Bratislava was sticking to the back of my thighs like a smooth wooden bar stool in the heat. It feels strange, going back to my hometown as a stranger. It’s stranger still to observe how ‘coming back’ is transforming into ‘visiting here’ as my confidence in knowing this place shrinks with time. I’ve been going back for about 10 years now, and although I understand intellectually that things would change between visits, my feelings can’t quite catch up. I’m observing the changes; new buildings, new cafes, new bars, different hang-out spots, through a mixture of surprise, unease, discomfort and suspicion, as though someone was doing it on purpose, to confuse me. Each time I’m having to dramatically update an incubated map of the city as it was before.
The most recent update; an old building at the centre of town, called Stará Tržnica – Old Marketplace. My teenage memories speak of a large, cavernous, empty building, with small, deserted shops inside. A good, if somewhat oppressive place to hang out if you had no money; to hide and, if you were lucky, to kiss. It’s been transformed in recent years, revived as a bustling marketplace and venue for music and interesting events.
William Gibson defines ‘cool’ using these words spoken by the lead character, Cayce, in his book Pattern recognition:
“But the ‘cool’ part – and I don’t know why that archaic usage had stuck, by the way – isn’t an inherent quality. It’s like a tree falling, in the forest. (…) What I mean is, no customers, no cool. It’s about a group behaviour pattern around a particular class of object. What I do is pattern recognition.”
In Bratislava, in the summer of 2018, the group behaviour pattern was this; you went to the centre of town, to Stará Tržnica, bought a beer or wine or cider and/or Chrumky (the most delicious peanut puffs you will ever eat) from Výčap u Ernőho; a pub on a corner of Stará Tržnica. You consumed said items sitting on one of the many curved benches, each encircling a tree growing in the square in front, having fun and chats and laughs with the many people around you that either already were, or were shortly to become, your friends. The special thing about these benches is that they do not apparently belong to any single establishment; they are not branded. You can buy stuff from the bars or shops around, but you don’t have to, you can bring your own food or whatever or not bring anything at all, and sit on them. There is food and drink to be bought from establishments around, but the pressure of having to buy something just to buy yourself a place to sit down is removed. It just works.
Výčap u Ernőho occupies a ground floor corner of the building that is Stará Tržnica, opening up onto the square in front. When I first heard the name ‘Výčap u Ernőho’ it made me feel warm and amused. It combines Slovak (výčap = taproom, u = at) and Hungarian words (Ernő = a Hungarian name.) I thought this was a bold choice of name, because despite the significant Hungarian minority in Slovakia generally, and Bratislava specifically, I have a lot of memories of Slovak-Hungarian tensions in the city. I experienced grazes of this tension due to growing up with a culturally precarious background. My family is part Slovak and part Hungarian. I went to a Hungarian school, but because we spoke Slovak at home, I never felt quite part of the Hungarian social circles; I’ve been told that I’m not ‘properly’ Hungarian because part of my family are Slovak. I played basketball in a Slovak team, and becoming an accepted member was a long and painful process, which was difficult for me. Although likely not the only reason, but going to a Hungarian school definitely contributed to my apparent weirdness and otherness within the team. My teammates thought I was different, and being called ‘a Hungarian’ was used as an insult back then amongst Slovak kids. I remember wracking my brain, at the age of 13, trying to figure out that if people are telling me I am not properly Hungarian, but not properly Slovak either, then what am I? Where the fuck do I fit in? Not being able to fit into any of these categories felt painful, so the only viable option was to detach myself from them. I decided to stop the process of trying to hook my identity onto a sense of national belonging. When I saw ‘Výčap u Ernőho,’ the merging of Hungarian and Slovak in the name felt like a possibility in which the two can co-exist; something like a validation.
It was a nondescript, sticky, sunny afternoon and we were having beers and laughs under a tree in front of Výčap u Ernőho with Jonny, Juri and Soňa, when my attention got pulled towards a young Roma woman shouting at an elderly white man wearing a Slovakia-flag-print baseball cap. The man, sitting under a neighbouring tree, murmuring under his breath in response. People starting to look in their direction. The woman standing afar, shouting:
“Try to say it to me one more time! Go ahead! One more time and you’ll see!” The old man appears to be getting uncomfortable, shifting in his seat on the bench. The woman, visibly angry, continues screaming at him:
“How dare you speak to me like that! I can sit wherever I want! How dare you?!!” and with this she starts towards him and slaps him across the head, causing the Slovakia baseball cap to fall flaccidly to the ground. Three uniformed policemen approach, as well as a fourth, who is wearing regular clothes. They escort the woman away from the man. One of them goes up to the old man, advising him:
“If you don’t press charges there is nothing we can do. I would encourage you to give us a statement, and then we can start looking into it. We can’t do anything with her unless you do that.” The old man batting him away, frowning, murmuring inaudibly.
The woman, now surrounded by policemen, starts packing up her plastic bags with quick, powerful movements, shouting still:
“That pig! Telling me I’m a dirty gypsy! Telling me to go sit somewhere else! I’ve had enough, do you hear me?! I’ve had enough! I will not let anyone speak to me like this ever again! Next time someone tells me something like this I will kill someone! What do you know about me? What do you think you know about me?” in the old man’s direction, with so much raw pain. Having collected her belongings, she walks away, full of force, sending waves of aftershock through the afternoon light.
J asks me what the argument was about, so I start explaining the events in English. Suddenly I hear Slovak words again, now discernible, from the direction of Slovakia cap man:
“And what the hell are YOU saying? Who is meant to be listening to this foreign shit? Shut up already! Go somewhere else, I’m not going to be listening to this!” with which he stands up and walks away, Slovakia cap retreating across the square.
Later that day we were joined by Áron and his brother Máté. We got to discussing important things, like why I feel quite so affected by this delicious elderflower cider that I seemed to have been convinced was only 4%. Someone walks up to us and this is how lovely Máté introduced us to Matej, who turned out to be the head brewer of Výčap u Ernőho. He invited us to his brewery, located under the taproom. We went down some stairs, through a red door, and there it was.
First he showed us the ingredients; hops, tea and barley. Matej encouraged to us to try a few kernels, which tasted like dark bread and malts and earth. He explained how they make their IPAs, sours, wheat beers and lagers, pouring samples of beers that were ready for drinking, straight from the giant vats. I tried really hard to appreciate all the flavours, or at least to remember them, but the overwhelming experience was a feeling of joy increasing from my belly and the wheat beer tasting like bananas and oranges and summer – and it was, above our heads, in the square. We spent the rest of the night chatting and laughing underground, in the cold-clean, bright-white vault of the brewery, sipping beer, massive steel vats silently towering over us.
Our gig was organised by Juri. Juri has the warmest, most infectious smile, an air of reassuring calm always, and makes cool things happen at Fuga. Fuga is a music venue located in an old, brick-walled cellar right next door to Stará Tržnica.
Jonny played and sang and I was also singing, the music drifting dark, electric and loud, guitar screaming through lit clouds of smoke. A strange night, heavy and confused by unexpected encounters, clashes of past and present and time borrowed. But also this: heart-elevating smiles and blond light radiating from Anna, also Lenka and Ivan surrounded by so much love you could see hearts popping out of the air where they stood. Áron, a dearest friend, there, taking pictures.
I received an email from him, containing the photograph that you can see here, as I was sat on a train to Prague, the morning after the gig, kept awake by the cappuccino I drank instead of breakfast, on our way to do another gig. I was looking at the picture and I thought; things have the potential to mean so incredibly much, if someone can just be there for them, experiencing, remembering, documenting.
Red photo courtesy of Áron @dragulievic