Thursday, April 22, 2010

Easter Break - Slovenia

Over Easter break, I had the opportunity to travel to Slovenia. This was the last country that I really wanted to visit before returning home. I had wanted to visit here because I had seen photos of friends who had visited and the country looked like a place I would like to see.

Our first sight was Ljubljana, the capital city. The city is remarkably small for being the capital. The city has just over 200,000 people. The first evening we were there, we just walked around the city, which did not take long as it has a small old town. Then we enjoyed a dinner at a local restaurant. My roommate Carsten, whom I was traveling with, said I had to try the horse steak. The meat was extremely lean. I enjoyed having that horse, but I don't know if I would have it again.

The next day, we took a tour of the city, which turned out to be a very private tour of the city because it was only us and the guide. I especially enjoyed our guide because he would break off into tangents while telling a story to tell another story or to make a mental note out loud. The tour guide took us through the city and up to the castle.

In the afternoon, we left for Bled, a pseudo-resort town build around a lake. I appreciated our time in Bled because we were able to relax. The town has two attractions: a boat ride to a church on an island and a castle overlooking the town. The highlight of Bled was walking back from dinner and singing songs together. While we were singing, a lady approached us, and we thought she would tell us to stop singing. But then she joined us and began singing an easy Slovenian song that we could sing with her. She belted the song quite loudly.

I am satisfied to have seen Slovenia. In Slovenia, many of the tourist shops have shirts that say, "sLOVEnia", and I can say that I felt the love in this country. I would be pleased to travel there again.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spring Break - Sofia, Bulgaria

From Sunday, February 28 to Thursday, March 4, a friend and I spent much of my spring break in Sofia, Bulgaria.

We arrived by plane in the evening to the Sofia airport. We had directions to the place we were staying, but we were not sure what the bus stop was. All we knew was it was the last stop. So we got on a bus from the airport. About twenty minutes later we started seeing familiar buildings and realized that the bus had come to the last stop without stopping for longer and then began the route back to the airport. So, we began the whole process over except we got off the bus this time.

In the morning, we went to see the city. The city does not have many huge attractions, only a few churches. One of the big attractions is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Around it are many souvenirs and random junk. People were selling anything that might sell. Anything included cameras from 1980 to old money to old medals. Why would I want a camera from 1980?

In the afternoon, we saw Boyana Church, which is just outside of the city. This church is was built in the 11-12th century. Inside it are dozens of frescoes. The tour guide tried to impress on us how significant these frescoes were because of when they were painted. He was an interesting tour guide. We were the only people in the church, which is the size of a bedroom, and he would pull us around from fresco to fresco. Considering that we were in such a small place and the only ones there, I did not see any reason for him to pull us around, but it was humorous anyway.

Monday was Health and Happiness Day in Bulgaria and everyone was supposed to give red and white bracelets to their friends and family to wish them health and happiness. One is supposed to wear it until that person sees a stork or leaves on a tree. If the person sees leaves on a tree, that person should tie the bracelet to the tree. We bought a few red and white bracelets and gave them to our hosts and our hosts gave them to us. Around Sofia, there were hundreds of little stands selling these bracelets. They came in all shapes and sizes with all different sorts of things on them, such as ninja turtles or wrestlers or HelloKitty.

The next day we traveled out of the city to Rila Monastery. This place was fascinating because on the inside and outside of the church, the building was painted with pictures. I was amazed that the colors did not fade because of the sun, rain, and snow. It took five hours to go to Rila and back and we only spent two hours there, but it was worth it. Another highlight was the bus driver who took us. He must have known half of the people on the road. Every time he saw someone he knew, he would stop the car and yell, "Hey!" Then the other person would yell, "Hey!" Then they would go on their way.

Sofia is surrounded by hills and mountains, so on Wednesday, we went up to one of the mountains. We took a gondola up to another lift where skiers went higher. We just walked around the area and then had lunch. There were many people walking around. There was a lot of snow, so it was much different from being in the city where it was 50 degrees.

That afternoon, we went into the center of the city and found an outside concert. Wednesday was Liberty Day in Bulgaria, so there were many people with Bulgaria flags and such. After that, we saw that there was going to be a speech by someone during the National Assembly. So we waited around with a few thousand people, watched the military walk in, and then the president (we assume). After the president came in, we left. We didn't understand Bulgarian anyway.

In Sofia, one thing I noticed was that there are not many tourists. During our time there, I only recall seeing one person that could be considered a tourist. Also, the city was quite dirty. People did not seem to care about how much trash there was just lying around. Also, the alphabet in Bulgaria is Cyrillic, so reading signs and such is difficult and seeing brand names in Cyrillic can be funny. Finally, the city had these little tower for people to control traffic, but whenever I saw one, I kept thinking that a lifeguard was up there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fish Friday!

This last Friday, I was invited to attend a dinner hosted by two of our African friends (one from Ghana, the other from Cameroon) and one of the Americans here who used to live in Africa. I was told the food was typical for people in Ghana. We were served Tilapia, banku (cornmeal in largely-shaped balls), and yams. Both the meal and conversation were out of the ordinary.

The fish came straight out of the oven with head attached. Each plate had a fish. Before we sat down, we were told to put some banku and yams on our plates as well as sauce. When I sat down, I noticed that we had no silverware. "No matter," I thought. "They will bring the silverware." On the contrary, when someone asked, we were told we should eat with our hands. Isaac, the man from Ghana, explained that we should first grab banku and make it into the shape of a bowl resting on the index and middle fingers. Then we should dip this into the sauce and then grab pieces of fish. I was glad that I only ate with one hand and kept a clean mess, which seemed to be how the Africans were eating. My hands weren't any more dirty than if I were eating hot wings or even pizza.

After dinner, I had the chance to speak with one of them, Samuel, who was from Cameroon. In the larger group of about ten, he was reluctant to speak. Though English is an official language in Cameroon, his native language was French. He could speak English conversationally but, naturally, was hesitant in doing so with a group of natives.

I learned about his coming to Slovakia. He studies auto engineering at a local university. However, before taking these classes, he had to take two years of Slovak because this was the language that his classes were taught in. He said he spoke Slovak well, but many of the technical words he could not understand. I asked him how often he returns home. He said he has not returned home since he left four years ago. He explained that returning home is a big deal and he needs to have his bachelor's degree to return home. His parents would welcome him, but since they would have a celebration, he wants to bring something he is proud of.

During our conversation, he lamented over the fact that he studies were more difficult than they could be because of the language barrier. Many of the students have a head start: they know the language. Samuel not only must know the material, but also must know the language that the material is in. After briefly explaining some of these difficulties, Samuel wanted to affirm his positive attitude toward his studies and life. He said, "It's like in life: If you don't think that you can do it in here (pointing to his head), then you can't do it no matter how easy it is."

This positive attitude is a survival tactic at times in a foreign society. One has to be convinced that one can survive or that person must return home. This positive attitude doesn't come from nowhere, out of thin air.

There are numerous people like Samuel who exist in every society, people who have come from another country or society looking for an opportunity. These opportunities pose roadblocks: knowing the language, knowing the ins and outs, knowing the people. Living in another society myself, I can only begin to understand his hardships. I have a school that has welcomed me with a job and a place to live, friends who have integrated me into life here, and supporters who encourage me.

Understanding that we are dependent upon each other and others depend upon us, I can only encourage, hope for, and support these Samuels so that they remain positive and hardworking. Furthermore, I must thank those whom I am dependent upon: family, friends, and strangers.

To finish this post, I want to leave with a quote from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whom I am dependent upon as well.

"And don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. (Yes, sir) Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. (Preach, preach) And you may think you got all you got by yourself. (Not all of it) But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world. (That’s right) You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. (That’s right) Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. (Yes) Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. (Yes) Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. (That’s right) Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. (That’s right) That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others" (from "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" by Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ski Week

The first year students in our school have a week where they learn how to ski. That week is next week. Some of the students, however, opt not to go. Eighteen are staying this year. Because I teach first years, I do not have to teach 8 of my 20 classes a week. Twice next week I have to teach the students who remain.

Here's a few questions I was asked this week:

"Am you going on ski week?" - No, thank you. Whenever I ski, I feel like I'm going to fall off the mountain.

"What are you going to do with not having your first year classes?" - Pretend that I get to have another week without half of my classes.

"Professor, can we watch a movie while they are on ski week?" - No, what movie? "Simpsons" - No

(I'm not really that mean. I only say, "maybe", but "no" sounds funnier.

"Professor, will we miss you?" - Uh, I sure hope so, but I don't know if that's what you mean.

"Professor, will...we miss you?" - Hmm, I think you need to think about that question for a minute.

"Professor," - Yes, of course.

(See, I'm not that mean)

But, as the mug that a friend of my first roommate in college gave me says, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"


In Slovakia, New Years Eve is known as "Silvester." Except for a few special holidays, each day corresponds to a name. For instance, "Daniel" corresponds with July 21. December 31st is the "names day" for Silvester.

Some of my friends asked me if I would join them in going to a cottage near a town about an hour away from Bratislava. I was a bit reluctant to say that I would because the cottage that they stayed in last year did not have running water. They used an outhouse for a toilet. Not my kind of fun.

Upon arriving to the cottage on the 30th, I was reassured: no running water or toilet in the cottage. Fortunately, we had a toilet and sink available to us just outside our cottage.

One of the highlights of staying at the cottage was building snowmen.

Not having built a snowman in years, I had forgotten about the weight of snow. I had wanted to build a gigantic snowman, a man-like snowman. We stopped rolling the lower third when we could not longer push it. However, I forgotten that the middle shouldn't be too heavy because we would have to lift it. It took three guys to lift it. We were quite proud of our snowman after giving it a few facials.

To ring in the new year, we went into the small town - Piestany (Pi-esh-ta-knee) - for a small concert and fireworks. After having spent Silvester in Bratislava two years ago and in Piestany this year, I am convinced that Slovakia has no regulations on fireworks. Being in the town was like being in a small war zone. I always had to look where I was stepping and watching what others were doing around me. In Bratislava, kids would throw firecrackers into groups of people. Then everyone would have to scatter to avoid losing a leg.

Another interesting part of the evening was the "dropping of the ball". Well, okay, there was no ball, and we had no idea when was the "official" new year. There was no clock nearby. So each group of people standing waiting for the "official" firework to begin had their own time. One group of people would count down and yell, "Happy New Year", and the group next to them would just shake their hands thinking, "Don't they know it's ten more seconds." This made for quite an interesting way to "drop the ball."

The next morning we returned to Bratislava.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Weekend in A Village

This past weekend (December 4-6), I spent time at my friend Miro's house in a little village in South Central Slovakia, Pribelce. About 500 people live in Pribelce. Just walking down the streets, one could tell that everyone knew everyone else. When there was someone people didn't know, they knew that it must be a visitor.

The highlight of the weekend for me was the Pribelce sandpit and the end of the pig killing.

The Pribelce sandpit is monstrous. Unfortunately, my camera wasn't working, so I couldn't take a picture of it. Miro explained that about a million years ago, an ocean lay over the city. This is evident in the shark teeth that one is able to find in the sandpit. I looked for shark teeth but could find none.

We were invited to a pig killing, but we showed up halfway through the process. The pig was already killed and the workers were busy stuffing meat into pig intestines to make sausages. The workers used a small device, almost like a gun, to shoot the meat into the intestines. It was a fun process to watch. They explained the whole process from the killing to the storing of the pork and sausages. It has inspired me to want to see the whole process.

In my classes, we are reading "The Importance of Being Earnest" and one character says that when one is in the city, he entertains himself and when one is in a village, one entertains others. Surely that was the case this weekend, as we had to provide the entertainment for ourselves. There's no malls to walk in. There's no events to attend.

Needless to say, I'm glad to live in the city.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the Recording Studio

On October 8, 2009, a student came running into class asking if I could do her a favor. She asked if I would do a recording for Slovak Television on that day. She said she did not know what I would be recording, but it would be a voiceover.

Considering it an opportunity that I might never have again, I accepted.

So I met the student at a recording studio. A script was prepared for me and another American to read. The script discussed the history of Bratislava and why a European congress should take place in Bratislava in 2013 for Oncological and Gynocological research.

Though I am unsure who prepared the script, it was rather absurd at times. They wanted me to say things like, "Bratislava is a Mediterrean-type city." I told them that this was just ridiculous and untruth, so I could not say it. They did not object.

The recording process was fascinating. The microphones were so sensitive that even shifting my weight might cause noise. It was also interesting how they would re-record parts that I made a mistake on. The producer would play back from where I did not make a mistake and then I would begin the script again.

I had only read the script three times before recording, so it was difficult to read the text without making mistakes.

Breathing was perhaps the hardest part of the whole process. I had to turn my head to the side to breathe because I felt that my breathing was too loud.

Because I might never be in such a recording studio again, I had the student take a picture of me attempting to sing so that people might think that I was recording a CD.

If you ever watch a video about a European congress taking place in Bratislava, you might hear a familiar voice. Just think: my voice will be heard by hundreds of influential people throughout Europe. I didn't know I was that loud.