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…
‘‘Minx alert!” announced Goldblum one morning, arriving at our table with a coffee and a sorry looking McMuffin. “Where?’’ asked Ben, craning his neck to see. ‘‘Not here’’ chuckled Goldblum, ‘‘Little Katka told me three new gals have arrived. And guess where they’ve shacked up?’’ ‘‘On the hill?’’ I asked with a sleepy smile. ‘‘Yah’’ he confirmed, taking a chunk out of his eggy monstrosity. ‘‘Looks like we’ve got three new neighbours’’. ‘‘No guarantees they’re minxes” pointed out Ben, nursing his coffee. ‘‘Irish Mike has already gotten a glimpse’’ explained Goldblum, ‘‘and he’s forecasted a general outbreak of Minxomatosis”.
The arrival of three new female teachers proved to be big news, spreading like wildfire across the school. And it wasn’t long before a gathering had been arranged at The Slovak Pub to officially welcome them to Bratislava. I met Emma first, a tanned Scottish girl with a scandalous cackle of a laugh and a certain sophistication that brought to mind a 1940s Hollywood actress. She proved good fun, though it was Goldblum who really took a shine to her.
Next I chatted to Katie, another Braveheart from Aberdeen, though she sounded so English I never thought of her as a Scot. Playful, funny and unintentionally flirtatious, pretty much everyone had a thing for Katie. But alas she was spoken for with a long-term boyfriend in London.
Last but not least was Julia, a pretty, pocket-sized girl from the South of England. Julia and I hit it off straight away and by the end of the evening I’d somehow managed to secure a date. This became quite the topic among the guys, with Irish Mike particularly tickled by my accomplishment. ‘‘Lignon, you’re such a player!’’ he exclaimed. We were having breakfast one day with the guys when he gave his somewhat skewed version of events. ‘‘You should have seen him, he basically interviewed the three of them and handpicked the one he wanted!’’ Not quite how things had unfolded, but it certainly didn’t do my Minxology kudos any harm. ‘‘Good times!’’ exclaimed Rich.
Julia, Katie and Emma lived in a block just ten-minutes away from our own building on Dlhé diely. Their residence was quickly named Minx Manor, and it was from there that I picked Julia up on our first date. There was a definite connection between us and I found her to be enjoyably inquisitive and quick-witted, not to mention refreshingly straightforward. ‘‘I did a bit of digging on you, did you know that?’’ she laughed. We were tackling dinner at Mario’s, the hill’s cozy little Italian joint. ‘‘I asked around… wanted to make sure you weren’t some kind of ladies man’’. ‘‘Ha!’’ I replied, shifting in my seat, ‘‘you obviously haven’t spoken to Irish Mike then’’. Shooting me a mock-frown, she took a sip from her glass of red wine before hitting me with a curveball I hadn’t seen coming. ‘‘I see, and what would he tell me? Something about Sladjana?’’
Getting over my initial shock, I gave Julia the whole story, doing my best to explain the ambiguous nature of my relationship with Sladj. Nodding and smiling thoughtfully throughout, she told me she understood and that it was a subject we could maybe revisit another day. Two dates later we were at The Dubliner with the usual Friday night crew; Rich and I having just finished another stirring karaoke performance of Don’t Let Me Down. Taking Julia by the hand, I led her outside for some fresh air and we rather clumsily concluded that yes, we liked each other and yes, what we had should be exclusive. It was a sweet moment, the sharp evening chill punctuated by the smell of sizzling meat from a nearby market stall. ‘‘So this Sladj thing, it’s over now right?’’ she said. ‘‘Yes, of course!’’ I replied.
That night I tossed and turned thinking about how to tell Sladjana. And then I wondered if I even needed to, so blasé had she been about our romance. Luckily I was spared any awkward explanation when I bumped into her the next day at school. ‘‘Oh hey’’ she said, looking up from a pile of homework in the teachers’ room. ‘‘Hey’’ I shot back, grateful that we were at least alone together, free from prying eyes and pricked ears. We tiptoed around the elephant in the room with some small talk and then, just as I was about to bring it up, she beat me to the punch. ‘‘So you’re with this English girl now? What’s her name?’’ ‘‘Julia’’ I blurted out, unable to decorate my answer with further information. ‘‘Ok… well, I hope it works out’’. Turning back to her marking, Sladjana was clearly done with the topic and I didn’t know what else to say.
‘‘Sladj is pissed about you and Julia’’ laughed Ben. We were on the tram back up the hill after a day’s teaching, a sheet of light rain splattering against the scuffed windows. ‘‘Wait, she said that to you?’’ I asked, incredulous. Sladjana had always played it so cool with me, always been so in control that it was hard to imagine her getting worked up about anything. ‘‘She was seething’’ he grinned, visibly amused by the situation. ‘‘I told her, come on you can’t have it both ways. You know how much Leighton liked you, but you held him off’’. Good old Ben, he understood the situation perfectly, providing Sladj with the kind of blunt assessment I really should have delivered myself.
The creation of Minx Manor marked a major turning point in my Bratislava experience. Inevitably, I stopped hanging out with Sladjana altogether, and as winter gradually melted into spring the social scene became a more localised affair. Goldblum, Ben and I mostly hung out with the girls up on the hill, dining at Mario’s, chilling at The Manor, gathering for movies and games nights at our place. One weekend, the apartment crammed with Delvita snacks and enough alcohol to drown a Slovak village, we worked our way through the entirety of The Office episode for episode. ‘‘Stephen Hawking’s football boots!!!’’ hooted Myles during one typically cringeworthy David Brent monologue.
Everybody got on exceptionally well and there was no drama or tension of any sort. Goldblum’s interest in Emma was clear for all to see and for a spell it looked like something might develop, though for whatever reason it wasn’t to be. Ben and Katie flirted endlessly, but it was largely harmless stuff, a fact hammered home when Katie’s boyfriend Amir came to visit one weekend. ‘‘Bollocks’’ whispered Ben when Katie excitedly unveiled the news of his impending arrival.
With the days becoming warmer and longer, we gleefully resumed our investigations of Central Europe. In Slovakia itself there was a quirky trip to the ruins of Čachtice Castle, the fifteenth century home and later prison of the infamous Bloody Countess. Believed to be the world’s most prolific female serial killer, Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed tortured and murdered hundreds of girls over a twenty five year stretch, while legend has it she also bathed in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youthful looks. Thankfully things were less eventful on the day we visited. Enjoying an invigorating hike through a national nature reserve, we found the castle deserted and peaceful, offering striking views over Čachtice’s sleepy little village.
There was also a return visit to Budapest, where a colossal group came together for Sheila’s birthday celebrations, while Vienna Part Two comprised of a more intimate circle. Vienna was a whole different animal in the sunshine, a different planet to the dreary, grey place Goldblum, Ben and I had experienced on that rainy weekend eight months earlier.
I also undertook my first trip to Poland, with around ten of us taking the train over to Kraków. We had a grand old time, with long laughter-filled dinners and afternoons spent drinking beer on café terraces, as horse-drawn carriages trotted by. We climbed the Town Hall Tower’s one hundred narrow steps for a panoramic over the city’s expansive Market Square. We visited the Jewish District too, stumbling upon the old cobbled streets used by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List.
And most memorably, albeit for the wrong reasons, we made the day trip out to the town of Oświęcim to take in the sorrowful sights of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. With its piles of unclaimed shoes, rows of barbed wire fences and haunting train tracks, it served as the ultimate comedown. A stark reminder of the sacrifices made so that I could play out my privileged living-abroad-lifestyle.
For me these months flew by in a sort of dreamy haze. When I woke up one morning to discover it was summer and our contracts were nearing an end, I couldn’t quite believe it. How had this happened? Why had nobody warned me? ‘‘Anybody thinking abut staying, maybe doing another year?’’ I asked one gorgeous June afternoon, a bunch of us stretched out around an Obchodna street café. My question was met with an engulfing silence. Eventually there came a low indistinct murmur from Ben, a muffled unconvincing “maybe’’ from Goldblum. It was there and then that I understood the game was up, that we were running the final furlong of what had been an amazing race.
That night back at the apartment, sitting alone in our enclosed balcony staring out over Dlhé diely, I couldn’t help but think back over the events of the past year. Of my wide-eyed arrival, Jon’s vicious attack, the road trip, company classes across the other side of the country. Of Adminx, Busminx, Beer Bottle Machine and The Snow Abyss. Of all those countless McDonald’s mornings and Slovak Pub nights.
Although I would undoubtedly miss the place, the people even more so, I also understood that it was probably the right time to move on. That our shared experience was a one-off thing that almost certainly couldn’t be replicated with another year. I also had to remind myself that it wasn’t over yet and that I should make the most of the remaining weeks. ‘‘Hey Lignon!’’ called Goldblum, popping his head through the door, ‘‘we’re meeting the minxes at Mario’s, you hungry?’’ ‘‘Yeah man!’’ I called, jumping up. And off we went, the clock ticking down on our great Slovak adventure.
‘Minx Manor’ is the eleventh chapter of my short story series The Slovak Files.
You can also check out my bite sized travel reports from around Slovakia.