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Brothers from Another Mother

10:39 am

Bratislava, Slovakia

When trying to find the best accommodations for your dollar, I’ve learned it helps to approach AirBnb the same way you might going out for sushi. Each offer different choices depending on your preferences. A shared room is like ordering two small pieces of salmon nigiri. A single room is your standard California roll. And renting the entire home is like asking for the Love Boat - a smorgasbord of sushi rolls, teriyaki, and tempura.

And like sushi, the cost of booking a room can vary depending on what city you’re in and what you prefer. If the prices are too steep it may be best to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if the rates are too cheap you should be leery. The apartment for $25 a night whose only redeeming feature is the WiFi is like the unsold fish from last Thursday the chef is trying to pawn off on you. Run for the hills my friend and don’t look back.

As I scanned through the images in search of my next temporary abode in Warsaw, the final stop on my journey, I came across some questionable postings that made me feel like I was browsing Craigslist instead. One listing read:

Taste the City

“What does that even mean?” I heard myself say.

Another room was being advertised for $19 a night and the only pictures available were of a bed and some nondescript storefront. I wondered for a moment if someone had been murdered there.

Luckily, I’ve developed a keen eye for picking reasonably priced and cozy dwellings, a skill not to be overlooked.

But my time here in Slovakia is not up. Like Slovenia, it is a small country and one gets the sense often underestimated. But one would be mistaken if they thought it was a place to be overlooked. Bratislava sits above the Danube, a river I am now convinced is stalking me. Bratislava Castle, Michael’s Gate, and the Slovak National Theatre are certainly worth your time. I spent part of my day marveling at St. Martin’s Cathedral, built in the 15th century situated near the historical city center.

And to date, the three people I know from this country are arguably the most affable and kind-hearted you will ever meet. I half wonder if they're related.

The first, was a gentlemen I met nearly twenty years ago - a sobering reminder of the delicacy and pace of time. My friend Bill spent many college summers working at a swim club in the Oakland Hills. His co-worker, who worked as a trainer, was a 30-something Slovakia transplant named Milan. How he ended up in Oakland of all places still puzzles me.

What I recall most about Milan was his tireless work ethic, generosity, and the party he threw one August evening where he inexplicably pleaded with Bill to break all the windows in his house. Luckily, Bill declined the offer and I’m guessing Milan retained his security deposit. That was a strange night and also the last time I saw my Slovakian friend.

Next, there was Jozef, a 40-something father originally from Bratislava, who seemed to have less of a propensity for destroying things. Yesterday, when I arrived, he greeted me warmly and led me into my host’s apartment who happened to be a childhood friend of his. After he showed me around the space we spoke for about 15 minutes in the kitchen, a pattern that seems to have developed on several of my journeys. He taught me a few words in Slovak that I nearly forgot on cue as he headed out the large off-white door. He also told me a bit of Slovakia’s unique history and its people. Strangely, what interested me most was the dilapidated building directly across the street.

“That was a hospital,” he said. “Actually, I was born there.” Having just visited the hospital I was born in two summers before in Hong Kong, I was now intrigued. “How long has it been abandoned?” I asked. “About 7 years,” he told me. Only 7 years?! I thought. It looked like it was built before the Acropolis. We spoke for a bit longer, trading a few jokes along the way, something I took special delight in since much seems to be lost in translation and is a matter of temperament when it comes to humor. Soon after Jozef made his way home.

Last but not least, there was Jergus, a twenty-something photographer working at a makeshift teashop just beyond St. Martin’s Cathedral. We spoke for an hour and half over jasmine green tea. Each time I finished a carafe he would re-steep the tea leaves and pour me another cup. Part of me started to think he didn’t want me to leave. I discovered Jergus had lived in Vietnam as a small boy because his father worked in Hanoi. He seemed to have a fleeting recollection of the experience, but had clearly cultivated a fascination with Southeast Asia. We covered politics and the arts then began trading insights and observations we’d picked up in our lives. After a while we began to sound like two fortune cookies.

Eventually, my bladder would have no more of it. I thanked Jergus for the tea and conversation. I made my through Old Town on the way to my apartment. As beautiful as this place is, it’s defining feature, it’s gem, are unquestionably the people. Milan, Jozef, and Jergus – Slovakian brothers from another mother.

Jozef’s advice was simple: "If you don’t like something, don’t do it to other people. If you do that I think everyone will be happy.”

And Jergus’s advice was just as poignant. He said: “Don’t judge people. Take them like they are. Of course, sometimes, be careful, but it’s wonderful when you try to do this…I teach things from my soul. It’s the best experience.”

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