Monday, November 17, 2008

A Reluctant History Lesson in Velvet

 id=I am listening to the church bells peel from Kostol Nanebovzatia Panny Márie which may or may not commemorate the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven - although I'm not really certain as my Slovak is still pretty much elementary non-existent. My language skills seem to have plateaued at being able to order a beer.

But I digress.

I am listening
to the church bells peel from Kostol Nanebovzatia Panny Márie up the street here on Blumentálska, and I am mindful that today is November 17th (very important) and a holiday (very very important). I thank the gods for that.

Indeed, if I were any sort of sensitive and
sentient human being, especially a sensitive and sentient human being who spent far too much of her prolonged student days drinking at various Student Union Buildings, I'd be taking advantage of today's date and blogging about International Students' Day and the Velvet Revolution. Yes, today marks the 19th anniversary of the peaceful (hence "velvet") student protests that triggered the unraveling and ultimate fall of Communism in Central/Eastern Europe.

But I have other plans.

Let me just say, by way of an aside, that 50 years prior to the Velvet Revolution, a
Czech medical student by the name of Jan Opletal was shot and killed in an anti-Nazi demonstration by - not surprisingly - the Nazis. His funeral on November 15th sparked further anti-Nazi demonstrations, the result of which was that all Czech universities and colleges were closed, nine students executed on the 17th of November, and 1200 students sent to concentration camps.

Time passes. In 1941, i
n commemoration of these events, November 17th is designated "International Students Day" by the Internal Students' Council in London - an organization rife with political refugees.

Time passes. In 1946, much of the country is liberated by the Red Army and grateful Czechoslovakians vote in the Communist Party
; within 2 years - and as the result of a coup d'état - the country becomes a Communist-ruled state.

Time passes. By 1968, the honeymoon phase has long fizzled out. Dissatisfied dissenter and country leader Alexander Dubček
tries to reform the Communist regime by suggesting that the media be allowed more latitude and that additional human rights (including the freedom to free speech and travel) be guaranteed by law - a sure-fire way to losing your Communist Party membership card. Which he does. The Soviet Union also responds by sending in the tanks. They stay for twenty-one years.

Time passes. In 1989, students in Prague choose November 17th - this politically-charged day - to march against those Communist visitors who had dropped by in 1968 and forgot to leave. To be fair, on the previous day, students here in Bratislava organized a similar event but possibly because it was Bratislava rather than Prague or the fact that they picked the wrong date, no one seemed to have paid too much attention. In Prague, the peaceful protesters are dispersed - no one is killed but radios erroneously broadcast that one student is dead, giving the movement added momentum and sympathy - and within days labour strikes begin to erupt across the country.

In the days that followed, a
ctors in theatres read the students' proclamation rather than their scripts, propelling playwright Václav Havel - who would become the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic - into the international spotlight. (Dubček who lost his key to the Executive Communist bathroom back in '68 over his insistence for silly human rights would become the elected speaker of the federal parliament.) Within 2 weeks, Communist-dominated Parliament removes the nasty little article entrenching Marxism-Leninism as the country's state ideology and the country's leadership a prerogative of the Communist Party.

The rest, as they say, is history - although a heartfelt huzzah! goes to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for their peaceful separation in 1993 - sparing countless children the necessity of learning how to spell

Damn! I wasn't going to talk about this at all. I was going to talk about our latest adventures at the Police Station. Damn, damn, damn! Perhaps,
International Students Day isn't the proper forum in which to talk about my low esteem issues with the Slovakian police. Or perhaps it is. In retrospect, I wish I were in Prague today - not just because the city is so stunning or the bagels authentic or the beer fabulous (although those are all truly valid reasons) - because students and people from all walks of life will gather at Jan Opletal's memorial and pay fitting tribute to this day. I've asked dozens of people in my classes - most of whom are fresh out of university - what's on the agenda in Bratislava - beyond the church bells which have long ceased ringing - and so far all I've gotten is I don't know. We're going to the cottage for the long weekend.


Friday, November 7, 2008

The World Bratislava is Mud-licious & Puddle-Wonderful

(with apologies to e.e. cummings)

To the best of my knowledge e.e. cummings never came to Bratislava because if he did - and I'm pretty sure he didn't - there would be a bronze sculpture of him somewhere in the old city. Bratislava seems pretty desperate eager to commemorate visits by the famous and not-so famous, and at this very moment I am waiting eagerly by the phone for my own appointment with a master sculptor - although I think that Pán Kocúr's ATM machine which robbed us of our savings would suit immortality better than me. In fact, I would like to be the one to pour a few tons of molten bronze on top of it - just to show that there are no hard feelings.

But I digress.

Mud. There is much mud in the city these days and it has nothing to do with the unseasonably warm weather we've been experiencing. The mud that I'm talking about can be found in inflatable wading pools.

Allow me to explain:

A few weekends ago, Pán K, a fellow colleague and I went to a Mexican restaurant/bar (rather "Mexican" restaurant/bar - as taco wings and my favourite, Lady's Hair Chicken, figure on the menu) to have some light refreshment. The fact that it was named Hysteria (instead of, say, El Diablo or El Toro) should have set off warning bells but it came highly recommended and we were stricken by a great thirst. As we looked for seats, we couldn't help but notice that a giant blue wading pool-like apparatus was being inflated near the bar. It's probably for mud wrestling, I said flippantly. Flippantly because this is, after all, a family restaurant.

Needless to say, within five minutes of my flippant comment, Two Bikini'd Young Things appeared in the room next to ours, where a
Group of Admirers of the Female Form - who were probably on their tenth rum and coke by this time - awaited said arrival with robust and undisguised enthusiasm. We watched as the Two Bikini'd Young Things removed what little they were wearing, pulled one lucky admirer to his feet, removed his t-shirt and jeans, and drew him into what was clearly now an inflatable wading pool filled with mud.

Now let me interrupt myself. Having been shorted a few Culture Cards by the Tourism Gods (clearly they were slipped to Prague when Bratislava wasn't looking), this tiny capital city that no one can find on a map has rebounded by becoming a destination point for stag parties. Indeed, Bratislava has become more than just a blip on the map of what is called "stag tourism" - some 1-2,000 Admirers of the Female Form can be found stumbling about the old city on any given weekend during Stag Season. What with cheap flights from the UK and even cheaper pints of Slovak and Czech beer, the city has become a weekend for debauchery, memorialized by thousands of disposable cameras belonging to the world's misguided and brain-dead bridegrooms and groomsmen. In 2007, the court here sentenced one 25-year old Brit to two months in prison for frolicking naked masturbating in a fountain. I can only hope that the fountain had been free of goldfish at the time.

Want to come to Bratislava and make an idiot of yourself? - websites abound which are dedicated to ensuring that, on the cusp of your nuptials, "a beautiful babe [will] take all her clothes off and slide naked over your body!" You and ten mates can get all mud-licious for a mere 625 euros. Fun! Of course, there are lots of other wholesome activities you can choose, but for the most part, the common denominators seem to be beer and naked girls. Of all the companies that promise to make a bride regret having said I do, my favourite is Bratislava Pissup with its signature Steak & Tits special. Sort of says it all (she shudders).

So as we gulped out beer, we watched in horror, delight, and disbelief (there were three of us after all), as the Two Naked Young Things romped about in the mud, sat on each other's faces, ground their netherbits, wrestled - all the while probably trying to remember when their term papers on Early Modern Poetry & the Industrial Revolution were due - and helped make true the dreams of a Group of Admirers of the Female Form - who were probably on their twelfth rum and coke by this time. This in a family restaurant! I could have brought my mother here, I whispered to my companions.

Indeed. I'm just glad that I didn't order the Lady's Hair Chicken.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ghost Town

 id=Today the streets of Bratislava are empty; you can, as Pán Kocúr is fond of saying, fire a cannon down the street and not hit anyone. This is true for two reasons: firstly, today is a national holiday. It is All Saints' Day - the day when Slovakians traditionally go to the cemeteries, clean the graves of the departed, leave flowers, and light a memorial candle. Department stores like Tesco have been selling red, yellow, and blue lanterns since September which either attests to the importance of the day or the overzealousness of the buyer for Tesco's candle department.

Secondly, that Bratislava is a ghost town today also has much to do with the fact that today is Saturday. Having survived the vagaries of living in Spain - a country without Sunday shopping (at least Franco had the decency to open its border with Gibraltar, whose grocery stores and pubs remained open 7 days a week) - I was totally unprepared for Saturday in Slovakia, a day which I had mistakenly assumed would be a prime shopping day.

Yes, the malls are open. Yes, Tesco and Carrefour are open. But on Saturday afternoons, the rest of the town rolls up its proverbial sidewalks, and since I live downtown, I find this little quirk puzzling, annoying and a major pain in the ass. By 1:00 in the afternoon on any given Saturday, downtown stores are closed. Neighbourhood convenience stores (potraviny's) close anytime between 12:30 and 1:00 which begs the question of how convenient they truly are. This has compelled
Pán Kocúr to be more organized when shopping for the weekend's beer. I have racked my pea-sized brain trying to account for Neutron-Bomb Saturdays, and all I can come up with is that on Saturday, the city's mercantile sector likes to join the rest of its citizenry shopping at Vienna's outlet mall, some 15 kilometres from Bratislava.

So it's All Saints' Day and those Slovakians who aren't spending Saturday at the mall or bargain-hunting in Vienna, are travelling to their hometowns to spend some time with the dead. I toyed with the idea of taking a stroll in our neighbourhood cemetery this afternoon, but my curiosity was quickly dampened by the rain beating down on our living room window. It seems that my innate inquisitiveness has its boundaries and those boundaries are really rather pathetic. (I'm sure I'll be housebound with the first snowfall). A few weeks ago,
Pán Kocúr and I did pass an afternoon at the Ondrejský cemetery up the road and found, amidst the rather Teutonic grave sculptures, petrified angels, and art deco grave art, an oddity: a mushroom. Or a toadstool - I never could tell the difference. Or more accurately, a stone mushroom (or toadstool) which had pushed its way up among the more conventional graves.

Why a mushroom (or a toadstool)? Was it associated with any particular person? Had that person been overly fond of fungi? Did the deceased die from eating a poisonous mushroom (or toadstool)? And more importantly, will anyone give that little mushroom (or toadstool) a good cleaning today and leave a candle beneath its cap? Rain be damned, I'm going to the cemetery today to find out.