About 14 months ago I noticed an old French car parked outside where I live in Bratislava. The paintwork was faded and shoddy. In fact it looked like just about any other five year-old Peugeot, Citroen or Renault, except that its tyres were flat. It was an eyesore. I lived very close to one of Bratislava's top hotels, just across from the nation's National Art Gallery, and the car gave VIP visitors a very poor impression of Slovakia as soon as they walked out of the hotel. I thought at the time that very soon it would be taken away.
Which is why I liked so much the real story of a friend's visit to a cinema in Bratislava last weekend. Paul, an expatriate, and Pavlina, a delightful Slovak girl, decided to live dangerously and see 28 Days at one of the capital's biggest cinemas. It was a Saturday afternoon matinee. Being a gentleman, Paul asked for two tickets. He offered a 1,000-crown note in payment. The cashier couldn't take it. She had no change. Pavlina paid. Paul thought it would be nice to take his date for a coffee in the cafeteria. They ordered two cups and a packet of peanuts. He offered the 1,000-crown note. The cashier couldn't take it. She had no change. Pavlina paid. Bear in mind here that 1,000 Slovak crowns is $23, or 15 UK pounds.
Paul and Pavlina made their way into the auditorium. By this time the film was due to start, and there was one other person in a hall with 400 seats. Pavlina clutched the tickets and moved forward slowly looking for C25 and C26. Paul pointed out that since only one other seat was full, maybe it would be just about OK for them to sit in any two of the other 399 unoccupied places. She seemed unnerved by this unorthodox proposal, and they compromised on C12 an C13. Ten minutes after the film was due to start Paul made inquiries as to why it hadn't.
"We don't have enough people to show the film," he was told. Apparently a minimum audience of five was needed. Paul offered to buy two more tickets, but they still couldn't change the 1,000-crown note. Pavlina paid. The movie started with an audience of three. Twenty minutes into it, and maybe due to the coffee, Paul needed to go to the bathroom.
Everything went well in the WC until Paul tried to leave. A very large woman with horn-rimmed glasses, a mop of curly black hair and a moustache and dressed in a blue smock, blocked his way. She demanded four crowns. Paul proffered the 1,000 crown note. Needless to say, she had no change and Paul again tried to leave. "Foto!" she shouted, pointing to what might have been a security camera. Gesticulating wildly, Paul slithered past the large toilet lady and made his way back to the auditorium. He couldn't open the doors.
Five minutes later, after someone responded to the toilet lady's shouts for help, he was told the doors were locked to stop people who hadn't paid for a ticket from running in off the streets and into the darkness. He pointed out that he'd paid for every ticket bar one and found Pavlina in C12, almost alone in the dark, crying her heart out. It wasn't because she was concerned about Paul's 20 minute disappearance, but had something to do with the movie. Having lost the thread of the plot, Paul fell asleep in C13, 14, and 15.
Outside the theatre the sun was high in the sky. Paul suggested a tram ride back to the centre. Pavlina had one ticket and some change, but the machine wasn't working. The mismatched couple parted. Paul started walking to town, but seeing a passing taxi he hailed it.
"Now before we start, can you change this?" he asked the driver. He didn't have change, of course, and, with no Pavlina to pay, Paul had to get out and walk.
Half an hour later he saw Pavlina in the distance on SNP sitting in a café sadly feeding the pigeons. He made a detour and went to a pub he knew always had change for 1,000 crowns.
Meanwhile, I've just looked out of the window to check if everything's OK with the world. It is. The abandoned Renault's still there, of course, next to the steps to the Hotel Devín, and will never be moved. Bratislava Parking Service has no interest in taking it away, despite the fact that doing so would produce another parking space, because no one will pay the towing fee. Everything costs money in the new Slovakia, but there's very little of it about, and almost no one has change for a 1,000 crown note.
3. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Jeff Daniels