Every Monday morning, after enjoying a hazelnut coffee and a bowl of muesli sprinkled with cocoa powder, I walk to the end of my street and hop on the 9:46 tram to Kollárovo námestie. I sit by the window, usually next to an elderly lady wearing a small green coat and a felt hat with a little black bow on the side . We exchange smiles and cradle our handbags on our laps as the world outside the crimson tram pauses and resumes. The journey to Kollárovo námestie takes exactly nine minutes. From Kollárovo námestie, I walk down a narrow alleyway, past a pastry kiosk and news stand towards busy Špitálska. Crossing the wide and choc-o-bloc street is a bit hair-raising, an extra jolt of natural caffeine before I reach my office and try out some new Slovak phrases on the amiable receptionist.
My morning commute to work is one of my favorite parts of the day.
That might seem strange but trust me, when you’re building an entirely new life for yourself in a foreign country thousands of miles away from your family and friends and adorable dogs and quality peanut butter, routine is a gorgeous, welcomed thing.
Just writing about my highly individualized routine calms me to the bone so if you would let me indulge…
Almost every night here in Bratislava, I have a bubble bath while listening to Motown or Nora Jones or Fleet Foxes. I use head and shoulders shampoo instead of bubble bath because bubble bath looks exactly like strawberry soda in Slovakia and I’m still not sure which one is which. Post bubble bath, I read about the Tower of London or my rental contract in an attempt to learn some Slovak. I explore Old Town with new friends and new streets in my old, fluorescent coat. I turn on the TV and watch a program about French aristocrats in Slovak or Alaskan bears…in Slovak. I start labeling objects in my apartment with its Slovak equivalent but give up when I notice table, chair and desk have somehow ended up with the same name.
In the mornings I free myself from the fissure running down the middle of my convertible bed and bounce around the apartment like a pac man gone rouge. One of my travel photos plastered to the wall above the window usually falls to the ground in the middle of the night. Monday it was Lake Como, today it was Venice. But every day it’s Slovakia that squishes against my window, just as a new and eager friend might.
I take the tram to work with the same faces I see every morning cursing the ticket machine that is almost always broken or allergic to one euro coins. There’s an unspoken solidarity between tram companions.
At work, I greet my collegues in Slovak and bid them farewell in Slovakish because once the clock strikes four internal jet-lag sets in and I forget momentarily which country I’m in.
Post-work, I run down the steep hill, around the Bratislava Castle, and along the Danube. Depending on what time I leave my house, I run into kids on roller blades and teenagers on skateboards. I run into terriers dressed in beautiful down coats and scruffy labs with tennis balls bulging out of their mouths. I chase after the sunset and fellow runners who sneak past me when I’m not looking. Before long, I’m competing in an unspoken race with a runner I’ve never met. When I reach the last stoplight before the castle, I’m breathless and invigorated. Spontaneous racing gives me life.
On days when my competitive drive lies dormant, I wave at every runner that trots by. Most of them do not notice me or acknowledge me with an extra breath. However, one runner always waves back.
If I have one piece of advice for fellow fumbling foreigners it’s this: wave at every runner, smile at every stranger, wish every shop clerk a good morning and barman a good night. Someone will always wave back, return your smile, and exchange pleasantries.
Here in Slovakia, I haven’t experienced culture shock. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace routine and routine spontaneity. Every day brings something different and much of the same. And I savor every beautiful morning that begins with hazelnut coffee and the 9:46 tram to Kollárovo námestie.