To the Drunk, Thirty-Something Writer at the Youth Hostel in Bratislava

by Nathan James Thomas

The Recovering Backpacker reflects on a strange night out in Slovakia’s capital in the company of a vagabond writer who made a lasting impression.

My oversized backpack had barely bounced off the floor in the hostel lounge when you stumbled in, arm-in-arm with a Canadian girl with messy hair and a nose ring. You looked like you’d both just emerged from bed, probably taking advantage of the emptiness of the dorm room. It was mid-afternoon. Yesterday’s guests had checked out. Today’s were just arriving, myself among them. 

The hostel, a small place up a winding wooden staircase in a back alley near the old square, had two owners, both locals from Bratislava. One was big and bearded and the other thin, dark, and vaguely malevolent. I remember his face porcupine of piercings, although it probably wasn’t. 

You spoke to the bearded man, ignoring the guests amassed on the couches waiting for their turn to check in. You went out for a cigarette. When you returned I was still waiting, and a blonde German backpacker was engaged in a serious conversation with the bearded owner. 

“Excuse me,” she said, all business, “do you have snakes?”

Snakes?” asked the owner, astonished. “In Slovakia?”

The German, brisk and unfazed, replied, “Yes, snakes. To eat. I am hungry.”

The owner stared at her. And then you intervened, “Wait, do you mean snacks?”

That evening we were all drinking and making the kind of fleeting yet portentous acquaintanceships that you do in traveler’s hostels like that. Where are you from? Where are you going? Are you alone? What are you drinking, beer’s cheap here! You emerged from somewhere wearing that yellow flannel shirt that sticks in my memory like a blip on an old film, distinct yet awkward, in the scene but not of it.

Around eight of us set out. The night was going to be a long one. The first bar sold pints of beer accompanied by a large shot of 70% alcoholic Silvovic shots for one euro. The sun set while we were there. Logic left the scene. Tomorrow had ceased to exist.

On the way to the second (or was it the third) bar, two German girls, the one who wanted the snakes and her friend, spotted a man sitting on the pavement and swaying. His face was slashed, and he dripped blood on the grimy asphalt. The girls started to run towards him. “Leave him!” you cautioned, coldly. “Don’t get involved!”

They ignored your advice. They approached the man and spoke to him in English. He held his face and swore and said he was attacked. Police arrived and interrogated the Germans. The bearded Slovakian intervened. A furious exchange in Slovakian followed until the girls were able to get back on the move. “Fucking stupid,” you said, frustrated. “You’re not at home.”

There was the rock concert in a bunker somewhere, the band screaming Bratishhhhhhhlava between songs, plastic cups full of beer coming from somewhere. And then out again into the thinning night. You’d fought about something with the nose-ringed girl, and she’d gone home. It was deep into tomorrow. Just five of us were left now. A large Australian guy traveling with his sister, both giving off a benevolent, country-fed calm, and the dark, clean-shaven Slovakian hostel co-owner. 

The part of town we’d found ourselves in was decorated with swastika graffiti, the streets were potholed, and strange figures loomed in doorways. We found a late-night kind of place, and drinks arrived. The Slovakian was blotto; leaning his head on his hand he somehow contorted his neck so he was staring me in the eyes, and intoning a sombre prediction: “You will start your own hostel,” he said, over and over again. You rolled your eyes. 

Two “friendly locals” arrived to join our table. Skinny and amphetamine twitchy. The shorter one ripped open his shirt to reveal a swastika tattoo. I must have been a little drunk myself, as I couldn’t control my facial expression, and the eye-roll was noticed. The little nazi pointed at me and motioned his finger across his throat. “This guy,” he said, “he dies!” The enormous Australian stood up, hands wide, placating. The nazis shuffled off to their table, glowering at me. We drank quickly and left.

We returned home at 8 AM. I remember the time distinctly because that was such a rarity, even then, but the time had hurtled along without exertion. The next afternoon I was hanging out once again on the hostel couches, and you stumbled in, unshaven, yellow flannel coat, clutching a worn blue laptop. “I told you I’d show you my book!” you said. I vaguely recalled the conversation at bar number 3 or 5… You were a writer. Are you still?

I flipped open your laptop and began to read. Inside, were many tales of the kind of nights that I’d just lived through at various dingy spots across Southern and Eastern Europe. You’d been drinking at a BBQ with a group of Serbians and passed out on the grass after too much rakija. When you woke up, you found a small cross hammered into the ground in front of your face. “We thought you’d died,” was the shrugging explanation you received.

We’d spoken of books, and you asked me if I’d edit yours. You’d been living at this little hostel for a couple of months, drinking and writing. The Canadian girl had arrived a few weeks into your stay and chose to stick around, though recently she’d been talking about getting back on the road, and you were still fighting. I told you I couldn’t commit to editing a full book; I was only staying one more day. You were mad. The Canadian girl commiserated, “He gets like that.”

This was over a decade ago. I suppose I’m about as old now as you were when we met — so in this story, we’re the same age. My life looks a bit different than yours. I believe that’s probably for the best. Most of the time. 

Cover photo credit

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