Crossing the Danube
- Georgie Anne Geyer
CROSSING THE DANUBE TO THE NEW EUROPE
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- You have to realize first that I have been writing for at least 20 years about the European Union -- the famous or infamous E.U., depending upon your view of geography and of life.
You must also understand that I have praised the E.U. up and down, believing or at least badly wanting to believe that the organization, which now boasts 27 members, will so intertwine the economies, societies and psyches of these countries that the wars in Europe that have so plagued us will now be a thing of the past.
I recently was in Vienna, a most beautiful city where I had studied long ago on a Fulbright scholarship in one of those fairytale moments of youth, and I took a boat across the Danube to Bratislava. Funny, the year I lived here, I never thought of going to Bratislava because it was behind the Iron Curtain.
On this particular occasion, I was with other members of the International Press Institute, a worldwide group of editors, publishers and poor scribes like me. At the end of the day, I decided to go back to Vienna, and soon our taxi was roaring across a Danube bridge without the slightest thought of stopping for anyone.
I first thought of crying out, "No, no!" Then I realized my stupid error. No, of course, they wouldn't stop. There was no reason -- no more immigration or customs stops. This really WAS the new Europe. I had written about it, but perhaps not quite believed it, particularly on this former edge of the Soviet empire. We just whizzed across and took the road marked with a neat green sign saying "Wien-Vienna" instead of "Budapest," and it was as easy as going from my hometown of Chicago to Indiana.
That same day, Slovakia's charming prime minister, Iveta Radicova, had had an informal interview with us, and this beautiful, progressive politician reminisced about the same past I had not quite realized was gone.
"I remember that even 20 years ago, it was not possible to travel to Vienna," she began. "It was something unbelievable. After April 1990, that was my first visit to the U.K., when I began my post-doctoral work at Oxford. It is one thing to study the language and culture of a place, and a very different thing to understand the culture.
"Now, we understand the dialogue and can learn -- from each other -- what democracy means.
"We are trying to implement democracy in everyday life," she went on, speaking in an elegant room in the beautiful Kempinski Hotel here, "and the media is a most important pillar. In fact, my days start with a newspaper. I need to touch it. I need to hear the voice as I'm turning the pages. Most of all, I need to see the titles ... how large? ... the photography ... what kind of news on each page? ... not only the content, but the form.
"In fact," this remarkable woman summed up, "form is more important than content. ... I remember the ideological censorship of our dictatorship -- it was only for the manipulation of the citizens then."
Iveta Radicova is unquestionably one of the up-and-coming leaders of Eastern Europe. Until 1990, Slovakia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, was one of the hardest-line of the Eastern European communist areas. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the Soviet system 20 years ago, the little region was free -- but like so much of the East, free to do what?
Vladimir Meciar soon became the first leader of the "free" Slovakia, and he shocked all of Europe with his crazy dictatorial screaming and shouting, with the fear of a return to communism under him and with his theatrical Hitler-like speeches. But what is most important here is that, once Slovakia broke with what is now the Czech Republic and became an independent member of the E.U., the region broke with all of that unfortunate past.
While there remain problems inside the E.U. -- in particular, Greece's massive deficit problem that severely challenges E.U. rules, not to speak of France's deportation of the Roma, or gypsies -- there are also good, and even amazed feelings on the part of many that this part of the world has suddenly found such unexpected blessings.
The night before we went to Bratislava, for instance, Austrian President Heinz Fischer, speaking to us in the formal and elegant Hofburg Palace, said with some emotion: "When you (the IPI) were founded 60 years ago, going from Vienna to Bratislava was an adventure -- from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere. Now, if our prime minister leaves us, in 45 minutes he will be in Bratislava. We are the 'Twin Cities.' We are both members of the E.U., with the free press enshrined in the constitutions of both countries."
Too many times, it seems to me, Americans in particular have a negative view of the world. Nothing is right; everything is wrong. We are declining; everybody is sick. But when you really look at the world around us, there are many extraordinary "experiments," like this one in Slovakia; there are many new, amazing facts of life, like being able to drive across Europe without some Marxist or fascist thug telling you what to do or threatening your life.
There are wonderful surprises to be had, like the thrill of joy I felt when I suddenly realized that we were crossing the Danube from Bratislava to Vienna without so much as a by-your-leave to anyone!
- I didn't hobnob with or interview politicians, but I was struck by the same thoughts this summer as I studied in Bratislava and crossed unimpeded between countries. This trip took place 40 years to the month after my initial trip to Slovakia. The changes in the language during those 40 years, or perhaps more accurately in the last 20 years, were impressed upon me by the professor. The jargon from the socialist days is gone and I earned a frown when my eye fell upon "fellow traveler" in an open dictionary and I had nerve enough to tell young fellow student that "that is one phrase you won't run across today".
That was a small part of the changes that have taken place. Whether crossing borders, speaking the language (Slovak or English; both have changed), looking at the beautifully restored buildings or enjoying the new streets and infrastructure, the old country is happily gone and to travel in Slovakia today is to travel in an entirely different country than you would have encountered 20 years ago.
It is a fascinating experience I wish upon you all.
- Hi Ron,
Enjoyed hearing about your trip - weren't you struck by the
prosperity and the dramatic changes over the past 40 years!
I am sure you remember the armed guards, barbed wire, guard dogs, mirrors under
the cars and buses, the searches through your suitcases, etc. And the required
registering with the police was a process that took most of a day and was scary,
even getting a visa was daunting and praying it would be granted.
Also giving up your passport at each hotel and waiting for an hour while they
laboriously hand wrote all your info into the file for the police. Sometimes the
next morning they forgot to give your passport back too! And the daily payment
which was required and ranged up to 10, 20 or 30 dollars a day.
It is all so easy now - just flitting across the old borders. I think the young
people haven't a clue what their parents and grandparents went through. I wonder
what is taught in schools.
From: Ron <amiak27@...>
Sent: Fri, October 1, 2010 9:56:01 AM
Subject: [Slovak-World] Re: Crossing the Danube
I didn't hobnob with or interview politicians, but I was struck by the same
thoughts this summer as I studied in Bratislava and crossed unimpeded between
countries. This trip took place 40 years to the month after my initial trip to
Slovakia. The changes in the language during those 40 years, or perhaps more
accurately in the last 20 years, were impressed upon me by the professor. The
jargon from the socialist days is gone and I earned a frown when my eye fell
upon "fellow traveler" in an open dictionary and I had nerve enough to tell
young fellow student that "that is one phrase you won't run across today".
That was a small part of the changes that have taken place. Whether crossing
borders, speaking the language (Slovak or English; both have changed), looking
at the beautifully restored buildings or enjoying the new streets and
infrastructure, the old country is happily gone and to travel in Slovakia today
is to travel in an entirely different country than you would have encountered 20
It is a fascinating experience I wish upon you all.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]