FROM VIENNA AIRPORT TO BRATISLAVA
APRIL 18, 2008
/ Bratislava started as the Neolithic settlement, Celt place and Roman military outpost. The Slovak town with an important castle of count was a treasury of arts and culture. In the middle of 16th century it became for 250 years the city of coronation ceremonies and for 300 years the capital of whole Hungary. From 1919, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia/
The red light fleshed again. I looked down from the aircraft window on the geometrically lined fields of many shades of green and brown. Few hills with the ruins of old castles marked the ancient territories. The cold and precise German voice instructed us on the landing procedure.
“ He sounds very angry, this pilot,” Basha turned to me.
“ It’s just the language,” I laughed: “ He just wants to be sure everyone understands him.”
“ I don’t, do you?”
“ A little bit,” I shook my head: “ My stepfather’s Mum came from Austria so they watch a lot German TV.”
“ And what about school?”
“ It was just Russian for us, I told you before, I grew up in communist era.”
We landed smoothly on the polished airport and its elegant grey buildings with rows of tall, dark windows reflected the clouds above.
Standing in front of the luggage pick up I suddenly realized how many people around speak my native language. They have been young and loud pushing in and trying to snatch their worn out backpack before anyone else. Their eager faces reflected the excitement and a strong will to explore the new territory of the Western world and ‘have it all and now’.
“ Did you notice their face features? My daughter mentioned casually: “ So similar to yours.”.
“ Really?” I looked up in surprise.
“ Look how loud they are and no manners,” Basha muttered picking up her small suitcase when one of my countryman banged into her without apologizing shouting to his friend nearby to hurry on. The elderly elegant Austrian couple patiently waited and rolled their eyes in an annoyance and disgust.
“ I remember those expressions,” I said to Basha pointing at the couple: “ When we’ve been allowed to cross the border after the Velvet Revolution in nineties, Vienna was full of our people eyeing their flashy Western Shops and they disregarded us with the same look. It looks like nothing changed.”
I picked up my big suitcase and moved to the main hall. Suddenly a young thin man in tiny spectacles with good natured smile dressed in sporty jeans crossed my path.
“ Martin,” I exclaimed and hugged him closely, then I turned to my daughter: “ This is my youngest cousin.”
“ Not so young any more,” he showered us with his characteristic grin: “ Nearly thirty but still bachelor to the big disappointment of my Mum.”
He greeted Basha in perfect English but I protested: “ She knows our language.”
We found his old sedan and he skillfully sneaked out of the airport avoiding the heavy traffic towards the Slovakian border. Catching my surprised look he laughed confidently:
“ I am here nearly every day, always someone to pick up and drop off.” He winked at me:” I also work for the American firm now, so finally some money too.”
After barely twenty minutes we passed through the ancient gate of the last Austrian town and the mysterious tower of Devin Castle appeared on the horizon. I looked mesmerized on the steep rocky hill on top of each it was built in the 8th Century. Protected by a mountain from the north and lying on the crossroads of the two rivers Danube and Morawa it still looked majestic and defendable.
“ Is it Slovakian castle?” Basha asked.
“ Of course it is,” Martin said proudly: “ You walk ten cases and you are in the centre of our capital city Bratislava.”
Basha shook her head in a sudden wonder: “ You have closer to other country than I have to my school.”
We looked at each other with Martin and burst laughing: “ If you don’t take into account that we have not been allowed to travel until fifteen years back.”
Martin watched the passing castle lovingly: “ I have spent a few holidays dreaming up to
an archeologist, I even found a piece of ceramic from 8th century and sometimes I looked on other Austrian side and wondered how people lived there.”
“ So why you are not?” Basha asked suddenly.
“ What an Archeologist or in Austria?” Martin asked jokingly: “ I think both you can answer with ‘not enough money’.”
“ Do you still have it?” Basha, a historic buff by herself, kept asking.
“ What, that piece of plate? “ He shook head : “ Nup, the museum guys took it, but you know what is interesting?” Martin speeded up and the used car jumped effortlessly on the wet highway. I watched how the well kept Austrian fields around us disappearing in a foggy drizzle. Martin coughed suddenly and continued: “ Our people, Slavs settled here in the 6th Century and what I have found belonged to them.”
“ So?” Basha shrugged: “ You still live here, I mean across the border there.”
“ So what?” Basha shrugged.
Martin turned to Basha and the car zigzagged on the road: “ Our little country is in the
Middle of the Europe, you know,” he turned sharply towards the approaching border:
“ From the 6th Century B.C. it was fought over by the various tribes then by Celts in the 4th century, Germans and Romans in the 1st century and later Quads, Goths, Vandals, Gepids, Alans, Heruls, Rugis, Longobards…do you want me to continue?”
“ And from the 6th century the Slovaks took over and lived here happily ever after.” Basha’s signing voice echoed in the speeding car.
Martin shook his head: “ You wish, Slovaks really never owned their land until now…”
I looked out of the window and saw how the abandoned stations of previous border patrols whizzed before my eyes and soon disappeared: “ I remember how we used to wait for ages on the Austrian side and they checked everything even our pockets before they let us in or out.”
Martin turned back his attention to the road: “ It’s all gone now, we are part of the united Europe, just very poor and small to really play any part.”
“ Look, Bratislava Castle looks really like am ‘upside down chair’ “ Basha exclaimed and I whispered: “ We are home, Basha.”
I looked up in sudden heartache. Picturesquely spread over the little mountains on the banks of the Danube River stood my thousands years old home capital city, Bratislava.
Just where before grew vineyards and stood old heritage buildings now blackened view the identical grey block of flats of communist era. Then it hit me: “ Tell me about our Grandmother.”
Martin looked up seriously: “ She just died in her sleep, smiling so sweetly in her dream like a …” he paused : “ She was like a ‘big baby’ in the end, not recognizing any of us, not able to feed or dress herself, but that happened a long time ago as you know.”
I nodded unable to speak.
“ Alzheimer kicked in soon after you left. She called your name often from the start, but later…”
“ And what about Grandfather?”
Just before we managed to enter the center by crossing one of the bridges, Martin turned right into the middle of ‘the blocks of flats’ jungle.
“ They look awful and there is no even park or playground between them,” Basha said horrified looking at the grey tall flats hovering around us with chipped glass and spray painted rude slogans everywhere.
Martin coughed uncomfortably: “ There are from communist era and there are still no money for repair.”
We stopped in front of one of them and Martin unlocked one of the broken glass doors. We moved cautiously through dark narrow corridor until we found a narrow stairs to the first floor. One of the laminated entry doors opened and there I saw my early aged Godmother with white hair and kind smile, who gave me a big hug and ushered me inside the tiny hall. The huge white shepherd dog licked my hand and I jumped from the fear to the delight of my Godfather.
“ I am sure that you have bigger dog than that in Australia,” he shook my hand kindly.
“ Yes, but not in so small place,” I smiled and shook hands with Martin’s sister Vera and her own growing family.
Her German speaking husband smiled at Basha with understanding when she stood there like alien among her new found family who spoke to fast for her to understand. He switched to English and they straight away took off chatting happily about Western world they both grew up in and knew so well.
Finally my Godfather nodded towards the small bedroom on the right. I noticed the
door slightly ajar. I cautiously entered dark room. Behind the door I recognized a small bed in a corner and there was a skeleton like figure of my Grandfather. I could not believe my eyes that this was the formidable figure of a big man who loved to be in a centre of attention, laugh, have a drink and be circled by young women. The flickering light from the hallway shined on his face and he recognized me too. He pointed his bony finger at me and managed a toothless smile. This is not the man I was scarred off the most of my childhood life. I remember how important for him it was that I knew how to count money properly. And I always made a mistake. I just wanted to read and draw, I just wanted to pretend that I live somewhere else and dream my big dreams…
Grandfather waved his hand slowly for me to sit down on the edge of his bed. I hugged him tightly and tears rolled down my cheeks. He tried to speak but his voice was very weak and hoarse. I put my ear close to his lips.
“ Grand- ma,’ he managed to say.
He desperately waived his hand to the dark corner of the room. I turned around and saw the shade of the empty bed with neatly folded untouched blankets. There was something lying in the middle of the bed. I strained my eyes to recognize what it was. I turned back to my Grandfather but he turned his head to the wall.
I stood up cautiously and touched gently the blanket on the other bed. There were her favorite praying beads with a cross and a bunch of flowers.
I kissed the cross and sat back on my Grandfather’s bed. He looked at me sadly. He whispered something and I felt what he wanted to say. He missed her badly. My Godmother entered the room quietly and sat gently next to his head. He caught her arm and she stroked it.
“ There, there grandfather, everything will be all right, you just have to start eating again.”
He turned his head back to the wall. My Godmother looked at me with a tired look. She swept her prematurely white hair from her forehead and started to talk.
“ She died peacefully, repeating her ‘My Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’ until the end. This was the only thing she remembered from all her life. And you, Grandfather, do you remember how it made you angry?” My Godmother laughed and stroked his arm again.
“ She did not stop,” my Grandfather said hoarsely licking his cracked lips and breathing heavily: “ Praying day and night, without stopping…” He stopped suddenly out of the breath.
“ And you could not sleep, I know,” my Godmother finished his sentence for him.
The Grandfather looked at her lovingly and beckoned to me to come closer:
“ She is the only one looking after me, after us, the only one of my daughters.”
“ Yes, she knows, Grandfather,” my Godmother smiled at me apologetically and I nodded.
The Grandfather looked up at the shelf above his bed. I stood up and picked up a picture in a little frame. I looked at it and in a dim light I recognized the faces of my Godmother, my Mum and my Auntie.
My Grandfather pointed his bony finger on my Mum and my Auntie: “ They don’t come, they don’t care.”
“ They care,” my Godmother replied, “ it is just that you gave your flat to my son, Martin, you remember, so they think it is my responsibility to look after you.”
“ But he gave my auntie and my Mum half of his garden each at the same time.” I shook my head in despair: “This is what I remember, the endless family feuds about money.”
My Grandfather pointed his bony finger on my Mum and my Auntie at the picture again: “ I should not give them anything, this was the last time I saw them, those….”
My Godmother took the picture away and took both of his hands into his:
“ Do not swear, it is too late now, you’ve done what you could, maybe you taught them to like money too much.”
Then she turned to me: “ It is easy for you to judge my dear, you managed to get out,” she looked at me crossly: “ Look at your Grandfather, surviving two world wars, working hard, always worrying if there will be enough food at the table for his children, for his grandchildren, for you…”
I looked at my Grandfather nodding his head and I bit my lips.
My Godmother’s glance softened and she patted me gently: “ Look at me, working hard whole life, raising two successful children with degrees and still scarred if I manage…”
“ But we will help you, Mum,” her daughter appeared in the doorway holding her sleeping son.
When she left the Godmother whispered in my ear: “ Isn’t she lucky to marry a guy from Western Germany?”
“ If she loves him, if they are happy together,” I agreed.
“ He forces her to be a German but if she will be secured with him for the rest of her life, look at Martin,” she sighed: “ Without Grandfather’s place he can’t even marry, where can he live, with us it this tiny two bedrooms flat?”
I did not answer and my Godmother left closing quietly the door behind her.
I sat there until the first light streamed through the closed shutters. I put my head on my Grandfather’s thumping chest and concentrated hard to understand his weak whisper
broken often by the heavy cough. He talked about his life, about his belief in God and about his love for his wife, which he really found out only now. He needed to talk so much and I was there for him. At least now, at the end.