Words of comfort for cheating-weary teacher
Linda Wenning deserves our greatest admiration for the courageous stance she has described in The Spectator ["Depressed by Student Cheating," Letters to the Editor, Vol. 6 No. 5, Feb. 7-13]. As someone who has taught Business Studies in both Prague and Bratislava, perhaps I could offer the following crumbs of comfort:
1) Many of my male students admit frankly that they have enrolled in university to avoid or postpone military service. Once their country is in NATO, one hopes they will come to see that a period of military training can be at least as valuable to their careers and personal development as an academic qualification.
2) If students in the West are less inclined to "co-operate" with each other in exams, this may be for no higher reason than that they perceive their colleagues as competitors in the job market. This perception is bound to increase in Slovakia as the market economy is embraced.
3) For the same reason, Slovak educational institutions will have to recognize that the value of their awards will come under increasing challenge from their Western counterparts. Even before their country has joined the EU, Slovak students are being offered opportunities to study in Western universities where methods of assessment are more transparent and objective. This has been achieved by pooling resources rather than necessarily having more of them, so that, for example, one university's students are examined by another university's teachers. From my own anecdotal experience, I would strongly recommend Slovakia's educational leaders looking to Britain's Open University for an efficient and academically honest role model.
Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, UK
Strange beasts remember great times in Slovakia
After reading your amusing article about "Strange Beasts" teaching in Slovakia ["Strange beasts: A decade of expat teachers," By Tom Nicholson, Vol. 6 No. 2, January 17-24] I just had to comment.
Certainly, our families and friends agree that we were quite strange to wish to spend time in what they still consider a confused part of the world (granted, most of them still get Slovakia and Slovenia mixed up).
My colleagues and I taught in a private school in Levice, and enjoyed from one to three years of incredible and memorable experiences. One of us is currently teaching in the US school system, another in Taiwan, and yet another is finishing post-graduate work. We all correspond via e-mail and snail mail with our former students, and undoubtedly bore our friends with continuing tales of life in Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator was one of our teaching tools, along with excellent audio tapes and workbooks. Our employer, since deceased, did not stint on teaching materials or her commitment to creating a fine school for enthusiastic students.
Let's hope a few more "strange beasts" continue to have an interest in experiencing the world of Slovakia.
Restaurant review missed the mark
With all due respect to Andrea Chalupová, I have to disagree with her review of the El Paso, the "authentic" Mexican restaurant in Bratislava ["Mexican...mas o menos," Restaurant Review, Vol. 6 No. 5., Feb. 7-13].
I realize that I am biased because I come from San Diego and have a love of Mexican food that leads me to indict any restaurant that tries to sell cuisine masquerading as the real thing. What often gets touted as authentic Mexican food in Europe is really just a pathetic copy of American-Mexican food, which itself leaves a lot to be desired. I don't want to say that all American-Mexican is bad. In fact, there are many regional variations that are excellent. Tex-Mex could be considered one example of this. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to call these variations authentic Mexican.
Variations or not, there are basic rules that should not be tampered with when one wishes to sell Mexican cuisine. One such rule is not to mask flavor in garnishes. As Chalupová states, guacamole, sour cream and cheese (though not Edam) are common in Mexican restaurants. However, they shouldn't be the main attraction. The movement toward using scoops of these and other garnishes on Mexican food is really a Stateside trend that started with establishments like Taco Bell and El Torito. The reasons for this range from cost reduction to catering to local tastes. Either way, garnishing Mexican food with these or any other complements should not be a substitute for the real thing, i.e. spicy and flavourful salsa, proper frijoles, chips, and fresh flour or corn tortillas. The El Paso fails miserably in these simple basics.
I had the displeasure of eating at this restaurant twice last year, and I was disappointed with the food they were trying to pass off as authentic. To begin with, the tortillas and chips were cracker-like in texture and were given in scanty portions. In real Mexican restaurants, the clients are greeted with chips and a selection of salsa on the table. The cost for this is usually recuperated in greater alcohol sales because of the punch the salsa packs. Frijoles (beans) aren't difficult to make. Either pinto or black beans are boiled and mixed into a kind of paste. In some burritos (Carne Asada), the beans aren't mixed, but spices are still the key to success. Just topping frijoles with salt as an afterthought won't do.
The salsa is even worse. It looks the role on certain menu items, but aroma and taste are hostage to a pseudo-sauce that has neither cilantro nor serrano, habanero or even jalapeno peppers.
Granted, it isn't easy to get all the spices one can find in Mexico, but cilantro (commonly known as coriander) is everywhere! The beans, both pinto and black, are excellent in Slovakia. I use them every time I make Mexican food for my Slovak friends. Jalapenos can be found with relative ease in central Europe. Even if you can't find them, the local feferony will work in a pinch. Still, you have to know how to prepare them to get the desired flavor. The flat salsa-like contraption the El Paso is peddling is more akin to the ketchup one might find at a pizzeria in Bratislava than anything resembling a salsa found in good restaurants. All of this is a wonder to me, since these Mexican basics can easily be made in Slovakia.
After my unfortunate experience, I spoke with some Slovak friends who also dined at the El Paso. They were "disappointed" with Mexican food in general because of the experience. Some were surprised at how "bland" it was after hearing me extol its fiery virtues. Others complained that there wasn't much to all the hype that I mentioned in fits of gastronomic homesickness. For that reason, I feel it is my duty as a fan of Mexican food to look behind the cheesy "Aztec statues" and expose El Paso for what is: a complete waste of time and money.
Take it from a person who has frequented some of the best restaurants in northwest Mexico, not to mention places all over the western United States that make excellent authentic Mexican food. My suggestion is to avoid the two-month wait that Chalupova suggests and skip the El Paso altogether. If you want something spicy, Mekong, the Thai Restaurant in the Stare mesto, makes excellent food that beats the El Paso hands down for flavor and spice. True, it isn't Mexican food either. However, Mekong is slightly less expensive than El Paso, the location and atmosphere are great, and the cuisine is not pretending to be something it is not.