Winter break: Bratislava

I am looking into the eyes of a woman in her early 60’s. She’s 100 percent Slovak, and she’s never left the country in her life. Her glasses cover half her face and her pink sweater wears a gold broach. She’s eating a pork and chive dumpling that I had steamed a few moments earlier.

She says something to her daughter, Katarina, in Slovak. Katarina laughs.

“It is good. You can marry now.”

I laugh, although slightly puzzled. Katarina explains that in Slovakia, people say this when someone becomes a solid enough cook to provide for a family. I laugh — it’s way too early for me to start thinking about a family. Katarina laughs. She was married at age 19, as was her mother.

That dinner, in a cozy flat in a quiet suburb 30 minutes from downtown Bratislava, was a fascinating one. I had offered to cook for my hosts, a couple in their 30’s and their young children, since they were housing me for free and all. Katarina invited her parents, because her parents don’t get to taste “exotic” food often. Suddenly, I was cooking for three generations.

Grandma and Grandpa didn’t speak any English, and neither did the little ones, so Katarina (an aspiring professional translator) got a whole lot of practice.

But she tried to leave some things lost in translation.

“I’m not even going to bother,” she said, aggravated. She responded to her mother in Slovak. She sighed. I had asked her mom about her feelings when communism fell in Slovakia.

“She says life was better back when there was communism. But she has no idea. She wasn’t allowed to leave the country. She never left her village. Sometimes she couldn’t feed her kids because there just wasn’t enough food. Then communism fell, and she was free to start a business and now she doesn’t have to worry about money for the rest of her life.”

The duo argued a bit in Slovak but ultimately gave up — their thought processes existed in two separate worlds. Grandma switched the subject.

“Are your parents living in Belgium as well?”

Ha. No, I tell her. I won’t see them until March when they visit.

Grandma was horrified. She could never be away from her children that long. And we were apart on Christmas! Ghastly, indeed.

I learned a lot about Slovakia in that little flat, where I spent the vast majority of my two days, eating leftover poppy seed cake from Christmas, drinking coffee and fielding questions about America and its stereotypes.

That left only a few hours in the center of Bratislava, which was really all that I needed. For a capital, Bratislava is tiny, with a population of half a million. And the historic inner city, where all the charm and interest lies, can be traversed in 15 minutes.

The main tourist attraction is the Bratislava Castle. The hike up to its grounds yields a magnificent view of the city’s medieval center, the Danube river and the Communist-era blocks of concrete on the other side.

The Church of St. Elisabeth is definitely worth seeing. Its facade is quirky, in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style. It is nicknamed the “Blue Church,” because, well, that’s obvious.

And like any city located on a river, walks at sunset cannot be beat — especially when there is a castle involved.

Throughout my stay in Slovakia, I was struck with the contrast between old and new — the old world charm and the new EU-directed developments, the old and new ideologies. Sure enough, my host said Slovakia is changing fast, and once the older generations die out (as morbid as that sounds), Bratislava may feel like a more typical European capital.

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