Posts Tagged ‘Slovakia’

There’s nothing that raises hackles like some stupid nationalistic law trying to compel patriotism.

This week it happened in Slovakia, where the ruling left-wing/nationalist coalition passed a “law on patriotism” that requires students at all state schools and universities to sing the national hymn at the beginning of each week, as well as promoting the Slovak flag and other national symbols.

The new law isn’t universally popular within Slovakia, where people in some quarters are complaining about the effort to mandate this kind of patriotic ritual.

Moreover, the law is raising alarms among Slovakia’s neighbors. In Austria, an editorial this week responded to the patriotism law by describing Bratislava as “Pyongyang on the Danube.” I haven’t seen any reports about the reaction from Hungary, but it’s pretty clear that the language law, which looks like yet another sop by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing party Smer to the right-wing Slovak National Party, notorious for its baiting of Slovakia’s Magyar minority (as well as the Roma population).

Of course, it’s also interesting to see the backlash to the law, then to think about how American schools arguably take it further. I think we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day I was in public school, though I suppose there’s no federal law requiring recitation of the pledge, as far as I know. Then there was that whole period in fourth grade, during Gulf War I, when Mrs. Banks had our class signing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” almost daily.

I guess, again, the operative difference is the element of legal compulsion. Still, it’s not like most schoolchildren are really old enough or informed enough to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in such nationalistic rituals.

Plus, it would be hilarious if, for instance, the Globe and Mail took to referring to D.C. as “Pyongyang on the Potomac.” It has a ring to it.

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Sme has an interesting story comparing Slovaks and Czechs in conjunction with tonight’s World Cup qualifier between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a game that could see the Slovaks eliminate the Czechs while taking another big step forward toward their first World Cup.

Needless to say, the article is a lot more interesting than the NYT piece a couple of months back about how Slovaks purportedly live in the shadow of their Czech neighbors.

For instance, Slovak women living in the Czech Republic find their native language to be an advantage because Czech men evidently think Slovak sounds sexy. And other Slovaks report that when they go to Prague, Czechs ask them to speak Slovak because they miss getting to hear it. The converse isn’t necessarily true, since Slovaks have more exposure to Czech through popular culture, whereas Slovak is slowly becoming a more “exotic” language to Czech ears more than sixteen years after the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

The main takeaway, though, is that Slovaks and Czechs get along quite nicely, thank you. And any rivalry is pretty friendly.

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I absolutely love this cartoon by Martin Šútovec, an outstanding contemporary Slovak cartoonist. In fact, I love it so much that I’m reproducing it here and explaining quite laboriously and awkwardly the wordplay that makes it so humorous.

Komárno is for mosquitos

Komárno is for mosquitos

The cartoon is mocking the new Slovak language law (the Hungarian political scientist and MEP György Schöpflin offers his perspective here), which seems, at least ostensibly, to outlaw the public use of languages other than Slovak — hitting the Hungarian minority that makes up roughly 10 percent of Slovakia’s population especially hard.

In the cartoon, you have a mosquito standing next to a sign for Komárno, a border town on the route between Bratislava and Budapest, which has the Hungarian name Komárom, ergo the two signs on the post. Of course, the word “Komárom” also essentially means “to the mosquitos” in Slovak (it’s the genitive plural form of komár — mosquito). So, a Slovak might read the sign as saying “Mosquitoville for the Mosquitos,” or something to that effect. And this is why there’s a mosquito on the left.

Naturally, the notion of a Slovak town being for anyone but Slovaks is offensive to the Hungarophobic Slovak nationalists who support the thrust of the new language law, which is why you get the thuggish skinhead on the right looking enraged with his sign, “Slovakia for the Slovaks!”

My clunky explanation hardly does it justice, but this cartoon cracked me up, and it’s hilarious to anyone who knows Slovak, assuming you aren’t a xenophobe.

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In the spirit of April Fools Day, the Slovak commentator Tomáš Hudák produced a biting commentary — in English! — on president Ivan Gašparovič for his weekly video.

Obviously, the repeated digs at Gašparovič are meant seriously, even if Hudák frames them in a funny way.

But I do love how Hudák takes a well-intentioned shot at the self-image of Slovaks (and their Central European brethren: Czechs, Poles and Hungarians) by telling the world a little about Slovakia, “the country in the heart of Europe and the ass of the world.”

I can’t wait to ask my Slovak friends how they feel about that.

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The first round of the Slovak presidential election, held today, didn’t produce the requisite majority, requiring a runoff between the incumbent, Ivan Gašparovič, and the challenger, Iveta Radičová, with Gašparovič polling 46.7 percent to 38.1 percent for Radičová. This puts Radičová in excellent position to become Slovakia’s first female president.

That would be remarkable, but what’s more interesting is how the Slovak media seem to have taken a page from their American counterparts, showing who won with district (okres) by coloring them red (for Radičová, who’s more right wing) and blue (for Gašparovič, who’s more left wing).


Red okres, blue okres

Red okres, blue okres

 For what it’s worth, Gašparovič won in the districts with most of the major cities (Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Košice), while Radičová did well in a lot of the less populous districts, as well as districts with some other important cities (Žilina, Nitra and Trenčín, among others).

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I didn’t feel like drinking, but when a Slovak wants you to drink with him, there’s no way of resisting.

— Ladislav Mňačko, The Seventh Night

Oh, how truer words were never spoken written!

I am, of course, reminded of my first time going to the monthly meeting at the Historical Institute in Bratislava. My institutional sponsor had told me I should come to meet everyone (and by everyone, she really did meet everyone, since everyone — with minor exceptions — who works on my period and has written anything of significance works out of this one tiny office housing the Department of Contemporary History).

Since it was the first departmental meeting following the summer hiatus, one of the historians showed up with a bottle of rakija, a plum brandy-cum-firewater, which he had procured on his recent holiday in Croatia. Someone procured a tray with several glasses, which the donor filled with rakija, and he offered me a glass to join in the communal offering.

Mind you, this couldn’t have been later than maybe 10:30 in the morning.

I figured, when in Bratislava, do as the Slovak historians, so I accepted the proffered glass and downed in one gut-burning gulp with everyone else, thinking I had done my small part to contribute to American-Slovak scholarly cooperation and understanding (what a good little Fulbrighter I was!).

Obviously I was new to this.

The empty glasses returned to the tray, the rakija donor proceeded to refill them. And we drank again. Return glass to tray. Refill. Drink. Repeat.

This ritual proceeded four or five times until the entire bottle of rakija had disappeared and my trepidation at having to converse in Slovak vanished along with the Croatian firewater. After that, I got along swimmingly with the historian whose work comes closest to my own, someone I regard as an authority on the object of my own research, and whom I have a great deal of professional (and now personal) respect.

Needless to say, he took me out for a couple of beers with another historian after the meeting broke up.

And then, when we ran into a student he knew heading back toward the tram, we ducked into another cafe for another beer.

As my sponsor (and the echoes of Alcoholics Anonymous that term conjures seem oddly apropos) asked in an e-mail shortly thereafter, Did you survive your first meeting?

I had, and at least I was able to look back on it as a sort of rite of initiation that any fraternity at any college in the U.S. would’ve endorsed.

Of course, I got quite a ribbing from C, and my liver forbade me from going to another meeting for a couple of months. But it was good fun.

But Mňačko’s observation also recalls perhaps the more common way I encountered this Slovak custom. Whenever I came downstairs to see my landlord, usually to pay rent or for some other biznis, invariably he’d make me sit down and offer me a drink of whatever liquor he had on hand, be in the bottle of Glenfiddich I had brought as a welcome gift, or the Jim Bean he happened to have, or whatever Slovak concoction was with them. It wasn’t repeated on a single occasion like it had been during my first meeting at the Historical Institute, but it was pretty standard for me whenever I happened to come downstairs in the evening.

Of course, his wife would also ply me with some sort of sweet or some little treat. Really, it’s just a custom of hospitality, something offered freely and without any particular expectation of reciprocity (at least in our case). But it would’ve been impolitic for me to have refused an offer of drink.

After all, when a Slovak wants you to drink with him, there’s no way of resisting.

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Note: I wrote this about three months ago, to try to chronicle the feelings of futility we experienced trying to get “legal” status to be in Slovakia more than ninety days. At the time I had no good place to share it, but since I’ve got the blog now, I figure I can subject folks to it, if you want to read a long tale of woe.

I’ve always been in favor of generous immigration policies, liberalized visa regimes and amnesties to illegal immigrants. But having seen the monumental hurdles a bureaucracy threw at us — even though we were in Slovakia as part of an exchange sponsored by the Slovak government and the Ministry of Education — I’m inclined to say all governments should have completely open borders and free migration of peoples.

Originally written 29 March 2008

After roughly nine months of effort, hundreds of dollars of expenses and countless early morning excursions to the police station, the status of my residence permit to study in the Slovak Republic is no longer in doubt. Yes, it took almost to the end of month eight of nine to reach this verdict, but I no longer have to live in fear of nighttime raids and deportation (not that either seemed especially likely).


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