Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Budapest

I got back from my trip to Holcim on Friday afternoon at around 4:00pm and discovered that all the other interns had left on a trip to Budapest. I had known about the trip, but had been unsure whether I had wanted to go. Right then, I decided I did and I rushed to catch up with them, taking a train out of Bratislava only an hour or two after they did.

I arrived in Budapest at 8:30pm and met up with some of my fellow interns, Hyun-Young, Aleks and Timea, our Hungarian hostess. Timea took us an what she described as a 'Bohemian tour' that night to a few of her favorite nighttime hang out spots and we had an amazing time.



My only hang up that night was the realization that Hungary is not on the Euro. They use a currency called the forint (florin). I'm not sure if it's from the legacy of Hungary's post-WWI inflation or what, but the conversion rate to the Euro is certainly strange. Not knowing what it was at the ATM, I chose the smallest withdrawal option the ATM offered: 1,000 HUF (forints).

1,000 HUF equals about 4 euros. Oops.



Anyway, the next day Hyun-Young, Aleks and I toured some of the city's historical attractions, including the Danube waterfront, Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge and the statue of St. Gerard. We all commiserated in the fact that Magyar as a language is incomprehensible to us (although I do know EGESZSEGEDRE!). We ate like Hungarian kings all day and I returned to Bratislava that night with a full stomach and the satisfaction of a city well-explored.






Holcim

On Friday I went to an onsite presentation put on by Holcim, a major cement and construction material company. The idea was that they would share their sustainability, community feedback, and environmental best practices with local civil society (which apparently includes UNDP) in an exercise in corporate social responsibility. No surprises, this is what Holcim did (the surprise was that it wasn't in English - joke's on me!). They have some very innovative methods in reaching out to local communities to work with them on their concerns, and touring around the site, it seemed apparent that this company didn't just put this program on to offset criticism of their carbon emissions - their corporate social responsibility project seemed to be very central to what they did.

After a presentation on their best practices, we toured an extraction site and got to learn a lot more about how construction materials are taken out of the ground and how it impacts the local environment (while wearing cool construction helmets, orange vests, and safety glasses). Afterwards, we were served a delicious lunch and I had a chance to meet some of the international workers that Holcim employs, including an awesomely charming Frenchman.

Is this post an advertisement for Holcim? Probably not, considering that none of my friends buy industrial quantities of cement. But, if you do want to build a bridge or a tunnel or a 70 ft. statue of yourself, maybe look into Holcim as a more socially and environmentally responsible way to do it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Slavín

Today I took a morning run through the hills overlooking Bratislava with the aim of checking out a monument I had seen from afar.

Slavín is a memorial to the Soviet and Slovak soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. It is a giant pillar situated on the highest hill overlooking the city, and considering the size of Bratislava, it's pretty hard to miss. An itch to go for a good run plus a healthy dose of curiosity soon found me running up the switchback streets in a very wealthy neighborhood, climbing the steep hill to the monument.

Lucia has told me that the end of communism and the economic chaos that came with the transition to a capitalist economy still lives in the memories of Slovaks, and there's still a suspicion of many who have money and nice homes - the implication being that they probably got it through shady dealings during the transition and privatization of the economy in the 1990s. I'm sure this neighborhood, with giant glass mansions and luxury cars parked out on the road, contributes to that idea.

When I finally reached the top, I was taken aback by how somber and quiet it was. Despite the panoramic view, on a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon, there were only two or three people walking through the monument area, which is surrounded by a cemetery.


I'm not sure if it was the Stalinist design, or the somber mood, but Slavín really made me think about how foreign this side of World War II is to Americans like me. Statues of soldiers of the Red Army helping to liberate the Slavs of Bratislava from Nazi oppression just don't fit very well into the narrative we receive about the end of World War II. For the peoples of eastern and central Europe in 1945, six years or war, famine, genocide and tragedy had ended in the most violent way, and I can only imagine that they looked to their communist liberators with a mix of thankfulness, triumph and apprehension about the future. That liberation in 1945 began a half-century of communist rule, the results of which can be seen from Slavín's panoramic viewpoints. Historic central Bratislava is surrounded by Europe's largest communist-era housing block, Petržalka, which takes up most of the southern skyline from Slavín. To the east of Petržalka, you can see a forest of smokestacks belonging to Bratislava's communist-era factories, some of which have successfully made the transition to the free market, and some of which lay silent.

After some time for reflection, I turned around and completed the second half of my run loop. My running feet quickly crossed the pavement, underneath which lay six mass graves and 278 individual graves of 6,845 Soviet soldiers who fought in the bloodiest war in history.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kofola

Bratislava seems like a normal city, but there are always all these small reminders of communism. My favorite communist era reminder is Kofola, a delicious soft drink.

According to my Slovak hosts (and this contradicts the wikipedia article on the drink), during communist times, Czechoslovaks couldn't get Coca-Cola, so Kofola was invented to satisfy the need for a cold cola beverage.

Some people get down on Kofola because it's a cheap, communist knock-off of Coca-Cola, but I think it's a delicious link to this region's complicated past.

And oh, it is delicious. For some reason, the combination of herbs they use make it taste kind of like gummy bears.

I like it more than Coke. Don't tell my Uncle George.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pride and Hate

Yesterday, a few of my fellow interns wanted to meet up, so we went to go check out Rainbow Pride 2011, Bratislava's LGBT Pride march. I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years, so I'd been to events like this before, but I was definitely surprised by the different vibe it had compared to say, San Francisco's Pride Parade.



Slovakia is much less secular country than many of its western neighbors, and identities and attitudes that stray from traditional viewpoints can sometimes cause large waves here. This event seemed less of a celebration of identity, and more like an assertion of rights. The speakers at the event announced how people regardless of their personal identity deserved to be a part of Slovak society, a milestone (despite our current controversies over marriage) that I like to think my country already has reached.

The most noticeable presence at the event were the police. According to an article I read later, there were apparently over 500 police officers, and I can vouch that they were there in force. With crowd control armor, shields and dogs, if felt like I was in Little Rock in 1957.


I felt like the police presence was a bit unnecessary until we sat down at a cafe to get a drink after the event began their march across the city's main bridge. Sipping on our Kofolas and beers, we heard a crowd of men, yelling something in unison. It was a strange, harsh sound. I didn't get a peek because they were around the corner from the cafe, but these were apparently Slovak nationalist protesters. Slovaks I know here refer to them as Nazis. They were counter-protesting the Pride event and were the reason for the huge police presence.

I guess things went well, but it's definitely weird to experience that kind of intolerance that close up (and it wasn't even directed at me). I'm not really sure what lesson I learned from all of this, but Bratislava has so far very much proven that it isn't boring.