Cafés

A holiday at home

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Home. Heimat. Domov. Hogar. Maison. Hem. Huis. Where is your home? A difficult, if not impossible, question for perpetual vagabonds. I usually say simply that it’s where my stuff is. So right now my hogar is in Mexico City. Before that, my hogar was Buenos Aires. Before that, my home was Georgetown. Before that, my heimat was Berlin. Before that, my huis was South Africa. Before that, my domov was Slovakia.

I was born and grew through the childhood years in the small southern Arkansas town of Magnolia, and left there never to return at the age of seventeen. After that, I lived all over the place for short periods of time. The longest any of these places could be called home was eight years in Coronado, California. Second place on the longevity scale are the seven years in Slovakia. Then comes about four and a half years in Berlin. Then almost four years in Buenos Aires. Possibly the next casa will be in Rome.

With a vagabond history like that, I suppose one ought to be able to pick a favorite and claim that piece of earth as home. So, I choose Bratislava, Slovakia.

I have no rational explanation for this. In the same way friends can look askance at one’s choice of a lover or a mate and whisper, “What does he see in her?” “He could have done so much better, look at the choices he had.” But you’re in love, and has anyone, from the poets to the philosophers, ever explained love? The emotion of love is as close as it gets to making any sense of the human need to create gods — reason falls mute in the face of feeling. Passion always outweighs reason; passion has won every battle it has ever had with reason, and always will. A passionate life may lead one into tragedy, but it is all that makes life vital. Who would want to live without it in his life?

For sixteen days this month, my wife and i returned to Bratislava to visit friends and, importantly, to take a European break after some six years living in Latin America. (It took two days before I got over the fear of drinking water from the tap and the joy of not rinsing fruits and vegetables in a mild Clorox solution. What a simple thrill to rinse my mouth from the tap after brushing my teeth.)

I was a university professor during our years in Slovakia, and during those seven years had probably a thousand students pass through my classrooms. Over the years since, I have become personally close to some of them. One of the best parts of this trip was seeing how they looked in their 30s instead of late teens, what professions they entered, who they married, who they divorced, children or not. I met most of them where we used to meet when I was their teacher — the pub.

We stayed in the home of our oldest friends — not only oldest Slovak friends, but oldest friends period. They have and are having a tragic year, and we wanted to make our love and our presence known in this time. That is the fundamental reason we chose Slovakia for this annual holiday. Sometimes what you need to do is just be there.

So much for the preamble. The rambling preamble, at that. Here are some of the pictures.

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With Betty Masek, one of my smartest students, who got married, had babies, living a long time in the States, then returned to live in a house in a small town.

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The anachronistic pub where I spent most days — very fast free WiFi, not to mention a luscious variety of whiskies — and where I met the few ex-students I could find.

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Tomas Beno, who was one of the most creative students I ever taught, with his girlfriend, Tatiana … okay, okay, yes I know, she’s hot!

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Along with Beno and his girlfriend, Tatiana, I’m with the smartest student I ever taught: Diana Urickova, who seems to be abandoning the business world for a life as a sailboat skipper off the Dalmatian Coast.

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Mirka Nacinova, who was my most exciting and at the same time fragile student; now the mother of two, living in Prague, a photographer and screenwriter.

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In the old town, where people have walked these cobbled lanes for nearly a thousand years. There used to be a dingy but interesting bar downstairs from the wall on the right, but it’s gone. At least they didn’t put another McDonalds there.

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The main promenade leading from the coronation church to the National Theater, enjoying one of the most spectacular autumn days one can imagine, or hope for. The buildings on the right side house a number of embassies: German, Czech, and at the end, American.

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By the window in the Julius Meinl Kaffee, where I went when it was coffee I needed more than whisky, watching a couple of girls trying to pick up a pig.

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Besides watching the utterly silly parade of marching tourists passing by, this was another good reason for hanging out at the Julius Meinl Kaffee.

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We did not stay in the city, but in a small village at the western edge, bumped up against the borders with Austria and Hungary. On my daily journey into the old town, on the good old #91 bus, this is the way I walked from the house to the highway to get the bus. It was a deliciously foggy autumn morning when I took this picture.

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Sometimes I got off the bus one stop before the Novy Most (new bridge) and walked across the Danube into the old town. The oldest part of the city is to the left, just out of this picture. The Danube is rarely blue, by the way. Turgid and brown would have made a better title for Strauss.

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One day, walking to the bridge, I noticed this little display where local junkies shoot up. Most interesting to me was the array of homemade needle injectors.

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A study in contrast. In the main square of Bratislava.

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Riding the good old number 91, heading from the village to the stop at Novy Most, which abuts old town. I think I see where I might have picked up the case of flu I came home with.

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“I write because nobody listen.” The writer’s anthem. Although these days, what do you do when nobody reads?

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This made me happy, being the symbolicky stary otec (symbolic grandfather) to this little girl, who lost both her grandfathers this year. Mia gave me the most smiles this holiday.

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With my darling Paula, and reading “Year Zero: 1945” which appealed to my curiosity, since I was born that year, and wondered if my life began at year zero.

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If we did not suffer, how would we know joy? Dumb ass question. Suffering has no value. I lost my old friend Edo this year, Paula’s husband. I wrote about him in a previous blog post. I finally had a chance to share with him a glass of fine Mexican tequila, and toast our quarter-century of wonderful memories. RIP my old friend.

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My girl. With Michael’s Gate in the background.

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My girl again. Crossing the Danube on the new bridge, with castle hill in the background. Maria Teresa used to ride her horse up and down the stairs in that castle. She was crowned Empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire in St. Martin’s Cathedral, at the foot of this ugly as shit bridge.

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Waiting at the Vienna airport for the sad and long flight back to Mexico.

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Dovidenia, Paula. Stay happy and we’ll see you soon.

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