As I write this, the trees on the Tatra slopes around my home are just budding. Their verdant hues now filling a landscape I had, quite frankly, forgot could be anything but dismally grey. However, this isn’t my first taste of spring.
A few weeks ago, my host father explained Slovakia climate as we drove south towards Bratislava, “The Tatras are behind the South. What it looks like here, Poprad will look like in three weeks.”
The disparity was certainly obvious to me. As we lanced down the highway, recklessly passing already speeding cars, I watched bare trees give way to budding ones and later those budding limbs to ones clothed in small, vibrant leaves.
He continued, explaining something he had gone over a few times already, “There is a line that runs through Slovakia. Below it, you can grow grapes, above, you can’t. We passed it. See the vineyard there?” Sure enough, a dormant vineyard stretched into the distance.
We were headed to Bratislava for a business conference—rather, he was going to attend while I toured the city. A good deal if do say. We parted ways immediately after arriving and I set out to learn the Bratislava public transport system.
I had a few encounters on and around the bus that were actually of some note. One man helped me find the right bus and we chatted for a while. After I told him I am an exchange student from the US he pursed his lips and rattled of a list of the good countries in the world (a plethora of names from from all reaches of the globe), but America?
“No, America is the worst. Very, very bad,” he warned me. I smiled and shrugged then moved on, not that I can’t understand any of the many reasons why he might think that.
While on the bus, the woman standing next to me was reading a book in English. Assuming she was therefore a native speaker, I asked where she was from. Perhaps I caught her attention a bit too quickly (especially for European public transport where utter silence is the norm), she jumped and stuttered in English, saying that she was just from Slovakia then closing the book. She got off on the next stop. I can only hope that that is where she planned to disembark.
The final encounter took place right outside of Main Station. I began to walk towards Old Town, but a group of young women stopped me.
“Do you speak English?” They asked.
I smiled, “Yeah, I am from America in fact.”
The girl who had first spoken look taken aback, but continued, “Do you know how to get to Old Town?”
I chuckled a bit, “Yeah, actually, I am going there now. I can show you the way.”
We all walked together. They were a group of exchange students from Cyprus studying in Vienna. The three girls had brought their mothers with them on a spring break trip to Slovakia. We chatted about being exchange students and what it was like to live in Europe, until one of their mothers tripped and twisted an ankle. Her daughter looked so embarrassed and insisted I go on without them. I had been looking forward to exploring the city with some new friends. Yet, as I didn’t know how long they were going to be held up by the small injury, I regretfully resolved to continue on so I could see the sites. I gave them directions for the remaining distance to Old Town, then said farewell.
I spent the rest of my time that day wandering through the streets of Bratislava, climbing to the castle and enjoying its imperial view. I ran into the women a couple times throughout the city, their mothers absent, probably abandoned in some cafe. We would stop and speak, but always part ways as we were headed in opposite directions. I sorta regret not joining them on one of those later occasions, but if I had I wouldn’t have stumbled onto one of the most pleasant experiences of that trip.
Earlier in the day, before all the sightseeing, I had walked past the gate to an absolutely beautiful park. As I was waiting to hear back from my host father on where and when we should meet, I returned to those gates and ventured inside. (Inspecting a map later, I learned that this was the President’s Park.) I sat in the shade beneath a tree and simply observed the people around me. The couple to my left enchanted me. They lay together on a blanket and played with their infant. They were so charming, that I simply had to sneak a candid shot.
I can now say that I have become acquainted with the entire Old Town, but I look forward to returning to Bratislava sometime in the last two months of this exchange. I have plans to do so with my friend Milan. He is wonderfully knowledgeable of Slovak history and will help make my next visit even more enlightening.