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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on "Roma Transitions."]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[This "Dispatch" appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

(more…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL's Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (more…)

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[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]

 

BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.

Goodbye, Italy!

How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.

“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”

Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.

All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.

Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)

Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.

I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 22 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Slovakia, like its neighbors in Central Europe, has one of the tiniest percentages of Muslims in the European Union: an estimated 5,000 in a population of 5.4 million.

Yet that doesn’t mean off-the-beaten-path Slovakia isn’t worried by trends across the Western half of the continent.

It sees France, which this month moved a step closer to banning the full-faced veil; Belgium, which last month did the same; Sweden, still besieged over a cartoon of Mohammad; and Switzerland, which barred minarets six months ago and has one canton trying to forbid the full-body burqa.

Slovakia wants no part of that.

The state has effectively capped its Muslim community with a combination of legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles: tight rules in immigration, asylum and residency. The community, meanwhile, says authorities in the capital, Bratislava, have for years blocked it from building the country’s first mosque.

It’s not just that post-Communist Slovakia has enough of its own troubles, from economic crisis to inter-ethnic tensions with its two largest minorities. And it’s not necessarily anti-Muslim sentiment, though the post-9/11 era has surely injected a dose of Islamophobia into this deeply Catholic nation.

Mohamad Safwan Hasna has one hunch why. The Syrian-born head of The Islamic Foundation of Slovakia has lived here for 20 years, speaks fluent Slovak, and married a local Muslim convert.

“I have to be diplomatic,” Hasna says with a smile. “The Slovaks are conservative. They’re not interested in others. They don’t feel the need to learn about other cultures. It’s something about the mentality. But the youth are more open-minded and curious.”

Hasna is speaking to me after he sat on a panel discussion about the meaning of religious symbols. (Like the rare head scarf spotted on a Muslim woman in Bratislava.) The chat is part of a broader series of events, “The Week of New Minorities,” organized by a local human-rights group, the Milan Simecka Foundation. Simecka’s Laco Oravec has another explanation: xenophobia.

(more…)

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PRAGUE – When I told family eight years ago that I’d also start teaching journalism, my sister innocently asked, “Really? What’s there to teach?”

The perception, I suppose, is understandable. Grab pen and pad, ask questions, gather information. That’s worth a semester of university?

Last week in Prague, a shoulder-to-shoulder training reminded me how much there is to share about journalism techniques and strategies. In this case, the lessons learned were specific to how to “parachute” into a foreign country and – with time limited – capture enough of the necessary reportage and multimedia elements to produce a meaningful exploration of Czech education.

The key, as always, lies in the advanced preparation: from back home, before your journey even begins. I’ve written about this before, most recently for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. So I won’t rehash here the imperative to “hit the ground running.”

Instead, in Prague I found myself repeating a mantra I’ve adopted over the years: push, push, push – politely but persistently – to get what you need.

My training partner, Andy, and I were working with eight participants, whom we divided into three teams. For more on the substance of what they reported, read my piece in The Mantle.

After lectures on Monday, reporting was to fill the next three days. That’s it. Three days. But one thing soon became apparent: the teams, all of them new to this kind of international reporting, hadn’t lined up enough meetings – especially with the right kind of sources.

On Tuesday morning, I joined the team exploring the IT gender gap, on their visit to a Czech company manufacturing anti-virus software. The plan was to speak with a woman or two working in IT there. Except, as the spokesman then told us, the company has no women in IT, just sales and marketing. Sure, we got some material. But it was no bull’s eye. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 14 in The Mantle.]

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

A bilingual preschool in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could go on for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

A Roma-specialized school in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software or hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

(more…)

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Hungarian Guardsman garb on Election Day. (Photo: AP)

[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.

Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.

However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. (more…)

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My photos from the historic Czech city of Mikulov.

To view more … (more…)

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(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA — A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity: to visit a real ghetto.

Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.

Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.

“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.

I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.

Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.

Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)

(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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Butcher Josef Kosina provides service to a customer. (Photo: mjj)

Private ownership and profit incentive have changed the taste of Prague’s eateries in post-Communist Czech Republic.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2009

PRAGUE — Salamis hang like chimes, sausages are stacked into pyramids, and the refrigerator holds not only the Czech soda, Kofola, but newcomers Gatorade, Pepsi, and Schweppes.

In the old days, a Prague butcher shop like this would offer slabs of gristly bacon with just a rumor of meat, or an entire dead chicken, leaving customers to deal with feathers and evisceration.

Today, butcher Josef Kosina does it for them, engaging in light banter as he trims the fat and whacks the chicken into easy-to-cook chunks. “We’re responding to customer demand, to give better service,” says Mr. Kosina, cleaver in hand.

Among all the changes in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, gastronomic culture – from higher-quality food to slick advertising, and from the rise of customer service to the onslaught of obesity – opens a window onto how the post-Communist lifestyle has Westernized.

Older generations remember deprivations of the past, the rations and shortages, long lines, and empty shelves. People who subsisted for centuries on what they pulled from the ground, plucked from a tree, or cooked from a beast grew accustomed to subpar, state-produced goods – gruffly served.

Today, private ownership and profit motive have revolutionized the region. Aisles and aisles of store shelves are stocked with a dizzying range of local and pricey imported products, especially in the ubiquitous Western “hypermarkets.” Some have separate Asian or Mexican sections. Oranges are a year-round option, as are kiwis, coconuts, and pineapples. Where there was once a lone brand of toilet paper or cereal (tasting like the cardboard in which it was boxed) dozens now jostle for primacy, glorified by Western-style marketing.

That trickles down to the Prague butcher shop, one of three co-owned by Bohuslav Novy. He says his shop responds to demand with less-fatty meat, special cuts, and greater range, like beef, lamb, veal, and even rabbit. A new deli section offers salads, baguettes, and made-to-order sandwiches.

And if his butchers “aren’t polite and don’t smile at our customers,” says Mr. Novy, “we must tell them goodbye, of course.” (View original article here.)

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[The following appeared in the Dec. 9, 2009, edition of Harvard's Nieman Reports. It was accompanied by two related pieces on breaking into the business. To read them, click here and here.]

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

LITVINOV, CZECH REPUBLIC – Miriam and Lisa have struck pay dirt. It’s a hot late-July day in the Czech mining town of Litvinov, in bucolic northern Bohemia. We’ve just driven into the Janov “estate”— or what the Czechs derogatively call a “ghetto.” Built into a hill on the eastern edge of town, the wall of whitewashed apartment buildings are mostly occupied by Roma, known less kindly here as “Gypsies.”

For young reporters Miriam Ostermann, a 22-year old freelancer for Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, and Lisa Coghlan, a 21-year old Welshwoman who lives in the English midlands, this is the first time they’ve worked on a foreign news story. And a trickly one it is. In Central and Eastern Europe, eyes widen whenever you announce plans to visit to a Roma quarter. It’s the kind of place locals would never visit; they’d cross through only if they had to. Go there, and someone might beat you, folks will warn, or pinch your bag. Neither, it must be said, has ever happened to me in my journalistic forays into Roma neighborhoods.

In Litvinov, the fellows are out early, a lucky break for us. Shy of noon, the casino is closed, yet Stepan Chudik and his friends are hanging in front of the Vietnamese-owned grocery—with its large sign misspelled, Supermaket—nursing a round of cold beers. Stephan’s shirt is unbuttoned to his rotund belly, revealing a heavily tattooed torso with a dragon, a devil and what looks like Al Capone in white fedora. He’s a clear character, so Miriam, Lisa and I approach him.

In particular, we want to know what’s happened since last Nov. 17th, when some 700 weapon-wielding skinheads marched on Janov, where they clashed with about 1,000 Czech riot police. After 17 were injured, half of them police, some Czech observers wondered if Litvinov was on the brink of “ethnic war.” This was not the first time this question arose; a decade ago, some 20 Roma were murdered by Czech extremists, and as recently as April, three Molotov cocktails tossed into a Czech Roma home severely burned a two-year-old girl.

While I’ve visited the Roma on other occasions to report on their lives and circumstances, this time I’m here as a teacher. (more…)

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Laszlo Takacs serves up traditional langos to vacationers at Hungary’s Lake Balaton. (Photo: mjj)

Since 1989, post-communist choice and pre-communist tradition have changed the way Central and Eastern Europe eat. A Transitions Online special report.

by Michael J. Jordan
Dec. 8, 2009

LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.

“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”

This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Langos now is mostly relegated to flea markets and Lake Balaton, Hungary’s favorite summer spot, just as zsiros kenyer – or “fatty bread,” smeared with lard and sliced onions and sprinkled with paprika – is now primarily a pub snack.

Much has changed in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, of course, but gastronomic culture in particular opens a fascinating window into how lifestyles here have become Westernized, from higher quality food and slick advertising to the rise of customer service and the onslaught of obesity.

It all began with open borders and open competition, says top Czech gourmet Pavel Maurer.

“We’re hungry for new things: hungry for freedom, hungry for travel, and hungry to try new foods,” says Maurer, who founded the annual Prague Food Festival and publishes the Grand Restaurant dining guide. “We’re hungry to try all the things that weren’t possible for so many years.” (more…)

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Slovak student Katarina Micatkova (Photo: mjj)

GLOBAL JOURNALIST MAGAZINE

Nov. 22, 2009

By Michael J. Jordan

I got my first whiff of the problem two years ago. That’s when I started teaching journalism at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius in historic Trnava, Slovakia.

Eva Pelyova was among the most enthusiastic of my students, one of the few willing to speak up in our journalism discussions, to at least practice her English. These 30 bright students each had a reporting project with a seemingly simple task: explain why exactly any situation is the way it is.

Eva was gung-ho for her project, exploring the lousy traffic situation in Trnava, her hometown. Forty minutes outside the sedate capital, Bratislava, Trnava is renowned for its golden honey wine, 13th century town wall, and ample church steeples—so many, in fact, Trnava is dubbed “the Slovak Rome.”

Yet since communism’s collapse in 1989, soaring car-ownership and trucks belonging to the new Peugeot factory on the edge of town combine to clog the city’s single-lane streets.

Yet Eva’s first draft revealed a pattern that would repeat again and again in Trnava and likewise among my students at Masaryk University across the border in Brno, Czech Republic. Gritting my teeth, I found that although Central European students like Eva do a fine job of describing what the situation is, they press no further. Why exactly is traffic so bad? Why exactly didn’t city officials anticipate the problem? Why exactly didn’t they respond sooner? What will officials do now … and why?

“Why?” represents a real psychological hurdle. (more…)

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This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

The region’s Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

 

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

 

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

 

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

 

“I realized it’s important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it,” he says.

 

The result of Borsky’s work, the “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

 

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps. (more…)

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1968: Ladislav Bielik's image, on display exactly 40 years later in Bratislava, is a poignant symbol of Moscow's aggression. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Aug. 22, 2008, in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a Slovak baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank is part of a commemorative exhibit 40 years ago to the day.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - Before the 1989 photo of a Chinese man confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, there was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia captured by Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a protester in Bratislava baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank – 40 years ago Thursday.

The moment is brought to life here in Slovakia’s capital, where Bielik’s sequential batch of 185 photos are featured in a photo exhibit on the same square where ordinary citizens confronted the Soviets that morning.

Bielik, whose office was just around the corner, shot them the morning of Aug. 21, only hours after tanks rolled in to snuff out a glimmer of democratic reform known as the Prague Spring.

“You can read a history book about what happened then, or someone will say ‘There were tanks here,’ but when you see these photos, you know it was real,” says student Tanya Takacova, born just before the 1989 collapse of communist Czechoslovakia.

While Bielik’s photos drive the Slovak narrative of that Soviet-led invasion, some cannot resist drawing broader parallels between Moscow’s aggression then and its recent invasion of Georgia.

“This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in criticism of Moscow.

Radio Prague quoted one Czech man as saying, “Russia never changes…. They’re incapable of being free, so they don’t want anyone else to enjoy their freedom.” (more…)

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