Bratislava – end of November 2003

Entering Slovakia by bike

Entering Slovakia by bike

We crossed our first border patrol at the Slovakian border. I wasn’t sure what to expect – whether we’d have to open our bags or not. But it was easy. There were long liens of cars, but being the only cyclists, we bypassed these lines and all they did was look at our passports, stamp them, and then send us on our way.

Bratislava is less than five miles from the border, on a hillside, and our first impression upon entering the city was one given by the architecture. Already it was very different from Austria and Vienna. There were long rows of buildings, attached together, and many houses were painted in pastel colors, as in Austria, but the dirt from time and pollution had obviously left its mark. Many buildings were in a bad state of disrepair.

We biked through a good deal of the town in our efforts to find a place to stay. All the hostels were closed for the winter, but we found a cheap guesthouse run by Gabriel, and we booked a room for the night. The guesthouse was right across the street from the American Embassy, and boy, is it ever barricaded. The Embassy, that is. Guys with guns everywhere, and fences and concrete and barbed wire surrounding every side of the Embassy. It looked more like a military compound than a diplomatic building. The flag isn’t even showing. And on the map of Bratislava, they pinpoint where every Embassy in the city is except for the American Embassy. As if it’s a big secret or something. The girl at the train station told us to look for the American Embassy to find our hotel, and everyone knows where it is, anyway, even if they try to hide the flag. The guards try to look scary when pedestrians approach – I wonder if it would really scare anyone off!

My experience in Bratislava is summarized by one word: FLEAS! No, two words: “Aaaaaaaggghhhh!!!” I got 44 flea bites at our hostel in this city, and the experience only worsened day by day.

I’ll take the time to describe our guesthouse because it really is quite special. Everyone that walked through the door looked askance at each other and said “Interesting.” Or “Unique.” Or “Special.” Our roommates in the dorm-style apartment were French, Australian, German, Irish, and Finnish. All were in agreement about one thing: Gabriel’s sense of hygiene wasn’t exactly exemplary. Everything was filthy. His idea of house-cleaning is wiping down the sink with his hand. He doesn’t even have a broom. Or a mop. Or a sponge. He crammed as many beds into the dorm room as possible. And in lieu of bedclothing and towels, all he had were wet or used linens.

The apartment has quite some atmosphere, too. The guy’s idea of decoration is stickers on the walls, see-through colored tiles between the two bathrooms/shower stalls, headshots of famous people (one of himself included), and photos of nude women.

We got the last room left. It was in the attic, which you reached by a ladder and a trapdoor. We had to climb four flights of stairs, with our 14 bags, to get to the apartment, and then take them all the way up this ladder through a trapdoor in the ceiling.

The room was narrow and rectangular. It was short as well – not high enough to stand up straight inside. Bare, dirty pipes run the length of the room and electrical wires hang out of the wall at the head of the bed, held in place by bands of scotch tape. For a bed, we had two very short partially-inflated air mattresses side by side on the floor, which took up the entire width of the room. Towards the other end of the room, there was a mountain of dirty bed linens in one corner, and a tiny broken kitchen chair in the other, which looked like it had been mended with tape a hundred times over. In the middle of the wall is a scratched plate of what looked like was supposed to be a mirror. The cracked wall was painted a salmon pink, except for in the places where plaster covered holes in the wall. A small, deformed square was cut in the wall to look like a window – only, it was not a real window. Along with pipes for the headboard, we had as decoration a color poster of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Robert Redford at the Hollywood Diner. There was a hole in the floor, and a bed underneath – perhaps to catch us, should we happen to fall through?

The lights in the apartment were on a timer, which go out every five minutes. Stephane managed to fix that the first night, plus he found light bulbs for all of the other light fixtures, so all the people who had been there several nights in the dark regarded him as a hero. When the hostel manager came the next morning to collect money, he saw the light bulbs and took them out, and then switched off the lights by the fuse box outside the apartment and locked it. So we were back in the dark, until he left and Stephane found the fuse box, opened it, and turned the lights back on. Now he’s really a hero at the hostel!

Sign: man at work, Bratislava

Sign: man at work, Bratislava

Then the manager came back and brought three tiny stools still in their packaging and says to Stephane, “If you’re really clever, you can put the chairs together.” (Because, up to that point, there were no chairs). So Stephane asked what his salary would be, and the guy said a beer or two, which of course he never gave us. Then I asked about toilet paper, and he didn’t want to buy any, saying that he had bought some last week, and I had to ask five times, before he finally consented and said he’d get some later on.

The first night, we asked for towels and bedlinens, and he gave us ones that were soaking wet. So we slept in our sleeping bags. The next day, I asked him again for towels, and he went to the dirty laundry hamper, found a damp towel in the bottom of the hamper, picked it up and smelled it, wrinkled his nose, and said he wasn’t sure if it was clean or not, but that I could use it if I wanted to. I declined his generous offer.

Oh, and it gets even better. When we checked in, he asked us if we wanted the big room or the small room. Stephane said the small room. So he showed us the attic. (There’s actually another loft on the other side of the apartment). Then we find out by talking to this British guy later on that he had already taken the other loft, the one that was bigger. So really, there was only one room left. Meaning that if we had asked for the bigger room, he would have still showed us the same small room, but charged us the “bigger” price. (We already knew the prices from asking at the train station, where we reserved the room). Quite ingenious, huh? The guy had some dubious strategies.

When Stephane told me about his pricing scam, we must have laughed about it for an hour. Of course, that was before I got fleas!!! Because the place was so sparkly clean that I actually got fleas from the bed! Aaaaaaggghhh!!!! 44 flea bites! 44!!!

To make matters worse, we had to stay more than one night. We had only planned on staying one day, long enough to go to the French Embassy for my passport, but we had to stay longer because we arrived on Friday afternoon and the Embassy actually closed for the weekend. Can you believe it? I mean, who actually decided that these people needed a holiday? And each day longer that we stayed, the fleas feasted royally. Naturally, I must be sweeter, because Stephane went completely untouched.

Just by chance, we arrived in Bratislava on the opening day of an International Film Festival. The cinema is in a large commercial mall that has three floors. If it wasn’t for everyone speaking Slovakian, I could have almost imagined myself at the Willow Grove Mall at home. Same types of stores, same types of clothing and shoes, recognizable brand names. Christmas wreaths and lighted trees decorated the mall, and the stereo system played “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.” We took advantage of the Film Festival, which had quite a varied showing. Saw a couple of French and American films, and an Irish and German film (with English subtitles). The ones we saw were quite good. Very moving. I cried a lot. Sad weekend between the tears for the films and the tears for the fleas.

In the meantime, we went to the Embassy on Monday morning to see if they would issue me a passport. The Consul was one of the nicest people we’ve dealt with so far in my three-year quest first for working papers, then marriage certificates, then nationality papers, and now a passport. However, I have little faith that he’ll be able to do anything for us. I feel positive he will try, however. He told us to come back Tuesday and he’d have an answer, but I hold out little hope because he told us that a new law was passed in October which now restricts the consulates from issuing passports to citizens unless they are permanent residents of the countries in question. The law apparently was approved one week before my papers went through. His suggestion was to fly back to Paris to have the passport issued. We’re considering the option because it would save us quite a deal of money in the long run. But it’s frustrating. I’d much rather hit the road and continue east. The only good thing about going back to Paris for a week would be to see friends and family. If I go, Stephane would stay in Bratislava with our bikes and belongings and I would take the 22-hour trip alone. A trip I’m not looking forward to. We’re weighing our options…