Back from Europe. Travel Post #1 of ??: Bratislava

(First of more than one post. Looks like I might be working backwards from Day #9 of our trip…)

How often do we completely miss what’s right in front of us?

We need guides.

(That’s what a great professor is for, right? To help you see what’s most important and powerful in a discipline? To help you enter into its practice and culture… begin comprehending its rules and conventions and the reasons for them… discover what it hopes to accomplish, and be? Matthew Crawford talks about the irreconcilable contradiction between Americans’ individualist contempt for authority vs. the true mastery you only earn by first surrendering to someone who’s spent a lifetime at it. But that’s a post for another day.)

Whether it’s a discipline or a place, the more unfamiliar your surroundings, the more you need a guide. In Bratislava, Slovakia, we had a great one: Andrea of Be Free Tours.

I’d heard of “Free City Walking Tours” before. No reservations or strings: you just show up at the appointed place/time, join the tour, walk with your local guide for 2-3 hours, and then pay whatever you think it’s worth.

Of course, showing up isn’t always easy when you’ve never been in the country before! We arrived at the Bratislava main train station just fine, for merely 16€ each, roundtrip, thanks to the ÖBB’s amazing “BratisLover” train deal. Then we had our share of wrong turns, confusion, and steep staircases to climb in a hurry. (Hint: don’t write the meeting place in a tablet app where you might erase it. Use pen and paper.)

Huffing and puffing, we found the tour just as it was getting started – right down the street from the U.S. embassy. (Recognizable, as usual nowadays, for its forbidding gates and security personnel.)

The meeting place: a massive statue of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav. Had I happened upon on it alone, it would’ve been just another unfamiliar, stolid European face and body, atop yet another name I couldn’t pronounce.

(Wikimedia's photo was better than mine.)

(Wikimedia’s photo was better than mine.)

But, because I had a guide, I came to know him as a courageous poet who promoted Slovak culture in an era when the nation’s rulers were aggressively discouraging it.

And because Andrea was my guide, I learned that — as a national hero — his difficult poetry was part of the mandatory school curriculum. And I learned just how much the kids in Slovakia hated to study it.

Later, I stood in a nondescript little square, above rusted pipes leading down cement stairs to ratty public bathrooms:



But because Andrea was my guide, I learned of the days in 1968 when Soviet troops marched into this very square… and a local photographer took the photo of one man facing down a tank right here… and I learned how the Soviets tried to track down his magazine in those offices right there… and how that photo was smuggled out to show the world just what was happening here.

bratislava tank man

Without her narrative, I would’ve noticed only the rusted pipes — and the Subway sandwich shop across the street. (We see what we know.)

Beyond politics, because I had a great guide, I learned how it feels to be a young woman in Slovakia on Easter Monday. That’s the day tradition tells boys to soak women in freezing cold water. And it’s the day tradition tells girls to give those boys gifts in appreciation of the attention that’s been “poured” upon them.

And I learned how it feels when Easter Monday rolls around and you’ve got to explain all this stuff to the female exchange student living with you.

From our funny, empathetic guide, I got a sense of the national insecurity that can go with being a small country much of the world is only dimly aware of. Once the smaller half of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia now stands proudly independent, but it’s often confused with other parts of the former Yugoslavia. (“In 2005, George Bush was making a speech about us. We were scared he was going to confuse us with Slovenia, because he did things like that. But he got it right. If he had mixed us up, we would have understood, because lots of people do. If I’m somewhere else and I’m asked where I’m from, I know it’s going to be a long conversation, best done with a map.” *

Says Andrea, Slovakia can occasionally be hilariously concerned with attracting positive outside attention. Or with countering negative portrayals, such as Eli Roth’s notorious Hostel, wherein backpackers meet a particularly gruesome fate here.

(The movie was actually shot elsewhere, Andrea assures us. Local authorities hoped to coax Roth into a visit, aiming to convince him that Bratislava is actually a wonderful destination — full of fascinating history, great architecture, and warm, welcoming people. He wouldn’t come. I’m not sure there’s a screenplay in that! But FWIW, she totally convinced me.)

Walk a city’s streets, but do you know what its citizens think about them? See a city’s monuments, without knowing the stories their builders intended to tell? Or the stories those monuments tell now (not always the same)?

See a city’s restaurants, without knowing its rumors? (Why was that Carlton hotel closed so long? Did one local chef really poison his rival’s powdered sugar?)

Share a city’s paving stones with people whose struggles and hopes and fears and ironic jokes are invisible to you? We loved Barcelona and Madrid last year. But, even knowing that Spain is suffering terrible economic privations, we noticed very little unemployment, misery, or even ennui. It was there; how did we miss it all?

(Andrea made sure this didn’t happen in Bratislava. We wouldn’t leave without knowing that a teacher makes 500 euro per month regardless of seniority; that rent often runs 300 euro, and that day-to-day living costs can be a lot higher than tourists think.)

Mom and I tag team. She starts talking to strangers. She never thinks: “They don’t want to talk to me.” Sometimes she completely misses the body language that says “I’m busy, go away.” And practically every day she comes across someone who’s really friendly and ready to share, if you truly care about them (and, as I keep marveling to you, Mom totally does, and totally shows it).

Once Mom and “whoever” start talking, I can jump in with a hopefully intelligent question or comment based on my vast storehouse of usually irrelevant knowledge <grin>. (Knowing something about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and 1914 has come in very handy here, where those events don’t seem quite so distant.) Then, we’re off to the races.

So, on the short Vienna-to-Duesseldorf hop of our flight home, we met a 32-year-old guy and his sister on their first visit to New York City. He’d been born in Sarajevo, and escaped in the 1990s when Bosnia was going up in flames. His family moved to Austria with just the clothes on their backs. He freely shared his experiences: what it’s been like for them, what Sarajevo’s like now. (I found myself thankful for the affordances of a life in a boring and verdant American suburb. The apocryphal Chinese insult came to mind: “May you live in interesting times.” I hope you never do.)

In exchange for his friendly candor, I offered a few ideas for a week in New York City (fun neighborhoods, subway tips, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, Shakespeare in the Park).

Practically everyone’s a guide to somewhere. (You, too.)

Anyhow, this new strategy sort of works for me, and (true cliché) travel is about the people. I’m fighting my own introversion because I hate being that hermetically-sealed idiot tourist who’s told when to get on/off the bus/boat, where to look/not look, and where to buy cheap sweatshop souvenirs made 7K+ miles away. That’s why I want no part of your typical canned tour.

But, as Mom (and Rick Steves) have helped me understand, it’s one thing to travel on your own. Practically any fool can do that. OK, it’s cool that I can master any subway system in just a few days. (If it uses the Roman alphabet. I doubt I’d do so well in Cyrillic or Chinese!)

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I traveled a lot of cities alone. Toronto. DC. San Francisco. Portland, Oregon.

I rode the transit systems… read the newspapers, wall posters, graffiti… visited parks, supermarkets, local bookstores (which were everywhere back then). I got to know those cities about as well as you could without actually talking to anyone. Looking back, it was kind of an autistic way to travel. I totally mastered certain visible aspects of those places. But if it was emotional, intangible, unwritten, it didn’t exist.

I wafted through those cities like a ghost.

Way harder and better, of course, is to actually engage. In the future, you know I’ll be looking for more Free City Walking Tours (and I recommend them to you unreservedly, just as I recommend you do a LOT of traveling). And I’m learning, after all these years, to appreciate the amazing resource that is Mom on the road.

Maybe someday I’ll even start one of those conversations.

(Photos and more reflections to follow. After some clients have been served.)


* I am embarrassed to admit that I did what George W. Bush did not do. After rehearsing all week to get it right — and carefully, accurately filling out my customs paperwork — when the US customs agent asked me which countries I had just visited, I said “Croatia.” Andrea, I apologize.


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