Now you realise it. That airport, that pleasantly bland business hotel, that centrally located restaurant with Depeche Mode on repeat, they were homogenous enough – they could have been, if you focussed your gaze just on them, plucked from more or less any European scene. Even that castle or those forests were, in essence, a deception, not representative of anything really other than themselves – and certainly no defining snapshot of your destination.
But now you realise, now when you step out onto the long, straight street with the apartments angularly yet endearingly repainted from their erstwhile greys in pastille greens and pinks, the people you are walking passed are not the people you are used to walking passed. The people you are walking passed grew up with a different set of influences, Russian more than French, Kofola not Coca-cola, no foreign holidays, no sight of the sea, no snow-less winters, no free speech, no Oasis, no bananas (except on special occasions). You look into each face you pass and you imagine their stories far more intensely than you would if you were on that more familiar type of turf where you could get through the day almost on auto-pilot (this is why one should live somewhere foreign or unfamiliar at least once in their lives) – the bent old babka dragging her shopping trolley, the moody teenager kicking his trainers through the puddles, the surprisingly well-dressed man rooting through the bins, the businessman in his dark car, the high-heeled blonde leading the party of schoolchildren by the hand, the housewife slewing a pail of water methodically over the path to her high-rise. This is the essence of it all, you think.
Of course, this cast of characters is a Slovak cast. But you could trade them with a similar set of personalities, from Argentina, from Azerbaijan. It does not matter. They are the cast of characters you see only when, as a foreigner, you realise that where you are making all these observations from is not a weekend break, not a fleeting holiday, not a gap year. This is where you live; this is a day-in day-out reality. And the glitter, of course, disperses in day-in-day-out realities. Even if you already saw through its sheen on your brief visit to so-and-so destination, there was another sheen of it on your eyes (the sheen of WANTING TO ENJOY YOURSELF because what are holidays for if not for pretending that everything’s OK, or at least forgetting that everything is NOT OK for a while) and this sheen prevented you from seeing things too negatively. And if you did glimpse something negative, your tendency was to put that down to the weather, or not really knowing the place, or not having the licence to judge whether it was really on balance such a negative thing. When you live somewhere, you slowly start to… how shall I put it… the glitter still sparkles but you see something of the picture underneath for what it is.
I do not believe in the majority of travel writing. Cast the net wider. I do not believe in the majority of writing – not where phrases like “the industry” and “press trips” and “Google rankings” hack away at, erode, sully what are nuggets of pretty damned good content and turn them into commercially viable products where the communication of a reality (if it’s journalism) or a vision (if it’s fiction) has to be twisted out of its original shape in order to be sold: the travel article where you are obliged to slip in the mention of that 5-star resort; the book where in order to sit on the coveted entrance table in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble it needs a myriad chops, changes, dilutions of the bold text, insertions of the marketable text). We can say that these hackers and the eroders are really the knights in shining armour of writers everywhere, of course: saving the writerly text from untold perils, errors, faux pas. That could be true but it is as likely to be false (a myth we are fed by certain people who value their jobs, perhaps). Presumably, the increase in blogs is directly proportional to the number of people that object to having what they can and cannot say monitored – who moreover don’t see a need for what they say to be monitored or even hold that unmonitored, unfettered, uncompromised, their words are significantly better.
When I start to see the picture underneath for what it is, my instinct as a writer is to want to paint that picture in words for what it is. A blog is one of the few places on Earth where you can do that publicly. Any other form of publication and the hoops you have to jump through skew what you want to say.
This blog is on Slovakia. And what it is, much as I love it, is not always gushingly positive. I do gush. I whoop with delight, I shriek with excitement, because my front door opens out on Slovakia and I love that. (Call it a slowly-smouldering crush, anyway). But besides the gushing on Slovakia, I also complain and I ridicule (where there’s a call for it – and to be fair I usually reserve this for politicians).
So just don’t expect this site to reveal a wholly positive picture of Slovakia. That’s all I’m saying. To je všetko. And now please read on…