Once we were all assembled at the hotel on Friday night, Mata (the Slovak co-ordinator) handed out intineraries and information, and said the mini-bus would pick us up at 9.30 prompt in the morning. Nicola and I agreed to meet for breakfast at 8.45, and I went up to my room and wrote until 2am.
By the end of breakfast I was starting to put together names and nationalities and faces. The men are easy to identify because there are only a few of them. But there are at least twice as many women, and the ones who speak English also seem to speak other languages as well as their own, just to make it super-confusing. I decided not to worry about this and hopefully I’ll have sorted out who is who by the end of the Slovakian part of the trip.
We all piled into a really rather luxurious mini-bus, which took us out of Trnava (a small town, Market Harborough-sized I suppose) and into the countryside. The landscape around here is not spectacular so I immediately felt at home. It is much flatter than Northamptonshire, with more crops and less livestock, and there are still no hedges; but there was nothing to ooh and aah at, and I liked that. We passed through a couple of villages on the journey to Abraham – lots of low, colour-washed houses, and people doing ordinary Saturday morning things like buying a paper or playing on scooters.
Abraham itself is a village similar in size to West Haddon. It has a church right in the centre, a couple of shops, lots of houses, and the school – and of course it was the school we were going to. The very first thing we saw inside the entrance hall was a row of cages. These were clearly the cloak-rooms – there was the odd PE bag and pair of shoes – but they looked for all the world like detention zones. And everywhere, there were the flags of the Comenius partner countries. Close to the entrance was a display of pictures of hour-glasses. The theme of our project is ‘Our past shapes our future’ and the hour glass is a good symbol for this. The children at Abraham seem to have been given a free rein with their pictures because although they all included the same basic hour-glass shape, there was an astonishing variety of interpretation. One had a ship in the top half and wreckage in the bottom half; there were hour-glasses filled with geometric shapes; there were ‘weather’ hour-glasses … hopefully I will be able to zoom in to my photo and look at them all again because I could happily have stood there for an hour admiring them.
However, we had a strict schedule. First we were taken to the staff room, and had all the introductions – the headteacher and staff were introduced to us, and we went round the room introducing ourselves. When it was my turn, before I’d said a word, the headteacher immediately said ‘Ah, Molly!’ in a headteacherish way, and told all the staff something in Slovakian, and they all nodded and smiled. It turned out that she was explaining that I was the person they had all been so worried about the night before when I hadn’t arrived at the station, but here I was, safe and sound, and do you know she actually walked from the station to the hotel!!!
It had actually never occurred to me that I might be met at the station; and I certainly didn’t think anybody except Nicola would be concerned if I didn’t arrive at the expected time. So it was somewhat disconcerting to find that the entire staff of a school had apparently been on standby to form search parties for me. Smile and wave, smile and wave … and then the introductions were over and we were being given a glass of Burcak, the local apple wine. At 10.30 in the morning. (I managed to get a photo of Nic with her glass of wine, with the clock in the background, heh heh heh.) Burcak is very nice, but I only managed a couple of mouthfuls of the rather fiery plum liqueur which followed. After all that, and some Slovakian nibbles, the atmosphere became much more relaxed.
The Slovakian nibbles included:
- cake which was like tiramisu but more substantial
- tiny scones sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds
- a cheese and ham something – it was warm, and looked like a savoury croissant, but inside it was less like pastry and more like thin bread. I particularly liked these.
- Savoury pastry stars sprinkled with nuts. These were nice, too.
- lots and lots of a bewildering variety of unfamiliar cakes.
Suitably relaxed and fortified, the next event was The Group Photo. We arranged ourselves in front of the cages, and a professional photographer took a couple of shots. After this, absolutely everybody who had a camera also wanted a shot. The vicar ended up with about a dozen cameras lined up on a radiator and took picture after picture, and then we trooped outside for another group photo on the school steps. Nic showed me the photo the vicar had taken on her camera; ‘It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for,’ she said, straight-faced. The vicar had held the camera the wrong way round and taken a photo of himself instead of the group. We were very giggly about this while the second group photo was being taken, and this time the additional photos were taken by a pair of techno-savvy teenage girls.
The tour of the school started with the Comenius display, went up to the second floor, and came back down again, peering into classrooms on the way. There are no interactive whiteboards here, just fold-out blackboards, and the IT suite contains a lot of what even I can identify as rather elderly PCs – I can’t offhand remember the last time I saw a monitor which wasn’t flat-screen. But – and Nic and I found this hard to get over – the school has an average class size of 12. Twelve. The children are aged from 6 to 15 (after that they go on to vocational school, apprenticeships or high school) and all come from Abraham or one neighbouring village. And the school day starts at 7.30am (a time I’m not usually awake for), but finishes before midday for the younger children, and at about 2pm for the older.
Except in the IT suite, where the tables are set out in a large ring, the tables and chairs are all set formally facing the front; and every classroom has a sink, and a row of individually named hand-towels; I have no idea why, and didn’t like to ask. Each class had ‘adopted’ a Comenius partner country, and had a display for that country. The UK display was fabulous. It included familiar and unfamiliar recipes, information about the Beatles and Iron Maiden, and pictures of tourist attractions and royalty.
After the tour of the school (which of course was entirely lacking in children, it being a Saturday) there was an Official Meeting about the next Comenius tasks, and the official business of handing over cash to cover excursions and meals during our stay (we have to find some but not all meals ourselves). One of the next tasks is about ‘disappearing professions’ and the task organiser had allocated each country two traditional crafts for the school to research and ideally photograph somebody doing. Our allocated ‘disappearing professions’ are shoemaker (easy, Northampton is the capital of shoes – although whether anybody actually makes any there any more …) and ‘furrier’. We wondered if this was a typo for ‘farrier’ but either way the first research is going to have to be via Google to find out what exactly it is.
By now the effect of the apple wine was wearing off and we were starting to feel yawny rather than smiley. The short walk to the church perked us up. And once in the church, the vicar opted to speak Italian, which Gastone (one of the Italian delegation) interpreted (Mata had done an amazing job with all the interpreting so far but really needed a break). The church is dedicated to Abraham and there was an icon showing the scene where he is about to sacrifice Isaac and the angel intervenes. There were, in fact, lots of pictures and icons around the church – it was a very colourful, sunshiney place, with curves and domes where we have angles and rafters. At the side was a carved wooden stall, originally for the local prince and princess to sit in unobserved by the peasants, but during communist times used by teachers who wanted to go to church but weren’t allowed to. That was, I think, the only reference we heard to the period when Czechoslovakia was behind the iron curtain.
We went to the village hall for lunch. Its proper name is the village culture home, which sounds quite different, but inside it was a village hall (those of you who have been to Guilsborough village hall would have found it quite familiar). Oh, except for the large mural of peasants skipping; I’ve not seen that before in a village hall. But I’ve seen the plastic plants, unique lighting, and woodblock flooring a score of times during elections visits and so forth. I like village halls, and every single one is a monument to the handful of people in every community who take practical action to make their little world a better place. It was good to find it exactly the same here.
Lunch was chicken noodle soup followed by a mixed platter of local cuisine – pork fried in potato batter, pickled cabbage, pale green pepper rings, chicken, yummy sauteed potatoes – it was very good, but very filling. We didn’t manage it all but hopefully our nods and smiles conveyed that this wasn’t because we hadn’t liked it.
Our next stop was the village council house, where a suit and tied representative (Igor – but not a Pratchett one) welcomed us, his speech being translated in batches by Mata (who amplified a point Igor was making about the co-operation with the school, by telling us how the village council had paid for the new toilets, and so managed to translate Igor’s next chunk of speech before he’d actually had a chance to say it). There were lots and lots of questions I wanted to ask about local government organisation but I really couldn’t bring myself to ask them, partly because by this time I was barely awake, but mostly because it was just too hard. I have the internet; I can look it up, and then ask more intelligent questions another time. But other people’s intelligent questions let us find out that people in the village mostly work in agriculture, or in the factories in Galanta.
From the Council House we walked to the museum, where this time the curator welcomed us at length, while Mata translated. The museum was full, as local museums often are, of Things, some of which were recognisable (costumes and cribs) and some of which prompted a lot of speculation (is it a bedpan or a frying pan?). There was a room full of dangerous-looking agricultural tools, there was a glass cabinet full of large bones (mammoth bones, apparently), and there were lots of old photos. I like museums, too, but they are harder to enjoy when the labels are in another language and there are no dates.
We then went on a large circular walk through the village, along what seemed to be the local equivalent of Atterbury Close. Lots of the little front gardens had roses growing, so I had fun trying to work out the different varieties. Lots of the larger back gardens were growing produce: peppers, squashes and maize all seemed to be doing well. The road was narrower than the main street (which is tree-lined and wide), and there was no pavement, so there were nearly a couple of international incidents involving cars and scooters, but eventually we arrived safely at the cemetery. I don’t know if they have a best-kept cemetery competition in Slovakia but if they do, Abraham should win. All the graves were beautifully tended, the headstones polished, the leaves swept up. We were there to see the grave of Michal Tarek, the founder of the school, and having paid our respects it seemed appropriate to return to the school for refreshment.
After coffee and cakes (and in some cases, more apple wine) we went back to the village hall for some entertainment. First, a small group in traditional costume performed some traditional songs and dances. We couldn’t really follow the songs, and the dances were, well, dances; but the costumes were super. Lots of embroidery and lace and pleated underskirts, and the men in sumptuous waistcoats with a feather in their hats. The group included a young boy in cream baggy trousers and a mauve waistcoat with silver buckles (he was also wearing the hat) – he looked a little younger than Toby and I tried to imagine Toby dressed like that, and performing in a group like that, and immediately knew exactly the expression that would have been on his face. The young boy in the group, however, appeared to be enjoying himself.
After the traditional group (representing The Past) we had a rock group (representing Now and The Future). The rock group, called Zapcha if the drums were correct, has a connection with Abraham through the drummer, who is also a PE/geography (see, it’s not just in the UK) and music teacher at the school. The other band members were the bassist, who looked remarkably like our own chairman of governors; a young pony-tailed guitarist, who appeared never to have heard applause before; and the lead singer/guitarist, who had lots of long hair, and wore a leather waistcoat and wrist bands (as well as all his other clothes, obvs: it wasn’t that kind of show).
It was not a promising beginning. I don’t know what it is about rock bands, but give them half an hour to practise and they will spend about 27 minutes arsing around with the amplifiers and mikes, before having a guitar duel and then knocking off for a beer. I remember this clearly from sixth form. Older rock bands are no different. Zapcha did loads of testing of mikes, and twiddling of knobs, a few chords and another twiddle, a few more chords … three times they started a song and didn’t get beyond the first verse before deciding that they needed to do more twiddling. But eventually they decided they had achieved the optimum combination of feedback, body-vibrating volume, and twang, and started playing properly. They were good musicians, and although it wasn’t the sort of music I would normally choose to listen to (I thought at the start of each song that it was going to be Stairway to Heaven), and although of course we couldn’t understand the lyrics (apart perhaps from ‘Dozy beetch’ and something about Tesco Clubcard points, but I might have misheard), it was much better than eg most end-of-term school shows.
Back at school there was more cake and alcohol, and a fierce debate in Slovakian about the evening’s timings. This eventually (because it was raining) resolved itself into the minibus taking us from the hotel to the restaurant at 7pm, even though this would give us only 20 minutes in the hotel to get ready. Personally I intended to use that 20 minutes for Facebook and blogging, my ‘getting ready’ amounting to a quick dab of perfume behind the ears, but it was a bit of an issue for some of the delegates.
Our evening meal was chicken wrapped around ham and cheese, with gravy; rocket (I ought to be able to say ‘rocket’ in several languages now – that part of the meal was quite fun); and more sauteed (or possibly roasted) potatoes. But these potatoes were sprinkled with something which looked like rosemary, but tasted like spearmint. We decided it was carraway. I had to scrape all the seeds off before I could eat the potatoes, anyway. Apart from that it was delicious, and the soft drinks were ridiculously cheap. But we were tired; I know it wasn’t just me, we were all very, very tired. It’s hard work trying to focus on the scraps of language you understand, hard work trying to communicate with somebody when everything you say and hear is in a language unfamiliar to one of you; we had done quite a lot of walking; and we hadn’t really recovered from our journeys on Friday. So we started to come back to the hotel, in taxis because of the rain, from 9pm onwards. It had been a brilliant day, but a busy one.