A Love Letter to Bratislava by Pat Harris
My singular memory of visiting Bratislava is how kind these stern-faced people are!
We pull into the Bratislava Hlavná train station shortly before 6 am on a Sunday morning. I manage not to sleep through the stop and drag myself out of the relative warmth of the cabin into the chill of the main hall. Save a few drowsy backpackers waiting for the first train out, the station is void of any life. I am not quite awake yet, and only have coffee on the brain. I shuffle around the station until I find the lockers, stuff my pack in one, taking only my pocket point-and-shoot camera, get a few Korunas out of the ATM, and walk out of the station into a thick morning fog. I don’t mind some cold fog. What self-respecting San Franciscan would? After a few steps however, I realize that it is snowing too. I have never seen the fog-and-snow combination before, and that instantly brightens my mood! After all, do we not travel to experience new things?
Camera now at the ready, I set off to explore while searching for coffee.
Of course, as I’m sure you saw this coming a mile away, my happy-hoppy meandering to experience this odd weather soup gets me hopelessly lost. Thinking that I am heading back toward the station, I find myself deep in some neighborhood. I look for a main road but every street, building, and landmark is familiar and strange at the same time. None of the directions I pick gets me back to any sort of a road where I might expect a bus or a taxi. I have to now admit that I am lost and no longer, um, exploring!
I was taking photos while walking, which probably at least partly contributed to my predicament. I’ve been in this very situation before. Sometimes going through the photos sparks a memory from the distant ten-minutes-ago, and re-orients me. Hoping for a quick “oh, I know what I did,” I find the first doorway that offers some shelter from the snow (just annoying now), sit on the damp step, and start to flip through the photos.
I have only had a chance to look at, oh, maybe 10 or 15 shots when I hear the door open behind me. I stand up – jump is more like it – and instinctively turn around to find an also-startled man, stopped partly out the door.
He huffs something in Slovak, which I don’t speak of word of. But it is clear that he is not just surprised or upset. He is angry. I say, in English, “Sorry I don’t understand,” but he just tenses up more, his voice gets angrier and spits out something else in Slovak. I start to back up but that does not seem to change his tone. I am suddenly concerned that my first and preferred choice, just walking away, may not be an option. I wish I had brought my guidebook. It had a few Slovak phrases that I could have really used right about now!
We clearly have ourselves a situation.
My Rules of Dealing with a “situation” without a common language.
I smile (be friendly,
rule #2) survey his hands quickly (might need to make a “fight-or-flight” decision quickly,
rule #3) make sure he can see my hands so he knows I am not holding a weapon (don’t be threatening unless you mean to be,
rule #4) and in a calm, soft voice (control the tone of the situation,
rule #5) I say again in English “I am sorry I don’t understand,” while shaking my head slightly from side-to-side (use calm/slow body language,
rule #6) I do this while looking directly in his eyes (make and maintain eye contact, the most important rule, rule #1).
He sizes me up for a few seconds, then his body language relaxes. His right hand has been closed throughout all this and I don’t like it. So I look directly at his hand (ask questions with your eyes, rule #7). He follows my eyes and, clearly, understands my concern because he moves slightly and a pair of eyes pop out from behind his ankles.
He is up early to walk the dog. We no longer have a tense situation. Good!
He steps off the stair and is still grumbling in Slovak but the voice is calm. I assume he is just calling my mother names under his breath because I startled the heck out of the poor man. I smile again, then take out my train ticket and show him. Not sure what he gets out of that but when I point to it again, he figures out that I am trying to find the train station and starts to talk and point as people do when giving direction. I watch his hands and suddenly I understand what I was doing wrong. I was just going in a circle! The key to my rescue are the words “Sex Shop” which, as luck would have it, are just that – “Sex Shop” – in Slovak. There is a Sex Shop about a mile from the station and I know exactly how to get back to the train station from that landmark. Cool!!
I make a slight bowing gesture to communicate “thank you.” He says something which I assume means “Whatever…Damned Tourists!!!” I start the left and he starts to the right. Then I decide to push my luck and see if there is a coffee shop nearby.
I say, in English, “café shop?” – I figure he knows the word “shop” and “café” is pretty universal. I am not sure what got his attention beyond my voice. But he turns around and looks at me. I repeat, slower this time, while doing my best to mime drinking a cup of coffee, then making a large circle with my arm while pointing at nothing in particular, to mime “around here.” He gets the idea but double checks, asking“shop?” and mimicking my mime presentation. Except his is better because he also adds slurping sounds! The show off!! I nod “yes.” He thinks for a bit, scratches his head, says “no” – the one Slovak word I understand – while pointing at his watch.
I get it. Nothing is open yet! “Oh, well, I think to myself.” I am just about to start walking when, to my complete confusion, he hands me the leash and goes back in. The dog and I look at each other, wondering “what the [censored] just happen?” When I have no answers for the dog, she figures this, whatever this is, might take a while and decides where we are standing is just as good as any place for her to pee. Then walks to my other side and sits, leaving me to ponder why dogs don’t mind sitting on snow.
Three or four minutes later my Slovak buddy emerges with two cups of coffee.
We sit on the stairs and sip while I show him a few artifacts of my trip – train ticket and some Polish and American money I have in my pocket. Then I hand him my camera, show him which buttons to press to move back and forth, and he starts looking at the photos and mumbling in Slovak which, I am sure, are praises of my photographic genius!
In the meantime, I am absolutely content to sip my (really good) coffee and pet the mutt.
I get back to the station, now very much bustling with passenger and porters and clerks and policemen and cabbies and, I am sure, a few hustlers. Fetch my guidebook out of the locker which I should have taken with me to begin with. Then grab another cup of coffee and a yummy, greasy, cheesy, fried thing after seeing all the locals willing to stand in line for one, and head to old town (city center). By now, snow has stopped and the sun is peeking from behind the clouds. It’s a gorgeous day for a visit.
I had one of the best visits to any city in all my travels. Ever! While no one else made me coffee, bought me beer, or gave me a piggyback ride, I did encounter several other amazingly nice Bratislavians who tolerated my language deficiencies – and not just when trying to make a sale – and a few younger ones who knew some English and struck up a conversation at coffee shops, making suggestions about what areas may be interesting to visit.
The city itself is a fascinating blending of ancient and modern architectures. The first mention of the city in historical documents goes back to 907 AD – Over eleven centuries ago. Despite many conflicts over that time, the city has managed to retain its charm and soul while, in my opinion, tastefully incorporating modern necessities like high-rises, Internet, McDonald’s, and at least one Sex Shop!
I spent most of my one day in the old town and surrounding residential ares. Sticking primarily to one area was a departure from my usual strategy to “do a city.” However, while I did get to the castle (yep! They have one – nice one too!), I felt a strong connection to neighborhoods around the old town. There, among windy, narrow streets, residential buildings with paint peeling off, tiny shops with minimal inventory, and shiny new Western franchise stores, the contrast between the new generation’s enthusiasm and the older generation’s despair is on constant display. It can fill your heart with joy one minute, and absolutely break it when you turn the corner.
All in all, this is a beautiful town not so much because of a castle or some architectural accents. It is a beautiful town because of the people of Bratislava, who offer their kindness with no strings attached.
Go see for yourself!
If When you go I only spent one (very full) day in Bratislava and left on a midnight train. I wish I had scheduled at least one more day, though. I was there right before winter and I loved it. I can only imagine how wonderful this city, on the banks of the Danube, can be during spring or summer. You can also brag to your friends about visiting the only capital in the world that borders two sovereign nations; and that you can see both of their capitals, Budapest and Vienna, from the Castle hill if a clear day. How cool is that?!!