Last August, Lauren Maheu, daughter of Kreg and Dawn Maheu of Englewood, and graduate of Lemon Bay High School (LBHS) was on her way to live in Slovakia for a year with as a Rotary Exchange student. As it turned out, she lived in the city of Košice with two different host families. Both families had two children, a teenage son and daughter, and both daughters were away as exchange students as well. She attended school there, but wasn’t expected to participate in much beyond English discussions, and occasional tests and presentations she was asked to prepare for. Most of the younger generation were able to speak English, but Lauren wanted to learn Slovak, so she enjoyed being challenged to use it.
“One thing I noticed is the relationships between teachers and students were more formal. When entering the school, students greet the staff with a “dobré ráno” (good morning), when teachers enter the classroom, students stand as a welcome. It is appropriate to say “dobrý den” (a formal hello/good day) when passing a teacher or administrator in the hall. Though these displays of respect exist at LBHS, they are more strictly implemented in Slovakia.
“Another difference is how much people travel over there. We were always taking car trips to other countries. Maybe it’s because all the countries are within a couple of hours, unlike Florida, which is so long geographically. I was lucky to be able to visit all the countries around Slovakia, except Ukraine. It was amazingly easy to travel from country to country. I always had my passport and Slovak Temporary Residency Permit, just in case, but I never needed to show anything.”
Lauren sent in several columns for The Review newspaper describing what it was like to live and go to school there. She also wrote a diary of events on her blog, Lmaheuexchange.wordpress.com.
“There are some things that your body just has to adjust to, I think. Oddly, I developed an allergy to certain earrings while over there. It could have been the change in foods, the weather, or even the water. I don’t know, but I only had one medical issue. My host dad interpreted from outside the exam room for the doctor so it was pretty easy,” she said.
“I’m adjusting to being home and getting ready for college to start,” she says. It’s fun to share the memories of the year I spent in Slovakia with everyone. Some of the things I remember are:
“Lunch is the largest family meal, especially on the weekends when everyone is together at home. It is almost always followed by dessert-like strudels with tea and coffee.”
She traveled by train to Rotary meetings in the capitals, Bratislava, Slovakia, and Prague in the Czech Republic. She was also able to visit different cities in France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary as well. Museums and public places offered discounts to European residents, but not to tourists. So she always had to pay a little more to enter them.
“Everyday life is so similar to ours, but I was in a big city so it’s much more convenient to ride buses there. This made it easy to travel every chance we could,” she says. “I went skiing for the first time on slopes near Košice, and then my first ski trip was to Poland. With Rotary we had SkiWeek in the Slovak Tatra Mountains and my last ski trip was with my second host family in the Austrian Alps.
“Hiking in Slovakia was a lot different from hiking in Florida where everything is flat, so I often became out of breath quicker than the native hikers.
“Whenever I felt homesick, I was able to use a video call like “Skype” to visit with friends and family back home.
“The first things people asked me about the U.S. were of course controversial topics like school shootings, President Trump, Climate Change, and how he didn’t sign the Paris Treaty.
“Everyone pays an extra 10 cents for a bag to carry your groceries. Comparatively, food was cheaper. Clothing at the malls were a bit more expensive. The other thing I noticed was that there were few stores that sold everything, like a Target or Walmart, and many were outside of the city center. I often had to go to a home goods store, or an appliance store, or a clothing store. Almost everything was sold separately. I usually shopped at second-hand stores. One of my favorite purchases was a winter jacket I bought for only 2.50 euros.
“There are foods I learned to like after being there. For example, I now like raisins, and Earl Grey tea. They eat a lot of sauerkraut, cabbage, breads, potatoes, and small salads are a lot like slaw rather than salads we have here.
“I loved having four seasons of weather changes, and having mountains and forests to hike through along with the small villages.
“One thing I found interesting was a real recognition of International Woman’s Day. My host father brought flowers home to me and my host mom. It was actually a celebration people knew about. I’m pretty sure we don’t do that here.
“I was allowed to take the bus anywhere I wanted to travel within Košice, but my host parents always asked me to not ride the night buses with concern about the “gypsies” who are known to cause trouble. Regardless of their worry, I always felt safe and never had a problem.
“They have a tradition on Easter Monday of waking girls up by sprinkling or pouring water on you, sort of like an “Awakening.” The men of the family pay visits to all of the women in the family to throw water on them and sometimes, in very traditional families, lightly whip the legs of the women with braided twigs decorated with ribbons. Although it seemed intense in theory and was a much different kind of celebration than I was used to, it ended up being a fun cultural experience! Young boys really liked these Easter traditions because in return, they receive money and chocolates. The reason for this odd tradition is that it is meant to ensure women beauty and health in the upcoming year. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget!
“I was able to try shots of flavored vodka because it is common for families to celebrate with shots over there and I was of age. I wasn’t given a lot, often just enough for a symbolic toast or inclusion in the festivities. I tried to send some special Slovak alcohol home to my family, but later learned that it wasn’t allowed, so they never got the package.
“It was such a great experience. I learned so much and am thankful to Rotary for allowing me to represent our country in Slovakia.”
Lauren starts school at Florida State University on August 26 , majoring in International Affairs. She plans to continue her interest in journalism by writing about her future journeys, wherever they may be...