Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Occupy Snowbird

Upon completion of my final exams, I boarded a plane to Utah to visit some old friends and to do a bit of skiing. A complete coincidence found my best friend Duncan (who usually lives in Casper, Wyoming) on a medical rotation in Salt Lake City. An even more complete coincidence had found him working at the hospital with my buddy from college, Matt, who was originally going to pick me up from the airport. Duncan ended up picking me up from the airport, and we had a great dinner with his wife Amanda, neither of whom I had seen since their wedding.

After dinner, Duncan and Amanda dropped me off at my friends Bryan and Clare's house, where I met up with most of our skiing contingent for the next few days. On Saturday, we got a nice relaxing late start, ate at a brunch place named -- and got in some free skiing at Alta Ski Resort from 3pm to 4:30pm. That night the group picked up Liz and we had a really nice dinner in Salt Lake City.

On Sunday, we began our skiing in earnest, with our friend Meagan joining us for some really enjoyable runs at the Snowbird Resort. Meagan is currently very involved in the Occupy San Francisco movement, which simulated a lot of really fascinating conversation the whole weekend. I don't always recommend talking politics with friends, but this really intelligent and insightful group, it was stimulating. We continued the discussions over dinner at El Chanate, where had a waiter who was almost doing a comic rouine and spent 7 minutes describing the night's special to us.

On Monday and Tuesday, we had the rare opportunity to ride up to the top of the mountain with the ski patrol and ski patrol at 7:30am, watch the sun rise from the top of the tram lift and ski down completely fresh and empty runs. It was wonderful. After almost four days of catching up, debating the politics of equality and progress in America, and carving up the mountain, I hopped on a plane to Denver, Colorado.

In Denver, I met up with my very good friend and old housemate Becca for a day of catching up and friend time. From the airport, we went to a candlelight vigil for the homeless of Denver who had died over the course of 2011. The vigil was held near Denver's Occupy camp, and I had an opportunity to see some protest action up close. When Denver's Mayor came up to speak at the vigil, a small group near the front began to boo. Apparently, Mayor Hancock has reduced funding for services for the homeless of Denver. It got bad enough that the leadership of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless had to come onto the microphone and ask the protesters to respect the families of the deceased. One man in the crowd yelled, "This is a memorial, it's not political!" at the protesters. It is amazing how a minority of people can make a whole crowd seem hostile. After the mayor finished, the rest of the ceremony went uninterrupted, and we all joined in affirming, "We will remember" after each person's name was read. The memorial was a poignant reminder that in a country like ours, there are individuals who society has failed to help enough, and they can die out in the cold, alone.

Becca, who works with an organization that supports the homeless of Denver and the surrounding area had some interesting observations. Apparently the same types of people who usually donate to homeless services in Denver have instead been directing their money to the Occupy movement, and support for her organization has declined while the demand for health and housing services for the homeless in Denver has quadrupled in 2011. The Occupy movement definitely has side effects that might sometimes work at cross purposes from its stated goals.

Becca and I spent the rest of the evening and next day catching up on old times and discussing our futures. On Wednesday, I finished my mid-country detour and completed my journey home to San Diego.

...And We're Back!

Near the end of my summer in Bratislava, things really picked up and I got behind in my blogging. Then I was waiting on people to send me pictures from my last adventures in Europe. Then I was procrastinating on blogging because I had more important schoolwork.

Well, now it's December and my poor blog is suffering from disuse. I'm going to just charge ahead with writing bout new adventures and fill in the old stuff later.

A summary of what's been going on since August...

I finished up at UNDP, with a final trip with my fellow intern Lena to Vienna where we shared a wonderful meal with my colleagues.

Some college friends came to visit me in Bratislava and we traveled together to Prague, where hijinks ensued.

On my way out of Europe, I barely missed a hurricane and made it safely to my friends' Dan and Bitsy's wedding in Minnesota.

I began my third semester at SAIS, moving into my old house and challenging myself with a new set of classes.

I went on a Staff Ride with the Strategic Studies program and traced George Washington's December 1776 campaign.

I had some adventures in Washington DC!

Here's to an updated blog, a great 2012, and to the great people I met in 2011.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Local Adventures

This last weekend, I went with my fellow interns and friends Hyunyoung and Dulce on an exciting tour of Bratislava' outskirts that saw us hiking in green European forests, picnicking at the foot of castle ruins and sharing a relaxing Austrian dinner on the banks of the Danube River.

We started our trip with a tram ride to the suburb of Dúbravka, where we picked up a trail heading over the hills to Devín, a town with an awesome old castle. There weren't many signs, but every once in a while there would be a tree marked with a red line that would tell us we were headed in the right direction. Even with these markers, we only narrowly managed to avoid missing the trail back down the hill, thanks to our great guide, Dulce.


We arrived in Devín around 2:00 or 3:00pm and staked out riverside spot under the shadow of the town's castle, which used to control a strategic bend of the Danube and was destroyed by Napoleon's troops in 1809. After our nice strenuous hike and our lunch, we decided that the best next course of action was napping in our peaceful riverside spot.

Post nap, Dulce, Hyunyoung and I wandered around the grounds at the base of the castle where Dulce (who is fluent in Slovak) met and befriended an old man who is the owner of a winery in Devín that makes a delicious young wine.


From Devín, we took a 30 minute ferry ride up the Danube to Hainburg an der Donau, which is a cool old Austrian town with a lot of history. Much of its medieval city walls are still intact. We explored Hainburg on foot and I was able to nerd-out pretty hard at the town's history museum.


As the sun set over the windmill-lined Austrian horizon, we shared an Austrian dinner at a riverside restaurant. The amazing part of this trip was how far we felt we had gone, but how close we actually were to Bratislava. Our bus ride back to the city was probably only 20 minutes.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Reading, Part 1

The month of July was especially rainy this year in Bratislava, which left me with quite a few wet weekend afternoons and weekday evenings after work without outside entertainment as an option. In addition to revising my resume, writing cover letters and spending long hours tweaking the code of my website, this summer, and especially this July, I've had chance to read for pleasure for the first time in years.

I've just finished two books. The first is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (I apparently never got around to reading the unabridged version as a kid - which is sad because it's not even a long story) and the second is Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which I found on my boss' bookshelf.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of Dickens' more popular works for a reason. What Dickens lacks in character development and realistic characters, he makes up in colorful descriptions, gripping plot twists and a way of building a heavy cloud of oncoming doom. However, this post will not be a third grade book report, although I'm sure this novel is often assigned for things like that.


What really made me think while I was reading this classic and for some reason is sticking with me after I've finished is the idea of hate. A Tale of Two Cities describes the uncontrollable and destructive hatred of the French Revolution. This hatred is not a personal hatred, but a hatred for a whole group of people. It's what I call bias motivated hatred and it has a dehumanizing effect on the target of the emotion, whether it is a member of a social class, ethnic group, nationality, religion or political group. History is filled with examples of the violence that stems from blind hatred toward whole groups. This emotion has allowed for perfectly normal people to accuse, expel, imprison and even murder their neighbors and countrymen in tragedies like the Greco-Turkish War, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, the Indian Partition, the Bosnian War, and the Rwandan Genocide.

This destructive human emotion is best illustrated by Dickens at the climax of the story, when the characters (and the reader) discover that the only surviving victim of an innocent family destroyed by two evil aristocratic brothers was a young girl who had subsequently grown up to become Madame Defarge, a cynical, hate-filled woman who desires nothing more than to exterminate her family's oppressors and all their kin. She calls for blood and cares not that her intended victims include a noble who had given up his inheritance out of disgust of the oppression of the ancien régime and a small child who has no knowledge of her aristocratic heritage.

Every great human tragedy in history seems to play out this way. A person, a family, a community, a nation is wronged. The wrong is repaid with purges, revolution, war or genocide, which only serves to add to the tragedy rather than right a wrong. Is it in our nature to prejudge and hate whole groups of people that we couldn't possibly know? It seems that as a species, we haven't learned our lesson on this whole hatred thing.

Sorry if that was kind of a downer post - at least the story has a happy ending!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Nehovorim po Slovensky

I sometimes feel like it's almost disrespectful to expect people in this country to speak my language (even though more likely than not, they do). Partially out of a need to be a better resident of Bratislava and partially out of intellectual curiosity, I decided to start taking Slovak language lessons about a month ago.

Luckily for me, the family I live with has a cousin named Veronika that teaches Slovak as a second language. She and I worked out a deal so that she would be my Slovak tutor twice a week, which I didn't mind because 8 euro an hour seemed pretty reasonable, and she didn't mind because she could go over to her aunt's house to teach and afterwards get a delicious meal with her extended family.

Veronika and I are working out of a book called Krížom Krážom and I'm loving my weekly lessons!

The part I'm good at (so far) is the grammar. Having learned languages before has made it easier to understand the concept of conjugating verbs in their different forms, and unlike English, Slovak has a lot of regular rules.


The part I'm bad at is pronunciation. There are all these 'soft' letters like the soft D (Ď) and the soft T (Ť) which are used very commonly, but I find challenging. There are also a bunch of word-parts and whole words that just don't have vowels. How exactly would you pronounce 'mŕtvy' or 'vlna'?


The second line above is a tongue twister they teach Slovak children. I don't understand how it could twist my tongue considering I'm not even supposed to open my mouth to make these sounds. Also, it's about sticking your finger through your throat, which is weird.

A cool thing about Slovak is that it's mutually intelligible with Czech, which means it might be a bit helpful for when I go to Prague. Also, it's related to all the other Slavic languages, which would make it easier to learn Polish or Russian or Serbian if I chose to in the future.

Despite some of my difficulties, I'm really enjoying learning Slovak, and I'm getting better at ordering food and drink, and generally avoiding looking like an idiot in the streets of Bratislava.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Very Superstitious

An interesting thing about living abroad is the way weird cultural idiosyncrasies that seem so foreign and strange can turn around and make you examine the weird parts of your own culture.

A few weeks ago Aleks, one of my colleagues from Serbia, told me how she would never leave both the door and the window open (something I do often in my office on hot days). In Serbia, they have this concept of a "deadly draft" (she was unsure how to translate it) - allowing wind to flow through the house is bad for the health. As we joked about how this superstition may have come about, one of our Slovak colleagues agreed that the deadly draft is very much a thing here in Slovakia as well.


A quick internet search finds a lot of Americans living or traveling in Europe experiencing this same superstition in Poland, Germany and France.

Now, I'm a firm believer in science (the body of knowledge that has been discovered using the scientific method), but I'll still make sure to put on a hat and a warm coat on a cold day to keep from catching a cold. However, it seems that there's not really any scientific proof that cold temperatures cause colds, a commonly held belief in our country. If you think about it, it makes sense - why would being cold weaken the immune system enough to let the cold bugs win any more than running a marathon or not getting enough sleep? All of these things are taxing on our immune systems. From the National Institutes of Health:

"Although a connection exists between the number of cases of the common cold and the fall and winter seasons, there is no experimental evidence that exposure to cold temperatures increases the chances that you will get a cold."

However, when people are told something their whole lives, the brain will come up with ways to justify previously-held beliefs and be more open to evidence that agrees with these beliefs (which is why you're probably frantically searching for this NY Times article). For example, it took a night or two of Googling before one of my Korean colleagues was willing to admit that maybe people can't die if they go to sleep at night with an electric fan on in their room (Korean fan death - it's a thing).

This all might seem kind of silly and harmless, but superstition and belief in non-scientific explanations of our world have contributed to ignorance about the AIDS epidemic (remember South African President Jacob Zuma saying he wouldn't get HIV as long as he took a shower after sex?) and resistance to vaccination campaigns that could save thousands of lives.

I'm not about to go crusading around the world, making people stand in the rain without a coat, sneaking fans into the bedrooms of Koreans or breaking windows open in Slovakia, but I do think the world could do itself a favor by taking the advice of Stevie Wonder: superstition ain't the way.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Kocherlball

So, a few weeks ago, I went biking in Austria, where I had the pleasure to meet some of my classmate Isabella's cool German friends. One of Isabella's friends, Hannah, invited me to come to an annual festival in her city of Munich called Kocherlball.

Kocherlball, the way it was explained to me, was what the servants in Munich used to do to have fun. They wanted to have a summer ball like the rich people they served, but they couldn't do it in the evening because that's when they had to work. Instead, maids, cooks and other servants would get up early in the morning and eat, drink and dance. Today, people in the region come and recreate this, some dressing up like servants, others in traditional Bavarian dirndl and leiderhosen. Being a proud owner of leiderhosen, and loving the Kocherlball trifecta of eating, drinking and dancing, I had to go!

I took a leisurely series of trains from Bratislava to Munich on Saturday, arriving around 6pm. I'm very proud of myself for making all the train changes and mastering the public transportation systems of both Vienna and Munich sans-smartphone, no problem. I love the future, but I think I would have survived the 20th century no problem.

Isabella (who had driven in from Geneva) and Hannah were enjoying chocolates and the evening sky while sitting on Hannah's balcony when I met up with them. We put on our evening best (you'd be surprised how many people actually wear leiderhosen on a regular basis in Munich - they're not just for Oktoberfest!), and walked to a biergarten in the city center.


Our evening at the beer garden (it's called Augustiner Brau, for anyone interested in visiting Munich) already made my trip worth it. We sat out in a giant wooded area with lots of picnic tables, ordered some Augustiners and tried some of Munich's tastier dishes, which included lots of chicken and other tasty meat things. The atmosphere was amazing - the trees overhead added to the cool calm ambience of the warm Bavarina night. And of course, I got to wear leiderhosen.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am and took the subway to the English Garden in Munich. We joined a growing group of revelers walking down the grassy paths of the park toward the Chinese tower, where the ball is held every year. Although the event isn't as large as Oktoberfest (it isn't ever advertised or anything), there were still a few thousand people there apparently, almost all Germans.


We met up with some of Hannah's friends who had gotten up even earlier and had gotten a table, and we ordered some breakfast pastries and sausages. Dancing soon commenced, with some people on the main stage teaching us the steps. We danced Bavarian variations on the polka, the waltz and the quadrille. As my luck would have it, Isabella was raised in Austria, so she had all this dancing stuff in her blood. She also happened to be the one who taught us all how to dance in preparaton for the Viennese ball earlier this year, so we had a great time dancing in the crowded area next to the stage.



The whole event began to wind down at 10:00am, so after walking through the park a bit more, Hannah, Isabella and I put down for a nap at her apartment. I woke up at 4:00pm and it was raining, so I kind of missed the train on exploring Munich a bit more. Luckily, I didn't miss my actual train and I arrived back in Bratislava late Sunday night.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The poor left out in the cold during Central Asia’s winters

This is a piece that I co-wrote with my boss for my summer internship at UNDP. Read the original post on the United Nations Development Programme Europe & CIS Blog.

Nobody likes paying higher prices, for anything. In January 2010, when the government of Kyrgyzstan doubled household electricity and heating tariffs, it helped spark a revolution. In neighbouring Tajikistan, up to 1 million people spend much of the winter without reliable electricity supplies. Winter electricity supplies have become increasingly erratic in Kyrgyzstan as well. How can funds be raised to build power plants and transmission lines needed to address these issues, if not through higher tariffs? And if the poorest and most vulnerable households in Central Asia are not even connected to central electricity grids—but instead rely on coal and firewood to get through the winter—do tariff levels even matter?

Recent research by UNDP sheds new light on these questions. Based on analysis of official household survey data in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, research shows that access to electricity and gas supplies has declined since 2007—even as governments in both countries have raised tariffs, attracted foreign investment into the power sector, and boosted small hydropower and other renewables. In Tajikistan, rural areas now account for only around10 percent of electricity consumption—even though three quarters of the population lives in rural areas. In Kyrgyzstan, 78 percent of low-income households in 2008 were reporting interruptions in electricity service on a weekly (at least) basis.

Somewhat surprisingly, these data indicate that the shares of household budgets claimed by energy and communal service bills in these countries are at or below the 15 to 20 percent affordability thresholds commonly used by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This conundrum is also being investigated in a working paper (pdf) by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The disconnect between the seeming affordability of tariffs and widespread energy poverty may be due to the fact that many poor households in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not have access to these services in the first place. It may also be due to the fact that cut-offs for non-payment of electricity bills are still a rarity. On the other hand, many in Central Asia continue to nurture Soviet-era beliefs that the state should supply electricity and water “for free”—particularly since both countries are rich in water and hydro-electric potential. This may explain why the large increases in household electricity and water tariffs that have taken hold after 2007 may be hard to swallow —particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

How are households coping with winter electricity shortages? According to these data, nearly half of Kyrgyzstan’s low-income households are relying on coal for winter heating. Half of Tajikistan’s households heat with firewood, cotton stalks, and dung. In addition to exacerbating the country’s severe deforestation problems, these heating patterns pose household health risks.

These studies also found that social assistance—which was significantly increased in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 in order to shield poor households from the effects of tariff hikes—are unable to address household energy insecurity. In Kyrgyzstan, these benefits disproportionately favour non-poor households, a distortion also found in Tajikistan by the World Bank (pdf). In Tajikistan, where benefits are very low (only $2 per month on average), deep reforms of the social policy architecture are now being piloted. Better targeting of larger social benefits, as well as the expansion of off-grid local energy solutions (like small hydropower plants), seem to be part of the answer.

At present, Central Asia is suffering from summer heat and drought, not from winter energy shortages. But because hydropower dominates national energy balances in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, this summer’s water shortages could have an impact on next winter’s energy supplies—particularly for Tajikistan. In any case, these problems seem unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future.

What do you think? What are the best solutions for Central Asia’s water and energy challenges?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hijinks in Hungary

After another wonderfully productive week at UNDP Bratislava, my friend and fellow intern Timi again offered to host us in her homeland of Hungary, this time in the countryside. Looking back on the last trip, who could turn down that offer?


I met up with Timi and another intern, Hyun-Young, in Budapest, where we took a train to a small village on Lake Balaton called Badacsonytomaj. We arrived in the village around 10pm, which is a bit late to start anything, but it was 30C outside and we were in the mood for adventure. With this spirit, we set our bags down in the apartment we rented and set out to explore.



We were unfortunately turned away by guards at several privately own beaches (they were closed), but we were able to find a little path through some high grass that led to a dock which extended into the lake. Some fishermen were sleeping on the dock, but that didn't stop us from climbing into the dark, calm water of Lake Balaton for a late night dip! Floating on my bake in the dark lake and gazing at the clear, starry sky might be my favorite memory of the weekend.

Following the swim, we stopped by a local village bar to try Palinka, a tasty Hungarian liquor, and then we sat out on a bench in front of the town's church just enjoying the night air.

Around midnight, two cars drove up to the church, which was strange because the town had been pretty quiet and empty. We greeted these new arrivals and after a conversation, we slowly realized that these guys were members of the Hungarian rock band Quimby and they were headlining a concert the next day (a concert we had been planning on attending). They invited us to a party at the winery where the concert was going to happen, so we hopped in the cars and went!


I'm trying to keep this post short, so if you want details on my night of partying with a famous Hungarian rock band, ask me in person.

We got back to the apartment very late (or early) and discovered at the doorstep that Hyun-Young had lost the keys somewhere on our trip. Too tired to deal with scouring the streets of Badacsonytomaj, we put ourselves to bed in lounge chairs in the garden. The next morning, we called the landlady of the apartment to apologize for losing the keys and she thought it was hilarious that we had spent the night in the garden!

On Saturday, we spent the morning napping (in the house) and then mep up with two of Timi's good friends, Judith and Kitti. The rest of the weekend wasn't as eventful as the first 12 hours of our time in Badacsonytomaj, but it was filled with lots of beach lounging, lake swimming, trips back to our dock, Hungarian fish soup, a fun concert, some delicious wine and exploring the Balaton coast on half-broken rental bicycles.



On our way out of Badacsonytomaj on Sunday, the five of us stopped to take a photo in front of the town church where we had relaxed the first night. I approached a man lounging nearby to ask him to take our picture, which he did with enthusiastic flair. While taking our picture, he happened to mention that two nights earlier, he had found a set of keys in front of the church and had placed them on the church's Virgin Mary statue.



What do you know, Mary of Badacsonytomaj was holding onto our lost keys for us!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Wachau Bicycle Tour

This last weekend, I joined my friend Isabella for a bicycle tour through the Wachau Valley to celebrate her birthday. Here's Isabella!


I met up with her and her friends (all extremely great people), who had come in from everywhere - Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva (Isabella) and Bratislava (me) to spend a wonderful day biking by the Danube River. I had no idea how wonderful it would be.


After catching a train to Melk, we rented our bikes and set out down a trail that followed the Danube (Donau) as it meandered from Melk to Krems, and eventually on to Vienna and Bratislava. This is a giant monastery in Melk, famous for its reference in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (among other reasons).


Austria is beautiful. Every time I come to this country, I become more and more enamoured of it. I may just move here some day.



The tour was interrupted by multile schnapps breaks - the region is famous for its apricots (marillen), and therefore also its apricot schnapps and dumplings.


It sprinkled on and off throughout the day, which gave us good reason to take some wonderful eating and drinking breaks at little taverns and restaurants along the 35km trail from Melk to Krems.



That evening, we took the train back to Vienna where we shared a dinner at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the Viennese skyline. This might have been the best weekend I've had (or will have) all summer.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Budapest

I got back from my trip to Holcim on Friday afternoon at around 4:00pm and discovered that all the other interns had left on a trip to Budapest. I had known about the trip, but had been unsure whether I had wanted to go. Right then, I decided I did and I rushed to catch up with them, taking a train out of Bratislava only an hour or two after they did.

I arrived in Budapest at 8:30pm and met up with some of my fellow interns, Hyun-Young, Aleks and Timea, our Hungarian hostess. Timea took us an what she described as a 'Bohemian tour' that night to a few of her favorite nighttime hang out spots and we had an amazing time.



My only hang up that night was the realization that Hungary is not on the Euro. They use a currency called the forint (florin). I'm not sure if it's from the legacy of Hungary's post-WWI inflation or what, but the conversion rate to the Euro is certainly strange. Not knowing what it was at the ATM, I chose the smallest withdrawal option the ATM offered: 1,000 HUF (forints).

1,000 HUF equals about 4 euros. Oops.



Anyway, the next day Hyun-Young, Aleks and I toured some of the city's historical attractions, including the Danube waterfront, Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge and the statue of St. Gerard. We all commiserated in the fact that Magyar as a language is incomprehensible to us (although I do know EGESZSEGEDRE!). We ate like Hungarian kings all day and I returned to Bratislava that night with a full stomach and the satisfaction of a city well-explored.






Holcim

On Friday I went to an onsite presentation put on by Holcim, a major cement and construction material company. The idea was that they would share their sustainability, community feedback, and environmental best practices with local civil society (which apparently includes UNDP) in an exercise in corporate social responsibility. No surprises, this is what Holcim did (the surprise was that it wasn't in English - joke's on me!). They have some very innovative methods in reaching out to local communities to work with them on their concerns, and touring around the site, it seemed apparent that this company didn't just put this program on to offset criticism of their carbon emissions - their corporate social responsibility project seemed to be very central to what they did.

After a presentation on their best practices, we toured an extraction site and got to learn a lot more about how construction materials are taken out of the ground and how it impacts the local environment (while wearing cool construction helmets, orange vests, and safety glasses). Afterwards, we were served a delicious lunch and I had a chance to meet some of the international workers that Holcim employs, including an awesomely charming Frenchman.

Is this post an advertisement for Holcim? Probably not, considering that none of my friends buy industrial quantities of cement. But, if you do want to build a bridge or a tunnel or a 70 ft. statue of yourself, maybe look into Holcim as a more socially and environmentally responsible way to do it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Slavín

Today I took a morning run through the hills overlooking Bratislava with the aim of checking out a monument I had seen from afar.

Slavín is a memorial to the Soviet and Slovak soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. It is a giant pillar situated on the highest hill overlooking the city, and considering the size of Bratislava, it's pretty hard to miss. An itch to go for a good run plus a healthy dose of curiosity soon found me running up the switchback streets in a very wealthy neighborhood, climbing the steep hill to the monument.

Lucia has told me that the end of communism and the economic chaos that came with the transition to a capitalist economy still lives in the memories of Slovaks, and there's still a suspicion of many who have money and nice homes - the implication being that they probably got it through shady dealings during the transition and privatization of the economy in the 1990s. I'm sure this neighborhood, with giant glass mansions and luxury cars parked out on the road, contributes to that idea.

When I finally reached the top, I was taken aback by how somber and quiet it was. Despite the panoramic view, on a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon, there were only two or three people walking through the monument area, which is surrounded by a cemetery.


I'm not sure if it was the Stalinist design, or the somber mood, but Slavín really made me think about how foreign this side of World War II is to Americans like me. Statues of soldiers of the Red Army helping to liberate the Slavs of Bratislava from Nazi oppression just don't fit very well into the narrative we receive about the end of World War II. For the peoples of eastern and central Europe in 1945, six years or war, famine, genocide and tragedy had ended in the most violent way, and I can only imagine that they looked to their communist liberators with a mix of thankfulness, triumph and apprehension about the future. That liberation in 1945 began a half-century of communist rule, the results of which can be seen from Slavín's panoramic viewpoints. Historic central Bratislava is surrounded by Europe's largest communist-era housing block, Petržalka, which takes up most of the southern skyline from Slavín. To the east of Petržalka, you can see a forest of smokestacks belonging to Bratislava's communist-era factories, some of which have successfully made the transition to the free market, and some of which lay silent.

After some time for reflection, I turned around and completed the second half of my run loop. My running feet quickly crossed the pavement, underneath which lay six mass graves and 278 individual graves of 6,845 Soviet soldiers who fought in the bloodiest war in history.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kofola

Bratislava seems like a normal city, but there are always all these small reminders of communism. My favorite communist era reminder is Kofola, a delicious soft drink.

According to my Slovak hosts (and this contradicts the wikipedia article on the drink), during communist times, Czechoslovaks couldn't get Coca-Cola, so Kofola was invented to satisfy the need for a cold cola beverage.

Some people get down on Kofola because it's a cheap, communist knock-off of Coca-Cola, but I think it's a delicious link to this region's complicated past.

And oh, it is delicious. For some reason, the combination of herbs they use make it taste kind of like gummy bears.

I like it more than Coke. Don't tell my Uncle George.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pride and Hate

Yesterday, a few of my fellow interns wanted to meet up, so we went to go check out Rainbow Pride 2011, Bratislava's LGBT Pride march. I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years, so I'd been to events like this before, but I was definitely surprised by the different vibe it had compared to say, San Francisco's Pride Parade.



Slovakia is much less secular country than many of its western neighbors, and identities and attitudes that stray from traditional viewpoints can sometimes cause large waves here. This event seemed less of a celebration of identity, and more like an assertion of rights. The speakers at the event announced how people regardless of their personal identity deserved to be a part of Slovak society, a milestone (despite our current controversies over marriage) that I like to think my country already has reached.

The most noticeable presence at the event were the police. According to an article I read later, there were apparently over 500 police officers, and I can vouch that they were there in force. With crowd control armor, shields and dogs, if felt like I was in Little Rock in 1957.


I felt like the police presence was a bit unnecessary until we sat down at a cafe to get a drink after the event began their march across the city's main bridge. Sipping on our Kofolas and beers, we heard a crowd of men, yelling something in unison. It was a strange, harsh sound. I didn't get a peek because they were around the corner from the cafe, but these were apparently Slovak nationalist protesters. Slovaks I know here refer to them as Nazis. They were counter-protesting the Pride event and were the reason for the huge police presence.

I guess things went well, but it's definitely weird to experience that kind of intolerance that close up (and it wasn't even directed at me). I'm not really sure what lesson I learned from all of this, but Bratislava has so far very much proven that it isn't boring.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ahoy Bratislava!

And so new adventure begins, this time in a tiny little central European country called Slovakia. On Sunday, I hitched a ride with the only Slovak person I know in the whole world and her family to their hometown of Bratislava. After a quick lunch stop in Austria (and we know how much I love lunch stops in Austria) we drove on and arrived in Bratislava around sunset.



The outskirts of Bratislava have these humongous communist apartment blocks that remind me of the Stanford Law School, and we passed through them before crossing the Danube and entering the old city center, which is filled with very old buildings and a CASTLE!


Bratislava, although the capital of the country, is comfortably small, and the city center where I am staying is just beautiful. It seems quiet, relaxed and simple here. Very un-New Yorky, which is part of the reason I thin I'll like it.

I stayed at a hostel close to the UNDP office and began my first day at UNDP well rested and excited to work. My boss is cool, my coworkers are cool and everyone seems to be terribly smart. More about UNDP soon.

As I write this, I am sitting in a pub near my hostel with keys in my pocket for what will hopefully be the place I stay this whole summer. Lucia (my Slovak friend, fellow student and all around awesome girl) through a connection discovered a Slovak family here in the city who is renting out a room. They seem extremely nice, and they live in a wonderful house that they buolt themselves (the father is a sculptor and the son is an architect). I move in tomorrow, and they don't speak much English, so wish me luck!


Ci Vediamo, Bologna!

After a sometimes harrowing final examination period, I jumped through my last hoops and came out whole on the other side.

And how sweet that other side is! I spent my last week in Bologna sleeping in until the sunlight streaming through my windows woke me up, eating delicious Bolognese (and Georgian) food, and savoring all of my last memories in Italia.

My time in Bologna ended in four wonderful events.

The first was the class dinner/awards ceremony for my debate course, where I got to take the role of MC and host, giving out awards (which were actually bottles of Pignoletto, spray-painted gold a la the Stanford Band) to all of the debaters.

The second was a dinner at Da Vito, the place I had dinner my first night in Bologna. There was a group of about 40 of us, and periodically throughout the night we would heckle someone to stand up and give a toast (I gave the first, of course). By the end of the night, after plates and plates of primi and secondi and a few bottles of delicious vino da casa, all 40 people had given a toast. Wonderful night. Wonderful.

This is called stinko. It is delicious.



The third was our commencement ceremony. Our whole class, plus some parents and other hangers on, listened to some amazing speakers, including our own Matt Carroll, who maybe gave the most legendary commencement speech in SAIS history (link to come later). After the ceremony, we went upstairs to the roof/penthouse for pasta, wine and lots and lots of photos.


The fourth and last was our commencement party that night. Our student government rented out a bar in Piazza Verdi and we all rolled in looking very smart (the theme was Italian Mafia). We had a great night of dancing to the best party playlist I've ever heard, courtesy of the geniuses behind the music blog Basil Not Mint.



The next morning, I threw my whole life into my suitcase-and-a-half and began my new adventure. Italia, you've been awesome, but I think I'm too excited about going toward the future to be sad about leaving the past.

Arrivederci, Bologna, era divertente!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Summer Plans, Autumn Plans

I'm nearing the end of finals week, which also means the end of my time in Bologna. Always one to look ahead rather than behind, I'd like to share my summer and autumn plans with you!

Starting next Monday, I begin my summer internship with the UN Development Programme. I'll be working in support of the Office of the Senior Economist on a bunch of development issues in Central Asia. Despite the exotic locale of the subject of my work, I'll be located in Bratislava, Slovakia. Why? Not sure. Anyway, I'm super pumped to get to know Bratislava and Central Europe in general (I'll be very close to both Vienna and Budapest), so stay tuned for some interesting summer posts!

At the end of the summer, I'll take a plane flight from Bratislava to Minneapolis, Minnesota for a hectic weekend of wedding fun (as I am wont to do) before rolling back to Washington, DC for my second year at SAIS. I some how managed to finagle myself back into my old house in DC, which I love. I'll have a few new housemates and it should make for a great year!