Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One Year Later

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Almost exactly a year has passed since I last wrote here, and much has happened in that time. Luckily, I had written down much of my last month in Slovakia already, so quite a bit of this post was written up to a year ago.

My last month in Slovakia sped by in a whirlwind of weekend adventures with Rotarians from the Banska Bystrica club as well as a final Rotary-sponsored week in the Czech Republic with the other exchange students. I spent a day hiking with Mari and her host family in the High Tatras and then spent the night at the Observatory on the highest mountain point of Slovakia, where several scientists live during the week to study the sun. We rose at 4am the following morning to watch the sun rise over Slovakia from the top of the mountain. The country stretched out for miles (kilometers!) in every direction, and my Rotary counselor told me that you could almost make out Hungary to the south and Poland to the north. The High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) are beautiful, but also rather surprising. They seem to rise virtually out of nowhere, and end just as abruptly. There are a few ski areas in the High Tatras (not to be confused with the Low Tatras/Nízke Tatry, the lower but longer mountain range where I skied all winter). Slovakia doesn't get much credit for its natural beauty, which I find unfair. It's a lovely place.

No party is complete without folk music and singing!

Towards the end of June, I spent a final week with my fellow exchange students with whom I had bonded throughout the year. We spent a week biking, rafting, swimming, and hiking around Valtice in the southeast Czech Republic. The first days of the week were really atrocious, especially the bike ride, during which we all got eaten alive by mosquitos for hours on end. Central Europe experienced heavy flooding that spring, so there were more mosquitos than usual. I could look down at my arm and see at least 20 insects swarming it at once. I wish I were exaggerating, but it seemed like something out of a horror movie at times. The raft trip was fantastic, though, and a particular bonding moment for me, Emma, Katie, and Justine. The following day, we all said goodbyes as people left to return to their host cities for the last few weeks of our exchange year. 

On the last day of school, my classmates gave me a scrapbook they had made of pictures and notes from the year. I get pretty sentimental in general, but their gift took me by surprise and was so overwhelming that I started crying in the middle of class. It was rather embarrassing, but they hopefully understood how much their gift meant to me. The last weeks I was there passed with packing and a long series of goodbyes. Dominik and Zorka drove me to the Budapest airport and we said goodbye as I began my long journey home to the US. 

So much happened in a year, and I made so many friends who mean so much to me. I still try to stay in contact with friends and family in Slovakia, as well as the friends I made among the other exchange students. I reunited with Justine, Katie, and Emma in August before Justine and I headed off to college and Emma and Katie started their senior years of high school. I miss everyone, and the wonderful Slovak language and culture. I miss the Christmas market and the Banska town center. I miss my friends at school and at the Konzervatorium, and the absurd miscommunications about which we laughed so hard. I still talk about Slovakia all the time, and I'm sure my friends are more than sick of hearing about it. 
It feels odd thinking back to all of the Rotary weekends I spent with my fellow exchange students, and how close we grew over such a short few weekends. The goodbyes were especially strange because deep down, I think most of us knew that we will never see each other again. We promised to stay in touch, but as life often goes, few of us have. I like to think that if I am ever in Brazil or Japan or Taiwan or even Florida at any point in my life, I could see these old friends and reminisce about our experiences together as exchange students.

One year later and I'm back in California. I finished my first year at Oberlin College in May, then flew home to see my sister graduate from college. The transition to living in Ohio hasn't been too hard, especially when I had already lived through a Slovak winter. We talk about the Freshman 15 for new college students, but, thanks to the Rotary 10 Kilos I gained during my exchange year, I actually lost a substantial amount of weight during my first year of college. I did a lot of fun things during my first year, including piercing my nose, working on an organic farm (WWOOF for those of you familiar with the organization), and walking barefoot through the spring rain storms. At Oberlin, I sing in an early music choir and intend to declare a Russian and Eastern European Studies major with perhaps a minor or double-major in Economics. If you're not familiar with the higher education system in the US, here's a good link: Hopefully it can help explain how I have been in college for a year already and yet haven't decided what I'm studying.  I'm heading to the Middlebury School of Russian this summer for a two-month summer language intensive, and in the meantime I have been spending time with friends in California and taking day trips to hike, go to the beach, and go to baseball games in San Francisco. I have fewer long-term concrete career goals, but I do plan to study abroad in Russia for at least a semester and live abroad for a period of time after college, perhaps even in Slovakia again.  I hope that in the near future I will be able to return to visit my friends and family in Slovakia and bring my family with me to meet them. I miss my families there very much, and try to keep in touch with them occasionally as well as with my friends.  I miss Slovakia every day and my Slovak language skills have faded much more than I want to admit, but I know I'll find a way to return, and I know that I'll never forget the wonderful year I spent there.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


28 May 2013
I actually sat down during class on Monday and wrote out all of my adventures from the past month. As usual, I keep small notes in my phone when I am too busy to write a full blog post, and then compile them all together when I get the chance, so hopefully I won’t forget too much of what happened during the past month.

The month of May has been as busy and as varied as the weather here. I jumped from one activity or event to another, experiencing the ever-present truth that the last months of exchange fly by. The weather here has been rather busy as well, with sunny days interspersed with stormy ones, and huge temperature differences between days. Today, for example, the 28th of May, the weather reminded me of November or December in Davis – cold and rainy. It’s hard to believe that at home in California right now, temperatures are in the high 90s.
My spring adventures began even before EuroTour, during the month of April. I went with my host family to watch my youngest host sister’s folkdance competition in a neighboring village. Slovak folk culture is one of my favorite new experiences here. Many students all across Slovakia participate in dance, singing, instrumental music, and/or visual arts. I have at least three or four classmates alone who are members of folk dance groups. Typical instruments for Slovak folk music include violins, accordions, upright bass, and dulcimers. Side note – I was right in an earlier blog post when I guessed that the dulcimer is a popular instrument in Slovakia, much more popular than it is in the US, and now I know why: it’s a staple of Slovak folk music. I love watching performances and presentations of Slovak folk culture because they open such a wonderful window into this country’s centuries-old history and tradition.
I left for EuroTour in mid-late April, leaving behind a city still sleeping from the long winter. When I returned, however, a major transformation had occurred all over the city. Hills formerly brown with lifeless trees were now aive with the colors and sounds of spring. Banská Bystrica is beautiful year round, but spring is an especially lovely time of year. I was happy to see the end of the last few signs of winter.
I spent the two weeks after EuroTour in rehearsals for the two concerts in early May. Two students from the Konzervatorium graduated this year with “degrees” in conducting, so they directed choirs for their senior recitals instead of performing on an instrument (one student performed several organ pieces as well as conducted). My favorite of the concerts in terms of the music was absolutely the first, in which we sng Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D with a chamber orchestra from the Konzervatorium. So many of my favorite memories revolve around music, and I will never forget singing the lovely piece in the main Banská cathedral. The evening after the concert was, by contrast, one of the unhappiest of my entire exchange year. After the concert, students met with family or friends and went on their way. I was left alone to slowly walk to the bus stop and take a bus home. Looking back on it now, I somewhat wonder as to why I felt so overwhelmingly unhappy, but at the time, I felt lonelier than ever before. I guess it was a result of fatigue, hunger, and homesickness brought on by the absence of my parents at the concert – in the US, my parents never miss a concert if they can help it, regardless of how insignificant the concert may be.
The following day, I visited the Velkys (my second host family) with Mari, and Ivka berated me a bit for not telling her about the concert. I told her about my second concert that Tuesday, and she promised to come. The second concert was in most ways inferior to the first in my opinion, in terms of preparedness of the choir and student director as well as likeability of the music, but for me it was the better concert of the two by far. My best friend in the choir finally returned from her several weeks of absence due to sickness. Best of all, not only Ivka came to watch, but also Saška, Zorka, Katka, Mari, and Julio’s first host mom, Ivka Šestaková. They made up perhaps an 8th of the small audience there that evening. To say I was happy to see them there would be a major understatement. Their support in coming meant the world to me, and I teared up a bit when I saw them there. For me, attendance at my concert indicates a lot of love and support, and it meant so much to have my Slovak families and friends there. 

            That Thursday, I traveled with Mari and Julio by train to Brno in Moravia, CR. Brno is a large city with several good universities, and many Slovak students go to Brno for college. That weekend, all exchange students in my Rotary district prepared a half-hour presentation for the Rotary District Conference that Saturday. During the prevous week, most of the girls from the US independently learned a dance to “We Go Together” from Grease via YouTube. We spent Thursday and Friday running the program, which mainly consisted of songs and dances from our home countries. I also got help with Slovak grammar from the Rotex and prepared for my role as moderator/MC for the program. During EuroTour, Gabriel (a Brazilian boy living in the Czech Republic) and I were chosen o represent the exchange students in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, respectively. I felt very flattered to have been selected by my peers to represent them.
            During the weekend, we also visited downtown Brno, the Brno castle where we enjoyed a Scottish festival and participated in Scottish games, and also took a boat tour around the large lake. A rowing regatta was taking place while we were on the boat tour, and I enjoyed teaching my friends a bit about the sport. I may have convinced one fellow American girl to try her hand at coxing in the future. We also dressed up for the formal night on Saturday and danced to the live band. Overall, the weekend was a blast, and our presentation went well with only a few hiccoughs. Here's a link to the video of the conclusion of the program:

 Formal evening with one of our favorite Rotarian chaperones from EuroTour
 Coxswain sized friend Natalie

 Accidental matching
 Zvolensky Zamok (Zvolen Castle) captured from the train on the way to Bratislava

            I continue this post about a week later, on June fourth. New adventures keep arising that keep me busy, so finding time to sit down and write often escapes me.

            I spent much of the third week of June with Julio and Mari, spending a lot of time together before Julio’s departure that Sunday. I expected to have Saturday with him as well, but on Thursday night, I got a last-minute call from Mari asking if I wanted to go to Prague with her family that weekend. I was sad to miss Julio’s last day and my friend from school’s birthday party that Saturday (which ended up not happening when she got sick), but I jumped at the opportunity to finally visit Prague. One of my main complaints with the Slovak Rotary Youth Exchange program is that they never organize a trip for the students here to visit Prague, easily the most popular and famous city in the district. While the students in the Czech Republic (our same district) visit Prague for a weekend near Christmas, Slovak students go instead to Bratislava, so we only get to see Prague if we are lucky enough to be brought by our host parents, Rotarians, or school. I thought I would not be able to go at all this year, but luckily and happily, Mari’s family invited me to go with them. We attended a Rotary event for about an hour on Friday evening, then took off directly for Prague. In the rush to leave, our goodbyes with Julio became much more hurried than I would have liked, but perhaps it prevented some of the crying on my part that the goodbye could have otherwise induced. While it rained most of the time we were in Prague, the trip was still lovely and I was so happy to see the city. We wandered around the city on Saturday and on Sunday, and also visited a few cafes and museums when the rain became too much to handle. This week, Prague and many other European cities have been flooding, but we luckily visited Prague when it was still somewhat dry. Mari has a wonderful host family, and I really enjoyed getting to know them throughout the weekend. Her host sister is going to Canada next year with Rotary, to a tiny town of 2,500 people over a thousand kilometers north of Vancouver in British Columbia. Barbora is really sweet and positive, and very relaxed. I know she is going to have a wonderful year, and I hope to stay in touch and hear about all the adventures. In a way, I do envy her that she has her full exchange year still ahead of her. My year is quickly winding to an end, and I can’t imagine having to leave this place yet. As to Prague, I hope to return sometime in the future, whether with family, friends, or perhaps even as a student during my Junior year of college. 

 Marina, Barca, Me

 I love her so much

 John Lennon Wall

           During the week before we went to Prague, I also participated in a dance on the main square with several thousand other students from Banska Bystrica. We learned an old partner dance (probably from around the 18th and 19th centuries), and danced one Thursday around noon. Apparently, students all across Europe danced the same dance at the same time, perhaps in an attempt to break a world record? I'm not entirely sure, but I enjoyed the dancing, cultural experience, and just spending more time with my classmates. I got interviewed somewhat by chance when a cameraman came up to ask me and some of my classmates to say something about the day, and then he found out I was a foreigner. My "interview" made the cut, so here's a link to the YouTube video of me speaking -
 Dance partners

            I spent last weekend in Spišska Nova Ves at the final Orientation Meeting for next year’s Outbound students. All of the students in Slovakia who are going to other countries next year attended, as well as all the inbounds this year like myself. The weekend itself was not as wonderful as it could have been due to incessant rain, but we did hike some of Slovenskej Raj national park and saw some of Spišska Nova Ves, where my friend Justine lives this year. Spišska isn’t the best city in the world, but it’s nice enough and I just enjoyed being with my friends. We spent quite a lot of time together, and had fun talking about our home cultures with the new students. I met the girl who will go to my district in California next year, and hopefully I will be able to meet up with her occasionally during the year. She will live in Vacaville, which is not far from Davis, and perhaps Rotary will even let me take her with me on a trip or two when I’m home from college. I also met the students headed to Ohio, so perhaps I can become involved in Rotex there as well. We also presented our presentation from the District Conference again, and, although not quite as polished as before due to our missing half the students in the CR, we had a lot of fun and pulled off a good performance. I think in some ways, the better energy and enthusiasm this time around possibly made it even better, especially with a more responsive audience of the Slovak students. I moderated once again, although I made quite a few more mistakes since I was speaking from the top of my head. Later in the evening, we had a big dance party as well. The weekend ended very bittersweet, however. As it was the final mandatory weekend, many students are not coming to the next and final Rotary weekend in the Czech Republic, so I had to say goodbye to some close friends, including Peter, one of the Sextet, Julia, one of my first friends from the plane to Slovakia, and Alexis, my friend from Mexico. We have become like a family, and it will not be the same at the next weekends without them. Also, very few of the Rotex from Slovakia will attend the final weekend, since it is in the Czech Republic, so I had to say goodbye to some of them whom I feel very close to as well. I went back to Banská with a heavy heart, and hope that I can make plans to travel to Bratislava one last time to say goodbye to Peter and Julia.

 Inbounds in Slovakia 2012-2013

 Inbounds in Slovakia with Outbounds from Slovakia for the year 2013-2014

 Family photo


 More accidental twinning

A few other notes from May and early June...
Around late May, I changed host families for the last time, and now am back with my first family, the Belkos. My host sister, Katka, is home from Colombia and we now share a room. The Belkos are family to me, and on moving day I really did feel like I was going home. I know my last month here will be wonderful, just as my first four that I spent with them.
During the end of the month, all four members of my immediate family (Mike, Ruth, Jean, and myself) were living on four different continents. I am here in Slovakia, of course, and Dad held down the fort in California, while speaking at conferences and visiting friends. Mom spent three weeks in Rwanda working with a large women's coffee cooperative in order to set up a new branch for Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, a fair-trade and organic coffee company that she's working with right now. My big sister Jean is back in Chile right now for two months, studying Peruvian immigration to Chile on a Richter grant. While in Chile last fall, she noticed that immigration from Peru is very predominantly women, and wanted to investigate more. You can read about her summer (and her fall adventures) on her blog -  (yeah, we are pretty original in our blog addresses).     While I would like to claim that my family is always this cool and always goes on exciting adventures around the world, we are usually pretty normal and stay in the good ol' US of A, but for the time being, I can brag to everyone who will listen about how cool my family is. As another side note - my friend Chiara in the US sent me a picture on Facebook of her college poly-sci textbook: there was a large section quoting and referencing the work of my dad :) Just more bragging from me. I'll stop.

The marker for the end of my ninth month here came and went with barely a blink on my part. I still have just over a month here, but time is moving faster as I near the end of this wonderful year. I now have recurring dreams of being home, but, unlike my first months here in Slovakia, they now seem more real and plausible. While it will be nice to see my family and friends in the US, I am by no means ready to leave Slovakia and my life here. I know that from the moment I leave, nothing will ever be quite the same if and when I return. I have family and friends here, and I will be so sad to leave them in July. But life must go on, and all good things must come to an end, so I will love and live each of m last days here and hope to leave with no regrets. I know I will return because nothing can keep me away from this wonderful place for too long.

 Many of my classmates with our American English teacher on his last day in Slovakia
 Last time with Julio

Some comments on perhaps ordinary events:
-       Stoplights turn yellow before green in Slovakia, as well as yellow before red. (For those of you not from the US, our lights only turn yellow before red, and directly green after red). Why? I guess to give drivers time to put their cars into gear since Europeans drive manual cars primarily. To me, it seems a bit superfluous, but perhaps they wonder at the strange Americans who just suddenly have to react when it turns green. I know for sure that Europeans look at Americans with a bit of curiosity or skepticism due to our use of predominantly automatic cars. They always laugh when I say I have a driver’s license but can only drive automatic cars.
-       “Kašlem na to/na teba” :  This phrase has many different possible meanings, according to my host family, but I have heard it most frequently used to mean “I don’t care about it/about you.” The funny part is that the direct translation of the Slovak words is “I cough at it/at you,” which to me sounds like a Shakespearian insult. I believe it is Romeo and Juliet where a fight begins because of the phrase “I bite my thumb in your general direction,” or something of the like. The phrase is always funny to me, especially when I imagine someone coughing on me every time someone uses the phrase.
-       Local food dilemma: In class, we recently watched a documentary on vitamins, raw and local foods, and various problems with the medical system, namely the ignoring of vitamins and preventative healthcare in the form of healthy eating. While I agree with many of the opinions expressed in the film, I watched it with a somewhat skeptical mindset. I want to do more research, though, and hopefully will learn more. That being said, I saw some fundamental issues with the arguments. While people living in the Central Valley absolutely have access to seasonal, local, fresh foods, people in places like Slovakia have a much harder time accessing quality produce, especially in the winter. Imported produce loses much of its nutritional value when it is picked too soon, and even more when it is cooked, as typical in Slovak dishes. The environmental impact is significantly higher with said imported produce because of the energy output just to transport the food. And then, the most pressing problem for Slovaks, is the high prices of quality food. How can the less wealthy afford the high quality food when lower quality is exponentially cheaper? So, there exists a significant problem with no easy answers. It has been something I’ve been considering for a while, with no groundbreaking ideas, but certainly a lot of feelings of privilege for having grown up in such a place as California’s Central Valley.