A Case for Bratislava

A world apart from Paris, my home for the past year, Bratislava is a fraction of the size and has a fraction of the reputation, yet it has won me over entirely.

As I write from the bus to Budapest, the sun is breaking through celestial, gray clouds that wouldn't be out of place in a painting by Vermeer. The light yellow and white light gives a defiant warmth to the heavens that I find fitting over the skyline of Bratislava.

I arrived in the city 24 hours ago, having hitchhiked from Vienna with my Bulgarian friend Vesko (whom I met studying in Paris).

I was trying to force him to pose for a photo with our sign for Bratislava (written on a donut box from a bakery in Hütteldorf) next to a gas station on the outskirts of Vienna. We had arrived a few minutes before and I was still hopped up on the idea of hitching again (see "From Amsterdam to Paris"). Vesko flatly refused to take a photo in his endearing way and as I was convincing him, a minivan pulled up to offer us a ride. I had to laugh at the simplicity -- we hadn't even been trying.

The driver of the minivan was a woman with two children in the back seat -- I was surprised that she would expose her young children to two curly-haired backpackers. They were returning from an overnight stay in Vienna, where one of the boys had just had his first communion. The two boys were feasting on McDonald's chicken nuggets and fries, perhaps as a reward for behaving so well or perhaps as a way to placate them on the hour car ride back to their home near the Slovakian border. Vesko did some card tricks for them during the ride, turning fives into kings and making aces disappear. They followed his movements with saucer-like eyes as they slowly and mindlessly put french fries into their mouths.

The woman, Marie, told us about the countryside surrounding Vienna, pointing out Roman ruins and medieval architecture. What surprised me most (apart from the endless shock that there are buildings that have been around longer than my county's independence) was what she said about the Iron Curtain. Before the collapse of the USSR, there was a border between Vienna and Bratislava separating Western from Eastern Europe. This border consisted of walls with barbed wire and a significant amount of no-man's-land; when it was built, the wall severed the railroad track that had run between Vienna and Bratislava for decades. After the Soviet Union was dissolved and the wall broken down, the line couldn't be restored because buildings had been erected across the former tracks -- it takes more time to get between Vienna and Bratislava by train now than it did in the 1910s.

A friend of Marie worked as a guard for the Austrian border patrol; soon after the collapse, he had a chance to speak with his counterpart on the Slovakian side. The Slovakian man told him that, in some respect, he had mourned after the wall had come down: he realized that his work, that their work, had been "good for nothing." Despite their former duty to uphold the barrier and remain separated, those men were the only ones who could understand one another. They came together and shared in the mourning of their identities which had previously only been defined by their opposition.

I often forget that the fall of the USSR is recent history, that its effects are still reverberating in the identities of citizens in central and eastern Europe. It hit me hard that those peoples' lives had been so fundamentally challenged as a consequence of what we in the United States see as a "great triumph of democracy."

With this new appreciation of history and a deeper respect for the region's sensitive past, we crossed the now imaginary border and entered Bratislava, Slovakia.

I had been warned about the city -- I had heard that it was essentially a poor man's Vienna or a bastardized version of a Western European city. I had been told that the buildings were falling apart, not to stray outside of the city center, and to get out as soon as possible.

What I found, however, was my favorite city in Europe. I found it entirely different from Vienna's clinical and hyper-organized structure -- instead, it's haphazard meshing of language, architecture, and culture was entirely beautiful. The occasional peeling paint and abandoned building only added to it's distinct character.

Having changed significantly over the past 15 to 20 years, Bratislava is a city that has worked to adapt to a globalized world. And despite (or perhaps because of) this effort, I found Bratislava to be unabashedly itself -- a small, central European city that acknowledges its communist past, while still developing beyond it.

After a traditional dinner of goulash and beer, Vesko and I walked along the vacant streets of the city, exploring. I was on the cusp of suggesting that we return to our hostel, but something kept me from it -- perhaps I subconsciously knew that something important was about to happen. We wandered in front of a rather grand building (which we later learned was the Slovakian equivalent of the White House), apparently looking seriously lost and confused.

That is when we met Erik and Zuzana.

I'm generally not superstitious, but the fragility and singularity of the connections made while traveling is almost enough to make me reconsider. If we hadn't eaten at that one restaurant, if we hadn't taken a walk, if I had said I wanted to return to the hostel, if we had taken a left instead of a right... our meeting wouldn't have happened.

There is a saying in the United States that people always meet twice in life; apparently they have the same saying in Slovakia, so I'm convinced that it has to be true. We were lucky enough to meet them once and I am sure that it will happen again.

Erik recently published a collection of poems and finished two novels; Zuzana graduated from her program of costume design for theater this past Monday (congratulations Zuzana). They are creative types, members of the first generation of their culture truly free to unleash their visions on the world without socio-political restriction. It might be for that reason that I was so impressed with them, with their personal investments in doing what they love; years of pent-up creativity have finally been afforded an outlet in a generation (mostly) untainted by the overarching spirit of communist ideology. Of course that spirit still endures in some capacity, but it is now tempered by freedom of thought and speech -- there is room for reflection, criticism, and rumination. In Erik and Zuzana, I saw this particular newness of the latent and rising, creative and youthful culture in Bratislava.

We joined them for the evening, having kindly accepted their kind invitation to the after party of this year's "Urban Market," at which they knew the deejay (of course they knew the deejay).

We climbed up four flights of stairs of a seemingly abandoned Soviet-era building. Erik told us that it was a shopping mall in the 1970s and 80s. It really looked like it had been: straight lines and infinite shades of beige surrounded us on our way to the top floor.

We arrived in the dark rooftop bar of KC Dunaj and integrated with the local crowd of trendy artist-types, hearing no English whatsoever and becoming thoroughly acquainted with the aesthetics of the Bratislavan breed of hipster. From the balcony of this former Soviet mall, now packed with liberated youth, I saw the crisply white medieval castle shining like a testament to the city's distant past. I was overcome by the flavor of the moment.

And that is when I realized what I was seeing: the Bratislavan youth literally dancing on the remains of their country's history. It seemed like a celebration of evolution and decay. It reminds me of a German word, actually: aufheben. It means to cancel yet preserve in a way similar to transcendence, which is exactly what these people have done. They changed the content yet respected the context -- they made something that had formerly been so stifling into a symbol of resilience. The intersection of past and present was set out in front of me so clearly.

Throughout the night, Erik and Zuzana taught us Slovak curse words and affectionately kept an eye on us, making sure that were having a good time in the sea of indie Bratislavans. I couldn't help but smile widely at nothing every so often, just happy to enjoy something so seamless and spontaneous. It was the social equivalent of putting two puzzle pieces together.

At one point, Zuzana told me that the horror film "Hostel" was set in Bratislava. When places like Bratislava, which are detailed so little in the media, are portrayed so poorly, it really matters. I had never really considered that before -- in the United States, what seems like harmless entertainment actually has real-world consequences.

Of course, so much of my experience was pure luck, but I feel that there is also a systemic part of the warmth that I felt in Bratislava -- something inherent to the small city and it's population of 400,000. It's size is often seen as something to be overcome, but I believe that it has invested it's people with a real warmth and willingness to engage with outsiders. But perhaps the most striking feature of the city was the sense of newly tapped creative potential.

I spent the past year in Paris, arguably the cultural capital of Europe, and yet I only met a handful of people creating something new and working to expand upon their cultural license (a personal favorite is a band called Camp Claude). Personally, I wrote in Paris, but I wrote things that I feel have largely been written before in one capacity or another -- who isn't familiar with the American girl-studying-abroad narrative? I was first exposed to such a plot in The Lizzie McGuire Movie and in Mary Kate and Ashley Olson's assortment of adventures on VHS, but it's origin doubtlessly predates those cinematic achievements.

In Bratislava I found myself imbued with a very different sort of inspiration--a consequence of being somewhere so unfamiliar. There's something about Bratislava (something that I hope you can extrapolate from my words) that has gotten me excited about the potential of such a largely undiscovered and evolving city in a way that no other place really has.

Something beautiful is being built there, in that small city with so much to offer, and I intend to be there to watch it become great.