“I AM THE BEST ARTIST IN SLOVAKIA!” The Best Artist in Slovakia bruited. With a cavalier wave of his hand, curved like a grinning alligator shadow puppet, he added in slow mo, “I paint you a picture you would not believe!”
“Oh, really?” I said with a terse forced smile. “I really would like that.” Inside, I waited for explicit details of the con.
“But you have not yet met my beautiful wife!”—(ugly as sin).
The artist helped his giggly Matahari up from the wooden park bench at the campground where I was staying, in an atmospheric boat hostel on a forgetful river outside Trencin, Czechoslovakia.
“How do you do?” Matahari extended a limp limb evocative of a paralyzed veal kotlet pounded flat by a Wolfgang Puck acolyte.
Man, I thought, this slag is hurting.
With her peroxide-blonde hair, resembling an ill-fitting wig or some potted plant out of Rimbaud’s Fleurs des Mals, plus her Kim Karnes outfit and Betty Davis eyes, all I could think of was: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“Meet me tomorrow here, early in the morning, and I take you to my studio. I paint you a picture you will not believe!”
We shook on it.
Even though at first I had no intention in actually showing up, I began to wonder whether this comic character could turn me on to some much-needed laughing attacks.
I found traveling in a rented and (probably) “bugged” Skoda car through the postcardy Slovak countryside–with horse-drawn carts trotting down dirt roads, pitchfork-wielding paesano cuckolds collecting hay into bales, and the occasional syringe-shaped church spire poking up into the swirling veils and varicose veins of nuclear Central European sunsets–to be, ah, I don’t know: “picturesque”?
* * *
I realized how laughably unprepared I was for this trip.
Having grown up during the Cold War, even learning at school that children were often separated there from their parents to be trained as superhuman Olympic athletes (or Nietzsche’s “Ubermensches”), I was totally naïve about real life behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
All I knew was that if I went there Big Brother would not only be watching but would think nothing at all about snitching on me. The secret police were everywhere.
My brief subscription to Soviet World magazine was unenlightening. Pictures of hydroelectric dams and vast steel works glowing red under the ubiquitous Hammer and Sickle motif (all Western-style ads were strictly no-go), as well as confetti-filled streets filled with goosestepping soldiers and oompah-pah bands, didn’t tempt.
Little did I know that the very totalitarianism that kept people’s mouths shut also contributed to not tearing down any of the historic architecture riddled across such Central European Soviet satellites as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Indeed, many Slovak towns seemed frozen in time, almost as if they had not changed much in the last few centuries. . . .
* * *
This was serious.
I was running out of cigarettes.
In a stalled economy governed by the Marxist-Leninist “Five Year Plan,” where everyone had to wait in line for basic necessities like stale bread and rubber boots, I was uncertain where exactly to acquire a new pack (except perhaps at one of the government-run foreign-currency Tuzex shops)–even some Soviet brands, such as Russian Cosmos cancersticks, would do in a pinch.
And that’s when I met Rasto, a defiant Slovak with a black concert Metallica T-shirt and a long mane of wavy brown hair. Although he spoke little to no English, he was certainly familiar with all of our bands: “Dip Purple, Blau Oysta Cult, Roosh, Arrowschmidt!”
And also, of course, my favorite: “Pink Flood.”
But then again, what did I know about Czechoslovak samizdat pop. How do you pronounce “Prazhky Vyber”? In exchange for a Peter Gabriel cassette (which I could tell from his blasé unsurprised expression was old hat to him), he only very reluctantly handed over the PV tape.
I checked out this musical novelty in my portable Walkman, and said, “Wow, a little like Frank Zappa!”
Rasto smiled and then led me off to a local watering hole, which unfortunately involved climbing over some hedges and hopping a bus for which none of us pointedly paid. Where on earth were we going—this far just to cop a pack of inevitably recycled tobacco?
We finally arrived and all got glasses of red Slovak wine, which was strong and lip-smacking good. Then Rasto seemingly got into an argument over acquiring the Czech-made smokes with the kavarna manager, who kept looking over at me with arch suspicion, raising his eyebrows when Rasto kept repeating, “Americano, Americano!”
As I gathered from the tirade, true to communist regulations, it was unlawful to sell cigarettes after a certain time for absolutely no good reason at all.
Finally Rasto ripped out a pack from the startled manager’s hands, and we left pronto, again without paying a red cent.
Maybe communism really was free?
* * *
Another long free bus ride and we arrived at Rasto’s apartment block in a virtual sea of identical edifices.
There was something vaguely alienating about Stalinesque concrete-block suburbs like this one. Though the centrum of Trencin was pleasant and historic enough, but filled with science-fictiony “steampunk” touches like some sort of radio tower shaped like the Czechoslovak defector Ivan Lendel’s tennis racket, there was no way I could find myself around a distinctly dystopian workers’ utopia.
Once inside his “apartment,” which really did resemble an unfinished stage set–maybe we were being filmed?–I looked around at the curtains blocking off exposed carpentry and water pipes.
But upon entering the living room, I spied that everything looked comfortably “bourgeoise”: nice furniture and modern appliances. Even a potted plant, which I immediately suspected hid some sort of listening device.
From the fridge Rasto pulled out some delicious chook: drumsticks. Which was better than anything I had eaten in the cafeteria-style restaurants: bad borscht, black bread, and hardboiled eggiwegs.
I was beginning to wonder if Rasto was in fact some sort of high-ranking communist hack or football hooligan, when I noticed on the bookshelf not only Charles Bukowski, who was always popular in commieland for his grim depictions of capitalist America, but I was surprised indeed to see a bunch of Norman Mailer books, including An American Dream. (Surely that decadent novel, as subversive as “Ren and Stimpy,” could not pass muster with the official communist censorship.)
Rasto got across somehow that his mother had found the books, in a language he couldn’t read. Everything seemed all for show.
He also asked me what countries in “Europe” I had been to. “Mmm, let’s see, France, England, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy. . . .”
Rasto was smiling. “Nicht Europe.”
I didn’t know what he meant.
Until he brought over a world atlas from the bookshelf, where Western Europe figured prominently as a sizable gray blotch—seriously!
It seemed almost as if the demesnes of democracy had been wiped clear as a blackboard by some Chernobyl-like disaster.
Wow, I couldn’t believe it.
“Germany?” I offered.
Rasto nodded his head sagely: he had been there once: “Dresden.”
Wondering about the Slovaks’ Weltanschaung (worldview), I asked carefully, “Communism ist gut?”
“Nein, nein, Communismo nicht gut!”
I relaxed and felt like I was finally exiting an episode of “The New Twilight Zone.”
After sitting around in mostly friendly silence, both of us fatigued at pantomiming, I asked how on earth do I get back to the campground?
He indicated I could stay there in his apartment.
I nervously confided by miming putting in contact lenses that I really, really, really had to get back to the campground. “Emergencia.” I was soaking my lenses in “enzymes.”
As one of millions of Slovak “engineers,” he seemed to know this word.
So we left the probable movie set and Rasto flagged down a random car, explaining the “sitch.”
As if on a sudden secret mission, with a wince of horrorshow excitement, the random driver barreled down the road with his dim headlights like little old Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
* * *
At cockerel crow, I woke up.
Rubbing the sleepyseeds from my eyes, I slipped in my contacts which burned slightly, then walked into my 501 Levi’s and dropped my extra-large baggy blue shirt (to hide my over-the-shoulder money pouch). I brushed my teeth with bottled water and pulled back my hair into a ponytail, sprucing up in case I was going to become a portrait of the tourist as a dumb guy.
Anyway, I waited like a goddamned Godot for over an hour, but The Best Artist in Slovakia never showed up. I don’t know: maybe he was arrested or something?
(NOTE: Since splitting from Czechoslovakia, Slovakia proper has changed a lot. In fact, the Quentin Tarantino/Eli Roth film shocker “HOSTEL” was set in Slovakia, but filmed in the Czech Republic, amid much controversy.)