Snoel Abroad

Sara is abroad again and this time it is in Hungary! I am here in Hungary (in the small town of Gyöngyös) teaching English at a primary school through CETP- the Central European Teaching Program- Follow along with my crazy adventures in teaching and traveling. Szia!

Friday, January 26, 2007


woo hoo! The Hungarians (or at least my lazy yet cunning 6th graders) insist that we must have a party and celebrate the 100th lesson instead of doing work. Therefore, I insist that I must celebrate the my 1,000th hit!

(that and it's been a week since I posted and, other then getting my phone back, I really don't have much to say...maybe next week.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Name Days

Name days are a big deal in Hungary. Every calender you see in Hungary has at least one and sometimes 2 or 3 names written on each day. Name days are celebrated like birthdays, there are presents and parties and wishes of "boldog neve napot!" (happy name day!)Most Americans don't have name days because their names are not common in Hungary- Hungarians don't have this problem because parents are required to name their children a name from The Official List of names. The List is added to each year to keep with trends (but slowly) but as names are added to the list they are given a day as well. Today is apparently my name day- who knew?

I didn't but was surprised to find out when I was greeted this morning by one of the school secretaries. She came up to me, giggling nervously, with one of the other English teachers whispering in her ear the English words "Happy Name Day!" I was then engulfed in kisses and good wishes.

Unfortunatly the rest of the day was not so pleasing as I had to stay at school about4 hours later then usual for staff meetings because today is the last day of the first semester and we had to finalize and turn in grades as well as have the notorious "group grade vote" a process that still baffles me but as I can now recognize my students' names and the numbers 1-5 I can actively take part in the process and give my input so that the jack-ass kids get their deserved low mark even if they are angels for other teachers.

6 (give or take...) degrees of separation in Hungary

Last weekend, after enjoying the company of Laura and Emily at Laura's flat in Szolnok, I lost my cell phone. It has, however, been found. Emily best described the crazy recovery of my phone in her blog (which I stole)

Kicsi a világ (it's a small world.... after all)

És ha kisci a világ, akkor micsoda kisfalu Szolnok.

As Sara was leaving Sunday morning, I asked casually if she had anything: wallet, keys, cell phone? No, cell phone was missing. She and Laura and I tore my flat apart looking for it, to no avail. Eventually we gave up and she hopped on a train without it.

Fast forward 6 hours, I’m in a cafe when my contact teacher calls me (I really need to stop answering “Unknown” numbers, it always gets me in trouble) and demands that I return to the restaurant to pick up “the Gyöngyös girl”’s phone (that's me) . She was very vague about how she had heard that the restaurant was in possession of Sara’s phone, so I had to wait until Monday to piece together the details of a truly bizarre sequence of coincidences:

The waitress found the phone and called the numbers in the phone book. After getting hold of several English-speakers, she dialed the first Hungarian name she found. Which happened to be Péter, a loose acquaintance Sara hadn’t talked to for weeks (actualy it's been almost 2 months!) . Péter called his mother, who teaches at Sara’s school in Gyöngyös (still with me? Here comes the leap). Mother/teacher (I don’t have her name) (it's Zsu Zsa) called Edit, (actually Zsu Zsa called Emöke who called Ilí who is my contact teacher who called Edit) who is an English teacher at my (Emily's) school in Szolnok but who used to teach in Gyöngyös (Ilí correctly assumed that if my phone was in Szolnok, I must have been in Szolnok and therefore there MUST be a Native English speaker teacher in Szolnok- which there is- Emily) . Edit called Kati, my contact teacher, who called me as I already mentioned, and I hastened to the restaurant to liberate the troublesome phone, dragging Petra along in case I needed help.

The funny thing is, Sara, Laura and I walked past the restaurant on our way to the train station, and had we thought it’d been there could easily have asked for it. (however, while tearing apart Emily's flat that morning all 3 of us were SURE that I had been on the phone the night before while we were walking home, after leaving the restaurant.) Instead, it took 7 (more!) people to get the phone from Sara to me... and god only knows how many it’ll take to get it back to her.

So anyone who called or texted me anytime since last Saturday night (Jan. 13) and spoke to not me but a Hungarian waiter or Emily or couldn't get through at all, now you know why.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I will warn you all now- this one is long. Blame it on being sick in bed for a week or my tendency to procrastinate all things- writing a personal statement and completing grad school apps being high on that list right now, followed closely by cleaning my apartment. But I sat down at my laptop to write about my trip and the next thing I knew I had 7 pages- sorry- I broke it up into sections to try and make it a bit more accesable- hope you enjoy!


So I’m finally getting around to writing about my fantastic Slovenian adventure over winter break (probably the only reason I’m managing to get around to writing is that I SHOULD be writing my Personal Statement for my graduate school applications now but I tend to be most productive when procrastinating- I even did laundry today- so that’s worth something- I don’t suppose I could just turn in my Blog address instead of a Personal Statement…probably not.) Anyway, back to SLOVENIA!

On Saturday, December 23rd I jumped a bus to Budapest- in high spirits because I had not just walked (with my backpack) the 20 minutes to the bus station but rather managed to pick up the bus practically right out my front door having recently discovered that the mysterious toronyhaz bus stop that the bus schedule is always talking about is not in some far off unknown location, but, in fact, in front of my apartment building! (let’s resist counting the months it took me to figure that one out.) On to Budapest where I met Becky and Ian at the train station and jumped aboard our 8.5 our direct train to Ljubljana, Slovenia!

Leaving Hungary- and Hungry!

8.5 hours- luckily we hadn’t seen each other for a while and therefore had enough to talk about to fill the time, unfortunately, none of us had been on top of things enough to think to bring snacks or food of any kind. We’d just have to hold out till Ljubljana, I guess…not acceptable for Becky, she was getting hungry and panicky and her talk of food was getting my stomach going as well, something had to be done: bring on the first adventure of the trip. Having gotten less then helpful responses from the few passengers and the conductor we asked about future stops and how long we would be stopped I decided that I would just have to make a run for it- and quick before we crossed the border and my Hungarian Forint would be useless to us, Finally, we stopped at a station where a newsstand was visible from the tracks, I jumped out, weaving my way through the crowd (it’s possible that I took out an old Hungarian lady) I ran up the length of the train to the track crossing, then back down the other side to the glowing RELAY! Sign, I nearly knocked over the only other customer in the small newsstand who was perusing the newspapers as if there was not a ravenous and spastic American trying to get to the counter. I grabbed what I saw- one of everything, but I couldn’t see any beverages- we’d just have to distract Becky with the ham and cheese flavored crackers and steal the last half bottle of water she had in her purse- I threw everything on the counter and the women began slowly picking up each item…looking it over as if she’d never seen it before…tapping her fingers on her head as she thought about the price (either because she couldn’t remember or was trying to decide how much to overcharge the obviously frantic American in front of her)…eventually she rang it up, I paid and then I ran. Just as I exited the shop I heard a train whistle-NO! I’m going to be stranded in no-name-Western-Hungarian-border-town!- so I ran like hell, a conductor yelled at me to stop as I jumped across the track and then saw another train pull out. So it wasn’t my train that whistled or that was leaving but it could be at any second! So I ran down the platform, jumped onto the train and moved between the cars- adrenaline racing- to our compartment where Ian and Becky were eagerly waiting. They smiled and laughed with relief that I had made it. I emptied out my stash and we kept ourselves happy the rest of the way to Ljubljana with a packet of salt sticks (like a stale pretzel), a package of crackers, a bag of peanuts, a Twix, a Kit Kat and a Snickers- which I immediately claimed as my own- a small price to pay for my snack run.

When you give an artist a prison…

We arrived in Ljubljana just before 10pm and were relieved to find a pizzeria open late near the train station so we could enjoy a real meal and a beer. That night, and for the next 3 nights, we stayed in the übber-hip Hostel Celica. Given the highest rating in every guide book and hostel website we could find and recently named, by Lonely Planet, The World’s Hippest Hostel, Celica is a former prison turned hostel/ art gallery/ party venue/ bar/ restaurant. As part of the prison’s remodeling the cells were each designed by a different well-known Slovenian artist in their own style. The rest of the hostel is super slick and does indeed feel like you are living in a super hip art gallery. It feels a bit uncomfortable at first because you tend to feel out of place, no matter who you are, among the modern art pieces, Moroccan-style lounge with floor pillows and hookahs and the bathrooms that always glow blue. It appears that the only people that would feel at home in this environment are out clubbing in New York City or eating at the new hot spot in LA or wherever, they’re certainly not staying at a hostel in Ljubljana, Slovenia. So what makes Celica worth it? As soon as you look around and realize that everyone else there seems just as out of place and un-cool as you, including the helpful and down to earth staff, you can appreciate the fact that they have one of the best included breakfasts of any hostel I’ve been to, are by far the cleanest, have free internet, an onsite bar (because everyone else is closed on Christmas) and some of the art is kind of funky (if you can get passed the sap smeared cotton textile work hung across the windows.)

Walking Ljubljana

We stayed in Ljubljana for 3 nights and 2 and a half days. Unfortunately the days we were there were Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the morning of the 26th which happens to be Slovenian Independence Day. This means that while the city was covered in beautiful lights, there were people all over the streets and Christmas markets set up along the river selling hot wine and sausages- everything else was closed- including, and most importantly the museums. So we walked the city. We walked down to the river and saw the famous dragon bridge, up to the castle (during the day and at night), along the river and through the streets, around Tivoli park, through the old neighborhoods and the new areas and the remains of the Roman wall, I do believe that I walked every street and every bridge in Ljubljana at least twice and most much more then that.
On Christmas morning we did manage to find an open exhibit, with the help of an Austrian guy staying at Celica. The exhibit was fantastic and I’m glad we found it. It was an annual photography exhibit called World Press Photo that showcases some of the best and most poignant images from the World Press for the year, there were some excellent pieces and even a grouping about Soldiers in Iraq that was done by a photographer from the Rocky Mountain News where the photos were originally published.
I liked Ljubljana, it is a very nice and accessible city, beautiful and with (theoretically) a lot to offer. I’d love to go back sometime and check out the museums, it looked like they had some interesting ones, especially the Museum of Contemporary Slovenian History. Next time, however, I won’t even need a map- I definitely know the streets of Ljubljana.

Sometimes things just don’t work out….

On Tuesday the 26th the three of us took a train to the town of Postojana with hope of seeing the famous and extensive cave system there. Unfortunately, after a long haul from the train station (Postojana: you have been given negative points for your poor signage!) We arrived at what may be Slovenia’s largest tourist trap. We walked across the extensive parking lot and passed rows of souvenir shops closed for the season only to discover that the entrance fee to the cave was a staggering 15 Euros!! (over $20) and, because it was the week after Christmas and there would be a Christmas concert inside one of the largest caves (a bonus for our timing we thought) there would be an additional 7 Euro charge. No Thank You! No big deal, this was only a stop over, on to our real destination for the day- PIRAN and the Adriatic Sea! In 4 hours…yup, our bus and train timing would have worked out perfectly if we had actually gone in the cave, instead, we made ourselves at home at the tiny, and closed, Postojana bus station- yee haw- at least this time we could pass the time with something to eat, we settled ourselves into a café and chatted over coffee, tea, pizza and pancakes until our bus finally arrived.

The Adriatic Coast

We soon arrived in Piran, a picturesque little town on a peninsula of Slovenia’s tiny coast. Being in Piran truly feels like being in Italy, Venice specifically, there are only two streets wide enough for a car and the rest are narrow and winding through old building brightly painted and squished together, all fighting for a space on the tine peninsula. There are small towns like Piran all along the coast line and shuttle busses running between them so the next morning, after a walk along sea wall and a long cup of coffee we grabbed a bus to Strunjan because the guidebook had mentioned that it was an area known for making salt which excited Ian who had just read a book about salt (apparently much more interesting then the name suggests) Strunjan, however, was not, turns out that when the book refers to a peninsula as “remarkably unspoiled” it’s just a nice way of saying “there ain’t shit there but salt!” it was beautiful and unspoiled coastline with a gorgeous cliff, it was also, however, lunchtime and the one restaurant (or business of any kind anywhere to be seen) was closed- you’d think that after the train fiasco we would have learned to pack snacks! But we kept walking along the rocky coast, Ian and I stopping to poke at jelly fish and pick up rocks and shells just enough to drive Becky crazy. Unfortunately for Ian and Becky they were victims of my “let’s just see what’s around this point…let’s just see what’s past this bay…”
and soon we realized that walking to the next town, Izola, might be faster than turning back and waiting for the bus by the salt (and a lot for fun if you ask me, Ian may disagree, he really liked the salt.) So we walked, and walked along the rocky coast for about three hours until, Ian’s and my pockets full of cracks, shells and sea glass, we glimpsed Izola. “Just around this next point” I said for the hundredth time, Becky looked at me like she would smack me if I uttered those words again or if Ian and I stopped to poke around in the dirt again, the large red rocks were starting to look like hunks of meat to her, but we made it and over a salad and pizza at the first pizzeria we spotted we agreed that it was, actually, a fantastic day and beautiful walk. The next day Ian and I explored a bit more around the winding streets of Piran and after much searching for what seemed like a well guarded town secret we found the path up to the top of the hill that looked over the town. We climbed the remains of an old town wall and had an incredible view of Piran, it’s neighboring peninsulas and towns and even the cliffs of Strunjan that we had walked around the day before.

Italy- why not?

Next we caught the next bus to Trieste, Italy- just across the border, and on the same coast, we planned to spend a night there, because it was Italy, and that close, so how could we not? After arriving in Trieste, a much bigger city then any of us had expected (clearly we were not in Slovenia anymore!) we struggled to find the right bus stop to catch the right bus to our hostel (apparently not exactly centrally located…) after walking circles around the square where we thought the bus stop was we watched the number 36 fly by, no stop. So we did the logical thing and followed it- figuring we’d catch it at the next stop. No go. We wondered the streets looking at each bus stop desperately trying to find the stupid number 36 when an Italian guy stopped us and asked in perfect English if we needed help and then told us how to get to our bus stop. Back to the square where we started, only this time a bit down the street and behind the train station (obviously!) we found our bus stop and promptly got on going the wrong direction only to have the bus stop two stops later, so we waited 10 minutes and it turned around and we were finally on our way. Next we had to figure out which stop to get off at…while the three of us argued about where to get off or how to best figure out where to get off a lovely elderly man asked us where we were going and was soon our advocate, he jumped out of his seat and bracing himself against the bars, heady to push the stop button at any moment he peered out the front window “it’s coming! No, not this one…the next one is you!!!! Ok this is yours!” He was fantastic, made more so by his urgency that was only slightly out of place on the nearly empty bus on the nearly empty road where there was at least 5 minutes between each stop. That’s two points for friendly Italians and a big negative for poor signage! We were there, at our hostel, right on the water in an incredible old building, just down the road from the gorgeous Miramare Castle of the Mexican King Maxamillian. Then we walked up to the check-in desk and were greeted by the less then friendly face ‘hostel-lady’ she informed us (well Ian and Becky, I could barely even see over the counter making everything that much more condescending) that the building would be locked at midnight and that the last bus came back out to the hostel at 9pm- so it would be an early night. We were also sent to separate rooms, in the female wing and the male wing and told that breakfast would be served at 7:30. So here was our night in the convent. We decided to take an evening walk down to the castle, at least we could do that before 12, but the grounds were, of course, locked, so back to the hostel where we chatted with the one other guest, an Australian girl who had spent all afternoon alone in the giant, isolated hostel with the unfriendly ‘hostel-lady’. The next morning we woke up early to claim our breakfast only to find a sign posting strict rules on breakfast: 1 bread roll, 1 serving of jam or butter, 1 cup of milk or coffee. Quite a change from the all you can eat spreads of Muesli, yogurt, bread, meat, cheese, coffee, juice and fruit we had at all the other hostels…we had 2 cups of coffee anyway. And then got out of there- we didn’t have a choice, the building also closed between the hours of 10am and 3pm so off to the castle we went, luggage on our backs. The castle was gorgeous, as were the surrounding grounds. We also visited the museum inside which was very interesting and then headed back into town to catch a train to the border and then on to Bled.

Crossing the Border…for hours…

From Trieste we knew that we couldn’t get a bus or train that would cross the border but would have to take a train to Gorica on the Italian side of the border and then take a short bus over the border into Nova Gorica on the Slovenian side where we could catch another train on to Bled. This seemed easy enough and all was going smoothly, we caught our train, asked at the train station about the bus and were soon on the Nova Gorica bus traveling through the nice little city of Gorica- too bad we wouldn’t be able to see more of this nice border town- we thought as we happily rode our bus to the border. When we stopped at border control a customs agent got on and glanced over everyone’s papers, saw our American passports and promptly kicked us off, “only European Union Nationals can cross here, you must walk down this road take a left and walk 2 km to the other crossing.” So walking we went, the directions seemed far too easy and the border agent’s English far too shaky but we didn’t have much of a choice. When the road forked much sooner then 2km with no border in sight we decided it was time for lunch. After we ate we started asking people on the streets and were directed all over the little town of Gorica until a lovely women offered to not only give us directions but to walk with us until the crossing was in sight- as opposed to the many “that way and then left” directions we had been receiving. Italy came through on being full of incredible people, unfortunately it seems that they are so helpful that they want to help even if they don’t know the way, at least in Gorica. After crossing the border by walking in the road behind the cars up to the passport control window, apparently they don’t get a lot of foot traffic in Gorica, we found ourselves once again in Slovenia, but where was unclear, our only clue was a sign pointing down the highway to Nova Gorica, 4km. Eventually we found a local bus that took is in to the city and dropped us off in the general vicinity of the train station, another walk with vague “over there then left and then right and then down the road, but turn right before you cross the border!” no worries there, we had enough trouble crossing the border the first time, I’m sure we won’t do it by mistake. Luckily these directions worked out and we were, at last, at the train station. Just across the street from the train station, in plain sight, was the border crossing, the one where we had been over an hour before, where we got kicked off the bus- I think it took a lot of restraint on all of our parts not to throw a rock across the border at the agent standing idly by. Once Ian and I had bought our tickets for Bled, Becky decided that the border crossing was one adventure too many and that the “we’ll just see what’s past this point”-figure-it-out-as-we-go travel plan wasn’t working for her so she bought a ticket for Ljubljana and Ian and I headed up into the Julian Alps.

Lake Bled…I’ll put money on Slovenia’s first Starbucks showing up in Bled

As our train wound around the mountain passes of the Julian Alps we finally saw snow. It was Friday, December 29th and after three major snowstorms hot Denver, closing schools, roads and the airport, I saw my first snow of the season. We arrived at the Bled train station after dark (which here means it was probably just after 5pm) and soon realized that we were on the exact opposite side of the lake from everything. But there was a nice path around the lake and we had had a few hours of rest on the train since our border hike so we headed to the other side. Bled refers both to the name of the lake and the settlements around it, specifically the most built up part where we were. Bled is popular for it’s lake, as well as a small island on the lake (the only true island in the country) where there has been a Christian church since the early 9th Century and evidence of a pagan temple since at least a century before.
There is always an impressive fortified castle clinging to a cliff towering over the lake and the entire area is surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps, including some of the highest of the range.
The area is truly spectacular and postcard picture perfect. We soon found a nice hostel, the oldest in Slovenia, just under the castle, and had a fantastic, big, filling and cheap meal at the hostel restaurant and headed out to see the town. Once we entered the town center we were bombarded with luxury hotels, restaurants, casinos, and expensive designer ski gear (luckily the lack of snow was probably keeping most of the Austrian ski bunnies out) we found a small coffee shop/ bar that had internet access. I sat down to wait for Ian and glanced around, a group of girls in Ugg boots, a sticker demanding and end to the genocide in Darfur, soy milk on the menu…clearly we were not in Hungary anymore, we had stumbled upon Slovenia’s Boulder!! But in a bad, over priced way. We crawled back towards our hostel and found a small bar that seemed to be populated with locals, we were rewarded with bartender who didn’t even speak English- a first in Slovenia. We enjoyed our beers and an ice hockey game on the TV before heading back to the hostel.
The next morning we took a hike up to the castle and had a fantastic view of the mountains and I finally got to show Ian the Texan what a REAL mountain looks like.

On the streets…again

We decided to take a train back to Ljubljana on the 30th, hoping that we would have a better chance of getting a place to stay in the capital rather than waiting till New Year’s Eve when the city would surely be booked. Unfortunately, everything was booked the 30th as well and our train wasn’t leaving till 7:40 am the next day so it was back to walking the streets of Ljubljana, the same streets we had walked to death the week before, and yet again, everything would be closed. But we knew our way around, managed to dump our luggage in a locker and took off to wonder the post-Christmas/ pre-New Years celebration of music and hot wine in plastic cups in the streets. We did get our tickets changed to the 2am train to cut some wait time off that end and found a movie theater showing A Prairie Home Companion in English to cut off some time on the near end of the wait. For the time in between we walked the streets and felt strangely safe. The idea soon occurred to us that maybe it didn’t seem like anyone was going to rob us because we looked like hell, had no luggage, were wearing cheap no-brand clothes from Hungary and were wondering the streets NOT looking lost- we probably looked like a) we weren’t worth robbing or b) we were going to rob them! Quite a strategy to avoid trouble while traveling. We did eventually make it on the train and thanks to exhaustion and the early time, it didn’t matter that we had no food, we slept all the way to Budapest.

New Year’s Eve in Gyongyos

Still half asleep Ian and I arrived in Budapest and finally felt like we were home- it’s an odd feeling when you come back to a foreign country and feel the relief of coming home, this was emphasized by the fact that on the way to get the bus to Gyongyos, we not only seamlessly and effortlessly bought Metro tickets, got on the right line, got off at the bus station and found the right bus without once stopping to look at a map or question where we were going, but even stopped and helped some tourists in the Metro along the way. The two of us caught the bus to Gyongyos and had a quiet and chill New Year’s Eve with Hungarian wine and beer and Transylvanian Palinka in my apartment.

Friday, January 05, 2007

temporary hiatus

The wild winter break is over and our Christmas and New Year adventure to Slovenia is finished. There are plenty of stories from risky snack runs across the train tracks, hostels built for no one taller then 5 ft, dragon bridges, long, LONG, walks on the Slovenian coast with mysterious flesh eating Adriatic coast insects, a night in a convent, a few in a prison, one in a train station and even one in Italy, There were treacherous border crossings and the discovery of Slovenia's very own BoHo, soy milk drinking, designer ski gear wearing Aspen. These stories and many more...but not now...because on her return Sara was slammed with the "Curse of the Wicked Yetti" a cold so debilitating that you can't leave home (or go to work) for 5 days and you are forced to sneak out to the library to check your e-mail out of fear that you might run into one of the co-workers who only hours before brought you soup and lectured you for not wearing socks when you answered the door. So back to bed for me, a full write up is in the works.