Notes on Leaving Eastern Europe for My Father

lions in front of the justice building in Bulgaria similar to those in front of NY Public Library in Manhattan

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.

public art at a park in Sofia, Bulgaria

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.

still have telephone booths in Bulgaria

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.

dance poster from Slovakia

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.

the statue in front of the WWII museum in Banska Bystrica

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.

religious displays are ubiquitous

I visited the area with a blank slate of expectations, and left worrying about the places and the people with a fondness for both.

a church built without nails
fair trade as a kitchen decoration
a building in Bartislava built narrowly when taxes were assessed based on street frontage
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Slovakians Need a Social Benefits Clawback Campaign

Mayor is receiving a gift book at the end of the table on the left

Banska Bystrica    Several separate conversations struck me as we visited with villagers and others around central Slovakia, and both came together around the issue of social benefits, or what we would call welfare payments to out of work or otherwise financially imperiled families.

On one hand, the classic, and racialized, discrimination is obvious when Slovakians talk about the Roma minority in their communities, and similar to the way this works in the United States and so many countries, part of the attack and the prejudice is the allegation that none are working, but instead are simply cashing their social benefit checks.  Yet, as always, when talking to families, many want to work, have employable skills, but lack opportunity and contacts sufficient to scale the walls of discrimination.  It is probably needless to say that the actual benefits are very small and in and of themselves insufficient to support adequate living standards.

Politicians in Slovakia, like so many in the rest of the world, respond and reflect this prejudice by imposing work requirements, increasing the popularity of the prejudice.  In Slovakia, as I appreciate, any able-bodied man or woman receiving benefits must work 4-hours per day in service to the local municipality or other public employers, if no other work is available.

The other conversation that struck me was with the young mayor of a small village of 1100 that we visited.  His complaint was that he had more work in the community than could be handled by the four-hour a day work requirement.  He wanted to be able to pay the benefit recipients for more hours, so that they could get more of the village’s work done, but was unable to do so.  The reason was that any additional income earned by the recipients would be clawed back from their benefit checks, which made it impossible to get people to work, essentially for nothing for the extra hours.  Under questioning, he said that in regional meetings of other mayors he had talked to many of them, and they felt the same way.

When I talked to Roma organizers in another village later in the day at their home, I asked them whether people they knew on benefits wanted more hours and access to potential jobs.  The answer was an immediate yes.  I told them about ACORN’s campaign in British Columbia that had been successful in reversing the government policy on clawbacks, and about ACORN’s ongoing efforts in Ontario on this same issue.  Were they interested?  Heck, yes, I had them “at hello” and a promise to send them more information on the ACORN Canada effort.

When I asked the frustrated mayor whether he thought he might have more chance at convincing the regional government to change the clawback policy for welfare recipients if there was an organized voice of participants behind him, his answer was also, heck, yes!

Whenever you find that both the participants and the potential targets have a mutual interest and an unstated and unexplored agreement, it is clear to any organizer that the leverage exists for a potential victory on a major issue.  The only thing that remains is the obvious first step:  doing the hard work of organizing.

In central Slovakia a huge victory for low income families is now waiting.  We need organizers to take the next step and work with leaders and families to build the organization and the actions to make the demands.  Power is lying even on these small roads in these villages for people to pick up, take it to the next step, and make permanent change.

in their home Roma activists display a scale model of a church in the area his father had built

 

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