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Day 1: Birmingham to Bratislava

The holiday got off to an inauspicious start when I dropped my pedometer in the toilet. I have a long history of losing pedometers, and this is not the first one which I have sent to a watery grave in the sewerage system. My first instinct was to flush it away but, not wanting to block our drains when we were on the verge of setting off an epic journey, and seeing that some figures were still visible on the LCD display, I closed my eyes, plunged my hand in and retrieved it.

To my not inconsiderable surprise, it still appeared to be working. Its adventure had obviously left it dirty and bug-infested, however, so flushed with my success I decided to rinse it off under the cold water tap. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and with its benefit I can see that it maybe wasn't the best plan in the world to hold a barely-functioning electronic device under running water for several minutes. At the time, it honestly did seem like a good idea but, needless to say, within a matter of seconds I became the sheepish owner of a hygienic, but utterly useless, pedometer. The lights on the LCD display flickered for one final time before giving up the ghost entirely.

Despite this traumatic interlude and the increasingly frantic nature of my packing, we were actually ready to depart for our big adventure half an hour before we needed to be. I have to confess that, in the days leading up the holiday, I had become increasingly nervous about the whole idea, particularly when it had looked like our (very expensive) international train tickets were going to fail to arrive before our scheduled departure date. Colleagues and family members alike had expressed surprise and disbelief when I explained to them that we were going to Ukraine, particularly when I added that this would involve a train journey in excess of 30 hours. As we made our way to the airport, I was starting to wonder whether perhaps they had a point and we were mad after all.

Flying with Ryanair is never a life-affirming experience and this occasion was no exception. Happily, thanks to the purchase of a set of baggage scales, we succeeded in staying within the prescribed weight limits and not incurring any additional charges. Other people were not so lucky and, the passengers being mainly Slovaks returning home, struggled to understand the barked instructions of the Brummie flight attendants as they inspected our hand luggage. Penned in like cattle as we waited to board, it was slightly surprising to note that our plane had not even arrived at Birmingham airport yet. We stood for what seemed like an eternity in small, enclosed space, while it landed, parked and spewed out its passengers. The only consolation of our late departure was that, upon our subsequent late arrival in Bratislava, the crew were unable to play that exceptionally annoying jingle which usually proclaims the fact that yet another Ryanair flight has landed on time.

It was dark when the plane did land just after 10 pm, a circumstance I had not reckoned with when I booked us a room at the Penzion Slovport, an alleged 800m walk from the airport. Having endured two hours of freezing air-conditioning during the flight, I was slightly concerned that we would emerge into an equally cold Bratislava and have to suffer a long and difficult search for our accommodation with the potential to contract hypothermia before we located it. I needn't have expended the energy to worry, however, as the heat that hit us as we disembarked from the plane was tropical. Slovakia was obviously enjoying a better summer than the UK!

The sense of relief I felt when discovering I had passed my degree is surpassed by the sense of relief I feel each time I retrieve my baggage from a Ryanair flight. I was disappointed on this occasion, however, to see that they had managed to break the beautiful duck keyring which Babel had bought me to help me identify my shiny new suitcase. Somewhat upset, we set off to track down the Penzion Slovport.

Had it been broad daylight, I have no doubt that this would have been a laughably easy undertaking. As we discovered the following morning, the Penzion is more or less visible from the main door of the airport. In total darkness, however, it was less straightforward, and we wasted a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to exit the airport itself. Although Bratislava airport is really quite small and compact, the car park and associated slip roads have not really been designed to be negotiated by pedestrians, presumably because the local planning authorities did not imagine that any foreigners would be foolhardy enough to attempt to leave it on foot, lugging a large amount of heavy luggage behind them.

That, however, is precisely what we attempted to do. The easy solution would undoubtedly have been to have hired a taxi... but it seemed like such a waste of money for a mere 800m and I thought we would probably have got ripped off. So we persevered on foot instead, eventually managing to find our way out of the airport and onto a main road which, happily, had a pavement. The streets were deserted, which was probably just as well, as it may not have been a very safe undertaking, to be walking through an anonymous part of Eastern Europe so late at night and looking so lost and foreign.

The most remarkable thing about this epic, suitcase-dragging trek was actually the insect life. Thick swarms of flies were congregating under every lamppost and the ugly buzzing sound of cicadas was constant. Many years ago I read a story which involved someone going mad... or possibly being invaded by aliens/ghosts/body snatchers... and the main thrust of the story was that she could never escape from the sound of cicadas in her head. I've never felt the same way about them since.

Within half an hour we caught sight of the Penzion Slovport looming on the horizon. We had been a bit remiss with our learning of Slovak, having concentrated all available energy on acquiring some basic Russian, and so communicating with the girl behind the reception was a bit of a challenge. She unleashed a torrent of Slovak at us and it was a very lucky guess indeed which enabled us to realise that she was asking us to pay the local tourist tax.

I don't know what to say about our room, except to state that it was very... Soviet. Kitted out with a Paisley carpet that might have been fashionable in England in the 1970s, it contained two narrow single beds lined up against opposite walls and a long, low table which was covered by a flowery oilcloth and appeared to serve no useful purpose. A couple of decrepit armchairs, which looked like they had been painfully losing their springs for several years, completed the furnishings. For what we paid, it was more or less what I expected, and we had the benefit of a bathroom across the hallway which was clean and only shared with two other rooms. The only thing I could really find to complain about were the bugs.


Now there had, admittedly, been a lot of bugs outside, but I didn't think it ought to follow that there should be a lot of bugs inside too, especially considering that we were on the second floor and the windows appeared to be shut tight. Notwithstanding this, while Tim was off exploring the bathroom, I was required to act with courage and conviction to end the life of a particularly monstrous flying ant. Later, as we were literally about to turn the lights out, I spied a beetle crawling on my rucksack. I like to pride myself on the fact that I have a very well-developed bug-radar and it was quite a feat to spot this horrible black creature against the dark blue of my bag. I hoped it was a beetle. It could have been, or it could have been a cockroach. Tim knocked it off for me and we lost sight of it before there was time to establish its identity. The very thought that it might have been a cockroach was enough to send my tired mind into overdrive though and that, combined with the frustrated buzzing of a large moth who had somehow got trapped behind the curtain, suddenly made sleep seem like the very opposite of a good idea. I did manage to drop off in the end, but it was with the conviction that I could awake at any moment to find myself drowning in beetles...

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