In case you are wondering, Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate countries, despite once being one under to moniker “Czechoslovakia.” Though the countries have split, relations have always remained friendly. So much so that the EU representatives for each country often vote for the other if he is absent; it has been described as the most 'amicable' national divorce in history. I look at passing signs, noting their languages are similar enough that those unsure can hardly tell which country they are in without checking GPS.
After checking into the hostel in Bratislava, which is inexplicably named after Freddie Mercury, I stroll through historic Michael’s Gate and begin climbing a hill to the city’s castle. Though exhausting, the trek is worth it, offering an impressive view of the city from the top.
I am coming to the end of Europe, so I elect to take part in the Bratislava pub crawl that evening. When I get back to my room to change, three young women, one from France, one from Serbia, and one from Russia, have settled into the dorm room and are keeping to themselves until I introduce myself for fear of going to the pub crawl alone. The Russian seems interested, but the Serb—who has lived in Bratislava for a short time—has already seen all the sights and commits to join me whereas the Russian disappears when it is time to leave.
The event runs nightly through a hostel in the center of town, and on the way the Serb tells me about her struggles assimilating into Slovakian life. As an ethnically Kosovar Serb, she faces pressure at home for not moving to Kosovo, which is supposed to feel like her homeland, while many people she meets abroad distance themselves because she has a Serbian passport and is viewed as dangerous. Though she regularly apologizes for her English abilities, it is clear she speaks well, demonstrated by the sheer amount she talks. I could hardly get a word in. I empathize with her plight. I try to tell her about how the last few years have made it more critical than ever that we learn to separate nationality and ethnicity from identity, this coming from an American. Worldwide, there is not only negative sentiment toward Americans and Serbs, but toward virtually every group originating from at least one other. The ability of Czech Republic and Slovakia to maintain a friendship encourages us, especially in a time where diplomacy seems to be an afterthought and politicians boast about thinking about their own people first. Especially the ones who hardly seem to think about them at all.
The pub crawl goes as well as can be expected. There are drinks. There are drinking games. The Serb ducks out after the first cocktail, but I decide I have to stick it out a little longer. It is not a pub crawl if you stay stationary. I have fun for the first twenty minutes and then a great wave of boredom and déjà vu blows over me as someone suggests we play “Never Have I Ever.” If you are not familiar, I envy you. The rules are simple: sit in a corner, answer questions while drinking, and pray it ends soon. However, I notice pub crawls are ideal in that dull conversations with broke, young, aspiring alcoholics must inevitably end when you move to the next bar. But at the next spot, all that is waiting for you is another where-are-you-going-where-have-you-been-how-much-have-you-drank-type conversation. I don’t even make it to the second pub, and head to the hostel after an hour or so following a craving for shawarma. At my drunken dinner, I realize how much the world relies on different types of people with varying beliefs and values to function. This is evidenced by the fact that the perfect drunk food—shawarma—has been brought to the world by a community that does not drink alcohol. I get teary, as I often do whether drunk or sober, when I think about how countries and communities, especially my own, refuse to accept visitors from certain countries based on race or religion. I hold back sobs as I enter my hostel and crash. That's right, I cried myself to sleep over world peace. I'm 'man' enough to say it.
In the morning, I realize I left my clip-on sunglasses across town the day before at a bodega. I have a few hours until my bus to Budapest, and wander around an open-air market for a half hour looking for a replacement. I find nothing worth buying, then stumble across a self-service restaurant for lunch. The crowd here seems much more working class, and I notice that several people actually pay in food stamps. For around 4 Euros, I get a large plate of meat, bread, and cabbage with a mug of Kofola, the local Coke, boarding the bus full of Slovakian food.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.