With the assistance of Lemon Bay Sunrise Rotary and the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, 2018 Lemon Bay High School graduate Lauren Maheu is living in Slovakia for approximately a year with a host family in the city of Kosiac. Through her timely updates, we get to learn about life in Slovakia...
My schedule for the past two months has been so full that I have barely had any time to write! Between plans with classmates, family gatherings, and trips with Rotary, I have had lots to keep my mind distracted from the fact that I’ll be leaving this beautiful country in a little over a month. Before things become too sad, I’ll get to the good stuff.
With my first host family I celebrated my host brother’s fifteenth birthday and also learned how to make Bryndzové halušky (a traditional Slovakian dish made from potatoes and sheep cheese) with the other exchange students–of course it turned out great! Now all I need to do is just find sheep cheese in Florida so that I can bring a bit of Slovakia home with me!
Before all of the sunshine went away, the preview of spring gave us exchange students the chance to have picnics, go on bike rides, play some mini golf, and casually drive into Hungary to visit a thermal cave bath! We participated in a bowling tournament with Rotary, played laser tag with some classmates, gave some presentations to different schools, went to a few movies, and two of us even ran a Spartan Race! These months were full of family and new traditions. With my host family I traveled to villages outside of Košice to visit my grandmas and cousins, celebrating Deň Matiek (Mother’s Day), birthdays, and most importantly, Veľká noc (Easter)! I spent the Easter holiday in Poland with my host family, hiking, walking through the city center of Zakopane, and also visiting a papugarnia (bird zoo), but the real celebrations didn’t begin until we came back to Košice.
Easter in Slovakia is celebrated a bit differently than it is in the United States. I was aware of the slightly peculiar traditions as I had researched Slovak culture before starting my exchange, but was also given the occasional warning in the days preceding the holiday–this warning was very much appreciated as I was lying in bed the morning of Easter Monday. It is a tradition in Slovakia to give women and girls some special treatment on Easter; in order to ensure their heath, beauty, youth and strength, men pour water on women using cups, bottles, or even buckets (a practice called “oblievacka”), spray them with perfume, and gently whip them with thin willow branches braided together and traditionally decorated with colorful ribbons. It is usual for men to travel to the houses of all the women and girls in their family, perform these customs and in return be given chocolate (and sometimes money) for young boys, and a shot (or more) of vodka for those old enough. While some consider this tradition severely sexist and merely something of the past, others embrace it as a preservation of their culture.
For me, it was a fun and exciting day, but I think my opinion may be biased considering that this was my first and probably last Slovak Easter. My day began with the feeling of water dripping down my neck as my host dad and brother woke me up with a few cups of water. Soon after I got a ring at the door of the hotel room only to be greeted by my host uncle and cousin with two more cups of water. That was Round 1 for me changing out of wet clothes. Once returning home, my other host uncle and cousins came…Round 2–then Joaquín and Finn came with their host brothers and my first host dad…Round 3–and lastly, we went for a small celebration at my Rotary counselor’s house where, of course, I was given more water…Round 4. Overall, it was a fairly interesting Easter to say the least.
From the end of April to the beginning of May, my life became rather chaotic because for two weeks I was traveling around Europe on Eurotour, a trip organized by Rotary in which we visited three different countries: France, Spain, and Italy. With so many stories to tell from my adventures, I’ll save that for a separate blog post, but for now I’ll just quickly breeze through those two weeks: We started in Bratislava, taking a bus overnight to Paris where we stayed for three days. Next we went to Barcelona for another three days, spent one day on a ferry traveling to Italy, then went from city to city for our last week of traveling–we visited Rome, Naples, Pompei, Florence, and Venice… My final verdict: the Italian cities of Naples and Venice are a BIT more interesting than the ones in Florida!
When we returned home in good ole’ Slovakia, away from the hectic hustle and bustle of BIG cities and the touristic lifestyle, we were greeted by a different Košice… The hockey world cup was held in Slovakia this year, transforming Košice into a tourist attraction. The main street became a parade of foreigners flags, jerseys, and painted faces, from Finnland to Canada to Switzerland. With my host family I got the opportunity to attend a USA vs. France game (we won 7-1!) and also go to the FanZone in the city a few times where large screens project the games for everyone to gather and watch for free. These games gave us exchange students a great excuse for a few sleepovers! There we were, decked out in our Slovak pride–jerseys, scarves, and hats. We were already slightly sick from all of our traveling and the cheering didn’t help our fading voices!
We had just returned from one Rotary trip and were soon off again for another–the District Conference held in Prague, Czech Republic. There we had lots of practicing for a talent show performed by all of the exchange students, a boat tour of the city, and a fancy gala with suits and long dresses! Seeing all of my fellow exchange students dressed in their finest, crazily dancing to a DJ in one of the nicest halls in Prague was definitely a memorable experience that I’ll look back on with nostalgia. Before heading home to Košice, Finn and I took a pit stop in Bratislava, staying the night at another exchange student’s house and taking a train home the next day. This ease of traveling by train is something which I would never have expected to become so accustomed to, and will definitely miss from my European life.
As time winds down, the realization that my exchange year is coming to an end has begun to sink in. Of course I know that my stay in Slovakia cannot last forever, but this doesn’t make the thought of leaving any less surreal. The pressure is on to do all that I’ve not yet done and take advantage of every last second I have of my exchange. T-minus forty-one days!