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The idea of Slovakia

What does this country stand for? Slovaks could – and should – shout a little louder about what they have achieved, and where they want to go.

Slowly – agonizingly so in the suburbs and more remote towns – modern buildings, bridges, motorways and ideas continue to spread across the country.(Source: Sme Ján Krošlák)

People sometimes ask me if Slovakia has changed much over the years I have known it.

The polite, and only partly misleading, answer is of course ‘yes’.

Slovakia is now indisputably part of Europe, and of the world, in a way that seemed almost inconceivable in the mid 1990s.

Nowadays, if you talk to bar staff, plumbers, shop workers or university professors from Bardejov to Petržalka you will find that, even if they themselves have not lived abroad (and many have), they invariably have children or cousins or siblings working or studying or bringing up children in the UK, Germany, Spain or the USA.

Slowly – agonizingly so in the suburbs and more remote towns – modern buildings, bridges, motorways and ideas continue to spread across the country. We can even dream that one day the D1 highway might finally link Bratislava and Košice.

Its education system is in a state of semi-permanent crisis, and a criminal amount of its wealth is being stolen or wasted, but Slovakia is becoming a rich country. Slovaks are still trying to adjust.

Some things, though, stay the same.

In time-honoured fashion, once-thriving restaurants and cafes cease trading without notice; a note on the door bearing the words “z technických príčin” (‘for technical reasons’, never specified) acts as a latter-day black spot, signalling irrevocable demise.

Despite intermittent efforts at reform, the bureaucracy remains elephantine. For this, newcomers tend to blame the legacy of communism. In fact, Marx’s followers merely toughened the hide of a beast with centuries-old Habsburg bloodlines.

The woman on the Bratislava omnibus is as stunning as ever, and just as Sphinx-like. Even the recent, rather startling debut of Kiwi-English public transport announcements (‘rekwust stup’ anyone?) will not disturb her composure.

Nor will her driver, despite his gleeful attempts, assisted by the improved acceleration and braking of each new generation of bus, to hurl his charges about.

Slovakia’s public expression can seem similarly vacant: the country still struggles to define or project itself in any very coherent way.

When I told a prominent man of letters here that I would soon be working for a Europe-wide project, his first concern was whether I spoke Slovak. The thought that I might be more usefully employed discussing Slovak ideas abroad in a foreign language seemed not even to occur to him.

But then, what are those ideas? The poverty of Slovak politics can make it seem like there are precious few.

In fact, there are many. Years of working with and meeting some outstanding academics, businesspeople, students, parents and journalists – not least those at The Slovak Spectator – have taught me that Slovaks have interesting things to say.

Europe, which needs new ideas now more than ever, should hear them.

James Thomson is the new editor-in-chief of Eurozine.com, a network of European cultural journals.

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