To explain why the lifeguard at the Aquapark Tatralandia in Liptovský Mikulas—a small town near Slovakia’s High Tatra mountains—was screaming at me to get out of the pool, I have to explain why I was wearing Pete’s long underwear. And to explain that, I have to explain why Xenia was making out with her Czech boyfriend in the hot tub instead of driving me and Pete straight to said High Tatra mountains—where we were supposed ski around and find a legendary and elusive hutkeeper named Viktor Beranek. The skiing part was my idea: I’d pitched this random story to a magazine, something about Viktor being an environmentalist and a womanizer and a brute and something about the High Tatras being a rugged, legit, and bad-ass place to ski. (All true.) What wasn’t my idea was this: getting coughed out of a waterslide into vaguely green chlorinated water, dragged to slowness by neck-to-ankle polypro, blushing at the sharp words of the pool police: “You can’t swim in that! Tebe dělostřelectvo plavat ježto!” (Or something like that.)
The day before, Pete—my photographer—and I had landed at the Vienna airport with two ski bags, two duffels the size of whiskey barrels, camera gear, avalanche gear, dried fruit, sesame sticks, jet lag, and crossed fingers. Xenia—who was a tourism rep for Slovakia—had vaguely promised to pick us up and drive us five hours to the Tatras. She was there, at the curb. Good. Behind her, though, was a candy-blue Škoda the size of a Volkswagen Beetle—and a blond man. Let’s call him Lubo. “We want take vacation after dropping you off,” she said. Lubo made googly eyes.
What’s the expression: You can’t put 10 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag? You see the problem. The skis were too long for the car. Pete was too big for the back seat. Lubo wasn’t supposed to be there.
“I told you we’d have skis,” I said.
“I didn’t know they will be that long,” Xenia said.
“They’re skis,” Pete said.
So we came up with a plan. Xenia haggled with a bus driver and convinced him to drive our skis to the bus station in Bratislava. We’d drive faster. We’d pick up the skis, then go to the train station (skis sticking out the car window), then put the skis on the train to Liptovský Mikulas, and beat them there, too.
Simple. All went smoothly—until the train people refused to put luggage on board without a passenger. Pete and I drank depot coffee from plastic cups (not recommended) and decided that he’d ride with the big bags, leaving me with Xenia, the Škoda, and Lubo.
“We will see ya later!” Xenia called. Pete winked at me: Have fun.
By this time, it was early afternoon. Nine hours of mismatched time were catching up to me. Xenia insisted that I sit in the front, and her questions kept me awake for a hundred highway kilometers; I was on the sunny side, and my head felt woozy. She regaled me with facts about her country—castles, wars, nature preserves. The land was green and jagged. She was a good PR person.
“I’m getting hungry, darling,” Lubo called from the back. It came out something, perhaps, like: “Miláček, pocínovat my zastavit a hlodat?”
“Let’s stop at traditional Slovakian restaurant,” Xenia said to me, seeing an opportunity for cultural promotion. “I know what you can eat.”
“I’m not too hungry,” I said. “I’m sort of tired.”
“I insist!” she said. “You need to try national dish.”
I’m all for trying national dishes. It’s one of the joys of travel. It’s color. It’s anecdote. Xenia and Lubo weren’t so bad, I thought. So we stopped. The parking lot was empty. I sleepwalked after them into a vacant cafeteria-slash-pub. Xenia ordered for me. “Bryndzové halušky,” she said to the waiter, pointing at me, then kissing Lubo and stroking his thigh.
Bryndzové halušky is not light: It’s a pile of potato dumplings drowning helplessly in an oozing sauce of sheep’s cheese and topped with shining pink chunks of smoked pork fat. It’s not too bad, for a bite or two. But then it’s dangerously Valium-ish in its capacity for inducing food coma. It’s thick grogginess on the plate. Needless to say, when I stumbled back to the car, it only took me a few minutes to pass out.
And when I came to, we were in Liptovský Mikulas. The sun was low in the sky. The High Tatras didn’t exactly loom, but there they were, in sight, a clean white ridgeline. Thank you.
“I don’t think Mr. Pete knows where to get off,” Xenia was whispering. She forgot to tell him where he was supposed to disembark. Oops.
“Does he have a phone?” Lubo said.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” they both said.
So we waited at the station. Watches were checked. Schedules were consulted. I staged an internal freak-out: I thought I’d lost Pete. I didn’t know if we could find Viktor. He spoke no English. I’d forgotten to put new glue on the bottom of my climbing skins. I was out of shape. I was going to get fired. My stomach hurt from too much smoked pork fat.
To our surprise, Pete stepped off right on time, ski bags slung over his shoulders, grinning. “I just spent the last five hours talking to the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he said. “Is it a bad sign that she left my card on the seat?”
This is the part where Xenia should have dropped us off at a hotel and gone on her rendezvous with Lubo, leaving me and Pete to figure out how to find Viktor Beranek. Instead, we pulled up to Aquapark Tatralandia. “Compared to other geothermal waters in the area,” Xenia said, “ours is unique and the only one of the kind. It contains part of the sea water that used to be on the territory of the Liptov basin about 40 million years ago.” Translation: Lubo and I are on vacation, and we want to try the Water Tornado, and you’re our hostages.
“I think we should get to the mountains,” I said.
“You will like,” Xenia said. “Is famous waterslide.”
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“Aw, come on!” Pete said.
Whose side are you on? I said, “I don’t have a bathing suit.”
“We’ll figure something out.”
The solution: I’d wear Pete’s long underwear, since he had an extra set. We’d stay for an hour, tops. We’d kiss up to Xenia, let her make out with Lubo, whatever; then she would buy us dinner and drive us to the mountains; then we never had to talk to her again. And, of course, like bryndzové halušky, waterparks aren’t too bad. You sit your ass down and go.
What I didn’t realize was that fabric means friction. And friction prevents sliding. I climbed the dripping metal stairs, up and up, wearing my navy-blue Amish outfit, trying to ignore weird looks from the dozens of Slovakian teens in front of me and behind me. I sat at the top of the tube, where the light shone through yellow-like and the water poured down and to the right, around and around. I sat my ass down. I pushed off.
I didn’t budge.
I pushed again, and again. Movement. Slowly, I lumbered down the slide, pushing with all my might, sitting up, lying down, trying to reduce my own surface area. Soon, a kid slid up behind me and hit me. Soon, another kid hit him. By the time I pushed my way into the pool at the bottom, a whole train of boys were piled up behind me.
That’s when I got the scream. “Tebe dělostřelectvo plavat ježto!” You can’t swim in that, you effing strange pale overage female tourist. You bizarre prude! You jumbo-size flagrant fouler! The rules say, Thou Must Wear Appropriate Attire At All Times!
I always thought the rules were there to discourage indecent exposure. I never thought I’d get expelled for being overdressed.
From the corner of the pool, Pete laughed at me. I got out, the polypro sagging off my shoulder and hips. Xenia unlocked her lips from Lubo’s and called over,
“Twenty more minutes! Then we go to traditional Slovakian kitchen, and drink sour sheep milk!”
“OK!” I said. And then, ignoring the gaze of the pool police and hitching up my pants, I climbed the stairs for another slide. —Evelyn Spence is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She does not recommend the sour sheep’s milk either.