I’m stuck in a dark abyss, standing on nothing visible, no sense of time or dimensions as I frantically look around me for some way to escape. I hear the voices echoing around me, though I don’t know where they’re coming from. They’re whispering into my ear, shouting from miles away, they’re all around, and they all carry the same message that I seem to be unable to ignore. I crane my head away from the invisible mouth at my ear, and try to move my feet, but they are cemented to the nonexistent floor. The voice at my ear grows louder, and is joined by another two invisible mouths, all demanding the same thing. My limbs are grabbed by an invisible force too strong for me to be able to break free. The voices grow louder and louder until they sound as if they are coming from inside my own head and I thrash around against the nonexistent chains holding me to my place. A scream begins to build in my throat and I open my mouth, letting out it all out.
I shoot up in bed in the dark, breathing heavily and voice raw as I confirm what the voices tell me:
“You have to write a new blog post.”
Welcome back, everyone, to my nearly-abandoned blog. I know what you’re thinking, “Emelia, that was an awfully dramatic intro to this post.” And yes, I agree, but I needed some kind of interesting opening to get this thing back up and running again. And it captured your interest, didn’t it? Anyways, its been three months since I last spilled all the fun (and not so fun) details of my life abroad on this website, so you can imagine the sheer number of events that have taken place since then. If I try to recant them all, I’m afraid this will turn into a 20,000+ word post. And frankly, I would like to not spend my day(s?) hunched over the computer. So I’ll keep it to a minimum for the sake of both our sanities.
Back in November, the Martin Rotary Club organized a Thanksgiving dinner for their families, friends, and nearby Rotarians and exchange students from other clubs. As per tradition, I was made the “face” of this event as the American exchange student. The other two exchange students in Martin with Rotary (Joao from Brazil and Cande from Argentina) and I went early in the morning to a restaurant where we would host the dinner and along with two more exchange students from the nearby city of Žilina (Aliya from Florida, USA and Beatriz from Brazil) we spent the day preparing the food and decorating. I frankly had no clue what we were actually going to end up eating, as I actually had way less involvement in the whole process than what they initially led me to believe. We were making stuffing and sweet potatoes, but we were also mixing up some traditional Slovak salads. But hey I was going to be open to it all. We also had some American soldiers who are stationed in Martin for peace relations attend the dinner as well as another American exchange student from the other nearby town of Trenčín (Jake from Nevada). The whole event ended up being really fun. Us Americans got to celebrate a holiday centered around friendship and family with our new friends and family, and we had a lot of fun explaining the tradition to all the non-American students. Naturally, everyone was stuffed to the brim, which we explained was also part of Thanksgiving tradition. My only qualm was that there was no. pumpkin. pie. A rather large qualm if you ask me, but I guess they sort of redeemed themselves with their version of Apple pie.
After Thanksgiving, soon it was time to move to my new host family. Students in Martin have three different host families in order for the student to learn about and experience different ways of living in the same city. I had grown quite close to my first family and couldn’t imagine moving to a new place where I would have to live with strangers, again. I had learned about the family, their likes and dislikes, traditions, and the way things worked around the house. I really didn’t want to leave it behind to have to do it all over again. But it had to be done. So the first week of December, I packed up all my things and stared at the bedroom that had been mine since late August. I felt like I was leaving Slovakia, not my first family. I felt tears spring to my eyes, but I grabbed my suitcases and clumsily yanked them down the stairs and outside, where I waited with my host mom for my new family to come and pick me up. But as soon as the car of my new family pulled into the driveway, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. My new host mom, Janka and my new host dad Rafal, have made me feel so loved and welcomed me with open arms. I have never met such kind, nurturing, and loving people, and I know I am so lucky to have joined their family.
Christmas Rotary meeting
In early December, it was time for the Christmas Rotary meeting for all the inbounds in Slovakia. We all took a train to Bratislava, where we stayed for the weekend. We got to sightsee in Bratislava and Vienna, Austria, since Vienna is only a 40 minute drive away. We saw only very little of Bratislava on Friday evening when we visited, and I hope to return to be able to see more of it. However, on Saturday, we spent the whole day exploring Vienna. I can say wholeheartedly that Vienna is the most incredible city I have ever visited. Truth-be-told, I haven’t been to that many places, but Vienna definitely takes the cake for the most beautiful. We traveled to the Vienna Opera House, St. Stephen’s Cathedral (where Bach realized he was deaf when he saw pigeons flying off the bell tower and he couldn’t hear the bells ringing, and where Mozart was married), and Schönbrunn Palace (the main residence of the Hapsburg dynasty), among other places. We also visited Christmas markets in Bratislava and Vienna where they sold traditional Austrian and Slovak food and drinks, as well as handmade products. I would like to visit Vienna again some day to see even more of what the city has to offer. It was somewhere I never knew I wanted to visit, but I am so happy that I did. Later that night, we decorated gingerbread cookies and did a small secret santa. It was great to see all the other exchange students in Slovakia again, we all had a lot of fun together in such beautiful cities.
Trip to Krakow
Later in December, my parents and I took a day trip to Krakow, Poland. My host dad, Rafal, is actually Polish, and we went to go shopping for Christmas and to see a few popular sites in the city. Unfortunately, the traffic to get into the city was worse than expected, so we only had a few hours in Krakow. We visited the Main Square in Krakow called Rynek Główny. A Christmas market had sprung up in the main square and the city was decorated head-to-toe in beautiful Christmas lights and decorations. We also saw St. Mary’s Basilica and Sukiennice, the oldest bazaar in Europe.
Christmas was a unique experience for me, as we had two different celebrations. One with my host mom’s Slovak family, and one with my host dad’s Polish family. We stayed here in Martin for both. We ate fish fillets, full of bones, as per Slovak tradition. We also had lots of Christmas salads made from mayonnaise and various vegetables. As someone who dislikes potato and pasta salads back home, I wasn’t too happy to see they had followed me tenfold to Slovakia. I picked at my plate of fish bones and mayonnaise-covered peas and carrots and prayed nobody would notice that the amount of food on my plate remained the same. For our Polish celebration the next day, we ate the same thing, but with the addition of some pierogis, which I happily gobbled up. I guess Slovak Christmas food just isn’t for me. I made an apple pie for dessert and it actually turned out really well for my first pie. I think it was enjoyed by my family, but maybe they’re just good actors and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Who knows?
Slovaks actually celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, though they also extend the holiday through the 25th and 26th. Instead of Santa Claus, children are brought gifts from Ježiško, or baby Jesus. Once you’re a teenager, you aren’t brought gifts from Ježiško anymore, and just receive gifts from family. I received a gift card and some chocolate from my host mom’s brother and his family, a little basket of various chocolates and teas from my host dad’s brother and his family, and a gift set of hair products from my host parents. I made the various relatives buckeyes- or chocolate-dipped peanut butter balls- since it would be a dessert they were quite unfamiliar with. I gave my host mom a homemade sugar scrub I made and a tin of mint tea, and I gave my host dad a pair of Christmas socks and a mug filled with various chocolates. It was fun to be able to make and give out gifts for Christmas, it’s something I’ve always been good at.
Mid-January, it was time for our third Rotary meeting. It was held in a city called Poprad in Slovakia near the High Tatras. The Tatras Mountains are a famous mountain range that is mostly in Slovakia, but extends into Poland as well. All of us exchangers would be arriving to Poprad on Friday evening for a language test (don’t ask how that went) and a talent show (to prepare our performances at the Rotary District 2240 Conference in May), then we would spend our day hiking in the Tatras all day Saturday. Finally on Sunday we would return home. The talent show was really entertaining. The Brazilian exchange students performed the dance they would be doing, the Canadians showcased their skit, etc. It was really amazing to see everyone’s individual pride in their home countries, and the performances are well on their way to “wow-ing” everyone at the conference. Saturday we set out bright and early for a long day of hiking ahead of us. The mountains were incredible and I’m sure I annoyed everyone hiking behind me by stopping every 10 minutes to snap a picture. We hiked for about 4 hours, then took a train to the city in which we started for an hour lunch break. Sitting down and eating warm potatoes had never felt so blissful. Because of my lack of hiking experience, I sat out the next hike where they hiked to the top of a hill and rode sleds down. I know if I would have done that second hike, I would have been spewing the contents of my stomach over the side of the sled on the way down. After, we went back to the hotel where we had an hour long dance party. Half of us- myself included -were about 20 minutes from dropping to the floor in exhaustion, so we sat in the back of the room making shadow-puppets. If that doesn’t give you an indication of how deliriously tired we were, then I don’t know what will. We all dove into our beds and hit the sack as soon as we were given permission. When I woke up the next morning, I felt like I needed to sleep for another two days to be fully charged. All of us exchange students sent each other off with hugs and we took our respective ways of transportation back home. I was snoring in bed within the first three minutes of stepping foot back into the house. I’m certain my host parents think they don’t let us sleep, and truthfully, sometimes it feels like it.
So here I am snuggled in bed and watching it rain, thinking about how I am halfway through my exchange. I’ve been here for five months and I will return in another five months. It feels strange. I feel like I’ve lived here my whole life, but I also feel as if I’ve only been here for a month. Time really does fly when you’re having fun (or even when you’re not). Truthfully, it hasn’t been all enjoyable. I’ve struggled immensely with learning the language and I still have SO much work ahead of me in that respect. I’ve been homesick, I’ve felt lonely, and sometimes I’ve been completely alone and felt like I had no support. But it’s all part of the experience, and I’m certainly not the same person I was five months ago. I know I will continue to grow and change in these next five months to come. Whatever experiences I have here shape me positively for the future and I know I will never regret any of my experiences here, no matter how painful they are now.
I’ll leave you here with a plethora of photos and warm wishes for the new year. Also a promise that I won’t leave you hanging for another three months.