BRATISLAVA — I’m out working late tonight, still trying to clear a backlog of assignments. But I can’t resist sharing with you the cast of characters I just passed in my 10-minute walk to a downtown cafe.
Why? Because for the Slovakia-curious – I know you’re out there, admit it – it’s a quick snapshot of Bratislava’s reality. The Good. The Bad. The Pitiful.
First up, I see a young couple near the corner of Lazaretska and Grosslingova, my home street. They’re holding hands, smiling, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. (Or at least pretending to.)
I haven’t yet seen any touristy, “Bratislava Is For Lovers!” t-shirts. More popular is any reference to Slovak beer. Or its consumption. However, the public mating ritual is certainly a constant around here. And a nice antidote to the politics that tries to poison relations between majority Slovaks and minority Hungarians.
Next, I see a young boy of 4 or 5, gliding on a pedal-less wooden bike beside a middle-aged man, who could be his father or grandfather. Slovaks seem to enjoy their children, especially heading into the great outdoors en famille.
Moreover, Bratislava is not only the capital, but the hub of economic, intellectual and cultural life. You see several generations of the same family here, as in, original Pressburg families. Then there are all the folks from the countryside who came here for university, pursue a career, or simply hunt down any sort of available job. Eventually, some bring their parents here as well.
That means lots of grandparents watch their grandkids, while mom and dad are working. Heart-warming to see, speaking as someone whose kids unlucky not to have grandparents on hand. Warts and all.
Then, I see an older businessman, dressed casually in pants and sweater, leaving the corner art galeria. I must admit, I’ve yet to step in there, because it always looks like it’s still being set up. This reminds me how much turnover I see in shops and hang-outs around town. Many Slovaks seem to have a taste for enterprise, but some are clearly a bit too over-enthusiastic, doomed by their lack a smart business-plan.
Like our neighbor, who ambitiously opened a cute little kitchen-appliance shop on our quiet side street. He has some real specialty items, even some retro Communist-era pieces that elicit a comment from my Hungarian wife: “My mom used to make galuska in a pot like that,” referring to my favorite dumplings, preferably drowned in paprika-cream sauce.
I hate to say it, but I see the owner out on in his doorway, smoking a cigarette, far more often than I see an actual customer in there. We’ve bought a few things in there; my mom and sister even bought a piece when they came to visit. But there’s a limit to how much we can subsidize a mere appliance store.
Back to the streets tonight. I turned left onto Dunajska ulica. Or if you must, Danube Street. That also brought an end to the charm. I walked past a new three-floor, glass-and-concrete commercial development, which at least fills in the gaping hole in the ground since we arrived four years ago. A few of the street-level boutiques already gleam, but just across the street is a derelict little playground, its gate locked and grounds weed-infested. The plot is connected to a closed-down pizzeria that I won’t miss, as it made pizza the way you or I would. Throw on top a slice of this or that, here and there.
So, I won’t mourn the loss of that eatery. But it sure would be great for the kids to have another green space to run around. Last time I was in there, I remember seeing shards of broken beer bottles on the grass. Hey boys, let’s kick the ball around!
On the sidewalk, two ruddy, weather-beaten young Slovaks walk toward me, perhaps in their thirties. The tall blond one is wearing a white baseball cap, which makes him look like a drunken golfer. They duck in behind the pizzeria gate, in a small nook next to a computer-software office. I wonder what they could be up to. But really, this thought is only fleeting. To say I’m surprised to see them unzip and pee through the fence, well, that would be untrue.
Seriously, what level of civilization do you plummet to where you can’t hold it until you get somewhere with a closed-door pisoar? Even worse, perhaps these guys really have nowhere to go: maybe they’re among the young homeless I sometimes see around the city. There aren’t many, but you see them now and then. And other homeless who sell the street newspaper, Nota Bene.
The cringe is still on my face when I come across another young couple, standing in front of the ethnic-Hungarian Magyar Gimnazium, talking to an old woman with stringy hair and a shopping bag. Striding past, I catch sight of the woman closing her hand around a coin she beggared from them. She gushes with gratitude, but the young woman turns away, uncomfortable.
Lastly, my eventful 10-minute walk ends in the downtown, one of the primary arteries thanks to its Tesco shopping center and multiple tram stations. Bummed out, where else could my legs take me but to the Café Pressburg – a decision that salvages the trip.
The café adopted its moniker from historic name for Bratislava. Pressburg always conjures up the multi-ethnic, 19th century city that once had long tram-line all the way to the Habsburg capital Vienna. (Today, when I successfully dodge the no-nonsense Austrian border police and traffic cops, I can reach the regal heart of the capital in a one-hour zip along the freshly built autobahn.)
The Pressburg is dark and windowless, with enough seating for 20, max. The kind of smoky spot that always guarantees I’ll have to change out of my reeking, nicotine-permeated shirt the moment I get home. But that’s not the main reason that it’s far from the most popular place: it also shares a bar with the adjacent gambling parlor, with its seven slot machines and single roulette wheel. From the outside, that gives off a whiff of seediness. It’s more sad than anything, watching the sad-sacks plugging coin after coin into those slots.
Tonight, though, reminds me why I like this joint. The wood-paneled interior offers up sepia images of the good old days of a bygone era. Which probably weren’t that good, anyway. The waitress, though, also offers up a pleasant smile, rare for herbreed. At least, until I loosen up the server with a bit of my mangled Slovak. (Butchering suffixes works like a charm.)
Only one customer in here right now: a 50-something guy with a grey moustache, drinking an espresso and chain-smoking. Emboldened by the waitress’ smile, I strike up a chat with the customer: What’s he watching so intently on the TV, high in the corner? A Slovak version of Judge Judy, with plaintiff, defendant and sharp-tongued judge. At least it seems sharp. She’s going way too fast for me to follow.
I ask him if it’s “popular” – one of the big-ticket items in my Slovak vocabulary. “People watch it,” he says with a grin. And it’s on five times a week! That must say something about Slovak society. If only I knew what. Perhaps I ought to try and meet the show’s creator. Or the judge herself.
Anyway, this fellow is obviously a devotee of the show, so I leave him to it. He leaves half-way through the nightly news, which includes a car theft caught on videotape. Imagine living that down the rest of your days: an entire lifetime reduced to a 30-second clip that will survive eternity on YouTube.
The waitress asks where I’m from, which naturally leads to the revelation that both of our fathers are Hungarian. Just another warm little experience that perfectly illustrates why I enjoy this city so much.
[A postscript: For those of you who read to the end of this – minimally, I hope it’s my kids one day – I want to note this column was inspired by the travel writer Bill Bryson. I’m now reading his 1992 book, “Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.” He’s an entertaining writer who lays the smack-down on Liechtenstein like no chronicler before him. Mr. Bryson, I can only emulate you.]