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Posts Tagged ‘Central Europe’

Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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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.

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[The following piece appeared Jan. 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – For years, foreign observers of Slovakia – like me, guilty as charged – have put the puny, post-Communist country on the couch.

The diagnosis: suffers an inferiority complex. Never before independent. Bullied for centuries by the Hungarians. Little peasant brother of the Czechs.

What a difference a decade makes. The new Slovak government is flexing its muscles, as brawny Slovak men tend to do. Except in this case, the face of forcefulness is a woman. Iveta Radičová, the first female prime minister to wield power in Communist-turned-EU-member Central Europe.

The significance here is only partly that a woman has smashed the ceiling to the highest office. (Though, some women in the region are content with proving that sex still sells: during a Czech election campaign this year, six female candidates for Parliament posed skimpily for a calendar. And won.)

Instead, the story is that Radičová leads Slovakia’s one-man rebellion over the pricey EU bailout of Greece, revealing just how influential – or disruptive – the new eastern members can be.

No sooner was Radičová sworn in July 8 to lead a center-right, four-party coalition, than she swung a right-hook at Brussels. She denied the 27-state union a final “yea” unless her new government could renegotiate Slovakia’s staggering contribution: 4.4 billion of the 110 billion euros ($148 billion).

(It didn’t help matters when the public here caught wind of the inconvenient fact that Greek pensioners live much more comfortably than their Slovak peers.)

Radičová also continues to defend Slovakia’s pro-Serbia stance on Kosovo, bucking Brussels in its recognition of Kosovo statehood. (The bogeyman brandished by Slovak hard-liners is less Slavic solidarity than the threat that the heavily ethnic-Hungarian south of Slovakia one day breaks away.)

In December, the spotlight was again on the new premier. But this time, to be a calming voice for markets rattled by the Slovak parliamentary speaker’s call for a “Plan B”: withdraw Slovakia from the troubled, 16-member Eurozone; return Slovaks to their beloved koruny, or “crowns.”

Slovakia had achieved another milestone in January 2009, when it leapfrogged neighboring Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to become the first in Central Europe to jettison its national currency for the Euro. Today, though, Western media is awash with speculation about Slovakia: “Last in, first out?”

Slovakia “hasn’t for one second” considered defecting, Radičová told media. “Our task is to stabilize the euro. Any thoughts about alternatives are weakening the stabilization mechanism and I consider them extremely risky.”

Scrappy Slovakia, with Radičová leading the charge, is worth watching in 2011.

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[The following piece appeared Dec. 9 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.

In fact, that’s just the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.

Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”

Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It’s like sipping nature.

Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket…)

In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?

While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!

Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.

I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 30 on The Mantle.]

Scene of the Samaritan-sighting. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I didn’t want to blog today. I need to write more of the Double-Secret Probationary Project I started this month. Oops, I’ve already said too much.

But then I witness a great act of stranger-to-stranger kindness, the sort of thing that is so rare in post-Communist, every-man-for-himself Central Europe, I notice when it happens.

It’s always easier for foreign correspondents in remote, off-the-beaten-path locales to highlight the negatives about the host society. Lord knows, I’ve made a career out of it. Our breed tends to have an over-inflated sense of purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, imagine you read that trickle of distasteful stories: inter-ethnic conflict, government corruption, etc. Couple that with the occasional natural or man-made disaster. (See: Hungary, toxic red sludge.) What impression does the international community form about these pipsqueak tribes in the hinterlands?

Nothing too flattering. That’s why I feel the tug to occasionally recognize, and publicize, the brighter side of life out here. It’s also the first prong of my formula for good-bad-and-ugly reportage. Or is a better word “bloggage”? Maybe that’s too disparaging. Man, that Jordan sure has a lot of bloggage on his site.

Bloggage be damned, I must report what just happened in the cold, drizzly streets of Bratislava. First, let me set the scene …

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 16 on The Mantle.]

Homelessness and street-begging have become a daily sight in Bratislava. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.

Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather. Or perhaps the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I draw the line.

Suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of the city that has been my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.

As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.

First, I park near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If the public has learned one thing from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)

Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.

Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.

She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. (more…)

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English girls in Slovakia: Madeleine, 6; Charlotte, 4.

No, I’m not father to these two. But with such young subjects, this is a portrait that would please any hobbyist. The fact it was shot by my 8-year-old son, makes me even prouder. As does the poem he crafted earlier this week:

Trees were like matchsticks in the stormy night

Tumbling in the morning light

The moon cried sounding like the rain

Rain pitter pattering down the drain

Lightning cracking the sky

The wind is a whip swooping by

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[A Hungarian friend and journalist colleague, Gabor Miklos, responded to my Sept. 1 Mantle post “Mitteleuropa: Not Just a State of Mind,” with this Oct. 22 piece, “A Virtualis Retesbirodalom,” in the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.]

BUDAPEST — Mike amerikai, és Pozsonyban lakik, ott találkoztunk. Régi az ismeretség, hiszen vagy tizenöt éve még Pesten élt. Vannak ilyenek. Járják a világot, de a valódi otthonuk az óceán túlsó oldalán van. Azt fejtegeti, hogy most rájött, a régi Közép-Európa újra létezik. Azt tapasztalta, hogy a szlovákok szívesen vesznek házat Magyarországon, az osztrákok a magyar oldalon esznek, és mind a három nemzet együtt fürdőzik a határhoz közeli osztrák vagy magyar termálfürdőkben. És ehhez jön még a rétes.

Különösen a mákos. Mike ugyanis magáévá tette az elméletet, miszerint Közép-Európa ott van, ahol rétes van. És mák. Mert például mákos ételeket – bejgli, rétes, metélt, guba, nudli és társai – szerinte kizárólag az egykori Monarchia utódállamaiban fogyasztanak. És ő ezt most kiválóan tapasztalja, sőt megéli. Hiszen Pozsonyban lakik, s Szlovákia sokszorosan utódállam.

Pár évvel ezelőtt néhányan megpróbáltunk utánajárni ennek az ügynek. Létezik-e valóban a virtuális mákosrétes-birodalom? Szóval, hogy ahol kilencven-egynéhány éve még egyforma indóházak épültek, és Fellner és Helmer építette színházakban bécsi és pesti operetteket játszottak, ahol tükrös kávéházakban friss nyugat-európai újságok várták a feketére betérőket. A felfedezőút kiterjedt még némileg irodalomra, kultúrára, hangulatokra és nosztalgiára. Szép kalandozás volt, jó könyv született belőle.

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HONG KONG – The barista greets me with a grin. He’s seen me in his café many times before. He knows my shtick. But his cheerful young colleague, it’s new to her.

“Mgoi, yat bui dung gafe. Mou naai, mou tong.”

Please, one glass cold coffee. No have milk, no have sugar.

With that, I’m just about smacking the ceiling of my Cantonese skills. Good enough for this young woman, who smiles wide. “You speak Cantonese very well,” she said. “We can understand you.”

Is there any greater sign of cultural respect than to try and speak someone else’s mother tongue? Even if it’s just a few words? I say no.

Hello … Thank you … Goodbye … That’s just courtesy. To elicit a laugh, take it to the next level: Delicious! … Cheers! … No problem!

With Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken by 60 million-plus people worldwide, I now know more than a few words. To put a number on it, I hover around 2 percent fluency. Is there a name for that? “Beginner” is too abstract, unsatisfying. So, I’ve just coined it: “Café Cantonese.”

This fulfills my curious need to alliterate when describing my linguistic limitations. “Survival Slovak” is what I speak around my beloved home-base, Slovakia.

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HONG KONG – Needless to say, Hong Kong has nothing of the café culture of Central Europe. Teahouses, not coffeehouses.

Last year, I succumbed for a solid month to the dull diet of Starbucks and the Starbucks-like Pacific Coffee, before one day I looked up at two high-rises in my Yau Ma Tei neighborhood and noticed neon signs for “Café” this and that.

Exploring them one by one, I found them refreshingly unique with their cozy, dimly lit interiors. The cafés drew lots of young locals, of varying degrees of hip-ness. And they always seemed to have friendly staff pleased to host a laptop-toting foreigner.

Tonight, I tried to remember which had no qualm about me plugging into an outlet. These cafés are so tough to spot from street level, some send young staff down to the sidewalk to hand out cards or leaflets, inviting passersby upstairs.

On this occasion, I come across a young guy with earring and black cap, joined by a pretty young companion, handing out cards for the “Bearz Café.” I ask if they have electricity, making that universal thrusting gesture for “plug my cord in.”

Yes indeed, he replies. “And free Wifi,” says his smiling partner. “Eleventh floor.”

Inside, “Bearz” are truly the theme. Not grizzlies mounted on the wall, mind you. Teddy bears. Dozens of them. All sizes, shapes and pigmentation, lining the shelves of a room illuminated by blinking Christmas lights. Some of the bears are in pajamas, some hold hearts, some look like Winnie-the-Pooh knock-offs.

It’s the most infantile décor I’ve ever seen in a “café.” (more…)

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (more…)

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Old Town Bratislava is filled with peaceful spots. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – It’s been nine months since I left Hong Kong and returned to Slovakia. I continue the blog I began in HK – “From East to East” – when I documented my shift from 16 years spent in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, to a close-up view of still-Communist China.

This is part journalism, part travelogue: it tracks my journey as a foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Aside from the Slovakia posts (begins Feb. 2, “Hello, Old Friend”), visit my posts about teaching journalism in Hong Kong, plus my dispatches and photos about the region’s unique Roma minority.

Spliced in are my recent articles, from various publications.

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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.

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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.

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[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.

When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.

When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.

“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”

That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.

“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.

That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.

The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion. (more…)

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(This post appeared April 9 on The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA – It’s always nice to hear what a colleague’s up to nowadays.

However, I was both pleased and troubled to recently find one featured in The New York Times, as the “curtain-raising” anecdote of an unhealthy trend emanating from Brussels.

Ina Strazdina is the Last of the Latvian Mohicans – her country’s only remaining correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Heck, fellow Baltic state Lithuania has no journalist left to watch-dog the European body, which both of the ex-Soviet republics enthusiastically joined in 2004.

Times have grown so tough for much of Eastern Europe’s media, dramatic cutbacks almost forced Ina herself to walk the plank in 2008. I’d met her in Prague in January 2007, when she participated in a foreign-correspondence training course that I help lead every six months.

The next year, with Ina stationed in pricey Brussels, Latvian Radio cut her salary by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 700 euros per month – barely enough to pay her rent. So she dug into her nest egg and plugged along, landing freelance gigs with Latvian Television and a leading daily newspaper.

“I had to make a decision,” Ina, 34, told The Times. “I decided that it is easy to destroy things but very difficult to build them up again. Maybe it was an altruistic decision, but I decided I can stay here for another year and try to work.” Her efforts were appreciated: Latvia last year named her its “European Person of the Year.”

Now, I’ve reported from this part of the world for 16 years, so I grasp the financial constraints that hamper media outlets region-wide. Also, how the meager monthly wages of most journalists tempt them to cut corners, accept “freebies” with implicit strings attached, or moonlight on the side in PR.

But the steady exodus from Brussels is more than economic, and more than simply part of the broader trend affecting foreign-news coverage around the world. Just as troubling is how the EU machinery has responded to – and further fuels – this departure.

Then there are the consequences for Eastern Europe itself. (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.)

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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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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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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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An archivist at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague files some of the 280 million pages’ worth of secret-police reports. (Photo: mjj)

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some in Eastern Europe miss the days of full employment and before free elections brought extremism.

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

From the November 8, 2009 edition

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC; and PARTIZÁNSKE, SLOVAKIA – In the airy lobby of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, George Santayana’s immortal words are a daily reminder to Czech staffers digitizing millions of Communist-era files: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet even the institute’s spokesman says his grandparents criticize the organization’s mission. They brush aside four decades of neighbors and co-workers spying on one another in the former Czechoslovakia and long wistfully for a time of full employment.

“My grandmother says the Com­munists were great, while my grandfather says we’re stupid to open the archives, because people don’t have jobs, which is more important than … history,” says Jiri Reichl.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans and others across the world are celebrating the moment that clinched the end of the cold war. But the Czech Republic reflects another trend across Eastern Europe, 20 years into the traumatic shift from dictatorship to democracy: creeping nostalgia.

Each positive development of “democracy” ushered in negative consequences: Free-market competition brought soaring prices and joblessness; free elections brought extremist parties; free press brought incitement; free movement brought cross-border crime and westward “brain drain.” (more…)

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Topiary on Partizanske's main square pays homage to the product upon which the town was founded. (Photo: mjj)

In Partizanske, Slovakia, a mighty producer of shoes under socialism, the free-market transition remains a work in progress.

A TOL special report.

 

By Michael J. Jordan, 29 October 2009

Click here to see a slideshow about Partizanske. See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.

PARTIZANSKE, Slovakia | Julius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” says Mayor Jan Podmanicky. “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.” (more…)

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Lenke Livia Jordan, shown approximately 15 minutes after her birth, is officially without a religion in Austrian records. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan      January 26, 2009

HAINBURG, AUSTRIA (JTA) — “Ich bin ein Israelitischer!” While it doesn’t quite have the ring of John F. Kennedy’s famous pronouncement in Berlin, it’s a German construction that, surprisingly, I recently had to learn.

Last year I wrote an article about the ongoing obstacles to producing ethnic data to more accurately count Central and Eastern Europe’s millions of marginalized Roma, aka Gypsies. The count would provide data detailing their miserable living conditions, with an eye toward creating better policies to improve their existence.

One reason many Roma refuse to identify themselves officially is that during the Holocaust, Nazis and local collaborators seized upon such personal census material to track down Jews and Roma in towns and villages and send them to concentration camps. Today, some Roma vow never again.

This resonates with me, a Jew whose family was deported from the Hungarian countryside during World War II.

But it was only after the birth this month of our third child that I tasted the self-identification dilemma firsthand. (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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The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · June 23, 2008

 

 

SZARVAS, HUNGARY (JTA) – A friend told me recently about an article he had read proposing that one way to encourage children to eat salad is to drizzle a dab of dressing on top. This way, they would associate healthy eating with something positive rather than the parental harangue, “Because it’s good for you.”

 

I was reminded of this advice earlier this month when we immersed our two sons, ages 6 and 4, in their first meaningful Jewish experience: five days at the renowned international Camp Szarvas in southeastern Hungary.

 

On this occasion, though, instead of the hundreds of Jewish youth from across Central-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who gather here each summer at this Jewish oasis, it was Family Week for Hungarian Jewish families with young children.

 

It was particularly important for my boys to have a positive experience, as my Hungarian wife and I have agreed to raise them with dual identities: Hungarian and Jewish – with a dash of American. And while Agi has held up her end of the deal, I – a tribal agnostic – need to offer up some Jewish substance. Or, as we say in journalism, “show, don’t tell” what being a Jew means to me. (more…)

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[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]

 

A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”

 

by Michael J. Jordan

 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.

 

 

 

Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.

 

On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.

 

Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.

 

“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.” (more…)

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Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.

 

By Michael J. Jordan

 

5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL

BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.

 

He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.

 

Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.

 

Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.

 

“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.” (more…)

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The capture of nuclear materials in Slovakia last week raises security questions about borderless travel.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 4, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a “dirty bomb.”

 

The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees — some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21.

 

As the EU’s borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.

 

“We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] ‘Oh well, it’s not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,'” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

 

“Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts.”

(more…)

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