In life, just getting through the day, there’s not really step-by-step instructions; you gotta figure this shit out. – Trey Ratcliff
Sometimes, it seems the world is running with scissors. Take 1969 for instance. Nixon sits in the White House and covertly attacks Cambodia without permission from Congress, then lies. Someone has actually named their baby Sirhan Sirhan, and he grows up and shoots a Kennedy—on freakin TV. Charles Manson and his brain-washed junta slay rich people in LA and are not sorry. Three hippies die at Woodstock—one, from being stupid and stuffing too much of a good thing into his veins; another, for being stupid and not realizing the pain in his side is a ruptured appendix; the third, for being extra stupid by sleeping in a brown camouflage sleeping bag in the mud and getting run over by a tractor.
In 1968, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia; and here in 1969, a young Czech student immolates himself with fire in protest. Some say, someone on a Hollywood back-lot movie set fakes a moon landing, and their screen writer coins the phrase: “one small step for man.” Levi Strauss sells its first pair of bellbottom jeans for $6.98. The Hells Angels get hired as security for a Rolling Stones concert, and one of the Angels kills a fevered fan. And I am living in a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.
Today, almost five decades later, I find myself (and the world) in a similar, perhaps even more chaotic and deeper pile of kimchi. And I am once again traveling through a country that no longer exists: Czechoslovakia. In 1969, in pseudo-communist Yugoslavia while representing my college on a student-exchange program, I desired to visit Czechoslovakia—to check out its landscape, its architecture, its bridges, all those castles. Its gypsies and Bohemian coeds, maybe. And goulash. And maybe because the Czechs invented sugar cubes, possibly specifically to add to absinthe in a cool way, which I also wanted to try. But it seemed a bit risky with the commie nonsense going down at the time, so instead, I wound up crossing the Bridge of Sighs with a reason to sigh in Venice.
I have just lingered, perhaps a bit too long, in Prague; but it boasts everything I like in a town: walkable, Segwayable, bike-able, runnable, Harley-able, lots of interesting doors and people to photograph, lots of greenery and parks, a castle on a hill, a dearth of American fast-food signs, horse-drawn surreys, Starbucks scattered about, a history of heroes, fine eateries, a water feature, fine and plentiful outdoor art, street musicians, narrow roads made of rocks, bottled beer laced with cannabis (huh?!).
But in my mind, Czechoslovakia will always be Czechoslovakia—like Yugoslavia is Yugoslavia, Russia is Russia, Persian Gulf is the Persian Gulf, and Burma is Burma dammit…why do things have to change? And today, I desire to cruise and peruse the “other half” of Czechoslovakia: now called Slovakia.
I hop a bus—a plush and comfortable Volvo affair; this is, after all, 21st-century Europe, not Bangladesh—and meander down the E50 to Brno, where I have no desire to linger as it’s the second largest city here. I’m not a “big-city” person; I grew up in a small town; I feel at home in small towns, especially small towns with an exotic or old-world flare: Aspen, Ubud, Amsterdam, Rishikesh.
The bus heads down the E65 from Brno. How would you pronounce that? (click here to find out), and stops for a break at a smallish, rest-stop restaurant with a parking lot brimming with tour buses. The nanoscopic bathrooms are so crowded, there’s a line out the door into the parking lot, both men and women. Many visitors simply wander into the woods behind the restaurant—as numerous others have obviously done before: it’s one huge, forested latrine back there in those woods. The trees and underbrush are thriving, what with so much attention and fertilizer. The bus finally crosses the Czech-Slovak border at Breclav, and meanders through Slovak savannas of barley, sugar beats, rapeseed, and windmills.
I decide to wander the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town—they obviously have the same penchant for naming things by their simple names as they do in Prague (Old Town, New Bridge, Castle Hill). I’m going to tell you right now, I’m disappointed—I find no Starbucks! That is not precisely why I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed now because much later when I return home, I discover I missed the Starbucks in Bratislava, because it lies on the other side of the river. I would have wandered over there in my younger days, but these days in my geezer years, I’m not as eager to see what lies at the end of every alley or across each bridge.
Shouldn’t there be a Lonely Planet Guidebook to Starbucks is all I’m saying. And just so you know, I’m not promoting Starbucks—I’m hoping they get their conglomerate business act together; I’m hoping they go free trade and lower their prices; I’m hoping they get rid of those gaudy plastic signs for their mermaid, maybe go with British-racing green on wood; I’m hoping they start playing classical music and Deva Premal.
It’s just that addiction of one form or another runs amok in my family DNA, and I’m simply addicted to that Starbucks stuff, it’s like a Starbuck monkey on my backpack. Backpack—because get this, I don’t ever sit down and drink coffee in a Starbucks when I’m not traveling. Right, never say never, but I mean it here. It is odd, I agree: an addiction only when you travel…what’s up with that?
Let’s say you start strolling Bratislava at the Blue Danube. In my opinion, someone should write a waltz called the Not-Quite-Beautiful-Mud-Brown Danube. You don’t want to drink any of it obviously, but it’s not actually polluted, like say, the seemingly-much-bluer Buriganga River in Dhaka, which of course, is bluer because it’s toxic and radiating a bluish toxic tinge (but if it’s a blue river you want to photograph, head to Dhaka). It’s just that the Danube moves a lot of mud a long way downriver from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, and is muddy.
The second disappointment begins when I see the Danube on my map, colored a wonderful pale blue. Strauss’s waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” dances into my head and lingers—daa-daa-daa-daa-da… da-da… da-da. All those years of beautiful blue expectations dissolve into a muddled, mud-colored disappointment when I finally stand on the shore of a khaki-colored blue Danube.
After years of hearing the beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, this is what you expect when you get here.
When you wash up on the Danube’s shores in Bratislava, this is what you get. I’m not saying it’s bad, or sad, or disgusting by any means. It’s just not freakin blue. And what’s with that bridge? Such a far cry from the 14th-century, egg-yolk-mortared, stone Charles Bridge in Prague.
And this is one reason all the great sages, spiritual masters, world travelers, and a passel of travel bloggers have always said: “let go of your expectations.” They also say things like “don’t worry, be happy” and “get back in the saddle.” But we all know it’s far easier to talk about doing these things than actually pulling them off, sometimes. Like Trey Ratcliff says, you gotta figure this shit out for yourself. And perhaps the best way is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other until the smile appears. That’s what happens next in the narrow, cobblestone streets of Bratislava—coming soon in Part II.
See more of Lucile’s: Photo Rehab
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Map with source and course of Danube credit: Wikipedia