I have a basket in my living room that holds a collection of precious belongings; stones, sweetgrass, cedar, tobacco, scraps of cloth, and bits of fur, little memories from other adventures throughout my life and gifts from relatives who’ve since moved on. In that basket is a piece of concrete with splatterings of paint. I like to believe that it was once part of a peace symbol, but who knows. That paint could have said anything or been anything. I do know where it came from though. It was given to me many years ago when I worked at Camp Evelyn, a Girl Scout camp in southeastern Wisconsin, by a fellow counselor who was from Germany. It was a piece of the Berlin Wall which had fallen only months before she and I met.
That’s what I was thinking about on January 9th when our tour group took a previously unplanned trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. The city, which is the capital of Slovakia officially has a population of about 475,000. Some estimates, however, put the number closer to 660,000. It’s a fascinating and beautiful city on the banks of the River Danube and the River Morava at the base of the Little Carpathians.
I was struck by how unusual this tour was from our others. All of Europe remembers and lives with WWII in a much different way than the US does, but here it was even stronger. In the US we are able to largely pack the Great War, in fact all wars, away in museums and memorial sites. In Europe you walk down the street with the memories. In places like Bratislava it ebbs out of the concrete and hangs in the air.
Our tour guide was an older woman who walked with two canes. She would have been a baby, I suspect, when we bombed what is now her city. I don’t recall if she was born there. She had great English speaking skills in part due to living abroad, I think it was in Cuba, when she was a child. The Communist Party, however, wasn’t happy with her parents and options became limited.
Now, as an older woman she brings in a few dollars by guiding tour groups through her city and telling stories. She balanced so well the good and the bad of living under communism and capitalism. She spoke of what it was like raising children under communism and now, telling us the things that she missed. During the communist regime kids all went to school and had after school programs that they were expected to be involved in. There was no choice. Now, there is choice, but there is no money for parents to pay for their children to be involved.
She took us past lots of little shops and lovely historic areas. She also showed us the first McDonald’s built in the region and told us about the line that stretched for blocks when it first opened. It didn’t look particularly busy anymore and none of us were interested in eating there. It was a great example though of the glamour and disappointments of capitalism. Most heartbreaking though were the empty buildings. There are still buildings everywhere from the days of communism that have yet to be either destroyed or reclaimed. It’s been over 30 years and the country continues to struggle to find its economic footing. Communism didn’t work. Capitalism isn’t the answer. It leaves me wondering.