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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Leaving Slovakia: The things unsaid

THIS ISSUE of The Slovak Spectator is the 202nd I have edited, and it is also my last. Without getting maudlin, though the temptation is strong, I want to share some of my experiences in Slovakia over the last 10 years, believing you'll know what I'm talking about.
December 31, 1992: It's New Year's Eve, and I've been teaching for three months at a training academy for hotel staff in west Slovakia's Piešťany. I'm in the little garret I've been assigned in the school's student dormitory, typing a letter on a borrowed typewriter. I've vowed to quit drinking, and have cut off my long hair to mark the occasion.
Several hours before midnight, my letter isn't going anywhere, my shorn locks are regretted, and I slink off to the pub for a bottle of red wine. I drink it in the company of a party of sullen East Germans in the echoing school cafeteria. None of us is aware that Slovakia has just become an independent state. The unfamiliarity of the country has reduced me to a state where myself is all I can think about.

THIS ISSUE of The Slovak Spectator is the 202nd I have edited, and it is also my last. Without getting maudlin, though the temptation is strong, I want to share some of my experiences in Slovakia over the last 10 years, believing you'll know what I'm talking about.

December 31, 1992: It's New Year's Eve, and I've been teaching for three months at a training academy for hotel staff in west Slovakia's Piešťany. I'm in the little garret I've been assigned in the school's student dormitory, typing a letter on a borrowed typewriter. I've vowed to quit drinking, and have cut off my long hair to mark the occasion.

Several hours before midnight, my letter isn't going anywhere, my shorn locks are regretted, and I slink off to the pub for a bottle of red wine. I drink it in the company of a party of sullen East Germans in the echoing school cafeteria. None of us is aware that Slovakia has just become an independent state. The unfamiliarity of the country has reduced me to a state where myself is all I can think about.

March, 1993: I'm with a teaching buddy from Canada in a tiny pub in west Slovakia's Senec. A man approaches two older patrons sitting near us and starts punching one of them in the face. He doesn't resist, and is quickly bloodied.

The aggressor returns after a beer and repeats the assault. He then comes back a third time, but I can't watch anymore. I slap my hands from behind on his shoulders, and as we wrestle we are surrounded by shouting bystanders. No more punches are thrown - our fear is equally matched.

The original victim starts buying us brandies. A quiet drinker who has been watching us sits down at our table, and in broken English tells us not to drink too much.

"In Slovakia, no one defends Gypsies from Slovaks," he says.

We leave, noticing that the puncher and his leering friends are in their mid teens and almost too drunk to utter a threat, let alone stand up.

December 1994: In a former student's house in Piešťany I am trying to understand the mother's passionate diatribe against Vladimír Mečiar, the prime minister, who has apparently just prevented opposition parties from holding seats on parliamentary oversight committees supervising privatisation and the secret service.

I scribble notes, and later send a callow article to the Globe & Mail newspaper in Canada, which they don't publish. Perhaps because I spelled the prime minister's name wrong.

August 1995: I've been in the High Tatras mountains for a month, and attempt a three-hour run to the Štrbské Pleso resort and back. Night falls at the turnaround point, and I realise I may not be able to find my way back to the cottage in the dark. A cold rain begins to fall.

I curse my stupidity as I run back down the mountain road, just as passing cars must be cursing me before swerving around me in the downpour.

The family I'm staying with has placed dozens of candles on the cottage balconies, guiding me through the dripping woods as I shiver to the door.

May 1996: My brother has come from Beirut to run the Prague marathon with me. As we come back across the Slovak border on the train to pay a flying visit to Žilina where I'm teaching, an early summer evening smoothes the hills out in a spilled paint of dark greens and purples.

We're leaning out the window to catch the midnight blue of the sky when he turns to me without a smile.

"You're so fucking lucky to live here."

May 1997: Back to the Prague marathon with a group of student friends. We hear on the radio before we cross the Czech border that the Mečiar government has erased a crucial question from a referendum ballot on Nato entry and direct presidential elections, and that only nine per cent of people have actually voted.

Conversation in the packed vehicle ceases, and one of the students hurls a beer he has been drinking out the window.

January 1998: Three men enter my room in a student dormitory and beat me up. After tying my hands and feet, they put a hood over my head and a cord around my neck. They punch me in the back of my head and tell me they will kill me if I don't hand over some photos I'm supposed to have taken.

I don't so much appeal to their reason as hurl myself at its feet. I'm not a photographer, don't own a camera, they must have the wrong guy. But they know my name, and after stealing my stereo and CDs, they tie me to my bed and say they'll be back to finish the job.

For a few minutes I believe I'm going to die, but then manage to get out of the knots, and after about an hour kick my door down and report to the police. One investigator tells me after a night of hospital and police reports that he thinks it was the SIS secret service trying to scare me out of the country. He asks me if I have had any conflicts with Mečiar's HZDS party, and I remember two recent recorded interviews printed against the protest of government members.

I can't really believe I have been targeted, small fish that I am, but anything seems possible in Mečiar's miserable Slovakia.

August 13, 1999: My wife, whom I met at the victorious SDK party headquarters on election night 1998, gives birth to our son Dominik. The delivery takes about five minutes, and she gets off the gurney unfazed to walk back to her room before horrified nurses shove her back.

The doctor, whom we have given a 'tip' of Sk5,000 ($120) to make sure things work out, hasn't even had time to put on his surgical gloves or mask.

April 2000: Easter in the south Slovakia village of Tekovské Lužany, and I've been drafted by a former student to stagger along on the 'polievať' ceremony, which involves visiting as many homes and taking in as much hard alcohol as you can before noon.

Noon arrives, and our party tumbles from a car that has taken us to 12 houses. We enter a vináreň where a riotous debauch is in swing with ethnic Slovaks and Hungarians arm in arm. The humour is gross, multicultural and well-taken. A few glasses are broken by careless dancers, but when the owner surges forth to remonstrate, a huge reveller takes him kindly by the arm.

"You better get out of here, or you're going to have problems."

August 2001: Staying with my family in the north Slovak hamlet of Ždiar, I run over the High Tatras mountains from Tatranská Lomnica to Javorina on the Polish border. After three hours I have reached Terry's Cottage, but I'm already soaked with sweat and it's much colder than I thought.

A scramble over the snowfield at the highest pass in the mountains brings me to a long deserted valley, framed by deep canyons of white rock. An hour into the descent I pass several mountain goats perched a few metres from the trail. I stop, and we inspect each other, the curiosity all on my side.

The six-hour run ends in a mud field where logs have been dragged out. I'm so tired I can't wait for a bus, and just go up and ask people to take me home. A Polish couple agrees, and cheerfully drives me 20 kilometres out of their way, saying nothing about the reek and the mud and my silence.

May 2002: I watch with my son on my shoulders and my wife's hand in mine as Slovakia wins the World Hockey Championships on Bratislava's SNP Square. They go home early, and I am caught up in a group of dancing spectators.

Months later, my son is still singing 'Slovenskooooo!'. I wish he was old enough to remember, but I've got the pictures, and wherever we end up, I'll tell him a story to raise the hair on his neck.

As I come to the end of almost six years at this newspaper, I realise how little of what I've written has reflected the passion I feel about Slovakia. How much energy we've put into chronicling the wrongs, and how little into recognising the triumph you feel in overcoming them. How much attention has been paid to the ephemeral, and how little to what abides.

I understand my brother's first reaction to Slovakia, living as he did in the dust and din of Beirut, but he got it wrong. Luck had nothing to do with it - I chose this country, and thank Christ I did.

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