The old, fat sun-bronzed man in the very tight swimming trunks comes up to where I’m lounging in the Piešt’any spa – with that sort of belly-flop/breast stroke that only old, fat, sun-bronzed men can pull off – and asks me what altitude, exactly, are we at here?
Altitude? We’re not on a mountain summit! We’re in a spa in a river valley. Altitude really has very little relevance here. But it’s several levels of interest above the standard conversation opener. And – as it happens – I’m a great person to ask, as I’ve just been studying a map of the area (I spend a considerable amount of time gawking at maps). Against the odds, I’m able to tell him: 160 metres. He proceeds to ask a few more questions – about the thermal currents, about the history of the place – and again, miraculously, I can answer him.
He’s probably picked the only person in the pool, in fact, who cares about answering him. Because, like him, I’m someone who’s fascinated to find out these little facts about Slovakia because I have not grown up in Slovakia – and does not take such nuggets of information about the country for granted. For a lot of Slovaks, my seemingly over-the-top enthusiasm for Slovakia provokes smiles – but in a majority of cases, those smiles are the kind reserved for someone with a slightly addled mind. Tolerant smiles, let’s say. But this old, fat, sun-bronzed man smiles approvingly and nods. As though my random knowledge of Piešt’any were as natural as his random questions about it.
I do – most of the time – feel lucky to live in Slovakia. But most of the time that is a thought I harbour within myself. It’s only when another outsider such as this comes along and asks that I ever express the foibles of life here out loud.
And of course what I say to this fat, old, sun-bronzed man (he likes my responses; he asks me a lot more about the country) has a negative side. But we’re in a spa, don’t forget. We’re relaxing in the country’s best spa outside a 5* hotel, with ice-cold beers, gravely and impeccably served (service is not always impeccable but it’s invariably very good). And the experience has cost each of us under 15 Euros. Even when you weigh up the differences in salaries, some small luxuries – like this, like a half-decent meal out, like a night at the opera – in Slovakia are significantly more affordable than many other parts of the continent. If you so choose (and many don’t) there’s a quality of life you can tap into for less than further west in Europe.
And the fat, old, sun-bronzed man remarks that Slovakia seems like a very good country to live in – and he’s in the import/export business, and has seen lots of countries. I correctly guess this is leading up to something. “Would you happen to know” he whispers to me confidentially “any good contacts within Tatra milk? I’ve been trying to phone them all week, but no one answers the phone.”
A good country to live in, Slovakia. Or to relax in. But as for doing business… it can be, at times, a rocky path.