Friday, January 27, 2006

Le Fromage

I went to France last week, where I ate a lot and got cultured. I discovered Camembert cheese, which is très tasty, and I also found out that the French language is the same as English, except that you don't pronounce the last three letters of words, and speak in a French accent.

Above you can see the new logo of France which depicts Marianne, the "personification of liberty and reason." Interestingly enough, each year the mayors of France vote for a French Woman who is to be the model of Marianne. My personal favorite former winner is Sophie Marceau, who was excellent in Lost & Found with David Spade.

This gave me an idea for our official logo:

I didn't take many pictures, and the ones I did take wern't very good. Here is the cream of the crap:

I think next week I will write about Slovak supermarkets. I may be running out of things to photograph. There are always cats...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Ukraine (is cold)

Last weekend I tagged along with my Russian friend Mishka to the Ukraine, where he was going to meet some old friends. We visited two border towns, Uzhgorod and Mukacheve, for those of you who are up on your Ukrainian geography.

The Ukrainian border is a 90 minute bus ride from Presov, and then it takes about an hour to get through customs. Uzhgorod is the first major city across the border. When you cross into the Ukraine, you see a very large statute, which used to symbolize your entry into the Soviet Union. It's pretty intimidating now, I can't imagine what it was like 20 years ago:

The Ukraine is very big, very beautiful, and at least last weekend, very cold. Here is some info about The Ukraine

Ukrainian politics are particularly interesting these days, as far as I understand them, due to the aftermath of the Orange Revolution of 2004 where the people challenged the election of the typical old communist guy (I know, I don't really know what I'm talking about) and instead elected Viktor Yushchenko, who as you may remember supposedly had his face burned off by Putin's agents (supposedly Putin's agents, not supposedly had his face burned off. His face is definitely burned off , that seems to be established).

Since the revolution, some people have been happy with the new government, but many are not. I heard that the President's approval ratings are currently around 30% (remind you of anyone?), and his former Prime Minister, the frankly fairly photogenic Yulia Tymoshenko, has a good chance of beating him in this year's election. Everywhere I went, the billboards were covered with Tymoshenko's ads:

I was actually thinking of putting my hair in a bun like that.

Enough politics, what about the food and animals?

When we arrived at the bus station in Uzhgorod, I was quickly hustled into a van headed for the yearly wine festival in Mukacheve, a town a few kilometers south of Uzhgorod. Here is a handy map to keep things straight.

When we got to Mukacheve the partying was in full swing. Here's some pics:

Here we met up with our tour guides/translators, the very nice folks here:

We waited in great anticipation for some kind of prize giveway, which did not disappoint. I will let the pictures speak for themselves:

Some dude actually won that pig, and a few minutes later someone won a goat. If I would have won the goat I would have gone crazy like the people who win the Publisher's Clearing House or get their ride pimped, but this guy took it pretty well. I should have got a picture.

Our next stop was to visit a cultural club of sorts, where local Rusyns meet. As the article notes, Rusyns are a distinct ethnic group with their own language who live mainly in Western Ukraine and Northeast Slovakia (I think this is right, I got this info from Mishka, who doesn't speak that much English). Mishka wanted to check this out because he is a scholar of sorts of Rusyn history.

Mishka had clearly been here before, because he was greeted warmly, and we were all invited inside:

There I met these very nice Rusyn folks, who all started calling me Mikhail (like Gorbachev):

The very nice ladies insisted, quite strongly, that we eat various things off of this table (click on the picture to zoom in), and drink vodka in celebration:

It has been my experience over here in Eastern Europe that when you're a guest, you're given alcohol. The thing is that most Americans, myself very much included, are not used to drinking the large amount of hard alcohol that is common here. It got to the point where I was basically trying to figure out how to pour some of the vodka into my pocket, because I just didn't think I could go on. But as soon as it began, it was over, and we exchanged our goodbyes and headed back into the cold. Those ladies were awesome, as you can clearly see from the pictures.

After this, our hosts wanted us to see Mukacheve castle, which is on the outskirts of town. Here's some photos:

It was a very nice castle, with the usual torture chamber and gift shop. The coolest part of the castle, in my opinion, is this statute, which I like to call "The Finger King":

Seriously, how awesome is this?

I couldn't help myself, and had to ask for a volunteer. I assume it is good luck:

So after all this forced vodka drinking and castle looking, we were up for some food. A Slovak member of the group ordered the Ukraninan burger, and seemed to quite enjoy it:

I myself was happy with a package of bacon flavored Fan Nuts™ and a nice Ukranian beer.

You may have noticed that Ukranian is writen in the cyrilic alphabet, like Russian. The funny thing about cyrilic, and I guess any small alphabet, is that it really isn't that hard to learn, and by the end of the weekend and with the guides' help I was able to start sounding things out. It makes me want to go back and watch "Rocky 4" again.

On the way back across the border, we had to pass E.U. customs. This took about three hours because they had to make sure that no one had more than the allowable two bottles of Ukrainian liquor/ carton of Kazakh cigarettes stuffed down the front of their pants. But soon we were home, and it was a great trip.

One last thing, if you will allow. I have always had a perhaps unhealthy interest in truly awful restrooms. This may have stemmed from watching "Trainspotting", or from visiting the splendor that is the Trenton train station men's room (next to the Roy Rogers), who knows, but I am fascinated. Other people seem to share this interest, if these sites are to be believed.

So anyway, I was just about to hop on the bus when I decided to stop into the Uzhgorod bus station "restroom" to "do some business" (#1)(I'm not crazy!). Thank god I did, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten a shot of this gem, one-handed of course:

Hope all is well, and remember to wash your hands!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Vyprazany Syr Day

When I'm at school, which is most days of the week, I usually eat lunch in the school cafeteria, which is called the "canteen". I think I’m the only teacher in the department who regularly eats there, and when I tell my students about it they laugh at me, or are horrified. I'm more of an "eat to live" person, and I'll eat almost anything, so I don't mind.

The process you have to go through to get your meal at a Slovak school cafeteria, even if you’re a fluent speaker of Slovak, can only be described as herculian, or a major pain in the ass.

First, you must go to the frowning lady in the little window behind the snack bar. There, you give her 100 koruna (about three bucks), and she gives you one of these little metal things:

These are very important. Do you remember in college, perhaps at Mrs. E's cafeteria in Lawrence, KS, when you used to "borrow” (forever) the silverware? That just doesn’t happen here, thanks to the ingenious system that's been devised. When you enter the cafeteria, if you have your little metal thing, you hand it to a lady who controls the silverware. In return, she allows you to not have to eat with your hands. When you have finished, you drop your soiled silverware into a little bucket, and you get your little metal thing back. Bear in mind that this little metal thing is little, and I often lose it in my office, which can make eating a plate of goulash a real nightmare.

Anyway, if you've completed this you are ready for step 2: Choosing your meal. The Slovak cafeteria system is not a fan of waste. Unlike your high school cafeteria which would make a surplus of chicken nuggets which would then have to be thrown out or given to the local dogs, here the cafeterias have developed another shrewd system which saves money, and makes my life miserable.

The day before you wish to eat lunch, you have to go to the cafeteria and choose your meal for the following afternoon. If you want to eat lunch on Monday, you have to be at the school on Friday (which I almost never am).

You make your choice, stamp your ticket and put in into the locked box. Here's what the lunch-choosing station looks like:

One of the obvious tricks to choosing a good lunch is understanding what the menu says. At the beginning of the year, the department secretary was nice enough to translate some of the items for me, so that I could make an educated decision. I started feeling like this was a burden on her, so I stopped asking, and just started picking the first item of the day. Here's a sample menu:

So for instance, if I was going to eat this particular Monday, I would be served the husarska rolada. What is that? I honestly don't know. For some reason, many food words don’t appear in my budget Slovak-English dictionary, and there are menu items that even the students or teachers can’t translate, or have never heard of. Basically, this makes every meal a crap-shoot, in more ways that one.

When you arrive in the cafeteria, you get in the line that corresponds with the menu item that you chose for the day. There are few more disquieting feelings than when you have chosen the first menu item, let's say "A", and find yourself to be the only person in the "A" line. It makes it worse when the students in the other lines look at you with a combination of sympathy and disgust. This actually happened when I ordered the "shark's head". Which I didn't finish.

Anywho, this all relates to one of the most controversial lunch items in the cafeteria's arsenal, the "vyprazany syr", which translates as fried cheese. Vyprazany syr is a very popular dish in Slovakia, and usually consists of a piece of heavily fried edam cheese, slathered in tartar sauce, with a side of french fries. If you are a vegetarian in Slovakia who is attempting to stay alive, you are probably very familiar with the V.S. I myself enjoy it from time to time, but try not to make a habit of it.

The crazy thing about vyprazany syr is that even though most students I have spoken to claim to hate it, when it is on the menu (“Vyprazany Syr Day”, about once every three weeks), almost every single person in the cafeteria is eating it. Young and old, stout and thin, no one can resist. I get it, too, but mainly because I actually know what it is, as opposed to many of the other menu items. Witness the line for the vyprazany syr:

On the day that I snuck my camera into the cafeteria, vprazany syr day, the line was out the door. Incredible! One of the lecturers from the German department told me a great story about going into the cafeteria on V.S. Day wearing a new sweater from her grandmother, which then smelled like grease for weeks, due to the heavy grease atmosphere that cooking hundreds of portions of fried cheese in a small space tends to cause. So what does it look like?

On this day, the V.S. was served with some boiled potatoes, and the usual tartar sauce. You may have noticed the soup on my plate, which deserves a quick digression. Slovaks love soup and eat soup before every meal. There are a few soups that the cafeteria rotates through, such as cabbage, carrot, something red (beets?) and a pasta soup. I never was a big fan of soup before I came here, and now I can honestly say that I hate soup. Not because Slovak soup is bad, but because I am so tired of seeing it every day. If you go to a restaurant, you are supposed to order soup. If you don't, the server will sometimes just stand there until you do, probably because they cannot imagine eating a meal without soup. But to soup I say, no thank you. You also can take all the bread you want (I think, although I never tried to just grab an armful, so who knows).

In the Slovak cafeteria, there are no napkins. Paper is expensive, and people here don't seem to spill their food (or soup) anyway. Personally, I usually leave the cafeteria in need of being hosed down, which is another reason why I now avoid the soup. Diners also don't generally drink anything with their meal, even when the cafeteria sometimes offers a free small cup of kool-aid-like drink from a cooler. I don't know why.

When you have finished your food, you take your tray to this little window and drop off your plate. It is all very orderly, and it reminds me of elementary school:

The cafeteria is great because it's a bargain, a student meal ticket is only 23SKK, which is about 75 cents. How I got the student tickets is a great story of intrigue, deception and hard alcohol, but I should probably save it for another day, because my fingers are beat. I would link you to a vyprazany syr recipe, but I assume you just take some cheese and fry it. Give it a try.

Tomorrow I am headed to the Ukraine, and next week to Western Europe. I'll try to get some pictures of the Louvre, just to prove that all that stuff in the Da Vinci Code is totally true. Dovidenia!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Caption Contest III

Congratulations to Bret K., of KS, who won the last caption contest and received a complimentary Slovak hockey puck and a bar of Czech chocolate. He squealed with delight like a Publisher's Clearing House winner.

Could you be next?