Saturday, July 18, 2015

Prague and Martin

Our trip from Leipzig to Prague didn't start well. After a change in Dresden, we found out that our reserved second-class car and one other car were not on the train, which was seriously overbooked anyway. As a result, people and suitcases were spread through the aisles. We ran quickly to first class and snabbed the last unreserved seats in a compartment, so we didn't have to join the throng standing and sitting in the corridors for the two-plus hour ride. (The Israeli man across from us joked that it looked like a train in India.) Les was prepared to fight for our seats if the conductor would admonish us for being in first-class, but nobody ever came.

We avoided the fate of many: two hours crowded in the aisles.
On the positive side, the train followed the Elbe River through Saxony Switzerland national park, giving beautiful views. About a week after we had that 3-hour train delay in Toronto, we got an e-mail from VIA Rail Canada offering us, as compensation, half off the price of a future train trip. Ha ha, we're wondering when the rail company here will send even an apology for removing the car with our reserved seats (which you pay extra for).

We spent three nights in Prague, and felt like we could easily have enjoyed another few. We loved most everything about the city: handsome buildings, interesting neighborhoods, good transportation, inexpensive prices, multitude of vegan restaurants, not too many tourists, etc. There were many Segway rental shops, and loads of Segways in the squares and streets.

The John Lennon wall is a popular attraction in Prague.
Les liked Prague so much that he was saying that it was among his three favorite cities so far on the trip. But then, when he tried to list his favorites, there were at least five or six, so he gave up trying.

View of the castle in Prague from a yummy vegan restaurant
We still run into surprises. A few times now we've had bathtubs with a removable showerhead, but no shower curtain, making me grip the head carefully so that a bad turn of the wrist doesn't soak the room. Another surprise since arriving in continental Europe is that 99 percent of the T-shirts people wear are in English. And on some of the roads in Slovakia there were so many billboards, I could hardly believe it: every hundred feet, meaning about fifty billboards per mile, with some firms advertising on every fifth one or so.

We left Prague on our "Bergfest" day. That's a term we learned from Anita, which signifies the middle of a project or workweek or whatever. It was day 67 out of 134. It was kind of fitting to be getting to the farthest place geographically on that day: Martin in Slovakia. We're here to participate in SES (Somera Esperanto Studado), a 9-day Esperanto class that's held every year in Slovakia. Many of the people who come have learned Esperanto through on the Internet; sometimes this is their first chance to speak face-to-face with others.

Our train from Prague, supposed to take five hours, was so late to Žilina that we needed to quickly jump to our next train. But nobody spoke English and we couldn't tell which platform to go to, or even how to exit from the platform we were on. We ended up on a different train than intended, but fortunately a young woman spoke some English and told us how to recover.

When we got to the dormitories for SES, it wasn't reassuring to hear "The elevators are over there, but sometimes they don't work." This is for a 10-story building! Indeed, I get the impression that the dorm was built with cheap materials in the 1960s, and has never had any improvements since then. One example: in the shared bathroom, instead of towel racks or hooks, there's a cord hanging between two vertical pipes. There's no way to close the doors without making a slamming sound, so there's a constant barrage of bangs. Speaking of doors, this is the only place I've been where you could be accidentally locked inside the room. Worst of all, the Internet didn't work in our room for the first two days, and Les had to be very aggressive to find the help he needed to get it working; for sure, Les isn't a happy camper when he doesn't have the Internet.

Improvised hooks on the door of our dormitory room in Slovakia
Another strange thing in Slovakia. We each had to fill in a form for the police with date of birth, passport number, where you're staying, etc. It had to be all in capital letters. I mistakenly put my first name without all caps, then crossed it out and did it the desired way. But no! The volunteer said that the police were very fussy, she'd fill in a new form herself. In the end, both my form and Les' were done three times before they were good enough to pass muster with the police! And during one of our bus excursions the leader asked us for identification that would show that we're old enough for the senior rate at the castle; when Les explained that he'd left our passports, drivers licenses, all identification back at the dorm, the leader was aghast that we'd travel in Slovakia without any identifying papers.

We met interesting people from many countries—mostly Europe, but also Australia and East Timor. There were 190 participants from 25 countries, and the 12 instructors were each from a different country.

View from Strečno Castle near Žilina
We spent four hours each day in classes. Our teacher was wonderful, and changed activities often enough that Les, who has a short attention span, did fine. Les and I each gave a short talk in class; it's funny, because usually the idea of public speaking terrifies me, but in Esperanto it only causes a slight amount of anxiety. Les' goal for the week was to lose his American accent. Toward the end of the week a Polish woman, after chatting awhile, asked him whether he was Italian—it really made his day!

Les and I each gave a talk in our class.
We signed up for three half-day bus excursions and one full-day one. We went to the national open air museum, a zoo, several towns, and three different castles. In each castle we had a 2-hour tour, and went 300 to 400 steps up, and the same number down—whew! On one excursion I was excited to pass a large nest with two storks in it; the Europeans around me were "ho hum, we see stork nests all the time."

Bojnice Castle
Afternoons were filled with talks by various participants and instructors. I gave a slide show about living on a houseboat, and also led a session of a particular word game. (Much to my surprise, one of the organizers later handed me ten euros for my contribution to the program—ha ha, who says that you can't earn money through Esperanto?—which I then put into the donation box.)

Esperanto draws a lot of professional linguists, and one of them gave a talk about how to distinguish the writing of various European languages. The projector showed the first sentence of the International Bill of Rights in 40 languages, one at a time. We had a few seconds to write down our guess as to the language, then he revealed which it was, and how the writing is different from any other language (perhaps both the "a" and the "o" can have a certain accent mark). Then he'd ask if somebody in the audience would read the paragraph, and usually there was a volunteer (for Catalan, or Albanian, or Macedonian, or whatever); but if not, then the instructor would read it himself—imagine being able to correctly pronounce 40 languages. As a bonus, I learned that Norwegian has two official written standards.

One evening people shared typical foods from their countries.
It was apparent that SES is geared toward the younger crowd when we saw the evening activities always went past midnight—long after Les and I had gone to bed. There were many rock bands, loved by the teens and 20-ish crowd, but our favorite evening event was a harp concert by a talented participant.

Despite the sub-par dorm experience, we can't complain at all about the price. For 8 nights stay, all meals, 25 hours of expert instruction, four bus excursions including admission fees, evening entertainment by various groups, the total for the two of us was about $700—quite the deal. This has been the longest stay in one place on our trip so far. Les, with his love of lists, has kept track of every place we've stayed this year, and it's 42 for me and 41 for him (he didn't come to Merida with me in January).

Our class (one of 12) showing off our diplomas; Tim, our instructor, is the one without a diploma.
Les has been bothered by hay fever since we arrived in England. It's been especially bad here in Martin, maybe because of the hay fields behind the dorm. (But they certainly are pretty to look at.)

Tomorrow, after the final classes, we're taking the train to Bratislava, and the following day to Budapest. Stay tuned...