The uncertainty surrounding foreign train journeys inspires me to pray.
There’s always a moment, when I’m standing on the edge of a platform, tickets clutched in my hand, doubting that the train I think is arriving is the same train that is identified on my ticket. I’m not religious, but prayer, or meditation, is a more helpful exercise than panic. Plus, when travelling with Midget I can’t afford to appear vexed. She’s trusting me to have everything completely in control.
In Naples (2016), with DeepThought, I forgot to pray, double check or cross reference. So things went wrong, and then wrong again. But, apart from with the Circumvesuviana, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
The train station in Bratislava had wi-fi, which I used combined with the departure board to make a reasonable platform guess. However, the ticket was one slip of paper for both of us, inviting more doubt that remained until it was wordlessly accepted by the inspector. It included a QR (Quick Response) code which struck me as fancy for a train line where you had to leap from the train into the gravel.
We passed through stunning fields of dying sunflowers. The decaying of happiness. And arrived at Surany, where all but one of the many train lines appeared abandoned to weeds and oxygen. The station’s veranda and single clock reminded me of a western.
Nitra, a destination chosen for its larger size and pronounceable name. We could hardly miss our train for it was the only train. Compared to the clanking train from Bratislava to Surany, with its Hogwarts style carriage compartments, it was a modern build with steps down to the gravel. Yet, on our arrival we realised that the train station resembled something more like the one in our village than one belonging to a city.
Still, the city of Nitra enchanted.
Not with impressive architecture. Nor with any fancy food – although my pasta bake with pizza dough crust was something special. Instead it struck me as a place you’d want to raise children. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. By peeling ourselves away from the tourism of Bratislava, we had stepped out of the English-speaking world. As now we weren’t being sold an idea of Slovakia, we were in Slovakia.
I felt it proved that something was missing from home. The overwhelming feeling of Nitra was one of family. Everywhere we went there were adults and children together, and a startling absence of screen staring. Midget agreed, and our conversations kept returning to this sensation of community that we couldn’t quite describe. A short walk from where we rented a room was a large park. Here, adults and children cycled and swept along on their rollerblades. Little cafés stood within a mass of playgrounds. There were deer, goats, a sheep, a cow and a donkey. Children took pony rides and built castles in the sandpits. The adults chatted and laughed.
A tiny child parked his pedal-less bike in the bike rack beside the café where we were sitting drinking kofola. He just got on with it, without any doubt that his bike and the other bikes all belonged together.