Greetings to all of you blog enthusiasts. I apologize for the amount of time it has taken me to write a new entry, but really I have had nothing new or too exciting to write about until now. I know, I know, we are living in Europe and I’m claiming to have nothing exciting to share. That may strike some of you as strange, but really, life moves on here as it does anywhere. Day to day existence has its share of monotonous moments no matter where one lives, and here it is no exception. Maybe that means we are really settling in and thinking of Nitra as home. It sure feels that way, especially after being away for several days, which is what I’ll be telling you all about in this entry.
Last Tuesday afternoon we set out for Bratislava for a few days of an official orientation to the Fulbright program. We were looking forward to meeting fellow Fulbrighters, learning more about the ins and outs of life in Slovakia, and meeting the US Ambassador to the country, Rudolphe Vallee. By the end of our three-day stay, we left with far more than we had hoped for. New friendships were formed, and while I can only speak for myself, I think Mark would agree that we came home with an even deeper appreciation of the language and culture in the midst of having some plain old fun.
Mark and I arrived to the charming Hotel Tatra, near old town Bratislava, the evening before the official business was to start. We decided to fill our spare time with a trip to the Aupark shopping mall, which I described in an earlier entry, dinner, and a movie. The movie experience was fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, we had to find the movie house, which is located on an out-of-the way back street. We then proceeded to the actual screening area found in the basement of the building. No popcorn or candy here, folks. This is serious movie business. Mark, of course, found a native speaker to practice conversational Slovak with while we waited in line. It’s amazing how outgoing he has become in this country. He’ll approach total strangers with no hesitation. It’s really endearing, actually. He’s a brave soul.
One of the reasons we wanted to see the movie, Paper Heads (English translation), is that it was in the Slovak language with subtitles, and was done by a Slovak. The movie was a documentary about life in Slovakia just prior to the communist occupation, and then up through the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism here. It was an interesting exploration of a native’s perspective on the pros and cons of both communism and the current fledgling democracy.
Early Wednesday morning, we met for the first time with the ladies in charge of Fulbright administration here in Slovakia, as well as all of the other American Fulbright recipients. Here are some pictures with descriptions so you can put names with faces as you read the rest of the blog.
I feel terrible about the fact that I did not get a good picture of Nora, who you can see sitting at the table here in profile. She is the executive director of Fulbright operations here in Slovkia. Nora is just a wonderful person and really knows how to take care of people. She has been extraordinarily helpful and has taken a personal interest in helping us receive the best possible care for the baby, as well as assisting us in meeting our daily living needs. We would be lost without her!
Next to Nora are Susan and Chuck Routh, a very friendly and travel-experienced couple from Seattle, Washington. Chuck will be doing his work in Bratislava teaching international law, and Susan will be enjoying a much-deserved break from teaching while they are here. She taught English while the two of them lived in Japan for a couple of years. Chuck and Susan enjoy traveling and have many interesting experiences to share about their adventures. As some of you know, Mark’s uncle Bob used to live in Seattle, so that was an interesting connection for Mark to explore. The four of us discovered our mutual love of (or is it addiction to) chocolate while we were together in Bratislava!
And here is a picture of (from left) Maria, Viera, and Joshua Purvis. Maria and Viera are the two other lovely Fulbright administrative assistants who made life so enjoyable for us while we were in Bratislava. We came to know Maria as our golden-haired angel, and Viera as our angel of kindness. Both have such a sweetness about them which shined through in everything they did during those few days.
Joshua, oh Joshua. What a guy! Josh comes to Slovakia fresh out of Wheaton College out east. He has already started teaching English in the city of Martin, near Zilina. Many of his students are eighteen years old, just a few years his juniors, and this is his first teaching experience. Pretty amazing. Josh is an “All-American Guy.” Charming, gregarious, and eager to experience this new culture. Don’t be fooled by his age, though, because he’s already a man of the world. This is not his first experience living abroad. He has already spent considerable time living in Scotland, and I think would like to continue this habit of living in new places and traveling while he is relatively young. Josh was very serious about exploring the culture of Bratislava during our time there by selflessly committing himself to spending countless hours at downtown establishments until the wee hours of the morning. I think he’ll continue to work hard at being a top-notch goodwill ambassador for our country–especially among the Slovak zena.
Above you see three more lovely ladies. Again, I am sorry that I didn’t get a better shot of Kathy Taylor, who is in profile and on the left. Nicole Wilson is in the center, and Joan Vande Velde is on the right. Kathy is a low-key, very pleasant person to be around. She comes to Bratislava from Northern Illinois University where she specializes in ESL and Bilingual Education. It was great fun talking to Kathy about her experiences as the mother of twins and as a fellow midwesterner. Just being around her calms me down!
Nicole is yet another fresh-out-of college first-time teacher, like Josh. She did her undergraduate work at Bowdoin College in Maine and has already begun teaching English in Bratislava. Yet another surprising connection we discovered is that Nicole was a student at Iolani School in Honolulu while Mark and I were there several years ago. It was fun to talk with her about our mutual interest in the situation with the Roma here in Slovakia. Nicole is an incredibly sweet and capable young woman, and we know she’ll do a marvelous job while she is here.
Joan Vande Velde comes here from The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Illinois, and I’m regretful that I did not get more of a chance to get to know her during our few days together. What I can tell you about Joan is that she brings expertise in working with children in the area of physical education among other things. She’ll be living and teaching in Bratislava. We both hope to get to know her better during our time here.
Sitting here with Nicole and Joan is Jon Bowermaster, another young, yet quite accomplished young man from San Diego University, California. Jon will be teaching English to officeres and personnel at the Police Academy in Bratislava. He is conversant in Russian, but to his dismay, I think, won’t be able to use it much here, as most folks don’t want to hear Russian for obvious reasons stemming from the communist occupation. Jon is quite jovial, and like Joshua, seems interested in soaking up as much of the Bratislava culture as he can.
Here are Janeil Engelstad and Jon Covel. I think I could write pages about Janeil because I got the chance to talk with her quite a bit, and because she’s one interesting lady with some amazing life experiences. She comes here from Lillstreet Learning Center in Illinois, and will be working with the folks at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava in Arts Administration. Janeil has shared her talents in and passion for the arts with refugees from the Sudan and inner city gang members in LA, as well as with a myriad of other challenging groups. She lived in Eastern Europe during the communist occupation, which was fascinating to hear her talk about. Her confidence and competance are clearly evident and she will no doubt give as much as she receives during her stay in Bratislava.
Jon Covel is one who struck both of us immediately as a truly kind and humble person. He came here from Harrisonburg High School in Virginia. Jon is a math teacher with a particular love of and interest in geometry. He comes off as a warm, courteous, and serious scholar interested in learning about his new environment, and in doing the best he can for his students. Jon and Mark discovered that they are mutually connected to Allen Stevo. Allen is a distant cousin of Mark’s. We spent time with him a few years ago during our first trip here to Slovkia. At the time, Allen was teaching English at the Evangelic Lyceum in Bratislava. Allen since returned here to Slovakia, but this time as a writer. Apparently, he occasionally visits his old haunts and is something of a legend among his students there. Jon recently spent a couple of days hiking and camping in the High Tatra mountains with Allen, and can attest to his magnetic personality.
And finally, here is Jennifer Goldsmith sitting with Maria. Jen comes from Marist College in New York where she works in theater and journalism. She is a fellow Nitran this year and will be teaching at UFK with Mark, though not in the same department. She lives about three miles from our apartment and we certainly look forward to spending time with her during our stay. I’m sure I’ll have lots more to tell you about Jennifer as we get to know one another better, but I can tell you right now that she is a very sweet and obviously bright young woman with much to offer her students. She just got to Slovakia a few days ago and is already teaching today. Now that’s courage!
This is turning out to be a longer entry than I had anticipated (long-windedness is a problem for me!), so I think I’ll just try to tell about the rest of our time in Bratislava through a series of short-captioned pictures.
Each morning up until lunch was spent either learning about the Slovak culture, or receiving language instruction. The afternoons and evenings were spent engaged in various social and cultural endeavors. What follows are the highlights of those experiences.
The next series of photos were all taken during our sight-seeing adventures of Old Towne on Thursday afternoon.
This is Mark and me with our lovely tour guide, Katarina. We hope Alice, Don, and Randi Brockman are reading this blog. Rememeber Katarina from your trip to Slovakia? She sends warm greetings and remembers you fondly!
Ok, the next series of pictures merit a little background information. Thursday evening was quite special because we were the “distinguished guests” for dinner of the US Ambassador and his wife at their gorgeous home up on the hill. As you can see from the pictures, the house really does look like a smaller version of the White House, and indeed, is referred to as the “Little White House” here in Slovakia. Ambassador Vallee and his wife were very gracious and engaging hosts that evening. Mark and I had the opportunity to talk to the Ambassador for quite awhile and were both impressed by his interest in assimilating into the culture by putting forth an honest effort to learn the language and by traveling to many parts of the country involving himself with the people in a variety of venues. He’s a big hockey fan and shared a couple of humorous stories about his experiences at hockey events here. Ambassador Vallee comes from Vermont where he is in the maple syrup business. He is a good friend of President and Laura Bush, which is quite evident by all the personal effects displayed around his home featuring the President and the First Lady. He gave a very nice introductory speech about the importance of education and its significance in building relationships among cultures–a belief we obviously share with him.
And after our typical morning and a free afternoon spent shopping on Friday, we all went to the ballet in the evening. We saw a stunningly beautiful performance of Le Corsaire. The pictures in no way do the set or the costumes any justice, nor can you get a true sense of the splendor inside the International Opera House.
The ballet was a fitting end to a magical, whirlwind of a few days spent among new friends in beautiful Bratislava. We will add brilliant memories from this trip to the store that is already stacking up quite high during our time here in Slovakia.
I’m going to end with a picture of myself requested by several friends and family back home that are quite interested in what I now look like six months into my pregnancy. Mark took this of me yesterday in front of a very cool, very long wall of graffiti here in Nitra. So here it is…the much anticipated 6-month belly with a formerly in-shape woman attached to it!