A Neurotic in an Exotic Land; The Adventures of Professor Lucas

Here you will find some related writings (generally not as funny as the book) and a little info about the author, as well as an excerpt from the book.
The photo above should have been the book's cover!--and it
should be turned around!

All rights reserved.

Although some of the items I've now posted differ in their mood and style from the book itself, I am posting them here anyway because they date from roughly the time period in which the book was written--and, I believe they share a certain ambience with it. (note added 14 March 2010)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Letter from Bratislava

Irony of ironies!! I wrote a farewell letter, and then I stayed for five more years.

In July of 2003, I imagined that I was leaving Bratislava, and felt very sad.

As a result, looking out the window of my dorm room in the "Hotel Druzba", I wrote the
following letter.

It was later published in The Guardian newspaper. It is the only thing I was ever actually paid to write. (Although I was paid after it had been published...)

Slovak friends have liked the letter; so I hope there is still some truth in it. As I recall, the editor at The Guardian gave it a rather kitsch title, so I am leaving that out.

Letter from Bratislava

July 4, 2003

From my tenth floor room in a Communist-era dormitory, I can just see a splotch of the Danube- -presently more silver-green than blue- -the high rises of the notorious Petrzalka suburb growing out of the trees, and Slovnaft- -a chemical factory bombed by American planes during World War Two. Continuing our tour, just over the hill, I see one corner of the upside-down-table-shaped “castle”--never really a defensive fortification--and, finally, the “New Bridge”--a suspension bridge with a flying saucer on the top of one side, one of the bridges joining the Petrzalka suburb to the old town. When the communists built the bridge in the 1970’s, they destroyed the Jewish Synagogue. It’s a story I’ve heard told many times, but the version I can never forget came from a taxi driver who just shook his head as he said that the people who did this were “primitive”.

One day, waiting for a friend, I listened to a Vratnik,--in the States we’d call him a “security guard”-- tell me about what Petrzalka used to be when he was a boy. All of the fruits and vegetables that people needed were grown locally, brought in to markets from surrounding districts. His picture of a self-subsistent community growing its own fruit and vegetables resonates deeply. Only the day before I’d been in Tesco, where the oranges come from Spain and the garlic from China. I mention this fact, and he nods. Perhaps if we put our shared sentiment in words, we would say, “Something has been lost.”

He is warming up as he recalls his grandfather, a man who never drank anything but wine, who got up before the sunrise and worked in his fields until late at night. The vratnik tells me proudly that he never saw his grandfather drunk. He ate grapes, apples, raisins, all grown on his land. There was also bread, of course, and sausages. He lived a long life, though he was outlasted by his wife—and she drank her share of wine too.

I have a friend, much younger than the Vratnik, who loves to see movies in a shopping mall recently constructed in Petrzalka. I have an allergy to shopping malls. If I wanted to shop in malls, I would have stayed in the US. But, because she regularly suggests it, I have gotten in the habit of going to a large commercial cinema located in a shopping mall. And, I confess, the attraction is less the films—some of them have been downright bad—than the experience of trying to imagine what she is seeing. When the landscape of the North American countryside flashes on the screen, and my friend cannot stifle an “oh, pretty”, I imagine for a moment how my country must appear to her. The scale and geography of Central Europe is not that of the place where I grew up.

Some part of me, perhaps nationalistic or even chauvinistic, wants to protest that her vision is distorted, that see cannot imagine the reality behind the images. One part of me wants to protest: “New York is more than just part of a film set. It’s not just a prop. People actually live there!” --But, that would be uncharitable. The impulse to see and experience the world is genuine.

When I leave Slovakia, I want to remember that there are people who live in a small country without abandoning themselves to its smallness.

I once told an American, a specialist in Eastern Philosophy, that in this part of the world there is a great interest in Eastern Philosophy. He was dismissive. I wonder if he’s ever been here. Does he know anything about the sort of people who live here? Can he imagine what it means to be from a small, land-locked country and to be curious about the world?

Another American, a dancer from New York, once told me, in a tone of amazement, that there were things in American dance which had once been fashionable and today were more-or-less established, taken for granted, but that here in Slovakia people took them very seriously and studied them. Contrary to what the specialist in Eastern Philosophy seemed to think, curiosity doesn’t have to be shallow.

When I leave Bratislava, I will never forget the time my students asked me, “How do you say autostop in English?” I was bowled over by the thought that there was a word in Slovak whose meaning was more transparent than its English equivalent. The next question came with the inevitability of a hangover: “Why do you say ‘hitch-hike’?-- “Why don’t you say autostop?”

When I leave, I will take my memories with me. But, I am leaving behind a part of myself. Email and telephones do not restore the connection which comes from living in a place; they only remind you of what you’ve lost.


  1. Read this with loving memories to our strange days in Bratislava in 1997-98