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Archive for the ‘“From East to East (and Back East Again)”’ Category

BRATISLAVA – I’m out working late tonight, still trying to clear a backlog of assignments. But I can’t resist sharing with you the cast of characters I just passed in my 10-minute walk to a downtown cafe.

Why? Because for the Slovakia-curious – I know you’re out there, admit it – it’s a quick snapshot of Bratislava’s reality. The Good. The Bad. The Pitiful.

First up, I see a young couple near the corner of Lazaretska and Grosslingova, my home street. They’re holding hands, smiling, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. (Or at least pretending to.)

I haven’t yet seen any touristy, “Bratislava Is For Lovers!” t-shirts. More popular is any reference to Slovak beer. Or its consumption. However, the public mating ritual is certainly a constant around here. And a nice antidote to the politics that tries to poison relations between majority Slovaks and minority Hungarians.

Next, I see a young boy of 4 or 5, gliding on a pedal-less wooden bike beside a middle-aged man, who could be his father or grandfather. Slovaks seem to enjoy their children, especially heading into the great outdoors en famille.

Moreover, Bratislava is not only the capital, but the hub of economic, intellectual and cultural life. You see several generations of the same family here, as in, original Pressburg families. Then there are all the folks from the countryside who came here for university, pursue a career, or simply hunt down any sort of available job. Eventually, some bring their parents here as well.

That means lots of grandparents watch their grandkids, while mom and dad are working. Heart-warming to see, speaking as someone whose kids unlucky not to have grandparents on hand. Warts and all. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — I’ve often described to family and friends the “healthy emotional distance” I enjoy from American politics, while living overseas: I follow it from afar, while thankfully not submerged in it.

Like, right now. With the ongoing battle over health-care reform, the escalating Obama-hatred definitely feels scarier than the Bush-hatred that preceded it.

So, what’s the difference? Could it really be Obama’s blackness has unleashed all sorts of latent and not-so-latent racism? That epithets like “radical Communist,” “Marxist” and “socialist” – which sound odd from real-McCoy, ex-Communist Eastern Europe – are coded substitutes for the suicidal “N”-word? Or that “white, Christian America” feels besieged, and won’t have their country “stolen” without a fight?

I just Skype-chatted with an American friend of mine in Vietnam, who thinks the culture of “victimization” has somehow seeped into the minds of many conservatives. I’d go further. My own take from thousands of miles away is this: incitement and hate-speech work. If circumstances are ripe for it.

An analogy: when Yugoslavia exploded into an inter-ethnic bloodbath the early 1990s, many in the West resisted intervention, rationalizing: “These ethnic groups have hated each other for centuries. What can we do about that?” Yet that ignored the fact it was charismatic leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman who pricked and provoked their people, hammering away at historic grievances that many folks had pushed to the shadows. Or, may have been unaware of altogether.

What Milosevic and Tudjman did, essentially, was convince people to hate “the other.” Just like, it seems, what agitators Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others are doing right now. They feed their audience’s deepest fears – or even stoke fears they never had before. Then, watch the hatred flow.

I’m certainly not suggesting it will lead to Bosnian-style butchery in America’s streets. But I’m reminded once again what shrewd observers say about the Holocaust: it began with words, not bullets.

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BRATISLAVA — This weekend, Serbia followed through on its threat to boycott and torpedo a Balkans-European Union summit, over a simple but enormously symbolic issue: it rejected the attendance of “independent” Kosovo.

This interested me for two reasons. First, as a journalist who’s reported from Kosovo three times (including the aftermath of the 1999 NATO airstrikes), it underscores the continued fragility of the now-severed Serbian province. I’m now putting the finishing touches on an article that explains why Kosovo Roma refugees are reluctant to return home. Serbia’s stance adds to their anxiety.

Second, from my vantage point in Slovakia, I’m reminded the EU is hardly united on the issue of Kosovo statehood. Washington and most of Western Europe stand behind Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. But Serbia has in its corner Orthodox-Slav big brother, Russia. As one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Moscow blocks Kosovo’s UN integration.

More quietly, though, EU members Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Spain also oppose Kosovo statehood. Why? Because of the domino effect of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Greece and Cyprus fear the same for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey); for Spain, it’s the Basques; and for Slovakia and Romania, it’s their large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, who primarily populate lands that were once part of Hungary.

Spain’s position on Kosovo is most awkward, considering Madrid holds the EU’s rotating presidency. For me, the Slovakia-Hungary-Romania tension is most palpable. Anxiety over Hungarian “irredentism” – whether real or contrived – rears its head surprisingly often, as a weapon to whip up the masses.

In fact, there’ll be lots of noise on June 4th, when Hungary’s far-right marks the 90-year trauma of the Treaty of Trianon, which lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, and left one-third of its brethren inside new, alien borders.

I’ll surely have a few thoughts about that.

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BRATISLAVA — At last, Bulgaria seems to be doing something about its notorious corruption problem, a necessary step to appease the European Union and keep billions of aid flowing into the Balkan country.

On Thursday, Bulgaria – the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member – scored its first high-profile conviction of a government official, an ex-agriculture honcho sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly stealing millions of EU funds.

I’m sure ordinary Bulgarians are delighted. Many have told me how angry and embarrassed they are about Bulgaria’s image, and how they despair that anything will ever change.

In late 2008, I explored Bulgaria’s endemic graft in a series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor, highlighting how particularly widespread it is in agriculture and road construction.

As I wrote then, Brussels was fed up with Sofia’s empty promises to crack down on “a smorgasbord of sleaze, including alleged vote-buying … shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and the failure to seize financial assets of purported gangsters. The final straw was an investigation of 35 EU-funded projects in Bulgaria – it found financial irregularities in all but one.”

What made this situation unique was Bulgaria had already been admitted to the EU in early 2007, raising the question: Once a country is in the club, how to react when a new member behaves badly? Worried about how aspiring members might view inaction, Brussels made an example out of Sofia, smacking it with an unprecedented punishment: $315 million in aid was withdrawn.

Bulgaria’s attitude shifted with last July’s election of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate coach who vowed to get tough on corruption. Brussels has wanted Bulgarian authorities to send a message throughout society that lawlessness won’t be tolerated, and will continue to push for more “results,” one analyst in the capital tells me.

“Brussels knows Sofia cannot do this quick and will probably muddle through, but wants to at least see some progress,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for Study of Democracy. “Brussels trusts Sofia is serious this time.”

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A glimpse up Kapitulská. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – Patches of sunshine teased us today, but you couldn’t ignore the bone-chilling cold. Still, Kapitulská Ulica beckoned me for a brisk walk. 

From the 16th to 19th century, “Canonry Street” greeted the first steps of the newly coronated Hapsburg kings and queens, who descended from the St. Martin’s Cathedral, whose exterior is now partly blackened by soot.

Today, you can hardly imagine such pomp. While Kapitulská is the most authentic section of Old Town Bratislava, it’s also the most neglected. 

Both reasons make it my favorite spot in Bratislava, a fragment of the past where I blur my eyes to visualize life in “Mitteleuropa” centuries ago. 

It’d been several weeks since I’d been back there, as it’s the farthest walk from our apartment just outside the Old Town. (Parenting duties now dictate that those extra 20 minutes are better spent on my backlog of assignments.) 

But today’s sunlight, so deceptive, put me in a Kapitulská state of mind. I set out on the winding, cobblestoned lane — as always, on guard not to sprain an ankle on the steep stones – admiring the simple but elegant two-story homes, with archways tall enough for the horse-drawn carriages. 

Today, though, I was reminded of the striking difference between Kapitulská and the hub of the Staré Mesto, or “Old Town,” just a couple blocks away. While that quaint, period-piece restoration (and multitude of cafes) draw stylish Slovaks and a stream of tourists, Kapitulská looks untouched. 

For better … and for worse. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – You couldn’t miss him: a 30-something Rom, on crutches, with five-day-old stubble. (Matching mine.)

He had planted himself smack in the middle of the stone-paved Old Town, his feet pointed inward, like an extreme case of pidgeon-toed-ness. He was begging from passers-by, who averted his eyes and refused to break stride, the prejudice against “Gypsies” too deeply ingrained.

Normally, I would check him out, but not stare too long … and probably keep walking. I just couldn’t imagine doing what he was doing. What line do you cross when you start to think, “Then I’ll go beg.”

It occurred to me: Why do I feel sympathetic to a bedraggled Caucasian in the streets, but not this guy? Because I’m not immune to the nasty stereotype of the Roma as beggars? Or that it’s all some kind of “scam”?

(To my eye, and I’ve lived in the region since 1993, beggars represent the thinnest sliver of a widely diverse nation that numbers anywhere from 10-15 million. For some reason, though, the ethnic majorities who the Roma live among often conflate the two, defaming an entire people.)

I was hurrying to have a productive afternoon, so couldn’t stop to chat. Yet there’s always time for a brief interaction. I flipped through my memory bank and pulled out So vakeres? That’s Romani, I believe, for “What’s up?”

Fishing out a euro, I approached his open palm. I tossed out my friendly greeting. He locked onto my eyes, smiled large, and uttered something in Romani. (It certainly wasn’t Slovak or Hungarian.)

It was a cool moment, on a cold but sunny day.

I don’t quite know what it meant to him. (Let’s assume it was meangingful, OK?) For me, though, I realize that after a year of training young Romani journalists in how to explore interesting Roma topics, I’ve become a Roma-phile. I can’t help but humanize them whenever I can.

If this fellow wants to earn a living this way, why not help out now and then.

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BRATISLAVA – Here in one of Europe’s least-known capitals, I don’t come across many groups of young foreigners who actually live in Bratislava. Not like in magnetic Prague. If my ear serves me right, I’ve identified packs of university students here from places like Spain, Greece, Israel and the Middle East.

Since I don’t speak their language, I can sit in a cafe and enjoy people-watching from a distance without actually understanding what silliness they’re roaring about. I can also concentrate and get work done. A pleasant combination.

Tonight, though, I’m in a smoky cafe, and the only available table is cozily next to a trio of Westerners. Speaking English. Loudly. The two guys seem to be Brits, the woman a Scandinavian of some stripe.

They seem well-meaning, curious enough to want to explore Europe. They also sound too seasoned and familiar with each other to be back-packers … Wait, there’s talk of summer break. University students. Studying theater.

Their coarse language, though, is becoming noise pollution. I can barely block it out. The only reason I’m out working late is to push forward an article I’m writing about the Kosovo Roma refugees withering away in Macedonia.

One of the fellows is on my nerves with graphic detail about his jiu-jitsu trainings. How graphic? Well, I’m hearing way more than I need to hear about what exactly it feels like to be kicked in the head, or taken down hard.

If I were out for a beer or two, maybe I’d ask a few questions. Like, why the hell anyone would want to do that to their brain. But tonight I’m into a pot of jasmine tea – and this close to relocating my laptop.

(If there were an empty seat, of course.) (more…)

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[NOTE: This was written by a former TOL foreign-correspondent trainee of mine in Prague. It appeared in the March 7 edition of The Arab News.]

By Hassna’a Mokhtar

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The decision to leave my country came after I knocked on many doors of the Saudi bureaucracy, hoping in vain to obtain the God-given right to live with my Arab-Canadian husband in the country of my birth.

Instead of a residency permit, I was called names and degraded. Why? Because I, a Saudi, had chosen to marry a non-Saudi.

Not only was I humiliated, I was also approached for bribes of up to SR40,000 (about $10,600) by people claiming to know how to manipulate the system. My husband was kicked out of Saudi Arabia twice because his temporary status had lapsed. At one point in this ridiculous process, an immigration official lost my husband’s Canadian passport.

It was at the end of this long, fruitless and humiliating journey that I realized giving up and moving to Canada was the best decision to make.

Living constantly in distress because my country refuses to grant my beloved husband legal status is infuriating.

I tied the knot in June 2008, but only after a year of frustration in order to obtain the Interior Ministry’s permission.

At one point in that process my father-my legal guardian-escorted me to the ministry to obtain legal recognition of my marriage. At the marriage license office, I interrogated the woman behind the desk … (more…)

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We Bratislavers enjoyed the warming weather this week. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I read the sports pages, which nowadays are obsessed with statistics. Well, I would like to note that I myself set a career record the other day.

Not something cool-sounding, like “Most publishable words produced in a single day.” No, this is one that you aspiring journalists out there should desperately avoid: how many months I went between jotting notes in my notepad, and finally starting to jig-saw together an article from those same notes.

Ten months. Ten months!

I think my previous record was about six months, set back after my 2008 trip to Kazakhstan. Boy, do I remember how painful that was. “Never again,” I muttered to my wife, over and over.

This time, in the spirit of Vancouver, I’ve bettered that mark. Oh, I’ve got terrific excuses for why I foolishly shoved an important project to the back-burner. (The Hong Kong posts below explain a lot.)

Just know, it’s hung over me for months. I knew the bill would come due.

For those of you who haven’t gone through this before, how to describe it?

First off, I’m reading that chicken-scratch penmanship. Especially, if I’ve taken notes while walking, sitting in a moving car, or if someone is just talkin’ fast.

When the material is still relatively fresh, it’s much easier to decipher certain words. I can feel the context. The words around it trigger the memory and sensation of speaking with some unique character, in some place that 99 percent of the world’s population would consider “exotic.”

Those embers, though, start to go cold after a while.

This week, I’ve been reading through, and it’s like poking into an attic of mementos. (“Was I buying that guy’s story as he was talking?”) Slowly, I’m breathing life into those notes. I’ll also spruce them up with updated research and fresh interviews.

Those articles, produced with young Romani reporters in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania (visited last month), will appear in the coming weeks in Transitions Online. And on this blog, of course.

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Slovakia sent the Swedes packing.

BRATISLAVA – That’s what Slovakia’s leading sports daily blared this morning: “Attack for a medal!” It’s the rally cry for their Cinderella of a hockey team: snag a medal, any medal.

To conquer its semi-final foe tonight, the behemoth Canada, on its own ice, in front of 19,000 rabid fans, may be too much to ask of Slovakia. Sure, hockey is the national sport for this Central European nation of five million; we see Slovak tykes as young as three in full hockey gear, carving up the rinks.

Sure, the national hockey team won the world championship in 2002, and consistently ranks among the top ten in the world. However, in the four previous Olympics since Slovakia gained independence from the ex-Czechoslovakia in 1993, its hockey team finished no higher than fifth.

That’s why Wednesday’s stunning victory over defending-champion Sweden was so significant: the 4-3 nail-biter guaranteed Slovakia its best-ever finish.

Indeed, my wife wondered why there was no traffic early yesterday morning: a Slovak colleague later explained that most everyone was home, watching Slovakia withstand the final, frenetic minutes of the Swedish team.

Thanks to the nine-hour time difference with Vancouver, the epic semi-final today begins here at 3:45 in the morning. Could there be a worse time for a television event? Slovaks country-wide will be thrust into a quandary: stay up late, or get up early? (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — Today I headed to one of the city’s most dynamic arteries, Obchodna Ulica (or “Shop Street”). My target was a pretty good café, but more importantly, the juice to power my laptop for a while.

Navigating my way, I decided to cut through the Chinese market and its gauntlet of hanging clothes. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the dominant Slavic, Hungarian and Germanic features here. Plus, saves time!

Seeing the Chinese faces of the peddlers, it struck me: “Hey, now I can say ‘Hi’ to them in their own language.”

I don’t know why I often feel a need to chat with strangers. In whatever language I can muster a few words. I suppose a major reason is the solitude of freelancing. Also, I’ve asked around: I think I’m a foreign press corps of one. So, I need the occasional human interaction.

In the market, a young Chinese woman stood in front of her stall of blue jeans.

“Ni hao,” I said, clumsily. Hello.

It’s one of the few phrases in Mandarin I learned during my week in Yunnan Province. I tried, but I guess Cantonese really is limited to parts of southern China. My students and colleagues were right indeed.

The young woman seemed tongue-tied and said nothing. But I didn’t stop or look back. (Wasn’t feeling that vibe.) Three stalls down, a second chance: a young Chinese man, leaning against a railing.

“Ni hao,” I said, more confidently.

Even more surprising for Bratislava, he answered with a slow smile: “Hi.”

I thought immediately of my students in Hong Kong, now nearing the end of their one-year program. They were such a charming crowd, I couldn’t help but be affected by them. So here I was, taking that Chinese goodwill and paying it forward – to the Chinese diaspora!

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BRATISLAVA – I stopped in a local sports shop yesterday to buy my older son a birthday present: a Slovak hockey jersey. (Yes, I’ve been bitten by the Olympic bug. See Feb. 19 post, “The Thrill of Victory”)

I wound up in a pleasant conversation, in Slovak, with the shop clerk and his buddy. After my hiatus to study some Cantonese (see Sept. 22 post, “Easy For You To Say”), I’m regaining the sea legs with the Slovak language. Four months away set me back. Yet during this unexpected chat, I felt it return to me.

Where I stumbled, I could see the friend furiously recalling the English he’d learned in high school. So, we bantered, and I heard all about their Slovak friend who’d lived in the U.S. for 30-some years, fathered two children – both U.S. citizens – but was then deported back here. For some reason. That part escaped me. But I understood the gist!

(I settled on a 20-euro jersey of Slovak Marian Hossa, a leader of the current Olympic team. I later showed my son online how Hossa plays professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. I figured, he needs to know just how cool this over-sized jersey really is. He caught my drift … and wore it as pajamas last night.)

With the jersey tucked under my arm, I moved on to a café: time for some espresso. I plugged in at a table next to three pleasant-looking young women. Speaking Hungarian. Their mother tongue. So pleasant to my ear, since I hear it every day, between my wife and our kids, and often between our sons. (Me, only when I scold them – in code.)

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA – Following up on the post above, whenever the topic comes up among Slovaks in Bratislava, I do indeed acknowledge that I speak a pretty decent Hungarian. The non-reaction I get provides a clue to how much of the inter-ethnic tensions are manufactured at the political level.

Slovaks I meet recognize immediately there must be a unique relationship between me and their historic nemesis, the Hungarians. Not that they themselves feel it. But even today, as fellow members of the European Union, the far right in both countries win votes by inciting hatred among ordinary folk.

Hostilities have smoldered since the Communist system collapsed twenty years ago: between the Slovaks and their large ethnic-Hungarian minority, and across the Danube, between Slovakia and Hungary themselves. As I’ve now lived in both countries, I grasp both narratives.

With the lifting of censorship, new nationalists reignited a historic grievance by the Slovaks: we toiled as peasants, while the Magyar overlords cracked the whip. One of the current government’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party, scores points by stoking such resentment.

In Hungary, though, pain festers from a 90-year-old wound: the Treaty of Trianon. It punished Hungary by severing chunks of present-day Slovakia, northwest Romania, northern Serbia and even bits of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. On Hungarian roads today, you will often come across bumper stickers that proclaim the much-larger map of “Greater Hungary” … that is, pre-Trianon.

Such imagery may seem innocent, but it sparked fears of inter-ethnic clashes back in the 1990s, during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic and his bloody drive toward “Greater Serbia.” (more…)

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Slovak hockey is making noise in Vancouver.

BRATISLAVA – How can you not root for the Olympic underdog?

Especially when it’s more than a mere “border rivalry,” as one EuroSport commentator painted the Russia-Slovakia hockey match last night.

No, if one thing unites Central and East Europeans, it’s delight when one of their own sticks it to Russia in a sporting event, as pesky Slovakia did with its overtime victory.

There’s nothing like rising at 6 a.m. to watch Olympic hockey; even better when it’s a stirring upset. Among all the Slovaks I came across today, I dropped a few words (in Slovak, of course!) about the game. The smile they flashed was one way to brighten a dreary winter day.

Sure, most every country in the region has a historic grievance or two against its neighbor. But many reserve a special animosity toward, and dread of, Moscow – courtesy of the 40-year Soviet occupation.

Here I won’t delve too deeply into contemporary politics, but this sentiment typically surfaces during the ongoing debates over the U.S. missile-defense plan, or Russia’s pipeline politics over winter heating oil.

Most Czechs and Slovaks, in particular, will never forgive what happened in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Bratislava and elsewhere to squash the hopes for democratic reform. Indeed, Czech legend Jaromir Jagr commemorated that trauma by donning the number 68 during his NHL career.

When the Czechs and Slovaks square off, like earlier in the Olympics when the Czechs prevailed 3-1, it’s more a sibling rivalry. With Slovakia, and its 5 million, the kid brother. Hopes are high for both teams. And when one nation is eliminated, their fans will likely continue the tradition of pulling for the other.

Above all, if it’s a rematch against mighty Russia.

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BRATISLAVA – I was too young to appreciate his human-rights work at the time, but my uncle’s sudden death encouraged me to revisit the remarkable efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. His obituary, from The Miami Herald:

Dr. Robert Wolf | `Driven’ dentist gave care to needy

Dr. Robert “Bob” Wolf, a man who always asked “What can I do for you?” died of cardiac arrest at his North Miami-Dade home Saturday, his family said. He was 77.

As chief director of Community Smiles, a nonprofit organization that provides dental care for the needy in Miami-Dade County, Wolf made people smile with his work in dentistry and his wry sense of humor.

“He was very driven,” said his daughter, Caryn Wolf, 51, who lives in Oakland, Calif. “Other guys were golfing, and he was running around trying to get kids dental care.”

Wolf’s volunteer work began in the 1970s, when he and his wife, Myriam, became involved with the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry. He was chairman of the organization for eight years in the 1970s, lobbying Congress to allow Jews in the former Soviet Union to enter the Unites States and Israel.

Wolf’s work continued when he and his wife helped establish a chapter of the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped in Miami-Dade County to benefit their son, Eric, who is developmentally disabled.

“It helped me get a job. It helped me get out on my own,” said Eric, 50, who lives on his own in North Miami Beach. “He helped out a lot of people.”

(more…)

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Just one of the regal touches at the king's home; this from his front gate. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – It’s not often you get a chance to interview royalty. Especially when that king inherited the throne from a father who anointed himself king. So, I’m blogging about him twice. (See below: “The King and Carrie Bradshaw.”)

Saturday afternoon, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, graciously sat with us for two hours. (I brought a modest box of chocolates, as a token of appreciation.)

Sure, he barely stifled his yawns during our chat. But he also tolerated us, as we peppered him about early-teen marriage among the “Kalderash” Roma. Including, his own daughter’s media circus of a wedding in 2003.

What we were especially curious about, even more than the king’s opinion, was his daughter’s. After all, Ana-Maria is now a young woman of 19 or 20, married nearly seven years. (With one son, aged 4.) What does she think today about teen marriage? About her own marriage? And what about pressure on her community, from both Bucharest and Brussels, to change this tradition?

Our team – Romani journalist Petru Zoltan, our spirited Romanian interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I, the journalism trainer – dropped in on the king without warning. This was Petru’s idea, as he assumes the role of guru of all things related to the so-called “Gypsy mentality.”

Petru had interviewed Cioaba once before, as an investigative reporter for Romanian newspaper National Journal. He predicted that if we pre-arranged a meeting, the king would dodge us somehow. I trusted Petru’s take, so we drove four hours to historic Sibiu, banking on this gamble that he would for sure be home when we came a-knockin’. Then, talk to us.

Yet this is exactly what happened … (more…)

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Anişoara Mihai, seated behind her husband, before he told her to leave. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – For another perspective on what internal pressures the Kalderash Roma face to abandon their tradition of early-teen marriage, tonight we visited the stately home of Ilarie Mihai.

Around the large conference table in his office, Mihai, executive president of the National Council of Roma in Romania, railed against those dowry-driven Kalderash who marry off their children for the biggest booty:  some dowries of gold coins are said to run up to 50,000 euros.

“We’ll never become civilized if we continue this way!” he roared as his wife, Anişoara, served us coffee in delicate porcelain cups. She then took a seat behind her husband, in a chair against the wall.

In maroon headscarf and braided hair, 55-year-old Anişoara was the picture of a tradition-bound Kalderash woman, listening impassively as her husband spoke. At some point, though, she uttered a few words to him in Romani. It wasn’t clear exactly what she said, but his reaction sure was: with a wave of his hand, he ordered her to leave the room.

Except, she didn’t. In fact, as my colleague Petru Zoltan carried on interviewing Mihai, my interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I motioned for Anişoara to join us at our end of the table. We’ve heard too many men talking about a women’s issue – the right to choose when to marry. So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear from a Romani matriarch … (more…)

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Kalderash life is light years from Manhattan. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – A scoop just for you: the King of the Gypsies is no fan of “Sex and the City.”

We’re here largely to interview Florin Cioaba’s daughter, Ana-Maria, who was at the heart of an early-teen controversy seven years ago. He told us he married her off at “13-and-a-half or 14,” though media reports then suggested she might be as young as 12. Her groom was 15.

Cioaba described the parental challenges for deeply traditional “Kalderash” Roma who are raising daughters in an era soaked with raunchy images from MTV, Hollywood and everywhere else. One source of blame pricked my ear: Sex and the City.

This was actually the second time in recent months that I’ve heard someone blame the racy HBO series for loosening societal mores. The first was in stylish Hong Kong, from a Chinese student of mine from the less-stylish mainland.

My student, a wholesome-looking 25-year-old, explained how some classmates, influenced by watching Carrie Bradshaw and her posse prowl for romance, urged her to dress more sexily, less bookish, join them at the trendy nightclubs, and … you know. But she was resisting. A couple months later, though, I couldn’t help but notice her sleek new haircut.

Here in Sibiu, the Kalderash Roma are under pressure to end their practice of early-teen marriage, especially the sacred ritual of proving the bride’s virginity by parading the bloodied sheet. Legal intercourse in Romania begins at 18.

Holding off, though, has serious costs, says the king. Thanks in part to Sex and the City, some Kalderash girls want to delay marriage – and chase a bit of fun beforehand. “Here’s what our girls learn from the show: in the morning, she’s with one guy, in the afternoon, another, and at night, a third,” Cioaba lamented. “This is the education we want for our daughters?”

Evidently, not. Meanwhile, has Sex and the City become a global phenomenon, reverberating through conservative cultures, fomenting female rebellion and sexual emancipation? It’s worth a closer look.

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Ion and Oana, standing in front of their village school, explained how their parents assimilated. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.

“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.

I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.

Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.

For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.

“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …

Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits. (more…)

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Kalderash leader Ion Mihai, here outside his church, explained teen marriage in language I related to. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Beyond ugly stereotypes of the Roma (known more pejoratively as “Gypsies”) across Central and Eastern Europe, outsiders like me have also heard about early-teen marriage among certain Roma groups.

I’ve learned about the parental obsession with a daughter’s virginity: if a bride is discovered to have already been deflowered, it unleashes shame for the whole family. For proof, the bloodied sheet is publicly displayed.

From a Western-liberal perspective, I also suspected this was more a feature of a patriarchal society that sees its men bent on keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant and subservient.

Today, though, I had an epiphany about why these fathers are doing what their doing. And as a fellow father, I began to understand them.

The revelation happened here in the city of Targu Jiu, best known as the hometown of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. The city is also the scene of a great tragedy, say the local community of “Kalderash” Roma.

(more…)

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Armed guards escort TB-infected patients in the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

JILAVA, Romania – I’ve now lived in ex-Communist Eastern Europe for most of the 20-year transition to democracy. And try as I might, I’ll never fully appreciate what it was like to live under dictatorship.

I can, however, imagine those farthest from human rights were the fellows thrown behind bars of a Communist-era prison.

Which is why it’s been so jarring to hear of a revolution apparently taking place within Romania’s prison system. Two decades after its police state crumbled, prisoners are reaping the harvest of democratization, after learning about their newfound human rights and related protections. Which leads me to a mind-boggling revelation: prisoners may feel more empowered than the ordinary Romanian on the street. (Not that we had the time to explore that angle.)

Today we visited the Bucharest prison, located in fact in the nearby village of Jilava. More specifically, we toured the Jilava prison hospital.

This was a visit arranged by my reporting colleague, Petru Zoltan, stemming from his interest in the Romanian prison-system’s struggle to contain the spread of HIV and tuberculosis within its walls. A serious, meaningful idea, I thought. Moreover, how the most disproportionately arrested people within the prisons – the Roma – are presumably also the most disproportionately infected.

(more…)

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Heavy snow paralyzed much of Bucharest, causing schools to close for THREE days. (Photo: mjj)

BUCHAREST, Romania – One of my very worst habits is being late. In Romania, though, I’ve found kindred spirits.

I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.

In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”

History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.

A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — Rather than settle back into my exact routine from the old days, pre-Hong Kong, I’m creating a new one: as a more involved parent.

About two months into my HK stint, my long-suffering wife – who was still working full-time and raising three kids, alone – told me: “When you come home, things will have to change.” Bum-ba-dum-bum-BUM! “You’ll have to take 10 hours that you usually give yourself for work, and give that to the kids – especially, to take over weekly chauffeuring duties.

She was right, of course. Work is one thing, but parenting is another. In the process, I’ve re-learned one less of child-rearing: you get out of it, what you put into it. The daily aggravation of this or that is then outweighed by the greater affection you receive.

So, no complaint on that front. On the other hand, I’ve struggled to regain my productivity. I think the kinks will straighten out, with my new routine humming, within a month or so. At least I cranked out another piece for Nieman Reports, thanks to the editor’s deadline this week.

While plowing through the Hong Kong edits, I also prepare for my Monday flight to Bucharest. In Romania, my Romani reporting partner, Petru, and I will chase two or three stories. It’ll depend on how effectively we gather material from three cities: Bucharest, Targu Jiu and (picturesque) Sibiu.

While I look forward to a return to Romania and another Balkan adventure, I’m torn about leaving the family again, even for just a week. When I did the same in Prague last month, my younger son said, “Aw, you’re leaving again?” Besides, winter in Romania sounds even grayer than winter here.

After that, though, it’s back to the kids and that book project.

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Bratislava's night life is modest, but lively. And plenty for a guy like me. (Photo: mjj)

I’m fondly re-acquainting myself with Old Town and downtown Bratislava: more and more posh stores and trendy cafes are mixed in among the 18th-century architecture and Communist-era concrete boxes. But they also mask what continues to be a harsh economic transition for many ordinary Slovaks, Hungarians and others across the region.

I loved Hong Kong, but Bratislava is a city about as unlike Hong Kong as it gets. Bratislava is home to a mere half million; Hong Kong is 14 times that size, at 7 million. In Blava, my boyz can scooter their way around the inner city with barely a pedestrian collision. In HK, some sidewalks grow so crowded, you can barely hold onto your child’s hand. Here, only the occasional siren or power-drill ruptures the tranquility. There, the streets were so frenetic and noise pollution so great, our infant daughter reflexively began screeching as we approached busier boulevards.

Bratislava’s cobblestone paths and paved sidewalks are now slick with snow and ice. While several cafes and restaurants have shuttered since last summer, several others have renovated, with several newcomers opening up. So many are now laptop-friendly; over the past three years, I’ve certainly done my part, every day, to promote this 21st-century lifestyle.

Other things haven’t changed. The typical Slovak waiter or waitress stares at you stone-faced, asking in Slovak what you want. But the off-putting expression quickly melts into a smile upon hearing you utter a few words in their mother tongue. After all, from a country of five million, only four million are ethnic Slovak.

Like the Cantonese-speaking Chinese, who are taken aback that any gwailo – or “ghost man” – would ever try to decipher their language, Slovaks seem surprised that any foreigner would even choose to live here: one of the European Union’s smallest capitals, overlooked because of neighboring Vienna, Prague and Budapest. To then flatter them with a stab at their language, well, that’s much appreciated by the natives. Just as it was when I left, not a day goes by that I don’t elicit a smile or two through my tortured Slovak.

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