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Posts Tagged ‘Slovakia’

[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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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.

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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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 Dec. 7 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a shimmering shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I’m implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.) The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC. (If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What’s the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times? Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets. Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please, take your breaks elsewhere, out of sight.)

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her. (more…)

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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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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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RAJKA, Hungary – One great annual activity out here is fill-your-own-bucket fruit-picking. In early summer, cross the Hungarian border to Eperföld, or “Strawberry Land,” outside the small town of Rajka. In late summer, it’s into Austria for apricot season. Sure, half the fruit may rot in your kitchen. Your back will ache for days. But what fun rediscovering your peasant roots! As you’ll see from my Rajka photos.

In Hungarian, prices are listed: 385 forints (or $1.70/1.4 euro) per kilo. Pick more than 20 kilos, save 35 forints!

With sweet jam at stake, wise choices require team consultation.

Heavy rains, though, have kept the strawberries small.

For more photos … (more…)

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[The following appeared June 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungary's 19th-century Parliament ... now stands in Slovakia. (Photo: mjj)

 

BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election season, even better.

The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing Slovakia’s upcoming June 12 elections. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Lands,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.

The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.

This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.

Preserving identity at the Hungarian school in Bratislava: Viki M, Viki V, Dia, Mate, Andrea. (Photo: mjj)

Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital during the first half of the 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon with a short walk from my home to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the Magyar alapiskola es gimnazium – the Hungarian-language primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old building dominates an entire block downtown.

It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.

“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova. (more…)

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For a taste of the anti-Hungarian tenor prior to Slovakia's June 12 elections, there are billboards like this. Hungarians who live here and in Hungary proper continue to refer to Bratislava, their early-19th-century capital, as Pozsony. The Slovak far right, though, says "Nie" to that. (Photo: mjj)

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovakia, while the one below is on Slovenia.]

Slovakia already sees the Cup as a success after beating out the Czech Republic, with a shot at the second round if they capitalize on a lucky draw.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovakia supporters cheer during their team's World Cup 2010 qualifying match against Slovenia in Bratislava on Oct. 10, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovakia World Cup Soccer 2010

In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously confused Slovenia and Slovakia. The mistake was said to reflect the candidate’s ignorance of foreign affairs. But unhappily for Slovakia, it is a remarkably common mistake, even in Europe.

Slovakia’s population has been left with a pessimistic mindset after decades of oppression. In the 20th century alone, the country went from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Czechoslovakia, to a separate German-controlled state during World II and back to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Though Slovakia gained independence in 1993, it is still overshadowed by the Czech Republic. That was true in sports too — until Slovakia’s stunning triumph in the 2002 world hockey championship. In February it again surpassed the Czechs on the ice, reaching the Olympic semis where it almost upset host Canada.

Though Slovaks were part of a glorious Czechoslovakian soccer tradition — the Czechoslovak team reached the World Cup finals in both 1934 and 1962 — a Slovak soccer tradition has been slow to develop. The 2010 World Cup should provide a good launch and the youth of this team should keep it competitive in the ensuing years.

Slovakia World Cup History: First World Cup appearance for the 17-year-old nation, formed in a peaceful breakup with what is now Czech Republic.

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovenia, while the one above is on Slovakia.]

The Slovenian team is positive in its own abilities and group placement, and in not repeating the embarrassment of the 2002 Cup.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovenia's Bostjan Cesar and Robert Koren celebrate after defeating Russia in their World Cup qualifying match in Maribor, Slovenia on Nov. 18, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovenia World Cup 2010

Slovenia is the smallest nation — 7,800 square miles, about the size of New Jersey and just 2 million people — to have qualified for the 2010 World Cup. It emerged a nation from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1991, anxious to carve out its own identity and to command a seat at the table with its much bigger neighbors.

While Slovenia is known in the sporting world as an Alpine skiing power, it is hopeful that soccer and the World Cup will serve as its introduction to a greater, world-wide audience. That was also the hope in 2002, the first time Slovenia qualified for the World Cup. Instead, the showcase proved a national embarrassment.

In Slovenia’s first game its star player, after being substituted, threw a fit, confronting the coach with a stream of verbal abuse. He was booted, sent home and the team wound up losing all three games.

“Such an extraordinary chance to show yourself to the world, then to blow it in such a primitive way,” says Andrej Miljkovic, a Slovenian sportswriter. “People wanted to take the national jersey they bought for 50 Euros and shove it … somewhere. Anyone will tell you our main goal is the heroes come back as heroes — come back as a team — even if they lose.”

Slovenia World Cup History: Second cup appearance; in 2002 Slovenia lost all three games and was outscored 7-2. (more…)

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Actually, it’s the view from my balcony. It’s a cool, cloudy Sunday morning, here on Grösslingova ulica in Bratislava. The kids are watching cartoons; I feel like shooting photos — but only from our sandstone balcony, overlooking the street from our first-floor apartment. Truth is, I never realized my street was so interesting … until it went all black-and-white on me. (Shot with a Nikon D40x; except for the two wide-angle pics, all shot with my 300 mm lense.)

My street, facing westward.

The balcony: a room outdoors.

Picasso-esque apartment staring at us.

 For more photos … (more…)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (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 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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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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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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(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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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 – 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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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.)

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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'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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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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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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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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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 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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