This is the fifth in a continuing series of my (highly unofficial) trip reports about my travels in Eastern Europe. As most of you know by now (those of you who have read the other Postcard Diaries, anyway), I work for an Agency of the U.S. Government, and part of my job is international trade promotion-related activities in support of small business. My job takes me to Eastern Europe once or twice a year, but rigid Agency rules about travel expenses don't let me claim reimbursement for more than about two minutes international long distance time per week. It costs just too much to call North America from Europe, especially from hotels, and I can't afford the cost of all those daily phone calls. So instead of telephone calls, I send out one postcard every day whenever I'm on the road. And I try to pack as much information on them as possible; I want each one to be not only a stand-alone essay, but also a chapter of an overall larger diary of that trip that would give the reader a vicarious experience of what it's like to work and travel in Eastern Europe. So there's the challenge: be interesting, be entertaining, but above all, be brief! Not always easy, but most every day I was able to find one or two things interesting enough to build a mini-essay around, even if on many evenings, after a long day, composing an essay wasn't something that I much looked forward to.
After reading through this new assembled collection of cards, I've once again added some comments between the postcards for continuity and transition, and to describe some other things there just wasn't enough room to do on the confines of a postcard. And once again, I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures and misadventures as much as I enjoyed being there.
Fortunately, things picked up almost immediately after I arrived in Slovakia. My
hosts at the Power Research Institute took charge of things and were able to get the
ticket problem fixed within a couple of days. And my first night in Bratislava was
pretty good, too. Stano and Jaro, two of my friends at the Power Research Institute,
brought me to a Slovakia League ice hockey game between the Bratislava and Poprad teams.
The level of play wasn't quite up to NHL standards, true, but then again, the ticket cost
wasn't either -- only 60 SK, equivalent to a little less than a dollar and a half!
In case you're wondering, I don't drive while I'm on my Eastern Europe business
trips; I'm always provided transportation by my hosts where public transportation
isn't available or timely. There's no point to going to business meetings by myself,
anyway; one of the people who comes to meetings with me is a translator. In Slovakia,
my counterparts are with the Power Research Institute of Bratislava. I've been working
with them for about four years, during which this trade promotion initiative has
evolved. I found them back in 1994, when I was asked to chaperone a delegation of five
Slovak energy experts on their two week visit to the United States. One of them was
the present Director of the Power Research Institute. He, like I, had an interest in
finding ways of promoting energy-related investment in Slovakia. If he hadn't been on
that trip, none of the successes I'm starting to have would be happening, most likely.
It pays to be in the right place at the right time!
I'd mentioned in one of my previous Postcard Diaries that the economy of Slovakia,
in general, has improved quite a bit over the past few years. But it still has a
ways to go; there's almost no money available for upkeep of heritage sites like the
kastiel at Banská Stiavnica. The museum wasn't heated (or probably air
conditioned in summer either, for that matter); it was cold enough in there that we
could see out breath. The seasonal swings in temperature and humidity had taken a
terrible toll. Wooden panels in doors had split. Plaster in ceilings was spalling
and crumbling. Paint was flaking off casements. The veneer finishes on walls were
delaminating and deteriorating. Priceless furniture, built by hand well over a
century ago, was being subjected to conditions that would have horrified their makers.
It was sad to see. So whenever I see, from now on, a newly-refurbished building that's
been brought back to its original glory, I'm going to think of all the others out
there still waiting their turn.
Some of my business meetings don't always have so positive an outcome, of course.
There's one place I've visited three different times, and each time I've gone there
I've had a different group of company managers to deal with (replacing the previous
ones) who, each time, had a completely different concept of what kind of improvements
they were looking for in their power plant. I still don't know if there's a business
opportunity there or not. And then, about a year and a half ago, there was the curious
case of Mr. Peter Steinhubel. Mr. Steinhubel was the general director of a holding
company that owned a small industry which manufactured railroad car parts. That
industry did have some energy sector needs we were investigating, and it looked for a
while like there might be a business opportunity to pursue. But when the time came
for a meeting with Mr. Steinhubel, we were treated quite shabbily -- we were kept
waiting for more than an hour past the time of our scheduled meeting before he invited
us into his office (which was very plush and comfortable compared to other meeting
sites I've been), he didn't offer us any courtesies such as coffee or tea (coffee
and tea for visitors is normal for all business meetings in Eastern Europe), and he
refused to tell us much about his company except to ask how much money a potential
investor could bring in. There was hardly any discussion about the opportunity itself
at all. We were out of there in about 30 minutes; we'd been dismissed as if we were
too lightweight to bother with. It was all very strange; I left with the vague feeling
I'd blown it somehow, and what did I do wrong? On the other hand, the business
opportunity, if there ever was one, was probably so small that if I was going to lose
out on one, that was the one I should miss. Well, it was probably a good thing that
I did, as it turned out. Mr. Peter Steinhubel was (past tense) the general
director of that holding company, because he's dead now. Ask yourself this question:
what group of people are known to be ultra-arrogant, surround themselves with the
trappings of the best of the material world, have business deals they don't want to
talk about, and mostly want to know how much money some activity can bring to the table?
If you answered, "the Mafia," then you got it in one. About a month before this trip,
I heard from my Slovak hosts that Mr. Steinhubel had been taken down outside the
building his plush office was in; it was a clean mob hit. I'm guessing he was into
some kind of money laundering operation and either crossed someone important, or else
had just too much dangerous information. I'm glad they waited until after we were
out of there!
It's no secret that I like to go to so-called "cultural" events when I'm on the road,
things like Philharmonic Orchestra concerts, for example. On my first trip to Bratislava,
back in early 1995, there really wasn't much to do after hours. The Old Town hadn't yet
been rehabilitated and nobody went there, especially after dark. It's different now, and
the rebirth of the city has attracted all kinds of events. The week I was there on this
trip, for instance, there was an Andy Warhol exhibit at one of the Galleries, a small
international film festival was just ending, and the National Theater was in the midst of
a month-long series of opera events. The major event in Bratislava in December, though,
is its annual month-long holiday festival in the Old Town Square. The place is packed
with kiosks selling souvenirs, holiday decorations, arts & crafts, and, of course,
food. Lots and lots of food. It was a good, inexpensive place to grab an evening meal.
Some of the more interesting items were cigánská pecienka ("Gypsy
woman's meat") which was a marinated pork filet of some kind, cooked over hot coals and
served with mild mustard in a hard roll. It was spicy enough to make you thirsty. For
snacking there was palicinky, a rolled crepe filled with compote and topped with
whipped cream. And to drink, there was varené vino, a sweet hot wine drink
with cinnamon and other spices. It was very, very good; something you could drink a lot
of, and I did. Most of the other couple of thousand people in the Square evidently thought
the same, as the dozen or so vendors of the drink all had people waiting in line; some came
away with two or more cupfuls, presumably to give to a friend or relative (though in a
couple of cases, I wasn't too sure!). One of the more embarrassing moments of the trip
happened while I was window shopping at one of the kiosks selling holiday ornaments. As I
turned to leave, I accidentally bumped against a woman carrying two filled cups
of varené vino, one in each hand. It was enough to cause the wine to slosh over
the rim of each cup, onto her hands and then down her wrists. I got out of there fast,
but not so quickly to avoid seeing the expression of anger and contempt on her face. If
looks could kill, I think I'd have been dead meat!
Slovakia is changing, no doubt about it. The most obvious signs of it are the facelifts
that are happening to some of the older buildings in cities like Bratislava and the cultural
diversity that's only now just starting to creep into Slovak society. We ate lunch at a
nice Chinese restaurant in Piest'any, for example, that probably wasn't there a year ago.
About two years ago you had to look hard to find a Chinese restaurant even in Bratislava,
which is about ten times the population of Piest'any; now there are quite a few of them and
even a couple of Japanese restaurants, including one that has sushi. I've mentioned that
there are more and more things going on in Bratislava Old Town to keep people there after
hours; a bar located right next to the Michael's Tower (my favorite building in the city),
for instance, now features some pretty good live blues music (in Slovak, of course!). I
discovered this because bar hopping was the subject of Friday night's after-hours activities;
some of the guys at the Power Research Institute always, without fail, take me out beer
drinking at the end of my business trips to Slovakia. We must have visited five or six pubs
and I know I consumed at least three liters of beer; events toward the end of the night are
a bit fuzzy to remember. In one of the places there was a different kind of "live music" --
at the next table over from us, two older men were playing saxophone and accordion (with
more enthusiasm than musical ability) for some of the bar's patrons, and there was even an
impromptu sing-along going on. The waiter didn't seem to think anything unusual was going
on, so when we asked him how often those two men came to the bar, he told us, "Almost every
night." In fact, there are usually two others who show up, too, playing harmonica and drum.
It was their life after retirement, apparently, and they were happy. I only hope I can find
that much contentment in whatever I decide to do after my working days are over.
The band was named 'PressBurGrass' (derived from 'Pressburg', a previous name for Bratislava),
and consisted of guitar, banjo, mandolin, and electric bass. The group's repertoire included
about twenty songs, about half of which they had sung in English. Only one of the band actually
spoke English, though, so they went to a lot of bother to learn the songs phonetically. None
of them were professional musicians -- two were students and the other two had enough common
sense not to quit their day jobs. And so it was time to move on to Poland, another of my favorite
countries to visit. The week in Slovakia had resulted in about $50 million in new business
opportunities, just about my average for a week on the road in Europe. But better yet, I came
away with the knowledge that this kind of activity is needed for at least another three years.
Now if I can only find the resources I need to support this initiative that long...
I suppose I shouldn't have been all that surprised. The concept itself is not at all new here --
at Warsaw Central Train Station, for instance, there is an extended gallery of little shops in the
underground pedestrian walkways that can probably be called a 'mall'. The new Katowice mall was
built by French investors who named it 'Géant', and it's an accurate description of the place.
It's huge, especially the major 'anchor' store that's bigger than the largest Wal-Mart or K-Mart or
supermart of any kind I've ever been to. You can buy everything from major appliances to groceries
there, and there's a large enough selection that I'm guessing if they don't have something, you
probably didn't need it anyway. My friend Piotr, who met me at the train station, told me that the
new mall is such a shopping mecca that it's turned into a kind of tourist attraction -- people drive
a long way from out-of-town just to go there. And this is just the first store they've
planned for the site!
It turned out that it did snow that night, but not much. It was just noticeable on the roofs of
buildings the next morning on the drive to Racibórz for a meeting at the Mayor's office, where
we found a very promising business opportunity. (This trip set a personal record for meeting mayors.)
At the end of the meeting, I presented the Mayor with one of the souvenir books of the Smithsonian
Institute that I bring to hand out wherever I want people to remember me. But it was a surprise when
the Mayor asked me to sign the book, with a short message to him (I wrote that I wished him a
happy new century, with hopes I would soon return to his city). If there was a single 'signature
image' of the trip that will remain with me from this trip, that was it. I've been to mountains and
castles and interesting cities in many of the countries in Eastern Europe, but the knowledge that someone
was genuinely happy I had come to his city is something very special.
I went north to Warsaw by train this time, a much more placid way of getting there than the
180 kilometer-per-hour ride in the Mercedes that I experienced my previous two visits to Poland. I
didn't have any musical events in Poland this trip, but I did share the train compartment with a musician!
The young lady was a viola player in a string quartet, and she had performed in many parts of Western
Europe. She was in the final hours of a two-day train trip back to Warsaw from Rome. I suppose it must
be an interesting life to be a musician, but you can log more seat time in trains and airplanes than many
other career choices -- even trade promotion!