In September 2002 I rocked up in Bratislava with a couple of bags and just enough cash to last until my first paycheck. And so unfolded one of the great years of my life…
‘‘Slovakia!?’’ he cried with an arched eyebrow. ‘‘Get to fuck! You’re not gonna go there!’’.
I was in a hostel in Copenhagen when I made the decision. Eyes closed, right hand making broad clockwise circles prior to my index finger landing firmly on the tatty wall map. ‘‘Come on… do it again!’’ snapped my Irish dormmate, visibly irked by how things had ended up. ‘‘Even with my eyes closed I could find Australia’’. Well… so could I if it really came down to it. But the idea was to do it blindly without manipulating the outcome in any way. Plus a deal was a deal, even if the pact had only been made with myself.
But how to actually go about finding a job in Slovakia? Back in England a few weeks later and I was stunned to immediately come across an advert on Dave’s ESL Café, the online mecca for TEFL jobs across the globe:
Teachers needed in Bratislava!
Without delay I sprang into life! Tinkering with my CV, constructing a cover letter, adding a freshly taken photograph. Clickety click in Hotmail… send. The telephone call came quickly and before I knew what was going on I found myself sitting face to face with an eccentric old gentleman called Paul. Wrapped up in a crusty old cardigan, he sat puffing away on a pipe, patently disinterested in giving me a proper interview. ‘‘TEFL Certificate eh? Splendid! A year teaching in Qatar eh? Jolly good’’.
The school in question was a privately owned language institute that needed thirty new teachers by the end of the month. According to Paul the race was well and truly on to meet this quota before deadline day. ‘‘Sign here and here’’ he said cheerfully as I sat wondering why I’d bothered to wear a tie. ‘‘Have a good flight!’’.
When I touched down at Bratislava Airport a few weeks later I was met, as expected, by a school representative. But I certainly hadn’t foreseen an attractive Slovak woman with wavy red hair and snow-white skin. Spilling out into arrivals, I spotted her in a long patchwork coat, a rainbow scarf wound around her neck. She could have been a Doctor Who girl. Smiling expectantly, she held up a homemade placard adorned with a colorful and spectacularly misspelt version of my name.
‘‘Mr. Lignon!’’ she sang cheerfully with a pearly white smile, ‘‘I’m Zuzana, welcome to Slovakia!’’. Her extended hand was cold to the touch but welcoming warm. ‘‘Let’s go’’ she laughed, relieving me of one of my bags, ‘‘Vadim is waiting’’.
Vadim turned out to be the school’s driver and odd-job man. With a scarred and weathered face only a mother could love, he greeted me from the front seat with a crooked grin. ‘‘Vadim doesn’t speak English’’ giggled Zuzana, giving me a playful nudge. Then, with a clipped instruction, she ordered him to get a move on and off we sped towards my new life.
I’d read that Bratislava wasn’t what one would call a beautiful city. And it didn’t take long during that first drive to realize that boy they weren’t kidding. Although approaching nearly a decade of independence since the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the city came across as a place still very much stuck in its grim communist past.
Street after street of gray cookie-cutter high-rises flew by my window, immutable save for irregular bursts of spidery black graffiti. Stopping at a set of traffic lights in some horrid run-down road, I watched as an old woman plodded by carrying two bulging bags of vegetables. Passing an overflowing dumpster, she traipsed right through a pile of broken glass, her expression unwavering, eyes fixed rigidly ahead. It was as if I’d been dropped into a real life rendition of George Orwell’s 1984; a silent black and white world of suffocating lethargy.
The landscape played out like this for most of the ride until we hit the city centre. Suddenly there were collections of shops, sporadic eruptions of color, people who didn’t look like peasants. Turning into Obchodna Street and things were even more bustling, with cafes, street vendors, restaurants and a few pubs. A bulky tram clunked by, perilously close to the pedestrians on either side. In the distance loomed the filthy brown-orange of Bratislava Castle, a Halloween-like structure where I imagined Vadim perhaps resided in one of the dungeons. Slowly we picked our way through the busyness before taking an unexpected turn into a quiet cul-de-sac. ‘‘Here we are!’’ chirped Zuzana as we pulled up outside the school. Jumping out, she led me inside while Vadim hung back smoking, shoulders hunched, eyes narrowed.
Entering the main hall, the school’s pleasantness instantly washed over me. Soft colors, a studious quiet, the faint smell of freshly-brewed coffee. ‘‘This is Veronica!’’ sang Zuzana with a nod to the girl at reception. Dark-haired and pretty, she gave me a shy smile as we passed through into a series of small offices.
‘‘Thomas!’’ came a shrill voice from behind a desk. And over she strode, a diminutive forty something lady with a polite but businesslike air. Alert eyes, pursed lips, make-up induced paleness. ‘‘I’m Katka…’’ she announced, ‘‘…the assistant director. I trust you had a good flight?’’ I began to assure her I had but she’d already moved on. ‘‘Zuzana and Vadim will take you to your apartment! It’s in Dlhé diely… up on the hill. Many teachers will live there’’.
Just then a giant of a woman paced in. Not fat by any description, but a good head and shoulders above myself with legs like Cleopatra Needles. Provocatively dressed in a black miniskirt and a tight top that struggled to contain her ample bosom, she was impossible to ignore with her fiery-red hair and the brightest of bright red lipstick. Attractive in her own way, though far from my cup of tea.
‘‘Ah!’’ cooed Katka. ‘‘Thomas this is Katka… the director! Katka this is Thomas’’. The three women noticed my confused look, which caused a ripple of communal laughter. Thankfully Katka 1.0 leaned in to explain. ‘‘A lot of ladies in Slovakia named Katka. But don’t worry, you can call me Little Katka, she is Big Katka!’’. This was followed by more chuckling and I could only smile courteously at what was obviously a well-rehearsed routine.
The drive to Dlhé diely was a fifteen minute breeze. But when Little Katka had said ‘‘up on the hill’’ she could easily have meant atop a mountain. With Vadim’s old car taking us higher and higher up the winding road, the landscape began to open up impressively. Before long I was treated to extensive views over Bratislava and The River Danube, the panorama stretching out as far as Austria.
”You’re lucky’’ said Zuzana, watching me taking it all in, ‘‘we have teachers living all over the city. But it’s best up here on the hill’’.
Architecturally Dlhé diely was nothing but blocks of flats. But unlike the gray featureless rows of rotting teeth I’d seen earlier, here someone had at least attempted to inject some color. In fact, many of the high-rises were multi-colored affairs, painted columns of blue, red, green, white and yellow. It was in front of one such building in a street called Hlaváčiková that we came to a halt. ‘‘This is it!!!’’ exclaimed Zuzana, as if we’d just pulled up outside Buckingham Palace.
Underwhelmed, but well aware that things could be far worse, I followed Zuzana inside. In a dank, dark hallway with all the charm of a morgue we stood waiting for the elevator as it wheezed towards us with a series of tired thuds. ‘‘Old building’’ she said with a nervous smile. After a terrifying thirty seconds in the elevator, we arrived at the apartment where I was greeted by a towering Californian with sandy blonde hair and a wide grin. ‘‘Ah you took the elevator, I never go in that thing. Slovak engineering dude! Hi, I’m Rich’’.
‘‘This is Lignon’’ offered Zuzana helpfully. ‘‘Actually it’s Leighton’’ I laughed, accepting Rich’s firm handshake as Zuzana cocked her head to one side nonplussed. “It’s a pretty big place for two people’’ explained Rich, as we passed through the spacious hallway into a dim living room. The furniture was old and worn, shades of faded brown and grimy yellow. ‘‘There’s actually three bedrooms so we’re probably gonna get someone else soon’’.
Moving into the largely featureless kitchen, Rich took a stool at the breakfast bar, returning to a bowl of cooked vegetables. ‘‘Very healthy’’ I noted, opening a creaky door to the filthy enclosed balcony. ‘‘Yeah dude… gonna live forever’’.
Having signed a few forms and received a set of keys from Zuzana, I claimed one of the remaining rooms and sat on the bed reflecting on how rapidly everything had progressed since Copenhagen. ‘‘Lignon, you want coffee?’’ came Zuzana’s lilting voice from the kitchen. ‘‘Yes please’’ I called back and set about the brief process of unpacking.
‘Up on The Hill’ is the first installment of my short story series The Slovak Files.
You can also check out my bite sized travel reports from around Slovakia.