What’s Typical?


Yes. This is Slovakia.

Yesterday, I opened my computer. Then I typed. To paraphrase Truman Capote, I was typing, not writing. Eventually, I gave up and took a walk.

One might think I have something to write about. In the past three weeks, we spent two nights in Dresden (the most ornate town I can remember), three in Prague (a madhouse of a city, but we found a central, quiet spot and enjoyed ourselves), a day tour of Theresienstadt (a fortified village in the former Sudetenland named for Maria Theresa and subsequently hijacked as a Nazi propaganda concentration camp), four nights in Dubrovnik (is this the most beautiful–and most touristed–spot on earth?) and a wine tour of Bosnia (to quote our guide, “I guess I’m Bosnian. But in my mind, I’m a Yugoslav. Can you imagine if your country no longer existed?”). We reconnected with our friends Igor and Vlasta over dinner in old town Bratislava. And we nested.

All that, and still I had nothing to write about.

Frustrated, I closed my computer and told Pat I was going out to explore coffee shops near our apartment. Someone had asked me for a recommendation for breakfast. I set out to try an eclectic place I had noticed–which for lack of a better description, I’ll describe as a bistro.

Normally, questions about Bratislava–or Budapest–come with a caveat. “I’m looking for something typical.” This requires me to forget what I’ve learned over the last four years. The implication in the question is, “I’m looking for something stereotypical.”

At the bistro, I ordered the vegan and organic millet topped with pecans and blueberries. The restaurant is big and bright and modern with comfortable chairs that welcome a leisurely stay. Crazy music played, the type my kids could name, but I surely couldn’t. At first, the place was empty. But over time, Slovaks convened in pairs–college students or young professionals if I were to guess. They wore jeans and Converse tennis shoes. A man next to me ordered the millet.

I looked about and thought, I could be in Manhattan (New York or Kansas or the movie). As I slowly ate my millet, I asked myself, what is typical? Could I recommend this highly atypical restaurant that actually exists (and does its existence make it somewhat typical?)

No. To make this restaurant fly, I’d need to clean out the bit actors. They aren’t believeable. I’d put out a call for elderly, heavy set women wearing babushkas–teeth not mandatory, not even preferable. The menu should be much heavier in cheese and pork. Vegan? Never. The music would involve violins, but I’d call them fiddles.

There. I had built a restaurant I could recommend. If only it existed.

Who doesn’t get a thrill when a dapper man wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette waits patiently as his poodle lazily craps in the middle of a Parisian sidewalk?

Mind you, I’ve never seen this. But wouldn’t it be so typical?

I realized I can’t conjure typical Slovak very well. I decided it would be better if I thought about the United States. What if someone asked me, “Where can I go to see typical America?”

Would I send them to Wall Street to watch men in thousand dollar suits close million dollar deals merely by shouting into their iPhones? Or would I send them to the Appalachian Mountains to meet a family with no running water and lots of children playing happily in the creek? A city as diverse as Philadelphia?  Or as chill as a jazz club in New Orleans? As snowy as Minneapolis? Or as sunny and laid-back as Denver?

Boston? San Diego? Detroit?

Yosemite? Yellowstone? The Everglades?

Skiing in Colorado or surfing in Maui? Sledding in Michigan or skating on Lake Evergreen?

You see, it’s hard to choose because I think all of these options are so very typical.

I might send them to a small town in Iowa to work on a farm. Nothing defines America in my mind like the hard, physical work I associate with the heartland.

Or perhaps they would enjoy a New England Thanksgiving gathered around a table surrounded by far-flung family members on their annual pilgrimage home.

If turkey doesn’t work, they could eat dim sum or curry or pizza or barbecue (vinegar or tomato based? let’s not start that war) or Hattie B’s hot chicken.

Once, during a business trip to Buenos Aires, I had a colleague correct my description of something “typically American” (I can no longer remember what it was).

“No Julie, it’s not like that. Americans are rich and live in big houses. I know. I watch The O.C.!!”

I stood corrected.

Many people will only be satisfied once they see an ignorant group of Americans talking very, very loudly (for completeness, let’s make them overweight—and let’s set this in Disney World). “There!” they will exclaim, “Those rich Americans. So loud. So stupid. So fat. I KNEW IT!!” And they will smile, or even laugh out loud, because they will have seen the real America.

I digress.

If you are in Bratislava, go to Mondieu Laboratoire in old town. Have the millet, it’s delicious. They sweeten it with a drizzle of dark chocolate.

I’m not sure if that’s typical.








Categories: Central/Eastern Europe

2 replies

  1. This line? This line right here?

    I could be in Manhattan (New York or Kansas or the movie).

    When I read this line, I envied your writing abilities. For the umpteenth time.

    Thanks for sharing your gift with the world!

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