Above the row of peculiar potted trees, Trenčín Castle flexes. Stony and menacing, it slices through the soft autumn clouds hanging above. I’m impressed by its intimidating beauty and secretly glad it just happens to be closed due to construction work, even though my sole purpose for coming here is to see the castle. The air of mystery is seductive as I look upon its face for clues as to what lies within.
As I ruminate on this memory almost five years later in my Bratislava office, a certain line from Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in which the French novelist’s grandmother explains what intrigues her about a church steeple in Combray comes to mind:
My dears, laugh at me if you like; it is not conventionally beautiful, but there is something in its quaint old face that pleases me. If it could play the piano, I’m sure it wouldn’t sound tinny.
When I first read that line during my senior year of college, I remember thinking that it was such a lovely way to personify something that lacked grandeur, but stirs up emotions and a personal connection exactly for that reason.
Proust, far more remembered for his tome-length ruminations on French cookies and bedtime routines, was right to share his grandmother’s wisdom here. But I don’t necessarily remember this passage because of what I saw upon Trencin Castle’s face that day. Rather, I think I connect it more to a conversation I had with a stranger that freed the castle’s own piano melody.
While roaming around the city searching for things to do, I spotted a tall, slender man asking for help from crowds of people who seemed to have better things to do. Clearly a little saddened by the lack of response from passersby, he approached me in Slovak with his request as I came closer, but quickly switched to English when I meekly replied: Sorry, I don’t speak Slovak.
Can you take a picture of me in front of the castle? He implored.
Soon we were exchanging briefs of our life stories. He explained that he was a native of Trenčín visiting his parents from the US. I explained I was traveling through Europe on my own, doing my best to escape my comfort zone. We discussed the upcoming (2016) presidential election and the unexpected, under-advertised beauty of Slovakia. As I shared some of my upcoming traveling plans, he said, with a mixture of admiration and concern, I can’t believe you’re doing this! He handed me his business card, at which point I discovered he worked for Disney, and told me to give him a call should anything happen.
I still have his business card to this day and I still return to this memory when I need a little reminder of just how kind most strangers are, regardless of what you hear about cultural norms or perceived language barriers.
After that interaction, the castle’s face seemed softer and more dynamic. I suppose if it played the piano, the tune would be quirky and fun with an optimistic, Mickey Mouse like tune.
And when I walk the streets of my adopted hometown of Bratislava, I can imagine what sort of melody the surrounding buildings might play. Composed by friendships that have only grown stronger during this pandemic, their melodies are filled with reassuring beats and a consistent, dependable rhythm. These melodies are carefully composed and special in their own way, and no, they do not sound tinny in the slightest.
Thank you, grandma Proust!
Face the music,