This is the first chapter of the book I’m working on now. I am a little over half finished, I think, and hope.
This country feels like home to him now. A peculiar feeling, surprising each time it appears. Striking him again as the eastern train pulls into Hlavna Stanica, Bratislava’s central train station, ending the dark and quiet approach through its concrete suburbs. He never imagined living in a place like this; now he has lived here for almost three years. He has wondered if he will always live here. Because of her.
His name is Paul Christian Collins. (His older brother got stuck with Tom.) He grew up on a ranch in a northern Colorado foothills town with a compulsion for living somewhere else. Typically American: rootless and disconnected, he longed for a nameless past, always wondering if something better lies elsewhere. Are there memories of some ancient Slavic world in his genetic code to account for an immediate affinity for this particular place and this particular way of life? Or is it simpler than that? Is it just her?
Sunday. He’s on the last train out of the mountains, where we spent a snowy weekend hiking together. Staying low because there was avalanche danger on the high trails. He talked only about her.
The train is filled with sad students returning to their schools from weekends in towns and villages east of the capital. Taking laundry home more often than not. They disgorge from the station amid loose gypsies and shabbily dressed businessmen with cheap briefcases; some suits as shiny as a lounge singer’s. Crowds flow around an old woman dancing with a mop in the center of the lobby. Stragglers bump with perfunctory apologies into passengers leaking through creaking and often stuck doors. Smudged, dirty panes of glass and an overcast sky disguise the time of day. Taxi drivers hustle less than halfheartedly. Winter-grime buses hulk outside the nondescript station, leak exhaust. He could take one home, but since it is not so cold, he walks. Paul’s apartment is just over a mile from the train station. A layer of cloud retains the city’s residual heat, the temperature above freezing now. His backpack carries dirty clothes from the weekend in the mountain village, where he first lived when he came to this country, and where I live. An old rucksack, he’s had it since high school, rides on his shoulder like a brother.
He is tall and rather Nordic looking, with a short beard and hair resembling straw scattered by the wind. He is sort of handsome, notable by his unawareness. Thirty-three now, he dresses older and not like a Central European; he is still something of a cowboy.
Two men of suspicious intent follow him from the station halfway to the main street. He knows they are back there, probably thinking to grab his pack, which he carries loosely over one shoulder. He enjoys this. Every foreign thing is still an adventure. The pack contains one book and dirty clothes. If he did not want to lose his favorite rucksack, he might let them snatch and grab, then laugh all the way home thinking about the disappointed petty thieves pawing through his dirty clothes. But it is his favorite. When they are close, he stops and turns. Smiles knowingly. Says in Slovak: “This not to be easy like you wish.” One mutters something in Slovak too fast for Paul to completely understand, but containing mostly curse words, the other gives him the finger. They turn around and return to more productive crimes around the station.
The sidewalk is dry. Still slushy streets spotted with ubiquitous candy-colored Škoda cars. Alongside rise crumbling derelict buildings under lengthy, maybe endless, renovation. A city stumbling headlong toward a future Paul believes will never actually be reached in this neglected backwater of Europe. When he first saw the city it seemed to epitomize the entire history of hopelessness. Hopeless because for eternally inexplicable reasons, Communist rulers promoted a system that set about not only to self-destruct, but to inculcate self-destruction as a virtue to every person under their control. This misfortunate legacy left Central Europeans, suddenly free to chart their own course, unable to make up their minds, to figure out if they want to lunge into the future or hasten backwards as fast as they can.
While waiting to cross Bajkalská Street, he watches old slow clunkers resolutely blocking the way of racing BMWs, symbolizing the national dilemma.
She is like that: Daniela Tolárová, who prefers Danika. She clings to the unchanging life of her home in a village called Hnilčík, barely large enough for its population to string enough houses along both sides of an old road to extend two hundred meters through the smooth valley. Her flat in the city has not a single piece of modern furniture. She often dresses as if the century that just turned was the 20th, not the 21st, while at the same time she has a university degree in business and talks about standing for political office so she can help shape her new nation’s future as it bumps along toward reintegration with the West. She believes Slovakia will be invited to join the European Union, and fumes when Paul says fat chance.
He is home by eleven. Unpacks. Dirty clothes go into the clunky little washing machine, where there are other dirty clothes. He won’t run the machine at this hour in consideration of his downstairs neighbor, who is about a hundred years old. He is not able to figure out how to make it run less than ninety minutes. If he could find one that could fit in the available tiny space, he would like to buy a dryer. (Clothes draped on racks and over radiators dry like cardboard, and often smell of stale steam pipes.)
He’s not sleepy, but too lazy to go out again. Go where? He has class at eight in the morning. With two fingers of whisky in his only decent tumbler, a birthday gift from her, he flops on the sofa with the text for the Intro course. It is called: From Socrates to Sartre. He chose it for the reasonably simple language and concise overview of such a plethora of complex ideas, and because it’s a paperback, more affordable for his students, who call the class “S to S.” Tomorrow they’ll finish Aristotle.
I’m happy with this. Thank you for taking the time to read it.