In September 2002 I rocked up in Bratislava with a couple of bags and just enough cash to last until my first pay check. And so unfolded one of the great years of my life…
Winter hit Bratislava hard that year and I was totally unprepared for it. ‘‘Lignon, is that your damn coat?!’’ scoffed Goldblum one day as we headed out into town. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a winter coat, but it was all I had and I was too stubborn to buy a proper one. Before long Golblum began calling it ‘‘the pathetic piece of cloth’’ and was forever shaking his head at me as we stood shivering at the local tram stop.
It was there that we’d occasionally bump into a French guy called Noel who lived in the neighborhood. A somewhat comical character with a protruding jaw and patchy English, he seemed equally concerned for my wellbeing. ‘‘Um… Jon, you’re uh…. friend… I theenk eez coat, uh… eeet eez not good enough eh?’’
When the snow hit, Goldblum and I embarked on sporadic grocery runs to stock up on essentials. These hazardous expeditions involved negotiating a steep section of Hlaváčiková in order to get onto the main road. Taking the paved walkway was a slow, tedious affair infested with black ice; so we opted for a shortcut by scrambling across the grassy slope. This was doable on the way up, but we also risked it coming back down. Armed to the teeth with bulging shopping bags, these descents proved so slippery we had no choice but to attack them at a brisk dash and hope for the best. The first time I fell I broke half a pack of eggs and was left with a collection of bruises on my arm. Curled up in the snow moaning, I glanced over at Jon who was lying flat on his back, cereal, beer cans and tomatoes scattered around his feet. Hauling himself up, tears of laughter streamed down his cheeks as he crawled about in the snow gathering up our provisions.
Christening our deadly shortcut The Snow Abyss, we never turned down a chance to tackle it, despite all the scrapes, scratches and bruises picked up over the weeks. My footwear didn’t help matters, a pair of flat black loafers that Goldblum labeled The Death Shoes. ‘‘You’re on a suicide mission Lignon!’’ he shouted, during a memorably hellish descent. ‘‘Between that pathetic piece of cloth and those shoes…’’ ‘‘Uh oh…’’ I cried, sliding down the final third, losing the delicate battle of balance. ‘‘Joooon, I’m coooooming’’. ‘‘Never. Ever. Say. That. Again’’ he called, hitting the ground with successive bounces before coming to a crumpled stop a few meters from the path. ‘‘Ah’’, grumbled Goldblum with a defeated growl, ‘‘so close and yet so far’’.
Our local supermarket was Delvita, a drab place inhabited by a disconsolate workforce that had long ago given up on life. Barely a degree warmer inside than in it was out; we’d scurry around picking up what we needed before getting the hell out of dodge at the earliest opportunity. Until that is, we met Beer Bottle Machine! A shiny new contraption that took in empty bottles before dispensing a ticket that enabled you to claim money back, Goldblum fell in love the moment he saw it. ‘‘This must be the most hi-tech piece of machinery in Bratislava!’’ he chuckled, giving it a thorough examination. Joking aside, it was definitely the most modern thing in the shop as a) it actually worked and b) there were even English instructions that always gave me an intangible sense of comfort.
To take our minds off of the plummeting temperatures, we began concocting action-packed Beer Bottle Machine Adventures on our treks to and from the apartment. Among these epic tales: The one where Beer Bottle Machine saves a young girl’s life after she falls into The Danube. Another classic is the one where Little Katka recruits Beer Bottle Machine to take over Irish Mike’s Obchodna classes after he gets hit with the flu. Not to mention, and perhaps my personal favorite, the one where Beer Bottle Machine runs for The Slovak Presidency. And wins baby! Sadly, our plans to turn these stories into an animated TV series never came to fruition.
Another way of distracting ourselves from the evil cold was through the age old, tried and tested method of alcohol consumption. By this point though, city staples such as The Slovak Pub and The Dubliner had given way to house parties, with teachers taking it in turns to play host.
Martina, one of the school’s Slovak teachers, put together the first of these shindigs. Organized alongside her flat mate and close friend Jana, Ben was foaming at the mouth when he heard the news. ‘‘Have you SEEN this Jana girl?’’ he asked, as we looked over the invitations we’d found in our pigeonholes. ‘‘I’m talking Queen High Minx!’’
‘‘Hey Lignon’’ said Jessica, an American from Texas who’d entered the Teachers’ Room carrying a stack of course books. ‘‘You going to Martina’s party?’’ ‘‘I think so yeah’’ I answered, popping the invitation into my breast pocket. ‘‘That’s good… I know Olivia is hoping you’ll be there’’. She smiled at me with a wink, dumped the books on her desk and trotted off up the stairs, mission accomplished.
My recollections of the party are hazy. I remember flowing alcohol, a pet rabbit called Gerda and sitting in the kitchen drinking Vodka with Minnesota Jordan and Citizen Kovacs. And of course, I recall ending up in bed with Olivia. A sweet, diminutive elf-like girl with dark hair and big innocent eyes, we messed around for a bit, but foolishly I was too hung up on Sladjana to let things go all the way. ‘‘Did you?’’ Sladj asked a few days later over Obchodna Street cappuccinos. ‘‘No, we didn’t’’ I replied, returning her piercing gaze. ‘‘Good’’, she said in her expressionless way, eyes fixed on the spoon she was carefully twirling around her coffee cup. As always, she had me wrapped me around her little finger.
And so the house party season unfurled across a wintry backdrop of fuzzy, half-remembered evenings. There was a Cheese & Wine Party hosted by Mary at Sladjana’s place, in honour of Bill & Carol’s coinciding birthdays. Taking place amid a fierce blizzard, the hallway was reduced to a swamped battlefield of muddy shoes, snow-capped scarves and damp coats, many of which had fallen to the floor from the overwhelmed coat rack. The night was also memorable in that Carol got herself locked in the bathroom due to the door’s faulty locking mechanism. Encouraged by an ever-growing group of amused spectators, it took a SWAT Team of Slovak neighbours and several boxes of tools to free her, a victory greeted by drunken cheers and the uncorking of a celebratory bottle of red. Elsewhere that evening, Mary cooked up a hearty pot of potato soup for Jon, who was still unable to eat solids, while Andrew The Bear performed his infamous Bear Dance, with the assistance of various special guests. As always, it was an energetic if often-confusing affair, complimented with flailing claws, bared teeth and ferocious growls.
Soon after came The Masked Ball, another raucous night that saw a bunch of the girls, including Aimee and Jen, appear as The Petržalka Pussies. A Charlie’s Angels type crew of seductive cat women, complete with pointy ears and painted whiskers, they were the night’s best dressed by a country mile. In the buildup I was horrified to learn that people were making their own masks. Inherently useless at arts and crafts, I recruited Goldblum to whip up a last minute effort, which he simply named Lignon. It may not have won any prizes, but at least nobody had trouble working out who I was!
Even less ambitious were the efforts of Irish Mike, who showed up as a superhero called Bag Man, an outfit that involved nothing more than a pair of sunglasses and a Delvita shopping bag wrapped around his head. Although it was unclear what injustices Bag Man fought against, he did amusingly have an evil nemesis, BagTron, aka Clockwork Orange Paul. This led to a drunken debate over who would win in a fight. It was an argument that essentially remained unresolved, with Goldblum passionately concluding that Beer Bottle Machine would easily destroy both of them!
Another memorable bash was Jessica’s White Trash Party, a get together that encouraged us to show up in lumberjack flannel shirts, wife beaters, cutoffs and thongs. It’s the only event I’ve been to where yellow teeth were considered a bonus. On the night there were prizes for the Most Mingin’ Mullet and Skankiest Dressed, awards that I failed to win despite my best efforts. I’ll never forget riding the tram across town with Goldblum, both of us in costume. He referring to me as Billy Bob, I to him as Billy something else, the reactions among our fellow passengers ranging from hilarity and shock to disapproval and concern.
When Christmas came around there was a mass exodus among the teachers as people went home for the holiday season or headed off on foreign adventures. Keen to explore more of Central Europe, Goldblum, Myles, Citizen Kovacs and I went to Budapest where we rented a small apartment in the city center. We were there for a week and I can honestly say it ranks among the happiest times of my life.
Although bitterly cold, each day was a carefree adventure that saw our
already solid friendships strengthen further. We gazed out across The Danube at the splendorous Hungarian Parliament from Chain Bridge. We spent an afternoon kicking back in the hot salted waters of Szechenyi Baths, took a stroll through Heroes Square at sunset. There were gutsy snowball fights throughout the city, Myles ducking and diving between parked cars as we chased each other around the powdery streets.
During a break, Citizen Kovacs and I stood singing carols with two of the drunkest Hungarians in Budapest, a husband and wife team shaking tambourines and dressed in Santa costumes. One evening, we enjoyed curries at an Indian restaurant, sat at the very table Bill Clinton once dined at, according to a shiny plaque on the wall.
As fantastic as our week in Budapest had been, I was also excited to get back to Bratislava and catch up with everyone. ‘‘Ah, there she is’’ drawled Goldblum, as the first of the city’s jutting high-rises came into view from the train window.
“Who’s hosting the next party?’’ I asked. ‘‘Dunno’’ said Goldblum, rubbing a peephole through the frosted window, ‘‘maybe we can one of these days’’. ‘‘Better be fast’’ advised Myles, ‘‘gotta fight for your right!’’ ‘‘Yeah, this house party business seems to be all the rage’’ pondered Goldblum, ‘‘we need a fresh angle!’’. Sliding the compartment window open, a gush of icy air flew in as he lit up a cigarette. ‘‘I’ll speak to Beer Bottle Machine, he’ll know what to do’’.