The amount of holiday time European nations give their citizens makes American expatriates incredulous and envious. To live in Poland and watch people enjoy 12 guaranteed non-working public holidays, plus an absurd 26 days of legally-mandated paid vacation from work, plus weekends, in just one year causes your capitalistic nerves to erupt with bewildered indignation as you stand before direct evidence that the stereotype is true: the EU is just one big leisure fest, swinging in the hammock with too much heavy petting and wine to manage tomorrow with a clear head and fortitude for the nitty-gritty necessities of proper economic management. This feeling of rough-hewn superciliousness continues to course through your stars-and-stripes emblazoned ego right until the day you drink the Kool-Aid of extra holidays yourself, and instead of dying on the spot, fall in love with the idea and are amazed that America hasn’t followed suit yet.
Extra holidays mean more time for enjoying life, obviously, and goodness knows how many prematurely burnt-out American workers are just three weeks of chilling out away from not going psycho on their co-workers with an M4. This different philosophy, working to live, is one of the reasons why working as an English teacher is an occasional pleasure; around here, you aren’t expected to slave away 10 hours a day with Saturdays until you die of some work-related cancer that your insurance won’t cover. Taking a holiday is now and then expected, and sometimes even recommended. Last month, my boss actually suggested that I skip work to visit the city of Prague for longer. Many American firms would rather fire you and get a new warm body in at the merest suggestion that you could add extra days onto an already-egregiously long public holiday (it’s Socialism anyway!). Maybe this experience will hurt me in the long-run because digging myself into soul-crushing work holes is something I don’t have the patience for anymore, but screw it, I’d rather have to come back to Europe to live and enjoy myself than slave away forever in unrelenting American businesses where profit and output mean more than living your one life well. (Remember, bros and lady-bros, YOLO – Yugoslavia outsources little otters)
For my latest period of vacation indulgence, I spent five days in Slovakia, formerly the butt-end of the spelling bee monster Czechoslovakia. Since the end of the Cold War, this mountainous Central European jewel has been puttering forward, getting its act together along EU lines, and now looks far more developed than its shambolic Iron Curtain incarnation. Like what I’ve seen with Poland, the transport is modern, the styles are all Western, and the youth have a surprising command of the English language and as part of this are obsessed with American culture. The only big difference between Poland and Slovakia that I noticed was that Slovakia is worse-off economically, which means that the youth are also jobless and bored as hell, spending most of their time plotting ways to abandon the beautiful green mountains where they were born and raised.
Going by city, I’ll recount my experiences of the country as I went West to East across its captivating landscape.
Bratislava is Prague’s abused little brother. It’s hard to put this any other way, considering the aesthetics of Slovakia’s new capital and its history as secondary city during communist times. You see, Bratislava was caught in a communist-era planning struggle wherein Prague was to be preserved as the ‘historical’ cosmopolis of Czechoslovakia, while Bratislava was to become ‘futuristic’. So in true communist style, rife with disdain for anything bourgeoisie or pleasing to the eye, the authorities rolled in the wrecking balls and destroyed 90-some percent of Bratislava’s charming old town to install baleful apartment blocks in its place. The tragic result is that Bratislava now has a very wholesome old town about three blocks wide, surrounded by a wasteland of brown and gray rectangles that look like despair incarnate. A few graces happen to save Bratislava from utter ugliness though, and they include the well-rebuilt castle above the town center and the languid Danube river. Taking everything into consideration, I’d say this plain little capital is worth two days of your time, or perhaps three if you’ve got good company. You’ll be able to enjoy far smaller crowds than Prague, which is a bonus that shouldn’t be overlooked.
My introduction to the streets of Bratislava was quite an intimate one. It all started when my backpack became caught in a closing door as I exited the downtown bus, and my desperate push to free myself from the then-departing vehicle launched me head over heels into the grimy sidewalk. Feeling ridiculous for the collapse, I had to laugh in embarrassment, and luckily only two lucky viewers got to savor my disgrace. I sustained a rip in my pants and some smarting bruises on my foot and hip, but thanks to youth I rebounded fast and found my way to a hostel-sponsored pub crawl with a Scotsman named Neil for company. Unfortunately, the pub crawl was marginal as Tuesday night isn’t a very popular night for partying, although the other men in the crawl (Yes, a sausage fest) where replete with over-excited confidence, testosterone, and booze. The night became interesting once the organizers of the crawl, two Slovak college students who were almost as lost as we were, guided our drunken butts to a student party of epic proportions at a university housing complex north of the city. The entire area was infested with piles of rubbish and inebriated young people, and us crawlers were jumping at the prospect of landing some pretty Slovak gal somewhere in the chaos. Instead, we all got too drunk to function and spilled beer over ourselves dancing to bone-rattling drum n’ bass music for a good two hours. It’s hard to chat up people when a 60 hertz sine wave of bass doom turns all your eloquent speech into sonic diarrhea. Nevertheless, I danced until 4AM, at one point moving from the outside party into a club blasting vapid trance music. Once my feet felt like overused anvils, I caught a ride back to the city center on a crowded morning bus while talking to a Kenyan-Tahitian student about racism in Slovakia. As the sun rose, I returned to my hostel and fell dead sleep.
The following day was no less notable. With the Scotsman Neil, we woke up achingly late and ventured up to the kitschy ‘UFO’ restaurant that’s seated upon the top of the bridge connecting the banks of the Danube. The view from the top is quite unforgettable, and you can gaze out into Austria and southern Slovakia on a good day. I’d say the best part is the bathrooms; while you do your business, you can look down over civilization from the large windows that expose everything below to you (and I suppose likewise is true, too). If you miss out on those wonderfully voyeuristic bathrooms, I’m sorry but you have wasted a trip to Bratislava.
We also did the free city tour, as advertised all over travel internet sites, and had to sit through three hours of endless information told by a sporty Slovak girl whose explanations were enthusiastic but lacking in conciseness. Plus, the weather was a scorcher, and by the end of it everyone except for the bronzed Slovak girl was cultivating a gentle sunburn. I had heard far more facts about Slovakian heroes and dates than I cared for, and that’s saying something for a history lover like myself.
After providing the not-obligatory but totally-morally-obligatory tip to the guide, we got some traditional Slovak grub at the unpretentious “Slovak Pub” that really hit the spot (try the bean soup). A nap at the hostel later, and Neil and I were down in the hostel pub debating the relevancy and possibility of Scottish independence in between gulps of screwdriver cocktails. Neil got quite belligerent when I suggested that Scottish independence isn’t seen by all Scots to be a good idea, and somehow we got onto arguing over the necessity of central banks in loud voices that scared off all ten guests from the bar’s basement. Neil’s staunch hatred of central banking and currency not backed up by gold would have made Ron Paul quite proud, though his understanding of the exact mechanics behind money valuation and interest rates was drunkenly faulty (not saying mine’s perfect). In any event, we settled the matter, drank more to forget about it, and then scouted the streets for a good time.
Despite our energy, not one was found. However, as we went pub-hopping along the abandoned night streets of the old town, buying bartenders drinks and wasting about a few days of my wages in the process, a pair of short, overweight prostitutes suddenly pounced on us, grabbing us by the crotches with garbled coos of “YES make the SEX”. I was genuinely afraid that I was about to be robbed blind. We broke free, but the nightstompers found us nearby later and I literally ran by them as they approached, in fear of my nuts. Please, watch out for these predatory chunkers before they upgrade from grabbing bystanders to straight up sitting on them. At that point, none of us will be able to escape with our junk or money intact.
Coming up next: Rural Slovakia and its Magnificent Castles