“Remember, remember the 5th of November.” In the UK, Brits are exploding fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the Westminster Palace. Here in Bratislava, the fireworks are all in my head, and each time this happens, like Guy Fawkes, I fail at any attempt at revolution and change.
I arrived in Bratislava from Brno at 7:40pm, and as people drifted out of the bus and headed confidently to their destinations, I was gripped by what I recognize as my blinding terror–the choking kind that so frequently plagues me. I dragged my stroller bag from the bottom of the bus, and headed to an empty bench as the station began to empty. The Bratislava bus station, Mlynske Nivy, is large and dingy. Bathed in clinical white light that only serves to make the station look even more unsavoury, I rifled through my bag to find both my directions to the hostel and my coin purse to pay for the trolleybus ticket that would get me there.
Feeling so conspicuous with the wheels of my luggage dragging on the cracked pavement, I walked around looking for the stop. Fear made my hands tremble. Fear made me walk around by myself, trying to find the appropriate location, though I was going a distance away from the station–though the printed directions didn’t say it was far off. I eventually asked for the way from the guy at a kebab stand, and I arrived at the hostel. Fear made me, still shaken from my arrival, speak in a breathy, little-girl voice to the guy at the reception. Fear made me leave and enter my room twice, because I didn’t know what I ought to do at night: it was 8pm in a strange eastern European city, and I was strikingly alone.
The second time I entered my hostel room, there were two guys inside. I tentatively struck a conversation with them, and found out they were two men from the United Kingdom on leave from work. Eager for a weekend trip, they took the cheapest Ryanair flight and wound up in Bratislava. I casually asked them if they had gone to a walking tour of the city, and they laughed, saying that the only tour they’ve been to here has been the Pub Crawl. They apologized in advance, saying that earlier in the day, they had stumbled back to the room at 7:00am, accidentally waking all the other people with their noise. Ah, the life of a budget traveller.
Their presence nagged at me–it felt as if I was a loser for staying indoors, clutching my hat with frozen fingers for fear of something I couldn’t even pinpoint. I cheerfully bid them goodbye and stepped into the dim streets of Bratislava.
I began by following the signs that pointed to the historical centre of the city, but got waylaid right away, drawn towards a Tesco, a huge supermarket comparable to SM. While paying for the items I had hastily grabbed, I thought about my immediate, knee-jerk reaction to duck into a familiar place. I had rationalized my being there by saying that I needed to buy things for the following days, but if I were to be honest with myself, I had just purchased 10 euros of things I didn’t really need, to justify going back to the hostel with heavy items and just hiding away for the rest of the night.
I hated this. I forcibly rejected this instinctive response, and walked to the centre anyway, bogged down with apples and lettuce and tomatoes and bread and spread that I had initially bought to stave off the night walk, rather than hunger. The wind, not chilly but strong, made the my plastic bag of groceries flap noisily as I walked.
I walked, and thought.
When did I get so fearful of things? I know I am no coward, since I actively try to face these fears, but I nevertheless get possessed by them. I can feel it physically happening sometimes–when my palms get damp or freeze in a gripped position. This is almost always accompanied by shaking I cannot control. My shoulders refuse to relax and the pitch of my voice rises. My mind bucks wildly, throwing thoughts left and right like an electric wire in a typhoon. I feel this sometimes when I am public speaking, but also when I take an exam or enter a party by myself.
I am overcome by it.
When did this begin within me? I recall so many instances–a time line of my paralysing fears:
- In the airport leaving the Philippines to go to Vienna, when I left my jacket in the x-ray after discovering that my bags were overweight and began to panic;
- During my theology oral exam in college, where the teacher started snickering at me and I fumbled, eventually getting a D in the exam grade;
- During the dormitory pageant during freshmen year, in which I got a score of 46% from the judges, because all my carefully practised dance steps evaporated from my mind when I was on stage. And I had walked the runway too fast, practically fleeing;
- My rap presentation when I was 13 years old and in music class, in which I forgot my words and went back to my seat in shame before the beat even stopped;
- My first week in my new high school when I literally RAN from a group of boys who were following me.
Bratislava, why did I fear you?
I had read online that it was a very safe city with a low crime rate. Why do I fear so many things? I don’t understand the origins of it. Why can I feel so much pride and confidence in my work, and yet get crippled when such judgement is transferred on to myself? Why can I submit projects and competition entries with utter confidence of them qualifying, and yet tremble when getting an award or presenting my work?
So I went to the city centre.
Bratislava, though the capital of Slovakia, is a small city. With a population of only about 430,000 people, it is only slightly bigger than Brno, the city I live in in the Czech Republic. It is beautiful, but like the smaller cities of the Czech Republic, the architecture of Slovakia’s cities have an undercurrent of pain. Affected by its troublesome history, much of central and eastern Europe still bear the scars of Communism, found in the way there are ugly cement architectual monstrosities next to charming old buildings passionate with artistry and detail. By night, the Bratislava city centre still bustles–old couples walk arm and arm under yellow street lamps, couples chat in wooden benches, cigarettes dangling on their bottom lips, tourists linger by sculptures and statues.
Things are different at night, I guess. Maybe I am still a child, frightened of the dark.
I shall explore everything tomorrow.