Slovakia

I arrived at the Kosice, Slovakia train station to a driver, Boris, with a sign saying “Wick” on it just for me. From there he took me in the SUV to pick up the husband and wife I was staying with, and also a couple other Americans to take us to the bowling alley/bar for the weekly American bowling night.

Just a warning, this post is very, very long. So I hope you have the time and dedication to read it, or the will power to say no to it. 

These Americans I speak of work for US Steel Slovakia (the biggest US steel plant in Europe). My girlfriend, Natalie, best friend’s dad is the Vice President of US Steel in Slovakia, and I worked it out so that I could stay with them (I had never met them prior, but know their daughter Caitlin very well) for a few nights while I was in the area of Central/Eastern Europe. The dad is Pat Mullarky, mom is Carroll (Natalie warned me not to hit on her haha), and they have one of their daughters living with them in Kosice, Bridget (about 14). It was a great decision on my part to stay with them, amazing hospitality on theirs.

 

Kosice is a city in the very eastern part of Slovakia. It is the second biggest city in the country behind Bratislava, with about 250,000 people. It is currently a candidate for the 2013 European Capital of Culture, and so through the preparation for that you can tell it is a city on the upswing.

 

After a somewhat interesting train ride to finally reach Kosice (pronounced Ko-sheets-za), I was picked up and directly thrown right into the mix. I arrived later then I thought I would, and therefore put right into the Mullarky’s evening plans, bowling with the American crew. Within the first hour of being in Kosice, I met, and told my personal life/traveling story, to probably about 40 Americans living/working in Kosice/US Steel. Everyone I met was amazingly nice and very interested in hearing all about me and what I am doing.

 

I was also chosen to bowl as a substitute for each of the 3 games. I have always said that I do not like bowling that much, mainly because I am ultra-competitive and it is one of the few things that I am not really good at. I was sure to tell everyone that I was not the greatest bowler when I started, but I ended up having 3 pretty good games, but which didn’t matter that much anyway, everyone was there just to have a good time, be social, and drink. I was being fed beer after beer (local Slovakia brews which were great), and I probably had the most fun bowling I have ever had.

 

There were also a couple American female basketball players who were bowling with us too. They are playing in Kosice for 3 months, and their conditioning coach is the personal trainer of a bunch of the US Steel wives, including Carroll, so that is how they fit into the picture. I talked with both of them for a while and it was nice to have people about my own age to talk to. One was from Chicago, played at Purdue and then in the WNBA for the NY Liberty and was now playing in Kosice. The other played at Tennessee for Pat Summit, and now plays for the LA Sparx with Candice Parker, and is just here for 3 months to make some money and stay in basketball shape while the WNBA is out of season. I really enjoyed talking to them, and I think they enjoyed getting to talk to an American male for once too. They also let me know that yes girl’s bball is a much bigger deal here then it is back home, it is more of an exciting and physical game, and also the money is better (depending on who you are). They talked me into going to their game the next night, it was free, and I will get to that later.

 

The US Steel Employees also had a couple guys who provided security for them whenever they were at social places and also for the kids on their way to school and stuff like that. The two at the bowling alley that night were two British ex-Navy Seal like types (Britain’s equivalent to our navy seals I mean). They were both from England and only about 20 minutes from Wales, so they were very interested in talking to me and seeing how I like it in the UK and Wales. I sat and talked with them for a while and ate some of the local fare (goulash!).

 

All of the US Steel people this night at the alley were in the 35-55 age range I’d say, and they were all having an absolute blast. They were drinking a lot, taking lots of pictures, screwing around, and also much to my surprise even taking Jager-Bombs! After a few hours there, and as everyone was packing up, I was assuming I would finally be getting to go to the Mullarky’s home for the night (I had gone straight from train station to b-alley), but one of the wives had asked, “do you want to go out?” After seeing that Carroll (the mother I was staying with) was encouraging it and also joining, I of course said yes.

 

We were thus picked up by our driver, and taken to a very unique “Retro Bar.” They had an awesome décor and a brilliant drink list. I had a couple specialty drinks and after a while there it was finally time to call it a night and retire to the Mullarky residence. Having my own room in their house was a nice break from the 6-14 bedrooms I have been sleeping in at hostels too.

 

The next morning I awoke early to a phone call from Pat asking me if I had any plans, I of course said no, and he said that he had organized one of his Slovakian employee’s (kind of like his right hand man guy) 24 year old son, Vladko (silent k), to show me around for the day if I wanted. I thought this sounded great, so he told me that he would send over the driver to pick me up in an hour.

 

The driver then picked me up, with Vladko already in the car, and we were off to explore Slovakia. Vladko and I got to know each other and he turned out to be a really cool guy. He is in engineering graduate school in Kosice and his English is pretty good. I asked him what was in store for the day and he said that he would take me out to a Castle, and then show me the Kosice town center and then we had two tickets to sit in the US Steel Corporate Box at the Slovakian Hockey League game 1 of the Championship Series. Sounded good to me!

 

We first went to the Castle Krasna Horka (translates to beautiful/pretty hill). It was about an hours drive away from the city and it was a nice ride getting to see the Slovakian countryside and talk with Vladko. After getting dropped off and hiking the rest of the way up the big hill it sat atop, we took a guided tour of it. There were about 20 people on our tour, but since it was not the peak tourist season, they weren’t doing any tours in English. But they did give me an English cheat sheet for everything she was talking about so I didn’t have to just stare at her and wonder what she was saying the whole time. It was a very interesting tour and the castle was very well preserved. The highlight of the tour was towards the end of it in its church. There was a real mummified body of a lady in a glass enclosed open casket. I can’t remember whom she was (I think a queen/princess) or how long she had been dead (I think 100-200 years) but it was very weird, creepy and cool to see.

 

After our castle tour, we had Boris drive us to a traditional Slovak restaurant that was on the way back for lunch. A little side note about having the driver, it kept feeling weird to me when he would take us places, like the castle and lunch, and would just drop us off and then proceed to just sit in the parking lot waiting for us. I kept wanting to invite him in or ask if he wanted anything, but I knew that he was just doing his job and getting paid to sit there.

 

So at the restaurant I had Vlado order me a traditional Slovakian beer and meal. I told him I will eat anything and everything and gave him complete freedom in his choosing. The beer was superb and I had no idea what I ate but it was delicious. Not even sure how to explain it, but it might have had something to do with dumplings, and I know it had really good bacon chunks in it, and also it kind of tasted like the white Mac n’ Cheese.

 

After lunch we headed back to Kosice to check out the city center. We got dropped of at the Hlavne Namestie, the main square that is lined with attractions, restaurants and bars. Next to this is the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth, the best in Slovakia, which also had great views for us of the city from its tower. After about an hour of wandering around and pretty much seeing everything the city center had to offer, we went to a pub to meet up with one of Vladko’s friends who wanted to meet me.

 

I can’t remember Vladko’s friends name, but he spoke good English too, and he had a ton of questions also. He was asking all kinds of questions about life in the states, and also about Wales (because he lived in the UK for a short amount of time). The three of us sat and chatted for a good 2 hours, and had a few pints of course (after sampling all of the Slovak beers, had had Vladko try my favorite, Guinness, which he had never had).

 

The hockey finals game started at 5 (pretty early, kind of different), and we got a ride from Vladko’s friend in his tiny, crappy lime green Skoda to the arena. The arena also happens to be “Steel Arena” (after US Steel). We got there and went through the vip entrance and we were in the corporate box just in time for face-off. I recognized and was recognized by a majority of the people in the box who had bowled the previous night, and so I had good talks with a lot of them, filled up on the free buffet and had a few beers that were provided for us.

 

The hockey game itself was an absolute blast. We had great seats/view of the rink from the box and the atmosphere was electric inside the arena. It is by far there biggest sport, something the US doesn’t really have (a sport that is way above the others in popularity), and so the fans were of course going crazy for their hometown team, H. C. Kosice. They ended up winning 4-2 on a game that was won in the 3rd period on a penalty shot (plus a open-net goal at the end).

 

After the hockey game, Carroll, a couple others and myself headed over to a basketball gym to watch our WNBA American girls play a league game. The stands weren’t very big, but everyone there was really into the game. The funniest part about the game was the cheerleaders (who all looked 15) and their ugly uniforms that didn’t even match the team’s colors. Never been a big fan of girls hoops but this was definitely worth going to and experiencing, especially since I knew a couple of the girls playing.

 

After the game, we talked to the girls, and the other guy that came to the game with us invited the 2 American players and us other 3 to go to a bar for pizza and a couple beers, on him. This guy, TK (US Steel person), was very nice to me and a cool dude, but I am still not sure if he was being creepy or nice to the girls all night (I want to say he was trying to get in their pants, but he could just have been being nice). So we all went out for pizza and a drink. The bar we went to happened to be showing Football World Cup Qualifying – Slovakia vs. Czech Republic. Obviously a huge rivalry match-up, and so it was kind of fun to watch this, and Slovakia ended up pulling off the upset and winning. So I had a nice little night of the Slovakian sports- hockey, girl’s bball and football (soccer).

 

The next morning Pat woke me up with a phone call and asked if I would be down for more of the same thing that day. I said perfect and he sent over the driver and Vladko to get me. I asked Vladko what he had in store for me this day, and he said that we would go up to the High Tatras Mountains to hang out, and then Pat had also given us box tickets to game two of the hockey finals that night. Perfect. So we had about a 2-½ hour drive to get up to the mountains, but the drive was well worth it. On the way we saw an awesome castle, I can’t remember its name, but it is the biggest castle in central Europe, and Vladko was telling me all about how it is always used in movies, such as Dragon Heart.

 

The High Tatras are easily Europe’s second most stunning and best mountain range, behind the Alps. Their span is relatively small, but the peaks reach alpine heights and are absolutely gorgeous. Vladko was telling me how they are easily Slovakia’s number one tourist attraction year around –skiing/boarding for 6 months and hiking/lakes for the other 6. As we got up the mountain a little bit, the ground started to become snow covered. It was 60 degrees when we started off that day, but even in the snowy areas it was still upper 40s. We went through a bunch of little mountain resort towns, and then got dropped of at one of the more popular ones. We wandered around there for a while, watched some people on the slopes and sat at a neat outside bar and had a drink.

 

After a while exploring the High Tatras we headed back down and went to get lunch at a restaurant right by the castle I spoke earlier of. This happened to be one of Vladko’s favorite places and I just had him order me whatever he got. It ended up being some type of meat (pork or veal or something..), served with bread and all covered in a delicious gravy. It was another very good local meal. He also got us these drinks, which were actually shots served in mini-champagne glasses. He was trying to explain to me all about them, but I had no idea what he was saying. Something about how they drink them before they go to the disco, and some other stuff I couldn’t understand. And then after we ate he asked if I wanted another, I said no thanks, that was plenty strong enough for this early in the day. He then explained to me how you have to always drink at least two, because I think he said that one was bad luck. So we had another.

 

We now were on our way back to Kosice and to the hockey game. Pat and Carroll didn’t go to this one (as he said, “He is all Hockey’d out,” he likes it, but he is tired of it because that is all the town has been about for 5 months). This game was another amazing experience, and H. C. Kosice won again 3-1. After the game I walked back to the Mullarkey’s with Bridgett, their daughter, who was also sitting in the corporate box with us.

 

I also parted ways with Vladko at this point. We had spent a lot of time together those two days and he showed me a very good time and was a great “tour guide.” I am guessing at first that Pat had told him that if he shows this American kid around for a day then he would get a free ticket to the hockey game. Well Vladko is crazy about hockey and H.C. Kosice is his team, so of course he would do it (like telling me to show around a Slovak to get Cubs World Series tickets, I’d give my left nut for those, maybe…). I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it worked, but I am sure Vladko had a great time with me as anyways. He was telling me how he never gets to practice his English ever, only hear it in movies and music, so he liked conversing with me. I also think he really enjoyed getting to spend all that time with a person from such a far away place (USA). But we are now facebook friends so we’ll keep in touch.

 

On Friday I spent the morning at the Mullarky’s planning the next part of my trip (booking hostels, figuring out trains, and other things), blogging, doing laundry, putting all of my pictures so far from break on facebook, and generally just catching up on some internet time that I had been missing out on. I then raided their fridge and made a ginormous sandwich for lunch. A little later on, Pat sent one of the drivers to come get me so I could pick up my train tickets and to bring me out to the US Steel plant for a personal tour.

 

So it was a different guy picking me up this time and I didn’t know what he looked like or what car he was driving. I waited outside their house and a guy waved me down and I got in his car. He had the blackberry on the dash that all the employees had been using and it seemed like it was the right car. But, I knew kind of where the train station was, and we were headed nowhere close to it. We started to leave the town, and I knew the plant was outside of town, but I hadn’t been this way to it. I started to see all these signs for the airport, and it seemed like we kept going towards it, so I thought maybe he was mistaken in his directions (airport instead of train station). I tried talking to him, but he didn’t speak any English at all. Then it started to cross my mind that maybe I was just kidnapped or something and was taken to be sold as a sex slave or to be chopped up in the next ‘Hostel’ movie. Not really sure what to do at this point, but then I saw the plant in the distance and realized that he had just taken a different, backwards way to it (and he had already picked up the train tickets).

 

So I got to the US Steel plant ok, and went up to Pat’s office, which was really big and nice. Security was really tight throughout the building and through the rest of my time on the tour, which is a good thing I guess. But so we didn’t have time to give me all the mandatory equipment and safety training to actually go inside a lot of the parts of the plant, so instead Pat gave me a driving and walking tour around most of the rest of the plant. Vlado’s father, also Vlado, joined us too.

 

I learned a whole lot about steel, how it’s made, what they do there, numbers, facts and all sorts of stuff that was actually really interesting. Vlado was like the know everything about everything man and kept throwing in little interesting knowledge nuggets. Pat was still technically working, so it was fun getting to see him go yell at some people for not having their helmets on, and then we sat in the car while he had to go have another disciplinary meeting with some people who f’d up (Vlado said we didn’t want to go in the building and see what was going to happen haha). Overall it was a very unique and highly interesting experience. You don’t get many chances to get a tour of such a big and important place by the Vice President, so very neat.

 

That night (Friday), I went out with the Family and a few of their friends to a neighborhood pizza joint. Very good pizza and one of the first really good salads I’ve had in a long time too (like an Olive Garden one). We then went back to the house and watched the new James Bond, “Quantum of Solace,” that had just come out there.

 

So on Saturday I had my train at 2pm, and so that morning I packed up all of my stuff, did some last minute planning and organizing, caught up some more on the internet (while I still had it easily at my disposal) and prepared for the next step of my adventure- Vienna.

 

This may sound a little weird, and don’t take it the wrong way my parentals, but it was really nice to have a psuedo-family for those 4 nights. I mean that as though I have been gone for 3 months now and just haven’t had like physical interaction with parental figures, and meals cooked for me or things bought for me, but the Mullarky’s did all of that. They treated me just like that would have treated a son while I was there, and I am very thankful of that. I really miss all of my parents and I can’t wait to get home to see them!

 

A couple things about Kosice, as well as Slovakia and most of Central/Eastern Europe I’ve been too. Graffiti is everywhere. It’s big, it’s fancy, it’s dirty, and it’s everywhere. And the other is gypsies, got to watch out for them. They’re big especially in this region (Slovakia, Budapest and such). I’m not really sure exactly how to explain what and/or who they are if you don’t know, but they are just kind of this group of people who are shunned by the rest of society and cast-away, and are really poor and dirty. The Mullarky’s lived in a nice house on a nice block, but only 1 block away there were some, and each night I would see gypsy hookers on the corners of the streets right there. No lie. Pat even pointed two of them out as we drove to get pizza on Friday night. Both Vladkos also warned me to look out for the gypsies, especially the packs of gypsy kids who were really good at pick-pocketing in touristy areas and they told me lots of interesting stories about such things.

 

So that is it for Kosice. I never really imagined myself even going to Slovakia in my lifetime, much less having so much fun! I am very glad I went, it was a great time and I was very lucky to get to stay with such great hosts. Next up- Vienna.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: