Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Language Barrier

I'm quickly beginning to realize that this blog is turning into the travel channel so I thought I would humor both myself and everyone with an actual post about "living" abroad. Long story short, it is not all coming up roses all of the time. There is this period of five days during the week where the opportunity to travel to another city does not present itself and I have to deal with the day to day like most normal human beings. Being in a strange country, with a different language and culture though makes these five days a little difficult at times.

Before I left Canada, I didn't think that the language barrier would be a problem for me. I was so sure that my knowledge of Croatian, which is a Slavic language, would be close to Slovak. The other bigger misconception I had was that "everybody will speak at least a little English." Well I kind of struck out twice. Yes there are some words that are similar to Croatian however these are few and far between. Listening to a conversation, I maybe catch every twentieth word and lets hope this word has some significance to the central theme of the converstation. Usually I lose interest in trying to figure it out that I just zone out. Secondly, NO not everyone speaks English and expecting it was kind of foolish of me and a bit ignorant I must admit.

With this in mind, every day normal tasks become not so everyday. I was really disapointed that certain institutions like the bank, post office, or the "foreign" police did not have an english representation. When I went to open my account I had to have an AIESEC representative with me who couldn't exactly translate everything. Bottom line was "sign here." The funny thing is that there are signs in the bank that are posted in English. I also received a phone call from them the other day and when I expressed that "nerazumijem" (I don't understand) she told my co-worker that someone would call me back in English. Well we're still waiting on that phonecall. I'm not even going to allow myself to rant on about the foreign police because I could probably write a book about it. Moral of the story is that if you don't have someone who speaks the language to help you out then you would be hard pressed to get some of these things accomplished on your own.

Other tasks like going to the grocery store or buying a bus ticket or going out for dinner require you to speak some Slovak or become a professional pointer (sorry mom I know its rude to point!) Most of the menu's do not have english translations so you pick something and hope for the best. Luckily you'd be hard pressed to select something that doesn't taste well.

I've learned to deal with all of this by learnign some of the common words here and using hand gestures, and no its not the kind you are thinking of. You become more bold after some time and don't hesitate as much in trying to ask for whatever. The thing that I am really missing though is being able to communicate with people through everyday conversations. You know, the water cooler talks. I know I like to talk a lot and I'm sure Alex and my sister can attest to this the most but I also like listening to other peoples stories and it kills me when someone cannot explain what they are trying to say to me. I try guessing but that often leads to what I like to call the "I give up so I will agree with her ! YES." It seems to come down to that individual not wanting to feel stupid by not understanding so they just agree with what I say in an effort to get off of the uncomfortable topic. Really they shouldn't though, becuase I don't understand most of whats going on around me so we're kind of in the same boat.

At work, my two bosses speak ok English but sometimes I will ask a question and the answer will be something way off in left field leading me to the conclusion that he did not understand my actual question. Getting down to exactly what is expected of me also took some time. When I go for lunch with a couple of co-workers they talk amongst themselves and they will try to involve me as much as they can but I sit there eating my soup in silence, not being able to contribute. One guy that I work with seems like such a joker and I wish I could understand his humor. When my boss brings me along to meetings they always start out by saying; Blanka we will just speak in Slovak for a couple of minutes, and an hour later I am still sitting there staring off into space. Because I have all of this time to just sit there with my own thoughts, so many things cross my mind that it is borderline annoying. I need to learn how to meditate and just block everything out.

All of this is not wasted on me though. I'm starting to value knowing anothing language that much more. I'm trying to take advantage of the spaced out moments to get to know myself better. And I know that one day more important lessons about this experience will become apparent to me.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stodolni Tour

In an effort to meet trainees from other countries, my roommate and I decided to tag along with the Czech interns at the famous Stodolni tour in Ostrava. It is a yearly event that is comparable to a pub crawl except that all of the bars and clubs are on one street "Stodolni" hence the name. After a two hour train ride, and red bull in hand, we were ready to party like its 1999. Figured we had a lot of making up to do after a lack of it here in Zilina. Ostrava as a city has yet to shed its past communist looking buildings and industrial background but it has Stodolni street so a reason to visit!

After a nice lunch and a sightseeing tour (in the dark), we headed to the Pilsner Urquell restaurant where we were met by trainees from all over Czech Republic. The entertainment for the evening began with a good old fashioned drag queen show followed by some less professional drag queens (I wish not to elaborate... "he" can tell you about it himself!!). This is the perfect time to adopt the Las Vegas saying that what happens at Stodlni Tour, stays at Stodolni tour.

The rest of the night was open for bar hopping from one place to the other although the majority of people congregated in one bar for the night. I went and explored the whole street only to find that really there is only a couple great clubs. Oh and as per usual, I sampled some more food;) This time it was some juicy burgers, perfect after a long night of partying. Overall a really great time was had, met some awesome people, with great stories, and hope to see them all in the future sometime. I was so happy to become reacquianted with my pillow this morning at 7 am.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Brrrr sucks to be in Calgary

I have this daily activity of checking the Calgary Herald website for the latest news and weather. I donno, maybe a way to still feel like I'm still in the loop. So today I was checking the weather forecast and I was shocked at how cold it will be in the next couple days. -29 as a low and a woppin g -25 as a high, brrr. I feel a little bad gloating about the +10 degrees here for the next week (nah actually I don't feel so bad). Still I forgot how cold it gets to be in Calgary. I don't think the warm weather here is the norm and its certainly means bad news for ski resorts but I'm not complaining.
Bundle up Calgary!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Cheese" Burger

Here is something to know for anyone that is planning on eating a cheeseburger in Slovakia. Last night I went to the Buffet at the dorms to grab a quick bite to eat, didn't feel like cooking. I ordered a cheeseburger with fries, without thinking twice about it. What I got was not a meat patty with cheese on top. Instead I got breaded fried cheese in a bun!! I was pissed but I had to laugh about it because to everyone here it was so obvious that a cheeseburger is literally fried cheese. When I tried to explain why I thought it would be otherwise, I ended up proving myself wrong by mentioning other "burger" possibilities such as the chicken burger. Anyways FYI.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Vienna Christmas Market

I'm happy to report that Vienna and the Christmas markets lived up to my expectations. Brace yourself, this is likely to be a long one because there is so much to tell.

I arrived in Vienna on Thursday night after a really comfy four hour train ride. To say the least, I was buzzing with excitement and had to concentrate to keep from smiling to myself. While I waited for Alex to arrive, on the "not so on time" bus schedules, I decided I would start experiencing Vienna in true fashion with a Viennese coffee known as melange (probably not the smartest thing to be drinking at 9 pm). Once Alex arrived, it was off to our hotel. Lately I'm always weary of how accurate the room pictures online are comparable to the actual, trick photography and fancy lighting can do wonders. Luckily this one stayed true to website photos and for the price it was great. It was also in a really great location with a tram stop directly across the street from the hotel that went into the city center. The transportation system in Vienna is so well designed; we never waited more than 2 minutes for any metro or tram to come by and it was so easy to get around.

We spent Friday exploring the "Ring Road" or the inner city sights. Actually, unbeknownst to us, our first sight turned out to be the University of Vienna. This building was absolutely beautiful and I think if I could, I would never stop going to school there. Suddenly I am contemplating a master degree ;) Other significant sights within walking distance included the parliament building, Alex was absolutely amused by the modern technology on the inside; Hofburg Imperial building which was huge and house to many other sights such as the butterfly house (yes we blew the 5 euros to go in but I would recommend skipping it); Natural History Museum; National Theatre and St. Stephens Cathedral. Because there is so much to see in Vienna, we didn't get to do many of the tours, rather we sampled a bit of everything. At night we also made it to the Prater, a giant ferris wheel that overlooks the city. Being that it is the middle of November, the sun sets pretty early and cuts down on a lot of your sightseeing time.
Saturday was the day that I was really looking forward to, the start of the Christmas market. We started the day early by going to the Belvedere Palace and taking in the art collections as the palace now acts as a museum for the most part. I realized that I am not a big fan of portraiture especially after seeing what felt like hundreds of them. What I did enjoy however was some of the more recognizable painting by artists like Edward Munch, Monet, Van Goe, Renoir, Manet. They were all lined up one next to the other and I was really impressed to be able to see some of these paintings in person.

The first Christmas market was at the Shonbrunn Palace, yet another monstrous, beautiful building that was the summer residence for the imperial family. Things took a bit of a downward turn when we found out that the apple strudel cooking demonstration in the palace cafe was not available because they were hosting children's Christmas cookie baking classes. Freaking Kids get to have all the fun! Yes I realize that we are pathetic but the idea of watching the pastry chef prepare the apple strudel and then being able to eat it fresh out of the oven was something that really appealed to both of us. It wasn't a total disappointment because we still got to eat the apple strudel after some traditional Viennese schnitzel. The meal was HUGE and I don't know how one person can eat the whole thing so we were glad to be sharing it.

As we made our way outside to the market I was overcome with by all of the sights, smells and sounds that will forever remind me of Vienna. It is essential to start your Christmas market experience with some Glubwein, aka boiled wine. While sipping on hot wine, we walked around the different stands that were selling everything from crafts, toys, chocolates, cookies, liquor, etc. the list goes on and on. Sampling the food was probably our favorite part, trying everything from roasted chestnuts, to melted cheese sandwiches, to salty potato pancakes, to chocolate covered strawberries. In the background, the big Christmas tree was lit up and carolers were singing on the stage. I saw so many cute kids laughing it up and I hope to one day be able to bring my own children to experience this.

The other market was in front of Rathaus or city hall. This one was even more elaborate and certainly more crowded. While the glubwein was still flowing, we continued to sample more street food and walked around the Christmas stands. The trees around the park in front of Rathaus were decorated with different ornaments such as snowmen, or wreaths. I was very amused by all of the decorations and the lights. After we had our take of everything that the Christmas markets had to offer, we headed into the city center to see what was happening there. I was further charmed by a cello player performing Ave Maria in the city square and the reality of it all gave me goosebumps. This was the perfect way to end the day and I slept like a rock that night; I suppose 10 hours of walking will do that to you.

On Sunday we had one mission and that was to find the Hundertwasser Haus, a colorful, unconventionally designed set of apartment buildings just outside of the city center. Among all of Vienna's ornate buildings and statues it was really interesting to see this building that looked like something out of a cartoon. While we wanted to walk through the Natural History Museum, there was not enough time for it. Capping the weekend off with a big lunch and another visit to the Christmas market was perfect.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

University Graduate

Today I officially graduate from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary with a Bcomm in Marketing. Seeing as how I am thousands of miles away from Calgary, I will not be attending my convocation ceremony, rather my degree will come in the mail. I'm a bit sad that I don't get to experience walking across the stage to receive my degree and that I won't have those Kodak moments from such an important day. Part of it is more for my parents with me being the first one in my family to finish University. I will take solace though in knowing that I worked really hard to get there and if ever in doubt I do have my grad photos as proof.

As for celebrations, well I partied hard with the fam dam in Calgary before I left and tonight I plan on commemorating the day with a bottle of Slovak wine with my roommate. Thanks to my folks who are helping to sponsor my trip to Vienna this weekend as part of my grad present although they have done so much more than that. I wouldn't be where I am today without their support. So to the class of November 2006, congratulations and best of luck in the future.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Weekend in Svit and the High Tatras

This past weekend I went with my friend Josef, a member of the local here in Zilina to his hometown Svit, a village just outside of Poprad. Now here is a little bit of irony; up until the last decade, Svit was originally named Canada because the village was established by Bata shoes company who sent engineers to Canada in search of better factory and building designs. My understanding of it is that Bata had a company policy of setting up villages around the factories for the workers, hence Svit, or previously Canada, was born. I thought they might be pulling my leg about the whole name thing until Josef introduced me to his friend and said "this is Blanka from Canada." His friend became a little confused thinking that I was from the village Canada and he didn't believe him. Josef had to reassure him that I was from the REAL Canada.

Being so close to the High Tatras, the famous high mountains that run through Northern Slovakia, on Saturday we drove up to have a closer look. The mountains were quite beautiful but again pale in comparison to the Rockies. We walked up to the ski resort, Strbske Pleso, and people were already taking in the ski hills. Because the High Tatras are at a higher elevation, they already have snow unlike many of the other ski resorts in Slovakia. We then srolled around this lake in Strbske Pleso and the whole time talked about how we both live so close to this beautiful scenery and yet we rarely take advantage of it and explore it. The rest of the day, and much of the weekend was spent eating, and eating some more becasue his mom and dad were so generous and took very good care of me.

On Sunday we headed to Poprad where we took in the spa at Aquacity. This spa was really nice and had many different attractions to offer. We had access to several indoor pools, outdoor thermal pools and vital world which is a collection of many sauna's, steamrooms, and other relaxation areas. I've never spent more time in sauna's as I did yesterday and by the end I was thoroughly relaxed. All in all it was a great weekend to just hang out, eat, and take in the sights. Thanks to Josef and his parents for being so welcoming.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sit Down Already

Not having used public transportation all that much in Calgary, it was a little hard getting used to taking a bus to get to where I want to go here in Zilina. Don't get me wrong, its not like I never stepped on a bus or train in Calgary, once in a while from work or from the university into downtown but then once I got home I had my car. It was just easier hopping into my gas guzzling machine. With Calgary being so spread out, taking public transportation was sometimes beyond impossible, especially to the newer suburbs. Here I can get from the dorms into downtown within a matter of 15 mins and its pretty easy to figure out where the bus lines run. Only downfall is that if you want to go out into the city, then you better head home early because they stop running by like 10:30 pm. Apparently there is a night bus every couple of hours but I usually opt for the taxi because I am impatient and hate waiting.

Zilina busses; powered by electricity!!

I have come to understand bus etiquette the longer that I am here but I am still perplexed by one thing: when seats open up why don't people just sit down?? This morning the bus was packed and this situation could have been relieved somewhat if people would just sit down. Too bad I was stuck in the middle of it because I would have sat down so fast.

This all stems from the bus etiquette; you stand up for the elderly or others who can't for some reason stand. Ok fine, I got that much in Calgary or manners in general. But some people take it to a new level. There are two stops when many people get off; that being the main bus and train station. After that, you can find a seat no problem. However, for some reason people keep standing as if waiting in anticipation of the next stop when they might have to stand up again, but that's usually not the case. I used to sit down, not knowing otherwise and then one day a Slovak woman screamed at me because another woman with two small children had gotten onto the bus. Apparently I was supposed to jump at the sight of this and offer my seat. It's too bad I don't speak the language; one because I would have liked to know what she said to me, it sounded pretty bad, and two because I would have told her that she could have gotten off of her lazy ass too! Ok maybe its better that I don't know the language in that situation. In any case, even though I sometime feel like I'm being glared at, I will continue to sit down whenever I can, because I can!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Cure for a Bad Mood

Yesterday morning I woke up in a really crabby mood and then it progressively got worse. I opened my blinds only to be confronted with a thick block of fog. Weather tends to play a big part in this equation. Then my bus decides that today is a good day not to show up making me stand outside in the thick fog for another half an hour. I arrive late at work to find both of my bosses there bright and early, something that never happens. After a somewhat productive morning at work, I still can't shake the crabbiness. Then as I was researching ski operators in Europe, I came across Austria, and it reminded me that I am going there on the 16th.

So here comes the cure.... start planning your next trip. I researched everything there was to do and know about Vienna. In particular I was really amused by the Christmas market that will begin the weekend that Alex and I will be there ( The Viennese Christmas market dates back 7 centuries and it looks like it has retained much of its origins. The market is set up in the square in front of the City Hall, around elaborately decorated trees, with different stall featuring delicacies, roasted chestnuts, boiled wine, hand made crafts and jewelery. The Schonbrunn Castle is also decorate and features another market in front.

In short, I am ubber excited for this trip. It looks so charming and I really hope that it lives up to the high expectations that I have developed as a result of all this research. It was definately the cure for my bad mood though because by the end of the day I had perked up a lot. So give it a shot; I realize Vienna is something exceptional but even a trip to Banff for all the Calgarians could work. Come to think of it, I haven't really explored Banff for everything it has to offer (I guess a weekend trip to the bars thinking you're escaping the Calgary crowd, only to find the same people there, doesn't count).

Friday, November 03, 2006

All Saints Day

Couple days late but here is a picture from the entrance of the cemetary in Zilina. November 1 is All Saints day and it is customary that people visit loved ones graves and put flowers and candles on them. I'm not going to get into the spiritual background of it but it was quite the sight in the evening with all of the candles flickering in the wind. I walked to the top of the cemetary and looked down and pictures just don't do it justice. It's a beatiful tradition.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Its Snowing!!

That's right, winter has arrived in Zilina with the first snowfall of the season. So far its barely enough to cover the leaves that have fallen from the trees but its floating in the air. Apparently there was 10 cm at the ski resort though so here's hoping that it keeps up for business! I felt a little out of the loop with the fashion trends today though because everyone showed up at my office in a turtleneck sweater. I generally hate turtleneck's and find them constricting but I guess that will have to change. I'm also starting to catch a cold so I better bundle up.