Thursday, February 16, 2012

Miestny rozhlas

Some of you already heard me blather on about this last year after my first trip to Slovakia, but I was so taken by this cultural phenomenon that I felt it deserved its own blog post. In every smaller town or village, you'll notice these public address speakers mounted on polls everywhere. I remember asking if they were cold war-era air raid sirens. We have those in the US in towns that were located near old missile sites. But no, the explanation was a little more prosaic.

Every day, usually late afternoon or early evening, you'll hear about 30 seconds of instrumental music blaring through the crackly speakers, usually something vaguely patriotic or tranquil and Eno-esque. That is followed by a series of announcements, seemingly always in a woman's voice. These announcements usually take about 3 minutes. Needless to say, to someone who didn't grow up in the Eastern Bloc, it's kind of surreal to hear all of this stuff echoing through the streets!

This initially struck me as kind of Orwellian, for obvious reasons, but it also reminded me of announcements being delivered by the principal during 1st period over the high school intercom. Of course, my first thought was, in this day in age, what on earth - barring some huge catastrophe - could one possibly need to relay to the public via loudspeakers? Terezia's aunt Elenka explained that where she lives in Podrecany, the announcements alert people to things like changes in the garbage pick-up schedule, or if somebody in the village has died, or when Chinese or Hungarians will be passing through town to sell things. She seemed surprised that this was such a bemusing and alien concept to me. She asked in earnest, "in America, how would you know if people come through your town selling potatoes?"

I didn't even know how to answer this. I mean, for one thing, things are set up so differently in the US, that I wasn't sure where to begin. Yes, I could go on about the prevalence of local farmers' markets; about finding out about your local farmers' market by going online (or at least a newsletter that gets sent out?); or even about those guys you see on the corners of busy intersections selling strawberries or cherries, or whatever, depending on the season...

And of course there's the issue of different ethnic groups passing through town to sell goods or produce inexpensively. What a quaint idea! There's something kind of Old World about it. You just don't see this kind of thing in the US, at least not where I'm from. The closest we might have to this might be the gourmet cupcake truck that goes back and forth between San Francisco and Berkeley. But even if we did have Hungarians periodically driving through town to sell potatoes in the US, you'd probably be able to track their schedules via Twitter or blogs, which is how people track the whereabouts of the cupcake truck. In fact, it was probably Twitter that inspired the whole cup cake truck thing into existence in the first place.

Ultimately, we just have very different ways of disseminating this kind of information.

Getting more to the heart of the matter, the miestny rozhlas speak to a fundamental cultural difference between Western and Eastern European society. I mean, first of all, there's something vaguely totalitarian about the miestny rozhlas; clearly they have their roots in the days under Communism. It might be the fact that the miestny rozhlas remind me of the school intercom that makes me equate them with undemocratic regimes. Schools are not democracies, after all, and hearing these makes me feel like I am back at school. Also, just the fact that the town has some announcements to make, and you're all going to hear them! Sure, you don't have to sit there and listen to them. No one's actually forcing you. But then if you miss one, you might be totally surprised the next day when your neighborhood's power goes out due to some nearby construction. Yet the way this information is relayed by blaring it through the streets over loudspeakers is still just so endearingly quaint.

For practical reasons, miestny rozhlas totally make sense. With Slovakia being historically quite poor and rural, they couldn't count on everyone having televisions or even radios. So, how do you get your time-sensitive message across? Problem solved.

But is this still necessary in the 21st century? We don't have miestny rozhlas in Bratislava, which kind of underscores the increasing gulf between Slovakia's larger, metropolitan areas and the rest of the country, which is predominantly made up of rural and small factory towns. But, there's high speed wireless internet at Terezia's aunt Elenka's house in Podrecany. Yet, Terezia's parents, who live about 7 doors down, don't even own a computer. And in rural villages like Podrecany, I don't think that is too unusual. So, obviously, the miestny rozhlas aren't going to be phased out any time soon.

(Click here to see this month's batch of Bratislava photos).

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