I bought a train ticket in Budapest, and by mid-afternoon was in western Slovakia. My luck finding decent (read cheap) accommodation hadn’t been great of late, so during the train journey I had devised a cunning plan. On arrival in Bratislava I would stay in the first dump I came across. This would save some time. It was a few years ago, when my travel budget afforded the luxury of shared bathrooms, and the occasional bus station bench. Couch surfing, Air B’nB, Booking.com… weren’t things then.
The information desk at the train station displayed a rather odd pamphlet advertising a place called the Red Star Hostel.
The promised free taxi whisked me to the ‘Red Star Hostel’ which I had been assured was a nice twenty-minute walk from the city centre. The free taxi ride seemed quite appealing, and an ominous warning, but I had vowed not to deviate from the original, cunningly devised plan. During the ten-minute drive I took a closer look at the pamphlet from the railway station. “RED STAR HOSTEL” it shouted in bold red uppercase letters on a black background. At the bottom, the same aggressive, capitalised red font screamed this bizarre slogan:
“THE ONLY IRON CURTAIN HERE LIES BETWEEN US AND THE BOREDOM!!!” In case the reader remained unconvinced that these guys were serious (and had no idea that the Czechoslovakian Iron Curtain had been folded up and packed securely away after the Velvet Revolution of 1989), in the centre of this shiny, angry looking pamphlet was a drawing of a big red, clenched fist (presumably to alleviate any lingering doubts one might have about the boredom-busting abilities of the good folks at this particular vacated university dormitory). Okay then! Time for some crazy, Slovakian style!
At the reception area I joined the queue of tired travelers slumped in plastic chairs lined along the wall. We waited to be beckoned by a pimply young man, sitting just a couple of feet away. He slowly and carefully explained the check-in procedure and hostel rules to each guest individually. After twenty minutes I decided to calmly explain to the spotty young gentleman that he might save us all a lot of time by foregoing the rehearsed speech (everybody in the room already knew it by heart), and perhaps inform him that any untrained monkey or coma patient would by now have figured out that the five English guys standing at the front of the queue were in fact travelling together. But I didn’t. Check-in guy slowly turned to the next bewildered young Englishman.
“Hi! Welcome to the Red Star Hostel! We have several different styles of accommodation. May I refer your attention to…”
Fuck! Amusing myself by repeatedly banging my head against the wall I realised I wasn’t the only one.
This well-meaning young desk-idiot was bringing new, hitherto unrivalled levels of subtlety to the science of boredom alleviation. Aha! That’s it! This must be some new experiment in reverse psychology! He was masterfully fighting boredom with boredom, perhaps using some ancient technique he had learned in the Far East. Wait… I lived in the Far East! My god, I’m delirious! FUCK THIS IS BORING! A pacifist by nature, I imagined which style of cartoon-style violence might be appropriate for this knucklehead. There’s never any dynamite or an anvil around when you need them. After about an hour it was my turn.
“Hi! Welcome to the Red Star Hostel! We have several…”
“Yes, I understand. One single room for one night please,” I interrupted as politely as I could.
He appeared impressed with my ability to write my name, address and passport number in less than eighteen minutes, then positively astonished when I presented him with the correct amount of cash.
“So you already know about the daily city tax for foreign tourists?” he asked, smiling happily.
“Yes… there are signs posted… everywhere… and you’ve already told… everyone”. He smiled and presented me with my room key, which was inexplicably attached to a big furry stuffed toy animal (this was part of the zany fun perhaps) that wouldn’t fit in any pocket.
I dragged my stuff up four flights of stairs to my room (the elevator was out), in which pretty much everything was pink and/or fluffy, except the towels, which didn’t exist. I dumped my bags, grabbed my toy bat/room key and went out for a walk before the excitement became too much.
As I expected, the pleasant twenty-minute walk to the city from the Red Star Asylum was just that – for those who walk for gold at the Olympic games – you know, those guys who look like they desperately need to use the bathroom, but decide for some reason to keep walking to a nicer bathroom, in the next town. I wonder how people get involved in that sport. Anyway, after a relaxing stroll along the Danube I found the city centre.
Most of the buildings in the Slovakian capital are typically grey concrete, eastern-bloc hulks of things (not unlike the Red Star Hostel), though nobody seemed overly concerned by this, and I saw a few things that made me wonder whether all the retro, socialist-stylised advertising was perhaps not necessarily so retro…
The old part of central Bratislava however, whilst a small city, is very old and beautiful and looks more like central Vienna. I mentioned this to a guy in a pub, who told me Vienna was only seventy-odd kilometres upriver, which suddenly made sense. Having travelled randomly for six weeks I actually had no idea I was only an hour from where I began.
Strolling around Bratislava over a few beers was very pleasant. The city is charming, the people friendly and the beer is excellent.
I decided though to keep heading North to Prague. One night at the Red Star Hostel was more than enough. Any more of that kind of excitement might have given me a rage-induced stroke. But then I got to thinking about that slogan again. “THE ONLY IRON CURTAIN LIES BETWEEN US AND THE BOREDOM”. Given that there was no trace of an iron curtain anywhere in Europe in 2008, and that the world’s nearest (and only) surviving iron curtain remains 8,200 kilometres away on the Korean peninsula, that pamphlet had been trying to warn me all along! The complete absence of an iron curtain anywhere near the Red Star Hostel meant that there was absolutely NOTHING separating these nutjobs from my boredom. I guess I should have listened.