I was seated at an old wooden table, in one of the proverbial, European open, road-side cafes. The evening was now dark, chilly and breezy, with persistent, musical sounding rain. Equipped with only a light jacket, I was happy for this warm, sheltered space. My apartment was at least a thirty-minute walk across the windy Novy Most bridge, in the newer part of town.
With the rich, red Slovakian wine and the homely pasta plate before me, I had no complaints. The smiling waitress had been kind enough to bring an English menu and a napkin that said, “Ladies, Rio loves you.” Back home, this old town restaurant’s slogan would have seemed discomfiting. Here, it felt like a thoughtful welcome for the solo woman traveler.
The fact that I didn’t know a single soul in this city, or for that matter, for hundreds of miles in all directions – was not disturbing, but strangely comforting. I wondered at the oddness of that thought. I considered if spending the morning with a Segway tour guide meant he could be counted as an exception. Or if the non-English-speaking landlady who handed the keys to my apartment stay counted as an acquaintance. I decided not.
She had, after all, failed to introduce me to the resident poltergeists. Only after they tripped my electric range and kitchen lights a couple of times in succession, did I figure out how to negotiate a peace treaty with them. (They finally agreed to limit themselves to the small drying balcony while I stayed there.) So no, the landlady didn’t count. Her daughter, who had earlier pretended to be her mother, and corresponded with me before, and during the stay, over email and phone – now perhaps she could be counted as an acquaintance. But soon after I arrived at the local station, did I realise that she was in fact away, studying in the States.
So it was true. Here I was, late on a stormy evening, alone in a city who’s souvenir t-shirt reads, “Where the F#$@ is Bratislava?”. I could have laughed out loud. But I restrained myself to a content smile.
The stranger who happened to walk in at that point thought I was smiling at him and nodded back with a smile. He sat across me, a couple of tables separating us. From the discussion over the menu, it became clear that he knew neither the local languages nor English. Through gestures, he managed to have food and wine come to his table. Other groups came in and went while we shared our solitary meals in quiet acknowledgment of our similar situations.
It seemed to be the flavour of the day. Companionship with strangers who don’t speak your language.
Most of the afternoon had been spent with an international group of mathematicians. Their English speaking host had decided to take me into their fold, soon after we met on a cruise down the Danube river. Impressed with the fact that I was traveling alone, he wanted to know how I was managing despite the language barrier. Himself a local, who had returned after a stint in the States, he explained his interest in communication to me. Given the complex history of the place, it seems between his wife and their parents, they shared a lineage of five different languages. He said, “They say New York is a potpourri of different cultures, but they don’t know what’s been happening here in Bratislava, in every family!” I could relate to this, thinking of the myriad languages and cultures intermingling back in my hometown, Mumbai.
We soon reached the geographically and politically significant site, Devin Castle. It has witnessed many wars – something which is extremely difficult for the heart to comprehend. How do humans engage in such violence, and that too at a place so awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful? No short answer there. As we had to return to Bratislava by the evening ferry, unfortunately, there would be no time to explore the extensive natural park around the castle grounds.
While there was some conversation with an Indonesian family on the boat, I explored the ruins largely on my own. Without any formal agreement, one of the mathematicians accompanied me around. Besides a nod, we exchanged no other communication. Distinguished, handsome and with sparkling, alert eyes, he seemed well respected amongst his peers. He, and I, though had no scope for any verbal exchange and nor did we seem to feel the need for it. Despite that, after several hours of comfortable silence and walk together, I left the ferry with the odd feeling that we had really met each other in a very meaningful manner. There was also an inexplicable sense of closure at the end of the day. As though a long pending conversation and been completed. Perhaps it was a karmic connection or a matter explained by modern day heart coherence findings. Whatever it was, the time together was memorable.
As I happily reminisced the satisfying day over my candle-lit wine and dinner, with the other solo diner similarly ruminating a few feet away, I thought this in itself was one wonderful, powerful benefit of solo travel:
To remember that it is possible to communicate with others without words. To find kinship with strangers and warm hospitality in unknown lands. To meet without an agenda, to befriend without reason and to part ways without regrets.
How wonderful, these opportunities!
Back home, when I sometimes struggle to converse, either because of the superficiality of the content, or the seeming impossibility of finding the right words that will reach to another what we experience in our own individual bubble – I remember such days and feel reassured:
It’s okay to be quiet.
Silence can indeed be golden.
And completely adequate for bridging divides.