I’m fondly re-acquainting myself with Old Town and downtown Bratislava: more and more posh stores and trendy cafes are mixed in among the 18th-century architecture and Communist-era concrete boxes. But they also mask what continues to be a harsh economic transition for many ordinary Slovaks, Hungarians and others across the region.
I loved Hong Kong, but Bratislava is a city about as unlike Hong Kong as it gets. Bratislava is home to a mere half million; Hong Kong is 14 times that size, at 7 million. In Blava, my boyz can scooter their way around the inner city with barely a pedestrian collision. In HK, some sidewalks grow so crowded, you can barely hold onto your child’s hand. Here, only the occasional siren or power-drill ruptures the tranquility. There, the streets were so frenetic and noise pollution so great, our infant daughter reflexively began screeching as we approached busier boulevards.
Bratislava’s cobblestone paths and paved sidewalks are now slick with snow and ice. While several cafes and restaurants have shuttered since last summer, several others have renovated, with several newcomers opening up. So many are now laptop-friendly; over the past three years, I’ve certainly done my part, every day, to promote this 21st-century lifestyle.
Other things haven’t changed. The typical Slovak waiter or waitress stares at you stone-faced, asking in Slovak what you want. But the off-putting expression quickly melts into a smile upon hearing you utter a few words in their mother tongue. After all, from a country of five million, only four million are ethnic Slovak.
Like the Cantonese-speaking Chinese, who are taken aback that any gwailo – or “ghost man” – would ever try to decipher their language, Slovaks seem surprised that any foreigner would even choose to live here: one of the European Union’s smallest capitals, overlooked because of neighboring Vienna, Prague and Budapest. To then flatter them with a stab at their language, well, that’s much appreciated by the natives. Just as it was when I left, not a day goes by that I don’t elicit a smile or two through my tortured Slovak.