Katherina the Great - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

May 4, 2007

Katherina the Great

Bratislava: the underpraised beauty of the shopfronts
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Katherina smiled.

'The old people,' she said, 'they miss the Communist days. They remember the low prices and that everyone had a job. But they forget that the prices were low but that they didn't have the money to pay them.'

Katherina is about 25. We are in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia and just a over the border from Austria. It's a lovely town and its history is of special fascination for Katherina. I tell her

Katherina (right) with Steph: "Our history is very complicated."
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the lessons she took at school must have been complicated and were already out of date. In most countries, history happens at a rush at the start and then hardly anything happens for centuries. Slovakia, on the other hand, has been part of the Hungarian empire and for a while its capital. It has been part of other countries. It has been briefly independent, then installed into the communist empire, then made independent as Czechoslovakia and then still more independent as a separate state since 1993. As everyone reminds you, it is the youngest country in Europe and has already become a member of the European Union. It will move to the euro in a couple of years.

'It is very complicated, our history,' Katherina agrees.

I ask why Slovakia split from what is now the Czech Republic.

'Because the politicians wanted it,' she says. 'The people, they were against it. Now, of course, they accept it and they like it, because now they can see it is working well and they can't say that the country is being made poor by the people in the other half.'

When I ask about rivalry, she says there isn't any.

'Not really. Not like there is with the Hungarians. There is huge rivalry with Hungary, because of our history.'

Slovakia is without doubt a small country. It is the size of Denmark or Switzerland and has just five million residents. Such is the smallness that if the industrial area on the edge of Bratislava were to be considered a city in its own right, it would be the third largest in the country.

What I really noticed was the change from the last time I was here, or in Czechoslovakia as it was then. That was the end of the 1970s or maybe the start of the 1980s. In the communist era, anyway. I arrived by train with my passport containing the visa that it had taken a day's journey to London to get. It had been overwritten 'Novinarske', which only much later did I realise meant 'journalist'.

The train rolled slowly through the rolls of barbed wire and the high watchtowers that then made up the border and everybody was scrutinised and his baggage searched.

The border guards were genial enough. 'Ho, novinarske', they kept saying and nudging each other. They were very amused that I had a Russian camera, an amusement that I translated as not entirely respectful towards their political neighbours. But it's also true that the man opposite me, a Czech, was taken off the train and didn't return. When the train began rolling after an hour, the atmosphere in the carriage lightened and one of my travel partners told me the man had had girlie magazines in his suitcase.

'And what will happen to him now.'

'Oh, nothing much, probably. They will take the magazines and perhaps he will have to pay a fine, but worse than that for him is that it will take hours, perhaps a day, and then he has to find another train.'

'And maybe he will have a hard time explaining his lateness to his wife...'

'That I don't know,' was the reply, with a smile.

This time, for all that Slovakia is part of the EU, it hasn't developed to the stage of financial union and open borders. That is the next step. But the glance at our passports was cursory, the smiles were genuine, and the gestures that said 'You must have iron bums and legs to do a ride like that' were warm. We were welcome in Slovakia.

Oh. and in case you're wondering, no, he wouldn't have found any girlie magazines had he looked.

Careful... you never know who's watching.
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