Traditions, Old and New.

October was a month of high highs, and low lows for me here in Slovakia. With drama ramping up back home, and the absence of both Thanksgiving and Halloween in Slovakia- both of which are personal favourites of mine back in Canada- I experienced the wave of heavy homesickness that every exchange student dreads. With that being said, there were also lots of really bright points in the second half of October (and now November, too) that I hope to highlight in this post.

To start, I had a really great FaceTime call with my friends from District 5550 in Canada, who are now spread out all over the world on their exchanges. It was so great to catch up, and share experiences- both entirely relatable ones and completely unique ones as well- from our exchanges. It’s so cool to FaceTime knowing a few months ago we were together, and now we’re all on a different corner of the globe having the time of our lives!

After that, I FaceTimed the Fam back home, just in time for their Thanksgiving preparations. The commotion of the house was not lost on me, as I (the phone) was getting passed around from person to person as various family members went to stir gravy, take the turkey out, wrangle cats, get the dishes ready, etc. I sure missed the food and family that day, but found some solace in knowing that Fanny (the girl from Belgium who is with my family right now) was getting to experience her very first, and maybe last Thanksgiving. I heard it was a great time!

Some remedies for the homesickness-

1. Spending some great time with the Banská Gang, including a movie night that was less watching movies and more eating bargain snacks we bought earlier in the day.

2. Sitting and relaxing, reading a book in the park in the 24° sun knowing it was already close to freezing back home (I don’t miss it yet)

3. Playing piano, and managing to find a piano teacher here in the city to teach me. I didn’t think it would be possible to find one, so I am overjoyed that I’ll get to continue my piano studies here in Slovakia. And my teacher is great.

^^^Some random photos, including my FaceTimes, a couple of new favourite snacks (bubble waffles and fresh mango/pineapple juice!), and the lower square of Banská by night.

On the 19th, I had a lovely trip to the Tatras with my host parents. We went to Bachledova Dolina, a small mountain resort area on the East side of the Tatras. The lift we wanted to take was closed, so we had to walk up to the top, but once we got there we went on a really cool treetop walkway. It had beautiful views of the Tatras, nearby Poland, and a really cool viewing tower with a suspended walking net on the top. When we were done running across a couple times and taking pictures, I took the slide down from the viewing tower, which was a lot faster (and scarier) than I expected it would be. Haha.

In the distance, Poland!

The metal tube you see is the slide!

Once we were finished, we walked back down, and took a short drive to Štrbské Pleso, one of the most famous mountain sites in Slovakia. We got lunch at a mountain restaurant, walked around the lake photographing the famous 5-star hotels, and explored the quickly growing winter sports center (complete with ski jumps!). Afterwords, we drove along the most gorgeous mountain road I’ve ever been on (couldn’t quite capture pictures unfortunately 😦 ) with perfect views of the valleys and villages laying between the high and low Tatras.

At our next rotary meeting after that weekend, I had the opportunity to prepare a Canadian meal for my Rotary Club! I decided on the most Canadian version of Poutine I could find (with a gravy made from beer, bacon, and maple syrup) and Nanaimo Bars for dessert. Unfortunately due to a long series of events I won’t explain here, I wasn’t actually able to cook the meal myself and had to leave it up to the kitchen staff in the hotel where our rotary meetings are. As a result the poutine turned out less than ideal, with not nearly enough gravy or delicious cheese curds- it was mostly just potatoes :/ . However I vowed that I would cook it again before the end of year and show them how amazingly unhealthy and delicious real poutine is supposed to taste. Luckily the Nanaimo bars were done amazingly so the meal ended off great.

After that day, I woke up really early the next morning to go on a school trip to Auschwitz. We took a giant bus and drove about 3 1/2 hours into Poland, and spent the day looking around both camps and the museum. If you saw my Instagram post you’ll know this was an incredibly affecting experience for me, and one that I believe everyone should have in their lifetime. I didn’t take many pictures as I felt it may be disrespectful, but the ones I did take I’ll put below. It was truly an important day for me, and I’m so glad I was able to go.

The rest of that week was fairly calm, as I think I’ve finally found a good routine that allows me to alternate between hanging out with people from school, practicing piano and having time for myself, and being with the other exchange students. What I’ve found on exchange so far is that balance is key! Otherwise you can get really burnt out quickly, or feel down about doing nothing all the time.

The next weekend I crossed off another massive item on my bucket list- Spíšsky Hrad! This is one of the biggest castle complexes in Europe, and one of the most stunning, at that. It dates back before the 11th century, and has undergone extensive damage over its history. However, with recent investments into its preservation, its continually being restored to its former glory. It’s located in Eastern Slovakia just north of the low Tatras. Walking around its halls, turrets, and battlements was so cool, and probably one of my favourite experiences so far here. It was made even cooler by the fact that fog filled up the valley below the castle, making it seem as if the castle was above the clouds. It really felt like a site from some medieval movie, or Game of Thrones, one of my favourite book series.

(Note: aerial picture is not mine)

After the castle, we headed to nearby Špíšska Kapitula, which has a beautiful cathedral we were able to look around a bit. The castle complex and Kapitula are a UNESCO world heritage site along with the entire village of Levoča, which we visited next.

Only 20 minutes away was the walled village of Levoča, which is famous for its picturesque architecture, and for its church, which contains the worlds tallest wooden altar (of course, when we went the church was closed). However we still had a nice meal, and walked around exploring the village and taking in the sights.

After that amazing outing we had a few days of school before a 5 day break. We didn’t have any plans for that weekend and most of the other exchange students and my friends were gone, so I pretty much relaxed the entire break. This was Halloween time back in Canada, so once again I got a bit homesick, but I was able to at least go and buy some cheap candy from the store to pig out on during the weekend. It helped cheer me up a bit, haha.

One day of the break, however, was an important holiday for Slovaks. All Saints Day was the day after Halloween, and we spent the day going around to cemeteries, placing candles and flowers on graves of loved ones and under the cross at the church. We went to a couple small villages outside of Bystrica as well, and had a nice lunch with my Host Father’s family before heading home. It was really beautiful to see all the candles lit up in the evening, especially because there was not a single grave without. This is a holiday that is present across Europe, but in Slovakia especially most of the population takes its importance seriously. It was interesting to see this tradition that isn’t normally celebrated widely in Canada.

Flower vendors for all saints day

Time for a food update! On the list of delicious things I’ve eaten recently:

1. Brazilian feijoada (a bean dish) and Brigadeiro and Beijinho for dessert, courtesy of Gabi.

2. More delicious pastries, cakes, and breads, including a traditional Slovak rožok (roll), and šiška (doughnut).

3. My first four course meal at a rotary meeting, featuring a traditional Slovak version of a duck pâte, pumpkin soup (my favourite), roast goose, boiled cabbage, dessert, and a Slovak potato pancake which I’ve forgotten the name of. We had no idea which utensils to use, as you can see in the one picture.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m all the more thankful for having to walk up this steep hill to my house every day, otherwise my blazer might not fit!

And finally, to end off, this past weekend! We celebrated St. Martin, who is honoured on the 11th of November every year in certain villages in Slovakia. Podkonice, the village my host father’s family lives in, is one of those villages that celebrates it, so we got together for the day, eating some great Slovak and German food, sharing stories (I’m still fumbling my way around in Slovak but I could understand some of what they were talking about) and cooking hriate, a traditional Slovak alcohol that involves melting sugar, then cooking it into vodka and water. To be served piping hot before the meal commences! Below are some pictures of the meal, and of the tiny village of Podkonice.

Slovaks love their plums- here’s a plum cake!

Cooking hriate!

And that’s just about it! I am thankful every day for the amazing things I get to do here in Slovakia, and like I said before, even though I had a rough month missing home, I have still had so many great experiences, and I would not trade my time here for the world (although I might’ve said I’d give anything for a hunk of turkey and cranberries a few weeks ago).

To end off, one of my favourite photos I’ve taken on exchange. It’s simple, from my everyday walk down the hill to get to school. But I think it’s gorgeous, and walking down that hill in the early morning every day has sort of become my meditation- preparing for the new things I’ll experience ahead, and reflecting on how lucky I am to be here seeing new things every day, as big and wonderful, or as small and content, as they may be.

Thanks for reading! Talk to you all soon 🙂

~Graydon

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