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Of Lamps, Cuban Oranges and Cemeteries by Miriam Matejova

The city was beautiful. Red roofs, tall church towers and scattered metal constructions the communists had left behind were perfectly visible in the late evening sun. I heard the distant humming of the road traffic, clinging of the trams, church bells going off somewhere in distance—some of those that never went off at the right or the same time, creating an unsynchronized clanging at random times of the day.

Although I couldn’t see the old, narrow streets, I knew people were rushing through them in a pursuit of something—to them—meaningful. I knew those streets with their large cobble stones quite well. It was there that I learned very quickly that I should never walk in the city in high heels. Trying to avoid uneven cracks and randomly raised stones, smoothed out by millions of shoes and animal feet that had passed through during the past few centuries, would work my leg muscles more than any other activity I was involved in at the time.

I glanced over the tall construction of the New Bridge with its UFO-like plate on top. I have never visited the place. At first, it was because ordinary people couldn’t afford to eat at the fancy restaurant, which was situated on the top of the construction. The restaurant was slowly revolving. I’ve never understood why a good culinary business would want to give you excellent food, while making you motion sick.

Later, when communism fell in Europe and ordinary people were told they could afford to go to fancy restaurants, I wasn’t allowed to go. My parents said the New Bridge symbolized everything the communists had destroyed in our city. My parents taught me to condemn the era, while openly longing for its low commodity prices and a zero unemployment rate (which was a shameless myth). I, on the other hand, longed for gas lamps, over-sized apple juice boxes, and large green oranges provided by the comrades from Cuba. I have never seen those oranges in my life but always heard about them being one of the few luxuries available to the people of the former Eastern Bloc.

My vision was suddenly blurred. I swiftly turned around, wiping snow from half of my face and blinking quickly to get the water out of my left eye. Claire was standing a few meters away, grinning smugly and looking straight at me.

“You coming?” I recognized that mischievous tone of her voice. You wouldn’t be able to guess when you first met Claire that she was not in fact that polite, shy and extremely smart young woman she appeared to be. Smart was the only one of those things she actually was.

Her question wasn’t really if I was “coming” but where I was “coming.” Plus, she tried to divert my attention from melting snow, which was now sliding down the left side of my neck. I wiped it off quickly.

Claire wanted to see a cemetery.

She grabbed my hand and pulled me away from my view, hopping over a small pile of frozen snow along the path. The tip of her winter boot caught the top of the pile and she stumbled forward. Claire had a tendency to get hurt in the most improbable places, catch flu in every season and suffer from the most uncommon allergies. Her physical fragility was to the absolute contrary of her life, which she has been living with a mixture of stress, active socializing, exhausting physical activity, and a sizable hint of sarcasm. When I returned home after six years of absence, I came to realize such life was not uncommon among the post-communist youth—the first generation of mostly university students with so many opportunities in every area of life that it was hard for them to pick one. So they picked all.

We silently followed the path to a four-tower castle, the city’s main landmark. The snow that barely covered the ground squeaked underneath our boots as we made our way. I utterly enjoyed the sound.

The castle area was a mixture of a public park, a city walkway, a young people hang-out place, and a tourist attraction. There were a few trees, garbage bins situated every few meters along gravel sidewalks, English-Slovak information tablets, most of which (like those describing the life of selected saints) were completely unrelated to the castle’s history, and a stone castle well, which contained an unidentified amount of change in various currencies.

“Do you think that story about Omar and Fatima is true?” I asked Claire when I stopped thinking about how much money there could possibly be on the well’s bottom. Claire gave me a perplexed look before our years of synchronized thinking took over. “You mean the story about a young Turk who, in order to rescue a beautiful captive girl he had fallen in love with, had to dig an impossible well on the rocky castle grounds? That was on Trencin Castle, not this one.” She paused to give the well a second look but then turned back towards me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Bratislava Castle’s well was there for the sole purpose of collecting tourists’ change.” She paused and grinned, then continued. “With a secret tunnel connecting the well with the Parliament building. And a special collecting agency to get all that cash out.”

I laughed. Secret tunnels, castles (and their haunted ruins), dark narrow alleys, and difficult love stories were my favourite aspects of our country’s historical heritage. Almost every street in old Bratislava told stories of good and evil (as well as real and fake) witches, cunning devils, honourable but unfortunate knights, and sad ghosts, most commonly appearing as beautiful women floating across rooms and disappearing through the walls. One of my favourite pastimes as a child was to roam these streets with a thick book of children’s legends tucked under my arm, looking for these well-known spots and their apparitions.

I didn’t, however, laugh at the hidden reality of Claire’s comment. That in the country I still liked to call “my,” hardly anyone still believed that the government worked for the betterment of the public. The reality of “my” people—their pessimism, their bitterness, and often, silent despair—was painful for me to think about. So I tried to push the thoughts away whenever they made their way into my mind. I felt guilty that I’d had a chance to leave. I felt even guiltier that I had taken that chance.

After five minutes of walk, Claire and I reached the castle’s outer wall and paused at the view of the Danube. The river’s waters were dark and presumably freezing cold, given the mid-December temperatures. Pollution has coloured the water brownish grey, and the changing climate did not let the river freeze, much like it was the case during the past few years. Or so I’ve heard.

I fled when I was eighteen years old. I didn’t flee because of persecution, war or poverty, but like many before and after me, I left my country in a pursuit of something better, something more exciting, something more meaningful. I fled because I was afraid of lost opportunities. I left my home, clutching an over-sized bag packed with only essential clothes and shoes, and a purse filled with old childhood cassette tapes. I cried inside. I cried for months.

Six years later, I returned to find almost everything where I had left it. The memories were comforting and my home was welcoming.

Across the river, the concrete buildings of Petrzalka were gleaming in the setting sun, with steam rising up from them, as a visible criticism of the city’s inefficient housing system. These buildings, not so glamorously constructed from colourless pre-fabricated concrete during the 1970s, were cheap to build and thus obviously replicated across the entire Soviet Bloc to promote the “collectivist spirit” of the era. They were all made of ugly concrete with thin walls that let you hear your neighbours’ joys and quarrels as well as things you just didn’t want to hear. Although many of the buildings were now covered with colourful paints, they still formed what, as long as I can remember, we have called the “concrete jungle.” However, at the edge of all that concrete, there were forests and lakes and Danube’s estuaries. And in that somewhat preserved natural area, there were beer and hot dog stands with a wide selection of greasy grilled sausages, cheap draft beer and draft Kofola, a local pop with a more mysterious and far more delicious ingredient than that of Coca Cola.

The city comforted me. At the same time, I felt sadness, because I didn’t belong to the “concrete jungle” anymore. The memories were soothing but the reality was brown and grey like the waters of Danube, and cold like that December day. I was a deserter in my old home and a foreigner in my new one. I embraced Canada but could never let go of Slovakia. I admired my new country, while clinging to the traditions of my old home. I longed for one when I was in the other. I didn’t belong to any.

“So what has changed?” I asked Claire without taking my eyes off the concrete jungle, attempting to locate the building I had grown up in. Claire was quiet for a few seconds before answering my question. “You can buy peanut butter in stores now.” ‘I bet no one buys it anyway,’ I thought, smirking. “But no one buys it anyway,” Claire echoed my thoughts as she used to do for years. “No one knows what to do with it.”

“Oh, and the Czechs buried democracy last week,” she continued matter-of-factly. “The memorial and the book of condolences are on the Old Town Square in Prague, open to the public for a week. People here think we should have a ceremony, too.”

“Where did they bury it?” I wanted to know.

She never answered.

We also never reached the cemetery Claire had wanted to see. It was an old place with its first graves dug out in the 13th or 14th century—we didn’t quite know. But as children, we spent a lot of time trying to find out. Not on that December day. Instead of looking for those oldest gravestones, we stayed on the top of the castle hill, standing by the fortification wall and later sitting on top of it. We sat there—mostly in silence—until the sun set, watching the lights of Petrzalka.

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Miriam Matejova
Miriam Matejova holds a BA (Hons) in International Studies from the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada and an M.A. in International Affairs from Carleton University, Canada. Presently, she is working as an economist at Environment Canada in Ottawa. In her free time, Miriam writes short stories in English and Slovak. Her story “Proti Komu” (“Against Whom”) has appeared in Petrzalske Suzvuky Ferka Urbanka, a Slovak anthology of award-winning fiction. Miriam also volunteers as a translator and reviewer for the TED Open Translation Project, and conducts archival research to co- author a book and several academic articles on Canada’s foreign intelligence.
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