There is no tragedy in Bratislava—I read an article last week that said that, to get more reads, I need the title to be a good hook. Let’s be honest. Letters From Slovakia sounds a little too artsy to appeal to a reader casually scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. So, alas, you have been fooled! (Apologies to the crowd that wanted to see a tragedy. If you’re still hankering for one, check out my love life. Ayo.) Speaking of artsy, however, I would love to take a quick turn in the style of Letters From Slovakia. That is, instead of the bloggish style of the series so far, I would love to try to frame it in a more literary, achronological lens. So, consider this installment to be a test run of Steven being weird and artsy.
I meet the first American since coming here in a hostel in Bratislava. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to open the door, and I jostle the key in the lock for a solid three or four minutes before it swings open with a start and the American in playful deadpan says, “You have to turn the key. Like, a lot.” The only other native English speaker I’d run into in Slovakia up until that point was my coworker and traveling companion Phil, who at this moment was either checking into his luxury hotel (because it was his birthday weekend, a little treat) or back at the bistro he and I had discovered in the Old Town a few hours before. So there the American stands and speaks, voice and poise ringing with familiarity—her close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses reminding me of a friend of mine from back home. “Mary?” I almost say, catching myself on the realization that Mary is in Portland and would never realistically find herself in a hostel in Bratislava. But, God, the resemblance is uncanny.
Her name is Liz, and in minutes we’re talking like old friends; like such old friends, in fact, that when two more inhabitants of the dormitory come in—a couple girls on holiday from Hungary—they mistake Liz and I as partners in some sense of the word and react in disbelief when they realize this friendship is hardly twenty minutes old. Liz is a lesbian, which explains why we get along so well, and that afternoon we sit in proximity to each other—me flipping through Tinder and her swiping through the lesbian equivalent thereof—offering advice and commentary on each woman that catches our eye. “Ope, Blue-Haired Barfa just matched with me! Should I message her?” “Of course!” “What do I say?” I end up telling Blue-Haired Barfa, “Your hair is blue. Good job.” We wait with bated breath for a response that does not come that day.
And in the end, I find myself on an impromptu date with a fantastic Ukrainian—a woman who is not Blue-Haired Barfa—who swiped right on my Tinder profile because I included a meme that said, “Sometimes I just be farting.” She makes fun of me for passing by her on the street, walking confidently in the wrong direction, and I tell her the most important facet of my being: “I am quite stupid.” And we laugh together in cool night outside the Café Pasteleria.
Hours of conversation later—about ambitions and culture and language and social ineptitude—I appear back in the dormitory to recount the date to my newest and briefest confidante, hoping somewhere down the line there’s a second date to be had. Something about the way I talk about the Ukrainian prompts the American to blurt out, “You’re basically a lesbian.” She pauses. “That’s it. I’m making you an honorary lesbian.” That brings me the most joy of the evening. I wake up before she does the following night, leave a note scrawled on the back of the hostel’s info card for her to track me down online.
She’ll follow me on Insta a day later, and I’ll immediately message her, for the sake of her own closure, “Blue-Haired Barfa replied!”
I have stress dreams the morning of the excursion. My phone doesn’t charge properly the evening before, so I do everything I can to make sure it charges overnight: deleting apps, turning on battery-saver mode, making sure it’s plugged in. I even set an alarm for 4:30 in the morning so that, if it doesn’t charge right overnight, I have another shot at charging it before our bus leaves at 9:30. That night, I dream it doesn’t charge, and frantically in those dreams I search for a way to get it to work. Every strategy fails, and also I am a goat for some reason. Lo and behold, my alarm jolts me from my nightmares at 4:30 in the morning and, in the little battery icon in the corner of the screen, to my utmost relief, it reads: 100%. The excursion is saved, but try as I might, I cannot go back to sleep, so I remember I forgot to pack and do that instead.
I fall in love with Bratislava when Phil and I make it to the Old Town, where the streets are cobblestones, the streetlamps are cast-iron, and even the darkest alleyways turn romantic. Here we find a gentle bistro, Da Vinci’s, where the lights are dim, the air is full of tobacco smoke, and where the airwaves are alive with an inordinate amount of Bruce Springsteen’s discography. A fluent English-speaking waitress serves me a bowl of tomato soup and an enormous slice of spinach lasagna that falls apart and makes eating it a significant chore. But it tastes amazing, so I work on it and Phil works on his beers. Eventually I tell him that I’m going to check out an antique bookstore three minutes away, and he opts to stay at the bistro because his gaydar is picking up vibes from the Ukrainian waiter he’s struck up conversation with and he wants to ride out this investigation.
Uncharacteristically, I leave the antique bookstore without buying any books. One catches my eye there: It’s a large volume about the city of Trenčín, where my grandfather’s father Gaspar lived before immigrating to the United States and living out the rest of his years outside Pittsburgh. But it’s huge and in Slovak, and I can’t understand a word of it. I flip through some of the pages, seeing if I can find images with tags that have that one familiar surname Machara. But the clerk behind the desk gives me an odd look, and I dare not arouse any suspicion from her, so I shut the volume, place it neatly back into the window display, and depart, having found nothing but discomfort.
I set out to return to the bistro, if anything to tell Phil that I want to go check into my hostel. On the way there, I stop by a small souvenir shop that’s situated next to Da Vinci’s. It’s typical for a European city, sells the same merchandise that every other souvenir shop in the city sells, but it’s the first one I’ve seen, so I’m curious what those typical souvenirs are. As I walk between the shelves of merchandise, I find one baseball cap among many, a little worn because that’s the style, in faded maroon. I snap a photo of it to send to my brother: “Doesn’t this look like the hat Grampap used to wear?” Then I realize my phone is low on charge, so I leave the shop to rest in Da Vinci’s for a few minutes, where I can charge my phone.
Twenty minutes later, I get a message back from my brother: “It feels very familiar. You going to buy it?”
This is the first part of maybe a two or three-part episode in Slovakia. Stay tuned for the rest!