Across Continents

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Slovakian sketchbook

Weeds had taken root between the vast concrete slabs where once vehicles queued, waiting to pass into the decadent west, or the austere east. A sorry sight, barely noticed by most as they sped unimpeded across the border. The abandoned customs posts, the empty money exchanges. Slovakia was now in the EU, it had the Euro. Twenty years ago ordinary Slovakians had marched through here from Bratislava, now the capital, to Hainburg, the first decent sized town in Austria. They were re-asserting the freedom of movement Communism had denied them.

As I slipped quietly from Austria into Slovakia, I met a French Canadian, very pronounced accent, and his son. They were returning to Bratislava for a further night, having mistakenly headed west not east. They’d cycled from Paris, simply equipped, their belongings mostly wrapped in bin liners, bikes that looked barely up to the task. The occasional hostel, but mostly camping rough. Foolhardy, no. Gutsy, yes. We parted company on the edge of the old city. I was heading into centre. I don’t think they knew where they were going.

I’d entered the former Eastern Bloc on the twentieth anniversary of the raising of the Iron Curtain. The first generation never to have lived under the old regime would be beginning to exert their influence. I’d not experienced the Eastern Bloc before reformation, but, as I headed through Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and into Bulgaria, I could at least draw a few comparisons with Western Europe.

Street scene

The so-called historic centre of Bratislava looked, on the face of it, like so many I’d passed through in Germany and Austria. Pastel coloured buildings, familiar looking street cafes, pavement art. A exhibition marking two decades since the end of Communism. But sit on a park bench for a while and you notice the police presence. Not the uniformed officers. The plain clothes ones. Mingling amongst the tourists, looking for pickpockets and other undesirables. Indicative of a nation that still has some catching up to do? Perhaps. A little more caution now required, especially in public places.

Bratislava exhibition

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