FLOODS are curious events, both real and surreal, a misery for some and an exciting diversion for others whose homes aren't under water.
On Bratislava's Šafárikovo Square near midnight August 14, hundreds of Slovaks were still gaping over police lines at flood waters from the surging Danube that had submerged a university parking lot. A group of soldiers who had been packing and stacking sandbags all day passed plastic cups of beer around behind the incongruous barricade.
Others stood on the nearby Old Bridge to stare at the angry river beating against the brick stanchions, and to feel the 50-year-old structure vibrate from the torrent. The mood was neither festive nor dismal, just thoughtful.
What thoughts do floods evoke? Perhaps a reminder that the planet can take care of itself despite human folly. That emergencies bring strangers together to at least witness an event of mutual import. That we often don't realise the most important things in life until they are taken from us.
Good thoughts, important thoughts for a country about to go to the polls in an election that may decide its inclusion or rejection from western alliances.
People need to be reminded that they, like the earth, have the power to sweep away venal politicians and chart the country's future course. That a nation faces less danger from inept leaders than from apathy. That the key to releasing Slovakia's torrent of potential is in engaging in public life.
Slovaks need to be reminded that strangers, particularly those with darker skins or Hungarian surnames, must be embraced in the common project of nation-building. That the event we are all witnessing - Slovakia's taking a place in Europe - is not the birthright of one ethnic group.
We all need reminding that the most important things in our lives - love, security, freedom and health - depend on how we act to each other. That good manners, civility and gentleness with strangers could make life here more appealing for the thousands of sons and daughters who every year go abroad to make their fortune.
Heavy thoughts as the floods cut off power upstream in Devín, reduce Vienna citizens to kayaks and submerge the Prague metro.
But with six weeks to elections, Slovak politicians have reliably come through to leaven the mood. The government on August 14 announced Sk90 million ($2 million) in immediate flood aid, with more to be dispensed after damages have been added up. The question of why a flood fund was not created years ago to cover almost yearly inundations remains unanswered. As do queries over what happened to a cabinet emergency fund which has been frittered away on election-year pork-barrelling.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, brittle with civic duty and desire to be re-elected, has seemed on the verge of scaling the sandbags with fistfuls of new aid. Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš and President Rudolf Schuster came to Bratislava August 13 to lend a hand with the flood commission, with Schuster telling reporters how much he had contributed to flood planning, and how villains in the cabinet had thwarted him.
The key as the waters recede will be for people to retain the new sense of perspective such events offer. That less faith should be put in politicians than in sandbags, and that there's more to be learned from a river in spate than from the next six weeks of campaigning.
19. Aug 2002 at 0:00