April 6, 2019 § 11 Comments
We are a concatenation of memory.
Without it we don’t exist, with it we are formed exactly as we are. Memory is a trap and a lie but it is also the touchstone of truth, sunk deep inside the paradox of never knowing which memories are real, which are only imagined, which are distorted, which are piecemeal, and which are the poisonous and mortal byproducts of nostalgia.
Memory is how we shortcut having to relearn, but also how we shortcut having to relive pain, beauty, happiness, and regret. Memory can be burnished, exercised, buffed, smeared with suntan oil and posed for competition, but it by definition degrades, crumbles, and does so randomly without even the courtesy of keeping the good and chucking the bad.
Memory leaves us with the damp and misshapen grains of sand that, formed early into castles, gradually dry out with old age and fall in upon themselves, leaving nothing but a smooth and level surface, inseparable and indistinct from the other billions of grains on the strand.
I remembered yesterday, or rather it was yesterday when I remembered, wheels spinning along roads I first rode in March, March 1987 … what were you doing then? Were the things that mattered to you then the things that matter to you now? How were your legs then? How were your lungs and heart? How many miles had you ridden, races had you won, defeats had you washed down in all their bitterness?
Did you know in March, that March, what lay ahead? Did you even suspect it? The births, the deaths, the marriages, the divorces, the illness, the recovery, the exploration, the plodding dull traces that you would fall into for decades, grinding out shit so that you could buy more shit, the mere possession of which forced you to grind the night soil even more?
March in those days was free from a melted nuclear plant a mere 60 miles away from this quiet city. Its poisonous fumes now circle the globe and the only thing that the world does in quiet complicity is watch while the powerless-that-be dump another daily hundred thousand tons of cold ocean water on the smoldering core that will burn for a million years.
March in those days was ruled by an emperor who presided over the bloody murder and rape of Asia, later venerated as the titular head of state, the tit that he sucked dry from cradle to grave, as honored in his butchery as in his dotage.
In that March, that March of those days, I was young! I wore no helmet and encountered nothing for it other than the wind through my hair, I was tied to no man or woman, I had no future, my past was too brief and irrelevant to merit mention or much thought, and the only treasure that poured through my fingers was the golden treasure of time, of today.
March in those days these streets were filled with bicycles, old people and young people and in-betweens, pedaling furiously in the fickle temperatures on their way to work, to school, to the green grocer because there was such a thing! Kobori-san sold fresh in bundles or singly, in season, imports unknown, and your teeth bit through the vegetables and fruits with zest.
Somehow the cold and snow and sleet, the last spurts of angry winter gave way to April, and my memory tells me this: It was thirty-two years ago that I first pedaled out west of town towards the mountains, direction a small town called Fubasami whose kanji I couldn’t read and from there to the even smaller burg of Okorogawa, equally indecipherable to an illiterate, and from there to the fork in the road, one way up the sheer mountain climb into Kiyotaki and Nikko, the other way a path I never took, not once, to the purgatory of Kobugahara and the copper mining village of Ashio.
The deepest memory trigger of all is smell, and if you have never read Jitterbug Perfume then you have missed the greatest trick your mind can ever play upon you, the trick of remembering through the flash of scent. Yesterday I ascended into the lower reaches of the cedar forests and wasn’t struck by the flood of memories that come from inhaling the deep wooded scent, no, I have been congested for decades and am blind to smell, mostly.
Instead I was struck by how much I love the cedar, the true emblem of this forest nation, so different from the cherry blossom! Cherry flower, fie on thee. You come briefly, in full beauty, you beguile us with a shimmer scarcely of this world, then you are gone as quickly as you came. Your bole is small, what house or temple was ever built from cherry? Your fruit are tiny and scarcely worth gathering, the sweet meat surrounding a bitter and hard pit that lies in wait to crack the enamel off your teeth should you bite it by mistake.
But cedar? Give me your cedar over your cherry flower any day, evergreen, massive, as useful in youth as it is after 400 years, wood that lasts forever, upon which giant temples, massive homes, shrines of antiquity, all were built. Give me your cedar in rows thirty miles long stretching all the way to the temples in Nikko, so giant and towering, silent and strong, green and sheltering whether rain, snow, sleet, or sun beat down. Give me your cedar whose high branches are home for birds, whose forested floor is home for every creature, cedar, imperious and impervious, mighty, enduring.
As I reached the road’s fork I turned left, towards purgatory, and the road does what it had been doing from the moment I left home, it tilted up, only this time it was a kick. For more than an hour prior there had been no traffic, not a car, not a truck, not a scooter, nothing but perfect tarmac laid out seemingly for bicycle tires alone. There was no memory here as I’d never passed this way before, but a few miles later the road dropped down, connecting with the road to Furumine Shrine.
That I remembered, but how? It went along a river that I’d been along before, and the giant torii that began the giant climb also rang my memory bell, but when? How? For what? I vaguely remembered hiking the mountain trails once, up above the shrine, but with whom? Alone?
And what about you? What were you doing in the mountains three decades past? Were you in the mountains at all? Were you skiing? Trying out the newly invented Board of Snow, the one with a rubber line attached to the tip that you held onto while “surfing” down the slope?
Were you camping? Snuggling in a tent? Fighting fires? Getting lost in the Sierras, stumbling along some rocky route in Sangre de Cristos, hiking the Rainbow Trail, angling for fish in some freezing stream?
My memory’s skein has nothing here but a big hole. I remembered the road, the torii, the trails above the shrine but what fit into the hole was simply the junk and detritus that I invented to fill it. This is memory at its worst, refusing to accept the hole as an empty thing lost forever, and filling it with shit, or worse, with photos from an album, or worst of all, with 1’s and 0’s.
Where my crippled memory still walks with a steady gait, though, is in its rejection of memory aids. I had no compulsion to stop as I pedaled and snap pictures with my phone, because I had no phone. Why do I need pictures to remind me of the past? The past is gone, and if it wasn’t strong enough or sweet enough or bitter enough to imprint itself into my web, then let the whole thing rot, I will save the strands in the web for something that matters, like death.
Oh, and this memory! How did I pedal these roads in a 52/42 x 13-21, gearing bolted onto a steel frame with 36-spoked wheels? Today the plate on the back was a gigantic 25, and the saucer on the front a tiny 36, little children’s gears, things that a baby could ride to the top of Everest with, and here I was, barely turning the pedals on this endless grade? I tried to remember what it was like to have legs and lungs that thrashed mighty gears up beastly climbs like this, but nought.
The road forked, which is what roads and lives do. They fork. And in the middle of this one was a shop selling noodles and ice cream, and so I dithered because the road ahead was long and steep and my stomach was growling and surely there was nothing between here and there. The proprietor ran out and motioned me in, pointing to of all things, a bike rack and a sign that said “Kanuma Friends of Cycling.”
He was old and said, “I don’t know you. I know all the bicyclists who come here. Who are you?”
I told him that I remembered. I remembered when shops like his didn’t know about bicycles or care, I remembered when drivers gave us a half-berth and a honk, I remembered when “cycling” in this provincial prefecture was as novel as piercing low body parts, but I didn’t remember him, either.
He smiled because he had been trumped, and he laughed. “We used to not care, it’s true. But we are friendly now because bicycles are good business!”
Ah yes, business! Why love a thing because it breathes and hugs you tight, why love a thing because it nurtures your soul and your legs, why love a thing because it makes you a woman or a man, strengthens you when you are alone, succors you when you are ill, accompanies you on the high roads, bombs you, heart in mouth, on the low ones, pumps you with speed and terror, thrill and disappointment, why do any of those things matter when it is good business?
Good business, too, is the smoldering nuclear bomb, exploding daily far beyond the lifespan of humanity itself. Good business is human trafficking, air pollution, harvesting life until it becomes extinct, Monsanto! Monsanto is good business, welcome Monsanto along with the bicycles! Park your Round-up here and tip a few grains into your green tea because, you know, it is good business!
My teeth sunk down into the cold soba noodles. They were good business too and my stomach growled appreciatively. A few coins later I got ready to remount, pointing my bike towards the tunnel, where clearly there was nothing ahead but bad business and much of it.
“Not there!” the host shouted. “Nikko is that way!”
“I’m taking the road to Ashio,” I said, but I thought “and bad business.”
“That road is farther. Much farther. And steeper. Bad roads. No bicyclists go there. This way is shorter and better.” He motioned precisely in the direction I had no intention of taking, reminding me of a similar occurrence outside the village of Shimogo, also thirty-two years ago, when I had ignored local advice and almost died on a snow-covered trail stuck high in the Fukushima mountains in April.
Here it was again April, again spring, again high in the mountains, and again local knowledge advising me against bad judgment and poor choices and bad business, and here I was again, utterly unchanged, ignoring facts and seeking something better, eagerly vying for the chance to throw my money and my life after what could only be very, very bad business.
The climb began slowly and slowed down from there, yet I had the confidence of a full belly and the memory of the map graven in my head, huge squiggles closely bunched together for twenty miles or more, up, up, up, bad business at ploddingly slow speed all the way. These are the times that you reflect on your chances if you flat or fall and bust your skull or break a leg. No cars, no trucks, no people, nothing, you will bleed out or go into shock and die and become a local headline. “Cyclist Ignores Warning, Dies.”
“Cyclist Hits Head without Helmet, Dies.”
“Cyclist Loses Way in Mountains, Encounters Snowstorm, Dies.”
Those headlines all reverberated but were drowned out by the counter-headlines that would never be published:
“Cyclist Ignores Warning, Has Ride of His Life.”
“Cyclist Rides without Helmet, Enjoys Incomparable Happiness.”
“Cyclist Finds Way in Mountains through Force of Memory, Pedals in Glorious Spring Weather”
A good wet memory smacked me hard, the memory of exploring these roads three decades prior without a phone, just like today. You can have adventure. You can have security. You cannot have both. After a time the road fell, then fell, fell, and fell some more. Turns were punctuated with loose gravel, sand, and carpeted cedar needles, and I have another question for you.
When is the last time you took a road whose end was unknown? When is the last time you wandered? When is the last time you were … exposed? The road went from tiny and narrow and twisting to impossibly so, the speckling from the sunlight hiding treacherous holes in the pavement, sudden tiny bridges over cascading mountain streams, brakes rubbing and burning and smoking, hands exhausted from the clenched brake levers, hoping that the tires held and yet enjoying the Paradox of the Terrifying Descent: It is terrifying, yes, but contains the kernel of joy from going downhill rather than up, and its corollary: The worst descent is better than the best ascent.
I have ridden more roads than you, likely.
I have ridden more miles than you, likely.
I have ridden more crazy rides than you, likely.
I have ridden more hidden roads in Tochigi Prefecture than you, certainly.
And I can tell you this: The leg from Furumine Shrine to the bottom of the climb up to Ashio is one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful, gut-wrenching, spectacular pieces of bicycling I have ever done in my life or ever hope to do, and all of that before the third major pass of the day had even begun, a climb that put everything before into the deepest shade.
At the bottom the road does what such roads always do, which is go again up, this time the final climb to the pass at Kasuo. For a mile I climbed, slowly, out of the saddle, on a grade with only a few gradual turns until the road became so steep that the switchbacks began, and at the first switchback there was a sign with a number: Curve No. 1.
What would you think when you saw that? Well of course you would wonder, “How many more?” and I can tell you now without spoiling it because the chance you will ever ride this road is zero, the number of numbered switchbacks to the top is 38 … but that’s not really true because there are an equal number of turns that are simply not numbered.
These numbers reminded me of the lettered curves up the fabled Irohazaka climb, which pales in comparison to this monster. At the top the only thing that awaited was silence; this high up it was dead winter with the door ajar just so to let in the rays and tendrils of spring, here a chickadee calling, there a woodpecker hammering on the early feast. In addition to winter and exhaustion, the queen descent awaited, as poor a road with as treacherous a surface as you could wish on your poor 25mm tires, pot holes, stones, gravel, sand, speckling, off-camber switchbacks, collapsed guardrails, and another 30 hairpins to the bottom for ten very long kilometers.
What should I more say than that the road spread out at the bottom into another untrafficked, perfectly paved highway with a howling tailwind and a gradual 10-km climb to the tunnel that dropped you down into Nikko? The day was mostly spent, my legs were wholly shot, and the final 45 km though downhill came with a stiff, in-your-face headwind. From start to finish it took 8.5 hours, including well over an hour at the noodle shop and at the convenience store before the tunnel.
In those hours I relived the things I have lived before, memories soldered to new experiences which, at day’s end, had become memories themselves, memories to be written down here and shortly thereafter, except in fragments, to be forgotten, forever.
April 5, 2019 § 4 Comments
Hello. My name is Bill Smith. I am an avid recreational cyclist. Always up for a new challenge. Have done lots of bike tours. Love Trek. First class stuff. Great guides. Top notch food and drink. Amazing itineraries pegged to your fitness level.
I ran across the Wanky Japan Cycling Tour ad in a public toilet; looked weird but interesting. Can’t beat the price. $15/day, fully guided rides just north of Tokyo. Small city called Utsunomiya; easy to get to.
I have to say I was disappointed. Half a star. Can’t recommend this, sadly. Lots of problems from the beginning; prolly easiest to make a list.
- Guide, Mr. Wanky, totally indifferent to my needs.
- Had transportation issues getting my bike from Narita to Utsunomiya. Wanky solution? “It’s your bike, not mine.” That was it.
- Recommended hotel was cheap but everything was in Japanese. Asked Mr. Wanky for help getting checked in, finding out about breakfast, etc., but no luck. “It’s your reservation, not mine.” Kind of set the tone for the whole tour.
- Day 1 ride not pegged to my ability. Mr. Wanky did a 4-hour ride with tons of hard climbing. I was cooked. Every time I asked how much longer the climbs were he said, “I dunno. And what difference does it make? You still have to get up them.”
- Lot of riding by myself with zero encouragement from Mr. Wanky. Although he waited at the top of all the climbs.
- Very little coaching on this tour. Mr. Wanky: “I suck. You suck. But you suck more.”
- Got super hungry and asked about the restaurant/gourmet lunch stop (I love Japanese food). Mr. Wanky: “We are eating at convenience stores.” Really?
- Knackered as hell after Day 1. Undergeared big-time. Needed some guidance finding a bike shop that could swap out my cassette. Mr. Wanky: “Google. See you tomorrow.”
- Day 2 ride not pegged to my ability at all. Mr. Wanky: “Today is flat.” I guess so, but only compared to Day 1. Hilly AF. And windy.
- Questionable guide skills! Mr. Wanky was lost A LOT. Stopped to ask locals directions A LOT. Ended up getting into arguments with them. NOT REASSURING.
- Technologically illiterate! No cell phone, no GPS, just riding “from memory.” And Mr. Wanky’s memory is BAD.
- Social media unfriendly. Refused to let me stop and take selfies. Mr. Wanky: “Your camera ain’t gonna pedal your bike, turkey.” He called me a TURKEY!!!
- Three hours in I needed to stop and rest. Mr. Wanky: “I don’t GAF what you need. If you can find your way home, rest all you want.” Super hard. Hardest day on the bike in my life. Until Day 3.
- Terrible route choice. Never asked how I felt, what I wanted to see, did I like convenience store food, did I want to stop and see some cultural things like shrines and such. Mr. Wanky: “If you’re here to ride your bike, cool. If you want a history lesson, go back to college.” JACKASS.
- Major dinner disappointment. Crazy famished. Asked for sushi recommendations. Mr. Wanky: “Sushi is for wankers.” Oh, really? Wankers?
- Day 3. Hell warmed over. Four major passes, 18,000 feet of climbing, 115 miles, 8.5 hours of misery. Don’t bother asking where you’re going or anything. Mr. Wanky: “It’s a surprise.”
- Major coffee withdrawal. No coffee shops with lovely ambience, no, sir. Just convenience store coffee.
- Zero help with clothing selection. Asked about the weather and what I should wear. Mr. Wanky: “Wear whatever you want. Do I look like your mother?” Froze my butt off on Day 1, melted on days 2 and 3.
- Indifferent to my pollen allergies. Cedar pollen everywhere because spring. Asked if we could please AVOID riding through the cedar forests. Mr. Wanky: “No.”
You get the picture. An indifferent, rude guide, although it was the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. Also, I got crazy fit crazy fast. But I pulled the plug after Day 3. Not worth the frustration of paying good money and not getting the kind of kudos and encouragement that makes cycling such a fun activity.
April 3, 2019 § 3 Comments
Starting in April, 2019, Wanky Tours will begin offering its first-ever Japan Cycling Tour, a unique riding experience for discriminating travelers who seek only the best. Please scroll to the bottom for booking information.
- Stay in rustic Tochigi Prefecture, where no one gives a shit about you.
- Cycle 80-150 miles per day on roads that will break your legs and leave you a quivering, starving, broken shell of a human being.
- Get lost. Totally fucking lost.
- Ride home, totally beaten, on a local bus after giving out somewhere far from where you started.
- Spring bookings offer radical temperature swings featuring snow, rain, and heat. Whatever you’re wearing, it will be wrong.
- Soak up culture and history as you ride past ancient temples, Buddhist pilgrims, and old villages. You’ll understand nothing because you don’t speak or read Japanese. And you won’t care because of #2 above.
- Stay in Japanese inns and eat delicious Japanese food in tiny bites. You’ll be burning 5,000 kcal/day and consuming 1,500. Do the arithmetic.
- No accommodation is rated higher than one star, guaranteed.
- Tour leader will drop you. You’re on your own. Flat? Tough shit, hope you brought a spare and know how to change it. Sag is what you’ll be doing an hour in.
- The roads are unsigned, deserted, and far from anyone or anything. Experience desolation, hopelessness, fatigue, and emotional/physical collapse. Daily.
“Oh, fuck.” Billy G., USA
“Worst nightmare. Ever.” Suzie Q., Dallas
“We got there, some dude named Wanky took our money, and we never saw him again. Total swindle.” Jeeves C., UK
“I made it the first day halfway up the Kiyotaki climb into Nikko. Snowing, freezing, 18% grades for over five miles, bitter switchbacks, horrible potholes, finally I quit.” Hester P., New England
“This was billed as a spring cherry blossom tour. It was like the middle of winter. We almost died.” Edmund H., Nepal
What to expect
Every spring, Japan’s cherry blossoms turn the whole nation a pretty shade of pink, very different from the corpse-gray you’ll exude after a day or two. The most southerly island of Kyushu sees some of the earliest blossoms, and our six-night tour in northerly Tochigi Prefecture will have few if any cherries in bloom. It will be cold AF, windy, and desolate, all at high altitude.
If your idea of fun is getting drunk, being pampered, and toodling on flat roads for a couple of hours in between bacchanalia, our Spring Tour will be a nasty shock to your cupcake-ride-accustomed legs. The first day starts nasty, brutish, and long. Climbs are unbearable and endless. However, you’ll be fed dribbles of hot coffee from roadside vending machines, if your fingers can thaw enough to feed in the coins.
Wanky Tours are based in the industrial city of Utsunomiya, a flavorless, drab, working-man’s city of gray and brown. Nightlife is nonexistent except for one or two sad strip clubs, and the local cuisine is greasy, salty, but thankfully cheap. You won’t care about the food as you’ll be famished beyond words and will gratefully swallow anything that isn’t nailed to the floor.
The key feature of Wanky Tours, in addition to difficulty, misery, bad weather, and substandard accommodations, includes a boring indifference to all your travel needs. For example:
- Getting around: No one will help you. Lost? Too bad, so sad.
- Baggage service: It’s your shit, deal with it.
- Bike repairs and maintenance: Hope you know how to use a wrench or find a bike shop.
- Understanding local customs: Not. Our. Problem.
- Internet: Can’t live a week without Facebag and the Gram? You will.
Why Wanky Tours?
Our satisfied customer, Eddy M., says this: “I’ve done bike tours all over the world, but nothing compares to a Wanky Tour. Brutal, indifferent, no coddling, at the mercy of the elements, all you do is ride, eat, sleep, survive, and pray you make it home. I’ve never been so destroyed or learned so little about a culture. It was like the Bataan Death March without the camaraderie. Can’t wait to come back.”
February 28, 2019 § 1 Comment
The most interesting things have usually not been prettied up much, including people.
It’s kind of like the engine of a car. The exterior is all whored up, but it’s not until you pop the hood that you really get a sense of what’s going on.
Not that I would know how to pop a hood.
But I would know how to amble aimlessly on a clunker bike, far from the non-crowds that were non-stampeding throughout the major attractions of Vienna.
I would know how to take a deliberate wrong turn because the lie of the land looked good.
I would know how to follow a roof-line and look for interesting breaks that promised something different.
I would also know how to look at a tiny sticker on a lamp post and contrast it with the painted lady buildings, the eye candy for the tourists just like me who aren’t really like me at all except, of course, they are, completely.
And I would know how to freeze my ass off, especially that.
I would know how to read the word “fuck” sprayed bold in low relief against a steeple.
I would know how to stop and gaze at the torn hole of a leveled building and its sole remaining, half-rubble pillar.
I would know how to scramble up onto a wall, hold onto an iron grate, and snap a quick non-dick-pic of something much sexier, collapse, decay, festering ferment, heaps of shit dumped in a pile, an embarrassment of failure or the beginning of some grand project, which is always the same thing.
I would know how to shoot a photo wrong-ass backwards into the sun, canceling out the colorful beauty and force-feeding the light into tones of black and gray and dirty white.
I would know how to stand scowling, skeptically, in front of ugly graffiti that someone told someone was art because it was new and no one wanted to admit that it was nonetheless ugly and heartless and stupid because we all have feelings, even fools with spray paint.
I would also know exactly where to look for love, hidden in the foam.
February 26, 2019 § 8 Comments
It is overcast and rather cold outside. The people walking by on the street beneath my window are wrapped up tightly, with little white puffs coming out of their mouths.
Today is my last day in Vienna, and it is gloomy, sad, depressing, heavy-hearted, a day filled with the weight of introspection, considerations of things undone, loves unloved, books unread, streets unwalked, sights unseen, words unsaid, in short, a perfect day!
Bicycling is normally a freedom thing, casting shit aside and pedaling on a light machine with nothing on but your stretch undies. In Vienna on a gloomy day, however, bicycling is a kind of indentured servitude, the bike is a heavy rental thing, slow, unresponsive, and you are bundled up in wool and dangling clothes that threaten to, but never do, get caught in the spokes.
The bike paths enforce slowness, and the criss-cross of pedestrians slows you further, and every little while there is a red light, always red, at which you must stop. One does not run lights in Vienna, it is unseemly. It shows you are not Viennese, and in a city filled with tourists what is more important than pretending you are not one?
Slow, gloomy cycling is a beautiful thing. You don’t go very far and you certainly don’t go very fast, but you see everything, the cobbles, the Turkish bakeries, the cigarette butts, the people issuing into and out of the subway stations.
You see the streetcars, none of which is named “Desire,” but all of which could well be named “filled with grumpy people,” which is not nearly as sexy until you think that under all those grumpy clothes there is in fact quite a lot of sexiness. Sexiness in Vienna is swaddled in grumpiness, grumpiness and cigarettes.
Last night I drew my bike up to a red light. There was no traffic and I could have easily kept riding but, unseemly. A grumpy young woman in tight jeans stood next to me, smoking a cigarette. A grumpy bald man came up to her. “Hey,” he said, imperiously.
She removed her earphones, grumpily. “What?”
“Can I have a cigarette?”
“Sure,” she grumped, and fumbled one clumsily onto the pavement.
He scooped it up off the ground as she proffered a light. He sucked the end red. “Ah,” he said, gushing forth smoke. “Thank you!”
She put her earphones back in and nodded in a grumpy, sexy kind of way. The light turned green and I pedaled on.
February 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
One way to evaluate a trip is by what you spent your money on.
- Raspberry jam
- Freud Museum ticket
- Wien Museum MUSA exhibit (free, actually)
- Slovak lessons
- German lessons
- Metro/bus/streetcar pass
- Bus tickets to and from Bratislava
- Big Mac
- Lunch at Kebab joint
- Dinner at curry joint
- Bar of chocolate
- Falter newspaper
- Der Standard newspaper
- Sandwich at Strock bakery
- Eggs Benedict breakfast at Joseph Brot
- Safety razor
- Razor blades
February 23, 2019 § 3 Comments
That’s what the teacher asked, suspiciously, as I sat at the table. “It must be love,” she surmised, by which I think she meant “You are trolling for young girls.”
I didn’t care. One of the harsh facts of trying to learn Slovak, aside from the conviction of native speakers that you never will, is the profound distrust that an interest in such a niche language engenders. I had my well-practiced answer, though, designed to drive the inquisitor insane. “I don’t really have a reason.”
“But surely you must have a reason. Some girl perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but not.”
That no salacious details were forthcoming, the next disappointed line of inquiry was trotted out. “So you need it for your work?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer who represents bicyclists hit by cars.”
This was almost as suspect, and certainly as dissatisfying as refusing to admit that I wanted a Slovak girlfriend. “Are you living in Slovakia now?”
“Where are you living?”
“And you are staying here in Bratislava on vacation?”
“You are working here?”
If you could measure exasperation, which with blood pressure I guess you can, she would have been pegging out on the exasperometer. “Where are you staying then, and why?”
“Then why are you coming to Slovakia?”
“To study Slovak.”
“But how long you are here?”
“About four hours.”
“You cannot learn Slovak in four hours.”
“I know. But all I want to do is study. That’s why I hired you.”
“And then you go back to Vienna and come back here again on Sunday and study with me for four more hours?”
“And then what? I am married.”
“That’s all. I go back to Vienna.”
The teacher pushed the chair back and held my gaze. “You can tell me,” she said. “Why you are studying Slovak? Are you American spy?”
“If I were I wouldn’t tell you, or if I did, I would be a pretty terrible spy.”
“You are spy in love with young girl.”
“No, and no. Can we start our lesson now?”
“Yes but you must tell me truth. Why you are studying Slovak?”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Because Slovakia is a one-hour bus ride from Vienna.”
“This does not make sense.”
“You didn’t say it had to.”
“Why it makes a difference how close it is? No one speaks Slovak. You see? We are here at Cambridge English School in Bratislava. Everyone learn English. If you want Slovak lessons, that is very strange.”
“Everyone in Slovakia appears to speak Slovak, like Peter Sagan. And you’re a Slovak teacher, so presumably I’m not the first student. And you brought a textbook, Krizom-Krazom, that probably wasn’t published just for me.”
“Yes, of course there are such students but they are proper students with visa and girlfriend. You are old man with no girlfriend and no visa, only studying Slovak and strange hat. Why?”
“Because it is close to Vienna.”
“My son and his wife live there.”
“But Austrian speaks German, and your son lives there, not here, and he is speaking English to you anyway. Why are you not learning German?”
“I already learned as much of it as my brain will hold.”
“So you are merely interested in Slovak because it is close? But are you so often in Vienna?”
“No. Twice a year, max.”
“Then how can you use this Slovak you are spending so greatly time and money to learn?”
“If you would start the lesson, I’d be using it right now.”
“We will start, we will start. Soon. Have you another teacher?”
“A pretty girl?”
“Ah-hah! So you are in love with her! And you come to Bratislava to learn Slovak to talk with her better?”
“No. She lives in a little village far from here and teaches me on the Internet. She is a professional. I came to Bratislava to get some live practice instead of taking lessons over the Internet all the time.”
“You can tell her you love her. Slovak girl will not get angry.”
“I don’t love her. She is my teacher. She has been in a serious relationship for ten years. She is 25 years my junior. I am married and a grandfather.”
“It is okay. Slovak girl will not get angry when you confess such love as bringing you from all the way in California for your wooing.”
“Can we please start the lesson? I have to catch the bus back to Vienna at 1:40.”
“Thank you for telling me about your secret love. It is very pretty story. Can you count to ten?”
“Okay, please begin.”
“Jeden, dva, tri …”