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Culture Shock: What the Real IRA missed in the land of cabbage

THE REAL IRA have a lot to answer for. Last June they sent three gormless volunteers to Piešťany to buy what they hoped would be a wish list of weapons. However, the hapless terrorists were duly arrested in the famous spa town after they discovered they were negotiating with cleverly disguised British MI5 agents, not middle eastern arms dealers.
I was sitting in the newsroom in Belfast, trying to look busy, when news of the arrests rolled in. "Mmm, Slovakia," I thought, "What the hell are the Real IRA doing there?"
Now, almost nine months later, I am asking myself the same question in the present tense. Back then I had been hatching my escape from Ireland for some months, so when I enquired were there any jobs going at The Slovak Spectator and got a positive response, I packed my bags.


A BIT of home feeling for formerly Belfast-based journalist.
photo: TASR

THE REAL IRA have a lot to answer for. Last June they sent three gormless volunteers to Piešťany to buy what they hoped would be a wish list of weapons. However, the hapless terrorists were duly arrested in the famous spa town after they discovered they were negotiating with cleverly disguised British MI5 agents, not middle eastern arms dealers.

I was sitting in the newsroom in Belfast, trying to look busy, when news of the arrests rolled in. "Mmm, Slovakia," I thought, "What the hell are the Real IRA doing there?"

Now, almost nine months later, I am asking myself the same question in the present tense. Back then I had been hatching my escape from Ireland for some months, so when I enquired were there any jobs going at The Slovak Spectator and got a positive response, I packed my bags.

I arrived on a sunny afternoon last September to be stunned by the fact my new flat was next door to the American embassy. In Ireland you could be damned sure I wouldn't be doing that, not unless I had hoodwinked some multi-millionaire, say Bono, into buying me an apartment in the most expensive residential area in the entire country.

The gun-toting cops and the tank guarding the embassy in a rather lacklustre display of post-September paranoia prompted some Slovak colleagues to ask me if their presence made me nervous. "Of course they don't," I'd reply with some bravado, "I lived in Belfast for seven years. Now, if anyone had asked me for some identification or had roused themselves to check my bags, I might think differently, but the security mostly makes me feel at home."

My experience of Slovakia followed a similar line. I have mostly felt at home, and certainly have been warmly welcomed, but I have been constantly bewildered by the minor details that make up everyday life here. Nothing has been really all that strange or unfamiliar, apart from the language, but the business of living and working presented an infinite number of quirks, and to use an Americanism I have picked up: jerks.

Top of the jerk list are the two Ts: Tatra banka and Tesco. Given the choice of chewing my foot off or giving Tatra banka my custom, I would happily start chomping on my toes right now. Yes, the cashiers may be as helpful as they come, but why does it take a cheque drawn on the largest bank in the UK six weeks to clear, and why does it cost $12? Is Slovakia in the middle of nowhere or the middle of Europe? Are transactions carried out by messenger pigeon or by computer?

As for Tesco, I have never seen a supermarket so badly laid out, so short of trolleys and baskets, and so populated by assistants who refuse to part with more than one plastic bag no matter how many groceries you've bought. I could go on but I won't. I could shop there but I won't do that either. The domestic Teta, on the other hand, gets my thumbs up, despite the lack of fresh vegetables.

However, one thing you can be sure off, even in Teta, is that there will always be cabbage. Cabbage is everywhere and served with everything.

An American who can claim Irish and Slovak parentage once said to me: "Yep, the Irish and the Slovaks, they sure like their cabbage." And he's right on both counts, but here the Slovaks go one up on the Irish - they put cabbage on baguettes (submarine sandwiches). I once asked for a ham and salad roll and I admit to feeling slightly perturbed when it arrived containing no lettuce, but a large leaf of curly Savoy cabbage instead. I have now come to realise that lettuce and cabbage in the right hands can be interchangeable and just as agreeable.

Slovakia, despite broadening my palate, has failed to reverse my opinion of Nato, and I still can't understand why any country would want to join it. Slovakia's determination to join the alliance defies reason. Why would Slovak citizens want become the foot soldiers of US expansionism? Nato isn't an international meeting of equals, it's just an attempt to open up more air bases to American fighter jets and turn Europe into one giant refuelling depot.

Ireland said no to Nato last year, and for once I was proud of my often misguided country on the western fringe of Europe. In the same referendum, Ireland also said no to the European Union's Nice treaty and threw the EU's integration plans into turmoil. That was not a cause for celebration. Ireland has benefited beyond belief from EU assistance, and I believe Slovakia could too. Slovakia doesn't need Nato, no one does, apart from George W. Bush and his military minions.

Slovakia, as politicians and analysts like to say, is a country in transition. Where it is going to is matter of debate, but this small, often invaded and occupied country has more to offer Europe than it knows. I hope after the September general elections Slovaks put someone in power who is accountable, honest and ready to lead their country into the EU. The velvet revolution way back in 1989 was remarkable event; let's hope the road to Brussels is satin and silk, and the colour of money in ordinary people's pockets.

Deirdre Tynan left The Slovak Spectator at the beginning of April to take a job in Mongolia.

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