Ahojte! I know it’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these, life has been crazy, it always is. It’s still hard for me to believe I’ve already been here for over 5 months…my exchange is already halfway over 🙁 It feels like I haven’t been home in Florida for such a long time, but at the same time time’s flying as I try and take everything in over here. I’ll try and catch you up on everything that has been going on for the past couple months. Sit down, maybe make some tea if you actually want to read this-I’m sorry it’s so long.
Lots of new experiences for me packed into this month. The first weekend of October I took a train with fellow exchange students across the country to a city called Košice. There we ran in the oldest marathon in Europe called the Košice Peace Marathon, the weather wasn’t ideal in the slightest-cold and rainy. It was my first experience in the “cold” here, at least at that time what I thought was pretty much unbearable (like 8 degrees Celsius). Despite the weather I had a great weekend exploring the city with friends, making lots of memories. This month consisted a lot of me exploring my own city before it got too cold. Many afternoons exploring the nooks and crannies of Bratislava, lots of cafes, I found my favorite little Vietnamese restaurant in a cute outdoor market, many visits to the castle, just lots of walking in general. Before the weather got all rainy my skateboard was my best friend, helped me catch a lot of buses on time, even though the streets here are 100% not made for skating on-caused me to fall quite a few times.
My host mom took me to see my first ballet of the Swan Lake, it was beautiful, but who knew ballets were almost 3 hours? Not me. As I’ve learned Halloween is pretty much only celebrated in the US, even though stores here do sell Halloween decorations and my host sister and I carved a pumpkin together, but there’s no trick-or-treating. I got asked countless times if we actually did that in the US, and everyone was always so surprised when I said yes. My school has a couple American teachers and one of them organized a spooky night hike as sort of a way to celebrate Halloween and to be able to show Slovaks some of our American traditions. It was a chilly night and about 8 of us met at around 11PM and hiked up to a place called Koliba in a small mountain range in Bratislava. We sat around a fire all night, singing songs, telling ghost stories, and showing the Slovaks how to make smores. I had a really good time and ended up getting home at around 8AM. We had a fall holiday at the end of the month and I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Prague with my host family. My 10-year-old host sister and I got really close, spending 24/7 with each other and I was at the point I could understand at least some of what she was saying.
I’m realizing this is taking too long to write so I’ll just highlight my experiences. It got cold this month; way too cold for this Florida girl. I’ve never had to wear this many layers in my life, having to consciously dress to stay warm every day is a lot for me. My host mom warned me that this was her least favorite month and now I see why, there’s barely ever sun and it’s cold and rainy. Anyways, I turned 18!!! It was tough to be away from family, but my friends here made it special for me. We walked up to the castle after school and watched the sunset, one of my favorite things ever.
My rotary club got together at an all-male rehabilitation center to make traditional Slovak Christmas treats called oblátky and trubičky, not easy to make at all. At the end of the month was Thanksgiving, which at first, I was not looking forward to at all, because it is an American holiday so it’s not celebrated here. But it turns out my school had a very special event for all of the Americans (because I go to a bilingual English-Slovak school they have native speakers here teaching students English.) They invited me to a huge thanksgiving feast, it was so cool to be able to share this holiday with a few Americans in Slovakia, and teach some classmates what the holiday means to me. Made me extremely thankful for the community around me and this life changing experience I am currently living.
I was ecstatic to wake up on December 1st to snow flurries falling from the sky. My host family didn’t understand why I was so excited for the tiniest amount of snow, but I felt like I was in a winter wonderland- as we all know snow isn’t a thing in Florida. Sitting in my religion class I didn’t catch a single word I was too busy looking out the window. My friends and I ran outside during our break and danced and played in the snow like we were 3 years old, honestly didn’t even feel the cold I was having such an amazing time. Of course, it didn’t last- by the time my next class was over at 11 all the snow was melted and the sun was out. After school I went ice skating outside at the Christmas markets in the city. I will never, for the rest of my life, forget that day. We had our second orientation meeting for all the inbounds in Slovakia here in Bratislava, and we all took a bus together to Vienna for the day. I was super stressed because we had to take a Slovak language test, but it turned out fine and the rest of the weekend was fun. The Christmas markets in both Bratislava and Vienna are beautiful, very crowded, but I would recommend going. Living in Bratislava I found myself walking through the markets almost every day, by the time Christmas came I knew what every little shop had to offer. I also went to my first ever hockey game with fellow exchange students, go Slovan! And the last day of school before winter break, we did a secret Santa in my class and then a few Christmas related workshops throughout the day.
Christmas here was full of a lot of new experiences for me. It is celebrated on the 24th, I spent the whole day with my family hanging around the house, preparing for dinner. Unfortunately, the days leading up to Christmas I was extremely sick so I missed out on making the million types of cookies with my host sister (but it’s okay I still got to eat them). On Christmas there’s a tradition to put fish scales on the dinner table for good luck, but we didn’t have any so we replaced them with coins instead. We started dinner eating oblátky with honey and a clove of garlic. Then kapustnica (sour cabbage soup) and carp with potato salad for the main meal. My host sister could barely sit still waiting for us to finish dinner because then came with the ring of a bell Ježiško (baby Jesus), delivering presents under the Christmas tree when we went outside to look for him. It was really nice to be able to celebrate the holiday with a different culture’s perspective.
After Christmas I drove 5 hours with my host family across Slovakia to Prešov to visit my host mom’s family for a few days. We visited the high Tatras and it was honestly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Hiking in the mountains with everything covered with snow was breathtaking, and it was a beautiful day outside-the sun was shining, making everything prettier (and less cold, the -10 C was enough!) I had a fun time with my host uncle, he learned how to say “yellow snow no” in English for me and probably repeated it 100 times that day.
Though I did have plenty of good days in November and December, those were probably the toughest months I’ve had so far on exchange. Physically I was drained, the weather was gloomy, the sun was barely ever out, and I was constantly exhausted. Mentally my brain was overstimulated constantly trying to translate everything around me, which caused a lot of frustration because I still couldn’t understand a lot. Seasonal depression is a thing y’all.
I went into the new year with my friends sitting on the bank of the Danube river watching a beautiful firework show. Never, in a million years, did I think that’s how I would go into 2020. As soon as January hit everything has started going by so fast. I am completely comfortable living in a not-so-foreign (anymore) country. I love my life here, and before I came, I didn’t know I could grow this much as a person. My whole perspective on the world has changed and I’m beyond grateful for that.
This month I had a lot of changes again. My host family wanted to make the most of my last couple of days with them (and the last couple days of winter break). We visited a fairytale looking castle and a Caravaggio & Bernini art exhibit in Vienna. Both beautiful experiences. Then came time to say čau to my first family and that was rough. I spent almost five months with them, I’ve grown so much since my first day here. They had to teach me everything about the culture here, from little things like different table manners to big things like language and transportation. Everything was new to me and I’m thankful they had the patience to immerse me into their culture and welcome me into their home. It was hard to pack all of my things; I didn’t realize how much stuff I’d accumulated until I tried to fit it into my bags and it just didn’t work. I got super emotional saying bye to my little sister, she latched onto me and would only let me leave when I promised I would come visit soon.
Walking out that door I started a new chapter of my exchange. I moved to a completely different part of Bratislava, called Senec. Before I was living 5 min from Hungary and now, I’m definitely not. To get to the city center I now have to take a short train ride, which is pretty inconvenient only because the trains to my little town don’t go very often. I thought I woke up early before, but now my train leaves for school at 6:30, and it takes about an hour and a half, with all the transportation I take, to get there. But my host family is amazing so that inconvenience doesn’t even matter. They welcomed me into their family immediately, and are some of the sweetest, kindest people I have met since I’ve been here.
I understand now why we switch families. My new family eats different foods, has different mannerisms, etc.- I’m experiencing a different “interpretation” of Slovak culture. I now have cute little dog and 16-year old host brother. When I moved in with this family, I wasn’t the little baby I was when I first flew into Slovakia, I already have my routine, friends, klubs. I know how everything works, I can get around the city alone, so I don’t need to rely on them for every little thing like I did with my first family. With our busy schedules it was a different way of getting to know each other. Little bits at a time- at dinner after school, occasionally not staying out with my friends and going home just to exercise with my host mom, spending a Saturday at home and spending time together-just making these little efforts from both sides in the matter of less than 2 months I feel like a part of the family.
The biggest question I get from people back in Florida is “how’s the language? Are you fluent yet?”. It didn’t take me long to realize how hard Slovak was, it just took me a long time to accept that my Slovak would never be perfect and by the end of these 10 months I still probably won’t know most of the grammar, won’t be able to have long complicated conversations. Part of this may be due to the fact that almost everyone around me speaks English, I go to a bilingual English school, I live in the capital city. BUT I’ve seen an exponential increase in my Slovak when I moved into my new family because they don’t know English. This is the push I’ve needed- to be forced to speak Slovak in order to communicate. I was so embarrassed at first because my pronunciation isn’t the best but now, I realize that’s stupid. They are the most amazing people being patient with me, I learn so much every day with them constantly correcting me. Now I can have a conversation with my host mom on the phone with no problem. And at this point I’ve accepted that any accomplishment, no matter how small, is a win with Slovak. The other day I was able to have a conversation with the barista at a café, and a lady on the street asked me for directions and I was able to respond in my broken sentences and horrible grammar. So, when I get that question “are you fluent yet?” I can confidently say I am trying my hardest and am almost conversational.
So far since I’ve moved in with my new family a lot has happened. I had another rotary orientation weekend for all the inbounds in Slovakia, this time in Poprad. We spent all day hiking in the mountains, on literal ice, so we all took multiple falls. It was really nice to be able to hang out with all of the exchange students again, we all got very close over that weekend. I also sled for the first time ever with a fellow Floridian and that was the most fun I’ve had in long time, lots of crashing. My host family took me snowboarding for the first time, only for a few hours, but it was so fun. They said I did really good for my first time and I’m looking forward to being able try again. It also snowed for the second time in Bratislava (it’s been a warm winter for Slovakia)!!
Then another exchange student from Australia arrived in Bratislava and it’s been exciting getting to know her. She’s in my class at school and I love being able to learn about Australian culture and it’s funny how different their English is than ours. It’s also crazy to see that I was in her situation 5 months ago, I’ve learned so much and hopefully can help her out some. I love how since I’ve been on exchange, I’ve not only learned a lot about Slovak culture but also Brazilian, Canadian, Australian and Colombian cultures. RYE is really an amazing way to connect the world.
And last but not least, February:
The sun finally came out!!!! I was ESTATIC when the weather slowly switched from being constantly foggy and cloudy to the sun occasionally shining (at least 3-4 times a week now). This month Riko, the Australian, has taught me how to make sushi, and if you know me you know how much I love sushi. I’ve visited 4 more castles with my host family, walked to Austria (don’t worry it was only like 4 km), went to another hockey game, and done a lot more exploring of the city. My goal now is to find the perfect café. Bratislava has the infamous UFO tower on the “new bridge” that overlooks the whole city and after 6 months of crossing the bridge every day I finally went up, and that view was amazing.
Then I had my spring holiday, and that was an amazing week. I visited Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, then spent two days in Prague with my close friends. We had such a great time exploring the city all day, it was so weird to hear so many people speaking English, it’s almost all tourists in the center. It was pretty cool that we could go to a café there and speak Slovak to the barista and they would respond in Czech and there wasn’t much of a problem understanding each other. I was not ready for the holiday to end I was having such a good time, but now I’m back in school, back to my normal schedule. The next thing I have to look forward to is a Ski Week organized by rotary in March!
Okay, as we would say here ďakujem vám za pozornosť (thank you for your attention)! I’m sorry if I bored you but I’m glad I can share. Thank you to everyone for continuing to support me through my exchange, especially all the Rotary members who have had my back since the beginning. I’m looking forward to my next couple months in Slovakia and I can’t wait to see what the future has in hold for me 🙂