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…
“Ah Leighton! Do you have a moment?’’ I’d just finished an Obchodna morning class and was dashing through the lobby, keen to get my daily fix of McMinx-served coffee and fried apple pie.
Little Katka? Her shrill voice stopped me in my tracks. Oh shit, what have I done? ‘‘Sure’’ I said, trying to look relaxed as she led me into her office. Although pleasant enough in her own clipped way, the school’s assistant director was someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Little in name, but gargantuan in reputation, it was a widely held belief among the teachers that if you could avoid being called into Little kaka’s office, then all was well with your Bratislava teaching career.
‘‘Let’s see’’ she said, shuffling some papers. ‘‘You’ve been here for three months now, how are you enjoying things?’’
Loaded question? ‘‘Oh I really like it’’ I replied, inwardly drawing up a shortlist of students most likely to have complained about something.
‘‘Wonderful’’ she responded, tucking a stray wisp of fiery red hair behind her elfin ear. ‘‘We’ve had good feedback… and wondered if you might be interested in some overtime. It’s kind of a special assignment, a big contract for us’’.
‘‘Oh!’’ I said, immediately loosening up. ‘‘Great… uh, what are the details?’’
‘‘It’s an in-company course’’ she explained, extracting a blob of snow-white hand cream from the miniscule tube she kept by the phone. ‘‘But not here in Bratislava, it’s in the town of Štúrovo!’’
‘‘Where the fuck is Stoo-ro-vo?’’ asked Myles, the two of us settling into a quiet corner at McDonald’s. ‘‘It’s on the other side of the bloody country!’’ I laughed, as a beaming Adminx brought over our breakfast in a rare show of hands-on waitressing. ‘‘Right on the Hungarian border’’ I added, shaking my head in disbelief. ‘‘Once a week, a ninety minute class, from door to door it’ll take me two and a half hours just to get there!’’ ‘‘Sounds messed up mate” said Myles in his faux English accent. ‘‘You gonna do it?’’
It was still dark when the train pulled out of Hlavná Stanica. Having located an empty carriage, I set the alarm on my phone and slept for an hour, waking up to a dark grey sky and dirt-brown fields flashing by my window. Reaching into my bag, I fished out Little Katka’s meticulous briefing. I was to teach at Kappa, an enormous paper-based packaging plant just a ten-minute drive from Štúrovo’s tin pot train station. There would be eight students, seven of them women, their positions ranging from intern and secretary to manual laborer and department manager. As agreed, there was also confirmation that I’d be paid my hourly teaching rate for the time spent travelling. All things considered, it felt like a pretty sweet deal.
A minxy Hungarian girl called Izabella picked me up at the station, making agreeable small talk while she drove me to the plant. ‘‘We are very exciting!’’ she said with a shy smile, ‘‘we don’t have English here before!’’
Entering a massive industrial park, we came to a stop outside a cluster of cheerless buildings. According to Little Katka’s dossier, it was in one of these structures that I was about to meet the Human Resources Manager, a certain Anton Vechko.
‘‘Mr. Leighton!’’ he boomed with a firm handshake and a hefty slap on my back, ‘‘welcome to Kappa!’’ Pouring us both coffees, he handed me a company business card and ushered me into a seat in front of his colossal desk. Dropping into a black leather chair he rolled forward, a bear of a man with a bushy black beard and a full head of dark curly hair. After a mercifully short company history and a few standard questions about my background, he left me in no doubt as to my weekly mission. ‘‘These people know some English’’ he explained, twirling a fountain pen through his thick fingers, ‘‘but they don’t have many occasion to use it. Their job is paper, box, lorry… box, lorry, paper. Give them something different, anything… just make it fun! Help them escape’’.
I’d been pretty nervous in the buildup to that first lesson, partly due to the great unknown of a new student crowd, but also because I didn’t want to let Little Katka down with her ‘‘big contract’’. Any misgivings though melted away in the opening minutes of class, my group turning out to be a fantastic bunch that loved to laugh and joke around.
There was fashionable Kamilla with her bleached blonde hair, branded clothing and amusing habit of reapplying her nail polish during the ten-minute break. Then there was Marta, a sarcastic redhead who’d once played guitar in a Hungarian-Slovak punk band! Kristina meanwhile was the youngest of the group and agreeably minxy, especially when she attempted to mimic my accent, which she did often. Even Marek, the group’s sole male, was entertaining in his own dour way. ‘‘Štúrovo!’’ he’d regularly moan, as the others attempted to contain their laughter. ‘‘From all the places in all the world, why I must be in Štúrovo?’’ ‘‘So leave!’’ goaded Kamilla, drumming the table with her nails. ‘‘Explore the world, free yourself!’’ laughed Marta. ‘‘No… no…’’ he’d mutter with a shake of the head, ‘‘there can be no escape’’. With the class responding well to the materials I’d prepared, the time flew by and before I knew what had happened I was on the train back to Bratislava, buzzing from the adrenaline of my weird and wonderful life abroad.
My visits to Kappa quickly became the highlight of my working week. I could sleep, read and listen to music on the train. On arrival I’d grab brunch in the cafeteria using a company food card Mr. Vechko gave me. The lessons were always fun, friendly, uncomplicated affairs that never felt like a chore. From time to time Izabella and I had coffee and a chat in the paved courtyard during break, while Mr. Vechko occasionally called me into his office to check on Q.P.R.’s recent form. ‘‘Oh dear’’ he’d say with a wide smile as I talked him through another miserable defeat. ‘‘Keep on supporting, one day the winds will bring change’’.
‘‘Kappa is very happy with your lessons!’’ trilled Little Katka one morning, ‘‘they want an extra hour a week, a new class of four people. Will you do it?’’ ‘‘Sure!’’ I said without blinking.
The next evening there was another surprise, this time from Ben when we met on the hill for pasta and beers at Mario’s. ‘‘Lignon, I’m coming to Štúrovo!’’ he revealed, clinking my glass with his own freshly poured Kelt. ‘‘Whaaat?’’ I cried, my drink nearly slipping through my fingers. And so it was that Ben began accompanying me on my weekly adventures to Slovakia’s premier paper-based packaging plant. It was good to have some company during the long commute, not to mention a partner in crime who understood first-hand what a unique, kooky experience it all was.
Ben had been given two one-on-one courses, an hour with some faceless department head that never showed up, plus sixty minutes with none other than Anton Vechko himself, whose own attendance was erratic due to his general busyness/importance. On Ben’s first day nobody came, so he just sat in the meeting room pacing back and forth with one eye on the clock. ‘‘Next time I’m bringing a book’’ he told me on the train back.
A few days later I was called down to Mr. Vechko’s office for yet another unexpected development. ‘‘A photographer will come to your class today’’ he explained, running his hands over an expensive looking cigar. ‘‘The local newspaper is writing an article about our English lessons. We need a picture of you in action’’.
The photographer was a twitchy, scruffy man by the name of Robert Kiss. Positioning himself in a corner of the classroom, he sat for over half an hour while I did my thing. Suddenly, while I was in mid explanation of some tricky idiom, he shot up and interrupted me. ‘‘Sorry Mr. Teacher man, but I need more hands!’’ Having clocked my nonplussed expression, he merely repeated the request while gesticulating wildly with his own hands. Returning my attention to the idiom, the students shifting awkwardly in their seats, I finished my explanation with an extended arm gesture. Holding it for a good five seconds, Robert Kiss enthusiastically clicked away and a few days later the story appeared in Štúrovo’s local rag.
‘‘Man, you’re virtually running that town!’’ laughed Goldblum. We were at home up on the hill, plowing through yet another helping of his healing mincemeat, egg and noodle medley. Goldblum always got a huge kick out of my weekly Štúrovo tales, so this latest yarn, complete with newspaper article, was a particular treat. ‘‘Mr. Lignon… The King of Štúrovo!’’ he snickered, ‘‘man… I gotta see this place for myself’’.
While there was nothing to actually see or do in Štúrovo, it was the perfect base for exploring a choice corner of Hungary, namely The Danube Bend towns of Esztergom, Szentendre and Visegrád. Setting off on a weekend trip, Goldblum and I were joined by Ben, Myles, Sheila and Sarah as we took the trusty old train over from Bratislava. From Štúrovo we crossed the border into Hungary on foot, making our way across the five hundred meter long Mária Valéria Bridge.
It was a cool experience, albeit a little stressful due to the precarious state of my falling-to-bits passport and its dubious collection of Arabic stamps. This caused great amusement amongst Ben and Myles, who speculated that the Hungarian guards might not let me in, while Goldblum openly referred to me as ‘‘Osama Bin Leighton’’ for the rest of the trip. Nevertheless, the weekend turned out to be great fun. We took in the hugely impressive Esztergom Basilica, strolled through the quaint streets of Szentendre and hiked up a forested route to the castle in Visegrád.
‘‘Wonderful!’’ said Mr. Vechko as I showed him the photographs at lunch one day. ‘‘You’re really getting around!’’ “Sure am!’’ I said, putting on my happy-go-lucky face. ‘‘Well, time for class’’. And off I went with a spring in my step, as I’d done so many times before. But while in the past I’d always meant it, this time I wasn’t looking forward to my lesson at all.
It was all because of the second class, which had been a troublesome affair straight from the off. Although it did feature the ever-delightful receptionist Izabella, the other three guys were largely humorless and tough to engage. The worst offender was Pavel, a Polish man who seemed to reject everything I put before him. A BBC News article followed by a few comprehension questions produced a rebellious snort and under-the breath grumbling. A writing task once caused him to abandon the class altogether under the pretense of having to ‘‘take a call’’, while he openly refused to do anything grammar-related, arms folded, eyes to the ceiling.
One lesson, during a sprawling discussion that wound its way into the odd terrain of serial killer movies, I presented them with an entertaining internet article about The Silence of The Lambs. Pavel had been in a foul mood from the moment he entered the room, so between his moody expressions and displeased grunts I could feel that he was building up to something. As I handed out copies of the article, he suddenly shot up out of his seat. ‘‘It’s enough!’’ he shouted, pushing the paper away. ‘‘Always read something, must always doing something. Why don’t we just chat? I’m sick of it!” Izabella, head in hands, sunk down into her seat, while the clone brothers stared at the walls impassively.
I was shocked… speechless… so it took a minute or two for the situation to hit me and when it did I found myself becoming enraged. I’d been taking his crap for weeks and somehow it had gotten to the point where I was starting to dread my visits. ‘‘If you don’t like my classes and you aren’t going to participate, just get out’’ I said, pointing to the door. Rooted to the spot, he stared back at me with a face like a slapped fish. Picking up his notebook, Pavel turned and headed out, muttering to himself with a dramatic slamming of the door.
‘‘I see’’ said Mr. Vechko when I’d finished telling him the whole story. ‘‘Well… there is a saying I have for occasions like this’’. We were in his office and he was standing facing the window, looking out over a wide square of trucks and crates, workers scurrying around in all directions. ‘‘Complainers complain’’ he said, turning to face me. ‘‘Yes… complainers always complain Mr. Leighton. Don’t worry about it, I think it’s best Pavel does not come to class anymore’’.
‘‘Things back to normal now?’’ asked Ben on the train a few weeks later. ‘‘Yeah I guess’’ I answered, blowing into a paper cup of muddy coffee. True to his word, Mr. Vechko had declared Pavel persona non grata, but for me the Kappa experience had been tainted. In fact, much like Marek my half-glass-empty student, I couldn’t help wondering what the hell I was doing in Štúrovo. The early rises; all those hours spent on the train, the grimness of the industrial plant. ‘‘Ugh!’’ moaned Ben, peering out the compartment window at the slanting rain. ‘‘Another four hours of doing absolutely nothing, I’d rather be teaching’’.
When Little Katka called me into her office a month or so later to tell me the game was up I was admittedly relieved. It had been time for Kappa to extend their contract, but they’d pulled the plug citing budgeting issues. Despite Mr. Vechko’s supposed loyalty, a part of me wondered if the Pavel situation had been a factor. Had I been a little hotheaded? Unwilling to bring it up with either Mr. Vechko or Little Katka, I decided to let it lie. “It was time’’ said Ben during a post mortem in The Slovak Pub. ‘‘Yeah it was’’ I agreed as the waitress arrived with a tray of beers. ‘‘To Lignon!’’ said Goldblum, raising his beer with a commemorative sweep, ‘‘The Last King of Štúrovo’’.
‘The Last King of Štúrovo’ is the eighth chapter of my short story series The Slovak Files.
Why not also check out my travel report on Hungary’s Danube Bend.
Or have a leaf through more reports from around Slovakia.