BRATISLAVA – Here in one of Europe’s least-known capitals, I don’t come across many groups of young foreigners who actually live in Bratislava. Not like in magnetic Prague. If my ear serves me right, I’ve identified packs of university students here from places like Spain, Greece, Israel and the Middle East.
Since I don’t speak their language, I can sit in a cafe and enjoy people-watching from a distance without actually understanding what silliness they’re roaring about. I can also concentrate and get work done. A pleasant combination.
Tonight, though, I’m in a smoky cafe, and the only available table is cozily next to a trio of Westerners. Speaking English. Loudly. The two guys seem to be Brits, the woman a Scandinavian of some stripe.
They seem well-meaning, curious enough to want to explore Europe. They also sound too seasoned and familiar with each other to be back-packers … Wait, there’s talk of summer break. University students. Studying theater.
Their coarse language, though, is becoming noise pollution. I can barely block it out. The only reason I’m out working late is to push forward an article I’m writing about the Kosovo Roma refugees withering away in Macedonia.
One of the fellows is on my nerves with graphic detail about his jiu-jitsu trainings. How graphic? Well, I’m hearing way more than I need to hear about what exactly it feels like to be kicked in the head, or taken down hard.
If I were out for a beer or two, maybe I’d ask a few questions. Like, why the hell anyone would want to do that to their brain. But tonight I’m into a pot of jasmine tea – and this close to relocating my laptop.
(If there were an empty seat, of course.)
Now the guy’s describing his summer plans for Amsterdam (yawn). The woman impatiently cuts in. “Well, we’re planning Budapest, then Sofia, then Istanbul.”
“What’s Sofia? Is that a city?”
“Yeah,” she says, pausing. Now she’s straining to think. The third guy doesn’t give a damn either way.
“Yeah, in Bulgaria.”
Well done. Nice forehand. The Bulgarians will applaud that one.
His return. “Istanbul … isn’t that Turkey?”
She responds with more authority this time: “Yes, Turkey … no, wait, I’ve confused them: it’s Portugal. Yeah, Portugal.” From the corner of my eye I see her nervously pull on her cigarette. “What? What’re you looking at?”
The Brit looks flustered. “No, it wasn’t what you said. It was how you said it.”
Mercifully, the second bloke steps in to jerk the conversation away, back to his deep interest in dirty jokes.
Later, it strikes me: everyone out there loves to bash the Americans for their general ignorance of geography. I’m not here to defend it, but to highlight one observation over the years: plenty of Europeans (and Chinese students, too) struggle to distinguish their Slovenia from their Slovakia.