Bratislava is a funny place. Both funny-strange and funny-haha.
According to the Lonely Planet/Rough Guide, “You meet all kinds of people when you stay in hostels.”
This, of course, is a lie. You meet the same kind of people over and over again in hostels. Young, middle class people. You can probably further divide that group into “young middle class people who want to experience every different kind of alcohol available in Europe (AKA Australians and the occasional token Irish)” and “young middle class people who really earnestly want to experience every different kind of culture available in Europe (AKA Canadians and the occasional token Yank)”, but really, it’s a fairly homogenous group.
Except for Bratislava. I felt horrendous when I arrived in Bratislava. I still had the sinus headache of doom. Getting a bus from Vienna to Bratislava (60 km. World’s closest capital cities, for the trivia devotees) was harder than it should have been. Then I couldn’t find a working ATM, and had to walk from the bus station to the hostel because I had no Slovakian currency, then when I got to the hostel I found out that since January 1 2009 Slovakia’s currency has actually been the Euro, of which, of course, I had heaps (well, enough for the tram fare between the bus station and hostel).
So checking into the hostel, I asked for a place in a smaller dorm, making a guess that it would probably be empty, since most people opt for the cheaper, larger dorms. And I was right, and I had one glorious night where I coughed and sneezed and generally recovered to my heart’s content.
And the next day, I got out and had a look at Bratislava, and felt much better and more cheerful. Plus, I bought a massive packet of paracetamol for 40 Euro cents, and of there’s one thing that makes me happy, its cheap drugs.
I arrived back at the hostel about 10pm. And I had a room mate. She was a middle aged woman, and was unpacking her things on the bunk opposite mine. I walked in and said hello. She kind of grunted in return. No problems, I thought, and went about plugging my phone in to recharge, and generally getting ready to shower.
After about 15 minutes of silence, she spoke.
“They tell me you are Australian.” Indiscriminate European accent. Big on piercing, unsettling eye contact.
“Yep! Although, actually, I’ve been staying in England…” My enthusiasm for relating my life story and recent adventures was quickly dampened by her withering look.
“Australia. That is where the English sent their thieves and murderers, is it not?”
“Um… some of them, I guess.”
Really long silence.
“I do not want to have to call the police. But I will, if you make me.”
“Um….” I am genuinely confused at this point.
More silence. Unsettling eye contact.
Finally, I get it.
“Um, I’m not going to steal from you, if that’s what you mean. Is that what you mean?”
“Of course that is what I mean. Do not act dumb.”
I kind of tried to laugh at that, thinking it was some kind of elaborate joke. Yeah, it wasn’t.
First she tried to accuse me of stealing her coat hanger when she went to have a shower. Then she found her coat hanger, and for some really illogical reason, that made her trust me enough to talk at me for 2 long hours. During this monologue, she claimed the following:
*To be Slovakian (actually, she claimed to be Czechoslovakian, and I wasn’t about to argue the Velvet Divorce)
*To be Finnish
*To be Swedish
*To be a high stakes gambler
*To be a casino attendant
*To be a forensic psychologist
*To be a child psychologist
*To be a narcotics officer
*To be unemployed
*To have just moved to Bratislava
*To be very high up in the Bratislava police force
*To not trusting any police force anywhere in the world, as they have all been infiltrated by the mafia
*To be on a book tour promoting her work in child psychology
*That it was impossible that neither of my parents were English (“but you are white!”)
*That the English had caused World War 2
*That no Australians had fought in World War 2
*That there is a conspiracy of extremely wealthy people who run the world
*That the reason they run the world was because no one is made to study philosophy any more (actually, to be far, she could have been any number of opinion writers at that point)
She also kept asking me the time, saying her watch had been STOLEN (meaningful eye contact). I kept checking my phone to tell her the time. Then she unplugged my phone from the room’s only socket, saying I had been using it long enough. I tried to make the best of the situation, and asked why she didn’t use her phone to keep track of the time. She exploded at me, asking what sort of idiot thought phones displayed the time.
It was at this point that I made the decision to sleep with my keys in my hand.
In hindsight, I really should have asked to move rooms, but I was kind of… enthralled? And then it got kind of sad, when she mentioned that she had a son, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with her (I mean, who knows if its true, but it was still sad), and when she showed me a draft of the book she was “promoting”, which was an A4 display book with about 5 pages of pictures of sad looking children printed off the internet. And at that point I would have felt guilty for fleeing, so, I erm, stayed.
Because of the exciting mix of delusion and paranoia in my dorm, I made an effort to spend as much time out on the streets, experiencing Bratislava, as humanly possible. And what Bratislava offered was a little bit less development then most European cities (not sold on kerbs and gutters, for instance), but a much better sense of humor (ARE YOU READING THIS, SWITZERLAND???).
For example, it has the most random statues I’ve ever seen. And the ugliest bridge. And the locals will point out the ugly bridge, and say, “isn’t it the ugliest bridge you’ve ever seen?” and not be embarrassed or apologetic but kind of impressed by the hideousness. And I went and saw an exhibition of suggestions for improving Bratislava, and someone had taken massive photos of important landmarks in Bratislava, and just Photoshop-ed in Bret and Jemiane from Flight of the Conchords, and it was strangely BRILLIANT.
Bratislava is also home to the Slovakian National Gallery, which is a bit if a non-event, as far as the art goes. But the curators obviously realize this, and instead just try to make you laugh. So, in the “Slovakian Gothic Art” hall they had all these religious paintings and panels that had been removed from Gothic-era churches, and then had a series of black canvases with little skulls. And you think, well, it looks like it was painted by a Cure fan as part of their Year 10 Visual Arts project, but it certainly is Gothic, and I’ve no doubt its from Slovakia, so, um, yeah, why shouldn’t it be in the Slovakian Gothic Art hall?
And then in the Baroque hall, there was a massive canvas showing St Peter at Heaven’s Gate, with cherubs and clouds bustling around, and next to it, someone had installed an indoor climbing wall, and labelled it “Stairway to Heaven”. And, once again, all I could think was BRILLIANT.
Basically, I think Bratislava may have always suffered from not being Vienna, and not being Prague. And I think that it does what many have decided to do when they’ve suddenly realized they’re not the most beautiful or most intelligent of the group – to be the funny, or quirky instead.
So, basically: Bratislava = Central Europe’s Jan Brady.