Žilina is a city in Slovakia.
I lived in Žilina for a few months while volunteering at the Stanica arts center. It was a place my school had visited for cross-cultural comparison reasons, and I ended up falling in love with it. There is such a lively youth scene, and the events that go on at Stanica are unlike any other arts space I’ve ever seen. What’s more impressive is that the program is incredibly successful, and fully funded. You don’t see stuff like that in the US.
I had an awesome flat while in Žilina, and lots of fun, new Slovak friends to hang out with. I got to try halušky, which is like the Slovak version of macaroni and cheese, and drink Kofola along with some great Slovak beer. My views included the Tatra mountains in the distance, which were the first snow-peaked mountains I ever saw.
Žilina is a hidden gem within Slovakia. Not many tourists go there because it’s A) not advertised widely and B) it’s about two and a half hours from the capital of Bratislava, which is basically the only place people go in Slovakia (well, maybe Kosice too). But there is so much to experience in Žilina and I would recommend it to any traveler looking for a change to Eastern Europe. I love Žilina and always will!
I started off doing dishes next to the bar where Nika served the booze-hungry crowd at Stanica. It was the only way I felt I could help – clearing out cups and mugs so she could faster sell liquor.
“I need to take a break,” she told me. “Will you watch the bar?”
There was a line of customers out the door, waiting for a drink. That’s how I started bartending.
Bartending was fun because it kept me busy, but also, it involved all of my friends. Dušan, Ints, Nika and I would all take turns providing beer or Kofola or shots to the hoards of people who wanted to get drunk after some art show or some concert at Stanica. I learned the Slovak words for different drinks and learned to make change with korunas.
I could have stayed there my entire life.
Soon, I began running the bar all by myself. One time, Dušan was with me, and it started getting busy, so he began doing the dishes along Nika’s daughter. I loved that little girl, she was curious and would hang out with me when everyone else was busy. She loved my computer and we’d make funny faces and take photos on it. She was great.
Dušan is one of my most favorite people in the world, and this photo is partly why. I don’t know what he was saying to her in Slovak, but it was funny, because both of them were laughing as they washed the dishes. Dušan doesn’t know how great he is, and I wish he did. I know he loves Slovakia, but I wish he would come to America, because, being an insanely talented photographer, he’d thrive here. He’s kind and resourceful and good with kids.
This is one of my favorite photos from Stanica.
It’s been snowing lately on Long Island! Not very much which is good, because I am not generally a fan of snow, but just enough to make it seem wintery and pretty. It covers the ground with fluffy whiteness but not enough to make that nasty gray-brown slush once the cars run over it.
If you travel in the winter to a place that experiences the same seasons as you, chances are, you’re going to encounter a little bit of snowfall. Sometimes, it’s charming. Sometimes, it’s horrendous and screws up your plans. I’ve lived with snow my entire life, but I have to admit, one of my favorite things is watching someone who lives in a warm place experience snowfall for the first time in their lives. It’s really cute and makes me remember how excited I used to get when I was a kid, watching the first flurries fall.
Write about snow.
Below you can read an vignette I’ve written as an example, to get you started. Feel free to leave your story in the comments section, or send me an email and maybe I’ll feature yours next week!
They made me go with them on this hike to the abandoned castle.
No, they didn’t make me – I chose to go. I chose to go because it would be me, Sylvain and his friend Tony (both French expats), and Ints. Just us four. No one else was around so they thought it would be nice to treat their new American friend to a worthwhile experience – exploring Lietava castle. I thought it could be somewhat romantic, a daring adventure that would draw Ints and I together in some adrenaline-pumping way.
There is only one problem, however; I am desperately hung over.
It is a combination of terrible things – it’s freezing outside, I’m dehydrated, the men are more physically fit than I. They race to the top of an outcrop as I lag behind, struggling not to vomit. In true French fashion, they have the audacity to smoke cigarettes during their short break, watching me trudge through the snow.
“That’s it,” I say once I reach them. “I can’t go on anymore. You guys go ahead to the top. I’m totally done.”
They look around, confused. “But…we’ve already been there,” Sylvain replies.
I sit in the snow, defeated. The view from this ledge is something to behold, and I appreciate this little pocket of Slovakian beauty to this day. It would be cool to get to the top and explore the ruins – I’ve never been that close to an abandoned castle before, much less a Slovak one – but today it’s really, really hard.
“I seriously can’t walk anymore. I’m going to throw up.”
Ints shrugs. “No big deal. We tried. Let’s go to a pub and get fucked up.”
The men take one last drag and we head down the hill.
I miss sitting in that makeshift kitchen, cupping my hands around a hot cup of tea to keep warm. I’d sit and eat my lunch, leftovers from the night before, and plot my next move. Was I going to fuck off to Slovakia so I could squeeze in a social life in a month’s time? Or should I stay in Prague and continue my quest to conquer modern Czech fashion and uncover the psychological ties to its people?
No. The raging-party-Prague I was told I would encounter had not lived up to its expectations. Not that I was a raging partier, but I didn’t feel I knew the city like I knew London, which I knew very well. It wasn’t the language barrier either – you can communicate with people, even carry out a full-on conversation, with someone who doesn’t speak your speak.
No other American seemed to realize that however.
When I travel to a foreign country, I soak in the culture like a sponge. Even in Ghana, I attempted to blend in. The more one accepts outside customs into their own life, the more they can understand their own. “Participant observation” is an Anthropological field technique I fully abide by. How else can one truly make a cultural judgment call otherwise?
But I had few Czech friends, outside of Petr and Štěpán. I had no one to speak Czech with, save my host mother. I even practiced my homework on my three-year old host brother, but it always ended in him giving me a dirty look.
I couldn’t leave this country without having a reason to bring me back. That special cafe where I read Kafka and sat for hours nursing one cup of tea is not enough. You need a person to rehash old memories with. You need a person.
That’s why I went to Žilina.
I was drawn to the EVS volunteers on our previous visit to Stanica. Three were French, one was Latvian, and Dušan was a Slovakian youth. They were gregarious, joked around, and lived on pizza (it also helped that Sarah picked up the tab at the restaurant we met them at). I was magnetized to their camaraderie and couldn’t help but notice the lack of conversation going on with the Americans at my end of the table.
So I got up. I walked over.
“Can I share a seat with you?”
The tall, gangly, pock-marked boy with the large DSLR camera hanging around his neck accepted my advance, and made room.
I sat next to Dušan.
“Are you trying to learn French?” I asked the Latvian.
“Yes,” he replies. He had a tongue piercing, ear piercings, and a piercing on the dimple of his chin. “I am going to Paris soon. I am trying to learn some curse words.”
“We are teaching him all of the good ones,” Helene, I would later come to know, is more petite than me, but nearly twice my age.
“Do you speak French at all?” Audrey looked straight out of a Judy Blume novel – round-framed glasses, curly, bushy hair, a gap between her teeth.
“I like to think I do,” I reply. “Is that an egg?” I point at Dušan’s pizza. It is riddled with green peppers, red onions, olives, greasy cheese, black beans and sausage. In the center was an egg, sunny-side up.
“Why, yes, it is,” he grins. “Would you like to try some?”
“No, that’s okay. You enjoy it.”
Dušan always ate pizza with fried eggs on it. “Mexican pizza” is what he called it.
I always got the margarita pizza from Pizzeria Don Giovanni. It was the cheapest and the best. And it always tasted better cold the day after.