March 4, 2012
Even at walking pace, things can change so suddenly it’s startling. A week ago, on a bright, windy day that felt like the first intimation of spring, I stepped from the border of a field into a rustling yellow wood and realised I was in Slovakia. Passing from the west to the east, the Germanic to the Slavic world, was a watershed moment in my journey – I knew it was coming, but was still shocked by the abruptness of the shift. On the long, mile-by-mile progression through Holland, Germany and Austria, change had mounted gradually, the cultures of different regions seeping into one another so slowly it was hard to see the changes taking shape. But now, with a single step, everything had become unfamiliar. After a few minutes walk through the wood I came across a graffitied old Communist-era border post, derelict and overgrown, its sinister-looking gun emplacement strangled by old man’s beard. It was strange to think that a couple of decades ago, the invisible line I had just strolled over would have been one of the hardest barriers to cross in the world.
Perhaps it’s a hangover from those times, but I couldn’t help feeling trepidation to find myself in such a new land. Everything around me was different – the street signs, the faces, even the clothes, and above all the sound of the language. This nervousness, however, vanished on my first night out in Bratislava, when I took myself to a bar in the old town to watch a band I’d seen posters for – the Hugo Cáves Orchestra (a Slovak wordplay on Hugo Chavez). They were a nine-piece brass and strings ensemble playing the kind of gypsy electro that wouldn’t be out of place in East London, and immediately and entirely by accident I made friends with them all at the bar.
‘You’re travelling and writing? Like Jack,’ said one guy, grinning from over a beer.
‘Jack Kerouac. On The Road. I wrote that book.’
‘You wrote that book?’
‘No, I mean I read that book. Sorry, I am stoned.’
He turned out to have learnt English in Manchester, where he’d worked for Royal Mail. ‘Sorting the letters. Like Charles,’ he said.
‘Charles Bukowski. Post Office. My life was just like that.’
A few shaven-headed kids in denim jackets stuck their heads round the door, scoped the placed out, and then hurried away. My new friend spat as they departed.
‘Skinheads. Fascists,’ he said. ‘You know our history? We fought with the Nazis in the war. I think it was a good thing that we lost.’
After the gig the band scooped me up and rushed me to the back-stage area, a dim and smoky attic room cluttered with bundles of hardback books – on investigation, they turned out to be antique German gynaecology journals dating from 1879, Russian manuals about biochemistry dating from 1963, and a few dozen copies of a book called Spisy, authored by Joseph Stalin, which various members of the band were using to roll joints on. I stayed until the early hours, being plied with plum brandy and rum and getting into increasingly strange conversations. At one point I was taken aside by a serious, secretive-looking man. ‘You’re a writer?’ he said. ‘I want to tell you something.’ Then he gave me a detailed account of the business venture he was embarking on – acting as a kind of agent for a certain individual, a Slovak soldier trained by Russian Special Forces in every conceivable art of killing, ‘like a cross between Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal, but with a very powerful mind.’ This formidable man, he said, could pull down a tree with a length of chain and propel assailants across the room with a flick of his finger. The plan was to sell his services to whoever needed them. ‘He will come in useful when the government falls,’ he said rather ominously. ‘But now I’m trying to decide whether to hire him to Brussels, or the Arabs.’ He pondered, frowning, for a second. ‘I think, probably, Arabs.’
The room filled up with more and more people, passing bottles of spirits around, painting each other’s faces with black stripes and breaking into clapping and chanting whenever a glass smashed on the floor – broken glass, someone told me, brings Slovak luck. A dog with a handkerchief round its neck leapt and barked around the room whenever anyone started singing, and before the end of the night I’d had a poem written for me and been invited to the horn player’s upcoming gypsy wedding.
Of course, events became a bit blurred. But something that one girl told me really stuck in my mind. I was telling her about crossing the border and how quickly the scene had changed, and she agreed – ‘Yes, everything changes. Even the colours are different. It is much greyer here. The Communists did that. But perhaps the greyness is not really there, perhaps it’s only in our minds. Slowly, I hope, the greyness is being washed away.’
Amid the drunken revelry in that attic, it seemed to me that the greyness was being washed away pretty fast.
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