After spending thirteen days in Mallorca, Ivana and I traveled the south of Spain for two weeks. Soon enough, though, we were boarding a bus bound for Zlaté Moravce, her hometown in Slovakia, and I was more wound-up than I’d been all year. I twisted the straps of my backpack between my fingers as we waited in line. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I’m not ready.”
Ivana said, “My mom is going to freak out. She’s so excited to meet you, and she has no idea that we’re coming home this week.” Looking at me sideways with a slight curve of her lips, she added, “I’ve planned this very well.”
I said, “Good Lord. Can we delay this a couple of days? Let me catch my bearings here a little bit?”
Next minute we were on the bus. “Um, darling, are you listening to me?” I asked. She smiled and turned her face toward the window.
Next minute, we were off the bus. “Okay, how ’bout this?” I said, every minute drawing me closer to meeting her parents. “Here’s what we can do. Give me an extra day, and I will take you to the fanciest restaurant you can find within fifty miles of your house. Fifty miles, I say. Wine, appetizer, main entrée, dessert, foot massage. The works. How can you say no to that?”
Next minute, our packs were slung across our shoulders. “Why so soon? I want to get around and see a little bit of Slovakia first. We just got here!” This didn’t feel right. A backpack on the shoulder with a destination ahead is one of the most satisfying feelings in this world. Yet I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as uncomfortable as I felt at that moment (save, of course, the moment in the outback that I lost that crucial game of rock-paper-scissors).
Next minute, we were on the main street, walking toward her neighborhood. Ramshackle gypsy dwellings lounged to our left. A warped sidewalk to the right tripped up strangers, while locals stepped neatly over each crack and gap in the concrete. A few trees pockmarked the street, but their rough trunks twisted, branches gnarled up and leaves curled into a bitter brown. All these things seemed like plenty warning to me. “I can’t do this, honey. What if your mom is embarrassed because we didn’t give her any advance notice to clean the place up? That’s not very nice of us.” It’s intense: living six months in a row, twenty-four hours a day, with the same person, with only momentary breaks to go to the bathroom. However, I never felt the desire to flee or put a hundred yards distance between us until that moment.
The very next minute, I stood at the doorstep of her parents’ apartment building, big and more modern than the places we’d passed en route. I stared at the chocolate-brown front door and thought what a silly color choice that was. It really should have been dark green. My right hand rattled the coins in my pocket. “Seriously, Ivana, be sensible. I’m not ready for this.”
Ivana beamed. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn she was enjoying my torment. “No, no. You’re going to do great. I can’t wait to see the look on her face. I hope she’s home.” And then: “Any last words before you surprise her?” She settled a hand on my arm, a light touch that eased my nerves. If she hadn’t had such a cheery disposition, that contagious grin lighting up her face, I would have walked away to regroup.
“Ugh,” I said. “If I don’t make it out alive, I bequeath all my clothes, my dresser, and my bookshelf to my brother, and my body to science.”
“Bequeath?” she asked.
She pulled out her camera and started filming. I breathed deep. She said, “You can do it.” The next minute, I used her key to open the door. Her entire family started hollering “Prekvapenie!” The surprise had been planned all along. Mom, dad, sister, both sets of grandparents, an aunt and two uncles, two cousins and a girlfriend. Balloons bounced against the ceiling of her parents’ apartment, and a huge, colorful, hand-painted WELCOME, ADAM sign stretched across the foyer, ten feet ahead of me. My face felt warm and red. I kissed her mom on each cheek as she served up a traditional shot of stiff liquor. In Slovak I said, “Uh…hello. I am Adam. Nice to meet you. I am hungry. Give me food now, please.”
We ate and drank and were merry. Ten different parts comprised my surprise party—among them, rounds of introduction, a song of welcome, gifts of flowers and alcohol, various stages of food, a song wishing me well in the future, and two cakes. With a salute of na zdravie, we toasted my health, their health, everyone’s health. All around me, the chattering syllables of a foreign tongue rose. I understood no one, save a phrase or two from her mom on occasion, but Ivana tirelessly zipped from one corner of the room to another to translate. We made plans for the upcoming weeks—unreasonable plans—and broke them before they could even develop fully.
“Dinner at your place…? My choice of menu…? Let’s do it twice!”
“Bungee jumping? A beach in Croatia? I’m down.”
“Absinthe? I’ve never tried it before, but—well, if you can assure me that you’ll help me find my way home…”
I promised time for movies and thermal pools and workouts and then couldn’t find enough hours in the day.
Ivana introduced me to Bubinko, her family’s adorable, fluffy bunny rabbit. Bubinko would snoop around, nose twitching as he sniffed with the curiosity of a beagle, and then he would promptly fall off into a catatonic state, midhop. He’d sit, this little ball of black and white fur, parked by the couch. How can a party not be fun, your days not brightened, with a narcoleptic rabbit bounding about? Kind of like when your uncle passes out drunk from too many Rob Roys at Thanksgiving and still, even asleep, manages to make everyone laugh.
I met Adel and Hanka and Tomáš and all the rest of Ivana’s friends whom she hadn’t seen in nearly a year. Every time we made a run to the post office or to the gyro joint on Župná, we ran into another acquaintance. Cobblestone streets wind up and down Zlaté Moravce; outdoor cafés speckle the downtown, and wineries linger on the fringes; when one goes to the bank, the teller greets him or her by name on arrival; people rent movies from an actual movie store with actual shelves of DVDs and a clerk who says, “How’d you like it?” upon return. Driving out of town to watch the sun set over the hills and the lazy, stretching fields of sunflowers, there can be no other thought than, My, now this is about as good as it gets. It’s an amiable town, a preserved and peaceful town.
But it’s bloody depressing. This is a small place, Zlaté Moravce, a prosaic small town in the fashion of yesterday’s Midwestern burgs; sixty years after the death of local enterprise, descendants of industry skeletons mosey about looking for something to do. Bubinko has the right idea. This is the place where inspiration goes to nap and desire to wilt, the place you’ll never hear, “I’ve got a plan.” A fantastic location to escape for a week but not two. People in the streets just kind of wander around with no particular finish line; people in their homes just kind of sit there and wait. The old folks still say the Germans are fascists. Some of Ivana’s friends have left for the capital or more prosperous parts of Europe, while others stand by in a daze. It’s an industrialized El Porvenir, Honduras, without the stray dogs in the streets.
Though maybe they want it that way. Maybe some people detest change. Maybe some people would rather not move forward. They’d rather wake up and know exactly what the balance of their day looks like. For me, it’s depressing. For them, it could be paradise.
Finally, after the commotion of the first week, I took a breath and got to know Ivana’s mom and dad and sister. We hopped in the car and drove to the High Tatras, Slovakia’s famous mountain range. We hiked for hours, weaving among magnificent old trees. We ate at wonderful restaurants, lounging on patios overlooking the jagged peaks rising around and behind us. We went to three different water parks. We snapped stunning photos. I went bungee jumping, and Ivana’s dad looked as if he couldn’t decide whether he was impressed by my courage or skeptical about my poor judgment.
At Liptovská Mara, I went wakeboarding. While comfortably positioned on top of the board behind the boat, I removed one hand from the handle, shot Ivana’s dad the hang-loose sign, smiled wide, and promptly caught an edge and planted my face in the water.
This is a curious man, Ivana’s dad. Always engaged, though he mostly keeps to himself. In larger settings of six or more people, he gets lost in the chattering bedlam, but one-on-one or around a table of four, he lends his ear and then offers something to say in return. He takes a turn as the life of the party but knows to bow out before his welcome has worn.
At a huge birthday bash for a neighbor, the conversation at the table started to wane. I looked over at Ivana’s dad as he leaned in toward his wife and whispered in her ear. She smiled. Seconds later, they were on the dance floor, twirling about.
A stern man with a spontaneous sense of humor, he would be quick to reel his head back in laughter, throat extended, veins loose and all. If he spoke English, he’s the kind of guy who could easily lure me into a corner to tell me in a hushed, matter-of-fact tone, “If you ever do anything to hurt my daughter, I’ll immediately fly to wherever you are on the planet so I can take a moment to cut one of your nuts away from your scrotum with a rusty butter knife. Just so you know where we stand.” And then a pat on the back: “Right. Well, I’m parched. You ready for another beer?”
Walking through town after I’d known the family for only two days, we passed a church. Buildings looked depressed, even the ones that had recently been painted over. A destitute lady with tired eyes walked up. She requested spare change. In the States, I would have said “Sorry, no.” But Ivana’s dad looked at her with a kind of perplexity, as if to say, You want money? For what…? Oh, because you have been struck by tough times? The lady’s plea must have worked. He looked around, still perplexed, as he pulled out a handful of coins from his satchel and handed them over. Four times this happened while I stayed in Slovakia. Every time this confusion and compassion on his face, and every time he would give them his spare change and walk away without another word.
Through Ivana, I said to him, “All of your change? Really?”
He smiled, and Ivana translated his reply: “I’m not too worried about it. She needs it more than me.”
Ivana’s sister is cordial and playful and always in a good mood. In the morning, it was “Dobré ráno, Adam!” and in the afternoon, “Adam, dobré popoludnie!” Before a meal: “Dobrú chut’!” She heard about me smoking cigars in Spain, so she made me a ceramic ashtray, bumpy and a shiny shade of brown. Taupe, I think. Still, though, we had no means to talk to each other. Her mom spoke a series of broken phrases to me in English, and her dad not more than four words at a time—“Wake up time, friend!”—but Veronika preferred to deliver her “Hellos,” “Good mornings,” and “How ya doings?” to me in Slovak. And once she saw that I’d conquered the salutations, she seemed to forget that I couldn’t go further, that I’d come from America, a land faraway, and hadn’t taken the time to learn to have a conversation in her language. So while everyone else was translating through Ivana, Veronika came right at me.
“Adam, poď sa pozrieť na zajaca.”
I laughed twice and shot her a thumbs-up on my way into the living room. “Ah, yes. Ďakujem za tortu.”
“You two are a couple of idiots,” Ivana remarked.
“She told you to come look at what the rabbit is doing.”
I chuckled. “Oh, okay. Cool.”
“And you told her thank you for the cake.”
But Ivana’s mom was the real gem to me. Using Slovakia as our base for a month, I left with Ivana for four long weekends in Poland, then Vienna, then Budapest, then Prague. On every long return bus or train ride, I leaned back against the seat and yawned. No matter how tired, I was always excited to come back and see Ivana’s mom. Always smiling, always wondering what she can do to help, always trying to engage in cheerful conversation. With silky brown hair and jasper eyes, she’s beautiful, not just for forty-seven but for any age. Women in Slovakia, like the women of Eastern Europe or Scandinavia or Brazil, are exotic looking: they’re either strikingly gorgeous or they have sideburns, and there’s rarely an in-between. Mária Mravíková is the former, no question, and this only added to the charm of the work she put in every day.
“Ivana, come here and translate, please,” I requested.
Ivana, fingers wrapped around a cup of hot tea, followed me into the living room.
“Could you please tell your mom that she doesn’t need to be ironing my drawers?” I pointed to Mrs. Mravíková like a small child tattling on their sibling.
After a pause and a series of quick, amused Slovakian phrases, Ivana turned back to me. “She said that you’re in her house now, and this is what she does.”
“Right, but they are drawers.”
Ivana shrugged. “She doesn’t care. They need to be ironed.”
I was trying to be logical. “Nobody will see them, no matter how rid of creases they might be. They are drawers.”
Ivana’s mom pressed away at my undergarments.
“She said this helps kill the bacteria.”
I walked to the bedroom, returned with an armful of socks, and inquired, “These haven’t been ironed in a while either. Possible bacteria. Do you have any experience with socks?” With a smile, she jokingly confessed that if she used the right setting, she was pretty sure she could loop one around my neck.
But this was only part of it. Not only did the day’s worn clothes disappear from the floor and return to me folded and wrinkle-free, but I never touched a dirty dish. Ivana and I always had a ride anywhere we wanted to go day or night. I rarely touched a bottle of wine, but my glass remained filled to the brim. I had to go to the grocery store only once. There was always plenty of body wash in the bathroom and never a grain of sand on the floor. And when I requested an ibuprofen for a headache, Ivana’s mom immediately scurried off to the pharmacy as if I was in the middle of a heart attack.
I was frequently on edge, wondering what her parents were talking about in my presence, and it didn’t help that the tone of the Slovak language favors nothing I’ve ever heard.
One morning Ivana’s mother poked her head in the doorway and spoke with Ivana. A moment later, she disappeared down the hallway.
I sank back into the bed, deflating the fluffy mattress and pillows. “What did your mom say? She hates me, doesn’t she? Ugh, I knew she hated me.” And then her mom reentered, carrying a tray of breakfast and settling it over our legs. Cereal, two sausages, eggs, fruit, yogurt, and cups of tea. Every morning. I insisted, “Seriously, you really shouldn’t be doing this,” and she just smiled and acted as if my protests didn’t translate, as if she didn’t understand what I was talking about.
Somehow Ivana’s mom had received the wrong message and ended up on the wrong side of the interrogation. Someone must have told her that she was supposed to impress me, rather than the other way around, and after several attempts at telling her to just take a moment to chill out, I finally learned to say, “Yes, ma’am, I am hungry, and a plate of stuffed mushrooms sounds delicious.” Champagne? “Why not?”
Then, just like that, I ran out of money. Teary-eyed, I shook hands with Ivana’s father and hugged her sister.
Ivana’s mom drove me to the airport in Budapest, two hours away. I said, “Thanks for everything.” We hugged and exchanged pleasantries in English.
“What a trip!” I said.
“You are nice young man!” she replied. “Very nice. A good young man for Ivana.”
She pulled two Tupperware containers out, each with five of her famous chicken schnitzels. “For the trip,” she said. “A very long trip.” I whispered my thanks, voice a little hoarse, and turned to walk down the terminal. And I wondered, as I headed for my plane, whether Mrs. Mravíková was thinking the same thing as me—that I sure hoped I would one day see her again.