top of page


Nicole Masnicak 

1985. They drudged uphill as the sun beat down on Embassy Row, and the broad, leafy trees provided no real solace in the thick July heat. Rivers of sweat ran along their hairlines; they were melting in their cotton shirts, dreaming of the future—specifically a new wardrobe that would allow them to beat the heat even during the hottest week of the year.

But then, they kept walking. Ambling. Laughing about having to bleach their white t-shirts. Stopping every few meters to peep through the metal rods, to catch glimpses of the stoic government blocks hidden behind thick white concrete walls. Wondering if anyone even lived on the floors above ground, or if those were just for show, if life only existed five stories below. Hand in hand, sweat mingling, but he never let go.

She never dreamed of slipping through the cracks. They stared at the cinderblock mansions, colorless in their communist glory— homes of people made elite through convenient connections and velvet bribery. Talent was only part of the equation when strongly reinforced by other operations, never discussed outright but always alluded to. Staring at the nameless dignitaries, she didn’t know that this was the edge of the abyss, that his curiosity was convincing him to jump.

Overhead, the unconcerned sun dominated in the cloudless sky. Slavín (1) greeted them at the top of the hill— a towering monument, not dissimilar to the one 7,000 kilometers across the Atlantic, in Washington. The meticulously-organized gravestones, memorializing the fallen soldiers of the Second World War, sat undisturbed as the couple’s quiet laughter floated through the hazy air. They remained in the shadows beneath the trees and stared out at the small manicured lawns. The only other people in the vicinity were a family of four— two parents and two small children, one child eating a snack in his stroller, crumbs decorating his shirt front, and the other running around the organized pathways, utterly unfazed by the suffocating heat.

Below, Bratislava had finally awoken. Red roofs and off-white buildings, the peak of Slavic communist architecture, stretched as far as the eye could see. Cars were scattered around the city, but there was no traffic. The same with people: tourists— neighbors, really, because residents of the Eastern bloc were only allowed to travel within the safe space of communist regime— helped the locals stock the streets. But even then, Blava’s (2) population was sparse.

Prague took it all, leaving Bratislava to fend for itself as a secondary capital. The hard work ethic showed in every face, in the cardboard creases of foreheads and the sand paper smiles of mouths. That is, if a smile appeared at all— people were afraid to smile publicly in those days. They didn’t know any better. They didn’t know that across the ocean, the land of the free meant also free to smile. That the unalienable rights included the word happiness. That it wasn’t just a word or a concept, but an attainable characteristic of life.

In the near distance, Hrad (3) squatted— a mixed-use castle complex whose versatility betokened the Slovak spirit. Through all the changes of hands, it remained a distinct part of Bratislava’s architectural highlights, a proud symbol of Slovak culture, and a reminder that Blava didn’t need to be Praha (4)— it’s its own city. Hrad represented the simple steadfastness of the people, the subsequent success achieved by hard work and humility. And it represented the divide between Slovaks and Czechs, the underlying tension felt by the decreasingly-unified country and its neighbors.

Post-war renovations streamlined the castle’s look, made it a subtly magnificent architectural block that effortlessly blended into the sea of scarlet and white that flooded the valley of the city. The Dunaj (5) was just barely visible below, the very thought of its comfortingly cloudy blue-green water enough to refresh the couple as they leaned against a tree trunk and admired the view. Respected the view. They could see their Petržalka (6) apartment across the river, part of the uniform of dirty cinderblock buildings.

It wasn’t often that they could go out in public together, especially during the day. Her job as a statistician’s assistant kept her busy during the week; university classes had, until recently, monopolized her evenings. He worked in air traffic control; his inconsistent shifts sabotaged any potential for a functional Circadian rhythm. But here, for a moment, they could relax. Maybe even smile. Appreciate the incredible city life they had achieved at the early age of twenty-five— a life not usually offered to meager villagers like them, not without the right connections. The lazy breeze played with the leaves overhead and their wedding rings glinted in the transient sunlight. A peaceful day. They couldn’t feel that their country’s government was crumbling inside those same embassy complexes they had passed earlier. In that moment, all they felt was the sticky feeling of drying sweat as they sat in the shade.

That was when he popped the big question. Or, more accurately, he gave a statement with a monumental underlying question:

“I want to go to America.” Translate: “Will you come to America with me?”

Her body stiffened impulsively.


“Think about it.” He allowed her a moment to acknowledge the unexpected situation he just propelled them into. “I can’t stand it here anymore. The fake freedom, it’s killing me. I want to see the world— beyond the bloc. Pol’sko, Mad’arsko, vychodné Nemecko (7)— not even all of it, just the eastern half! I want to see the world outside of communism. Think about it.”

Silence. The quiet hum of the city felt deafening. Her heart pulsed in her throat. Did the world always spin this fast? She cleared her throat. Spoke deliberately. “We…we have a decent life here. Why, why would you want to risk everything to give it up?” Deep breath. He let her speak, he didn’t interrupt. “I just finished university. You know they are filing paper work right now to give me a promotion, increase my salary. We are lucky to have our own apartment in this city at such a young age. Why throw it all away?”

“You’re talking like a Klačanar (8). Open up your mind, think about the potential!”

“Of course I’m thinking like a Klačanar!” she yelled back, shaking from fear. “I am a Klačanar— and so are you! My parents worked so hard to make the connections that got us out of that tiny village and into this city. Don’t disrespect my family by suggesting we throw it away to live on pennies and pigskins with the rest of the poor immigrants in America. Tut. We have a good groundwork here. Don’t be stupid.”

The sun suddenly stopped sharing its warmth— his ludicrous passion made her blood run cold. She turned around to look for the family that was nearby earlier, but they had disappeared. The sun reached its peak. They were the only two at the memorial.

“Blava is barely a city,” he snickered. “Praha is the hub, Praha is the control, we are nothing here but the rejects of the capital, the small big city closer to the east so big brother can extend his eye from here to Košice (9)—” He stopped, and softened his voice. In 1985, people still disappeared from plain sight. He needed to be more careful. “I want freedom,” he repeated. “I want to see the movies in theaters when they come out, and not three years later, after communism has censored them accordingly. I want to travel to countries where people don’t understand our language, whose news channels we don’t grow up listening to. We’re not unskilled. We already know some English. I want to go. We don’t have kids— it would be so easy to get separate visas, slip through the cracks. We’ll say we’re just visiting Janno. Apply for political asylum— easy.” He gave her time to react, but when she stayed silent, he softly dropped the next bomb: “I’m going, with or without you. So you can either come with me, or get arrested and go to jail. But I’m going.”

Black spots clouded her vision and her body felt like it was about to be split in two from pure heartbreak. Of all the things she could have said, she only had the strength for one question: “And what if communism falls before we leave?”

Stubbornness shone through in his hazel eyes. “It won’t…but if it does, then I would be a little more willing to stay.”

She stared out at the small big city, the hub of eastern Czechoslovakia but a weakling compared to the powerhouse that was Prague. The scarlet roofs were unbothered by their exasperated conversation. A few small clouds formed a makeshift dotted line along the horizon. She imagined signing her name on the visa paperwork, signing her life away.

Blava was her dream— how could she ever leave it behind?



1 Slavín: WW2 memorial with views that overlook Bratislava

2 Blava: Slang for Bratislava (think: Philadelphia vs. Philly)

3 Hrad: Slovak word for Castle

4 Praha: Slovak translation of Prague

5 Dunaj: Danube River, the second-longest river in Europe (runs through eastern/central Europe)

6 Petržalka: Suburb of Bratislava, across the river from Bratislava’s Old Town

7 Pol’sko, Mad’arsko, vychodné Nemecko: Poland, Hungary, East Germany (Czechoslovaks were only allowed to travel to these countries, plus Bulgaria and Romania, etc.)

8 Klačanar: Someone from Klačany, a small village about an hour outside of Blava

9 Košice: Eastern Slovakia’s “big city”, humble compared to Bratislava and more like a big town compared to Prague

bottom of page