Bluegrass in Bratislava
and Other Cultural Wonders

(A Fifth Postcard Diary of Eastern Europe)
by Richard Lynch

A Note of Explanation:

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.

RWL  (January 2000)
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my friends Stano and Jaro Sunday, December 5, 1999 (Bratislava, Slovakia)
I think it must be bad luck to travel on a birthday. It seemed like the entire trip over here was just one problem, or bit of trouble, or annoyance, after another. First, the ground shuttle to the airport overcharged me by ten dollars more than they told me over the phone (see if I use them again!), then the Continental Airlines ticketing desk at BWI airport sent me on a wild goose chase looking all over the airport for the Czech Airlines desk when it turned out that they were the Czech Airlines representatives all along. And finally, my pre-paid ticket, or at least the return leg of it, didn't exist in the computer reservation system. That part I'm still working on; they wrote me a return on December 17, which is unacceptable, since I have meetings back in Washington that day. But I'm here. Let's see what happens next.
at the hockey game

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!

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City Hall, Levice Monday, December 6, 1999 (Bratislava)
A relatively calm day today -- just one meeting out in the city of Levice, an easy two-hour drive from Bratislava. It was a successful day -- there's a real chance for a business deal there early next year, I think; it pays to be in the right place at the right time. We returned by about 4:00pm, but by then the sun was just setting (it gets dark early here this time of year!). The weather was clear today, so on the way back into the city we were treated to the spectacular sight of Bratislava castle with its four towers silhouetted against the deep red western horizon. It pays to be in the right place at the right time.

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!

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Banska Stiavnica castles Tuesday, December 7, 1999 (Bratislava)
One more long day trip today, this time out to the city of Zvolen in south central Slovakia for a meeting that was intended to remove some roadblocks to a pending $10 million business deal. On the way back, we stopped in the town of Banská Stiavnica where there are two castles -- one, a splendid fortress hrad on top of a hill overlooking the town (we're saving that one for another time) and a large manor house kastiel that was once owned by some obscure Bulgarian royalty. The latter one is now a museum, or rather two museums -- besides the collection of rooms of wonderful furniture from that period, it's also a rather extensive and amazing hunting and wildlife museum, worthy of comparison to the Smithsonian. Turns out that some of Slovakia's scenic wonders are inside as well as out!

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.

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Wednesday night, December 8, 1999 (Bratislava)
This seems to be the trip for meeting with politicians. On Monday, I had a meeting in Levice with the Mayor, and today the Mayor of Slovakia's second largest city, Kosice, came all the way across the country to Bratislava to meet with me. Well, truthfully, he came to Bratislava for more than just that meeting -- I was the last of four -- but I'd like to think he saved the best for last! He was all smiles, anyway, after I'd told him I could find a private industry developer/investor who could locate the $30 million needed for the wood waste-to-energy project the city was planning! He told me the next time I'm in Kosice he'd arrange a Philharmonic ticket for me. I think I'll take him up on it!

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!

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Filharmonia Hall in Bratislava Thursday night, December 9, 1999 (Bratislava)
My time in Slovakia is starting to draw to a close. The last real business meeting of the week was today; there are only some wrap-up meetings on the schedule for tomorrow, plus a couple of "non-business" events. Tonight was my first musical event of the trip, a concert by a small (mostly string) chamber orchestra in the splendid Filharmonia Hall. The music was pleasant -- Haydn's "Lamentation" symphony and Cello Concerto in C, and Mozart's 29th Symphony. The real star of the performance, though, was the venue itself -- an acoustical marvel, highlighted in gold leaf, and dominated by an impressive pipe organ that filled the back of the stage, end to end. It was definitely a case of the concert hall upstaging the concert!

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 holiday festival in Bratislava 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 statue in Piestany 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!

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Friday, December 10, 1999 (Bratislava)
At last, an easy day in this trip. The one wrap-up meeting was scheduled late enough in the day that there was time for a drive out to the city of Piest'any and back. The main attractions of Piest'any are its spa and thermal springs, and much of the economy there seems to depend on them. I tried some of the supposedly curative mineral water, but it was so sulfurous that it tasted like eggs had been boiled in it. I guess I'm thankful there wasn't Michael's Tower in Bratislava Old Town enough time to indulge in the supposedly equally curative mud baths -- the stuff is mildly radioactive and I'm not ready to spend the rest of my life acting as my own night light!

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 during the pub crawl 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 two musicians 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.

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Saturday night, December 11, 1999 (Bratislava)
It's my last night in Slovakia this century and I wanted to do more than just sit in my room and watch television -- I wanted another musical event. Unfortunately, Filharmonia Hall was dark tonight and the National Theater was doing Opera, so I wandered toward the Festival at the Old Town Square and the event I was looking for found me instead. There was a four-man country and bluegrass band performing on the pedestrian-only street leading into the Square, and they were good -- I'd meant to stay and listen for only a few minutes, but the next thing I knew, more than two hours had passed. Apparently many others thought so, too. By the time the band broke for the night, the open guitar case in front of them was about half-filled with money!

Bluegrass in Bratislava 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...

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Sunday night, December 12, 1999 (Katowice, Poland)
This is my ninth visit to Poland, and it will be a short stay -- just four days from now I'll be back in the United States. Today was a travel day, five and a half hours by train from Bratislava to Katowice. I kept expecting to see snow during the ride north, but there wasn't any. The weather has been a lot different from when I was here a year ago, for sure! I'm staying at a new hotel for the two nights I'll be here in Katowice. It's nicer and even less expensive than the hotel I was at last time I was here, though it's also less central to the city centrum. The hotel is part of a larger commercial development, which provided the major revelation of the day: Poland has discovered the shopping mall!

Piotr at the mega store 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!

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Monday, December 13, 1999 (Katowice)
At last, I think winter may be ready to descend on Eastern Europe. It was windy today with overcast, and the wind was very cold. It wasn't a good day at all to be outside. This was the one day I really didn't have planned out very well. The business meetings were all over by 2:30pm, and I was back in the hotel by 3:00pm. It's so cold outside I'm not even going to try to find out if there's any musical event tonight in the city. The muzak down in the hotel lobby will have to do.

in Raciborz with the Mayor 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.

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Tuesday night, December 14, 1999 (Warsaw, Poland)
I'm back in Warsaw to close out this trip. Unlike Bratislava there doesn't seem to be a holiday festival of any kind going on (maybe Warsaw is a bit too urban for that). There was one thing going on, though, that I didn't see in Bratislava -- snow! When I came out of the Warsaw train station, there were some big, fluffy flakes coming down. Maybe it's finally time for Christmas!

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!

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Wednesday, December 15, 1999 (Warsaw)
It's been sneaking up on me for the last week or so -- this is the very last day of this business trip. Tomorrow, real early, I have to go to the airport to begin the long ride home. Was this a successful trip? Yes, mostly -- I discovered new investment opportunities worth about $175 million that I can promote, though making projects happen from opportunities like these is still a challenge. Was it a memorable trip? Yes, though perhaps less so than others -- this one didn't have the surreal moments (like appearing on the nightly Estonian national news) that my trip in June had (maybe I should be thankful for that!). And do I want to come back again? Absolutely. There are still lots of smaller energy producers who need help but don't know how to find it. And there are still things to see and do. It's not a part of the world you get tired of visiting. I hope that everyone some day will get a chance to experience the wonders of Eastern Europe -- it's a land of enchantment.
my pal 'Mr. Top Hat' in Bratislava Old Town
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Check out Richard's other travel adventures:
Russia (summer 1994)
Eastern Europe (spring 1998)
Eastern Europe (spring 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2001)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1997)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1998)
Eastern Europe (spring 2000)
Eastern Europe (spring 2002)