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…
‘‘Road trip!!!’’ cried Myles, slapping both hands down on my shoulders. ‘‘Next Saturday, there’s like fifty places on the bus, so sign your ass up!’’ ‘‘Sounds cool, who’s organizing it?’’ We were at The Slovak Pub and I was working my way through a hearty bowl of goulash, Ben smoking to my left, Sladjana fiddling with her phone on my right.
‘‘Eric!’’ replied Myles, his eyes dancing as he flagged down a passing waitress, ‘‘he’s got a whole route mapped out. Gonna SEE this mother ******* country!’’
‘‘The sights, the sounds, the smells…’’ pondered Ben, beer in hand. ‘‘The minxes!’’ trilled Myles, ‘‘Lignon, the minxes!?!’’
One minx that wouldn’t be going though was Sladjana, who was staying in Bratislava to entertain a visiting family friend. “You go’’ she said, putting on her best pouty face. ‘‘Have fun, and if stuff happens I don’t wanna hear about it OK?’’
‘‘Dude, Eric just walked in’’, interrupted Myles. ‘‘Name. List. Now’’. Whether it was his infectious enthusiasm, my genuine desire to see more of the country, or the need to get away for a bit after the difficulty of recent events, I couldn’t help but feel excited. But a little guilty too, because of course there was someone else who wouldn’t be coming.
‘‘Ah, it’ll be a good time’’ said Goldblum without a trace of bitterness, an Ian Rankin novel resting on his chest. It was colder than usual in the hospital, the cup of tea in his hands producing a rising trail of smoke. ‘‘I’m just looking forward to getting outta here in a few days. Should have everything moved over by the time you get back’’.
Goldblum’s decision to move in with Rich and I had been great news. After the trauma of the attack, we figured he’d be better off away from the misery of Dúbravka and into a place where he was closer to school and around actual people. While the road trip had come too early in his recovery process, I was comforted by the fact that my friend was on the mend and felt excited by the prospect of his presence in Dlhé diely.
There was an exuberant round of whoops and handclaps as the bus pulled out of Obchodna Street and began our cross-country expedition into the unknown. Settling into the back row with Myles, Clockwork Orange Paul and Ben, I had a great overview of the trip’s eclectic cast. As creator, planner and de facto trip leader, Eric had installed himself up front next to the driver, where he occasionally rose to address us from a crackly microphone. ‘‘First stop Poprad!’’ he announced with a cheesy grin, ‘‘we’re looking at a brisk four hours folks, so settle in and enjoy the party’’.
And enjoy the party we did! Barely an hour into the journey and there was a pit stop at a middle-of-nowhere service station for petrol, calls of nature and unnecessary supplies. Ben stocked up on cigarettes, Citizen Kovacs returned with a six-pack of the Czech beer Kozel and Minnesota Jordan appeared clutching a bottle of Becherovka. ‘‘38%!?! Jordan, you’re an animal!’’ laughed Paul, unscrewing the top.
I was at the checkout with a bulging bag of snacks when Myles called over, tickled by something he’d seen in the gift section. ‘‘Hey Lignon!’’ he cried, holding up a giant box containing a chunky toy automobile. ‘‘A POWERFUL CAR!’’ he read off the packaging in an affected tone of wonderment. ‘‘With this car… I can achieve anything!’’ He almost bought it too.
Back on the open road and there were spontaneous outbreaks of song, the exchanging of lewd jokes and a competitive session of Charades. ‘‘Squeeze?’’ suggested a befuddled Irish Mike as Jordan’s hunched hand played out a slow deliberate pressing motion, his index finger stabbing hopefully towards the invisible results.
‘‘Squashed crap?’’ joked Paul.
‘‘Liquid? Juice?’’ offered an increasingly frustrated Ben.
‘‘Pulp! Pulp Fiction!!!’’ screamed Jen, a loud, potty-mouthed American from Maine whose underlying sweetness would take months to reveal itself to me. ‘‘**** yeah!!!’’ she hollered, pumping a victorious fist into the air. ‘‘Good times!’’ echoed Rich.
Keen to learn more about my expat comrades, I worked my way around the vehicle chatting to the people who thus far I’d only exchanged pleasantries with at The Slovak Pub, or nodded to in passing at school. My mingling led me to Sarah, a softly spoken sullen-looking girl from the North of England. And yet behind her melancholy and infinite sarcasm lay a heart of gold. A keen squash player, she resolved to join the teacher’s league Ben and I had setup at Aupark.
Bill and Mary meanwhile proved every bit as personable as I remembered at The Welcome Party. Bill and I were both into Dylan and shared a passion for creative writing, while Mary (in stark contrast to Bill’s palpable indifference) passionately championed her home state of Iowa, insisting I come and visit one day. Little did I know it then, but I eventually would many years later.
It would be a lie to claim the entire trip was a Little House on the Prairie episode of happy families. Toward the front of the bus sat a group of ultra-smart, uber-geeky Americans freshly arrived from various Ivy League Universities. Socially inept, loud in volume and nasal in tone; Eugene, Erwin and Ed existed in their own bubble, which for those first hours consisted of computer talk and testing each other on world capitals. ‘‘Nicaragua?’’ barked Erwin, adjusting his thick-rimmed glasses. ‘‘Aw come on, you always give me the easy ones. It’s Managua!’’ yapped Eugene triumphantly. It was like watching less likeable versions of the nerds from the classic Simpsons episode Homer Goes To College.
I’d like to say we were mature enough to shrug our shoulders and leave them to it. But we were young, intolerant and getting drunker by the minute. Before long our under-the-breath jibes had begun to get more vocal, so it was something of a blessing for everyone when the bus rolled into Poprad.
Disembarking to the riveting newsflash that Paramaribo was the capital of Suriname, we were greeted by a petite city of fifty thousand nestled at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains. Despite our initial excitement, we quickly realized there wasn’t an awful lot to Poprad, besides the pretty St. Egidius Square and its charming eighteenth century buildings. ‘‘So this is Poprad, and what have we done?’’ sang Citizen Kovacs and I in a falsetto that would have made John and Yoko proud. With nothing more to say, we took a few pictures and retired for lunch and beers at a nearby restaurant.
“Levoča!” called Eric as the bus grumbled to a stop. Somewhat startled, a few of us had been napping and now found ourselves stumbling out into the overcast afternoon blurry-eyed, tipsy and disoriented. But it didn’t take long for us to wake up because Levoča was gorgeous! Having been deposited in its beautifully preserved town square, we went wandering in our various cliques, taking in the quaint Old Town Hall and the 14th century Roman Catholic Church, with its huge wooden Gothic altar. ‘‘These buildings are baroque’’ explained Ben, puffing through the day’s three hundredth cigarette. ‘‘Lignon, are you listening? I’m teaching you stuff”.
Another notable landmark was the sinister, wrought iron Cage of Shame, formerly used for public punishment of degenerates. Upon arrival, we found the nerds sitting on the pavement in front of it, trying to outfox each other with historical facts. ‘‘Bring the cage back’’ muttered Myles as Eugene smugly declared himself the Slovakia Bus Tour Levoča Trivia Winner by a score of 6-3-3. Erwin and Ed looked gutted.
Working our way out of the center, we were soon met by a section of the town’s ancient walls. Gazing out at the surrounding countryside, we sucked in the autumnal panoramic with its picture perfect hills and bony, statuesque trees. In the distance we spied a stunning white castle cum church structure, its towering spire piercing the grey sky. ‘‘Amazing!’’ exclaimed Paul, camera in hand. ‘‘This should be an album cover!’’
Back on the bus, Eric informed us we’d soon be arriving at Spišský hrad, a stunning castle ruin said to be one of the largest in Central Europe. Perched atop a steep hill, with the late afternoon light rapidly fading, it made for a highly atmospheric experience as a bunch of us sprinted up its rocky slopes.Halfway through our ascent we ran out of steam, wheezing through the final stretch before collapsing in front of a massive gate. ‘‘Dude…’’ spluttered Rich as we lay on our backs catching our breath, staring up at the increasingly malevolent sky. Far below our Fisher Price Bus rested at the side of the road, with those who hadn’t fancied the workout milling about smoking and chatting. ‘‘I think I see a nerd down there’’ said Citizen Kovacs.
With not a soul up there with us, we literally had the castle to ourselves. Wandering around its empty courtyards and scrambling up various stairs, it felt as if we were the only people left on Earth. No Entry said a rusty old sign situated before a somewhat pointless wooden barrier. On the other side lay an open platform that petered out into a pile of rubble, beyond which was nothing but certain death. ‘‘Let’s do it’’ said Myles, ducking under the barrier.
The views from the platform were breathtaking, a rich canvas of sculpted hills and winding roads as far as the eye could see. The wind had really picked up and it was now all but dark as Rich, Myles, Kovacs and I stood apart gazing out at the ostensibly painted landscape. Feeling somewhat consumed by its widescreen expansiveness, I found myself thinking of my father working in The Middle East, of my mother, sister, brother and beloved dog Inde going about their daily lives in the North of Scotland. Of my friends in London, of Goldblum who was about to finally get out of that shitty hospital. Very much like the platform we were standing on, these fractured thoughts failed to lead anywhere significant, leaving me with conflicting feelings of awe and loneliness.
‘‘Is that the bus honking?’’ shouted Rich, his voice doing battle with the wind. Straining to hear, we exchanged knowing glances and off we went back under the barrier, along a courtyard or two, down some steps, through a tunnel and out onto the hill again for our slow, cautious descent.
By the time we arrived in Košice everyone was starving. As Slovakia’s second largest city, known for having an actual nightlife of sorts, the general consensus was that the real party started here! So we wasted no time in checking into our hostel, dumping our stuff and assembling back down in the foyer. Jordan, Rich and Ben cracked open beers while we waited for the last of the dilly-dalliers to trickle down. Entertainment was supplied by Myles and Paul, who spontaneously began wrestling in front of the disapproving receptionist.
Marching off towards the town center, an army of foreign invaders, spirits were high as the sound of our merriment carried through the city streets. Jordan and I sang our way through The White Album song for song, while Jen held court with a hilarious anecdote that surely saw her break the world record for number of expletives uttered in sixty seconds. Along the way Eric pointed out that the geeks were nowhere to be seen. ‘‘Were they even downstairs in the foyer?’’ he asked, but nobody cared. ‘‘**** the nerds!!!’’ cried Paul, to a chorus of ironic jeers.
Our first destination took in pizza and more alcohol at a restaurant bar, a bunch of us playing table football while Paul lined up a string of Bowie tracks on the jukebox. Later on at another place, all wooden décor and dim lighting, we began ripping into the nerds like the ruthless bastards we were. I’d got Eugene’s voice down pretty well and in my inebriated cockiness appointed myself ringleader. Launching into a geeky monologue, someone loaned me their glasses for extra comic effect, while another group member filmed the whole thing on my camcorder. With audience participation from the likes of Carol, Rich and Myles, my merciless performance went on for some time, spurred on as I was by their howling laughter.
By the time I was done the majority of us were happily sloshed, not least an Irish girl called Aimee who was so tanked she could hardly stand. From there the night played out in a haze of blurry images and half-remembered sound bites. Ben telling me he didn’t rate Steven Gerrard, who was ‘‘too lateral’’. Myles and I chasing giggling Slovak girls down the street. “Dobrý? Dobrý, Dobrý?” he laughed, ducking and diving between pedestrians as we ran. A wild-eyed Paul grabbing me by the neck, aggressively singing into my face. ‘‘Young girl, they call them the Diamond dogs!!!’’
Lord only knows how I managed to hail a taxi back to the hostel. Lurching up the stairs, I paused at a drinks machine to guzzle a can of Dr. Pepper and attempt to make sense of my bearings. Mistakenly bumbling into a dorm that wasn’t mine, I turned a corner to discover two of my comrades having violent sex through the open door of a bathroom. Spinning on my heels, I hastily exited and staggered about for a bit until I finally located my room. A few people were already back and sleeping, so I did my best to creep quietly towards my praise-the-lord lower bunk. Exhausted, fully clothed and feeling like utter crap, I collapsed onto the bed and passed out.