The first half of the trip in Switzerland was full of steep lines, a few blower face shots, and enough Swiss cheese and salami to feed a small army of angry Italians. Now, bloated and drained of cash we decided to make a drastic change in our itinerary and headed towards Slovakia. A small country tucked discretely in the center of Europe giving it its token name, the “Heart of Europe”.
After three trains, two major cities, and a bomb threat that almost took us off course, we had finally arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia. The same city I visited almost over a decade ago. I’m not sure if it was just my young age that blinded me from the harsh realities of this country, or if it really had taken a turn for the worse since I had last visited. Whatever the reason, I am just glad my father escaped its communist government, and made the tough decision to leave his friends and family back in 1986 to start a better life for him and our family.
As a side note, my father was an Olympic white water kayaker for his country, and after being boycotted from the 1984 LA games, he started working for an underground regime fighting against the communist government that was ruling Czechoslovakia. At that time, someone high up in the government got wind of his name, and my father, Roman Sr. was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Back then no one really knew what happened when you went to jail, and it was much better to stay out of it, then go in and never come out again! Given this predicament at just 24 years of age, my father managed to get a passport and swim across the Danube River under the cover of night where he then proceeded to Austria to get a plane ticket. He arrived in New York that summer, and once asked where to go he gladly replied, “Where ever the beach boys are from.”
I guess you could say, I really wouldn’t be a California kid if it wasn’t for the damn beach boys and their catchy, rockin’ surf guitars! As I descended on the city of Bratislava that night traveling back in time, I have never been so thankful for those long haired sandy toed freaks for getting my dad out of that country, and giving me the chance to become the person I wanted to be.
The first few days back in Bratislava were mostly consumed with eating, a little drinking, and more eating. Snowboarding steep lines with a lack of food in Switzerland had deprived us all, and we were more than happy to stuff our bellies with whatever my grandma would cook.
My fathers good friends’ son invited me to go out with him one night, and I really got a chance to see what my life could have been like if I had grown up here in Bratislava. We first went out to a little bar called La Chiquita. I know, I laughed at that name too as it seemed more fitting for a southern California dive bar. However, 20 minutes later I found myself deep inside Petržalka drinking a Corona, and listening to Hotel California. Although it seemed a little like home, Petržalka was a small town on the outskirt of Bratislava. It was ridden with dark alleyways, poverty, and other small reminders of what life was really like in this small corrupted and struggling country.
A few of my cousins friends met us at the bar, and we all quickly jumped into conversation. Everything was relatively normal as we all began talking about friends, drinks, and girls. But abnormally being the only American, I started picking up on small differences that seemed to be apart of everyday life for these kids. It wasn’t abnormal for these 19-20 year old young adults to live off a few hundred dollars or less a month. Generally their nights would consist of going to the local casino where they could spend under five euros on a couple of slots while snagging a few free drinks, and a warm meal if they were lucky.
For some reason this country, centered in the Heart of Europe, has become so ridden with a social hierarchy of people that it had almost come full circle to the communist Czecoloslovakia my father had left in 1984. The rich were getting richer, and the poor became poorer! Corruption had become the main source of money in this country. The educational system, the business environment, and the judicial sectors of the economy were all entangled in a corrupted system.
My cousin, a well educated 24 year old male, who speaks nearly perfect English can’t even land himself a job that pays over 400 euros a month, while rent alone cost 300 for the cheapest flat. Why? Because the out of state, higher elite class of rich people make sure that only their bloodline, and people they select get the more lucrative jobs in the city. This subservient ranking of the lower class slowly deteriorates the local communities and economies here in Bratislava. A vicious cycle that never seems to end, and has almost the entire local population living out of fear for what is to come next.
As the night progressed the horror stories of people getting the shit beat out of them and robbed for no reason became more and more real as I became more thankful for my life. I was even more grateful for my snowboarding lifestyle for taking me to different places that allowed me to experience all kinds of new and different social norms that existed throughout the world. As I reflected in silence they chatted about their version of the great American dream filled with money, aviator glasses, and fancy cars.
It was around midnight as we made our way to the last bar of the night. The air was cold, and the streets were frozen with an eerie feeling as we entered the last dark racer bar. When we walked in two drunken baboons tattooed head to toe were sitting to the left of us, and immediately started causing trouble. I looked over and made eye contact with one, and suddenly received a stern shout as he told me to look the other way. They smiled and finished their shots, and once again began hassling us for being out of place, and told us not to smile at them or even look their direction. I mentioned quietly to my friend, “So, are we going to do anything about this?” I am not the biggest guy in town, but having us five against the two of them seemed like pretty good odds if things got out of hand. My friend quietly sat there and said to be quiet. Thankfully, the bar waitress finally came up and kicked the two dipshits out of the bar.
A few minutes later my cousin told me that it was hard to know what those types of people have under their shirts. Whether it was a gun, a knife, or a pair of brass knuckles, we were better off minding our own business then getting into a fight. I guess I am lucky that my little temper didn’t get in the way, or it probably would have ended a little more bloody than I first expected. Immediately after our little incident, a new friend joined us at the table, and being an older gentleman he calmly replied, “Egh, you guys would have been fine, I always carry my pistol on me”.
Upon that note I thought it would be a good time to leave, and retreat back to the safe compound of my grandparents two bedroom apartment.
The rest of the trip seemed to follow that same pattern of depressed shadows that loomed behind these kids, as they couldn’t do anything about their social positions, jobs, or lives. The snow here in Europe was lacking volume, just like the states, but we gathered a game plan and set out to the High Tatra mountains. Little was known about mountain range, and what sort of backcountry access it was holding. We scrambled to gather as much supplies, and local knowledge as possible. The Tatry mountain range is located in northern Slovakia and sits on the border of Poland. From my knowledge not that many people have ever filmed, or explored the area. Although the snow pack was very unstable during this time of the year, I thought it would be a better bet then sitting around Bratislava any longer. Naturally I was stoked to get out of the city, and get back on my snowboard.
We arrived in Nizna Boca, where my grandparents owned a small cabin they had bought in 1974 along with a few other friends who had now passed. It had once again been ten years since I had seen the place, but for a change it was just as I remembered it. It was like the cabin was stuck in an old 1950’s Slovakian picture frame. The blackened wood-burning clay fireplace and stove were centered in the middle of the house to keep the whole place warm while my grandma cooked. Old creaky wooden stairs led you down to a one room shower and bathroom. There was a loud separate generator to pump, and supposedly heat the water. Realistically, the shower only managed to squeak out a slight bit of warm water for about fifteen seconds before getting extremely cold! And for the toilet, let me just say that most number two’s needed at least two to three flushes to take any substance down.
As we settled down into our new space, we centered ourselves around the huge family table and played cards while we discussed the game plan for the rest of the visit. The snow down low was super low tide, and the access to the higher Tatra Mountains were limited by a very unstable snowpack that seemed to be claiming lives left and right all around Europe. My grandpa, who was sipping a rather large glass of home made alcohol in the corner, suggested going to a spot that had a few old and fallen down log houses.
The next day we set out armed with camera gear, and a couple Jones snowboards ready to attack anything that came our direction. We ventured through the village sliding on old hand rails, steps, and ledges. Pretty much hitting anything that looked cool. As we explored the village boundaries, past memories of picking blueberries with my grandma, and going on hikes through the trees with my grandpa starting reemerging in my head. We finally we found a unique old wooden firewood shed, and managed to build a jump over it. We even scuffed together enough snow to make a drop in to an up rail on an old 1900’s fallen log cabin! That experience was the coolest thing I have done in awhile, and being able to share it with my family was even more amazing. We thought we had gotten skunked on this trip. From overpriced commodities in Switzerland draining our funds to showing up in Slovakia with no snow, our spirits were low. Now, with the power of good friends, solid food, and some drunken brainstorming our trip was finally turning around.
As the trip neared its end we finally got a break in the weather, and heard the snowpack was decent enough to spend the day in the high tatry mountains. We ultimately found some decent snow and safe lines to ride here. Even a few mountain goats came out for the occasion. The mountain range reminded me of a rougher looking sierra range, or even a miniature Alaska, with steep lines, couloirs, and huge jagged peaks.
We knew that the High Tatra Ski Resort would act as a decent entry point to the base of the mountain range. Europe was different. They didn’t really care where you went, or if you left the ski resorts boundaries. As long as you paid, you could go anywhere! We decided that taking it easy and playing it safe was the right call after we heard that the unsettling European snowpack had just claimed the life of the well liked and respected American extreme skier, Dave Rosenbarger. We paid our dues, and set off for the gondola that would take us to the highest vantage point. From there we could really get a good view on the entire area, and even managed to spot some larger cliffs to throw myself off. The upper lines were frozen with a sheet of breakable ice that was no fun to ride. After nearly sliding all the way down a couloir we decided that the lower range actually provided a much more suitable area to play around in. I broke out my snowshoes, and ditched my Jones Solution Splitboard for a Jones Aviator. This board could handle more of the tricks, and quick takeoffs that I had to navigate in this lower area. The mountain was alive and unreal! A wall of rock nearly 1,000 feet tall was wedged into the base and loomed above us. I scurried back and forth around on the large boulders that had probably broken away from the wall over the years. Being able to be just outside the ski area boundaries and have access to all these different unique features was amazing. I was back in my happy place.
Later that day as the sun started to sink behind that looming rock wall, I couldn’t help but to think that just three hours away someone was fighting for their life, trying to find a job, or escaping judicial persecution from the corrupted government. I on the other hand was lucky enough to be shredding fresh powder, stacking lines, and doing some backflips! Life works in funny ways. Even though we all share the commonality of being human, ones socioeconomic status at birth can ultimately change the outcome of a person’s life and the opportunities they are exposed to. These large differences between social and economical opportunities that exist in the world are what are creating these clustered areas of corruption that only expands the social hierarchy of classes and norms. Although I was overwhelmed with stoke from that days session, the impression Bratislava left on me had imprinted a new outlook on my life and the things and people that truly mattered to me.
Although the steeper lines and good snow in the Tatra Mountains had us feeling hungry for more, we decided to hang cabin for the last day with my grandparents. The family gathered around the old village road near my grandparents cabin. We managed to find an old wooden barn door and set it up on a pile of frozen bushes like some good old boys playing in the snow. We propped that sucker right up, and made a makeshift booter right over the road. I made my cousin drive his VW right underneath it, and invited my grandparents out as I jumped right over the whole road landing on the other side by the river. It was so special to share a little piece of my life and what I do with this side of my family who rarely gets the chance to see me. Even the neighbors came out to see what the weird American kid was doing in the street with a huge barn door and some shovels. In the end the day was a success, and I was beyond stoked to share my love for snowboarding with the same village my grandparents had live in some 50 years ago.
Overall my experiences in Europe were varied and far stretched. I was submersed into several cultures that have long been forgotten by much of the world. I mean, even after reading this article who the hell knows where Slovakia is? I hope that one day I can go back with more knowledge and boards, and share more experiences with my family, and the people of this country. No matter where we start or where we end, we are all people in this world, and being able to experience the different cultural changes along this trip was mind blowing. For the most part I was just glad to be able to snowboard on some new terrain, but I am also glad I got to see these social distortions with my own eyes before heading back to the states for the rest of the season.