Why Slovak?

February 23, 2019 § 3 Comments

That’s what the teacher asked, suspiciously, as I sat at the table. “It must be love,” she surmised, by which I think she meant “You are trolling for young girls.”

I didn’t care. One of the harsh facts of trying to learn Slovak, aside from the conviction of native speakers that you never will, is the profound distrust that an interest in such a niche language engenders. I had my well-practiced answer, though, designed to drive the inquisitor insane. “I don’t really have a reason.”

“But surely you must have a reason. Some girl perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but not.”

That no salacious details were forthcoming, the next disappointed line of inquiry was trotted out. “So you need it for your work?”


“What do you do?”

“I’m a lawyer who represents bicyclists hit by cars.”

This was almost as suspect, and certainly as dissatisfying as refusing to admit that I wanted a Slovak girlfriend. “Are you living in Slovakia now?”


“Where are you living?”


“And you are staying here in Bratislava on vacation?”


“You are working here?”


If you could measure exasperation, which with blood pressure I guess you can, she would have been pegging out on the exasperometer. “Where are you staying then, and why?”

“In Vienna.”



“Then why are you coming to Slovakia?”

“To study Slovak.”

“But how long you are here?”

“About four hours.”

“You cannot learn Slovak in four hours.”

“I know. But all I want to do is study. That’s why I hired you.”

“And then you go back to Vienna and come back here again on Sunday and study with me for four more hours?”


“And then what? I am married.”

“That’s all. I go back to Vienna.”

The teacher pushed the chair back and held my gaze. “You can tell me,” she said. “Why you are studying Slovak? Are you American spy?”

“If I were I wouldn’t tell you, or if I did, I would be a pretty terrible spy.”

“You are spy in love with young girl.”

“No, and no. Can we start our lesson now?”

“Yes but you must tell me truth. Why you are studying Slovak?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Because Slovakia is a one-hour bus ride from Vienna.”

“This does not make sense.”

“You didn’t say it had to.”

“Why it makes a difference how close it is? No one speaks Slovak. You see? We are here at Cambridge English School in Bratislava. Everyone learn English. If you want Slovak lessons, that is very strange.”

“Everyone in Slovakia appears to speak Slovak, like Peter Sagan. And you’re a Slovak teacher, so presumably I’m not the first student. And you brought a textbook, Krizom-Krazom, that probably wasn’t published just for me.”

“Yes, of course there are such students but they are proper students with visa and girlfriend. You are old man with no girlfriend and no visa, only studying Slovak and strange hat. Why?”

“Because it is close to Vienna.”

“Why Vienna?”

“My son and his wife live there.”

“But Austrian speaks German, and your son lives there, not here, and he is speaking English to you anyway. Why are you not learning German?”

“I already learned as much of it as my brain will hold.”

“So you are merely interested in Slovak because it is close? But are you so often in Vienna?”

“No. Twice a year, max.”

“Then how can you use this Slovak you are spending so greatly time and money to learn?”

“If you would start the lesson, I’d be using it right now.”

“We will start, we will start. Soon. Have you another teacher?”


“A pretty girl?”


“Ah-hah! So you are in love with her! And you come to Bratislava to learn Slovak to talk with her better?”

“No. She lives in a little village far from here and teaches me on the Internet. She is a professional. I came to Bratislava to get some live practice instead of taking lessons over the Internet all the time.”

“You can tell her you love her. Slovak girl will not get angry.”

“I don’t love her. She is my teacher. She has been in a serious relationship for ten years. She is 25 years my junior. I am married and a grandfather.”

“It is okay. Slovak girl will not get angry when you confess such love as bringing you from all the way in California for your wooing.”

“Can we please start the lesson? I have to catch the bus back to Vienna at 1:40.”

“Thank you for telling me about your secret love. It is very pretty story. Can you count to ten?”


“Okay, please begin.”

“Jeden, dva, tri …”



Adieu, Slovakia

July 15, 2018 Comments Off on Adieu, Slovakia

I’m writing this from my bed in Vienna. It’s just before 5:00 AM and I’m completely shot, racked with endless jetlag and a vicious bike path beating at the hands of my Croatian buddy Damir. He had made arrangements to get me a rental bike and rode it over to our apartment in the 20th District. Of course, he rode it along with his own bike, which was kind of a feat, riding one bike through city traffic while guiding the other one alongside

“Go for a ride now?” he said.

“Sure,” I said. I changed, fiddled with the saddle, and off we went. A nice one-hour spin would be a great way to finally start getting ahead of the jetlag that I couldn’t shake.

“How far today? 120 km? 150?”

I gulped. “Uh, how about 80?” I countered, which was a solid 40 km farther than I wanted to go. My legs felt leaden, the frame was way too big, and we still hadn’t bought groceries to stock our apartment with.

“Ja, 80 km, gut,” he said, slamming it into the big ring and whipping it up to about 23 mph, which was a problem because we were going straight into a horrible headwind.

“This,” I thought, as I remembered not having eaten lunch, “is gonna fuggin’ suck.”

A lovely barfy morning

It had all started so innocently and good. I left our hotel in Bratislava at a quarter to five for an early morning stroll. There is a 10k loop along the river, over to the other bank and back, where you cross a couple of cool bridges and get to enjoy the unspoiled scenery of Bratislava.

However, 5:00 AM on Sunday is still full-bore party time, as the bars don’t close until five, the private clubs until seven, and the buy-your-own-and-keep-drinking-in-the-street doesn’t stop until you do.

Several of the people who had stopped were lying on the stone pavement in front of my hotel, empties littered about, and one lovely young girl squatted on her haunches dry heaving, long strings of spit dangling from her lips as she contemplated a pretty puddle of puke and all it contained.

All the way to the river people were singly staggering, or prostrate, or singing, or grimly clutching a bottle, daring it to be empty. Society’s carrying costs for booze are high, here as much as anywhere else. The trash cleanup alone must be massive, to say nothing of the social and medical implications of so much hardened drinking by so many people. This, however, is what tourism is really all about: Eating too much and drinking too much while you buy shit in strange places that you could get on Amazon for a lot less.

Away from the madding crowd

The nice thing about Bratislava is that you don’t have to go very far before you are all alone. Less than a kilometer down the river and it was completely devoid of people, the only sounds being gulls and terns fishing in the Danube. The sun hadn’t yet risen but everything was covered in the prettiest, softest pre-dawn light.

Since it has no industry to speak of, and since hardly anyone has a car, the air in Bratislava is spectacularly clean. You forget the carrying cost to your lungs of a society hell-bent on cars and the filthy burden it imposes on something as simple and necessary as breathing. The public transportation in Bratislava consists of buses and trams, and the much of it is aged.

Yet with much of the infrastructure dating back to the communist era, it still has better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient public transport throughout the city than anywhere in all of Southern or Northern California.

I finished my walk and got back to the Old City which had been commandeered by street crews and the few early morning tourists like me. I stopped in at a liquor shop for a quick cappuccino, and a drunk dude nursing his giant can of beer stopped me.

“You Dutch?”




“You don’t look Russian.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

“Where are you from?”


“Were your parents white people?” he asked.

I kept on walking.

Back to the bus station

Woodrow and I got cleaned up, breakfasted, and went down to the main bus station. We had booked return tickets to Vienna on FlixBus, whose competitor was RegioJet. There were RegioJet signs everywhere, and all the cigarette stands were selling RegioJet tickets, but there was nothing for FlixBus.

I went up to one of the tobacco stands to find out where the FlixBus stop was, but there was a big sign that said: NO INFORMATION HERE ABOUT FLIXBUS. NO FLIXBUS TICKETS. REGIOJET INFORMATION AND TICKETS ONLY.

I went over to another tobacco stand and bought a bottle of water, using Slovak for only the third or fourth time in as many days. The lady handed me the water. “Where is the FlixBus stop for the 9:35?” I coyly asked, figuring that the purchase would worm it out of her.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Do you want information about RegioJet?”

Woodrow and I picked a random bus stop that said “Blaggus Bus” and waited. People started to accumulate. A trio of rough looking dudes came over to us. “You going to Vienna?” one of them said in broken German.


“Where do we get tickets?”

“FlixBus or RegioJet?” I asked, already knowing that this was the key to getting around at the Bratislava main bus station.

“What’s the difference?”

“RegioJet is everywhere. You can get tickets over there.”

“What is this FlixBus?”

“You have to buy your tickets online. And no one knows where the bus stop is.”

“You taking RegioJet?”


Now he was really suspicious. “How come you taking FlixBus you don’t know where it is?”

“Bad purchasing decision,” I said.

They shrugged and went off to the RegioJet ticketseller.

After a while we started getting really nervous, but then the FlixBus showed up, only it was called BlaggusBus. So we took the Blaggus/FlixBus to Vienna. Which is, more or less, when the adventure really began.




The kingdom of Sagan

July 13, 2018 § 2 Comments

Travel has its hierarchies, and the bus station is at the bottom, which for me is fitting. We crossed the street and immediately noticed a sign absent from Vienna’s well-heeled subway stops: “WARNING: PICKPOCKETS!” I instinctively grabbed my ass and shuffled my phone into my front pocket.

Outside the station sat a forlorn beggar, swarmed with the smells of panhandling and looking miserable beyond any words as he proffered his dog-eared paper cup. I emptied some change into it and he smiled but it was reflexive, glum, beatdown, sad.

Woodrow and I made a nest on the hard plastic chairs and stared at the timetables on the monitor. All the buses were going east, poor. Suitcases were ratty, people were tired, and unlike the rich travel of the Vienna airport, there were lots of kids herded by harried moms and gruff, tattooed dads. I counted ten languages, none of which was English or German until a worried lady came over and said, “Excuse me.”

The “I am weird” sign that follows me wherever I go illuminates as brightly in bus stops as airports.


“Can you read English or German?”


“We want to put our bags in the locker but don’t understand the instructions.”

The lady was Chinese and was the leader of a small band of travelers who each was traveling with a giant suitcase containing their own personal rock collection judging from the weight of each bag. I went over to the lockers, read the instructions in both languages and understood them in neither.

As we discussed the conundrum of How To Use A Bus Locker, a young woman with a massive fly tattooed on her thigh strolled up. The compound eyes were particularly large and fierce looking, and I couldn’t stop looking, which was the point.

“Here,” she said, reaching into the Chinese lady’s purse, fishing out some coins, and feeding them into the locker.

I wandered back to the chair and motioned Woodrow to follow me outside. On the street a dude on a skateboard began climbing up a wall like Spider-Man while his buddy videoed it. He got about thirty feet up in the air and began doing gymnastic tricks, the mis-calculation of any one of which would have plunged him to his death, resulting in the instant pillaging of his bags by the hopeful street people.

Bus bunnies

We got on the bus and the fighting started. Everyone had an assigned seat, including the guy sitting in Woodrow’s seat. “I think that’s my seat,” Woodrow said.

“Maybe, but there’s no assigned seating on the bus.”

A holler of languages sprouted up as people argued that yes, there was assigned seating, and tickets began to sprout as each person vied for his side of the argument. “How can it be assigned?” the man protested, waving his ticket.

“Look there!” an old woman with a giant plastic bag snapped. “You are number 20C. You should go to 20C and give the nice young boy his seat.”

The gruff man shrugged. “You know why I’m not sitting in 20C?” he said. “I’ll tell you why.”

“Yes, tell me why!” the old lad rejoined.

“Because there is no fucking 20C!”

This threw everyone into Next Level Tizzy, and people began counting back the rows, which ended at 19. The gruff Serbian dude smiled grimly. “See? Even in Serbia we can count to 20.”

By now the bus was mostly full and the Serb yelled at the driver. “There’s no Row 20, eh?”

“Not today,” the driver said as we pulled away from the curb. Woodrow had found an empty seat next to a very pretty young woman who turned out to be from Vienna but who was going to college in Bratislava. I nodded off to sleep. My neighbor was from Spain and uninterested in talking to Old Dude.


Give us this day our daily bread for $35

Before we hit the bus station, though, we had breakfast at the high holy temple of Joseph Brot. This is the bakery of all bakeries, where the bread puts all other bread to shame. Woodrow smartly ordered the eggs Benedict, which had none of the famous bread. I say smartly because it was high calorie and filled with lots of stuff to keep your motor running through lunchtime.

I on the other hand ordered a piece of sourdough and butter. It was tremendous, but disappointing on two fronts. First, it was not nearly as good as the bread baked by my friend Lisa Barnes in Redondo Beach, who is about to open a bakery there in a few weeks. Second, the entire breakfast set me back $35 bucks, violating the principal rule of food: The pricier the food the less the enjoyment.

In other words, there is no enjoyment from a $500 gourmet meal. Zero, none. On the other hand, the enjoyment from a tasty $3 meal served on the streets of Kunming out of a plastic bag is virtually without compare. Worst of all, the slice of bread left me feeling starvey and ravenous long before the bus ride began.


Wrong stop Sam

We got the to bus stop in Bratislava, or should I say we got to a bus stop in Bratislava? “Hurry, Woodrow!” I said, and we scurried off the packed bus. But we alit and I noticed we were the only ones who had gotten off. The bus pulled away.

“Are you sure this is the right stop, Dad?”

“Yes, absolutely,” i said, staring at the freeway, the tall buildings, and the ample nowhere that stretched out before us.

“Doesn’t really look like the touristy Old City you were telling me about, Dad.”

“It’s probably just over here,” I said.

After a couple of miles we came to a bridge, which thankfully had a pedestrian walkway, which meant more walking. As we crossed the Donau we could see Bratislava Castle on the hill and the distinct signs of approaching civilization, that is, other tourists.

Whatever we were expecting, Bratislava seemed to have it. The Old City was narrow, quaint, packed with gawky tourists just like us, and filled with row after row of open air tables at which people sat, ate, drank, and watched all the other people watching all the other people. We checked into the hotel and were suddenly overwhelmed by hunger from our trek. Across the way was a traditional Slovak Thai restaurant. We decamped there and ate. Might as well go native.



Travel ready

July 7, 2018 § 13 Comments

I’m a fan of de-thinging. The fewer things you have the easier your life is. Nowhere is that truer than when it comes to travel. Pack light; it’s a lot easier to outrun security that way.

But what constitutes light?

For my upcoming three-week trip, I have to be able to do three things:

  1. Cycle
  2. Work
  3. Wander around clothed

Oh, and everything has to fit into a single, medium-sized knapsack. So here’s the list:

  • Passport
  • CDL
  • Credit cards
  • Headphones and charger
  • Phone and charger
  • Laptop
  • Laptop charger
  • Mouse
  • Euro adapter
  • Cash
  • Maps
  • Novel
  • Notebook
  • Pens
  • Watch
  • Sunscreen
  • Underwear x 2
  • Shorts
  • T-shirt x 2
  • Socks x 2
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Razor
  • Floss
  • Hex keys
  • Spare tube
  • Tire lever
  • Shorts x 2
  • Jerseys x 2
  • Socks x 4
  • Helmet
  • Lights
  • Giro shoes
  • Rain jacket
  • Big O kit for Damir
  • Gift South Bay Cycling socks
  • Ride gloves
  • Ride glasses
  • Ride wallet

To get

  • Razor blades
  • Otto Maria Graf books
  • Karl Kraus books
  • Baking book
  • Slovak books
  • Napkins



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