Finding some locals to help me read a local newspaper is not always easy. Whenever successful, such discussions are often a source of valuable information about the state of the country. Armed with the Slovak Daily `Dennik SME`, I try to find out what is going on in Slovakia these days with the help of Barbara (22), Marian (28) and Anastasia (25).
Right above a photo of French president Sarkozy inspecting his national team before they leave for the Euro 2008 football championships, the front page of SME openly accuses politicians of not attending parliamentary sessions while still making money for being present. The leader of the Slovak Nationalist Party, Jan Slota, is one of the parliament members who is suspected of this practice.
`Woman who give birth can stay away from work for 3 years, but only if they are rich enough to support the financial consequences`
Marian knows about the case and explains: `This man is often drunk and makes himself ridiculous by rallying against the many Hungarians who live in Slovakia. On one such occasion, he started preaching about how Budapest should be burnt. It is a shame that there are even a handful of people who actually pay attention to what this man is bullshitting about. This issue with signing the presence list is just another incident and it is properly a wide-shared practice among politicians. The proposed solution, to create an electronic signing process so that politicians cannot randomly sign up for one or another colleague, is probably not going to be of much help.`
Political scandal number two relates to the upcoming introduction of the Euro, and once again accuses politicians of improper behaviour. `When the European Union confirmed that we will be allowed to switch to Euros at the end of the year, the government decided to fix the exchange rate so that people would not start buying lots of Crowns to sell them off with big profits. Only just before the fixed exchange rate was put into place, a lot of Crowns were bought at a price lower than what the new price would be. Some politician probably leaked information, which allowed others to earn a lot of money on buying cheap Crowns and selling them expensively afterwards`, Marian explains.
While the Czech newspaper I bought two weeks ago was telling about the new cars bought by the Czech police, SME is informing its readers of plans to equip their police force with handheld radar guns that allow them to measure the speed of passing cars. Barbara (photo) is not too impressed. `I never had a fine for speeding so far. Not because I never exceed the speed limit. Slovak drivers can have quite aggressive driving styles and you oftentimes simply need to drive faster to keep up with everybody else. Sticking to the speed limits is a guarantee to get other car drivers annoyed.`
Slovaks seem to be quite interested in technical matters, and most particularly in cars. One entire page in the SME is dedicated to a Skoda advertisement, while another page compares the new Seat Ibiza to the new Skoda Superb, which is coincidentally accredited with `superb` security. In a similar way, yet around a different subject, another entire page is dedicated to the results of a competition for journalists. 48 of them in 16 categories have been awarded prizes in their area of specialisation. Details about what and why fall short, but I at least get to know Slovakia as a country where journalists like know how to praise their own profession and its members.
Family and careers
Back to the real news then. The `culture` appendix of today`s SME gives an interesting insight into issues that keep Slovaks busy at the moment. One article describes the problems experienced by Slovak children as they grow up. Top of the list: the fact that they are not allowed to use mobile phones in class. Other issues include the question of what to wear and how to dress, followed by a lack of holidays and the economical situation of their parents.
Barbara reassures me that such problems do not keep Slovaks from expanding their families after years of declining birth rates. `This one article is about women having children`, she points out. `Maternity leave in Slovakia can be as long as 3 years, depending on the mothers preferences. Six months of those are paid for by employers. The rest is paid for by the state. Using all 3 years is not really advisable. The state payments are no higher than 150 euros per month and an employer will almost count your absence as `opposite experience`, meaning that a woman will probably get fewer responsibilities upon her return at work. The article sort of advises women who stay away for a long time, to also keep contact with the office so that they at least know what is going on while they are away. It will make the reintegration easier. Well yeah, that makes sense`, Barbara acknowledges.
Anastasia adds: `Here`s another article about work and careers. It tells about how international firms put pressure on their employees to work on public Slovak holidays while they have to take days off when other countries are celebrating bank holidays. This example is about a unnamed German company which reinforces the stereotypical idea that international companies can quite freely set their own rules when it comes to imposing foreign practices on Slovak employees.`
The international section of the newspaper mentions a wedding in France that was dissolved when the groom found out that his bride was no longer a virgin. Attention is also given to former kidnapping victim Natasha Kampusch who will start hosting a talk show in neighbouring Austria. The Danish Embassy in Islamabad seems to have been burnt down, while another article describes how the recent progress of the Romanian economy has been impressive. Also from Romania: the separation of the Romanian political party that aimed to protect the interests of Hungarian minorities in Romania. Such news is interesting in Slovakia, where Hungarians also make up a significant majority. The local Hungarian party can count on about 10% of votes in national elections, which during many recent years proved to be sufficient for them to participate in the government.
`Roughly speaking, most of the international news in Slovakia comes from Czech Republic`, says Anastasia. `Simply because we know who is who and Slovaks are usually quite interested in what is going on over there. Irak and the Israel-Palestinian conflict also get occasional attention, but only if something really big happens. It`s definitely not daily material, while Czech news is.`
The current weeks are quite sport-intensive and the sport section of the newspaper has lots of big events to cover. The upcoming European football championships are given quite some coverage, regardless of the moderate Slovak interest in football. A small inserted magazine presents all the participating teams and also lists the locations, days and times of all matches. `The Slovaks will not support the Czech team by lack of our own representation`, says Marian. `Maybe they will cheer for us whenever they are not there, but we don`t necessarily do the same for them`, he explains. `Slovaks will probably support the bigger countries like Portugal and Italy.`
Other events that are covered include the Giro d`Italia and Roland Garros. During previous days, I learnt about a rumour that tennis was banned from Czechoslovak television for several years under communism. Following Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova`s refusal to return to their home country Czechoslovakia after participating in trainings and competitions abroad, the regime allegedly decided to ban all tennis of TV. Unfortunately, I have not come across anybody who personally remembered the situation as such. Tennis is now an integral part of the sports news (again?), along with the ever-favourite ice hockey.
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