There is always a kernel of wistful reverie within me about the city of Bratislava, the country of Slovakia, and the Tatra mountains, but I suppose this recent intensification of those memories and the reverie stimulated by them comes from the now complete immersion in the novel that has its setting there. The world outside the mind becomes suspended, bracketed out, as the phenomenologists like to claim, for a writer writing a novel as much as for the reader reading a novel; or it will if the work is good. With pen in hand, paper receptive, I am no longer sitting in a café in Buenos Aires, but am transfigured in mind and body to the place and the people of the story, so that I am shaken to look up and see the brick walls, the wide and high windows, the tables and chairs, the young woman with her laptop, my favorite waitress, and not that distant tarn in the valley between the treeless ridges and avalanche chutes where I have just helped recover the body of a fallen young solo climber. Not I, but he — Tom Valen. But when I am in his head, we are the same.
But you must love a place where a little hut on a mountain hiking path offers daily (Ponuka Dňa) things like (from the top) apple cider, mulled wine, grilled chicken, Christmas punch, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, alcohol and non-alcohol drinks, and last but certainly not least, “a pretty waitress.”
This is more a Tatra mood than a Bratislava mood, since the story has been in the Tatras now for some months of writing. The novel has two parts and an epilogue. Part One is set in Bratislava (with a short side trip to Udine, Italy), and Part Two is set in the Tatra mountain villages of Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnicá, which are quite close to one another in the string of small villages that line the front of the Tatra range on the Slovak side … the other side is in Poland. My novel, Possessed by Shadows, is also partly set in these places; the new work, And It’s Only Love, is the sequel to that novel.
My first visit to the Tatras for hiking and climbing was in the winter of 1990, twenty years ago now.
But let us return to Bratislava for a little while. Our first visit to the country, known then as Czechoslovakia, was in the early autumn of 1989, and we left from that visit barely a month before the Wall came down and the country had its first real vision of living with freedom since before the first World War. We had not a single suspicion or hint of what would happen the month after we left, as we watched it unfolding on CNN from our home in southern California. This picture is a recent monument to those who were murdered while trying to make their way to the West across the Danube River border, the border post still visible in this picture, the post with the red cap. Inside the posts displaying symbolic bullet holes are lists of the names of those who were killed there. Ripped bars in the center symbolize the breaking out to freedom.
This was the first Bratislava we visited, gripped in the fist of totalitarian political control. It took six months for us to get a 14-day visa for this visit.
I know this border. One day during that first visit, we were visiting Hrad Devín, the ancient Roman castle fortress high on a cliff where the Morava River joins the Danube, and running alongside the riverbank was the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. There is a narrow paved road along the border, on the river side of the road, twin strands of barbed wire with a ten meter kill zone between the strands, along with border posts with armed guards and dogs every few hundred meters.
We, our friends and their two children pictured in the previous post, were in two cars, our rental car picked up in Vienna, and their rattling old green Škoda car. P and the two kids, O and T, were with me in the shiny red VW rental car; my wife, Holly, was with P’s husband E in the little green car. We have left the castle ruins and are driving back to their flat along the border road.
At some point, Holly, who has not even yet stopped wondering what the hell she could have been thinking, stuck her camera out the car window and took a snapshot of one of the border posts.
We didn’t get another hundred meters before encountering two border patrol soldiers with AK-47s pointed directly at our cars, ordering us to stop. One went to the green car, the other to our red car. Holly had been seen taking the picture and they wanted her camera, at least. Much discussion ensured among E and P and the guards; meanwhile, the kids in the back seat, who were still children, couldn’t figure out what was going on, since as children they had been shielded from the reality of life in their country.
This gun-waving and arguing went on for a long time. Then, quite suddenly, it was simply over; the guards laughed, everybody shook hands, Holly’s camera was saved, and we went on our way.
P, back in the red car, is immediately apologetic, but I told her I thought the fault was clearly ours, it was a stupid thing to do. But P said that’s not the only reason she felt bad. She was sad and embarrassed by what she had finally told the guards to break the tension and get us released. I wondered what that could be. She said, “I told them you were just stupid Americans and didn’t know any better.” What’s the problem with that, I wondered? Since it was obviously true.
A few years later, Bratislava would become our home.
The couple in the middle are P and E from the border story. I am in the hat and the blue nightgown. On the right is CS, our best friend now living in Costa Rica. This street is very old, although I could be wrong in my memory of how old. I think it has been a city street in this town, with few changes, for a thousand years.
At this moment I would love to again be walking down this street, to turn left just at the next corner, go about fifty meters to the next street, turn left again onto Michalska ulica, and stop at a café and begin my work morning. Instead, I am on my way now to Mama Racha in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires. But were I in Bratislava on this street, I might see LG trying to shield her face with her bag when she sees me raise my camera.