Grenoble My father and George Washington shared the same birthday, February 22nd. He would have been 97 this year, and now he’s been gone just short of a decade. Whenever I would visit countries unknown previously to either of us, he would always ask me to tell him whatever I thought might interest him from my travels. Having just been to Bulgaria and Slovakia in some depth, I thought I would share some random notes of casual interest.
It is impressive how severe post-Communist modern public art is in both countries. Dark, heavy, stark and powerful. No smiley faces on display. One piece on a local post office was a reminder of the Communist fall 30 years ago.
Churches seemed massive, and religious symbols are ubiquitous. These are some seriously Catholic countries. The most interesting older church I saw in the country side outside of Banska Bystrica was built of wood without any nails with the pegs still visible and the church still in business.
Everyone seems to drink espresso. Filter coffee, as they call it, was fairly rare, even in many coffeehouses, as was much recognition even among progressives of fair trade. Some of this may be the common myth that espresso beans that are fair trade are inferior. I did see one fair trade sign on the walls of a family’s kitchen. I asked and was told they had no idea what it meant, they just liked the signs as decorations.
There were some surprises. In solidarity and against my better judgment and normal prejudices about cultural elitism, I attended a 50-minute modern dance thing. Though it was in Slovak, and I had little idea what was being said, couldn’t take pictures or read the program, it was amazingly powerful, and the pure physicality and athleticism of the men and women dancers was incredible. The choreographer must have had to stage some occasional floor flops just to give some of them a breather. I later ran into one of the dancers, and he told me that individual duos were put together by the dancers themselves. Big wow there.
Public transit was good, and people still gave the Communist regimes high marks for infrastructure improvement. Wifi in Bulgaria is among the fastest in the world I was told. There is also a dish with a potato pancake that for all the world looks almost exactly like an enchilada in Bulgaria. Garlic soup turns out to be very good, and a bowl of chili I ate in Bartislava in some desperation was excellent. Way too much bread in Sofia and the local go at scrambled eggs is way too runny. There were some days I thought we were on a “snack tour” of eastern Europe.
These are old countries with deep histories. Roman ruins and medieval castles are not quite as common as the churches, but they aren’t hard to find. History is deep, requiring the memory to dust off old lessons about the Ottoman Empire and its range and the Austria-Hungarian Hapsburg dominance as well.
I visited the area with a blank slate of expectations, and left worrying about the places and the people with a fondness for both.