Our train rolls out of the city, matchboxes and trees and village houses peeling away from us, the stepped hills sliding softly by like green waves. And the train chuckles and sings to us. I have missed these trains. My sister and I, each with a notebook and pen, smile contentedly--not at each other, but from the deep gratification of contentment, of "this is the way it is meant to be." Together, training through to the mountains in this country we love. "Krajina moja srce," (country of my heart) as a fotobook of it I have at home says. Though, I think, it is not the only country of my heart.
I love watching the houses and flats as we pass by; buildings whose faces I would know in the dark like a lover; their lines, curves, and textures just right. Just right like being on a train at all. Weekends in highschool, taking the train country to country, home to home, german to slovak to german again. My world. A familiar world. In dreams I often wander and grow lost on a train, but the lostness is beautiful to me; the lostness I carry back out of my dreams with me, into the whole of my life. "To live without roads is one way not to be lost." (naomi shihab nye)
Once I tried to make sense of my world by mapping it out like the metro. Places I have lived or studied and the paths I moved on between them--marked time. Languages in subtext. They were to o equal for a painless answer. I am a child of many worlds, a voice of many tongues. I then decided that the map of me lies in the people I have met and known. My story, dissolved across the world into other lives and tales.
Just the other day, I returned to the church my family engaged in here, expecting to find three or four friends and instead, there was a convergence of time and people I know even from the very earliest memories of this place and people of my later years here came. It was like pieces of my life for a moment brought together. Such a lovely surprise.
How to describe to you my city? The last summer I spent here is five years gone. Gone Perhaps "ago" is better here, for I think of that summer still. Living in Slovakia. Working in Vienna. Making radio programmes. Writing intensely and trying to "find myself;" find how my selves from all thse different worlds were supposed to be one person living in peace when the worlds themselves don't get along; exist as polar opposites. Remember travelling by bus across the continent, ferrying across the Channel (white cliffs of Dover rising!), travelling to London for interviews. Remember the hot summer days when the air itself sizzled on the black cobbles of the city (Bratislava, not London), and burned my soles as I spent hours alone downtown, meandering through galleries, reading in the University Library, documenting in pictures I've since lost that world I loved. I love.
The buildings of downtown, old next to new. Old even to the time of the Roamns and before--Celtic farms once--new to very current and noisy, sweaty construction that smells like cold water somehow. A growing city. Moving and morphing. Do you know how many names and in how many languages this city has been called?
Shades of fading paint, peeling through to cement peeling through to old brick--layers and layers. The old old wall of the Old City, one length still standing. Remaining destruction from Napoleon--even to a cannonball still wedged into the tower of our Old Town Hall.
Art everywhere. Grafitti on most every surface (though usually, respectfully kept off the Old Town district buildings). Fascinating art installations--a display of Slovak wines through cask art. Who knew? Statues--Sir Roland. George and the Dragon. Hans Christian Anderson. Hviezdoslav. Famous poets and political saviours.The fomentors of Slovak national identity (which is relatively new and an ancient land. I grew up in the shaping and making of the nation itself.) One summer, enormous fotoraphs from around the world hanging like sheets around one of the squares. I wished then they were my fotos. I wished the resolution of my camera was good enough for such blowups. One summer I paced around searching for art institutes to which I could apply for study.
The old wall of the Old City heading around to the last remaining old gate--Michalska Brana--St Michael's Gate. My favourite part of the city. You pass through the arched gate under a beautiful copper topped tower and enter the Old City--opening before you is a cobbled streed lined up and down each side with cafes. People spill out like flowers from a basket, littering the chairs and tables with their colours and their lovely varied words. At night it is most beautiufl to me. Van Goh's painting of a city street of cafes by night always makes me thinkof this street. It captures just the right atmosphere, vibrancy, and glow.
From nearly every point in the city you can see the castle rising high on the hill, its largest tower facing west to Vienna. Crown jewels were once held there, in the time of teh Austro-Hungarian empire. Empress Maria Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette) would come and hold court there, so the houses of the nobility drape the surrounding hills. The empress was so fat that she rode a horse everywhere, so when you are in the castle you will note how wide, deep, and flat the stairs are for the sake of that unfortunate creature.
Across the way is St Martin's Cathedral, where through history many Hungarian kings and queens were crowned. One of the villages where my family lived was most often Hungarian, so there all the statues and inscriptions are in that language.
I remember when the first shopping mall came to the country, a chink the dam. Now we have many, nestled new into the old. I took my youngest sister (whom I'm now travelling with!) there for her first salon haircut. We went after to the lake next door, rented a paddle boat, and jumped off in the middle of the lake. Our clothes so heavy clinbing back aboard was nearly impossible, and her newly styled hair washed flat... but our dripping and laughing moment was perfect.
We have another lake with crystaline waters to which she and I biked nearly ever day one exquisite summer I was home from university. 7 km. This week we plan to bus to that village and then walk out there as we no longer have our bikes here. But we want "our" lake. Apples and cheese and water and sun.
There are several mountain ranges in this country, and one is beginning to grow in the distance now. Beautiful. I forgot how blue the green here is, and in these hills and mountains and across the whole of this little country are over 180 castles and castle ruins.
Nature is iportant here. Even in the city, most everyone has a garden plot outside the city limits. No yards, just gardens. Land that is beautiful and will nourish you.
I love teh poppies here. The further we go today, the more I see them. So red and delicate. When we had to say goodbye to friends moving away, it helped heal our grief to stand in a field of poppies--a field of bleeding red--the visualisation of our hurt like a balm, soothing us.
In the near distance right now are some smaller moutnains that I would almost swear I climbed a few years ago! No way to know, though. I didn't even know then wehre I was.
It's funny the way things affect you. When we were young, my olders sister and I lived to read. Books, and certainly english ones, were ahrd to find, so we read everything we could get our hands on--reading, as a result, things far too old for us. For instance, storeis of war and desolation and rape (which we couldn't understand except that it was dreadful) and pillage and torture in Europe. Reader's Digest "Drama in Real Life" and book excerpts were especially good for that.
When we moved here, those storeis ripe in our heads, and our parents' american-instilled fear of anything communitst filling our world, we made contingency plans. How to escape when war started, when the new country collapsed, when nazis or communists took over again. We gave our parents up for loss--with their terrible language acquirement and heavy accents, they could never hid, blend in, or escape. Taken away, tortured, and killed But we would survive. We mapped our various escape routs out of the country--over thsoe mountains, through that river, and then... We covered who and how we would be responsible for "the children," (our siblings). I made them practise scaling walls and walking fences, and tried to teach them the art of dodging bullets (though, in retrospect, I realise mudballs shoot very differently than bullets and shrapnel.) In my dreams our parents secured us in an orphanage right before being taken away from us.
It didn't help those wild and rather uneducated speculations in that time that the government here was, in fact, still sorting itself out and rather unstable, relatively speaking. At elections iwthin our first year, there was widespread concern over a coup, we were given to understand. Many expatriots had their bags packed and emergency exits and rendezvous planned out. I remember climbing up my apple tree in the orchard of our first house wondering what morning would bring the night of elections. Fortunately, it brought none of those negatives.
It also didn't help that within our first year and a half there also occured the impeachment process of Clinton (causing our vulnerable and imaginative minds to disbelieve our parents' claims that the USA was safe and stable) and the nearby war in Yugoslavia. By the time of the bombing in Kosovo, we had friends there who were hiding in basements and shelters. Friends who didn't evacuate and we stopped hearing news from. Our house constantly shook as bomber jets from a nearby base in Hungary flew over our hosue on their way to unlaod issiles (on our friends!) and traffice was stopped in the streets from long lines of tanks filing by, achingly slow, along with supply trucks and red cross vehicles.
it is so funny in this odd way to recall all those fears.
Political scientits talk of how soccer united Germany after the wall fell, off if not for taht, what would have happened, who knows. Here, we ahd a similar experience when the Slovak hockey team won its first gold medal. Of course, we had played long and won games before, but not as Slovakia separate from Czech Republic. it was the single nation of Slovakia's first win, and the country went crazy. We all went crazy. It was really the first display of nationalism by the new country, according to everyone. Even to the 1800s, the Slovak language wasn't considered much more than peasant speak as opposed to a national language. Ludovit Stur was one of those behind the birth of Slovaki nationalism through the language. I think that is something very special about my experiences, something difficult I wouldn't trade, and something of the bond I share to this place; that I was shaped into my person with teh shaping of this place into a nation.
I was thinking again now of Bratislava, and of the peeling pain, and the old with the new, and even of teh buildings you still find bullet holes riddling the walls of. And I think, one of the reasons I love that place so much is its story. Hours of reading its history, years of walking through its history in the streets, and a life that is part of its history, however unrecognised. I love how my story is wrapped into its larger one. I love the way that its deep history enriches my life even now, when I live so far away from it.
I don't know that I would ever again live in this place; I have too much of too many other places in me so that this one always has and always will be just a little two small to fit right--but I love that it has a place in me.
One of the lovely things about here is the code of courtesty. It has always been awkward to mein the States how you are in waiting rooms, for instance. Here, you say good morning or day to everyone before sitting down. Here also, on the train, before entering a compartment (if you need a visual here, recall the Hogwarts Express and how Harry and co are alwas in their own compartments), you ask for permission by those already in there.
This one woman who just sat down in ours saw me writing here and complimented me on "what lovely handwriting you have." I am quite delighted by this (though my sister says it has, in fact, gotten worse!)
I was thinking how long has passed since last I wondered here. 10 years now since I was up in the peaks of the Tatras. 7 years since last I travelled deep into the heart of the country, up towards Poland and east towards the Ukraine. This, I believe, is poetry. That last summer, I stayed with some14 others in the Fatra mountains (smaller, rounder mountain range) at a chata (pronounce the "ch" like a voiceless "k") (chata's are like a rustic cabin or cottage). One afternoon one of the girls and I took a long walk, losing ourselves deep in the fields picking wild blueberries and mushrooms, and then looking out for bears as we found our way slowly back through the black forests, our mouths blue and happy. The mountains themselves were shades of blue and the fields bright green and the valley golden and deep green. Beautiful. I think there is a degree to which this place is like the Sea; it gets into your veins and runs through you so you can never forget it; never quite catch your breath from wonder when you're by it.