Retracing Footsteps (Impaired Blogger Alert!)

Jan. 5 – Bratislava, Slovakia

Think of a place in the world that was important to you long ago, but you have not returned to. Where would you go back to visit?

The cloud cover was low as my train made its way north from Slovenia, through patchy snow, in the Austrian Alps. The Slovene announcements gave way to lilting, Austrian-inflected German as we headed towards Vienna. Two connections into Austria’s capital, with Africans and Turks prominent in the railway stations, and finally to Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.

I’m here, yet again because of a sport connection, staying with a former colleague from way back. For six months, as a university student, I was an intern here for the World University Winter Games. The experience gave me a taste for the joys of the out-of-the-way, and I made contacts that influenced my future career. It was over a decade ago, and I was curious to see how the place had evolved, how my memory matched reality, and maybe even how I had changed.

A major storm had blown in from the North Sea, leaving unfriendly gray skies, high winds, and drizzle, but it was a great day for me. Bratislava is not a big place, but I wanted to do more than see the sights. I went where I lived, worked, bought groceries, and socialized some 13 years ago. My first stop was the university phys-ed campus where I had roomed. It had not changed much but the walls were painted differently, the ghoulish skeleton cabinets no longer in the hallways. Most pleasantly, I ran into a professor I had worked with and we had a pleasant chat in his office (and later this evening at his house – see impairment alert above).

I walked along the fast-flowing Danube back into the old city to the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Thirteen years ago, it was careworn, but now looks the very model of a modern business hotel. It even contained the Canadian consulate, which I checked out on a whim. No one was there, but the guestbook lay open beside the Canadian flag. I flipped through its pages, with entries from Tillsonburg, Ontario, Osoyoos, B.C., and reached a stunning entry; Patrick Okens, Aug. 27, ’98 to Feb. 27, ’99. It was not my handwriting, but that’s definitely when I was there. Cool but weird – I signed in again, and maybe I’ll be back in 2025 to do the same.

I checked out the Tesco grocery store. Back then it was crowded and played hectic techno. Now, it’s more spacious and played the Thompson Twins as I strolled through the deli department. I made my way through the charming old town, with its cobblestones, square, and artificial outdoor skating surface where I had mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. It was more touristy than I remembered – clusters or Japanese and Americans clutching guidebooks and cameras. I had lunch at the “Dubliner” pub, where as a student I drank much more than I now can, while inhaling tobacco smoke and learning barroom Slovak. On I went, via the rickety “elektricka” tram to my old office, a gloomy highrise in the new town, now surrounded by sleek commercial towers that sprung up after I left.

How has the place changed? There’s new stuff around the old stuff. How is my memory? Pleasant surprise, it’s pretty good and I found the old stuff as I remembered it. How have I changed? I weigh the same, drink less, and know more.

Four Countries, Three Trains, One Hangover

Dec. 27 – Budapest, Hungary

Not that I expect any sympathy but yesterday I finally bore the full brunt of Slavic hospitality. After a trying day at Auschwitz – Birkenau, I retreated to Krakow with my new acquaintances for a last night in the old town. A friendly group of Poles deployed their country’s full alcoholic arsenal (flavourful beer, flavourfuller fruit liqueurs, flavourfullest “sweet bitter” vodka) on a Canadian whose best drinking days ended long ago. In an English-Polish-Slovak-Russian mashup, we earnestly discussed Polish history and politics, relatives in Mississauga, and general consensus that “Ukrainian border guards are bastards”. Feeling generous, I did some German-English translating for a Swiss father and son who bellied up to the bar.

It had been many moons since I had combined alcohols so recklessly, and my hangover started even as I headed back to the hostel from the last pub. I sat down, blunt-brained, to write on the most sensitive of topics, then turned in for three hours’ sleep. I awoke to one of those “I’ll never do that again” mornings that I was certain were part of my past, packed up and headed to the train station.

Vicious and persistent, the headache conducted guerrilla strikes against different parts of my skull as the first train ambled through the Polish lowlands to the scruffy town of Katowice, and then as the second shook its way into the Czech city of Ostrava. Waiting for the final train connection in Ostrava, desperate for cranial relief, I ate one of those pitiful sandwiches you can only get at a railway station, and a whole bag of potato chips. This helped, but I still cringed a little when the stout, mustachioed old lady asked for assistance carrying her bags (apparently lead-filled) onto the train to Budapest. Rolling into Slovakia, a pungent, mouth-breathing family trio lumbered into the wagon and sat behind me. I buried myself in a book, but their blather distracted me still, as did the last hits of headache. It was only once the train reached cavernous Keleti station, nearly empty, that my 17-hour hangover finally vanished.

Tired but no longer mentally incapacitated, I will start exploring Budapest tomorrow.