There was serious talk of going to Liviano this time, our favorite high-end, special-occasion restaurant in Bratislava, but sadly, we discovered that it's closed, at the time of writing, because the Technopol building in which it's located has essentially been shut down. The reason is because several owners of this building are reported to be close associates of Marian Kočner, a now-former owner of the building and an infamous figure in organized crime who has been charged with ordering the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak in 2018.
For anyone not familiar with that horrific story, here's a brief run down: Kuciak was a young journalist working on a series of stories to expose connections between Slovak (and even Italian) mafia, prominent local businessmen, and Slovak politicians and judges. He'd made some damning discoveries, but as he was zeroing in on Kočner, Kočner threatened Kuciak over the phone, and not long after, a hit man came around to Kuciak's place one night and murdered him and his fiancee.
I don't have the time or space to give you the full story on Kočner, but he has reportedly loomed large in the world of organized and financial crime in Slovakia since the end of communism, and according to Slovak media, he has been involved in or somehow connected to far too much shady stuff to list, yet he always manages to slither away from charges or prosecution. Some believe that's partly because of his alleged connections to figures in the government and the judiciary. (In fact, Slovakia is known for a glaring lack of organized-crime and corruption-related prosecutions, despite plenty of charges and arrests over the years, and it's believed that widespread government-level and judiciary corruption is the reason for that.)
At any rate, the reason we couldn't go to Liviano is because Kočner and several close associates shared ownership of the company that owns the Technopol building, but the nature of their ownership is the basis of a big, messy legal case brought by several parties who say their shares in the company were stolen by an associate of Kočner's. The prosecutor in the case had the building seized by the state back in June this year to prevent Kočner and his associates from profiting off of the building's rent. But that means that the numerous commercial tenants in the building have been left in the lurch because they can't operate until the case is resolved or they relocate. (Why the prosecution couldn't just seize the money earned on the building, rather than shut the building down and put the tenants in jeopardy, is a perplexing mystery to me.)
So, it's really sad that organized crime and corruption have shuttered one of our favorite restaurants. I really hope they can someday reopen and/or find a new home.
Getting back to Kuciak's tragic story, his murder wound up triggering one of the biggest shake-ups in Slovakia's political history when thousands of people took to the streets in protests - the biggest the country had seen since the Velvet Revolution - over the government's inability, at that point, to find Kuciak's murderer, as well as the widely held perception that state-level corruption played a roll in stymieing the investigation. This ultimately led to the resignations of the police chief, the interior minister, and the prime minister from the ruling party Smer, Robert Fico (though Fico still runs the party and pulls the strings, at the time of writing). Smer was able to remain in power, but parliamentary elections in 2020 could possibly change that. The protests did light a fire under the system's rear end, as police eventually did obtain enough evidence to charge Kočner (who was already in jail at that point on an earlier, unrelated charge).
Another positive result of that public outrage was that earlier this year, Slovakia elected as president Zuzana Čaputová, an anti-corruption lawyer and self-described progressive who had no prior experience in politics, but made a name for herself when she fought and won a case that led to the shutdown of a toxic waste dump in Pezinok. That Čaputová, a pro-EU, pro-environment, LGBTQ-supporting female progressive, was elected amid an alarming wave of scary, far-right, xenophobic, anti-EU politicians/parties - both in Slovakia and in neighboring EU countries - was seen as a victory for democracy and the rule of law at time when both are under attack. Terezia and I were relieved when Čaputová won because it was a small sign of hope that Slovakia could maybe get it together.
This article seems to do a decent job of summarizing the situation with corruption and organized crime in Slovakia, with a lot of focus on the story with Kuciak and Kočner.
Sadly, the third and final week of our trip was derailed when Terezia and I both woke up with colds the morning we were to leave Tony's and drive back to Podrečany. After a day or two of mild coughing, my cold then did what most of my colds predictably do and turned into a nasty bronchial infection where I get this horrible, dry, persistent, mostly unproductive chest cough that sends me into asthmatic fits with bronchial spasms bad enough to have me coughing rapidly and uncontrollably to the point where I'm keeling over with my chest convulsing, and sometimes my gag reflex is triggered. Super unpleasant.
As a kid I was told I'm "borderline asthmatic," i.e., lower down on the asthma spectrum, which means I don't deal with asthma on a day-to-day basis, but whenever I catch a cold, I get a very bad asthmatic-like chest cough, and I have to use a couple of prescription inhalers to help open up my lungs, and I need super strong medicine that knocks me out so I can get some sleep without being awakened by violent coughing throughout the night. I also usually go through a bag or two of Ricola lozenges. Problem was this time, not being at home, I had none of these things to help manage my cold.
For the first several days I tried a variety of over-the-counter Slovak cough syrups, none of which helped at all. The thing is, most over-the-counter cough syrups are about as useful as a glass of water, and the only thing that truly helps is either a prescription syrup with codeine, or Robitussin Nighttime, which does an even better job of knocking me out at night than the codeine or Nyquil. But you can't really find any of this stuff in Slovak pharmacies. I think most of what I tried were weak, ineffective expectorants, and they didn't seem to have anything to help you sleep, except for Theraflu. Just finding cough drops/lozenges like Ricola was also a challenge, though we managed to find something similar that seemed to work well enough, but only after several days into this thing.
Getting through the first several nights was hell, and I was exiled to the couch in the living room at night so that I wouldn't keep Terezia and Simon awake with my coughing. I was drinking tea with herbs from Terezia's mom's garden throughout the day, but none of the medicine we got from the pharmacy seemed to have any effect. I desperately needed my two inhalers, stronger cough syrup, and some decent cough drops.
By Wednesday, I wasn't improving at all, and Terezia had had enough, so she decided we would go to the emergency room in Lučenec to see if we could get my inhalers and anything else that might help.
Slovakia seems to have a slightly different system of emergency rooms than the US. I wrote about it a little here, but actually trying to go see your general practitioner in Slovakia is more akin to a US-style emergency room experience than going to a Slovak emergency room. The emergency room we went to was more like an urgent care clinic, and it was totally separate from Lučenec's main hospital, in a much older, smaller building in a different part of town. And get this - this emergency room wasn't even open until 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon. (We're not sure where people go with real emergencies, i.e., broken limbs, head trauma, gunshot wounds, sudden deadly illnesses, etc., because this clinic seemed ill equipped to handle anything of that magnitude.)
|The building in Lučenec that houses the "emergency room" we went to.|
We got there at a quarter to 4:00 p.m. to find the door to the building locked, and we were shocked to see no one else milling about outside waiting for it to open. When the door opened, we came into an outdoor courtyard which reeked of cigarette smoke from some nurses who had just finished their cigarette break. We found the waiting room, which was a small, brightly lit, white room with completely bare walls and four folding chairs. No one else was there.
When we were summoned, we were greeted by a very nice, soft-spoken, slender doctor who was probably in his 50s, and his young, no-nonsense, female nurse with a hairstyle that looked like an overgrown flat top. As the doctor didn't speak English, Terezia was my interpreter and she relayed the situation. He was instantly familiar with one of my inhalers (Ventolin; active ingredient: Albuterol), but my other inhaler (Qvar; active ingredient: Beclomethasone) was new to him, so he looked up Beclomethasone in this fat, dog-eared dictionary of drug names he had on his desk. After hearing my cough and listening to my chest, he was more than happy to write a prescription for both inhalers, and he even had his nurse administer me a shot which was supposed to somehow improve my breathing (not sure that it did anything).
But the whole time, this guy was acting absolutely delighted to be treating an American, saying he never gets to treat Americans. He asked us about where in America we're from, what we do for work, what the hell we were doing in that part of Slovakia, etc. He also said Terezia's English sounded like a beautiful song, and he loved hearing her translate for me. He seemed like a genuinely nice doctor.
Then came the bill, and no, this did not turn out to be some horror story where an uninsured foreigner has to go to the hospital and ends up having to foot some crazy medical bill. For being uninsured, the visit itself cost €11 instead of €2, and the prescription for the inhalers wound up being about €30 euros. Even though this was far less expensive that what a doctor's visit and the same prescriptions would cost me in the US with my insurance, the doctor and nurse nevertheless apologized profusely for these ridiculously cheap fees as if they were a massive burden.
The doctor said that if I had another rough night to come back to his regular office the next day, and he'd prescribe some stronger cough syrup and antibiotics, just to cover all bases.
When we left, the doctor even got up and gave me a hug!
That night was pretty rough, in part because I had to wait until the next day to get one of the inhalers from the pharmacy (and I really need both for them to be effective), so in the morning we went to his main office in another building across town, and when he heard us in the front room talking to the nurse, he recognized Terezia's voice and shouted excitedly to the nurse, "Oh, let them in, they're my friends!"
He prescribed what was supposedly a stronger cough syrup as well as antibiotics. Antibiotics have grown out of fashion because it's widely believed that they're overused for things they're often not meant to treat. But he seemed to think it was okay, just in case.
Before we left, he said, "Oh wait, just one more thing!" and jumped up from his desk to a file cabinet, and pulled out an enlarged aerial photograph of San Diego and the Coronado shore, and he asked us whether it was San Francisco or San Diego. Instantly recognizing the Hotel del Coronado along the beach, I told him it was San Diego, and he thanked us for setting him straight. When we asked how much to pay for this second visit, he waved his arm and said, "Nothing, don't worry about it!" He added that he's in this profession as a service to help people, not to get rich.
Moral of the story: I'm now going to have to take my whole damn medicine cabinet whenever we go away on trips out of fear that I'll catch another of my colds. Also, miraculously, Simon somehow managed not to catch this cold.
The Flight Back Home
The flight back home was a little rough at times, given that it was mostly a daytime flight, and Simon didn't sleep as much. We still managed to keep him preoccupied with a variety of toys and activities, but it was touch and go at some points.
But the most nightmarish part came after we landed in Oakland and had to wait in a massive rat's-maze line to get through immigration/customs. Doing this at SFO is bad enough, particularly when it's hit with a few international flight arrivals at once, but Oakland, being a smaller airport, seemed to be wholly unequipped to deal with it. We first waited for an agonizing 45 minutes to get through the first line for the electronic kiosks that scan your passport and take lovely shots of your exhausted, puffy-eyed, post-long-haul-flight mug, and then an additional half hour to get through the second line where custom's agents stamped our passports.
Adding insult to injury, there were only three - yes, three - agents working that evening (despite there being about a dozen desks), and one of them spent the entire time we were there giving the Spanish Inquisition treatment to one guy. Simon was so exhausted, cranky, and confused that he was screaming his head off. We tried offering snacks, milk, water, etc., but he wanted none of it. Eventually, a Norwegian couple in line behind us with a daughter near Simon's age offered us a squeeze tube of some vegetable puree, and probably just because it was different (i.e., not the snacks he'd been eating on the plane ride for the past 10 hours), Simon took it, and that at least kept him quiet and occupied for several minutes.
In the second rat's-labyrinth line, when we were getting close to the desks, a woman at the front of the line asked if wanted to go ahead. Of course, there were a few dozen people between her and us, but the general feeling was the pressing need to get that exhausted, screaming toddler out of that damn room, so no one objected.
I'm always shocked and baffled by how inefficient US customs/immigration is at airports. I don't know if it's that way by design, or if there's simply a serious lack of agents to work the desks, but it's such a "fuck you" to have to endure an hour or more of that crap after you've been traveling halfway around the world.
But we made it home in one piece, and then got to spend the next several nights dealing with Simon's jet lag. On that first night back, Simon woke up around 3:30 a.m. and never went back to sleep. The next night, Simon awoke at 1:30, went back to sleep around 4:30, and we all woke up again at 7:30. But the third night, Simon woke up at 3:00, and never got back to sleep. By the end of the week, we seemed to have fallen back into our normal sleep cycle, but it was rough going, and the older Terezia and I get, the harder we feel it is to deal with the jet lag.
So, was this trip worth it? Like the 2018 trip, I have mixed feelings about it. I think taking a toddler or two-year-old on a long trip like this is an utterly exhausting and incredibly challenging and stressful endeavor. At that age, kids don't fully understand what's going on or why, there's very little actual traveling that you can do, and the massive exhaustion you feel nearly cancels out everything else about the trip.
But it was great for Simon to get to spend lots of time with his grandparents, as well as his cousin Tea, and another cousin of his, Sasha. He had a wonderful time interacting with Tea and Sasha, and he also had fun with his uncle Tony. But the jet lag, and the stress of dealing with an energetic yet jet lagged two-year-old probably took a few years off my life, and I stand by my previous assertion that going on a long-haul trip abroad with kids this age is just a terrible idea (unless, of course, you're super rich and you travel with nannies).
So, I really don't want to go anywhere again until Simon is five, and I yearn for the time when we can actually go on real vacations again and travel!
Click here to see the full set of photos from the trip.