In the last 24 hours I have ended up very naked in a castle and shaken down by angry Slovakian authorities. Yes, these were two separate incidences. Yes, knowing something about my travel history, you had good reason to ask.
Let me step back and explain.
We left that slaughterhouse in the country after noticing that the vast majority of the dishes in the kitchen had lipstick stains in places I never in my life considered areas on which someone might put a mouth.
We climbed into our car and pointed it west toward the Slovakian central mountains.
Every twenty minutes or so, the trees would clear and a GIANT castle on top of a mountain would come into view. And when I say "giant," I mean like "we thought the castle was the just the top half of the mountain until we got close enough and realized that what we thought was God's doing was actually the doing of some very sad people who probably had terrible backs but Jane Fonda level buns of steel from having to haul eleventy million rocks up to the top."
We got out of the car for at least one of these, and then climbed Everest to get to the top of it. It was worth it.
Finally, nightfall came. And that's when I swear to you I lived the actual live action Beauty and the Beast. Except there was no singing. And no Mrs. Potts. Just a very angry castle staff that I think was actually just one person dressing up as several different people in something of a Norman Bates situation.
Anna had located the place. A huge castle nestled in the mountains and secluded by thick forest. The front door was comically large, and one that we had to lean into to move.
The castle has apparently been turned into a hotel in recent years, although I don't know why because AIN'T NOBODY be visiting this place.
Homegirl at the front desk looked at us like she had never encountered other humans before when we approached her. After a very confusing conversation in which at least 7 different languages were used and during which we may or may not have accidentally renounced our American citizenships, we were sent off to the far far far far end of the castle to our room.
I'm talking like, we-didn't-even-know-if-we-were-still-in-Slovakia by the time we got there, far.
These were some of the hallways:
As you can see, many animals were harmed in the making of this place.
The woman at the front desk told us there was a spa in what she called "the cellar." Obviously we should have translated the word "cellar" to "you will probably be murdered and your father will then be justified for all the times he told you Eastern Europe was not safe." But we didn't. The only word we really heard in that sentence was "spa." So 20 seconds after dropping our bags off in our very haunted room that I swear to you had more medieval weapons than a Provo park on a Saturday, we searched the castle for the cellar.
After descending various grand staircases, and then a couple that weren't so grand and were so dark that we had to use our iPhones to light the halls, we pushed our way through a very short and surprisingly-heavy door, startling another(?) woman sitting at a desk.
We asked this woman if we could get massages. She studied a computer screen for some time, dramatically sighing, before finally deigning to agree to rub our bodies down that night. This was confusing to us because we were the only people in the entire castle and it appeared that giving massages was literally her only job.
She took Anna down a dark corridor and sent Emily and me to a pool and sauna area.
I would love to walk you through every step of the sauna situation but I don't have the stamina. So let me just cut to the chase and tell you that I was not allowed to wear a bathing suit in there, there was this bath thing I had to climb up into naked and when I slipped on the top step and fell into it I discovered the water was cold enough to reverse global warming, and this area was actually just part of the open lobby so when another (?) woman walked into it, I was flopped over the side of the ice bath, completely naked, and trying to roll out like a beached whale hoping to be freed.
AND I HAVEN'T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE "VERY NAKED" PART YET.
The massage therapist or front desk woman or just some high school student from the town summoned for me about an after she retrieved Anna.
I was wrapped in a flimsy sheet by this point. My clothes were somewhere near the pool. I think. I had basically lost track of them by this point.
In case you've never had a massage in not an Eastern European or Middle Eastern country before, let me just explain how this usually works:
Step one: the massage therapist politely leads you into a small room and shows you the massage table and where to hang your clothes.
Step two: the massage therapist gives you an undisclosed amount of time to get naked, lay down on the table, and cover yourself with a sheet.
Step three: the massage therapist returns and gives you a massage, generally avoiding the parts of your body that the good Lord only intended for baby-making and comedic mooning.
Step four: the massage therapist leaves the room as you arise and become modest again.
Step five: NOT THAT WE KNOW WHAT BABY-MAKING IS.
To be clear, none of the above steps happened. And I'm including step five in this.
Miss Thang aggressively pulled me into a dark room, demanded that disrobe in front of her, angrily directed me to lay my very naked body on a sticky table, and then for the next 50 minutes, she beat the hell out of me, including an awkward and semi-painful butt-pinching segment that lasted for at least 12 of the 50 minutes. The moment it was over, she demanded that I get up and get dressed (read, re-wrap myself in the flimsy sheet) in front of her, while tapping her foot like she didn't appreciate how slowly I was moving.
Normally the last spoken words with one's massage therapist at the end of a session are some variation of "thank you." But I swear to you that I was so uncomfortable and feeling like I had done something wrong considering the way she was acting that instead I just lowered my head so as not to make eye contact with her and I humbly apologized. For what, I'm not sure. But I apologized nonetheless.
During my semi-naked dark walk/sprint out of the cellar, up several flights of stairs, and through multiple long and haunted corridors wherein I swear to you I saw the twins from The Shining, twice, it hit me: why had I just done all of that? There was not a single thing I had been instructed to do that I actually wanted to do. But when an angry Eastern European woman instructs me to do something, I just do it.
The good news is that when we were finally reunited, I discovered that Anna and Emily had had basically the same experience as me. Except Emily swears that her massage therapist was a man. But when I asked her if he was at least cute, she said "I don't know. I never looked at him." So it may have actually just been the same woman.
I had multiple people on Instagram ask me where this castle was when I posted a picture of it, but I couldn't answer this question because I was never really sure. And when I opened my phone to try to locate us, the blue google maps dot just kept bouncing back and forth between Transylvania and the Bermuda Triangle.
We high-tailed it out of that place the next morning and made it to this castle, just a few hours away:
This one took an absurd amount of time to walk through with a woman who explained every detail of every corner to us. We think she did, anyway. The whole thing was in Slovakian. And at the end we were led down into some very creepy caverns and a tunnel system 70 feet below the castle's base and there was a brief moment wherein I was certain we were going to be sacrificed. But eventually we made it to Bratislava, where we returned our rental vehicle to the child manning the front desk, who penned a Harry-Potter-sized book, detailing every spec of dust that had landed on the car over the last three days.
We got onto a bus.
The bus and ticket system was not intuitive, but having lived in Ukraine and Russia, and with the help of a Portuguese woman who is temporarily living in Bratislava and who saw us attempting to negotiate international peace treaties with a 7,000-buttoned kiosk that was exclusively in Slovakian, we were able to purchase tickets and then "validate" them aboard a bus that arrived a few minutes later.
The bus ride into town was pleasant enough.
And then we arrived at the last stop.
The entire Slovakian army swarmed the bus, demanding that every foreign-looking passenger show their tickets as all of the locals exited.
I had been split away from Anna and Emily on this crowded bus ride, so they were cornered by a different very angry Slovakian man than I was.
Even though Anna and Emily are probably more competent humans than I am, every time they step more than three feet away from me in these countries I immediately start imagining how I'm going to explain their deaths to their mothers since I basically talked them into coming to these places.
The man in front of me started demanding absurd payments, and I heard the man who was talking to Anna and Emily doing the same. The payments were for what they deemed to be some kind of infraction of the bus ticketing rules. A group of foreigners in the back of the bus (maybe Germans?) were getting the same shakedown by another officer.
The authorities had shouted at the bus driver to shut and lock all of the doors, so we were trapped on board with no way to leave.
I could hear Anna and Emily attempting to argue with their officer as I sort of did the same.
The officers continued to aggressively assert that we had "broken the law," although it was never clear how, and they repeatedly demanded payment of some "fine," telling me at one point that the price would go up if I continued to ask for some formal documentation or at least an explanation for how our tickets were deficient.
If living in Ukraine taught me one thing, it is that arguing in these situations usually only prolongs the interaction and increases the likelihood of getting locked up abroad. There is probably a time for standing up against authority figures who may be scamming foreigners, but today, on a Slovakian bus with Anna and Emily, did not feel like one of those times.
So we paid the absurd fine.
But, the difference this time, compared to when I lived in Ukraine, is that we now have credit cards with decent fraud protection and a simple dispute process. So, hopefully not foolishly, we got them to run our credit cards.
We'll be testing the limits of American Express's abilities to right wrongs in short order.
Notwithstanding, Slovakia is wonderful.
|From the top of a very tall castle.|
~It Just Gets Stranger