Photos by Natasha
There are many reasons to love Slovakia, at least for me. I lived there for six years. It was part of the European Community, but still held on to its own individual identity. For example, the rule about smoking in public places. Well yes, that was a rule, but a rule often ignored. Especially when the owner was a smoker. OK the English pub quiz in the Irish bar banned smoking during the actual quiz time. At the break time many went off and smoked things that would even have been banned from the most liberal of bars down a nearby alley. The rest of the time you could just smoke cigarettes in the Irish pub.
I looked forward to the fortnightly pub quiz immensely. It was hosted by an incredibly genial and dryly humorous Scot who was wedded to a local and had been in the country for decades. I went with my American friend who was unfathomably tall, very outgoing and a local at the pub. When he once upset the barmaid there something horrible was put in his drink and he ended up shitting himself as a result. Never upset barmaids in the Irish pub in Bratislava.
When it snowed each winter there was a law that said that everyone had to clear the snow from the pavement in front of their house. So we all did that. But when I thought I was being helpful by shovelling the snow from in front of the old widow’s house next door, she was immediately out doing it for herself. I think I offended her by implying that she was too old to do this. And then, when we had just moved in to the house we had bought the water inlet pipe froze. The same neighbour’s son spoke good English and he had given me his number in case we should require assistance. I phoned him to ask where to find a plumber. He was round within 15 minutes, with his mate, a local plumber. They spent a good two hours defrosting the pipe (after having to remove the floor tiles from the downstairs toilet floor to get to them) and then insulating it, before inviting me back to the plumber’s house for some home-distilled hooch and a jam (we had chatted about out mutual interests in playing the guitar). I had actually offered some cash to the guy, but he said that we were neighbours and then insisted that it would be upsetting for him if I were not to come round to his house for a taste of his home made hooch. People were expected to give up seats on buses for the old or mothers with young children and would be badmouthed if they didn’t. Maternity leave went up to six years. There was a sense of community.
There are also areas of outstanding natural beauty to discover. The Tatra mountains in the winter are exquisite. There are Disney-esque castles to explore, wooden-housed villages or even gold mines. And we haven’t even got to the culture yet (see my post “Bratislava is for Life, Not Just Christmas Markets”). I used to love the festival season in the autumn. We lived yards from the “Cabbage Festival” ground which was a funfair, music and folk festival all rolled into one glittering three-day event.
The house we bought on a one hundred percent mortgage. It had been built before the Second World War and the owner who sold it had been born in one of the front rooms. His daughter was the estate agent who sold it to us. Her mother had passed away some years before and the father had a new partner with whom he was moving to Prague. So the three generation family house was now for sale. There were many things left in the house: old tools from the near post-war years left in the old garage (I was grateful for that), furniture and even some X-rays from the agent’s mother stuffed behind the built-in 1950’s style wardrobes downstairs. This was a family house. I always wondered who stuffed those x-rays behind the built-in furniture and why? The house had the most beautiful garden, lovingly and long-time planted with flowers which would come up in rotation throughout the year. The walnut tree had been planted on the day the house was finished in the twenties by the agent’s grandfather and gave us bucket-loads of nuts. I could never understand why walnuts were so expensive when I came back to the UK. We had so many that I even eventually tried my hand at a walnut liqueur. My daughter had a rope swing on that tree. She became adept at the age of four at cracking walnuts with a brick from the fire-pit. There was a lovely fire-pit underneath that tree (see my post “The Sounds of Silence” for pictures). Under the house was the cellar with the most eccentric heating boiler you could ever imagine. It made unusual noises. We never quite worked out how to contact utility companies and one day when I was at work a very large man, with a very large monkey wrench knocked on the door. He spoke no English. My wife spoke no Slovak. He went down into the cellar and removed the gas meter, sealing off the pipe and leaving us with no hot water nor heating. When we got it replaced the new meter was faulty and just clicked around the zero, never going forwards, so the gas company just made up a reading, told us that they had to replace the replaced meter and charged us according to their whim. One spring a bird nested on our terrace. It was magical.
In the summer temperatures soar to the high 30’s degrees centigrade. Come winter-time it would get very cold. And I mean VERY. The car’s thermometer went down to minus 26 one day on the way to work. Once the garage door would not open so we had to get the bus to work. We didn’t realise what a risk we were taking with the small child in the pushchair. It was a good twenty minutes walk from the bus stop to work and small child was damn lucky not to have suffered from hypothermia by the time we got there. We have worked in Jordan where everything closes down come one drop of snow, and the same is true of England it now seems, but in Slovakia everyone is used to it, snow ploughs are instantly out, everyone pitches in and nothing ever stops, however cold or snowy or may be.
Whenever we travelled back to the UK our elderly neighbour somehow seemed to get subliminal messages and would appear with cakes and sweet treats for the journey. She was a life-long friend of the previous owner and he once came to stay with her with his partner. We invited him in to see the renovations we had done. He was amazed. We had contacts at work who put us in touch with a builder and the house was stunning. Upstairs was one huge, beamed room, but large enough to feel like separate rooms from each extremity. Downstairs the Heath-Robinson electricity pillar, with its glowing lights and spaghetti wiring had gone along with the attached 1970’s breakfast bar to leave an large, open-plan kitchen, all shiny and new with a six-seater mango wood dining table. This room was the heart of the house. It was, quite simply stunning in its rustic, shabby-chic state.
Slovakia is a tiny country, with a population of less than five and a half million people. It was always the “backward” half of the old Czechoslovakia. So any sporting event in which this tiny country excels is actually quite a remarkable achievement. Take ice hockey, football or any number of winter sports as examples. The ratio of sports facilities to population is amongst the highest in the world here.
Slovaks look after their homes in an impeccable way. People will tell you they “tidied up” if you ask them about their weekend. And by this they mean that they have made their houses spotless. Again.
For sure, there are good peeps and bad peeps in Slovakia, but I, for one, met many of the former. Slovakia is a miniscule but proud country which punches far above its weight. So thank you, Slovakia, for a tickety-boo time in your lovely country. Respect.