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Category: Central/Eastern Europe

Sarajevo roses

Sarajevo Roses and the Temples of Bosnian Soul

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 39/2013 (September 23, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared on the Where Is Your Toothbrush? blog.


The call to prayer from the nearest minarets accompanies my first steps around Sarajevo. Past the synagogue and the Serbian Orthodox church I head toward the Cathedral of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus. Its bells are tolling six p.m. when I find the first Sarajevo Rose. After the siege people filled hundreds of holes in the pavement with red resin on the spots where bombs killed their neighbors. Most of these memorials, which resemble flowers in bloom, disappeared during reconstruction. But for the past four years a group of activists has been repainting the Roses red on the anniversary of Bosnian independence, April 6. Activists Alma and Nina told me they do this so that the war is never forgotten.

A hotter topic now is the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. The whole city is watching; I join them at City Pub. When Slovakia scores, tension rises to electric levels. When Bosnia scores (twice), arms shoot up in the air, hugs and chanting follow. The Sarajevo native Bergin says, “Football is the only thing that connects all of us—Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.” After the final whistle, everyone runs out into the streets. On Marshal Tito Street, a youngster straddles the pedestrian traffic light holding a giant flag. Cars honk, people wave scarves. The celebration continues deep into the night.

As I search for more Roses the next day, I pass by the true temples of the Bosnian soul. Coffee houses are everywhere, always busy, always shrouded in cigarette smoke. In one of them, on the pedestrian boulevard Ferhadija, I pour myself a Bosnian coffee from a džezva and watch the street. On memorial plaques hanging on a wall across the street the yellow lily adorns the names of fallen heroes. Nearby a thirtysome-year old woman with an amputated leg stands on crutches, hat in hand. A youngster in a striped t-shirt and tight jeans throws in some coins. Elderly men in snow-white shirts beneath black suits discuss where to sit. Suddenly I can’t believe my eyes: next to a teenager with a hijab-covered head, a girl is walking wearing a miniskirt, below whose hemline, on the back of her thigh, is a large birthmark in the shape of a heart.


Goodbye, Nostalgia: The End of Post-Communism in Slovakia

A longer version of this essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?


Slovakia (and the Czech Republic) was colored purple over the summer. Bruno, the protagonist of the online/direct Zuno Bank’s purple-hued marketing campaign Retro Is Super but Not in Banking, wore a purple track-suit and headband. And he was unmissable.

Post-communism in Slovakia

A tram stop in Prague, Czech Republic, featuring a Retro Is Super ad with Bruno. Photo courtesy of Tyden.cz.


We Need Heroes

This piece is my translation from the Slovak of an unpublished essay I attempted to place in the Pravda daily’s opinion section. The editor deemed it not timely enough.


In 1984 Bonnie Tyler sang, “I need a hero…” She was expressing the American character. Heroes abound there especially in tough times when inspiration for progress is needed. Heroes include wounded soldiers, firefighters at the Twin Towers, or the middle-class advocate Senator Warren. Not to mention historical personas like the Founding Fathers, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Neil Armstrong. For all occasions there’s also the men Bat, Spider, and Super. Though on occasion it seems there are too many heroes out there and the word begins to lose its meaning, every American can find his or her own hero.

In Slovakia, we don’t discuss heroes. Aside from the legend of Milan Rastislav Štefánik or from our athletes, who anyway are ‘ours’ only when they’re winning, the pantheon of contemporary Slovak heroes stands empty, if such a structure exists in the first place. After all the regimes and scandals we no longer trust anyone. We are victims of history and political machinations. The more things change here, the more they stay the same. The atmosphere springing from this attitude does not favor heroes.

Many before me have attempted to locate the cause. Whereas Americans admire the hero and want to be like him (or her), Slovaks, as the popular song goes, want to cut off his head so he doesn’t stick out of the crowd. Or, put differently: if my American neighbor Mr. Jones gets a new car, I will work my butt off to have an even better one, but if I, Peter, find a dead goat in my Slovak village pen, I wish to see two of my neighbor’s goats perish.

Roma Chatterji says the hero is a symbolic expression of each and every one of us. Peter Gibbon writes the hero is our higher self. The absence of heroes in Slovakia points to the real problem.

Let’s awaken our heroes, it isn’t too late.

Prague Museum of Communism

Prague, the Museum of Communism

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 33/2013 (August 12, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?


Summer sweat brought up a sad problem during my most recent visit to Prague: I no longer wanted to see anything new here. The Mother of Cities had emptied out into a theme park. In Pragoland they now charge admission even to stroll down Golden Lane. Luckily, reminiscing is free. In addition to the Depeche Mode concert, matryoshka nesting dolls with teeth elicited memories from the posters advertising the Museum of Communism. This time I didn’t resist and for an hour willingly became a foreign tourist, the Museum’s main target audience.

No locals were to be found among the visitors. One woman past her middle age crocheted at the cash register shaped like a five-pointed red star. Another checked tickets with her head buried in a tabloid covering a 1980’s pop star’s scandal. She needed no explanations about communism. She just waved me in.

The poor foreigners find the museum confusing. A matron with a southern accent informed her husband all the dates confused her. What happened in 1969? Or was it 1968? I got disoriented shortly thereafter as I passed the museum’s jumble of artefacts, collected from flea markets and attics, thrown around the place.

Lenin’s collected works, nicely arranged beneath his bust, got me thinking, however. Had I seen them before? In about 1992 my high school principal had asked me and a couple of classmates to clean out the old Socialist Union of Youth club house. My buddies and I carted the tomes to the large garbage bin around the corner because hauling them to the recycling center up on a hill wasn’t worth the change we’d have gotten for them.

The Museum’s owner, an entrepreneurial American, wanted to say to the world how we used to live around these parts. The practical joke, with which he reduced the era into a commercial product to be consumed, turned out to be a massive success. From the shrewd marketing move highlighting the location by a McDonald’s and a casino, to the piles of merchandise in the gift shop, to the replica of the Berlin Wall inside.

I had expected all of it but I still grumbled, ‘Serves you right,’ as I climbed the path up to Letenský Orchard park where the red Prague Metronome was ticking away on the spot where a huge statue of Stalin had once stood.

The National Museum, located in the old Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building, shimmered in the distance, at the far end of the Wenceslas Square. The Bullet Never Fired and an accompanying video spot reminded me that Prague had now been a foreign city for more than half my life. Beside the commemorative bullet I pictured the real, live red-tipped bullet from World War II that my grandpa used to keep in a credenza. He took that bullet’s story to his grave. He had no video to go with it anyway.

Prague My Praha: A Micro-Memoir

Earlier this week we spent two nights in Prague—a side-trip from Bratislava to see my favorite childhood band Depeche Mode. As I started to write a post about my personal history with Prague I recalled I had already done it. In November 2011, as the writer-in-residence at American Robotnik, where I cover my experience of immigrating to the U.S. from Central Europe, I wrote a guest post for Czechmate Diary. At that time, I hadn’t visited Prague in 9 years. An update to the micro-memoir with this week’s whirlwind visit is in the works.

* * *

“I’ve been to Prague,” is the most frequent response I hear when I tell Americans I’m from Slovakia (“Where is that?” and “Czechoslovakia?” are close behind). Prague looms large in many people’s imagination, and every time I hear the sentence, I think of ‘my Prague’ and the layers upon layers of memories the city conjures.

The Velvet Prague

I visited Prague for the first time when I was 12 1/2, with my parents in the summer of 1989. Every day of that week-long stay, I experienced the peculiar feeling you get when you see places you had previously only seen on TV. Trip photos show me standing up straight, alert like a good Pioneer, under the statue of my new hero King Charles IV, at the opposite end of Charles Bridge, under the entrance of the St. Vitus Cathedral, in front of the polar bear exhibit at the ZOO…

In November and December that year, Prague repaid the visit when footage of the Velvet Revolution demonstrations glued me to the TV screen. As I struggled to comprehend what was going on, I learned the names of my new heroes: Václav Havel, Alexander Dubček, Karel Kryl. I tried to identify the places I’d visited the previous summer as they filled with throngs that jingled keys and chanted, “Our hands are bare!”

The Foreign Prague

In my Eastern Slovak hometown of Košice, Prague had traditionally played a bigger and more positive role than Slovakia’s own capital, Bratislava. Prague was our my beloved capital city; Czechoslovakia was my motherland. So when on January 1, 1993, following the Velvet Divorce, it became the capital of a nominally foreign country, I stifled my tears (teenage boys don’t cry).

The Cool Prague

Though I didn’t get accepted to a university there, from my Bratislava dorm room Prague became closer than my hometown (thanks in large part to free or very cheap train tickets courtesy of my rail worker father). It was also much cooler than Slovakia’s capital: I went to my first big concerts there (Björk at the Palace of Culture, the Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis at the ice hockey arena); I departed from and landed there on my first trip to the U.S.; I planned to move there after graduation. Prague was the big world.

I visited Prague many times through the five years of college. Every visit created another layer of memories on top of the city’s long history; every visit created a new Prague.

Before my final year of college, I spent a part of the summer in Budapest, where I met A., who was a Prague girl. I helped her move to a new apartment in Prague after her job ended, and shortly after she dumped me. It was for the better. By that time I’d already started interviewing for jobs and found a room in a shared apartment at Prague’s South Town projects. I spent a night there after graduation, getting to know my soon-to-be housemates. On the InterCity train back to Bratislava I received a phone call informing me I’d been accepted to Central European University. Graduate school in Budapest had been a high school dream. Prague would have to wait.

The Pit Stop Prague

In the new millennium, Prague receded further into the distance, turning from a destination to a transfer stop on various trips (“prah” means threshold in Slovak, so maybe Praha/Prague finally came into its own).

I stopped there en route to my new home in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 2001. The following year I drank beers with a college friend on the roof of his apartment building, where we watched the red neon heart pulsate atop the castle. I was my wife Lindsay‘s tour guide in 2002 when we visited for a few days on the way to Slovakia; she still talks about vepřo-knedlo-zelo (or roast pork with dumplings and sauekraut) I introduced her to at an Old Town pub.

It’s been 6 years since I last paid Prague a visit.

Prague the Memory

As much as I dislike having to bring my fellow Americans down to Earth when I say Prague is in a different country now, and has been for 18 years, and as much as the distance between Prague and me has grown, I still love her. Prague now lives in artifacts: in a bottle of Staropramen; in books like The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain; on blogs like Czechmate Diary; in movies that make it to U.S. distribution.

I see Prague when I look over my shoulder, a mirage shimmering constantly at the edge of memory, continuing to change shape as time and space shift. I miss her but I know she’ll always be there.

Featured Image Notes

  • Author credit: Ben Hurwitz/qyphon, 2009
  • The John Lennon Wall in Kampa, a section of Malá Strana on the left bank of Vltava. In the 1980’s unknown artists painted a portrait of the former Beatles member, along with anti-Communist regime slogans. When the authorities erased it, the activists repainted it shortly after. The cat-and-mouse game continued as the regime collapsed. The erasure and rebirth cycle of the graffito provides an apt metaphor of my experience with the city, except in my case the authority is History, the activist my Memory.

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