This is my favorite city, and I have been to a whole lot of very nice cities around the world, including as a limited sample from Europe: London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Zurich, Athens, Istanbul, Prague; virtually every major city in the United States; and a limited sample from elsewhere: Saigon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, and lately Buenos Aires. Of all this, it is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, that fuels my nostalgia for a place.
We visited Bratislava first in 1989, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain and a provincial capital within Czechoslovakia. We visited again after the Wall fell, spent a couple of Christmas holidays with (then new) friends, stayed there for a few months over the winter of 1991-92, then moved there in 1994, staying until the early spring of 2001. Since then we have returned many times for visits with friends, and to hike in the Tatra Mountains, in the northeast of Slovakia.
One of my novels is largely set in Slovakia and Bratislava — Possessed by Shadows, and the novel I am writing currently — And It’s Only Love, is the sequel to Possessed by Shadows, and takes place entirely in Bratislava and the Tatra Mountains. No doubt having spent so much creative energy in writing about the place enhances the natural nostalgia I feel for it.
Here is an air shot of Bratislava Castle and much of the old city. The population of Bratislava is less than 600,000, and very many of those people live in old Communist style leftover “housing estates,” that fringe the city, and dominate the other bank of the Danube; Old Town is compact, strikingly beautiful, and very old: the city is not too far short of having its 1000th birthday, or maybe it already has.
To be accurate, most of Old Town is not visible in the picture, it is just to the right side. The silver building on the cliff side between the two sections of red roofs is the Slovak Parliament, home to some of the most corrupt and myopic, self-serving politicians on that side of Washington, DC.
There are two conflicting possibilities when trying to describe my feelings for this city. One is that it is impossible to say everything I would want to say about Bratislava in a space such as this, even in a space less than a book about it; there is just too much I would want to describe, so much I would want to explain. The other possibility is to say nothing, or very little, and just offer photos with captions. I cannot do here the former, but would like to offer more than the latter.
Bratislava is literally packed with cafes, restaurants, and pubs. That is part of what made daily life there so pleasurable for me. The citizens of this city enjoy life in cafes and pubs, which are almost always lively, noisy, and full. On nice days, I enjoyed the sidewalk tables, because there is no parade of startlingly beautiful young women anywhere in the world that can match the one in Bratislava’s Old Town. (There is a clear and obvious reason that so many of the most gorgeous runway models and cover girls have last names ending in -ova.)
Here is beautiful young woman who could often be found writing in a journal in this Bratislava tea house. If you click to enlarge the photo, you will notice the incongruous Green Beret soldier coming down the lane. (The server in the orange top needs to eat more pizza and drink more pivo.)
For writing, I preferred to be inside — no one could actually concentrate with so many young girls in their summer dresses strolling by constantly. I liked a cafe called Gremium. I also used it to meet with students during my required office hours at the university where I taught philosophy for more than six years. But actually, I didn’t work on any novels while I lived in Bratislava; teaching dominates one’s thinking, takes up too much mental space. So all I did was keep my usual daily record of thoughts and activities in my journal, maybe what the girl in red is doing in her journal.
People in Bratislava read. Almost everyone you see on a bus or tram or in a cafe or sitting on a city bench or lying in the grass of park will have a book or a newspaper in their hands. Cultural life is taken seriously and flagrantly enjoyed. But it is still possible to say that about many cities in Europe (and virtually no cities in the USA).
In fact, there is nothing in Bratislava that is not duplicated in cities of its size and prominence all over the European continent. So why this city and not any of the others? This is why …
This is our adopted family and our best friends. The younger two are the daughter and son of the couple at the end. They were small children when we first met them, now they are adults with their own families and careers. These four people are why we think of Bratislava as home.
If I live long enough to write a memoir of my adult life, they will be the stars of the story.
This ends Part One of the nostalgic reverie. I’ll take this up again later.