Saturday, October 11, 2008

Obed s Rodina (Lunch with the Family)

Since it was Saturday today, and all week I had been dragging myself out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, I allowed myself to sleep in until 11:30. After I had gotten up and taken a shower I headed downstairs for breakfast, only to run into (not literally) my host father on the stairs. "We leave for babkas in 10 minutes" he told me before continuing up the stairs. Great, I thought, still in my pajamas and not even breakfast yet! (Babka means granny, and is what everyone calls grandma, my host mother´s mother).

My host mother´s parents have 2 homes, a flat near our house and then a country house out in the next town. They use this house for the weekend and to have a garden. For 70 and 72 they get along quite well. Today we went out to their country house for lunch. Being it just the grandparents, I dressed modestly and casual. Of coarse, the one thing my host father forgot to mention is it was not just the grandparents, but a gathering of that complete side of the family.

I wasn´t surprised to find we were the last ones getting there. My host mother and brother were already there along with 15 other relatives. And at 1:30 we all attempted to (and succeeded) in jamming 16 people and a large dining table into a tiny sitting room at the front of the house.

The family consisted of the grandparents and their childen with their families. So there was the grandparents, then my host mother and her husband and 2 children (one being me), her younger sister with her husband and 2 children, then the older sister with her husband and 2 children. All in all our ages spanded from 13 to 72. The 2nd generation, being the 3 sisters and their husbands, were about late 30s to late 40s, then my generation, being the children. When I say children I don´t mean little screaming cutie pies. The youngest was my host brother, 13. Then me, and then the 4 others I´d say were about late teens to early 20s.

We all were seated at the table, bumping elbows and pressed shoulder to shoulder. I was squished between the 2 Gabbies, one being my host mom´s sister then her daughter, who is about 17-19. I have met them once before already. The first course is some kind of soup, today being chicken. Mom and babka brought in 2 bowls of chicken broth and noodles, and then older Gabbie with the plate of chicken, carrots, potatoes and such. We filled our bowls with broth and then picked off the plate what we wanted in it. A nice set up, especially if some people don´t like carrots but like cabbage in their soup.

The main course is general easy-to-make slovak food: 2 types of chicken, one breaded and fried breasts and the other hunks of chicken just cooked. I picked the fried one because I didn´t want to be picking bones out of my teeth. Then a plate of homemade french fries. Another plate of cooked potato chunks. Some salad, but I didn´t eat any. Not just because I don´t like mixing cabbage and tomatoes, but because its soaked in vinegar, served in vinegar, and you´re expected to drink the vinegar after you eat the salad. There was also cucumber salad, cucumbers floating in vinegar. I passed on these.

The best part though was the dessert. (Sits back to think about and try to remember everything that was served; a terrible time to forget a little notebook to jot down things to remember. I usually carry one but I thought I was going for a nice little lunch with grandma so I didn´t bother with it.) First I had the chocolate cake imported from Austria. It wasn´t a huge regular cake, but a flat cake about one inch tall. The frosting on top was just a layer of rich chocolate. In the middle was some type of caramel. Very rich, very good. (I was also very annoyed to find myself without my camera; the pictures would save a lot of time by not having to explain everything.)

Next was the walnut cake, made by Aunt Gabbie. A tall cake about 8-10 inches tall with a nutty brown frosting covering it and a ring of walnuts on the top. She served me a nice big piece. The taste though was quite amazing. At first I thought a mix of walnuts and rum. Very strong rum, almost like bourbon balls or brownies. (Mmmmmmm! Nanny´s bourbon brownies!) Then about half way through the cake I found another flavor, a small hint of coffee. So a mix of walnuts, rum (or bourbon, now I´m not sure) and coffee; a dream!

Next...oh yes! the honey cake. Again not really a cake, but about one inch high, one foot long and 6 inches wide. It was layers of crumbly cake with honey in between each layer and then chocolate drizzled on top. This one I wish most that I had a picture of. So good also.

Then the eggs. I´m not sure what this dessert was, but they told me it was made with eggs. A small ball puffed up with mostly air inside but then a little bit of cream (I´m guessing this was the egg part) inside. The outside was white hardened cream again with chocolate drizzled on top. This was ok but I though kind of tasteless. I only had 2.

Then came the raspberry pie. This was actually a cake, about 4 inches high, but a small layer of regular cake then whole raspberries on top. The raspberries were in a kind of sauce-like jello so they stuck together in some way. Then in between the cake and the raspberries was a layer of cream. Very good, though kind of sour after eating so much chocolate and honey before.

I think I had more dessert then I had actual food, but it was all so good. Afterwards a few of us had coffee. The coffee in Europe makes American coffee seem like water. Though since I´m used to that water I hardly drink coffee here. But right now it just seemed like the best way to end the meal. It was very strong, but very good, with one cream and one sugar. If I had my own choice, I would´ve put about 26 sugars in, but that wasn´t an option here.

After my coffee I helped clear the table and wash the dishes, since they don´t have a dishwasher. Then I ran around the garden with babka collecting all the vegetables in a large container that she thought we needed. We hardly ever buy vegetables or apples or plums, because each week babka gives us more then an army could eat. Whatever the family doesn´t eat she cans during the late fall for use over the winter and into the following spring.

There were a few things that struck me as I ate and passed the afternoon with the family: My host mother and her 2 sisters all have 2 children each, one boy and one girl. Now my host sister is in America right now, so I kind of filled in the space for her, though I can never actually take her place, but I am her age. The older sister has an older boy and then younger girl, and same with the younger sister.

Also this family never hugs. Greeting is a handshake and a kiss on each cheek while your right hand is clasped in theirs. Always kiss left cheek then right cheek; not knowing this rule at first confused some of them, and me included! Even the men do this, so it´s a greeting shared by everyone. Handshakes between women are not supposed to be firm, but a light touching between hands. When I shake hands, I shake hands, and this I had to remember not to do so forcefully when greeting a female. When greeting a man though go ahead and put your back into it, they´ll get a kick out of it.

The thing I noticed most of all though was how very similar they are to my own family at home. At my father´s family gatherings we share a very similar routine. I felt very comfortable and welcome, not only because everyone was nice and wanted to talk to me, but because I knew the routine, I knew how it would all happen, and I knew what was expected. (A note on the conversation part; my slovak is good enough now where I can hold a general getting-to-know-you conversation and respond to general questions. At the lunch table ((weird not to type dinner table)) I can sometimes follow the conversation or story, though this takes a lot of concentration and most of the finer details are lost. All in all my host parents introduce me now as a person who understand slovak, and everyone was very impressed with my knowledge, which I always feel is inadequate. Thought next to my one friend who is also an exchange student I know a lot, since she still doesn´t know general question words, i.e. who, what, when, etc. More on this at another time though).

The feeling of belonging in this family is amazing, since almost none of them even know me. Besides my mother, I have bonded greatly with my host-grandmother, babka. She always smiles at me and makes me feel loved, even though she isn´t my own grandma. Grandmas rule, no matter what country you´re in. They all accept me without question, and instantly open their arms to include me in theirs affairs be they little or small. It makes me sad for some of the exchange students who don´t bond with their families, or those who have troubles with them (one of my friends is having trouble with her host mother, and I feel sorry for her). Though I may have a good relationship with mine because family to me is very very important. Here and at home I love being close with the family and being a part of it. My day couldn´t have been better had they taken me to an amusement park and given me a puppy.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Meeting with the Children

Today I had my first encounter with Roma children. I was in one of the largest shopping malls in Slovakia with two other exchange students, one from Arizona and one from British Columbia, Canada. We were sitting on a bench, eating ice cream and watching the people pass, just passing a long afternoon after school.

Suddenly a little girl, about 5 or 6 in age carrying a small black puppy stood in front of us. She had on a pink sweater, wrong side out, and some dirt smeared down her cheek. She had black hair, brown skin, and huge black eyes. She said something in slovak to us. All three of us blinked stupidly for a moment. The shock of seeing such a girl not 2 feet from us and then all that slovak just seemed to freeze us. Out of her mess of words though I caught "hladna" and "pät korun". Hladna means hungry and pät korun means 5 crowns, the slovak currency. I said this to my two companions. We all knew then. She was a Roma girl, begging for money.

Now any American would have quickly dived into their purse (I would at least hope so) and fished out some money. But we all paused, for many reasons. We sat and discussed what we should do. First of all, it is known that all Roma beg for money. Not because they are poor, but because they see no need to work when they get generous amounts of cash from the government every year and then can send their children out to collect in public places.

As we were discussing what to do, she moved to other people passing, holding out her hand and speaking quickly to them. Behind us on the other side of the hall her brother was doing the same thing.

In the end we all finally dug into our pockets and fished out some spare coins. None of us handed over any bills. She gladly took our money then showing her brother, they quickly hurried away into the crowd, no doubt to show their parents what they had been able to collect.

I am still torn though about whether I did "the right thing". We all were. After a few minutes my companions fell back into their conversation, as if nothing had happened. But I was shaken, and it took me the rest of the day to get over it. It is the fact that we knew exactly what was going on. Any other tourist or non-native wouldn´t have thought about it too hard but we knew exactly what was happening. The puppy in her hand, shirt wrong side out, begging that she was hungry, all part of the plan. In the end we decided that because we knew, and wern´t oblivious to the fact, that it was ok to give her the little change we had to spare. But then I still didn´t know if what we had done was good. Were we just feeding the Roma people, and doing exactly what they wanted? I try to tell myself no, but in fact we were. They send out their children to collect money via begging, and we handed over the money. It doesn´t matter that we knew, we still couldn´t resist and gave the girl change. I felt like I had just whole heartly supported what the Roma people do, begging for money instead of working. I do not want to support the Roma to be lazy and not work. But in fact I just had.

The rest of the afternoon passed without incident and we left the mall and wandered home. I didn´t tell my host parents what happened, and I don´t plan to. They would most likely scold me for giving money to Roma children and tell me next time to ignore them and tell them to go away, for that is what all the rich here do, they ignore the Roma people.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

After 6 Weeks

So I have been in Slovakia since August 17th and it is September 28th, 6 weeks to this day. I am pleased to say that I have officially settled in. The strangness has worn off and I have settled into a routine. Now that the first shock of being thrown into this culture has worn off I am starting to see the little differences, rather than just the big ones.

Of coarse the really big differences are there, the different language, food, and clothing. But after I have met many people and have been in different situations, I can start to see the little things. Like the way people greet each other. Often within families when 2 women meet they hug. Not here. The Slovaks do not hug, at all. I actually have not seen any type of hugging since I have been here. Instead they do a kiss on each cheek and a handshake. Shaking hands is very important here, and everyone does it. Also when shaking hands you must remove any glove that you might be wearing (hint hint Mr. President!) otherwise it is considered very rude.

Most travel books that I have read tell in some way how the Slovaks will not start random conversations while waiting in line or at the bus stop. But I have found this not to be true at all. Almost every day I am approached by a stranger either asking directions or wanting to talk. One day while waiting for the tram a lady approached me and started in on a conversation. When I asked her to please speak slowly, for my slovak is still not that good, she was very interested in who I was and what I was doing here. A very nice lady, though I did not catch her name, and after wishing me luck in Bratislava, and commenting on my good slovak, she boarded her train and I haven´t seen her since. I can´t decide if itś just my approachable nature or if these people just are more open than most, but I can almost always count on some conversation on my way home from school.

These 6 weeks have not proven easy, and there have been homesick times but the overall feeling has been good. I feel more settled in now like I actually live here rather than just visiting. I´m glad the feeling of complete tourist has worn off, and I blend in better. That does not mean that it will be all out smooth sailing from here but the first big hump is over and now I can sit back and relax for the time being.

Monday, August 11, 2008

First Post

Well, this is my first post on this blog. I don't really know what I'm doing, except that I'm trying to figure out how this blog works. I leave August 16th, this Saturday, to go to Bratislava, Slovakia for one year as a foreign exchange student. Yay me! This is a picture of Slovakia, not really where I'm going. I just thought this was an awesome picture. I'm going to try to use this blog to keep everyone updated on how I'm doing. I'll also try and get all my pictures on here, maybe. At least the important ones.