As a young boy I had primarily one occupation for the workings of my imagination: experiencing or coming up with fantasy worlds. There was nothing more I wanted to do than read fantasy books and play fantasy video games. Hell, I would even take the time to draw maps and write story outlines of various fantasy worlds during school instead of doing whatever stupid stuff we were supposed to be doing in class. Living on the west coast of the US probably made these feelings even stronger, as nothing about the area suggests the enchanted worlds described in Tolkien's fashion. There are no castles in Washington and during no point in history were people walking around with swords and suits of armor there, so there weren't even any relevant antiques or family heirlooms on the subject. I was left purely to my own imagination, and that imagination built up one thing stronger than anything else: I wanted to see castles.
In the middle of this mental crucible of my internal magical wanderings, when I was nine years old my grandmother received an exchange student from Slovakia by the name of Martin. This in and of itself doesn't have anything to do with what I just described, but two years later after Martin had returned to Slovakia, his family invited my grandmother and me to come visit them. Thus at 11 years old I was whisked away to Europe for a two week trip through Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria.
(Ironically enough, of these three countries, I remember finding Austria the most boring — specifically Vienna. What are the chances I that I would then end up living there?)
As a shy little kid coming from a monolingual area, having to deal with different languages every time we crossed the street was quite the new experience for me. But I didn't mind this so much because through our touring of these countries, we got to visit castles.
Or more specifically, I should call them ruins. Old craggy walls and buildings that have managed to survive and stretch into modern times from the middle ages, stones jutting out every-which-way and looking like anything that had made these places functional had long ago crumbled away. Some of these skeletons had parts converted into museums, where artifacts and antiques which the Nazis didn't steal were still on display. But with museums or not, these castles were still more accurately described as ruins.
This didn't bother me in the slightest bit, however, as these images fit perfectly with what was in my mind. All the castles I would see in movies or video games would look like this; I wouldn't have known to expect anything else. I was so excited to explore that I remember my grandmother frequently complaining about me “disappearing” whenever we visited one. Thus I nearly lost it when we arrived at Smolenice Castle near Bratislava.
The word “ruins” was without a question not applicable to this place. I remember driving up the windy road toward the castle and pulling the car into the opening archway, staring and gawking at its impeccable design. We got out and walked around, and I was even more shocked to see people going about their businesses in the castle like they were working there. There were people working in the castle and using it like a modern building!
Stunned would be a good word to use. In all my fantastical imaginations, it never once had occurred to me that a castle today would be anything other than a craggy ruined structure simply persisting from hundreds of years prior—something to visit and climb around on. But looking at Smolenice Castle I suddenly realized that there were still castles someone could live in.
Martin's dad, also going by the name of Martin, explained to us that the castle was used as a resort for a group of scientists and was open to the public during July and August. Martin-the-dad had some sort of connection to this group through his work, and thus not only were we allowed within the walls with the rest of the tourists, we got a private tour through the castle.
As if this weren't enough, in the middle of what I had thought was just a tour, as we were being shown the particulars of the dining room, we were suddenly motioned to sit down at the table. I was confused and then shocked — waiters began bringing us food! Obviously a building as big as a castle is going to need a fully-functioning kitchen to keep up with everyone staying there, but an 11-year-old doesn't always connect such things together. All I knew was that I was getting served dinner in a castle. If you were wondering what the prerequisites to make a child spontaneously explode were, wonder no more.
We even got to eat dessert on a castle balcony.
Suffice to say, of my entire European trip when I was 11 years old, Smolenice Castle was, without a question, the thing that impressed me the most.
Fast forward 15 years.
After having managed to find myself in what I had considered to be the most boring place of my previous visit to Central Europe (Austria, that is), I received a peculiar email from my grandmother in December, 2012. She had received a letter from Martin-the-son, which included an invitation for me and her to come to his wedding in Bratislava, Slovakia in July. Seeing as I was almost around the corner from Bratislava, and I somehow hadn't managed to visit Slovakia since my return to Europe, I was more than interested in attending.
However, I didn't have Martin's email address and was forced to resort to the Stone Age technology known as the post office. I included my email address in the letter it wasn't long before a message from Martin was sitting in my inbox. When he had sent the invitation, he didn't know that I was literally an hour away. The arrangements were promptly taken care of — Sabrina would be invited as well and we would both be attending the wedding in July. Being curious and needing the address, anyway, I sent Martin a message asking where the wedding was going to take place.
“You remember this castle you visited here with your grandmother?” The message read.
Why yes. Yes, I did.
“The wedding is going to take place there.”
Holy fucking ballsolopopotomas Jimmy-Jimbar the Four-Hundred and Forty-Second! Fuck yea!!
But wait, there's more! The message continued:
“We've already reserved your room.”
I'm 11 years old again.
Just seeing the castles was one thing. Finding out that there are castles that people still use was the next. Being able to visit the castle and being served dinner in it was enough to make me pop.
But staying overnight in the castle?!
When Sabrina asked me why my jaw had dropped down through the floor to the basement below, I showed her the email and her jaw followed likewise.
I organized a suit in the days leading up to the wedding (the small remains of my wardrobe that have survived my journeys were in tatters) and Sabrina got us her parents' car for the weekend. We got to the castle without much mishap. Martin, his dad, and his grandmother happened to pull in right as we walked through the entry archway. I had met all three of them in my original visit to Slovakia, thus everyone got to be shocked that I was twice as big as last time.
No conversation I have ever held had a feeling quite like this one. Even though I had known Martin from before, even lived with him for a year, but all these experiences had happened before I hit puberty. It hopefully goes without saying, but I'm not the same person I was when I was 11. Thus even though we knew each other and lived with each other for almost a year, it was like meeting for the first time. The same went for his dad and his grandmother.
However, Martin didn't have a long time to chat. He had a wedding-full of attendees to organize. He handed us the key to our room and told us we should move our stuff into it. It took Sabrina and I a few minutes of poking around before figuring out where our room was and we were stunned when we finally found it.
Our room was in the top of one of the towers! We were going to stay in a tower of a castle! We hauled our stuff up to the top floor and found a spacious and clean room, fit with a beds, a bathroom, a wardrobe, TV, and little slit-windows perfect for firing arrows at invaders. After being giddy about our sleeping arrangements, we took some time to stroll about the castle. I dug through my memory to see if I could remember anything about my prior trip here.
I spent the rest of the time pretending I was nobility waiting to be served.
Martin's grandma Ludmilla sat us down and we chatted awhile. She was happy to find out that I had learned German, as it was a bit easier for her to speak that than English. My grandmother had been writing to her ever since our original visit and even came and visited her once since then during a tour with her church choir. However, the conversation didn't go on long, and Sabrina and I were soon wandering about the castle again. We at this time got to see Martin's sister and mother, both of which were on my list of people-I-needed-to-see-again. All these conversations were as equally strange as my initial encounter with Martin. I remembered meeting them before, but neither side had any recognizable memory of a personality to work with.
The start of the wedding was approaching and everyone disappeared to don their formal clothing. Sabrina and I emerged from our wizards' tower all suited up (I decided not to wear my hat with my suit at the last second) and waited for the ceremony to begin.
I chatted with Martin and he introduced me to one of his friends, also named Martin.
And it wasn't long before the bride paraded on by.
There were about 40-50 people all-in-all and the ceremony was short, sweet, and entirely in Slovak. Sabrina and I stood when everyone else stood and clap when everyone else clapped. The bride was led in, the ritual concluded accordingly, Martin and the bride said what I assumed to be the Slovak equivalent of “I do”, they gave each other a big, wet, sloppy kiss, and everyone made their way outside followed the newly-married couple.
Outside everyone formed a line to congratulate Martin and... uh... I blinked. Shit. I never got around to figuring out what the bride's name was. In the emails Martin had always referred to “his girlfriend” and I had forgotten to ask. The bride had been hidden from view up until the beginning of the wedding, so we hadn't had a chance to meet her, either. This meant there was the possibility that she wouldn't even recognize who we were. I relayed this information to Sabrina.
She gasped, “Shit! What do we do?”
One of Martin-the-friend was standing next to us right then and came over to us when he heard us speaking English.
“I have an embarrassing question to ask,” I said to him, “What's the name of the bride?”
“Uhh...” Martin-the-friend scratched his head, “I actually don't remember. Wow. That's not good is it?”
“No, not really.” I laughed, “But at least that makes me feel a little better if even Martin's friends don't even know the name of his wife.”
“But we still don't know what to do.” Sabrina chimed in.
“Does she speak English or German?” I asked Martin-the-friend.”
“I'm not totally sure, but I don't think so.” He replied.
“So what do we do?” Sabrina asked again.
“Ah... well... I'll think of something.” I said, peering down the line the of people.
When I came up to her I shook her hand and kissed both cheeks like I saw everyone else in line doing, then said as confidently as I could in English, “Thank you so much for inviting us! You know who I am, right?”
She laughed and nodded. She replied in broken English, “Yes, Martin said me about you. Sorry, my English is not so good.”
I took this as a cue to laugh, shake hands again, and give her a hug before moving on to congratulating Martin. Whew! My grammatical distraction had been successful.
Dinner was served an hour later. We sat down at our assigned seats and eagerly awaited food. Of course, we had to sit through the various speeches and toasts from all relevant friends and family members. Sabrina and I shrugged at each other and applauded along with everyone else when the time was ripe for doing so and drank our wine when it was necessary.
I was seated right next to Martin's sister's husband who was named, no joke, Martin. All the Slovakians seemed to be shrugging it off but I was starting to tweak out — if every damn male in the country was named Martin, how the hell did you tell anyone apart? I began to wonder how many people would look at me if I shouted, “Martin!”
Sitting next to Martin-the-groom at the head of the tables, Martin-the-dad stood up, pulled out a folded-up piece of paper from his pocket, and gave his obligatory speech for the wedding. As per usual by now, Sabrina and I clapped when everyone else clapped. We sat back down when everyone else sat back and the food was brought in.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched all the Slovakians eat to make sure I wasn't making an idiot out of myself while eating my own food. Americans have a tendency to tear into their meals, wielding a fork as their only weapon. I had long ago already figured out how to “eat like a European” (knife in right and and fork in left hand), but the Slovakians all held their forks facing up instead of facing down, which is what I had understood until this point as pan-European. This fork-up method made eating look even more delicate, as it caused a larger part of the job to be “balance-oriented” instead of “stab-oriented”. This was too much for my barbarous American mannerisms to take, so I just stuck with the fork-down, stab-oriented method.
Beer, wine, and champagne went around in a gratuitous fashion. I tried everything but quickly found myself sticking to the beer. It was a light beer, a problem which had been plaguing me ever since my arrival in Europe (I like my beer so dark and thick that it moves like mud), but the quality far out-stretched the horrible liquid Austrians consider beer, therefore I began the work of getting down as much of it as possible. A few bottles of wine from the castle's wine cellar (yes the castle has its own wine cellar), but as cool as the concept sounds, the wine wasn't as good as what was already on the table. Course after course arrived. The food was delicious and it wasn't long before Martin-the-groom and his new wife were cutting the cake.
After devouring my slice of cake (Americans don't eat—we devour), people began to get up from their seats and mill about the castle. Sabrina and I headed to the balcony to take pictures, where we met Martin-the-brother-in-law (Martin-the-groom's sister's husband. You're keeping track of all this, right?).
This Martin began to explain to me how much drinking was going to be involved and how late everyone was going to stay up, and how everyone was going to look like the next morning after no sleep. Apparently in Slovakia this is such a common occurrence that he not only began to slouch on the table in various positions, these positions were so standardized that he had names for all of them. Unfortunately I don't remember what any of them were, but they were along the lines of things like “the angry cat” or “the hard day at work”.
Soon after this, people began to filter out to the balcony from dinner and take group pictures. I ran around to make sure I got a picture with every person I had met 15 years before.
Followed by a group photo.
Soon thereafter people began to mill about again and we found ourselves at the top of the central tower.
Milling about and general chatting continued as evening came on. Tons of food was still open for the taking in the dining room and the DJ was playing something I would equivocate to a Slovakian 80s night or 90s night at a bar. Some of the songs were so quirky I could only stand their and fathom Slovakian teenagers at dance parties during these time periods. Martin-the-groom and his wife were dancing around with the rest of wedding attendants and there was one person in particular tearing up the dance floor.
When Sabrina and I had sat down and had a chat with Martin's grandmother earlier that day, she had been with another old woman who didn't speak a word of English or German. This hadn't prevented her in the slightest from talking to us. Even though she was so old that she had needed help up the castle stairs earlier (and had no problems communicating to me that I should be the one to help her) and was generally leaning on someone for vertical support most of the day, I could see that her mental facilities were still sharp from her blue, beaming eyes. This old woman was butt-grooving to the music like she was auditioning for a rap video, even when leaning on someone else for support. She obviously wasn't able to dance for very long, but I could imagine if it had been 15 or 20 years prior, she would have been the center of the dance floor.
Darkness drew on and we all found ourselves back on the patio. I sat next to Martin-the-friend, who immediately began trying to poor me shots of vodka or some Slovakian equivalent. Through my journeys in eastern Europe I had already had a few deadly alcohol encounters with eastern Europeans, enough to watch this guy warily. Throughout the day I had also felt a chest cold coming on, and I wasn't particularly interested in being both hungover and sick the next morning. However, I knew I just couldn't sit there and not drink (that's too much for an eastern European to bear), so I fell back on the 1-yes 2-no method I developed. That is, I accept the first drink, refuse the next two, accept another, refuse two again, etc. I've found that this rhythm keeps eastern European hosts happy and prevents me from getting completely shitfaced.
Martin-the-friend kept going on about how much I was going to have to drink because I was in Slovakia, when he pulled out a plastic container filled with cigars. Big cigars. I groaned inwardly. My nose was already starting to stuff up, my head was starting to feel filled with snot, and my throat was already constricting and developing that wonderful gradient between itching and pain that we're all so familiar with, and now I was going to have come up with some reason why I shouldn't smoke this cigar on a wedding night.
“Oh, you must.” He said at my first refusal, “These are really good.”
I knew a “not-feeling-so-well” excuse would just make look like an idiot, so I just stuck with my original story, “Nahhh. I really don't want to smoke one.”
The block and parry went back and forth awhile before he added, “No, I am serious. They are very good. They are from Cuba.”
Alright, I wasn't ready for that. My mental calculations of how I was going to feel if I found myself accepting this cigar were now compounded with my chances of being offered a Cuban cigar again. I knew I would be heading back to the US soon and my chances there would be restricted to a very expensive black market.
Martin-the-friend must have noticed my hesitation, because his badgering intensity increased. My will finally gave way and was met by a resounding equivalent to an “Alright!”. Martin-the-friend began lighting up the cigar.
By the time he handed it to me I had already accepted my dismal fate of having a chest cold compounded with cigar smoke. I brought the cigar to my lips and drew deeply, being careful not to inhale any of the smoke.
WWOOOWWWW! The effects were immediate and exactly the opposite of what I had expected. My nose and throat opened up like they just jumped into a hot relaxing bath, the snot self-immolated in my head, the itching pain in my throat suddenly forgot what it was supposed to be doing, and after blowing up the smoke my lungs filled themselves wide and deep with the warm summer air of the Slovakian countryside. I felt better! I couldn't believe it. All the years of anti-tobacco school propaganda couldn't stem the tide of new information coming down my lungs. Clearly I would need to make a reassessment of how I viewed tobacco products because, apparently, quality had a big thing to do with it. Talk about a sacred plant! Yaow!
Dancing, chatting, drinking, and cigar smoking went on through the night. When Sabrina wasn't looking, eventually I slipped away and made my way back up to the central tower by myself. The moon was bright, the stars were out, and the air was perfectly warm and calm to drink in the experience. I spent twenty minutes or so deeply breathing in the night air, watching bats flit around, observing the solemn forested hills cloaked in darkness, and contemplating the economics of the castle and the surrounding country side during medieval and communist times*.
*I have a hard time relaxing my mind, if you couldn't tell.
When I had had my fill I went back downstairs to get Sabrina to show her how amazing the view was. We spent the rest of the night wandering about the castle in the darkness and eventually convinced ourselves to retire in our tower room. Of course, we didn't announce this to anyone back at the wedding, who were continuing to dance, chat, drink, and smoke cigars, because I knew there would be a hearty effort to get us to continue to dance, chat drink, and smoke cigars. I don't know how those eastern Europeans handle it, but I for one can't stand being hungover without any sleep.
We awoke the next morning feeling like we needed more sleep but that we should get out to see everyone before they left. It must have been somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 in the morning. We concluded that even though this was sleeping-in by normal standards, everyone had stayed up way later than we had, therefore they must have at least slept in as late as we did.
Entering the dining room, we found the breakfast buffet devastated. Various plates, glasses, and silverware still lay on the tables and chairs were moved around in that I-don't-live-here-so-I'm-not-scooting-it-in fashion; there wasn't a single person in the room. Yes, we did sleep in and no, no one else did, either.
We poked around the remnants of the buffet table and scrapped ourselves together some breakfast. It was rather unfortunate because we could see that there had been some really good food there and almost every platter was empty. Nevertheless, we found enough to eat and sat ourselves near the windows.
While we were eating, Martin-the-groom came in through the door and sat down next to us. This was another moment of weird conversation. We technically knew who the other person was, but we hadn't the slightest idea about each other's personality. We couldn't act like we didn't know each other, and thus go through the standard social protocols one would use when meeting a stranger, but at the same time we had absolutely nothing to go on. Plus we both knew I would be leaving and we wouldn't be seeing each other again, anyway.
Whatever the case, we managed to figure out the conversation, and after chatting for awhile Martin dismissed himself to go find his wife. We shook hands and he went out the door, leaving Sabrina and I to fare for ourselves. We finished eating, got our stuff together from our defensive tower—I mean, hotel room, took one last walk around the castle, dropped our key off at the portcullis, and began our drive back to Austria.
It was an awesome summer day, so we decided to drive around the dirt roads near the castle and check out some of the forest. One thing about Europe that I never can seem to get over, is that every square foot of it is so groomed. Even the forests look like someone has been fawning over them for hundreds of years. A constant joke I made to my Austrian friends was that in Europe, if someone wanted to make a park, they had to find a space for the park and put things there (trees, ponds, walkways, waterfalls, etc.). In the US, and particularly in Washington, when you find a space for a park, all the necessities are usually already there and you create the park by taking things away (blackberries, salmon berries, swamps, blackberries, low branches, unwanted trees, blackberries, etc.).
Thus I was mildly amused when we found a large rock with a hole drilled through it, fit with a metal pipe to allow spring water to spurt through and create a fountain. All of it next to a firepit and a picnic table built into the ground.
In order to get back onto the main road, we had to drive around back to the castle. Next to one of the meadows I had Sabrina pull over, because I knew for sure I recognized something from 15 years ago. I ran out into the middle of the meadow and told Sabrina to bring her camera so we could snap some shots of each other of the cool forest and standing in front of the castle.
It was the same spot I had stood 15 years prior, when my Grandma had made her camera-shy grandson stand in front of the castle for a picture despite his protesting, insisting that he would one day be happy to have the picture.