May 16, 2011
By Allan Stevo
The Thursdays and Fridays throughout May mark a special time in Slovak culture. A sort of coming of age parade takes place. Slovak high school students go into the town with every member of their class and beg for money. They don’t lie about what they are going to do with this money–it’s going to be spent on drinking.
In the upcoming weeks, these 17-, 18,- and 19-year-old students will take their difficult and stressful leaving exams. Sitting at the end of that testing period will be a large pot of money that they will go out and blow on a party the day they finish exams. The entire class will be there at this final party and most likely it will be the very last time the entire class will be together. Teachers will be invited. The party will go late.
Raking in 200 – 300 Euro for Making a Ruckus and Spreading Good Cheer
“It’s a good way to make money,” insists one former student of mine.
His class took a short 2-hour-trip through town and collected 6,000 Slovak Crowns, roughly 200 Euro (or $285 at the current mid-market rate) . Collecting 200 or 300 Euro is not uncommon, especially for more resourceful classes that get out into the city early in the day and make people feel entertained. If they pick the right pub, that translates to 200 or 300 half liter mugs of beer for the class.
Not every class gets up early and makes it into town early. It’s always a little sad to see the bad classes spinning their wheels each year, trying to collect money still at 3 p.m. and offering no entertainment, no energy beyond simply approaching people and harassing them for money. The classes that do it best are the classes that make you want to buy them a beer, that make you turn a corner and walk faster just so you can catch up to them and offer them your pocket change. They do this through any variety of things such as interesting chants, laughable costumes, funny props, or even just clever “sales” pitches. They put a little effort; they put a little planning into it and the pedestrians walking about the city reward them for that.
The event starts in the morning at the students’ school. They stand outside of the school and block the doors. Only those who pay are allowed into the school. The bar playful teachers from getting in and cheer loudly for those who play along with them and offer them some pocket change. They definitely bar the younger students from getting past them, whether or not those younger students are feeling playful.
From the University Library in the Old Town
It’s May 6 today. As I write this, I am sitting in the fantastic University Library in Bratislava and behind me the Old Town is abuzz. It’s 11:30 a.m. The weather is 65, sunny, with a breeze. Tonight Slovakia will play the Czech Republic in the Hockey Championship and there are fans of both teams running around the old town making impromptu noise. Because of hockey, I already feel like there is a carnival taking place in Bratislava.
Everywhere you look, people are dressed in maroon outfits bearing the word “Latvia” on them, blue outfits that say “Suomi,” red, white, and blue outfits that say “Ceska Republika,” Czech, “Slovakia,” or “Slovensko.” There is a special energy from the Hockey Championships, a special buzz in the air that has been here for a week and will be here for a week more.
In addition to this carnival-like feel, there are also high school graduates-to-be running about on their impromptu parades and Bratislava feels like a party is about to spontaneously break out.
What the Parades Sound Like
Add the sounds of students to the melee of this hockey tournament and the buzz of the Old Town is even more vibrant – the drones of horns, the beats of drums, the whooping and wailing of dozens of young voices in unison. They chant, they carry noise makers. Today they are celebrating their last day of school and every person in the Old Town is going to know about it.
A gentleman living here in Bratislava, a non-Slovak, pointed out to me this week that the boisterousness of all of the celebrating students reminded him of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. Unfamiliar with it, I looked for it on YouTube and had to agree that he hit the nail on the head. It’s a piece of music written by Brahms as a slightly irreverent thank you to a university and as such is sprinkled liberally with snippets from student drinking songs. Those of you who enjoyed the article on Stuzkova may recognize the presence of Gaudeamus Igitor at the end of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture.
What the Parades are Called
As much as I’ve tried, I’ve not been able to find a word for this procession in Slovak, which is strange because the Slovak language seems to have a word for everything and at least ten words for the hallowed potato.
What the Parades Look Like
The graduating students may be dressed in strange outfits or dressed in their normal clothes. Some members of the group may dress more formally as they walk about town. Almost everyone in their class will walk together – meaning there will only be a few dozen people in any given group.
Yes, only a few dozen. Slovak high schools are surprisingly small, even in the capital city. Having a hundred kids at one grade level is quite unusual. Having 24, 36, or 48 would be a more likely number.
As they walk, of course, each one of them will be sure to wear the green ribbons that they received at their Stuzkova. The Stuzkova is something I consider to be one of the great traditions of Slovak culture, as I mentioned in an article on the event.
They will carry their tablo with them as they march through the Old Town. The tablo is essentially a class photo. It is the basic responsibility of every class to commemorate their collective existence as a class by making a tablo and convincing a local shopkeeper to sacrifice his precious window space for the placing of their tablo. That means a tablo is often classy or cleverly conceived and entertaining. Bland tablos will have a hard time finding a home.
Once upon a time, if you would have searched Google.com for the word “tablo” thousands of images of Slovak tablos would have appeared. Not so today. Now, you will only find thousands of images of the Korean rap artist by the same name. Cool Cultural Tip Alert: However, if you search Google.sk (the Slovak language version of Google.com), then you will find thousands of photos of tablos. Using Google.sk is a good way to easily narrow down your searches dealing with Slovak culture.
Every year around Bratislava people talk about where the tablos were placed and which tablos are interesting.
They take all kinds of shapes and sizes. Alumni of high schools get a little unhappy when younger generations of students can’t take the time to make a creative tablo. They remain tight lipped, however, when someone makes a tablo that they know was as creative or more creative than their own class’s. Below are a variety of tablos currently on view around Bratislava’s Old Town.
Essentially, a gallery of tablos can be seen on every heavily trafficked street when walking through the Old Town of Bratislava in May and June and in the storefronts of windows across Slovakia. And walking through the town looking at how one high school’s class has commemorated their time together always promises to be entertaining–the tablos are usually as unique as the classes themselves.
Please allow me to briefly pause in the text to invite you to join me for a quick tour of “tablos” currently on display around Bratislava. And if some commentary of this guided tour is what you are after, just hold the cursor over each photo and a caption will appear for you.
That ends our tour of the tablos of Bratislava and environs. The next time I’m running around town with a camera, I will take a few more pictures to add to this collection. And now, back to the writing…
How High Schools are Set Up
Slovak high schools are set up differently than American high schools. I think that an American high school feels a lot like attending the 35,000 strong University of Illinois, while a Slovak high school probably feels more like the intimate St. Olaf College with its 3,007 students. Or maybe, it’s more like studying at a high school in a small town in the U.S. I had 1,460 students at my high school, making the Slovak educational system appear attractively intimate.
Slovaks often spend most of their education with two small groups of students, and sometimes it’s even only one group of students together the whole time. From late in childhood until the end of high school, students are surrounded by the same classmates and often only a few dozen students are in a class. They meet with their class teacher regularly (a job description akin to an American homeroom teacher), who sees to it that everyone is studying, behaving, happy and healthy.
What is Maturita?
While Maturita probably can handle its own thousand words dedicated to it, I will try to explain the atmosphere here. There are no PSATs, ACTs, or SATs in Slovakia. There are no AP exams. There are no semester exams or final exams. There is one miserable week of exams that every student must pass if he or she wants to complete his or her high school studies. It is essentially three to five years of final exams from a subject area all wrapped into one 15-minute oral exam and numerous subjects are tested in that one week period.
These tests are comprehensive, meaning that a student can be called on to explain a concept that he or she has not heard about since the first day of chemistry class four years ago.
This week is called Maturita. These exams are called Maturita (or maturitna skuska). The word is from the same Latin base (“maturitas” – meaning “ripeness”) as our English word “maturity.” Even in the naming of the exams, a coming of age is recognized.
Students present themselves in business formal dress before a committee composed of two of their own teachers and a third teacher (the head of the committee) from another school. There is no standardization of the process, which often means that more serious schools are going to be tougher on their students than less serious schools.
The fact that there is no standardization yet so much emphasis is put on the importance of the test from societal, governmental, and educational perspectives in Slovakia makes many outside observers scratch their heads over how such an arguably subjective test can be considered so important. The placement of the third person on the panel is meant to ensure that the process won’t be too easy. Whether a Maturita is too hard is seldom complained about by anyone other than students. It almost seems like making the student sweat is more important than whatever pedagogical value is derived from stressful comprehensive review.
Some Slovak students literally spend a year preparing for these exams. Others abide by Parkinson’s Law, while still others insist that Maturitas are akin to a wall – either you climb over, or the teachers will throw you over themselves (read: no one can fail). But each year, someone fails the Maturitas. Each year that they takes place someone chokes, despite knowing every bit of material. Someone always draws “the only question I didn’t prepare for.” And YEARS after the Maturitas, virtually every person and their friends still remember and talk about who got what grades in what class on the maturita. These are their shared war stories. The test is Stressful.
Test any of my theories on any of your Slovak acquaintances who attended a gymnazium, by just asking “What do you remember from your Maturitas?”
And after the tests, some students go into hiding. Some go on a bender that lasts into August. Some begin preparing for their medical school entrance exams. They go off their own separate way.
But not before one last party together.
Their Leaving Party
This is the part that they marched the Old Town for hours collecting for.
Slovak high schools don’t do big formal graduations. That is saved for university graduation when a student takes an “Mgr.” or “Ing.” degree. But there are other ceremonies that commemorate their passage out of high school – their stuzkova, their collecting of money, their maturitas, and their last party together.
They will invite their teachers, significant others, close friends of the class, maybe a few younger students and some stragglers will always come. And they will have a rowdy, somewhat sorrowful night. They know that something great may be ahead. They also know that they will not be together again. For some of them that’s a great thing – time to move on. For others not so great – the “collective” was a good one and hard to match.
Building on this last night out together, it’s even common for some classes to go out and have a last party together in a remote cabin in the woods.
After spending so much time together as such a small group, you might imagine that class reunions are important to Slovaks. Every 5 years, without fail, until everyone dies off, it is common for classes to get together. A woman in her late 60’s or perhaps early 70’s recently told me that she had just attended her class reunion
Class reunions are called “ad revidendum” in Slovak, which literally means “until we see each other again.” This is generally understood to be the Latinized version of the common Slovak term for “goodbye” – “dovidenia.” Dovidenia also literally means “until we see each other again.”
The woman who had just attended her ad revidendum was eager to talk about it and to show me photos. Everyone was happy and healthy. Everyone’s spouses over the years got to know each other. The class teacher also made every ad revidendum up to that point, but the year before she had, sadly, passed away. Every five years until they died, they got together.
Could you possibly imagine spending time outside of school bonding with your high school homeroom teacher? Do you even remember the name of your homeroom teacher? The Slovak triedna (class teacher) is a little different. She often goes from the first year in school with them and sees them through to graduation. She is expected to be sort of a mother hen to the students. After years of that, you can imagine how they would grow close.
Back to the Celebration – The Most Dramatic Part of this Day
And during these parades through the Old Town – the most dramatic moments come when two groups of high school students turn down the narrow and winding medieval streets of Bratislava and see each other from opposite ends of the street. This is happening every 15 or 20 minutes just outside the University Library, through the window next to me, on the cobblestone below me.
They will proudly march at each other. Defiantly. Loudly, showing that their school is more dominant than the other school. They will make the greatest uproar, until slowly, they finally meet each other, without pausing for more than a moment they will joyously yell at each other, into each others’ faces. Loudly, proudly, not aggressively, but celebratorily, and will then continue on their way.
Girls whooping. Guys hollering. Tubas barumping. Snare drums and bass drums pounding away. Wooden Slovak noisemakers rattling away – crank, crank, crank, crank. Tooting their hockey horns. The world is a joyous place this morning in Bratislava. I promise you not a moment of peace if you find yourself in the Old Town today. Not a moment.
As soon as the students finish in the mid afternoon, the buzz of the championship hockey games of the day will take over as people mill about town and then afterwards. After the first game, will come the real game. The Czechs will play the Slovaks at 20:15 in hockey and the world around us here in Bratislava, will grow alive, as Slovaks of all ages celebrate the competition between two brothers – Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
One must wonder if anything would ever separate the camaraderie these two nations feel for each other – sometimes negative, sometimes positive, but they are in it together. They exist in this world together and that they realize about each other. The other neighboring countries are also neighboring countries, but the Czechs and Slovaks –that’s something different. Whatever life may bring, they are in it together. That’s something truly special. They are not neighbors wishing they could just build a taller fence between them (as Robert Frost writes) they are in many ways like two brothers – competitive, loving, jealous of each other, proud of each other.
There is excitement. There is energy in the Old Town. Bratislava is alive today. And in the summer, it will die a quiet death as tourists fill its streets and the inhabitants head for the sea – popular spots like the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia or Hurgada in Egypt. Come September, the city will fill again with the energy of Slovak youth, returning to school, rejoining old friends. But for now, a coming of age celebration is taking place. Slovak students will prepare for their leaving exams, their “Maturita.”
On a day like today, I feel a vivaciousness in the air – Slovakia is alive. Bratislava is alive. Her youth are coming of age and they see opportunity ahead. They are hungry to experience the world, to capture their own piece of it, to live life as no one has ever done. This is the young Slovakia. These are her young, brazenly announcing that they have come into the world.
How did I do? What did I miss? What traditions are kept in Bratislava, but not kept in other places? What traditions listed here are new? What interesting traditions from the past have faded away? Are there different graduation traditions in Michalovce than in Bratislava? What traditions listed here are not unique to Slovakia? I welcome you to use the comments section on www.52inSk.com to teach me more about the Slovak and regional traditions associated with completing high school studies.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.