October 5, 2003 - Personal Web Page: Christy in Slovakia
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October 5, 2003 - Personal Web Page: Christy in Slovakia
Christy in Slovakia
Christy in Slovakia
Reflections of a year of Peace Corps service in Slovakia.
After receiving six emails from friends and family asking what I'm doing for July 4th, I became overwhelmed with homesickness. As I thought of barbecues, pool parties and friends and family gathering without me, all the cultural experiences didn't mean anything to me. I wanted to go home.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Peace Corps said that the second year would be easier. This huge aching in my heart was a first. I drank half a bottle of tequila via margaritas.
After I got over the funk, I decided to reflect on the past year. What have I learned?
I learned the drunk on the city bus who smells like he hasn't bathed in five days wouldn't get his feelings hurt if I move to another seat.
I learned that if I smile at the ladies who work in my neighborhood market when I see them in town, they'd help me find the fat-free yogurt after the early morning shoppers ransack the dairy section.
I learned that I like cooking when a produce stand is within 100 feet of my front door, and the alternative is restaurants that offer ketchup-based pizza or dishes that include some form of cabbage or sheep cheese.
I learned not to try to change my train reservations the same day I start my period.
I learned 'brainstorm', 'correspondent' and 'diabetes' are the same words in Slovak.
I learned that air-drying my clothes is great for my jeans but terrible for my socks.
I learned that many American tourists think that speaking louder breaks the language barrier.
I learned that you will forget Coca-Cola Light tastes a little different than Diet Coke.
I learned I'm more concerned what our President does when I'm in another country.
I learned that I'm very blessed to be an American when it comes to traveling.
I learned that I want to avoid needing a foot X-ray, dental check-up and gynecological exam in Slovakia.
I learned that despite email and consistently sending postcards, 'out of sight, out of mind' is applicable with many friends and family.
I learned that gross public displays of affection make my head throb as I silently scream, "Get a room!"
I learned that I eagerly anticipate the event of a McDonald's Happy Meal.
I learned when John Travolta's character Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction said, "They've got the same things in Europe, it's just a little bit different," he was right because while Americans returned to work on July 5th, I relaxed on my balcony, as this is a Slovak holiday.
Frequently Asked Questions about Slovakia
How big is Slovakia? Where is it? And how many people live there?
Slovakia is about twice the size of New Hampshire, and the population is approximately five million. The capital and largest city, Bratislava, has a 500,000 population. Slovakia is in Central Europe and is bordered by Poland (North), Ukraine (East), Hungary (South), Czech Republic and Austria (West).
What is the history of Slovakia?
Slovakia was a part of Czechoslovakia until 1993. After the fall of communism in 1989, Czech and Slovakia split up. Czechs and Slovaks have always had their own identity and language from hundreds of years ago when they were two regions within the Hungarian empire. Slovakia has always been a more rural area than the Czech Republic.
What kind of food do they eat in Slovakia?
They pretty much donít eat spicy food. Sausage, fish and ham are the meats most often eaten. For Christmas they eat carp instead of turkey. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are available in the warmer months, but during the winter, the selection is very limited: apples, oranges, paprika, cabbage and onion. Paprika is a pepper with a less pungent taste than a bell pepper, but it can be very hot or very mild. Cabbage/sauerkraut is used in many Slovak dishes.
Traditional Slovak dishes include: pirohy, dough filled with jam, potatoes or cheese; bryndzove halusky, small dumplings covered in a feta-like cheese sauce and sprinkled with pieces of pork; kapustnica, a sauerkraut soup; knedla, dumplings shaped like bread slices that accompany Slovak goulash.
Butter seems is used as sandwich spread much more often than mustard, and mayonnaise is used like a salad dressing. Lettuce is rare, and salads usually donít consist of more than one or two vegetables with vinegar and oil.
Goulash is a potato and meat dish that is a cross between soup and stew, and it is eaten during social events. The Hungarian-influenced goulash is a thick, dark brown, spicy soup while the traditional Slovakian goulash is an orange color with a sauerkraut base.
Ice cream is softer than in America and very good. You can find ice cream stands/shops all over any town, and it is very inexpensive. The most common flavors are strawberry, cherry, nut, chocolate, banana, lemon and peach.
Almost every town has a pizzeria, but sometimes the sauce tastes like ketchup.
How do Slovaks get around?
Not as many Slovaks have cars as Americans, and you will rarely find a Slovak family with more than one car.
Gas is far more expensive in Europe than in America. Slovaks tend to drive Czech cars, and only drive out of necessity. Even if they have a car, they may take a bus to work or a bike to the market, etc.
The train and bus systems are very efficient and inexpensive. Train rides are very nice when it is not too crowded. The seats are comfortable, the scenery is beautiful, and you donít have to drive!
I take the electric buses all over Zilina (pop. 90K), and they run often, cost a few coins, and are pretty convenient.
What do Slovaks do for fun?
Slovaks go to the movies, ride bikes, windsurf, tour castles, hike, ski, host garden parties, and the most peculiar to me, hunt for mushrooms. Many Slovaks whom Iíve met love to look for mushrooms and pick them if edible. Even if the fungi are not edible, Slovaks still like to admire the colors and shapes.
Slovaks, on the whole, are pretty active. They make the most of good weather.
What canít you get in Slovakia that you can in America?
Mexican food is hard to come by as is anything related to spicy-hot food. Clothes and CDís are relatively more expensive but available. Most everything you need is here, but some things are completely absent in Slovakia, for instance: pecans and maple syrup.
What is the weather like?
The weather is fairly mild during the summer (70-85 degrees). The winters are fairly long and usually include snow. Winter days are very short (daylight from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.)
What are the best parts of Slovakia?
Fewer tourists - Iíve seen some kids backpacking through, but Slovakia doesnít get the insane crowds of Vienna or Prague.
Many castles Ė there are over 100 castles/castle ruins throughout Slovakia.
High Tatras Ė for people who like to hike and ski, this mountain range is part of the Carpathian Mountains.
Inexpensive services Ė from getting your hair cut to entrance at a pool or movie theater (featuring many Hollywood-produced films with Slovak subtitles), prices are much less than in America.
Other miscellaneous information:
The currency is the crown/koruna. apx. exchange rate: US $1 = 50 Sk (Slovak korun)
Prominent religion: Catholic
The town of Kremnica in Slovakia marks the exact middle of Europe, north to south & east to west.
In November 2000, Slovakia opened its first shopping mall with eight stadium-seating movie theaters in Bratislava. McDonald's, Little Caesar's and Pizza Hut are the only American chain restaurants presently in the country.
Since joining the Peace Corps in June 2000, I've seen many places and hope to see more. Below are discriptions of my impressions of the countries I've visited and helpful links:
I was lucky to be assigned to this small country at the heart of Europe. For freqently asked questions and answers about the Slovak Republic on my Web site go to slovakia info, or click on any of the following for information about skiing, public transportation, the American Embassy, an English language newspaper, or general topics in Slovakia.
I have only been to the capital Prague and the second largest city, Brno. I didn't do much in Brno besides buy Mexican food. However, Prague is my favorite city. Prague is very beautiful, very inexpensive and very tourist friendly*. If you only speak English, relax because the Prague Post, the city's English newspaper with culture listings, and Think magazine with more alternative news and events, are available.
Clown and Bard Hostel (cheaper and a metro ride from town) and Ritchie's Hostel (a little more expensive, but in heart of old town) are great for budget travelers (like me!).
With everything the city has to see and do, I could go on and on, but I won't. But a list of must-sees: Orloj Clock, Prague Castle -including St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge.
*Note: many friends had bad experiences with pickpockets, so anywhere you go -- BEWARE!
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is an amazing city. It is divided into two sides: Buda and Pest. Buda is the more historical side with a castle, Fisherman's Bastion, and lots of winding side streets with cute houses. Pest is the more progressive side with lots of Western influences (malls, Mickey D's and Burger King). However, Pest has lots of great buildings, museums and sites itself.
The Chain Bridge is the most famous bridge connecting two sides as it passes over the Danube River. On each side of the bridge are two huge lion statues guarding the entrance. The artist who scupted these beasts committed suicide after everyone laughed at him for making the lions without (it appeared) tongues. The tongues were sculpted to be in the back of the mouth as is asthetically correct, but it must have been too much ridicule for the sensitive artist.
My first overnight stay in Budapest was at a terrific hostel, Caterina Guesthouse. Very central located, cheap and nice management - you can't go wrong. If you want to know what's going on in Budapest, visit the English language newspaper The Budapest Sun.
In early August Budapest hosts the Sziget Music Festival, the largest in Europe.
Nothing was very impressive in London. Because I visited in January with a Peace Corps salary, I don't think I got a good impression. My advice: check hours and dates of the sites you want to see because availability isn't very 'tourist friendly' and bring lots of money. UK prices suck American dollars out of your bank account.
Time Out is an all-around good site to see what's going on with the Brits.
Vienna is a little more than an hour bus ride from the Slovak capital, Bratislava. and it's the only city in Austria I've seen. I stayed at a clean and inexpensive family-run hostel where you can meet LOTS of other backpackers. For general information on Vienna check out this site (in English), but if you do plan on visiting, definitely buy your performance tickets (i.e. Spanish Horse Riding, Vienna Boys' Choir, anything at the State Opera House) in advance if you don't want to take a risk - most things will be sold out even days before.
Seeing Vienna in the warmer months has renewed my impression of this European city steeped in the arts. The new Museum of Music is amazing as it interactively teaches about every part of noise to a full history on Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and many others. I also got lucky to catch the free opening of the redesigned museum of modern art - and boy, was it MODern.
The Belvedere (includes a museum full of Klimt pieces), Succession and St. Stephen's Church are just a small sample of all the beautiful structures. The amusement park boardered by the Danube River has three giant ferris wheels and bungee jumping - for those not culturally inclined. My overall opinion on Vienna is the more you do your research ahead of your trip, the better experience you will have.
Tunisia is in North Africa with a large stretch of Mediterranean beach. The country has more Middle Eastern influence than African. Most of the people are Islamic, but haggling must not be against their religion because you can negotiate price on ANYTHING. The people are also very friendly. Don't be weary unless you are in a medina (a town's open market). The aggressive friendliness of street vendors in the medina might turn on you if they feel you insult their prices.
However, you must shop! Everything is for sale from peanut brittle, to leather bags, to jewelry, to hookah pipes. TIP: bring cheap electronics or hard liquor to barter. You can practically name your price if you flash a Walkman or 1/2 pint of vodka. (alcohol is only available in tourist areas: only one type of beer, which is Tunisian and OK, and a very small selection of spirits and wine)
The beaches are great, but make yourself venture out. As you can see from my pictures, the country has amazing Roman ruins (pillars, statues, and the second largest colosseum in the world), picturesque small towns (Sidi Bou Said), Berber dwellings that were the setting for Star Wars films, and the largest desert in the world ... THE SAHARA.
Lonely Planet has a lot of this information, and the country has a general news site. From America the airline tickets are probably expensive, but once in country, prices are very modest. Language is no barrier. Tunisians speak more languages than you can imagine. They will greet you in 10 languages until you answer one. Lots of Germans, French and some English vacation here.
I feel well-traveled when it comes to Poland. Having spent time in Krakow, Warsaw and the Gdansk area, I think Poland is BIG and has a lot to offer any traveler. Krakow is known for more history and culture while the capital, Warsaw, is more of a cosmopolitan city, and don't bypass the Gdansk area if you visit the country in the warmer months. For the best bargain on the most up-to-date information abour these cities (hotels, food, sites), buy an In Your Pocket city guidebook for a little over $1.
If staying in Krakow, Mistia Hostel is a 5-minute walk (around the corner from a 'Non-stop' Massage parlor) from the train station and clean and inexpensive. While in Krakow, you should make a day-trip to the Auschwitz concentration camps. Auschwitz I & II are still intact, but the third was completely destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war. The tour is a must at approximately $5 and in English - you won't get much out of the visit otherwise.
Another tour off the beaten path is the salt mine located 15 minutes outside of Krakow. Shuttle buses leave often near the bus station for $.25, and the tour is about $5. Unfortunately, English language tours are only available June - August, and the only way you can see the mine is to pay for the tour. I really missed a lot of good information as my tourguide only spoke Polish, and salt statues are only so interesting for so long. The best part of the mine is the salt church. I heard it was built because the miners worked so long and so far down in the mine; they needed a place to worship.
Despite many Poles' and former tourists' opinions, I found Warsaw to be an awesome city. It is a mix of a modern-day city and many historical and scenic sites. I regret that I didn't get to see the free concert by Tangerine Dream (instrumental band that did the Risky Business movie soundtrack) the night I visited as I was only there for a few hours or Depeche Mode concert just two nights later.
As New York City has Central Park, Warsaw has the beautiful Lazienki Park. Peacocks roam the grounds and a statue of Polish composer Chopin is a centerpiece. And, unlike any other city I've visited in Europe, Warsaw streets are well-marked! A lot of that probably has to do with all the rebuilding due to past destruction during war. The most amuzing part to me was all the communist trimmings - the socialist workers carved in the stone buildings that house modern appliances stores or the Palace of Culture and Science that was a resented gift from Stalin. However, even though it was completed in 1955, I read that it is the highest tower clock at 160 meters.
I mention the Gdansk area as it is part of a tri-city attraction (Gdansk, Gydenia and Sopot). This area is located on the Baltic Coast. Gdansk is terrific for finding buildings with colorful, old facades, museums and modern conveniences. Sopot has a pier that extends 512 meters into the sea and frequent ferries to nearby beaches ... such as Hel. Yes, Hel. It is located at the tip of a long penninsula north of the mainland, and worth the 2-hour ride to relax on the beaches. However, even in August the water was too cold for this Texas girl to swim.
Final note, I don't know about sleeping accommodations in Warsaw since I only spent the afternoon, but if going to Gdansk, use an agency to rent a private room. This is very cheap, clean and usually in the center of town.
The major industry in Croatia is tourism, and the service reflects that. In the most amazing Croatian city, Dubrovnik, located on the most southern point of the Country, all the locals I met greeted me as if I was the first tourist they've seen all year.
Croatia is a major spot for Slovaks' summer vacation, but many won't return after the fighting that left many buildings destroyed and warning of landmines off the beaten path. It's a shame, though.
I found the country and it's beaches to be very beautiful. Surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, the country includes many islands that are a ferry-ride away. Most beaches consist of rocky shores and crystal-clear water. Like most European beaches I've heard of, many women sunbathe topless, and there are many nudist beaches along the coast.
If you only have a few days, I highly recommend going straight to Dubrovnik. It has several crowded and secluded beaches, and an Old Town (Stari Grad) paved in limestone and surrounded by a stone wall that you can walk for a few kuna (Croatian currency).
If you have extra time, use it to explore an island. I stayed on Hvar Island a few days, and it was great. - we even camped! I wouldn't recommend the capital, Zagreb, as it seems a waste of time after you see the beauty of the coast.
My favorite parts: renting a moped, eating oysters on the half shell and watching all the boats, big and small, coming into the marinas.
I visited this country during my Croatia vacation. It was definitely the antithesis of Croatian beaches but worth the detour, nevertheless. You will see the aftermath of the early 1990's Balkan War. We went to Mostar first. This is a beautiful city despite the many destroyed buildings and losing its prized possesion - The Old Bridge, which was built by the Turks during the Ottoman empire in the 1500's. The foot bridge that joined the Catholic and Muslim sides of the city was an UNESCO heritage site, and the Croats deliberately bombed it in 1993 because of its history and usefulness.
On the way back to Slovakia, we stopped in Sarajevo for just a few hours. It was worth it. This city has the distinction of being the site of the beginning of World War I (where Archduke Ferdinand was shot), the 1984 Olympics and being the heart of the 1993 Balkan War.
In both cities, I was saddened by the many headstones I saw in the center of town as they all had dates of death between 1993-4.
Tow heads, wooden boats and bicycles make up Copenhagen. Besides a few excursions to nearby neighborhoods, the capital city is all I saw of Denmark. However, that was enough. Copenhagen is a georgeous town with tons to see, do and eat!
In just three days, I climbed the Round Tower, visited the Church of our Savior, floated through a harbor tour, hung out at Christiania (the 1000-strong hippie colony), shopped in the pedestrian center, attended an exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, rode a train through the 1-year-old bridge and tunnel system to Sweden, walked through the night-lighted amusement park Tivoli, observed the changing of the guards and lastly, took a picture with Copenhagen's favorite girl - the Little Mermaid.
The prices were high and temperatures low for August, but the people are so nice. I began to wonder if the Danes knew there was a darker world outside, but if they do, it doesn't matter because they live here.
If I go back, I would want to see the huge Roskilde Music Festival located just an hour outside of Copenhagen every year in late June.
Driving from Slovakia to the northwestern most point of Poland to take a ferry to Copenhagen requires driving through Berlin if you want the best roads. I only saw about an hour's worth of Berlin. Don't know if I'll ever be back to the country. Stopping at a gas station for dinner and seeing the sites from a car view - I didn't feel the need to stop.
A 17-kilometer bridge and tunnel system was completed July 2000 between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden, so I went to Sweden. Malmo was nice, but I wasn't there long. I just kept thinking how I wanted to get back to Copenhagen! The city did have a sculpture of a gun with a knotted barrel. - my thoughts exactly.
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