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…
“All packed up?’’ asked Goldblum from the hallway as I dropped the last few items into my rucksack. As exciting as it was to be off on another adventure, I knew this one was gonna be a slog lugging all my stuff around, an unavoidable downside of life as a professional transient.
Taking one last look around the room, I hoisted my bag up over my shoulders, let out a sigh and moved into the hallway where Goldblum was stationed with his own luggage. Glancing up, he shot me a knowing smile before grabbing his trusty brown leather jacket from the hook by the door. ‘‘Let’s go kid’’ he said, reaching for the handle. ‘‘Wait!’’ I called, heading into the living room one final time. The place looked so bare stripped of all our stuff, those little knick-knacks and strewn items of clothing that had made the place feel like home over the last year. From the glass doors of the bookcase, our pet skeleton Cisco kept watch with a dopey grin, a role he’d performed dutifully since the day we drunkenly stole him from the Halloween party at The Dubliner. Allowing myself a wry smile, I couldn’t help but wonder what the new tenants would make of him. After all, he wasn’t David Copperfield.
Bumping along on the tram to the train station, my eyes were drawn to the VHS tape sticking out of Goldblum’s bag; a chunky black wedge of a thing way too big for the pouch in which it had been stuffed. Our movie… my legacy of a year spent living, working and travelling in Slovakia. While the passing years would undoubtedly muddy the memory, I felt comforted by the fact that we’d always have The Slovak Files.
It all began with me filming a few social events on my camcorder, the first of which captured a bunch of us cheering on Bratislava’s Ice Hockey team during a match at Zimný Stadium. There was also a priceless minute or so of The Dobrý Deň Man in action, the legendary local who sold newspapers in the old town. His nasal voice and town crier style greeting (‘‘Dooooobrý Deeeeeeeň’’) could be heard from streets away.
The more material I gathered, the more logical it seemed that by the end of the year I’d at least have a loose docudrama of what went down. And so I began gathering clips of life at the apartment. Rich staggering around the kitchen at an ungodly hour of the morning before work. Goldblum crashed out on the sofa for one of his much-loved afternoon naps.
I was also on hand to catch the pair of them boogying along to the hip beats of BBC World’s finance show Rockin’ Asian Markets. ‘‘Look at that Japanese Yen baby!’’ cried Goldblum, hips a bucking. Then there was the day when suddenly (not to mention inexplicably) the TV got bored of life in the cabinet and decided to throw itself off the shelf. I’ll never forget Rich scrambling around on the floor in a desperate attempt to switch it off before there was an explosion.
Arriving at the train station, Goldblum and I were met by Ben and The Wolf, a German girl he’d been knocking around with during our final months in Bratislava. In truth I was a little annoyed she’d crowbarred her way onto our farewell trip, a matter not helped by the fact that she wasn’t the most sociable creature in the world. Her dynamic with Ben was an odd one to say the least. According to him they were ‘‘just friends’’, but the sexual tension between them was so profound I half expected them to rip each other’s clothes off at any given moment. They would also argue bitterly, getting worked up over a variety of topics such as ‘Being a Vegan’, ‘Single Parent Families’ and ‘Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War’. Whatever the subject, you could always count on Ben and The Wolf holding polar opposite views. Watching them do their thing was in equal parts amusing, frustrating and tiring. Nevertheless we embarked on our Hungary trip in fine spirits, our two-hour train journey ending in the city of Sopron. ‘‘Ah, vacation’’ hummed Goldblum as we sat waiting for dinner on a restaurant terrace, the four of us basking in the welcoming glow of the late afternoon sunshine.
As the Bratislava months rolled by, my camcorder accompanied me everywhere I went and for the most part people seemed fine with it. Even better, folk were generally uninhibited when I pushed record, making for some memorable material. I grabbed a scene or two at The Slovak Pub, shot the various house parties across the city and secured a wealth of material from our cross-country road trip. At some point Goldblum got involved and we began shooting scripted segments, a series of skits, tributes and in-jokes that wouldn’t have made a lick of sense to anyone outside our expat bubble.
One evening at Bill & Mary’s place, we recorded a wonderful spoof of The Shining, in which Bill drives himself crazy trying to perfect the ultimate lesson plan. Mary, in the vulnerable Shelley Duval role, shone as the concerned, tortured housewife.
There was also a ridiculous game show sequence, Who Wants To Be A Minxionaire? hosted by Caroline and featuring a live studio audience (Myles and a couple of people who happened to be standing around). Ben and I starred as rival Minxology professors going head to head on Minx-related trivia, our ludicrous board marker goatees alone making it worth the watch.
Elsewhere there was a series of acts focusing on Goldblum The Butler, the Dlhé diely house servant with a skill for getting “Master Rich” and “Sir Lignon” out of sticky situations. ‘‘Excuse this interruption sir, but there is a girl at the door who claims you impregnated her’’.
And of course how could I forget the film’s concluding scene where Rich, Paul and I make a Trainspotting-esque sprint for the bus after receiving an eviction notice from The Bratislava City Council. An enormously fun project, Goldblum and I had a blast putting the film together, though technically we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Although hugely entertaining from start to finish, The Slovak Files remains a clunky editorial mess laughable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of sound filmmaking. For me this just added to its charm and was symbolic of the ramshackle nature of our colorful twelve months in Slovakia. With the movie finally ready to be unveiled, we took great delight in announcing its world premiere, scheduled for a house party at our place up on the hill.
After a few days lounging around Sopron, Goldblum, Ben, The Wolf and I journeyed onto the equally sleepy town of Veszprém where, mooching from café to café, we lazed about some more. Eventually we mustered up enough energy for a hike up to Castle Hill for dinner and fine views over the surrounding countryside.
Encouraged by the warm evening air and our ice-cold beverages, we looked back fondly on the events of the year and shared our plans for life after Bratislava. Ben was going back to England where he’d secured a summer job teaching Belgian teenagers at an English Language Camp. Having only recently arrived in Slovakia, The Wolf was heading back to Bratislava, while Goldblum would be touring Italy for a few weeks before returning to Tennessee. As for me, I was a man without a plan, a deer without an eye, a Scooby without a Doo. This unresolved issue of what to do next remained very much on my mind the next day as we left Veszprém for the nearby city of Siófok. One of Hungary’s most popular tourist resorts, we settled into a small chalet on the southern bank of Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake. Staring out over its still waters from a lakeside café, it suddenly hit me hard that in just a few days we’d all be going off in our separate directions. With Goldblum napping next to me in the sun and Ben and The Wolf bickering over which sandwich belonged to who, I realized I needed to come up with a plan of action. And fast.
‘‘Slovak Files! Slovak Files! Slovak Files!’’ they chanted, beating the floor with their fists. ‘‘The natives are getting restless’’ muttered Goldblum, dimming the lights. Our living room was packed to the rafters with expectant cinemagoers; half the crowd already well on their way to tomorrow morning’s hangover. They inhabited the sofas and our small collection of chairs. They spilled out onto the carpet where they sat cross-legged, beer cans, wine glasses and snacks dotted around their feet. Latecomers meanwhile had to make do with a standing space in the kitchen, peering over shoulders and between heads through the open door. The screening had been pushed back an hour after a series of power outages (what were the odds?) threatened to derail the evening altogether. With electricity now restored and the last of the flustered apologists inside, it was finally time to give the people what they wanted. And so a huge cheer erupted as I picked my way through the assembled bodies to our beast of a VHS Player. Stooping down and only just avoiding knocking over a bottle of scotch, I held my breath, searched out the desired button and hit play.
On the 8th of July 2003 we celebrated my 25th birthday on the banks of Lake Balaton. Feasting on a giant picnic with beers from a local supermarket, I was in great spirits as rays of gorgeous yellow-orange light reflected across the water from the setting sun.
I got a Hungarian football shirt from the group (I forget which team) and a scribbled note from Goldblum that fifteen years later still makes me smile, despite the intense wistfulness that always comes with reading it. ‘Dear Lig,’ he wrote in his spidery scrawl, ‘May QPR prosper, Bus Minxes flourish, Štúrovos diminish and all be well with you’. We ended up staying out late; well into the morning when the chilly air forced us back to our chalet. In many ways I wish the trip could have ended right there and then, but alas there’d be one more strange, disconnected day to get through before we parted.
The Slovak Files went down a storm! There were drunken whoops, drummed floorboards, a rattling round of applause and people congratulating me with kind words, hearty handshakes and boisterous backslaps. During a triumphant after party we handed out the various Golden Honza Awards, Mary memorably picking up Best Actress for The Shining sequence. She seemed both pleased and slightly embarrassed to receive her trophy, a plastic doll Goldblum had skilfully transformed into a lookalike of Honza, the school’s grizzled Czech owner.
The general merriment stretched out into the wee hours, Goldblum and I ushering out the last few die-hards after making a grim discovery in the toilet. Somehow the lavatory had gotten completely blocked and the situation was so dire we had to call a plumber, who extracted a number of offending items including a large tampon! The resulting bill seemed outrageous and we never did find out whom the tampon belonged to, though I’ve always had my suspicions.
The final day of our Hungarian adventure started out well. Thanks to Ben I’d luckily landed a job alongside him at the summer camp in England! One of the teachers had pulled out at the eleventh hour, Ben put in a good word and suddenly I was in, no questions asked. But while I was consequently in great spirits, a tense atmosphere had begun to descend over the group, slowly souring the day.
Ben’s squabbling with The Wolf had begun to get tedious and Goldblum was of the opinion that they should stop farting around and “get it on”. ‘‘It kills me to see two people who’ve got something waste it like this!’’ he exclaimed during afternoon beers, ‘‘make it happen!’’ Ben, smoking silently with narrowed eyes, couldn’t have looked more apathetic. As the day wore on and with more alcohol consumed, Goldblum continued to press his point, this time with impassioned references to ‘‘true love’’ and other well intended but misguided sentiments.
It was all starting to get a bit odd. With late afternoon melting into early evening, Ben and The Wolf decided to escape for a few hours and do their own thing. So Goldblum and I took a walk down to a local fun fair and by the time we returned to the chalet a few hours later there was no sign of the other two. It was only then that we realised they had the key! We ended up waiting outside for over an hour, during which Goldblum grew increasingly irritable. When at last Romeo and Juliet showed up he went crazy, accusing Ben of being selfish and antisocial. I was speechless; I’d never seen Goldblum get angry, he was one of the most laid-back guys I’d ever met. Settling down for the night in an atmosphere I could have cut with a knife, I lay awake in the darkness wondering what the hell had happened. Why exactly had Goldblum gotten so worked up about Ben and his lady friend? And was he really so angry about the key thing? My only theory was that, like me, he’d become unsettled by what was essentially the end of a huge life chapter. With such thoughts swirling around in my mind, I barely slept.
‘‘Well kid… I’ll see you down the road again sometime’’ said Goldblum the next morning, the four of us assembled on a platform at Siófok train station. It had been a quiet, cagey morning of few words, not a reference to the previous evening’s fallout. Ben and Goldblum shook hands like rival politicians and there were polite kisses and hugs with The Wolf. When it was finally time for me to switch platforms, I turned back one last time at the top of the stairs. There was Goldblum crouched down on the stone floor, static and pensive, god-knows-what going on inside his head.
‘‘Hey Jon!’’ I called, shaking him out of his trance, ‘‘Good times!’’ He smiled and raised a hand, the green light I’d somehow needed. Trotting down the steps towards whatever it was that lay ahead, I began my long journey home.
‘The Slovak Files’ is the twelfth and final installment of my short story series The Slovak Files.
You can also check out my bite sized travel reports from around Slovakia.