Not the Lilac Bus

Not the Lilac Bus

For anyone who has ever enjoyed the bus journey between Dublin and Dungarvan…

2002

25 October, Friday

Carole Angier’s biography of Primo Levi is pedantic, pretentious and extremely long-winded. Given that Levi was an industrial chemist in Turin (apart from his time in Poland) the effect has been lightened thus far only by a couple of descriptions of lethal laboratory conditions and subsequent explosions. Chemistry sets do not turn up in comic strips by accident.

Heavy traffic meant I did not get home until seven, having got boarded the one-thirty in Dublin. A nightmare journey: when your skin crawls at the same speed as the bus. We had to change in Waterford onto a coach that had a hole, a rectangular hole, where the second roof hatch should have been.

Halfway to Dungarvan we then had to pull over to pick up passengers from another bus, to the end of the world in Tralee. It had broken down. When they piled in, a lot of those unfortunates had to sit and get rained on behind the makeshift curtain that had been strung up across the aisle, in front of the hole.

The book is a doorstep impediment to proper appreciation. Having wondered would he ever get to Auschwitz, I closed the Levi biography when they were in the cattle wagons. This was mostly due to the fading light on the bus with the rainy hole.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux

Dr. John Flynn

2017

17 June, Saturday

I’m in the Black Velvet Bar at eight, with a pint of Carlsberg. A burger is on its way. Though this place was on my list I’ve just found it by accident, in that I took a left off the Quai Richelieu to photograph something, on my way to the Bourse, and spotted the street name.

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The Garonne is muddy filthy, like a series of chocolate whirlpools. Though very warm, it isn’t as hot here as I’d feared. There is a breeze. I was right about a wine convention bunging up the local hotels. At the airport I saw a sign for the VinExpo and the taxi driver asked had I come for it. Non, le rouge me donne une gueule de bois. That was my way of saying red wine blows my head off. Too much of it. At nine, I found the Café…

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Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon

Dr. John Flynn

2015

aux-trois-maries

12 June, Friday

I didn’t get a chance last night to write more than four words at Aux Trois Maries (a very nice restaurant in the old town, in a little cobbled square, Place de la Baleine) because the pretty, friendly waitresses kept bringing me stuff. A guy took the payment – he insisted – but I made sure to tell one of the girls there was a tenner with it, between the two of them. After that I went to L’Antidote (pub), only breaking out briefly to have a look at Johnny Walsh’s back up the street. A girl from Lancashire was serving there. A bottle of Heineken later I was back in L’Antidote, telling my new French pals, “C’était merde, j’étais curieux” before I realized I’d left my red cap behind.

It’s cloudy today so it doesn’t matter about the cap. I’m in the hotel…

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Bologna

Bologna

Dr. John Flynn

2016

6 August, Saturday

Getting here was free of hassle. Stepping onto the plane, which wasn’t full, I showed two stewardesses my pass and behind me my mother said,

“I’m with him.”
“Lucky you,” said Barbara, the chief.
“He’s my son.”

Soon B. came down to us and said we could move forward into an empty row. The taxi was cheap to the centre and I found the narrow street with the hotel (Albergo delle Drapperie) handily enough on foot. Out on my own come midnight, I wandered around photographing Bologna at night. I also discovered the Mercato di Mezzo around the corner is open on Sundays. There was a lot of Carabinieri out but they weren’t busy. One carload of the Polizia Municipale turned up too, shooting the breeze on Via Rizzoli.

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7 August, Sunday

Hit my knee for the third or fourth time on the knee-high…

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Innsbruck Trains

Innsbruck Trains

August 2016

On the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Innsbruck from Verona, through the Brenner Pass, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The only scary incident involved having to run from lightning to reach the next rest hut. The wife was a pigtail blonde, predictably a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.

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My card worked without the pin at the hotel in Innsbruck. Nonetheless I needed to compile a few choice phrases for a review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk that morning. My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt later but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In the morning at a post office over the bridge I’d pick up €500 sent by my brother via Western Union.

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It rained again in the late morning but then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something dark had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.

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A lot of Italian could be heard below and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards were in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I didn’t think they were all local. Why do people travel with dogs? It was raining again in the morning. We had trouble finding seats on the train to Munich but eventually got in among two young blondes unfamiliar to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits were in shorts and sun hats yet each had a big rucksack and a wheelie bag, each. They caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform. It was time to put some distance between us and the latest arrivals. “Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to having heard the woman laughing hysterically and then swearing, at the end of the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous…” etc).

Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.

The girl by the window was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book, near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. I explained that I’d been there before too, on my own (2015), when the snowy landscape on the line from Salzburg was most enticing.

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I’ll always remember the first time heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain chain towers over the city, where the shop fronts glowed though all were closed.

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I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. Was it Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until I paid the hotel bill. We’d seen a lot that morning. There were lots of tourists there speaking German and French but not many Americans or Asians. Or Brits. Having passed the amphitheatre we crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.

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Back at the hotel a young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and a sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before they were, eh, finished with me. My worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash but at least my mother still had €327 in her bag.

I’d thought I wouldn’t retaliate online but the dismissive attitude of the young manageress with the glasses quickly changed that. (Hotel S. later got a roasting.) The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying (a) it wasn’t nice and (b) it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, given she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous, f*ck-you shrug.

I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up on the little charmer because I still needed to get the other (sweet) girl looking on to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There had been lightning in the night, in the distance. Early that morning, heavy rain had thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six. Once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at the bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.

The two girls in the compartment on the train to Munich in contrast were very sweet and curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. These ladies were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin. The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied to her with Tschüss.

There was a chap in mountain boots on my left who never said anything except one whispered “F*ck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to retrieve my mother who had walked past after a toilet break. We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice, to be sure, as I stood in the corridor with our bags, without swearing, waiting for the train to stop.

Last Exit to Salzburg

Last Exit to Salzburg

2015

A lot of the Saturday morning train journey from Munich to Salzburg was spent talking to two young couples on the train. The Basque girls were from Bilbao, the Spanish boys from Madrid. They were all pleasant but there was something really mignon sweet about the dark girl who sat directly opposite. She smiled like we had a private joke, then she ducked her eyes or looked out the window. It was February and there was snow everywhere outside, though the sun was shining.

At the Staatsbrücke bridge over the Salzach two cops were checking their sub-machine guns and one popped a bullet from a clip out onto the ground as I passed. Having checked into the Hotel Mozart, I made my way back along Linzergasse towards the river. Then I slipped curiously up the narrow Steingasse to verify an address from the imagination of the Grimms. The house, in business since Mozart’s time, belonged deep in a wood. There was even a red button beside the heavy door.

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Turning back I crossed the Salzach and went into the Zipfer Bierhaus for a grill and a drink. After dark I went down some stairs into the imaginatively named Shamrock pub to watch a match. The barman was from Cork and before he finished his shift at eight he asked would I still be there if he came back later. I assured him I would be. I was.

An afternoon customer who returned was a man from Yorkshire but anyway his night would end badly after he got into an argument with a little Arab at the counter. Over a stool, I think. One of the other barmen told him he’d had enough and, outside, he took a swing at a bouncer with a shaved head. That only earned him a bloody nose, which then necessitated an ambulance, which could be observed up on the quay, through the high windows.

The fact that a strawberry blonde in her early thirties later came over when I was full of drink in the by-then crowded bar (live band, Valentine’s night) must have meant that she liked the cut of my jib or else thought I was kind for having helped a disabled girl get through the crowd as far as the toilets and back. My arm was soon around her and her hair was in my face. She asked why I didn’t just speak English to her, when German aphasia was setting in. I can’t have been that bad, though, because when it was all over I stopped at the Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke for a bottle of water. It was very late.

The next day I tried the email address she’d provided along with a phone number. She had a six-syllable name, like that of a ski jumper or an opera singer. In the mail I explained my German was a bit better today and asked her to meet for dinner or a coffee oder etwas zivilisiert. I’d made a mess of her number the night before by putting the code for Ireland in front of it. She replied to the mail sometime in the afternoon. Das ist wirklich sehr charmant von dir but she was already on her way back to Vienna. It turned out she was a shrink. Up to their necks in bulimics and anorexics, who knows?

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A couple of days later I ended up back in the Zipfer B., for the same grill. A young shoe salesman sat down at the big wooden table. By the time he decided to stay and find a hotel, I’d noticed he was very keen on the beer. He said he’d driven over from Bavaria that day to get away from Fasching (carnival). He also explained that one piece of their folk wisdom was enough if one wanted to understand Bavarians – the view that if something wasn’t a complete disaster then it should be looked on as a success.

I left him there after three hours but said I’d be in the Shamrock later. After another shower, back at the hotel, I fell asleep for an hour. On getting to the pub I didn’t notice him at first but then overheard the Bavarian Al Bundy nearby, putting his oar into a couple who seemed to be English. He was locked by then and I wanted him to drink some water but I ended up with it instead. Leaning over the counter to tell the Austrian manager there had been a misunderstanding – that the water was my recommendation for Al – helped to clarify the situation.

Es gab ein Missverständis. Das Wasser war meine Empfehlung für ihn.

The manager then leaned forward too.

He’s an annoying prick who won’t get served anymore.

After poor Al left, quietly at least, I got talking to that couple. The guy was English. He asked if I wanted to have a drink with them somewhere else and she nodded and smiled, so we went to O’Malley’s, which was right next door. These were the only places with any life, at least midweek. Though from Swindon, he looked Middle Eastern but the top-heavy and good-looking blonde was from the Dutch-German border. He got harmlessly drunk while moving his arms to the likes of Oasis and Stereophonics on the speakers and she told me she’d had a stroke eighteen months earlier, as a result of which she’d put on twenty kilos and lost her job. I told her she was lovely and added she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Or worse. He was with BMW and had a problem learning German, although, he claimed, knowing Turkish would have been more useful at work. Together eight years, she had two kids and they lived in Munich. This night was their anniversary. They were nice people. I drank very little.

In the morning nonetheless, Kapuzinerberg was still a tough climb, even forty-eight hours after waking up wrecked after Valentine’s Night, and even after the scrambled egg and scrambled rasher breakfast at the hotel, over which I could hear an Irish table, older than me, talking about hangovers. Kapuzinerberg was still worth it for the view of the river, the snow-covered city and the high castle. Then I crossed the river and took the funicular up to the Hohensalzburg fortress. The heights were even brighter and we seemed to be above the zero-degree haze.

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Salzburg had a lot of well-wrapped beggars hunkered down. Most but not all were Roma but all seemed to call out cheerfully “Hallo!” or “Grüss Gott!” to passers-by. By the sound of them at least, they were the chirpiest homeless I’d ever come across. Overcast Munich was very cold the next day. One guy on the street asked for €2 for a coffee and then asked had I a heart but, well dressed as he was, he wasn’t even parked in a begging spot. I did give a euro to one with one leg, on Bayerstrasse. What is it, about Bayerstrasse? Another time I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec. Then again, Munich’s Neues Rathaus is the most Gothic thing I’ve seen.

In August 2015, on entering Salzburg’s Mirabell gardens, where there had been ice in the fountain in February, my mother and I passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said. They looked very different from the conservatory student string quartet we had watched play a tango on Kärntner Strasse in Vienna the day before.

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Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer. My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the classiest place, with the most stylish clothes. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. After there it was a matter of a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.

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I had just a few in the Shamrock that night. D. told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space but, on a less abstract note, it seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. He’d recently opened the door onto the quay well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of unknown nationality in front of cops and onlookers. After there I crossed the river and walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. A warm red light was on over the magic door as I passed but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants.

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For me the most atmospheric ancient lane is in Perugia. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.

In August 2018, on the way from Linz to Munich, I last got off in Salzburg, if only for an afternoon. Though the thronged Getreide Gasse was the same as always (I gave it a miss), elsewhere is generally more relaxed and you can hear Mozart seeping out of windows, both chorally and instrumentally. I had two beers in the Zipfer B. Given the hot day, I sat inside at one of the round tables near the counter, where it was cool.

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Most other customers sat outside the front entrance, the light at the end of the tunnel corridor with the stone floor. I was near the staff. They were particularly relaxed and friendly. Morale must be high in that workplace. There seemed to be a buzz around a shift change between three and four. Two of the women seemed to take particular notice of my harmless presence. The younger of the two, with glasses, was called K. She even turned to me too, before she left, for a Wiederschauen.

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Across Hungary

Across Hungary

I’m deep in action on a secret mission

Contact’s broken down

I live my life around suspicion*

There’s a voice on the telephone

Rory Gallagher’s guitar classic Philby (1979) was partly inspired by touring Europe and having to deal with all sorts of shady characters at all hours of the day or night. When I think of seven times in Budapest, doing this and that, including a spell in dental patient trafficking, I think of the above verse, but there is more to Hungary than that.

(*The vinyl version of this line is “Time drags by, I’m above suspicion”)

Even in a landlocked country, some of its best sights overlook large expanses of water. A ten-year period of occasional exploration outside the capital began in April 2009 with a trip to Lake Balaton. The village of Tihany lies near the narrowest point of the eighty-mile-long lake. The little lake behind the village is a geological anomaly that sits 25 m higher than the real one. The stone jetty below the Benedictine abbey for which Tihany is otherwise best known is on the eastern side of the peninsula of the same name. We had lunch below the crest of the great view beside the abbey (apatság) and then we got the ferry at the tip of the peninsula over to the south shore. The water of the hazy Balaton was a light, smoothie green, from the chemical composition of the floor of the shallow lake.

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The Danube turns south at Visegrád, twenty miles north-north-west of Budapest. Above the small town with the ferry crossing and the creamy church stands the Vár, or castle, which offers a sensational view of the great river and the wooded hills that mark both banks, up around the bend. The evening sunshine lit up the panorama. It was after five o’clock when we got there on a June evening in 2012 and, though the man on the gate said it was zárva (closed), a bribe of 500 forints was enough to get us in.

At the other end of the decade, in the Rockline bar in Sopron, I made some new friends when invited to join the one remaining table, once the other stragglers along the counter had gone. Its online presence said, “Gastro pub” but the only edible items I saw in there were peanuts. Like in a playground, one of the first things they asked was my age. T. said she only knew L. because L. had once interviewed her for a survey. Z. told stories from his night at the Corvinus restaurant on Fő tér, the main square. I think the group expected to have to speak German to the stranger. It’s a border town, a beautiful Baroque border town, but the fact that I don’t make a dog’s dinner of Hungarian was a source of wonder. Languages are hobbies in which I don’t lose interest. The bar owner claimed Sopron hadn’t suffered too much in the war because it wasn’t on the railway line between Budapest and Vienna. He claimed it was in worse shape now, economically, on its last legs, but he was a glass-half-empty kind of chap, though kind.

At Sunday lunch Leonard Cohen was coming calmly over the speakers at the Generális restaurant on Fő tér (‘Main square’) as a man with no arms steadily and assiduously ate spaghetti at the next table. Cohen sang The Partisan with the angelic French chorus and the rhythm of a fluttering heartbeat. By then the man with no arms had gone, with his wife. A Thalidomide survivor, with small hands. Very small hands. But he managed to smoke and drink as well, while his wife was in the Goat Church across the square.

By his accent the man at the nearest table on the other side was from Dublin. He had gone pensive after settling up with a Danke blurted to the Köszönöm szépen from the waitress. On his phone again, he seemed to want to know badly if two Irishmen had died on Mount Everest in the past week. They did. Will I bother telling him? He’s about to leave. I told him. A talkative chap in need of a shave, he was in Hungary to walk from Sopron to Lenti. As well as something of his life on the buses, he told me he’d got up as far as the third level on Everest but then remembered his age (62) and had the sense to turn back and get down off it.

That evening I chose the Corvinus for dinner, having spotted my waiter friend downing a beer in a quiet moment on the quieter side of the building, facing the town hall. The venison stew was fine even though they threw some hash browns on the plate for trunking. The view from the table was free. As I left, cars were pulling up on the square and election boxes were being carried into the town hall. Those involved were all dressed up, like for a wedding.

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At the Erhardt Panzió they have a good, varied breakfast menu to go with the basics laid out for the bleary-eyed. This means they don’t have to waste time and ingredients cooking uneaten food. A pretty young blonde with glasses asked me if I wanted anything off it but I just said, Ah nem, túl korán nekem (‘Ah no, too early for me’) and she smiled and went away. The next time I’ll even try the restaurant in the garden. After a chat with the same sweet girl, as I paid at reception, I walked straight down Mátyás Király utca to the station and soon left Sopron. Just an hour and a quarter later, I was back in Vienna. The same commuter train ends up in Bratislava.

In December 2019, the last time I was anywhere before the virus, I got a train east to Győr, which lies halfway between Vienna and Budapest. It was colder there, an hour and ten minutes across the deep grey plain. Part three of The Good Soldier Švejk begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around the title character. These include the calmly cynical Quartermaster Vaňek, the occultist cook Jurajda and the anarchist Marek, the last of whom Švejk has known since they shared a cell in Bohemia. We are also introduced to the glutton Baloun and the idiotically enthusiastic Cadet Biegler.

The train stops at Raab (modern Győr) where the men are meant to be issued with Hungarian salami but instead get two postcards each. Another train carrying a German-speaking regiment goes through the station without stopping but one of its singing soldiers falls out of a wagon and is impaled on a points-lever, which gives the Czechs something to stand around and look at.

Before they move on, Lukáš’s superior Captain Ságner mocks Biegler’s military and literary pretensions so Biegler, already feeling unwell, gets very drunk. He then dreams of floating through the universe in the front half of a staff car that has been hit by a shell. We’re flying to heaven, General, and must avoid the comets. When he meets the Lord, the Lord turns out to be Ságner, who orders two angels to throw him into the latrines. A terrible smell fills the wagon where Biegler is sleeping just as the glow of lights over Budapest comes into view. He has contracted dysentery and is offloaded to a hospital where he is mistakenly diagnosed as a carrier of cholera.

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In Budapest the theoretical issuing of cheese to the men is replaced by a box of matches, another postcard and the happy news that Italy has declared war on them. In the staff carriage, Biegler is replaced by the pontificating of Lieutenant Dub, a Czech reserve officer and informer who will soon prove to be the arch-enemy of Švejk. The men are ordered to leave the wagons a second time, only to watch their train with its piles of army bread and sacks of rice get sprayed with disinfectant. Sent off with some money from Lukáš to get something to eat, Švejk buys a hen but not before he’s arrested and accused of trying to steal it. As he explains, all he did was pick it up to ask who owned it.

The feathers thrown out of the van attracted the attention of Lieutenant Dub… He shouted inside that whoever was plucking a hen should present himself and in the door appeared the happy face of Švejk. […] Švejk held the hen’s bowels and other intestines under Lieutenant Dub’s nose.

Before eating in Győr I photographed the riverbanks. Then I had to find a bank ATM in the belváros (‘old town’). Baross út had most of the mulled wine and snack huts. Dunakapu tér by the water had the blue Ferris wheel. Fortified by Hungarian cash I went into the appealing Pálffy Étterem on a corner of Széchenyi tér and made sure I wouldn’t emerge hungry. It was half past three and the feeling was not of pangs but a dull ache in the cold. The feast needed a walk and it got dark as I headed downriver again.

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The lights were on, in and around the bishop’s citadel, reflecting on the Rába before it meets the Mosoni-Duna arm of the Danube, having added its own little sister just before that. Then I wandered the calm yet active old town again but despite a cup of mulled white wine my back started to freeze so I retreated to the hotel at six. I caught up on some sleep. Out again after nine, I had another mulled wine, took some photos of the lit-up town hall and entered the McDonalds for a burger night cap.

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Northeast of Miskolc, Švejk’s unit finally gets some goulash next to the Slovak border, about 40 km west of Ukraine. The station is crowded with many different units and wagons can be seen loaded with shot-down aircraft and howitzers with smashed barrels. Lieutenant Dub is telling everyone this is war booty when the wreckage is clearly Austrian. Then he spots Švejk talking to a group of soldiers nearby and goes over for a listen.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s war booty after all. At first sight it looks a bit tricky when you read here on the gun carriage “Imperial and Royal Artillery Division” but it was probably like this: the gun fell into the hands of the Russians and we had to win it back. Booty like that is much more valuable

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Bohemia and Slovakia

Bohemia and Slovakia

The first meal anywhere is often the simplest and most functional. Burgers and chips (hranolky is the Czech and Slovak word for chips or fries). The first Bratislava pub was Čierny Pes (‘Black Dog’), a proper, cavernous Slovak bar where the teenage waiter was thrilled with the big tip. The bill for half a dozen drinks was no more than thirteen euro. It was down the narrow cobbles of Na Vŕšku then to the Irish Uisce Beatha, which has a reassuring “No Stags” sign on the door. The barmaid (L.) was a pretty and polite Slovak brunette with an Irish ex. Pretty and polite and honest.

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After breakfast at “Re-Fresh” at the far end of the street below Michael’s Gate, the bright morning after the night before meant a sweaty climb to the Castle. At least the castle shop had a couch, to cool off on. I bought some postcards to justify the seat. I usually feel tired in galleries and museums. Like Alan Bennett, I’m always looking for a seat or glad to find one. Why is that? Is it a mixture of slow walking and poor ventilation? August 1998 involved a morning visit to the Munch museum in Oslo. There I was tempted to lie down on Munch’s bed in the basement. In the gloom it proved impossible not to laugh at the morbid captions e.gDead Mother with Child. There I bought a poster and two cards. The poster was of a cheerful painting called Weeping Nude.

Upon descending from the Castle we stopped at a place (J. J. Darvoben) beside the cathedral. The woman smilingly corrected my chléb (Czech) to chlieb (Slovak) when P. wanted some regular bread to go with the toast on the platter my two companions shared.

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Three times in recent years I’ve had to cancel trips to Bohemia, thanks to a funeral, a snowstorm and a virus. I’d bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Zaplatím prosím (‘The bill, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

Podvod … podvodnik (‘scam … scammer’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

Jídlo (food);

Voda (water);

Díky (‘Thanks’);

Žádný problém = (‘No problem’);

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

All these phrases are immediately intelligible in Slovak, with the odd spelling change. The main thing to look out for is the fact that some key verbs are different or are used differently but the upside is that Slovak doesn’t have that funny ř that’s everywhere in Czech.

The last phrase on the list alludes to The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that starts in Prague, moves through Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, and ends up in a part of Galicia that is now in Poland.

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Complications set in, in Prague, after Švejk is told to obtain for Lt. Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.

It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.

An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who has already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal. He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.

When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle

Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.

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This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

Švejk wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who’d hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail.

There were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see in Bohemia. These included the Prague buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below. The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, which was part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognizes another beetle’).

Bratislava lacks the snotty self-regard of most capital cities, probably because it’s a relatively new one. Meandering, photo-taking, was an essay in afternoon relaxation that September. This was exemplified by the boy and girl in a courtyard playing chess with pieces that were almost as big as traffic cones.

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Three years earlier (2016) I was in a café off Hlavné námestie, the main square in the old town, with a pot of tea. The Earl Grey (“Early Grey” on the menu) was nice but the kitchen was closed and there was a terrific downpour outside.

When Smooth Criminal came on the Michael Jackson CD, I could move on, through the rain which had eased a bit at best. That song always puts pep in the step. I got some novädzi gúlaš nearby, at a place where a young-ish American with long hair slicked back behind his ears was wearing sunglasses. On a rainy night. At an unlit table. He ignored both waiters who thanked him as he departed. On the walk back to the hotel I passed an English stag party near Michael’s Gate. A couple of them were the regulation shirtless, on the rainy night, outside a pub. The trams made an eerie, whistling sound in the wet. The wheels were whining.

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I got truly soaked in the morning, trying to get some more Staré mesto (‘old town’) photos. It had started so well, when I was idly peering through tall railings at the presidents of Switzerland and Slovakia inspecting a guard of honour at the palace. I’d headed off with a short blue plastic mac but it was no use in the next deluge. I had no time to take shelter.

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By the time I got on the plane my pants had dried, at least. The row in front was all fat Roma but the row in front of them was a young family of Dubs who quizzed an unenthusiastic steward about chicken nuggets (“No”) and food allergies (“Just cheese then?”).

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The late September afternoon in Bratislava meant a siesta. Later we ate in the book-lined cellar bar of Pod kamenným stromom (‘Under the Stone Tree’) on Sedlárska. We drank again in the same two pubs as the night before. A Chekhovian young (English) lady with a dog was sweet to me before she left Uisce Beatha. She had already told JP that having the dog was useful for getting chatted up.

It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia. It’s only a tenner for the hour on the train northeast to Trenčín. The seat numbering on the train was tricky but at least all the Slovaks seemed confused too. I got there around one so I had something to eat at a place called Speranza. It was the only place in the quiet old town that had half a crowd outside. A cheesy beef and potato dish on a menu entirely in Slovak ensued but at least I make sure to know words like that.

On the way out of the Hotel Elizabeth, to do the Castle, I saw the Roman inscription on the rock of the castle hill outside the windows. There’s a back landing used as a viewing gallery. Carved by men of the second Auxiliary legion in 179 AD, the message was only rediscovered by a local clergyman in 1852.

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The Castle was a steeper hike than the one in Bratislava but this was also after two nights on the beer. When paying in, I found the pretty woman of the pair in the ticket office seemed to take a shine to me, complimenting the effort in Slovak and then emerging quickly to help scan the ticket at the barriers outside, which had me completely baffled. I was already ready to melt but then saw the climb went on. And on. Still, after a cooling-off period, while sitting watching a wedding party get their photos, I did the top tower and all. Mátušova veža. The top of the castle.

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The narrow stairways and doorways up there proved no obstacle to the young and ignorant. Twice, when I stepped back to let someone in or out, the twenty- and thirty-something tourists would pass my shoulder and drive on regardless. On the way back down, I again passed a restaurant (Pod Hradom – ‘Under the Castle’) with what seemed another wedding party. I’d paused within earshot, out on the steep, damp lane, while climbing those steps and cobbles, just to listen to a Slovak folk song (kind of Jewish, I thought), which was accompanied by an accordion. There’s a big synagogue in the old town.

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It’s hard to spend money in Slovakia, even at Petržalka. From there a taxi took me to the airport for €34 in December 2019. No complaints. Petržalka station is south of the Danube and the trip took more than the unrealistic twelve minutes indicated online and he did go over the right bridge for the airport. All the drivers at the rank looked like gypsies, I was in a hurry, and my guy did say tridsat’ (‘thirty’) when I asked him, before getting in. I’d paid that before, from the airport to the old town, north of the Danube, in a group of three, of whom one remarked it was for nothing for the actual journey.

When I sat in for the airport he mentioned the meter, which turned out to be secluded between the front seats. At the airport, when he praised the effort in Slovak and added he had a brother in Kilkenny, I added a fiver for Ireland. Afterwards I thought he probably just knew of the beer of that name but I was just glad to get where I had to be, in time. So a poor man made a little extra? More power to him.

Why tolerate a little chiselling? It can mean an easier life. At Keleti station in Budapest, in the August heat wave of 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the ticket office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of those hatches to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going in the Balkans. Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees, a few of whom were already there when we got out.

Linz

Linz

I had passed through Hitler’s hometown before I ever got out there. In a heat wave in August 2015 a Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast in Vienna, applying a serviette to my face. He came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell. Hölle! Hölle! On the train to Salzburg that day my mother and I got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on eBay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them as far as Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.

We left our Salzburg hotel two mornings later. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. They had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.

I got off in Linz that December. Down past Hauptplatz the bridge over the Danube crosses to the Urfahr end of the city. The car lights on the bridge shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.

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Heading back to the main square I found a small and dark pub down a long tunnel that is typical of Upper Austria. The pretty young blonde behind the counter didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a few bottles of Weizenbier instead. My eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up.

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The guy next to me at the counter wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (Holzknecht) and then I had it too. It was a traditional meal for poor people working in the woods.

The next night saw a different barmaid there, a dark-haired girl with what I thought were some Italian features but also with rather exotic eyes. I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask. Warum Österreich? As for why Austria, I paraphrased a quote from the actor Christoph Waltz.

Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.

In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.

On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them would rather go to the end of the world, say to some wasteland in Australia, even though Paris, for example, is just an hour from Cork. Then again, most cannot even be bothered with their own language.

One night in July 1961, Samuel Beckett’s Marne cottage at Ussy was the scene of a robbery. The burglars, as well as consuming all the food and drink they could find, stole his clothes, even his old underpants, but left a valuable painting untouched. As Beckett himself had once mused, in Murphy (1938), who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand? If any mystery haunts any cynic, it’s probably this one.

Michael Frayn also discusses the word Schlamperei (‘messiness’), which he often overheard in Vienna but which, in Austria, he observes, could only be in its infancy in comparison with Britain. Well, that’s something the English and Irish can and do share. Austria is clean. Aristocratic titles have furthermore been banned there since 1918 but Austrians compensate for this deprivation with comically excessive use of academic ones. Some people even use a different calling card (e.g. one that uses “von” in the name) when dealing with Germany, where such elaboration remains legal.

The down-to-earth impression made in contrast by Linz that first time brought me back for a couple of days in October 2017. While we were enjoying coffee and dessert in the elegant Café Traxlmayr at lunchtime, a pair of retired ladies chatting intently over a couple of tall beers attracted the attention of my wingman (JP).

Fair play to the two old dears, tanning the pints in the middle of the day.

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Linz is also a handy base for visiting very scenic places like Steyr or, in Bavaria, the town of Passau. The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded banks continue for several miles. The warm sunshine there contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube, we walked back through the Altstadt and had a good goulash at a place called Bi Plano. It got cold at sunset but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau is very like Steyr but it’s a college town, whereas Steyr is known for making tractors and guns.

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The train in 2015 had reached Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend on the Enns that there meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. Schubert loved it and wrote the Trout Quintet there in 1819. Empty dark alleys were less spooky than dreamlike. There were seagulls there, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy.

At a pub by the name of Sir Patrick, one had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.

Back in Linz after Passau, JP and I ended up in the small, dark place once more. The girl with the striking eyes was behind the counter. They were green; interesting; hard to read. A local Celtic fan with communist leanings told me her name. She wasn’t Italian. She became someone I would always know. I took a photo of a young chap buckled at a table where she kindly left a pint of water.

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JP had earlier observed him sucking on a thick cigar, though the electric fan in the pub did make the smoke a lot more tolerable than it used to be. Another lad, who looked like an Arab, wanted travel advice about Ireland. He wanted to visit Kilkenny just because he liked the beer of that name.

On the train to Vienna in the morning, a row developed between the couple sitting at the table across from ours. She was on the phone for a long time first, a good-looking girl with faintly Asiatic features. Russian, I guessed, from a few words I could make out, such as mozhnódroog and rabot. When he wasn’t eating (an apple, a banana, other stuff) or sleeping behind a hanging jacket, he spoke to her in English and his accent was Germanic (i.e. Austrian).

They had a weekend engagement in Vienna, so flowers and a present had to be bought for their hosts, but first he wanted to deposit her at the Albertina while he walked around for a while. Unfortunately for her, it seemed he intended for her to carry three bags around while at the museum. “I’m shocked,” she said, several times. She also observed that he was “the man in this couple”, which had Mr Sensitive asking how she managed whenever she was on her own. She countered with “But I’m not on my own now” so he offered to carry one bag.

When the train stopped at Wien Hbf he told her there was no need to get off immediately because it wouldn’t move on towards the airport for a few minutes but she really had heard enough by then and left the scene. He reluctantly followed. There would be nothing happily ever after in that relationship. She’d also got in a dig about him always finding the time and opportunity to eat, so it sounded like she was quite familiar with the various ways he would suit himself, if given half a chance.

Several times I went back to Linz to see the soft-spoken girl with the green eyes. The young man from Vienna who sat beside me on the next plane referred to it as an untypical destination. He added he’d been to Ireland sixty times through work. At the Hotel Wolfinger my fourth-floor room overlooked the Hauptplatz rather impressively. I could hear a clarinet by one of the cafés below my window. The trams rolled up and down through the long square with a steady rumble.

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From the steps around the Trinity column, the girl pointed to a special little train idling nearby. Nächstes mal. Next time, we’d be running up that hill. The next time we took that little train up to wooded Pöstlingberg and wandered around there for an afternoon. It was a bit windy but we got something to eat and saw some deer up close. They were in a kind of dry moat. The little stag was munching leaves unperturbed, up by the fence, while the others came and went via a nearby slope. The eyes were wild. One of the lads from a nearby tree surgeon gang then threw the stag another branch of leaves.

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She laughed when told about the whispering Americans on the train, the time I came via Regensburg in Bavaria. Ja is the German for yes, right, so whats Jawohl? One of the two women across the table said she’d get a translation on her phone. A mechanical voice then broadcast, Jawohl! Jawohl! to the entire carriage before the phone screen coughed up the meaning. The two women went on to talk about restraining kids but it seemed to be part of their jobs.

It was a quiet Sunday night where she worked, the night an old nutter with a cravat and smelly feet marched in with his sunglasses on and started causing hassle about the service, the drink and the music. Diese Musik ist Gift für mich! Poison it may have been to him but it wasn’t even loud. Feeling a mixture of irritation and gallantry, I used du when telling him in exasperation to leave the girl alone and wait for his Guinness to settle. In a how-dare-you tone of voice he announced he had a doctorate (“Summa cum laude” blahdy blah). When I said that so did I (“Ich auch”), he then said he had two of them.

Then he called the cops to report the impudent Gast at the counter but he quickly paid up and fled when she told him she’d had enough of him and called the owner. Then two cops walked in, so we had to do a bit of explaining. Anyway, the Polizei seemed to be familiar with this character and they soon left us in peace. We did a gentle high five before she observed the nut-job wasn’t as bad as the Nazi who had thrown a pint over her, some other night.

It wasn’t the only place in Linz where I saw someone get barred. In Thüsen Tak the metal from the speakers was generally boring but it wasn’t too loud. One entrant to the pub was refused service. The rather pissed but well-dressed, middle-class gentleman was in a better state than many drunks at home. All he did to cause offence was bow extravagantly to the rockers at the low tables but, anyway, a good suit must be the new long hair, to be met with a frown and expulsion.

From midnight the other place often got busier as the smoke got worse. A Bono-loving lush wanted me to go on to a club. She insisted Austria was full of Nazis but I said so was Ireland and maintained Bono was a tax-dodging Heuchler, whereas at least Falco had never droned on about Africa.

The last time I made it to Linz, it was January and the landscape in Austria was snowy and icy. On the train an Elvis impersonator – der König – sat down with his kit bag nearby before I moved to the dining car, where the low drone of a deep American voice was a constant. It went on and on about a cookery class. The man’s hair, like the King’s, was a mite darker than it should have been at his age.

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Having checked into the hotel, I had to get something quick to eat. The cold froze my arse in a heavy snowfall on the way down Landstrasse to the famous Bosner Eck hotdog stand. The lights of that long street looked wonderful through the brief blizzard but I was almost sick with the cold. Back at the hotel I donned a pair of pyjama-style long-johns before heading to the pub.

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She had put a Reserviert card at my favourite end of the counter. It was there that weekend that I enjoyed a long conversation with a Stammgast named S., who remarked on the way she smiled when she looked at me. As the crow flies, Linz is a thousand miles from home. She had cooked for me and she had served up Holzknecht in the bar, and she had given free shots of tequila, but, in calmly letting her get on with her life in a land far away, it’s still best to remember some words of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot.

I have given them bones, I have talked to them about this and that, I have explained the twilight...

Anyway, S. told a story about getting his own back on some Russians who had spiked him with gherkins injected with vodka by spiking them with an Austrian elixir called Sturm, which also acts as a laxative. This was in the context of a major deal to build some heavy industrial plant in Ukraine. In his workplace he was “Herr Doktor”, of course, though he did amusingly describe the German managerial habit of shouting as useless for Austrian productivity. His face dropped a little only when I included Mauthausen in the list of all the Austrian places I’d been. Normally I omit that but this time I threw it in, for the hell of it.

On one of the trains I’ve taken out of Linz sat a retired nurse. After I put her heavy bag up on the rack we chatted all the way to Vienna. Her husband, a railwayman, had died in 2010. Her parents came from Steyr. She said they had never bought into the Nazi thing and added that her father had taken pleasure after the war in reminding those who did that they had done so. In Austrian culture it seems no one admitting to have cheered Hitler on Heldenplatz in Vienna in 1938 is the other side of the comic coin of the Irish all claiming to have been in the GPO for Easter 1916.