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…
‘‘How’s your love life Lignon?’’ asked Irish Mike one night at The Slovak Pub. It was one of those sleepy midweek gatherings that had kicked off with half a dozen teachers, but soon fizzled out to just a few late night stragglers. ‘‘Ha!’’ I replied taking a gulp of Zlaty, ‘‘Interesting… confusing… unpredictable… and not half as eventful as you’re thinking’’.
‘‘Who’s Busminx?’’ grinned Clockwork Orange Paul as beside me Ben shrunk back into his chair, doing his best to suppress a ridiculing chuckle. ‘‘You bastard’’ I muttered, without even turning to look at him.
I’d met Busminx on the bus (funnily enough) during my weekly jaunts to the train station on my way to Štúrovo. Claiming the empty seat next to me, she immediately began chatting away in Slovak, unperturbed that I clearly had no idea what she was saying. She was a cute little thing with long strawberry blonde hair, a cheeky smile and expressive hazel eyes. But I immediately knew she was too young; if I had to guess I’d say sixteen, maybe seventeen at a push.
When she realized I didn’t speak much Slovak she just sat there openly regarding me, as if trying to figure out how to best proceed. Although amusing, it was also a little weird, so much so that I became anxious to get to the station so I could make my escape. This routine went on for a few weeks, during which her confidence bloomed. she’d learned a few English words and proudly unveiled them, drumming on my legs with her hands when I gave her the obligatory ‘‘very good’’ response she seemed to crave.
When Ben began joining me on my weekly expeditions she couldn’t sit next to me anymore, so had to make do with indiscreet glances from across the bus. Although I believe she did tell me her name, it was Ben who crowned her Busminx and the moniker stuck, he and Goldblum finding the situation hugely entertaining. ‘‘So she’s always on the bus huh?’’ Goldblum would say, feeding Ben with the ammunition he needed. ‘‘Yeah of course she is’’ he’d sneer with a wide grin, ‘‘it’s on the school route!’’ ‘‘Fuck off Ben!’’ came my unchanging comeback.
One day Busminx suggested we exchange phone numbers; a proposition that, in the heat of the moment, I unwisely agreed to. The resulting texts that came my way were absurd, as she seemed to be using Babel Fish to translate her sentences. ‘‘Foreign be handsome more than the homegrown’’ came one memo. ‘‘The tracks for my heart might work with rose or other love flower’’ revealed another. Goldblum lapped them up; laughing so hard I feared he might pass out. ‘‘I sad today’’ came a further dispatch, ‘‘me fish be dead’’. It was at this point that I decided to stop replying; telling myself it was a case of having to be cruel to be kind. I even figured out a way of taking an earlier bus in order to eliminate our weekly encounters.
‘‘Lignon, Lignon, Lignon’’ laughed Paul after I’d finished telling the story. We were settling the bill and readying ourselves to head out into the frosty Bratislava night. Making for a nearby tram stop on Obchodna Street, Irish Mike leaned in conspiratorially, whispering the question I got at least twice a week from my fellow teachers. ‘‘So what’s the deal with you and Sladjana?’’
It was a query I still didn’t have an answer for, at least not a satisfactory one. I’d been attracted to Sladj since the moment we’d met and soon after we started hanging out as friends. Over time our dynamic upgraded to flirting before gradually turning intimate. Despite my obvious eagerness, she insisted that our thing be kept casual, while when we socialized in public it was kind of an unspoken rule that our relationship appeared purely platonic. As crazy as I was about her, I got the feeling she was playing the field, so decided to just enjoy whatever it was that we had and see how things panned out.
Over the winter months we embarked on a number of weekend trips together, spontaneous getaways that offered an escape from the daily grind of Bratislava. Our first jaunt took in the nearby city of Trnava, where we spent most of the day hanging out at various cafes in and around the picture perfect Square of the Holy Trinity.
A later outing to Nitra saw us take a short hike that afforded picturesque city views from the foot of Zobor Mountain. It was on these breaks that I felt Sladjana finally let her guard down and drop the ice queen persona. For the first time we really started to talk and she seemed buoyed by the anonymity provided by nowheresville, Slovakia. In many ways it was a glimpse of what could have been between us.
Our most memorable excursion was to Komárno; a Hungarian border town nestled on The Danube that was Slovakia’s principal river port. As the historic seat of the country’s Serbian minority, it was of special interest to Sladj, who was keen to check out the town’s eighteenth century Serbian church.
After dinner at a traditional Slovak restaurant, we suddenly realized we’d lost track of time and had to get our skates on to catch the last train back to Bratislava. Setting off for the station, we were also surprised to learn it had been heavily snowing while we were eating and was already settling in a thick sheet.
On arrival we discovered our train was delayed, so had no option but to sit shivering on the platform awaiting further news. Then the announcement came through that the service was cancelled!!! With both of us due to teach morning classes back in Bratislava, we were determined to find a route back to the capital! Searching for someone who could help, I tried to picture Little Katka’s face as we called her to explain our predicament. It wasn’t a welcoming image.
‘‘No train’’ barked the attendant, utilizing quite possibly the only two words of English in his possession. Through meticulous hand gestures, patient pigeon English and a few well-placed Slovak words, we managed to get ourselves on another train to god-knows-where. From there we’d have to change lines and hope that a route was running back to Bratislava. If not, it would definitely be a hotel, disgruntled students and an infuriated Little Katka.
The first train ran for an hour or so before dumping us at a seatless, shelter-free platform. At the far end hung an electric board, which suggested the Bratislava train would be coming… at some point. It was freezing cold and perfectly silent on that platform, the snow continuing to drift down upon us through the fog as we stood stranded in our own personal winter wonderland. ‘‘It’s beautiful’’ said Sladj, performing a playful twirl, ‘‘take a picture of me’’. So I did, securing a shot that I’ve always felt perfectly captured the atmosphere of that strange and magical winter’s evening.
A few minutes later we were startled to hear distant voices, and as they grew nearer two shapes began to form through the mist. And so appeared two drunken Slovak guys stumbling merrily towards us. ‘‘Dobrý večer!!!’’ called the taller of the two, a raised bottle of Vodka in one hand, a lit cigarette dangling from the other. With snow-capped hair and a scraggly goatee he cut a comical figure, while his diminutive accomplice merely beamed, puffing on a cigarette of his own. ‘‘Hello’’ I said as they came to a stop before us. ‘‘Oh!!!’’ replied tall goatee with wide eyes, ‘‘It is the Eeengleesh! Welcome to Slovakee!’’ Eyeing Sladjana with a look that transcended a passing interest, he offered me a swig from his bottle. But I politely declined, so instead we killed some time with tedious small talk that didn’t really go anywhere. ‘‘Where are you going?’’ asked Sladj as they finally bid us farewell. ‘‘Hmm’’ mused tall goatee, stroking his chin apparatus. ‘‘I’m not sure, where go we Luká?’’ But his accomplice just shrugged, grinning a silly grin. ‘‘Ach who knows, we just follow the snow’’ said tall goatee and with a clumsy bow he put his arm around his friend and led him away. Smirking at each other, Sladj and I watched them trudge off until they disappeared into the fog.
When the train finally showed up we were overjoyed. It was a long, cold journey back and there was barely a soul to be seen onboard. Huddling up in a damp creaky carriage, we dozed off together, Sladj’s head resting on my shoulder as an impenetrable blackness flew by the window. It was just after 3am when we reached Bratislava. From the station there wasn’t so much as a taxi in sight, so we had no option but to walk back to Dlhé diely. When I eventually plodded through the door, as quiet as I was, I still managed to wake up Goldblum who’d fallen asleep on the living room couch with his latest paperback. ‘‘Where you been kid?’’ he yawned, rubbing his eyes. ‘‘God knows where’’ I replied, so worn-out I could hardly stand. ‘‘Ah, ok… well, you can tell me tomorrow’’.
Gulping down a mouthful of water from the kitchen sink, I lumbered off towards my bedroom where three hours of glorious but insufficient sleep awaited. ‘‘Hey Lignon!’’ called Goldblum, stopping me in my tracks, bedroom door in hand. ‘‘Yeah?’’ ‘‘Busminx called, she said her fish still be dead’’.
‘Me Fish Be Dead’ is the tenth tale of my short story series The Slovak Files.
Why not also check out my bite sized travel report on Komárno.
And there are more pieces from around Slovakia.