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"The only man who is really free is the one who can turn down an invitation to dinner without giving an excuse." -- Jules Renard
|Episode 42: Slovakia--Not a Greek Entree|
@ Where`s Cherie?
Aug 05 2002 - 16:43 PST
|cherie writes: March 2001|
It has been a while since I have written, but I broke my arm in a snowboarding accident in November, so I couldn't type for three months. Some of the journals I send out in the next few weeks will be out of order. Please forgive me, but the adventure continues.
Adventure 42: Slovakia×Not a Greek Entree
A relatively new country (reborn in 1993) Slovakia seemed like the perfect destination to drag Monster (my enormous green suitcase which imitates the Incredible Hulk--bursting at his green seams--with an amazing degree of accuracy.
I packed Monster and shut him with enough moans and grunts to make the neighbors certain I was doing something else. This was when my travel alarm (which had never worked before) decided to prove to me that it could indeed function.
I was late for my train to Slovakia so I dragged Monster behind me and ignored the monotonous beep of my alarm. On the train, I lodged Monster in the doorway and tuned his 'beep, beep, beep' out because the alternative was unacceptable: opening Monster, finding the alarm, figuring out how to shut if off, and then repacking Monster. Closing Monster was tantamount to trying to fit a tent back in its original package after a camping trip. In other words, it was impossible.
It took 23 minutes of beeping before the passenger sitting next to me started screaming like a lunatic. To calm his hysteria, I unzipped Monster and my suitcase popped open with the relief a belly has after being squeezed into too-tight jeans all day. I found the offensive alarm, and I gave it to the lunatic who I thought would smash it against the train door. Instead, he surprised me, and gently pulled out the battery. Quiet. A welcome peace washed over our train compartment. It was then I decided to order everyone in our cabin an apology beer.
We were sipping our beers when we crossed the boarder from Austria into Slovakia. All the passengers were ordered off the train. I assumed it was a passport check, but I was perplexed when no one wanted to see my passport. The guard who spoke the most English said the word 'sanitation' to me. I didn't know what 'sanitation' entailed, I only knew that I did not want to be 'sanitized.'
I began imagining rectal searches or being hosed down with disinfectant, but the Slovak sanitation process was much more civilized. Each passenger was ordered to dip their feet in a bucket of mysterious liquid (that I am certain harbored more germs than it killed). Then everyone walked a few more steps, and repeated this process. I grew excited at the possibility of enduring the remainder of the train ride in wet socks. What, Slovaks wouldn't allow any Austrian 'foot cooties' on their precious soil?
I realize that I might not have been a striking example of cleanliness, but the last time I recall being "sanitized" was when I was a child and my Aunt Lori (prude extraordinaire) would dust us kids off before we were allowed to enter her sterile living room.
Arriving in Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia) I pulled Monster up two flights of stairs to learn that the money exchange office had closed. There was no ATM, so speaking 'Guidebook Slovak' I talked a taxi cab driver into accepting Austrian Shillings as payment. He drove me to the local YMCA. I was quickly turned away. Note: being denied entrance into the YMCA may need to be the topic of a future therapy session. I couldn't imagine why the YMCA wouldn't accept me. Then, when I was back in the taxi cab, I made the grave error of looking in the rear-view mirror. It appeared that a cyclone had come, hit me, and left.
The taxi cab driver said 'student sleep?' Of course, I heard what I wanted to hear. So I furiously nodded my head 'yes' thinking that I would arrive at a hostel where traveling students slept.
I ended up at the University dormitory where 1300 Slovak students were living loudly. The lady at the front desk had simply no idea what to do with Monster and I. In the summer, when the Slovak students are on vacation, the dorm is converted into a youth hostel. But now all the Slovak students were there, and so was I. After a staring contest (those Slovaks can stare!) it appeared that the lady was going to give me a room. I just couldn't wait to see the reaction on her face when I told her that I didn't have any money.
The time came when she held out her empty palm, and I pretended not to understand what this universal gesture for payment meant. She hijacked a Slovak student and gave him a ten minute dissertation, which he was supposed to translate to me. He turned to me, and said simply 'pay now.'I started to explain that I had no money and she slammed the little window so that all she must of saw was a a silly American girl opening and shutting her mouth like a fool.
The Slovak student felt sorry for me and walked me to an ATM, and I was finally able to check into a dorm room. Clearly my room had not been remodeled since the fall of communism. It had red carpet, red curtains and a red door. The door was padded, the carpet was not.
On our ATM journey, Roman the Slovak student, told me that I had to meet with 'the Principle' tomorrow. He added that this would be a problem for me since the Principle did not speak any English. This was when I became thankful for my ability to think on my feet. I asked Roman to write me a note in Slovak asking the principle if she would allow me to stay one more night in the student dormitory.
It wasn't until I was handing the Principle the note the next morning that the absurdity of my plan hit me in its entirety. I still didn't speak Slovak. When she responded to the note, what was I supposed to do?
The principle's office was the setting for my first Slovak language lesson. To make a short story long, when the principle drew her reading glasses down the bridge of her nose, squinted her eyes and barked 'ano' I went to my room, and packed Monster. As I was leaving, Roman convinced me that I was allowed to stay. I was used to being in the United States where a 'no' is a 'no', and a 'yes' is a 'yes.' But Roman reminded me that we were in Slovakia where 'ano' is not 'a no', it is a 'yes.' I checked my guidebook and sure enough it was true, 'ano' means 'yes' in Slovak.
I thought I deserved an early morning breakfast beer, so I gulped one down at a local pub when my neighbor gave me a I-haven't-seen-toothpaste-in-a-year-grin and said: 'Pijes ako duha.' I smiled and gave him a friendly raised-glass cheers, when the bartender translated his words for me. Fungus mouth had said 'You drink like a rainbow' which must have meant something like 'you drink like a fish.'
Everyone got a good laugh out of this and the bartender slid a large shot glass into my right hand.'What is this?' I inquired.'Present,' He said.This was the scene of another travel lesson: don't drink mysterious liquid presents in former Eastern Block countries.
I went next door to get something to settle my stomach, and I made the mistake of asking the waiter what he recommended to eat. He pointed to something that was translated in English as 'pancakes smeared with goose fat.' I paused, wondering if I could get 'unsmeared' pancakes, but I decided it was too big of a risk. I shook my head 'no', and his finger stopped under an entrée translated as 'blood presswurst.' I decided that the waiter and I differed in our tastes, as I was hoping to obtain a goose-fat and blood-free lunch. I coped out by ordering a 'cheeseburger.' It was exactly what it claimed to be, a hunk of cheese on a roll with sauce and cabbage. Slovak meal lesson #4, if you want meat, order a hamburger.
The interesting thing about Slovakia, is that the country has a very different system of high school than the United States. Slovaks choose their occupations in their early teens and then go to a high school where the classes are tailored specifically towards their careers. For example, Slovaks actually study to be waiters. It was interesting because I tried to imagine the names of their meal service courses: 'How to Avoid Eye Contact 101' or 'Capitalism 100: How to Give the Wrong Change and Smile.'
My multiple experiences in restaurants led me to seek the safety of prepackaged grocery store food. I thought I'd eat something somewhat nutritional in the comfort of my red dorm room. I couldn't mask my excitement when I saw a container in the market that actually read these English words: Cottage Cheese. I bought two containers and went 'home' to settle into a good book. I snuggled myself into my sheet (my $6 dorm room came with no comforter, no pillow and no heater...but it did have a sheet.) Then I peeled the foil off my vat of self-claimed 'Cottage Cheese' only to realize it was cream cheese. Cream cheese for dinner. I used my plastic spoon to carve out a scoop, and then I dumped one plastic container into another plastic container (the plastic container of lying cottage cheese dove face first into the plastic container for trash.)
I put my clothes back on, ambled out into the rain, and began to search for a Slovak restaurant that would take credit cards. I failed. But in the process, I found an ATM machine to withdraw more money. This was the precise moment when my bank decided that withdrawals from three different countries in the span of a week constituted a security risk. In other words, my transaction was denied in the name of fraud prevention.
The next moment defined the word 'bleak' better than Webster's Dictionary ever could. Bleak: me, soaked by the rain, stumbling back to my dorm room filled with obnoxious teenagers, pulling a carton of cream cheese out of the trash and eating it for dinner.
Stay tuned for the next adventure, when I tell you what I liked about Slovakia.
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