectors exist to keep weapons out of buildings. Though I do not doubt a need for metal detectors, these metal detectors kept none safe. We want to say that the fear is people killing others by blowing up the building, but when you have a large mass of people needing to pass through a metal detector, something has to be re-addressed. A large mass of three hundred people seems to be a fairly large target. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I found this problematic.

Away from my personal thoughts and back to the trip, Monday we went to a coastal town Ostia Antica where we expected to see some ruins. Nevertheless, it was closed on Mondays. I wish we would have known that before going. We spent the afternoon walking around the town, then we went to another coastal town in attempt to see the Mediterranean and succeeded.

Tuesday we saw the Roman Forum, the place where Julius Caesar was killed, and spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to get to Florence.

We spent two hours learning that Florence in Italian is "Firenze." We looked all around for a train to get to Florence and were perplexed when we found none. After a few hours of searching, we saw some Americans, and they were having trouble getting to Florence as well. They told us the secret knowledge that Florence is Firenze. You would think that a travel book on Italy would say the name of the city in Italian if it was necessary. Apparently not.

Wednesday, we traveled to Siena for the night. We had to take two trains to arrive in Siena. At the changing station, we saw the train leaving to Siena and started running for it. We made it just in time. We thought luck was turning our way. We thought wrong.

When we arrived in Siena, we were told that the city center, where our hostel was, was only a 20 minute walk. No problem, we thought. Walking to the city center took an hour. Then we had to find our hostel. We had no directions to the hostel, only an address. After an hour of searching, we found it. Hooray, we thought, our search is over. Not today.

Turns out I'm grounded from booking hostels because I booked the hostel for the wrong night. Thankfully, we sat down and had some food and found another place to go.

Siena was nice but small. There wasn't too much to see. The main church was interesting, but the baptistery was far more interesting. The ceiling particularly caught my attention. On the ceiling was the story of the Apostolic Creed. As I learned later from my brother, I'm a nerd. Well, you'll have that.

Thursday we traveled to Florence by train. Making it to Florence was much easier. Our travel luck was good. We arrived and then were met by a guy who sold us these tour bus passes at half price because he bought them and realized that he was in Florence and not Pisa. Poor guy. The bus tour was good because we got to see parts of the city that we would not have seen otherwise.

In Florence we had two maps. Now you would think that if we had two maps we would never got lost. I thought so, but I tell you we spent more time lost and looking where to go then we actually spent at the place. I was lost for a period of two hours at one point. How does that happen with a map? Poorly marked street signs is a good answer to that question.

The main site in Florence is Michelangelo's David. Wow, was David huge. I cannot imagine sculpting something so large. One could sit and look at David for hours upon end.

One of the greatest moments in Florence was when we were in one of the museums and I turned a corner and saw Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Beheading Holofernes." In college, I did a presentation on this painting for a religion class. In this painting, Judith, a Jewish widow, cuts off the head of Holofernes, an Assyrian general of Nebuchadnezzar. A few years before painting this picture, Gentileschi was raped by one of her father's friends. This event was said to have significantly inspired her painting of "Judith Beheading Holofernes."

Florence was also the home for Dante, whom I studied in college. I took an independent study on Dante and Virgil. David and I went to the place where Dante lived and saw many Dante statues. David also said I was a nerd for liking Dante so much. Perhaps he thought differently when I presented him with some of the ideas in the Divine Comedy, such as Dante's concern for Virgil's soul and how he must conclude that Virgil will eventually be accepted into Paradise, as Trajan, a Roman emperor, who was not a Christian, was saved by God's unexplainable grace.

In Florence, we also got to see Galileo's middle finger. It was cut off and sitting in the Galileo museum. Why would anyone put his middle finger in a jar in a museum? David also wondered, rightly so, why monuments were made from Galileo in old Catholic churches when he was excommunicated. Any thoughts on that one?

Another high point of Florence was the serial killer museum we ran into Friday afternoon. This museum went through the history of serial killing and the phenomena that is serial killing. Interesting stuff.

Friday evening we met Jennifer, my Capital friend studying in Florence, for dinner and a walk around the town. She took us to a nice Italian restaurant and hooked us up with a major discount. It was a good meal to end a good week.

Saturday morning I left Florence for Rome, where I flew out. David flew out of Florence and into Germany where he met some weather trouble and had to stay the night.

Well, that was my Roman Holiday. If you read the whole post, you get a gold star.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Evangelical Lyceum Baseball

Greetings again blog-readers. I apologize for not writing for nearly a month. I was on spring break, which I will be writing about in time, but today I will be writing about our baseball game last Friday.

One of my students plays for a baseball team in Bratislava (I'm not sure how many there are in Bratislava, maybe only one) and he wanted his team to play against students at the Lyceum. He played for our team, as well as three of the professors.

We played 9 innings (I couldn't believe the other team wanted to play so much. I tried to convince them that high schoolers in the US only play 7 innings in high school. The final score was 13-13. It was too dark to play more than 9 innings.

Yours truly pitched for the Lyceum. I pitched eight innings, allowing a few hits and a few earned runs. Our team had many errors though. Everytime someone stole, the catcher thought it was acceptable to throw the ball. I felt like I was playing JV baseball (No offense to anyone I played JV baseball with).

Most of the students began the game not really knowing how to play baseball, but we learned many things during the game. We learned that you have to keep your foot on the base at all times. We learned when to swing the bat and when not to swing the bat. It was a good learning experience for the students. Nevertheless, this game might not have been a good example of a good baseball game, as there were few hits and most people just stood around.

Here you can watch my stand-up triple. I should have went for the inside-the-park. Thanks Larry for getting that on tape since my parents weren't there.