Monday, July 12, 2010

When I First Got There

When I first got there I drove past dying fields of sunflowers. I drove through winding mountain roads lined with green grass and smoke stacks and gray tiled roofs with lichen and moss, white washed crumbled houses caged in by red fences, tilted inwards or outwards by weeds or wind. One night we drank red wine in the garden with cheese, and the stars glinted off our eyelashes. I was surrounded by a language it was still ok not to understand, I could fall back in my chair with growing inebriation and watch our purple lips fill with moonlight. And in the daylight hours I could step through the village streets , my footfall light in the softened August sun, past timid church steeples and under a suntanned hilltop castle, and if I hadn’t been anticipating loneliness I would have seen more clearly how beautiful it was. Even the grafitied supermarkets felt lighter, like gravity had dissipated in forgotten places- in Rome my feet fell heavily, maybe too many feet had fallen there. But in Slovakia the corners were still unknown and the whole flowered country was sunlit. And somewhere among the beetles and shriveled canola blooms, I lay disappointed, because there existed Italy and France, and most of all that widened red-earth and concrete country of my life, America. Only now, when I belong to her again, do I think back to the dozing villages of the Europe no one knows, and wonder why I was not hopelessly in love with it.

What Belongs

White skies belong in Slovakia. I’m driven through the country, making my way to bigger cities and watching the landscape wash past in late march while the skies are white and leaves haven’t yet appeared. Sloping green, that fresh purity of new spring grass, the first real sign of life set against the white, with its skeleton black trees reaching bare branches to the bare empty sky. The fields are damp, left between rainfalls, the sky taking shallow breaths, and everything is quiet.

Disheveled belongs in Slovakia. Walking through villages I see lining every garden a different kind of cheap fencing pushed backwards and forwards by overgrown tomato plants and big dogs with dirtied coats. Some are tall and red, others rusted black, but each is intertwined with gangled green, untamed leaves and yellow flowers reaching to the doormats and up the sides of the houses throwing sunlight to the graying roofs, patched with moss and beetles and laying sleepily in the creases of green Slovak hills.

Canola fields belong in Slovakia. On sunny days, when the blue skies sweep across those hills again, yellow rushes downwards, breaking through fields of grass and bringing the whole country into the sun. After the misted winter and quiet cold of the streets the canola blooms and the landscape erupts into rolling green and yellow. The grapes are planted and village chatas unlocked, windows thrown open, light rays dusting the kitchen floors, and white wine is poured in the garden.

Trains belong. It’s dark outside but my cabin is lighted and I’m lying on my stomach on the middle bunk, my hand out the open window and the thick wind beating against my face and hair. Caroline is with me and I’d never talked to her much before, but that heavy yellow light is holding both of us, and the same sooted cities passing before our eyes. So we talk a little before falling asleep, and I wake periodically to check the time and listen to the wheels take me further and the French woman wrestle with the sheets in the lower bunk and the cabin door slam suddenly against the frame. And next door I hear my friends who have just arrived but I stay where I am, not wanting to miss that same uneasy sound of leaving things behind.


Walked home in the rain. Roznava doesn’t have that earthen smell- nothing refreshed. Just washed of it’s nature almost, left only with the smell of humans. Trash left out to be collected. Soil washed from the street, and washed from the whitened worms that lay strewn on the sidewalks. Maybe rain doesn’t belong in Slovakia. Or maybe civilization doesn’t belong in Slovakia. That fits. In a way looking at this country is looking at a people who have failed themselves. They apologize for their uneven soccer fields and their homegrown music. They apologize for the Hungarians fenced out of their own country, the gypsies nesting on the edges, and in the end, when their sentences turn downwards and they lower their fingers, they apologize for themselves.
It’s in those moments of solitude, walking home without an umbrella, travelling backwards through the country in an old train, sun-warmed lightly in my first days here- that the words start forming. Fragments present themselves shyly in my mind and then disappear, leaving only a vague craving for meaning, as if unsure of themselves. And they appear without senses, so quietly that they’re difficult to grasp, adjectives as drained of color as the worms. So as I skipped through the water film covering the streets, I thought I would later sit down to a description. But nothing really formed- only fellow rats but with umbrellas scurrying past and denim pasted against my calves, and it was then, when I glimpsed a man for an instant in his garden, that the words came.
I feel like I’ve been living behind a window. I tap all day, and someone comes to me. But when they speak it’s the dulled sound of transference. The glass muffles their voice and I can only struggle to understand. And then I speak and they can’t hear me either, so they just tell me again and again to come out from behind the window. But all I can do is wipe it cleaner, chip through it. In the end I’m left encased in glass, and sometimes it’s just easier to remain there behind the panes alone with the fragments of the country I belonged in. And it’s in those days when they stop coming to me. I should be standing there with a hammer, pounding my fists against a wall that will never shatter, raising my voice and dancing something American so that they’ll laugh at me and let me out for a while. But I get tired. I can’t tap anymore, and I don’t think I want to, because I really never fell in love. I wrote when I came here that I hoped to leave with my heart split between two countries, but America has left no room for anything else. In a way I’m surprised I hadn’t known it before- how long has my heart been streaked with red soil and magnolias? And without my language I am left with so little. There are days when I forget the glass still separates me- but walking home in the rain and seeing my neighbor whom I’ve never spoken to standing in the street reminds me that he’ll never ask me to come in from the cold, or where I’ve left my umbrella, because it’s just too difficult to see through a window in the rain.


The Train
I had taken the train to Bratislava as well, but had been left more or less alone… my only companions were a young woman with a violin case, a perfectly cut image for a musician, down to the cleaned up hippie clothes and sweetly plain face; and then a little while later, a slightly fat woman wearing a skin tight outfit entirely in two different kinds of cheap dark plaid. It had been a pleasant ride, but excepting my second companion, entirely unremarkable.
But on the train back to Roznava, I found myself in two different worlds. I boarded the train with four other exchange students who were all heading to cities in central Slovakia, three women that never failed to launch into a pseudo-intellectual conversation about their latest trip to Auschwitz, or the beauty of the Slovak mountain ranges, and one silent Mexican, whom I had never spoken to. The train was modern and clean. I passed my time blasting music that I’d hoped would drown out the conversation, and occasionally exchanging looks with the Mexican. It was then that I realized the simplest things can bring people together- Fede and I never spoke during the ride, but it was this mutual silence, this quiet but almost tangible disregard for our companions, that made him feel like my accomplice. Eventually we reached Banska Bystrica, and I had to switch cabins, leaving my partner in crime to fend for himself.
But it was in this half of the ride that I found enchantment. Rushing through the train to my new cabin was like entering another decade. The colors faded as the paint chipped and the seat cushions darkened to burgundy. I found myself in a cabin preceding me by 30 years, accented with fake dark wood and thick yellow paint. I sat back in my seat as the train rolled on. Twilight approached, and I leaned my head against the window, watching fields and dimly lit villages pass by. The landscape matched my present surroundings, the spaces in sporadic loveliness filled with old Communist industry, blackening the quiet towns. But then a church steeple would rise among the old houses, adding majesty to the disheveled gardens and low hills, throwing modern America even further on the horizon. And it was then, with my head occasionally jostled against the pane, my eyes adjusting to the artificial light and observing the other silent passenger through his reflection in the window, occasionally dozing and feeling time creep by with the intermittent stops, that I felt, I had made it, it being something I wasn’t totally sure of- a goal I hadn’t been aware of reaching, an independence I had missed obtaining. I was alone. The people in this country would eventually fade from my life, leaving only their imprint and their language, and perhaps a few words of reflection throughout the next years of my life. My contact would disappear, and I would be left with this, just images, that defined a year of my life so unlike all the others. And so it was in this train that I found briefly the purpose of my exchange, this connection with a forgotten country and most of all with myself, wrapped in yellow light and welcomed loneliness. The train slowed into Roznava, and I gathered my things, nodding to my companion, and stepped out into the night.


There have been moments in my stay that have been marked by beauty. I have an aesthetics-driven nature. I thrive in an atmosphere of splendor. My senses are heightened, as well as my productivity. If I’m surrounded by magnificence I want nothing more than to put the image on paper, whether by ink or by paint. Yet I find myself far from these means, and so am forced to cast the images into my memory, relaying a sadly diluted version to my laptop screen several nights later.
Duso is a hunter, and on the second night of my stay in Slovakia, he took me to the forest. The forest ended up being a field, sprawled across the shallow hills of Roznava. He pointed to many deer as he searched for his prize, the wild boar. After a while, Nasta and I grew restless and wandered off as the sun began to descend. There’s something particular about dusk that allows every scene a glimpse of mystique. The lowered sun cast gold through the high, brown grass, and illuminated the hills below. What had been a seemingly ordinary vision was transformed. I stood alone in the field, letting my eyes drift across the horizon, my movements slowed so as not to break the delicacy of silence. I noticed for the first time church steeples rising timidly between the creases in the hills, and red clay roofs cradled in the grasses. The sky grew drowsy, and I shifted to auditory awareness. The silence had been a deception. The chirping of crickets is one of the loveliest sounds in the world. It is one that slips, unnoticed, away from perception and ingratiates itself into silence. It refreshes tranquility, but then belongs to it, like a dash of mint or leaves of cilantro. Nasta called to me, and my spell was jolted. I turned and walked reluctantly towards the car, my body washed in golden light and soft cicada music.

A few weeks later

I've been home for a few weeks. It's difficult to know what to write- so much has happened.
Home feels normal- there has been no reverse culture shock.. My friends are the same, and I fit in with them the same as before. But I have mourned Slovakia- it's hit me once or twice that those friends I left behind are precious, and I love them just as much as my friends here. i dont really know how to deal with it- dont know when ill see them again and keeping in touch is difficult. but i will go back.

mostly i feel the need to keep moving. this summer is just an interim- ill study business, go abroad-- probably to central europe again. ill take russian and slavic history. i wont pretend like it was an ecstatically happy year- most of the time i felt really out of place and like i was living for other peoples expectations. i felt caged in by rotary, which was difficult in such a small town. but i dont feel like im done with it- slovakia is like a love affair that i have to work at for a long time. and that i needed a break from. but ive stopped wishing i had been placed in italy or france- slovakia easily matches them in terms of natural beauty at least. but i think the best way to chronicle my exchange is to post what i wrote privately about it-- not diary entries, just mostly descriptions. so ill post them in the order i wrote them.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Alright, now for a more positive blog--
every time i move to a new family, i have an internal meltdown. the last time it was much more obvious- i cried for three days, shut myself up in my room, etc. this time it was more subdued. its not because i dont like my new families- i always end up not wanting to move. but i am removed from the people i'm closest to, where i've found comfort, the rules i'm used to, etc. and then i start feeling lonely and homesick and start to think that theres nothing really here for me. its a difficult transition. although i must say that this time its been mostly pretty easy. i havent had any problems yet, and ive spent a lot of time with my host brother (although hes leaving for college again tomorrow). i went out with classmates and actually had a really good time, and school has been fine. my usual group of friends is getting a little boring, so i'm trying to branch out a little- i actually hang out with teachers a lot, which im sure makes me look like a teachers pet, but it is a pretty good time.
going to italy and greece in a week!! really excited. and i get to see amy! it should be a great time, although my two best friends wont be there- one because she didnt have the money, and the second because he got sent home. he didnt break any rules, just didnt learn the language and there was friction with his family. not really helping my ongoing frustration with rotary! but nothing you can do about it now.
weird that the year is wrapping up.. im going home June 18th, and will be gone for three weeks with rotary. really not a lot of time left. im really not sure how best to spend my time or what to do. im excited to have my birthday here-- not sure what to expect for that. annnd i finished Harry Potter a Tajomna Komnata (chamber of secrets) today! a whole book in slovak, 358 pages. i feel so accomplished. ok, not much else to write. except that finally the sun is coming out! slovakia is really meant for the summer. drives through the country are really breathtaking, particularly in the warmer seasons. the nature here is not easily matched.