Slovakia, A Beautifully Bleak Land of Dumplings and Prostitutes


“So you're going to touch Slovak soil for the first time,” my friend David said, through his Vienna-accented but fluent English. “How does that feel?” It feels somewhat mundane, like sitting on a train sipping hemp-iced tea. Granted those are two things I wish I could do back in America. Of course, I instead replied, “I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.” As I the words came out of my mouth something dawned on me; I was no longer carrying my family on my back like an unpleasant weight. “If I meet anyone, I can introduce myself as Juraj,” I said, the soft J's feeling right as they left my mouth.

Our arrival in Bratislava was marked by the Soviet apartments that, while tall, reject in their brutal squatness any 01application of the word 'soaring.' Even 'monumental' would be a stretch, since they are only monuments to the grandest failure of institutionalized socialism ever attempted. Mere lip service to Marx's ideals that – hiding the state’s despotism beneath— turn any attempt to seriously discuss radical leftism into shit. By the way – thanks for that, assholes.

I mentally tucked away my urge to try and speak to people in Turkish, as well as my disgust with a country that died for good the year I was born. As I followed David through a pedestrian underpass beneath a highway leading to a bus stop where we would be taken to the city center, he told me about a class trip he had taken here when he was in high school. He had walked this same tunnel, taken the same train route. Apparently, his classmates had been afraid to even walk through it. At the time it had been littered with trash and was hardly lit. On our journey I spotted a couple old flickering fluorescent bulbs and a few that had burnt out, however for the most part our path was clearly lit.

At the bus stop I was struck by its resemblance to Maine. The weather, trees, rolling hills, the way the road was paved, and even the tanned-white color of the other pedestrians skin and clothes, seemed familiar. This was not due to any mystical ancestral memory, certainly, but from the simple similarities in the faces and clothes of the first-world poor and the familiar gray, rainy sky. David and I chatted lightly in English. I smoked my Austrian Marlboro Reds. He smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes, withdrawing a nearly empty bag of tobacco. I made brief eye contact with a girl, dark haired with a shapely face and thin arms. I wanted to tell her that I was just in America, but that I had come back. I wanted to tell her – my family moved to America just in time for my grandmother's uncle to get his face shot off in World War One (in my grandmother's words.) I was back for a visit and someday I just might come back for good. I'd be an expat, surely, but the expat son of a line of emigrants. Not that my return would include her of course. I just wanted someone or anyone to know. I didn't want to simply wander in and then vanish in the evening like a ghost, though that's precisely what I was doing.

While here I had planned to track down my relatives, or at least their village. The original scheme was to go further east, or north, spend a few days in country. Unfortunately, my grandmother's brother hadn't gotten back in touch with my father and I was resigned to remaining an outsider. Maybe that far-away village wouldn't have been as welcoming as I dreamed, maybe I had avoided disappointment – maybe it was for the best.

No rain in sight, yet the banks of the Danube were swelling high, and the sky was heavy and growing dark. After another cigarette, the bus arrived and carried us into the old city, which brought to my mind a miniature, desolate Istanbul. Rain began to fall as the bus carried us into the city, driving most people into their homes and away from the muddy-brown Danube and the fallen trees stripped of their leaves bobbing on top. The old city had character. Paganism lingered in the graffiti of narrow alleys and pooled at the feet of Catholic churches with their odd, puppy like gargoyles. Along a white wall lining a slender zig-zag alleyway, I found some Turkish graffiti, “To know, to know knowledge, is knowing yourself?” I attempted to translate for David, rendering any poetry of the statement into dust with my own lack of knowledge. 02

Our first stop was at Bratislava castle. A sign meant for tourists helpfully informed us, in several languages, that the hill had been occupied since the neolithic age. I wondered out loud whether these tourist signs might say something in Slovak, like:

“Hey guys! Don't tell the tourists we made all this up and built the whole thing fifteen years ago!” I seem to recall David laughing at the idea and telling me that's not the case, but I also may have drunkenly dreamt it, full and content in my makeshift bed.

The castle itself was not like the Gloriette, where David and his girlfriend Hannah brought me a day before on our whirlwind trip around Vienna; we managed to hit all the tourist sights in one day. This castle was tall, sparse, smooth and white. It's obvious at first glance that this was never a “palace,” an imperial seat of government, or a nostalgic monument to the good, wealthy, strong days. This was so unlike Vienna, where you felt the might of the old empire around every corner, saw the statuettes in crevices in the walls of every library and museum, or walked down immaculately manicured hills and courtyards from the breakfast palace to the expansive wings of the Schönbrunn palace. This castle was sparse and solid, the grounds are small (perhaps the size of the breakfast palace in Vienna) and meant provide a proper place to survey the city and withstand an attack. This land had never been wealthy. It was a land on the edge of empires, never displaced by Celtic and Suebi tribes, beyond even the frontiers of Greece and Macedon, and the furthest-flung northern fingers of Rome. Just barely beyond the reach of the Avar nomads, the Byzantine Empire and their Ottoman inheritors. Eventually it became a Soviet backwater. A land neglected, but only infrequently left to its own devices.

03Here's a picture of me standing in front of a church, and the bridge that crosses the Danube from the old city to the new city. I haven't shaved or showered in some time, but the constant rain has kept me clean. I have an awkward sort of closed smile on my face, tight and raised, one that swells my nose wide. I have my hood up.

Here's a picture of David next to a statue, in a windbreaker over his blue hoodie, his thick-framed glasses looking oppressive under his hood – his shaded eyes looking to the right, almost suspiciously. Behind him on the green hill is the thick castle, and a statue of St. Elizabeth gazing beneficently at the copper beggar at his feet.

Here's a picture I took of an explanation of a gate, in English, explaining that the gate was built at the threat of a 1529 Turkish invasion. Missing from my personal pictures is a photograph of the gate itself. Then here's a picture of 'My stopover in Seoul.” It's a picture of a picture of a Gangwon ski lodge at the base of a mountain, lit up at night like the center of a spiderweb. These pictures were hung on a line down a plaza, and we took our time looking at them. David was not impressed.

“They're all just... Hobby photography.” He said. There was a silence that could have been labeled 'pregnant' without this disclaimer sentence around it. As an Austrian and an American, we had been taking great pains not to insult each other. For instance, by avoiding any topics that happened to wear a Chaplin-mustache. I saw him perhaps doing the same mental math I was. I feared his mind was traveling now to my fitful, off-the-cuff personal picture snapping. I wasn't insulted, though, I knew I was less than a hobby photographer – And I wasn't planning on showing my photos in any medium more public than my own Facebook page. They’re memories captured for my own sake more than anyone else's. How was I supposed to justify this to him? Easily, it turns out.

“Yeah, but this one is pretty.” I said,  “I mean, artistically, it's not very interesting, but that's fine.” We decided to get an afternoon snack. I found a restaurant he had eaten at on his high school trip, packed so tight with customers that there was barely had enough room between the chairs for David, the waitress and myself, all three tall and skinny, to find our way to a table. The resemblance of the muted patterns on the wallpaper, the knick-knacks on the wall, to the houses of my Slovak family back in Maine, erased my memory of what I actually ate. It was as if I had stepped into a time machine and walked out in the mid-nineties, only steps away from my grandparent's swimming pool in their old house. The whirling design of the wallpaper, little birds on twigs in little alcoves. Perhaps they weren't golden Viennese statues, but so much truer, these gathered berries and sticks and tiny birds behind glass. Frozen little icons of growth and life, windows into spring.

After that first restaurant, David led me to the old soviet hotel where he had stayed as a teen, the Hotel Kyjev, a soviet-built building.

12“Every room was exactly the same,” he said. “I remember walking down this street, the whole class was out getting really drunk and we almost got lost trying to get back to it.” We walked through neighborhoods of crumbling buildings, turning a corner to see a renovated building, a splash of color in brown and gray. A flash of life in that abandoned quarter, a return to days if not more prosperous than aesthetically pleasing, more alive. I felt nostalgic. I wanted in that moment to see the city in bright sunlight. Barely stretching my imagination, I could picture myself walking out of a little one-room apartment on a sunny day on my way to an English center to teach, or find a bar, or perhaps the train station as to visit David and Vienna for a long weekend.

We reached the hotel. It was as closed as I'd ever seen anything, but yet more overwhelming up close than the other slab-like communist buildings. We peered in through the lofty first-floor windows. The Hotel Kyjev was built in 1970, and hadn't been renovated since. I could feel David's disappointment at it being closed. Not for being unable to show me a piece of communist history, but for the sake of his nostalgia. I was happy with just peering in the windows and looking at the furniture that reminded me of the university chairs in the dorms at Santa Fe University. I pictured the rooms like the singles in the King dorm, sparse like prison cells, except with bathrooms.

I snapped a few pictures. A single piece of paper taped to the inside of one window was white, standard-sized, advertised “NA PRENAJOM” (For rent). I wanted to know what this hotel meant for Slovakia as a Soviet satellite state in 1970, eighteen years before the fall of the Berlin wall. Was the modernity of it exciting? Was it just another broken imperial promise?

We left the hotel were on our way to Europa, '1st Slovak Pub,' the tourist and college-student hotspot, a pub I had been wanting to wet my nose in all day. David pointed out all the unexpected statues along the way. I snapped a photo of him, looking faux-bashful under the top-hat of a statue with a gleefully distorted face as if the hat was being snatched from his head. Across from the pub was “Bosporus Kebab and Pizzeria.” I couldn't even bear to joke about eating there instead, “kuzu shish” still haunting my memory.

The pub was Slovak identity overload. Wooden statues hid behind clusters of potted ferns. Every room and hall was painted different colors. We sat in the 'outdoor' section, chilly beneath a canvas roof, long wooden tables, dark walls. A massive Russian fireplace, littered with symbols of Perun, the Slovak sun god, dominated the wall between two doors. It was a hall in the old style, despite the canvas roof. A hall for tourists, certainly, the way it lit up the romantic part of my brain. My ancestors ate in places like this, before returning to work in the fields, or after raiding a Hungarian noble on their way through town. This is where they fell in love with barmaids, or were the barmaid, falling in love with prefects and turning over their probably-crappy outlaw other boyfriend. There it was, my namesake, the Juro Janosik room.

“We could eat there instead,” David offered, but we were already comfortable, lighting cigarettes, tapping them into clay ashtrays and drinking large glasses of beer. I wasn't walking to my English teaching job now, as I left my imaginary apartment. I was coming here.

“You know, I can see your Slovak side now,” David said, as if he had walked into my fantasy. “I mean, if you shaved your head and face again.” I remembered when we had gone to Abant Lake in Turkey, on a Bilgi trip, a week after I had clipped off all but my eyebrows. This seemed to be the popular look in Slovakia for the young men. I had noticed it as well. Sharp chins, longer faces, high cheekbones, long noses and shapely skulls, though these boys were farm-fed and healthy weights. I proceeded to learn why as David led me through the menu. Our first course was a garlic soup in a bread bowl. I tried it, lifting the large spoon to my mouth. “Oh man,” I said, in my first and hopefully only obnoxious food-gasm response in my life. “It's good to be back in the west.”14

“Well, you're in Slovakia, but why not,” David said, and laughed. We had a few more beers before my Halusky arrived, a mini-dumpling meal in a heavy white sauce. Tasting it was something like a revelation. In my fantasy, I wasn't coming here for beer I was coming here for this calorie-heavy peasant food. Garlic soup and Halusky, and then plum wine every day. If I lived here I would quickly gain weight, looking more like how I was supposed to rather than my emaciated skin and bones self.

After a trip to the bathroom where I drunkenly surveyed the pattern on the floor, organic shapes, green vines speckled here and there with purple flowers I realized I had never felt so full in my life. I felt satisfied, not sick, and not nauseous at the thought of food like I usually am once I eat beyond my limits. Perhaps this is because all the ingredients were fresh from a dedicated farm. Once I got back to the states, I practically accosted my dad.

“Uh, halusky?! Where was this my whole life?”

13“Wow, yeah,” he said. “I loved halusky. I think the last time I really had it I was visiting a cousin in Boston while in my twenties. We bought all the ingredients and she made it for dinner.”

“Yeah, but why didn't we ever have it?”

“Er, boys don't make Halusky. Guys make the meatballs, girls make the Halusky.” Well, thanks for trying to impose the 'ole gender roles, Dad, but despite that sardonic 'Feminist Chicks Dig Me' magnet on the fridge, I know you really are a feminist, and I've seen grandma make the meatballs enough to know when you're bull shitting me. If you don't know how to make it – that's fine. Although the interchange did ignite a fire in me, albeit a sexist one, to find and date girl who knows how to make Halusky.

We finished our last beers, pouring them into our already-packed tight stomachs, and shifted, wobbled carefully, lest we spilled, into the dour-skied city streets.

We caught a tram and smoked the last of our cigarettes, David emptying his bag of loose-leaf tobacco. I bought several packs at the train station, paying cheap Slovak tobacco prices. While I smoked outside he wandered off to check a little stand for his brand. I was alone, looking at the rippled hills of the sky, the inverted landscape of rainclouds.

A rotund woman approached me, speaking Slovak. “Pardon,” I said, reverting to Turkish lest she spoke English – (if she spoke Turkish, well, I guess I would have been out of luck.) “Slovak yok.” I waved my hand near my shoulder. What are you gonna do? The gesture asks: a quashing motion. I made the “Sorry, no shared language” face. She mimed smoking a cigarette, so I passed one to her, and then began to ignore her. After a moment, another woman, short, and not much older than me but harder aged, with long dark hair, wearing a black top and jean shorts troubled me for a cigarette as well.

“Evet,” I said, and passed it over gladly. Perhaps too gladly, because she and her round 'friend' soon began rubbing my crotch, speaking slovak. “Yok! Yok!” I said. I shook my head looked into the distance, dove my hand into my pocket over my wallet and passport and chuckle-breathed, the way I do, when life is just too ridiculous. I think laughing may have encouraged them, but I had never been accosted by prostitutes before. Pimps, sure, in Turkey, but this was far more personal.

“We go to room. Twenty Euro.” the smaller woman offered, and pointed. I followed her finger towards a cluster of concrete soviet buildings. They continued stroking the fly of my pants. It was profoundly unsexy.

“Yok, tesekullar,” I said, fixing my eyes on the horizon.  “No thanks.”

“Ooh, why not?” she cooed. Well, first of all, I thought, I really don't care that much about sex, I find prostitution personally morally objectionable (though sex-work is the business of others, and I wouldn't judge.) Most of all, I really didn't want to hire a prostitute, but somehow I doubt she had the English (and I know I don't have the Slovak) to explain it to her. Seriously, this is not me playing hard-to-get, I thought, more directly. This is me feeling like a deer in headlights.

“Girlfriend,” I said, thinking of a girl who would probably not appreciate me evoking her as my girlfriend in any other context, if only for the sake of my own expectations.

“Girlfriend?” The older, round woman said. “Where girlfriend?”

“New York,” I said, wondering how to get out of this situation, when David's aquamarine shirt emerged from the train station crowd. “This is my friend,” I said. “Gotta go. Iyi gunlar.” I strode away without looking back. I wasn't sure whether to feel flattered or bad about myself – had they surveyed the crowd of men and gone, “Hey, out of all these guys, that's probably the one who I'd most like to pay me for sex?” Or more likely, was it, “Clearly that guy is desperate and never gets laid?”

“I just got accosted by prostitutes,” I said to David, and started laughing.

“Uh oh, really? Let's go over here,” he said. We stood near the other entrance as he smoked, despite not being able to find his brand of tobacco at the kiosk he visited.

My last picture I took was from the train, a grain silo. But David had to inform me, because it was concrete and square, not the round, corrugated metal ones so common from back home.