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The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia

The Last King of Sturovo a short story from Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

In September 2002 I rocked up in Bratislava with a couple of bags and just enough cash to last until my first pay check. And so unfolded one of the great years of my life…


“Ah, Leighton! Do you have a moment?’’ I’d just finished an Obchodna morning class and was dashing through the lobby, keen to get my daily fix of McMinx-served coffee and fried apple pie.

Little Katka? Her shrill voice stopped me in my tracks. Oh shit, what have I done? was all I could think. ‘‘Sure’’ I replied, trying to look relaxed as she led me into her office. Although pleasant enough in her own clipped way, the school’s assistant director was someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

Little in name, but gargantuan in reputation, it was a widely held belief among us teachers that if you could avoid being called into Little Katka’s office, then your Bratislava teaching career was going just fine.

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The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

‘‘Let’s see’’ she said, shuffling some papers.

‘‘You’ve been here for three months now, how are you enjoying things?’’

Loaded question? ‘‘Oh I really like it’’ I answered, inwardly drawing up a shortlist of students most likely to have complained about something.

‘‘Wonderful’’ she responded, tucking a stray wisp of fiery red hair behind her ear. ‘‘We’ve had good feedback… and…. wondered if you might be interested in some overtime? It’s kind of a special assignment, a big contract for us’’.

‘‘Oh!’’ I hummed, immediately loosening up. ‘‘Great… uh, what are the details?’’

‘‘It’s an in-company course’’ she explained, extracting a blob of hand cream from the tiny tube she kept by the phone. ‘‘But not here in Bratislava, it’s in the town of Štúrovo!’’

Short story Slovakia

‘‘Where the fuck is Stoo-ro-vo?’’ asked Myles, the two of us settling into a quiet corner at McDonald’s. ‘‘It’s on the other side of the country!’’ I laughed, as a beaming Adminx brought over our breakfast in a rare show of hands-on waitressing.

‘‘Right on the Hungarian border’’ I added, shaking my head in disbelief. ‘‘Once a week, a ninety minute class. From door to door it’ll take me two and a half hours just to get there!’’ 

‘‘Sounds messed up mate” exclaimed Myles in his faux English accent. ‘‘You gonna do it?’’

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo

Bratislava to Sturovo: Not a short commute.

It was still dark when the train pulled out of Hlavná Stanica. Having located an empty carriage, I set the alarm on my phone and slept for an hour.

When I awoke, it was to a dark grey sky and dirt-brown fields flashing by my window. Reaching into my bag, I fished out Little Katka’s meticulous briefing. I would be teaching at Kappa, an enormous paper packaging plant located ten minutes from Štúrovo’s tin pot train station.

There would be eight students, their positions ranging from interns and secretaries to a manual labourer and department manager. As agreed, there was also confirmation that I’d be paid my hourly teaching rate for the time spent travelling. All things considered, it felt like a pretty sweet deal.

A Hungarian girl called Izabella picked me up at the station. “We are very exciting!’’ she revealed, with a shy smile. ‘‘We don’t have English here before!’’ It will be a nice break from the working”. 

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

Sturovo Industrial Park Slovakia.Entering a massive industrial park, we came to a stop outside a cluster of grey, cheerless buildings. According to Little Katka’s dossier, it was in one of these structures that I was about to meet the Human Resources Manager, a man by the name of Anton Vacko.

Anton Vacko Kappa Sturovo.

Mr. Anton Vacko.

‘‘Mr. Leighton!’’ he boomed with a firm handshake and a hefty slap on my back. ‘‘Welcome to Kappa!’’ Pouring us both coffee, he handed me a company business card and ushered me into a seat in front of his colossal desk. Dropping into a black leather chair, he rolled forward, a bear of a man with a bushy black beard and a full head of dark, curly hair.

After a mercifully short company history and a few standard questions about my background, he left me in no doubt as to my weekly mission. ‘‘These people know some English’’ he explained, twirling a fountain pen through his thick fingers. “But they don’t have many occasion to use it. Their job is paper, box, lorry… box, lorry, paper”.

“Give them something different. And make it fun! Help them escape’’.

Kappa Sturovo Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

I’d been pretty nervous in the buildup to that first lesson. Partly due to the great unknown of a new student group, but also because I didn’t want to let Little Katka down with her ‘‘big contract’’. 

Thankfully, my students turned out to be a fantastic bunch that loved to laugh and joke around. Thus any misgivings I’d had simply melted away in the opening minutes of the class. 

I will aways remember that Kappa group. There was fashionable Kamilla, with her bleached blonde hair, branded clothing and amusing habit of reapplying her nail polish during the ten minute break. Then there was Marta, a witty redhead who’d once played guitar in a Hungarian-Slovak punk band!

Kristina was the youngest of the group and utterly charming, especially when she mimicked my English accent. Even Marek, the group’s sole male, was entertaining in his own dour way. ‘‘Štúrovo!’’ he’d regularly moan, as the others attempted to contain their laughter.

‘‘From all the places in all the world, why I must be in Štúrovo?’’

‘‘So leave!’’ goaded Kamilla, drumming the table with her nails. ‘‘Explore the world, free yourself!’’ cackled Marta. ‘‘No… no…’’ he’d mutter, with a shake of the head, ‘‘there can be no escape’’. 

With the class responding well to the materials I’d prepared, the time flew by and before I knew what had happened I was on the train back to Bratislava. Consequently, I found myself buzzing from the adrenaline of my weird and wonderful life in Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo a short story from Slovakia.

My Kappa Class, late 2002. A fantastic bunch.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

My visits to Kappa quickly became the highlight of my working week. I could sleep, read and listen to music on the train. On arrival, I’d grab a free brunch in the cafeteria using a company food card Mr. Vacko gave me. The lessons were always fun, friendly, uncomplicated affairs that never felt like work.

From time to time, Izabella and I had a chat over coffee in the courtyard during the break. Moreover, Mr. Vacko occasionally called me into his office to check on Q.P.R.’s recent form. ‘‘Oh dear’’ he’d say with a wide smile, as I talked him through another miserable defeat. ‘‘Keep on supporting, one day the winds will bring change’’.

‘‘Kappa is very happy with your lessons!’’ trilled Little Katka, back in Bratislava.

‘‘They want an extra hour a week, a new class of four people. Will you do it?’’ ‘‘Sure!’’ I said, without blinking. The next evening there was another surprise, this time from Ben when we met on the hill for dinner at Mario’s.

‘‘Lignon, I’m coming to Štúrovo!’’ he revealed, clinking my glass with his own freshly poured Kelt. ‘‘Whaaat?’’ I cried, my drink nearly slipping through my fingers. 

And so it was that Ben began accompanying me on my weekly adventures to Slovakia’s premier paper factory. It was good to have some company during the long commute, not to mention a partner in crime who understood first-hand what a unique, kooky experience it all was.

Budapest memories March 2003.

With Ben during a visit to Budapest.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

Ben had been given two one-on-one courses. An hour with some faceless department head who never once showed up, plus sixty minutes with none other than Anton Vacko himself!  Even the boss’ attendance proved erratic, presumably due to his general busyness and importance.

On Ben’s first day nobody came. Hence he just sat in the giant meeting room pacing back and forth with one eye on the clock. “Next time I’m bringing a book’’ he told me on the train back.

A few days later I was called down to Mr. Vacko’s office for yet another unexpected development. ‘‘A photographer will come to your class today’’ he explained, running his hands over an expensive looking cigar.

‘‘The local newspaper is writing an article about our English lessons. We need a picture of you in action’’.

The photographer was a twitchy, scruffy man by the name of Robert Kiss. Positioning himself in a corner of the classroom, he sat for over half an hour watching me while I did my thing. Suddenly, while I was in mid explanation of some tricky idiom, he shot up and interrupted me.

‘Sorry Mr. Teacher man, but I need more hands!’’

Having clocked my nonplussed expression, he merely repeated the request while gesticulating wildly with his own hands. Returning my attention to the idiom, the students shifted awkwardly in their seats. Trying not to show how uncomfortable I felt, I finished my explanation with an extended arm gesture. Holding the pose for a good five seconds, Robert Kiss enthusiastically clicked away and a few days later the story appeared in Štúrovo’s local rag.

The Last King of Sturovo a short story from Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

‘‘Man, you’re virtually running that town!’’ laughed Goldblum. We were at home on the hill, plowing through yet another helping of his healing mincemeat, egg and noodle medley. Goldblum always got a huge kick out of my weekly Štúrovo tales. This latest yarn, complete with newspaper article, was a particular treat.

‘‘Mr. Lignon… The King of Štúrovo!’’ he snickered. 

‘‘Man… I gotta see this town for myself’’. While there was nothing to actually see or do in Štúrovo, it was the perfect base for exploring a choice corner of Hungary. In fact, The Danube Bend towns of Esztergom, Szentendre and Visegrád were right around the corner. So, over the course of a few weeks, Goldblum, Ben and I planned a trip.

We set off on a wintry weekend in February 2003, the three of us joined by Myles, Sheila and Sarah. We took the trusty old train over from Bratislava and it certainly felt weird arriving in Sturovo with no classes to teach. From the station we crossed the border into Hungary on foot, making our way across the five hundred meter long Mária Valéria Bridge.

Crossing Maria Valeria Bridge in Sturovo Slovakia

From left to right: Yours truly, Myles, Goldblum, Sheila and Ben.

It was a cool experience, albeit a little stressful due to the precarious state of my falling-to-bits passport and its dubious collection of Arabic stamps. This caused great amusement among the group, with Ben and Myles speculating that the Hungarian guards might not even let me in. Furthermore, Goldblum took it upon himself to dub me ‘‘Osama Bin Leighton’’ for the rest of the trip.

Nevertheless, the weekend turned out to be great fun. We took in the hugely impressive Esztergom Basilica, strolled through the quaint streets of Szentendre and hiked up a forest trail to Visegrád Castle.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

Visit Hungary Esztergom Basilica.

Esztergom Basilica.

‘‘Wonderful!’’ sang Mr. Vacko, as I showed him photos of the trip at lunch one day. ‘‘You’re really getting around!’’ “Sure am!’’ I responded, putting on my happy-go-lucky face. ‘‘Well, time for class’’. And off I went with a spring in my step, as I’d done so many times before. This time however, I wasn’t really looking forward to my class at all. 

It was because of my new group, which had been troublesome from day one. Although it did feature the delightful Izabella, the other three were humourless administrators who proved virtually impossible to engage. 

The worst offender was Pavel, a Polish man who seemed to reject everything I put before him. A BBC News article followed by a few comprehension questions produced a rebellious snort and under-the breath grumbling. A writing task once caused him to abandon the class altogether under the pretense of having to ‘‘take a call’’. He also refused to do anything grammar-related, arms folded, eyes to the ceiling.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

The Silence of the Lambs movie poster

One lesson, during a sprawling discussion that wound its way into the unexpected terrain of serial killer movies, I presented them with an interesting article about The Silence of The Lambs.

Pavel had been in a foul mood from the moment he entered the room that day. Between his moody expressions and displeased grunts, I could feel that he was building up to something. As I handed out copies of the article, he suddenly shot up out of his seat.

‘‘It’s enough!!!’’ he shouted, pushing the paper away.

‘‘Always read something, must always doing something. Why don’t we just chat? I’m sick of it!” Izabella, head in hands, sunk down into her seat, while the clone brothers stuck to their usual routine of staring at the walls impassively.

Anthony Hopkins The Silence of the Lambs

“Why don’t we just chat? I’m sick of it!”

I was shocked… speechless. As such, it took a minute or two for the situation to hit me and when it did I found myself enraged. I’d been taking his crap for weeks and it had now gotten to the point where I was starting to dread these sessions.

‘‘If you don’t like my classes and you aren’t going to participate, just get out’’ I snapped, pointing to the door.

Rooted to the spot, Pavel glared back at me with a face like a slapped fish. Picking up his notebook, he turned and headed out, muttering to himself with a dramatic slam of the door.

‘‘I see’’ said Mr. Vacko, when I’d finished telling him the story. ‘‘Well… there is a saying I have for occasions like this’’. We were in his office and he was standing facing the window, looking out over a wide square of trucks and crates, workers scurrying in all directions.

‘‘Complainers complain’’ he said, turning to face me. ‘‘Yes… complainers always complain Mr. Leighton. Don’t worry about it, I think it’s best Pavel does not come to class anymore’’.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo a short story from Slovakia.

The Last King of Sturovo, a short story from Slovakia.

‘‘Things back to normal now?’’ asked Ben on the train, a few weeks later. ‘‘Yeah I guess’’ I sighed, blowing into my paper cup of muddy coffee.

True to his word, Mr. Vacko had declared Pavel persona non grata. But for me the Kappa experience had been tainted. In fact, much like Marek, my half-glass-empty student, I couldn’t help wondering what the hell I was doing in Štúrovo.

The early rises, all those hours spent on the train, the grimness of the industrial plant. ‘‘Ugh!’’ moaned Ben, peering out the compartment window at the slanting rain.

‘‘Another four hours of doing absolutely nothing.

Honestly, I’d rather be teaching’’.

When Little Katka called me into her office a month later to tell me the game was up, I felt relieved. It had been time for Kappa to extend their contract, but they’d pulled the plug citing budgeting issues. Despite Mr. Vacko’s supposed loyalty, a part of me wondered if the Pavel situation had been a factor. Had I been too hotheaded? Unwilling to bring it up with either Vacko or Little Katka, I decided to let it lie. 

“It was time’’ opined Ben, during a post mortem in The Slovak Pub. ‘‘Yeah it was’’ I agreed, a waitress arriving with a tray of beers. ‘‘To Lignon!’’ declared Goldblum, raising his beer with a commemorative sweep, ‘‘The Last King of Štúrovo’’.

‘The Last King of Štúrovo’ is the eighth chapter of my short story series The Slovak Files.

Access my other short story collections here.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.


  • Beverley

    Wonderful. “Osama Bin Leighton’’ had me laughing hard.

    February 22, 2015 - 1:17 pm Reply
  • Quiznos

    ”Complainers complain”.
    -Anton Vechko-

    February 22, 2015 - 1:35 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    Very interesting for me. I hadn’t heard specifically about this assignment. I remember you and Ben talking about it but not at any great length while I was around, anyway.. Loved the “Silence of the Lambs” connection.

    February 22, 2015 - 3:09 pm Reply
  • The Last King of Štúrovo – a short story from Slovakia (& Hungary) | natty4t's Blog

    […] The Last King of Štúrovo – a short story from Slovakia (& Hungary). […]

    February 23, 2015 - 8:58 am Reply
  • Bertine

    A little sad to read.
    I guess Pavel didn’t have any friends to chat with.

    February 23, 2015 - 12:52 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Your descriptions convinced us to visit Sturovo. Despite never having gone to Svidnik, this trip was well worth time. Thanks for including maps – they help. And you included the name of the beer I’ve been trying to remember. It was Kelt. See, it pays to read Lignon.

    May 20, 2020 - 11:15 pm Reply
  • pedmar10

    Great stories I am sure memories forever too. Cheers!

    July 27, 2021 - 9:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      July 27, 2021 - 10:02 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Well, cheers to Mr Teacher, aka The Last King of Sturovo 🍻🍻. And yes, the world is full of “Pavels” … they’re out there to try and dampen our spirit. But in the end they never succeed (I hope 😉).
    Great story once again Leighton!

    July 27, 2021 - 11:17 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you liked this quirky tale. It was a fun, strange adventure while it lasted and I look back on that time fondly. Thanks for so diligently following this series!

      July 27, 2021 - 11:20 am Reply
  • kagould17

    Wow. A tale of espionage and intrigue for sure. I imagine the ne’er do wells in such corporate environments would dig their heels in for any change to their daily routine. Hell, it still happens in corporate offices all over the world. There are those who simply refuse to comply with any instruction. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    July 27, 2021 - 2:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Allan, it’s funny to think about how angry I got about it all. But of course as you grow older and get more experience with people you realise there’s one around every corner.

      July 27, 2021 - 3:30 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    What an interesting experience for you to be asked to take on this company teaching role and great that Ben was able to start accompanying you as well. Wonderful unforgettable memories Leighton.

    July 27, 2021 - 3:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Looking back it was indeed a unique opportunity. Mostly I’ll remember those long train journeys back and forth through the Slovak countryside. Thanks for reading Marion.

      July 27, 2021 - 3:44 pm Reply
  • Jyothi

    Great reading!! Very interesting !!

    July 27, 2021 - 3:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      July 27, 2021 - 3:44 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What a great group that must have been that you still remember so much about them. Another great chapter in your your Slovakia tale 🙂

    July 27, 2021 - 4:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Meg!

      July 27, 2021 - 4:13 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    I was in Esztergrom in 2011 on a tour from Budapest to the impressive basilica complex. It has a good view of Sturovo although I didn’t know the name of the town. It would have been nice to cross the bridge for a quick visit just to say I’d been to Slovakia. In the photo with Ben you two look like you could be brothers.

    July 27, 2021 - 10:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey John, Esztergom is such a charming little place and that basilica eh? I totally agree with you about the photo. I think the stripy shirts play a part too.

      July 27, 2021 - 11:50 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Ah, so that’s why you knew about Esztergom! I’ve heard of ESL teachers traveling long distance for extra teaching lessons, but man, the commute must be brutal…Whereas you crossed from Slovakia to Hungary, I did the opposite when I visited 15 years after you did, where I crossed from Esztergom to Štúrovo and stayed in the latter for a grand total of five minutes before crossing back. Definitely a beautiful little gem of a place, the both of them!

    July 28, 2021 - 5:12 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I think five minutes is all you needed in Sturovo ha ha. Esztergom is definitely a little gem, as are those neighboring Danube Bend towns, Visegrad and Szentendre. Cool to have crossed tracks with not only yourself but several other WordPress bloggers, including John aka Salsa World Traveller. Esztergom is more popular than I’d realised.

      July 28, 2021 - 8:31 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Yep. The shirts are a big part of it.

    July 28, 2021 - 6:16 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    Interesting to see how people behave in other countries, I don’t understand Pavel’s attitude, it is beyond me.

    July 29, 2021 - 3:30 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I remember bumping into him again one time in the toilet, some weeks after the bust up. It was so awkward, he couldn’t wash his hands and get out of there fast enough! Thanks for reading.

      July 29, 2021 - 8:28 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    I chuckled through this one, recognizing some of my own students! I hope they were paying you for travel time. 🙂

    August 2, 2021 - 6:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      They did pay for me those rail journeys. It was a pretty sweet gig until it turned sour. Thanks for reading!

      August 2, 2021 - 6:55 pm Reply

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