Some titles make sense, and some viscous turtles assonate jurisprudence

Well, I’ve finally realized it. I can’t keep constant updates of my blog, or even every two weeks. I’m just getting worse and worse. However, I see this as an excellent sign; it means that I am so absorbed and involved with my Slovak life that keeping Americans up to date comes in second place. I don’t mean to be mean, and in no way does it mean that I’ve forgotten anyone, but I’m simply in my groove.

I was counting it up the other day and realized that I have only 25 weeks left here. And though writing it like that makes it seem unbearably short, I also take into account the fact that the 18.5 weeks I’ve been here thus far have seemed like a lifetime. Regardless of how long the first part may have seemed to me, it’s always my experience that the second half of anything you enjoy will always go faster. Just think—whatever happened to the second have of that ice cream sundae? Or the last lap on a go-kart track? They all disappear faster than Rick Santorum at a Gay Pride Parade.

I think it’s an excellent time to make a list of goals to accomplish before I return to the temporary residence of the Frost Giants (or Illinois, at it used to be called…), since I know that I’ll be forever chagrined if I fail to do so. In addition to achieving lifelong friendships and becoming conversant in another language, I’ve included some more quantitatively measurable goals. Among these are mostly travel goals, primarily being to go to Budapest, anywhere in Germany, and if possible, to Istanbul.

Speaking of making the most of everything I have…

I’d frequently berated myself for choosing to Slovakia to spend a year abroad; after all, what use will I find in a language with only five million native speakers? But recently, I’ve realized. It’s not necessarily the utility of the language (which I also underestimated, as Slovak makes it easy to understand the basics of all the other Slavic languages), but rather the process of learning it. I could have gone to a Spanish-speaking country and implemented my four years of preparation in that language, but I’d be missing out on a critical experience. I knew maybe ten words of Slovak when I walked off the plane, but now, even by conversing with people who don’t know any English with which to translate for me, I’ve learned the language. It’s remarkable, and gives me more confidence for throwing myself into new countries to learn languages with which I have no familiarity.

With the philosophy lesson out of the way, I’ll try to give a *cough * brief *cough * review of my activities for the past month or so. Primarily, they are Christmas/holiday related.

First of all, at a special holiday celebration in the auditorium on the last school day of the semester, the principal was giving out various awards to different students. I received an award for “best foreign student” (apparently, he missed the memo where I’m the only foreign student in my class, school, and city in general).

Second, I had some fantastic Christmas food. Here, it’s tradition to keep a live carp in the bathtub for a few days, and then kill and eat it on Christmas Eve. It was quite tasty, but I’ll admit it surprised me quite a lot when I found a fish in the tub. Luckily, I have the upstairs shower, so I didn’t have to share the soap with my piscine friend. Apart from that, there were lots of cookies and other meats and vegetables—all very hearty. I’ve probably gained several pounds.

As for gifts, I received some books with landscape photography of the Tatras, a book from my math teacher about travel, both in English and Slovak, a Christmas ornament, a CD of Slovak Christmas Carols, and a traditional hat from the Goralsky region (to the north of Poprad).

I stayed home with my host parents for the New Year, which they call “Silvester.” In fact, many days have anthropomorphized names because each day of the year has a name that goes along with it, and when your name matches that name, it’s like a minor birthday celebration. It’s not as much fun for people with uncommon names like “Quinn,” since there is no eponymous day. Anyways, here, anyone may purchase large fireworks, so the sky was lit up in many colors for a solid half hour after midnight and it sounded like there was an artillery attack.

While I did spend most of my time at home, shortly after the first of the year, my host parents took me to Zakopane in Poland (close to the border) to do some shopping. There were an incredible amount of tourists there, but Zakopane is known for its giant outdoor craft market, so it makes sense.

Aaaand that’s about it in terms of major events. Today, I started my first day of school for the spring semester, so I imagine my life will go back to normal levels of excitement. That is, apart from learning thermodynamics, thermochemistry, relativity, quantum mechanics, kinematics, calculus, German, Persian, and my other nerdy hobbies. Some things never change.

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Operation Exchange Student

Agent Gingerevans arises promptly from his slumber, his schedule hardwired so thoroughly into his subconscious that the alarm he sets is simply a perfunctory precaution.

As he arches his back to and stretches his arms behind his head. He casually glances out the window, as he usually does before packing his bag and going to headquarters, codename “The School.” However, today, his gaze remains transfixed. Just four centimeters of vitreous transparency now protect him from the howling wind assaulting a newly formed tundra. In his head, he wonders how cold it really is, mentally preparing his body for his two-kilometer trek.

That’s not quite an accurate description of how dramatic my life is, but I am allowed to let my imagination run free. At leas the description of the weather is fairly correct. There were gusts up to 100 km/h here, and there was snow and rain for a few days. The weather has now settled down for the most part, but there remains a thick coating of ice all over the ground, harassing my daily commute by foot to “The School.”

I really enjoy the holiday season here. There is a lot to be said about it; the beginning is more or less on the 5th or 6th of December, when Mikulaš (the Slovak version of Santa) comes to give gifts to all the children. It’s not in place of a regular Christmas; on the contrary, it’s in addition to the regular gift exchange on the 25th! Slovaks sure know how to do the holiday season right. More important in my opinion is the fact that Mikulaš gives chocolate and fruit and nuts, rather than other tangibles, making the experience more about sharing food and making memories with family instead of having new electronics or toys or such.

My favorite part of this Mikulaš craze that’s sweeping Poprad was the children’s dinner that my Rotary club put on. It was more about Mikulaš coming to give gifts, not about eating children, regardless of what notions “children’s dinner” might conjure up. Each child had to perform a song or poem before they received their gift; I was no exception. On the spot, I was made to recite a Christmas poem, and given the short notice, I could only recollect a few lines of “T’was the Night Before Christmas” (sorry, Clement Clarke Moore, for the butchering I inflicted upon your literature). Luckily for me, I was not made to translate it to Slovak (though Agent Gingerevans would of cooooourse do so with alacrity and adroitness), and collected my gift all the same.

As the semester winds down, I’m finding a push from a few teachers to test me, since they are required to have a certain number of grades put into the system for me, regardless of whether or not I’m an exchange student. This has lead the last few weeks to be a little more busy than usual, though not stressful, fortunately. The teachers are all very kind and are eager to help me in every way that they can.

Lastly, I just got back from an amazing weekend in Bratislava with my fellow exchange students. We had a crazy five hour train ride there, with as many as 15 students packed into a six-person car (no doubt causing endless consternation to all other passengers surrounding our compartment. The sheer electricity of finally being able to communicate in one’s native language was overpowering; we immediately ceased being the Slovaks we had grown accustomed to being over the past three and a half months, and fell right back to being tourists. We were completely shameless, and it was glorious.

We went to the Old City in Bratislava, and the next day went to Vienna, traversing the traditional Christmas markets in both cities. However, it was really Vienna that struck me as incredibly beautiful, with amazing architecture and statues everywhere you look; I would love to live there.

Of course, all fun things had to come to an end, and this was more of a startling end than most, given that the final program was a language test that will determine whether we are allowed to travel alone through the country. I don’t yet know how I did on it, but I feel fairly confident in my performance.

He lifts his tired fingers from the keyboard and leans back in his seat, admiring the newest addition to his dossier. Agent Gingerevans has once again survived Operation Exchange Student and the trails and travails involved therein.

Getting to the heart of the matter

Hello once again, my faithful readers. Wow. Saying that makes me feel like I have great power!

Anyways, it is important to note that after my last update around Halloween, I was sick for two weeks. Thus, not very much happened for me other than sitting at home. I did study a lot of math and watched a lot of movies, though—I suppose if I modify my baseline for “accomplishment,” then accomplished quite a lot during those two weeks. With this newfound power, I can modify whatever I so please… but unfortunately, I believe I was simply lazy and unproductive. Not only that, but I clashed quite a bit with my host mom since we each go about getting better differently. Stepping over that topic, though, I shall simply state that being sick in a foreign country is not fun. At all.

Regardless of the non-event that was the first two weeks since my last post, this past week has been exceptionally busy. Last Friday, after being cooped up for too long, I finally went back to school, and it felt quite nice to get back into the rhythm and talk with friends.

During the weekend, I went to visit a Methodist mission that housed a school for Roma children. My Youth Exchange Officer managed to find this place for me, as Methodism is not a common branch of Christianity in Slovakia. Together, we went there and sang and had communion with everyone; I look forward to going there next week, even though no one speaks English there. I did manage to go out with some friends that I hadn’t been out with since Halloween. I noticed that they laughed every time that I said anything in Slovak, but I never made a sound when they speak to me in heavily accented English. I made the point that we are both learning and we both bludgeon the grammar of the opposing language, so neither of us should laugh. That quieted them down.

This last week in school has been the most interesting for me: I have spoken great amounts of Slovak with my friends, and went to a special Slovak lesson to learn some grammar with the Slovak language teacher. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the language. I guess I have to because I signed up for a trivia test for the 4th of December, and it’s all in Slovak. So not only do I need to know geography and history and natural phenomena, but I need to know it in Slovak. My friends have helped, but I think it’s going to be a bit of a struggle when I take the test. Regardless of the difficulty, I look forward to it because it sounds like loads of fun and not many people can say that they took a trivia test in a foreign language.

Not only trivia tests do I study, but I also exchanged “maturitas” with my math teacher. The maturita is the Slovak version of the SAT or ACT—the test to determine aptitude for college. While the basic version has only Slovak and another foreign language, there are other optional subjects, one of which is math—the one I received. I was surprised that it wasn’t mandatory for students to take it; I suppose the importance of math isn’t as strongly impressed upon students here (and perhaps the rest of the world, too) than at IMSA. Making that point, I shall also add that I added three more math classes to my schedule, about which I am far too excited for my classmates to handle. They can’t understand why someone might be happy to have more math classes, but for me, it’s the intermediate language that both the teacher and I already speak.

I also gave a presentation in my English class on my home, but I gradually moved to the history and geography of the US. I was surprised in my own ethnocentric way that the students (and teacher) had read books that said there were 51 or 52 states. I am slated to give another presentation next week. I look forward to these presentations because it feels nice to be able to teach, even if my students don’t always understand.

Lastly, I went to visit my host father’s brother and his family. They had visited during the weekend while I was sick, so I had met them, but for fear of infecting everyone, I hadn’t interacted that much with them. However, this weekend, I took the train on the three-hour trip across Slovakia to the city of Trenčin (which was, coincidently, my first experience with European trains. It turns out they are about as slow and off-schedule as Amtrak). Getting back—on track, so to speak—this family was one of the nicest I’ve met on either side of the Atlantic. They have two darling little boys around 10 or 12 who are both learning English, so I spoke with them a lot in English, and they helped me to learn Slovak, too. They really enjoyed having someone new to talk to, especially someone foreign and exciting like myself. Not only that, but they fed me all sorts of sweets and cookies and cakes, they took me to the amazing castle that sits overlooking the city, and they had cats. I know that those three are fairly disconnected, but they’re all pretty important. Perhaps having cats most of all, since I had petted a cat just once before this weekend; I had resorted once to cuddling with a plastic inflatable Halloween decoration cat. It was relieving to have real cats.

That’s about it for now. I’ll try to post photos more frequently than I had previously so that everyone can see what I’ve been up to. I may also just post some fun writing, not just dry recounts of my different adventures. Stay tuned!