Michael DeRosa, professor of chemistry, is spending this year in Slovakia on a Fulbright Scholarship. He will periodically be sharing his experiences and insights with the Penn State Brandywine community. Below are some of his most recent correspondence:
Posted May 9
This is a collection of miniblogs on life in Slovakia.
Nech sa paci: Slovaks are very polite. On buses the young are expected to give up their seat to an older person. To my chagrin, I have been at both ends of this exchange. It is amusing to watch senior citizens: "No you take the seat"—the body language used needs no translator. You open doors for women and help them with heavy packages on buses and trains. Here or when I visit other universities, at doors and elevators, it is "FIFO" (first in, first out). When you sit down to eat it is polite to say "dobre hut" which, translated literally, means "good taste." "Nech sa paci" is probably the most emblematic Slovak expression. I hear it used almost everyday in Slovakia. It translates as "here you are." But it is more than that. When you go up to a counter the clerk will say "nech sa paci" when it is your turn and when you get your purchase or change. When someone opens the door for you they will say "nech sa paci" to indicate you should go through. You are all by yourself in a six-passenger train compartment. The person coming in will point at a seat and ask if it is OK to sit down. You respond "nech sa paci" as you wave your hand to indicate the seat is free. Recently our landlady brought us up some homemade goodies. She said "nech sa paci" as she presented us with the plate and "dobre hut" as we took it and thanked her (dakujem).
Ping-Pong: Table tennis is a major sport in Slovakia and in all of Europe. At the local Tesco (a British company that took over the K-Mart stores here) there is a section devoted to the sport with a variety of paddles for sale. When I was about 10-years old I started playing at my local Boys' Club and I have been playing it on and off since then. At Delco, I have regularly beaten students young enough to be my sons and more recently — grandsons. Here, I play on Monday mornings and get trounced by men 10 years older than I am. It is very inspirational to watch them move around the table as they smash the ball past me.
Haircuts: Trying to get a haircut when neither person speaks the other's language is very interesting. There is a lot of hand waving to indicate that I want a trim and then more gestures from the barber to make sure she understands what I want. The shop that I picked turned out to be a training school for haircutters and beauticians. I should have guessed it when I noticed that there was only one "mature" person in the place and everyone was wearing identical T-shirts. The clincher was when the young lady called over the instructor to check her work. During my last hair cut both the student and the instructor worked on my hair. The instructor was giving the student expert advice on how to cut the tricky part around the ears. The whole experience costs a buck and a tip is not expected.
Dentist: Hand waving does not work with a dentist. I went to one to have a cracked filling repaired. Miro, my departmental host, made the appointment and accompanied me to translate. The office is in the student dormitory next door to the science faculty building. It is small but modern. The dentist digitized my x-ray and had it up on a computer screen as he worked. My dentist in Media still uses a light box to look at x-ray films. The cost was 789 SK ($26.63). There was a charge sheet outside of the office. At 850 SK, a crown was the most expensive item. Miro indicated that I had paid about twice what he would have with his insurance. You can see why Eastern European "tooth tourism" is growing. One thing that was the same — my 9 a.m. appointment started at 9:20 a.m.
My computer learns Czech: Web mail is wonderful. From a public library in Homer Alaska or a smoky Internet Cafe in Istanbul, you can be in instant contact with family and friends. The problem comes with foreign language keyboards. On Slovak and Czech keyboards the "Y" and the "Z" are reversed. It is enough to drive "zou crayz". Trying to find the @ symbol could be another whole blog entry. I added the Slovak keyboard to my computer on the premise that even if I could not pronounce my students' names I could at least spell them correctly. One day I noticed the Czech flag in the upper right hand corner of my Mac. Not only had it picked up Czech but it had also turned itself on. Once this happens the document is flagged as Czech, and you cannot use the English language spell checker. I figured this out after correcting the same typo three times.
Doors: No matter how many doors a building has, only one of them will be open. And it will not be immediately obvious which one it is. All the professors in the department keep their doors closed. You knock and wait for them to say "ano" (yes). I usually keep my door open. But the first thing most people do when they come in is to shut the door behind them. Classrooms are closed and you need to get the key every time you hold class. One of the instructors had the door closed with the key still inside. The fire department had to come and climb in the window to open the door.
Eggs: Eggs come in decades not dozens. And it took us a while to notice. Have not been able to find out why.
Three frozen men: In Slovakia, winter usually makes one last appearance in May. Temperatures drop around May 11-13. The name days for these are: Pankrac, Servac and Boniface. They are known as the "Three Frozen Men."
Easter customs: Several weeks before Easter Sue was called to the window by one of the other teachers. The first graders were all lined up and at their head there was an effigy of a woman known as Morena. They were going down to the river to throw her in. Morena represents winter and darkness. Throwing her in the river harkens the coming of spring. Another custom takes place on Easter Monday. A young man visits his sweetheart and as she answers the door, dumps water on her. He will also chase her with a willow switch. For this, his sweetheart rewards him with an egg or candy.
Movie theaters: As soon as you walk into a movie theater in Banska Bystrica you sense that something is wrong! Then it hits you: there is no concession stand—no giant tubs of popcorn, no super-sized fizzy drinks.
Credits and credit books: Course credit is a relatively new idea for Slovakia. The aim of the Bologna Agreement (1999) was to set up a EU wide system of comparable degrees based on a credit system. Courses would be recognized and transferable throughout the EU. Before this agreement, Slovak students needed a certain number of courses, not credits, to graduate. Figuring out how many credits a course is worth remains a work in progress. At the beginning of their university studies, students buy a small (3X5) credit book. Students bring their credit books for their professors to sign at the end of each semester. This is an official way of noting that the student has been to class and the grade received. This was the way that I found out that one of my students (a triple major) was taking 18 courses (not a typo) and had 38 hours of class a week. The normal load for dual majors is 11 courses. At the end of five years the student graduates with undergraduate and masters degrees. Professors have a corresponding large class load and 20 hours a week is not unusual. The GPA scale here is inverted with "A" worth one point—the lower your GPA, the higher your academic standing. The lowest passing grade is an "E."
Endnote: Slovaks and Eastern Europeans are often characterized as being restrained. But if you want to see a Slovak smile say "nech sa paci" as you open the door for them.
Posted May 1
This blog is dedicated to food and, as with all good meals, it will include dessert.
Most days I eat lunch at the University cafeteria or mensa with chemistry or English faculty. Lunch is subsidized for all employees. Meal tickets are sold twice a month and Slovaks pay about $0.80 for lunch. I pay about three times as much. For this you get soup and meat (occasionally fish) served with potatoes, rice, pasta or dumplings. Sometimes you will also get a salad or dessert. There are usually three or four choices that are posted two days before. You stamp your meal ticket with the number of the lunch you want and put it in a slot. Today I had cream of cauliflower soup and meat with pasta. The vegetarian selection was vegetable dumplings with tofu and the sweet plate was three pieces of cake.
I find that there is a reasonable amount of variation. But my coworkers, who have been eating the food for many years, complain about the lack of variety. I have found that if the soup is excellent than the main dish is so-so or vice versa, Sometimes the cook nails them both. Slovaks eat incredibly fast—by the time they are done, I have barely finished my soup. Once you finish you bring your tray back and flatware, dishes, cups and trays are each placed in separate places.
I have now eaten in three other University cafeterias in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The system is basically the same at all the schools. At the Technical University (Bratislava) you use a smart card instead of tickets to select and pay for lunch. In Brno, the menu is translated into English. They are trying to do that at Matej Bel University but the English faculty often cannot figure out the English equivalent. Dishes with vegetables are said to come with "sky" and "cauliflower brains" are cauliflower scrambled with eggs. They have no idea what Moravian sparrow is. In Banska Stiavnica I ate at the restaurant next door, which is part of a food services high school. There is table service but you still hand in your meal ticket to the server. At the end of the semester you do not get a refund for any unused tickets. Instead you trade them in. My unused tickets equaled a jar of Nescafe.
Dumplings form an important part of the Slovak and central European diet. But what exactly are dumplings? Raviolis, won tons, matzo balls, gnocchi, pelmeni and pierogi (there is an incredible place in Krakow that specializes in these) are all types of dumplings. In Austria and Germany you can get soup in which sits a baseball-size dumpling (nudlen), filled with bacon bits. Greek dumplings—loukoumades—are deep fried like zeppoli and served with honey and dusted with cinnamon?best when piping hot. In the interest of science, I have sampled all of these.
Bryndza halusky is the Slovak national dish. Bryndza is a sheep cheese and halusky are potato dumplings (like gnocchi). The dish is garnished with pieces of bacon. To make halusky you pour the potato dough through a metal plate that has holes into boiling water. This is new school. Old school, you scrape pieces of potato dough into boiling water and each halusky is unique. In another type of dumpling the dough is formed into a loaf, cut into half-inch thick slices and boiled in water. Four slices are served with sauce, meat and cabbage. I can only manage about three slices. Fist size sweet dumplings are filled with jam, poppy seeds or canned peaches and may have syrup poured on top of them.
Desserts?where do I begin? Vienna and Prague have wonderful cafes with display cases full of pastries and cakes, each one more delicious looking than the next. Bratislava has the Café Meyer and Maximillians, the latter specializing in hot chocolate. Dublin has the Queen of Tarts. The outside is painted red and inside, small tables crowd around the fruit and cream tarts. Istanbul has its teahouses offering cookies and cakes to go with your glass of tea.
Each country has a special dessert to offer. Poland has gofry (waffles) with various toppings. Fresh blueberries and whipped cream make an unbeatable combination. Greece is more than just baklava. And Italy? It is incredible what you can do with ricotta, cream or almond paste. Sue's favorite breakfast (siracusa) was to have a ricotta canoli each morning. The Baltic countries and Russia have squares filled with cheesecake-like fillings. Most of the time we would point to what looked good and I therefore have no idea what they were called. Slovakia has palacinky (crepes) filled with jam, nuts and smothered in whipped cream. I had some last night. During the fall there is gastonova, a cream made from chestnuts, that is the perfect ending to a meal of roast goose. Kremisch is the Slovak signature dessert. It looks like a Napoleon without all the layers. The top is hard and covered with chocolate. You eat it like an Oreo. It is also popular in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Then there is strudel, which originated in Turkey but of which you can find different versions all over central Europe. You can have a classic version at the Café Lourve (Prague) where Kafka and Einstein ate theirs. I had a marvelous cheese strudel, with just the right amount of lemon, at a café near the church featured in the wedding scene in "The Sound of Music." In Banska Bystrica, the Arcade Café is the place to get your strudel. It is amazing what the addition of a little cream cheese can do to the taste. I don't know about you, but all of this has made me very hungry.
Endnote: I met my match at the Cremeria Milano in Prague. I ordered a hunk of an incredible black forest cake with hot chocolate—the kind you need a spoon to eat. The waiter asked if I wanted whipped cream. What could I do but say "yes." But instead of a dollop on top of the chocolate, he brought me a cocktail glass full. A memorable dessert even if I could not finish it all.
Posted April 4
We missed the coming of spring to Banska Bystrica. Ten days before the official start of the season we went to Vienna to meet our son Michael and his wife Jenn for a week of skiing in the Austrian Alps. We left in the middle of winter, trudging through fresh snow to the train station, and came back to spring. On the train ride back from Vienna we could see the changes. Fields that had been snow-covered, a week before, were now bare and in places you could see green grass. In town, sidewalks were clear, and for the first time since November, I could walk without wearing boots.
Nature does not need a calendar to know when winter is over. Birds have been streaming back from their winter homes along the Mediterranean and in Africa. During the summer and fall wagtails were the most noticeable birds around our house and along the nearby Hron River. They left in November with the first snow. Now they are back, flicking their tails as they hunt for tidbits on the old snow and in patches of grass. Pussy willows are blooming and the apiary near my campus has bees buzzing around.
The bird feeder at our house has new customers. We have gone from three species during the winter to over a dozen at the feeder and in the abandoned yard next to our house. European goldfinches with red face masks, blue tits with yellow breasts and blue caps, green finches with yellow wing tips, redpolls with bright red breasts—we are averaging a new species a day. We keep our bird guide and binoculars by the kitchen window as we wait for the next spring arrival.
Endnote: On our last night in the Alps, I found myself hurtling down a 3.8 km toboggan run. Learning how to steer by dragging a foot or a hand as an act of self-preservation. I did win the race and my son had to pay for the hot chocolate and pastries.
A Small Village in the Austrian Alps
Posted March 14
The Zmrzlina Method
Learning to speak Slovak is not easy. There are seven cases to deal with—German has only four. Endings can be masculine, feminine or neuter. There are the ?, c, z, y,á, í, ú, ä, and é sounds to deal with. For me, a native Spanish speaker, consonants are my downfall. Try the following Czech (very close to Slovak) tongue twister: strc prst zkrz krk. Fulbrighters received about five hours of excellent instruction in early September. However to be able to communicate you need the intensive language training that Peace Corps volunteers get. Communicating with coworkers, bus drivers and clerks is a daily challenge.
Most of my colleagues speak little or no English. The head of chemistry speaks German. We smile and say dobrý den when we meet and dovidenia as we leave. Ahoj (Hi!) is also heard a lot. If you ask a young person if they speak English, they will usually say no. But if you say something in English they will generally answer back in English. Their parents speak Russian or German, grandparents German and great grandparents Hungarian — linguistic evidence of the regime changes over the last century. I find myself doing a lot of pointing. Conversations can start in halting English and finish in halting German.
At the Bratislava train station there is a kiosk where I buy bus and tram tickets. I will ask for the tickets in English, the clerk will ask me what type and how many in German, I will tell him how many in either Slovak or German and then thank him in Slovak (dakujem). And only when I think about it, does it seem strange. You pick up words just from walking around or from daily activities. Playing ping-pong is great for learning numbers. I can now tell if I should tlacit' (push) or tahat' (pull) a door. And that I have to push or pull the door marked muzi (men) not zeny.
We shop for groceries at Kaufland. You bag and weigh your own produce. The scale you use has nice teaching aides in the form of little pictures of fruits and vegetables, with the Slovak name underneath. Tomatoes (paradajky ) and potatoes (zemiaky ) are no problem, but there may be three different kinds of apples (jablko ) to identify. We have the same problem with cucumbers (two kinds) and zucchini; their pictures look almost identical.
One day, walking back home from the University, I had one of those "AHA" moments in front of my favorite zmrzlina store. As with most great ideas, the basic concept was very simple. The zmrzlina store served 18 varieties of ice cream. Each day I would sample a different flavor of ice cream. This would establish a direct synaptic link between my taste buds and the language center of my brain: I would literally be learning Slovak by swallowing and digesting words.
There have been some technical difficulties in implementation. One difficulty is the nature of the Slovak language. I found that I was learning 'walnuty' instead of walnut. And it takes three words to describe their incredible hazelnut ice cream — too many words to swallow at one time. Three of the flavors, including banana, tasted exactly the same with the only difference being their color. With the coming of winter, the store shifted to selling hot dogs and my lessons stopped. Lessons are a bargain at 20 cents each. Come spring I will start them anew. And as teaching professionals, we know that repetition is the key to learning.
Endnote: In Rome, Gelateria della Palma, has 100 flavors of gelato. What a way to learn Italian!
Posted February 27
As I write this, the sky is blue and light pours through the window. Outside sunlight glistens off two days worth of fresh snow. Birds, at the feeder, are foraging for sunflower seeds. A few minutes away the Hron river rushes by. Its snow covered banks crowded with mallards looking for handouts. Drakes, with iridescent green heads and bright orange feet, stand out against the snow. All around us are picture-postcard views. But now for the nitty-gritty details?
Banska Bystrica, where we are living, is in the heart of traditional Slovakia. Slovakia is located in the center of Europe. We enjoy a continental climate: hard winters and blistering summers. This winter, by all accounts, has been harder than usual. We have had snow on the ground since November 21. Jan, our landlord, pushes and shovels the snow after each snowfall complaining bitterly that it is a katastrophe. The same cannot be said for the city. They plow the roads but the sidewalks get scant attention. Snow on the sidewalks gets compacted and, with thawing and freezing, turns to ice.
Before I came to the Delaware Valley I had not heard of black ice. Here the ice doesn't lurk and hide waiting for the unwary, but is a crust one, two or more inches thick covering sidewalks and parking lots. When they do attend to the sidewalks they attack the ice with picks and pry bars. Most Slovaks take the snow and ice in stride. There is a different way of thinking here - it's winter - what do you expect. I have seen one woman wearing crampons, others using skiing poles and senior citizens picking their way through snow and ice using one or two canes. But most amazing are the stylish young women wearing boots with three-inch heels. They walk briskly, with their heads high and backs straight, through the snow and ice, lapping me in my clunky L.L. Bean boots.
Endnote: I mentioned to a colleague that in the US "slip and fall" lawyers would have a field day. He said that most people just ignore the law about shoveling their sidewalks. As for suing?forgetaboutit!
Posted February 15
View from Piazzale De Rosa
My father was born in 1889 in Barile, Italy. Potenza is the largest city close to Barile. We used it as the base from which to visit Barile about 40 kilometers away. On the map of Potenza, near the Potenza Superiore railroad station, can be found Piazzale De Rosa. Was this a tribute to a famous ancestor? I had to check it out, take pictures, and record it for posterity! I had visions of a plaque, bust or maybe even a statue. We took a bus to the train station and followed the map to the area in front of an historic church where Piazzale De Rosa was supposed to be located. There was no statue of any size or shape, no plaque and, not even a road sign, to mark the spot. Passersby were mystified when asked about the Piazzale. The only things in front of the church were a parking area and a bus shelter.
If my search for Piazzale De Rosa was a bit of a disappointment, the visit to Barile was more than I had hoped for. The Barile train station is about 200 feet above the village center. To reach the center you have to descend a series of steps that serve as a street in and out of the village. Following the directions given to us at the train station café we walked, past the stares of the villagers, down to the anagrafe office where vital records are kept. I gave the clerk my father's name and birthday. He went up a spiral staircase, brought down an old leather bound register and looked at the index; my father was the 19th birth recorded in 1889. Opening the register to #19, he showed me my father's birth certificate: time and place of birth, the doctor that delivered him, parents names, witnesses and at the bottom, the florid signature of my paternal grandfather—Giuseppe Garibaldi De Rosa. It was an incredible moment spanning 116 years.
Endnote: Piazzale De Rosa and a nearby street are named in honor of Francesco (aka Pacceco) De Rosa, a 17th century religious painter. Three of his paintings can be seen at the Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples. Whether we're related is still a mystery I hope to uncover.
Posted February 1
At 1:30 p.m. on January 8 off the coast of the island of Kythira (Greece), a magnitude 6.9 earthquake was taking place. Two hundred kilometers to the south we were touring the ruins of Knossos on the island of Crete. The first hint of the quake was the interpretive sign in front of us starting to vibrate: slowly at first, as if one of us had bumped into it, and then faster and faster as we watched fascinated. Before either one of us could say "earthquake," there was no need for words as the ground started to move and the plastic sheeting covering some of the ruins began to shake violently. Hooded crows and a hawk burst out of the trees--the cawing of the crows echoing and mingling with the barking of a dog--then silence. All of this took, at most, 60 seconds.
When we got back to the hotel, the quake (seismos) was the lead story on local TV. The hotel clerk told us that she was afraid the building would come down. There are frequent tremors here but this one was stronger, and lasted longer than the ones she was used to.
Endnote: There was little property damage and only a few minor injuries. The quake merited only a few lines buried inside the International Herald Tribune.
Posted January 8
Christmas Comes to Slovakia
Slovakia does not celebrate Thanksgiving and therefore there is no 'Black Friday' to mark the beginning of the Christmas season. Here the Christmas season began in mid-October with chocolate Santas filling supermarket shelves. Why so early, became clear on December 6th. This is the day that Svat Mikulá (St. Nicholas) brings candies and small presents. Jeiko (Baby Jesus) arrives on Christmas. As for the chocolate Santas, a week later they were on sale in stores all over town.
During the Communist era it was Dedo Mráz (Grandfather Frost) who ushered in winter and brought presents on both December 6th and on Christmas. Once the Iron Curtain fell, back came Svat Mikulá, Jeiko and, with capitalism, Santa Claus.
During Christmas, markets are set up in squares and plazas all over Europe. In early December, here in Banska Bystrica, the market opened with about a dozen stalls featuring mainly food and pun (punch). The pun is a hot wine drink containing rum, tea, lemon, cloves and cinnamon; it goes nicely with the klobása (sausage) that the stalls also sell. Last weekend about a dozen more stalls opened selling ornaments and delicious honey cakes. Another traditional food is bread smeared with lard and onions on top - a delicacy we did not try.
We went to Vienna for the Christmas Market. Vienna's largest Christmas market is held in the park in front of the Rathaus (City Hall) with over 140 stalls selling all types of food and Christmas ornaments. On sale are hand-painted glass ornaments made in the Czech and Slovak Republics. Some of the other ornaments are identical to those in the Christmas store at Granite Run Mall. The big attractions are the punsch and glüewine. The later you go to the market, the more young people there are, drinking and partying.
Sauerkraut soup (kapustinca) is a traditional dish served during the Christmas season in Slovakia. I have also been told that it is a sure remedy for a hangover. The soup has sausage, mushrooms and other ingredients which depend on the region that it comes from; the base is always sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is put up in the fall and after two months it is at its best and ready to be served at Christmas. I had some of the soup on December 6 in Banska Stiavnica and it was very good. Last week when I went there to give my class, the head of the environmental program was cooking sauerkraut soup for their party the next day.
The Chemistry Department had their Christmas party on December 15. We all gathered together (faculty, staff and grad students) to toast the season and then enjoy kapustinca. I had seconds.
Endnote: In Slovakia New Year's Eve is called Silvester after the saint's name day.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Mike De Rosa