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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Road Road trip Slovakia.

Road Trip Part I, 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…

‘Road trip!!!’’ cried Myles, slapping both hands down on my shoulders. ‘‘Next Saturday, there’s like fifty places on the bus, so sign your ass up!’’ ‘‘Sounds cool” I replied, “who’s organizing it?’’

We were at The Slovak Pub and I was working my way through a hearty bowl of goulash. Ben smoking to my left, Sladjana fiddling with her phone on my right. ‘‘Eric’s’ in charge” explained Myles, simultaneously flagging down a passing waitress. ‘‘He’s got a whole route mapped out. Gonna SEE this mother fucking country!’’ ‘‘The sights, the sounds, the smells…’’ pondered Ben, beer in hand.

‘‘The minxes!’’ trilled Myles. ‘‘Lignon, think of the minxes!?!’’ 

“I’m not going” revealed Sladjana, a short while later at the bar. The poor girl had already agreed to stay in Bratislava to entertain a visiting aunt. “She’s really boring. It’s going to be a weekend of pottery, stories about the old days and early nights. You go, have fun, and if stuff happens I don’t wanna know, ok?’’

‘‘Dude, Eric just walked in’’, interrupted Myles. ‘‘NAME. LIST. NOW’’. I’m not sure if it was Myles’ infectious enthusiasm or my genuine desire to see more of the country. Or maybe even the need for a change of scenery after the difficulty of recent events in Bratislava. Whatever it was, I couldn’t help but feel excited about the prospect of hitting the open road. However, there was also a pang of guilt, because of course I knew someone else who wouldn’t be able to come.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Road Trip Part I a short story from Slovakia

‘‘Ah, it’ll be a good time’’ croaked Goldblum, without a trace of bitterness. He was sitting up in bed, an Ian Rankin novel resting on his chest. It was colder than usual in the hospital, the cup of tea in his hands producing a rising trail of smoke.

‘‘I’m just looking forward to getting outta here in a few days. Should have everything moved over by the time you get back’’.

Goldblum’s decision to move in with Rich and I had been great news. After the trauma of the attack, we figured he’d be better off away from the misery of Dúbravka and into a place where he was closer to school and around actual people. While the road trip had come too early in his recovery process, I was comforted by the fact that my friend was on the mend. Moreover, I felt thrilled by the prospect of him taking our spare room and the adventures that lay ahead for us all in Bratislava. 

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

There was an exuberant round of whoops and handclaps as the bus pulled out of Obchodna Street. Slowly moving through the city centre traffic, we began our cross-country expedition into the unknown. Settling into the back row with Myles, Paul and Ben, I had a great overview of the trip’s eclectic cast of players. As creator, planner and de facto trip leader, Eric had installed himself up front next to the driver, where he occasionally rose to address us from a crackly microphone. 

‘‘First stop Poprad!’’ he announced, with a cheesy grin. 

‘‘We’re looking at a brisk four hours folks, so settle in and enjoy the party’’. And enjoy the party we did! Barely an hour into the journey, there was a pit stop at a middle-of-nowhere service station for petrol, calls of nature and unnecessary supplies. Ben stocked up on cigarettes and Citizen Kovacs returned with a six pack of the Czech beer Kozel. Minnesota Jordan appeared clutching a bottle of Becherovka. ‘‘38%!?! Jordan, you’re an animal!’’ laughed Paul, unscrewing the top.

Bus trip Slovakia.

“Fancy a beer?” Citizen Kovacs.

I was paying at the checkout, a bulging bag of snacks in my hand, when Myles called me over. He’d been tickled by something in the gift section. ‘‘Lignon, check it out!’’ he cried, holding up a giant box containing a chunky toy automobile. ‘‘A POWERFUL CAR!’’ he read off the packaging in an affected tone of wonderment. ‘‘With this car… I can achieve anything!’’ He almost bought it too.

Back on the open road, there were spontaneous outbreaks of song, the exchanging of lewd jokes and a competitive session of Charades. ‘‘Squeeze?’’ suggested a befuddled Rich, as Jordan’s hunched hand played out a slow, deliberate pressing motion. Then his index finger began stabbing hopefully towards the invisible results.

‘‘Squashed crap?’’ joked Paul. 

‘‘Liquid? Juice?’’ offered an increasingly frustrated Ben.

“Pulp?” frowned Irish Mike.

‘‘Pulp Fiction!!!’’ screamed Jen.

I always liked Jen, a loud, potty-mouthed American from Maine, whose underlying sweetness would take months to reveal itself. ‘‘Fuck yeah!!!’’ she hollered, pumping a victorious fist into the air.

Keen to learn more about my expat comrades, I worked my way around the vehicle chatting to people. Folk who, thus far, I’d only exchanged pleasantries with at The Slovak Pub, or nodded to in passing at school. My mingling soon led me to Sarah, a softly spoken, sullen-looking girl from the north of England. But behind her melancholy and infinite sarcasm lay a heart of gold. She was a keen squash player, it turned out, hence I invited her to join the teacher’s league Ben and I had set up at Aupark.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Bill and Mary meanwhile proved every bit as personable as I remembered from the welcome party. Bill and I were both into Bob Dylan and shared a passion for creative writing. Mary meanwhile (in contrast to Bill’s indifference), passionately championed her home state of Iowa as a travel destination. In fact, she virtually insisted that I come and visit one day. Ten years later I actually made it, staying with them for a few days at their home in the city of Nevada. 

Road Trip Part I a short story from Slovakia

The wonderful Bill and Mary.

It would be a lie to claim the entire trip was one gooey Little House on the Prairie episode of happy families. Toward the front of the bus sat a trio of American guys freshly arrived from various Ivy League universities. Loud, socially inept, and gratingly nasal, Eugene, Erwin and Ed seemingly existed in their own bubble and showed little interest in integrating with the rest of the group.

‘‘Aw come on, you always give me the easy ones”.

On the bus that day, it was impossible to ignore their chatter about American politics and who had managed to learn the most Slovak. Furthermore, they began noisily testing each other on world capitals. ‘‘Nicaragua?’’ barked Erwin, adjusting his thick-rimmed glasses. ‘‘Aw come on, you always give me the easy ones. It’s Managua!’’ yapped Eugene triumphantly. It was like watching less likeable versions of the nerds from the classic Simpsons episode Homer Goes To College.

Computer nerds The Simpsons.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

I’d like to say we were mature enough to shrug our shoulders and leave them to it. But we were young, intolerant and getting drunker by the minute. Before long, our under-the-breath jibes had begun to get more vocal. Subsequently, it was something of a blessing for everyone when the bus finally rolled into Poprad.

Visit Poprad Slovakia.

Poprad, Slovakia.

Photo courtesy of Cepom.

Disembarking to the riveting newsflash that Paramaribo was the capital of Suriname, we were greeted by a petite and sleepy city of fifty thousand, nestled at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains. Despite our initial excitement, we quickly realized there wasn’t an awful lot to Poprad, besides the pretty St. Egidius Square and its charming eighteenth century Renaissance buildings.

‘‘So this is Poprad, and what have we done?’’

I found myself singing in the main square with Citizen Kovacs, the two of us producing a falsetto that would have (possibly) made John and Yoko proud. With nothing more to say, we took a few pictures and retired for lunch and beers at a nearby restaurant.

Road Trip Part I a short story from Slovakia

Paul and Jordan: Underwhelmed by Poprad.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

“Levoca!” called Eric, the bus grumbling to a reluctant stop. Somewhat startled, quite a few of us had been napping and now found ourselves stumbling out into the chilly afternoon air. But it didn’t take long to wake up, because Levoca was absolutely gorgeous! We’d been dropped off right in the beautifully preserved town square and, according to Eric, had just forty minutes to explore. Tick, tock. 

Road trip part I, a short story from Slovakia.

The Town Square in Levoca.

So off we went in our various cliques, taking in the quaint Old Town Hall and the 14th century Roman Catholic Church, with its huge wooden Gothic altar. ‘‘These buildings are baroque’’ explained Ben, puffing through the day’s three hundredth cigarette. ‘‘Lignon, are you listening? I’m teaching you stuff”.

‘‘Bring the cage back’’, muttered Myles.

Another notable landmark was the sinister, wrought iron Cage of Shame, formerly used for public shaming and punishment. Upon arrival, we found the nerds sitting on the pavement in front of it, trying to outfox each other with historical facts. ‘‘Bring the cage back’’ muttered Myles, as Eugene smugly declared himself the Slovakia Bus Tour Levoca Trivia Winner. Erwin and Ed’s utter devastation was palpable.

The Cage of Shame Levoca Slovakia.

The Cage of Shame, Levoca.

Working our way out of the center, we were soon met by a section of the town’s ancient walls. Gazing out at the surrounding countryside, we sucked in the autumnal panoramic with its picture perfect hills and bony, statuesque trees. In the distance, we spied a stunning white castle-church, its towering spire piercing the grey sky. ‘‘Amazing!’’ exclaimed Paul, camera in hand. ‘‘This should be an album cover!’’

Road Trip Part I a short story from Slovakia.

Road Trip Part I a short story from Slovakia.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Back on the bus, Eric informed us we’d soon be arriving at Spišský hrad, a remarkable castle ruin said to be one of the largest in Central Europe. Perched atop a steep hill, and with the late afternoon light rapidly fading, it made for a highly atmospheric experience as Rich, Myles, Citizen Kovacs and I sprinted up its rocky slope.

Visit Spis Castle Slovakia.

Spis Castle, Slovakia.

Photo courtesy of Marek Kvackaj. 

Halfway through our ascent we ran out of steam and wheezed through the final stretch before collapsing in front of a massive gate. ‘‘Dude…’’ spluttered Rich, as we lay on our backs catching our breath, staring up at the increasingly malevolent sky. Far below, our Fisher Price bus rested at the side of the road, with those who hadn’t fancied the workout milling about smoking and chatting. ‘‘I think I see a nerd down there’’ said Myles.

NO ENTRY!

With not a single sign of another person, we literally had the castle to ourselves. Wandering around its empty courtyards and scrambling up various stairs, it felt as if we were the only people left on Earth. NO ENTRY said a rusty old sign, situated before a somewhat pointless wooden barrier. On the other side lay an open platform that petered out into a pile of rubble, beyond which was nothing but certain death. ‘‘Let’s do it’’ said Myles, ducking under the barrier.

The views from the platform were breathtaking, a rich canvas of sculpted hills and winding roads as far as the eye could see. At this point, the wind had really picked up and darkness rapidly closed in as Rich, Myles, Kovacs and I stood apart gazing out at the ostensibly painted landscape.

Spis Castle Slovakia.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Photo courtesy of Civertan. 

Feeling utterly consumed by our widescreen window of Slovakia, I found myself suddenly thinking of my father working in The Middle East. Of my mother, sister, brother and beloved dog Inde going about their daily lives in the north of Scotland. Of my friends back in London and Goldblum, who was about to finally get out of that shitty hospital. Very much like the platform we were standing on, these fractured thoughts failed to lead anywhere. Rather, I was simply left with conflicting feelings of awe and loneliness.

‘‘Is that the bus honking?’’ cried Rich, his voice doing battle with the howling wind.

Straining to hear, we exchanged knowing glances and off we went back under the barrier, along a courtyard or two, down some steps, through a tunnel and out onto the hill again for the slow, cautious descent. At the foot of the castle, I stopped for one last photo with Citizen Kovacs before hopping back onto the bus. 

Spis Castle Slovakia 2002.

With Citizen Kovacs at Spis Castle.

By the time we arrived in the city of Košice everyone was starving. As Slovakia’s second largest city, the general consensus was that the real party started here! Thus we wasted no time in checking into our hostel, dumping our stuff and assembling back down in the foyer. Jordan, Rich and Ben cracked open beers, while we waited for the last of the dilly-dalliers to trickle down. Entertainment was supplied by Myles and Paul, who spontaneously began wrestling in front of the disapproving receptionist.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Marching off towards the town centre, our spirits were high as we made our way through the city streets. Jordan and I sang our way through The White Album, song for song, while Jen held court with some hilarious anecdote that surely saw her break the world record for number of expletives uttered in sixty seconds. Along the way, Eric pointed out that the geeks were nowhere to be seen. ‘‘Were they even downstairs in the foyer?’’ he asked, but nobody cared.

“Screw the nerds!!!’’ cried Paul. 

Visit Kosice Slovakia.

Košice, Slovakia.

Photo courtesy of Adam Jones.

Our first stop took in pizza and more alcohol at a restaurant bar, a bunch of us playing table football while Paul lined up a string of Bowie tracks on the jukebox. Later, at another place, all wooden décor and dim lighting, we began ripping into the nerds like the ruthless bastards we were. I’d got Eugene’s voice down pretty well. Consequently, spurred on by the  others, I launched into an improvisational impression of him that went on for quite some time. Someone even loaned me their glasses for comic effect.

Road Trip part I a short story from Slovakia

One too many beers in Kosice.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

By the time I was done, the majority of us were totally sloshed. Not least an Irish girl called Aimee, who was so tanked she could hardly stand. From there the night played out in a haze of blurry images and half-remembered soundbites. I recall Myles and Sarah dancing together and Ben telling me he didn’t rate the Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard, who was ‘‘too lateral”.

Road trip part I a short story from Slovakia.

Myles and Sarah, somewhere in Kosice.

At some godless hour, I remember Myles and I jogging down the street alongside a pair of giggling Slovak girls. Dobrý? Dobrý, Dobrý?” he sang, over and over. In some nameless bar, a bug-eyed Paul suddenly grabbed me by the neck, aggressively singing into my face: 

‘‘Young girl, they call them the Diamond dogs!!!’’ 

It’s so strange looking back on this night some twenty years later. Nowadays, I often find myself sneering at such behaviour. But hey, we were young, free and figuring ourselves out. While our conduct that evening was hardly appalling, I concede that we didn’t cover ourselves in glory. As such, I always have mixed feelings when reliving the events of Kosice. One thing that isn’t in doubt was that we certainly enjoyed ourselves.

Road Trip Part I, a short story from Slovakia.

Lord only knows how I managed to hail a taxi back to the hostel. It had just struck don’t-know-o’clock when I found myself lurching up the stairs towards the dormitories. At the top of the stairs I paused at a drinks machine to guzzle a can of Dr. Pepper and make sense of my bearings. Mistakenly bumbling into a dorm that wasn’t mine, I turned a corner to discover two of my comrades having violent sex through the open door of a bathroom.

Spinning on my heels, I hastily exited and staggered about for a bit until I finally located my room. A few people were already back and sleeping, so I did my best to creep quietly towards my praise-the-lord lower bunk. Exhausted, fully clothed and feeling like utter crap, I collapsed onto the bed and passed out.

‘Road Trip Part I’ is the sixth part of my short story series The Slovak Files.

You can also check out my extended travel report on Bratislava.

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.

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6 Comments

  • Bertine

    Ed, Edd ‘n Eddie!
    I went to Poprad on a school trip when I was 10 years old 🙂
    I only remember it being very grim and bulletholes in the building where we were staying with a foster family.
    The Tatra mountains are beautiful tho’!

    February 8, 2015 - 9:22 am Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    OMG, Leighton! Memories. We weren’t along for the night of drinking and debauchery but I loved reading about it. Those #$%*&@#$ Americans in their bubble. We continue to run into them wherever we spend some time. I hate the image.

    February 8, 2015 - 11:56 am Reply
  • leightonliterature

    Bertine – I think it’s a riot that you ended up in Poprad on a Dutch school trip!?

    Mary – The nerds were annoying for sure but I was in cruel form that night. As funny as it all was at the time, and as key a scene as it ended up being in the film version of ‘The Slovak Files’, I’m not sure old ”Eugene” deserved the treatment I doled out. My only comfort is that he (presumably) never knew about it.

    February 8, 2015 - 12:18 pm Reply
  • Bertine

    I know! It was an exchange project between Poprad and my (former) hometown Zwijndrecht.
    8 days in Slovakia with the whole class, staying with foster families.
    An eye-opener to poverty in a way us kids didn’t know.
    First time I felt sorry for people who actually had to live there.

    February 9, 2015 - 9:27 am Reply
  • Memo

    Thanks for all the pictures to illustrate your vivid narrative. Oh, to have had the video from my current phone! Not that I would ever try to blackmail a lot of people but maybe a few.

    May 19, 2020 - 11:04 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      A few might just deserve it 😉

      May 19, 2020 - 11:40 pm Reply

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