The Long and Winding Road

Yesterday was a big day for the Murchies: we drove down to Budapest and I became an illegal alien.

Budapest has long been on my bucket list, and I have to say it really is a beautiful city. It has the distinct architectural mix of old Europe, Soviet-era blockhouse apartments, and modern Western buildings. In that way, it’s a lot like Bratislava, but 4-5 times bigger.

We didn’t have a lot we wanted to see in town, since we only had a few hours and immediately felt like we’d want to come back for a longer stay someday. So we focused on seeing the large indoor Central Market, and Stalin’s Boots. The market has a fabulous assortment of regional foods, and if one were staying locally, it would be a treasure trove for grocery shopping. It also has an abundant selection of Hungarian craftwork, though without offense to the skills of local artisans or cultural preferences, I will say that if I should die and go to hell, it will be exclusively decorated with needlepoint and hand-painted porcelain.

The big adventure was finding Stalin’s Boots – the partial remains of a 25 meter high Soviet-era statue of Stalin that was torn down by 100,000 demonstrators less than five years after being built as a gift to the old boy. All that remained were his boots, and according to our 2009 Frommer’s guide to Budapest, they still stood in a city square. Regrettably, no one bothered to tell Frommer’s that the statue was moved to a formal park in 2006.

As a way of seeing a great deal of a foreign city in a fairly random way, I highly recommend using GPS to get to a non-existent landmark. Navigating through the streets was a thrill: our trusty Garmin would tell us to “make a right on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út or somesuch”, and as Claire was trying to sound out the street name, we would pass it. Then it was a contest of trying to figure out if we could get back to that street before the Garmin would helpfully recalculate the route and send us in a completely differently direction, usually to a street closed for construction purposes. We never did see the boots, and as the day was wearing on, we got back on the road.


Keep moving. Nothing to see here.


Which brings me to the illegal alien part. Yesterday marked 90 days since we entered Slovakia as residents, and under the strictest reading, I am supposed to have my spousal visa in hand to remain in the country. That deadline is extended by the number of days spent out of the country, which of course can’t be measured, because the EU borders are completely permeable. So maybe I’m not 100% illegal, but I did slink down a little when we drove through the abandoned guard station crossing back into Slovakia. Side note: I continue to be struck by the skeletons of border checkpoints, standing empty along roadways like filling stations on old Route 66.

Nonetheless, the absence of a visa isn’t for lack of trying. While Claire – and even the dogs – had a relatively straightforward process of registration, the paperwork relating to me was repeatedly found to be insufficient. Our original marriage certificate had to be supplemented with a copy endorsed by a notary. Then, we were asked to produce a notarized copy of our marriage license application, apparently because it has parental consent and more identification numbers associated with it. This last request – and the associated several hundred dollars in necessary fees – came a few weeks ago, just as we were learning we may be going home early. So, we rode it out, and sure enough we got word to head back to the States next week, on October 20. Now instead, Claire and the dogs are now going through a de-registration process, while I remain in some kind of limbo.

I don’t take the bureaucratic rebuff personally, though unlike so many others I don’t blame it on anti-immigrant policies aimed at Third World citizens trying to get a foothold in the EU, and me being caught in a broad brush of paper-pushing. No, I’m convinced it is American pop music that has got their sights on me.

We noticed early on while taking road trips that everywhere we went the radio stations played a homogeneous mash of Europop tunes, differentiated only by the language spoken by the DJ. I’m fairly open to listening to a wide variety of music, and we even found a few songs that were memorable for our sojourn. One that we truly related to was “We no speak Americano” by Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP. Another was this great collaboration in David Guetta’s production of “Gettin’ Over You” with Fergie, Chris Willis and LMFAO.

Especially loved the note Fergie holds near the end, and the video’s homage to the finale of the Beatle’s movie “Let it Be”.

So most of the tunes, if repetitive, weren’t representative of the worst in American pop music. However, one song – one godforsaken song – got endless airplay all through the summer and even now lurks behind seemingly innocent radio station selections. If our ears were bleeding from hearing it too much on the radio, imagine the pain when our eyes exploded watching the video. Happily EMI has blocked access from here in Europe so we can no longer experience it, but this link to “California Gurls” by Katy Perry should work. Proceed at your our risk.

So, it’s no surprise that anyone here would have an issue with Americans at the moment, especially if there is a radio on in the background. And, if in the name of international relations, I have to go home sooner than expected, I can make the sacrifice. The alternative is unthinkable: they might take the nuclear option and send this guy over to the States.

Posted in Culture, Entertainment, Laws, Places | 4 Comments

What the [bleep] is bleeping now?

One of the downsides of living in a very modern house that isn’t your own is figuring out all the allegedly “smart” control systems. Even though we had a very thorough orientation on our move-in day, over the ensuing months we’ve learned a lot about all the things that were both said and unsaid. Or maybe said but forgotten.

To make life a little easier, wherever possible I managed to change the interface language to English on TVs, refrigerator, oven, etc. That is a little more complicated that one might imagine, considering that all those things initially had a menu selection that said “interface language” or something similar, but was written in Slovak.

Note to software designers: if you expect your products to be used in a variety of languages, you can do your users a big favor by making the language selection obvious and top-level, rather than buried seven menu levels deep. Thank God there wasn’t an option for “launch nuclear missiles” while I was randomly clicking on unrecognized words.

Other devices – like the washing machine – had a combination of helpful, semi-helpful and totally useless icons for their various settings, and in the absence of English manuals, we just hoped for the best. When we bought a blender, the model with basic “On” and “Off” settings was the clear winner for obvious reasons.

Still, that was all just preparation for actually using the equipment, and we soon learned that everything had an alarm of some kind: end of cycle, door left open, temperature too high, etc. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem except that all the manufacturers seemed to have bought the same alarm circuitry – most likely at the industrial equivalent of an “Alarms R’ Us” close-out sale. Tones are exactly the same pitch, and the number of beeps and pauses very similar. This causes us (still) to wonder what, were, and why one of the appliances is complaining. And it is almost always happening in a different part of the house than we are in at the time.

So you’ll often find one or both of us stalking through the house, checking every room with an appliance to see if it is the culprit. Invariably we arrive in a room seconds after the beeping stops, only to pause like predators waiting for the beeping to begin again, trying to detect whether our prey is above or below, to the front or back, left or right. It’s frustrating to say the least.


The future of modern plumbing?


Curiously, the sophistication with electronics doesn’t extend to plumbing systems in general. We have a very nice radiant heat system in our ground floor, which is supplied with hot water from an on-demand system that also provides the hot water for the rest of the house. There are times this works flawlessly, and within seconds you can get scalding water from a tap. Other times, particularly in our master shower, we find ourselves swinging the temperature control from hot to cold and back wildly, trying to “wake up” the heater. I sometimes feel that the shower control isn’t a valve at all, but more like an old style bridge telegraph, sending commands down to the engine room, but in our particular case, no one is shoveling coal when we need it.

Add to this a number of problems we’ve experienced with the rain- and gray-water capture systems, which have caused a variety of unpleasant smells to feed back into the house through the basement, and it’s no surprise we like to escape to the comfort of our nice BMW X3 and go for rides.


Welcome to Lake Krajna. Boating, anyone?


Only to be barraged with a new assortment of auditory assaults… warnings from the Garmin for upcoming turns, random alerts from the car’s dashboard, and – most annoying – a proximity warning front and back that is supposed to help with parking. I’m still trying to understand that one’s design, as it is perfectly willing to let the driver bump into a wall directly in front of the car while pulling into a too-small space in a parking garage, yet screams bloody murder when switched into reverse while leaving the same spot. It is also sensitive to pedestrians walking in front, cars pulling behind at stoplights, and even driving through the puddle that forms outside our house after heavy rains.

The proximity alert, at least, we’ve been able to turn into a bit of a game. Pulling into our carport requires a fairly sophisticated parallel parking maneuver through a narrow gate in a stone wall, and depending on which direction we arrive from, may have an added three-point turn in our tiny alley. Making the combination without triggering the alert is cause for much celebration, and pride akin to sticking the third wire on a carrier landing.

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In a word…

This past weekend we took a couple of really wonderful day trips, and I promise to say a little about them, but this post is ultimately about language. Or more specifically, what happens in the absence thereof.

Saturday was overcast in Bratislava (again), so we decided to drive east and see if we could escape the weather. It got worse. So, we attempted to dodge the rain and drove back towards Beckov, which had the amazing castle ruins mentioned previously. The ruins were a bit of a disappointment, as they were – somewhat ironically – closed for construction.

Nonetheless, we learned from the single sign onsite that the castle has been around a very long time, and that it has been occupied by a variety of people, and that it is culturally significant. Well, then.

Our important lesson of the day actually came in the parking area, while I was staring at the sign and Claire was fussing with the dogs in the back of the car. A woman who had disembarked from a nearby tour bus was speaking loudly, and after hearing some repetition in whatever she was saying, I realized we might have been the target of her address. She was beseeching us in a friendly way, pointing at our car, and repeating something to Claire. Claire gave her best please-forgive-me-I’m-a-tourist look, and said “Sorry – do you speak English?” Which caused the nice lady to laugh loudly, repeat the single word “English?!”, pantomime that she thought we were Slovak by pointing at the plates on our car, all the while continuing to prattle on happily about whatever it was that caught her attention. She was really very charming.

Ultimately I realized that she had seen the dogs, and wondered if she could pet them. So I opened the door and allowed for some happy redistribution of dog-hair.  Naturally, she spoke fluent dog, and this made the day for the pups. The commotion brought out a few more people from the bus, young and old, who wanted to pet them as well. Ultimately, we said our goodbyes, and I realized that other than the one word that made her laugh, neither of us understood a bit of what the other was saying. I also realized that they were tourists too, as I did not hear a single word of Slovak or anything else I recognized in the least. We still have no idea where they were visiting from.

Under normal circumstances, I continue to improve my understanding of the language, though without formal training I doubt I would ever get past the most basic conversation. Slovak is fairly complex and there are precious few resources available to learn from independently. Even locals have some trouble with translations. For example, I bought a card for Claire’s birthday based on the cute picture, the heart inside, and a complete lack of understanding of the text – which in my book makes for a perfect card. Claire brought it to the office, and a co-worker translated the Slovak as “I’m waiting for you… to die”, which I’ll admit has a certain appeal as a birthday card, but was (really!) not the intent. A better translation from another friend pointed out the subtlety of the phrasing, and how “I’m waiting for you…” on the front panel, became “I’m dying for you” when the word on the inside was added.

I hope that the language isn’t too loaded with these land-mines, as I do continue to try to use it for niceties. Hello, goodbye, please, thanks, excuse me – all the basics are pretty straightforward. I have learned that there are actually two different words posted over building entrances: “vchod” and “vychod”, for “entrance” and “exit”, respectively. Or maybe the opposite. I’m getting used to saying “ano” for “yes”, though “yes” in so many other languages comes out much more naturally (did I really just say “hai, dozo”?).

Last week I had occasion to make a complete little speech, when I was shopping for a cell-phone. When the nice salesperson came up and asked if I needed some help, I answered: “Please. Do you speak English?” in Slovak. And got a blank stare. Or, reading more into it, a stare with a subtle eye-roll, a critical nod of the head, and an of-course-you-idiot shrug. She actually spoke fine English and was quite helpful, so the initial reaction was quite odd. Granted, I may have delivered my line with the grace and clarity of someone giving birth to a full-grown walrus while gargling roofing nails, and it took her a while to process. On the other hand, I think the shock of hearing someone ask if she spoke English in Slovak left her unable to respond. It’s a neat trick, with which I will continue to experiment.

Normally, salespeople are all too eager to jump to English. I still wonder how I can say one word, even a brand name, and the clerk will shift immediately. It has happened repeatedly now at the pharmacy, even though I have tried to perfect my pronunciation of the needed item.

One wouldn’t expect a lot of variation in how “aspirin” is said, but I keep failing the test. Here’s a typical dialog:

(Entering store)
Dobrý deň.
Dobrý deň.
(sounds of “how can I help you?”)
Aspirin? Would you like tablets or effervescent?
Uh, tablets.

It’s not a condescending behavior in any way, as normally they are genuinely pleased when someone makes an attempt to speak the language. This was very different in Paris many years ago, when I was much more fluent and trying to improve my French. I recall trying to book some travel and having a dialog along the lines of:

<I’d like to book a train for tomorrow to Lyon, and overnight accommodations.>
“We can speak English if you prefer.”
<No, no. French is just fine.>
“Really. My English is quite good, if it would be easier for you.”
<It’s important to speak French in France, don’t you think? Besides, I obviously need the practice.>
(smiling) <Of course. French, then. Travel for two to Lyon?>
<No, just one. I am traveling alone.>
<Ah. Who will be caring for your walrus, then?>

At any rate, language was top of mind yesterday when we made a day trip to Hungary with one of Claire’s co-workers (she of the proper translation skills, specifically). Silvia is Hungarian-Slovak, so is not only a good translator for us, but an excellent tour guide. Since all of us had disappointing Saturdays, Silvia suggested we stretch our plans and go see the monastery at Pannonhalma.  It turned into a beautiful drive, and an absolutely amazing tour. The monastery was founded in 996 and has been occupied and active almost continuously since (ignoring short stretches of a hundred years or so). Unlike the ruins at Beckov, it is in excellent condition, and is an amazing treasure.

Much beyond that, we have no idea. The very capable official tour guide provided a lot of explanation in Hungarian, which Silvia rapidly summarized magnificently, but there was a lot of detail and translation is never easy. An English-language supplemental guide filled in some of the gaps, but we were left thinking that this is such a rich site, one could spend years there.

Getting back to the language lesson, I found it really disturbing that I could listen intently to our tour guide for an hour, and only pick up one or two words, which were formal names of people and places. Hungarian, as it turns out, is not derived from the same roots as its neighbors in Slovakia, Romania, Austria and so forth: in Europe, it bears the closest kinship to Finnish and Estonian far to the north, and various smaller pockets throughout north-central Asia. Pronunciation rules learned for Slovak are generally useless, and we relied mightily on our kindly hostess.

The rest of the day ended with a lovely Hungarian meal, a trip to a thermal spa, and lots of exploring. We decided that we’d make the trek to Budapest very soon, as it is only a few hours by car. So now I have another language to study a bit, as I am a firm believer in knowing the most basic words.

Which brings me to my final story, about knowing which words are important in a given setting. I have found that most language guides are terrible at this, as they often use a single context to teach a plethora of languages. For example, my Talk Now! Slovak CD has dedicated space to teaching the translation for “Where is the beach?”, when the answer would generally start with an airplane flight. Likewise, it teaches the word for mango, which, even if it weren’t an imported exotic, is just pronounced as “mango”.

And so it was, on one of my recent climbing trips to Chamonix, that I learned the correct French word for “rock”. Climbers are taught that if you disgorge rock or ice onto the party below you, you yell a warning – along the lines of “Fore!” in golf. In English we cleverly say “Rock!”  I know now that the French say “caillou”, which literally means “pebble”, and does a disservice to the boulders that can tumble off chossy cliffs. Indeed, while we were waiting for a party of students to clear the way above us, one kicked loose a stone and appropriately called “caillou”, though no one beneath him knew what it meant or implied. When the boulder the size and shape of a library edition of the Oxford English Dictionary landed between two approaching British climbers, all they could extract in response was “Oi!” And so it was, for the remainder of the climb, whenever someone above would yell a single word, all the English-speakers would hug the face of the cliff. I’m sure that the French were quite amused at the response they got from yelling “aspirin”.

In the bowling alley.

Posted in Culture, Entertainment, History, Language, Places | 2 Comments

Wardrobe Failure and the Supply Chain

Last week, on our final day of climbing, I got to the crag and realized I had left a crucial piece of gear (harness) back at the apartement. I was able to cobble something together from other gear, which thankfully never got put to the test due to rainfall, but the whole affair reminded me of this old George Carlin piece. There we were, an hour’s drive and short hike from our travel bags, with everything for the day crammed into a small backpack. The travel bags were just a small subset of the items we had shipped to Bratislava, which were an even smaller subset of our collected possessions, sitting back in Denver. How do we end up with all this stuff?

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To the fromage and back again

In theory, a European road trip without children – even one of several thousand kilometers driven mostly as bookends, though six countries, and covering five languages – should be fairly straightforward. Somehow, though, when you add in our two dogs, the simplest travel becomes the high drama I imagine being on a weapons-buying junket with the Family Palin.

Acting innocent

Not that the dogs don’t travel well in the car; indeed, they are quiet and peaceful on the road, appreciate short walks at anonymous roadside stations, give and take their water as needed, and are happy to share in a little highway grub. No, the challenge comes at overnight stops and at the final destination. Cody, our 4-year-old male, is a bundle of anxiety, and gets spooked by the smallest things in new places. He’s taken to having to sleep with a light on – which is no fun for his human pack-mates – and loud noises can send him into a panic. Crystal, our 18-month-old female, is a puppy still, and loves to bark, chew, run, play and whatever. Mostly while we humans want to sleep. Both, incidentally, are Great Pyrenees, and weigh just under 100 lbs (40-ish kg) each. They look bigger, though, and are admirably hairy. Their size and fur volume keeps them out of many of the better lodging accommodations, and grabbing a place in transit is always a challenge.

Following our plans, we set out from Bratislava for Chamonix, France on a southern route that took us through Austria and Italy. The trip home was to be a northern route through Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Initially we thought that we would overnight somewhere near Verona on the way out, and somewhere near Salzburg on the way back.

While we had an apartement booked in Chamonix, we were winging it on the road, with our overnight location based on where we ended up at the end of our patience. On the first leg, that was Soave, Italy, a little short of Verona, but we had been fighting rain for hours and wanted dinner and a bed. We ended up paying for four beds – in two rooms – to meet the demands of the Best Western innkeeper. We also had to make a cross-my-heart promise to split up and sleep one human and one dog to a room – a promise we promptly ignored, but I suspect she understood that would be the case.

The first night went moderately well, and we hustled out the next morning – taking the dogs out separate doors to avoid the walk of shame. Day Two was unexpectedly long, with traffic delays, accidents, and a back-up at the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Finally, though, we made it to Chamonix in time to check into our apartement – ratty ski condo, in US terms – and settle in for the week. Over the course of two days, though, we had observed and confirmed two broad stereotypes for Europe: Austria is pristine, quaint, and everything is in remarkable working order; Italy is disorganized and crumbling, alternately filthy and breathtaking, and the people are extraordinarily warm and friendly. France was, well, France.

The week itself went mostly without incident, except for: constipation in the dogs; anti-constipation in the humans; freakish weather alternating warm and sunny with cold and wet; and the aforementioned canine neuroses. One would have thought that the dogs would love France, as the French love dogs, but for some reason they never settled in. Perhaps it was the abundance of dog-shit everywhere we walked them. For some reason the French don’t believe in self-policing poop, as evidenced by the looks of befuddlement on the faces of those watching us collect our dogs’ turds in bags, no doubt for some artistic or culinary project. I suspect our pampered pooches found the whole experience frightful.

Ah, France. Ah, Chamonix.

Initially, this was intended to be a Steve-only climbing trip, but since Claire’s schedule cleared up for the week and we had made it a family event, Claire got to join me for two days of climbing (one of which was rained out early). In between, though, we enjoyed exploring, reading, eating and drinking, visiting an incredible museum, and absorbing the mountain air. All the while swearing that the next time we went on vacation, the dogs would stay home. As if to amplify the sentiment, Cryssie developed a urinary tract infection at the end of our stay, so our trip home was punctuated with even more stops at rest stations.

While we didn’t get much chance to explore Switzerland or Germany this time, immediate impressions were: Switzerland has a lot of cows; Germans really do drive like madmen on the Autobahn. And though tired, we were worried about Cryssie, so we ended up driving all the way back to Bratislava in one push. “Home” beckoned, with our adopted bed, clean house, working appliances, and dog-shit-free yard. Even the rhythmic pulses of the Punjabi reggae band coming from the outdoor concert venue nearby, playing to the all-white Euro-Rastafarians until the wee hours of the morning, were welcome. When you live in the surreal, the absurd seems comfortably familiar.

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A Lesson in Post-Soviet Geography

I got a polite smackdown from a local this week for referring to this region as Eastern Europe. Her point: it’s not geographically accurate, and the Slovaks don’t relate to it. “‘Central Europe’ is better,” she said. “‘Eastern Europe’ starts at the Ukraine.”

Fair enough. I think the term was always politically drawn, rather than geographically, starting back when everything east of Berlin sat under the watch of the Russian Bear. Then, there was only East and West – “Central” is part of a new regional awareness. And, sure enough, there is a Wikipedia article on the subject, so it must be true.

I thought about this in the context of the US, and realized that we suffer from some of the same misplaced geographic labels.  Living in Chicago for a few years, I never understood the notion that I was located in the “Mid-West”. Hell, I drove out there from California, and my odometer and sore butt could easily prove that we were a lot more east, geographically speaking, than we were west. Apparently, though, the term has been used for over a hundred years now and is canonized in the US Census (Wikipedia, again), so I don’t hold out much hope for a similar regional awakening.

At the same time, I thought it might be useful to apply some of the same geo-logic to my own mental map of the US, and apply some Euro-terms to our own regions. I did have a challenge with the South/Southeastern US, which as the indisputably stupidest place on the planet, has no foreign counterparts.

Herewith, a new view:

Naturally, my love of the Rocky Mountains has resulted in some bias, but I don’t think it is too obvious.

Posted in Culture, Geography, History | 3 Comments

Crass commercialism trumps technology

As one of the more recent entrants into the global family of unfettered capitalism, Slovakian businesses are doing their best to grow, sell and promote their wares. And in the spirit of all their forebears, they are doing it with the capitalist’s truncheon: advertising. The most noticeable form of advertising to an outsider is signage: from billboards to placards, no stretch of busy roadway is without a flurry of solicitations.

These include a mixture of media…

…in all shapes and sizes…

…some mechanical…

…some digital…

…some cow-full…

…some really over-the-top…

…and some we’re still laughing at.

On the plus side, however, all this signage has helped us overcome some slightly flawed technology: namely, my Garmin Oregon 400 GPS unit, purchased just for this trip with all the European data. For the most part, the Garmin has been a trusty workhorse, getting us to and from work, play, and visits to the police. Somehow it manages to navigate the profusion of tiny one-way streets and rabbit-warrens of the old Soviet-era housing developments. Occasionally, though, it gets tripped up and tries to send us across a bridge that has been permanently closed, and once it put us in an infinite loop on a clover-leaf expressway intersection.

Thankfully, whenever we get in serious trouble, we can can count on the roadsigns. Not of the street-name variety nor of the municipal roadway type. No, these are both too uncommon and often confusing. Instead, we’ve learned to watch for the ads directing us to one of the two big shopping malls near our house. Nearly every lamppost and other vertical surface along major streets will have signs to one of the three main shopping areas. The ones for the mall closest to us look like this:

It seems we can always find them, even on the opposite side of the city, and that’s been a lifesaver when technology and geographic senses fail us. On the other hand, we are developing a new set of skills: spotting “our” signs among the noise of the Bratislava commercial world.

Where's Zlate Piesky?

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