Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Presov Neighborhood Guide

Many people assume that Presov is a dull industrial town, lacking pizzazz with row after row of the same grey apartment buildings and factories. In fact, Presov is made up of a patchwork of diverse neighborhoods, each with their own character, similar to Philadelphia.

Here are some of the neighborhoods that make up this vibrant town:

Downtown: The fancy part of town, with the glitter and glitz, the Soho, Picadilly or Nob Hill of Presov, take your pick. This is where the international cuisine is located (one Chinese restaurant), along with the fancy Turkish clothiers and overpriced pizza. If you're up for a big Saturday night, whether watching some theatre or hitting the discoteque with underage Slovak village girls, this is where you are headed. And don't forget to visit the big cathedral for your weekly dose of religion!

Sidlisko III: "Sidlisko" means the same thing as the British "Housing Estate", which as far as I can tell means "vaguely depressing collection of large apartment buildings". Sidlisko III is widely considered to be the nicest of the Sidliskos, with its tree-lined street and general lack of rabid animals. It is soon to be the location of Presov's first Western fast food restaurant (either McD's or B.K., I have heard both), and is also home of a winner from "Slovakia Chooses it's Own Superstar". Her apartment has already been converted into a shrine, and is visited by literally tens of pilgrims a week.

I went to Sidlisko III once, because I fell asleep on the bus. I found it to be too opulent for my tastes. Who needs grass? Still, check it out, as I have heard there is an underground disco that offers spinning classes during the day.

Sidlisko II: I considered making some things up about Sidlisko II, because I have never been there. In fact, even though it is supposedly the second largest neighborhood in Presov, I've never even met someone from there. To be honest, I'm not even sure where it is, and there's not too many places for a large neighborhood to hide around here. Let's just assume it's a nice place, with good zmrzlina.

Solivar: Solivar is on a hill overlooking Presov, and has a nice mixture of 70's apartment buildings and beautiful homes which are reputedly owned by members of the Mafia. It also has not one but two bowling alleys.

Quick digression: I am not a strong bowler by any means, having once rolled a 32 at the age of 26 while trying very hard. Here in Slovakia bowling is a new sport, with the first alley opening in Presov two years ago. Therefore I was excited to be invited by my 17 year-old neighbor to go bowling with him and his friends, as I expected to be viewed as a bowling God. I rolled what I believe to be a personal best, a 117, and I believe that I would have become a Presov legend if my neighbor didn't break 150 in his first game ever. What can you do?

Anyway, Solivar is also home to (supposedly, and I am too lazy to fact check this) one of only two operating opal mines in the world. I still haven't found this mine, but when I do I assume that I will take numerous poorly-focused pictures of it for your pleasure. In short, visit Solivar for its many attractions, it is the Disney World of Presov.

Sibirska: Sibirska, as its name suggests, is a neighborhood which is situated as far away from civilization as possible without actually being in Poland. Many of my colleagues live there, as the school went out of their way to find them the cheapest apartments in town, and they often talk of "going to Sibirska" the way I assume Solzhenitsyn talked of going to Siberia. So I never finished that book, but whatever.

Sibirska is home to some of the only sleddable hills in Presov, and is conveniently located close to my neighborhood. Check it out, but take the bus.

Sekcov/Opal: This is my hood, Sekcov, which is actually Sidlisko I. When I tell people I live in Sekcov, they look at me like I am lucky to be alive. And perhaps I am.

Sekcov, and particularly its sub-neighborhood Opal, which I live in, have a reputation for having the most "aggressive" people in Presov. I believe it. I once saw an old lady hit a skater kid with her bag. I also once saw a drunk man yell at a dog, who barked back, with no apparent winner in the debate. This is enough to make most people clear out, but I stand by my people, and tough it out in Sekcov.

I took a bunch of pictures of Sekcov, to show how we live around these parts. Let me take you on a little tour...

The Drugstore:

Every neighborhood has a drug store, or a Lekaren if you will. I've only been in one a couple times, but this was enough to realize that there is seemingly no rhyme or reason as to what requires a prescription and what doesn't. When I tried to get an Excedrin substitute, the lady seemed to think I needed a doctor's note, and I'm pretty sure that I saw sunblock kept behind the counter. On the other hand, I once saw a lady in a babushka walk out with a large bag of PCP (OK, I am lying for your entertainment, even though it is against my principles. You are welcome). I can tell you that eyedrops are more expensive here that in the States, so be sure to bring your own, and a Slovak-English dictionary to translate "itch".

The Church:

As I've mentioned before in this bloggy-thing, religion is central to most people's lives here in Slovakia. During the Communist regime going to church was allowed, but was also the quickest way to get you in the doghouse with the local government, who determined where you went to school and whether you had a job that was pleasant. Now that everyone is free to go, it seems that everyone does, and the church is often so full that people spill out onto the sidewalk. Here is the local church next to my apartment, I have nothing smarmy to say about it:


Opal is really just a square filled with shops, where people from the neighborhood can get most of what they need. Supposedly this square can be treacherous at night, when drunken people spill out of the pub, looking for someone to raise their voice at (the Slovak version of violence). I've never seen this, but if I do, I will try to get a picture. Here is Opal Center:

Allow me to show you all that Opal has to offer:

The Gymnasium:

I was quite excited when I saw that there was a gymnasium next to my apartment, as I figured it would be useful to counteract the massive amount of pierogies I was sure to eat. For those of you who speak German, you already probably know that a Gymnasium, around these parts, is a school for kids up to about 17 years old. I assume that when I walked into the gymnasium in the middle of a warm September day, wearing running shorts and my "Fireballs" t-shirt and brandishing my budget Slovak dictionary, the staff immediately pegged me as "The American Pedophile". At least that would explain their looks of terror.

The ATM:

Also known as a bankomat, this is where I get my cash. You can see the current Slovak Koruna/U.S. Dollar exchange rate here, if you're really hard up for something to do.

The Butcher Shop (Maso Udeniny):

In each neighborhood you also have a number of butcher shops, each which are stocked with 78 types of salami, a piece of a pig's ass and possibly a live chicken. What they don't seem to have, to my great consternation, is ground beef. I have been promising many people a "hamburger party" in the coming weeks, due to my acquisition of K.C. Masterpiece BBQ sauce back home and subsequent discovery of decent buns at the mini-Tesco on Hlavne Street. The fly in the ointment is the lack of beef at the butchers, and my inability to find a good translation of the word "ground" or impress on the nice lady at the shop my desire for "the kind of meat that McDonald's uses". I may have to go to Hungary to get it, but I will, because like St. Patrick bringing the gospel to Ireland I will make these people some burgers cooked on a charcoal grill.

As a fun way to better understand my situation, get a partner and play charades with the clue being "ground beef".

Dueling Potravinies:

A Potraviny is a smallish grocery store, akin to a large bodega, in which you can buy staple foods and perhaps some strange Ukrainian candy. In Opal you have your choice of two, the Milk Agro and the CBA, both of which have their devotees. I tend not to admit favoring one or the other in conversation with the locals, because deep seated prejudices can flare to the surface, and you can quickly find yourself being spoken to loudly.

First we have the Milk Agro:

Although the Milk Agro is smaller than CBA, they have fresher bread and a never-ending supply of Saris Tmave dark beer. They also have cooler-looking grocery bags which are less likely to break. They do not have much of a selection of produce, but as you will see this is not always a bad thing...

The CBA has a couple things going for it, a larger store and more stuff. The downside to keeping so much stuff around, I assume, is that it is harder to keep track of it, especially to be sure that your food is not being infested with vermin. At the risk of a libel suit, I will recall my first visit to CBA, where I came upon the produce section which consisted of random pieces of fruit lying on the ground, some clearly around since the Meciar Government (Slovak joke), emanating a most un-fruit like smell. This was a bit of a turn-off even for me, someone who follows the five-hour rule when eating food that has fell on the floor. I assume it was just a bad day.

In CBA's favor, however, they have some great frozen pierogies, and I once saw Mountain Dew on the shelf.

Verdict: Milk Agro!

The Posta:

Here is my local branch of the Post Office, Posta #8. In Slovakia the Post Office does it all, you can buy almost anything from boxes and lotto tickets to phone cards. You can bring in your envelope and they will weigh it and stamp it for you, and you can also pay your bills. It is extremely convenient, and the employees almost never fly off the handle and blow each other away.

The Homemade Wine Place:

As you might expect, the homemade wine place usually serves up to six different types of homemade wine out of wooden casks set into the wall and is a staple of each neighborhood. The wine from my local place is quite good, and two bucks will get you some "German-style" red wine in a relatively cleaned out two-liter plastic bottle which used to hold Slovak Cola. I would recommend pairing it with meat, cheese and potatoes. And maybe bread.

The Absolutely Fantastic Bistro Pizzeria:

The Bistro Pizzeria, the local Opal pizza joint, has in my opinion the best pizza in town, hands down. Here people each order their own pizzas, and tend to finish them, even though size-wise they are comparable to a Papa John's large. Each pizza at the Bistro comes with at least two heads of garlic and enough grease to kick-start even the most stubborn or aged digestive system. I say without pause that this stuff is awesome, go with the olive pizza, which is in fact topped with capers.

The inside looks like a typical "Ye Old Pizza Place" in anytown-USA, with numerous neon beer signs and a T.V. which blasts the local Team Handball matches (Go HC Tatran!!!). Your waitress, invariably named Flo-ka, strikes the perfect balance between worldly, surly, and confused by your attempts to order in English. Run, don't walk, or call for take-out.

Expresso Fama:

I don't know if this is a coffee place or a slot-machine bar, I have never been, but I had to get rid of this picture.

This Place:

It appears to sell wooden versions of the Burger King crowns, perhaps in anticipation of the newly opening Burger King (or perhaps McDonald's) in town. Let me know if you want me to send you one, it'll give me a reason to go inside.

In Summation: Sekcov is the best neighborhood ever.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Pictures of Frozen Water

I know there have been some big snowstorms in the U.S. recently, but don't count Slovakia out of the "worst weather in the world" competition. It has been snowing hard here for a solid week, and by my estimation we have received close to 400 inches in the last 15 minutes. I am in a constant state of dampness.

I took these pictures of my snowy neighborhood, and I figured I would dump them on you:

Tonight I am going to buy a sled and some schnapps, and hit the hills in the dark, Lenexa-style. Wish me luck, and luckily there is a hospital across the street.

Slovakia plays the U.S. in hockey on Saturday, you should check it out. I am conflicted. I hope they both win because they are both winners, as are all of you.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


So last weekend I went to Krakow, Poland, which I had heard was really nice and pretty and whatnot. Poland is actually less than 100 kilometers from where I live, and I have been meaning to go for quite some time.

Some quick info about Poland: It is much bigger than Slovakia, with eight times more people, and it is colder. It has been jerked around by its neighbors quite a bit, and it has also jerked itself around from time to time. This is what I remember from college, I hope it is accurate.

Krakow is in Southern Poland, close to the Slovak border. You would think that this would make it easy to reach from my location in Northern Slovakia. You would be extremely wrong.

On this journey I was joined by the irreplaceable travel guide/food critic/semi-speaker of several Slavic languages, Vi. Here she is on the train from hell:

Although Krakow is less than a three-hour drive from Presov, there is no bus service, only the train. In addition, only one train a day goes to Krakow, on the Bucharest-Krakow line. This train leaves Presov every night at 11:59, and takes six hours to get to Krakow. Here's the schedule.

Normally, a night train ride over the snowy Tatras mountains would be nice. There are little benches in the train cars, and you can use your coat as a pillow. The problem, however, stems from the train's heating system, which I'm sure was designed by Soviet political prisoners in the 30's.

In each car there is a crank which is supposed to control the temperature. In fact this only can cause the temperature to go from "hot" to "hellish", and is best left untouched. Instead, a traveler must devise their own climate control system, which for me involved waking up every ten minutes in a puddle of my own sweat and opening the window as wide as it could go. Next, I would fall back asleep until the snow whipping through the window into the car piled so high onto my sleeping face that I started to suffocate. At this point, I would close the window and repeat. If you do happen to go into shock and pass out, finally allowing you to sleep, you will still be awoken repeatedly by the ticket agents/drunken backpackers/angry Polish border guards every twenty minutes.

While this might seem exciting to some, I thought it was a real drag, and by the time we reached the station in Krakow I experienced the unique sensation of suffering from both dehydration and hypothermia at the same time.

Nevertheless, it was nice to be in Krakow, which is a beautiful city. We only had a day and a half, so I wasn't able to make it to fun nearby places such as the concentration camps, but I plan on going back in April. Krakow is pretty much just a square, albeit a very nice one, and an impressive palace. We mostly just hung around the center, here are some pictures:

It's been snowing forever around these parts, which gave everything a winter-wonderland kind of feel:

Because it was so cold, we tried to do mostly indoor things. We visited the Theatre Museum, watched "Proof" at the movie theatre, which was good, and saw this modern art exhibition, "Identity":

I also saw a cool dog:

I admit this entry sucks, I didn't get many decent pictures and spent most of the time in Poland either freezing or exhausted. One interesting thing about the Polish language is that it seems almost the same as Slovak, only with a lot more Z's. One interesting thing about Krakow is that many stores sell Cherry Coke.

Here in Presov the snow is really piling up and I am preparing for the beginning of the spring semester next week. I have been assigned to teach a class called "Contemporary USA" to 4th year students, although they haven't told me what the class is supposed to be about. If anyone has ideas about what to teach, let me know, or even better you can come and do a guest lecture on the topic of your choice.
Catch you later.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Velké Bílovice

Hello! This last week I was staying in a town called Velké Bílovice, a little village 40km from the Slovak border in the Czech Republic. This was my first time back to the Czech Republic, not counting the Prague airport (great creampuffs), since I visited in 2000. It is still cold, but fun, and I took a bunch of pictures.

First, a little info about the Czech Republic. It has about twice the population of Slovakia, a much stronger economy, and is know for being more socially progressive. It is also the home of Prague, which everyone thinks is just great.

I went to Velké Bílovice to attend a conference for my program, in which the participants from Slovakia and the Czech Republic meet up and discuss their experiences. We stayed at a nice little place called the Hotel Akademie.

Here's some random pics of the town:

When we first arrived, we were paired up two to a room. I got put with my friend Michael, who is a teacher in Banska Bystricia in Slovakia. He probably wouldn't want everyone to know this, but he has a retainer and reads books about dragons. Here is proof:

At first the Slovak and Czech groups stayed separate, due to the fact that no matter how many years ago you graduated from high school the default human instinct is to make cliques. At least that is my amateur sociological perspective, and I did take a sociology course in high school where we watched "Clockwork Orange". Soon however we started to mingle:

Each of us had to give a 15 minute presentation on what we've been doing in our host countries. Before these began our coordinator Nora gave a talk. Nora is the most helpful person in the world, and I would give her my kidneys. Nora has our back, and if you hurt one of our feelings, she will come to your home and cut you. We love Nora:

First up for the presentations was Mikey D, who is a chemistry professor in a small town in Slovakia. He gave his presentation on an overhead, which gave me flashbacks to Mr. Coulter's trig class:

I personally enjoyed his talk, but it was a bit over my head. Perhaps it is more up your alley:

Next was Richard M, an engineering professor from Chicago who teaches a half-hour south of me in Kosice. He is very nice, and runs something like three marathons a year. We couldn't find him at lunch because he was out running fifteen miles in a blizzard. Here is the man/legend himself:

From the Czech side came Kylowna, a high school teacher from L.A. who now teaches at a little school in Northern Czech Republic. Her presentation was about her incredibly original idea of documenting her experiences by making a blog with Blogger and sharing tons of pictures with her friends back home. Her site is really well done, with great photos, and you should definitely check it out here. Later in the week, she whipped me in a game of darts. This is Kylowna during her talk:

Perhaps the low point of the conference was when this guy gave his talk. He rambled on about a Supreme Court case dealing with flag burning, kept putting his hands in his pockets, and wrote illegibly on the board behind him. He was later complimented on his speaking skills by a woman who said "you should be on those commercials for used car lots!" Thankfully his talk was only ten minutes long:

But it was not all work and no play. We were served some pretty good lunches at the hotel, such as this meat (pork?) with potatoes and Czech salsa, I think:

The hotel also offered recreational activities for all ages and levels of hyperactivity:

Maybe the coolest part of our trip was our visit to a town called Cejkovice, where there is a wine cellar created by the Knights Templar in the 13th Century. They were supposedly the precursors to today's Masons, and some believe that they still exist, running the world through their secret shadowy underground lair. You can learn more about them from many sources such as the Da Vinci Code, Foucault's Pendulum and your local mental health institution.

The wine cellar was great, here are some photos:

The ceiling of the cellar is covered with mold, and the smell is a bit overwhelming at first. There is a tradition of sticking a coin into the ceiling and making a wish. I wished that it didn't smell so bad:

After a short tour the owners gave us a wine tasting. This went on for quite a while, and by the time we got back on the bus many people were in bad shape:

The next morning a few conference attendees were unable to make it to the presentations, such as this person. They missed a great talk on early 20th century Czech animation:

All in all it was a nice trip, and I got to meet a bunch of great people from the other side of old Czechslovakia. I hope to visit a bunch of them in Prague when the weather improves.

Speaking of bad weather, tonight I am taking the overnight train across the mountains to Krakow, Poland, where it is currently very, very cold. I'll get a bunch of pictures, and I'll put them here ASAP. Hope all is well, I will leave you with this: