Article by Gustáv Murín (Slovakia)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 36.
THE DAY IN MY HOMETOWN
Each Sunday in a family with small children has its firm ritual. It was a pleasant change, therefore, to wake up this Sunday a little later than usually, although still a little fatigued after the tennis tournament the previous day. The tournament's organizer was one of the new prosperous banks. It took place at a popular recreational resort in Bratislava, as an autumn nostalgia after a summer which, as far as sports activities are concerned, I spent by playing tennis. The jolly mood of the most successful representatives of Slovakia's richest institutions received a symbolical undertone from a discreet but permanent presence of black-market money and drug dealers (primarily from countries of the former Yugoslavia, mainly from Albania) wearing their typical shrieking-colorful jogging outfits and expensive sports footwear. Their base camp seems to be located in this recreational resort. But they truly remained just a backstage shadow that did not disrupt the respectable essence of the tournament. And thus sports rivalry on Saturday ended by a contest in drinking beer and cognac. Hence this Sunday also called for coping with sins of a recreational sportsman lifestyle. Though all this results in slower than habitual Sunday motion, at some point, through the toilet and the kitchen, one finally gets into his workroom, gently knocking into the remaining family members.
The workroom is not just a stage for heroic acts of intellectual labor but also a museum and a warehouse of notes referring to things to be done, shelved projects, ideas forgotten and reinvented only to be set aside once more. The workroom is also an asylum from prosaic daily family activities, and last but not least, it is the only place where a Sunday afternoon snooze can be called contemplation instead of a siesta. I approach the desk to try once again to establish a balance of matters on it, to attain some order amidst creative chaos, and some overview in matters that principally enable none.
Sunday morning in family with small children is for parents usually dedicated to either vacuum cleaning or making love. There's not enough time for both, unfortunately. However, in the event of sex, Lucy must be taken out; my father-in-law, Janina’s father, takes this care of. He gratefully assumes his role of a grandfather, taking Lucy out for a walk on Sunday mornings. He thus kills two flies in one blow: he relieves us of an unwanted witness, and he gets himself a walk in the company of a five years young lady who, even at her age, will get him to the same point where all other ladies got him all his life -- to buy her something.
Exactly when the doorbell rang and Lucy (first as usual) opened the door to her grandfather, the first change appeared in our regular Sunday routine. In my perpetual attempt to put things on my desk in order, I came across a note on a piece of paper. I've been writing notes on bits of paper for years, and because I know how little time and attention I attribute to accomplishing whatever those notes are about, I use an adequate number of exclamation marks as classification of their importance. There were exactly six exclamation marks on this bit of paper. It included a memo that brought me to the brink of a heart attack. I had entirely forgotten that it was today that I was supposed to go to the bus terminal to pick up a colleague from India who had decided to arrive on an unsuitable day, such as Sunday, for a brief stay at the scientific Institute of University where I work. In the meantime, Janina's father, Lucy's grandfather, took off his shoes, sat down in the living room, and hastily turned the pages of the latest issue of Playboy magazine, a copy of which I receive as an author of essays published there.
Lucy gets dressed with assistance from Janina and leaves for her Sunday morning walk with her grandfather. I wave good-bye to them, the message with six exclamation marks still in my hand, thinking to myself how simple grandfathers and granddaughters have it since they can rely on the stability of their Sunday program. Confirming that, Grandfather stopped for a moment in the door and as usual he reminds us to be on time for lunch with them (that is at a quarter past twelve) although he knows that we would, as usual, hurry in a little late. Luckily, there is our younger daughter, four-month-old Veronica, whose untimely morning sleep is a good excuse for not coming on time. The moment of relative freedom arrives, but a look in Janina's eyes clearly indicates that life is not comprised of only pleasure (such as my tennis tournament yesterday), but also includes duties. What awaits me is vacuum cleaning. Time's running out for making love, and when against all odds Veronica wakes up prematurely, the family matters get somewhat chaotic. I retreat to vacuum cleaning; it gives me something to do for the next forty-five minutes. The apartment where we live is larger than usual in this country: it has a total of nine compartments that may be closed by doors besides the large entrance hall. When I finish, there's only time to get dressed and rush with Janina and Veronica in her baby carriage to my in-laws. We will be late as usual anyway, though it's only a few blocks away....
Just as Sunday has its distinct ritual, a large family lunch has precise rules too. They can be briefly outlined thus: a meal -- a TV debate -- an argument. Although Lucy's grandpa, a former communist, used to scare us that in capitalism we would not have enough to eat, the table is piled with delicious food. Lunch begins with a classic aperitif, then soup followed by an oversized main dish with which everyone gets (a previously carefully chilled) drink. I always get a beer. Once a fortnight when Janina's brother comes with his little son Tomas, this chewing and drinking ceremonial is accompanied by children chasing and fighting each other. After lunch, the whole overfed family moves onto the sofa in front of the TV where coffee and cake are served. Teeming peace and lull reigns (apart from the screaming children), until the second point of the program begins (automatically followed by the third). The TV is switched on. It's an old bad habit taken over by the Slovak public television -- a live debate of politicians on current issues aired exactly at a time when people should be resting peacefully after their Sunday lunch. Hence doctors may expect an epidemiological increase of stomach and digestion problems in the population, because typically, this program is accompanied by fierce family arguments. It's essentially unimportant who starts it. The front lines are basically demarcated by age -- battles go along generational frontiers. I stand up disgusted; I must sacrifice this regular angry siesta time of a Sunday afternoon and hurry to meet an-as yet-unknown Indian scientist at the bus terminal. After a juicy farewell kiss from Lucy (Veronica, happy child, is already asleep), I'm about to desert the family battlefield. Later on in the tram, I feel some regret over the missed chance of an unperturbed afternoon siesta. I usually flee at the peak of family quarrels. Regardless of political preferences, Janina's mother packs what remains untouched from lunch into a neat package (enough for the next two days) and I take the stuff home and end up thinking hard on the sofa in my workroom.
An official from the Slovak Academy of Sciences awaits me at the bus terminal. He clearly sighs with relief when he sees me coming. It's actually his job to take care of incoming scholars. He kept asking me for the past week to come and take care of this particular visitor, and he is now pleasantly surprised that I did come. This visit of an Indian scientist is somewhat mysterious. He is coming to work at the University, but his arrival was arranged by the Academy of Science (two antagonistic institutions extremely jealous of each other) on the basis of some intergovernmental agreement that only seems to work one way. Indian scholars always somehow manage to get here, but no one can get over in the other direction. Anyway, I must admit that our Indian colleagues have much more patience than we do. The previous one had been trying for ten years before he finally got over here. This one, whom the academic official and I impatiently await, made it in five years. To make it entirely clear, Indians are nomads of science. They are the most frequent foreigners in all research institutions worldwide.
The bus from Prague arrived. We could not have missed our visitor for he was the only Indian on the bus. We helped him unload his luggage; the academic official gave the Indian (his first name is Manmohan) an envelope with scholarship money, and clearly relieved, left us alone. Looking at him walking away, a thought crossed my mind: the situation is not so bad in this country when bureaucrats are willing to work on Sundays.
A taxi is generally considered a luxury in this country, but I decided to sacrifice some money on this occasion to let our guest get a better impression of the city, which usually isn't very impressive. Taking a taxi would allow me to take Manmohan to the University hostel where he will be staying, and still come home in time. I promised Lucy to take her to the circus today, for the first time in her lifetime. Optimistically, I stop a taxi and we drive off to the hostel. Astonishingly, the porter welcomes us in three world languages before we agree that Slovak is enough for me and English for Manmohan. This is remarkable, because pre-revolution porters were usually exceptionally stupid and arrogant. How often have I been engaged in tough battles with them for a minimum of elementary respect towards visitors or guests? This porter is a post-revolutionary one, and I assume that his education may only be explained by extensive layoffs of scientific and educational staff and consequently high unemployment; the porter may have been a former professor.
I take Manmohan to his room and before I can eloquently say good-bye, he strikes me with a question: “What are we going to do next?” To be honest, he tried that already in the taxi, but I was too occupied delivering my sightseeing lecture about places we drove past, and I paid little attention to what he was saying. Now it seems that he really meant it. It becomes clear to me that it's not going to be as simple with this Indian scholar as it seemed at first.
I suggest that he takes a rest after the long journey, but he refuses. I tell him that we are taking our daughter to the circus, but he says he does not mind. He also wants to come along. This suggestion catches me off guard. Taking a foreign academic guest to a circus with a child on the first day of his visit, is that appropriate? I feverishly storm my brain and figure out a compromise. I'll take him to our Institute, which isn't very far, and there I'll try to arrange some program for him.
From the Institute, I called my professor, chief of the department, telling him that our guest is here. The professor lives near the place where the circus is set up, and I asked him whether he would be willing to take care of Manmohan while Lucy and I watch the tigers and clowns in the circus. He was not. The professor is a very kind man, but Sunday is Sunday. He said that I should pass on his cordial greetings and reassure Manmohan that on Monday he would certainly and gladly...
I called a colleague, but he for a change speaks no English. So I called Janina's parents, asking whether they wouldn't by chance... I was told that by no means! Janina's parents are generous in-laws and I can't remember their ever having refused me anything (including allowing me to marry their daughter). Thus if they were saying “no” it must be something serious. (I was later told there's a typhus epidemic in India and God knows what other diseases, and they, elderly people, don't wish to risk their health. That's entirely their right after all.)
All my efforts to unload Manmohan misfired. I watched him while on the phone as he patiently sat at the desk with microscopes, and at every suitable occasion he tried to show me how much he was looking forward to going to the circus. I gave up! But I was no longer willing to pay for a taxi. I live at the opposite end of the city. We'd go by tram. It will take quite long, and sightseeing from a tram will be genuinely detailed. Bratislava is a projection of all Slovak towns, except perhaps for Slovak medieval mining towns. The city center consists of a former village that is surrounded by kilometers of concrete apartment blocks. This makes Bratislava more of a capital village than a genuine capital.
Downtown Bratislava is unusually small, and my inspiration vanished as we rode past the dull facades of apartment blocks in the suburbs. Tongue-tied, we look through the panoramic rear tram window. And then it happened. Three girls got off at the tram stop. They didn't feel like walking all the way to the pedestrian crossing and one of them climbed over the railing that separates the tram stop from the street. She glanced in the direction from which cars usually come and seeing no danger, she jumps over. Brakes screeched, a dull knock, a scream, and the thump of a body hitting the ground.
I look at Manmohan who has just been a witnessed something that has become a too-frequent tragedy in Bratislava. Traffic here is very close to total chaos. Even the traffic police admit that some junctions could be best described as driver traps. This one was a pedestrian trap. The tram lane is in the middle of two one-way lanes for cars. One of the two-stripe lanes was under reconstruction, so traffic from that lane was redirected to the remaining one. The girl automatically looked in the normally proper direction to see whether she could cross the street or not (as she perhaps used to do for years), but this time cars came from the opposite direction. There's an old joke about this: “A villager asks a man in Bratislava how to get downtown from the train station. The man answers: I don't know. I was out of town for a week.” But what's going on here now is not a joke. The girl lies twisted on the ground and sobs from pain. The driver stands above her not knowing what to do. The tram driver calls an ambulance. Trams queue up behind and people pour out. One of the drivers brings a blanket and covers the girl. Her two friends are sitting beside her in shock. No one dares to change her position -- she might have a spinal injury -- but one of her feet rhythmically pulses beneath the blanket. Minutes go by without a sign of an ambulance. Trams continue to queue up behind us, and cars in both directions block the road. This boulevard is the sole link, several miles long, between the city center and the suburbs on its eastern outskirts, including the one where we live and where Lucy restlessly waits to go to the circus. (If I don't make it in time, not only will she be sad, but also what will I do with the Manmohan?) Time passes and no one moves, except for the girl's foot beneath the blanket.
Knowing that this time no role of a hero is planned for me, I decide to act. My role now is that of a pragmatic, senseless passenger, who whispers to the tram driver: “Madam, you have called the ambulance, there is no other way you can help here. No one can do more although there are hundreds of people around. And I have a guest from India here, look.” She looks at Manmohan, who is still in the tram and does not look like an Indian anymore, because he's pale. And finally I have to add: “Madam, please, let's go, it's time....”
She gave me exactly the glance I deserved and disgustedly turned away. It will be a miracle if an ambulance gets here at all on this car-packed street. I get back on to the half-empty tram, Manmohan and I changed a few neutral words. I glanced at my watch; it was getting late. I decide to capitulate. At that very same moment the tram driver very slowly turned away from the scene on the road and very, very slowly walked to the front of the tram, got on, rang the bell, and people began to pour back in. She closed the door and the tram moved on. I did get what I wanted, but I certainly didn't feel like jumping with joy.
We made it just in time. Impatient Lucy with her grandpa awaited us at the tram stop. Grandpas always sacrifice themselves when things get critical. Lucy got on the tram and introduced herself to Manmohan. All this wiped out a trace of all we saw moments ago. Lucy excitedly awaits what's ahead and succeeds in infecting us with her spontaneous joy.
It is early autumn; the time of wine grape harvest, and the circus is set up in a part of town known for its vineyards. So it's time for the renowned local specialty -- burchiak, which is a drink at half way between grape juice and wine. It's still muddy with yeast, and allegedly a healthy drink. To be honest burchiak does not look very trustworthy; it resembles mud diluted with alcohol. But those familiars with that drink are always looking forward to the grape harvest season. Manmohan too radiates an impression he's looking forward to drinking that muddy-wine drink. Fortunately his religion does not forbid drinking alcohol. Kiosks in front of the circus offer not only burchiak (which is available only for a couple of weeks in the autumn, and experts claim that it stays good for just a few hours), but also lokshe, a popular salty pancake that goes well with burchiak and roast goose meat. Lucy gets her sugar-stick and smears the sticky substance over her face before Manmohan and I take our first sips of burchiak.
Furnished with supplies, we were sucked into the circus tent by a swarm of children with parents. The circus strongly resembles those old, not very noble, establishments I remembered visiting when I was a kid in a village where my grandparents lived. Wooden benches, earthen floor, shabby decoration. I very much doubt whether this is the kind of place to show a visitor from India just after his arrival. And this is a Czech circus anyway. Czechs have traditionally been circus artists, and they used to call that ironically “Czech light industry”. Before I can finish explaining all this to Manmohan, we come across the classic question of what the difference between Slovaks and Czechs is and why did we tear the country Czechoslovakia apart? I try to explain using an aphorism by my professor from Prague (who naturally is Czech) who used to say: “The basic difference is that when Czechs get a little drunk, they sing Slovak songs.” One our popular humorist here also summarized it briefly: “Politics stupidity blossoms both here and there, but it's in a higher price category over there.” But these slogans only confused Manmohan and I have a really hard time explaining in detail the distinction between two such historically and linguistically close nations. It quite drained me explaining all that to Manmohan against the background of the circus production. Eventually, he looked straight in to my eyes and knocked me down with his question: “Tell me honestly, who in the world really cares whether you are Czechs or Slovaks? What really matter is that you are Europeans! Europe, can you imagine how proud I will be when I tell them back home that I was here? Remember, you have an enviable advantage: you are from Central Europe.” This ended the debate, because I had nothing to add. I'm afraid that only a few intellectuals here ever think about being Central Europeans. The rest are primarily interested in the differences in our attitudes.
With their grand-style production, the Czech circus artists seemed to confirm my historical and cultural lecture. However, an experienced eye notices that a few clowns are actually doing all the work. Well, it's rather irritating seeing a young man who at one point mimics David Copperfield in an unusual piece successfully freeing himself from chains while hanging on a burning rope and later moves stage decorations and cleans the stage. But Lucy and Manmohan did not mind at all. Production continues with more-or-less gratifying pieces. It is obvious that life is not easy for a private circus in the post-revolutionary era. Nonetheless, this circus stands a chance of winning full admiration from Lucy who adores horses, represented here by an elderly pony who did the classical circus piece with matemathics. Manmohan and I spend our time sipping burchiak and eating lokshe, our hands and cheeks are smeared with goose fat, and the mood on board rises until supplies are exhausted. Luckily, before it all becomes boring, Lucy unexpectedly reverses her opinion as far as circus art is concerned and wants to go home. Deep in my soul I'm grateful for her wise decision and I order an organized withdrawal. Manmohan, too, seemed clearly happy to go. He has evidently had enough of burchiak, lokshe, and the circus. But what should I do with him now?
There's only one simple solution. A slow stroll home. Effects of burchiak start to take their toll on the way; Manmohan nonchalantly scrambled into the bushes to relieve himself (fortunately it was already getting dark). I keep on walking as if nothing's going on, but Lucy wants to know where Manmohan disappeared. I explain that what he's doing is an act that unites all nations on earth, and especially the male population. This perfectly satisfies her because consequently this is none of her business since she considers herself a promising young lady.
We come home at the time of greatest chaos -- Janina bathes Veronica and it looks like a well-done circus piece with a home pool and a dozen elephants. Veronica is delightedly splashing water in all directions, while Janina washes her with baby soap. While Manmohan and I remained standing in the hall feeling somewhat useless, Lucy ran into the bathroom and started telling Janina everything she saw in the circus. We eventually started moving and I made a momentous mistake of offering Manmohan a seat in the living room, neglecting the fact that the living room is Veronica's battlefield of drying and dressing into her night outfit after bathing. Manmohan watched the scene with oriental composure. The situation become critical when Janina, without a moment of rest, started taking care of Lucy, with the same evening ritual of bathing, drying, dressing, and reading her the usual bedtime tale. Meanwhile Veronica starts shouting something from her bed, and at this point it became clear to Manmohan that this family is irreversibly getting ready to go to sleep. He got up to leave, I accompanied him out to the hall, Janina said goodbye from the bathroom, Lucy from the bathtub, and Veronica dismisses him with a battle scream from her bed.
Letting Manmohan in good hands of tram driver, I am back home. It's now sleepy silence here; it is late. Janina whispers to me that a TV producer called and wanted to know whether that screenplay I was supposed to write is ready and when could I deliver it. I originally planned to spend this Sunday writing it and naturally I don't have it finished. It's already too late for excuses on the phone. I'm resigned to my fate and (contrary to my habits and firm principles) don't even try to look at what's on my desk to get ready for the next working day. For a moment the lit television screen and the remote-control button game reflexively attract me. This game creates an illusion of feverish activity and breathtaking events, but eventually when you get to the end you hardly remember what you saw in the beginning. I give up. I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, which is my last duty for today, and I drop off to sleep. This Sunday I did not succeed to make any work or relaxation, but it was an extraordinary day in my hometown....
(English translation by Terry Moran and Robert M. Davis)