By Michal Hvorecký
Translated from Slovak by Eva Hudecová and Mark Lencho
He arrived in Hungary for the first time at the end of August in 1989. The years of his childhood were just as sleepy and tired as the leading party’s speeches, as slow as a Trabant on a freeway and as monotonous as the afternoon broadcast of the Czechoslovak Radio. The two months of vacation, between July 1st and August 31st, were almost always the same. He would be stuck at home for weeks, where he would read and read, trying not to think about Mona. If he managed to talk his parents into it, they would leave town to explore such internationally renowned vacation spots as Kokava nad Rimavicou, Domazlice or Zemplinska Sirava, also called—out of pure desperation—the Slovak Sea. Tireless Soviet pilots in deafening fighter jets disturbed the sunny, idyllic scene—conscientiously guarding the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic against the invasion of hoards of westerners who longed for a fulfilling life in Eastern Europe. After Martin’s accident and subsequent treatment program, his father in dramatic fashion agreed to a first vacation abroad—a trip to a spa to help speed Martin’s recovery from wounds to his leg.
His father announced that if they were going to travel, let it be to a town on the Danube. Both he and Martin longed to get to know Budapest. They took their Skoda 105, whose name left the impression that before it there were 104 previous models and that the current model was the pinnacle of a long period of development. This was not the case. In truth, with such a marvel of socialist automotive engineering, mountains, lakes, and oceans actually receded into the distance, as an hour-long car trip became four, even five times as long.
Back then, a trip to Hungary required preparation similar to that of international drug dealers before a transatlantic flight. Into cream tube dispensers and tent poles his parents stuffed bundles of West German Marks acquired at a ridiculously exaggerated exchange rate. The illegal money changers got rich even back then—everyone wanted Swiss Francs or American Dollars. Czechoslovak Crowns dissolved and slipped through one’s hands like so much sand. His mother prepared food and put it in jelly jars, enough for every day of their trip. The two-week stay on a camping ground that would be quarantined by any self-respecting health safety inspector cost his parents most of their savings.
The cursed vehicle broke down before they even left the outskirts of Bratislava. The fan belt tore, and his father replaced it with his mother’s stocking. This made for some stressful moments during the traffic snarl at the border, but the car pulled through. The unfriendly custom agents swarmed out of their stations, took their time checking everyone’s documents, searched the over-stuffed interiors, and, rumor had it, also checked some rear ends. People shivered with fear. Finally someone waved his hand. Martin’s father didn’t dare to accelerate until they were on the Hungarian side. Martin had managed to get abroad for the first time in his life.
In part, the vacation route paralleled the Danube. When Martin finally saw Budapest, the car blew a tire. The vehicle had been rattling on in the middle of the night like a machine gun. Wherever they passed, windows of houses would suddenly become illuminated, their occupants surely surmising that they were yet again being occupied by the Soviet Army.
Staying in a hotel was out of the question. Martin’s parents settled on a campground close to the Danube. The location was bursting at its seams, the clearing filled with sleeping bags and cars. The Roy family barely had any place to set up their orange monstrosity of a tent which weighed a ton, and which, despite its weight, afforded little room in which to move or stretch out comfortably.
The other tourists had arrived in East German vehicles manufactured in Zwickau made out of Duro-Plast. Their trunks boasted the absurd title “De Luxe.” The conspiratorial sounds of whispered Saxon German hung everywhere in the air. Even the children could feel the enormous tension. The awful changing stalls, unfit even for the use of livestock, overflowed each morning with these nervous East Germans, immersed in secretive deliberations that clearly had nothing to do with their vacations. Martin paid no heed, happy that there were only a few people in the pools.
The word “wellness” didn’t exist yet. In any event, the therapeutic mineral waters didn’t interest Martin in the least. He was hoping to find neon colored laces for his tennis shoes, reflective sunglasses, and a knock-off Adidas jacket. His world revolved around chocolate pancakes, comic books whose language he didn’t care to understand (Thank you very much, Hungarian!), and posters of Sandra or Michael Jackson. Back then, the latter was still black and particularly lively. The goods being hawked in all the open air markets were unabashedly gaudy. He wondered if Mona would like any of them. There were more and more Germans around every hour, looking ever poorer and more anxious.
One day, Martin woke up soaking with sweat in the tent, which was as hot as an oven. Still sleepy, he unzipped the door, stuck out his head and wiped his eyes open. At first, he thought that he was dreaming, and he started hoping for another dream with Nscho-Tschi, Winnetou’s daughter. It took him a while to realize that he was awake and that his senses were not deceiving him.
The Roy family was now entirely alone on the campgrounds. Nobody anywhere. The emptiness was underscored by an imposing silence. All around there sat Trabants that had been abandoned. The convoy of empty cars was dozens of miles long; it expanded in the direction of the border, where all barbed wire had been cut on June 27th. The ground was littered with East German products that didn’t interest Martin in the slightest. Despite his loneliness, he was overwhelmed with euphoria. His parents were arguing about what to do next. They decided to pack up. Martin walked in the direction of the abandoned pool. Something had definitely changed. Even though he didn’t at all understand politics, he realized that he was at a crossroads in history, and that his childhood was now over.
He stood on the upper deck, and the Hungarian signs were the only way he could tell that he was now in Hungary. The border had an otherworldly quality to it—he moved across it and realized that nothing had changed, but also that everything was different.
Born 1976 in Bratislava, Slovakia, Michal Hvorecký is the author of seven books of fiction that have been translated into five languages (German, Italian, Czech, Bulgarian and Polish). He studied art history in Nitra and was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He works at the Goethe Institute in Bratislava and is a contributor on culture and politics to various daily papers and magazines in Slovakia and Germany. He lives with his family in Bratislava.
Eva Hudecová was born in Bratislava, Slovakia, and has received a PhD in Comparative Literature with a minor in Germanic Studies from the University of Minnesota. She works in eastern and central European literature and culture, concentrating on the working through and reflection of totalitarian regimes. She speaks and translates seven languages, focusing on texts that seek to relate personal experiences and stories from socialist regimes and their aftermaths for the western reader.
Mark Lencho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches linguistics, general humanities, and composition courses. His recent publications explore linguistic comparisons of Slovak and English, including the problematics of translating from Slovak to English. In 2006/2007 academic year, he taught as a Fulbright scholar at Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia.
This excerpt has been taken from chapter 18 of Michal Hvorecký’s novel ‘Danube in America’, and appears with kind permission from the author and the translators.
 Zemplinska Sirava is the second largest water reservoir in Slovakia, frequently used as a vacation destination by Slovaks of lower income.
 The common term for these illegal money changers in Czechoslovakia was “Vekslaci.” This term came from the German word “wechseln,” which means “to exchange.” The “Vekslak” was a figure emblematic of the dying communist system, and the nascent capitalist system. These illegal money changers were the core, initial members of business mafias; they were the only ones who in the very early 1990s had enough money to be major players in the process of both small and large privatization. ‘Vekslaci’ were criminals who inhabited a space of coolness due to their knock-off tennis shoes, brightly colored and patterned tracksuits, a wide, ‘boss-like’ stance, and T-shirts/leather jackets with innumerable, and frequently misspelled, slogans in English. Their perceived authority and aura of coolness came just as much (if not more) from their demonstrative, almost carnivalesque, inhabitation of a foreign, Western space they knew nothing about, as it did from the fact that they were handling a lot of foreign currency. With their cooperation with the police via bribes, these ‘vekslaci’ created a mini country within a country, where the rules were set by the ‘vekslak’ bosses and the laws at large did not apply to them. For more information, see Hudecová’s article ‘Capitalism as Trauma: The Birth of the Early Eastern European Entrepreneur in Peter Pistanek’s Rivers of Babylon’ in ‘Creoles, Diasporas and Cosmopolitanisms’, edited by David Gallagher, Academica Press, 2012.
 The Soviets (in collaboration with Hungarian Communist leaders) had a major role in the violent suppression of the student uprising in Hungary in 1956. In 1968, the Soviet army, along with armies of other countries of the Warsaw Pact, invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, thus ending a hopeful set of reforms in the country, called Prague Spring.
 This is the light-weight, low quality, cardboard-like material that East-German products (including the Trabant) were made out of.
 The author doesn’t mention the brand here, but states that the jacket had to have “three lines,” which suggests a cheap Adidas knock off.
 Sandra Ann Lauer, whose stage name was just Sandra, was a German pop singer at the height of her influence in the ‘80s. During this time, her popularity in Europe compared to that of Michael Jackson or Madonna. She was and continues to be widely known throughout continental Europe with sales in excess of 30 million records.
 Winnetou was a series of German co-production cult movies filmed mostly in Yugoslavia. These films were very popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The hero, Winnetou, was a Native American, an Apache, who was befriended by a cowboy named Old Shatterhand. The movies followed the unlikely friendship of these two figures.
 The author is alluding to one of the key moments that started the events of the lifting of the Iron Curtain. In May of 1989, the Hungarian government allowed for a 150 mile long stretch of the border between Hungary and Austria to be opened. Some 30,000 citizens of the GDR, along with citizens of other Eastern Bloc countries took advantage of this opening, and fled via Czechoslovakia, to Austria and then to Western Germany. Because Czechoslovakia was at the time one of the only countries citizens of the GDR could travel to, many East Germans decided to go to Prague and request asylum at the West German embassy there. By early spring of 1989, the situation became volatile, and the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border came as an unexpected solution.