In Bratislava, I met a short ginger-haired girl called Jana or Janka depending on whether you liked her or not.
She was from the east of Slovakia, somewhere near Bardejov, I think she said, and she told me she had come west to Bratislava to find work and to escape her father, a pot-bellied man with a thick salt-and-pepper moustache, who now hated her because she’d betrayed the east and its economy by going west, and had shown herself to believe she was better than him by doing so (she didn’t).
He hated his son because he’d stayed at home and not improved himself (he was a jobless, good-for-nothing who preyed on his wife’s good intentions), and hated his wife for being mollycoddling and subservient and a terrible cook – for thirty years she had stewed the meat in the goulash to the point where it had no flavour.
He hated the Communists for giving up so easily in 1989, and hated the current government for giving free housing to gypsies. He hated the Hungarians for the Austro-Hungarian rule and the Russians for ‘liberating’ his country from the Nazis – we could have done it ourselves, we didn’t need them.
He even hated me, though we had never met and never would, as I’d come from the decadent West, been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and was now taking jobs from hard-working Slovaks who had learned English and knew more about its ins and outs, its grammar and vocabulary, than I ever would, my only qualification being that I was born speaking it.
The only thing he didn’t hate was his allotment, where he grew nothing but weeds, and where he spent his days in a shed smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking Kofola, and eating peanuts sprinkled with extra salt in the hope that one or all of them would eventually kill him.
He sounds like a real charmer, I said when she’d finished.
No, he’s not, she said. He’s horrible.
I was joking, I said.
Why, she said. Is it funny?
Probably not, but you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you, I said. Otherwise you’ll end up spending your days in a shed too, waiting to die.