Slovakia: On the Banks of the Danube River

Slovakia: On the Banks of the Danube River
Bratisalva Castle

Ella, an Icelandic friend my husband met by playing an online word game (http://www.itsyourturn.com), connected me with today’s post, Denisa. Denisa lives in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. On Wikipedia, it says Bratislava lies on both banks of the Danube River and is the only national capital that borders two independent countries, Austria and Hungary. Beyond that, all I knew of Slovakia was that it had once been part of Czechoslovakia. As I am continually discovering, there is so much more to a culture and its people than what the search engines reveal. Thank you, Denisa, for sharing so beautifully your varied culture and life in Slovakia

About Denisa

Denisa, a photographer, works as a fertility advocate for a civilian association, Slovakia’s version of an NGO. Both her flat and office are located in Bratislava. Business and other relationships frequently take her to Austria, Budapest, Prague, and New York.

All photos are Denisa’s.

My Conversation with Denisa

Look out a window in your home and tell me what you see.

I see a beautiful country with a lovely and inviting landscape. God’s creation inhabited with unfree people. They have lived under oppression and lies the last two generations and it wounded their souls so much, it will take another generation to be free again. If we are lucky as not all of our neighbors are. Ukraine is a sad example.

Since 1993, when Czechoslovakia dissolved, how has life changed?  

It was almost unbearable at the beginning. They built regular frontiers and borders with customs and controls. All of the sudden it was supposed to be a different country. But how, when somebody’s family was more than half Czech?

Slovaks tend to have a slave mentality. They see an enemy in everything. Even the Czechs were seen as oppressing the Slovaks. Never mention the fact that 70 years before that, the Czechs founded many of our institutions, museums, schools, even the Slovak National Theatre. It still hurts and we became culturally much poorer. With the Schengen arrangement (http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/go/schengen-fact-sheet.html) at least those who want to live in Europe, do.

Briefly, outline the difference between Czechs and Slovaks.

As a nation, with language and history of an independent state, the Czechs are much older. They had their own Czech kings. We had ours, but as a part of Hungary — which again is viewed as an enemy and oppressor, so we ignore it, loosing so much of the history and noble tradition. Slovaks drink more spirits; Czechs drink perfect Pilsner beer, which they invented. Czechs have marvelous cinematography. We have some pretty good designers and expats in many areas with huge impact. We just “don’t like” them at home, so not many people know about them.

Ruzinov block of flats

Ruzinov block of flats

What is your favorite time of year in Slovakia?

Early autumn, which is now. All the green has the wisdom of leaving soon, riches of fruits and other gifts of nature are so inviting; birds, colors, and perhaps a warm rain on my skin after a long walk. Simply perfect.

What misconceptions or myths about Slovakia would you like to dispel?

Many. Choosing two, it would be the Slovak language being similar to the Czech. Actually, Czech is closer to Polish than to Slovak. Yes, they are both Slavic, but you have to live in the country to be able to read the literature… Czechs are currently losing knowledge of the Slovak language and the stuff for kids needs to be dubbed. The reason is that they are 10 million and we are 5 million, so it is more likely we read a book or magazine in Czech than the other way around. Similarly, Czechs do perfect movies — such as Kolja, awarded with an Oscar — which we love to watch.  We hardly do any movies. However, we have some outstanding actors who play in Czech movies. Talented people get through. The second myth is that we are hospitable people.

Describe a traditional Slovakian meal.

This is the heart of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy. With so much Hungarian, Austrian, Czech, German, Jewish, Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, and Serbian influences, there is no single meal which would be solely Slovak. It makes some Slovaks sad, but I rejoice in the abundance of choices and would invite you to schnitzel. Many people think it comes from Austria, but it comes from Italy. Legends say, cheese dumplings — bryndzové halušky — are a Slovak meal, but many Slovaks don’t know bryndza is a Romanian word for cheese. Hungarians think their traditional pogacsa are theirs, but they are from Turkey, which shaped Hungary for 200 years. Beautiful region, this home of mine, just not for the nationalist.

What gives you peace?

God, prayers, love of my dear husband, music, exercise, nature, great friends I am blessed with, taking photographs, singing really loud, good books, beer or a glass of Hennessy and, as I am a woman, shopping.

What concerns you about Slovakia’s future?

The slave mentality, lack of knowledge of languages, suspicion. It makes us – as a country – rotten like an old cheese under a glass top. As in the history, the talented have to leave to have room for development. We envy them so much, we don’t even want to know about them. Below average is just about good. It should not be. On the other hand, I see many talented wonderful young people. I am hopeful. I will not live to see a self-confident Slovakia, but in terms of history, I am fine. I might have lived during the Stalin era.

What is your opinion of the United States?

I was always an American in my heart. My great-grandmother went there when she was 17, married my great-grandfather on Manhattan and my grandmother was born there. Strings of destiny brought them back to Budapest, Hungary. They later moved to Pozsony, today Bratislava, which later became a part of Czechoslovakia. So I guess this shapes my opinions somehow. I love the United States and I am fully aware of the fact that much freedom– aside from great opportunities — brings a need of great responsibility. I love New York today especially as a mixture where people do not depend on nation or color but depend on who they are as a human being. At least they are trying to.

I live in a place where seeing an African brings a risk someone will comment loudly: “Wow, too much sun?” And that somebody will have a university degree. The same person would probably be anti-Semitic and agree with an idea of sending Roma people to some kind of working camp. Yes, in 2014. Also, calls for helping the Ukraine (or other places unfree people live, which could be me) sound very different coming from Washington than from any of the countries post colonial Russia aggressively tries to get under its influence.

Please share a quote hat inspires you. 

With God’s help, I can and I will.

Please leave a comment or message in the comment section. Feel free to contact me here or at vasilionlaura@gmail.com if you know someone in another country you think would make a good fit for Talking to the World.  Thanks!

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