One Friday Afternoon in Bratislava



BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.


Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather.


Or perhaps it’s the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I’ll draw the line.


But suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment for the city than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.


As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.


First, I park my car near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If there’s one thing the public has learned from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)


Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.


Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.


She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. Dripping sarcasm – at least, that’s how I hope my broken Slovak sounded – I asked loudly, “Is that your space?”


Her eyes grew wide, realizing she’d messed with the wrong X.


“No, I paid for it!” My rhetorical timing was spot-on.


She sputtered apologies, slipped into her car in record time, and vamoosed.


Today, fortunately, there’s no such nastiness. My spot is just as free as I left it.


Closing the door, I inhale a chilly lungful of the city’s pollution-free air. Which is rare for Central Europe. Car ownership was once primarily the domain of Party cadres, but today it’s the most essential post-Communist status symbol. Sure, the newfound freedom of speech get most of the ink, but Central Europeans now also cherish the freedom to sit in traffic and pollute the skies. (Hooray for democracy!)


On the left, the warm, Western-style Corny Café, run by a mixed Slovak-Hungarian couple – a fine example of inter-ethnic tolerance in a region that needs more of them. With their outlets, wireless, Greek salad and the best strudel in town, what more could a freelancer like me need? However, since I’m in there too often as it is – who wants to be that predictable? – today I’ll walk 10 minutes to a favored downtown café, to do a bit of writing.


On the way, I skirt a couple shmears of dog crap. (Pooper-scooper laws? You’re joking.) For fun, they’re hidden among the fallen yellow and brown leaves. When we walk about town, much of my time is consumed by monitoring the sidewalk – with radar-like precision of a mine-sweeper – to ensure none of our kids steps, um, afoul. (So help me if that stuff is tracked into the apartment … and onto our carpets.)


Past the century-old Gamča gimnazium, tastefully restored to its Art Nouveau grandeur. While I saw the Chinese, in both Hong Kong and the mainland, neglect historic neighborhoods, my eyes tell me the Slovaks are doing a commendable job of preserving what they can.


I spot one of the city’s growing number of homeless. With thick glasses and curly black hair, he hawks copies of Nota Bene, the monthly street paper produced by a local NGO. I’ve interviewed the NGO director, so now I know that giving the vendors money without taking a copy – as I’d done previously – undermines the effort to rebuild self-esteem. Instead, it reinforces their sense of beggaring. Pay the 1.4 euro, take a copy, so they feel they’re working for their wages. Even if I can’t fully decipher the Slovak.


No purchase from this fellow, though: I already bought the current Nota Bene last week from another tragic figure: a young, bespectacled woman who could easily be mistaken for a university student.


Continue past graffiti-scarred walls a flower shop, book store and a hole-in-the-wall kebab-gyro stand, its fumes at once tempting and sickening. Soon, I’m into the small downtown, which borders the similarly sized Old Town.


Again I’m reminded how much I enjoy the wide-open spaces of Bratislava, one of the European Union’s smallest capitals. Hong Kong never lets you forget you’re in a city of 7 million. You know what? It also feels like 7 million. With my long legs and strides, I’m forever trapped in bumper-to-bumper sidewalk traffic, up to my chin among Chinese. I love Hong Kong’s vibe, but the crowds and noise pollution are relentless.


Bratislava, in the starkest of stark contrasts, has a population of just half a million – a low-key half-million, at that. Unsavory interruptions, like here and here, give the place a rough edge. Journalistically, such eruptions also keep me tuned in. (And if I can sometimes turn a buck from that, what’s the harm?)


One-third lives in the bleak, low-rent blocks of flats in “Petrzalka,” across the Danube. In one of my first Slovak-language lessons, the teacher taught us the word “ugly” by using it to describe her Petrzalka housing. (That also turned out to be one of my first lessons in Slovak insecurities.)


In the heart of the city, the sidewalks are so wide – and relatively empty – that our sons scooter effortlessly around pedestrians. Even with our toddler daughter riding gunshot with her elder brother.


Downtown, I stroll past an old woman hunched over so far I barely see her face. I’m not sure, but she looks like the woman I once saw in lively debate with herself over coffee and cake. Walking onward, I hear a shriek behind me that echoes off the five- and six-story buildings. Yep, that’s her.


These are the extremes of post-Communist Bratislava. The nouveaux riches belong to exclusive health clubs, send their kids to private school, and brunch at posh hotels on Sundays. (If we didn’t enjoy the same clubs, schools and brunches, I’d get more self-righteous about this.) Meanwhile, the homeless are mostly ignored, mentally ill codgers roam the streets, and alcoholics snooze on park benches.


Speaking of the inebriated … Outside the downtown shopping center is a quartet of Slovaks, two men and two women, their faces pruned and puffy, weathered by the harsh elements. One man is jabbing his finger in the chest of the other, talking loudly enough that other pedestrians turn to look. If only I could understand their animated chatter.


Inside, I ride the shopping center escalator upstairs, to the Julius Meinl café. I’m not a fan of mall cafés. I’d much prefer the Mom-n-Pop cafés, or the Mafia-owned spots, for their various charms. But the Meinl illuminates daily life in daytime Bratislava. It’s the best place to people-watch and study an authentic cross-section of an ordinary weekday.


Some are working, some aren’t. Friends, colleagues, or clients, chatting over espresso or latte. Young mothers, too. One recent morning, I watched an older father, son and toddler grandson nurse their drinks. When the son spooning his latte foam off into the toddler’s mouth. Too bad no one has a camera, because that was a photographic moment. Then straight to Facebook.


Even more eye-catching, it’s not unusual to see socializing pensioners stop for a coffee, maybe a brandy. Or co-workers swing by for a coffee, maybe a brandy. Or old classmates re-unite for a coffee, maybe a brandy.OK, that’s an exaggeration. Some drink tea. Or beer.


The staff has warmed to me, as that laptop-lugging foreigner who tips generously. (They may see me as a sugar-daddy Westerner spraying the cash around, or the customer who makes them wonder why their compatriots are such tightwads. Could go either way. When in fact, all I want is for Slovaks to love me!)


Serving me espresso today is a new waitress with the expressionlessness of someone who clearly erred in choosing the customer-service sector. Or, perhaps the real story here is that there are few appealing options for a young woman like this.


I immediately notice she has what my old friend Brooks once dubbed the “raw potential” of many Slovak women. Bratislava, per capita, boasts a rate of attractive women, young and old. (I’m trying to make this sound as scientific as possible, to avoid an argument with the missus about me blogging thoughts that are best kept private.)


Most of these women live in moderation, dignified. But some – visibly – live hard in the here and now: smoking heavily, tanning intensively, with plenty of product slapped about the face and hair.


If this bleach-blond waitress were transplanted to Western Europe, a few stylistic flourishes might make her stunning. Instead, with baggy eyes and bronzed, leathery skin, she’s halfway to haggard-ville.


Her gaze turns to a customer who hobbles in, assisted by a cane. He’s middle-aged, with a prodigious bushy-black moustache. That bum leg, supporting his substantial pot belly, must keep him out of work: it’s only 3:30. Yet he soon polishes off a massive Tiramisu, plus a latte topped with a mound of schlag.


Plenty of people here slowly drink themselves to the grave. This is a different kind of death-wish.


So, that’s 30 minutes. Of an ordinary Friday afternoon in Bratislava. I could go on, but the weekend’s almost here. I need to bring pizza home for the kids – and grab the Corny Café’s last few slices of strudel.