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Culture Shock: In praise of easterners

Three years ago in Bratislava, I asked the editor of a sports newspaper for the phone number of a Slovak NHL star. He eyed me suspiciously, snubbed out his cigarette and folded his hands across his bulging belly.
"Anything is possible," he grunted, twiddling his walrus moustache, "for the right price." Journalists selling contacts, I thought to myself in disgust as I left empty-handed. Welcome
to Bratislava.

Three years ago in Bratislava, I asked the editor of a sports newspaper for the phone number of a Slovak NHL star. He eyed me suspiciously, snubbed out his cigarette and folded his hands across his bulging belly.

"Anything is possible," he grunted, twiddling his walrus moustache, "for the right price." Journalists selling contacts, I thought to myself in disgust as I left empty-handed. Welcome to Bratislava.

Three weeks ago in the eastern Slovak city Spišská Nová Ves, I arrived unannounced at a local newspaper hoping for an interview with the editor-in-chief. She invited me in, made me a cup of coffee, sounded out my intentions and - apparently taken aback that an American journalist wanted to speak to her - told me to come back at 17:00 for the interview.

There were bottles of wine waiting when I returned. It was a staff member's name day, and during the three-hour celebration that followed I answered more questions than I asked. "Where are you from? Do you like Slovakia? Why aren't you married yet? You don't have a girlfriend?! Ježiš Mária!"

Instant acceptance into a close group of friends. Welcome to eastern Slovakia.

I moved to Spišská Nová Ves September 1 to start as The Slovak Spectator's eastern Slovakia correspondent. Based on my first month's experiences, eastern Slovaks are the friendliest, most hospitable and helpful people I have ever met. For a foreigner groping his way through a major life change, eastern Slovakia is paradise.

Contrast that to Blava, as it's known out here, where an old lady working a kiosk once refused to sell me bus tickets, pretending not to understand when I said prosím si päť lístok (prosím si päť lístkov is the correct way of saying I would like five tickets). As she snarled at me and I stammered out a second request, a woman behind me in line shouted the correct Slovak. I turned around to say thank you and she elbowed me aside silently to buy her paper.

In the east, I've received nothing but patience with my broken Slovak. The vice-rector at Prešov University - a person who likely has far weightier matters on his hands than does a sales clerk in a kiosk - showed no annoyance when, during an interview on the university's inability to provide adequate housing for its students, I found myself grilling him on the nadbytok (surplus) of housing when I meant the nedostatok (shortage).

I discussed the differences between east and west with the Spiš newspaper editor. I told her about the time in Bratislava that a taxi driver assaulted me with a billy club when I protested the fee, which was twice the normal amount. That wouldn't happen here, she assured me, and not just because the size of Spišská Nová Ves makes taxis unnecessary.

While I was thumbing through her paper, I found a brief about a playground in the nearby town Gelnica paid for by a Dutch family. It sounded interesting, and I asked for a contact. The reporter who had written the story a) arranged an interview with the mayor, who cut his vacation short to meet me, b) called the train and bus stations to check departure times, and c) led me to the bus station (I already knew where it was), showing me not only where my bus left from, but also the departure platforms of buses to other interesting places.

The royal treatment continued in Gelnica. I was received by the mayor, the superintendent, the playground designer and the head of the local tourist information centre, who gave me a tour of the town's mining museum even though it was closed that day. Later, the mayor opened a bottle of slivovica, toasted my visit (several times), and gave me his mobile phone number.

"In case you're ever in Gelnica again," he said. I got the feeling I could show up unannounced, call from a pay phone and sleep that night in the mayor's master bedroom while he took the couch.

The amicability extends beyond professional settings. I have made more friends in four weeks in eastern Slovakia than I made in more than three years in Bratislava. There's Peter, who invited me to scale Mount Kriváň five minutes after we met. Or Tomáš, who explained the Spiš region's history at length after I asked him to help me brainstorm story ideas. Or Laco, who instructs me on the local dialect as he routs me at table football. Or my landlord, who came to my flat the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks insisting I stay at his home so I wouldn't be alone at an emotional time.

"Why wouldn't we be this way?" said the journalist who'd arranged my Gelnica visit. "This is what people are supposed to do, no? If I can help you, of course I will. That's how it is in the east."

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