We were supposed to be staying with friends of JD but they had forgotten and skipped town. So we checked a map and decided to go on to Bratislava. Slovakia would be the first new European country I had visited since Ireland two years ago.
(It was also on this train ride that I decided to start this blog. The Brexit vote was only a month old so we had naturally been talking about nothing else).
On the train out of Vienna, we looked through the booklet we had been given with our tickets that warned us about the stark difference between the newly refurbished station we were leaving and the one we would arrive in to. The author was being far too cautious. Bratislava’s was a very normal station.
In fact, the booklet did very little justice to Bratislava. We visited on a hot day in July and walked past bars and restaurants from every corner of Europe. We watched a beaver on the bank of the Danube for a while and admired the castle from below before settling at a bar in the shade of a tree-lined avenue.
A drunk at the table next to us was talking incoherntly in a mix of English, Russia and (I assume) Slovakian, trying to tell an American couple his life story. Occasionally he played a few bars on the scuffed guitar in his lap.
But time slipped away and we were soon running to catch our train back to Vienna.
JD’s friends had phoned round and found us a sofa to sleep on. Our hosts welcomed us in and offered us food and drink but they teased us mercilessly for being English and questioned us pointedly on being in Europe post-Brexit. An underlying hostility was palpable. I felt more than a little uncomfortable and was pleased to emerge on to Vienna’s streets the following morning.
Naturally, we had a viennese coffee with breakfast and a Wienerschnitzel for lunch. We finally caught up with JD’s friend (returned from the country) for a Weissweinspritz before I had to catch my flight.
It was striking how similar their conversation was to those I find myself having over and over. It soon moved to language and culture, accents and regional identities. But whereas I spoke at length on France, Spain and Italy, they spoke about Germany, Austria and the rest of central Europe. For us, the continent meant two different things with hardly any overlap.
I felt my ignorance more and more in that first post-Brexit trip. I was so worried about losing ‘Europe’ and yet I knew so little of it. I resolved to make the most of the time I had left.