Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birthday in Vienna

This post was nearly going to be titled "Birthday in Brno," as I've been wanting to take a day trip there for some time. However, with Terezia's Pilates class in the morning, and the 1.5 hour train ride, we wouldn't have gotten there until about noon, and I'd prefer to go on a day when we can get an earlier start. So, at the last minute, we decided Brno's bizarre landscape of dramatic neo-gothic spires coupled with a nuclear cooling tower will have to wait, and we instead went to Vienna to celebrate my 37 years of being alive.

As always, Vienna proved to be a nice excursion. This time we walked through the old town using only the narrow, picturesque side streets (avoiding the crowded, mall-like Karntner Strasse), and caught a tram over to the Landstrasse district, primarily to see the Hundertwasser House and museum, but also to just check out the general area, which we hadn't set foot in before. We didn't go inside the museum, but seeing the exterior of that, and the even more impressive apartment building a few blocks away, was worth the trek.

Hundertwasser had a bit of a hippie-ish and unorthodox approach to architecture, and these buildings display an endearingly erratic and whimsical quality, featuring asymmetrical shapes, random patchworks of bold colors, lines that are anything but straight, and windows of all different shapes and sizes. There's something slightly Gaudi-esque about its unpredictable curves and brilliant colors. Hundertwasser also loved to integrate nature into his designs, hence the trees sprouting from rooftop gardens, and small alcoves in the facades from which vines of ivy dangle elegantly. Even the cobbled square in front of the building is an ankle-spraining obstacle course of deliberately random humps and divots; a natural take on an urban concept.

After that, we sauntered back through the old town,

and made our way to the quaint Spitelberg area, where we found a cheap, tasty lunch menu at one of the myriad restaurants there. Next we took a detour through two record stores in the area, Moses and Sing Sing, both of which have quite a lot of vinyl, and overall decent selections (I sure miss Amoeba, though), but nothing I had to buy right then and there.

In keeping with our goal to visit a different museum with every trip to Vienna, we thought we'd check out the Albertina gallery. Part of the incomprehensibly sprawling Habsburg palace complex, the Albertina focuses on art from Impression through to about mid-20th century modern. They've currently got a sizable Impressionist exhibition, featuring some wonderful Monets (including one from his waterlily series, as well as some deeply atmospheric renderings of the Thames river in London), as well as some gorgeous paintings by Degas from his "women stepping out of the bath and drying themselves" series (did this guy have a fetish for this, or what?). We also got to see some nice Toulouse-Lautrecs and Manets, among dozens of others from the Impressionist crowd.

There was another exhibit called Monet to Picasso, which literally takes you from Impressionism through Cubism and beyond. It's laid out to show the links betweens the movements, and how one gradually evolved into the other. It was particularly telling to see how closely the flowers in some of Chagall's works on display mirrored those in much earlier works by Monet. But the exhibition featured a pretty vast assortment of modern works from artists I love, such as Bracques, El Lissitsky, Kandinsky, Modigliani, and dozens of others. Definitely worth the 11 euro entry fee.

We took what has become an obligatory stroll through the Naschmarkt, since Bratislava really doesn't have anything that can compare to it. It's always nice to peruse the colorful stands of fresh produce, and take in the exotic smells of Indian and Thai spices that permeate the air. I bought some medjool dates (really crazy and bizarre that I have to travel one hour into a different country to find these - but when you're addicted to them like I am...).

So, a nice and exhausting day! Hopefully we'll make it to Brno soon enough.

(Click here to see photos of recent trips to Vienna).

Na zdravie! Drinking As the Slovaks Do

Using my limp arms to anchor myself to the toilet bowl while the bathroom spun violently around me, a thick stream of vomit gushed from my mouth in a forceful yet strangely satisfying way, as I wondered how I got to this point so quickly.

It seems that many Slovaks I've met have an innate tolerance for consuming large quantities of alcohol. It's not uncommon to find oneself in situations where people are downing potent shots of various types of booze accompanied by pints of tasty Slovak (or Czech) beer. (The beer, of course, is the chaser). The shots are typically anything from slivovice (plum brandy), hruskovica (pear), jablkovica (apple), borovicka (juniper berries), Becherovka (Czech, containing 13 different herbs), or plain old vodka. I've always been a bit of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, so this is a particularly lethal combination for me.

I've been told by one of Terezia's Slovak friends that this combination of beer and shots "is not normal," but based on my own experience so far, it's extremely common. Apart from having been subjected to it myself on numerous occasions with people who acted like it was as normal as breathing air, I've observed others here partaking in this lethal combo as well, in pubs and elsewhere. For example, during the holidays, on an over-booked train to Podrecany (which was headed all the way to Kosice), a group of 30-somethings standing, seatless, out in the corridor, were festively chasing copious shots of Becherovka with beer guzzled from plastic liter bottles. Okay, I realize this was the holidays, but if people are indulging in this lethal combo out in public on a train, it can't be all that unusual, no?

Shots are a crucial element with any social occasion, large or intimate. If shot glasses aren't being refilled and shoved into everyone's hands every 10 minutes, with people merrily toasting (na zdravie!), something is very wrong. I have yet to be invited into someone's house and not been offered a shot of something.

I got into trouble last year when we visited several of Terezia's dad's sisters over the course of the afternoon, and at each sister's home, we were offered several rounds of various types of the booze mentioned above. After visiting the last sister, Terezia's dad insisted that we stop by the house he grew up in, which at some point had been turned into a pub. I'd become pretty loopy by then, and the pint of beer I had with him as he gave us a "tour" of his old house, put me right over the edge. On the car ride home, I could barely move my limbs and had to pee like a baroque fountain.

Slovak (and Czech) beer (pivo) has a tendency to be light, smooth, yet very full flavored. Whenever we've gone out to eat, whether it's lunch or dinner, the majority of people around us usually seem to be drinking beer. In fact, it's sometimes perceived as weird if you don't order a beer with your meal! On one occasion in Prague, I didn't feel like having beer with my lunch and really just wanted a glass of water. The waiter actually thought something was wrong with me and asked if I was sick or hungover, and offered to bring me some sauerkraut juice (which is apparently a miracle hangover cure around these parts).

It's quite common in Slovakia and Czech Republic for people to make their own booze, typically slivovice or hruskovica, or some combination of the two. Terezia's dad's favorite time of year is the Fall, when he collects all of the fruit that falls from their plum and pear trees, which is used to make the moonshine. His stuff is quite potent. Last year's batch was pretty strong, but this year's didn't come out quite right, and is so harsh and twitch-enducing that it's all I can do to keep my eyes from tearing up whenever I imbibe it. Sadly, the smell is oddly reminiscent of windshield washer fluid with antifreeze. You can also light it on fire with relative ease. Hopefully next year's batch will turn out better (I think he needs to find a better distiller). But Terezia's dad is so cute with his slivovice - he loves to sneak us into the basement where he's got his stuff in these beautiful, old bottles, and he discreetly gives us shots when Terezia's mom is outside or running an errand.

It's also not uncommon for people here to make their own wine. Unfortunately, the homemade red wine that I've tried, made by Terezia's, brother, father, and uncle, is cloyingly sweet. It tastes exactly like that super sweet grape juice that five-year-olds in America drink out of those little juice boxes, except with alcohol. Of course I don't want to offend Terezia's family, so I'll drink it if it's offered, but to be honest, it's really not my cup of tea.

I helped pick the grapes for this year's batch, which were these massive, perfectly round, dark purple, finger-staining sugar bombs. Basically, I think they were of the concord variety, and I'd never tasted grapes as sweet as these. "Aren't grapes used for wine production not supposed to taste like grape-flavored candy when eaten?" I wondered aloud. But I don't make wine, I only drink it - so what do I know?

Surely they have to know this tastes quite different and infinitely sweeter than commercially manufactured wine, right? And Slovakia makes some truly worthy and wonderful (and award-winning) wines. But, some Slovaks really like their wine sweet. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to actually mix their wine with Coke. They'll pour it into any decent wine to make it sweeter. Is this why many Slovaks make (and seem to enjoy drinking) such sugary sweet wine? I have no idea, and I can't seem to get a straight answer out of anyone! Most people just shrug their shoulders and act like there's nothing odd or peculiar about it. (Also, see my post about my first encounter with burciak).

So, is Slovakia turning me into a raging alcoholic? Hardly. There are few alcoholic beverages that I actually truly ever crave, and they are not things that are easily found here. (Now, if we were living in Belgium, the land of St. Bernardus Abt 12, I might be in trouble). You could view the occasional drinking I do here to be more of a kind of fieldwork.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Cemeteries in Bratislava (*with update)

Like I've mentioned before, I love old cemeteries. I don't know if this has to do with my obsession with Harold and Maude, or my teenage goth years, or if it's simply because I just like old crap, but I really dig (ha!) old cemeteries. After checking out this cemetery last month, I wanted to see Bratislava's old Jewish cemetery, which is located on the other side of the castle, clinging to a slope of the hillside facing the River Park complex along the Danube. Although I could see it clearly on google maps, actually getting into it proved a bit tricky at first. When we ventured out there, we discovered there are actually two cemeteries right next two each other: the Jewish one, and another, smaller one, for gentiles.

We went into the latter first, as it had an entrance that was, well, obviously an entrance. While not as large and ornate as the other cemetery on Palisady, this was still an interesting and attractive place, especially with its location on the lush, green, sloping hillside. The majority of the names on the headstones appeared to be German/Austrian, and most of its inhabitants seem to have met their fates from around the late 1800s up through the first half of the 1900s. A nice, tranquil place.

We could see the Jewish cemetery next door when peering over a broken down, weed-strewn fence...

...but we hadn't noticed any kind of obvious entrance when walking up the road. We left the first cemetery and walked back down the road to what had to be the entrance to the Jewish one. There were no signs, markers, or anything; just a large, imposing iron gate, on the other side of which were some stairs leading up to a small, nondescript building. From the street, all you could see on either side of the gate was a stone wall that had to be about 20 feet tall. One could easily walk by without ever realizing there's a cemetery on the other side.

Assuming the gate was locked, I was thinking we wouldn't be able to get in, until I gently pushed at it and it opened with a sharp screech. So, we went inside, walked up the stone steps, and went through what looked and felt like the patio of someone's backyard. Laundry was drying on a line, and window sills of the concrete bunker-like dwelling were cluttered with the kind of junk that indicates signs of life. A large dog lying in an area totally enclosed by a cyclone fence, looked at us, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to sleep. It felt weird, like we were trespassing, but we passed on through to the cemetery regardless. No one came out from the building to tell us to go away, and we didn't actually see anyone else on the premises.

At any rate, the Jewish cemetery was much more attractive, visually intriguing, and - I'm assuming - older. All of the headstones were inscribed with Hebrew, so we had no idea what any of them said (hence my uncertainly about the age of the place). But things looked considerably older than the first cemetery, what with lots of headstones jutting out of the ground at random, severe angles like gnarly sets of teeth. Some areas looked as if they were no longer being maintained, as they were covered in layers of thick vines of ivy, roots, and weeds. Again, the setting on the side of the hill (the bodies could very well be sliding down the slope in the subsoil!) really lent the place a unique atmosphere.

I'm still trying to find some info on the history of this cemetery. I can't seem to locate any information on its age or origins, at least not on-line. I believe it is the only Jewish cemetery in Bratislava, and people are apparently still being buried there today, given how new some of the headstones by the entrance look. Apparently there was a smaller, separate cemetery down the hill from the main one, set along what is now the busy Nabrezie armadneho generala Ludvika Svobodu, next to where the southwestern entrance to the tram tunnel currently sits. Some important and influential local rabbis (notably, one named Moses Sofer) were buried here, and their plots are now housed in an underground mausoleum, which many orthodox Jews consider to be sacred. (I don't know why it is separated from the main cemetery, although perhaps that has something to do with the importance of the people buried here). At any rate, I need to come back here sometime later in the afternoon when the light is nicer, and take some more photographs.

*Update: the weather was lovely Saturday, and after checking out a very cool and insanely crowded public market on Panenska (for which all the hip looking Bratislavans [the likes of which I haven't really seen in all these months here] apparently came out of the woodwork: it felt like we were back at the Lakeshore Farmers' Market in Oakland!), we strolled through the Ondrejsky cemetery, the only one in the Stare Mesto which we had yet to explore. We've walked and ridden past this cemetery gazillions of times, but it just hadn't called out to us like the others had. It's easily the largest, and yet it's the least crowded; there's loads of open real-estate here. A decent amount of its inhabitants died in the 1800s, while most seem to have passed in the first half of the 20th century. One particularly interesting thing we noticed was that this cemetery seems to have the most equal distribution of Austrians, Slovaks, and Hungarians, judging by the names on the headstones, illustrating how multi-ethnic this city used to be. Visually, this place is less striking than the others, but it was interesting to explore, nonetheless. (See photos at the end of this set).   

Monday, March 12, 2012

Prague Re-revisited & Update to Last Week's Political Post.

Just got back from another short trip to Prague. The soggy weather subsided for the two full days that we were there, so lots of tromping around the city. We got to meet with some of Terezia's friends (Zdenka and Martina), which made us realize we need to spend a lot more time in Prague, and we explored more of the Vinohrady and Nove Mesto areas. Sadly, I learned that Prague's record stores aren't very good (at least the four that we checked out). We tried one of Prague's vegetarian restaurants, Lehka Hlava, at which we feasted on a wonderful salad of mixed-greens with warm goat cheese, walnuts, and cranberry sauce, tasty and crispy spinach quesadillas, and bland-as-hell vegetable red curry (does anyone know how to make a decent curry in Central Europe? Besides Terezia?). On our last night, we ate some amazing duck at U Parliamentu. We also visited the Museum of Communism, parts of which were like a flashback for Terezia. Click here to see photos from this weekend. (I tried to include as many shots as possible of things not photographed during the January trip).

And to update last week's Slovak elections post for this blog's 1.33 American readers, Fico's Smer won by a landslide, winning 83 seats in the 150-seat parliament, and more people voted in this election than had been expected. Needless to say, many people will be unhappy now that Fico's back in power. However, the good news is that corrosive nationalist parties, Jan Slota's Slovak National Party and Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, did not win enough votes (5% minimum) to make it into Parliament. Hopefully this means that Fico will tone down the divisive nationalist/xenophobic rhetoric and focus on other things.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

No One Seems to Know Who the Hell to Vote For (Trying to Make Sense of Slovakia's Political Landscape).

Slovakia is having special elections this week, prompted by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová's governing coalition falling out of power after losing a vote of confidence in parliament back in mid-October. Radičová's coalition went down in flames after fierce debate over whether Slovakia should help bail out Greece. Parliament initially voted against it, but then held a second vote wherein the aid was narrowly approved. But that came at the expense of Radičová's coalition. 

I may be oversimplifying, but basically, most of Slovakia's general population resents having to help countries like Greece, because the amount Slovakia would have to pony up would put the country much deeper into debt, and more importantly, because average wages and retirement pensions are so pitifully and insultingly low in this country, especially compared with the rest of the EU. Overall, Slovakia is a poor country with staggering unemployment (as of February it was shown to be hovering just below 14%), with more than enough problems of its own, so people view having to help bail out Greece as a massive burden, from both a practical and symbolic standpoint. 

At any rate, with Radičová's coalition parties in total disarray after the vote of no confidence, the opposition, headed by the Smer party's Robert Fico, has been seen as a shoe-in. Fico's coalition led parliament from 2006-2010, and he's actually been around since before the Velvet Revolution. However, he is a controversial and polarizing figure. I get the sense that Fico gets a lot of support from people out in the country (mainly older and more rural voters), while I've met people here in Bratislava who absolutely detest him. 

Adding significantly to the chaos of the current political climate is the "Gorilla" scandal. Numerous elites on both sides of the political spectrum have been implicated in what has turned out to be a case of widespread corruption. Basically, during the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda, which held office from 2002-2006, senior officials were meeting in a secret apartment in Bratislava, making illegal deals with multinational corporations (most notably, the Penta Financial Group) regarding privatization and large-scale public procurement. Somehow catching wind of this, the police wire-tapped the apartment and recorded hours of damaging conversations among countless government officials from multiple political parties (including Fico's Smer). The transcripts from the wire-tapping, known as the "Gorilla" file, hung in a complicated political limbo for a few years until it was leaked to the media in December, which prompted the government to reopen the case, and resulted in widespread protests from a public that wants to see these politicians held accountable. (This article gives a good overview of the scandal). 

There have been numerous demonstrations, ongoing news stories, court hearings with politicians sitting on the stand listening to themselves on tape, etc., and it's pretty much put Fico's once formidable political opponents in complete disarray. Even though Fico's Smer party has been implicated in this as well, it hasn't seemed to damage his "brand" as much. Plus, he's such a well-known and familiar face, that he's probably going to get the vote based on name-recognition alone. 

In light of all this, Slovak evening news has been reporting that many people are at a total loss as to who to vote for. People are apparently sick of Fico, but they're kind of resigned to his winning back control of Parliament, because his opponents have not been able to get their proverbial shit together in the midst of the "Gorilla" scandal. Some people may simply sit this election out. At this point, nobody likes anyone! This reminds me of how former Italian Prime-Minister Silvio Berlusconi stayed in power through much of the 00s. Very few people actually liked him, everyone knew he was corrupt, but his opponents simply couldn't get it together and unseat him (at least not for any significant length of time), and many people voted for him simply because his was the only name on the ballot they were familiar with. At any rate, it'll be interesting to see what happens here.  

Ultimately, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the general political dynamic in this country. In doing so, I'm finding that it's impossible to fit the American "left vs. right" template over Slovakia's political divide. For example, Fico is technically considered center-left, but from everything I've read and heard, he is "left" only from an economic standpoint, and even then, partly because of his ties to the Communist regime from before the Velvet Revolution. Radičová and her coalition are broadly considered center-right (Radičová's own SDKU-DS party is technically "liberal-conservative"), but similarly, they appear to be conservative primarily from an economic "pro-business/laissez-faire" standpoint. This is where the "left vs. right" paradigm differs from the US, for obvious reasons. 

On social issues, Fico fits right in with hard-line American conservative values: he's extremely nationalistic, anti-immigration, and has supported hugely xenophobic and discriminatory policies. He has also allied his Smer party with extremist Jan Slota's dangerously nationalist Slovak National Party, by including him in his governing coalition. Fico (in cahoots with Slota) was instrumental in passing laws that made it illegal for people to speak Hungarian in "official" settings, as well as outlawing dual-citizenship with the sole aim of thwarting Hungarian citizens' requests for Slovak citizenship. Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Cough.. Arizona. (Hungarians make up 10% of Slovakia's population, and many families were severed when the border between the two countries was drawn, while others fled south under apparent pressure, resulting in lots of dual-citizenship requests). Several years ago, before the language law was passed, a Hungarian woman in Nitra, named Hedvig Malina, was savagely beaten by some nationalist thugs who overheard her speaking Hungarian on her cell phone. Fico had the gall to accuse her of making the whole thing up. Not a likable guy if you value things like ethnic and cultural diversity.  

By contrast, when her coalition came to power, Radičová worked "to rebuild links with Hungary that were badly damaged by the adoption of contentious language and citizenship laws." Based on what I've read, she condemned these laws as distractions from more important issues at hand. She worked with the Slovak-Hungarian Most-Hid party to at least amend some of the laws. 

What was troubling for me is that when I spoke with some Slovak people about Fico's nationalistic, anti-Hungarian tendencies, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, he had to do that to secure enough votes from his base - from all the people out in the country." I tried to explain that that's no excuse - it's still blatantly discriminatory, and that alone would be enough for me to not support the guy. But they didn't seem particularly bothered by this. 

Obviously attitudes like these are quite problematic for me since I spent 30 years of my life in the ethnically diverse cultural stew that is the San Francisco Bay Area. I value that kind of diversity, and find it sad and unsettling when others don't. Now, on one level, I think Slovakians are wary of Hungarians based on events that happened in the past. Slovakia was part of (and Slovaks were ruled by) Hungary for many centuries. As a result, I suspect Slovakians feel a need to assert their own cultural/national identity. But even so, I still think it's hugely important that these two societies learn how to coexist without animosity or hostility. As such, I think Fico and his nationalist cronies have done quite a lot of damage, and I really hope they don't pick up where they left off, should they win this election. 

At any rate, I could be severely oversimplifying things here, but I'm getting the sense that Fico's "center-left" coalition is basically made up of old-school Communist types. Fico has his roots in the pre-Velvet Revolution years, when he held some rookie position in the government. These Communist-era relics, despite whatever economic policies they espouse, seem to appeal to an older, more rural, and more socially conservative voter base, and would appear far-right on many issues by American standards. 

But this isn't a clear case of role-reversal. The center-right parties, while less interested in making life difficult for Hungarians, are far from being flaming liberals. They seem to appeal to the younger, money-making yuppies that populate Bratislava, and seem to be pro-business in ways that might make your typical Berkeley liberal roll his or her eyes. Their policies are said by some to have benefitted big-business while doing harm to lower classes and the unemployed.  

Terezia (who, having lived in the US for 15 years, is trying to get a handle on all this as well) suspects that it's simply a matter of Slovakia being such a staunchly conservative country, that there really is no "progressive left" as we know and define it in countries like the US. For starters, Slovakia is nearly as catholic as Poland, and due to its time spent isolated behind the iron curtain, and by dint of it not having any larger, more ethnically/culturally diverse cities or greater metropolitan areas, it has remained more traditional and conservative overall. I think there could be something to this. 

But, I digress. Getting back to my original point, I'm curious to see how these special elections pan out. Plus, like I keep saying, I'm still just trying to make sense of all this, and this post should only be seen as the rambling observations of a foreigner who is trying to sort it all out.