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.