While I was living in Košice, my schedule left plenty of spare time to read, write, drink beer and ruminate about the vagaries of life.
The official working week for conversational English teachers generally lasted no longer than 20 hours, plus extra time here and there spent tutoring, which often was remunerated with delicious homemade food and a few beers—or one occasion, hootch drawn from the cooperative distillery in a student’s East Slovak village of birth.
In most respects, the gig was idyllic. I lived in a modern building, with rent and utilities making up a miniscule percentage of my salary, as paid out weekly in cash at a pay window. The hospital’s inexpensive midday lunch on weekdays was tasty and bountiful. I had a radio and could listen to music and the BBC World Service.
As an American with dollars of his own, there were few financial constraints to traveling on the side, although I found Košice to be fascinating in its own right, and enjoyed exploring the city on foot.
In retrospect, it surprises me that two of my most memorable road trips were undertaken on a single weekend. Merely writing about them these many years later is utterly exhausting, but here goes.
Had I not been residing in Košice in the early autumn of 1991, it is highly unlikely that I’d have ever shaken John Warhola’s hand and said hello.
If the name isn’t familiar, John (1925-2010) was the older brother of pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who dropped the final “a” in route to fame, fortune and a residency at Studio 54.
One month into my stay in Košice, on October 5, 1991 (a Saturday), I was invited by Dr. Roland to be his guest for an afternoon museum opening gala in the nearby town of Medzilaborce—although the destination wasn’t quite as close as the map might indicate.
According to Google, the 2023 travel time by automobile is two hours each way, leading me to surmise that roads have improved dramatically during the last three decades.
Our trip took at least an hour longer in both directions, a methodical forward trudge complicated by the gnarly, pot-holed and cramped two-lane routes, where we shared time, space and bountiful Slovak profanities with heavy trucks dating to the Dubček era, vintage agricultural implements, and dozens of Slovaks coaxing their pent-up Škodas into the countryside for a leisurely drive on a sunny autumn day.
However Robert included time for a “touristic” stop along the way in Bardejov, a town since designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. My cultural education in Bardejov also incorporated a beer and snack, the latter somewhat resembling pizza.
At least I didn’t have to drive.
Neither did Robert. As the consummate urbanite, born and raised in Košice, he didn’t have a driver’s license and usually walked or took the bus. When wheels were necessary, the hospital’s motor pool produced a shiny black Soviet-made gas guzzler, along with a uniformed driver still drawing his paycheck courtesy of the deceased communist regime’s featherbedded employment practices.
Spoiler alert: The motor pool was destined for a short life span during capitalism. By then Robert was no longer in charge, so back to the tram he went, I imagine gratefully.
The drive was slow but scenic. Medzilaborce, then a town of 4,500 people, cradles within the northern terminus of the Carpathian Mountains, which curl westward to conclude in exclamatory fashion with the compact, sub-alpine High Tatra Mountains on the Slovak-Polish, the same ones I’d viewed from the train in route to Košice from Prague.
Reminiscent of the Appalachians, small towns nestle in tidy valleys between rugged, forested ridgelines. This isolated area of today’s Slovakia (the Czecho/Slovak divorce occurred in 1993) in the country’s northeastern corner is inhabited by Slovaks, Poles and indigenous Rusyns, who follow the Orthodox persuasion, accounting for the gorgeous onion-domed church on a hill in the center of Medzilaborce and the road signs in the Cyrillic alphabet: Меджильабірці.
The sight of two enlarged Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans guarding the doorway of an otherwise nondescript concrete building, once used as a post office, gave the game away. As I soon learned, the Warhols were Rusyn. Andy’s and John’s parents grew up just a few miles from Medzilaborce prior to leaving for America.
The museum, now known as the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, began as an embryonic East-West cultural venture in the immediate aftermath of communism, and John was on hand at the opening to speak for the Andy Warhol Foundation, which he helped to charter and served as a trustee.
Consequently, that’s how I met John Warhola, in a place that his brother Andy never visited; although born in Pittsburgh, the artist delighted in telling people he was “from nowhere.”
I’ll always recall this trip to Medzilaborce by using the word “surreal,” and typically for me, I remember far less about the museum itself (most of the exhibits were biographical; artworks arrived later) than our early dinner before returning to Košice: roasted pork and potatoes with knedlicky, or dumplings, soaked with gravy and washed down with cool golden lager brewed down the road in Prešov.
The annual Košice Peace Marathon was scheduled for Sunday, October 6, 1991. It is Europe’s oldest marathon, starting in 1924, and the third oldest in the world.
I missed every bit of it. After the return from Medzilaborce came a few hours of sleep, then on Sunday morning before daybreak I was seated in a car yet again, this time headed for the mountains.
Almost from the moment that I first met Ján M., he had vowed to take me on a “hike” (his word) in the High Tatras. The chosen trail head was situated two and a half hours away from Košice, hence an early departure, but in spite of being fatigued I kept our date. After all, cold weather was coming and the promise of picture perfect weather could not be ignored.
We arrived to find a big wooden interpretive map that seemed to suggest the “trail” of choice would pass over the top of an alarmingly massive peak—but what did I know? I hadn’t been to a national park since the 1970s, as a teenager. Surely I was misreading the colored lines.
And a word about that “trail,” which came utterly without soil. Rather, the loop, all 14 or so miles of it, consisted of solid rock the entire way, some of it existing where nature had placed it, but most lengths obviously arranged like paving stones by masochistic caretakers masquerading as naturalists, which I peevishly allege to be fact because my city slicker’s wardrobe did not include adequate footwear.
After an hour or so, it was clear to me: this was going to be very painful.
It took us most of the daylight hours to finish the route, including a rest stop for lunch at one of the hostel-like structures placed at intervals – beds, bean soup, bread and beer, with all necessary supplies carried on the backs of humans, without a helicopter in sight.
We traveled to the upper end of one valley, over the top of the rock spine, and descended a second valley. The “trail” for the last couple hundred feet up to the pass lying near the mountain’s apex required shimmying along a barren rock face with icy steel rods sunk into it for grasping. The path was about two feet wide, I had no gloves, and it had recently snowed.
Bear in mind that I wear size 16 shoes, and occasionally suffer from a fear of heights.
However it wasn’t as scary as it might have been, seeing as the drop was a gradual slope, and not a drop straight down into nothingness. The accompanying photo of the back of Ján’s head is from the pass, more like a crow’s nest, at which point I conducted an impromptu conversational English lesson with him.
“What we’ve done today is not a HIKE. It is a CLIMB. Repeat after me … a CLIMB.”
Ján just laughed and quoted some traditional Slovak proverb to the effect that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.
Obviously I was in no physical condition to do any of this; unsurprisingly, a whole different collection of muscles began yelping during the descent from the peak, and it didn’t help that with dusk rapidly approaching, a tiny old man supporting a rucksack twice his size, boasting a foot-long gray beard and adorned in a Habsburg-era Alpine costume with feathered cap, emerged from the gloaming and breezed past us at a near jog, headed uphill.
There was a restaurant by the car park, and because I hadn’t brought anywhere close to enough water, dual motives of rehydration and pain relief came in the form of stellar, lifesaving golden lager beer from nearby Poprad—about five half-liters of it, with nary a restroom visit required.
These might have been the best beers I ever drank in my entire life, although the accompanying pork and potatoes helped, too.
We stopped two or three times on the way home to fill plastic jugs from roadside mineral water fountains located next to the highway. Ján swore by the water’s medicinal value.
For the second night in a row, I made it home quite late. I remember going inside to my quarters, showering, crawling into bed and hurting so damn much that I broke into hysterics and literally laughed myself to sleep.
Fortunately I was only 31 years old then, and the next day actually managed to walk to class at the hospital.
At some forgotten juncture early in 1991, prior to leaving for Europe, I became aware that the Foreign Service examination, a standardized test necessary for those seeking employment with the U.S. State Department, would be administered at the embassy in Budapest in November. Passing the exam meant qualifying for a second interview, which would be held somewhere in America in 1992.
I wasn’t exactly brimming over with self-confidence about my prospects, although word on the street was that as such exercises went, this exam was almost entirely verbal with a heavy history component, to the near exclusion of mathematics and science.
If true, then at least I had a fighter’s chance, and anyway, nothing wrong with a night or two in Budapest eating Hungarian food and drinking Bull’s Blood red wine. I mailed the application, the confirmation came back, and I bought a roundtrip train ticket.
It appears that I arrived in Budapest on Thursday, tested on Friday and returned to Kosice on Saturday. Either I neglected to take the camera, or stupidly lost the photos; no record exists of a hotel, so I probably transacted a private room with the usual train station hawkers.
I passed the test with an excellent score, thus becoming eligible for the next round of interviews to be conducted in Chicago the following May. These proved to be comprised of interactive role playing exercises undertaken alongside a dozen high-powered Ivy League graduates, and so it was that my State Department aspirations ended in the Windy City, leading indirectly to “Public House or Bust.”
Only one firm memory remains from the Budapest excursion. On Friday morning, passing a newsstand on Váci út, I bought an International Herald Tribune newspaper to accompany my coffee and learned of the previous day’s press conference, when Magic Johnson divulged having contracted HIV and retired immediately from playing basketball in the NBA.
It was a shock, and only two weeks later, breakfasting in the TV room at my lodging, the man on SkyNews led the morning report with news of singer Freddie Mercury’s death, a day after he had revealed to the world his declining health from AIDS-related complications.
Overnight Rock-FM started playing “The Show Must Go On,” from Queen’s last album with Mercury. It seemed to be playing at the neighborhood’s privatized grocery store whenever I dropped by for bottles of beer, and I’ll never forget that.
(The preceding photos courtesy of the Stará Sladovňaa/Mamut page at Facebook.)
Winter weather was approaching when Robert asked if I’d like to accompany him to Bratislava, where I’d have a little time to roam the city while he bobbed for crowns from the hospital’s governing bureaucrats.
This is because the post-communist, pre-Slovak-independence budgetary system in Czechoslovakia was so chaotic that he could be sure of being funded and receiving the money only if he went straight to the source and twisted arms.
Our day in Bratislava would conclude at a venue Robert guaranteed would meet with my approval: Mamut (as in a mammoth, the animal), but he wouldn’t tell me exactly what Mamut was, or where it was located, because doing so would spoil his surprise.
Once again, we’d be traveling by car, with the same driver as before, and if I thought the journey to Medzilaborce was grueling, the trek to Bratislava proved far more laborious, consuming between four and five hours each way, there and back in one day, which meant we left long before sunrise and returned long after sunset.
This left just a few hours for exploration, but Robert made the correct call about Mamut. As beer drinking institutions go, it made an oversized impression on me that has persisted in my memory like few others of the time.
“Mamut” was informal slang. The official name was Stará Sladovňa, or “old malt house,” as once used by the Stein brewery (1873 – 2007) to prepare its barley. The spacious 19th-century malting was transformed into a beer hall around 1980; once again, prevailing communist-era design principles yielded a sort of “modernized” glass and steel exterior wrapping, covering the brick and destined to age poorly.
But inside Stará Sladovňa more of a traditional feel was retained. There was a large, rectangular, airy central “beer hall” stocked with long communal tables, surrounded by vaulted stone and brick galleries on the ground floor, as well as an upper floor mezzanine on all four sides.
The genuinely unique aspect of Mamut, both during communism and after it, was that these various areas (as well as an outdoor beer garden) each served different beers: Budvar, Urquell, Kozel and so on.
I believe we sat in the Budvar zone.
At least one English-language guidebook of the period warned against Mamut’s bar food, “which comes in tiny, cold portions,” but this description doesn’t jibe with my recollection of sausages, sauerkraut and something approximating goulash soup.
As a postscript to my first and only session at Mamut, which was fairly short owing to the looming drive home, my next visit to Bratislava didn’t come until summer of 1997. We were passing through Bratislava from Prague to Budapest, and decided to stay one night at a university dorm doing temporary duty as a tourist hostel.
The sole purpose of staying was returning to Stara Slodovna, so imagine my disappointment upon rounding the street corner to find that this glorious beer hall (created by communists!) had been remodeled to function in one of the tackiest ways imaginable, as a garish casino and night club, all brightly lit, plastic-laden, and filled with scantily clad women sporting impenetrable makeup, cooing alongside mafia-approved, track-suited, post-communist Vegas wannabes.
All in all, it was an aesthetic monstrosity of “mamut” dimension.
One look around and we were gone, returning to the hostel to discover there was an atmospheric and cheap cellar bar, where we drank ourselves into oblivion in the company of a group of Norwegian university students (they vomited; we didn’t).
Happily Mamut appears to have eventually reverted to propriety as a beer hall, but depressingly, more recently the structure has been under constant threat of demolition to make way for a planned seven-story apartment building.
As of 2021, Stará Sladovňa still stood, although it could easily be gone by now. Other reminders of Bratislava’s Stein brewery have been swept away, too. It seems that historical preservation seldom embraces old brewery buildings (or for that matter, vintage American baseball parks), perhaps because they’re too large, and the acreage is too valuable for purposes of redevelopment to ignore the dulcet tones of money talking.
It’s an ongoing shame, in my estimation. Welcome to capitalism, suckers.
As a postscript, I’m omitting two journeys of note, to Plzeň, Czechoslovakia in late 1991 by train, and Rotterdam, Netherlands in early 1992 by bus.
An entire chapter to follow will be devoted to Rotterdam. As for Plzeň, the narrative remains in limbo, with the working title “The Curious Case of the Missing Pilsner Urquell Evidence.”
Even after sorting through the banker’s box that holds keepsakes from the 1991-92 trip, I can find no documentation whatever from my passage to Plzeň and the subsequent Pilsner Urquell brewery tour (my first ever; if you recall, the communists wouldn’t let us inside in 1987).
Plzeň happened, I swear. I’m absolutely sure it wasn’t a dream, except that nothing tangible seems to have survived, even though I’m a notorious pack rat who refuses to throw away anything.
As noted previously, photographic evidence of the passage to Plzeň has completely disappeared. I shot slide film, and when the slides were developed later, they were numbered in chronological order before being assembled into a slide show.
During the digitizing process a few years back, I discovered to my confusion that 20-plus slides from the period of the Plzeň trip had vanished.
I’ve been thinking, and accepting that the “archives” I long intended to form the basis for my presidential library occupy four dozen or more additional banker’s boxes in the basement (why do you think we needed such a large house?), I’ve come to a plausible hypothesis.
I believe that materials about the Pilsner Urquell visit were extracted, hopefully including the missing slides, and placed into a separate file; having moved three times since 1992, it seems likely this folder was placed inadvertently into another of the banker’s boxes.
And, only by beginning on one side of the room and working my way through each box, can I ever know for sure—and even then, these materials may not turn up.
My course of action is clear. Regrettably, my resolve to commence the necessary task has yet to materialize. But if and when the “lost” documents are found, this narrative will be amended.