Over the Hill of Exchange

You’re telling me it’s March already?? How’d that happen! Seriously, January and February absolutely flew by– and we even had an extra day in there!

Looking back on February, it really was packed full once again. I think at this point I’m just so used to being on the go, that not having free weekends has become the new normal for me. Going into March, I’ll hit the absolute busiest part of my exchange so far, as Rotary trips start to pop up once or twice each month, and self-planned trips and activities within the district become prioritized as the ever-looming end of exchange draws nearer.

Almost immediately after my Prague trip, we returned to Vienna to pick up my host mother from her bi-monthly work/studying in the city. After 4 (5?) trips there, it really is becoming sort of like a second home for me in Europe aside from Banská. So much so that I even navigated throughout the entire city Center for us when my host parents were confused as to where we had to go to get to one of our destinations.

Very specifically, the first part of our day trip was centred around more historical musical locations around the city. We had taken in the Mozarthaus on our previous trip, so decided it would be only natural to check out Haydn’s place of residence, as well as the house of Vienna’s biggest musical claim to fame, Johann Strauss II. There wasn’t much to photograph within the actual houses, but what an experience it was being in the actual places of work of two musical superstars. And listening to ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ and ‘Die Fledermaus’ in the actual place they were composed? Pretty priceless (not to mention seeing the original written copy of the famed waltz).

Original desk, piano, and organ of Strauss
Listening to the Danube waltz!

From here, we headed to the Vienna museum of Illusions, which we had spotted on our last trip but didn’t have time to run into. It was pretty packed with people but still completely worth our time. Sam and I took some pretty hilarious photos, and we spent way too much time trying to solve mind games they had set up in a ‘children’s corner’ of the museum.

The kid peeking into the room gets me XD

After the Illusion museum, we headed to a cafe in the city centre, to finally try a piece of the world-famous Vienna Sacher-Torte I had heard so much about on previous visits. We had to wait quite a long time for a fresh batch to come out of the oven, but it was definitely worth it. Yummy!

I’ll also include here some other various photos, of buildings that I had previously not seen in Vienna that were really interesting. Even after so much time in this city I’m still finding new things to see! It’s so cool.

After the cafe, our Vienna trip was concluded, and we headed home late at night back to Banská.

The next weekend we were surprised to find out from my YEO/Host father that we would be able to go on a spontaneous day trip to Banská Štiavnica. You might remember from one of my previous posts, this is the UNESCO medieval village which is built in the crater of an ancient volcano. Last time we went we explored the silver mines and didn’t have much time around the actual village, so this trip was meant to remedy that. We took the day to explore the cute city Center, the castle located in the heart of the village, and the picturesque cavalry church located on top of the hill which once was the exact center of the volcano. The castle also had some pretty unique historical exhibits, including a room filled with the original ancient murals that were housed in the stations of the cross on the Calvary. When we were on the hill with the church, we got to see a spectacular sunset over the entire village, and 20 minutes later sat and watched the super moon rise over the church. Pictures couldn’t capture how gorgeous it really was, but it was truly breathtaking. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to see big cities like Prague and Vienna, it was a good reminder that some of the best experiences can come in the smallest places at the most unexpected moments.

Štiavnica Castle

The original murals

Speaking of surprising moments, I decided the next weekend to do a bit of exploring around Banská. I had been inspired by my Prague trip with Malachy– who knows Prague inside and out– to try and get to know Banská Bystrica a bit more, as I realized I’ve spent most of my time in and around the city centre. So, one random day after getting into the city, I decided to just let myself wander without bothering to look at a map. I ended up crossing the Hron river to the south side of Banská, which I’ve maybe been to once with my host family back in the Fall. I walked through a really cute neighbourhood and eventually came upon a hiking trail at the base of the Urpín mountain. I decided on a whim to walk it, and called up Valerie to see if she wanted to come as well. So, we ended up taking 2 hours and going on an impromptu hike up the mountain. We were shocked we had never thought to come up here before, as we found some really spectacular views of the city, and a quaint field on the top of the mountain that would be perfect for a picnic once the weather is a bit nicer.

That same weekend, we welcomed the first visiting exchange students to Banská Bystrica. Even though Banská is located smack in the middle of Slovakia, there aren’t many convenient or direct train lines from any of the major city centres heading here because of the surrounding mountains. So as a result, it took almost 6 months for any of the other exchange students to find time to head here, haha. We welcomed three students for the weekend from Rožňava, Martin, and Liptovský Mikuláš, respectively. We spent the weekend showing them around our city and practicing a song we will perform together at our Rotary district conference in May. Of course, we also took them to our favourite cafés, and up the clock tower for one of the best views in the city.

We joked to them that since they were the first visitors, they had to go back to their cities and talk up Banská so more people would come out here to visit. I think it worked, as now it seems like the floodgates are open– students from both Slovakia and Czechia have been requesting and planning to come see Banská within the next few months. It will be crazy busy within the next few months, but I’m always happy to welcome other people here and show them this little gem of a city that I’ve fallen in love with.

Shortly after the students left, the Banská kids had our very last Slovak tutoring lesson of exchange. This maybe seems like a minuscule event compared to others, but it really felt like a turning point in exchange- as now we’re completely on our own, and have to rely on independently learning the language for the remainder of exchange. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from tutoring, and have every thanks to give to our tutor, Michal, who managed to help us get started with one of the most difficult languages on Earth, and helped us learn a lot with his wisdom, humor, and kindness. Now it’s up to us to keep learning as much as we can before our time here runs out!

On the weekend of the 21st, one of my most anticipated events of my entire exchange (and life, you could say) came to pass, as I was able to take in a symphony in Vienna. When I knew I was going on exchange, I figured I would be able to take in a symphony wherever I ended up, but never in my life did I imagine said symphony would take place at the Musikverein- the most famous symphony hall on the planet, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic- the most famous orchestra on the planet. As if this couldn’t get any better, I was able to get tickets to see Antonín Dvořak’s New World Symphony, my favourite of all time. This symphony really has a special place in my heart. Dvořak wrote it the first time he travelled to the ‘new world’ of America, and I listened to it as I arrived on the plane for the first time. to Vienna and Europe– a ‘new world’ of my own.

So basically, this night was a crowning moment of my entire life so far. The performance started with a violin concerto from Beethoven, which was amazing in its own right (especially the soloist, who came out for an encore after the concerto was finished– something I didn’t know happened in classical performances) , but the whole time I was anticipating the symphony, which took place after the intermission. It was as mind-blowing as I expected, plus some. I honestly don’t know if I will be able to listen to classical music on my phone to the same extent after this- because I know now that it is meant to be heard in person. It sounds entirely different and entirely better. It’s kind of astonishing. When the performance was over, it took me a solid 2 hours to stop smiling, I was just so happy I had finally had the opportunity to go.

Now, I may have gotten slightly ahead of myself, haha. I was so excited to talk about the symphony, I completely forgot that we had another really cool experience in Vienna beforehand. Me, Gabi, and a visiting student, Lyv, from Czechia, had travelled to Vienna with my host father and brother to take in the symphony, but we had time for a couple other things in the trip as well. First of all, we went to IKEA, which was an experience in and of itself that I unfortunately didn’t photograph (I was too overwhelmed by the IKEA-ness of it all). Then we headed to Prater Wien, which Gabi had really wanted to go to for some time. It’s a really massive inner-city amusement park within Vienna. I was a bit skeptical to go at first, but it ended up being a really great time. We were able to ride the world’s tallest swing ride (which took some convincing to get me on), and saw some amazing views of Vienna. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as horrifically terrifying as I thought it was going to be. I mean, if the chains on the swing ride were to break, at least I’d die in the heart of Vienna, which at least counts for something, right?

Also in the amusement park, we went on a haunted house roller coaster at my host fathers request, which was more hilarious than scary. I spent the whole time laughing my head off at Gabi and Lyv, who were screaming and covering their eyes almost the entire time. Following that, we went on an inverted rollercoaster, and then hyped ourselves up enough to go on the most intense ride of the entire park. We figured- “hey, this is exchange, right? We’re supposed to do things out of our comfort zone!” Well, this was very out of our comfort zones, and quite terrifying honestly (my arm went numb from adrenaline- I still don’t know if that’s normal or not), but at the same time it was sooooo much fun, and a good way to end our time in the park.

It was from there that we got on our fancy clothes and headed to the symphony, and you already know how that went 😉

From the haunted roller coaster

What a way to start the February break! In all honesty, the break was fairly lazy, but aside from getting lots of sleep, I was able to get quite a bit of work done on scholarship applications for University next year, which I had largely been putting off up until then.

However, there was one small event over the break- my birthday! Who would’ve ever thought looking at me 5 years ago that I would spend my 19th birthday on the other side of the world- definitely not me! My birthday was a really special day, and my friends and host father made it as great as possible. I went out with the banská gang for ‘café and cards,’ a pastime we have now adopted as a weekly tradition, and we got really fancy milkshakes. Afterwards, everyone came over to my house, and they prepared a special birthday supper for me (wiener schnitzel- my fav!) complete with cake and balloons. FaceTimed the fam amidst the celebrations in order to have a birthday chat and catch up with them a bit. Of course, it was a highlight of the night to get to see them, even just for a little bit 🙂 After that, we spent the rest of the night just hanging out, and the next day I headed to Bratislava for a short weekend trip. I stayed with Leo, a fellow Canadian, and we explored a bit more of Bratislava, before heading to another exchange student’s house on Saturday. Said exchange student was Riko- one of the new Australian students who came to Slovakia at the end of January! It was great to meet her, and she spent the night teaching me and the other Bratislava kids how to make sushi and dumplings– which we then ate a ton of. We watched movies for the rest of the night, and the next day went and saw Leo’s soccer game in the city. I also had poutine for the first time in 6 months, and despite being without gravy (shocking!), it was still heavenly. After that, I headed home! It was a short but sweet trip and birthday celebration, but all in all it was definitely one for the books.

Making a wish!
The Bratislava Gang

And that was my February!

With my birthday coinciding with my 6 months in Slovakia almost to the day, it really gave me a moment of pause. I think that through just 6 months, as a person I’ve grown so much, and learned things about people, places, and myself that are invaluable. Exchange manages to give you a sense of freedom through maturity, and teaches that only through discomfort you can find growth. This is a fact I knew coming in and have been taught for years, but having to utilize it almost every day in exchange and continually seek new, more challenging experiences has made it all the more rewarding. At the same time, though, exchange has also taught me that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop being a kid. Some of the best times I’ve had here so far have been simply when hanging out with the other exchange students, eating way too much sugar and playing cards in between hysterical fits of laughter. I think, as important as maturing in the world is, it’s just as essential that that growth occurs in tandem with the wonder that comes from being a kid. After all, what’s the point of growing up if you don’t have fun doing it? I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve adopted this as my sort of ‘mantra’ on exchange. And so far, I think it’s served me well.

4 months left on this amazing adventure.

Cheers, and as always, thanks for reading 😉


3 thoughts on “Over the Hill of Exchange

  1. Graydon, you are an amazing writer! When I read about your exciting exchange life, I fel like I’m living it too! Perhaps in the future, I’ll be reading your book, titled Slovak to the Future! Have another wonderful months of fun and learning and feeling alive! and Happy Birthday !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I so agree Jody! Grayden, you are so wise for your age …I love how you’re enjoying every experience and challenge. What an enriching exchange! Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

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