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…
‘‘You see! Bratislava can be beautiful!!!’’ growled our guide, wagging her finger as she shot the group an admonishing look.
It was just my second day in Bratislava and I was enjoying a walking tour of Staré Mesto, the city’s pretty albeit tiny Old Town. Organized by my new employer, my colleagues and I were certainly being kept on our toes by the informative if slightly intimidating guide.
‘‘This is St. Michael’s Bridge’’ she announced in her automated message voice as we marched after her like the obedient troop we were. Traipsing through St. Michael’s Gate, we passed under the military tower and into Michalská, a quaint stone street packed with cafes, shops, a few museums. ‘‘Come on, come on!’’ she barked with a snap of her fingers, ‘‘we have only one hour and there’s much to see’’.
‘‘She’s taking us to the showers, isn’t she?’’ whispered Paul, a fair-haired Englishman from Boston. With a cheeky smirk etched across his handsome features, he could have passed for A Clockwork Orange droog. I liked him immediately.
Gazing up at the baroque buildings as the smell of freshly baked bread drifted across from a nearby bakery, it suddenly hit me that this was my new home! I could come and hang out here anytime I wanted. Greedily inhaling my surroundings, I found myself zoning out, the guide’s authoritative commentary melting away into gibberish like Charlie Brown’s teacher in Peanuts.
I was eventually brought back by a wholehearted ‘‘faaantastic!’’ from Rich my Californian flatmate. We were now huddled around Roland Fountain in Hlavné námestie, the old town’s grand square. Although I’d only known Rich for a couple of days, ‘‘faaantastic’’ had already been established as a firm catchphrase, along with the equally sunny ‘‘good times!’’. And with Rich being a half-glass-full kinda guy, both quotes were wheeled out regularly.
From the old town we worked our way out to the chilly banks of The River Danube and the imposing outline of Nový Most, a forbidding eyesore of a suspension bridge built in the 1960s. ‘‘The world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane’’ exclaimed the guide proudly. There were a few obligatory oohs and aahs. I had no idea what she was talking about.
‘‘War of the Worlds!’’ hooted Paul with an impish grin, pointing towards an unmissable structure sat atop the bridge’s support pylon. A flying saucer shaped restaurant aptly named UFO, it did indeed conjure up images of The Tripods from H.G. Wells’ classic novel. Intriguing, ugly and vaguely threatening, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. ‘‘Faaantastic’’ said Rich, as Paul and I clicked away with our cameras.
After the tour I got acquainted with more of my fellow teachers at The Slovak Pub on Obchodna Street. Among them was Ben, a deadpan Englishman from Doncaster who more often than not had a cigarette clutched between his wiry fingers. Immediately bonding over football and music, I was pleased to learn that he too resided on the hill near Rich and I in Dlhé Diely.
Then there was Myles, a hipster Canadian with a sharp and often cutting sense of humor. Jon from Nashville meanwhile was a Johnny Cash fan who bared more than a passing resemblance to the actor Jeff Goldblum.‘‘Who’s Jeff Goldblum?’’ asked the guide as a waitress arrived with a tray of Zlatý Bažants. ‘‘A devilishly handsome movie star’’ quipped Jon in his Tennessee drawl.
‘‘Ok seriously’’ said Myles, leaning in with a swig of his beer. ‘‘Have you guys seen that Zuzana chick? She’s hot!’’. ‘‘She’s a minx’’ I agreed, recalling my arrival the day before when she’d picked me up at the airport. ‘‘She ****ing is!’’ confirmed Ben as the guide rolled her eyes. ‘‘Dude, I think she’s got a boyfriend’’ revealed Rich. There followed a reflective pause. ‘‘Either way… I guess she’ll be there tonight’’ remarked Goldblum, lighting up a cigarette, ‘‘at the welcome party’’. ‘‘To Zuzana!’’ announced Paul, raising his mug with a droogish flourish and we all clinked glasses. ‘‘Good times!’’ declared Rich.
That evening we were all bussed out to the nearby city of Trnava, a forty minute drive from the capital. The venue was a run-down hotel somewhere in the leafy outskirts. With around fifty or so of us in attendance, the school had put on quite a spread, with a buffet type deal and as much Slovak beer as one could consume. Which, that evening, turned out to be quite a lot.
‘‘Americans… English… Canadians… Australians…. Scottish… Irish… Slovaks and… others ’’ squealed assistant director Little Katka, ‘‘Welcome to our family! An exciting year lies ahead for our small but growing school. Here to tell you a little more… it’s my pleasure to introduce the school’s owner… Honza!’’
There was a healthy round of cheers as the boss man took to the stage. A stout unshaven figure with a Russian-style mullet, he carried the air of an incompetent low-level gangster. Clearing his throat, Honza delivered a ten minute speech in throaty Slovak while the English-speaking contingent exchanged raised eyebrows and wry smiles. Having exited to a rather more subdued applause, Little Katka returned with a Cheshire cat grin plastered across her face. ‘‘Thank you Honza’’ she gushed and then proceeded to translate his entire speech, which amounted to little more than ‘‘We’re all one big team, let’s give it our best’’.
The party itself was a rapid slideshow of new faces and names. Goldblum introduced me to his eccentric flatmate Neil Armstrong. Not the pioneering astronaut, but a twitchy Englishman who wore 1920s workout clothes to the gym and was forever confusing his new roomie with words like fag, quid and bog roll.
At the buffet table, I got chatting to fellow hill-dwellers Bill and Mary, a delightful retired couple from the state of Iowa. Before long we were interrupted by greetings from a pair of Canadians, a softly spoken ice hockey fanatic called Balko and a bear of a man, Eric, who gave a mean hug.
Nearby Myles was flirting with Zuzana, while a group of mousy Slovak teachers hung back in an isolated corner, a circle of sullen faces and darting eyes.
‘‘Oh yeah it’s The White Album all the way’’ agreed Minnesota Jordan during a lengthy appraisal of The Beatles, ‘‘you a Paul or a John guy?’’
At some point the music was cranked up and there was dancing to Chic, Bee Gees and Donna Summer. Big Katka, the school’s brazen and barely-clothed director was getting more than a little suggestive with Irish Mike, a happy-go-lucky divorcee with an eye for the ladies. Their antics drew quite an audience as they ducked and grooved to the infectious beats of The Jackson 5‘s Life of The Party.
With night slipping into early morning, I found myself in an intimate circle with Ben, an awkward Englishman called Troy and a tall attractive Serbian by the name of Sladjana. With long, dark sleek hair and a silky smooth voice I was instantly attracted to her. ‘‘Sladjana’s another member of the hill club’’ said Ben. ‘‘Yeah I live about halfway down’’ she added, drawing on her cigarette. ‘‘I know…’’ responded Troy in his low creepy mutter, ‘‘you live across the road from me. I can see your bedroom from my window’’. Sladjana, to her credit, didn’t so much as blink. ‘‘I see…’’.
I could feel my eyes dropping on the bus back to Bratislava. The shadowy Slovak countryside flashing by my window, I’d almost submitted to sleep when Myles dropped noisily into the seat beside me.
‘‘Hey, you into ballet?’’
‘‘What!? Uh… not really’’.
‘‘Ha, me neither. But Zuzana is performing in some shit at The National Theater and she’s inviting people. Paul, Jon, Ben and Irish Mike are going, it’s like five bucks’’. ‘‘Count me in’’ I said, figuring this answer would be the most direct route to blissful slumber. Curling up against the window, I allowed myself a secret smile. In Qatar I’d only known four or five people and the social scene was… limited to say the least. Here there was a huge group of varying nationalities, with more characters than you could shake a stick at. In those final drowsy moments before drifting off, I realised that all kinds of interesting experiences lay ahead; that I was embarking on a metamorphic journey, a life-changing period, a new beginning.