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March 21, 2011

Slovakia, Part 2

    The Novy Most (New Bridge) was built by the Communists in 1972 when I was in college and events in this part of the world were an outright mystery. It too has a distinctive show-off design, this time like an alien envisioned by HG Wells. A huge silver saucer with windows perched on giant stilts above the bridge extends cables to the bridge's middle. From one angle it looks like the figure is dominating and possessing the bridge; from another it is shooting death rays.
    To make room for the bridge's entry into Bratislava proper, the Communists took out most of the Jewish quarter near my hotel. Next door there are a few remnants including a tiny Jewish-Life-in-Slovakia museum and the Chez-David Pension plus a Kosher Restaurant across the street. I pop into the museum for a few minutes. Small but rich with artifacts and basic definitions of Jewish customs. The Communists didn't have to clear the ghetto of its inhabitants to make the bridge-road because they all left before 1950. Now there are only 4000 Jews in the whole country, "mostly living in cities," the curator says, implying that life would be impossible for them in small, rural villages.
    The gene pool is here exceptionally mixed. Estonians seem to know they are Estonian, especially as distinct from Russians, and the Soviets rounded up the Poles from other Soviet bloc countries and returned them to Poland, so Poland is unmistakably filled with Poles. Slovakia, however, is in a region with borders that have shifted like the tides down through the centuries. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary all bump against each other. An art museum director calls the area “the Far Closeness.”
    I found a Mexican restaurant last night with great food that is only vaguely Mexican. Paprika replaces chili peppers in this part of the world so the effect is odd but tasty. I noticed all the waitresses are wearing black t-shirts with the same logo: a red circle with a line through it showing a hand groping a large breasted woman. Underneath a caption says “Only for Boss.” I feel a jab of pity and remember a cab driver in Romania who had a similar sign on his dashboard. When I asked why, he said that drunken male passengers often groped their female companions in his cab. Despite the restaurant boss’ loutish joke the warning on the t-shirt was about something real.
    When I ask my one local contact to give me three words that describe “Slovakian” she thinks hard before replying “outgoing, nature lovers, underpaid.”
    She says she has arguments with her Hungarian friends about whether Atilla the Hun rightfully claimed the area or whether he stole it. The Hungarians claim he traded it for a white horse but the Slovaks in the group will argue that there were no white horses in Asia during Atilla’s time.
    As in all of Eastern Europe, the people here butt in line or threaten to. I speculate that it is a hang-over from the Communist days when life was harder, supplies were skimpy and you couldn’t trust strangers. They have tunnel vision until they get their place in line; then they wait. I notice at a tram waylay that the older people, the ones who would have lived under Communist rule, wait with a contained, passive stillness. The younger ones are more mobile, twitchy with life or half-dancing to iPods.
    The police seem friendly or at least don’t stand out unlike, say, in Prague where they have a spooky, paramilitary cast. Here they seem matched to the relaxed context. In the tourist quarter, they act service-oriented and courtly.
    Culturally, Bratislava doesn't exactly seem to know what it is right now. Or rather it is conscious of what it has lost on the way to becoming something new. There are references to an inferiority complex it may have compared to the much larger Vienna. As if to reassure, a Viennese magazine calls the city "Vienna's confident little sister." Referring to the Communists a local publisher says, "The old Bratislava almost disappeared from the map. Our cultural heritage has suffered enormous damage. Put simply, two or three post-war generations wrecked almost everything that has been built over the centuries."
    As a visitor I realize I've made a mistake concentrating solely on the capital. The rest of the country looks fascinating.


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